As reported at the Wall Street Journal site yesterday (in Good Friday, Great Books), the always entertaining President's Council on Bioethics has added a reading list to their site, offering generous selections from a whole host of literary works in five exciting categories ("Search for Perfection", etc.).
Literature to help deal with science and ethics -- how can we not like the idea ?
Okay, there are a few reasons, but still, we almost like the idea that "these works can be invaluable companions as we grapple to understand our brave new biotechnology".
(Okay -- hold on there a moment: "brave new biotechnology" ?
We know that everything done in this country is commendable beyond compare (and everyone who lifts their little finger is a hero) -- but now even the biotechnology is brave ?
(Yes, we get the Huxley allusion -- and still wonder if that's the one they want to be making.))
The fun book-list (with generous excerpts) includes everything from selections from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to a bit from the Gattaca-screenplay.
We're curious as to how much of the Council's time is spent in literary debate (and how many of these excerpts the President has looked at .....)
See also our review of Council-member Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Chang Hsi-Kuo's The City Trilogy (and reviews of the individual volumes of the trilogy: Five Jade Disks, Defenders of the Dragon City, and Tale of a Feather) -- a curious piece of science fiction (published by the impressively adventurous Columbia University Press, in their Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series).
Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran has been attracting considerable review and other coverage (mainly in the US, where the book has just come out; the British edition is only due at the end of July).
We eventually hope to review it (it sounds like just the thing for us), but probably won't in the near future (no review copy has been forthcoming from Random House).
Meanwhile, here some links of possible interest:
The Kakutani also reviewed it in The New York Times (15 April); she liked it:
It is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students.
There are also going to be many author readings (see the Random House schedule), including one at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena on 24 April (19:00-21:00) and one at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle on 25 April (19:30).
Per Olov Enquist's stock has, one hopes, risen with his having won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his novel, The Visit of the Royal Physician (or The Royal Physician's Visit, as the American title would have it) -- see our previous mention, and our review of the novel.
Unfortunately, the Swedish master's books aren't generally immediately rendered into English (if they are at all ...).
A recent one (from 2001) is Lewis Resa, a big (500+ page) novel which we'd love to see (or rather: read) in English but probably won't be able to for a while.
For a small (and foreign-language) glimpse of what we're all missing, see Karl-Markus Gauss' review in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (6 March) and Andreas Isenschmid's review in Die Zeit (yes, they're both in German -- into which the novel has just made it), as well as Kjell E. Johanson's Swedish take.
The religiosity is of some concern to us, but while we don't have much faith in higher powers and/or beings, we do in Enquist and feel fairly confident that the book will be worth even the long wait until it is published in English.
The April/May issue of the Boston Review is now available online.
The usual New Democracy Forum stuff of interest (this time round: the very relevant question of Islam and the Challenge of Democracy) and more.
Also of interest:
- Benjamin Paloff's review of Tom Paulin's The Invasion Handbook ("in which the reader is by turns enthralled by Paulinís erudition and verbal skill and appalled at his lack of judgment and restraint").
(For additional information about The Invasion Handbook, see also Stephen Burt's review in Poetry Review (Summer 2002), the Faber & Faber publicity page -- or buy the book at Amazon.com (in the US) or Amazon.co.uk (in the UK).)
The richly endowed 2003 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships to Assist Research and Artistic Creation have been announced -- see the official list of 184 now extremely well to-do artists and scholars.
In the 'Creative Arts' section there were, among others, nine poetry fellowships, only seven fiction fellowships, and four drama and performance art fellowships.
Most of the creative arts winners are unknown to us -- we've certainly read nothing of theirs, and few of the names are even familiar (though fiction winners include Aleksandar Hemon and Nathan Englander).
As far as we can tell, the only fellowship recipient we have under review is theatre arts winner Gitta Honegger, whose Thomas Bernhard-biography we have under review.
Some of the scholarly-projects look quite quirky (see the winners' list for brief descriptions); the creative types don't have to specify what they'll be doing.
Still, the Guggenheim folk seem to do a fairly good job of identifying talent and worthies, so a fair amount of good should come of this.
Our review of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation has consistently ranked among the most popular on our site since we put it up, so presumably there is some interest among users in his new book, Reefer Madness.
We're not sure we'll bother with it, but here a few links of possible interest:
Will Self's review from the 14 April Evening Standard is now available.
He wasn't exactly overwhelmed:
There's nothing wrong with this enterprise -- I don't know anyone who doesn't have some interest in dope, copulation or exploitative labour -- but it wasn't clear what Schlosser was saying at the outset, and by the end I was not much clearer.
The book appears to rehash some pretty old Schlosser-material -- articles in The Atlantic Monthly (for which he won some magazine prize):
As is clear now, part of the collateral damage of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is the loss of a great deal of its accumulated culture, first from various museum collections (most notably the great Baghdad one) and now in the burning of several libraries.
There has been some mention of this in the media (though focus has generally been more on the looted museums than the incinerated literary works), most notably Robert Fisk's commentary in yesterday's issue of The Independent, in which he describes the burning of both the National Library and Archives and the "library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment" (as well as American 'reactions' to his effort to summon help).
Other articles include Oliver Burkeman's in The Guardian (15 April), a BBC report (in which Colin Powell is reported to have "pledged to recover and repair the antiquities looted from the city museum" -- which, admirable though it is, doesn't do much for the books that have gone up in flames), and a Reuters report -- which describes the scene:
Yellow catalogue cards fluttered in the breeze on the library steps, inside the Air was still warm and the floor covered in flimsy black pieces of charred paper.
Every book, every manuscript has been destroyed.
Admittedly, it's the Iraqis themselves doing these dirty deeds, but most of the responsibility for this disaster surely must be heaped upoon the occupying powers.
It's especially tragic when one considers how easily this could have been prevented.
The Americans were willing and able to mount a heroic rescue mission to save the life of a single soldier, at great risk to themselves, and they did station guards in front of the Oil Ministry to make sure that no looting went on there (presumably because the Americans want to be the ones to tear up those contracts with the French and Russian oil companies themselves), but the sites of greatest value -- as easily defended as the Oil Ministry -- were left unguarded (and even when they were summoned to help stop the looting the Americans did not impress with their thoroughness -- or even interest, for that matter).
The US came to liberate the Iraqis from their past -- little did the Iraqis know the Americans were going to be so thorough about it.
Again: it's not the Americans that sent all this stuff up in smoke, but they certainly were facilitators.
Well warned that this sort of thing might happen they chose not to guard these national treasure troves.
And, from their perspective, it makes sense: starting with a clean slate is much easier than being burdened with all that messy past that the locals might cling to.
To the current American administration Babylon isn't the birthplace of civilization, Philadelphia (ca. 1780) and the Continental Congress is.
Uninterested in history or books, there was obviously little interest from the Bush jr. administration to preserve this ancient past (though one wonders whether the library at the Ministry of Religious Endowment would have been allowed to to go up in flames if it had contained historical material of a more favoured religious sort).
To Bush jr. and his cronies it's all just a bit of untidiness ....
Unlike oil or even people, it isn't easy to measure the loss of these objects and books.
In fact, the magnitude is beyond all comprehension: this is a tragedy for civilization of an incredible scope, and future generations will curse this one for it.
Of course, it matters little in the current day to day lives of the Iraqis and the Americans and everyone else in the world and thus is oh so readily excused (for the moment).
For those who want their blood to boil even more, consider Steven E. Landsburg's 14 April Slate column, The Case for Looting.
There is an economic case to be made for looting, but Landsburg doesn't do a good job of making it, especially in light of the destruction of, for example, so many museum artefacts.
Some of his statements are downright ridiculous:
The fact is that in the (hopefully brief) chaos of liberation, there probably aren't a whole lot of useful tasks for Iraqis to do.
From an economic point of view, that means their time has very little value -- so they might as well spend it stealing.
And unfortunately he is, after the museum and library incidents, way off the mark when he claims:
But in the scheme of things, this is small potatoes.
Iraq has been systematically looted for two decades.
This is, one dares to believe, the beginning of the end.
Relying, as we (and most readers) largely do, on publishers to provide us with reading matter we are still often amazed how poorly they do their job: the supposed gatekeepers really don't seem to have a clue.
In the hit-or-miss, ultra-subjective world of fiction their failures are perhaps understandable, but non-fiction shouldn't be that hard -- yet here too publishers don't seem to have a very sure touch.
The example of Samantha Power and her book, "A Problem from Hell" (see our review), is illustrative -- and probably typical.
Power's book, published by Basic Books just over a year ago, has in recent weeks picked up a few of the grander non-fiction literary awards out there -- a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle Award, something called the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize.
Pretty impressive -- and certainly justifiable (it's a good and important book).
But in an Ayesha Court 9 April article in USA Today she is quoted as saying: "Every publishing house in New York rejected it".
She describes some of its tortured publishing history in an interview with Robert Birnbaum at Identity Theory too.
Someone at Random House initially bought it, but:
I wrote this history and the original person who bought it, I think, expected a broadside and basically dropped the book.
He wanted a polemic and personal account.
Ah, the wonderful interfering editor with ideas of his/her own !
Fortunately, Power couldn't offer what this one wanted and eventually Basic did pick it up -- though she mentions again: "Really, it was rejected by practically every house in New York".
(Good going, people !)
Admittedly, it's not a subject (or approach) that sounds appealing (especially in summary form) or like it might make for a best- or even modest seller, but surely anyone reading what Power wrote would be impressed and understand the significance of the work -- and that there is an adequate audience for it to make publishing it worthwhile (as long as one doesn't pay a seven-figure advance for it).
Well, apparently not.
(Which reminds us -- when exactly are former President Clinton's memoirs (for which Knopf paid a multi-million dollar advance) appearing ?
But that's still the sort of project -- and money-wasting -- that seems to be the preferred way of doing business.)
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Pascal Quignard's unusual On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia.
Quignard is a recent Prix Goncourt winner, and a few of his works have been translated into English -- though practically none of them are easy to find.
The Library of America has come out with a new edition of Dreiser's An American Tragedy -- and it is, somewhat surprisingly, getting a fair amount of review-coverage.
David Denby reviews it in this week's issue of The New Yorker, and it was reviewed a month ago by Jonathan Yardley (in The Washington Post, 9 March) -- who reports that when he first read it he "found it, well, a work of mythic force, at once brutal and heartbreaking" -- and by William H. Pritchard (The Washington Times, 9 March).
(It was also briefly reviewed by BrothersJudd, who gave it an "F".)
We've now added a review of Peter Singer's recent book on "the ethics of globalization", One World.
The ethical angle makes for an interesting take -- and Singer is surprisingly restrained in most of his arguments (no calls to sacrifice the debilitated in favour of housepets, etc. here) -- but the reasonably rational ethics he writes about (as opposed to the trendy, irrationally faith-based stuff popular in the highest reaches of American government -- and the Blair household -- nowadays) makes for a hard sell and these days looks, in many respects, particularly unrealistic (and irrelevant).
America's recent show of smashing might now allows for a neat trick of retrospective and reactive moralizing, as all of a sudden the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is being sold as a humanitarian mission liberating the citizens of Iraq, when all the yammering before was about "weapons of mass destruction" (remember those ?) and the supposed threat badman Hussein posed to the US (a leader who apparently couldn't even get a single of his air force's planes off the ground in the direst situation imaginable, when his own country was under attack).
Ironically, Singer might well approve of this humanitarian outcome -- and who isn't pleased that there's one foul dictator less to worry about ? -- though he does make a point of thinking the UN should take a leading role in these types of undertakings -- and we assume he wouldn't be too pleased by the false pretences under which this coup was initiated.
The book -- based on a series of lectures Singer gave a few years back -- makes for a decent introduction to some interesting subjects, but the discussions do only scratch part of the surface.
And it is a bit lost in the historical moment: Singer's guess as to how the US might react after the terrorist attacks of the fall of 2001 (more willing to co-operate internationally, etc.), and the American government's tentative (and then short-lived) first steps in that direction have since been superseded by a complete about-face -- the expensive consequences of which we (that's the global as well as local wes) are only beginning to suffer for.
Another review we've recently added is of another Rebecca Gilman play -- her stalker-drama Boy gets Girl.
It seems to be a popular play at the moment -- you can catch it at, for example, the Geffen Playhouse (where it opened 1 April, and is playing through 11 May) or the Black Box Theatre (24 April through 4 May).
Fun statistics are available again from the British Public Lending Right (under which authors get money each time their books are checked out of a library), as they round up British lending habits from last year.
See their most recent press release -- and learn that Catherine Cookson's reign as "best-lending author in the UKís libraries" (a title she's held for seventeen (!) years) might soon come to an end.
(We read a lot but clearly we don't read enough: we have to ask: Catherine who ?)
See also John Ezard's article in the 11 April issue of The Guardian.
João Magueijo's Faster than the Speed of Light (see also our review) is reviewed in the 4 April TLS (which just reached us).
John Leslie begins his review:
Faster than the Speed of Light has just appeared in its British version.
Thousands of copies were pulped, and editorial changes were made, after the journal Nature threatened legal action over any repetition of passages in the American edition.
It's the first we've heard of it, but sounds plausible (though it, of course, also sounds like a good publicity stunt ... nothing like a bit of book-pulping to get media attention (though, like we said, we haven't noticed any)).
British readers are, of course, encouraged to send for the American edition, so that they can read all the dirt.
(Most of the dirt is simply rude, and thus fairly harmless, but still .....)
We recently complained about The Spectator's new registration-requirements.
They finally e-mailed confirming our attempts to register, only to write us:
The current registration trial has now come to an end, and access is again unrestricted.
However, your registration details will continue to be valid when full registration is implemented in the next few weeks.
Note that there was no mention of a registration "trial" when we tried to register (although it certainly was a trial -- and not in the way they apparently mean it).
One hopes they'll come to their senses and not implement this nonsensical plan; readers are certainly encouraged to e-mail them disapproving (or, of course, if you feel otherwise, approving) messages.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Ekuni Kaori's 1991 novel, Twinkle Twinkle.
Apparently a huge bestseller in Japan (the American publishers report it sold half a million copies there), it was also made into a movie and won "the prestigious Lady Murasaki Literary Award" -- and now it's also available in English.
The American publisher of the book is also a new discovery for us: Vertical has apparently just opened shop, "specializing in translating the best contemporary Japanese books".
Given that there's far too little Japanese fiction being translated into English their endeavour can only be applauded -- and we're very eager to peruse more of their titles.