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 (and watching) this month.
Editor in Chief
Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
Jahren’s memoir of the botanist’s life both invites and refuses the analogy between plants and humans that beats at its core. Trees’ reliance on the sun’s consistent seasons reveals the importance of loyalty. The intertwined systems of roots and fungi beneath the forest’s floor belie the seeming individualism of its plants. Even though Jahren delivers exquisite anthropomorphisms (particularly of vines and of prehistoric life), at moments she disavows her readers’ compliance with her narration. “Plants are not like us,” she recants in the epilogue’s opening. Still, her flora illuminate the human relationships she tenderly describes, particularly her entanglement with her research partner, Bill, a beloved oddball with whom she builds a life. Plants are not like us; but in Jahren’s hands the literary effect is well worth the scientific sacrifice.
Claudio Magris, Danube, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh
This almost absurdly erudite yet highly readable (and beautifully translated) account of the author’s journey from the source of the Danube in the German Black Forest to its mouth in the Black Sea continually offers, as if they were mere asides, some of the clearest and most felicitous expressions of complex ideas I have read in a long while. To take an early example nearly at random, in this passage Magris, riffing on the ostensible contradiction of two different places being called the rainiest in the world, brings us back to the titular river and provides a figure for one of the slipperiest of literary-philosophical concepts: “Here the Danube is young, and Austria is still far off, but clearly the river is already a sinuous master of irony, of that irony which created the greatness of Central European culture, the art of outflanking one’s own barrenness and checkmating one’s own weakness; the sense of the duplicity of things, and at the same time the truth of them, hidden but single. Irony taught respect for the misunderstandings and contradictions of life, the disjunction between the recto and the verso of a page that never meet even though they are the selfsame thing between time and eternity, between language and reality, between the rainfall at Cherrapunji and that at Honolulu, and all the other rainfalls statistics mentioned in the geography book.”
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve
When outsiders arrive speaking a different language, the country—the globe—is divided. Some believe the travelers to be well-intentioned and peaceful; others see them as a threat to be quashed. Amid this polarized climate, the fate of civilization hangs on one woman, who approaches her mission with melancholic resolve. I went to the sci-fi drama Arrival seeking post-election escapism. I didn’t exactly find it. But if you can handle the resonances, you’ll be rewarded with a spellbinding movie. An additional bonus: if anyone can convince nonbelievers of the importance of the humanities, it’s Amy Adams, as a linguistics professor who must wield her knowledge of syntax and phonemes to save the world.
Global Coordinating Editor
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
Forget the undying souls, the psychic powers, the reincarnation wars. David Mitchell’s novel is about the pain and ignorance and resilience of average human beings in the face of the unthinkable. Whether exploring the abduction of a young child, the descent of Iraq into civil war, the collapse of industrial civilization following catastrophic climate change, or—yes—the threat of predatory immortals hunting mortal humans, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks demonstrates again and again the extraordinary ability of ordinary people to adapt, endure, and survive. In the face of circumstances beyond our control—whether a war or a kidnapping or a complete societal meltdown—the key, according to Mitchell, is to let go of one’s ego, accept the unacceptable, and focus on the needs of those around you. It’s an old story, but a good one.
Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims, translated from the French by Michael Lucey
A specter has been haunting many of the analyses of this political moment: the white working class, for whom globalization means social decline and who has come to embrace far right-wing politics. Eribon gives this specter a face: his father’s. Returning to his hometown in the deindustrializing north of France for the first time in 30 years, he masterfully intertwines personal reflection and sociological analysis into a portrait of his family’s milieu and its shift in political allegiance from the Communist Party to the Front National. This homecoming leads Eribon, a noted scholar of sexualities and gender, to a powerful critique of the political and academic neglect of questions of class in the past decades—and of his own complicity in this collective amnesia. Returning to Reims is a plea to return to class; a plea that seems particularly urgent at the current moment, if we are to understand what has happened, and what may be yet to come.
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account
This novel brings together Portugal, Spain, the Americas, and North Africa in the imagined autobiographical account of a 16th-century African slave, Estebanico—a real historical figure who was one of just four men to survive a Spanish expedition to conquer “La Florida.” Historically, we know of Estebanico through accounts like those of the Spaniard Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote his account of shipwreck, misery, survival, and travel. Estebanico gives us a different perspective. I’ve only just begun to read this book, but so far its blend of historical accuracy and vividly imagined scenes and descriptions has already drawn me into its world. Estebanico’s story invites us to inhabit on a human level a connected globe that is more than just a crisscrossing of trade routes on a map.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Time for Everything, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson
To say this novel is a history of angels on earth is technically true, but misses everything that matters. Knausgaard opens by saying that a person’s character lies in the world around them. A carpenter wouldn’t be a carpenter without her tools, her workshop, and her forest of raw materials. I think this explains Knausgaard’s interest in telling a story where God and angels are physically present: religion today is intellectual and abstract, within us and above us. Knausgaard wants the reverence of religion, but he wants to revere someone he can dwell with or someplace he can dwell in. For those of us who began with My Struggle (as I did), this is a chance to encounter Knausgaard the novelist. His prose is direct and worldly, and the depth of character he’s able to give minor figures in the bible displays a preternatural sensitivity to living.
James Carroll, Jerusalem, Jerusalem
It was in a seminar with James Carroll that I first learned the surprising fact that the United States has over a hundred cities and towns named after Jerusalem. Salem, Jersualem, Zion. Abraham Lincoln, whose soldiers marched into battle with the visions of Revelation on their lips, was born where? In New Salem, Illinois. The Holy City lies at the center of America’s conception of itself as the chosen nation, a “city on a hill” in the words of John Winthrop, and much else besides. Carroll’s three-thousand-year survey puts Jerusalem—the real city and the imagined one—at the center of a terrifying nexus between religious hope and apocalyptic violence, where 19-year-olds sure to die en masse on the battlefield can sing, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free …”