On Our Nightstands: March 2020

A behind-the-scenes look at what Public Books editors and staff have been reading this month.

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


Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic


Stephen King, The Stand


Connie Willis, Doomsday Book


Everybody is thinking about plague books this week and so am I. There are two I adored (and a third, exceptional, that bears mentioning). My budding-researcher self loved the sleuthing of the CDC as they pieced together the great mystery illness that would become AIDS. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), by Randy Shilts, is a wonderfully written, utterly captivating forensic investigation of an epidemic’s unfolding of precisely the sort I hope one day to read about COVID-19. There was another teenage me, who lived next to and inside the aspiring gumshoe, and that kid read horror novels like a drunk sucks down fortified wine. The Stand (1978), by Stephen King, is the best of them and it always will be. It was the book that made me realize that literature (which up till that point hovered somewhere down around opera in my personal topography of things worthy of consideration) and genre fiction could be one and the same thing. The Stand was a magnificent lightbulb of a book, because of the craft of it as much as the content. A final shout-out to one of my favorite science fiction writers, Connie Willis; though her comic works are pure genius, her time-travel plague book, Doomsday Book (1992), winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, is fantastic. It also taught me almost everything I know about the Plague (the real one), making it a unique slip of work between serious history and first-rate sci-fi.



Carolyn Dever

Higher Education Section Editor


Joy Wilkinson, The Sweet Science of Bruising


“When that bell rings, your life is entirely in your hands.” Set in the Islington suburb of London in 1869, Joy Wilkinson’s important new play immerses itself in the underground world of Victorian women’s boxing. The four female protagonists seeking the title “Lady Boxing Champion of the World” include Matty, a typesetter, nanny, and prostitute; Violet, a nurse seeking a path to become a doctor; Anna, “domestic angel” and, when the curtains are drawn, battered woman; and foundling Polly, brimful of confidence and the drive to fight not just to survive but to win.

Set in the months before passage of the first Married Women’s Property Act (1870), Sweet Science poses questions as relevant today as they were in 1869: What does it mean for women to imagine they have power, agency, and rights over their bodies? To channel the full force of their intellectual and bodily autonomy? The introduction, in 1865, of the Marquess of Queensberry rules introduced a new legitimacy to boxing—as practiced by male athletes. Though Queensberry was the sponsor, not the author, of those rules, it is worth noting that he was author to the 1895 accusation of Oscar Wilde, a “posing somdomite” [sic]. Sparking the chain of events that sent Wilde to Reading Gaol on charges of “gross indecency,” Queensberry decisively rerouted the tangled histories of Victorian literature and sexuality.

Wilkinson, of Dr Who fame, intervenes in an earlier point in those histories. “Tonight isn’t about the past,” says Matty before her final fight. “Tonight is the future … it’s my looking glass through time, showing all my daughters, coming out of the back streets, the brothels, the sweatshops and sweating their way up on to the world’s stage, taking control and holding the purse strings. … The fuse of progress is being lit in Islington tonight and the explosion will echo around the world.”



Sophie Gonick

Urbanism Section Editor


Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, translated from the French by Stephanie Smee


At the recommendation of the great urban scholar AbdouMaliq Simone, I recently picked up The Godmother, by Hannelore Cayre, which came out in translation from the original French in October. It is a profane and hilarious read, told from the point of view of Patience Portefeux, a slightly deranged translator of Arabic for the Parisian anti-drug squad. Cayre’s astute observations, channeled through the middle-aged, once rich, now struggling Patience, introduce us to the greed, striving, and artifice of multiethnic urban France. Without much blood or physical violence, the half-Jewish, half–pied noir Patience transforms into the godmother, an ostentatious, veiled Moroccan maman bedecked in fake designer frippery and dazzling gold. What follows is a trippy, subversive, and totally engrossing tale that engages with themes of aging, race, immigration, gender, and labor in precarious times.



Max Holleran

Urbanism Section Editor


Deborah Levy, Hot Milk


Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk takes place primarily on a Spanish beach but nothing about the characters’ outlooks is festive. Sofia Papastergiadis is sharing a beach house with her mother, who has mortgaged her home in London to visit a specialist for a month. Sofia was forced to leave a PhD program in anthropology to become her mother’s caretaker and now she conducts an ad hoc ethnography of the mysterious clinic her mom attends. Levy’s writing is spare and quick. She gives the coastal town a deep foreboding like a noir movie: so sunny that the washed-out light seems menacing at times. The end result is like the book’s ubiquitous stinging jellyfish: a shocking meditation on what we owe our families.



John Plotz

B-Sides Series Editor


Helen Garner, The Children’s Bach


Critics and admirers (Ben Lerner and Merve Emre are both) struggle to describe Garner’s ranging, oblique writing. In her fiction as in her frequently controversial nonfiction, Garner perches at the edge of disintegrating lives and gets her material from them in a way that can feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. Her first novel, Monkey Grip (1977), is a relentless Geiger counter, tracking heroin’s proximate fallout.

Children’s Bach is her masterpiece. It mixes Doris Lessing’s detached vehemence with the sneakily revealed interiority of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Set in the world of shifting vocations and locations (“strange beds in houses where a boiling saucepan might as easily contain a syringe as an egg”) the novel is deadpan. Yet it is shockingly quick to poke holes in its character’s self-presentation (“I’m going through a period of self-conscience”), and even in their self-understanding (“surprised to find a small lack in herself, a blankness where the unwelcome responsibility had been”).

Ostensibly, Children’s Bach is the story of a relatively stable domestic circle disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth and Vicki, a tensely arrayed pair of sisters—accompanied by Philip, a tinpot Dionysus. Yet it’s also the catchment basin for an almost infinite variety of stories (modern revenants of the 18th century nested tale) that its characters have concocted to explicate, or to excuse, their baffling world. icon