On Our Nightstands: May 2016

Here 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 ...

Here 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


Borislav Pekić, Houses, translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Bernard Johnson

The antihero-narrator of this elegant, eccentric farce, Arsénie Negovan, is a visionary real estate speculator, a builder and lover of beautiful houses in pre-WWII Belgrade, who goes into hiding during the Nazi occupation—and never leaves. In a conceit anticipating by several decades the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!, his wife and his nurse keep him from understanding he now lives in a Communist country, and none of his houses are bringing in rent because they’ve been expropriated or knocked down to make way for faceless apartment blocks. Arsénie’s crazy can seem all-consuming (his maddeningly repetitive presentation of how he and his houses mutually possess each other, for instance, or the saga of his “adulterous” pursuit of a flamboyant house built by someone else), but the reader is artfully nonetheless provided with a subtle and complex picture of a family and a city, all through a single POV.



Digital Strategist


Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters

Somehow I made it through a late-1980s childhood without ever seeing Ghostbusters, so I finally watched it last weekend to prepare for the upcoming reboot. In case you haven’t heard: it’s great! Aside from inducing nostalgia for a sweeter kind of blockbuster—in which the worst fate that can befall you is getting “slimed”—it felt very current. Between its GIF-ready one-liners and its 2016 fashion (Harold Ramis’s glasses, Sigourney Weaver’s capes), what is left to update? Only one thing marked its age: Bill Murray, as a Columbia scientist who loses his grant funding, swears off academia to start a ghostbusting business in the sexier and more profitable private sector. Today, it seems likely, his university would be eager to accommodate that entrepreneurial spirit.



Assistant Editor


Anne Enright, The Green Road

At my sister’s recommendation, I just began reading The Green Road, by Booker prize winner and inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction Anne Enright. Thirty-odd pages in, I’m still not quite sure what the book is about, but her technique is just masterful, such as when she captures the feeling of being a twelve-year-old girl attending her first play without resorting to plot summary, or when she uses a jump-cut to alert the reader to the fact that the girl’s brother has just failed to tell his girlfriend that he’s planning to become a priest. And the writing itself is lovely: “If you lifted your eyes from the difficulties of the path, it was always different again, the islands sleeping out in the bay, the clouds running their shadows across the water, the Atlantic surging up the distant cliffs in a tranced, silent plume of spray.”



Editorial Assistant


Jim Fingal and John D’Agata, The Lifespan of a Fact

A Socratic dialogue for the age of longform, The Lifespan of a Fact documents an exchange between essayist John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal as they negotiate the accuracy of each sentence of D’Agata’s essay, “What Happens There.” Fingal repeatedly takes D’Agata to task for having misrepresented specifics—colors, locations, times, statistics—and D’Agata repeatedly dismisses Fingal’s concerns. D’Agata is trying to reproduce a feeling (truth?) in his prose and is unconcerned with getting all the specifics right. By the essays end, their negotiation over minutia devolves into a debate about the purpose of the essay and the nature of truth.





Judith Hamera, Parlor Ponds: The Cultural Work of the American Home Aquarium, 1850-1970

If you think a book about American home aquariums is idiosyncratic, then you will come to love the quicksilver idiosyncrasies of Hamera’s mind. Hamera teaches us to see the tank as a surprisingly capacious lens into “liquid modernity.” This book is about how a minor, domestic, quotidian hobby stages and manages the much larger transformations and anxieties of scientific advancement, changing definitions of nonhuman life, urbanization, industrialization, shifts in gender roles, and imperial entanglement in 19th and 20th centuries. It is exquisitely written: populated by brilliant, quirky observations, mesmerizing with the undulating grace of a mind always at play.





Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

Feminist sci-fi has generally been a high-art, high-concept endeavor; Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, and Joanna Russ all had at least one complicatedly gendered pseudopod oozing about in the academic and literary. Leckie, though, takes the tropes of her foremothers, and turns them into rip-roaring space opera. The hero is One Esk Nineteen, a genderless body disconnected from its controlling spaceship. She (everyone’s pronoun in the book is “she”) travels across frozen planets and decades to revenge herself on the multi-bodied, increasingly unstable imperial leader of the Radch. Hairbreadth pulp escapes are gleefully shuffled with deft meditations on imperialism, prejudice, identity, and the surprising, mysterious flickering of love between the most unlikely people and/or spaceships. Of course this is the first book in a trilogy; I’m looking forward to whooshing through the other two, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.





Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, The Adivasi Will Not Dance

The range of stories in this book takes readers on well-trod paths in progressive literature, detailing the hardships adivasis face under modernity and capitalism. But it also provides a rare glimpse of middle-class Santhal life, something most readers would not know existed. The characters are varied and refuse stereotype; the writing is a refreshing break from some of the overwrought aesthetics of political writing in India. The title story is especially powerful, and gets right to the heart of the hypocrisies surrounding economic rights and cultural appropriation through which mainstream Indians continue to understand adivasis.



Editorial Intern


Ann Beattie, The State We’re In: Maine Stories

I’ve been on a short-story kick for a while; I was captivated by this collection from the first page. I laughed (out loud) not at heavily manipulated, slapstick plots, but rather at realistic stories that highlight the musicality in the mundane. In one, an abandoned home is found to house a series of lamps made to look like Elvis; in another, a woman remembers a previous relationship, considers past career choices, and reminisces young adulthood, all by discussing her neighbor’s dog, named Major Maybe. Throughout, certain choices—in distinctive names, for example—make an impression for their symbolism. Meanwhile, whimsical images—like that of many Elvis busts peopling a dark room—sear themselves into your memory. Glimpse life in Maine—really, life in general—ingeniously told by a chorus of precocious and unique women of all ages.