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.
Andrea Davis Pinkney, Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
Narrated by a character called the Groove, Rhythm Ride tells the story of Motown in this Young Adult biography of a classic American sound. The beat starts with a bored Berry Gordy languishing in his mom’s Detroit insurance office. After just a few bars, Gordy, Smokey Robinson, and Mary Wells have worked smooth vocals and smoother steps, impeccable style, and bouffant hairdos into cross-over hits again and again. She gives honor to those the behind-the-scenes too, breaking for visits with song writers, costumers, and studio musicians. The Groove’s glance takes in much more than what’s on at 2648 West Grand Boulevard too. She rolls through the civil rights movement, the Detroit riots, and the Vietnam war with a sanguine tone that stays true to Motown’s music even as she brings our deepest racial rhythms to light.
Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void
If Murray’s third novel, a metafictional farce set in an international investment bank in Dublin, has yet (approaching a third of the way through) to reach the delirious heights of the boarding school hijinks in his last effort, Skippy Dies, it still set me smiling and chuckling many times, which is just not the case with many comic novels these days. And while I thought my taste for zany characters like narrator Claude’s supervisor, Jurgen, late of the Munich-based reggae band Gerhardt and the Mergers, had disappeared along with my taste for Pynchon, Murray shows himself a minor master of comic timing and funny, not just cartoonish characters.
Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
If you are a music-loving woman of a certain generation, you probably finished your preordered copy of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir weeks ago. But even if the name Sleater-Kinney means little to you, there’s a lot here to entice, particularly Brownstein’s portrait of the artist as a young fan. As she eagerly follows her idols (Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, Heavens to Betsy) across the Olympia riot grrrl scene, one thing becomes clear: her influence has extended beyond music into celebrity culture itself. Without the persona that Brownstein created, it’s hard to imagine Lena, Tavi, Taylor, or any of the Celebrity Fangirls who rule the Internet today.
Jeremy L. Caradonna, Sustainability: A History
We’re living in an era of sustainable everything: sustainable food, energy, development, lifestyles, even media technologies and practices. This overuse of the term has rendered it almost meaningless. In this surprisingly concise (perhaps too concise?) book, Caradonna rescues some of sustainability’s conceptual and historical specificity. He traces its roots as a concept back to “sustained yield forestry” in eighteenth-century Europe, among other places, before showing how it became the foundation of a modern movement. If nothing else, I think this book points to the huge amount of work still to be done in the emerging field that Miriam Greenberg and others have started to call “critical sustainability studies.”
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
I’m probably the only person left who hasn’t read historian and falconer Macdonald’s gorgeous account of overcoming bereavement through taming a goshawk, but it really is as good as everyone says. What I find fascinating is the combination of extreme circumspection with which she talks about her late father coupled with the real gloves-off Bloomian brio with which she takes down father-figure T.H. White’s memoir of attempting—and failing—to tame a “gos” himself. And I love the title: H is for hawk, of course, but it’s also for Helen, desperately grappling with—and befriending—the least socialized parts of herself.
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman laid out their seminal work on propaganda in the United States. It’s a devastating critique of the way our country’s major media outlets are bounded in by official dogma and continuously cater to the interests of the elite. I highly recommend to this to anyone interested in understanding how propaganda works in a free society, and to anyone who wants to see their morning paper in a very different light.
Trisha Low, The Compleat Purge
This book is exquisite: both beautiful and acute. Low conveys an intensity of feeling, a precision both surreal and hyper-real. Captivating and haunting, the work is presented through a series of the poet’s Last Wills and Testaments, her IM conversations, and a closing lyric essay. The book challenges us to look again and again and again at the fragility and ferocity of girlhood.
Mark Siegel, Sailor Twain: Or, the Mermaid in the Hudson
I didn’t know this was a graphic novel when I pulled it off the shelf of our little Public Books library, though maybe I should have guessed since the intriguing cover art was the reason I reached for it in the first place. It was a pleasant surprise regardless! Siegel’s art style is beautiful while still keeping that slightly-over-the-top edge that sets comics apart from illustration (a few moments even had me chuckling out loud).The story is full of great nuggets of writing in addition to the lovely art, and antique maps of the Hudson between chapters and newspaper articles fabricated from the story’s 19th century setting at the start of each section are a bonus treat for a history buff like me.
Muhammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
I had to read Hanif’s debut novel because of how great his second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, was. Halfway through Mangoes and I am not disappointed. Hanif is skilled at taking incredibly complicated situations, in this case the suspicious death of the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, to deal with bigger issues. Mangoes allows Hanif to unleash his wit on the Pakistani military industrial complex, the relationship between Pakistan and the United States, and the pervasive corruption in the Pakistani military bureaucracy. At times I had to contain myself from laughing too hard, lest I become too annoying for everyone else on the train or bus or plane. Hanif just might be the greatest satirist after Manto to write about Pakistan.
Craig Taylor, Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now—As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It
If you thought I wouldn’t make it through The Shining, you were right! I am a wimp, and I have turned my wimpy attention elsewhere, adopting the magic of mundane reality as my refuge. I picked up Craig Taylor’s Londoners because I have fallen now and again into the “long for it” category of this group. The lives of the Londoners, however, are universal, and, like all great nonfiction that dabbles in the quotidian, the book evokes something broadly enchanting and life-affirming. Taylor has collected dozens of voices, stories, and memories within the pages of this book, and what results is a portrait of the city’s breathtakingly human and strikingly familiar face.