Here at Public Books our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with compelling, thought-provoking articles, but when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a new behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
Miranda July, The First Bad Man
Anna North, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
I just finished reading a trio of books with unlikeable female characters, and I loved reading about them all. Often critics defend characters who behave badly by invoking how “real” and “human” they are. In these cases I enjoyed how the authors hacked away at the decorous borders allotted to female humanity to portray an alcoholic amnesiac (Hawkins), an artist ferociously oblivious to social cues (North), and a middle-aged woman who jolts to life by surrendering to haplessness (July).
Marianne Cooper, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times
Cooper’s absorbing study examines the American experience of economic insecurity up and down the wealth spectrum. Focusing on families in Silicon Valley, she shows how mothers and fathers define and manage anxiety about losing ground in a highly unequal economy and rapidly transforming global labor landscape.
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members
I picked this up not imagining I’d finish it. The conceit seemed too limited: a novel consisting entirely of letters from a beleaguered and exasperating professor of creative writing in a second-rate Midwestern university English department, written by an actual (and likely very nice) professor of creative writing in the rather more distinguished English department at the University of Minnesota … Could this have been anything other than an amusing and/or cathartic exercise for the author? Improbably, Dear Committee Members turns out to have a considerable cast of well-drawn characters (the variously deserving and self-entitled, ambitious and aimless, genial and bizarre students our professor is writing in support of, along with the addressees, among them a fellowship director, department chair, dean, agent, and a few exes) and a remarkable amount of plot. But perhaps the book’s greatest feat is how its apparently resentful, untrustworthy, and egocentric protagonist produces such richly characterized portraits as to relieve readers of the feeling of being stuck in that perspective, and reveal an unexpected generosity of spirit. It also genuinely inspired me to write better letters of recommendation.
Rebecca Lee, Bobcat and Other Stories
I had been meaning to read Bobcat, Rebecca Lee’s 2013 story collection, since, well, 2013. Now I’m kicking myself for waiting, because Bobcat is one of most accomplished collections I’ve read in years. If this is an exaggeration, it’s not much of one: every contemporary book of short stories I’ve read, and this is no exception, has had blasted on its cover some combination of the words “brilliant,” “poignant,” “unflinching,” and “Chekhov.” That these reflect a quality beyond general pretty good-ness is much rarer. I’d only quibble with that last one, and on tonal grounds, not quality—Cortázar or Nabokov feel more apt to me.
Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies
In a book written in the late ‘90s, when notions of fluid connectivity began to radically reshape market democracies, this French mathematician-physicist skewers faith in the emergence of wondrous things from chaos. The opening scene of Paris night life sparkles and glistens, and then you start to feel the hangover.
Lisa Zeidner, Limited Partnerships
I’m reading Limited Partnerships, Lisa Zeidner’s messy, honest, and sparklingly funny hymn to love, both Modern and City-of-Brotherly. Though this novel is now going on 20 years old, and though inflation and the internet now make it seem—superficially—like a period piece, I was struck by the up-to-the-moment freshness with which its lovers teeter on the edge of uncertainty, unfaithfulness, and financial ruin, only to discover that what they have might just be worth fighting for.
Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog
A novel about memory and modernity that focuses on a South Asian-Australian professor who loses his dog in the bush. The prose can be hypnotic and precious by turns, but the effect is wonderfully haunting and melancholic.
TC Tolbert, Gephyromania
I’ve been swooning over TC Tolbert. This aptly manic book of poems is electrifying and breathtaking. Tolbert’s complex lyric poems bend and pervert language in the best way in order to communicate a genderqueer transformation, an experience of existing in between the meaningless boxes that are systematically mandated by a binary-obsessed society. Tolbert uses the metaphor of the bridge to connect problems of love, identity, gender, and language in such an enchanting manner, and as a genderqueer poet myself, s/he is a huge inspiration.
Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
Per a friend’s recommendation, I am currently reading Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. It is delightfully sacrilegious but also a very fascinating interpretation of Biblical events. I grew up in the Bible belt, so I was immediately drawn to this prequel (of sorts) to the gospel and these re-imaginings of what kind of mischief a child Jesus could get into.
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel, translated from the German by Philip Boehm
I have been recommended this book multiple times. Tried to read it. Put it down. Tried to read it again. It is a powerful book, perhaps too powerful. While I am drawn by the authenticity of the writing, it’s a head space my mind doesn’t like to travel to, despite the poetry, or perhaps precisely because of it. It is too close to how I feel when I follow news out of Egypt (home). So, great book, but maybe not if you have your fill of political anxieties.
Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land
In this short historical overview of the rise and fall of social-democracies, Judt makes the reader re-think our current political values. When market-oriented economies took over politics after the 1970s deregulation, not only did they change our way of conceiving what government is, but they also created a new language to talk about it. Words like “community” or “collective purpose” don’t carry much weight any more. “Is it efficient?” has come to substitute questions like “Is it fair?” or “Is it good for the general public?” The book is an effort to fight against any declaration that market oriented-democracy and economic globalization are natural results of History, an invitation to re-think what kind of world we want to live in, and empower the next generation with a new political vocabulary.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
As an international student living in the US, Americanah has connected me with a bigger community of expats who live between their memories of their own country and the reality of their new home. The whole book is a multifaceted introspection that tries to understand what identity is and how it changes over time and place. Adichie’s honesty throughout the book is very much welcome and captivating.
Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society
I’ve been reading Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society. It is a meditation on the million ways that the Internet is gamed in order to fleece and manipulate people behind their backs. It struggles with something I also wrestle with, how to think about these issues outside the Foucauldian Panopticon.
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
I just finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and have already given copies to three friends. It’s essential reading for anyone caring for aging parents or dealing with terminal illness, which is practically everyone I know right now.
Robert G. Kaiser, Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t
I’m also in the middle of Act of Congress by Robert G. Kaiser. It’s the fabulously geeky story of how the Dodd Frank Act—an extraordinary piece of legislation at an extraordinary moment—moved through Congress. Barney Frank’s larger than life persona can really carry a narrative!
Paul Dowswell, Powder Monkey
Sharon Draper, Out of My Mind
Oh, and I’m reading Powder Monkey with my 12-year-old daughter’s mother/daughter book group and Out of My Mind with my 10-year-old son’s mother/son book group. Both are terrific.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
I just read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a powerful polemic about the need to make a fundamental decision: capitalism or climate? What’s important about the book is that while the choice is a black and white one, flipping from capitalism to climate is actually not as violent or unfeasible as it seems. Not only does Klein remind readers of the costs that capitalism inflicts on the climate, but she shows how much a climate-based model of the economy has actually been mapped out by experiments and initiatives around the world. The revolution is actually happening. But too slowly. To speed it up, she calls for mass mobilization and a more fundamental change in power.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead
I picked up Pulphead because of its essay on reality TV. It’s a slightly more lively version of the standard talking-point: “but really, is reality really real???” (Don’t bother reading it, really.) But my eye wandered to the rest of the book and I was hooked. Essays 8, 9, and 10—on the rise of the Tea Party, on the “career of an eccentric naturalist,” and on the history and rediscovery of “unnamed caves” bearing the traces of ancient Native Americans—are some of the best 100 pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year.
Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris
This is a book for readers who love reading books about readers who love reading books. It’s just plain lovely. The first essay, on two writers who “marry libraries” years after marrying each other, is a bit of a cult classic. It lives up to its reputation, and, besides, there’s plenty more to love in this slim book. You could read this book in one evening over a single pot of tea—and, really, why wouldn’t you?
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
Yes, I’m plugging one of those embarrassing gaps in my career as a reader. I keep thinking, as I read, of Susan Sontag’s idea of “instant character” in “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Portrait of a Lady has it in a way that later James does not. What a romp!
Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva, translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
The Yeshiva, which was first published in Yiddish in 1967, is out of print, so I checked out both volumes of this two-volume novel from the library (used copies regularly run into the hundreds of dollars). Even though Grade is less widely known than Isaac Bashevis Singer, someone told me recently that The Yeshiva is often considered the most famous and important work of Yiddish literature. I love it—it takes place in pre-war Lithuania and features an angular, smolderingly hot Byronic rabbi named Tsemakh Atlas, who is constantly contending with the yetzer ha-ra (“the evil tempter in man”). It’s a lot about spiritual struggle, and the difficult building of character, and men and women—there are lots of women in the book. It’s a fascinating look into religious life and also a slow-burn melodrama. Grade also wrote—excellent title!—Rabbis and Wives (it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize). Someone needs to reprint this book ASAP!