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Photo by Carmen Henning

Photo by Carmen Henning

A. O. Scott, author of the forthcoming title Better Living Through Criticism (out in February 2016), shares ”The Five Books of Criticism that Changed My Life” with the Penguin Hotline:

1. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand. Many of the virtues of Auden’s poetry—the mix of conversational ease and high philosophical seriousness; the naughty wit and unguarded earnestness; the friendliness and unmatched erudition—are on display in this collection of critical writings. There is ample wisdom and much fun to be found in the chapters on Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Igor Stravinsky, but it’s the first three chapters, devoted to “Reading,” “Writing” and “Making, Knowing, and Judging” that make this book one I return to again and again. Masquerading as a miscellaneous collection of aphorisms and observations, those pages add up to a theory of human thought and behavior, and therefore a guide to life.

2. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work. Technically more of a memoir than a work of criticism, Baldwin’s survey of the role movies played in his life—from his childhood trips to the cinema with a sympathetic teacher to his adventures in Hollywood in the 60s—is a characteristically sharp and generous critique of American society and some of its most cherished cultural products. An unsparing indictment of the way the movies have ignored and distorted America’s racial history, the book is a tour de force of corrective interpretation and a tribute to the power of cinema.

3. Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies. Anyone who writes about popular culture has to contend with Kael: her taste, her voice, her seductive arguments and maddening inconsistencies. She’s inescapable, and this collection of her early work—written before she became an institution at The New Yorker—shows her at her vital, bruising best.

4. Susan Sontag, On Photography. Sontag is someone whose writing I never stop rereading, though there is probably no critic I find more reliably wrong. For me, she offers unmatched access to the drama of thinking, and I read her not to be convinced but to observe her mighty mind at work. This book, six essays originally commissioned by The New York Review of Books, considers photography as an art form, a technology and a moral and spiritual challenge. Sontag’s call for “an ecology of images” in a world awash in pictures may seem quaint, but in the age of Instagram and the selfie her jeremiad seems prophetic and painful.

5. Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist. My new book, Better Living Through Criticism, starts with a long quote from this mischievous dialogue, and I would have been happiest if I could have just reprinted the whole thing. It’s as funny as any of Wilde’s plays, effortlessly learned and marvelously perverse. He will convince you that criticism is more important than any of the other arts and that “it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it.” Those are the words I’ve tried to live by.


Thanks, A. O. Scott! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend a forthcoming favorite of ours: Better Living Through Criticism.


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Self-portrait by Reza Farazmand

Reza Farazmand, author of Poorly Drawn Lines, shares his list of “Books to Make You Laugh and Think” with the Penguin Hotline:

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

Eeeee Eee Eeee: A Novel by Tao Lin

The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad

Goliath by Tom Gauld

Thanks, Reza! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one more book that makes us laugh and think: Poorly Drawn Lines. And for more custom book recommendations, be sure to check out the Penguin Hotline!


Illustration by Rafael Mantesso

Illustration by Rafael Mantesso

Rafael Mantesso, author of A Dog Named Jimmy and favorite human of Instagram sensation Jimmy the Bull Terrier, shares his top five books about art with the Penguin Hotline:

Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts by Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear

Because I love everything from Charles Schulz and this is my pursuit every day: do more with less. Imagine how difficult it is choose what is really necessary from Charles Schulz. For me, everything from him is necessary.

Picasso & Lump: A Dachshund’s Odyssey by David Douglas Duncan and Paloma Picasso Thevenet

Dachshund isn’t my favorite breed, of course. Bull terrier is. But Picasso is my favorite artist ever, and if Picasso loved this kind of dog, there must be a good reason, and I want to know it!

Kill Your Pets by David Shrigley

I love David Shrigley because it’s amazing to know that you don’t need to know how to draw, or you can draw like a kid and be famous, you just need to have a crazy mind. His sense of humor is always one degree forward, so I’d like to know why he wants me to kill my pet.

LaChapelle: Heaven to Hell by David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle is one of my favorite photographers. He is insane and his photos are like Renaissance paintings, I cannot stop looking at them. I hope one day I can do the same with my photos.

600 Black Spots: A Pop-up Book for Children of All Ages by David A. Carter

I think the most difficult thing to do is a book for children. They have the most amazing minds and if you are able to entertain them, my friend you are the guy! My best pictures are the simplest pictures with less elements. Imagine how creative you need to be to get a child’s attention with black spots.

Thank you, Rafael! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one of our favorite books: A Dog Named Jimmy.

And for more custom recommendations, please don’t forget to head to the Penguin Hotline!


Photo credit: Xue Tan

Photo credit: Xue Tan

Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Piano Teacher and The Expatriates (forthcoming in January 2016), shares some perfect gift ideas for your friend who’s in a book club (oh so helpfully arranged by category!):

LITERARY FICTION: Euphoria by Lily King

I am a wild evangelist for this book, which I always introduce by saying, it sounds like it will be really boring, an imagined chapter in Margaret Mead’s life when she was in Papua New Guinea, but from the first page, you are helplessly drawn in and seduced by this amazing world and its characters.  Breathtaking.


LIKE THEIR GOSSIP, LIKE THEIR WINE: China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

A pitch-perfect and knowing foray into the bazillionaire world of Asia, complete with designer labels and resort and restaurant names.  A fantastic read that you will finish in one setting.

SOCIAL ACTIVIST: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Animal rights have never been so lyrically and delicately explored as in this captivating book about a woman and her highly unusual family.

INTERNATIONAL: In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar

This Filipino writer illuminates the diaspora of her migrant people with empathy and grace.


FUTURE APOCALYPTIC DYSTOPIA: On Such A Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

My former writing teacher and former classmate have both written incredible books about imagined worlds (Gary’s may come true!).  A trope made new by these skillful and graceful writers.

TECH: The Circle by Dave Eggers

What happens when a company thinks it is the answer to everything?  And that company is made up of fallible humans?

Thanks, Janice Y. K. Lee! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one more book perfect for the book club: The Expatriates.

And for custom book recommendations, head to the Penguin Hotline!


Celeste Ng (c) Kevin Day Photography

Photo (c) Kevin Day Photography

Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, shares some of her favorite conversation-sparking coffee table books with the Penguin Hotline:

For me, these books spark stories, but they make great gifts for almost anyone, too: I guarantee people will pick them up to flip through and become totally immersed.

Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine (Chris Wild) – I’ve long been a fan of the Retronaut blog, which collects vintage color photographs. The photos challenge your perception of the past—but they’re also just delightful, like a shoe-shaped delivery car form the 1920s, or Lyndon B. Johnson driving his “Amphicar” into the water to startle his friends.

Letters of Note (Shaun Usher) – Who can resist reading other people’s letters? From Elizabeth II’s letter to President Eisenhower (sharing her recipe for scones) to Jack the Ripper’s taunting note to the police to the Campbell’s Soup Company’s thank-you to Andy Warhol—sent with a case of tomato soup—every page is fascinating.

Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World (Davy Rothbart) – A collection of intriguing, funny, and just plain odd lists, notes, and objects that give you a glimpse into other people’s lives. One of my favorites: the angry note left on a boyfriend’s windshield that begins “You said you had to work then whys your car here at HER place?…. I hate you” and ends “p.s. page me later.”

Earth From Above: 365 Days (Yann Arthus-Bertrand) – The title is self-explanatory—aerial photos of the earth—but the pictures inside are breathtaking and will remind you of the beauty and diversity on our planet. They’ll make you feel small, in the best way.

Part Asian, 100% HAPA (Kip Fulbeck) – Fulbeck’s intimate portraits of part-Asian people are paired with their handwritten responses to the question “What are you?”–making for thought-provoking reading.

Food Landscapes (Carl Warner) These whimsical, amazingly detailed “foodscapes”–from a Taj Mahal made of onions to a forest of broccoli studded with potato boulders–will delight both kids and kids at heart.

The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy (Ursus Wehrli) – Swiss Artist Ursus Wehrli likes things tidy—so in this collection of “before” and “after” photos, he’s alphabetized his alphabet soup, sorted his fruit salad, and arranged a group of sunbathers by towel and umbrella color. The results are beautiful and hilarious.

Big Appetites: Tiny People in a World of Big Food (Christopher Boffoli) – A tiny man mows a neat strip of orange peel; pea-sized poachers pry out strawberry seeds with crowbars; miniature miners hike through a sea of coffee beans—Boffoli’s humorous photos and captions create tiny, mesmerizing stories.

Humans of New York (Brandon Stanton) – Stanton’s streetside portraits of New Yorkers, paired with quotes and anecdotes about each, is pure people-watching in book form: a cross-section of the vibrant, diverse population of the city.

Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals (Dinah Fried) – Designer Dinah Fried pairs famous literary passages—from Proust’s madeleine to Queequeg’s clam chowder to the avocado-crabmeat salad of The Bell Jar—with artfully staged photos of each meal. Perfect for foodies and book lovers alike.

Thanks, Celeste Ng! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one more book that sparks conversation (and, incidentally, would look great on just about any table): Everything I Never Told YouRead an excerpt here.

And for more custom book recommendations, check out the Penguin Hotline!

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Photo credit: Nina Subin

Photo credit: Nina Subin

Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the forthcoming novel At the Edge of the Orchard (out in March 2016), and, most recently, The Last Runawayshares her list of the “5 Best Recent Civil War Novels” with the Penguin Hotline:

1. Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles

A young Missouri woman navigates a state wrecked by war in search of her father. Instead she ends up in prison, finding love in an unlikely place and with an unlikely man. It’s entertaining, romantic and beautifully written – I was not surprised to discover Jiles is a poet.

2. Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

Another youngster searches for his father, this time at Gettysburg, with the help of the titular horse. Poetic and harrowing.


3. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Forget the tepid movie stars from the film and focus instead on the wonderful characters Frazier creates in words: Inman, who walks away from battles and back through the South to Ada, the woman he loves; Ada, who has to learn to survive by getting her hands dirty; and Ruby, her salty, earthy helpmate. This is about the people affected by war rather than about battles, and how you manage to live and love in extremes.

4. Neverhome by Laird Hunt

A woman leaves her farm and husband to take his place and fight in the Civil War. You think she won’t manage it, but she does, thrillingly and violently.

5. March by Geraldine Brooks

Ever wonder what was happening to the father Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were writing to? Brooks takes a great premise and makes it even better, painting a bold, complex character in March as he joins the war and reveals how unprepared he is either physically or mentally for a fight that extends well beyond battles and uncovers the cruelty and racism at the heart of his country.



Thanks, Tracy Chevalier! And the Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one of our favorite Civil War novels – The Last Runaway


For more book recommendations for the holidays, check out the Penguin Hotline!


Not sure what to gift the book club member in your life this holiday season? Or looking for a book for your own book club? The Penguin Hotline has a few ideas to get you started!

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For the foodies:

1. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

For the romantics:

2. The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

For an important conversation:

3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


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For those dating in the digital age who could use a dose of humor (and some thought-provoking sociological insight to boot):

4. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

For the wanderlusters:

5. Euphoria by Lily King

For literary fiction with some curveballs you’ll want to discuss:

6. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff


For some gripping, Cold War-set historical fiction:

7. The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor

For National Book Award-winning short stories:

8. Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson


For a debut novel from an emerging voice:

9. Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam

For the multi-generational book club:

10. A Spool of Thread by Anne Tyler

Happy reading (and discussing)! And for more custom book recommendations for the holidays, check out the Penguin Hotline!


Photo credit: Dan Winters

Nick Offerman, author of Gumption and Paddle Your Own Canoe, shares his 2015 Holiday Book Picks with the Penguin Hotline:


Our Only World by Wendell Berry

As good a place to start as any, since I recommend his entire canon of fiction, essays and poetry. Our most important American writer, hilarious, loving, and vital.

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters by Peter Korn

A moving and personal account of the imperative to create with our hands tangible change in the world around us. A warming recipe for betterment from a master woodworker/teacher.

Lafayette in The Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Ms. Vowell fuels her every sentence with pithy observation and caustic insight, allowing her subjects, however historical, to become completely palatable, relatable, and ultimately human. Her rendering of France’s unflagging friendship to America over the centuries made me cry. Twice.

Thanks, Nick Offerman! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend a couple more of our own favorites for the holiday: Gumption and Paddle Your Own Canoe. And check out the Penguin Hotline for custom book recommendations!

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Linwood Barclay, NYT and #1 international bestselling author of BROKEN PROMISE (photo credit: Bill Taylor)

photo credit: Bill Taylor

Linwood Barclay, New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of Broken Promise shares his list of “Five Classic Thrillers” with the Penguin Hotline:

It’s occurred to me that whenever I’m asked to list my favourite thrillers, the titles that show up keep changing. There’s always one I think I should have mentioned, so the next time, I put it on the list, and one of the others falls off. Here are the books that come to mind today.

11/22/63, by Stephen King: Okay, time travel plays a big part in this 2011 novel about a man’s attempt to stop the assassination of President Kennedy, which puts it slightly into the sci-fi realm, but it’s a hell of a thriller, and shows that King has no intention of coasting in the later stages of  his career. It’s a huge, ambitious book, and in addition to the excitement that comes from trying to stop Lee Harvey Oswald, there’s a powerful love story at the novel’s core.

Marathon Man, by William Goldman: Before Goldman wrote the screenplay for the Dustin Hoffman thriller back in the 1970s, he wrote the novel. When I picked it up paperback as a teenager, I hardly knew what to make of it. The first several chapters appeared to have no connection to each other. First off, we’re witness to a bizarre traffic accident in Manhattan. Then we’re with Babe, the marathon-running student. Then we’re with Scylla, the assassin. As the threads start to come together, we’re mesmerized.

The First Deadly Sin, by Lawrence Sanders: Another book from the 1970s by the prolific writer of popular fiction (now no longer with us). Police detective Edward X. Delaney is on the trail of a serial killer who uses a strange weapon. This was the first big thriller I ever read. Delaney’s methodical, step-by-step approach to getting into the killer’s mind gives the book an epic feel.

A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell: In the very first paragraph, Rendell tells the reader who has been murdered, who the murderer is, and why the crime was committed. But the circumstances are so compelling, the reader has no choice to but to go on. You think you know it all, but you don’t.

The Cartel, by Don Winslow: Did I say Sanders’ book was epic? Well, Winslow’s most recent novel is EPIC. This ambitious book, about the Mexican drug cartels, is a followup to his earlier thriller, The Power of the Dog. If Tolkien had decided to write about the battles between drug lords, and their battles with government drug enforcement agents, instead of all that Middle Earth stuff, he might well have come with something like The Cartel. Not just a terrific read, but a deeply troubling work of fiction.

Thanks, Linwood Barclay! And the Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one of our favorite thrillers: Broken Promise!


Check out the Penguin Hotline for custom book recommendations!