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
Vitaliano Trevisan, Works
Early in the summer of 1994, after two years of architecture school in Brooklyn, I returned home to inland Southern California to save some money. This turned out to involve a series of temp jobs in local factories: one assembling Giorgio perfume sets, where I was reprimanded for leaving the assembly line when the stooping bothered my back; PepsiCo, where my shift on the lid loader ended after midnight, by which time my clothes had been suffused with the signature product’s chemical-sweet stench; and a plastics manufacturer, where I would retrieve steaming, newly extruded parts from their water bath and ostensibly control quality. It was with some relief that I left for Seattle and my new school in September; nonetheless I suspected I had learned something that summer, not least that I’d better study hard if I wanted options.
These experiences returned to me as I began Works, a memoir of sorts by the Italian writer and actor Vitaliano Trevisan, devoted to the various jobs he held from the 1970s to the early 2000s, when he finally began to make a living by his pen. The book starts outside Vicenza, in the northeast of Italy, where work rivals Catholicism as the local religion, when 15-year-old Trevisan asks his police officer father for a new, boy’s bicycle, because he’s fed up with being teased for riding his big sister’s; he is promptly delivered over to a family friend’s factory to stamp sheet metal into drinking trays for bird cages. In subsequent summers, and then year-round, he proceeds to work on building sites and in warehouses; waiting tables and sanding sailboats; as a drug dealer and petty thief; apprenticing for a fashionable architect for five years without ever being hired on the books, then becoming an unenthusiastic furniture salesman, while still occasionally dealing drugs to get by, and playing drums in funk band—and I’m only about a third of the way through Works’ 650 pages.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call this catalog of false starts an “autobiographical novel,” as the publisher’s cover copy does, but only because the novel genre is so capacious. There is little in the way of plot or action here, or any substantial characters other than the narrator-protagonist, but the consistent theme and Trevisan’s beguiling voice (neither heroic nor abject, skeptical but not cynical) hold the book together. The technical details are fascinating, the situations absurd and often very funny, the whole somehow exhilarating. We learn about the evolving consciousness of the main character, but only as it is informed and deformed by labor—call this an Arbeitsroman, then. How inevitable is it that Trevisan would break the cycle of precarious, largely unfulfilling employment to find his vocation and some security? Perhaps becoming a writer is one of the few ways everything you’ve done before, if well observed, can become the raw material you spend the rest of your life refining.
Senior Editor and Global Coordinator
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
“All human odes are essentially one: my life, what I stole from history, and how I live with it.” Four sisters and one mother share the fear, degradation, rapture, and bewilderment of their time as reluctant missionaries in 1959’s Belgian-occupied Congo. Their pastor (who is also their husband and father) has enough certainty for the whole family, plowing ahead with increasingly futile and dangerous plans to convert the rural villagers to the Christianity of Jim Crow Georgia, replete with Betty Crocker, mother-of-pearl buttons, and, of course, anti-communism. He—and the imperialist United States he exemplifies—is never given full voice, but revealed only through violent outbursts, banal certainties, and ethnocentric Western arrogance, all of which we see through the eyes of his wife and daughters over the course of decades abroad.
The novel that results isn’t just lyrical and filled with authentically different voices, but charged also with terrific anger and a commandment to witness. The women watch their country’s government brutally crush Congolese independence and install a crass, corrupt dictator. Everyone’s certainties are overturned, or they are broken. “I felt God’s breath grow cold on my skin,” realizes one sister: “Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.”
Political Theory SECTION EDITOR
Didier Eribon, Retour à Reims
Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims, translated from the French by Michael Lucey
It took the death of his father for Didier Eribon to finally return to Reims. Eribon had left at age 17, escaping to Paris with dreams of studying philosophy and living freely as a gay man. But as Eribon realizes upon his father’s passing, it was not only his family’s homophobia that drove him away to the capital (where he would later become a major intellectual figure on the left). It was also Eribon’s own shame at being from the working class, in a country where one’s social origins matter more than most would like to imagine.
At once empathetic and entirely uncompromising, Retour à Reims is a moving account of Eribon’s own story and that of his family. It is also a sobering portrait of French society and the French left in the second half of the 20th century, well worth reading in the age of the gilets jaunes.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Zetta Elliott, Dragons in a Bag
Daniel José Older, Dactyl Hill Squad
In her award-winning essay “The Trouble with Magic” (2013), children’s author and scholar-activist Zetta Elliott notes the “appalling” dearth of children’s fantasy stories centered around children of color and set in heterogeneous urban neighborhoods. Besides seeking out Elliott’s own stories—such as the entertaining chapter book Dragons in a Bag—readers can now relish Daniel José Older’s middle-grade historical fantasy, which is set in in a version of Civil War–era Brooklyn that also features dinosaurs and “dinoriders.” Written in wonderfully lively prose, Dactyl Hill Squad also features an action-packed plot that illuminates what it was like to be Black and Cuban in New York City in 1863. Older’s emphasis on the power of cooperative action to combat systemic injustice is invigorating. The level of violence in the story is high, however, and I was unsettled by the way in which its human heroes take for granted that the dinosaurs are theirs to command and use as weapons. But perhaps the next installment of this series will problematize these aspects of what is otherwise a truly compelling and original alternative world.
TV Section Editor
Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
If Children of Blood and Bone is young adult fantasy (and it is), Adeyemi’s thrilling and devastatingly relevant novel demonstrates how grown-up young adults in fact are, and how fantasy is often all-too-real. At the center of the book’s deft examination of caste, domination, and resistance is the teenaged Zélie Adebola, a willful member of the maji class. Previously the bearers of formidable powers over the elements, dreams, and even life itself, the maji were violently divested of their magic by the fascistic King Saran of Orïsha, whose legacy of genocide and rule by torture and murder silence his critics. Yet the opposition that boils beneath Orïsha’s surface erupts when Zélie joins forces with the king’s daughter, the demure Princess Amari, on a quest to restore magic to all those from whom it was wrenched away. As the young women’s journey—riddled with jungle hikes, giant cats, and hidden hippie communes/hotbeds of resistance fighters—unfolds, the book’s narration shifts between Zélie, Amari, and their primary pursuer: Inan, the crown prince, Saran’s son, and Amari’s brother. Writing as Inan, Adeyemi captures a young person’s dawning awareness of the realities of systemic oppression, even as he is unable to extricate himself from his ingrained belief in law and order’s moral rectitude. It’s a brutally honest portrayal whose full weight doesn’t hit you till the book’s end, which isn’t actually the end, because the second volume in Adeyemi’s trilogy, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, comes out at the end of this year. I’m a bona fide adult by most accounts and I can’t wait to read it.
B-Sides Series Editor
Inez Haynes Gillmore, Angel Island
In 1915 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published the most famous of feminist utopias, Herland. The previous year saw an altogether creepier and harder to classify work by her compatriot and ally Inez Haynes Gillmore, Angel Island. In some ways the plot is simple and the message clear: five hunky modern men (the professor, the writer, etc.) are shipwrecked on a desert island and they see, soaring in the sky, five gorgeous women who happen to have wings. They fly ever closer, they each pick their favorites, they bill and coo. The men eventually capture them, tame them, marry them, and the novel shifts to considering what the half-angel half-man children will be like.
What continues to amaze me about the book, though, is its failure to break frame. I can see why Ursula Le Guin, in her introduction to the only modern version of the book, called it “romantic, satiric, funny, fanciful, and a good read.” It is all those things: but it is also quite creepy, never more so than in its apparently calm acceptance of the scene of violent wing-shearing that is the men’s “marriage by capture.” There is something of the magical realism of Márquez, or the absurdist logical antics of Kafka and of Borges in the sanguine way Gilmore (who also went by Inez Haynes Irwin) handles that original shearing/rape, as well as the fact of repeated re-shearings over the years.
I started my hunt for clues to Gillmore’s motive and her methods by exploring her friendship with Gilman: Google swiftly brought me to this, a short 1919 “spoof” ethnography of the Heterodoxy, a radical NY women’s club between 1912 to 1920 (thanks for the knowledge, Elaine Showalter; thanks also for your thoughtful appreciation of Angel Island). Called “Marriage customs and taboos among the Heterodites,” it reports that the Heterodoxy had “a taboo on taboos.” Given the way that Angel Island turned the angel at the hearth into the angel freewheeling in the sky, and then the angel shorn of her wings and hobbling around the house, Gillmore clearly took the taboo taboo very seriously.