In yesterday's issue of The Independent John Walsh introduces Read it and weep, where "50 leading lights on the literary, political, opinion-forming and media scene identify their worst reading experiences".
An amusing exercise, with a few surprises -- and lots of enjoyable nasty remarks.
To whet your appetite:
- "Iris Murdoch started her career with one brilliantly funny novel, Under the Net. From then on, it was downhill all the way.", Boyd Tonkin
- "There have been many contender, but for inspiring life-long loathing and contempt, nothing beats The Lord of the Rings.", John Walsh
- "It combines total lack of originality of thought and narrative with romantic, twittering prose.", Carmen Callil (on The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy)
We've mentioned this before, and now we have occasion to do so again.
(No one seems to care, but hey, somebody has to be tilting at those windmills .....)
Ahmadou Kourouma's best-selling and prize winning 1998 novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages appeared in an English translation (by Carrol F. Coates) in the US in 2001 as Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals.
We reviewed it -- but nobody else seemed to take note of it.
A few months ago a second translation, by Frank Wynne, appeared in the UK as Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote.
This week David Caute reviews it in The Spectator.
Reviews have also appeared in: the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, and the TLS.
Which is pretty damn good review coverage -- though given the importance of the book (as the reviewers all also acknowledge) fully deserved.
The British beat themselves up on occasion regarding their indifference to translated literature (see, for example, this recent entry), but they've certainly paid the proper attention to this Kourouma title.
The Americans, on the other hand .....
How could the same book -- one of the best and most important to come out of Africa over the past decade -- attract so little attention in the US, especially when compared to its reception in the UK ?
Is it because the American edition was published by a university press -- and book review editors can't be bothered to bother with what surely must be marginal fiction if it's only published by a university press ?
(It was published by the University Press of Virginia, while the British edition was published by Heinemann.)
Is Wynne's translation so much superior ?
(We haven't had a chance to look at it, but Coates' version is certainly, at the very least, adequate -- still making for an impressive read.)
Is it because recent Ivory Coast events have put the place back on the map in the past few months, making (British) readers more receptive to a book from there ?
We're baffled and frustrated.
It's understandable that a few book review section editors pass on any given title, but how absolutely every one of them in the US managed to do so with this one is beyond comprehension (especially since their British counterparts had no such problem -- indeed, the book was picked up by an impressive list of major publications).
Is it really the university press label stigma that pulls books like this one down ?
(Maybe: another complete review favourite, Irmtraud Morgner's The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura (one of the best and most important post-war German novels) was finally translated a couple of years back, and published by the University of Nebraska Press -- to absolutely no critical reaction whatsoever.)
This marginalization of foreign literature is damn scary.
We can understand that most of it is be ignored, but, for example, the Kourouma and the Morgner titles are clearly great books (not a label we throw around too lightly) and actual literature.
They enjoyed great success when published in the languages they were written in, and they're likely to endure: both seem, fairly clearly to us, books that will become classics, remembered, read, and discussed a hundred years from now (though apparently not in America).
If books like these don't get review-attention (except on dinky, amateur sites like this one) think what else you're not being told about .....
At least the British latched onto the Kourouma -- good for them !
Now, we suppose, we should be hoping that the Morgner gets translated again and published by a mainstream British publisher .....
The 2003 National Magazine Awards were recently handed out (by the American Society of Magazine Editors).
The winner in the "Reviews and Criticism"-category ?
Graydon Carter, to be specific (the editor gets the award -- don't ask us what he has to do with any of this), for three articles by James Wolcott.
We know nothing about magazine publishing etc. but we do occasionally read reviews and criticism.
Lots of book reviews, in fact.
And one of the last places we would look for a book (or movie or music or theatre) review is ... Vanity Fair.
In fact, picking up the most recent issue of Vanity Fair we have at hand -- May 2003 (i.e. about two months out of date) -- the only reviews we find are three mini-reviews of movies (all three reviews-in-brief on a single page) and two paragraphs by Henry Alford on Graham Swift's new novel.
You can find more criticism in People.
Okay, the award was given for three real essay-pieces by Wolcott -- and maybe it was really good stuff -- but we'd prefer it if magazines with a real commitment to criticism (i.e. which at the very least regularly publish some) were recognised (not that there are many to choose from).
We've greatly enjoyed Neal Stephenson's novels (we have four of them under review, including the very impressive Cryptonomicon), and have been waiting eagerly for the next one to appear.
It will still be a while (fall 2003) until Quicksilver comes out, but the first information about it -- and the whole Baroque Cycle -- is now available at The Baroque Cycle-site.
You can also pre-order Quicksilver at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (as many people already have -- the sales rank of the book is impressively high).
In these times of grand nation-building ambitions it's useful to look at the American Constitution -- and America's successes and failures with it -- again.
Robert Dahl's book, How Democratic Is the American Constitution ? does -- and we now have it under review.
A few months back we (or at least one of us) acknowledged much enthusiasm for the works of much-maligned author Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
What better opportunity now to see what you've missed than joining in the fun at Bulwer's Bicentennial Birthday Celebration.
From 20-23 May you can enjoy a full programme -- and there will aslo be four performances of a Bulwer-Lytton play, The Lady of Lyons.
(The truly ambitious can read the text beforehand (at Project Gutenberg).)
We (well, one of us) regret we can't be in attendance -- but we look forward to hearing about it.
One of English-writing Indian author Githa Hariharan's books has been published out West, but she's far better known at home.
She won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book over a decade ago, for The Thousand Faces of Night, but she's sure to make a bigger splash with her recently published (in India) In Times of Siege -- which we now have under review.
Pantheon is scheduled to publish it the US in August, and its political correctness (especially in academia) and religious (in)tolerance themes should strike at least a bit of a chord.
We now also offer a review of another Hariharan title -- the 1994 novel, The Ghosts of Vasu Master (which seemed to us the more appealing novel).
There's a lot stuffed into this book, but it never feels too heavy.
In both books Hariharan's central character is an elderly man (one an academic, one a just retired teacher) -- and it is noteworthy how well she handles these two: they're very impressive portraits, especially in the way the portraits are filled out over the course of the novels.
The characters aren't presented as finished figures from the get-go, and in describing their transformations Hariharan also effectively presents their pasts (the men they used to be changing into the men they become).
We only have books by apparently not so beloved half-sister A.S.Byatt under review, but Margaret Drabble is, of course, also a noted writer (see, for example, this profile by Nicci Gerrard in The Guardian (24 September 2000)).
In today's Daily Telegraph Drabble offers an opinion piece: I loathe America, and what it has done to the rest of the world.
It'll be interesting to see what -- if any -- American reactions (in the press and elsewhere) will be: will this be classified in the offensive author statements category (following in the footsteps of Le Carré, Pinter, Paulin, et al.) or will it just be ignored (as idle woman-talk, of no significance -- if, indeed, any note is taken of it at all).
We're guessing: the latter.
Yet another review of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis is now available -- by inveterate DeLillo fan Adam Begley, whose review can be found in today's issue of The Times.
The beginning of the review is devoted to the critical reaction DeLillo's new book has received -- apparently pretty much the first negative reviews of any DeLillo book Begley has come across.
As Begley sees it:
Some of the negative press is obviously a reaction against years of fawning.
And there’s another complicating factor: though Cosmopolis is not one of DeLillo’s better novels, any capsule summary makes it sound truly dreadful.
We haven't read the book yet, so we hesitate to suggest who is right and who is wrong here, but possibly some of the critical reaction might also have to do with the fact that maybe the book is a piece of crap, no ?
Anyway, at least one has to hand it to Begley: he's admirably willing to entertain very opposite views: as books editor of The New York Observer he was at least in part responsible for one of the most devastating DeLillo critiques, Laura Miller's 31 March rip (the very title of which -- "All Day in a Rich Guy’s Limo Makes for a Very Silly Novel" -- pretty much sums things up .....)
(But Begley still does his damnedest to support Delillo: he allows someone else to review it in the not exactly high profile (or circulation) The New York Observer while placing his own review in The Times; recall that his last (again very positive) DeLillo review also appeared elsewhere -- in The New York Times Book Review (only then to be reprinted -- twice ! -- in The New York Observer as an "advertisement" (see our previous mention)).)
The Channel 4 TV adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth is coming to American public television: it will be broadcast 11 and 18 May (check your local listings !).
John Leonard gives this "superb Masterpiece Theatre miniseries" a rave review in this week's issue of New York, and maintains:
This rambunctious television version of White Teeth will win her a second wave of readers and affection, on which it should be possible to surf back from petulance to literature.
The series was already shown in the UK last fall -- and didn't do too well, with viewer-totals declining from instalment to instalment.
A 2 October article in The Guardian by Julia Day reports: "Channel 4's much-hyped dramatisation of Zadie Smith's novel is getting less popular with each episode" and notes: "To add insult to injury, White Teeth was beaten by BBC2's 25-year-old repeat of Ronnie Barker's comedy classic, Porridge".
More on one of our favourite (and, in a way, least favourite) subjects: American opposition to literature in translation.
K.A. Dilday writes about what is Lost in translation: the narrowing of the American mind at openDemocracy (link found, eventually, via BookFilter).
All the usual statistics and a decent discussion -- though we take some issue with "Americans’ anorexic appetite for translated literature".
We don't blame the audience, but rather the (non-)providers -- publishers who don't publish the stuff (and don't adequately publicize and market what little they do).
(Actually, much of the discussion here also centres, appropriately, around the fact that: "the structural obstacles to publishing translated literature are manifold" (a polite way of saying publishers are dumb s.o.b.s who wouldn't know a good (or important) book if it were shoved up (or down) any of their orifices).)
In the 4 May issue of The Observer Stephanie Merritt writes about looking Beyond these shores (the British shores, that is).
Apparently: the "Foreign and Commonwealth Office is launching an initiative to persuade the public to take a greater interest in European culture, particularly literature."
(Note: We looked at the FCO site but couldn't find any mention of it.)
You know where we stand on the issue, but it's always fun to remind readers of the horrible statistics:
Around 3 per cent of the 100,000 or so books published in the UK each year are translated from other languages, compared to 20 per cent in Germany and up to 40 per cent in some Scandinavian countries.
(Yes, yes, English is the world's dominant language, etc. etc., but the discrepancy is still an enormous (and unacceptable) one -- as any list of the many significant but still untranslated European (and other) works easily proves.)
Maybe it will do some good.
We certainly hope so.
We've added two more reviews to the complete review:
First there's our review of Hermann Broch writing on The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age in Geist and Zeitgeist.
Counterpoint went with the daring title (with two of the three title-words in German) -- and that seems to have scared everybody off.
This book has been out for a few months already, and other than a Publishers Weeklymention no one seems to have picked this book up.
Come on, people !
Broch is one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century (he's certainly one of our idols).
When one of his masterpieces (yes, he wrote more than one), The Death of Virgil (see our review) came out, it got a full-page review on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.
Now he apparently can't get the time of day.
Shame on you, all you book review section editors !
The other review we've added also hasn't gotten much review attention, but we figure it will -- Suzuki Koji's Ring has been made into two successful films, and apparently sold some three or four million copies in the Japanese original.
We've also added links to two relatively new literary weblogs that we think might be worth your while:
- BookFilter claims: "We discuss books, magazines, authors, publishers and ponies."
We could do without the pony-talk, but the literary focus seems genuine.
- link-packed Kitabkhana promises: "Books, reviews and literary news -- Indian and otherwise -- as blogged by The Babu".
So far, so good -- very good, in fact.
Not all literary weblogs can keep up the early promise they show (recall what a dud the once so promising-looking Unibrow weblog has turned out to be ("Updated Weekly" - ha !)), but we hope these aren't similar flash-in-the-pan efforts.
The Hermann Broch review was -- amazingly (to us, at least) -- review number 1000 at the complete review.
We've been doing this for just over four years -- forty-nine months now -- and the reviews do add up, over the years.
On the one hand we're tempted to just hang it all up -- 1000 books (actually already 1001) seems a good point to call it quits -- but when we look at the piles of books stacked around us we in fact feel like we haven't even gotten started yet.
(Us stop ?
Despite destitution, eye-strain, and continuing frustration at the state of contemporary publishing: it ain't gonna happen.
Not now, not soon.)
Other odds and ends from and about the site:
Users may have noticed that we started adding links to Amazon.ca (the Canadian branch) about two months ago.
We haven't linked up all the books we have under review yet -- and it hasn't proven to be a very popular addition yet (as many people visit Amazon.com via our site on an average day as visited Amazon.ca via our links all of April), but after two months one person has actually made a purchase from Amazon.ca via our links.
We mention it because the book bought comes as no surprise -- it's the perennial bestseller (at both the American and British Amazons), Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy -- which, we sometimes think, is the only book we ever persuade people to buy.
Burton's book remains one of the top-selling titles visitors to our site purchase, but last month there was something of a surprise, as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (which just came out in the US) was the most-purchased title at Amazon.com by our users.
The book (which gets it's first mainstream press review in this week's issue of The Village Voice) looks like it might do quite well.
Remember our concerns about how many more male than female authors we review ?
(See How Sexist are We ? if you don't.)
Things have improved only slightly: the past 100 reviews (numbers 901 to 1000) covered only 18 titles by women, which still seems way too low to us (but is still almost 50 per cent better than what we'd been averaging until then -- see the updated breakdown).
One area we're pleased about: reviewing more than one book by an author.
Of the last 100 titles reviewed (numbers 901-1000), 71 were books by authors we also had other titles by under review (got that ?).
We think this is a particularly useful feature, allowing readers to learn about additional titles by an author if they happen to read or like one of his or her books.
There's been considerable discussion about Barnes & Noble's aggressive push into publishing with their Barnes & Noble Classics line (see for example this 14 April Publishers Weeklyarticle) .
(B&N has been publishing for quite a while, but this seems a more serious push to take over a segment of the market.)
They promise they'll "feature the greatest books ever written" (though for now they're sticking to those out of copyright -- i.e. the old classics).
They also suggest of these books that: "They will rekindle interest for the rest of us who wish to read these great works again".
(Question: why do those of us "wish to read these great works again" need our interest rekindled ?
We apparently already wish to read them .....)
Yesterday's issue of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has an interesting Bob Hoover article on all of this, Recycling isn't the same as publishing.
("In B&N's long-range view, it would like nothing better than to print the books it sells. Just eliminate those middlemen, the publishing houses, and control the process from beginning to end.")
Interesting also his observation:
I find it perplexing that as we become more focused on the present (to say, "You're history," is a putdown), the traditional and ancient works of literature are getting so much attention.
Is anybody really reading William Thackeray or Henry James ?
We're not that concerned about B&N's classics line (though maybe we should be) -- especially if competition helps drive down the outrageous price of at least some books -- though vertical integration of an industry like this does raise our antitrust hackles.
But what currently bothers us more is another new B&N institution -- the Barnes & Noble University.
Note that only at the very bottom of the page -- admittedly: the bottom line -- in tiny print is there the admission: "Barnes & Noble University® is not an accredited program or institution.".
Still: scary stuff.
It will likely remain unclear for quite some time to come exactly how much was looted and destroyed from the Baghdad and other Iraqi museums, and what books went up in flames at various archives and libraries..
The 1 May issue of The New York Times had a front-page article suggesting losses were far smaller than originally reported, but it's a muddle of confused facts and guesswork -- obfuscation meant to distract from the fact that none (none !) of this should have happened in the first place.
" 'Twenty-five pieces is not the same as 170,000,' said Colonel Bogdanos" in one misleading quote -- true enough, but there's no doubt that twenty-five pieces also isn't the accurate figure of what was taken (much less what was destroyed).
One hopes some of what is written here is true: there's a suggestion that 90 percent of the books at the National Library "had been removed for safekeeping" (which sounds pretty unlikely to us -- emptying a library that size is a hell of a lot of work and doesn't sound like it would have the highest priority -- and also: if true: where are all the tons of books ?), while "50,000 Islamic and Arabic manuscripts (...) were saved from the Saddam House of Manuscripts" (hurrah !).
That these remain very muddy waters is also clear from the different reports -- compare The New York Times article with Simon Jenkins' piece in the 2 May issue of The Times, A shameful theft of the crown jewels of memory.
Particularly disturbing -- especially given the confusion over what has been lost: "I am now told that Washington is preventing the Iraqi antiquities staff, the most experienced in the Middle East, from conducting their own audit of what they have lost."
(No wonder that the number of things lost suddenly appears to be so small -- Don Rumsfeld, after all, thinks there was just a single vase involved .....)
The library losses haven't been getting adequate attention in all of this, but Matthew Battles' Boston Globe article on Biblioclasm (4 May) is certainly a welcome discussion of these horrible events.
Yesterday's issues of both the Evening Standard and the Financial Times report that Alexander Vassiliev, author of The Haunted Wood, is suing Amazon.com -- in the UK -- over a customer review of his book that John Lowenthal posted at Amazon.com (see all his reviews).
The review -- which could still be found at the Amazon.com page for the book when we checked yesterday -- was posted way back on 3 June 2002.
For what it's worth: only 4 of 14 people found it a helpful review (we wonder if Vassiliev voted against it .....).
As to the author's claims ... well the idea that this review is libelous seem quite a stretch, but given the UK's nutty, over-protective libel laws he just might have a case.
The real point of interest is, of course, not whether this particular review is libelous, but rather whether Amazon.com can be held liable for what a customer posted there -- i.e. the case raises questions as to "the extent to which the online retailer was involved in the publishing process and responsible for it" (so Nikki Tait in the Financial Times).
Amazon.com's conditions of use state:
If you do post content or submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant Amazon.com and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media.
They certainly seem to be willing to take on the rights associated with whatever is posted on the site -- though elsewhere they try to push responsibility back on the posters themselves.
Tom Stoppard was hired by Paramount Pictures in the early 1970s to write a Galileo-screenplay.
In Stoppard's Theatre (see our review) John Fleming describes the resulting work (and it's history -- including the fact that Michael Eisner apparently considered reviving the project in 1993 as a Disney movie) but it's never been published (and thus readily accessible) -- until now, that is.
The screenplay can now be found in the current issue of Areté !
We're very eager to read and review it, and hope to receive a copy from the Areté-folk enabling us to do so.
Meanwhile, we of course recommend you get your own.
We tend to avoid Irish memoirs, but the most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People -- whose sub-title, Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood, at least promises a half that's not.
(It's been out in the UK for a few months now, and just hit US bookshelves.)
The half-Irish aspect (emphatically imposed on him) -- and the half that's not -- make for an interesting story, at least.
But Hamilton doesn't seem to have emerged from the experience whole, and the endeavour (of looking back) wasn't (in our minds) a complete success.
But it's been getting, for the most part, rave reviews.
The Daily Telegraph actually reported this ages ago, and a couple of weeks back The Scotsman asked Can Harry Potter bring Latin back to life ? (11 April): apparently Bloomsbury is publishing a Latin translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone -- just one of many (including Welsh and ancient Greek) they already offer or have planned.
Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, in a translation by Peter Needham, is now scheduled to appear in July -- at the same time as the next (English) volume in the series.
It's a clever marketing gag, of course: it won't revive a language as dead as Latin, but the book is going to be flying off the shelves.
(A clever Bloomsbury employee no doubt recalled that Winnie ille Pooh was the seventh bestselling fiction title in the US back in 1961 (that's right, for the entire year) -- and is still in print.)
In Poets & Writers Steve Almond writes On Reviews (link first seen at MobyLives).
Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal got some 50 (!) reviews, and some of them -- notably one in The New York Times Book Review -- weren't kind (or necessarily just), leading him to discuss how he took the reviews (and to muse about reviews in general).
He makes the usual observations about the shortcomings of book reviews nowadays, including
Most of the rest were simply too short to do anything more than provide a pithy opening, a little plot summary, a quote or two, and an incisive final graph.
He does write from an author's point of view -- which isn't necessarily the same as a non-writing reader's.
The book-buying public might have quite different expectations and needs (though most of those probably also aren't met by your average book review -- ours included).
He also writes
(H)ow does one explain the critics who choose to savage books by obscure writers, books (in other words) that nobody is going to buy anyway ?
Why knock down a writer who has yet to rise into the public eye ?
Why not, instead, find a book that the critic can champion ?
As an author he perhaps naturally focusses on the author, but we have to disagree with him on this point: all that counts is the work, regardless of whether the author is "obscure" or a household name.
As to finding books that critics can champion ... well, speaking from our experience, that's a tall order.
In looking for such books we have to wade through a great deal of less worthy stuff -- and it seems worthwhile warning our readers of the works we've wasted our time on along the way.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Paul Theroux's account of going Overland from Cairo to Cape Town in Dark Star Safari.
It's apparently a book that can be read many different ways: consider, for example, two reviewer's views:
"Actually, Theroux himself seems mostly miserable." - Rand Richards Cooper, The New York Times Book Review
"Here, though, in his latest journey, he actually enjoys himself" - Sara Wheeler, The Spectator
(Suggesting, of course, once again why one should not rely on just one reviewer's opinion .....)
Some of the articles at British newspaper sites The Independent and the Evening Standard now come with little icons next to them -- a P at The Independent (meaning it's only available to "Independent Portfolio subscribers") and IG at the Evening Standard's entertainment section (available to paying Insiders Guide subscribers).
Fortunately the book reviews at both sites have so far remained exempt, and continue to be freely accessible to all users.
That's all we care about -- and we desperately hope it stays that way !
Wonder why kids -- and students -- don't read nowadays ?
If the situation, as described by Laurel Gordon (Columbia Daily Spectator, 30 April), at a fairly well-known university literary department like Columbia's is in any way typical for academia it's not that much of a surprise.
Columbia's Department of English and Comparative Literature has apparently finally gotten around to hiring some more faculty.
Apparently it's "a department that for several years has had only 35 tenured professors to fill 46 available positions", and:
(T)here was a time when the department could not hire new faculty at all, since no one could agree on which of the teaching philosophies present within the department were appropriate for Columbia.
It's always great to see infighting and petty politics (or philosophy) take precedence over actual teaching (and reading !).
Meanwhile, the department home page advertises a new course on The World of Duke Ellington; we're not sure how that slipped in.
We're all for expansive readings of the idea of literature, but this seems quite a stretch (especially at the undergraduate level, when most students are apparently still sorely lacking adequate exposure to the literary basics).