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.
Literary Fiction SECTION EDITOR
Emmanuel Carrère, The Kingdom, translated from the French by John Lambert
A novelization of the first decades of Christianity, interwoven with scenes from the author’s passage from pursuer of belief, to baffled half-mystic, to something like post-Christian. Marketing copy asks you to imagine the book as Knausgaard writing hagiography, but after reading this in several large gulps—it was as gripping as Carrère’s other books—I thought that a fairer comparison would be a “Jesus Christ Superstar” sequel as written by Ben Lerner, with all the canny, amusing, and perverse anachronisms of the original. But it’s no longer 1970, and the allegory has been renovated. This time, the enigmatic, disruptive figure at the story’s ostensible center is Paul; but just as the musical’s real hero was Judas, the last gasp of 1960s radicalism before all that revolutionary promise takes a big turn inward, the true subject here is Carrère’s Luke: the last liberal, faced with a tremendous, world-changing charismatic movement and possibly the end of the world, quietly and deviously embroidering a narrative intended to square different accounts and preserve some tension between belief and skepticism in a world no longer able to keep that balance. It’s a remarkable hymn to worriers who refuse, or only pretend, to stop worrying.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Laura E. Weymouth, The Light Between Worlds
Both lovers and haters of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books need to read this haunting young adult novel, which at its core is about the pain of not feeling at home in the world you inhabit. At the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four human siblings who have spent many happy years reigning over Narnia suddenly get booted back into their workaday world and (much younger) child bodies. Whereas Lewis never acknowledges the potential challenges of such a shift, Weymouth explores how a similarly situated set of siblings react in radically different ways to being suddenly transplanted from one world to another. One fails to readjust, and Weymouth’s moving account of her painfully difficult path forward reads as a kind of metaphor for the difficulties of grappling with displacement and depression.
Cutting smoothly back and forth between a meticulously realistic account of living in England during and after the Second World War and an eerily poetic depiction of life in her gorgeously green yet also threatened alternative world, Weymouth is both more attuned to the horrors of war than Lewis and more eloquent in her full-throated appreciation of both natural and manmade beauty. Another welcome revisionary touch: her feminist insistence on not demonizing the life choices made by the female character who most closely approximates Lewis’s Susan. The Light Between Worlds is a truly transporting and powerfully moving addition to the rich tradition of children’s stories that conjure up alternative worlds.
Art Section Editor
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, with the assistance David Horowitz, Curatorial Assistant
The history of abstraction will never be the same again. Hilma af Klint’s color-pitch-perfect, monumental, very early 20th-century paintings have been revealed by the Guggenheim Museum. Who? Hardly a household name, this Swedish woman should now take her place alongside such superstars as the rigorously conceptual Suprematist Malevich and the lyrical colorist Kandinsky. A race to abstraction among European male artists has long been a standard feature of art history, with prizes awarded for split-second advances over rivals. So why was af Klint neglected all this time? She used a slightly kooky philosophy to justify her move into totally nonrepresentational art, but so did others, like the de Stijl movement’s Mondrian. The 20-year embargo af Klint imposed on her work after her death, which occurred in 1944, didn’t help. But now, the sheer formal power of her paintings transcends all slights. Reproductions betray her subtle chromatic harmonies, disciplined by precisely linear compositions that balance the vast with the minuscule. At the Guggenheim, you will be surprised and delighted.
Urbanism Section Editor
Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry
It’s hard to read Asymmetry, the debut novel by Lisa Halliday, without an inner pang of voyeuristic guilt: the book, which is split into three sections, is based on a relationship that Halliday had with Philip Roth when she was in her 20s and he was nearly 70. The novel does not just succeed as a roman-à-clef but as a detailed and even magnanimous account of a relationship that spans a tremendous divide of power and knowledge. The Roth doppelgänger smiles when his young lover pronounces Camus with an “s,” and there are scenes of intense sweetness between them, but almost every phone call is initiated by Roth and his blocked caller ID becomes a symbol of the access he is willing to give. The middle section, about an Iraqi American detained at a London airport while attempting to return to Iraqi Kurdistan, where his brother is working in a hospital, is an enticing challenge to our expectations about how complimentary narratives fit together and offer parallel themes.
TV Section Editor
adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
If your survival kit has room for a book, you’d better reserve that space for Emergent Strategy. If your go-bag can’t fit a book—and it should be able to, because when the Big One comes your phone won’t save you—you’d best find a pack capacious enough to hold Emergent Strategy. Stemming from Earthseed, the religion-philosophy of change developed by the late Octavia Butler in her unfinished Parable series, brown’s book is a revelation. It is a manual for facing the most urgent crises of our time—environmental collapse, late capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy—without drowning in the enormity of the task. You’ll have to experience the author’s textured weaving-together of ecological metaphors, poetry, citations, interviews, worksheets, and more to grasp the full weight of her proposal. Brown argues that individual and collective activism, which often hinge on the belief that “constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass are the ways to create change,” can be transformed by noticing how “adaptation and evolution depend … upon critical, deep, and authentic connections.” Change, she tells us, is constant and fractal—metamorphosis is always on the agenda. It’s going to be a long ride. Let’s face it together.
B-Sides Series Editor
Hugh Sykes Davies, The Papers of Andrew Melmoth
The kids of the 1970s had plenty of charmingly anthropomorphic field critters to choose from. Even if you were mildly freaked out by Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH you could console yourself with the rabbits of Watership Down (I was and I did).
A decade earlier, though, the animals ran a lot less human, and the outcomes ran a lot grimmer. Remember Daniel Keyes’s 1959 story of IQ boosting gone wrong for mice and for man, Flowers for Algernon? Well, I recently discovered a doozy of a British counterpart, Hugh Sykes Davies’s The Papers of Andrew Melmoth (1960). Its cool, rational (possibly autistic) central figure thinks of humans as “them,” and is ineluctably drawn to rats. Whether bred up for the laboratory or running wild in the sewers, they make sense to him: his departure note reads “the point now is not to tell you about them. It’s to tell them about you.”
What sticks with me is not just Andrew’s conviction that the radioactive fallout from A-bomb tests is killing humans and fast-tracking rat evolution, but his discovery that the rats he follows (and eventually joins) are inescapably evolving the same behaviors that got human beings into a jam in the first place. Only a decade separates this novel from B. F. Skinner’s upbeat paean to behavioral modification, Walden Two. But Sykes Davies proposes a darker, less forgiving behaviorism. Readers should not be too hard on themselves if, on finishing the book, they rush back to The Wind in the Willows, so Kenneth Grahame’s Rat can remind them that “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”