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.
Editor in Chief
Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
A book about teaching a book—in this case, The Odyssey—is catnip for professors. The exchanges between the author and his students here are enthralling, all the more so because Mendelsohn’s uncompromising father sits in on every class. The epic—two, in fact, since both the original myth of Odysseus and his son and the contemporary story of Mendehlohn and his father play out episodically through the text—is an opportunity to explore ideals across generations and ages. The book moves beautifully beyond the family context as well as within it.
Contemplating loyalty, Mendelsohn gives the class a passage where Odysseus admits that seductive goddess Calypso bests stalwart wife Penelope in her “size and appearance.” The students worry over this seeming betrayal. Leading students and reader alike deeper into the story, Mendelsohn uncovers The Odyssey’s definition of strong marriage in a powerful Greek word: homophrosynê. As he tells us about its roots in sameness and its relations to words in English, like homeopathy, homosexual, and phrenology, he guides us toward accepting his translation: “like-mindedness.” Memories of this sympathy, not only fleeting physical attraction, bind Odysseus and Penelope across the years of his voyage, even during his fling with Calypso. As he illuminates the epic, Mendelsohn also enables his readers to occupy the positions of instructor and pupil simultaneously, and gives us access to those sustaining moments of academic work that can also thrill.
Managing Editor and LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Négar Djavadi, Disoriental, translated from the French by Tina Kover
The heart of this remarkable debut novel is undoubtedly the trove of memories and family lore that the narrator, having arrived in Paris with her mother and sisters as a young girl, recounts about her colorful ancestors in Iran, from mighty agas to terrorized dissidents. Yet so far I’m also really appreciating the exemplary cosmopolitan Kimiâ’s insights into both the cultural presence of France in her native country (wealthy Iranians sent their children to the lycée, where “students who were actually French were treated like gods … Being accepted by them was the main recreational activity”) and the potential downsides to “things like democracy and social justice, the ability to rely on a government to take care of your problems,” which contribute to “the fact that the French don’t feel the need to get close to each other and communicate.” Now, she confesses, “I act like that myself … someone who has translated myself into other cultural codes.”
Global Black History Section Editor
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders
“Read this book like a song,” Tinsley’s work begins. To facilitate the process of reading an academic text like a song, Ezili’s Mirrors speaks in three different voices, each visually demarcated by a different font. These voices alternate throughout the book to tell the story of Ezili, a lwa in the Haitian vodou pantheon. Tinsley analyzes Ezili’s myriad representations and manifestations in literature, theater, and popular culture by and about black queer women in order to explore the fluidity of gender identities in the African diaspora.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves
Eric Gansworth, If I Ever Get Out of Here
Joshua Whitehead, Jonny Appleseed
Many of us who teach youth literature to college students are grappling with the question of whether we should continue assigning Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, given that multiple women have credibly accused Alexie of sexual harassment. In my view, this is an ethically complex and context-dependent question, made tougher by the fact that True Diary does so many things so well. Not for nothing did it win the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That said, here are some other recent titles by and about indigenous people that touch on similar themes.
For those who value Alexie’s delineation of how poverty and racism affect schooling, Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here covers similar ground by chronicling how a sensitive boy named Lewis copes with bullying and class-related friendship issues while growing up on the Tuscarora Indian reservation near Niagara Falls. For those who appreciate Alexie’s quick-moving plot and attention to the toll that oppression takes on the body, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is a cli-fi page-turner set in a dystopian future in which the indigenous people of North America are forced to flee forms of oppression that eerily evoke historical horrors visited on their real-life counterparts. And for those who dig Alexie’s pungent prose and unsettling exploration of how whiteness gets fetishized in a racist culture, Joshua Whitehead’s piercingly sad and sexy novel Jonny Appleseed touches on these themes as it evokes in breathtakingly graphic terms the pleasures and pains of growing up gay on the rez.
B-Sides Section Editor
Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye
What could a celebrated 1945 book by the Jewish cofounder of an anti-Mussolini movement be but a devastating indictment of Italian Fascism? Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is something else altogether. His chronicle of his 1935 exile to malaria-ridden inland Campania—where kids beg on the streets not for candy or pennies but for quinine—risks seeming a romanticized portrait of a “people without history.” However, like Ivan Olbracht’s astonishing Nikola the Outlaw (Jonathan Bolton’s lovely B-Side about it is forthcoming soon), Levi brilliantly chronicles a peasant society not obliterated but paradoxically created by years of governmental neglect and local feudal tyranny. A northerner who comes to realize the absurdity of all his prejudices about the south, Levi struggles to retell the myths, convictions, and intricate cosmology of those who believe that Christ stopped short of them, that he never came beyond Eboli.
Chessy Prout, with Jenn Abelson, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope
Chessy Prout’s recent memoir, cowritten with Jenn Abelson, recounts her life before and since a traumatic sexual assault that radically altered the course of her life while attending a prestigious boarding school. I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope offers readers insight into the life and experiences of the previously “nameless, faceless” Prout, who has had to deal with years of abuse from victim blamers, rape apologists, and downright bullies, from ostensibly trusted media sources and anonymous internet trolls alike. The text gives voice and perspective to a young woman who is now a proud activist and leader in bringing awareness to sexual assault as it impacts girls, young women, and other young folks in institutions earlier than college—also an important battle, but one the author suggests is oriented toward failure if we don’t rethink how we educate children about consent and healthy relationships from an early age. Prout acknowledges the privileges and resources that have enabled her to occupy the position of advocate and activist and is committed to reshaping our institutions to provide safety and support for those for whom they weren’t built.
Alex Mar, Witches of America
There may be as many as one million witches in America—from Bay Shore to the Northeast California backwoods, where much of Alex Mar’s journalistic odyssey through contemporary Paganism takes place. This is country dotted with abandoned magnesium mines, working ranches, redwoods, and breathtaking cliff drops. As American, and as mystical, as backdrops get.
Mar is a skeptic, but approaches the unfamiliar with a careful, empathetic eye. Because Paganism only dates back to the ’50s, it’s deemed suspicious—perhaps rightfully, readers might think, as later chapters reveal practitioners of darker stuff. But perhaps it’s just unassimilated. When Mar finds common ground with Pagan priestess Morpheus (“an American woman my age—my peer”), or compares witchcraft to her own upbringing in Greek and Cuban Christianities, she is guiding us gently out of our assumptions.
There are big questions at the center of Witches of America: about the content of spiritualism, why we seek the divine, and how to confront the unknowable. An important parallel should be drawn between Mar on her quest and the witches, who are also seeking answers. How we reach for clarity is ultimately of little consequence; it might be witchcraft, or an older religion, or sitting down to write.
Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual, translated from the French by David Bellos
I live in a tiny room with floor-to-ceiling windows, out of which I look at another apartment block and fantasize about the lives of the people living in the windows across the way. Little stacked stages, where I imagine dramas unfolding. Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual is the novelization of that fantasy. It’s a book so tremendously full of imagination, cataloging the individual lives and items in every single room of a single apartment building in Paris. Room by room, item by item, a tale of monomania and loss unfurls in incredibly vivid detail. The novel is experimental, but manages to be entertaining and enjoyable, rather than punishing, as a result. It’s a book that I want to hug and curl up with, and scratches the itch I get imagining the lives that run parallel to mine. It reads more like a collection of 99 micro-stories than anything else, and each is so well imagined that it fills me with envy. I would love to live a day in Perec’s mind.
Ryan Holiday, Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue
Conspiracy, by Ryan Holiday, recounts the destruction of Gawker—the irreverent, controversial, and undeniably entertaining news and gossip site. Gawker ran stories that other sites wouldn’t touch: they reported on sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., and others years before #MeToo; they revealed the IRL identity of Reddit’s most infamous racist troll; they published a stolen video of Hulk Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife.
Publishing the Hulk Hogan tape eventually proved to be Gawker’s downfall. In a multiyear, multimillion-dollar lawsuit surreptitiously funded by the Trump-supporting Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Hogan bankrupted both Gawker and its founder, Nick Denton. The site ceased operation in 2016 and Hogan received a $31 million settlement. Thiel didn’t receive any money, but he did get revenge—a Gawker spin-off, Valleywag, had outed and infuriated him a decade earlier with an article titled, in authentic Gawker form, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”
Conspiracy can be a frustrating read—Holiday incessantly and distractingly quotes historical strategists like Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Winston Churchill—but his direct access to Peter Thiel, Nick Denton, and others makes for an essential account of the most important media trial of the 2010s. And despite Gawker’s dubious editorial decisions and gossipy inclinations, the flagrantly corrupt nature of the Trump administration makes me long for such a bold news outlet. One can only imagine what scoops they would’ve had this year.