Category Archives: book reviewing

PW Best Books 2013: ‘Forty-One False Starts’ by Janet Malcolm

Jessamine Chan -- October 31st, 2013

fortyonefalsestarts 18-31-42

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:

One list begets another, so here are three reasons why you should read Janet Malcolm’s stunning essay collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers:

1. Accessibility: I am the sister of an artist, I regularly read about contemporary art, but I don’t have a background in art history and often find art criticism to be chilly and impenetrable. Malcolm’s erudite, lucid, totally accessible essays allow me to study the work of Diane Arbus, Thomas Struth, Edward Weston, David Salle, and others, and learn about their worlds with her. What a pleasure to feel like a student again when you have such a witty and unpretentious teacher.

2. Acquaintance and Reacquaintance: Friends tell me that they started reading The New Yorker in high school or even as children. That’s lovely, but I didn’t start reading The New Yorker until about ten years ago, didn’t learn of its canonical place in the world of nonfiction writers until graduate school, and my introduction to The New York Review of Books was even more recent. For readers, who, like me, cannot call upon a lifetime of reading of these fine publications—where many of these essays were published over several decades—this book is a terrific way to catch up on Malcolm’s work. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to read her other books (such as Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, The Journalist and the Murderer) when you’re done.

3. Pleasure: As Ian Frazier writes in the book’s introduction: “A lot of journalism is a bedtime story you are sleepily hearing for the hundredth time, but with a piece by Janet Malcolm, you never know where things will lead…The chance of being taken completely by surprise keeps you alert through everything she writes.” One of the joys of reading is communing with an author’s brilliant mind, and this book, above all, is curious and joyful. The collection has much to offer aspiring critics, writers, students of art and literature, artists, teachers, and readers who simply appreciate exceptional prose. I want to cite a particular passage for you, but I’d have to take a highlighter to the entire book.

Remembering Marcella Hazan

Mark Rotella -- October 3rd, 2013



Mario Batali said that he didn’t turn to Julia Child so much as he did Marcella Hazan, as Kim Severson wrote in her New York Times obit.

And it was the same with me.  I appreciated Hazan’s strong opinions on Italian food (though I still loved the Italian American dishes she shunned, even ones with just a tad too much garlic), and I reached for her books for inspiration, for a dinner party or merely to piece together a meal out of food I had on hand.

As a PW editor, I oversaw the reviews of Marcella Hazan’s later books, and upon her death earlier this week, I took a look at what our reviews had to say.  Of Marcella Says (2004), our reviewer wrote that home cooks will “feel Hazan’s censorious presence as they wonder, for example, if they can skip blanching and proceed directly to sautéing rapini, but they’ll learn a lot if they can overlook her occasionally blunt manner.”

In a starred review for her memoir Amarcord: Marcella Remembers, we said, “Hazan’s memoir is a terrific history of the expansive, postwar period when Americans were still learning the difference between linguine and Lambrusco, and an engaging chronicle of professional perseverance, chance and culinary destiny.”

The first Marcella book I cooked from was Marcella Cucina, which was given to my wife and me as a wedding gift.  Our review said, “Hazan works magic once again in this collection of Italian recipes. Somehow, Hazan manages to respect tradition and foster innovation simultaneously.”

Everyone has his or her favorite Hazan recipe.  From her books, I learned to cook a proper risotto (with the help of a Hazan-like friend standing over me in the kitchen insisting I keep the heat low), and from Marcella Cucina I cooked my first rabbit, in a fricassee of pancetta, tomatoes, rosemary, sage, and white wine—and not one bit of garlic.

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

The PW Morning Report: Friday, June 17, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- June 17th, 2011

Today’s links!

Kindle Spam: Reuters looks at the Spam books clogging Amazon’s Kindle store.

New Nook Reviewed : Good E-Reader takes a good look at the new Nook Simple Touch.

App Hope: Book publishers in the UK are hopeful about the potential of apps, reports the Guardian.

Kinney on ‘Wimpy’: Jeff Kinney tells EW about the present and future of his wildly successful book series.

More on Pottermore: Futurebook has some details about what it might be, maybe, sorta…

Annie’s Book Shop Turns 30: The Nashua bookseller celebrates its 30th year. From the Nashua Telegraph.

Evanovich Speaks: She tells USA Today all about her love of entering the world of her character Stephanie Plum.

The PW Morning Report: Thursday, June 9, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- June 9th, 2011

Today’s links!

Pogue on New E-Readers: The NYT tech columnist reviews the new Nook and Kobo touch readers.

Borders Looks to Downsize HQ: Borders is looking into some smaller spaces for its headquarters in Michigan. From The Detroit News.

Pearlman Wins Malamud Prize: Edith Pearlman has won the PEN/ Malamud award for short fiction. From AP

Collapsing House of Books: The house of a Canadian woman who saved a giant collection of books from being burned is now collapsing under the weight of those books. From the Guardian.

Bookstore Revived: An former employee will reopen KY’s Morgan-Adams books under a new name. From

Authors on Film: Salon looks at a new series of books in which literary authors write about movies.

The PW Morning Report: Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- June 7th, 2011

Today’s links!

Meet iCloud: The NYT explains Apple’s new cloud computing offering.

E-book Discount: Amazon’s “Sunshine Deals” discount program is already shooting a bunch of discounted e-books up its bestseller lists. From PaidContent.

Illustrated E-books: Can they match print, asks Salon?

U.K. Children’s Laureate: Julia Donaldson has been named the U.K. Children’s Laureate for 2011-13.

Closing George: The Boston Globe on the closure of the Curious George shop in Harvard Square.

BookCourt: The Daily News looks at a beloved Brooklyn indie.

X: The Millions looks at the legacy of Malcolm X in books.

Brand Building: HuffPo talks about e-books as brand builders.

The PW Morning Report: Friday, May 13, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- May 13th, 2011

Friday the 13th!

Curious George in Danger: The Curious George and Friends book and toy store in Harvard Square is in danger of closing unless the owner can raise money to save it. From Wicked Local Cambridge.

Florida Bookstores Closing: A look at how changing reading habits have caused Florida bookstores to shut down. From the Sun Sentinel.

The Future of Book Reviews: Top critics debate whether critics or Amazon reviewers are tomorrow’s literary taste makers. From the Daily Beast.

Figment Funded: Figment, the teen writing site founded by two New Yorker vets, got a big new source of funding. From Paid Content.

Houghton Hits Libraries: A big cache of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt e-books is now available to libraries via OverDrive. From eBookNewser.

Amazon Tablet: More on rumors of an Amazon tablet. From Pocket Lint.

Authors @ Google: Google’s HQ is becoming an important stop for touring authors. From the NYT.

The PW Morning Report: Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- May 10th, 2011

Today’s links!

Scholastic Chat: Scholastic President Margery Mayer contributes to the NYT Frequent Flyer column, talking about her experiences meeting Scholastic fans on planes.

Random UK Joins iBooks: Random House UK has signed on with Apple’s iBookstore and its agency pricing model. From the Bookseller.

Digital Hit: HarperCollins UK CEO Victoria Barnsley says publishers are unlikely to be able to replace the loss of revenue caused by the switch to e-books unless they can increase volume sales. From the Bookseller.

Gilbert Goes Gardening: Elizabeth Gilbert is working on her next book, a novel about 19th Century botanists. From USA Today.

The Hollywood Sign Booked: A new book about the Hollywood sign reviewed. From Salon.

Jan Brewer Booked: The Arizona Governor will publish her memoir this fall. The title is “Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politicos to Secure America’s Border.” From MySanAntonio.

Sad Sales: The Rumpus looks at why sad books sell so well.

The Art of the Review V: Nilanjana Roy

Parul Sehgal -- May 6th, 2011

If the book critic is, in John Freeman’s words, a ”public reader,” then Nilanjana Roy is that and much more; her blog The Akhond of Swat is the bustling agora of Indian letters (or at least Indian writing in English). The New Delhi-based writer (and her very engaged commentariat) tackle the latest books, book scandals (hello Greg Mortenson), news tie-ins (a round-up of Osama Bin Laden biographies) — as well as a host of questions specific to Indian publishing (notions of “authentic” Indian writing, translation issues.)

She started reviewing at age 17, “20 years ago, when Indian publishing in English was still young, and when readers like me switched between languages—Bengali to English, English to Hindi—without self-consciousness; we read the way we spoke, changing languages like you would the gears of your car.”

She’s been a book reviews editor at Outlook and Biblio, and today, when she’s not instigating debates over on her blog, she writes a column at the Business Standard and contributes to the International Herald Tribune. Warm, wry, and accessible to a fault– even when covering archaic rape laws or how parallel imports will affect the Indian publishing market — she is a bridge between text and reader, between the safety of our tastes and the terror of the new.

We chat about Rushdie vs. Naipal, the virtues of a “magpie mind,” and why critics shouldn’t review bestsellers.

We’ll get to more high-minded discussions in a bit, but I can’t resist asking about the feuds in Indian letters. What is going on over there?! Since January alone, there’s been Hartosh Singh Bal vs. William Dalyrymple, Pankaj Mishra vs. Patrick French, Mihir Sharma vs. Anand Giridharadas. As you’ve noted, it’s the same argument with many avatars that’s been happening for a long time: Who has the right to write about India? Who is Indian enough? Whence this anxiety of authenticity? Do you find these conversations and quarrels profitable, resolvable, or even interesting?

I used to run a litblog called Kitabkhana, and going through the archives is a great way to realize how much these feuds and spats resemble the grand — and petty — intrigues of the Mughal courts. Some of it just stems from a historical fondness for argument, and it’s not all bad: Mihir Sharma’s contrarian reviews can be cutting, but they also have substance to them, and you need a Mihir as an antidote to the culture of respectful politeness, or the mindless praise allocated to books that are seen to be successful.

Naipaul vs. Rushdie is a beautiful example of a feud that covers some serious ground — the differences between their approaches to history are sharp, and worth paying attention to, because each offers a distinct and mutually contradictory way of making a way in the world. It’s never been carried out by the participants themselves, but by groups of historians, writers, thinkers who fall into either the Naipaul or the Rushdie camp, and the disputes range from the absurd to the trivial to the deeply serious.

The obsession with authenticity, is to my mind an empty quest — you’re getting into a ridiculous debate over whether the urban Indian, for instance, will ever be as authentic as her counterpart from the village, you’re evaluating different ways of writing India and elevating one over the other as the only true way. But the exasperation, the sense of disenfranchisement on the part of writers who don’t have the kind of easy access a French or a Giridharadas might, the impatience with a West that seems to want only a certain kind of facile, tourist’s guidebook writing from India, that is not interested in more complex narratives — these are very real. Giridharadas and French are almost accidental targets — the real battle is over an anxiety over what kind of portrait of the country will emerge, and an impatience sometimes with narratives that either simplify or contradict the version a Pankaj Mishra sees as the true story, for instance.

The realities of the marketplace currently dictate that Indian writers working in Indian languages other than English will rarely find an audience outside the country; that causes bitterness. The marketplace also dictates that Indian writers in English will of necessity be judged, bought, sold and read by editors and publishers working to the tastes of the European and American markets, which currently control English-language publishing — a fact that is often distasteful, frightening, or daunting to many Indians.

Hidden under all of this is the real fear: that we are losing our own distinct voice, that we are losing the right to tell our own stories without glossaries and without the necessity of explanation, that we speak and write and think in a borrowed tongue — English is an Indian language, but it is still an alien Indian language. So all of this makes these spats interesting; resolvable, no, but profitable, yes.

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The Art of the Review IV: Stephen Burt

Parul Sehgal -- April 8th, 2011

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re extremely lucky to have Stephen Burt with us. Considered to be the leading poetry critic of his generation, Burt writes about poets and poems with more subtlety, shrewdness, and heart than just about anyone (he’s also a bit better-acquainted with the X-Men than you’d expect).

He’s a prolific reviewer, a professor of English at Harvard, the author of two poetry collections (Popular Music and Parallel Play) and critical studies including The Art of the Sonnet and the sublime Close Calls with Nonsense, an introduction to reading new poetry. Oh, and he’s also at work on four new books. Excellent.

Burt talks to us about how books are like people, why criticism is like making chairs, and how to review even the dullest book.

What drew you to criticism?
I’m tempted to say that criticism itself drew me, in the sense that a comic book artist draws the character in the comic book: that I am its invented creature. Resisting the temptation, I’ll say that I grew up indulged, heard and overheard by parents and teachers as I opined on the relative merits of X-Men storylines, for example, or prog-rock albums, and I gradually discovered that other people—even people I had never met!–might read my opinions if I researched them and wrote them down in the right ways. By that time they were opinions about other art works and other art forms, most often and most happily about poetry, although I still have opinions about the X-Men, if asked.

Another answer: in my teens I read Randall Jarrell and William Empson and Hugh Kenner and (by that time I was enrolled in her courses) Helen Vendler. Even before my teens, if I remember rightly, I was reading popular science explainers and language mavens and other explainers of complicated things in clarified, non-esoteric language. I was storing up models, without knowing why.

I have been fortunate enough to be taken up by congenial editors early. Not all critics, not all reviewers, get that.

I read a wonderful interview you did where you said the following: “Reviewing, like all other literary criticism, like the making of chairs, like the making of film scores, is an applied art: it’s heteronomous, serving ends outside itself, and should not let its own artfulness detract from those functions.” What function do your reviews serve? And how do you know–can you know?–if you’ve succeeded?
Time to quote Auden! “What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned he can do me one or more of the following services: 1. Introduce me to authors or works. 2. Convince me that I had undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough. 3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures. 4. Give a ‘reading’ of a work which increases my understanding of it. 5. Throw light upon the process of artistic ‘Making.’ 6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” (This and much else from the essay “Reading,” at the front of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand.)

Reviewers can do all those things. I hope that I have done them, now and again.

Reviews can also clear space for the appreciation of neglected, undervalued or misunderstood art by dispelling bad arguments about art, or by trying to clear worse art out of the way when it seems to be obstructing the view of better art. (Sometimes the better art and the worse art are by the same artist.)

As for how you know when you have succeeded, W. S. Merwin recalls in a poem that he once asked John Berryman whether and how he knew his poems were good, and Berryman replied “You can’t you can never be sure/ you die without knowing.” You can’t quite know what you have done inside a reader’s mind.

On the other hand, reviews can get books more attention—and that’s something you can know. If I review Jane Doe’s second book, and then her third book gets more attention than her second (more reviews, more people reading it, even more copies sold), perhaps at the margin I had something to do with that. Reviewing is like writing poetry in some ways (it’s an art) but it’s also like making chairs (see above) and it is in a third set of ways like voting: an individual contribution to a necessarily collective effort.

How do you sidestep the peril that is reviewspeak (oh, all those “luminous,” “lyrical” “tours de force!”)–and formulaic review structures?

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