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.
Literary Fiction SECTION EDITOR
Caleb Crain, Overthrow
No one can deny that Henry James is still a significant force in fiction, at least since around the time of the first global misadventures of Bush II. Somewhere in that correlation there’s a question to be asked. There are the obvious candidates, certainly, such as Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Tóibín, or Cynthia Ozick, but the influence has been everywhere, adapted into many different situations. Caleb Crain’s Jamesian story of New York in late 2011, the autumn of Occupy and its aftermath, is among the most cunning, most subtle examples I know. The influence is fully conscious, fully diffused, and frequently witty. A joke about The Princess Casamassima turns out to be a small, telling plot point.
The narrative here—about the brief life of an Occupy groupuscule called the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings—is itself half a jest in that vein; the group practices telepathy, a kind of updated version of the exquisite intersubjectivity of Jamesian narration, yet when they try hesitantly to use that telepathy in a small act of political resistance, they find themselves subject to the two inexorable forces of our decade: the security state and social media. “The internet was still a force that hadn’t been understood,” Crain writes. “The only thing anyone knew for certain about it was that it was always on the side that didn’t lose.”
Their “folie,” as Crain puts it with the Master’s touch, is the briefest glimmer of adventure before many historical doors close. And yet the novel doesn’t feel oppressive or grim, despite its depiction of an experience of defeat. Following James here, too, Crain is interested in cultural changes that are still unpredictable, that still might, with a fortunate push, be a little utopian. In fact the novel is also, in part, a grad school novel, with a dissertating character whose early-modernist historicism, although derailed by Occupy, suggests a little something of those changes underfoot. It’s a novel that keeps faith in even the unlikeliest candidates for where redemption might next come.
Art SECTION EDITOR
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Narratives of creativity may not produce art objects, but they can change how people imagine who makes art objects. Most reviewers have felt Celeste Ng’s intricately plotted, page-turning story is about the arrogance and danger of privilege. It also offers a fierce yet nuanced dual story of authorship and maternity. Unlike so many novels about women and art, this one asserts women can commit absolutely to career and parenting simultaneously. Ng even implies that one form of genius enhances the other. At the beginning of the book, we are led to believe that its motto will be, in the words of its artist-heroine: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.” Ultimately the heroine voices a very new, possibly maternal, thought about who possesses art: “Some pictures belong to the person who took them, and some belong to the person inside them.”
Urbanism Section Editor
Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
When we picture how different the pre-Columbian North American landscape was, we most likely think of buffalo herds. Yet another, smaller animal dramatically shaped that world. Ben Goldfarb’s engrossing environmental history, Eager, tells the story of the animal kingdom’s chief architect. Before they were decimated by fur trapping, beavers managed waterways and created unique ecosystems for a plethora of other animals. They had an important role in both natural history and the development of American capitalism: after all, John Jacob Astor was a pelt magnate before he used that fortune to go into New York real estate. Goldfarb’s accessibly written book is a triumph of science journalism and a reminder of how species removal can radically alter our ecology.
TV Section Editor
Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling
The first volume in a planned trilogy of vampire novels set in the Western US, Fledgling is the last of Butler’s books to be published before her death, in 2006. It’s a wondrously pulpy confection that doesn’t forgo the author’s signature grapplings with social, moral, and sexual complexity. Shori, the story’s protagonist, is a powerful “young” (53-year-old) vampire-human hybrid in the body of a prepubescent girl. But there’s an even bigger catch: she’s entirely lost her memory in the wake of a catastrophic incident. As this preternatural person struggles to discern both who she is and why she remains in danger, she reflexively assembles a clan of human lovers, or “symbionts,” bound to her by saliva and blood. What results is at once an unholy catalogue of queer intimacies that criss-cross the boundaries of gender, race, and age; an unflinching examination of master-slave dialectics; and an indictment of white supremacy. Butler’s book isn’t YA fiction, but when your kid asks for Twilight, I strongly recommend you give them Fledgling instead.
B-Sides Series Editor
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
I am guessing many Public Books readers have War and Peace somewhere in their rearview mirror. But do you, like me, experience a twinge of recognition at the Woody Allen line about the experience of speed-reading it: “It’s about Russia”? If so, the audiobook (read by vocal shape-shifter Frederick Davidson, available through your public library via Libby as well as for sale) may be as much of a revelation for you as it was for me.
Hearing it read aloud brought home to me how brilliantly Tolstoy juxtaposes the novel’s war and peace elements, and how unforgettably they collide—like the moment when Natasha is thrown up against Prince Andrei during the flight from Moscow. It also brought home to me how much silent skipping I had done in prior readings: for example, I had cheated myself of Pierre’s time among the Masons—huge mistake.
The highlight of our recent Recall This Book interview with (Chinese SF genius) Cixin Liu was his announcing that “I love War and Peace so much … [for] the panoramic totality of [the] historical world that Tolstoy created. … In my later work, there are always echoes and shadows of War and Peace, but for me these are simply very, very low level of parodies that cannot even begin to match Tolstoy’s profundity.” It’s not throwing Liu under the bus to agree with him.
LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Casey Cep, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Books sometimes have bombastic titles. The more bombastic, the more it needs to be sold. The more it needs to be sold, the less likely it is to be rigorous, thoughtful, and insightful. But bombastic titles, like clickbait headlines, often belie what they describe. That’s certainly the case with Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. The book is not about Go Set a Watchman—it’s not about the bizarre circumstances under which Harper Lee’s lawyer discovered the author’s second novel and the accusations that she published it against the author’s will, in 2015. It is instead about a murder trial in Alabama in 1978. In Casey Cep’s probing, captivating, and experimental history of a book Harper Lee never wrote, that murder trial becomes an explosive cauldron containing some unsavory ingredients of American life: insurance fraud, homicide, xenophobia, and the silencing of women. Only one of the three parts of the book focuses on Lee. Which is a good thing. Against the bombastic demands of the market, Cep’s book about the cascading lives of several mid-century Alabamans pokes at the strange depths of our fascination with everything that is the true crime genre.
Ginny Hogan, Toxic Femininity in the Workplace: Office Gender Politics Are a Battlefield
Ginny Hogan’s Toxic Femininity in the Workplace deploys razor-sharp wit to comment on unequal pay, workplace harassment and discrimination, bias, fragile masculinity, and institutionalized misogyny and racism. From listicles to quizzes to short stories to open letters, Toxic Femininity in the Workplace is an IRL version of would-be viral internet links, filled with “twists” that are, in fact, many women’s realities. (Spoiler alert for “Quiz: As a Woman, Are You Too Aggressive, or Are You Politely Stating Your Opinion?”—no matter how much you let men take credit for your work while sitting in silence, you’re still too aggressive!) Personal favorites are the “2019 Bechdel Test, Updated for Women at Work” (“Does your team meeting include any woman speaking for more than thirty seconds without being interrupted?”) and “Your Annoying Male Coworkers as Flavors of LaCroix” (but seriously, we all work with a Pamplemousse and frankly, I need more workplace support). Hogan—who Forbes hailed as “satire’s rising star“—is also editor of Little Old Lady Comedy, as well as a contributor to the New Yorker and McSweeney’s.