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
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
File this memoir under “wacky abusive families”: the monstrously narcissistic father who is a married Catholic priest; the self-effacing mother who becomes a daredevil behind the wheel; the zany seminarian who lives with them; and the author, a rebellious poet who briefly moves back in with her parents, poet husband in tow.
Come for the content, stay for the form. What most held my interest was Lockwood’s way with words, which she slings around with the precise abandon of Jackson Pollock dripping paint. Describing Catholic radio, she writes: “It’s just a bunch of call-in shows where people talk about whether something is a sin or not, and they almost always decide that it is, in fact, a sin. If the sad transmissions of Catholic radio ever reach the aliens, they will never even try to conquer us, figuring that some other overlord has already taken care of it.” Every page yields pleasure. And don’t be fooled by the title: this story is really about the mother. Isn’t it always?
Global Black History Section Editor
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying
Brother, I’m Dying was published 11 years ago, but I turned to it for the first time this month, on the one-year anniversary of my uncle’s death. I was and am still trying to make sense of the sudden loss, of the role this country’s crushing immigration system may have played in an event that happened startlingly quickly and whose details remain hazy for my family. Edwidge Danticat’s book tells the stories of her father, Mira, and his brother, Joseph, and their lives in Haiti and the United States. Danticat’s beautiful and evocative language expertly captures the questions her young self wanted to ask and could not as she lived with her Uncle Joseph in Haiti while her father lived in New York, and later the things she wanted to say to Uncle Joseph when she was reunited with her nuclear family stateside.
Danticat dwells on the relationships among the different members of her family and the ways that these relationships were shaped by family legacy, the experience of immigration, political instability in Haiti, and her father’s illness. Because of the lens through which I read this book, I found her writing most powerful and arresting when someone crossed a border on a tourist visa, as a permanent resident or as a citizen. The personal, intimate, and sometimes painful moments of departure and return, as Mira and Joseph move back and forth between the United States and Haiti, illuminate the quotidian realities of seemingly abstract notions of home, citizenship, and belonging.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Jonathan Auxier, Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
Chris Moriarty, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice
Growing up Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian small town in the 1970s, it was a great pleasure to me to immerse myself in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, which offered a fictionalized account of Taylor’s own upbringing in a New York City neighborhood crowded with Jews and other immigrants in the early 1900s. Other realistic stories centered around Jewish families also appealed to me, especially Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.
But I can’t recall ever getting my hands on anything like these three recent fantasies, which seamlessly weave Jewish characters, mythology, and modes of expression into magical alternative worlds. Following up on her suspenseful feminist fairy tale Uprooted, Naomi Novik’s challenging but rewarding multistrand fantasy Spinning Silver features a Jewish heroine whose status as a social outsider helps her to bridge the gap between her workaday world and that of a terrifying alien group of beings called the Staryk. Jonathan Auxier’s moving and richly allusive Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster plunges us into an alternative version of Victorian London, where a diverse group of chimney sweeps band together to resist various forms of prejudice and oppression with the help of a magical golem. And Chris Moriarty’s The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is a delightful comic fantasy that takes us back to the same time and place as Taylor’s books, but makes witches, wizards, and the police force that tries to control them part of the rich stew of humanity inhabiting the Lower East Side. Given that anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head yet again, I wish I could magically put these books into the hands of all fantasy fans, young and old.
Urbanism Section Editor
Lexi Freiman, Inappropriation
If you are looking for a coming-of-age story that sensitively deals with how a young woman navigates gender and race in turbulent times, Inappropriation, the debut of Australian novelist Lexi Freiman, is not for you. However, if you prefer a more absurdist take on sexual identity, teen life in a posh Sydney private school, and a ribald piss-taking of internet culture, good parenting, and identity politics, this book may be your next read. Its protagonist, Ziggy, is an ungainly Jewish teen sickened by private school culture and attracted to both progressive chatrooms on queer and POC identity as well as 4chan-like parts of the internet where frustrated men “red-pill” the world. Midway through the novel, Ziggy decides to continuously wear a GoPro on her head, transforming herself into a Donna Haraway transhuman cyborg, and things get enjoyably freakier from there.
TV Section Editor
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
This more than 150-year-old Victorian thriller serves up suspense and silliness with a side of radical feminism. Chronicling the tale of two sisters’ mysterious intertwinement with a ghostly figure, Collins’s novel is narrated by a roving cast of characters including a lovesick drawing-master, a narcissistic uncle, a gravestone, and one of the most delightful fictional persons ever to grace the page: the inimitable Marian Halcombe. Determined to rescue her beloved half sibling from a marriage tainted by a looming secret, Marian speculates, strategizes, and cuttingly fantasizes about dethroning the men who oppress them both. A great read for Halloween-time—or simply if you’re in a mood to smash the patriarchy.
Julian Gill-Peterson, Histories of the Transgender Child
Julian Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child is monumental in its contributions to transgender studies and history, childhood studies, and the history of science and medicine in the 20th-century US. While the figure of the 21st-century transgender child circulates in the cultural imaginary as inaugurating a “gender revolution” (which is apprehended by some as a sign of progress, by others as a potential threat), transgender children did not begin existing in recent years, or even recent decades. Through meticulous archival research, Gill-Peterson reveals a larger history of transgender children beginning in the early 20th century within and beyond institutional settings. Research on trans and intersex youth across the 20th century enabled our contemporary understanding of the concept of gender, invented in the clinic, and this concept is now used against transgender children to enact epistemic and material violence. In a moment when trans individuals are under increasing threat and face health disparities and disproportionate rates of violence and discrimination, Gill-Peterson provides a politically urgent history in this accessible, fascinating, wide-ranging project.