Here at Public Books our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with compelling, thought-provoking articles, but when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a new behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Tana French, The Secret Place
These days, many mysteries alternate between the point of view of a detective and that of a nameless killer poised to strike again. French’s new novel is an interesting variation on this technique. Instead of split screens, we get flashbacks that heighten suspense and provide narrative texture. And instead of known criminals, French gives us suspects—a group of teenage girls at a posh Dublin boarding school.
Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance
The Massachusetts senator’s coming-of-age story begins (and in many ways ends) in Oklahoma, with her hard-working, downwardly mobile father. Her education in family life, law, and politics continues across states (New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts) and statuses (wife, mother, divorced single mother, adjunct, tenured law professor, federal watchdog, senator), crafting a story of political ascendance driven by her intimate experience.
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea
Lee’s dystopian fiction sticks close to contemporary America while eschewing any kind of explanation about how his world of hierarchically connected, physically enclosed, and distant zones (charters, production colonies, and counties) came to be. But then again, perhaps the obsessions with self-improvement and health that drive the charter residents and trickle down the scale of classed enclaves epitomize the naive and ahistorical perspective of his land’s afflicted inhabitants.
Charles Palliser, Rustication
Like legions of others I enjoyed getting lost in the author’s epic first novel, The Quincunx, and looked forward to another souped-up Dickensian mystery. His new novel, though, an ersatz gothic tale following a 17-year-old booted from Cambridge and forced to share a creepy old mansion with his scheming mother and sister on the boggy south coast of England, is smaller and meaner in just about every way. Still atmospheric and reasonably clever, it’s also claustrophobic and repetitive and ultimately over-explained. Increasingly predictable in its procession of lurid plot twists, it unfortunately reminded me a bit of the US version of the TV series The Killing.
Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French by Miriam Kochan, revised by Siân Reynolds.
This oft-cited material history of the world between 1400 and 1800 is so wide-ranging it can be tough to maintain focus and forward momentum. I’m trying again.
Ken C. Kawashima, Fabian Schafer, and Robert Stolz, eds., Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader
This is a long-overdue collection of essays by the pre-war Japanese critical theorist, with a selection of “Critical Expansions” by current thinkers. Tosaka offers a thoroughgoing historical materialism that thinks space and time together, extending this through diverse topics such as journalism, film, technology, economics, policing, and laughter. Tosaka, a fierce critic of fascism and imperialism, died in prison in 1945.
Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome
This guy could write history. Covering 14 BCE to 68 CE, bookended by the deaths of Augustus and Nero, here we have soldier rebellions, clashes with Germanic tribes, the growing menace of brooding emperors—all told with a flair for the biting aside. Tacitus promises to “write without indignation or partisanship; in my case the customary incentives to these are lacking.” He also sagely points out that “Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.”
Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches
Like many readers I’ve grown weary of witches and vampires, but after two grueling semesters of science-heavy course work, I was desperate to find a book I could (forgive me) sink my teeth into. Discovery tells the story of Diana Bishop, a young scholar (and, it so happens, a witch in denial) who discovers a long-lost enchanted alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian library. The discovery of this manuscript attracts the attention of all kinds of creatures—witches and wizards, demons and vampires, including a 1500-year-old vampire that Diana can’t seem to resist. Well-written and thoroughly researched, this book (first in a trilogy) has brought a little more excitement to my subway commute.
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
Freud and Breuer’s most famous case study, Anna O. (real name: Bertha Pappenheim), found her identity and purpose, after and even despite the psychologists’ treatment, as a feminist. Herman offers us Anna O. and many other studies of trauma patients, with a focus on what the trauma victim needs in therapy, and the history and slow development of treatment methods. It is comprehensive and beautifully written.
Joseph Brodsky, So Forth
I carried So Forth with me on a recent trip in Iceland, and his verse went perfectly with the natural landscapes and my adventures there. For example, these lines from “Admonition”—“Magnificent in the distance, meaningless closer up, mountains are but a surface standing on end.”
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
I was initially excited about being assigned Salinger’sThe Catcher in the Rye for one of my classes this fall, simply because it’s become one of the coming-of-age novels you’re just supposed to have read in middle school, which I never did. Though I love Salinger and his style, I detest Holden Caulfield, the main character everyone seems to adore and identify with. I imagine if I were still thirteen years old and hating my life, I’d understand his whining; now, however, I find it annoying. Despite that, I dig the story line and will absolutely finish the novel.
Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
Atop the pile on my roving nightstand, temporarily located in a mountain house in Montana, lies Rebecca Solnit’s moving book The Faraway Nearby. I’ve read countless graceful, self-conscious memoirs, and this one at the midway point stands out less for its eloquent meditations on the themes (aging, decay, memory) and the textile metaphors that define the genre than for Solnit’s thoughts about distance (flagged in the book’s title, quoted from Georgia O’Keefe) and her evocative treatment of arctic places. Surrounded by sunlit, verdant beauty in grizzly country, I find myself longing to visit Iceland. Or maybe just northern Manitoba (for the polar bears).
Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
I loved The Peabody Sisters, Marshall’s first book, which provides the perfect balance of social and cultural context and detailed life story that characterizes the best biographies. Margaret Fuller is just as skillful a biography, but even though Fuller was fascinating and I enjoy the book when I get around to reading it, it is taking me forever to read, so maybe I’m not enjoying it that much.
E. Lockhart, The Boyfriend List
I sent Lockhart’s four boyfriend books to my 13-year-old daughter at camp. When she came home, I asked if I should read them, and she said yes. She also said that the footnotes show exactly what it is like inside a teenager’s brain. So I am reading for enjoyment and anthropological information, both successfully. I have a feeling I’ll be finished with all four before I get through the next chapter of Margaret Fuller.
Angelica Garnett, Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood
I saw a reference to Garnett’s memoir in an article about Charleston, her childhood home. I picked it up for Bloomsbury gossip, but stayed for the beautiful writing and evocatively textured account of post-WWI Britain.