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.
Gretchen A. Bakke
Systems & Futures Section EDITOR
Natsuo Kirino, Out, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Hideo Yokoyama, Six Four, translated from the Japanese by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
Keigo Higashino, Under the Midnight Sun, translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith, with Joseph Reeder
One of my all-time favorite books is Out, by Natsuo Kirino—a gruesome story of four Japanese women, each with unique hardships in life (and particular quirks of personality), who end up running a corpse-disposal business. It is a beautifully crafted, surprising book, and because of it, I occasionally just grab a piece of Japanese crime fiction off the shelf, imagining that I might one day—entirely at random—find its parallel.
As a result, right now I’m about halfway through the nearly eight-hundred-page police procedural Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama (in my case, translated into German). It has nothing in common with Out. It is a lonely book about a man bemired in a police bureaucracy that would prefer he do a poor job rather than a good one. Every move seems to tie his hands further, tangling him in a dark web—not of criminality, but of self-serving administrative obduracy. It has a bazillion characters, more even than a self-respecting Dostoyevsky novel. And yet, there is something compelling to it: it moves like real life. Each step, a step into the next banal moment that follows this one. Each step, an attempt to get something right. Yet no matter how considered, each step might be a false step, or stupid, or poorly executed. Chance, for good and for ill, plays such a significant role in the book that Mikami, the principle character, seems to figure things out in part though thoughtful focus and in part through pure dumb luck. The pace of the book (slow) and the randomness of each moment (extreme) somehow captures perfectly what is irritating about real life. As such, it is a work of fiction that does the opposite of what one might expect: it keeps us in precisely the profound dumbness of the human everyday; it basks in those very elements that most fiction dispenses with and attempts to offer something else—some small thing that sweeps away all that plods, in favor of what might soar.
On the bookcase, another purchase on a whim: Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, also a monster, at 750 pages; it waits for that day when I decide to try this same experiment again.
LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Can Xue, The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
The Last Lover feels like being dropped into a lush videogame world: surrounded on all sides by mountains, jungles, and cityscapes separated by questionable distances; teeming with colorful characters, each on their own trajectories. Sometimes the narrative movement feels furtive or futile, a helpless scrambling back and forth along the same level plane. Sometimes another level appears, high up among clouds in the sky, or down below in underground chambers. Just around the corner, a couple makes love, or magical animals present themselves, or more likely, both occur at once. Every identity is a mystery; long-married couples exist on entirely different planes, with no recourse. And yet, as the couples couple, as the lovers make love, as they misspeak and misunderstand—and simply miss—each other, there is no question of giving up.
As I became absorbed in the characters’ heedless determination to keep seeking, my mind became elastic, stretched by the book’s moments of strange humor, the sensations of terror and tenderness, the way it makes plain human longings for connection. Sometimes I would look up from the book and feel as if all the people, places, and things I have known have switched places and turned into opposite things; and sometimes I would fall into a dazed kind of torpor, as meaning fell away, thanks to the defamiliarizing effect of the prose. One of the main characters, Joe, is always reading, so that he may be drawn into the worlds of his books, and very early on it becomes impossible to differentiate between what he is reading and what he is living. Reading The Last Lover has this effect as well—people, objects, names, and words—all of our things become unstable, but this is maybe the most thrilling of all, this shake-up of perception.
Higher Education Section Editor
Melanie Micir, The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives
Archives are not neutral. Their formation and curation, and the uses to which their materials are put, occur very much in context. Through her attention to intimate partnerships and biographical acts—“which are analyses, not simply the historical building blocks with which to construct other, more literary-critical arguments”—Melanie Micir describes a version of literary modernism that departs sharply from the canon and from familiar tales of canon making: “The passion projects in this book are records of women who fought against forgetting, who sought to write the counterhistory of modernism while its official history was still being written.”
Micir writes with appealing and immensely readable warmth and clarity. “I read biography as an activist genre,” she notes, “undertaken in late career by queer feminist writers determined to resist the marginalization and exclusion of their friends, colleagues, lovers, companions, and wives from dominant narratives of literary history.” Micir’s queer counterhistory of modernism writes into the story not only authors and artists, but the collectors, curators, editors, archivists, and biographers who create and hold space for the work they value. Micir’s book itself will appeal to anyone interested in modernism and feminist and queer critical methods—and to anyone looking for a compelling and often moving story. The larger implications of Micir’s approach to the archive will make the book a must-read for all researchers sensitive to the framing of the historical narratives they compose.
B-Sides Series Editor
Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Danilio Kis describes his 1976 chronicle of Stalinism, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, as a “cenotaph”—the empty tomb that has to serve when the dead themselves are irrecoverably lost. Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis also serves as an empty tomb, for those who did not survive the Holocaust. In 1962 Italy, the novel’s publication came as a wake-up call about complicity, silence, and collaboration. Yet it is a Holocaust novel founded on a paradox: it wants the world to recognize those who themselves refused to recognize the world beyond their garden walls. As Fascist Italy slowly takes on the antisemitism of Mussolini’s German ally, Bassani shows the Finzi-Contini tennis court becoming a replacement for the Ferrara tennis club, and the Finzi-Contini’s “exquisite private library of 20,000 volumes” becomes a refuge for the studious narrator when the public library similarly gentilifies.
It’s a Decameron populated by characters who seek refuge from a modern plague—less successfully, though, than their counterparts in Boccaccio’s work. Does this make it a homage to art’s power? Or a mockery of what it means to establish a pretend life when the real one is vanishing?
In some ways, Bassani’s central love story reminds me of the irrecoverable love that both sweetens and saddens Willa Cather’s perfect prairie elegy, My Antonia (1918). That novel ends with lovelorn Jim Burden suddenly seeing the loved-but-lost Antonia ascending from a root cellar into sudden Nebraska sunlight. She is a Persephone who has made her own way out.
Cather’s America, though, had room (in a “Great West” stolen from prior possessors and accessible only for white immigrants) for the young lovers to find various paths to adulthood. Bassani, by contrast, sets the novel’s prologue among decaying Etruscan tombs (a detail omitted from the gorgeous and generally faithful 1970 Vittorio De Sica film of the novel). Bassani himself was a young man living in Ferrara at the time the novel’s events occur. Three decades later, when he comes to write his way back to the lost world of the 1930s, those oblivious, walled-in Finzi-Continis have been incorporated into a line that stretches right back to the Etruscans. Garden as grave.
LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Kirk Wetters, The Opinion System: Impasses of the Public Sphere from Hobbes to Habermas
When, earlier this month, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton published his “proto-fascist opinions,” as Michelle Goldberg called them, in the New York Times, I immediately looked to my bookshelf for anything that might help me understand the history of opinion and why we value it so highly in our modern democratic societies. That, partially, is the task of Kirk Wetters’s 2008 book The Opinion System. Wetters threads a rich philosophical history spanning from Virgil to Reinhart Koselleck, from Christoph Martin Wieland to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, to argue that “opinion” is a central concept in Western democratic modernity.
The thesis is not as obvious as it might sound. Especially given how we unconsciously divide “opinion” in two—public opinion versus private opinions. The book helps us cut through a debate that is often (falsely, in my view) framed as one between those who are in favor of giving voice to the widest possible range of opinion and those who are not. For Wetters, opinion, whether public or private, is widely though poorly understood as “a cipher of political allegiance or affiliation,” which, he says, “can only have a chilling effect on everything that is called politics.” He urges us instead to embrace a more fruitful understanding of opinion, as an “exercise of thought,” one that is not only concerned with the political realities and decisions of our present but also with those of a distant, unknown future.
Technology Section Editor
Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time
Since March 2020, it seems that we have been experiencing time in extreme ways: the slowing down of time in the lockdown; the acceleration of time in the face of the urgent need to find ways to stop the virus; the painfully stubborn presence of the legacies of slavery and of oppressive and violent social structures that continue to dictate much of contemporary life; as well as the energizing thoughts of a better and more just future. Rovelli’s beautiful little book, The Order of Time, is an unlikely yet quietly comforting companion for the current moment. Gently easing the reader into the physics of the universe and the theory of quantum gravity, Rovelli shows that time ultimately is a matter of perspective. This message is important, not only because it has the potential to challenge our understanding of “objectivity,” but also because it has political potential, in that it opens up the possibility of a plurality of worlds in which we may peacefully coexist.
Tochi Onyebuchi, War Girls
At its core, Tochi Onyebuchi’s 2019 War Girls is the saga of two sisters separated by civil war. It’s also a meditation on climate change, an Afrofuturist thriller, and—in its retelling of Nigeria’s past conflicts—an unconventional work of historical fiction. Set in 2172, the novel follows sisters Onyii and Ify through a futuristic Nigeria ravaged by ecological crisis and remade by technology. Onyii, the older of the two, grows into a decorated and brutal rebel soldier; Ify, the younger, is a tech whiz adopted into the capital city’s elite. Narrated primarily from the girls’ alternating perspectives, War Girls is attentive to the slow violence of environmental destruction, the mutability of identity, and the force and limits of familial love. Particularly notable is Onyebuchi’s acute psychological portrait of Onyii, simultaneously a wounded child and a war criminal—a fiercely protective older sister gradually corroded by the violence she commits.