Author Archives: PWStaff

PW Staff: Our Favorite Books We Read in 2013

PWStaff -- December 6th, 2013

If you’ve already read all of PW‘s 101 Best Books of 2013, don’t worry–we have a few more suggestions, this time the personal picks from our staffers. The books below are not necessarily published in 2013, just ones we read in 2013 and wanted to share.

Daniel Berchenko, copy chief:

Homage-to-Catalonia1 

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938). I’m not sure why it took me so long to read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s memoir about the Spanish Civil War—countless friends have earnestly recommended it to me over the years. For me, the Spanish Civil War calls to mind the macho heroics of Hemingway, or the pathos of Picasso’s Guernica. What else is there to say about it? Earlier this year, after recommendation number 500, I finally broke down and read Homage to Catalonia, and I’ve been earnestly recommending the book to people ever since.

Orwell went to Spain in late 1936 with a single goal: “I had promised myself to kill one Fascist” (“after all,” he reasons, “if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct”). But Orwell spent most of his brief time at the front trying to stay warm and looking for tobacco. He did eventually participate in a terrifying night raid on an enemy position, and was later badly wounded by a sniper’s bullet. But he failed to fulfill his stated purpose. (“I used to think of the recruiting poster in Barcelona which demanded accusingly of passers-by: ‘What have you done for democracy?’ and feel that I could only answer: ‘I have drawn my rations.’ ”)

What stands out about Orwell’s account is his utter humility as a British journalist who knew nothing about guns or war, but who was determined to fight fascism, in a conflict on foreign soil whose battle lines were increasingly muddled by factional infighting on the left. Orwell vividly recounts the horrors and absurdities of the war (in tone, Homage to Catalonia is closer to MASH than For Whom the Bell Tolls), as well as the revolutionary euphoria of living in anarchist-controlled Barcelona in early 1937. Even more gripping than Orwell’s account of his experiences at the front is his lucid analysis of the political situation in Spain, which describes the veritable alphabet soup of communist and anarchist parties that he fought with (and, occasionally, against). Mostly by chance, upon arriving in the country, he fell in with the POUM, a communist party opposed to the pro-Stalin official Communist Party of Spain (PCE). As the Soviet Union poured more money and weapons into the conflict, the PCE’s ranks swelled, and it eventually turned its sights on the POUM and some of the other leftist parties that had been governing Republican Spain as a coalition. By the summer of 1937, the POUM and the PCE were fighting openly in the streets of Barcelona, and Orwell was forced to flee the country, narrowly escaping arrest (many of his comrades were not so fortunate).

Matia Burnett, assistant editor, children’s books:

122719-121559

In her memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight M.E. Thomas (a pseudonym) writes about living and often thriving with a psychological condition that is perhaps one of the most maligned and misunderstood. She is a diagnosed sociopath, but while her inability to experience empathy in the way others do has set her apart, Thomas is not a criminal, and does not dwell on the fringes of society—quite the contrary. Thomas’s book is not truly a confessional, but rather an exploration of the illusion of human normality that is philosophical, edifying, and profound. Continue reading

What Was the First Book that Made You Love Books? PW Staff Picks

PWStaff -- April 11th, 2013

Every now and then, PWxyz likes to let the staff around here talk about books, because that’s all we secretly want to do. Previously, the PW staff has Fixed the Modern Library 100 Novels List, named some favorite short stories, and picked the best books read in 2011 and 2012. Here, we asked: What’s the first book you read that really made you love books? Let us know yours in the comments!

Andrew Albanese, senior writer: The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald

The Great Brain

Easy…

For me, it was The Great Brain series, by John Dennis Fitzgerald. In the mid-1970s, while I was in elementary school, my family began spending winters at my grandparents home on Oneida Lake, in upstate New York, so we could care for my great grandmother while my grandparents wintered in Florida. The move meant a special, 45-minute bus ride to school every day, with kids I didn’t know and who apparently were predisposed to not liking new kids. Or, maybe they just didn’t like me. So, there I was. 10 years old, in a rural lake house, in winter, no smartphones or Internet, of course, and only three blurry channels on TV, when the signal could penetrate the lake effect snow. But whatever, I never watched TV, I had to go to bed early every night so I could wake up at the crack of dawn to catch that snakepit of a bus to school. And then one day, our school librarian took pity on my brother and me, and sent us home with The Great Brain books. I have to admit, I can’t remember many details of the books today—but I’ll never forget my brother and I staying up late into the night reading the books together with a flashlight. Continue reading

100 Years, 94 Books: ‘Mr. Britling Sees It Through’ by H. G. Wells (1917)

PWStaff -- March 26th, 2013

The following is an excerpt from Matthew Kahn’s project 100 Years, 94 Books–to review the bestselling books of the last 100 years and study what made them essential to their cultural moment.

wells

 Who?

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) remains popular to this day, and is best known for his work as one of the fathers of science fiction. Wells was born in the county of Kent in England.  Growing up, his family had considerable financial trouble resulting in Wells’s placement in various harsh apprenticeship programs as a child and teenager, giving him experiences which lent themselves to some of his novels (e.g. Kipps).  He later became a teacher and, in 1895, wrote his first (and possibly most famous) novel, The Time Machine.  Between 1895 and 1901, Wells published three non-fiction books and eight more novels, including The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

Wells wrote prolifically about social and economic issues, and put forth many volumes on better ways to organize the world.  He wrote extensively on the subject of utopias and authored many non-fiction works on popular history. Yet he is remembered for little else than his science fiction, despite having published over fifty novels at the time of his death, and even more non-fiction books.  Wells passed away due to undetermined medical causes in 1946.

So what’s this book about?

Mr. Britling Sees It Through can be best explained by this passage from the novel itself:

“This story is essentially the history of the opening and of the realisation of the Great War as it happened to one small group of people in Essex, and more particularly, as it happened to one human brain” (216).

The titular Mr. Britling is a writer primarily of essays and non-fiction books on social issues of the day and larger aspects of human nature. The novel begins with the arrival of Mr. Direck, an American who has come to ask Mr. Britling to give a lecture in Massachusetts.  Mr. Direck stays at Mr. Britling’s home in Matching’s Easy, along with Mrs. Britling, Mr. Britling’s secretary Teddy, his wife Letty and sister-in-law Cecily (whom Mr. Direck immediately falls for), Herr Heinrich (a German student), the Britlings’ two young sons, and Hugh Britling (Mr. Britling’s older son from his first marriage). The first section of the novel establishes these characters and focuses on the British attitude leading up to the outbreak of World War One. The rest of the novel focuses on how life and attitudes changed (or refused to change) while some characters left for war.

Read the full post on Kahn’s blog.

100 Years, 94 Books: ‘Seventeen’ by Booth Tarkington (1916)

PWStaff -- March 13th, 2013

The following is an excerpt from Matthew Kahn’s project 100 Years, 94 Books–to review the bestselling books of the last 100 years and study what made them essential to their cultural moment.Booth_Tarkington_cph.3b27121

 

Who?

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) appears twice on the list.  The first time was for 1915’s The Turmoil. While he had great commercial and critical success with serious and mature novels (garnering two Pulitzer prizes in the process), he was also well known for his comedic fiction starring children and teenagers.   Penrod (1914), which followed the eponymous twelve-year old, was one of his bestselling books in terms of numbers of copies sold. Both Seventeen and Penrod and Sam (the sequel to Penrod) were published in book form 1916.

So what’s this book about?

Seventeen was originally published serially in ten parts in Metropolitan Magazine beginning in January, 1915, before being published as an individual novel by Harper in 1916.  It tells the story of seventeen year old William Baxter and his summer spent trying to woo Lola Prat, the girl from out of town who he, and a number of his friends, have immediately fallen for.  William treats the situation with all the subtlety and rationality one would expect of a love-struck seventeen year old.  His wildly over the top responses to the rest of the world are hilarious and, as anyone who did not grow up in a cave can attest, embarrassingly true:

“He walked in his own manner, using his shoulders to emphasize an effect of carelessness which he wished to produce upon observers. For his consciousness of observers was abnormal, since he had it whether any one was looking at him or not.”

The cast includes bizarre and amusing characters like William’s ten year old sister Jane, the adventurous, free-spirited bane of William’s existence.  And of course, the love interest, the exasperating Lola Pratt, whose refusal to speak in any fashion other than ‘baby talk’ straddles the line between humorously annoying and cringe-worthy.

Read the full post on Kahn’s blog.

 

PW Staff: Our Favorite Books We Read in 2012

PWStaff -- December 20th, 2012

PW has already named its Best Books of 2012, 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 2012, 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!

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

When I was a college senior, I gave Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, as a house present to a friend’s mother. At the time, I had no interest whatsoever in reading a long, serious contemporary novel, focused as I was on studying classic American literature at the same university where Stegner was in charge of the creative writing program. Forty years later, having broadened my literary range, I finally read Stegner’s masterpiece. I’m glad I waited.  At my current mature age, I can better appreciate the struggles of a mismatched couple in the post-Civil War American west, framed by the narrative of the couple’s cranky, crippled 58-year-old grandson, a retired history professor who tries to make sense of their story as he pieces it together. His fulminations against the hippie counterculture of his own day add to the fun. A brutally honest, unsentimental book.

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

I still have 400 pages to go, but at the halfway mark, Anna Karenina (the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is definitely my favorite this year. Every hour that I can devote to it has been immensely rewarding. I’m not a big fan of the disaffected, post-post-emotion trend in contemporary fiction, so I love that these characters just feel so many feelings. Levin seems always on the verge of a meltdown, and the women sigh and weep for pages and pages. That is my kind of book. Last week, I missed my subway stop because of one of Vronsky’s big scenes. I wish all books could command my attention and inspire my devotion the way this one does.

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

One topic, jazz, served marvelously by two books this year: Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards (Oxford University Press), and Marc Myers’s Why Jazz Happened (Univ. of California Press). When read together, Myers’s book offers an explanation (as much as there can be one) of how the culture produced the 250 standards of the jazz repertoire that Gioia lovingly details. While Gioia makes a fascinating connection between how Broadway show tunes and the popularity of strong singers like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday fed and fed off the development (and commercial success for a time) of the jazz form, Myers, who covers music for the Wall Street Journal and writes the popular blog, JazzWax, explores how migration, the depression, the advent of radio, the evolution of recording technology (including the concomitant rise of juke boxes), and the battle between musicians’ unions and record companies directly influenced the direction of American jazz. Both books make for lively accompaniments to listening. Continue reading

Amazon Kindle Turns 5

PWStaff -- November 19th, 2012

Amazon has marked its 5th birthday by releasing the bestselling Kindle e-books from the first five years. They are:

Top 5 Best-Selling Kindle Books Ever

  1. Fifty Shades of Grey
  2. The Hunger Games
  3. Catching Fire
  4. Mockingjay
  5. Fifty Shades Darker

Top Selling Kindle Books By Year

  1. The Complete User’s Guide To the Amazing Amazon Kindle (2008)
  2. The Lost Symbol (2009)
  3. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2010)
  4. The Help (2011)
  5. Fifty Shades of Grey (2012)

The Best Short Stories: PW Staff Picks

PWStaff -- June 28th, 2012

The great thing about PWxyz asking PW Staff for their reading recommendations is that they’ll always tell us and they’ll do it for free! We have tricked them. This time, we bamboozled them all for their all-time favorite short stories. And we’d like you to tell us your favorite short story in the comments. We promise–it’s not a trick.

Adam Boretz, reviews editor:

“The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s wending prose perfectly captures the skewed thinking of the depressed (and anxious) person with one awful, self-conscious — and wickedly funny — mental spiral after another. Readers in the midst of a crack-up of their own may, of course, find this story less entertaining and more, well…depressing.

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

“Honeysuckle Cottage” by P.G. Wodehouse

In P. G. Wodehouse’s “Honeysuckle Cottage,” one of the English humorist’s funniest stories, a hardboiled mystery novelist must stay for six months in a cottage once inhabited by his late aunt, a romance novelist, in order to gain an inheritance. The haunted atmosphere of the house soon has a sentimental effect on our hero—and his prose.

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

“The Great Divorce” by Kelly Link

A few summers ago, while teaching an undergrad fiction workshop, I found myself fielding complaints that my assigned reading was “too dark,” and that all the stories were about people being incredibly mean to each other. “But that’s called conflict!” I said. What turned the class around was having them read “The Great Divorce.” Here, the dead can marry the living. Problems ensue when they want to get divorced. I love how Link whimsically transforms the classic miserable married people premise. My summary does not do justice to this delightful, rich, and surprising story. Just go read it. I’m sure you will find yourself, as I did, seeking out all of her books.

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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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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.

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