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.
Editor in Chief
Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand
Too eager to wait, I source my McGregor from abroad; this isn’t slated to appear in the US from Catapult until September. If you too think Reservoir 13 (2017) was one of the century’s very few perfect novels, McGregor’s latest will further clarify the preoccupations that might have seemed just latent in it. Lean Fall Stand is a novel of two halves: a tensely laconic adventure tale set during a few short hours of storm hitting an Antarctic research station, and the story of that storm’s aftermath, depicting the expedition guide’s slow and incomplete process of recovery, back in the UK, from aphasic stroke—one half set among glaciers, the other half glacial. This being McGregor, there is a mystery here, done with his typically oblique touch, about the death of one of the researchers in the storm; time, distance, and aphasia combine to make that mystery slide out of focus, tantalizingly just out of reach, like a sentence the brain can no longer formulate. The rendering here of the stubborn fragments, amounting at times to poetry, of aphasic speech is remarkable. But it’s the continuities with Reservoir 13 that are most riveting. McGregor, it’s now clear, is a storyteller of care systems: their procedures and rules, their impersonality, their mundanity and their slow tempi, their fragility when their inhabitants start to withdraw their consent to them, or even their attention. The village of Reservoir 13, in retrospect, is one such system. Here there is a more explicit comparison between the safety protocols enabling survival in one of the planet’s most hostile environments (and the way those protocols can fail), and the less dramatic, but also much more elusive, protocols of group stroke therapy, as if—and why not?—the small shelter by the Antarctic glacier and the NHS are structurally identical. McGregor’s a writer for a moment when all such structures feel rickety and provisional. I’d be tempted to call him an elegist for care systems, if his gaze on them didn’t feel so rigorously unsentimental.
B-Sides Series Editor
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
“Because there are so many, you just can’t see how beautiful [any one of them] really is. Look at those children. … You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own parents’ Flatbush childhood, maybe it’s because our own teenager is working and living in Brooklyn this summer. All I know is that I picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and gulped down all 500 pages of Francie Nolan and her baby brother Neeley, children of ultra-capable Katie and her ne’er do-well husband Johnnie, the singing waiter. As a kid you probably rooted for her to find a way out of Williamsburg tenement life to the fine houses she occasionally glimpses in posher Brooklyn neighborhoods.
So did I, as a geezer. But reading the novel in 2022, it’s incredibly poignant to think of the upward paths trod by immigrant or first-generation children like Betty Smith herself—born Williamsburg 1896, educated at the University of Michigan and Yale, died in Shelton, Connecticut 75 years later. Think of comparable outer-borough families now—no longer Irish or German, and without the white-skin privilege that goes understandably unremarked in Smith’s novel. Those latter-day Francies and Neelies are dreaming the same dreams of upward escape: but it doesn’t take Thomas Piketty to know that 21st century social immobility makes the dream a whole lot dreamier.
Literature in Translation Section Editor
Queer You Are (Maricón perdido), created by Bob Pop
Autofiction has become all the rage recently in fiction and film. But not all autofiction is created equal. Bob Pop’s six-episode miniseries Queer You Are (available on HBO Max) stands out both for its excellence and honesty. Shifting perspectives between Pop’s small-town, pre-teen life in the early 1980s and his twentysomething coming-of-age in Madrid’s Chueca neighborhood in the 1990s, the show’s unflinching portrayal of gay life in Spain expertly avoids the solipsistic trappings that have plagued many works of autofiction. Perhaps that’s because Pop doesn’t dwell on the “fiction” part of autofiction: a blogger, columnist, and late-show TV figure, he has been a staple of Spain’s burgeoning online left-wing media sphere since it took off in the late 2000s. At the end of the series, there is a nonfictional scene with Almodóvar that I think distracts from the previous nearly three hours of excellent fiction. It’s as hackneyed and clunky as the rest of the series is fresh and smooth. Yet maybe that’s the point: the nonfictional present will always feel desperate when compared to the light fictionalization of memory. Even—or especially—when we are the protagonists of our own story.
Systems and Futures Section Editor
Zander Cannon, Kaijumax
Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax just came to its conclusion, and it has me revisiting the whole series. Cannon starts with the premise that all Asian (and especially Japanese) monster stories are real and coexist in the same world—from Pokémon to kaiju movies to Ultraman. He builds a rich and complex world that focuses on the prison system where criminal kaiju are housed, but moves from there to the legal system and intergalactic invasions, intergenerational violence, and predatory grooming. It starts a little Oz, becomes The Wire, and ends up Thin Red Line, all with charismatic kaiju at the forefront. What might have been a fairly straightforward metaphor for US carceral politics becomes a story that transcends any easy interpretation.
Quizzical & Shoptalk Series Editor
Elizabeth Gilpin, Stolen
Elizabeth Gilpin’s 2021 memoir examines the abuse, coercion, and false promises at the heart of the “troubled teen industry.” Adeptly weaving her experiences at a wilderness program and “therapeutic” boarding school in the early 2000s with both history and criticism of these institutions, Gilpin shows how this industry has capitalized on the pain and struggles of youth and their families. Gilpin and others who survived these programs helped line the pockets of egomaniacal leaders; these survivors have been left to navigate the traumatic experiences that defined their coming-of-age. Gilpin’s story is in dialogue with media like Paris Hilton’s 2020 documentary This is Paris, both of which are part of a larger movement #BreakingCodeSilence to bring awareness to these abusive programs, support survivors, and advocate for reform.