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.
MANAGING EDITOR AND LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Mathias Énard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
The latest to appear in English translation from this much-fêted French author seemed to offer an almost uncannily precise Venn diagram of my interests—and perhaps, through no fault of the book, this set me up for disappointment. Énard, having come across evidence of a fascinating little-known episode in the life of Michelangelo, produces a slight, moody, impressionistic study. There are a handful of striking details (“the sweet cherry soup chilled with snow from Anatolia or the Balkans compressed into large blocks and preserved in the dark, at the bottom of cisterns, covered with straw”), but of the predominance of thin description here I can only say that at least you don’t feel the research. And yet, neither are the characters or story memorably well developed. For starters, “Michelangelo” never really emerges from his reputation: he’s a mysterious, brooding “genius” from start to finish. (Perhaps the only place this is less the case is in the citations from his actual letters, which have elsewhere been collected as I, Michelangelo, Sculptor, and whose reading I recommend to anyone.) The Balkan poet Mesihi is probably the best-rendered figure here, but even he has only a few postures. The novel is not very convincing on art and architecture, and better, perhaps predictably, in describing the writing arts. I was really looking forward to reading this book; as it happened, the actual experience was almost immediately akin to the dissatisfaction of a vaguely recalled dream.
Literary Fiction SECTION EDITOR
Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
It’s a graph that has preoccupied me for a while now: if you run a Google ngram search for “literary fiction,” you see a line bouncing around the low end of the y axis until around 1980, when suddenly the line bursts upward, becoming a forbidding cliff face as it approaches the 21st-century mark. (It’s a profile mirrored by the smaller knoll called “genre fiction.”) So I’ve waded occasionally into the Anglophone novel of the late ’70s and early ’80s, looking for some early signs of this modern genre system, and nothing has yet struck me quite so much as the weirdly prophetic—because remarkably antique—Transit of Venus, published in 1980 to award-winning acclaim. It’s as good a candidate as any for the first foothold on this ascent.
A narrative of two Australian sisters, orphaned before WWII, who go on to lead differently typical lives in the postwar UK, it has a kind of modest sweep; you can catch an echo of the social history of the welfare state or decolonization, but resolutely as muted background only; the emphasis is all on their erotic careers, seen from a vantage point almost as remote as the astronomical metaphor that gives it its title. The style is straight from late Bloomsbury, but softened somehow, drained of some of the asperity that enlivens Woolf or Forster. Some of its worldly wise aphorisms about the stages of love are of the kind Stendhal might have admired. To write this in 1980! It’s an astonishing sidestepping of decades of fictional development, not in the mode of pastiche but as a genuine act of dissent against the present. And by seeming to bracket every kind of tone or device that developed after 1930, it feels from the start like a classic. Put another way: it is relentlessly poignant. It satisfies a desire for the Serious, for a long view still very much sutured to individuals, for the intimate-distant tonality of the prematurely aged. It is what so much “literary fiction” aspires to be. And so reading it I was gripped, at times entranced, but also often irritated, as if I’d been sitting in the same posture for too long.
CHILDREN’S & YA LITERATURE SECTION EDITOR
Arisa White and Laura Atkins, illustrated by Laura Freeman, Biddy Mason Speaks Up
Children’s nonfiction doesn’t get much love from reviewers. That’s why it’s especially important to spread the word about Heyday Books’ terrific Fighting for Justice series, launched in 2017 with Fred Korematsu Speaks Up. All the virtues that Public Books reviewer Suzanne Enzerink highlighted in her essay on that title are present in this equally moving and enlightening new addition to the series. It focuses on Biddy Mason, an African American healer who successfully fought to free herself from slavery and became a successful nurse and philanthropist, founding the first nursery school in Los Angeles as well as the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I love how White, Atkins, and Freeman creatively dramatize Mason’s life story while simultaneously reminding readers of the yawning gaps in the historical record that complicate such efforts. I also admire how careful they are not to romanticize individual agency, but rather to emphasize Mason’s connections to a broader network of people of color and indigenous people who were resisting oppression, sharing expertise, and supporting one another in myriad ways. American homes, classrooms, and libraries need these outstanding books!
Urbanism Section Editor
Richard Powers, The Overstory
The Overstory is populated by two kinds of protagonists: humans and trees. The former have their lives brought together through different iterations of the environmental movement: one is a biologist, another a Vietnam vet saved by a banyan when his aircraft is shot down, yet another a quadriplegic video game creator who makes imaginative online worlds after his own mobility is curtailed after falling off a branch. The trees also play a major role in the book: each character becomes enthralled with the majesty of them: for their grandeur, their abundant bounty that falls freely from their branches, and the way they naturally convert carbon as humans fill the skies with it. The Overstory contains elements of dystopianism: humans are clear-cutting their way to species-level suicide but there is also an appreciation for nonhuman life so profound that one almost roots for the vertical ancient beings to keep carrying on without us.
B-Sides Series Editor
Christopher Priest, A Dream of Wessex
If you think the most interesting thing about science fiction is its commitment to dreaming up new realities, then you may already share my obsession with Ursula Le Guin’s 1971 The Lathe of Heaven. George Orr, its mild protagonist, its inaction hero, discovers that his dreams reshape reality so effectively that after the change only he can remember how it used to be. It is really not so much a SF novel as a meta-SF novel, in which each of George’s dreams functions as a self-contained SF adventure space in its own right, leaving the reader to gaze down on all those possible worlds and to cogitate on the powers of the imagination.
So I was delighted to discover an earlier Le Guin fanboy in the prolific though never famous British SF writer Christopher Priest. His 1977 A Dream of Wessex (published in the US as The Perfect Lover) puts a fascinating socialist/collectivist spin on Lathe of Heaven. In a decaying future England, scientists pin their hopes on a cadre of powerful dreamers who put themselves into a trance and together dream up what they imagine will be a future (soviet) Wessex. The putative mission is to give the futurologists of dismal England a cure for their woes, but soon this act of collective dreamtime becomes all about the allure of a Wessex physically cut off from the rest of England (earthquake) and reverting to a medieval fishing economy—with wickedly good surfing incongruously attached. It’s as if The Matrix pointed its inhabitants not toward a paranoid future but a blue-and-green past: or, it’s Le Guin’s dreams of an ideal Oregon, retold in an English accent. The ’70s had a serious “back to the future” (or do I mean “forward to the past”?) vibe going, man.