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opinionated commentary on literary matters - from the complete review
11 - 20 August 2002
Introduction | Geoffrey Hill | The Emperor of Ocean Park | London Rev. of Books
go to weblog
ZIBF | New LA Times URLs | US v. UK
Enigmatic Synergies | Blurb accounts
Another Trobadora review
Booker countdown | Naipaul's 70th
Blogcritics.org | Edbookfest | More (or less) Naipaul
The Qu'ran at UNC | Man/Booker longlist
UNC update | Kakutani's Quaking
return to main archive
20 August 2002
UNC update | Kakutani's Quaking
UNC survives Qu'ran discussions
Did the infidels win ?
The to-do about the summer reading program at the University of North Carolina (see our previous post) got serious media coverage -- and The New York Times even gave it a front-page article today (sorry - we don't link to articles at the Times (but you know how to find it if you want to)).
Despite all the attention, and last minute legal appeals, the program went ahead more or less as planned.
As the campus newspaper (the unfortunately named The Daily Tar Heel) reported, beside the unexpected media frenzy and the expected protests the program did allow for some actual discussion on the book in question.
Sanity appears to have prevailed, and vaguely sensible discussion to have dominated.
Reports do, however, suggest that sheltered North Carolinians (and presumably many others) are certainly in dire need of information and discussion -- The New York Times' article today reports:
In one group, students said they were excited to learn about Islam and surprised to find parallels between it and Christianity.
"I thought it was going to be some off-the-wall religion," said Matt Campbell.
Apparently even the most basic knowledge about what Islam actually is is largely missing -- fairly disappointing to hear after nearly a year of what had appeared to be extensive public discussion about the religion and its adherents.
Of course, not everyone got entirely with the UNC program.
As one freshman explained:
Just because September 11 has made people more aware of different cultures doesn't mean I have to be open to them
There's the proper attitude coming from young, unimpressionable minds !
There was, of course, an appeal of Friday's ruling, but again the courts ruled, more or less, in favour of the university -- see the Tar Heel's article on Monday's proceedings, and the spin the two sides put on the outcome.
(For a different approach to summer reading programs, see this article in the Conta Costa Times on the one at the University of California, Berkeley, where the (admittedly only suggested) summer reading list consists of books that have been banned or that people have tried to ban.)
Michiko Kakutani's review of Murakami's After the Quake
The Kakutani reviews Murakami Haruki's After the Quake in today's New York Times (sorry - we don't link to articles at the Times (but you know how to find it if you want to)).
(See also our review of the book.)
She doesn't seem to be trying too hard, but gives a decent overview of the slim volume (and Murakami) -- though we could probably do without the description: "Lewis Carroll meets Kafka with a touch of Philip K. Dick" (and we're surprised she resorts to something like that).
Two notes about the review however:
Kakutani begins her review:
Last year the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami published his first nonfiction book
She means Underground (see also our review).
While it did only first appear in the US in 2001, it was in fact already published in Britain in 2000 (and our review has been available for over two years -- since 4 July 2000).
And its two parts first appeared in Japan in 1997 and 1998.
America is, of course, the centre of the world, and nothing else counts ... and yet we find this interpretation -- that only the American publication of a book counts -- troublesome.
Elsewhere she notes parenthetically about one of the stories:
In "super-frog saves tokyo" (the author obviously has a penchant for lower-case titles)
All the story-titles in the American Alfred A. Knopf edition of the book are indeed written in lower case.
As is the book title on the cover.
As is --- hmmmm -- the author's name on the cover and inside the book (though not in the author description on the inside flap).
Lower case looks largely to be a design-choice, not a Murakami-penchant .....
(Maybe blame designer Chip Kidd (chip kidd ?).....)
Note also that on the copyright page the story title is presented with the appropriate upper-case lettering ("Super-Frog Saves Tokyo") -- though we're not sure how it first appeared when the story was published in GQ.
More significantly: Japanese -- and these stories were originally written in Japanese -- does not differentiate between upper and lower case.
There is just one case.
(We're not certain of the Kakutani's ethnic, national, or linguistic background, but we're thinking that she maybe knows someone who should be aware of this fact.)
So Murakami as Japanese author couldn't care less about upper or lower case titles.
But Kakutani again considers Murakami only as an American author.
Admittedly, Murakami speaks and reads English well enough that he may have made these case-decisions, and may have done them on purpose.
But in the real stories -- the Japanese originals, which are the only authentic versions -- this was a non-issue, and it seems odd to us that the Kakutani even makes mention of it here.
Have we completely lost our minds, that we babble on about publication dates and a parenthetical remark ?
Well, we think it is a matter of some concern and interest.
Both examples appropriate Murakami, considering him essentially only as a Western author, almost denying there is a Japanese original behind this version of the text.
(Kakutani acknowledges the book is "deftly translated by Jay Rubin" -- but quite honestly we have no idea what that means.
Does that mean it is close to original -- or that it reads well in English ?
(These are usually two very different things.))
Perhaps it is appropriate to look at Murakami solely from the American readers' point of view -- but we don't really think so.
(On a slightly different and purely pedantic note: In the second to last paragraph of her review the Kakutani writes of the "book's final and most powerful story, 'honey pie' ".
The last paragraph then begins with a discussion of this story, starting: "In 'honey bear' (...) ".
That's right, the name of the story is given incorrectly the second time around.)
19 August 2002
The Qu'ran at UNC | Man/Booker longlist
Qu'ranic indoctrination at the University of North Carolina ?
But still more controversy than one might expect from a "summer reading program".
The flagship school of the UNC system, at Chapel Hill, has this summer reading program for incoming (and transfer) students, "designed to introduce you to the intellectual life of Carolina".
This year's text -- in light of the greater awareness of Islam in the United States over the past year -- is Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations, translated and introduced by Michael Sells (get your own copy from Amazon.com).
But: guess what ?
That didn't sit well with some incoming students (and outside organizations), and so they did the all-American thing and sued to stop this outrage from being inflicted on these poor, pure (and presumably predominantly Christian) minds that were coming to UNC to ... well, apparently not to participate in any sort of even vaguely contentious intellectual debate.
Among those filing suit: the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy -- please do see their press release regarding the suit.
(See also their truly scary statement of policy and purpose -- it may sound superficially reasonable, but think about what they're saying .....)
The level of debate ?
Well, as Michael J. DePrimo, Litigation Counsel for the CLP, is quoted in their press release, it's a serious issue:
Pitting students who object to the forced reading of the Koran against those who do not is the modern equivalent of requiring the objecting students to wear yellow stars of David.
It is unclear to us how this is like requiring objecting students to wear yellow stars; our understanding was that UNC was not forcing students to wear distinctive badges of any sort if they objected, nor was it branding them in any other way, but M.J. DePrimo no doubt has a better sense of these things than do we.
In any case, the courts ruled against the CLP and friends (despite DePrimo's noble-minded rhetoric) -- see loads of links to news stories regarding the ruling.
Still, it ain't entirely over, as The New York Times notes in an editorial in today's paper (kudos to them for taking a position on the issue !), and protests continue (peaking today, no doubt, when discussions are meant to take place).
UNC even offers media access guidelines for the big story that will continue to get lots of media attention
Useful in understanding what the fuss is about is their Fact sheet about the summer reading program.
Astonishingly, the university bends over backwards to accommodate lazy (intellectually or otherwise) students:
It remains unclear whether lollipops will be passed out to non-participating students; it wouldn't surprise us.
- "if students or their parents find this year's book about the Qur'an offensive to their own faith they may choose not to read it."
- "if they do not wish to stay, they may speak with the discussion leader who will accommodate their needs."
- "There is no academic penalty for students who do not read the book, complete the writing assignment, or attend or participate in the discussion groups."
The university instituted this summer reading program because: "The university wants freshmen to arrive on campus with the expectation that they will think and discuss different points of view throughout their time at Carolina."
With their kowtowing to the closed-minded the university instead is sending a message that while it may still be vaguely acceptable for students to think for themselves and discuss for themselves, if students (or their mommies and daddies) want to keep their eyes and ears closed and refuse to learn about the world (the real world) at large, that's okay too.
Not exactly an intellectually (and morally) uninspiring message, coming from an institution of higher education.
Political correctness, in all its shades, has made the concept of "higher learning" an ever-more distant proposition on American campuses.
For UNC to concern themselves with the concerns of those who may "find this year's book about the Qur'an offensive to their own faith" is ridiculous.
The oyster-worlds such people might live in are all well and good -- they're welcome to them -- but it's not UNC's job to help keep them cloistered and ignorant.
A university has a duty to challenge its charges intellectually -- and at first sight that challenge may often offend.
Toes will be stepped on -- and that should be all right.
Now, it seems, students can enjoy UNC knowing that "the expectation that they will think and discuss different points of view" isn't to be taken very seriously at all, and that if they have better things to do (sleeping in, enjoying another kegger) that's okay, because the university isn't interested in fostering a truly intellectual atmosphere where -- god forbid ! -- you might actually have to listen to an opinion that does not correspond entirely with your own narrow-minded preconceptions
We remind UNC students that hearing other opinions does not mean you have to automatically believe them (as some people apparently are convinced is the case).
Indeed, you're welcome -- even encouraged -- to argue why they are stupid and ill-founded and to expose their flaws.
That's what learning is about -- unless, of course, the bible (or the qu'ran) is your handbook, in which case you already have all the answers anyway, you lucky souls .....
And if you don't like hearing other opinions (or refuse to hear about them), well, nobody is forcing you to attend UNC in the first place.
We're disappointed that the press has portrayed UNC's feeble "victory" in the courts in these matters as a triumph of reason over intolerance, when it is (given UNC's many concessions) barely one.
We're disappointed that UNC does not make participation in their summer reading program mandatory and impose heavy academic penalties on those not willing to play along.
As is, it does a poor job of introducing students "to the intellectual life of Carolina".
Or perhaps too good of one, telling students from the get go that intellectual life ain't going to be very intellectual and that intolerance will always easily win the day.
Shame, shame shame.
The longlist for that big British literary prize
The Booker .... the Man Booker ... the whatever they call it prize has announced its longlist of contenders.
A top-twenty list that will be culled on 24 September, with the winner to be announced 22 October.
So what do we think ?
Not much, yet.
Among the remarkable points about the list is that there isn't a single book among them that we've read !
So much for us being on top of things literary and the like.
Of course, there are some -- Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, for example -- that we couldn't get our hands on if we tried (tightly embargoed as these volumes are -- though not for prize committees, we note).
Indeed, quite a number of the books haven't even been published yet.
The list is top-heavy with familiar big names: John Banville, William Boyd, Anita Brookner, Michael Frayn, Rohinton Mistry, Will Self, Carol Shields, William Trevor, and Tim Winton among them.
Howard Jacobson with Who's Sorry Now ? isn't a surprise either.
We'd have to guess, and we're not ready to do that.
We'll check out a couple of the books, if we can.
Since some of the books haven't appeared -- and some are entirely buzz-less -- it's hard to even get a feel for which way popular literary sentiment sways.
We do like it that the site offers the latest odds on the prize (or will).
Place your bets now !
18 August 2002
Blogcritics.org | Edbookfest | More (or less) Naipaul
More literary weblogging ?
Another weblog-sighting -- an interesting attempt at multi-person blogging called Blogcritics.
They promise they are: "A sinister cabal of the web's best writers on music, books and popular culture miscellanea - updated continuously".
(A bit of nit-picking: we didn't find them particularly sinister (our biggest disappointment), we think maybe these aren't quite "the web's best writers", and we just don't see it being "updated continuously" (which seems way too ambitious in any case).)
It just opened up this week and has already done smashing business (check out their user stats -- and compare them with our feeble ones)
The idea seems a sound one, the pieces we checked out were largely pretty solid.
They offer three columns, their categories being: News, Music, and Books.
We do however note, with some disappointment, that a late-night check on 16 August found 32 News items and 34 Music items -- but only 7 Books items.
So their priorities are obviously all wrong.
Still: a lot of potential here, and worth keeping an eye on.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sorry, we missed the start of this book-fest, but as it runs from 10 through 26 August you still have time to check it out.
It sounds like a decent -- if somewhat crowded -- bash, with "Over 550 authors appearing at over 650 events in only 17 days".
Check out the official website for the entire programme -- and the impressive list of authors (all 550 of them) making appearances.
Something for everyone, it looks like.
(We certainly wouldn't have minded going, if someone had sent or invited us.)
More (or less) Naipaul
We found little notice taken of V.S.Naipaul's 70th birthday, and expected perhaps a bit more in the Sunday sections.
Still not an impressive showing:
The Writer and the World got reviews in The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle (the latter with a brief semi-nod to the birthday) -- and our review is now available here.
More impressively, Die Welt did offer an interview with the birthday boy (already yesterday -- we missed it on our first Internet look-round).
In German, but at least some attention for the master.
17 August 2002
Booker countdown | Naipaul's 70th
The Booker countdown - first the longlist
The Booker is, of course, no longer the Booker, but rather the Man Booker.
Which doesn't make it a more manly or sexist prize, but merely reflects corporate sponsorship realities.
Ah yes, corporate sponsorship -- what a great thing.
(Note that despite our sardonic tone we of course are always open to corporate sponsorship -- or any other forms of cash (or kind) awards.
Though we draw a line at name-embellishing (sorry, no complete Man review) or toning down the tone.)
For now there's little to-do about the most contentious suggestion to enhance the revamped prize, that US-American authors be allowed to play along in Man-Booker-land -- it won't happen this year.
Instead there's the transition from Booker to Man-Booker to focus on -- complete with new site, http://www.manbookerprize.co.uk/home.asp, to be unveiled 19 August (though a trip to the old http://www.bookerprize.co.uk site gets you to the same place).
And things get off with a bang as the ... vaguely anticipated longlist is announced on Monday the 19th as well (presumably that's what they're launching the site with).
Not the shortlist, mind you -- won't have that for a while.
But at least a sense of who is in the running.
Always fun sport -- we'll be back to comment as soon as we've heard .....
17 August -- recent Nobel laureate Vidiadhar Surajprasad ("V.S.") Naipaul hits the big 7 - 0.
Born in Trinidad in 1932, he's come a long way -- see our reviews of the revealing letters Between Father and Son, and the marvelous introduction to Naipaul as reader and writer, Reading & Writing, for some stages of the journey.
Birthday bashes ?
International attention ?
So far, not exactly overwhelming.
There must be some notes and notices, but the only one we found was Georg Sütterlin's review/overview in the dependable Neue Zürcher Zeitung (issue of 17 August).
(Note that this link will only function for about a month -- i.e. the page won't be accessible after mid-September.)
The Queen probably sent him a note or whatever they do in merry olde England (he's a Sir, after all -- benighted ... we mean: been knighted), but the broadsheets haven't written much (or anything, that we can see).
Maybe they'll write about it after the fact -- fair enough.
American publisher Alfred A. Knopf did time the release of the new collection of (not always new) essays, The Writer and the World, to fall on (or at least around) the birthday.
The Kakutani reviewed it for The New York Times on Tuesday (our review is now available here), but it too hasn't helped focus more attention on VSN (though maybe a few of the Sunday sections will offer a bit more).
Perhaps the media feels it gave Naipaul his due last winter and that enough is enough.
It is only a birthday, after all (though that's usually a good enough excuse for some lite author-portraits and the like).
Anyway: we wish him all the best and many more.
15 August 2002
Looking for Iranian literature
The most recent additions to the complete review are three volumes by Mahmud Doulatabadi (or Dowlatabadi, or Dawlatabadi, depending on your transliteration preferences) -- volumes one and two of his epic, Kelidar, as well as the novella Safar.
One problem: they're not available in English translation.
Indeed, except for some stray stories, none of Doulatabadi's work appears to have been translated -- as is also the case for Fattaneh Haj Seyed Javadi (whose Bamdad-e Khomar has been one of the most popular novels to appear in Iran in the post-Shah era), Abbas Maroufi (see our review of his Samfoni-je mordegan, for example), or Houshang Golshiri.
(These authors have been translated into other European languages, notably German.)
There are a few Iranian books that do (or did) get translated.
Sadeq Hedayat and Jalal Al-e Ahmad were vaguely well-known, and A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar (Al-e Ahmad's wife) even got translated twice.
More recently, My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad was published in the US.
Mage Publishers is one of a few that offer a small assortment of Iranian fiction to English-speaking audiences.
Still, of truly contemporary authors, and especially those that have been active in Iran itself in the post-Shah era, very little is heard.
Moniru Ravanipur's stories have been published (as Satan's Stones), or Shahrokh Meskub's Dialogue in the Garden (as part of M.R.Ghanoonparvar's exercise in Translating the Garden).
Not much more.
Perhaps one should not expect otherwise: ideologically modern Iran is anathema to the US.
And Arabic literature, too, isn't that popular, after all.
But the Iranian situation is striking when one considers the triumph and embrace of Iranian cinema in recent years.
Directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami are frequently (and to our mind justifiably) considered among the greatest working today.
And others enjoy international success as well: Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) and Babak Payami (Secret Ballot), for example.
So is all the great Iranian work being done in film rather than literature ?
Haj Seyed Javadi's bestseller is a very effective, touching (if admittedly conventional) tale.
Doulatabadi's work soars -- this is real literature, comparable to that of another overlooked master, Mesa Selimovic (see our reviews of his Death and the Dervish and The Fortress, for example).
Maroufi and Golshiri too are significant voices (or were: Golshiri passed away in 2000).
Many of the works of these authors are as wondrous and impressive as the films of Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami.
The visual offers an easier appeal, the subtitling far less work to make the works accessible.
Still, there must be room for translations of the likes of Doulatabadi and a few other contemporary Iranian authors.
For now English-speaking readers are missing a great deal.
14 August 2002
Another Trobadora review
Singing the Trobadora's praises
The complete review was thrilled when the University of Nebraska Press published a translation of Irmtraud Morgner's novel, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura, in 2000.
One of the most significant texts to come out of East Germany (where it was first published, in 1974), it has aged well and still makes for a great read.
We eagerly reviewed it way back then -- and waited for the flood (or trickle) of reviews lauding the long-delayed appearance of this modern classic in the English-speaking world.
What came ?
Choice, we seem to recall, offered a small note on it.
But the powerhouse review fora ?
The magazines and journals with some literary focus ?
Not a word.
We offered another, more extensive review -- Elizabeth Morier's, in the complete review Quarterly -- to convey more of the wonder (and literary significance) of the novel.
But more than two years have passed since the English translation was published, and it has otherwise remained resoundingly ignored by those who should be making the reading public aware of the wonders they are missing.
Finally, a few weeks ago, another voice weighed in: old hand Danny Yee offered a review on his popular site (and -- surprise ! -- he liked it).
So perhaps word will finally start leaking out: there's something worth reading here, even if you haven't read a review of it in the magazines that usually cover this kind of book.
Maybe it is just patience that is called for.
Give it a few more years and one or two of the big-name publications -- a New York Review of Books, a New York Times Book Review, a TLS -- might stumble across it as well.
In the meantime, check out what Danny Yee (and we) have to say about it.
Maybe the Trobadora will strike your fancy.
13 August 2002
Enigmatic Synergies | Blurb accounts
Danuta Kean writes about The book brokers in the Evening Standard (5 August), showing that the fast-growing fester that is the literary super-agency has spread to England.
It's a horrible thing, of course, with horrible consequences, and Kean's article offers some fine and fun examples thereof.
At Curtis Brown: "Its young turks want more Disney, less Daphne" -- as in Daphne du Maurier, that being the literary "standard" that is apparently too rarefied for them to continue to uphold.
Even more fun is the situation at Peters Fraser Dunlop -- bought out by CSS Stellar, which leads to Alan Bennett being represented by the same agency as the English "Football Association and several Hollywood stars".
(Check out their site to see their full client list.)
Robert Harris, author of bestsellers such as Enigma and also a PFD man (where Pat Kavanagh handles him), practically squeals with delight in describing the benefits:
"PFD doesn't just handle my book rights," he says.
"It also handles Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay for the film of Enigma, Kate Winslet who starred in it, Michael Apted who directed it and John Barry, who wrote the score.
It worked very effectively."
Ah yes, it worked very effectively.
Meaning, we can only assume, that Robert Harris got a whole lot of money and art be damned.
Because, if anything, this very example shows the disastrous results of one agency handling all the "talent".
O what talent it is too.
Tom Stoppard -- well you know how much we admire him (see our Tom Stoppard page).
Kate Winslet ?
We've been fans since the brilliant Heavenly Creatures.
Michael Apted ?
And we liked Harris' book too.
But it sounds like PFD had a lot of say in who got to play along in making the film.
Undue influence, one might even be led to believe by the fact that so many significant players came from their stable.
The results ?
Catastrophic, of course.
Enigma the movie was an incredible failure at the box office.
Its US gross has been under 4 million dollars.
Even more stunningly, the British film finished an abysmal 40th in 2001 UK box office take, with less than £ 5 million worth of ticket sales.
Granted, a movie can be good and still fail at the box office, but the abysmal box office performance of Enigma suggests that you practically couldn't pay people to watch this thing.
It was one of the biggest duds of the year.
In fact, Enigma is that rare movie that was probably seen by fewer people than bought the book -- an occurrence that is almost completely unheard of in modern times.
So what exactly is Harris talking about when he says: "It worked very effectively" ?
He got to play with his friends ?
It was all one big happy family, overseen by benevolent agent-parent-firm PFD, and who cares that the final product stunk ?
If this is synergy (and we're afraid this is exactly what synergy is) give us enmity and conflict every time.
Art does not thrive on being pre-packaged by agents.
Or by other types of media mega-firms.
Not surprisingly media conglomerations -- from the AOL Time Warner behemoth to the bizarre mess that is Vivendi to let's-buy-Napster-Bertelsmann to even Disney -- have fared terribly as they have attempted to become one-stop entertainment factories.
They've tried to do everything under one roof -- with extremely limited success, especially when it comes to anything that might be considered to have any sort of quality.
And agencies who think they can do it all -- such as PFD ? -- might do well to remember Mike Ovitz's ambition -- and his complete and humiliating failure.
Will any lessons be learnt from Enigma-the-movie and similar flops ?
Of course not.
Synergy sounds so much cooler than common sense.
PFD certainly seems to have served Harris very well.
PFD served his creation (Enigma) far less well.
But given the money being thrown around nowadays, who cares about art ?
One can -- as an artist -- barely afford to.
It's the dead of summer.
It's hot in New York -- and the whole week is expected to be a simmering swelter.
Hardly the time for serious thought or literature -- though today's New York Times features a Kakutani review of the very weighty new collection of Naipaul essays (517 pages; our review is forthcoming, expected in about two weeks).
But it's hot, things move slowly, and so we're still mulling over the week-beginning Times (i.e. Monday's issue), and another episode in their ever-odder series, Writers on Writing (older columns can be found here, though we remind you of their unpleasant registration policy -- and warn you of an obnoxious pop-up ad -- if you must visit the site).
A little box on the inside page of the Times explains that this is a series "presenting writers' exploration of literary themes".
Which sounds semi-serious.
So two weeks ago (29 July) they had Stephen Fry on ... what he uses to write his books ("a Mac (...) Times Roman, 14 point.").
But, hey, at least it was Stephen Fry, and it was modestly (very modestly) amusing.
This week's installment delves into the mysteries of ... blurb writing.
We didn't know this was a "literary theme" worth such prominent examination, but then we're pretty ignorant folk and we're sure the Times knows better (otherwise we might suspect that someone is scraping the very bottom of the barrel in a desperate effort to find space-filler).
The article was written by an Elinor Lipman -- a person who, to our embarrassment, we have never heard of.
Briefly we thought The New York Times had hit on a really clever idea -- a blurb writer nobody ever heard of writing about blurbing -- but it turns out Ms. Lipman is not an unknown entity in the book world (see, for example, her author page at PreviewPort).
It's just us who never heard of her (like we mentioned, we're pretty ignorant folk).
Ms. Lipman is apparently an author -- indeed, one who is often solicited for blurbs.
Unfortunately, she is a sincere and conscientious blurb writer (or at least claims to be) and thus atypical.
A blurb (and thus also a blurb writer) that can actually be trusted ?
What a quaint and ridiculous notion !
And how much more fun it would have been to have one of the usual blurb-whores (of either sex) tell the dirty truth about plying their obscene but still legal trade (as truth in advertising laws apparently don't apply to the blurbing business).
Ms. Lipman does give some of the lowdown and discusses many of the difficulties that arise in both receiving and giving blurbs.
She admits to the occasional overstatement, and (slyly) to having "dismissed novels that Oprah went on to bless".
Curiously (and suspiciously), she gives no examples of her blurbing work, and names no names of authors she's praised (or declined to endorse).
The article does touch on the major blurbing points and pitfalls, but her sincerity (whether real or very well feigned) gets in the way.
She actually takes the subject seriously.
When it comes to writing blurbs she has an admirable code -- "no compromises and no dutiful blurbs".
By god, it almost makes you want to trust the (surprisingly invariably -- with a few counter-culture exceptions -- always positive) endorsements found on back covers.
And that, of course, is something you can't do.
Blurbs and similar endorsements do, unfortunately, exert a perverse fascination and pull and influence, swaying both in favour and -- as Lipman points out -- also possibly against a praised title.
(Remember those put off Franzen's Corrections by Oprah's seal of approval.)
Rarely do they provide actual information.
Lipman's is a blah sort of summer column, too nice by half but conveying a fair amount of information.
Still, the blurb -- if written about at all -- deserves more serious and comprehensive treatment (it's about time for the book-length scholarly study), and we look forward to someone tackling it without the demure kid glove approach.
12 August 2002
ZIBF | New LA Times URLs | US v. UK
Waiting for Frankfurt
We didn't make it to ZIBF 2002.
Neither, apparently, did many others in the publishing world -- or from the media.
News coverage ?
More like nil coverage -- at least outside Africa.
ZIBF is the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, Africa's largest and once a promising annual convention helping to foster a literary and publishing culture in Africa.
ZIBF 2002 was held -- not that you're likely to have been informed of the fact -- 27 July to 3 August.
They got some press coverage this year with their big to-do about selecting Africa's 100 best books of the twentieth century, but that was announced a while ago and since then there hasn't been much coverage or interest.
Admittedly, there are other things on people's minds in Zimbabwe -- a country being torn apart by the misrule of a man who, in our opinion, is approaching Dadaesque (as in Idi Amin) or Mobuto-like stature in terms of destroying what once held such great promise through sheer incompetence and greed-driven evil.
Current ill-conceived land-"reforms" have the country in a state of complete uncertainty (another deadline passed this weekend, leaving the situation even more charged).
Nevertheless, the country is in the (international) news and, despite ridiculous rules regarding journalistic activity (that have seen a number of correspondents jailed), one might have thought that someone would have dropped by the fair.
A few probably did, but our reading of the American and English press found no mentions of goings-on there.
It doesn't sound like it was much fun in any case.
An article from The East African Standard of 10 August (posted at allAfrica.com) sums it up in the headline: "Africa's Biggest Book Fair Faces Bleak Future".
Among the sad news reported: less and less people coming -- 416 exhibitors in 1999 dwindled to 260 in 2001 and a mere 200 in 2002.
Domestic turmoil doesn't help matters -- but neither does international indifference.
Another report, from Zimbabwe's The Daily Newspaper, finds little to report as well: "Low turnout marks ZIBF".
Glum indeed -- as is the rest of the article.
The ZIBF site itself still shows some hope, employing the future tense in announcing: "The events in Harare will run from 27 July to 3 August."
But they ran, and it looks like time is running out on what even a few years ago looked to be a rallying point for African literature.
The 11 August issue of The New York Times Book Review has title-page coverage of two works by South African novelist Zakes Mda, so the continent and its literature aren't being totally ignored (though the Times did ignore ZIBF) -- but ZIBF was and is a significant opportunity for the literary culture of the continent that it can ill afford to lose.
It had achieved sufficient prominence, size, and recognition to make a difference.
It risks now fading into oblivion.
Other Africa-wide book fairs may come in its stead, but it seems a shame to lose the foothold that was already there.
- Our review of Charles R. Larson's The Ordeal of the African Writer
- African literature under review at the complete review
New URLs for The LA Times' book coverage
Update your bookmarks and change those links -- The Los Angeles Times has changed the URLs of the pages with its book coverage.
The new URLs are:
The main Book page (more colourful now, a bit nicer design) offers a sample from both the Sunday Book Review as well as the daily reviews (and convenient links to both pages of course).
Books & Talks offers the articles from the daily edition, while the full Book Review is segregated in its own section.
A bit of a hassle to wade through (especially when not even all the review-descriptions from the current issue are offered on the first Book Review-page), but pretty clear presentation and everything moves along fairly quickly.
Another American book in England
Philip Hensher offers a look at yet another American import in his review of Alice Sebold's bestselling The Lovely Bones in The Observer of 11 August.
He doesn't only focus on the book, but also considers the phenomenon of American bestsellers and their fate once they cross the Atlantic -- amusing enough stuff.
The book itself ?
It is not exactly bad, and very readable, but ultimately it seems like a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy.
(The complete review has considered reviewing this title, but we haven't quite been able to bring ourselves to do so.
Hensher seems to have it pegged right -- and doesn't make us any more eager to take it up.)
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11 August 2002
Introduction | Geoffrey Hill | The Emperor of Ocean Park | London Rev. of Books
Another weblog ?
Another weblog ?
Our recent crQ article on literary weblogs found much of interest -- and yet also suggested that there is still a lot of untapped territory to be explored (and linked to) by weblogs focussed on literature.
(Maybe not an audience for them, but .....)
The complete review has lasted over three years on the Internet.
Aside from the main site (devoted to reviews) it has expanded to include the cr Quarterly as well as cr Fiction.
Each piece serves a purpose -- and yet there are ambitions that remain unfulfilled.
This Literary Saloon offers yet another venue, allowing us to comment on the day-to-day goings-on in and around the literary world (and at the complete review).
It seems like a worthwhile exercise, though whether our rantings and ravings and links are of any interest remains to be seen.
Already overextended and underpaid ("Paid ?" comes the plaintive gasp of an underling-'volunteer' typing his fingers raw in the dimly lit background), the Literary Saloon may seem one ambition too many.
Perhaps our time could be better spent writing more reviews, seeking out more review-links, writing and soliciting additional pieces for the cr Quarterly.
But the Literary Saloon fills a niche, and it is a place to put much that previously had simply been discarded because there was no room elsewhere.
(That makes it sound promising, doesn't it ? - 'The Literary Saloon - the complete review's Refuse -- Straight from the Bin'.)
Anyway: thanks for looking in.
We hope you find something to your liking.
An appropriate place to begin: Geoffrey Hill's The Orchards of Syon is finally being published in the UK (about half a year after it came out in the US).
He was one of the first authors covered at the complete review, and (embarrassingly) the site has long been the leading Internet source of Hill-information -- see our Geoffrey Hill page, for example.
Now The Guardian (of 10 August) offers a solid profile by Robert Potts.
It's a fairly good overview of Hill's life -- something that has been missing from the Internet -- though one doesn't get a great sense of the poetry from it.
Lots of quotes (from Hill and others) give a compressed and rushed feel to the piece.
The very brief excerpt from Orchards they offer is, of course, welcome but only a sliver of the book.
Carter's Emperor of Ocean Park
Some see the emperor's clothes, others don't.
The latest opinion is offered by Lorin Stein in a review of Stephen Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park in the London Review of Books (issue of 8 August).
Lots of fun (and appropriate) pokes at the largely overrated book and its reception.
Choice quotes include:
"Utterly cuckoo bananas".
You have to admire that !
(We're embarrassed that we didn't think to use it in our review.)
- "American reviewers (...) have tended to treat The Emperor of Ocean Park as a serious novel, which it is not; or as a thriller, which is simply unfair."
- "Most of the novel's reviewers (...) have politely overlooked the goofiness of the plot"
- "But when anything remotely eventful takes place in The Emperor of Ocean Park, you will have either thought of it already or you could never have thought of it, because like that teddy bear, it's utterly cuckoo bananas."
Others, of course, have a different opinion.
So from down under, where Debra Adelaide, writing in the 22 June Sydney Morning Herald, maintains
We wonder whose review will be used for the paperback edition blurbs ....
- "The Emperor of Ocean Park is immaculate."
- "This is a top-shelf thriller, intellectually and morally engaging at every level."
If you want to compare these and other reviews, refer, of course, to the complete review's very own extensive review coverage of the book.
The new London Review of Books
We actually shelled out for a subscription (a devastating blow to our annual budget) and now have access to the full LRB, and not merely the limited Internet edition.
Aside from Lorin Stein's Stephen Carter review (see above) there are only two other pieces freely available online from the 8 August issue.
We haven't truly delved in yet, so more on the issue later (including what you might be missing) -- but one note of interest for now:
The Guardian's enjoyable (if annoyingly pop-up populated) BooksUnlimited site offers one "essay" from each LRB issue.
(Oddly enough, there does not appear ever to be a link to the essay at the LRB site itself.)
From this issue they have taken Stephen Orgel's review of an edition of Shakespeare's poetry.
On the cover of the print edition of the LRB this piece is described as: "Stephen Orgel: Shakespeare's Poems"
In the LRB table of contents it is described as: "Stephen Orgel Complete Sonnets and Poems by William Shakespeare, edited by Colin Burrow"
In the print edition of the LRB the piece is titled: "Mr Who He ?"
So how does The Guardian present the piece ?
Boldly titled: "Glossing over it: homoeroticism in Shakespeare's sonnets"
"Mr Who He ?" was apparently simply not catchy enough.
Draw your own conclusions .....
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© 2002 the complete review
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