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.
Patrick O’Brian, Post Captain
I’ve signed on for a second and very likely not final installment of O’Brian’s excellent Jack Aubrey novels, this time accompanied by the helpful lexicon of relevant nautical terms A Sea of Words (of course, many of the definitions employ terms equally in need of definition, so it’s easy to spiral down quite quickly into the terminological murk). Post Captain opens with Captain Jack and his faithful ship’s surgeon and friend, Stephen Maturin, playing at being country gentlemen, complete with love triangles, marriage plots, and other staples of the English comedy of manners, before (mild spoiler alert) Jack’s prize agent runs off with his money and the bum-bailiffs close in, sending our heroes fleeing to the south of France, where Napoleon’s new declaration of war means they must escape again, the unlucky taller man in a bear suit …
Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts
Alfred North Whitehead has gone from a largely overlooked early 20th century philosopher to a centerpiece of the speculative realist and ontological turn in philosophy over the past couple of decades. In this book, Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers guides us through Whitehead’s complex “process philosophy,” using excerpts from his writings to reveal a way of thinking that seeks to overcome the Enlightenment tradition’s ceaseless bifurcation of society and nature, mind and body. I can’t say I’m entirely sold, but the book is masterful in its approach and treatment of the subject.
Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris, eds., The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry
I’m teaching an Intro to Creative Writing course at NYU in the fall, focused in particular on world literature and works in translation, and this anthology is the heart of my syllabus. The copy on my nightstand is my third: the other two were loved to death. Kaminsky and Harris have compiled a collection of some of the world’s most important and beautiful writing (the only weakness, by their own admission in the introduction, is the moderate dearth of Asian and African poets). It had a significant and palpable impact on me when I was a younger writer, and I can’t wait to share this book with my own students.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for Arthurian legend, from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to BBC’s Merlin. I had always heard quite a bit about how significant Bradley’s adaptation was, but I didn’t really anticipate getting as wrapped up in it as I have. Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar are easily two of my favorite characters ever. They’re incredibly fascinating both in comparison to each other and as women in the homosocial canon of Arthurian literature.
Michele M. Penhall, ed., Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani, 1978–2008
It’s easy now, armed as we are with the rational sciences, to dismiss alien visitations as the fancy of irrational “believers.” I’ve found it more productive to ask why images like the McMinnville UFO photographs—or any photographs at all, really—are held as irrefutable proof of an occurrence. The writing I’ve been doing here has led me back to Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Reformation to get at why we believe in images at all. I’ve come to think that technology, in an absolutely literal sense, is only magic by another name, and UFOs illustrate this intersection beautifully. In the photos of Nagatani, who studied under Robert Heinecken, I see a compatriot. Look at his work; he’ll show you what I mean.
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
Like all college students at some point, I was tempted in my sophomore year to take a philosophy course. Shortly before the semester started I realized that I didn’t have room in my schedule, though, so I made a compromise and bought this 1,000-page book instead. Then I promptly waited one year to actually start reading it. I’ll say here what I say to everyone when they see me holding the book: it sounds really boring but I promise it’s not boring. Really. I also appreciate Bertrand Russell specifically for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here, and it’s a shame he is no longer a force in popular culture. Because philosophy jokes rule.
Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back
What would happen if Adolf Hitler mysteriously reappeared in Germany in 2012? A surprise hit in Germany, this novel imagines him as a media sensation.
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
A thriller reminiscent of Gone Girl, narrated by three women involved in a murder mystery.
Sasha Bristol, The Novelist’s Wife
A fictionalized look behind the scenes at the marriage of D. H. and Frieda Lawrence.
Qiu Xiaolong, When Red Is Black
An Inspector Chen novel that gives some insights into modern Shanghai.