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
Barry Devlin, Forbidden Pleasures
Almost 30 years ago, in a Chicago used bookstore, I happened upon a shelf of lesbian pulp fiction from the 1950s and 1960s and bought the entire lot. Splashed with lurid color images, festooned with provocative tag lines (“LOVE, LUST, LESBIANISM”), and labelled with stern warnings (ADULTS ONLY, SALE TO MINORS FORBIDDEN), these are books begging to be judged by their covers.
This month, I decided to do something untoward with one of these books: actually sit down and read it. I chose Forbidden Pleasures, set in a Maine inn. The cover features a blonde in a red bikini kneeling (as one does) before a brunette wearing a mustard turtleneck, tight grey pants, and boots. In the background looms a shirtless, buff young man, and behind him stand some pine trees (because Maine).
Forbidden Pleasures lives up neither to its title nor its cover, but it was still a fun read, in a camp kind of way (gay camp, not summer camp—if that’s a real distinction). There are only a few lesbian sex scenes, and the most resolutely lesbian character converts abruptly to heterosexuality in the novel’s final pages (as one doesn’t).
Along the way, however, the narrative exhibits an interesting awareness of how economics and labor affect women’s sexual choices. One character gets in touch with her lesbian desires after men harass her at work. Another ends up in bed with a woman because she is out of money and needs a place to stay. The book presents women’s sexual pleasure in other women as very real. It also, in a not completely homophobic way, tenders an interesting proposition: that sexuality is always situational.
Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
It’s true that young people can’t fully understand—and often don’t appreciate—the devastation of the early AIDS crisis, including the mainstream homophobia that perpetuated it and the heroic political organizing that worked to mitigate its effects. Queer culture occasionally probes this intergenerational divide, as Netflix’s reboot of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (2019) did when it featured a dinner party scene pitting younger and older gay men against one another in a painful display of political recalcitrance.
Approaching the AIDS epidemic through literary fiction, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (2018) situates readers right in the visceral center of Boystown, Chicago, a neighborhood whose predominantly gay population was ravaged in the early ’80s while the Reagan administration stood idly by. Makkai’s novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Stonewall Book Award; one might balk at the notion of a straight woman winning prestige for telling the story of a population to which she does not belong. Nonetheless, Makkai’s accessible and almost didactic portrayal of the era provides an immersive experience that educates those who weren’t there—young queer folks and straight readers alike.
The novel elucidates the crisis’s scope, as one character after another succumbs to the virus in a doomed chain. On a smaller scale, Makkai’s research-informed narrative spotlights the daily indignities that gay men suffered throughout the period, as the prospect of early death haunted doctors’ offices, churches, bars, and workplaces. Suspense develops around protagonist Yale’s deliberations over whether to get tested, and what either result would mean: “He’d be the world’s luckiest man to stand there at the end of it all, to be the one left, trying to remember. The unluckiest, too.”
Urbanism Section Editor
Robert Menasse, The Capital, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
As Brexit looms, the EU is more tragedy, less farce. Robert Menasse’s novel The Capital is both. It casts a skeptical, but not Europhobic, eye on the machinations of Brussels, where even the most dedicated technocrat is starting to get heartburn reading their morning Financial Times. The book suffers from too many characters burdened with long international backstories: so there’s some similarities to a Brussels cocktail party but the cacophony is also invigorating. Many of the characters work for the EU’s Culture Commission, whose lack of power and mandate Menasse describes as “the ark” because it has no destination and “only one aim: to save itself and whatever it is carrying onboard.” The book, which also has a Holocaust subplot, gently mocks the EU while pinpointing its main problem: the economic cooperation that built it never took the cultural cohesion of its citizens seriously.
B-Sides Series Editor
E. A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Hey pal, did you hear the one about two-dimensional beings who live on a plane, and aspire to have children with one more side than themselves? The one that ends in a visit to “Pointland, the Abyss of No Dimension,” where a Sphere and a Square listen to the sole inhabitant crooning to itself things like “Ah, the joy, ah, the joy of Thought! What can It not achieve by thinking”? The one published in 1884, which also explored the idea of the (not one, not two, not three but, impossibly) four-dimensional solid known as a tesseract?
If you already know about Flatland, E. A. Abbott’s “romance of many dimensions,” then you already know the punch line. His book is not just math fantasy, but a thoughtful and persuasive satire with continuing relevance. On gender relations: Abbott pursues and pokes fun at the absurd idea that men “evolve” (adding sides with each generation) while women remain terrifying, one-dimensional line creatures whose “hideous strength” lies in the sharpness of their ends. On political blindness: when our hero “A Square” meets someone genuinely three-dimensional (the Sphere, who manifests as a series of gradually increasing and then diminishing circles), the ruling polygons set out to suppress the (fake!) news and discourage all speculation on its implications. Last but not least, Flatland is compelling philosophical satire. That Point humming happily to itself in No-Dimensional space is a figure for any human persuaded that the universe cannot possibly be more complex and deeper than what our senses immediately pick up. (Don’t be a square, dude; be a tesseract!)
Stephanie Jimenez, They Could Have Named Her Anything
In Stephanie Jimenez’s debut novel, They Could Have Named Her Anything, Maria Rosario struggles with her desires as she learns the hidden costs of getting what she wants: entry to an elite New York City preparatory school, a friendship with the seductively cool Rocky, a connection with someone older (but not wiser). A scholarship to the prestigious Bell Seminary brings her stoic, hardworking father to tears and takes Maria on an hour-plus daily commute into a world that claims to welcome with open arms. She wants a future bigger than what she imagines is available to her in her home community Queens, but Bell Seminary seems to constantly tell Maria in both tacit and overt ways to curb her dreams and remember where she comes from. As Maria navigates a world of privilege, scandal, and elitism, remembering her origins transforms from that which brings her ambivalence and shame to that which gives her access to her own power.