On Our Nightstands: July 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.


Nicholas Dames

Editor in Chief


Rachel Eisendrath, Gallery of Clouds


An uncategorizable, virtuoso performance. Ostensibly a book about Renaissance prose romance—specifically, Sir Philip Sidney’s unfinished Arcadia—but told in the form of a dream manuscript, read by a dream-version Virginia Woolf, whom the author meets sitting with friends in Central Park; a manuscript shot through with reflections that are autobiographical, philological, book-historical. Is there a harder genre to bring to life than the (interminable) early modern romance, and the (now kitschy) pastoral mode in which it was enveloped? Somehow Eisendrath does it—or at least, shows us ways in which it is not quite yet dead, if not exactly alive. In the process she shows her reader ways to think of the self not as embodied, or performative, or any of the other modes so current now, but instead as a matter of shifting densities and masses; less solid, that is, than vaporous, a kind of temporary condensation. Which is another way to say, the kind of self potentially, maybe ideally, activated by reading.



Benjamin Cohen

Public Thinker Series Editor


Rachel Cusk, Outline


Rachel Cusk, Transit


Rachel Cusk, Kudos


I was several years late to Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and likewise late to this one, Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Granted, the only similarities between the series are my lateness to reading them and the infinite quality of both, as in, it could’ve been eight books about Naples just as Cusk’s trilogy could’ve easily been a dozen books long. She gets you, in a half dozen pages Cusk has you, with calm grace and what one reviewer called an artful/artless style, one of profound subtlety and quiet confidence. Faye, our main character, is a listener. Or, the people around Faye are talkers. This means the search for truth in Faye’s life is refracted (diffracted?) through the arrogance, curiosity, or unfurled candor of that guy on the plane beside her or the interviewer or the dinner companion or whoever. Because Cusk pulls you in so swiftly and easily, as a reading experience you look up, it’s three books later, and everyone was right. Please, more.



Sharon Marcus

EDITOR at Large & Film Section Editor


Robert Altman, The Long Goodbye


This delightful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic 1953 detective novel replaces classic film noir’s taut suspense with a hippie, stoner vibe. The opening sequence toggles between a man with a bloodied face speeding through Los Angeles and a shambolic Elliot Gould, as private eye Philip Marlowe, trying (and failing) to feed his cat.

In lieu of painstaking historical recreation, director Robert Altman presents Marlowe as a one-man time capsule, whose suits and clunky car bring a spot of the 1950s into an otherwise decidedly 1970s LA. The 1970s is also when Michel Foucault published much of his major work, and the film’s take on hospitals, prisons, and the police as institutions antithetical to freedom could be taken straight out of Discipline and Punish.

For those who like this kind of thing, the film offers a cornucopia of nerdy cinematic allusions. A security guard does impressions of classic film stars. The opening cat shtick riffs on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970). And the ending stunningly reverses the famous closing sequence of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), which, like The Long Goodbye, explores the limits of loyalty and friendship.



John Plotz

B-Sides Series Editor


John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van


I teach a fantasy-novel class that always includes a midsemester detour through role-playing games—which explains how I once found myself tapped to play a (middle-aged, bewildered) “stone golem barrista” in a freewheeling Brandeis LARP. Could have gone worse. That makes it all the more bizarre that I somehow missed Wolf in White Van, the 2014 debut novel of John Darnielle, better known as lead singer of the Mountain Goats. Now that I am addicted to the audiobooks available through Libby, it was a joy, a grim joy, to listen to this summer, as I gradually grew accustomed to the voice of Sean, who (pre-internet) has invented a play-by-mail adventure game. The game, Trace Italian, is compelling enough that a pair of young players end up searching for real-life clues in the arid blighted mid-American spaces that form the game’s post-apocalyptic geography. The results are predictably dire. But the novel (see Ivan Kreilkamp’s excellent piece for further details) has one further layer to it: through a dizzying and deliberately confusing set of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the game world’s strange irradiated allure turns out to exist in eerie counterpoint to Sean’s own perennially painful shut-in life. The ways that Sean’s actual misery in boring pre-apocalyptic California gets uncannily projected into a game space make Wolf in some ways an anti-fantasy novel. That is, a novel that asks hard questions about how far away even the most extravagant act of imagination ever gets you, and what every inch of that trip may cost. Escape velocity is hard to reach.




Bécquer Seguín



Scott Shapiro, Jurisprudence Course


One of the funniest, most irreverent, and sarcastically critical voices on Twitter, Scott Shapiro also happens to be a legal philosopher and professor at Yale Law School. When the lockdown began in March 2020, he decided to launch a podcast on legal philosophy, which he jokingly says should have been named “Pod Save Jurisprudence.” Both deeply serious yet, at times, hilariously funny, Shapiro takes listeners from zero knowledge of law to a sophisticated understanding of such legal-philosophical minutiae as the differences between inclusive and exclusive legal positivism.



Abigail Struhl

Public Streets Series Editor


Christine Smallwood, The Life of the Mind


Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts


Christine Smallwood, author of The Life of the Mind, a recent satire about precarity in the academy, was once an academic herself. A term she coined in her dissertation—“depressive realism”—resonates with both her own novel and Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book, Whereabouts, two similar but very different works on my nightstand. The protagonist of each is a female intellectual navigating the university, attending academic conferences and house parties, and reflecting on the urban landscape. But while Smallwood’s book is an explicit and blisteringly funny meditation on a dead-end career in the end-times of climate change, the academic context is incidental to Lahiri’s exploration of melancholy.

Smallwood’s Dorothy is a lecturer who finds herself in the middle of the end—of her academic career, of a miscarriage, and of an age in which humans believe they can repair the effects of global warming. The temporality of apocalypse is not a bang but a protracted whimper. The novel tracks the days on which Dorothy finds herself in the process of bleeding out; a close third-person immerses us in the banal rhythms of the embodied “life of the mind” (the bathroom and the library are equally prominent locations). Dorothy fears her privilege makes her unsympathetic, but her imagination is breathtaking: an itch becomes a mosh pit of tiny angels with pitchfork stilettos; the denizens of the post-apocalypse set sail on raft of discarded coats, scolding Dorothy for her apathetic failure to compost.

In Whereabouts, the atmosphere of apocalypse is subtler and yet more immediate. The unnamed narrator in an anonymous Italian city observes ruined villas, empty piazzas, turbulent seascapes. Short vignettes demand the attention of prose poetry. Though she invokes an unhappy childhood to explain her present malaise, we never truly get to know our narrator; the psychological explanation proves radically insufficient for a character whose attention turns outward to an environment suffused with ineffable gloom.



Mary Zaborskis

Quizzical & Shoptalk Series Editor


Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol


I recently saw an ad on Peacock for the upcoming television series The Lost Symbol, an adaptation of Dan Brown’s 2009 novel that is the third in the Robert Langdon series (following Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code). While the series won’t star Tom Hanks, it nonetheless inspired me to embark on a deep dive back into the Langdon series thanks to my local library’s audio book collection. The Lost Symbol takes many of the features of Brown’s novels—occult knowledges, institutional conspiracies, problematic depictions of women and disability—and sets them in Washington, DC. Here, Langdon (a professor who is regularly addressed as Professor by adults in nonacademic contexts, thus importantly contributing to realistic depictions of higher education in popular culture …) gets entangled in a mission that involves Freemasonry, noetics, CIA torture techniques, and the relationship between spirituality and scientific knowledge in early American history. I learned, I rolled my eyes, and I fell into a few existential crises; I look forward to binge-watching The Lost Symbol when it’s released. icon