Each year around this time we send our readers into summer with a curated list of the titles that dazzled, challenged, and inspired us most over the past year. For this, the seventh-annual edition of Public Picks, we’ve asked our editors for the Public Thinker series, Literary Fiction, Higher Education, Children’s & Young Adult Literature, Urbanism, Global Black History, TV, Print/Screen, and Literature in Translation to tell us about their favorites. We hope you’ll find some surprises and future favorites of your own among them.
B. R. Cohen
Public Thinker Series
These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore (Norton). The Public Thinker series aims to host conversations with scholars who conceive of their work as part of a greater public dialogue. Lepore’s These Truths, a monumental achievement, bigger, broader, and heavier than a blurb can acknowledge, is squarely in this category. It may be the only 900+ page book I’ve ever read that I thought needed to be longer. Across those pages, the racial, gendered, and technological threads that give life to the 400-year span build a remarkable substrate from which to tell the history of our nation. As any number of reviewers have said, it certainly is a book for our time.
Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, by John Warner (Johns Hopkins University Press). This one, by writer and long-time visiting professor John Warner, is much more than its subtitle suggests. Ostensibly about ridding educational corridors of the five-paragraph model, it is more fully a treatise on higher education in modern America. The book is laced with subtle humor and appreciably legible commentary. It is reasonable but not shy, aware of the market conditions that dominate higher education and averse to their influence. (If you want the most Warner line in the book: “My mother … has long wondered why I can’t write the kind of book lots of people want to read. … I have wondered this myself, because I am a fan of money and the things one can buy with it.”) Warner has a second new book too, The Writer’s Practice (2019), offering more practical direction. Why They Can’t Write is the base text that comes before it, ready for the hands of policy makers and practitioners alike.
The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, by Jenn Stroud Rossmann (7.13). This charming work of fiction offers a recent historical setting for a technology-adjacent scene in early 2000s Silicon Valley. Rossmann is not only the engineer who reads a novel in the series of that title at this website, but an engineer who also writes novels. Unlike the possible and hopefully outdated stereotype of engineers and scientists writing fiction, though—so methodical, those arch paeans to rationalism—Rossmann is a novelist writing a novel. This one is witty, colorful, and compelling, drawing characters who evoke a setting grappling with the specter of a new digitally technological economy and culture; you know, the economy and culture that’s unsettling higher education in Why They Can’t Write; the one we see building across centuries in These Truths. That one.
Late in the Day, by Tessa Hadley (Harper). Like so many novels in the realist vein these days, this one’s starting point is a spare symmetry: two couples, one death, the problem of the remainder; complementary types, parallel betrayals. (The elegant donnée, or clean two-sentence pitch, is in fashion right now.) But within that scheme is a very middle-aged clutter, the mess of memories, possessions, resentments, fading achievements everyone carries around with them after a certain point. (It’s a very tender novel toward objects—a dead husband’s slippers, old unused tampons, so many keys to so many locks. In its way, it’s an inheritance novel.) All this can seem old-fashioned. But the novel has the virtue of knowing it. It’s a story about the end of a way of life: not just one lived within the heterosexually prescribed, haute bohemian bourgeoisie, but the life saturated with protective irony.
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams (Soho). No other sentences this year, as sentences, put me under as much of a spell. Not that it was an easy one to be under, particularly here; at almost 800 pages—and more than 300 stories!—there are too many of them to take in for long stretches, and I needed to come up for air frequently, to put the book down and walk away from it to something reassuringly dull. These are micro-fictions almost entirely without that form’s tendency toward showy cleverness, glimpses into kinds of peril, often sexual peril. As for the sentences, they seem to exist to demonstrate Chomsky’s point that recursion is the fundamental property of syntax; clauses sidle, interrupt, hide in so many ways that I was tempted to generate a list, although such a thing would be interminable. Among other things, Williams is a master of the unruly em dash, and you begin to suspect its presence even when it’s not there. All this can read like some American Delphic Oracle, cool and obscure, except that Williams is also, unexpectedly and sometimes grimly, funny.
Good Will Come from the Sea, by Christos Ikonomou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Archipelago). If there is something like a literature of the EU, this will be, for the present at least, what it looks like. The setting is the EU’s absolute margin, where it fades out into water and rock: an unnamed Aegean island, close to the celebrated tourist spots but not of them. The characters are internal migrants, Greeks leaving Athens after austerity has turned the city into a zombieland of capital flight, reversing the country’s postwar demographic trends and unwinding history in the process, retreating from the city to “a kingdom of caves”; this is a fiction of reverse, in which modernity looks like a mythic punishment. Instead of new opportunity, these urbanized migrants find resistance, suspicion, profiteering cartels, globalization everywhere—South African oranges and Dutch tomatoes moldering in crates while the local landscape dries out as if under some obscure, virtually supernatural interdiction. In four linked stories, we see these migrants face off against their local persecutors and lose, caught between dignity and survival. Everyone is becoming unhinged, reduced to a constant inner monologue that bounces between panic, grandiosity, and moments of insight: “Planning for the past, feeling nostalgic for the future. Today gets caught in a vise between tomorrow and yesterday, and it writhes and dies.”
The Tyranny of Metrics, by Jerry Z. Muller (Princeton University Press). The question of what does and doesn’t count as “knowledge” is a hot potato in this dysfunctional political climate. Jerry Muller’s important book deconstructs the tendency of organizations—including universities—to attribute unique authority to the numerical measurement of a certain set of achievements, outcomes, and practices. A pernicious result of the “tyranny of metrics”? The tail wags the dog: universities mold themselves to metrics instead of mission.
Citizens by Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship, by Deondra Rose (Oxford University Press). Since the Second World War, women in the United States have made massive leaps in educational attainment, and the economic and political benefits that follow; since 1981, women have earned more college degrees than men. Rose offers a fascinating and entirely persuasive analysis of the function of US national higher education policy in redrawing the map of college access. Gender equity was an unintended consequence of policies that both redistributed and regulated access to educational resources.
Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom, by Joan Wallach Scott (Columbia University Press). The question of academic freedom lives right in the belly of faculty identity. In its ideal form, it represents the freedom of faculty to conduct research and teach in their areas of expertise, based on the assumption that the knowledge they produce contributes to a public good, and requires independence and professional self-regulation. Yet each component of that ideal is under assault right now—including the meaning and function of universities themselves, the professional roles of their faculties, and the expectation that a civil society values knowledge as a public good. Scott provides a history of academic freedom in theory and in practice, and offers a bracing analysis on behalf of its strategic defense in an uncertain future.
Children’s & Young Adult Literature
How can I pick just three titles to celebrate from this past year’s amazingly rich crop of children’s books? May I instead imitate Lewis Carroll’s Dodo, who exclaims that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”?
If not, then here is slimmest list of picks I can provide. Picture books this year did a gorgeous job reminding us of all the brilliant women and people of color whose accomplishments too often get forgotten. Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s powerful ode to The Undefeated (Versify, 2019)—Black Americans who accomplished amazing things despite toxic social conditions—is invigorating. But my personal favorites are two nonfiction titles that put singular creative women squarely in the spotlight: Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar’s Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré (HarperCollins, 2019) and Mara Rockliff and Simona Ciraolo’s Lights! Camera! Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker (Chronicle, 2018). Both of these books immerse readers into the particular cultural milieu that their subjects inhabited, using a mix of magically evocative language and illustrations that wittily deploy some of the same artistic techniques that these remarkable women helped to pioneer.
Rarely do I agree with the prize committee who hands out the Newbery Medal, but I was on board with their decision to honor Meg Medina’s middle-grade novel Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Candlewick, 2018), which paints a lively picture of how its 11-year-old Latina heroine navigates everyday life as a middle-schooler while also coping with a beloved relative’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. More recently, I was blown away by Dactyl Hill Squad (Arthur A. Levine, 2018), the first installment of Daniel José Older’s middle-grade fantasy series set in an alternate version of Civil War–era New York. It stars a strong female heroine who grapples with historically accurate forms of prejudice while learning how to ride the dinosaurs that have somehow survived to roam the streets of Brooklyn.
My favorite young adult novels from this past year likewise feature a productively uneasy mix of realism and fantasy. Debut author Laura E. Weymouth’s enchanting portal story, The Light between Worlds (HarperTeen, 2018), juxtaposes a Narnia-esque alternative world with post–World War Two England and, in so doing, vividly evokes the pain of dislocation and depression. Similarly, national treasure A. S. King weaves a ghostly presence into her painfully realistic account of how rooted white supremacy and misogyny still are in a small Pennsylvania town: don’t miss Dig (Dutton, 2019).
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, by Daniel Immerwahr (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In the 1890s, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the definitive closing of the American frontier, putting an end to a cultural and geographic foundation of American society (Western expansion). Yet, five years after the Frontier Thesis was first articulated, the United States went to war with the ailing Spanish Empire, easily defeating it and picking up its colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Immerwahr’s engrossing history of America’s “hidden” empire will not be a clandestine surprise for those who have paid attention to expansionary impulses over the past century, but it is a beautifully detailed account of how it was achieved. How to Hide an Empire is at its best when describing the way that soft power is deployed abroad through standards that American companies set and the dollarization of the world economy, making US influence in the world a feat of technocratic management with the implicit threat of military action.
Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, by Priya Satia (Penguin Press). The irony of massive 18th-century fortunes amassed by British Quakers through the manufacture of firearms is the central theme of Satia’s engrossing history. However, the case is not just treated as an interesting narrative tidbit to hang a global history on; rather, it directly informs the bold argument of the book: the success of the industrial revolution is intertwined with violence. Even when some critics recognized the Quakers’ hypocrisy, it was too late; the latter argued that guns, and the killing that went with them, were an inescapable aspect of British society. Satia’s examination of their refusal to make a moral choice about the manufacture of weapons provides a platform for discussing the wider acceptance of violence in society and the growing depersonalization of gun-based killing. This history could not have been written in a more pertinent moment for Americans to learn from.
Global Black History
Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, by Imani Perry (Duke University Press). What is patriarchy? This question is at the heart of Vexy Thing, but Perry does more than define patriarchy. She names it, identifies it, locates its global reach, examines its historical construction, and explores its present-day impact. Vexy Thing does a lot and in a good way. It is a capacious work of black feminist theory that works through patriarchy’s violence to imagine personhood, livability, and a more just world.
Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality, 1848–2016, edited by Félix Germain and Silyane Larcher (University of Nebraska Press). This book’s impressive timespan and extensive geography may, on the surface, be a function of the global reach of France’s erstwhile empire. But in reality, it is a testament to the deep roots and transnational reach of black French women’s activism. From South America to Europe and from Africa to the Antilles, this collection assembles a range of black French women’s contributions to the global discourse on citizenship and belonging from the 19th century to our present moment.
Superstore, created by Justin Spitzer (NBC, 2015–). Currently killing its fourth season (and recently renewed for a fifth), this consistently underrated single-camera sitcom, set in a fictional Walmart-esque hypermarket in St. Louis, offers a clearer vision of American corporate brutality than most anything else on TV. Cloud 9, whose name’s irony is not lost on its jaded laborers, sells everything from diapers to guns. The corporation’s employee health insurance packages have exorbitant deductibles and paid maternity leave is a pipe dream. Fronted by the acerbic Amy, played by real-life activist America Ferrera, the store’s workers navigate tornadoes, puddles of vomit in aisle 14, affairs and infidelities, pregnancies, clogged toilets, suspicious moles, undocumented immigration statuses, the scourge of ableism, and more, all to the strains of the Muzak filtering down from the glare of the store’s fluorescent track-lit ceiling. Unlike other major network sitcoms (ahem, Modern Family), Superstore eschews sentimentality. Perhaps the show’s biting evocations of the capitalist sensorium awakened by Cloud 9’s endless shelves of blinding commodities are too real for some viewers? Regardless, they’re missing out, because this show is funny as hell.
Dirty John, created by Alexandra Cunningham (Bravo, 2018–). In search of an antidote to the proliferation of true-crime shows that revel in recounting men’s systematic destruction of women’s lives with nary a mention of misogyny? Look no further than Alexandra Cunningham’s Dirty John, a new anthology series whose first season is based on the Los Angeles Times podcast of the same name. Documented serial abuser John Meehan, skin-crawlingly portrayed by Eric Bana, worms his way into the affections of Debra Newell, a successful Orange County businesswoman who looks like she belongs on Real Housewives, but really just wants someone to rub her feet at night and make her smoothies in the morning. Flawlessly acted by Connie Britton, Debra is seduced by John, who is too good to be true until he is too evil to be believed—even by a desperate woman. The show chronicles nothing less than heteronormativity’s violent embrace, a once-welcome hug from which it becomes near impossible for Debra to extricate herself. Luckily she has her two daughters to help her. These delightful young women may talk like they’re from the Valley, but they fight like they’re on The Walking Dead. To find out how, you’d better watch the show.
PEN15, created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman (Hulu, 2019–). Imagine the awkwardness of a show about middle school whose two oversexed protagonists are played by 30-something women. Then imagine that the rest of the kids on said show are actually portrayed by pubescent early teenagers. As you’ve probably guessed, PEN15 is the show I have asked you to imagine. And it exists. And it is glorious. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle costar as Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, two besties surfing the vicissitudes of youth at the turn of the millennium. Together, they encounter masturbation, AOL Instant Messenger, thongs, and huffing. The results are both cringeworthy and hilarious. The duo also confront the casual sexism and racism of some of their fellow classmates, who are not too young to reproduce their parents’ patriarchal white supremacy. In one memorable episode, several girls from school tell Maya that she can’t act the part of Posh Spice in their Spice Girls–themed group project, with the unsubtle implication being that she isn’t white, so it wouldn’t make sense. Erskine’s adult revisitation of this scene performs trauma work through the medium of comedy—which is what only the best comedy does.
Editor in Chief
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, by Andrea Lawlor (Vintage). People don’t write enough about sex these days, IMHO. One of the many virtues of Lawlor’s novel is its profusion of sex scenes: about one every 10 pages. (Take that, Henry Miller.) Another plus is their sheer variety, thanks to the book’s premise: a shape-shifting protagonist who changes genders, looks, and roles as readily as the book’s author moves between updated fairy tales and minutely observed realism.
Transcription, by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown). If you like your narrators the way I like my weather reports—unreliable but gripping—you will enjoy Atkinson’s latest. Juliet Armstrong, who worked for MI5 during WWII, finds her past returning a decade later to dog her new life as a caustic BBC producer. The narrative deceives the reader as handily as its protagonist deceives those around her. One part Penelope Fitzgerald, one part John le Carré, with a twist.
- Copyright and the Value of Performance, 1770–1911, by Derek Miller (Cambridge University Press)
- Who Owns the News?: A History of Copyright, by Will Slauter (Stanford University Press)
- The Library Book, by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster)
- The Book, by Amaranth Borsuk (MIT Press)
At a time of crisis for copyright, its history has kept scholars busy. Most, though, have taken for granted that until the 20th century, at least, the exemplary form of intellectual property was a book. Not so, Miller and Slauter show. Centuries before the digital turn, dramatic performance (in Miller’s account) and daily news (in Slauter’s) challenged book-based models of copyright. Each provides a different model of a media history that goes beyond and beside the book.
Libraries, too, go beyond the book in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, an improbably gripping account of the fire in the Los Angeles Central Library that in 1986 destroyed half a million books, including the complete works of Ray Bradbury. “Part temple, part cathedral, and part fire hazard” (Los Angeles Times), the library evoked by Orlean is both a repository of vulnerable physical objects and a pretext for community that stems from “shared desks and shared books and shared restrooms.” For many patrons, Orlean reminds us, “the library may be the only place they have to be in close quarters with disturbed or profoundly dirty people,” and the role played by fish freezers in her account of the soggy books’ fate in the aftermath of the fire echoes the point. Orlean’s juxtaposition of books with the smelliest of foods reminds us that books are encountered through more senses than sight alone.
Like Orlean, poet, scholar and artist Amaranth Borsuk gives a punning title to The Book. Also like Orlean, Borsuk uses the senses—in her case, touch more prominently than smell—to make the significance of the codex felt anew, “when the tablet and scroll have come back to us in full force.” Comparing palm-leaf sutras to Venetian blinds and cuneiform tablets to matchbooks, Borsuk conveys the form and function of unfamiliar writing technologies with a vividness that shows us new things about the codex that we thought we knew.
Literature in Translation
The Hole, by José Revueltas, translated from the Spanish by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes (New Directions). A classic of what one might call prison literature, this novella, translated for the first time into English, is spiritually connected to the Tlatelolco massacre of more than 300 students protesting the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. It is ethnographic literature in the best sense: each floor of the prison fits seamlessly into a class analysis of Mexican society; each character is embedded in a network of licit and illicit social relations. A dense but rewarding 80 pages.
The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin (Penguin). How do you read an anthology that isn’t organized chronologically? The experience of reading this volume, as Haruki Murakami advises us in the introduction, is like “being guided through a foreign town by someone who lives in the country and speaks the language but who doesn’t know that much about the geography or history.” That said, fear not. The spread of 35 short stories from 32 different authors, covering the 19th century to the present, has enough to satiate all matter of literary tastes.