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.
Editor in Chief
Anne Serre, The Beginners, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson
Only two of Anne Serre’s slim, almost parable-like novels have reached the Anglosphere, and they’ve taken a while to do so: 1992’s hypnotic Les gouvernantes finally arrived in 2018 as The Governesses, in Mark Hutchinson’s translation, and Hutchinson and New Directions are back now with The Beginners, a deft rendering of 2011’s Les débutants. I can’t recommend either highly enough, and The Governesses should’ve started a Serre cult; but The Beginners reveals a less surreal, more restrained Serre, on territory that should be overfamiliar but instead somehow still feels like news. It’s 2002, and 43-year-old Anna suddenly falls in love—a phrase Serre uses without embarrassment—with a relative stranger who is more than a decade older. She was not unhappy; her partner of 20 years is loving, attentive, still sexually magnetic; but she explodes her life anyway.
The setup might seem so familiarly French, so Rohmeresque, as to veer toward caricature. Echoes of other, male-centered literary models (Elective Affinities; Swann in Love) are hard to avoid. But her sentences resist cliché even when borrowing its terms. Serre writes with plain exactness, without accumulating any clutter of mere thingness; the novel is clean, almost diagrammatic, but still immersive. There are no extraneous opinions (political or moral), no novelistic stage-business; but unlike the “character vapor” Brandon Taylor has recently described in contemporary fiction, there’s a hardness to Serre’s three characters; they’re people you can handle, turn around in various lights, feel their resistant weight.
What’s plumbed is a kind of love that’s not quite lust, not admiration or fantasy or self-fulfillment, even if it is selfishly destructive, but something like the intensest kind of curiosity—a backward-turned longing, because it’s a curiosity about memory. A love that asks: What am I being reminded of, what homeland am I being dragged back to? “When you meet someone who reminds you powerfully of someone else but you don’t know who,” we’re told, “the sensible thing to do, no doubt, is to run for your life.” The problem is, what direction is that?
Antiquities Section Editor
Michele Renee Salzman, The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience, and Resurgence in Late Antiquity
Roman historian Michele Salzman puts new wine into old skins by revising the weary early modern narratives that underpin theories of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. She focuses in on the city of Rome in order to show that somewhere on the continuum between demolition and transformation there lies a more complex reality born from resilience. Salzman focuses on the senatorial aristocracy and the regular men and women of Rome who persevered and helped to rebuild the eternal city again and again. She uses an impressive mix of archaeology and literature not only to bring the materiality of late antique Rome into focus but to underscore the resilient nature of the Romans who inhabited the city for generations. Overall, Falls of Rome demonstrates that perhaps we have not been using the right metrics for assessing this or any “fall” after all.
Higher Education Section Editor
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias
“Schizophrenia terrifies,” writes Esmé Weijun Wang in the opening salvo of her essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias. “It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.”
As opening salvos go, this one teaches us a great deal about the book to follow. It is abstract, yet gothic. It is an understated description of heightened affect (“terrifies,” “lunacy”). It is as much authoritative, even professorial, as it is descriptive of an unruly cognitive disarray that heeds no conventions of order. “Schizophrenia” is the subject of the book’s first sentence; “terrifies” its verb. The fact that this verb has no object distributes its effects universally, making it impossible to grasp or pin down.
Wang writes as a person who has had serial psychiatric diagnoses over the years (bipolar disorder → schizophrenia → schizoaffective disorder), as well as Lyme disease and autoimmune disorders. Wang narrates her experience of psychosis and illness not as abstractions, but as elements shaping and shaped by a life: her relationships, traumas, style, ethnic identity, achievement.
The Collected Schizophrenias offers a meditation on cognitive diversity writ large and, perhaps most powerfully, writ within Wang’s own experience as she cycles through episodes and modes of psychosis. Wang writes, “I would occasionally consider the utility of seeing psychosis as an ability: I could improve my mental health by thinking of schizoaffective disorder as a tool to access something useful, as opposed to a terrifying pathology.” The book offers a rare chance to enter the diagnosis; its superpower, to understand psychosis not as the entirety of a person, but as one element of the mixture that comprises her identity.
Frank Andre Guridy
Sports Section Editor
W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: The True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
If you are looking for a book that can enhance your understanding of what reparations for slavery can look like, look no further than W. Caleb McDaniel’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Sweet Taste of Liberty. The book stands out among the plethora of works published on slavery over the last decade and a half. It is a model of prodigious research and skillful storytelling that reminds us of the precariousness of being a “free” Black person in the midst of a boom slave economy, while revealing the determination of the formerly enslaved to define what freedom meant after slavery ended.
McDaniel illustrates these dynamics though a microhistory of Henrietta Wood, an extraordinary woman who was born a slave in Kentucky, achieved her freedom for five years in Cincinnati, Ohio, only for it to be snatched away when she was kidnapped and sold back into slavery, where she labored in Mississippi and Texas for several years until the end of the Civil War. McDaniel traces Wood’s movements back to Cincinnati, where, in 1870, she boldly sued Zebulon Ward, a deputy sheriff who was responsible for her recapture for damages and lost wages. Remarkably, Wood won her case, though she received only a fraction of what she sought in damages. Still, McDaniel argues that this is the largest known sum ever awarded for restitution for slavery by a court in the United States. This exquisitely told story helps us understand how former slaves defined restitution for the damages wrought by slavery and how such a history can widen the imagination of what “reparations” can look like for the descendants of the enslaved today.
Literary Fiction Section Editor
Good One: A Podcast about Jokes, hosted by Jesse David Fox
The silver lining of a postconcussive spell this summer (during which I was banned from reading and looking at screens) is that I discovered Good One: A Podcast about Jokes. The structure of each episode is simple: host Jesse David Fox first plays a joke made by his comedian guest and then the two of them dissect it. Where did the idea come from? How did it evolve? Why this word, not that? What makes it work? Fox and his guests try to answer that age-old, endlessly fascinating question: What makes us laugh? The comics open up to Fox because he understands an essential truth of their work: laughter is spontaneous but jokes are meticulously constructed works of art. Fox, who switches easily between giggly fanboy to astute cultural critic, is an endearing interviewer. Somehow, despite his relentless questions about minutiae, the jokes stay funny. If you have a passing curiosity in comedy, there’s a lot to enjoy here. But if you, like me, are obsessed with stand-up and fascinated by the mechanics of jokes, you won’t be able to get enough. Pro tip: start with the Mike Birbiglia episode.
B-Sides Series Editor
Nick Hornby, How to be Good
I recently heard a This American Life episode about a zealous climate advocate in Seattle whose oblivious devotion to “planet work” had wrecked his family life—he ignored his partner, turned his kids into mouthpieces at protests, banned family travel by plane, etcetera. It got me thinking how thoughtfully Nick Hornby had framed that very dilemma—public devotion to an “inconvenient truth” coming at the cost of the private lives nearby—in his 2002 How to be Good. I am still in the middle of rereading, so I cannot quite recall what kindles the burning zeal of purist David. However, when Katie (long-suffering partner of the purist) opens by telling him that he is “very, very aggrieved, for reasons that remain obscure to me at this point. Although I’m sure you’ll enlighten me,” the whole impossible situation came flooding back to me. Whether David’s grievance with the state of the world at large justifies his local actions is not simply a philosophical conundrum—Hornby makes it into one family’s central fact of life.
Literature in Translation Section Editor
Talking Politics, produced and edited by Catherine Carr
Talking Politics: History of Ideas, produced and edited by Catherine Carr
Hosted by the Cambridge political theorist David Runciman and the political economist Helen Thompson, Talking Politics has been a must-listen for me ever since the morning after the Brexit referendum, in the summer of 2016. While most episodes focus on UK, European, and American politics, the show often veers into literature, the arts, philosophy, and economics to make sense of everything from superforecasting and the novels of Hilary Mantel to how the pandemic has changed the nature of work. In Talking Politics: History of Ideas, a spinoff podcast, Runciman narrates the history of some of today’s most important political ideas through thinkers from Mary Wollstonecraft to Mahatma Ghandi, from Thomas Hobbes to Hannah Arendt. It is the crash course on politics you always knew you needed but never thought you would enjoy.
Antiquities Section Editor
Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
This is a book about winter. The novel’s protagonists, Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin—who happen to be foils, rivals, and mutual caretakers—uneasily interact in an isolated social landscape as fractured as the lake ice. They are surrounded by a coterie of deceptively facile characters: a spiteful shopkeeper, a laconic brother, an anonymous dog that starts out obedient and goes crazy by the end. If you have been charmed previously by Jansson’s Moomins, prepare to be unsettled by her fiction for adults. You can leisurely read The True Deceiver in a couple of afternoons, and then question every relationship in your life.
Quizzical & Shoptalk Series Editor
Katie Zhao, How We Fall Apart
Katie Zhao’s How We Fall Apart takes the world of Gossip Girl, crosses it with Pretty Little Liars, updates it with more awareness to race-, class-, and gender-based inequalities, and throws in some plot points that straddle the line between campy and absurd. In the first novel of a series, Nancy attends the prestigious Sinclair Prep in New York City, where she is friends with the people who employ her mother in her second job, as a housekeeper. Her social circle is bound by academic drive and mutually assured destruction, as they share secrets and history that would obliterate the futures they’re carefully curating for themselves. In the aftermath of a tragedy in their friend group, these secrets risk exposure thanks to “The Proctor,” an anonymous figure on the anonymous gossip site to which the student body is devoted. As they seek answers to both the tragedy and the source of their saboteur, more mysteries emerge and intersect with their present troubles, leading to a theatrical conclusion with more questions to be addressed as the series develops.