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
Tove Jansson, Fair Play, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
A love story, a happy one, if comprised primarily of the kinds of eruptive, inconclusive quarrels that long-term couples both shrink from and demand; an instruction manual about the conditions in which art can be made; and one of the best books I know about uninvited, or only grudgingly invited, houseguests. Like so much of Jansson’s work, it’s a series of obscurely autobiographical vignettes, here about the lives of Mari and Jonna, two artists (in words, in images) whose tacit respect for the other’s needs for nourishing solitude is continually being worked out in practice, sometimes awkwardly—it’s a book of little irritations and sudden breakthroughs. They travel together, endure each other’s moods, resent each other’s pasts, and respect each other’s “processes,” as we might now say. They offer stringent kinds of support for each other, sometimes in criticism, sometimes just by keeping up the guardrails to the other’s aloneness. It’s a fantastic end-of-summer book, because it’s a reminder of how good it can feel (has just felt) to be free to be distant. “On the inconvenience of other people” indeed.
Nick Fuller Googins, The Great Transition
“I was always on the edge of hope and despair,” author Nick Fuller Googins said at the launch of his debut novel, The Great Transition, at P&T Knitwear last month. “But I wanted to write a hopeful climate novel.”
The Great Transition begins fifteen years after “Day Zero,” the moment in our fictional future where we’ve achieved net-zero carbon emissions. But as Emi—the book’s 15-year-old narrator—constantly hears from her mother, a hero of the Great Transition, Day Zero isn’t something to celebrate. Millions died, climate criminals are still alive, and a new climate crisis is always a possibility.
In a time where our best case has become best-worst-case, I found in The Great Transition the thing Nick Fuller Googins sought to achieve: a feeling of hope, even as it’s sobered by climate tragedies both unavoidable and already unavoided. Thoroughly researched science and devastating depictions of loss—border camps; floods; a burned Transition worker getting weaned off a dwindling supply of morphine; the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsing, broadcast on a jumbotron at a warming center in Maine—give the book believability and ballast. But it’s the characters that are its solar power. They fight for systemic change, and when what comes isn’t good enough, they fight again. They give everything up—even though they’ve already lost everything.
Benjamin R. Cohen
Public Thinker Series Editor
Alicia Kennedy, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating
I knew of this book because I subscribe to the author’s newsletter, because we are in The Newsletter Decade, a nice throwback, I think. Kennedy’s writing in the newsletter, and abounding in this book, is graceful, personal, insightful, and encouraging. I picked the book up because I had been following previews in the newsletter, which must be a publicist’s dream scenario. It’s tricky, because No Meat Required enters a crowded field in food, cooking, cuisine, culture, and climate change. You don’t need Public Books to point that out. I like the honesty and reasonableness of this one, so that it sits on the nightstand where Kennedy’s powerful voice helps elevate it above the field. It’s in large part a synthesis of resistance to industrial diets, which is another reason I bought it (food studies research), and it’s nice that it doesn’t lean on needless theoretical yawning (justice, sovereignty, colonialism). Yet the stuff of that theory is threaded throughout, it’s just, you get a work about veganism and vegetarianism that lifts the reader up rather than being knocked down.
B-Sides Series Editor
Lydia Millet, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
Fictionalizing the enormities of World War II is a mainstay of modern American publishing. How readers admire the inventions that exceed—or at least complement—the bare facts when it comes to conveying the mind-shattering truth of the Holocaust. There are, though, virtually no American novels about our own acts of WWII genocide: Hiroshima (debatable) and three days later Nagsaki (incontrovertible).
One strangely overlooked exception is Lydia Millet’s 2005 Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. It attacks the problem in the same science-fictional way as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, one of its few antecedents in the “American novels about Allied atrocities” department. It opens by imagining the germinal A-bomb moment (the Los Alamos test) as trigger for a time-travel event, which blows three of that bomb’s original conceivers/inventors—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—forward into 21st century America. (Fascinatingly, back in 1947 Szilard himself wrote a science-fiction story about the legacy of his role as atomic inventor: “My Trial as a War Criminal”).
The book is very loosely plotted, and some absurd chaos ensues. But Millet is brilliant at depicting various ways such scientists might react when honestly confronting the long-term consequences of their inventions. (In The Food of the Gods, H. G. Wells has a wonderfully applicable line: “One does not know which is the most amazing, the greatness or the littleness of these scientific and philosophical men.”)
First, Millet lets you see how well they meant: “They worked because they wanted to see; they worked because they worshipped the structure deep within the universe, what was sweetly unknown and could only with great perseverance be drawn into the light. As others might feel tenderness for a child or a home, so they cherished and nurtured their science. It was love that led them to the bomb.” And then she shows you that their postbomb ethics, shaped by regret. In his posthumous existence as nuclear-disarmament campaigner, she imagines her time-travelling Oppenheimer “do[ing] his best to undo himself.” Can he cancel out the boom with a balm?
Her protagonists reluctantly come to accept that their legacy is not their intentions, but the deadly white heat at the “pure and radiant heart” of a nuclear explosion. I can easily imagine many a well-intentioned inventor (Louis Fieser, napalm; Arthur Galston, Agent Orange) sharing the conclusion of Millet’s Oppenheimer: “He had done his best and finally it was nothing to what his worst had been. He could almost laugh now at the smallness of his good intentions.”
Systems and Futures Section Editor
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
This is a book about detectives. I know, I know, I’m nearly 85 years late to the Rebecca party. Sorry, I hadn’t been born yet! My eighth-grade English teacher Ms. Thirkield told me to read this book, but it was always the kind of novel you check out at the library but have to return before you get to the bottom of your book stack. I did exactly that for fifteen years before I opened it two weeks ago and was immediately captivated. This is Jane Eyre for the 20th century. This is Sherlock Holmes for girls.