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.
Roland Barthes, How To Live Together
I am reading Roland Barthes’s How To Live Together, which should really be called “How to Live Apart,” since it’s all about how one finds solitude in society. Idiosyncrasy, which is in some sense the book’s subject, also marks its form, since it consists of lecture notes and is chock-a-block with Barthesian neologisms such as “monosis,” “idiorrhythmy,” and “xeniteia.”
Jake Halpern, Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld
In Bad Paper, Jake Halpern mines a rich vein in the darkly lucrative deposit of finance. Decreasing wages and diminished job opportunities have left many Americans to make ends meet with credit cards and other debts. Halpern’s book profiles a crash of colorful collectors whose job is to buy and sell “paper” (uncollected financial obligations) and harass the unlucky all the way to the bank. In the process he reveals a reviled and largely unacknowledged industry at the center of our financial economy.
Curzio Malaparte, Il ballo al Kremlino
Begun as an outgrowth of La pelle (The Skin) in 1946, subsequently developed into an autonomous work, ultimately left incomplete around 1950, Il ballo al Cremlino [The Kremlin Ball] was to have been a “faithful portrait” of the Soviet Communist haute société that had taken the place of the Tsarist ancien régime, the same elite that would soon be swallowed up by Stalin’s show trials and purges. The project is based on a fascinating contradiction: the author arrived in Moscow in 1929 convinced he would find in power a working class bursting with revolutionary ideals and puritanical in style; instead he encountered, a mere five years after Lenin’s death, a Marxist aristocracy mimicking the West, drowning in vice and corruption, and dominated by fear. For a communist true believer, the portrait is a devastating one, but of course the suave and amoral Malaparte does not judge them particularly harshly; in his eyes they are merely parvenus whose greatest folly may have been aesthetic: pretending to take beauty away from their poets. Looking back at a remove of 15 years, in many cases concerned with individuals who would be dead by the time Malaparte wrote about them, the six extant chapters of this novel-chronicle display less urgency than either the frontline reportage of Kaputt (1944) or the recounting of the Allied army’s progress up the Italian peninsula in La pelle (1949), but it is of a piece with those works and once you know it, it can indeed seem to constitute, as the recent Adelphi edition’s promotional copy has it, the missing panel of a Malapartian triptych on European decadence.
Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
In a narrative told from the perspectives of a handful of investors who saw it coming, Lewis walks us through the years leading up to the subprime mortgage collapse of 2008 and the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. It’s a harrowing journey into a murky and surreal market that was based on rapidly replicating and largely fake financial instruments.
Arlene Stein, Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness
I’m reading Arlene Stein’s Reluctant Witnesses. This beautiful book mixes elegy and exegesis to uncover the labors of a generation of Jewish Americans who have made meaning from and given meaning to the horrors of the Holocaust. Stein writes so well and fluidly that her rich sociological analysis reads more like an intimate family history. Highly recommended.
Bram Stoker, Dracula
I’m currently working on a manuscript that is focused on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, writing poems that critique and interrogate the rather breathtaking misogyny that permeates the book like a thick fog. One aspect of the project is a series of erasure poems, one for each of the book’s 27 chapters, and this process, slow but exciting, requires multiple reads and rereads of each chapter. As part of my research, I’ve also been devouring all manner of Dracula scholarship—some favorite essays so far are “‘Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” by Christopher Craft; “‘Your Girls That You All Love Are Mine’: Dracula and the Victorian Male Sexual Imagination,” by Gail Griffin; and “Insatiable,” by Mark Doty, which posits that Stoker modeled his archetypal vampire on none other than the American poet Walt Whitman, whose work Stoker almost obsessively defended and praised.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
I’m also reading the National Book Award Nominated Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. A long poem in primarily prose pieces, it deals with the accumulation of everyday instances of microaggression, the physiological and psychic impact of racism, how intimacy is interrupted and trust is breached between human beings, and so much more, utilizing the second-person “you” as a way to invite, include, and implicate the reader in the conversation. This book is simply unbelievable, and if you haven’t got your hands on it yet, I highly recommend that you head over to your nearest bookstore as soon as possible.
Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude
I’m currently reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I started reading it as part of a book club but couldn’t really get through it because of structural elements that bothered me. After discussing it with other people, I’m tackling it again from the beginning to see if my opinion changes.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
I started reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a personal challenge to myself. I can’t put it down, so I think the challenge is going well.
E. M. Forster, A Room with a View
It’s nice to read Forster with lower stakes. A Passage to India was a stressful experience, and if any of the scenes were meant to be funny, I certainly didn’t get the humor; perhaps that’s what it’s like to read it after Said. A Room with a View, however, is hilarious, and it’s fun to marvel at the superciliousness of Edwardian England. I’m only a third of the way through it and my only complaint is that Lucy’s too much of an ingenue, but I’m hoping that changes. Otherwise, I’m still baffled (and amused) by how seriously Forster’s characters take themselves.
Colum McCann, Dancer
A novel exploring the lives of those influenced by Rudolf Nureyev, the Soviet-born ballet dancer, and the never-ending internal battle for perfection and happiness. Initially, I picked this up because I’ve discovered that I enjoy McCann’s nonlinear narrative style immensely; however, this book really hit me, as a perfectionist, and left me with a lot more to chew on than I anticipated, as McCann often does.
Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
Schulman’s book helped me think about how an individual (as opposed to a developer) can live in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood of people with less privilege, respectfully and amicably and with integrity.