PW Staff: The Best Books We’ve Read This Year

PWStaff -- December 20th, 2011

PW has already named its Best Books 0f 2011, but since readers rarely get to see the faces behind the scenes, we thought we’d let our staff share the best book they read in 2011, because deep down, we’re all just book nerds. Here are our staff picks. Let us know your favorite book you read this year in the comments!

Andrew R. Albanese, senior writer:

How to Fix Copyright by William Patry. If you know me at all, you know this appeals to the copyright geek in me. Before she left for NPR, my friend and colleague Parul Sehgal asked me what I was reading, and I said this book, “because…” She cut me off. “Because you’re you,” she said. Yup. That’s pretty much right. But this book appealed more to the artist and creator in me, than the policy wonk. It is a follow up to Patry’s 2009 book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, which examined the way we’ve come to frame copyright around moral issues—theft, piracy, plagiarism. Creativity, however, is all about building on what has come before us, Patry argues. This book struck a chord with me for its simple premise—that copyright is not the basis for creativity. A heady mix of law, history, practice, and a genuine appreciation for what goes into the making of art and culture, this is a fascinating read not just for those of us in the publishing business, but for anyone interested in maintaining a healthy, creative culture.

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

Since I’m still plowing my way through Arguably, I’ll have to nominate Hitch-22, the autobiography of the late Christopher Hitchens, who as a provocative clear thinker ranks up there with his idol, George Orwell. You don’t have to agree with Hitchens on every issue to appreciate his brilliance and his wit. Who else would’ve been the first to notice that there’s no Lenin figure in Animal Farm?

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

As of today, I’m halfway through rereading Revolutionary Road, which I first read in my early twenties, when the story seemed 90 percent depressing and 10 percent wondrous. Today, it seems 90 percent wondrous, 5 percent super depressing, 5 percent sharp and funny. Tormented young married people – can’t get enough of them. Next up – Anna Karenina.

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

Michael McClure’s Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems, published early in 2011 by California, was an enormous delight. Although well-known as a figure on the beat scene in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, his poems recognizable by the centered lines and frequent use of all caps, McClure’s lifetime of work, beautifully selected by the late Leslie Scalapino, sings its celebration of body and spirit with a radical purity, and does so even the more in the new poems here by an octogenarian going strong.

Rachel Deahl, senior news editor:

My first brush with Jeffrey Eugenides was in 1999. I had just gotten out of college and I was interning for a publishing company in Manhattan, taking the Metro North line from my parents’ house in the suburbs, to and fro, every morning and evening. I read The Virgin Suicides on those train rides, and I remember feeling unusually attuned to the longing and mystery in the novel—the sense of loss and despair, of being young but feeling old—and becoming heartbreakingly wrapped up in the narrators’ obsession with the thing that was so close yet so far away: the Lisbon girls living on their block. I’ll still take The Virgin Suicides over Middlesex any day of the week. This may be why I love The Marriage Plot so much; it felt like Eugenides’s return to that wonderful beginning. Ostensibly it’s not about much—a love triangle between three Brown grads during the 1980s—and yet, of course, it’s about quite a bit. The Marriage Plot is a love story for people who love love stories, but (maybe stupidly, maybe arrogantly) think they’re too smart to be lured in by their charms.  It’s engrossing, hard-to-put-down and it reminds you, whether your poison is Victorian novels, primetime soaps or Katherine Heigl rom-coms, why, for better and for worse, fiction is inextricably intertwined with our love stories happening off the page.

Louisa Ermelino, reviews director:

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Those were the days!  When writers moved to Paris instead of Park Slope.

Sarah F. Gold, senior reviews editor:

I’ve become engrossed in 19th-century American social history, and  my reading led me to the best book I’ve read this year: Debby Applegate’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (and shame on me for not reading it sooner).

Applegate found a brilliant story and tells it brilliantly.  Henry Ward Beecher was the celebrated minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church (and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe). Beecher’s life encompasses most of the 19th century, and he was in the eye of almost every political, religious, and ethical storm of that turbulent era. Applegate plumbs all the complexities of a man who was loving and generous, a religious and political reformer, an anti-slavery leader—and also an ambitious self-promoter, the luxury-loving son of a Puritan preacher, and a religious figure who became embroiled in sexual scandal.  His charisma carried him through it all. Applegate gives us a quintessential American who embodied the 19th century and prefigured much of the 20th. Her book is a magnificent recounting of Beecher’s life and times.

Gabe Habash, news editor:

The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan is so fantastically weird and funny that I found myself extending its 180 pages into five days. I can’t remember the last time a book actually made me slow down because I didn’t want it to end. I was reading sentences two and three times before moving on to the next.

Mike Harvkey, deputy reviews editor:

There But For The by Ali Smith. This was the one book I read in 2011 that I was prepared to go to the mat for, and it’s the one great book among many great books—The Marriage Plot, The Sisters Brothers, The Devil All the Time, Frankenstein—that has stuck with me, incessantly making a case for itself, much like the mysterious character whose refusal to come out of a guest bedroom gives Smith something solid from which to spiral away, repeatedly, in order to address a fascinating mélange of issues facing Britain today. Smith’s writing is the most ebullient of any book I’ve read this year, absolutely overflowing with energy and ideas. It’s formally audacious, told from the perspectives of four different people who had at some point in their lives come into contact—however fleeting it might be—with the man upstairs (the guy in the guest room, not God). Of all the many books I read this year, this was the only one I finished by slamming it shut and saying out loud, “What a great book!”

Claire Kirch, midwest correspondent:

Ever since I lived in France briefly in the mid-1980s, I’ve been fascinated by that land, its often inscrutable people, and its colorful history. I’ve also always been intrigued by social constructs, particularly the construction of race and class. Ma’s Dictionary: Straddling the Social Divide (Greysolon Press, 2011) by Milan Kovacovic is the memoir of a man born into poverty in Slovakia, who, thanks to the wealthy family his immigrant mother cooked for in Paris, succeeded in attending the most elite schools in that city. But when Kovacovic emigrated to the United States with his mother as a teen, he returned to a life lived in poverty, before pulling his way up the social ladder and eventually becoming a university professor though he doesn’t hold a college degree. Kovacovic’s memoir proves to me — once again — that real life truly is stranger than fiction.

Jim Milliot, co-editorial director:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. I heard him speak at BEA and his discussion about presenting what it was like for Americans to be in Berlin as Hitler rose sounded interesting, and the book delivered the goods.

Marcia Z. Nelson, reviews editor:

I just finished reading The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. How silky and subversive it was. This Anglophile was punting down what seemed to be the quiet river of the narrator’s life, and suddenly: hidden rocks and a deft twist. I was back in English lit class, thinking about unreliable narrators.

Calvin Reid, senior news editor:

My favorite read this year has been Big Questions, a mammoth graphic novel by Anders Nilsen from D&Q, which is also one of our Best Books of 2011. Indeed much like the title of the book, the narrative asks big questions about life, how it’s conducted and for what reasons, as well as how living things go about acquiring an often imperfect understanding of the world around them. In this case, these big questions are being asked by a cast of delightful and often small animals from birds and snakes to wild dogs after a plane crashes and bomb falls in their midst.

Sonia Jaffe Robbins, managing editor:

One of my favorite books (I’m incapable of having just one favorite) was The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas. The Spanish novelist dissects a 35-minute videotape of an abortive coup in Spain in 1981 (just five years after Franco died) and manages to give the reader a history of 20th century Spain, profiles of three political figures from the tape plus several other coup participants and adversaries, analysis of what’s known and not known about the coup itself, as well as a mini-memoir about his relationship with his father and the Spain they both grew up in. By immersing himself, and the reader, in the same events through many different perspectives, he recreates the sense of history happening, and changing, moment to moment and how anything can happen, until it has happened.

George Slowik Jr., president:

Since this is “favorite” rather than “best”,  I’d single out Tune in Tokyo by Tim Anderson as a laugh aloud treat. If you’ve been to Japan you’ll enjoy his send-ups of some of the idiosyncratic locations and cultural anomalies experienced by a gay English teacher immersed in Japanese culture. The book and author were featured in our first issue of PW Select last December. I finally got around to reading it while in China.

Craig Morgan Teicher, director of digital/poetry editor:

I’ve read so many wonderful books this year; my favorite tends to be the one I’m reading at the moment someone happens to ask about my favorite.  So right now I’m 90% of the way through State of Wonder, and I wish I could burrow into a hole with a flashlight and do nothing but read it instead of everything else I have to do.

State of Wonder is an adventure story, a take on Heart of Darkness, about an American doctor working in a native village in South America to develop a revolutionary fertility drug, as well as something more powerful, controversial and important.  Annick Swensen isn’t quite Kurtz, but she’s a hell of a character, short tempered, deadpan to the point of wisdom, and full of little surprises.  Meeting her is well worth the perilous trip into the jungle.

As I said, I’m not done with the book yet, and I suppose it’s possible that everything could go wrong from here, but I seriously doubt it…


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