On Our Nightstands: February 2021

A behind-the-scenes look at what Public Books editors and staff have been reading this month.

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.


Carolyn Dever

Higher Education SECTION EDITOR


Grace E. Lavery, Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan


From the opening of trade between the two nations in the 1850s, the idea of Japanese culture played a unique role in the British imperial and post-imperial imagination. In Quaint, Exquisite—a book worth reading for its title alone—Grace Lavery traces British ambivalence toward the idea of Japan: home of a rival empire; source of quaint and precious aesthetic ideals. To the late-Victorian mind, Japan was the source of all that was “exquisite”: “The first paradox of the exquisite: it is both high-intensity and low-intensity, unspeakably alien and unremarkably familiar, intensely-to-be-desired and easily-to-be-obtained.” Lavery has written an exquisite book indeed. It is theoretically deft and rich in its material engagements; it is a pleasure to read, even as it illuminates unsettling ideological underpinnings to “pleasure” and other affective modes. Quaint, Exquisite offers the reader rare pleasures on every page. And true to form, like the cigarette in the hand of Wilde’s Lord Henry, the book reminds us that pleasure itself is an alloy of too much and not enough.



Frank Andre Guridy



Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan


Kavitha Davidson and Jessica Luther are two sports commentators who tackle the ethical quandaries progressively minded sports fans find themselves in while enjoying an industry that is shrouded in inequities and injustices of all kinds, including sexual violence, hyper-profiteering, racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia (one could add a commitment to playing games in the midst of a deadly pandemic). Their answer is not that you should stick your head in the sand and engage in mindless fandom. Rather, fans should confront these problems and identify with those who are struggling to make a more just sports world. Though they offer a persuasive case that sports, despite all their problems, are worth fighting for, they also hold out the option of fans giving them up and moving on to other things in life. An incisive and engaging read.



Jesse McCarthy

Literary Fiction Section Editor


Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People


Raven Leilani, Luster


I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about African American short-story collections in preparation for an upcoming project: Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman; Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children; Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love; Edward P. Jones’s great DC cycle; and ZZ Packer’s classic Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. I’m currently making my way through Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People (2018), and it’s very reminiscent of Packer: brilliantly assembled, full of jaunty irony and skewering satirical edges. Something about the humor in these stories reminds me of Edie, the heroine of Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020), a novel I finished some time ago but am still thinking about. It’s been hailed, and also gently criticized, for its finger-on-the-pulse portrayal of grim millennial striving in thrall to the aleatory whims of the gig economy. It’s a first novel, and the debut it most reminds me of is Don DeLillo’s Americana. Both are unsparingly bleak portraits of psychosexual alienation delivered in deftly colloquial, serrated prose. Like Lily Briscoe, Edie is an artist determined to leave her mark on the canvas. And she does. For me the revelation of Luster is the style; it is potent, ambitious, a live wire sparking at every turn.



Tara Menon

Literary Fiction Section Editor


Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur


Vivek Shanbhag, who is from Karnataka and writes in Kannada, has published four short collections, three novels, a novella, and two plays. He has, deservedly, been compared to Chekhov. Ghachar Ghochar, the expertly controlled novella about a family’s sudden change in fortune, is the first and only of his works that has been translated into English. Ghachar Ghochar reads like a parable about material gain and moral decline but Shanbhag manages to lay bare sweeping truths about modern India with a subtlety and precision that is difficult to find in books five times as long. Details seem mundane but nothing is superfluous. Shanbhag builds suspense masterfully, almost unnoticeably, with a series of diffuse, oblique hints about the violence to come. I devoured this tiny book in a single sitting, and then read it again, slowly, a few days later. Both times, unease lingered long after I had put it down. Srinath Perur’s exemplary translation is a gift to those of us who can only read Shanbhag in English. I hope he will soon reward us with another.



Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Poetry Section Editor


Rachel Cusk, Outline


I just completed Rachel Cusk’s Outline—the first novel of her Outline Trilogy—and it has not left my sight since. This sentence would have been where I describe the plot, but Outline is a plotless novel. A writer, about whom we know little (and whose name we only learn near the end of the book), travels to Greece from London to teach a writing workshop; while there, she catches up with various acquaintances: that’s it; and it is a triumph. Along with the breathtakingly crisp sentences and the near-brutalist philosophical reflections of the characters, it is the narrative style—in which the first-person narrative voice is co-opted constantly by the conversant: a fascinating formal discourse on power and authority in the novel—that will keep you engrossed as it reminds you (as we should always be reminded) that plot isn’t everything. Plot may actually be the last thing.



Catherine S. Ramírez

Borderlands Section Editor


Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman


Over the past year, I’ve immersed myself in writings about illnesses. I seek reminders that our current public-health crisis is temporary and have found solace and pleasure in works as varied as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1772) and Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014).

In Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (2013), a mosquito-borne epidemic strikes an unnamed Mexican city. Streets empty. Masks sell out as city leaders tell everyone to stay calm, which is “taken to mean Lock yourself up or this fucker will take you down.” Defying the lockdown orders, the narrator, a fixer known as The Redeemer, sets out on two quests. He searches for the bodies of two youths so they can be returned to their families, feuding clans that control the city, and he hunts down a condom, a hapless pursuit in a city of shuttered stores. The lockdown has unexpectedly brought him and an attractive resident of his apartment building together and, “like all men, he was convinced he deserved to get laid one more time before he died.” In The Redeemer’s world, as in ours, sex can be as deadly as breathing. Part noir, part dystopian fantasy, Herrera’s novella is easily absorbed, but never cliché. It’s a reminder of our bodies’ needs, vulnerabilities, and delights and an homage to the living and the dead.



Bécquer Seguín



John Garth, The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth


I wasn’t the biggest Tolkien fan when I was a kid. I remember receiving a single-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings and putting it down after only a hundred pages. But as I entered college, majored in literary studies, and then went on to graduate school, I began to empathize with the other Tolkien: Tolkien, the philologist. John Garth’s beautifully illustrated volume, The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien, reconstructs and theorizes Tolkien’s earthly sources for Middle-earth. He leaves breadcrumbs for scholars of all stripes. Whether your curiosities lie in Switzerland or South Africa, in the Aeneid or The Great Wave off Kanagawa, something is bound to reel you in. As a scholar of Spain, for instance, I was rather stunned to learn that one of Tolkien’s first outlines of Middle-earth included a mountain island resembling Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, which he had visited as a three-year-old. Who knew?



Mona Sloane

Technology Section Editor


Xiaowei Wang, Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside


We always think about technology as the epitome of culture, far removed from nature, the environment, soil, the earth. We also tend to think about it as a distinctly urban thing, and as gazed at through our Western lens. Xiaowei Wang flips that script. In their immensely enjoyable book Blockchain Chicken Farm, they treat the reader to beautifully narrated observations of the intersection of technology and society in China, often through the lens of agriculture and food. The connections made to larger questions around the political economy of AI, and our current obsession with AI and surveillance, are effortless and will make for a brilliant addition to both the nightstand and the syllabus.



Mary Zaborskis

Quizzical & Shoptalk Series Editor


Karen M. McManus, The Cousins


Karen McManus’s latest YA thriller, The Cousins, is my favorite yet—it pleasurably invites all sorts of taboo and salacious speculation as the mystery at the center of the novel unravels. Disowned in their young adulthoods by their widowed and wealthy mother for seemingly inexplicable reasons, the four Story children have scattered across the country, attempting to build families and futures without the extravagant material support they were accustomed to in their youth. Decades after their expulsion, the distant siblings’ teenage children are contacted by their estranged grandmother, who invites them to work at her exclusive summer resort and connect with her. Pressured by their parents, the three teens arrive at the Story estate on Gull Cove Island. The story that unfolds, told from their three perspectives, is a scandalous romp from beginning to end. icon