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.
Senior Editor and Global Coordinator
Written and directed by Lee Breuer, music by Bob Telson, The Gospel at Colonus
“We will never drive you away from peace in this land,” sings this jubilant gospel choir, as they welcome a stranger into their homes. He might look filthy, they agree, and they are not pleased with his past. But they offer him “sanctuary,” and, consequently, they are blessed.
The Gospel at Colonus, recently performed by the Public Theater at the Delcorte Theater, is just wonderful. It’s an ambitious 1982 remix of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. Even when first performed 2400 years ago, the play was strange. It venerated a dying old man over heroic warriors, the verdant land of Athens over its famed city, daughters over sons, strangers over neighbors. Yet its strangeness is our reward, for the 2018 adaptation feels right at home in today’s upside down world: where we struggle for a language that lets us praise teachers over soldiers, green infrastructure over polluting industries, prisoners over prisons, the oppressed over the powerful. “Live where you can, be happy as you can,” urges the chorus, shaking the theater with their cries, “Let word and song and harmony be mightier than the sword.” Let us pray.
Literary Fiction Section Editor
Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement
Have you heard that it wasn’t a particularly good summer for the academic humanities? Probably you did. I wonder where there’s an ostrich hole deep enough to have kept the news away. And as American colleges limped into resuming their yearly business, the bad news continued—you probably know that too. All of which is to say that it seemed like the right time to read the sequel to Julie Schumacher’s brilliant 2014 Dear Committee Members, to dive into a smart and au courant academic satire of the multiversity’s contemporary mediocrity. The impulse proved wrong. Schumacher certainly strings together as many barbed lines as before; one description of a department meeting, with faculty sitting at student desks “like frustrated drivers in a series of stalled bumper cars,” made me want to close the book until the pain of recognition subsided. The problem is that, without the formal inventiveness of the earlier novel’s vocational-epistolary frame, The Shakespeare Requirement feels sour. The plot’s twists—Jason Fitger, the besieged recommender of Dear Committee Members, now finds himself chairing an English department caught between the Machiavellian expansionism of its upstairs neighbor Economics, and its own inability to agree on a mandated “Statement of Vision”—have a bitter aftertaste, like laughing at a pratfall where the performer has actually been injured. There are glimpses of canny homage here: the department’s elderly Shakespearean has a Trollopian quality of quiet futile dignity; a subplot flirts with becoming an Amanda Cross mystery. But the whole had the claustrophobic feeling of jokes made to conjure away dread. If some satire reminds us, despite everything, to be of good cheer, this one felt much grimmer. Chalk it up to reading it at the wrong time—or to the novel being all too right for its moment.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Renée Watson, Piecing Me Together
What a pleasure to spend time with Jade, the creative, insightful narrator of this engaging and affecting Young Adult novel (which has won both a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award). Jade’s mixed feelings of gratitude and resentment toward the various communities she inhabits—the fancy private school that she attends on scholarship; a local mentorship program run by black women for black girls—find expression in the beautiful collages that she crafts. By constructing a narrative comprised of lots of irregularly-sized chapters—some very short, others quite long—Watson cleverly echoes the art form that her narrator loves. At the same time, Piecing Me Together touches on the challenges of maintaining a strong sense of self-worth while inhabiting a culture riven by racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice. Especially deft is Watson’s illustration of how adult mentors sometimes stand in need of mentoring themselves, a theme that challenges our cultural habit of assuming that young people are the ones doing all the learning in adult-child relationships.
Urbanism Section Editor
Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World
We still live in the world of the 2008 crisis no matter what the stock ticker says. That’s the basic message of Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World, the first authoritative history of the global financial crisis: a meltdown that spiked economic inequality and created disastrous austerity measures in the European Union. Tooze’s focus is not the on-the-ground misery of the crisis but the financial machinations that made it possible and, in the case of the EU, needlessly prolonged it. The scariest things about the meticulously detailed account offered in Crashed, is how ad hoc the response to the crisis was from the White House and the German Chancellory. Despite the many missteps of the Wall Street-focused rescue operations carried out by Obama, which did little to build infrastructure or well-paying jobs, one is left wondering what crisis management would look like in today’s White House.
B-Sides Section Editor
Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985) tells the story of a million years of hominid evolution on a remote Pacific island after homo sap. has managed to obliterate itself everywhere else. Just as Darwin saw finches and iguanas and mockingbirds radiating out and adapting in various isolated ecological niches, so too does Vonnegut traces how a tiny bumbling group of castaways gradually breed descendants with a thick layer of blubber and fur. By his telling it is an evolutionary jackpot, the best possible fate for humanity, news when the castaways’ fingers turn into little nubs whose nails glow brightly during mating season—good news considering what those fingers had been up to during the 20th century. No longer can clever fingers and “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain” build “useful” (and decidedly Vietnam-War-era) tools such as bazookas, flamethrowers and atom bombs.
This “here comes the new boss same as the old boss” account of inescapably destructive human mores makes Vonnegut the heir in some ways to the grimly deterministic Naturalism of Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Frank Norris. Naturalism, though, is famously humorless. Vonnegut—like his comedic bedfellows, Stanislaw Lem and Douglas Adams—also owes a considerable debt to the saturnine cynicism of Mark Twain’s 1885 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Perhaps satirical speculative fiction is at its best just that: the silly lining inside Naturalism’s dark cloud.
Cris Beam, I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy
I Feel You opens with a survey of the most fatuous and trendy thinking on empathy mirror neurons and soft skills—before drilling down to the most intimate and gut-wrenching ways that people who share a colonial history—with its attendant history of dispossession, child theft, torture, and murder—try to see one another’s humanity.
The hinge between these poles is Beam’s own attempt to practice self-empathy, a plunge from what she sees as hokey self-indulgence to soul-searing self-inventory as her personal life unravels over the course of the writing of this book. The shift from Beam’s own story to that of the Wabenaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Maine marks one of the most courageous chapter breaks I’ve ever seen in my life.
Empathy, Beam concludes, is a site of mutual vulnerability and a moral art, one she practices with profundity, skill, and grace.
Emily Giffin, All We Ever Wanted
In Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted, a student at an elite preparatory school is accused of circulating a demeaning, racist image of his classmate at a party on social media. What follows is an exploration of whether the school community is truly disrupted by this event, or if it’s an opportunity to demonstrate and reinforce existing social, class, and race dynamics. The text oscillates among the perspectives of the mother of the accused boy, the photographed girl, and her father. This move helps to show how unexpected alliances can both form and be thwarted in efforts toward justice, even when parties are seemingly polarized. The fictional novel echoes many contemporary cases that disproportionately punish (both institutionally and socially) victims while not holding perpetrators accountable, and it explores the larger contexts that enable this dynamic while trying to imagine ways out of it.