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.
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters Selected and Edited
Gilberto Freyre, Brazil: An Interpretation
Machado de Assis, Esau and Jacob
Jorge Amado, The Violent Land
In preparation for an upcoming trip to Rio de Janeiro to help plan a conference and exhibit on “Brazil as Global Crossroads,” I’ve been reading Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, Gilberto Freyre’s histories, and novels by Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado. Machado de Assis has a fascinating narrative voice that combines documentary naturalism and postmodern metafiction. “I, my friend, I know how things happen, and I relate them exactly as they were,” he says in one breath, and then: “Explanations eat up time and paper, they hold up the action and end up in boredom. It’s best to read with attention.”
Dan Barber, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
“Hybrid vigor” describes the health, resilience, and, for Dan Barber, deliciousness that happens when animals are cross-bred. The principle applies to Barber’s book as well. Adding ecology primer, to restaurant memoir, and travelogue, The Third Plate makes for more than the sum of its parts.
I, Michelangelo, Sculptor, edited by Irving and Jean Stone
Picked up on a whim at a wonderfully cluttered used book store in Philadelphia, this 1962 collection of letters from the Renaissance giant reveals fascinating practical details about how masterpieces from every phase of his long career got made—not always to stay that way. Desiring nothing more than a return to sculpting marble figures for Julius II’s tomb in Rome, the Florentine artist was obliged to spend nearly two years in Bologna, a city recently captured by the pope’s armies, engaged in casting a giant bronze statue of Julius. His letters from the period are full of promises to send his brothers start-up money when he is able, reassurances to his ailing father about certain property purchases, complaints about dishonest and incompetent assistants and time-consuming technical failures, and dozens of pledges to be back in Florence soon. When Michelangelo finally continues on to Rome—despite his protest that “Painting is not my trade!”—Julius orders him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile, as the editors inform us: “Three years after Michelangelo left Bologna, the Bolognese people pulled down the bronze statue of Julius II off its niche on the facade of [the city’s principal church] San Petronio, had it melted down and cast into a cannon called Giulia, to be used against the Papal troops.
David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2
Most mentions of Marx’s second volume of Capital are accompanied by the metaphor of a “desert.” It might be “arid,” as translator David Fernbach puts it, but I’ve also heard “vast.” Regardless, one gets the sense that Volume 2 is the place where armies of readers are forced to retreat, if they don’t bypass it entirely en route to Volume 3. However, Harvey digs deep into the sand to extract what the book has to say about finance capital, time-space compression, and shifting urban geographies. Taking the reader in hand as he trudges around the various circuits of capital, Harvey points out moments in Volume 2 that illuminate the present. For example, Marx’s dry analysis of the circulation of commodities is directly relevant to plant closures in the 1980s and processes of globalization that continue today. Harvey proves an excellent guide, but you still should pack plenty of trail mix because the book covers so much territory.
Marina Tsvetaeva, Dark Elderberry Branch, translated from the Russian by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine
This slender volume is near and dear to my heart, and I’m rereading it for the umpteenth time. These translations (or, as Kaminsky and Valentine call them, “readings” of Tsvetaeva) are surprising, engaging, and full of light and music. Whenever I’m struggling with my own work or suffering from lack of inspiration, I can always come back to Marina, whose poems always push me forward.
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I’m currently on hold for several digital copies of books that I’m trying to knock off my summer bucket list and as a result, I’m falling deeper into the Neil Gaiman hole that I found when I picked up Good Omens last summer. One of the things I love most about Gaiman as an author is how I never quite know if he falls on the side of whimsy or horror. There are moments where everything in the story is completely fantastical, a child remembering the girl who lived at the end of the lane and claimed a pond was an ocean. But then there are also moments where I’m not really sure it is just a child’s imaginative memories. I’m almost finished reading it, and I really don’t want to be.
László Krasznahorkai, Satantango
I first discovered Krasznahorkai through two chapbooks published by Sylph Editions—The Bill, a torrential fourteen-page sentence addressed to Palma Vecchio; and Animalinside, an apocalyptic collaboration with one of my favorite painters, Max Neumann. I recently learned that I’ve already known and loved Krasznahorkai’s work; he wrote scripts for Béla Tarr, including my own two favorites: Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies. Now I’m spending time with Krasznahorkai’s novels, so I apologize to my friends and colleagues if I seem suspicious, ungrounded, or utterly paranoid for a while.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
I’ve had a copy of this book (translated by Tom Lathrop) on my shelves since I was 12, yet have managed to avoid reading it for a long time. Not that I haven’t wanted to, it just happens to be a very large, intimidating book. As I was listening to an episode of Radiolab recently (the title was “La Mancha Screwjob”) I figured it was time to sit down and read it. I haven’t gotten very far and am certain there is nothing I could say about it so far that hasn’t been said by someone much smarter, but I will mention that it is even more engrossing than I had expected. If only I understood all of the references.
Jane Austen, Persuasion
I remembered it as the Jane Austen novel about sad old people and their last chance at love. As it turns out, the heroine is 27.
Deni Béchard, Vandal Love
Haunting debut novel from 2006 by Canadian-American writer Deni Béchard chronicles the harrowing saga of the Hervé family—a French Canadian clan whose members have for centuries been born as either fearsome embattled giants or diminutive sickly runts. I picked this up after being mesmerized by Béchard’s memoir, Cures for Hunger, another border-crossing book that traces a son’s attempt to understand his Québec-born father, a conman who forsook his origins to become, among other things, a bank robber in the United States. Vandal Love reminds me, in a good way, of Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao, not just in its scope, historical sense, and symbolic weight, but also because both novels depict families crossing into the U.S., only from opposite hemispheric trajectories; Québec’s disenfranchised head South while Diaz’s Dominicans climb North. Béchard’s imagery is at once beautiful and jarring; he juxtaposes pastoral elements with modern technologies that intrude upon the landscapes. I’m eager to see where he’ll take me…
Aatish Taseer, The Temple-goers
Two-thirds through this novel, I’m finding the narrative strands connecting and deepening in poignant ways, leading to what I’m sure will be an interesting climax. I feel I know Taseer’s Delhi, and I appreciate the cross-class intimacies and betrayals he’s able to convey through his characters’ relationships.
Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation, translated from the French by John Cullen
I never thought I would read a novel where a book (Camus’s The Stranger) is a kind of character, as strange as that sounds. Among other things, this novel gives new meaning and depth to the idea of “character assassination.” It’s simply brilliant.
Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event
I just started reading what 77-year-old Blume has admitted is probably her last novel and am trying to savor it (reading it slowly reminds me somewhat of how I read her last novel for adults, Summer Sisters: in short installments whenever I could catch some privacy for fear anyone seeing me reading it would know the content of what my not-quite-teenage-self was voraciously consuming—except now it’s age appropriate, whatever that means, and the luxurious pace is my own choice!). In the Unlikely Event showcases Blume’s talent for inhabiting and depicting the worlds of her characters, young and old alike—she shifts perspective across characters whose lives are impacted by plane crashes that occurred in New Jersey in the early 1950s. Blume takes the quotidian seriously, and I’m interested to see how she balances her knack for capturing the meaningful in everyday life against such a dramatic backdrop as I proceed.