Monthly Archives: May 2012

What Was Your College Book?

Gabe Habash -- May 31st, 2012

NYU has chosen The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht as its “Freshman Dialogue” novel, meaning that the thousands of incoming Arts & Sciences students have to buy it and (in theory) read it so that they have a topic of conversation other than where the nearest soda fountain is.

Unlike NYU, which makes their students (who are already saddled with debt before attending their first class) buy their “required” book, my school gave us our book. It was Beloved. I didn’t read it. I sold it to the bookstore for approximately $0.12 and, you guessed it, thousands of other students had the same idea and when you walked down the bookstore’s English & Literature textbook aisle you had to step around a shoulder-high pile of Toni Morrison Beloved copies, a monument to the scrupulous, enterprising mind of the American college student. Two years later, I was assigned Beloved in my American Lit class, so I had to buy the book back from the bookstore for $6.

What was your “required” college reading book? Did you read it? DON’T LIE.

Les Miserables Trailer Premieres

Gabe Habash -- May 30th, 2012

The newest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s story doesn’t come out until December, but you can check out the first trailer below. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), the film stars Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), and Anne Hathaway (Fantine). What do you think?

Storm Clouds in Academic Publishing

Peter Brantley -- May 25th, 2012

Today two different thunderbolts struck in academic publishing, one from an old storm, and the other from a new one. The weather forecast continues to be troubled, but as they say, we need the rain.

The first story is the imminent closing this summer of the University of Missouri Press, after five decades of operation. MU Press is not the first university press to close, and it certainly won’t be the last. It was receiving a subsidy of $400,000 annually and still not able to obtain a profit from its operations; that is a lot of money, but not exceptional in the realm of university presses. Nor, sadly, is the lack of profitability, which is why we are likely to see more closures on the horizon.

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Oddball Book of the Week: Marbles Identification and Price Guide

Gabe Habash -- May 25th, 2012

The 5th edition of Robert Block’s Marbles Identification and Price Guide (which I’m going to refer to as Marbles from now on because it reminds me of Mr. Marbles from Seinfeld) has just been released, with 500 color photos (400 new to the edition) of marbles. You might ask who this book is intended for, but then you’d look at its sales rank and see it’s currently outselling half of Saul Bellow’s books.

To illustrate (sales rank in parenthesis):

Henderson the Rain King (#35,344)

The Adventures of Augie March (#56,284)

Humboldt’s Gift (#72,359)

Marbles (#74,740)

Seize the Day (#104,384)

Mr. Sammler’s Planet (#134,720)

Herzog (#224,698)

That’s right, Marbles draws a virtual stalemate with Humboldt’s Gift, and positively crushes Herzog. My friend’s grandmother, an antiques dealer, has a previous edition–and she’s not alone. According to Nielsen BookScan, Block’s marble-related books have sold over 20,000 copies since the late 90s. That means he’s ahead of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, this year’s Pulitzer finalist that’s just now approaching 20,000 copies sold since it’s publication in June 2011. And here’s the thing: Marbles‘s 20k number is definitely skewed downward, because you know each copy has been passed around like currency among the marble underground.

So PWxyz salutes you, Mr. Block. It seems America has not lost its marbles (ahem…sorry).



Can You Guess These Classic Books From Their Phantom Covers (Round 2)?

Gabe Habash -- May 23rd, 2012

PWxyz wants to play a game with you. It is a game we’ve played before, but it was so fun the first time that milk shot out of both our noses. You remember how to play, yes? We put our PWxyz SuperVAC (which looks like this) to the covers of famous books and vacuum the words right up off them. Then you, dear friend, guess what the books are by their image alone.  Then you get 10 out 10 books. When you succeed, you make us like this.

Answers at the bottom!




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Books to Film Forecast: Cloud Atlas, On the Road, Lawless

Gabe Habash -- May 21st, 2012

There’s a slew of book-to-film news in light of Cannes 2012, going on right now. Let’s get to it.

*Cloud Atlas (which we put at #2 on our most anticipated book adaptations of 2012) has been bought by Warner Bros. for $20 million, after having been made for $101 million (and initially estimated at $170 million). The film is made by Matrix directors the Wachowski brothers and a 2 hour, 44 minute cut (with incomplete special effects) screened for buyers at Cannes to positive buzz. Cloud Atlas has been given a December 6 release date. It stars Tom Hanks, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry.

*Also playing at Cannes is Killing Them Softly, the heist-and-mob picture from Andrew Dominik, whose first film was the masterful (PWxyz’s opinion) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The film is based on George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade, written in 1974. The cast: Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini. Release is set for September 21. Check out the film’s first clip:

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Pricing and markets: agency and libraries

Peter Brantley -- May 18th, 2012

I have been following the lawsuits against trade publishers and Apple over agency pricing for the last several months. The legal actions against publishers are complicated by their number: there’s a civil class action; a complaint brought by 31 U.S. State Attorneys; and a Department of Justice lawsuit. That’s not to mention the foreign investigations. Some of the originally named publishers – HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster – are either in settlement discussions or have concluded them. Macmillan and Penguin continue their active legal defense. With the denial of a bid for dismissal by publishers involved in the class action, things are not looking good for the defendants, at least for the remaining publishers.

As is my want, I’ve been trying to figure out what, if anything, this will mean for libraries and the demand for ebook lending services. This is not a straightforward question by any means; for one thing, all of the Big 6 agency publishers, with the exception of Random House, are not making their frontlist books available to libraries anyway. If agency pricing practice is halted, either by injunction prior to final ruling or through settlement and contract re-negotiation, obtaining cheaper prices from retailers for e-books from these publishers won’t have any direct impact because these they can’t be purchased at any price, anyway.

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We Fix the Top 100 Novels List

PWStaff -- May 16th, 2012

Back in 1998 when Modern Library released their list of the Top 100 novels (pay no attention to the “Reader’s List” in the right column because, according to that list, all readers are Scientologists or Objectivists), a tidal wave of bellyaching resulted (click here and here for vitriol).

So, in PWxyz’s tradition of being super timely, we’re fixing 1998′s list in 2012. Here’s what we did: each member of our staff was asked to add one book that he/she felt was snubbed and deserved a rightful place on the list, and to remove one undeserving book on the list to make room for the new pick. If you’re a fan of On the Road, you might want to look the other way.

Let us know your added pick/removed pick in the comments!

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

This is perhaps the greatest of the British humorist’s novels, in which Bertie Wooster gets the goods on Roderick Spode of the Black Shorts, inspired by Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. I’d get rid of Kerouac’s On the Road. I agree with Truman Capote when said of this classic Beat novel, “That’s typing, not writing.”

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

This list could use a dash of evil whimsy, which no one does better than Highsmith. I’d remove one of the James/Lawrence titles, since it seems like they are over-represented. Hopefully, there will be a similar list for short-story collections one day. (Dare to dream!)

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (Trilogy) by Samuel Beckett

Three great works that chart the futility of literary expression, triumphantly, and in two languages, French  & English.

I would remove The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence needs only one book on the list, and has it. This book charts the futility of literary expression, unwittingly.

Alex Crowley, reviews assistant editor:

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Featuring physics equations, musical numbers, sex psychology, & rocket science (I can’t list everything else in the known universe), it would be a complete travesty for Gravity’s Rainbow to not receive recognition as one of the greatest works of highbrow slapstick ever. Composed in a fractal-like structure before that was even a well-understood phenomenon; sentences, paragraphs, entire sections swirl off into unknown vortices before you’re dragged back into the next linguistic eddy. A proper 20th Century heir to Moby-Dick.

Get Jack Kerouac outta there and put Pynchon in his rightful place.

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7 Authors Who Almost Died

Gabe Habash -- May 15th, 2012

When looking at a brush with death, it’s amazing to consider how differently subsequent events would’ve played out had a more tragic result happened. In the case of these writers, it’s amazing to think how much today’s literary canon would be missing if a matter of inches were different, or if the timing had been slightly different.

1. George Orwell was shot in the throat by a sniper

On May 20 1937, George Orwell, while serving in the Spanish Civil War for the left-wing Republicans, stood on a trench parapet and was shot by a sniper. The bullet hit him in the throat, just missing his main artery. The moment was a pivotal one for Orwell, and formed much of his following work. He wrote about the incident (which can be read here) and the experience of what he felt and noticed, including this wonderful moment as he was being carried away on a stretcher: “The leaves of the silver poplars, which in places finger our trenches, brushed against my face; I thought what a good thing it was to be alive in a world where silver poplars grow.”

2. Alexander Pushkin’s penchant for dueling finally caught up with him

Alexander Pushkin wrote some of the most important and enduring literature of all time, but he was also really easy to lure into a duel, engaging in 28 of them before dying in the 29th in 1837 from a bullet to the spleen from Georges d’Anthes, a French officer rumored to be his wife’s lover. The duel is one of the most famous in Russia’s history, depicted in art and film. And even though Pushkin only made it to age 37, it’s a miracle that he lived that long as long as he did and gave us the work that he did.

3. Pearl S. Buck went into hiding during the Nanjing Incident 

The Pulitzer & Nobel winner spent much of her life in China (which became the material for The Good Earth), but the Nanjing Incident in 1927 saw Buck and her family hiding in the hut of a poor Chinese family while their own house was looted. The city, which was the stage for the Nationalist vs. Communist battle, was the site of killings of both British and Japanese consuls, as well as the death of the American vice president of Nanjing University, John Elias Williams. Buck’s family, along with the rest of Nanjing’s foreign citizens, were evacuated.

4. Fyodor Dostoevsky was mock executed

On the morning of December 22, 1849, a 28-year-old Dostoevsky was led to Semenovsky Square and placed in front of a firing squad (depicted here). Famously reactionary Tsar Nicholas I feared a revolt and had Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevsky Circle members lined up to be made an example of–but at the last moment, the Tsar called it off to show the extent of his mercy, and instead sent the young writer to four years of grueling labor in Siberia. Had the execution not been called off, Dostoevsky’s entire canon would’ve consisted of Poor Folk and The Double.

5. Chinua Achebe was paralyzed in a car accident

Most everyone knows about the car accident that seriously injured Stephen King in 1999, but less know that Chinua Achebe, the author of perhaps Africa’s most famous literary work, Things Fall Apart, was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1990 car crash. A broken axle caused his car to flip, and though the other passengers sustained only minor injuries (including Achebe’s son), the weight of the car fell on Achebe. He was rushed to England and treated. Since the incident, he has held positions at Bard College and Brown University. In 2007, he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize.

6. Nelly Sachs barely escaped from Nazi-occupied Germany 

In 1966, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.” That day may have never happened if Sachs hadn’t made it out of Nazi-occupied Germany in 1940. Thanks to an order from the Swedish royal family (on behalf of Sachs’s best friend Selma Lagerlof), Sachs and her mother escaped to Sweden a week before she was scheduled to report to a concentration camp.

7. Ernest Hemingway was hit by a mortar shell in World War I

In 1918, while serving on the Italian Front as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway was struck by an Austrian mortar shell while handing out chocolate and cigarettes to soldiers in a dugout. He was knocked unconscious and shell fragments entered his entire body, including his head, legs, and hand. After he regained consciousness, Hemingway picked up a badly wounded Italian soldier and carried him to the first aid dugout; he later said he didn’t remember how he got back. He was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valor.

Good Books, Good Movies: Carver Fans Should Check Out ‘Everything Must Go’

Gabe Habash -- May 11th, 2012

I know this isn’t a new movie, but last year’s Everything Must Go, based on the Raymond Carver story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, is a treat, and it’s now available on Netflix Instant. It’s 10 times the film Short Cuts is, and, miraculously, actually feels like a Carver story made into a film. Will Ferrell’s Nick Halsey in Everything Must Go plays like Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, but even more reserved. The film uses quiet and introspection the way Carver’s writing uses subtext and between-the-lines meaning, as well as employing a Carveresque tone–a mixture of pathos, quotidian wonder, wry humor, and touching humanity.

It’s the perfect movie for a lazy weekend afternoon.