Monthly Archives: October 2011

PW Best Books 2011: The Cold War by Kathleen Ossip

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 31st, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

The biggest surprise in poetry for 2011 is this second book by Kathleen Ossip.  It’s got everything one could wish for in a new collection of poems, except, of course, like all fulfilled wishes, one didn’t know one had wished for it until the wish was granted.  The poems, lyric essays, poems in prose and harder to classify pieces all bring with them a sense of the past–poetry’s long tradition and history, as well as history in general: “We were born in a tangle,” begins the title poem, which transmutes the tension of the unending US-Russia deadlock into the realm of the personal: “It was not that there was no enemy./ It was that we would never come to blows.”

This is a highly personal book, make no mistake, but set against the backdrop of the very public anxiety of the post 9/11 world, in which enemies are everywhere and nowhere.

The best stuff here is in the mode of the lyric poem, though–taut, tight, leapy lyrics that pack a ton of punch per inch:

I looked in the family and there was Armageddon too.
(Ego, undiluted, waddled fat and scared upon the earth.)
Hopelessly, we listed characters: Princess Rayanne, Hell-No,

the chunky boy with X’s for eye.  Far too hip for this trip,
Avery read the encyclopedia.  Removed her lifejacket.
Groped for her father’s wisdom.  Laid end to end,

her mother’s love would no road pave.

Look how many registers the poem moves in and out of, how many time periods, how many tiny senses of the world.  And yet this is the family, stuck together, stuck on vacation, stuck in their own minds, looking for a way in and out.  It’s just beautiful.  And terrifying.

Libraries: Together or Apart

Peter Brantley -- October 30th, 2011

One of the most “wow!” things that I saw at the Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive last week was a demonstration by Sameer Verma of San Francisco State University of a full fledged OPDS BookServer called Pathagar running from a SheevaPlug “wall wart.” Wall warts are small transformer sized computers running a LAMP stack, enabling widely distributed Internet computing. A SheevaPlug Pathagar BookServer can serve up to 500 users, permitting locations with scarce network and electrical capacity to have access to over 20,000 ebooks in a single device.

This is an astounding project – originally designed to work with One Laptop Per Child networks, but made more generic – enabling the placement of digital libraries in the most remote corners of the globe. It also serves to highlight one of the greatest and most complex debates of the moment: whether digital libraries should be distributed and replicated, or aggregated in massive online databases — and what we lose by choosing one architecture over another.

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PW Best Books 2011: Field Gray by Philip Kerr

Peter Cannon -- October 28th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

This past winter, having heard good things about British author Philip Kerr, I read March Violets (1989), the first volume in his Berlin noir trilogy, set during the Nazi era and featuring Bernie Gunther, a cop and later PI in the tough, wise-cracking mold of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. I was impressed with the ease with which the author integrated a crime plot involving stolen jewels with the politics surrounding the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. How does an honest detective keep his integrity when he’s doing a job for Heinrich Himmler? Kerr brilliantly portrays what life was like in the early years of the Third Reich for everyone from high-ranking Nazis to their victims.

I followed March Violets with If the Dead Rise Not (2009), not a part of the Berlin trilogy, though the main action also concerns the 1936 Olympics. The last section takes Gunther to 1952 Cuba, where he gets in trouble with the local mob. The double twist at the end caught me by total surprise. One anachronism: a college-age female character is looking forward to attending Brown University, then all male. Why didn’t the U.S. editor change that to Pembroke?
More recently, I read the rest of the Berlin trilogy, The Pale Criminal (1990), about a serial killer of “Aryan” German girls, and A German Requiem (1991), which is set in 1947 Vienna, where Nazi war criminals are escaping prosecution amid rising tensions between Russian and American occupying forces. The way Gunther turns the tables in the final book on his old police boss, real-life Nazi Artur Nebe, is a treat.

This year’s Field Gray is perhaps the most harrowing installment yet. It opens in 1954 Cuba, where Gunther runs afoul of the U.S. Navy. Under interrogation, first in a New York City prison and later Germany’s Landsberg Prison, Gunther fills in the gaps in his past not covered in previous books, including his mercifully brief experience as a member of an SS police battalion on the Eastern front; his extended time as a POW in the Soviet Union after the war; and his efforts in 1940 France to locate Erich Mielke, the future East German spy master, wanted for the 1931 murder of two Berlin police officers. Once again, the ending caught me completely off-guard, if only because I wasn’t used to thinking of Americans as bad guys.

PW Best Books 2011: Unpossible by Daryl Gregory

Rose Fox -- October 27th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Earlier this week, I put up a post at Genreville talking about strange books, unclassifiable books, books that blow off the top of your head. As I was writing it, I was thinking of (among other authors) Daryl Gregory, whose work unfailingly fits into this uncategorizable category. If you want to try to slap a label on his books, you can call them fantasy, or horror (as we did with his 2009 novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, when putting it on that year’s Best Books shortlist), or dark fantasy, or slipstream, or New Weird; but sooner or later all those labels will fall off, or perhaps peel themselves off and skitter away into the shadows, and you’ll be left only with a deep uneasy sense that maybe the world really is as he describes it, an amalgamation of the astonishingly glorious and the quietly terrible, and what we call reality is only a comforting illusion.

UNPOSSIBLE cover artUnpossible is Gregory’s first collection. The stories are all quite short, with no time wasted on lumpy exposition or treacly morals, but each one carries all the grim weight and peculiar beauty of his novels, simmered down to a deceptively sweet syrup that goes down easy and then twists in your guts. They poke at complex, difficult notions, not so much trying to answer questions as trying to figure out how to begin asking them. In “Second Person, Present Tense,” “Dead Horse Point,” and “Damascus,” he combs through the mysterious and often troubling links between neurology and concepts of selfhood, free will, and religious belief. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” and “Message from the Bubblegum Factory” ruthlessly deconstruct the American fascination and identification with superheroes, revealing our costumed idols as overgrown children whose destructive rampages are abusive and fascistic. These are not comfortable stories, which is a good part of what makes them worth reading.

To make the medicine go down, Gregory builds sympathetic and interesting characters out of a few well-placed sentences, as in this opening scene from the title story:

Two in the morning and he’s stumbling around in the attic, lost in horizontal archaeology: the further he goes, the older the artifacts become…. The territory ahead is littered with the remains of his youth, the evidence of his life before he brought his wife and son to this house. Stacks of hardcover books, boxes of dusty-framed elementary school pictures—and toys. So many toys. Once upon a time he was the boy who didn’t like to go outside, the boy who never wanted to leave his room. The Boy Who Always Said No.

Or this portrait of Eddie, a superhero’s disillusioned sidekick, from “Message from the Bubblegum Factory”:

“When I was hanging out with Soliton and the Protectors, I must have been kidnapped once a month. Held hostage, used as bait, snared in death traps. They especially liked to dangle me.”


“Over tubs of acid, piranhas, lava pits, you name it—villains are very big on dangling. Twenty years of this, ever since I was a kid. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been shot at, blown up, tossed into rivers, knifed, pummeled, thrown off buildings and bridges—”

…I lean forward, and the guard puts a hand on my chest. I ignore him. “See, here’s the thing. I should be dead a hundred times over. But the rules of the universe don’t allow it. I’m not bragging—that just seems to be the way it works.”

This is a collection to linger over, or to set aside for as long as you can manage (a day, maybe two) and then compulsively return to. Reading it all at once leaves you feeling like poor Eddie after a few rounds with the villain du jour. But there’s nothing like Gregory’s super-powered punches to knock you out of your comfortable literary rut and leave you staggering, dazed, through an extraordinary new landscape that was somehow there all along.

DPLA: Hope and Effort

Peter Brantley -- October 26th, 2011

In DC this past week, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), an inchoate set of aspirations based in the vision that every American should have digital access to as much of the world’s culture as possible, launched with the announcement of $5 million in grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia Fund. DPLA also announced a partnership with its more mature European equivalent, Europeana. The partnership will work together on interoperability and common technical standards and infrastructure, and more immediately curate an exhibit on stories of European immigration to North America.

Five million dollars is a substantial investment in an effort that doesn’t yet have a formal organization. On the other hand, as these things go, it’s a modest but important blessing for the attempt to coalesce U.S. public digital library collections. And, by pulling together a large portion of library and publisher leadership together in one effort, DPLA’s vision has succeeded in drawing attention to a wide range of issues for the preservation of digital access to our culture. The DPLA is the very definition of a public service, and its holdings will deliver public goods; this is precisely the kind of initiative that should garner the investment of the national government. Even if it DPLA fails in its planned scope, the effort of the DPLA reminds us that there are national goals worthy of common aspiration and effort. Continue reading

PW Best Books 2011: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Mike Harvkey -- October 26th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Johnson begins his deceptively slim book with “In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.” This compact paragraph blooms into a brief scene of the attempt which, like the book, resonates with meaning greater than the sum of its small moving parts. Grainier helps three railway men make “every effort” to chuck the guy off a bridge. But he has a desperate hold on life and breaks free; either frustrated or impressed, his would-be executioners are by then happy to let him go. He squirrels his way to safety and Grainier, on his walk home with a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla for his nursing wife, sees the man everywhere: “Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.” Again and again Johnson uses a moment to reveal character and show how easily the trajectory of a life can be changed.

The novella traces Grainier’s life, with Johnson flitting dexterously in time, sometimes covering decades in one chapter and then, in the next, a single event. Always, he uses a few precise words to convey a great deal. As in this sentence, which ends the attempted killing: “Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.” What a wonderfully odd choice Johnson has made to repeat the “a,” evoking wind in the singular and complicating the rhythm of his sentence. This is a expertly-crafted book, more etched from granite than written down, it seems to me. Continue reading

PW Best Books 2011: The Information by James Gleick

Alex Crowley -- October 25th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Until James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood came up in “best books of the year” discussion I’ll admit to having entirely forgotten about it. When it was published earlier in the year I was a graduate student working in a bookstore and under those circumstances there were no “available” slots on my reading list. A co-worker seemed to enjoy it, as I had two of his previous works (Chaos: Making a New Science and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything), but I knew it would be a while before I would have a chance to pick it up, particularly given it’s slightly intimidating size.

Fast forward to September and I tore through it over a weekend. At first I couldn’t tell whether The Information really was one of the year’s best books or that I just happened to be fascinated by the material and appreciated it for that reason alone. Admittedly it’s not “light” reading, though once again Gleick demonstrates his remarkable ability to not only illuminate obscure mathematical & philosophical concepts, but also to then utilize milestones within the development of those concepts as the basis for the narrative. Instead of foregrounding the scientists or philosophers he portrays them as vessels or transmitters for some larger, undirected scheme: a curious, yet profound decision whose repercussions are fully realized later.

The central revelation Gleick lays out in the beginning is that our story, is really one of information becoming aware of itself. However, though we may live in the “Information Age”, the ubiquity of that idea doesn’t make it any easier to define. As he points out early, what we recognize today as “information” refers to a fairly young concept that, much like a computer, would be wholly unrecognizable to anyone alive before the World Wars. He quotes intercellular communication specialist Werner Loewenstein: “[Information] connotes a cosmic principle of organization and order, and it provides an exact measure of that.” Histories of language and measurement come into play as do that of obscure topics like African talking drums.

Some of the most enjoyable and mind-bending sections of the book happen as Gleick explores the mathematical and logical paradoxes (from Godel’s incompleteness theorems to properties of quantum mechanics) out of which our modern conceptions arise. For instance, information’s relationship to “surprise” or “uncertainty” is counterintuitive: if one can deduce what symbol is to come next in a pattern, that symbol is redundant and contains no actual “information”. Towards the end of the book these abstractions become entwined with biology and things come full circle. The study of genetics ultimately reveals the evolutionary pressures that operate on information in the form of “memes”.

While it may seem helpful to be familiar with some of these topics before reading, Gleick’s history turns so much common sense on its head that a blank slate may actually be preferable. However, regardless of how “informed” you believe yourself beforehand, you’ll finish the book with an enlightened and expanded perspective on the universe in which we find ourselves.

Han Solo Said It Best: A Guest Post by Eileen Gardner, PW’s 200,000th Twitter Follower

Eileen Gardner -- October 25th, 2011

Eileen Gardner has just become Publishers Weekly’s 200,000th follower on Twitter. Turns out she’s an aspiring novelist and blogger; to mark our Twitter milestone, we asked her to contribute a guest post to PWxyz.

I think sometimes in life it is better not to know how difficult something is going to be before you attempt it. I can now file “publish my novel” under this heading. The odds of seeing my work in print are frighteningly small, but I didn’t know that when I started my quest for publication. If I’d known the odds going in, I probably wouldn’t have gone in.

Ok, that’s not true. Writing for me is not a choice. It’s a passion, it’s a calling. I couldn’t stop writing if I tried, and believe me, I’ve tried. But like a siren’s song, writing keeps calling me back. I am a writer.

About two years ago, I had that thrilling spark of a great idea. I sat down in my chair and put my hands on the keyboard. Every day. I fell in love with my characters. I thought I developed an interesting plot. And I did something I’d never done before: I finished.

I think we should give out awards to anyone who actually finishes a novel. It is a major accomplishment.

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PW Best Books 2011: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Louisa Ermelino -- October 24th, 2011

For the next two weeks, leading up to our Best Books of 2011 Issue on November 7, the PW reviews department will be blogging about a few of the books from the top 100.  Here’s the first post:

I’ve always gravitated towards the exotic. It started with Chinese and Norse myths when I was a kid and moved on from there. But it’s seeming to me these days that the most exotic is right here, maybe even too close for comfort. Specifically, Donald Ray Pollock territory, that area of America that starts in southern Ohio and bleeds into northern Kentucky. And bleeding is Pollack’s specialty.

A colleague from Nebraska told me to read The Devil All The Time, Pollock’s first novel. Pollock grew up in Knockenstiff, Ohio (Knockemstiff is the title of his first book, a collection of stories) and worked in a paper mill for thirty years. On the book jacket he’s wearing work boots and a white crew neck T-shirt that you know came in a packet of three and he writes like the smokestack in Meade, Ohio, that he describes on the first page of chapter one: “The smokestack across town, by far the tallest structure in this part of the state, belched forth another dirty brown cloud. You could see it for miles, puffing like a volcano about to blow its skinny top.”

Pollock’s prologue sets you up with nine year-old Arvin Eugene Russell following his father into the woods to kneel at the “prayer log” in a clearing his father will turn into a sacrificial pit of blood and carcasses in a futile exchange for his wife’s health.

Arvin will appear and reappear among Pollock’s gruesome and lost characters: a husband and wife serial killing team trawl the interstate for young male victims, a preacher who victimizes an innocent girl and throws spiders over himself at sermons accompanied by his wheelchair bound guitar playing cousin, crippled after ingesting poison to prove his love of the Lord.

“The one with the good legs wore a baggy black suit and a pair of heavy, broken-down brogans. His brown hair was slicked back with oil, his sunken cheeks pitted and scarred purple from acne….The cripple nodded and smiled at the crowd. His overalls were mended with patches from a feed sack and his thin legs were twisted up under him at sharp angles…one looked like the Prince of Darkness and the other like a clown down on his luck.”

Pollock gives us over to despair and destitution and an undiluted primal evil; he raises the grotesque to art. You can’t believe what you’re reading but you do, and you can’t stop reading it. There’s resolution and it’s not pretty.  He’s a conjurer, a magician, a prophet with a modern day Old Testament.

All I can tell you is that when a guy from Nebraska gives you a book, read it.

Dividing Collective Licenses

Peter Brantley -- October 21st, 2011

I am in Washington, DC for the public launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), filling my time between workgroup sessions meeting with lawyers engaged in these issues. Oddly, that’s a lot of fun, because the future landscape of copyright and access will in some part be shaped by their thoughts and actions, and these are interesting times for all of us. And, if it weren’t for such meetings, I would not have known about an otherwise obscure report containing an interesting analysis of copyright licensing that could bear on libraries and publishing.

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