On Our Nightstands: September 2020

A behind-the-scenes look at what Public Books editors and staff have been reading this month.

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.


Nicholas Dames

Editor in Chief and Literary Fiction Section Editor


Sarah Moss, Summerwater


Few novels I’ve read in recent years provided as concentrated a dose of dread as Sarah Moss’s 2018 Ghost Wall, the story of Iron Age re-creationists slowly turning a remote part of Northumberland into a Ukanian heart of darkness. Summerwater is more indirect, more realist in texture, but no less suffused by the atmosphere of an island nation sourly turning on itself. Here a cluster of flimsy holiday cottages near a Scottish loch is the scene, where, one rainy day, harried families and fraying couples sit in close proximity, warily watching one another. The presence of outsiders—a naturalized Eastern European family whose loud music has set the other vacationers on edge—gives their diffuse bitterness a spark.

Moss has developed a form perfect for a post-referendum condition-of-England reckoning: pungent mixtures of horror and the quotidian, almost but never wholly allegorical, set where nature is all the wilder for being seemingly contained. Within them are stories of neighborliness gone off the boil, when proximity creates aversion and crowdedness balks rather than inspires moral imagination. In Summerwater, it turns out, it’s easier to imagine the lives of other species (fish, ants) than it is to imagine the lives of other people. And bodily harm is never far away, whether in fantasies of self-infliction or wished on others. Which is to say that Moss is writing about a political death drive whose afflictions, and libidinal allurements, have descended upon Britain—and, it hardly needs to be added, the US. If the specimens of free-indirect style here are a little less virtuosic than Ghost Wall’s distant, oneiric tone, that may be because Summerwater’s people—self-doubting, resentful, mired in a present they can’t imagine bearing much longer or leading to anything better—feel so uncomfortably familiar.



Carolyn Dever

Higher Education SECTION EDITOR


Kimberly D. McKee and Denise A. Delgado, eds., Degrees of Difference: Reflections on Women of Color in Graduate School


Discussions of faculty diversity, equity, and inclusion invariably bemoan the “pipeline problem”: that is, the observation that there are simply too few candidates of color emerging from graduate schools to diversify the professoriate quickly enough or fully enough. These discussions typically proceed without thought to the lived experiences of the talented academics of color who may—or who may not—comprise that would-be pipeline.

Degrees of Difference begins to redress this important gap. In a series of sharply realized, personal, lively essays, the authors work to expose “uncomfortable truths” about how indigenous women and women of color (IWWOC) academics traverse universities that are not designed to support them, nor to realize their success.

Embracing their “inner feminist killjoy” (to use Sara Ahmed’s phrase), editors Kimberly McKee and Denise Delgado present the book as a twofold opportunity. First and foremost, they assemble voices that create and hold space for IWWOC academics to claim strategic, coalitional relationships through the silence. Second, they “air the dirty laundry” in order to equip those women, and their allies, with the tools of women-of-color feminism aimed at producing structural change within universities.



Matthew Engelke



Clare Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard


I read this book in the waning days of summer—a season that Søren Kierkegaard apparently didn’t much like. Too much sun, too much warmth. Clare Carlisle’s writing brings the spindly-legged philosopher to life, and animates his work with the mix of passion and piety that marked his philosophical project and apprehensions of God. From the dramatic break with his fiancée, Regine, to his disdain for society (in all its many meanings), the portrait of Kierkegaard is deeply moving. And as with any good biography, we are gifted not only with a life, but with larger constellations of ideas and places: Copenhagen’s streets, tussles over the legacy of Hegel, thoughts on Socrates. Captivating.



John Plotz

B-Sides Series Editor


Harry Martinson, Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, translated from the Swedish by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert


Maybe you can name a dozen Nobel writers without drawing a breath—trotting from Kipling and Tagore, Yeats and Shaw, Eliot, Hemingway, Sachs, and Beckett up to Szymborska, Naipaul, Morrison, and Ishiguro. But even if you can name two dozen (or three or four), I doubt you’ll name Harry Martinson, the Swedish poet who won in 1974, “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.” Yet his 1956 epic SF poem Aniara, long out of print in English, deserves more than a backward glance—and not simply because a so-so Swedish film version appeared in 2018.

On the surface it is a grandiose space odyssey in Miltonic verse—leavened by some very Brave New World (or Metropolis) erotic interludes. It tells the story of Aniara’s passengers—and its hyperintelligent and psychologically unstable computer Mima—when they are swept irretrievably into deep space on a routine trip to Mars. However, the true story that runs through its 103 “songs” is the irrational city-obliterating atomic war that took place on Earth just after Aniarta’s departure. That traumatic event leaves the Aniara as Lot, or Lot’s wife, looking helplessly back, playing and replaying images of those fatal final moments.

Like much of the best SF that appeared between 1955 and 1970 (the closest comparisons are Walter Miller’s 1959 Canticle for Leibowitz and Kurt Vonnegut’s 1968 Slaughterhouse-Five) Aniara  is really a struggle to comprehend how the beloved Enlightenment project of grasping the universe through science turned into such horrendously successful war machinery, which (early avatar of today’s awareness of the Anthropocene) poisoned Earth’s ecosystem for its nonhuman residents as well. To see Aniara’s core, you need some patience with metaphors about curved space and Fallen Angels—and some oddly Metropolis-like revels of the doomed sybaritic passengers fleeing the scene of the crime. Martinson, though is actually engaged in the same cognitive struggle with human inhumanity as Miller and Vonnegut. Not just Dresden but Hiroshima; Not just Hiroshima but Nagasaki.



Leah Price



Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel, eds., Voices from the Valley: Tech Workers Talk about What They Do—And How They Do It


Raven Leilani, Luster


“Pay no attention to the man inside the black box,” we say as we clock into yet another hour devoted to some app named after the action of a camera lens or after the surface on which chalk once squeaked. One of the many virtues of Voices from the Valley, Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff’s curiously unputdownable anthology of testimonies from tech workers, is the quality of attention in which it trains us—an attention whose sweep extends to the voices of the cooks and massage therapists who repair coders’ keyboard-hunched bodies as well as the contract workers who don’t get to eat in the cafeteria. These “tales from a smartwatch world in which the only taboo left was wasting time” vivify but also estrange the humans whose invisible labors make our world, stoking curiosity and anger in equal measure. “There are limits to talking,” reflects one interviewee, but this collection shows just how much listening can do.

Those voices from the Valley resonate with the voices from Midtown that have populated some of the freshest recent novels: Ling Ma’s Severance, Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves, and now Raven Leilani’s Luster—first novels narrated by young workers at the margins of publishing companies or startups at a moment when undead clichés about diversity provide the zombified muzak for an increasingly stratified culture industry. Of these, Luster is both the funniest and the most heartbreaking, sharing with the others an interest in the material forms of cultural products, whether thumb drives or Bible paper. “I am an open book,” protests its narrator; “I can be a beach read … I can get rid of all these clauses.” But Leilani’s satire manages to combine the momentum of a beach read with a bitterer aftertaste. icon