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.
Urbanism Section Editor
Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other
Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, edited by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya
I read a lot of fiction by female authors, and have sought out work by female authors of color recently. Someone in my family’s communal Kindle account had checked out Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which I began to read one evening and found I couldn’t put down, despite the author’s eschewal of punctuation. It won the Booker Prize last year, and yet I hadn’t heard much about it. It’s wonderful—a sprawling novel that charts the fates and fortunes of 12 different Black British women across the 20th century. Each woman’s story is embedded within a larger social landscape that considers the nation’s many transformations. Evaristo explores her characters with humor and generosity, leading us through such milieus as London’s underground lesbian theater scene, the politics of education in Thatcher’s England, and contemporary debates in trans-inclusive feminism. Despite such serious topics, the prose is light and sings with joy, a celebration of Black women within the UK’s complicated politics and history. In exploring Black female collective life in Britain, Evaristo reveals their integral role within the former metropole, as important though often unacknowledged political actors and agents of change. In so doing, she brings attention to the salience of race as a question not limited to colonial exploits, but rather entwined in the production of contemporary British gendered relations, political projects, and imagined futures.
As protests continue to rage over the murder of George Floyd and the more generalized expendability of Black life, meanwhile, I have revisited Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, a collection edited by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, which looks to the Cooperation Jackson experiment in the Mississippi Delta. There, activists who emerge out of a long tradition of radical Black politics formulated the Jackson-Kush Plan, a holistic economic proposal that seeks emancipation through practices of economic solidarity and cooperative-based models. As I think about BLM and how to be an ally in this moment, I am drawn to the local scale and find instructive this group’s work advancing radical causes through the modest yet no less audacious arenas of everyday collective action. Their most recent project has been designing and manufacturing high-quality 3D-printed masks to combat COVID in Jackson, a city beset by inadequate health care and entrenched legacies of racialized inequality.
B-Sides Series Editor
Anna Kavan, Ice
I saw sunken ships in the harbor; demolished buildings, closed shops and hotels; a cold gray light that belonged to another climate, a different part of the world; everywhere the imminent threat of a new ice age. I saw what was in front of my eyes and at the same time I saw the girl. Her picture was always with me.
Anna Kavan may win the award for the least likely “X meets Y”: Sybille Bedford meets J. G. Ballard. If you prefer your mash-ups American, maybe try Jane Bowles meets Kurt Vonnegut. In short, she combines drugged or mad-seeming mid-century modernist prose with the “inner space” of New Wave SF writers like Le Guin and Lessing.
Born Helen Emily Woods, in 1901, Kavan published at least 15 novels during her lifetime. Aside from Ice, I love her 1958 short story “A Bright Green Field.” That one is a Kafkaesque parable (or is it?) about a mysterious, ever-tilting, ever-reforming field of grass that tracks the narrator through the world, stubbornly refusing to reveal itself as objective or subjective. Her final novel, Ice (it appeared in 1967, a year before her death; there’s a Penguin 50th-anniversary reissue), is similarly blurry on the inside/outside barrier, despite an overt global-cataclysm plot, complete with warring nations, midnight secret missions, and a clock ticking toward apocalypse. The impending wall of glaciers that will swallow humanity seems real enough. Yet—like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—Ice leaves you unsure if it’s the world or the mind that’s breaking down. Its final lines read like an indecipherable epitaph on the tumultuous world of the late 1960s she was leaving:
A terrible cold world of ice and death had replaced the living world we had always known. Outside there was only the deadly cold, the frozen vacuum of an ice age, life reduced to mineral crystals; but here, in our lighted room, we were safe and warm. … I drove at great speed, as if escaping, pretending we could escape. … The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.
Print/Screen SECTION EDITOR
E. J. White, You Talkin’ To Me? The Unruly History of New York English
Rachel Cohen, Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels
Forget that New Yorker infomercial about getting real Essex St lox delivered to your yacht. For homesick New Yorkers (or in my case, a New Jerseyite who hasn’t ventured into the city since March), the best remedy is E. J. White’s You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English. Leading with its intellectual elbow in explanations of everything from Manhattan street names to the accents in World of Warcraft, this imaginative and teacherly account of how urbanites speak indirectly offers an account of how they live. Reading White’s riff on John Stuart Mill—“the odd truth about language in New York City is that most of the speech you encounter there is not heard but overheard”—provoked a wave of nostalgia for the days when we could get close enough to one another to eavesdrop.
The blurb made me want to close the browser window: “A woman finds solace in Jane Austen following the death of her father and the birth of her child.” If there’s one thing I hate—and in these infuriating times, there is—it’s the recent spate of first-person long-form essays about how classic works of literature have helped the narrator cope with grief. Comp Lit graduate school taught me to be embarrassed by (at best, for) that classmate who didn’t understand that literature is supposed to make you think, not feel—let alone make you feel better. More specifically, occupational deformation makes me want to defend what D. W. Harding called in 1939 Austen’s “regulated hatred” against the long history of treating her novels as a textual painkiller to be taken on the sickbed or in the trenches. But Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels treats Austen neither as therapy nor as pick-me-up. Instead, this haunting and haunted narrative pulls off the impossible task of allowing us to read over a thoughtful writer’s shoulder, allowing us to discover these known-to-death novels by watching her observe, think, and, yes, feel through their pages.
LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Katrina Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy
Liberal political philosophy today is perhaps most closely associated with the figure of John Rawls. So much so that most of the people who write about Rawls are known as Rawlsians—that is, scholars who attempt to correct, add to, and ultimately advance Rawls’s vision of a just society. Katrina Forrester is not, however. Which is part of what makes her book, In the Shadow of Justice, so compelling. Her book is an intellectual history of exactly how Rawls’s particular theory of political liberalism—liberal egalitarianism—became so dominant across the anglophone world following the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the rise of human rights. The other part that makes her book so compelling is that, as with the best works in the history of political thought, she shows why it is so important to understand the moment when an idea emerges. In the case of Rawls, she argues, it’s the 1940s and ’50s, as opposed to the 1960s, that really matter. Without this new understanding, our diagnoses of liberalism’s failings in the present will almost certainly be off the mark.
Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs—newly available in English translation—explores the line between autonomy and isolation in the lives of its mostly down-and-out female characters. The novel’s first section focuses on Makiko, a single mother whose obsession with the idea of breast implants distresses and baffles her younger sister Natsu. In the second section, set 10 years later, Natsu has achieved moderate success as a writer and grapples with whether to have a child of her own. The two sections are linked by Kawakami’s keen attention to the ways in which desire (for connection, for beauty, for security) is formed by social context. Breasts and Eggs centers on lives shaped by abuse and poverty, though Natsu’s relationship with her sister and niece—a mix of love and incomprehension—softens the novel’s bleakest aspects. Kawakami’s unfussy prose (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) is studded with arresting similes: a deep sleep feels as if “cut out from a slab of clay, round and clean.”