Here 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.
David Halberstam, The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal
In anticipation of the Olympics—and as an antidote to the conventions—I’ve dived into Halberstam’s absorbing account of American scullers competing to qualify for the 1984 games. Halberstam depicts rowing as a sport out of time. Basketball and baseball players might engage in the speculative pursuit of fame and wealth, but rowers, in his account, embody the eternal purity of amateur sport. His scullers push themselves to the point of physical collapse simply for the pleasure of competition, against themselves and against the tiny, elite crew of their peers. Outside their racing shells, the scullers’ choices in life seem almost limitless and Halberstam commends the scullers for their dedication to their sport in the face of Wall Street’s rival seductions. I’ve chafed throughout the book, however, at the lack of recognition that amateurism is not only a valiant sacrifice, but also a product of wealth and privilege.
Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre
I’ve been meaning to read this short historical novel by the American writer Janet Lewis (1899–1998) for years, and now I wonder what took me so long. Based on the true story of a 16th-century French peasant, heir to a sizable estate, who apparently returns to his family after a long absence, only, hmm, some of the personal details aren’t quite right, the narrative stays close to the thoughts of the titular wife, Bertande de Rols. Its simple, unadorned prose, allergic to eloquent variation, seems to restore substance and light to objects by means of common, familiar words, as in this early account of the household stores: “pots of honey and baskets of fruit, baskets of chestnuts, stone crocks of goose and chicken preserved in oil, eggs buried in bran, cheeses of goat’s milk and of cow’s milk, wine, oil.” The approach is perfectly suited to this ostensibly straightforward tale of wealthy peasants and uncanny returns.
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Kushner’s 2013 novel, about a Nevada-born ingenue encountering the 1970s downtown arts scene, helped launch a wave of NYC-in-the-’70s fiction, from City on Fire to David Simon’s upcoming series The Deuce. In its panorama of bohemia, The Flamethrowers has been likened to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Kushner is more earnest than Flaubert, but she’s equally attuned to the hypocrisies of the countercultural class, and more attuned to its casual misogyny. We meet bad-boy conceptual artists who keep underage girls “on layaway” and militant revolutionaries for whom women’s role is “to cook us a meal or clean the floor or strip down.” All this amounts to a subtly revisionist history of an often mythologized period in American art. Even more provocative is how it leaves you pondering the similarities between two personality types: the radical and the narcissist.
WNYC, More Perfect
Produced by WNYC’s Radio Lab, this podcast miniseries examines the history of the Supreme Court. Presenting well-reported and often musical accounts of incidents in the court’s history, the show gets past polarized party politics and into the paradoxical quagmires that face the court. In episode two, “The Political Thicket,” the team delves into how the court’s involvement in expanding voting rights directly led to the ruling that decided the presidential election in 2000. The underlying message of the show—that abiding by precedent (i.e., maintaining the rule of law) requires steady hands through cross-currents of theory and practice—often sounds revolutionary in the context of this reactive and frequently political climate.
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying
I was reading the final pages of this bracing memoir while, sputtering on my laptop, the Republican National Convention was going on in Cleveland. The stakes of Danticat’s family narrative—a tale of immigration, separation, and civil strife in Haiti and the United States from the 1940s through 2004—couldn’t have been more clear. While nativist politicians at Trump’s convention bellowed about walls, here was text about the openheartedness that moved a man to raise his brother’s children and inspired a child to return, dozens of times, as a writer and researcher to the Haiti her parents had left in search of a better life, and about the barbarity that persists in the erection of borders, the policing of identities, and the ignorance of our shared humanity. There is considerable violence here, from gangs pillaging the streets of the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, to the blatant neglect of a dying man wrongly sent to Krome detention facility in Miami, but there is redemption, too, in the form of new life and Danticat’s luminous prose.
John McPhee, The Control of Nature
Three essays make up this wonderful volume, an account of the humanity behind several large projects designed to control the power of nature. Starting in the Mississippi Delta, where the US Army Corps of Engineers tries to control a powerful river and the natural course of things, passing to Iceland’s flowing lava and volcanic tenacity, and then into the mountains around Los Angeles, McPhee’s writing wraps me up in spirit and humor and takes a walk through the world. His interlocutors are sometimes naive, often ambitious, and always appealing, and he tells the story of their attempted conquests with a poet’s eye. One fatalistic thing becomes clear: that no matter how ingenious or thought-through the attempted control of nature is, ol’ Mother Earth will win out one day. McPhee makes that point in a succinct but not depressing way.
Alexis M. Smith, Marrow Island
I love the beach, but it’s July and I haven’t seen the ocean since December. Maybe that’s why I recently devoured this novel about a woman and an island. There is more to recommend the book than thalassophilia, however: gorgeous, harrowing descriptions of untamed, sometimes violent, nature; an intriguing, off-kilter heroine; and a spooky plot that keep you turning pages. The novel follows Lucie Bowen, who returns to her childhood home, a fictional island in the San Juans rendered uninhabitable by environmental damage, to reconnect with her best friend/lover and investigate the cultish group trying to reclaim the land for human use. The narrative involves earthquakes, nuns, and lots and lots of mushrooms. It’s not a perfect book, at times sacrificing plausibility for the sake of Big Ideas. But I found it an irresistible example of a genre you might call eco-gothic—a seductive, uncanny story of our complicated engagement with the natural world.
Béla Károlyi and Nancy Ann Richardson, Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics
In order to prepare for the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics, I have been reading Béla Károlyi’s 1994 autobiography, cowritten with Nancy Ann Richardson. Béla and his wife, Márta, singlehandedly changed the face of US women’s gymnastics when they defected to the US in the early 1980s from Communist-occupied Romania. However, Béla starts the story much earlier, detailing with trademark candid flair both his and Márta’s initial occupations as physical education teachers in a poor coal mining town, how Romanian politics mapped onto, intersected with, and at times sabotaged his gymnastics career, and the anger, passions, and determination he incited in competitors and judges alike. Béla’s relatively recent retirement from coaching and Márta’s final Olympics as national coordinator this summer make this book a must-read for all current gymnastics aficionados looking to understand the unlikely but incredible dynasty that paved the road for the 2016 women’s gymnastics Olympians.
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
A true masterpiece. Equal parts family drama, sinister mystery, and poetic history, this novel weaves fiction and fable while uniquely reexamining Japan’s role in World War II. Prepare to feel the most beautiful, comfortable kind of confused as you navigate the twists and turns of protagonist Toru Okada’s search for his cat, then his past, and finally his purpose in 1980s Tokyo. You’ll traverse the boundaries of time and space, reality and unreality, past and present, history and myth as you blow through this epic novel in a matter of days.
Dave Cullen, Columbine
“Mr. D had one major objective that Friday; Eric had at least two. Mr. D wanted to impress on his kids the importance of wise choices. He wanted everyone back alive on Monday. Eric wanted ammo and a date for prom night.” Lines like these keep Columbine, the comprehensive (and arguably definitive) account of the infamous 1999 massacre, riveting—and frightening—17 years after the fact.