Each May we send our readers into summer with a curated list of the titles that dazzled, challenged, and inspired us most over the past year (or so). For this, the ninth-annual edition of Public Picks, section editors for Global Black History, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Print/Screen, Sports, TV, and Systems & Futures; series editors for Public Thinker and B-Sides; and one of our editors in chief tell us about their favorites. We hope you’ll find some surprises and future favorites of your own among them.
Systems & Futures
Remaking Berlin: A History of the City through Infrastructure, 1920–2020, by Timothy Moss (MIT Press). Remaking Berlin is a magnum opus, not because it is long (though it is), but because it is the result of a career spent studying the infrastructure of this remarkable city. Berlin has been through a lot over the past century, and at every turn of political ideology the infrastructure was there, not (for the most part) ripped out with regime change, but adapted, and adapted again until the geography of pipes, lines, tracks, tunnels, and conduits becomes not just an underpinning of the city, but a traceable map of its history.
Diving into the archive, Moss asked questions of the built environment that startle for their obviousness and their rarity, like, What becomes of an urban sewer system when the city it serves is split in two, each half governed by antagonistic political views? Or how do freshwater systems give form to urban politics (and urban boundaries) in governments as proximate in time and impossibly different in spirit as Weimar republicanism was from Nazi fascism? Or how did propaganda change as public infrastructures under socialism were flipped with vertiginous speed into those feeding neoliberal profiteering?
Moss doesn’t just ask these questions; he answers them and many more. He is a gifted writer, and the book is a ball. My favorite section is about the sewers during the Cold War. What to do with capitalist shit? Sell it to the socialists, it turns out. A pattern of exporting toxicity (human and industrial waste) toward the east that holds true through to today. Amazing.
Atmospheric Noise: The Indefinite Urbanism of Los Angeles, by Marina Peterson (Duke University Press). I am a great fan of Peterson’s essay “Wind Matters,” in the collection Between Matter and Method: Encounters in Anthropology and Art (2017), written as a series of roughly hundred-word prose poems about instrumentation, vibration, and sound. In the spirit of full disclosure, Peterson and I coedited Between Matter and Method—a text full of careful attempts to bend textual style (form) to suit the expressive needs of the topic (content). All the contributions are admirable, but Peterson’s prose poems are especially memorable for their simplicity and approachability. They stick in the mind.
It is an absolute joy to see her take this form up again as a part of her new book, Atmospheric Noise, on airport/airplane noise at LAX, where prose poems fit smoothly into a grounded ethnography of indeterminate objects (like atmospheres and noise). Peterson’s prose is always lyric, tidal almost, but she sacrifices neither scholarly rigor nor theoretical ferocity in her pursuit of how sound gets us into questions, spaces, activities, constructions, and the politics of infrastructure. Atmospheric Noise is the story of a city remade (parts indeed sacrificed) around an airport, flight paths, and racket. It’s also the story of instrumentation, calibration, and how we both measure and experience what we claim to know. It’s a shining example of what, with care, ethnography can be.
Atmospheric Noise is the most recent release in a new(ish) series at Duke University Press called Elements, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Nicole Starosielski. Every book they deliver is, like Peterson’s, smart and a pleasure to read.
Public Thinker Series
Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice, edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese (University of Minnesota Press). It’s either a renaissance or a flourishing or a next phase, but this book is part of the new centerpiece for food studies. It’s a food studies where issues of racial and environmental justice are the anchor, not side points to connect to. The publisher says it well in the jacket copy, that this book “analyzes how Blackness is contested through food, differing ideas of what makes our sustenance ‘healthy,’ and Black individuals’ own beliefs about what their cuisine should be.” To achieve that, because the book does, Garth and Reese have assembled a roster of writers who offer readable yet complicated stories. It isn’t just a book responding to our times, but one charting where our times should go.
Your Computer Is on Fire, edited by Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Philip (MIT Press). I’m on an edited-volume kick, apparently, because this one is also a powerhouse and this one also comes with jacket copy the publisher already nailed, so it’s best to use it: “Techno-utopianism is dead: Now is the time to pay attention to the inequality, marginalization, and biases woven into our technological systems.” How well put. Racism, sexism, colonialism: you are part of computing, not odd side effects. And even if the subject matter differs, this one, like Black Food Matters, is an all-star collection of readable and complex stories, all aimed at ensuring the naive view of neutral technology gets buried and, please, left in the past.
Editor in Chief
The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness, by Patrick Wright (Repeater). In 1974, the German novelist Uwe Johnson—then three volumes through what would be his four-volume masterpiece, Jahrestage (Anniversaries)—tried to vanish. Having spent much of his adult life alternating between West Berlin and New York’s Upper West Side, Johnson took refuge in the evocatively named Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey in estuarial Kent, one of modernity’s forgotten places. Sheerness restored to him the marshy, tidal environment of the Baltic coast of his youth. It might also have represented an escape from both the hypercapitalist US present, and the traumas of his DDR past, toward the more genially sluggish temporality of 1970s British decline. A good, desolate place to finish the magnum opus; a good place to drink with comradely moroseness in the local pubs under the name “Charlie”; a good place, 10 years later, to die, from alcoholism or hypertension or despair, the vanishing complete.
Wright’s sprawling study is in part an inquest into Johnson’s obscure final decade. But it is so much else—in fact a glorious rabbit hole of a book. It is a longue durée portrait, from the 17th century to Thatcher, of a single location on the edges of British national life. It is also one of the most immersive evocations of the 1970s I know, fine-grained in its particularity and yet also alert to the general conditions whereby, in places like Sheerness across the postindustrial West, the midcentury economic miracle lay sedated, awaiting its death. Finally, it is a landscape study, all blues and grays, of the bleakly lovely—at least to some of us—northern coastlands where stagnation is a kind of resistance, flinty and stubborn.
Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, by Anahid Nersessian (University of Chicago Press). This is a book written in the shadow of the lives, confrontations, and demands that Keats never got to make—a mid-Victorian Keats, say, Keats at a Chartist demonstration, or Keats at the barricades in Paris’s 1848 convulsions. But read it also as a model for what criticism looks like right now; it’s so state-of-the-art that its contemporaneity glows on every page. Urgent, brave, a little elusive at the same time that it is also confrontational, weaving autobiographical vulnerability with critical verve, like a series of letters addressed to an unknown reader who’ll be willing to follow every turn even as they resist, maybe, one or two. Nersessian has, among other things, a gift for lovely figuration. The nightingale ode is described as “a slow poem, in which every exquisite phrase falls like a hand of cards softly folded”; its allusions are imagined as picked out of the surrounding air “like dandelion fuzz.” Of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “If this poem were a street you would hope to avoid walking down it.” I read it in one big excited gulp.
Telephone, by Percival Everett (Graywolf). A campus novel, a domestic tragedy, a Western noir, a discreetly postmodern “open work”—and, above all, a novel about the connections and distortions between these genres, about the game of telephone involved in switching from one worldview or frame to another. As an addict for whatever Everett offers, I was deeply susceptible to this story of a geologist facing down middle age, with a fraying marriage and a daughter with a fatal and incurable neurological disorder, who receives communications from what he discovers is a group of enslaved laborers captured in Mexico and brought across the border, whom he decides, quixotically and in conscious compensation for other losses, to rescue. Beware, though: the novel comes in three separate editions (look for the subtle differences in their covers), each of which contains variants both minute and also, while still delicately shaded, substantial. In several ways, then, multiple novels in one.
Global Black History
Black Futures, edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (One World). The year 2020 was marked by the specter of Black death and renewed global attention to the Movement for Black Lives. A directory could be formed, a book of the dead with the names and stories of Black people slain at the hands of police. To say their names, following critical-race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s rallying cry, reminds us of the monolithic flattening of Black death as much as the heterogeneity of global Black life. Black Futures’ coeditors, New York Times writer Jenna Wortham and curator Kimberly Drew, answer the question of what it means to be Black and alive right now in their expansive publication, a celebration of Blackness and futurity.
Gestating during the Trump presidency, the book forms a codex to Black memory and is perfectly timed to collate Black voices of tomorrow, of what is yet to come about Blackness as a horizon of possibility. Black suffering and racial slavery does not define Blackness, and the featured writers, makers, and artists—such as Simone Browne, Firelei Báez, Dawoud Bey, Mimi Onuoha, and Zoé Samudzi—show us how. With over a hundred contributors, the volume forms a directory of the area of inquiry where Black life is flourishing. As a guidebook, Black Futures answers the question, Who should I be reading and paying attention to for the new zeitgeist of Black arts and letters? The book’s length (527 pages), glossy format, and striking design will undoubtedly usher in a new genre and market of trade books, encyclopedic in nature, that center people of color.
A River Called Time, by Courttia Newland (Akashic). The global and extended crisis of 2020 has garnered sci-fi new readers eager for a literary escape as much as they are questioning the formation of racism. A new, prescient offering, Courttia Newland’s novel A River Called Time was written long before this moment of crisis but was published just in time as a resource for thinking about new and old worlds, limits and possibility. Set in far-future London, renamed Dinium, it is an urgent call for a postimperial, post-Brexit Britain where the royal family is undergoing a diversity audit and new race commissions are sprouting.
To orient the reader, Newland begins A River Called Time with a redrawn map and timeline, undoing the fixity of colonial chronology and geography. The hero, Markriss, draws on African cosmology to fight his nemesis. Astral projection plays a critical role for characters who are living an out-of-body experience, much as many are in the current coronavirus era. While it may be surprising to some that Newland is among the screenwriters of Steve McQueen’s anthology film series celebrating Black British life, Small Axe, it is fitting because of the novel’s texture and detail, its reveling in the specificity of time as much as the unraveling of colonial time in ordering Black life. Newland defies genre, having long written across mediums: theater, TV, film, short stories. Part sci-fi, fantasy, and Afro-futurism but not squarely one or the other, A River Called Time transports the reader into a London undone by time, a London of possibility and, necessarily, of new villains.
Miss Pat: My Reggae Music Journey (Gingko). The commodification of Black music is an ongoing battle for artists to retain independence and to be adequately compensated from profits. Amid mergers and acquisitions by big labels, one company stands out in its longevity and ability to adapt, the Jamaica-founded VP Records. The world’s largest independent reggae label, VP was founded by a husband-and-wife team in the 1950s: the V and the P are Vincent and Patricia Chin. Their mom-and-pop shop, Randy’s Records, was the place to be as much as it was a record store, located in the vibrancy of urban Black Caribbean life, in Downtown Kingston. Parents and partners in business, Vincent and Patricia; it was rare then for a company to be named for a wife as well as a husband.
The story of the modern music industry cannot be told without attention to race, gender, immigration, and empire. While not of African heritage, Miss Pat tells her own story, growing up the daughter of an Indian father and Chinese mother in 1920s Jamaica, a majority-Black country. The Chin family’s migration story to the United States crystalizes the intimacy and tension of Jamaican Chinese identity and Afro-Asian identity across diaspora. Miss Pat’s story traces the formation of reggae as a global Black music story that includes China, India, and the Caribbean. With offices in Rio de Janeiro, Japan, London, and Miami, the family business is a transnational enterprise in which women’s work—creative and emotional labor—has, as we learn in this autobiography, been vital.
Be Holding, by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press). Ross Gay’s latest poetry volume is a beautiful ode to basketball legend Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J. Be Holding, which was recently awarded the PEN / Jean Stein Book Award, is a book-length poem based on one of the “Doctor’s” legendary moves: his gravity-defying shot during the 1980 NBA Finals. Gay movingly brings out both the poetry of basketball and the trials and triumphs of Black life as a whole. This is a stunning and intimate meditation on sport and on Black life that will transport you to a place as high as the Doctor when he soared to the hoop during his heyday.
Deportes: The Making of a Mexican Sporting Diaspora, by José M. Alamillo (Rutgers University Press). The field of sports studies is experiencing a renaissance, and José Alamillo is at the forefront of it. In Deportes, Alamillo illustrates his mastery of transnational history by telling the story of the role of sport in Mexican American community formation on both sides of the border during the first half of the 20th century. Our understanding of the Mexican American experience is vitally enriched by this pathbreaking scholar’s well-written and impeccably researched book.
Mare of Easttown, created by Brad Ingelsby (HBO). My favorite show of the year and perhaps my favorite show ever (or maybe I’m just from Philadelphia), Mare of Easttown stars a gloriously middle-age Kate Winslet as the titular Mare Sheehan, a tough yet warmhearted detective investigating the murder of a teenage girl in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. If you’re from the area, you can immediately hear the work that Winslet and costar Evan Peters (Mare’s fellow dick Colin Zabel) put into mastering the local dialect, whose o’s are more difficult for the nonregional speaker to pronounce than the ø in København. And if you can’t get into the accent, or don’t care to spend your time dissecting Mare’s mind-boggling preference for Rolling Rock over Yuengling—which isn’t actually all that perplexing, since she merely prefers a lighter beer—you should still stick around for Jean Smart as Mare’s Candy Crush–obsessed mother and Guy Pearce as a sleazy one-book-novelist-turned-visiting-professor who’s a bit too out of place in Easttown to be there by accident …
At Night All Blood Is Black, by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A catch-you-by-the-throat, spellbinding nightmare of a book that unfolds as the confession of a Senegalese soldier fighting for the French in World War One. Tormented by the gruesome death of his beloved friend, Alfa Ndiaye embarks on mission of vengeance: each night he returns to the Allied trenches with the severed hand of a blue-eyed German soldier. This is an astonishingly violent novel—the most convincing you will read about the myriad ways that war makes monsters out of men—but it is somehow also sorrowful, even beautiful. Moschovakis’s elegant translation is a gift to all of us who read in English. The ending made me gasp.
Tokyo Ueno Station, by Yu Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles (Riverhead). Yu, a Zainichi Korean novelist, playwright, and essayist, deservedly won a National Book Award for this subtle, melancholy novel about the life of the homeless in Tokyo’s Ueno Imperial Gift Park. We witness their daily struggles through the eyes of Yu’s dead but still grief-stricken protagonist, Kazu, a laborer who first immigrated to Tokyo from the countryside to build the stadium for the 1964 Olympics. It is a slender novel, less than two hundred pages, but it is sweeping in scope: wealth inequality, economic migration, job insecurity, and the shame, humiliation, and loneliness that accompanies precarity. By paying tender attention to the marginalized and ignored, Yu indicts a country obsessed with its picture-perfect image.
Tono Monogatari, by Shigeru Mizuki, translated from the Japanese by Zack Davisson (Drawn and Quarterly); The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, by Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly). When the pandemic made it impossible for me to concentrate on long sentences, let alone paragraphs, I took refuge in graphic novels. They pulled me in and blocked the world out. Two stand out. First, manga master Mizuki’s adaptation of one of Japan’s greatest collections of folklore: Tono Monogatari. With his trademark sense of humor and playful style, Mizuki invites us to discover the many details of Tono’s rich tradition of supernatural stories. Zack Davisson deserves much credit for his excellent translation and illuminating explanatory notes. Second, Tomine’s intimate, introspective memoir (ingeniously packaged as a Moleskine notebook), which reveals his experience of his successful career as a compendium of slights, humiliations, embarrassments, and disappointments. A master of the form at his best, Tomine is also impressively unafraid to show himself at his worst: egotistical, neurotic, arrogant, insecure.
Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap). Yes, it is a thick brick of a book (OK, two thick bricks). But it adds something vital to the author’s decades-old, impressively data-rich indictment of unequal wealth accumulation. This book proposes a lively, tendentious, debatable account of the ideologies that propel different property regimes—as well as a nuanced genealogy of how such ideologies can change. My favorite anarchist, Ursula Le Guin, said it best: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, by Paul Tough (Mariner). Did you love Nicholas Lehman’s 1999 indictment (in The Big Test) of how well-intentioned experiments in meritocratic college admissions in the latter part of the 20th century ended up—perhaps willfully, perhaps accidentally—shoring up privilege and abetting the end of economic mobility? If so, you are going to find Paul Tough’s grim diagnosis of the situation two decades on pretty hard to swallow: I sure did. By his telling, the mechanisms that protect elite white kids and stiff class mobility look less contingent and more intractable every year. Hard to argue with his conclusion (referring to his experience of finishing Lauren Rivera’s 2015 book, Pedigree, but more broadly applicable): “You either want to go firebomb a bank or enroll your kid in squash lessons or both.”
The Criminal Child: Selected Essays, by Jean Genet, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman (NYRB Classics). “I must confront you with, and reveal to you, the mystery of prisons for children. Scattered throughout the French countryside, often in the most elegant places, are sites that for me hold inexhaustible fascination.” More than simply a Zolaesque indictment of excessive governmental power, however, this collection’s title essay (1949), newly translated, typifies Jean Genet’s inexhaustible and maddening ability to invert power dynamics and upend expectations: “The criminal child has forced open a door to a forbidden place, a door through which he hopes to enter the most beautiful landscape in the world.” The state’s unconscionable cruelty also becomes a smithy where souls like Genet’s own are forged—for ill or for good.
Three of the most exciting contributions to media history this year focus on institutions. Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) gives serious, poignant, and sometimes angry scrutiny to anthropodermic books, a subject from which serious scholars have more often kept a ginger distance. In a year when library workers have literally given their lives—or had their lives taken away, by ill-advised reopening plans—this book provides a vivid reminder that human suffering isn’t just depicted in books but also goes into their making.
Where Rosenbloom’s polemic registers her overlapping careers as a medical librarian, a journalist, and a death-positive activist, Richard Ovenden’s experience at the helm of Oxford University’s vertigo-inducing collections feeds into the ethical charge of his Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge (Harvard University Press). From arson to neglect, from state censorship to corporate digitization, Ovenden provides a sweeping tour of the vulnerabilities that affect whole libraries even more than the sum of their bookish parts.
Libraries, though, are only the most obvious of bookish institutions. In Subscription Theater: Democracy and Drama in Britain and Ireland, 1880–1939 (University of Pennsylvania Press), Matthew Franks departs from scholars’ long-standing interest in playbooks to think about all the other forms of print generated by theater, beginning with that apparently forgettable piece of ephemera, the list of subscribers. You may be reading this, but do you follow Public Books?
Literature in Translation
Rhythm: Form and Dispossession, by Vincent Barletta (University of Chicago Press). What is rhythm? This is a question we rarely ask ourselves and even more rarely answer with any clarity or certainty. Such is the proposition of Rhythm, by Vincent Barletta, who teaches comparative literature at Stanford. Rhythm, Barletta argues, is less temporal than it is spatial, an idea that is developed, in true comparative and multilingual fashion, across an analysis of three moments: first, in ancient Greece; then, in 16th-century Iberia; and, finally, in the 20th-century Atlantic world that connects the United States, France, and West Africa. The result is nothing less than one of the most surprising gems of literary criticism I’ve read this year.
The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchinson (Graywolf). “Discomfort” is a euphemism. All that’s needed to prove this proposition is to narrate the discomfort in question meticulously and in excruciating detail. Suddenly, “discomfort” will seem too tepid to describe much of anything that goes on in the cold, claustrophobic, Protestant household on a dairy farm in the Dutch countryside that is the setting for Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s enthralling Booker Prize–winning novel The Discomfort of Evening. Trauma, religion, pain, and sexuality are placed in a pressure cooker for several hundred pages in prose that is as difficult to put down as it is to survive emotionally and intellectually unscathed—and I say this admiringly.