At Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with thought-provoking articles. But when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Managing Editor and LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
Simply tracking down a copy of this surprise publishing hit—bookseller after bookseller had shaken their head and explained, “Once the author went on Fresh Air …”—felt like a minor triumph. And happily, Dreyer’s English doesn’t disappoint: if some sections are a little too informally organized to be easily consultable later (some of the best bits are buried in footnotes), the book remains a useful pleasure to read, brimming with concrete examples, concise explanations, and charming asides.
Each reader will inevitably find certain discussions more compelling than others. For my part, I was dismayed to learn I’d been using bemused wrong (it doesn’t actually mean “wryly, winkingly amused,” but “bothered and bewildered”); grateful for the mnemonic re imply vs. infer (“Think of ‘imply’ as an outward action and ‘infer’ as an inward one. Or: Speakers imply; listeners infer.”); and relieved to discover that even the copy chief of Random House has been unable to figure out a reliable rule for when to precede a sentence-ending “too” with a comma, and when not (he ultimately advises: “If you can hear a comma before the ‘too,’ feel free to use it. If you can’t, feel free to not.”). Dreyer is also wonderfully instructive on “nonrules” like “Never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’” and “Never introduce a list with ‘like’” and on the unjust proscription against sentence adverbs like “thankfully,” “hopefully,” and, happily, “happily.”
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Jessica Love, Julián is a Mermaid
If it were up to me, I would have given this year’s Caldecott Medal—the prize for 2018’s most outstanding American picture book—to this transcendently beautiful tale, in which a grouchy-looking abuela proves unexpectedly willing to enable the rich fantasy life of her grandchild.
After seeing three gorgeous black women adorned in fishtail dresses on the subway, Julián decides that he wants to be a mermaid too, and decks himself out in a swoopy skirt and flowery headpiece. His grandmother’s reaction illustrates what loving acceptance of diversity looks like. So, too, does every detail of Love’s visually stunning artwork, right down to the fact that she uses a lusciously brown background instead of the traditional white page. The endpapers alone are priceless, depicting as they do how intimacy with a child who doesn’t adhere to stereotypical gender norms can transform the adults around them.
Art Section Editor
Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, translated from the French by Drew S. Burk
In this landmark report, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy alter the history of collecting. They propose, with many nuances, that most, if not all, of the major artworks taken from Africa by French state power be returned. Where to? To nation-states that did not exist at the time the art was made? To museums that have not been built? To locations few global citizens visit? These responses to the report should lead to further questions, questions that reconsider our assumptions about art. What kind of government should control artistic heritages? Does all art belong in what first-world countries call museums? Does it help or hinder a cultural heritage to be called “art,” let alone “masterpiece”? Sarr and Savoy cast their report in terms of philosophical inquiry rather than practical solutions, making their report relevant to everyone around the world, not just France or African nations.
B-Sides Series Editor
Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Naomi Mitchison is known, and was once well known, for many things. There is her work on Mass Observation in the 1930s and a long authorial career: historical novels, children’s books, and a few other genres besides. As I found out from blank stares at a recent SF convention however, she is not at all remembered for her 1962 Memoirs of a Spacewoman. That is seriously too bad, especially since there is a fine edition in print with an introduction by Isobel Murray.
The Memoirs is a profoundly undervalued instance of a genre that might be called “SF anthropology”—in which the encounter with alien life becomes an occasion to make sense of the lineaments of our own world and the limitations of our current worldview. Mitchison’s philosophical experiment has an anthropological linguist at its core (there are resonances with the recent film Arrival) and it begins from the premise that true comprehension hinges on self-alteration. To venture abroad from world to worlds is not only to put a time shift on yourself, so that you arrive home to grown descendants, it is also to put your personhood thoroughly at risk, or even under erasure. There is no translation, and no fieldwork, without entering into an alien (yeah, really alien) mind-set. Early on this plays out schematically: in a world of radially symmetric starfish-like beings, the heroine learns to think not binarily but pentagonally. But the subtlety deepens: an ectopic alien pregnancy is one of the more troubling later cases. Her contemporary Barbara Pym, in delightful novels like Less than Angels (1955), revealed anthropologists to be “just like us” under the skin. Mitchison, though, takes seriously the idea that returning is harder than setting forth—that after what happens out there, going “home” again is never exactly that.
LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Timothy Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight
Whenever I’m in writing mode, I do this really peculiar thing: I lug around a few extra books everywhere I go to write. These extra books have nothing to do with what I’m writing about. They’re often on subjects I’m just encountering for the first time. But they all have one thing in common: beautiful, compelling, and often stunning prose. The moment writerly paralysis sets in, I crack open one of these extra books and begin to read. One of the books I’ve been carrying around recently has been Timothy Pachirat’s enthralling ethnography, Every Twelve Seconds. From June through December 2004, Pachirat worked undercover at an Omaha slaughterhouse shoulder-to-shoulder with mostly immigrants and refugees. His book gives us the view from the kill floor. It wears its Bentham and Foucault and Norbert Elias very lightly, instead preferring to narrate how, in today’s industrial slaughterhouses, “corrugated-metal walls and pools of blood become whiteboard and dry-erase ink, suitable for drawing cartoons lampooning unpopular supervisors or for an impromptu English lesson.” Between stories of close calls with USDA inspectors and stomach-churning descriptions of severed limbs, Pachirat’s book also shows us the quality of writing to which academic monographs can aspire.
Shoptalk Series Editor
J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Despite being an avid Peter Pan fan growing up (or whatever it is that queer children do), I never actually read the J. M. Barrie novel until earlier this month. It was strange to see so many of the features that launched the #MeToo movement packed into a text virtually synonymous with childhood (or perhaps more precisely, boyhood) innocence: victim blaming, bodily violation, and demeaning portrayals of racialized sexuality. I’m not surprised to encounter this gap between the persistent cultural narrative of a beloved childhood icon and the material text, but it’s interesting to consider why the gap exists—how much is cultural amnesia and how much is normalized, tolerated behavior toward and depiction of girls and women.