On the cusp of World War II, Virginia and Leonard Woolf went to Italy. Leonard was Jewish and Virginia was worried, but they decided, in a flash of daring, to risk a road trip that would take them through Nazi Germany. They were stopped by an officer who became too distracted to ask for their papers after he caught sight of the third member of their party: the Woolfs’ pet marmoset, Mitz. Sigrid Nunez’s Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury is a biography of this charming, well-connected monkey. My summer is often devoted to short books like Mitz, and another will be the reprint of Annie Ernaux’s Happening. This memoir takes place in Paris in 1963, when the author became unexpectedly pregnant. At a moment when, in the US, access to abortion is at risk, Ernaux’s account of seeking the procedure at a time when it was illegal is a devastating reminder of the consequences of turning back the clock. Finally, I’ll be taking Ted Chiang’s Exhalation: Stories to the beach. In the title story, a robot dissects his own brain in his search to understand why his chromium world is dying. The fate of his world, you discover, is not so different from our own.
I’m writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, so am doing a lot of research around the subject. I’ve just begun reading The Book of the City of the Ladies (1405) by Christine de Pizan – a remarkable late-medieval French poet, scholar, philosopher and author of what today we might call experimental fiction. The story is narrated by de Pizan, who falls into a slumber, depressed by the ‘awful, damning things’ men write about women. (File under plus ça change.) She is woken by a ‘beam of light’: three female virtues who instruct her to build an allegorical city populated by great women from history – including Irene, a painter from Greece. It’s wonderfully gripping.
I also plan to read Anne Boyer’s Handbook of Disappointed Fate and, as per, consume a lot of novels from the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction: Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.
It’s a season on the road for me, and stuffed in various bags, suitcases and museum totes are earmarked copies of: Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (which has blown me away), James Baldwin’s Another Country (overdue reading), Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (out this October), Elvia Wilk’s Oval (which impressively recasts an all-too-familiar Berlin corporate-artistic landscape) and Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels. Later this summer, I plan to make my way through Dante’s Purgatorio, with the late Eric Griffith’s great Dante essay as a Virgilian guide.
Before the New Deal went Green, it was the greatest legislative programme in US history – and as Kevin Baker recently argued in Harper’s, single-handedly rescued the country from the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. I’m working on a book that takes place in the American West of the 1930s, in an all-too-familiar time of cultural ferment, media saturation and economic populism. My summer research will include The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Greg Mitchell’s study of the muckraking author’s unlikely socialist bid to run the state, and The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs, a compilation of the influential labour union leader’s speeches recently published by Haymarket Books. But I’m also excited about this summer’s latest fiction, including Loudermilk, Lucy Ives’s satire about a scheming jock in a writing MFA program, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong’s tender portrait of a young man’s relationship with his mother, who is haunted by her memories of Vietnam.