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.
Editor in Chief
Henry James, The Tragic Muse
I’ve been rereading Henry James’s The Tragic Muse, an 1890 novel about an actress that despite its title is one of his few books to have a happy ending—at least for its heroine.
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson, The Last Days of My Mother, translated from the Icelandic by Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir
Also on my nightstand: another comic delight, a mordant Icelandic tale of a man making a last-ditch effort to help his mother survive cancer.
Editor in Chief
Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
With evocative and painful details to support his claims, Baptist argues that enslaved people endured rationalized torture in America’s cotton fields. Their attempts to escape the whip by picking with efficiency and dexterity generated the wealth of America’s industrial rise.
Ben Lerner, 10:04
This is a beautiful, surprising, thoughtful, and not entirely satisfying novel. The conspicuously self-aware narrator and protagonist is smart, charming, and a wonderful observer of his environment and the sometimes uncanny parallels that appear within it. But I can’t help but feel that something is lost, or at least seriously compromised, when the novel becomes nearly indistinguishable from memoir, something like my ability to read meaning and consequence and futurity into the book’s world and characters. Because that world and those characters are so recognizable as the one outside my window (and the book explicitly calls for such recognition, for what is, in effect, a self-consciously naive perspective), I have trouble imagining them free of that; their horizon of possibilities seems severely limited by what they are in “real life.” This is, again, a beautiful book, an amazing work in so many ways, but I do hope the author manages to write something entirely different next time.
Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
Fantastic, and also bafflingly authentic—a superabundance of unexplained nautical terms meant much of the action for me seemed to take place in a fog. Now back on dry land, I pledge to seek out a primer before enlisting for the next volume.
The criminally under-read Antrim’s first story collection, The Emerald Light in the Air, brings together seven stories, all originally published in The New Yorker over the last 15 years.
Roger V. Gould, Insurgent Identities: Class, Community, and Protest in Paris from 1848 to the Commune
Gould sets out to make a case that the Paris Commune of 1871 was less about class consciousness than it was about neighborhood consciousness. That is, the urban transformation that Paris experienced between 1852 and 1870 fostered an identification with one’s arrondissement, rather than with one’s craft. What resulted was an uprising in which “the people” referred more to Parisians than proletarians.
Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
This grueling and provocative novel about a homosexual Nazi who witnesses and participates in some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War is an astonishing feat of historical imagination. Firmly in the vein of Curzio Malaparte, its energy and wickedness are offset by the narrator’s beguiling honesty, which upsets lazy moral categories and skewers the pieties of left and right alike.
Tove Jansson, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
I’m reading these eerie, chilly short stories by the Finnish author Tove Jansson (1914–2001), whose Moomintroll series I loved as a child. Like A. A. Milne, Jannson found her writing for adults completely eclipsed by her success at writing for children: I’m grateful that after her death New York Review of Books has added her subtle, canny fictions to their Classics series.
Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, translated from the Italian by William Weaver
I had to read this for class, meaning I actually skimmed it. Now that I have taken the time to properly read it, I’m obsessed with this notion of writing about the actual act of reading and the way Calvino alternates between the second-person narrative and snippets of a novel.
Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: Summer 1926, translated from the Russian and German by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt, and Jamey Gambrell
This fascinating book, a series of letters between the German master of verse Rainer Maria Rilke and two then-emergent Russian poets, Marina Tsvetayeva and Boris Pasternak, has been illuminating my half-hour-before-bedtime reading this week. It is heartwarming to see how much of himself Rilke lends to these admirers of his, even on his deathbed (Rilke passed away in December of that year). Rilke is well known for his Letters to a Young Poet, but in this collection we have the luxury of access to both sets of letters. The intimacy between the three poets is breathtaking, and has the understandable impact of making the reader yearn for the days of snail mail, when passion and emotion were communicated with the utmost sincerity, and when sincerity was a virtue, not a failing, in correspondence.
Ben Lerner, 10:04
Stephen’s not the only one here reading Lerner’s 10:04. This book has been captivating my subway commutes, and I’ve especially been enjoying it when I’m out and about, devouring it in a packed train car, or while relaxing in Washington Square Park after a stressful day. The book’s intriguing otherworldliness, set in a New York that is not unlike the one I live in (just a little different), has had the strange effect of forcing me to more actively engage with my surroundings. The self-reflexivity is bold and, in my opinion, pleasantly well done.
Andrea Canobbio, Three Light-Years, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
I originally decided to buy this book because I saw a picture of Canobbio in a review and thought he looked cool. Thankfully, my shallow reasoning’s been vindicated as Canobbio’s metronomic prose is a joy. Canobbio masterfully captures the unspoken exultation and agony that accompanies love. That he does so with characters entangled in the commitments of middle age is a reminder that some experiences have a constant character, regardless of our stage of life.
Ivan E. Coyote, One in Every Crowd
I found myself in a thrift store, while actually on a mission to Trader Joe’s, because I simply can’t pass up an opportunity. As per usual, I headed toward the collection of books and ended up taking home (for $3!) Ivan E. Coyote’s One in Every Crowd, a collection of short stories about Coyote’s childhood and growing up queer in northern Canada, written for those who have ever felt different and struggled with their own identities. After reading the first few segments, I was hooked. Coyote is hilarious, endearing, and real in her first book aimed toward LGBTQ+ youth. Though I’m at the point in my life where I’m content and no longer in a constant struggle with my identity, namely my sexuality, this book still speaks to my feelings as a queer individual trying to navigate life.
Leonardo Padura, The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner
The assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940 in Mexico City, the Spanish resistance, Stalinist Soviet Union, Cuba in the 1970s, all wrapped up in a carefully crafted, beautiful, and gripping novel by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura.
Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Don’t Forget to Smile
I’ve become addicted to Seidel’s contemporary romances, which tend to focus as much on extended families and communities as on the supposedly central guy-girl get together. This one nicely flips the gender expectations too; Tory, a cosmopolitan former almost Miss America, is the one unwilling to commit, while logger and union organizer Joe wants to marry her and take her to see his kid.
Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich At War: 1939–1945
I recently realized I didn’t actually know that much about the Nazis, so I set out to read Evans’s three-volume history. This is the last book, and I’ll admit I’ve somewhat bogged down. It’s fascinating, but the litany of atrocities gets numbing (I hadn’t even known that the Germans launched a malaria biological warfare campaign against the Italians after they switched sides; the death toll was close to 200,000).
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”; Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth”
I’ve been rereading some Lovecraft, and also Emrys’s novella that imagines the Cthulhu mythos from the perspective of the monsters. The result is a kind of Wind Done Gone for fish creatures; a critique of Lovecraft’s racism and a lovely story in its own right.
Philipp Meyer, American Rust
Two young men from a blue-collar Pennsylvania steel town get in trouble with the law. Meyer was one of the New Yorker’s 20-under-40 writers, and this novel lives us to the hype. Meyer has the rare ability to portray uneducated characters without coming across as hollow or patronizing. I’ve just now ordered, and am eagerly awaiting, his second novel, The Son.
Paul Harding, Tinkers
Tinkers was published by Bellevue Literary Press and holds the distinction of being one of the few small-publisher novels to win a Pulitzer Prize. A father-and-son story, it explores connections through time with sharp, poetic prose and in a deeply felt New England environment.
Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
At great length and in great detail, Schlosser brings to light several catastrophic episodes stemming from weapons malfunctions in US nuclear arms facilities. Probably the scariest book I’ve ever read.
H. L. Mencken, The Days Trilogy
A much-expanded and elegantly produced Library of America edition of Mencken’s three autobiographies—Happy Days, about his youth; Newspaper Days, about his dramatic rise to the top of Baltimore journalism; and Heathen Days, miscellaneous essays spanning his scandalously full life—The Days Trilogy shows our most tenacious and bellicose critic in a rare mood of tenderness. One might even call it philanthropic if Mencken had not imbued that word with unforgettable scorn. I read a chapter every night, and if I’m feeling naughty, two.
Eric Hayot, The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities
To someone like myself still navigating the elusive genre that is the dissertation, Eric Hayot has become something like a lifeline. Here, finally, is a book that clarifies the kind of writing that we do in the humanities, the professional forms they take—the dissertation, the conference paper, the journal article, the book—offering step-by-step strategies for how to tackle each. I’ve likened this book to gaining an additional committee member: a very patient advisor whose primary focus is to make you a better writer in the profession, working with you from the level of the footnote, sentence, paragraph, to the infrastructural, rhetorical effects of rhythm and metalanguage. There’s even a discussion about titles and subtitles.