W.H.Smith hands out all sorts of book-awards.
For four decades they've had a semi-prestigious literary award, but now they seem to be focussing more on the WHSmith ‘People’s Choice’ Book Awards (now in its third year !), with its multiple categories and apparently populist appeal (you decide !).
Meanwhile, it's easier to find information about the Literary Award in The Guardian's roundup than at the hideous W.H.Smith site itself (see their Literary Award page and try to figure out who was nominated for the award .....).
The Smith-people brag about their (literary) award:
The Award was the first this century that had no age limit for the author and was not limited to novels, poetry or biography, but covered the widest literary field.
The prize is virtually worldwide since it now includes USA and foreign works in translation.
The idea of all-inclusiveness is a nice one (though hasn't the final Whitbread also covered all genres, without age limit, for quite a few years ?).
Still: "virtually worldwide" ?
Emphasis apparently on the virtual, since the nominated works (as reported by The Guardian) don't include any in translation (hey, there's a surprise ...).
We have surprisingly many of the Literary Award contenders under review -- see our reviews of:
The 20 March issue of the London Review of Books offers Mark Ford's "review" of Harry Mathews' collected stories, The Human Country (see our review), and collected essays, The Case of the Persevering Maltese (we just got our copy; our review will be appearing shortly).
Mathews has been getting quite a bit of attention for these summing-up works -- as he deserves -- and Ford does offer a nice life and work overview.
But he appears to spend more time discussing Cigarettes ("to my mind, one of the most brilliantly original -- and underrated -- novels of the 20th century") than the two new collections.
The April issue of The Atlantic Monthly offers a James Wood review of the Library of America edition of Henry James' Novels 1896-1899 (which consists of The Other House (1896), The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), and The Awkward Age (1899)).
The four novels in this collection are indeed peculiar ones -- and very peculiar ones to come from Flaubert's great (if critical) disciple, because they are distinctly anti-Flaubertian.
Exposition, for example, is starved to a thin dramatic minimum, though people -- or certain people -- are flamboyantly and sharply described.
The April issue of The Atlantic Monthly also offers a Christopher Hitchens-piece (he apparently now has a regular gig there), as he considers several recent works that have discussed Islam, by writers such as Naipaul, Fallaci, and Houellebecq.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Gordon Burn's dark, intense Fullalove.
Burn is an infrequent novelist, but we enjoyed his first, Alma Cogan (a Whitbread Best First Novel winner back in 1991; unfortunately not (yet) under review here), and look forward to the forthcoming The North of England Home Service.
We have no idea whether or not it's true, but Elisabeth Bumiller reports in The New York Times (17 March) that there's some reading going on at the White House.
First Lady Laura is apparently reading W.G.Sebald's Austerlitz, while her husband is allegedly:
reading two books: The Confessor by Daniel Silva, a best-selling spy thriller about a Mossad agent and a new pope, and The Conquerors by Michael Beschloss, about the reconstruction of a war-ravaged aggressor nation, Germany, after World War II.
Since the President obviously hasn't been very busy lately with political matters -- not bothering with any consensus-building of any sort, or trying to come up with anything resembling a coherent explanation of his Mid-East policy, or working towards anything except the foregone conclusion that we can expect to start any hour now, much less worrying about the state of the American economy, etc. -- he presumably actually has had a good deal of time on his hands, some of which he might be spending reading.
Nevertheless, George Bush Jr. as reader still sounds like an unlikely proposition.
The Beschloss book has supposedly been making the administration rounds, and maybe a well-thumbed copy has made it to George's desk (though a one-page summary by an intern seems the more likely version to have wound up in the Oval Office).
We haven't read the book, but it's gotten good reviews.
For example, Bruce C. Wolpe, in the Sydney Morning Herald (18 January), wrote:
Beschloss's book is classically crafted, with corroboration on every major historical development.
It has historical texture and depth.
The Silva book has also been getting good notices -- e.g. Patrick Anderson's in The Washington Post (10 March):
No doubt some Catholics will object to Silva's portrayal of their church, but not having a dog in that fight, I found it a compelling piece of fiction, one that manages to be both superior entertainment and a hard look at serious issues.
Hard looks at serious issues ain't what they used to be -- at least not in the Bush White House (as the current debacle proves) -- but maybe it's the right type of entertainment for the Commander in Chief.
Is it a coincidence that both authors have ties to Mommy Bush's Annual Celebration of Reading ?
Silva is scheduled to join in the ninth annual go-round (24 April), while Beschloss was there a couple of year back.
Maybe she had some free copies she foisted on her son -- or maybe she asked the White House to claim George Jr. is reading these as a little thank you (and sales-boost) to the authors .....
(Also: possible hidden meaning in the titles: Is George Jr. going through all the books that have titles beginning with The Con ... -- a subtle admission of what he's pulling off ?)
For those interested in reading what the American President is (supposedly) reading, you can purchase:
Long- and short-list-season continues, at least in the British specialty-award sector.
We recently mentioned The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist (here) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize regional winners (here); now the all-women's prize -- the Orange -- has announced their top twenty.
See their site, and the longlist (and a brief round-up in yesterday's The Guardian, and Christina Patterson in today's The Independent).
Do they do tests (as they do at the Olympics) to ascertain the sex of all the nominees -- or just the winner ?
The only title we have under review: Donna Tartt's The Little Friend (not, we trust, a serious contender).
Also of interest: Sophie Dahl is one of the judges (see the entire list) -- which apparently has raised some eyebrows.
But Sophie defends herself: British Voguereports that she's "fed up with people doubting the legitimacy of her position as one of the judges of this year's Orange literary prize" -- though the Daily Telegrapharticle (by Cassandra Jardine) that's based on tells the story a bit differently.
We've mentioned Matthew Pearl's new novel, The Dante Club.
It's success is apparently enough to get him space at the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal, where he suggests Let Us Read Longfellow
Pearl offers such pearls of wisdom as:
In contrast, our anemic artistic sense of America today is troubling.
We envy European culture without simultaneously strengthening our own.
We're not quite sure we agree with any of this -- from the desirability of artistic senses of nation (or nationalism) (weren't the Germans really good at that about sixty years ago ?) to America's being so much poorer than Europe's (aren't the Europeans -- indeed, isn't the whole world -- always complaining about American (pop-)culture crushing local culture ?).
But Pearl knows something about Longfellow, so he makes his case for him:
Prime among his contemporaries, Longfellow crafted an American poetry that searches, sometimes calmly and sometimes with unsettling urgency, for a fabric of our voices and legends.
David Sexton writes about the Anti-war of words in yesterday's issue of the Evening Standard -- the flood of anti-war poetry of recent weeks:
The Iraq crisis, following on from 11 September, has set off an unprecedented explosion of anti-war poetry.
A bad time for the world has turned into a boom time for people with an itch to express themselves in lines which don't quite reach the edge of the page.
A decent survey -- though, as he notes: "most of it, however righteous in sentiment, is lamentable in quality".
We recently reviewed Magnus Mills' new work, The Scheme for Full Employment -- and now we've gone on and added reviews of All Quiet on the Orient Express and Three to See the King.
We haven't gotten around to reviewing his best-known work, the award-nominated The Restraint of Beasts, but that hasn't stopped us from now also adding an author page for Magnus Mills.
His books tend to be fairly short, but he's still done a good job of it, rolling out four decent novels (and a small collection of stories) in the five years since he first appeared on the scene.
We're curious to see what's next.
Michael Dirda offers a review of 19th century British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Pelham in yesterday's issue of The Washington Post -- which makes for as good an excuse as any for an embarrassing confession: I'm an Edward Bulwer-Lytton fan.
EBL doesn't get much respect nowadays.
He is -- at best -- considered a second-tier Victorian novelist, once popular but now hardly ever bothered with.
Now it sometimes seems that the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is his last claim to any fame.
(Other claims: penning the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword (in the play Richelieu), and writing one oft-filmed book, The Last Days of Pompeii -- neither of which he gets sufficient credit for.)
When I write that I'm a fan I really mean that.
There are only three authors I've consumed anywhere near ten thousand pages by -- and he, with the twenty or so works of his I've made my way through, is one of them.
(The others in this odd trio ?
Stanislaw Lem and Paul Theroux (at 30-plus titles each).
Ten thousand pages is actually hard to achieve -- I've read practically all of Graham Greene and that doesn't add up to that much more than 5000.
It's also a revealing list: I obviously haven't waded as enthusiastically through the oeuvres of other similarly prolix authors that might allow for such totals: John Updike, Trollope, Thackeray, Dickens, Walter Scott -- or Agatha Christie, Simenon, etc.
And I still have a few EBL titles left to go.
I've sought out and bought almost all his books (not as easy as one might think, despite the huge print runs the titles once had).
EBL isn't exactly critically acclaimed -- and never really was, though one can scrape together stray comments of praise from his contemporaries.
He's not a great writer, but -- despite the jokes at the expense of his "dark and stormy night"-opening -- he was a pretty good one.
Also remarkable: the sheer variety of his work (which also included some of the most successful plays of his time)
(I also find reassurance in the fact that Arno Schmidt translated him (and devoted one of his radio-dialogs to him); ArSch (pages of his read: ca. 6000) was no fool (properly disliking the likes of, for example, Thomas Mann (pages read: ca. 2000 -- and that was certainly too many) and though ArSch didn't take most of EBL's output too seriously he did think highly of the impressive My Novel.)
What's the appeal ?
EBL's fictions are, for the most part, big, feisty novels.
The plots aren't brilliant, but they're solid -- and, unlike Walter Scott or Trollope or, in a slightly different way, Dickens, EBL wrote many truly different novels -- subject matter, approach, even genre varying from one to another.
He wrote historical fictions (devoted to various periods), crime novels, society fiction (like Pelham), even science fiction (of sorts) -- all of it, for the most part, well done.
With very few exceptions: he told a good story, and he told it well.
His style may be considered plodding and workmanlike -- and it might very well not be to fast-paced modern tastes -- but it seems just right to me for these big books, read at a leisurely pace.
And the writing is never dull -- most of these books are overwritten, by modern standards, but they still sound (and read) right, or are at least adventurous in their wrongheadedness: he was willing to try things, all sorts of things (not all of which were entirely successful).
Practically all of what he did still seems to me better -- usually -- than most anything found in today's pop-fiction (and that's what he was too: a pop-fiction author).
Dirda's article focusses on EBL's precocious (and deserving) first success, Pelham, and makes for a decent introduction to the author.
The book's greatest appeal for today's reader lies in its language and turns of phrase.
Beyond the literary, almost campy pleasures it provides -- those of the transparent mystery are fairly negligible -- Pelham should also be counted a milestone in the history of fashion.
Certainly anyone with a liking for leisurely escape fiction should give Pelham a try. But to me, Bulwer-Lytton's sprightly tone and wit remain his real triumph
Still, EBL is probably a hard sell -- which, given the fact that so few of his titles are in print, makes things doubly difficult.
EBL is actually one of the authors I've been pushing for here at the complete review -- information about his titles (and reviews, review summaries, etc.) certainly isn't too readily available elsewhere, so it might meet a need .....
I like to think I have some influence here (I like to think I run the show, but clearly I am very much mistaken), but I haven't been able to convince anyone to go along with such an undertaking.
(Best bets to actually get covered on the site are sops to me: T.H.S.Escott's Bulwer-biography (1910) and wife Rosina Bulwer Lytton's recently reprinted Shells from the Sands of Time -- quirky and short titles that won't bog everything down (or so I'm told).)
For some really fun Bulwer-Lytton criticism readers are meanwhile advised to stick to good old Edgar Allan Poe -- an underestimated critic, always worth perusing (and another ArSch favourite).
Poe was an enthusiastic Bulwer-Lytton critic, reviewing quite a few of the works.
And what a mix of judgements he offers !
In a review of Night and Morning he writes: "His mere English is grossly defective -- turgid, involved, and ungrammatical" and: "He is the king-coxcomb of figures-of-speech" -- and the nicely turned:
In regard to Night and Morning we cannot agree with that critical opinion which considers it the best novel of its author.
It is only not his worst.
But after all that he can still conclude about the novel: "Its merits beyond doubt overbalance its defects".
About Zanoni he writes:
The English of the author is neither better nor worse than in his former novels.
His language was always inflated, often bombastic.
He personifies as desperately as ever.
There are many fine thoughts, nevertheless, in these volumes; and, on the whole, the book is a valuable addition to our imaginative literature.
Or how about Poe's comments on some Critical and Miscellaneous Writings by Bulwer Lytton:
Mr. Bulwer is never lucid, and seldom profound.
His taste is exquisite.
His style, in its involution and obscurity, partakes of the involution of his thoughts.
We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the most profound of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due turn, be enkindled within us.
We feel sure of rising from the perusal a wiser if not a better man.
In no instance are we deceived.
But regard it as we will, it is an extraordinary work -- and one which leaves nothing farther to accomplish in its own particular region.
It is vastly superior to the Last Days of Pompeii -- more rich -- more glowing, and more vigorous.
For more of a taste of EBL, check out several of his titles available at Project Gutenberg
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We previously mentioned the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the stage-adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
It has moved on to the US now, and is currently playing at the University of Michigan before moving to New York next week.
The Michigan Daily also reported that Author Rushdie talks politics in 'U' interview (Andrew McCormack, 12 March).
Most troubling here ... well, there are several troubling things -- though in all fairness: this is a college newspaper account, not a transcript, so maybe Rushdie was a bit clearer in person.
Judge the Islam comments for yourself -- but we can't help but express our frustration with the following:
"In most of my life, I have been on the peace trail, to quote that great philosopher Cat Stevens," he said.
Ho, ho, ho, what a wit !
First of all -- but this may be a transcription error -- it's a goddamn peace train, not a peace trail.
Second of all, in the song Peace Train (see lyrics here), it's pretty clear that Cat (and friends) are not aboard any peace train (or trail), but rather that they're trying to catch one.
"Cause it's getting nearer, it soon will be with you", etc. etc.
Rushdie again proves he has no concept of (or feel for) pop culture.
And even Cat Stevens doesn't deserve to be misrepresented like this.
"Come on now peace train !"
Rushdie also gets bashed a bit more emphatically elsewhere (though we're not sure we'd say: more deservedly).
Hamid Dabashi, "chairman of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department" at Columbia University wrote an editorial piece in the 14 March Columbia Spectator, RSVP: My Dinner with Richard.
Dabashi apparently won't be going to the Midnight's Children premiere in New York next week. His complaint ?
Rushdie emerged from his profitable seclusion having become a world-renowned writer far beyond what his fiction merited, now with a vengeance against Muslims the world over.
During the last decade, particularly since the horrific events of Sept. 11, Rushdie has launched the most vicious attacks against Islam and Muslims.
He may have a point, but the petty tone and the lack of any evidence (there may be lots of evidence -- but Dabashi doesn't cite a single Rushdie comment or act: unacceptable) don't exactly make it a great position paper.
The (seemingly) never ending poetry-war debate-commentary continues with the tiredly titled Poetry and War, Again by Robert Pinsky in the 14 March issue of Slate.
A decent little survey.
But it feels like the whole issue has gotten rather academic: the administration's blinkered perspective -- see no dissent (or poetry), hear no dissent (or poetry), and pay no attention to dissenting voices of any sort (unless they're French, in which case they can and will be the subject of insult and ridicule) -- seems to have worked.
Of course, whether that's a good thing remains to be seen.
As usual, an interesting Saturday review section in The Guardian.
Aside from the Les Murray review mentioned above, highlights include:
Phil Daoust's review of Ahmadou Kourouma's Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (see also our review).
There wasn't much interest in this title when the first (American) translation came out a couple of years ago, but the new British one is getting some prominent attention -- as it deserves.
Michael Moorcock revisits Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (and he's not that enthusiastic)
Oottupulackal Velukkutty Vijayan is not a household name outside of India, but he is fairly well-known there, both as a cartoonist and an author.
The Legends of Khasak -- first published in Malayalam (that's the prevalent language of southern Indian Kerala) as Khasakkinte Itihasam in serial form in 1968, and published in English, in the author's own translation, in 1994 -- is among his best known works -- and our review is now available.
Vijayan offers a nice afterword to the English-language edition, describing the creation and then success of the novel (and real-life Khasak counterpart, Thasarak):
Lots of visitors come now to Thasarak -- academics, young and curious people, the book's cult readership.
The villagers themselves do not mind this attention.
The Malayalam original shot into prominence many years ago, and even today it is a best-seller.
They are lost in a kind of collective narcissism.
Indian literature, we often forget, -- even contemporary Indian literature -- isn't restricted to authors writing in English, though obviously the ones one is most likely to encounter in the US and the UK are those writing in English.
It isn't solely a Western prejudice; a few years ago Salman Rushdie caused considerable uproar with an article in The New Yorker and then his editorial work on The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 (ed. by Rushdie and Elisabeth West, get your copy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk), where he essentially simply ignored works by authors not writing in English, including Vijayan and Nirmal Verma.
As S. Prasannarajan complained (Indian Express, 7 July 1997):
In the marketplace of India Imagined, O.V. Vijayan is as remote as Malayalam.
His Khasak is an invisible country; the sheer magic of his ancestral saga has been denied an international audience.
Sadly, even though Vijayan's book is accessible to a larger audience by virtue of being available in English translation, it is only published by Penguin Books India -- i.e. not readily available outside India.
Vijayan perhaps isn't the most objective authority in this regard, but the significance of this book (in its original form) to a resurgent Malayalam literature is undeniable:
They say that the Malayalam language has never been the same again.
I cannot vouch for that, but certainly the book taught me this -- no language, however physically confined, however historically deprived, is left without springheads of regeneration.
There is as much narrative potential in Malayalam as in the imperial languages.
Khasak has given that assurance to successor generations.
Interestingly, Vijayan's translation itself has come in for some criticism (see, for example, Translation as Literary Criticism by E.V.Ramakrishnan).
Ah yes, translation: the no-win situation.
But, unfortunately, languages such as Malayalam will likely remain inaccessible to most: hardly the choice for a second (or third or fourth or fifth) language to learn, and we can't imagine that there are more than a few dozen non-native speakers in, for example, the entire US.
The Onion offers an interview with film director David Cronenberg this week.
His latest literary adaptation is his film Spider, based on the very good Patrick McGrath novel (get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk)
Cronenberg has turned a couple of books into films -- most notably J.G.Ballard's Crash.
(See our review of the Ballard-novel, as well as our review of Iain Sinclair's book on the film.)
Of particular interest, his views on Philip K. Dick movie-adaptations:
I think that there's material in Philip Dick's work to make 100 movies.
I'm really quite surprised at how few there have been.
He goes on to offer a reasonable explanation, however, on why there aren't more.
Today's issue of The Times devotes a whole section to a previously unknown novella by Charlotte Brontë (written 1838).
Read Stancliffe's Hotel online there, as well as some of the interesting accompanying articles, including Heather Glen on the discovery of the work.
Celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the fine French pocket-book series Livre de Poche.
Nice-sized books (truly pocket-sized, hurrah !), a very good list, nice covers.
Events include the exhibit Le Livre de Poche à 50 ans at the Centre Pompidou.
We mentionedThe Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist yesterday.
So did the BBC in their report Foreign fiction shortlist unveiled.
They write there about one of the nominated works: "Danish author Olov Enquist's novel".
For the record -- and as Boyd Tonkin mentioned in his column in The Independent yesterday -- Enquist is Swedish.
He even writes in Swedish (as opposed to, for example, Danish).
But, hey, it's all exotic Scandinavia, one country surely much the same as the next.
And the nominated book is set in Denmark, so that's close enough, right ?
A few weeks back we mentionedThe Independent's Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.
Now it's been pared down to a shortlist (will the suspense never end ?!?), as reported by Boyd Tonkin in his column in The Independent today.
We still have three of the contenders under review:
Two weeks ago we mentioned a New York stage production of Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del chivo (yes, that's The Feast of the Goat).
The New York Times' Bruce Weber reviewed it yesterday, quite favourably:
(T)he history of Trujillo's regime is compactly synopsized in hyperbolic scenes that are almost like photographs doctored to heighten their effect.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of S.
No, not the 1988 John Updike title, but rather the one by Florence Delay.
And Patrick Deville.
And Jean Echenoz, Sonja Greenlee, Harry Mathews, Mark Polizzotti, and Olivier Rolin.
Yes, seven authors, one book (half of it translated from the French -- by two translators), all in barely a hundred pages.
The list of authors should impress.
Echenoz is the only one of the French authors who has managed to get a decent foothold in America, but a few others should eventually wash up on these shores (Rolin probably first and foremost).
And any book with a Harry Mathews contribution is hard to pass up.
We mentioned Andrew Motion's (oddly timed) complaint about his non-reading students, and his recommended reading list a few days ago.
The 10 March issue of The Guardian offers a Justine Jordan piece of comments about Motion's list and alternative suggestions.
A decent crowd of writers responded.
Most entertaining: the Waterland reactions.
Nicholas Lezard ("Waterland's a very good choice") and Terry Eagleton ("singling Waterland and Midnight's Children out as excellent contemporary choices") approved of the Graham Swift title, while Michael Dibdin ("seems way outside its fighting weight in this exalted company") and Alex Clark ("Waterland, I think, is a dreadful choice") were less enthusiastic.
Other responses included the predictable: "There are too few women on this list" (Ali Smith).
Not that Ms. Smith is wrong -- though what we'd argue is that there's too little of anything on the list.
Nine titles ?
Students (especially in a programme like the one headed by Mr. Motion) should be able to polish that off in a month (or, if they're really studying the texts in depth, maybe two).
The question in making any of these lists is, of course: to what end ?
Required (or at least recommended) reading for students in creative writing programmes presumably should meet different needs than, say, a list for medical students (whom we would commend a healthy diet of fiction to as well, though nobody seems to be complaining that they read too little).
But what exactly are the students meant to learn from the reading material ?
Should they read texts that are worthy of imitation ?
Or should they perhaps read bad texts, so as to see where even good writers went wrong (in order to learn from the mistakes of others) ?
And if it's just publishing success they're after, how about some bestselling formula-fiction ?
Our suggestions: many, many more titles, and much more variety.
Prospective writers should be exposed to as many different ways of story-telling and -presenting as possible.
(Though, honestly, we don't have high hopes for (or much interest in) these factory-produced writers -- despite the occasional (e.g. Ian McEwan) true success story.
The fact that these factories clearly aren't environments fostering a reading culture surely speaks volumes already.)
Another question: if the students in Mr. Motion's creative writing programme don't have enough time to read, what the hell do they spend all of their time doing ?
One might like to imagine: writing.
But that seems extremely unlikely.
And even if they spend ten hours a day scribbling away, that would still leave loads of time to read a book or two a day.
Or do they all work full-time ?
(Our fear: they spend the time "networking" -- sweet-talking agents and editorial assistants.
Which presumably is a lot more helpful in getting them published than either writing or reading would be.)
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of István Örkény's One Minute Stories.
Only about a third of all the egyperces novellák he wrote are available in this somewhat hard to find collection (co-published by Hungarian house Corvina and Australian house Brandl & Schlesinger -- but our copy is a sixth printing (2001), so sales somewhere must be decent (or print-runs miniscule)).
Tonight on BBC2, at the ridiculous hour of 23:20 (to 0:10), you can catch the A.S.Byatt episode of Scribbling, a documentary that follows Byatt "through the entire process of writing a book -- from initial concept right through to publication".
Sounds like it might be of some interest.
Leanne Klein offers an article on the episode in yesterday's issue of The Guardian, with such information as:
Following A Whistling Woman all the way to publication meant I filmed for three and a half years.
In that time I had two children, made three other films and executive produced about 15 more.
I can't imagine ever again being asked to make a programme over such a long period.