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opinionated commentary on literary matters - from the complete review


The Literary Saloon Archive

11 - 20 January 2003

11 January: New Context ! | Naipaul in India
13 January: New Dyer | A bit more about the Granta-list
Political poetry
14 January: Topic Magazine | Helmut Zenker | NBCC Awards
NYT bestseller list complaint
15 January: FTC investigates blurbs ? | Le Carré: US has gone mad | Pears review
16 January: CTEA upheld, 7-2
17 January: Alain de Botton at the cr | British Gaddis reception | Pullman v. C.S.Lewis
18 January: Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction | Literary legacies
20 January: The Singing Detective redux | Dorian in America | Grünbein in English | Insufferable Woolf ?

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20 January 2003 - Monday

The Singing Detective redux | Dorian in America | Grünbein in English
Insufferable Woolf ?

       The Singing Detective redux

       Dennis Potter's classic, The Singing Detective (see our review), has been re-made, this time as a feature film. Directed by Keith Gordon, the production stars Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, and Katie Holmes. (See also the IMDb page on the film.)
       The film was unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival (see also the film page there) last week; the filmmakers are still looking for a US distributor. (A Rick Lyman article in The New York Times (16 January) briefly discusses the film and the festival.)
       This isn't the first Potter-mini-series to be adapted for film -- recall (or perhaps: forget) the Steve Martin version of Pennies from Heaven ..... As to The Singing Detective: we're curious what's become of it -- though we're guessing TV-master Potter isn't quite as well-served on the big screen.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Dorian in America

       Will Self's Dorian is now also available in the US (in a Grove Press edition).
       Reviews continue to be mixed (very mixed -- see our review for summaries and quotes), but it's getting fairly prominent and extensive coverage: the most recent reviews include ones in The Washington Post (17 January) and The Village Voice (forthcoming issue).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Grünbein in English

       Among the least well-known (at least in the English-speaking world) authors covered in some depth at the complete review is Durs Grünbein -- in large part because he remains essentially untranslated into English. No book publications in the US or UK so far, though stray poems and pieces appear in various periodicals. We just came across one of these, from a recent Grand Street, and we can recommend it: Childhood in the Diorama (click on the picture to get to the text), Daniel Slager's translation of Kindheit im Diorama (from the collection Galilei vermißt Dantes Hölle (see our review)).

       The text is printed in Grand Street 70 ("Against Nature") -- but the "current issue" (actually number 69, i.e. an older one) on Berlin also offers many very tempting things (though not online). Still, for those who can't read the German originals, this might be well worth acquiring. Aside from more Grünbein there are some Volker Braun poems, poems and a chunk of autobiography by Heiner Müller, pieces by Oskar Pastior and Cees Nooteboom, and Peter Weiss' "A Visit to the Pergamon Altar" (which we're guessing is taken from his magnum opus, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review). A very impressive selection.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Insufferable Woolf ?

       Lot's been written about the film version of Michael Cunningham's prize-winning Virginia Woolfish book, The Hours (screenplay by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry, starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Ed Harris). An amusing take, especially on the Woolf angle, is David Sexton's, recently published twice over (as Woolf's clever biopic in the 13 January issue of the Evening Standard and Who's a fan of Virginia Woolf ? in the 14 January issue of The Scotsman).

       Sexton dares write:
Admittedly, her essays are wonderful and her diaries and letters highly amusing, if you can stomach the malice, snobbery and vanity. Her contribution to the liberation of women writers is historic. But her novels are strictly insufferable.
       And he suggests:
But ask around. When did any of your friends last read and enjoy a novel by Virginia Woolf (what they did at 17 doesnít count) ? Donít be fooled by The Hours into thinking youíll give them another try.
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



18 January 2003 - Saturday

Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction | Literary legacies

       W.G.Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction

       Noted, popular, and recently deceased Anglo-German author W. G. Sebald's Luftkrieg und Literatur ("Aerial Warfare and Literature") is being published in English translation in both the US and UK next month, under the apparently catchier title of On the Natural History of Destruction.
       Christopher Hitchens' review (from the January/February issue of The Atlantic Monthly) is now available online. Interested readers should also refer to Ruth Franklin's review of After Nature (The New Republic, 23 September 2002 ), in which she discusses On the Natural History of Destruction at length. (She is particularly bothered by "the utterly ahistorical way in which Sebald discusses the bombing campaign, without giving even a hint of moral or political context".) Peter Schneider also wrote about it ("W.G.Sebald's brilliant essay") in today's issue of The New York Times.

       We don't have any Sebald under review at this time, though we expect to eventually. Meanwhile, here are some other links of possible interest re. On the Natural History of Destruction:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Literary legacies

       D.J.Taylor wonders What makes a writer's work and reputation last beyond the grave, when so many just fade into obscurity ? in the 15 January issue of The Guardian.
       Good question -- not that Taylor offers much of an answer. Especially odd: the proliferation of biographical works about authors such as Kingsley Amis at the same time as their fiction disappears from the bookstores. The inexplicable fascination of people with lives rather than art ....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



17 January 2003 - Friday

Alain de Botton at the cr | British Gaddis reception | Pullman v. C.S.Lewis

       Alain de Botton at the complete review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is a review of Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. With that review we now have all of de Botton's six published books under review ... which sort of made us feel obligated to devote an author page to him too.
       It seems only fair to offer an author page for an author covered so comprehensively on our site -- others are far less well-represented and yet still have a separate page devoted to them (see the entire list). And though his books are extensively reviewed eldewhere, too, there's not that much other web-space devoted to de Botton. There is an official site, but it's pretty feeble.
       Still, it hadn't really occurred to us to add a de Botton-page previously. We're not quite sure why -- but certainly it was something of the idea that he didn't quite fit in with what we do. His books interest us, but on the whole have been a bit disappointing -- we like, for the most part, his approach, but he hasn't done all that he could with it. And possibly there's the fact that he's so damn young and that it is unclear in what direction his writing-career will go. (If he continues down this self-help/guidebook/manual route we figure we'll eventually have no use for him whatsoever.)
       Nevertheless, you can now also consult our Alain de Botton page -- with a few helpful links, quotes, etc.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       British William Gaddis reception

       It's nice to see that William Gaddis' Agape Agape, now also available in Britain, has been getting some good review coverage there (see, of course, our review for all the links and quotes we've come across).
       New coverage includes a full-page review by Stephen Burn in the 10 January Times Literary Supplement which also offers a decent overview of Gaddis. Depressing note: he mentions that all four of Gaddis' earlier novels are currently out of print in the UK (Burn suggesting that Americans like fat fiction and the English audience doesn't ...). He also writes:
     It would be unfortunate if readers who are put off by the forbidding range and size of Gaddis's earlier works came to Agape Agape in the hope of finding a short accessible introduction to his work. The most rewarding way to read his oeuvre is to begin with the encyclopedic masterpieces of his youth.
       "Of his youth" may be a bit much -- even his first, The Recognitions (see our review) only came out when Gaddis was already into his thirties -- but then: everything's relative. And certainly the early volumes are well worth tackling too.
       Burn does seems to place an unfortunate burden on Agape Agape too when he writes:
Agape Agape derives much of its poignancy from its status as the last word of one of the most significant American authors of the last century.
       We're always worried when a novel derives poignancy (or anything else) "from its status". And Agape Agape, like most true, worthy works of fiction can stand on its words and content alone.

       Another review worth checking out: John de Falbe's in the 18 January issue of The Spectator. He too, is very impressed.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Philip Pullman v. C.S.Lewis

       We haven't reviewed any Philip Pullman, but he's an author enjoying great popularity nowadays. Now there's an interesting (if predictable, given where it's published) article in the 18 January issue of The Spectator by Peter Hitchens, "on the worship of Philip Pullman, who has set out to destroy Narnia": A labour of loathing.
       Worth a look -- and presumably of great interest to Pullman and Narnia fans.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



16 January 2003 - Thursday

CTEA upheld, 7-2

       Copyright Term Extension Act upheld, 7-2

       As most everyone will have heard by now, the ridiculous 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was upheld in a Supreme Court ruling yesterday, by a vote of 7-2 (with dissenters Stevens and Bryer writing separate dissents).
       The case was Eldred v. Ashcroft, and the text of the decision (and dissents) is readily accessible here. See also the useful Eldred v. Ashcroft site -- and, of course, the entire US copyright law (title 17) at the Copyright Office.
       The decision, unfortunately, is not terribly surprising. The Copyright Term Extension Act is bad law (really, really bad law) but -- arguments about the word "limited" notwithstanding -- it's not unconstitutional and thus a deferential court wasn't going to call into question what Congress did without some other really overwhelming good reasons (which they chose not to find).
       The thing to remember when getting upset about the decision is that it's a bad law: the people you should blame are the legislators responsible for this outrage. American voters who elected these officials should hold their elected officials accountable -- by perhaps next time voting for someone else, by lobbying for a CTunEA, etc. (Of course, most American voters seem just as happy to allow big business -- from Disney to AOLTime Warner, in this case -- to set out the legislative agenda for their elected officials.)
       Still, we too wish the court had taken a stronger stand. We particularly like Justice Stevens' dissenting opinion that: "Members of the public were entitled to rely on promised access to copyrighted or patented works at the expiration of the terms specified" -- i.e. that even if one allowed these Mickey Mouse extensions of copyright protection for new works they shouldn't be retroactively applied to existing copyright-protected work (like Mickey Mouse) (which would of course defeat the purpose of those who were behind this stupid law, the Disneys etc. of the world ...).
       Just for laughs, two quotes from Justice Ginsburg's majority opinion:
The CTEA is a rational exercise of the legislative authority conferred by the Copyright Clause
       A "rational exercise" ! Apparently that's what an entertainment-industry bankrolled law that comes at a huge cost to consumers (and does nothing for individual artists (though a few heirs are smiling all the way to the bank)) is now considered.
       And:
The CTEA may also provide greater incentive for American and other authors to create and disseminate their work in the United States.
       We love the little "may". Sure, there are some scenarios -- incredibly unlikely, but ... imaginable -- where there may be "greater incentive". But for the overwhelming most part this is just one big consumer rip-off law.
       Americans: write to your legislators and complain !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



15 January 2003 - Wednesday

FTC investigates blurbs ? | Le Carré: US has gone mad | Pears review

       FTC investigates blurbs ?

       An article by Nat Ives in yesterday's issue of The New York Times reports that the American "Federal Trade Commission announced last week that it would review its guidelines on endorsements and testimonials this year." Apparently:
     The commission contends that its guidelines -- including recommendations against distorting the meaning of an endorser's opinion and portraying paid endorsers as actual customers -- should apply when movie advertisements quote film critics.
       We couldn't find any mention of the guideline-review at the FTC site, but you can find the current guidelines there. An example offered specifically refers to movie reviews and suggests:
any alteration in or quotation from the text of the review which does not fairly reflect its substance would be a violation of the standards set by this part
       And note that 255.1(a) already states: "Endorsements must always reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser."
       Which suggests it's not the guidelines that need that much changing (or that movie adverts citing reviews have previously been exempt from them) but their implementation -- since the above are certainly not adhered to in practically any and every movie advert published (and offered on TV). And the same certainly holds true for books as well.
       The Times article (apparently relying on a Daily Variety report) mentions that the review process is one done by the FTC about every ten years. The FTC will now "call for public comment (.....) then hold meetings or workshops if interest warrants it, and then will make any changes it deems necessary." Don't count on anything getting better.
       The FTC is a pretty feeble consumer protection agency (we've never heard of them taking any action even against the most outrageous false and misleading blurbers) -- part of their excuse being "the commission's limited budget and competing causes".
       Arguably American consumers are inured to false advertising (since essentially all American advertising is at least to some (and usually to a great) extent false), but we're baffled by this regulatory commission's unwillingness to crack down on movie studios and publishers who don't adhere to their guidelines. (Of course, we're also baffled by consumers who fall for all this crap too .....)
       We'll try and keep an eye out for when the commission is holding hearings, and encourage you to comment (maybe some/most/all of you prefer misleading and distorted endorsements -- what do we know ?) What a different world it would be -- and how different the back of books would look like -- if the FTC really did crack down on all these truth-distorters .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       John Le Carré says: USA has gone mad

       In an editorial in today's issue of The Times John Le Carré maintains: The United States of America has gone mad. He begins his piece:
     America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.
       Le Carré is perhaps not a definitive moral authority, but he's generally a pretty sensible guy so this should raise a few eyebrows -- and elicit great heaps of commentary. Enjoy !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Iain Pears review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio
       Pears seems to have nicely reinvented himself, starting as a mystery-author and now moving up in the literary world: a Salon review (Daniel Reitz, 13 May 1998) of his first more literary effort, An Instance of the Fingerpost, even described it as "Iain Pears' first novel" -- ignoring the half-dozen popular mysteries that preceded it. The Dream of Scipio is again in that serious (dare we say: pretentious ?) class; call it literary if you have to. Too ambitious by half (or rather, in this case, by two thirds) for our taste -- we're thinking those early Jonathan Argyll-mysteries might be more fun ..... Not that The Dream of Scipio is bad ... but it isn't good enough either. (Note that almost all of the critics disagree: they're impressed by what he does and how he pulls it off.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



14 January 2003 - Tuesday

Topic Magazine | Helmut Zenker | NBCC Awards | NYT bestseller list complaint

       Topic Magazine

       In the current (13/20 January) issue of The Nation, Amy Wilentz introduces and praises Topic magazine (in an article apparently not available online):
Topic is edgy without self-consciousness, meta without dopey complications. No magazine I've read in the past year has been anywhere near as consistently intelligent or fresh.
       With only two issues out, it seems a bit early to be impressed by consistency, but it looks like a new publication to keep an eye on, with an interesting mix of voices. There's only a small sampling available online -- at Topic Magazine ("our go at revitalizing public writing" -- whatever that means) -- but it gives you some idea of what they offer.
       Of particular interest: Jamie Campbell's The Name Game: Becoming Alex Garland (among the odder ambitions we've ever heard of).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Helmut Zenker

       Helmut Zenker died last week, age 53.
       As far as we know, nothing of his work has ever been translated into English, and quite possibly nothing ever will be. He wrote clever little books, but it's regional stuff -- wisely provincial, it probably wouldn't translate well.
       He'll be best remembered for his part in the creation of Kottan ermittelt, a cult-classic 70s detective TV show -- perhaps the only truly original Austrian TV-series ever produced. Zenker did well with Kottan, and if the books weren't quite the equal of the TV show, they were still fine and often very fun.
       Most notable about Zenker: an appreciation and understanding of the working class, the human (in the positive and negative senses) face of proletarian life. Mom and Dad were prominent communists; see this article at the Austrian Communist Party site, with links to other obituaries (sorry -- all in German). For something different, see mystery writer Wolf Haas' piece in the 9 January issue of Der Standard.
       Zenker will be buried on Saturday, 18 January at 11:00 at the Zentralfriedhof (with the City of Vienna doing the honours).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       National Book Critics Circle Awards

       The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards have been named; the winner is to be announced 26 February. You won't find much information at the group's official site (woefully out of date, the current winners' list posted there offers up those from ... 2000); instead check out this list of nominees (from Publishers Weekly).
       The NBCC is worth a mention, because, unlike America's other big awards literary awards (the Pulitzer, the National Book Award), it's not xenophobic -- i.e. not limited to authors who are US passport holders. However, we've been unable to determine what exactly the NBCC qualification criteria are. The most detailed description we could find at their site is that it's an award "for the finest books published in English". To their great credit they have, at least once, given the prize to a translated work -- the collection of Jorge Luis Borges' Selected Non-Fictions won (somewhat controversially) one of the awards in 1999. Still, most of this "finest books published in English" claim is a crock: translated works clearly have practically no chance of getting nominated (otherwise a hell of a lot more would have been over the years).
       Still, at least a couple of British books and an occasional other English-language outsider sneaks on the list -- though it makes for an odd mix.
       We actually have a couple of this year's finalists under review:        And we are glad to see that Power's important (and good) book gets some more attention.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       The NY Times bestseller list complaint

       In the 12 January issue of The San Antonio Express-News, Gregg Barrios asks: New York Times best-seller list: Is it always fit to print ? (link first seen at MobyLives).
       Barrios offers some of the usual complaints about the list (many of which we have made on these pages too) including that it's stale (two week-old data by the time most readers get it) and that:
Readers who purchase a book touted as a Times best seller might be surprised to learn it has never been reviewed in the Times. (...) To further confuse readers, some books get reviewed twice.
       We hope readers aren't too surprised and confused: just because it's on their bestseller list doesn't mean the paper is obligated to review it (though one does, occasionally, wish they'd review a few more -- though not at the cost of reviewing fewer titles of actual literary merit). And surely two reviews are better than one. (Part of the confusion arises from the fact that the daily Times and the Book Review are, apparently, editorially relatively independent, i.e. their book-review coverage shouldn't be lumped together.)
       But certainly the fact that the list isn't truly representative of what books sell the most copies is problematic. (We'd actually prefer if they left that populist niche (of actual bestselling books) to Publishers Weekly and BookScan and the like, and instead focussed on a list of bestselling literary works (i.e. one for which the Grisham-class of works are not considered) -- which would also make the Times-list more meaningful again. As is, the list has become pretty meaningless: neither an accurate reflection of total book sales, nor an elitist list of bestselling quality-works.)
       Barrios asks his readers whether his Texas paper should ditch the list, and we can only wonder why they have it in the first place. A local list seems far more useful -- and the national ones (including the Times' list) are always fairly easily accessible, especially on the Internet.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



13 January 2003 - Monday

New Dyer | A bit more about the Granta-list | Political poetry

       The new Geoff Dyer

       Geoff Dyer's new book, the collection of (sort of) travel pieces, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, is now available -- in the US; UK readers will apparently have to wait until early April for it.
       Our review of it is now available too. We enjoyed it. It's pretty much the usual Dyer stuff -- which is, of course, also the biggest weakness of the book: some of this is getting too familiar. Tony Horwitz also reviewed it, in yesterday's issue of The New York Times Book Review. He liked it better than we did, though Horwitz finds "at times, he tries too hard to dazzle". Curiously, Horwitz singles out as "the book's funniest moment" a trouser-changing piece that seems the most obvious dazzling-effort, a predictable set comic piece that Dyer does (just) manage to get away with. Horwitz also finds that, by the end, "it becomes hard to take his spiritual questing seriously" -- though Dyer's ... efforts hardly seem much like spiritual questing.
       The US edition comes with blurbs from comedian Steve Martin and Wendy Lesser. Martin wrote one of the most discussed blurbs of recent times a few years ago, about Eric Idle's very disappointing The Road to Mars (see our review) : "I laughed, I cried, then I read the book" (these words are now featured on the cover of the paperback edition of Idle's book -- and remain the best thing about that particular volume). His blurb here isn't quite as clever, but at least a bit more relevant (though still about as useful as your average blurb -- i.e. hardly at all).
       Dyer is going on a book-reading tour to promote Yoga. First stop: Brookline Booksmith (Boston) on 4 February, then two stops in New York before he hits the West Coast.
       We're curious to see how the book does. Aside from the nice review in The New York Times Book Review it also got good notices in Publishers Weekly ("should provide serious readers with a lasting high") and Kirkus Reviews ("will stir his audience, elementally and disturbingly"). But then again, no American publisher even bothered to publish his previous book, Anglo-English Attitudes (see our review).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       A bit more about the Granta-list

       Geoff Dyer (see above) is one of the authors mentioned when people criticise previous editions of the Granta-list of top British authors under 40. Even without the benefit of hindsight he would have appeared a very strong contender for the 1993 list, already having published But Beautiful (see our review) along with several other works -- but then But Beautiful (the 1992 Somerset Maugham Award winner) was probably taken too much for non-fiction ..... (In the publicity material that came with Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It he responds to the statement that the book is being published as non-fiction: "Oh, it's a distinction that means absolutely nothing to me" -- which seems true of most of his work (hence also the awful publishing tag-line that has stuck with several of his books: they're "genre-defying"). The Granta-folk don't seem to have noticed back in '93.)
        Still, the only author for whom there was a stronger case that he should have made the 1993 list is Jonathan Coe, who had three bona fide (and pretty good) novels under his belt by the time the list was announced. (See also Kate Kellaway's article in the 17 November 2002 issue of The Guardian, wondering also "What about Adam Thorpe ? Geoff Dyer ? Jonathan Coe ?")
       Born in 1958, Dyer was too old to make the newest Granta-list -- as was Coe (born 1961). Meanwhile Adam Mars-Jones (whose fiction -- what little of it there was -- we do admire) made both the 1983 and 1993 lists .....

       One (we hope) final mention of the 2003 list: Stephanie Merritt can't keep from writing about it either (in The Observer yesterday), and we can't resist quoting:
Much has been written about the blight of such premature acclaim on the careers of young writers but, seriously, how can the judges possibly predict with confidence how Monica Ali or Adam Thirlwell will develop as writers before they are even published ?
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Political poetry

       Tom Paulin responded to recent accusations in a poem published in the 2 January London Review of Books and the 8 January issue of The Guardian: On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card. (Paulin was dealt the card for much of the last year -- it all recently flared up again when Harvard University invited him, then cancelled, the re-invited him, etc. etc. (see, for example, our previous mention).)

       On another front (in part), British poet laureate Andrew Motion offers Causa Belli. It can be found in the 9 January The Guardian, along with considerable explication and comment by John Ezard, in Poet laureate joins doubters over Iraq

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



11 January 2003 - Saturday

New Context ! | Naipaul in India

       New Context !

       The new issue (number 11) of Context, published by the Center for Book Culture (i.e. the same people responsible for the Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, a trident of hope on the otherwise so often bleak American literary front) is now available online -- a weekend's worth of worthwhile literary reading !
       Highlights include four new reading profiles, including:        Also of considerable interest: Babel and Babylon by Lindsay Waters (a humanities-editor at Harvard University Press). "Society as we knew it is gone, so I believe we have to be on guard against the idea of the proliferation of pseudo-publics." ....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Naipaul in India

       It's Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in India, from the 9th through today -- India Day Celebrations addressing the Indian Diaspora, bringing lots of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and People of Indian Origin (PIOs) back to town. The literary highlight ? Of course: Nobel laureate (and PIO) V.S.Naipaul. Who immediately managed to stir a bit of controversy, daring to say a few negative things about Gandhi (albeit regarding his South African days) and suggesting the British can't be blamed for everything ....
       Check out the local press (since we haven't been able to find any US or UK coverage) Naipaul articles in:        More interesting: Soumya Bhattacharya wonders about The enigma of 'India Connection' in the January 10 issue of the Hindustan Times wondering, for example (regarding the Granta-list): "Why does Kunzru figuring on a list of top British novelists get Indians excited ?"

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