Author Archives: Alex Crowley

Educate Yourself for Black History Month

Alex Crowley -- February 12th, 2014

Black History Month should mean more than paying lip service to a handful of notable historical figures; we should actually be educating ourselves on the real struggles of Black Americans, the hidden histories of events we may only know in passing, and the contributions of both groups and individuals whose work has been overshadowed because of pernicious racial privileging. To that end, here are a number of recent books that can help us get closer to that ideal.

•     •     •

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis (Knopf). The beginning is always a good place to start, and this, the third and final installment of Davis’s “three-volume study of the intellectual, cultural, and moral realities of slavery in the West since classical times,” covers the Civil War period and aftermath. Here, he addresses the complexities that arose in the wake of slavery’s abolition, an act that nevertheless failed to stop racism and whose repercussions are still felt today. The whole series is a masterpiece and a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

•     •     •

Stokely: A Life by Peniel E. Joseph (Basic/Civitas). Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) was a leading light in the “heroic era” of the Civil Rights movement. He played a role in the Freedom Rides, was a leader of the SNCC, and held the title of Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. Co-credited with coining the term “institutional racism,” his politics were decidedly more radical than many figures in the Civil Rights movement, and he actively espoused Black Power and, later, after splitting with the Black Panthers and going into self-imposed exile, a socialist form of Pan-Africanism.

•     •     •

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson (Prometheus Books). The deep and complicated relationship between African-Americans and guns is probably older than the republic itself, but it surely goes back at least to Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, who both claimed “that gun ownership for blacks helped level the disparity between races,” as guns not only helped keep white antagonism at bay, but also provided occasional work opportunities. That attitude continues to the present day, and notably provided some of the philosophical underpinnings of groups like the Black Panthers. Even supposed practitioners of non-violence like M.L.K., Jr. were known to carry firearms for protection.*

•     •     •

Other recent notables include:

Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear by Aram Goudsouzian (FSG)

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd S. Purdum (Holt)

The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen (Bloomsbury)

Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane A. Diouf. (NYU)

Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade by Randy J. Sparks (Harvard)

*And on that note, Charles E. Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic) just arrived on our shelves and addresses this very phenomenon.

Don’t Just Be Alone on Valentine’s Day, Be Alone with a Book!

Alex Crowley -- February 6th, 2014

Next Friday is the 85th anniversary of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. To commemorate this pivotal event in Prohibition-era America, I recommend these three books on love, lust, and not murdering your sworn enemies…

True Tales of Lust and Love edited by Anna David (Soft Skull). This collection features the work of a bevy of fine female writers and grew out of the L.A.-based live storytelling series. As our review noted, “it’s a hysterical and touching read perfect for young women still figuring out their way in the dating world, though recommended for everyone.”

♥     ♥     ♥ Continue reading

Some Choice Quotes from Important Science books of 2013

Alex Crowley -- December 19th, 2013

These three science books should be on everyone’s radar because they are fantastic.


The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

David Waltner-Toews (ECW)

the origin of feces“Our language reflects our thinking, and our thoughts determine the kinds of options we can imagine to the challenges we face in life.”

“In part because of this lack of respect for the humanities, and in part because previous global narratives (Christianity, Islam, State Communism) have so often been catastrophically bad, the story many of us have told ourselves has focused on what we have seen to be the ideological ‘neutral’ tale of technology and progress. We have deluded ourselves into believing that this is not a belief system, because it uses science to achieve its ends. But where this has led us, in the past century, is into a place where our stories have been constructed around single problems or built on narrow-minded academic disciplines. We have lived with the illusion that we can solve our problems one by one until they are all solved.”

“Wicked problems… are poorly bounded and contradictory. They are difficult to solve because information is incomplete, or the requirements of those who want the problem solved keep changing. They can be defined from a variety of apparently incompatible perspectives, so that there is neither a definitive problem formulation nor an optimal solution. Worst of all, the solutions to some aspects of the problem may create or reveal other problems.”

“At the core of the wicked mess of shit, food, and ecological sustainability is a challenge of theory. We have developed ad hoc solutions, using a Henry Ford, linear, industrial model of nature. This theory works in a factory, or in a laboratory, but wreaks havoc in the world outside those confines.”

“From an ecological perspective, when we observe the production and management of manure, we should be thinking not only of contamination and health in relation to individuals, but also about the implications for seed dispersal, movement of water, elements, and nutrients; bacterial ecology; soil replenishment and impoverishment; and the long-term flourishing of life on Earth.”

“We cannot assume that any of the organizational strategies we have built over the past few millennia will enable us to adapt to what is coming tomorrow.”

“The prices for human excrement were so high in eighteenth-century Japan that stealing human shit was an acknowledged crime, punishable by imprisonment.”

“Global trade in human food and animal feeds—more generally, our particular ways of manipulating the services ecosystems provide—represents an unprecedented transformation and re-distribution of organic matter in the biosphere.”

“Viewing politics and governance only as they relate to individuals and states is not helpful in solving the challenges of living in an overcrowded, unstable, interactive, extremely puzzling world.”


The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution

Henry Gee (U. of Chicago)

the accidental species“There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium.”

“Darwin… used the word ‘evolved’ to mean growth and development of a complex form from a simpler one, and used it to draw an analogy with the altogether grander process in which life itself would from simple beginnings become more diverse, elaborate, and complex. Darwin had a term for this process to which evolution was a mere analogy: he called it ‘descent with modification,’ a much less loaded term than ‘evolution.’”

“Evolution has neither memory nor foresight. It has no scheme, design, or plan…. The patterns we see in life are the results of evolution, and are contingent. In and of itself, evolution carries no implication of progression or improvement. Absolutely none. Zip. Nada.”

“The beautiful thing about natural selection is its simplicity. All it requires to work are four things, three of which are readily apparent with eyes to see. They are heritable variation, the ever-changing environment, superabundance of offspring, and the passage of long periods of time.”

“The evolution of the human brain, like the evolution of anything else, must be thought about in terms of Darwin’s tangled bank, rather than the misreading of evolution as linear, progressive, and governed by purpose.”


Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Ben Goldacre (Faber and Faber)

bad pharma“Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments…. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all.”

“[R]egulators don’t have all the trials, and they don’t share all the ones that they do.”

“Only half of all trials get published, and those with negative results are twice as likely to go missing as those with positive ones.”

“[T]he pharmaceutical industry overall spends about twice as much on marketing and promotion as it does on research and development.”

“In medicine, brand identities are irrelevant, and there’s a factual, objective answer to whether one drug is the most likely to improve a patient’s pain, suffering and longevity. Marketing, therefore, exists for no reason other than to pervert evidence-based decision-making in medicine.”

“The ‘serotonin hypothesis’ for depression, as it is known, was always shaky, and the evidence now is hugely contradictory…. But in popular culture the depression-serotonin theory is proven and absolute, because it has been marketed so effectively.”

“The story of the serotonin hypothesis for depression, and its enthusiastic promotion by drug companies, is part of a wider process that has been called ‘disease-mongering’ or ‘medicalisation’, where diagnostic categories are widened, whole new diagnoses are invented, and normal variants of human experience are pathologised, so they can be treated with pills.”

“So, medicalisation is a mixed bag. We may well find new safe and effective drugs for conditions most of us have never thought of as medical problems before, and they may well improve people’s quality of life, in all kinds of different ways…. But the greatest risk is that we fail to notice that our models of personhood, and what is normal, are being quietly engineered by a $600 billion industry.”


Extended Play: More from the Jeremy Scahill Q&A

Alex Crowley -- December 5th, 2013

Earlier this week we ran a q&a I did with Jeremy Scahill in light of his latest, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, making our Best Books 2013 top-10 list. Scahill had a lot to say and moving beyond the limitations of print, I continue the interview here, another enticement to read this incredibly important book.


In answering my question about public response to his book, Scahill noted that…

A month after the book came out President Obama, for the first time in his entire presidency, gave an address to the American public at the national defense university and finally admitted that he had authorized US military actions that killed American citizens in drone strikes. So I don’t know if the book had any impact on his decision to do that, but I do think that there is a heightened sense that we need to confront these issues or else we’re going to pay a price down the line.

He also noted how current and former soldiers and intelligence personnel had positive responses to what he revealed about our use of Special Forces around the globe. I asked him why we he thought we haven’t heard more criticism from these quarters…

What’s been interesting in the context of the Edward Snowden story and the revelations about surveillance at home and abroad is that there can sort of be two ways that it can go down. On the one hand, fear that they will be indicted for being espionage agents. On the other hand, courage breeds courage; I’ve heard from a number of people who are potential whistleblowers and they’re disturbed at what they’re seeing inside the machinery of power. And I think for a lot of people who serve in the military, they’re kind of left wondering what the point of it all was. The US is going to leave in the next year, we’ve lost thousands of Americans and have no idea how many civilians have been killed, and I think that the men and women who are left with the conducting of these operations are left saying, “What is the point of everything we risked our lives to do?” Continue reading

The Discoveries of Graham Robb

Alex Crowley -- November 21st, 2013

On Tuesday morning I had the good fortune to hang out and drink coffee with Graham Robb—while pestering him with questions about his books and his background—as he is in briefly in the US to promote his new book, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Robb is the author of Balzac: A Life, Victor Hugo, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, and The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, all of which have earned PW starred reviews. Not a bad haul, though you’d hardly guess it from how humble he is in person.

As one might guess from the above titles, British, Oxford-trained Robb is rather enamored with France; his background is in French Literature (he received his PhD. at Vanderbilt, where he studied Baudelaire) and his first few books were academic works (written in French). Though the French in which he produced those works was the rigid, scholarly variant, his popular books in English are witty and charming, full of deep insight yet still wicked fun.

disc of mid earthRobb’s ability to straddle worlds is obvious in his latest book, where he goes back through layers of history to the pre-Roman Europe of the Celts. This ease of movement across contexts could easily be chalked up to his time spent in both France and the US. He and his American wife—whom he met during his time in Nashville—live on the English-Scottish border and spend a good deal of time in France. They don’t own a place in France, however; rather they go there to take extended bicycle tours, a practice that has produced its fair share of research for multiple projects, including his work on the Celts. In this latest instance, it was trying to retrace the mythical Heraklean Way in southern France that led to a surprising discovery (which he lays out here in our q&a with him).

As a native New Englander, I’m wholly unaccustomed to walking around outside and finding shards of ancient pottery or other such trinkets of lives lived 500, 1000, or even 2000 years ago. This is not the case in Europe, where the ruins and artifacts of previous human habitations are regular features of the landscape. There, one can bike past mounds that are the overgrown remnants of ancient forts and stumble across pieces of metal or ceramic dug up by some farmer when he tilled his field. If one pays attention, long-disappeared cultures start making their presence known, though in odd ways.

Celtic culture, of course, is mostly known to Americans via Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but it was continental in origin. They traded and fought with the Romans, among others, though now they’re remembered as being a strange, mystical sort typified by the figure of the druid. Robb told me that there are some cultural hangups in England about druids, as there is a notable neo-druid subculture there whose beliefs (think New Age, pagan, nature spiritualism) have little, if anything, to do with actual Celtic druidry. One of the best aspects of the book is getting to learn about real druids, as we actually know a decent amount about their lives and practices.

He had to run to his next scheduled appearance, so I didn’t get to ask him the 1000 other questions I had in mind (mostly more about druids). But I’ll hopefully get to track him down the next time again soon. Maybe on a bike ride through France.

Reviewer Guest Post: On Letter Writing as Genre

Alex Crowley -- November 7th, 2013

Today we let one of our normally anonymous reviewers out of lockdown to get some fresh air and sunlight. Give a hearty PW welcome to Cynthia-Marie O’Brien…

Every few days, there’s a new envelope in my mailbox addressed with my mother’s familiar handwriting. The envelopes have been coming for more than 10 years to different addresses; if I’d kept them all, they’d number close to one thousand. As the intended audience, I wouldn’t want anyone to read these, but there’s not much anyone else could discern. Rather, it’s the principle they were written not for an imaginary ideal reader, but only for me; a specific, real singular reader. There’s a contract between reader and writer, a known set of shared understandings that preclude what needs to be explicit. My mother the writer might shrug if someone had access to her letters: they reveal just the complex love of mother for daughter.

Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally “to try.” They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category “Letters & Correspondence,” a subset of “Essays & Correspondence.” Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.

In comparison to what seemed like a lot of snail mail from my mother, the correspondence of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., yielded a staggering 35,000 letters between 1945 and 2005. More importantly, they astound in the calculated intensity of the author’s shrewd awareness of serving multiple audiences. His tireless use of letters to advance his vision and spread it in a written form of networking is masterful. The letters shift registers to suit individual recipients and specific circumstances or content, yet he is on record acknowledging that he always wrote his letters planning for an unknown number of readers, for a capital R reader, for posterity.

Doing so indicates a conscious embrace of his status as a public intellectual and an acceptance, even desire, that this merited him no right to privacy in the realm of correspondence, a stance worth considering today as we wrestle with what privacy means in the digital age. Perhaps technology is a red herring and, in defining privacy, we’ve always had conflicting ideas. A return to questions of ethics and intentions should take precedence over the platform in which we’re exchanging and sharing information.

letters of art schlesinger jrThe Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., edited by the historians’ sons Andrew and Stephen, was released last week by Random House. Undoubtedly, this collection’s release was timed for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassination. These letters document Schlesinger, Jr.’s plans to write A Thousand Days and his life-long defense of the Kennedy legacy. They include Kennedy’s request to Schlesinger, Jr. for comments on the manuscript of what became Profiles in Courage, and the reply of incisive chapter-by-chapter critiques from the man who became his White House advisor. The collection should be understood as an effort to pour more cement into the foundation of Schlesinger, Jr.’s legacy as architect of American liberalism; the introduction explains how he helped Kennedy craft language in his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination declaring what it means to be a liberal.

In the 2000s, when Schlesinger, Jr. died and his letter collection stops, the U.S.P.S. recorded a drop-off of nearly one-third in first-class mail volume. So if we’re not sending many letters, why are we reading collections of them? Critically-acclaimed letter collections published in 2013 include George Orwell: A Life in Letters (Norton/Liveright), The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Random House), Letters of William Gaddis (Dalkey Archive), and Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 (Princeton Univ.).

That last collection, named as one of PW’s best books of 2013, is remarkable not only because it is in the curious genre of letter but is also a translation. The University of Rochester’s blog Three Percent is named in sad homage to the fact that only about 3% of books published in the United States are translations. The Orwell collection taps into a renewed interest in his fiction in this age of surveillance, while the release of Cather’s correspondence could only be set in motion once her prohibition on the publication of her letters, codified in her will, became legally moot when the will expired.

Competing with the Schlesinger, Jr., collection for strategic releases fueling or satisfying our interest in public figures, last week’s publications included letters of Leonard Bernstein (Yale Univ.) and John Lennon (Little, Brown). The most enduring reason we are reading these unwieldy doorstops of books is also not about technology, but human nature. “It’s fun to read other people’s mail,” said Patricia O’Toole, whose The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 (Simon & Schuster, 2006) was a finalist for the Pulitzer, National Book Critic Circle, and Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. As an aspiring writer, O’Toole sought to satiate her curiosity about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life in the author’s letters. For her, letters are a way to become closer to someone. Compared with biographies which interpret letters, collections give intimate access to a person’s own words to those of us who aren’t sifting through archives one painstaking letter. But it’s naïve to think they are assembled neutrally, even if they were written without a clear, singular purpose.

O’Toole, author of a forthcoming biography of Woodrow Wilson, said many of the most revealing letters about person A are written not between A and B or A and C, but between B and C about A. That’s why her research strategy includes looking at the letters between other people in her subject’s orbit. After her book When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (Simon & Schuster), O’Toole later published a collection of Roosevelt’s quotes. What’s the appeal of that perennial collection type? Who buys snippets, organized and culled by a researcher? “I imagine they have to write speeches,” she said. Quote seekers, she said, probably have a similar impulse as letter readers do, but “reading books of quotations is often a good way to begin learning about the subject’s ideas.”

Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children was first issued in 1919. It has spent nearly a century in print, with the latest edition published in 2006. That collection, O’Toole said, was crafted not for his children, as claimed and as they were delivered when written, but for history. While the letters adopt an intimate tone to his children, Roosevelt was, like Schlesinger, Jr., documenting events and creating a record using the letter genre as his medium.

O’Toole welcomes the advent of more archives being online and says it’s always useful to see letters written while an event was in progress in comparison with those written when it is over. For that, I find the Schlesinger, Jr., collection to be fascinating. And yet, the letters that offer the most, beyond what other published works from public figures have already done, are those that were written to stay private. In a private letter, a writer adopts a tone that is their own, not the one they are giving the world. We hunger for it and there’s no doubt we learn from it. The question is, as in Cather’s case, whether we have an ethical right to it, no matter how magnificent it is.

As for the Schlesinger, Jr., collection, this is letter-as-genre-of-careful-planning. Readers already love it, yet do they understand how the historian used the genre? A review on GoodReads wonders, “I wonder if it might have been better to separate political and personal letters?” As a reader, this task strikes me as futile in the case of a man whose devotion to ideal of the public intellectual embodied the personal being political.


Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien is an essayist and journalist. Her writing on the imagination received a notable citation in Best American Essays 2011. She has been published in America Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Killing the Buddha, and Words Without Borders, among others. She has been a freelance reviewer for Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. She is founding editor of literary journal Hypothetical: A Review of Everything Imaginable. She is at work on two nonfiction books.

PW Best Books 2013: ‘Amsterdam’ by Russell Shorto

Alex Crowley -- October 24th, 2013

amsterdam shorto

Leading up to the November 1st publication of PW’s Best Books of 2013, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:

Just a few days ago I finished reading Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, the last in a pile of potential best books through which I’d been making my way. Sometimes it’s clear from the off that a book is special, and that indefinable sense took hold quickly here. Shorto had an inkling of an idea, but it was one that needed exploring rather than something already concrete or definitive. So exploring we go…

Shorto’s premise, in brief, is that the growth of the city of Amsterdam mirrors the development of principles “of what we call liberalism: an ideology centered on beliefs about equality and individual freedom that is the foundation of Western society.” Why Amsterdam specifically? He notes how before there was even a notion of “Dutch” national identity, Hollanders (and Friesians and Gelderlanders and other provincials of the “Low Countries”) had developed a geographically-specific, collectivized existence quite different from the feudalism that defined the rest of Europe in the late Middle-Ages. They lived upon land reclaimed from drained bogs and marshes, the making of which not only demanded a great deal of unity, but also fostered a great sense of pride in its accomplishment. The land didn’t belong to a feudal lord, but was literally made by the people. It was their land to do with as they saw fit.

I’ll save you from any further spoilers and leave the remarkable development of the city of Amsterdam to Shorto, for he turns a somewhat obscure story of water management and international trade into an enthralling tale of radicalism and tolerance of strange and otherwise anathema beliefs and ideas. But what’s worth focusing on is Shorto’s notion of the collectivist origins of individualism, as it seems to be a notion missing from contemporary American notions of individualism. Here, for better or worse, we celebrate that “rugged” strain of the pioneer and the self-made “hero”. It’s a mythical conception at best and dangerously misguided at worst.

Whichever way you want to look at it it’s a major influence on our current American political climate in which a vocal segment of the population rails against any sort of collective endeavor whatsoever, labeling it “socialist” and un-American. Part of me feels that Shorto, who has adopted Amsterdam as his home and has lived there nearly a decade now, has sharpened his eye in this position of “exile”. He’s written us this lengthy letter saying, “Hey, here’s where your cherished ‘individualism’ comes from, and if you stop working together, you’re going to lose it.”

He shows quite clearly how, in the course of its development, when Amsterdammers lost their notion of the collective endeavor, they not only suffered the indignities of intolerant rulers, but lost their position in world affairs.*

We worry today, at least some of us do, that the economic system we enjoy is moving in an unsustainable direction, that it’s leading us back towards a manorial system of feudal lords (who own capital and the means of production) and serfs who scrape by through undignified labor that only serves to exalt the self-appointed lords.** I think it’s clear from Shorto’s work (and I don’t feel an ideological agenda on his part, that’s mostly my own interpretation) that if notions of individual liberty are to flourish, it requires a diverse, tolerant population of people who value unorthodox ideas and have space to take risks with those ideas.

And to finish, a core element of Shorto’s narrative revolves around his interview sessions with an elderly Amsterdam Jew and Holocaust survivor named Frieda Menco (she was a childhood acquaintance of Anne Frank and her story is just one of many amazing ones here). Frieda notes at the end that, “Life is absurd. It has no meaning. But it has beauty, and wonder, and we have to enjoy that.” Perhaps the promise of the liberalism that Amsterdam gave the world is that, in moving whole populations out of a medieval, feudalist worldview, in which archaic institutions defined the parameters and expectations of life, it hopes to provide people with the means to make meaning in their lives and experience the beauty and wonder the universe holds.

Check out our q&a with Russell Shorto where he explains more of the ideas I hint at here.


*He also shows that, from the beginning, capitalism was prone to extreme corruption and financial markets egregiously manipulated, necessitating constant regulation. Hey, they were just like us!

**Excuse me, my Marxism is showing.

Book Spine Poetry, or Moving with Lots of Books is a Pain

Alex Crowley -- October 10th, 2013

I just moved to a new apartment, and probably like many of you, I don’t own a lot of things, but the thing I own a lot of is books. Boxes, crates, shelves—you name it and it has books in or on it. So to keep from going nutty while I unpacked and (re)organized, I decided to make some book spine poems. Of course there’s always some measure of narcissism in a little project like this (“ooh, look at all the cool books I have!“), but I also think seeing someone else’s personal library is a window into their head (however small the window or head). So in that spirit, I’m posting my poems below, and you all should make some and send them our way! Take pics and tweet them to us @pwreviews and we’ll retweet them to all our followers.

better off without ‘em

I am a strange loop

louder than hell

beyond good and evil

you will die

civilization and its discontents

leaning against the rain

against architecture

the damned

in baltic circles

near to the wild heart

you are not dead

from the observatory

on the spectrum of possible deaths

to keep love blurry


down the rabbit hole

on the tracks of game


either way I’m celebrating

consciousness explained

modern music and after

a brief history of time

blood, class, and empire

coming of age as a poet

making your own days

laughable loves

by word of mouth

seven american deaths and disasters

What the Heck Makes a Book “Best”-worthy?

Alex Crowley -- September 26th, 2013

Right now, in a massive collective effort to determine the best books of 2013, PW’s staff of certified, unassailable geniuses are poring over stacks of books already vetted and approved over the course of the year by our stable of reviewers (they literally all live in a comically oversized stable in Ulster County, NY). It’s a fun but arduous process that will lead to us editors gathering in a pub nearby and arguing about the merits of such-and-such’s book versus that other one that’s clearly unfit for the honor of a spot on the top-10 list (and thus must be content with a place in the bottom 90 *boos* *hisses* or, horror of horrors, not on the long list at all *gasps* *widespread fainting*).

Artist's rendering of our Reviewer Stable

Artist’s rendering of our Reviewers’ Stable

This whole process of making a list of “best” things is, of course, terrifyingly subjective. Frankly, we the editors don’t even necessarily agree on what “best” signifies. We each have our own vague idea(s); some abstract platonic concept existing for itself in the void. But is that even helpful? Probably not, since that entails defining a bunch of other slippery concepts that should be working in perfect symbiosis. So maybe the best we can do for now is run the rule over some of those characteristics that will eventually take their Voltron form (and I speak here from a non-fiction perspective only, the concerns of fiction or poetry differ in both obvious and subtle ways). Anyway, welcome to the sausage factory! Continue reading

Poetry Books in the Stack Next to My Bed

Alex Crowley -- August 29th, 2013

Anyone who has been through the PW office and seen our desks (especially the reviews editors) has also surely seen the stacks of books we each have waiting to be taken home. These stacks tend to grow wild, as we live in small apartments already filled with piles of books. It can be difficult to justify taking more books home when you haven’t even made it through the ones that are already there. I happen to be a non-fiction editor here, and thus take home plenty of science and history and art books, but it’s always fun to cover something different, so to that end, here are five excellent poetry collections that I’ve recently read or am in the midst of reading.

bozicevic rise in the fall

Ana BožičevićRise in the Fall (Birds LLC, 2013)

So far my favorite poetry collection of 2013, Božičević somehow combines war and trauma and sex and love in that bizarre paradox world where out of dark themes emerges total life joy. It does what in my mind great poetry is supposed to do, which is leave you reeling and ecstatic that some human made this thing that you barely comprehend but totally understand so that when somebody asks “yeah, so it’s good, sure, but what’s it doing? what’s she do?” and you stammer “I don’t know… like, everything.” (PW review) Continue reading