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.
Sam Lipsyte, The Ask
I am finally catching up with Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask—what a treat. Lipsyte orchestrates a symphony of academic satire, male self-loathing, and middle-class resentment, but what really hits the spot is his language: acute observations couched in pungent, nasty, and often audacious prose.
Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America
America’s poorest live on $2 a day. These citizens of the richest country in the world do not earn enough to pay for a stable home, constant electricity, or reliable meals. Edin and Shaefer begin the book with a who-dunnit, narrating welfare’s dismantling under the Clinton administration. The policy page-turner flows into the stories of those left behind. Mothers and fathers sell plasma, pick trash, and trade sex for the cash they need to keep themselves and their children going for another day. $2.00 a Day should command the attention of politicians, policymakers, and everyone our current system supports.
Christian Kracht, Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas, translated from the German by Daniel Bowles
The narrator of this wryly twisted historical tale—about an early 20th-century German vegetarian nudist’s quest to establish a South Seas colony devoted to the worship of coconuts—plays a wonderful straight man to his eccentric protagonist, and the translation’s prose, rich with detail and imagery but refreshingly airy and unprecious, is superb.
Lucy R. Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West
I’m reading this book in order to figure out how to write about art, infrastructure, and the politics of land use in an interconnected way, and Lippard provides a compelling example. She begins by looking at the gravel pits that have appeared near her home in rural New Mexico. These local sites of extraction become the springboard for a wide-ranging analysis of the various ground-based practices—urban, industrial, and cultural—that have altered the Southwest and our experience of it. The book is also richly illustrated, with at least one color photograph (printed too small, alas) on each page.
Ellen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
Ellen Willis got her start in the 1960s and ’70s as a rock critic (The New Yorker’s first ever), covering Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground. But it’s her writings on sexual politics that resonate most right now. The question that preoccupied her—how to “support sexual freedom” without “legitimizing the most oppressive aspects of male sexuality”—is at the heart of today’s debates about Title IX and sexual assault on campuses. (So much for times a-changin’.) One of my favorite pieces in this collection, “Up From Radicalism” (1969), is a series of diary-like vignettes that track Willis’s growing feminist consciousness. As she becomes more impatient with ’60s radical bros, her commentary only gets sharper and funnier: “Richard Alpert comes to S.F. and lectures on the LSD community at Millbrook. He talks about how the drug dissolves people’s ego hangups and helps them live cooperatively, and it’s really convincing until he explains how the women at Millbrook are earth-goddesses. He doesn’t say who does the community’s shitwork, but I have my suspicions.”
Christa Wolf, They Divided the Sky, translated from the German by Luise von Flotow
Der geteilte Himmel would literally translate to The Divided Sky or Heaven—it’s already ambiguous, and Luise von Flotow further obscures it by inserting a they into her translation. She describes in her introduction the “nameless and irresponsible geopolitical forces” that put pressure on the mundane lives of individuals, and on this novel’s central romance between a young socialist finding her place and an older, skeptical scientist. On page one, the Berlin Wall goes up with certainty and gravity, but these people must go on living. “And so we take up our conversations again,” Wolf writes. Conversations about the wedding, illness, work. “Who would have thought this could all be so important?” With stunningly intimate storytelling (and beautifully translated prose), Christa Wolf uncovers this underlying instability in the relationship between the relentless motion of history and the equally uncompromising continuity of everyday life. As I move forward in the novel, it is this interplay that consumes me with a feeling of familiar and timeless tragedy.
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
The book I’m currently reading is Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, a literate and compelling history of the second great scientific revolution, following Newton’s first. The book is anchored in the story of Joseph Banks—equal parts scientist, poet, and aesthete—who went on to become the financial and social patron of many of the 18th and 19th centuries’s greatest scientists. Holmes follows these scientists, weaving in contemporary poetry and art, as they discover new continents, new planets, and new laws of nature. It’s a gripping and engaging read, and combines literature and science like no other book I’ve read before.
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine
It’s always a pleasant surprise when a book required for a course turns out to be absolutely engrossing, isn’t it? Aptowicz’s book primarily follows the life and career of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a charismatic and provocative young surgeon, as he struggles his way up through the ranks of the Philadelphia medical elite during the mid-19th century, aka the dawn of modern medicine as we know it. Her extensive research is artfully woven into a narrative that at times reads more like fiction than nonfiction—and I absolutely mean that as a compliment. Aptowicz knows just when to step gently back from following Mütter’s life in order to keep her readers informed without jerking them completely out of the story to dump a bunch of dates and names on the page. Also interspersed through the book are sketches and photographs of some of the procedures Mütter performed or invented, providing the necessary visuals for understanding the full “monstrosity” of some of his most dire patients. (They’ve also gotten me some pretty horrified stares from people on the subway, but I don’t mind.)
Julia Bloch, Valley Fever
Julia Bloch’s Valley Fever is funny and contemplative, clever and sincere. Much of the book was written while she was living in Los Angeles and commuting to teach in the eponymous Central Valley, but the poems are imbued with a dreaminess that stretches beyond her immediate surroundings. Bloch conjures images that are ethereal and hazy, but her writing is sharp and incisive; hers is a landscape I never want to leave.
Muhammad Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
While contemporary South Asian English Literature is dominated by stories of migration, diaspora and assimilation, Muhammad Hanif takes us to the heart of the Catholic community in Karachi, Pakistan via Alice Bhatti, a Catholic nurse working in a government hospital. The novel can be many things: a feminist critique on the state of working class women in Karachi, an insight into the plight of religious minorities, a romantic comedy. Hanif falters sometimes, such as when he gives into the temptation of objectifying Alice at one certain point. But he still manages to get right back on track with wit and perspicacity. In my opinion, it is easily one of the best English novels from Pakistan in the last decade.
Mathias Énard, Zone, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Graham Swift, England and Other Stories
My taste for experimental fiction turned up Énard’s Zone, which plays with trauma, memory, and form by compressing a spy novel set in the Balkans into a Proustian train journey by way of a single run-on 500-page sentence. I find myself compelled, unconvinced, and annoyed in turn by Énard’s sentence, so I’ve set it aside for now, picking up Swift’s rather more conventional collection of short stories. In his accomplished hands, ordinariness becomes troublingly magical.