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The Literary Saloon Archive

21 - 30 June

21 June: Patrick White | Staging Murakami
23 June: Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges | Sontag prize fuss
24 June: Harry Potter V - now the reviews | Afterword - the novel | Summer reading lists | Anis' Karbala marsiya
25 June: Harry Potter sales | Schroeder speech | A literary agent gets his due
26 June: Thirlwell debut | Dedicated books
27 June: Houellebecq's Lanzarote | Worst books | More Harry Potter reviews
29 June: Ramayana fever | What Liberal Media ? review
30 June: Dai Sijie review

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30 June 2003 - Monday

Dai Sijie review

       Dai Sijie review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Dai Sijie's international bestseller Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

29 June 2003 - Sunday

Ramayana fever | What Liberal Media ? review

       Ramayana fever

       Is it the new in-epic ? It almost looks that way.
       FSG has just brought out a new ... version by Ramesh Menon -- The Ramayana: A Modern Rendering of the Great Indian Epic. We say 'version' (and they say 'rendering') because Menon apparently based ... whatever he did on the previous English versions. Don't even ask us to try to understand what the purpose of that might be. (No, the Ramayana was not originally written in English.) But it looks like a nice, big book -- see the FSG publicity page or buy a copy at

       More interesting -- and odder still -- is a more ambitious Ramayana project: Ashok Banker -- recently best known as author of some 'Pocket Essentials' guides (see, for example the publicity page for his Bollywood-guide) -- has added a middle initial to his name ("K.") and embarked on what is apparently meant to be a seven volume, 3500-plus page rendition of the work. Mrinal Bose reviews the first volume (Prince of Ayodhya) in January -- the first we've read about it. (For additional information, read an interview with Banker at Suite101, see the Orbit Books publicity page -- or buy the book at or
       We do have to hand it to Banker: he is an intrepid and busy fellow. Beside some Pocket Essentials he's also written (or is writing) "The First Indian Net Novel", Bad Karma . And -- grudgingly -- our impossibly widely (if not well-) read managing editor has to admit to actually having read an earlier Banker-work, Ten Dead Admen. (From there to the Ramayana seems quite the leap -- and yet our pre-view sympathies do lie closer to Banker's mysterious but possibly closer-to-the-real-thing-version than Menon's English rehashed mishmash.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       What Liberal Media ? review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Eric Alterman's look at The Truth About Bias and the News What Liberal Media ?
       It's a fine book, but difficult to review -- the devil is in the details. Unsympathetic readers (as some of the reviewers were) can easily twist Alterman's examples against him. Ditto sympathetic readers (who, however, twist differently, of course). And it seems unlikely anyone who believes the media leans liberally will be convinced otherwise by Alterman's book (acknowledging, perhaps, the truth to some of his contentions, but readily finding enough buts to convince themselves that the big picture can be interpreted otherwise).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

27 June 2003 - Friday

Houellebecq's Lanzarote | Worst books | More Harry Potter reviews

       Houellebecq's Lanzarote

       We've been waiting for Michel Houellebecq's Platform to appear in the US for ages now; Knopf is finally publishing it in a couple of weeks (and we hope they're so kind as to send us a copy so that we can quickly add our review) -- but UK readers can already read his next, Lanzarote (get your copy at
       This week's issue of The Spectator has the first review we've seen, by Rod Liddle -- who finds:
There is no other writer like him, at the moment, for wit, acuity or the transparent beauty of his prose. His themes are always big and bravely expounded.
       But it'll probably be a while before we get around to covering it (much to our chagrin).

       (Updated - 29 June): See also Andrew Riemer's review in the 28 June issue of the Sydney Morning Herald.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Worst books

       A couple of weeks back we mentioned a piece in The Independent, Read it and weep, where "50 leading lights on the literary, political, opinion-forming and media scene identify their worst reading experiences".
       They asked for reader opinions too, and John Walsh reports: "The result: an avalanche of withering literary criticism." See the books people hate, in Pulp fiction in today's issue of The Independent.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More Harry Potter reviews

       Just a few more Harry Potter reviews we've inevitably stumbled across, these perhaps not quite so rushed as the first batch we complained about:        And, most enjoyably, Philip Hensher's review in this week's issue of The Spectator. Choice quotes include:
  • "There is a pervasive banality which is much more embarrassing in this book than previously."
  • "I greatly admire what Miss Rowling has done in writing books which please and satisfy simple readers; she has performed a signal service to literature."
       And, knowing what he's getting himself into, the closing comment:
  • "Hate mail to the usual address, please."
       Meanwhile, in a move that makes Oprah's book-club choice look positively inspired, Deirdre Donahue reports that the "USA Today book club" (whatever the hell that is) has chosen ... the new Harry Potter books as the current selection.
       (Maybe we are missing something. We are now seriously considering removing all these space-wasting reviews we have on this site (over a thousand, for god's sake, who has the time to even bother with that many ?) and replacing them with Harry Potter coverage.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

26 June 2003 - Thursday

Thirlwell debut | Dedicated books

       Thirlwell debut

       Among the big unknowns of the much-discussed Granta Best of Young British Novelists 2003 list is the previously unpublished Adam Thirlwell. His debut, Politics, is due out around September in the UK (and a month later in the US) -- but we already have a review on offer (apparently the first).
       It's by no means a bad book -- but enough to anoint him as one of the best young novelists ? It doesn't seem nearly enough to judge his qualities by: what he does he does quite well -- but he doesn't do all that much.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Dedicated books

       I recently purchased a galley of Adam Thirlwell's Politics (which is why we now have it under review). It attracted my attention, and I then bought it, for a number of reasons: it's an arresting galley, for one, and it looked interesting enough when I leafed through it. And, yes, when I read that Thirlwell was a Granta-BoYBN I recalled there had been some fuss about his selection -- some sex scene, no previous publication -- and that piqued my interest too. And the price was right (one dollar US).
       I purchased it for these reasons, and one more: Thirlwell signed it. "To Carla, With best wishes, Adam".
       I'm not big on signed books -- it's the text that counts, not some scribblings in it, even from the author -- but when I find an autographed copy in a used bookstore I find it hard to pass up. The author went through that added effort, there was that personal connexion, a give and take of the book. It doesn't seem right that it should be for sale, deeply discounted, in some dusty used bookstore. And the book should mean a little more, at least to the dedicatee.
       Carla obviously thought otherwise. Which I find quite remarkable. Here's a book that will be much discussed, a signed galley of the debut by an author who will get a great deal of attention and may eventually fulfil all that promise.
       I'm fairly certain I could turn around and sell the book for considerably more than I paid for it right now. If Thirlwell's career takes off it may, one day, actually be quite valuable.
       I only paid $ 1.00 for it -- so Carla must have practically given it away. As someone who finds it hard to part with any book I'm always surprised how readily others can do it. There are plausible reasons for it -- no space, no interest -- but still, ridding oneself of a book that the author went to the trouble of personalizing for little more than change ?

       I have a collection of such signed books, bought cheaply, second-hand. It's a depressing collection, testament to reader-indifference and worse. But I like to think that I give the books a good home, and some of the affection and respect they deserve.
       I mention the Thirlwell book, and my collection, because when I bought Politics I bought another book too. I spent $ 5.00 for this one: Marie Darrieussecq's Le Bébé, the 2002 P.O.L. first edition. On the title page, in a neat European hand, is written: "Pour André Schiffrin Amitiés Marie Dq".
       André Schiffrin runs the estimable (and nominally non-profit) publishing house, The New Press. The New Press is the American publisher of three novels by ... Marie Darrieussecq. (We have them all under review: My Phantom Husband, Pig Tales, and Undercurrents (also published in the UK, as Breathing under Water) -- not that we've been terribly impressed by her work.)
       Darrieussecq's 2001 novel, Bref séjour chez les vivants has actually now come out in English -- as A Brief Stay with the Living, translated by Ian Monk (which alone makes it a very tempting volume). But it's only come out in the UK (published by Faber -- see their publicity page, and reviews in the Telegraph and The Independent). There does not appear to be any planned US publication.
       Indeed, it would appear that Darrieussecq's American publisher is not that keen on offering her newer works to the American public -- as suggested by Schiffrin not even bothering to keep a signed copy of Le Bébé.
       I paid $ 5.00 for the book, so Schiffrin (or someone at his office) clearly essentially just gave (or threw) it away. Interestingly, the book clearly has been read -- which is something, at least (and arguably the main thing). But I would have thought that publishers might like to hold onto this sort of thing. In the spirit of "Amitié", if nothing else .....

       (Schiffrin has a most impressive publishing record -- and recently offered some interesting insights into The Business of Books (see our review) -- so, no doubt he knows better and has his reasons for disposing of this particular book in this particular manner. Still: usually buying books is an exhilarating experience for me, but these two recent purchases have been dispiriting.)

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

25 June 2003 - Wednesday

Harry Potter sales | Schroeder speech | A literary agent gets his due

       Harry Potter sales

       In the 23 June PW Newsline Steven Zeitchik makes an interesting observation re. the recent Harry Potter books: sales have become increasingly top-heavy (as each new book becomes a big event). Particularly interesting:
it seems worth remembering that sales for the opening six months of Harry 4 more than doubled that of Harry 3 -- but that in the respective two-year periods that followed, Harry 4 sales were actually 30% lower than Harry 3.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Schroeder speech

       We apparently missed the Aspen Summer Words - Writing retreat & Literary festival (which just doesn't sound like an ideal combination to us in any case) -- the literary festival, at least, seems to have run its course by now.
       Perhaps amusing would have been former Congresswoman and current president and CEO (don't ask us why they need two titles for what is clearly one job (especially since it is held by one person)) of the Association of American Publishers Pat Schroeder's speech, apparently titled "Are We a Literate Nation ? (And Does it Matter)". Steve Benson previewed it in the 23 June Aspen Times, in an article the title of which suggests what Schroeder had in mind: Schroeder to speak on Americans' lazy brains.
       Hey, we'll almost never disagree we with anyone who says: read more (though, of course, as president & CEO of the AAP Schroeder's primary interest is the publishers' primary interest: to foster a climate in which consumers will be led to purchase more books -- which is something very different from actually convincing people to read more).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       A literary agent gets his due

       As visitors to this site know, there are few professions we hold in as low regard as literary agency. These middlemen (and women) -- and publishers' slavish and undiscriminating reliance on them -- seem to us to exemplify much that is wrong (especially on the quality side) of publishing.
       Now it seems that the Harry Potter phenomenon might have helped, in a tiny way, to put these agents in their proper place: Mark Sanderson reports in his Literary Life column in the Daily Telegraph that while J.K.Rowling will be raking in the big bucks (and pounds and euros, etc.):
However, according to unconfirmed reports, rather less than might be expected will be going to her agent Christopher Little. Under the terms of a new contract Ms Rowling's literary agency will receive a four per cent commission on all subsequent sales of the Harry Potter books instead of the usual 15 per cent on home sales and 20 per cent on foreign and movie deals.
       (Please note: these are apparently still unconfirmed reports.)
       Sanderson thinks: "It seems rather odd that an agent should be penalised for a client's conspicuous success", but since the agent, at this point, has practically nothing to do with that success -- and four percent still represents a ton of money -- we think it's more than fair. And, of course, we hope it leads other successful authors to cut their middlemen (and women) out of the publishing-equation (or at least cut their pieces of the pie to a more reasonable size).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

24 June 2003 - Tuesday

Harry Potter V - now the reviews | Afterword - the novel
Summer reading lists | Anis' Karbala marsiya

       Harry Potter V - now the reviews

       So apparently the new Harry Potter (volume five in the series) came out -- to great fanfare and greater sales -- Friday night. Five million copies sold the first day in the US alone, The New York Times reported yesterday -- double the sales for last year's bestselling hardcover novel (some Grisham crap) for the entire year. We are impressed (and glad to see a work of fiction do overwhelmingly better than the latest non-fiction mega-seller, Hillary Clinton's unaccountable memoir, which managed an amazing -- yet, in comparison, mere -- 600,000 in sales in its first week (see our previous mention)).
       Though we do our fair share of pre- and early reviewing, we've completely missed the boat on the Rowling saga -- recall how much we got caught up in the excitement the last time 'round (see our piece, Harry who ?). So: sorry, no review yet -- and none in the foreseeable future. Hell, we haven't even gotten around to volume 1 yet.
       Fortunately (?) others have been more eager to go where we haven't. Links can be found below -- but first: some more complaining. We're not thrilled by the book-as-events phenomenon, and particularly disturbed by how it played out around this book (with lawsuits filed -- and injunctions issued -- against premature reviewers and readers), as if whatever surprises that could be spoiled before midnight Friday won't be just as spoiled after. (We also seem to recall that the first volume in this series did just fine with minimal publicity, no embargo, etc. etc.) Still, the publishers are, of course, free to launch the title any way they like (and the initial sales-success -- which is surely pretty much all they care about-- certainly suggests that they're doing something right). What we have less understanding for is the rush of reviews that has followed so quickly.
       Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a hefty book -- all the editions are over 700 pages -- and even if the writing isn't extremely complicated, it surely takes a while to get through. Still, there's been an incredible rush to pass judgement: headlines such as: critic stays up all night to review book ! could be found at numerous sites and newspapers. Perhaps the book doesn't need to be read and re-read slowly and carefully in order to review it -- but we'd still have preferred critics to take a few more moments to digest it.
       Curious, also, the need to brag (or admit ?) that a review was a rushed job (though it of course doubles as an endorsement of the book -- as in Stephanie Merritt's review-headline 'I stayed up all night. It's a beast of a book, a real page-turner').
       Some reviewers acknowledge the problem: Mark Lawson (an overnight reviewer) admits as much -- while still playing along and passing the blame:
Writers and publishers may say that no book should be reviewed like this. Well, yes. But no book should be published like this.
       The most bizarre are the would-be reviewers who couldn't quite manage the monumental task (and still get published), such as school-child Harley Hamer ("12, Year Seven"), enlisted by The Age, whose review begins:
Phew ! What a read this book is ! After reading 300 pages of the 766-page book, I'm pushing myself to type this review because I want to go back to the gripping story.
       Yeah, publishing that is a real consumer-service !

       It's amazing what's been published in the first 48 hours after (official) publication. The Kakutani got her review in Saturday morning already (sorry, as you know, we don't link to the registration-requiring The New York Times-site), and among the other reviews are those in:        So how many of these reviews fulfil the function a book review normally might ? Are there readers who really waited to hear what the Kakutani (or Merritt or Tonkin or whoever) had to say before making up their minds as to whether or not to purchase this book ? Or is the sole purpose of the rushed reviews in this case to provide affirmation that the purchase one made was important enough to stay up until midnight on Friday for (or pre-purchase at Amazon, or get up early on Saturday for) ? (After all, if it's important enough for newspapers to keep their star-reviewers up all night then it must be an event of such significance that we poor consumers can't afford to miss out on it.)
       We do think the book -- and readers -- would have been better served by reviews that were prepared more carefully and under less duress. But presumably book reviewers are as desperate for attention as everybody else and they know that the early bird gets worms (after all, even we go to the trouble of linking to this relatively worthless information -- see the list above --, simply because it's there).

       Oh, and just in case this weblog-entry is what you needed to convince to get a copy of HP5, you can order your copy from (in the US) or (in the UK). (Somewhat to our surprise, there are people who have purchased the book via our Amazon-links -- much appreciated !)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Afterword - the novel

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Mike Bryan's The Afterword -- a novel-as-afterword -- to a fictional novel !
       The book was published in diminutive size -- and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, with covers in any of three different colours. A marketing experiment -- which colour cover sells best ? Did the printers run out of ink in two of the colours ? A gimmick ? (But, if a gimmick -- to what possible end ? Except that people -- reviewers, and now even us -- do comment on it.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Summer reading lists

       'Tis one of the seasons when publications offer recommendations and suggestions for potential summer reads, often asking critics or others what they're packing for the beach, etc. Usually the fare is on the lighter side -- though looking through most book-review sections it seems like almost all seasons nowadays are pure fluff 'n' puff. Still, a few of these lists are more ambitious.
       The most creative twist (and among the more peculiar) among the who's-reading-what lists we've come across is in today's Christian Science Monitor, where Mark Clayton's survey, All the presidents' books, looks at the "eclectic reading lists" for summer-reading made by college presidents.
       For some critical (if not much more inspired) choices, check out NPR's Summer Reading List 2003 -- with critics David Kipen, Laura Miller, and Gail Caldwell having their say.
       For ... oh, who knows, but at least they made the effort; check out USA Today's Sizzling Reads: Summer's Hot Books.

       That this summer-reading-list-business is a complicated thing is proven by the US Department of Education. Under this unliterary administration one shouldn't expect any more - but it's still a fun story: it seems the government has a No Child Left Behind Summer Reading Achievers Pilot Program. It seems they posted some book lists of recommended reading for the programme (previously available here and here). It seems they got pretty much everything one could get wrong wrong -- indeed, it looks like George jr. Bush himself had a hand in making these list, what with the wrong names and misspellings, etc. It was such an embarrassment that they removed the lists (that's why the links above don't lead to them) -- for the full story see, for example, this A.P. report (at CNN). Fortunately, Susan Ohanian kept track of what went wrong -- please check out her pages and comments here and here; this stuff makes for both a good laugh and cry.
       (It's stunning incompetency like this that makes the jr. Bush administration's argument for less government and bureaucracy just a bit stronger. This is the Department of Education, for god's sake ! But under the leadership of the jr. Bush (who sets the bar so very high -- at least an inch off the ground, no ?) what can one expect ?)
       Needless to say, new (corrected) versions of the lists have not been posted on the site again (yeah, that's a tough job, fixing those mistakes -- maybe they can get it done by September). But at least visitors can usefully download the official logo for this programme (in pdf, bmp, or gif) -- or the Poster, Flyer, or Brochure. Glad to see they have their priorities right -- screw the books, at least kids can get fun images. Hey, it's the jr. Bush presidency: appearance is everything, substance is ... well, there is no substance, of course.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Anis' Karbala marsiya

       Karbala (or Kerbala, if you prefer) is occasionally in the news nowadays, so this might be of interest (though not, of course, to the jr. Bush and his cultureless cronies) : M.Q.Khan reviews David Matthews translation of Anis' The Battle of Karbala in today's The Hindu, in Elegy on Karbala events.
       Only published by Indian house Rupa & Co. the full text of the translation of Anis' work is also available here. And for additional background information, read Intizar Husain on Anis and the 'marsiya'.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

23 June 2003 - Monday

Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges | Sontag prize fuss

       Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Alan Ayckbourn's massive play-cycle, Intimate Exchanges.
       This work -- eight-plus plays-within-a play, which Ayckbourn designed to be performed by only two actors -- doesn't sound like it's easily (or frequently) staged. Somewhat surprisingly, someone is poised to tackle it again: the South Coast Repertory apparently plans to stage it 7-28 March 2004. We're very curious to hear about that production.
       Ayckbourn's play(s) have also tempted others: Intimate Exchanges is the play that Alain Resnais based his film, Smoking / No Smoking, on.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Sontag prize fuss

       We recently mentioned that Susan Sontag will be honoured with the prestigious Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels -- the book-trade peace prize handed out at the Frankfurt Book Fair every year. At least one politician is already trying to kick up a fuss about the selection for political gain: as reported in Der Standard (20 June) and elsewhere, a provincial CDU pip-squeak named Reiner Schomburg questions the selection. With his eyes crossed in completely the wrong direction he bleats: "Mit Blick auf das belastete deutsch-amerikanische Verhältnis hätte ich mir gewünscht, dass die Juroren eine weniger kontroverse Preisträgerin gekürt hätten" ("With a view to the troubled German-American relationship, I would have wished that the jurors had selected a less controversial prize-winner.")
       Now he's even demanding answers: at the local CDU website they announce that he's planning to write a letter to the Börsenverein, demanding more information about their dubious selection.
       While it's somehow heartening to see that this type of nonsense doesn't just happen in the US and that politicians everywhere like to meddle in literary matters if -- but always only if -- it can get them some press attention, it's still a depressing sight. The state of the German-American relationship simply can not count among the many things that might or must be taken into consideration in determining whether or not Ms. Sontag is deserving of this prize. But this Schomburg character probably wants the Book Fair people to serve 'freedom fries' too .....
       We're loath to give these buffoons any additional publicity (limited though our reach is), but do so in the hope that voters remember this idiocy and hold this Schomburg character accountable for his foolish priorities, inappropriate meddling, and pathetic grabs for media-attention (by, of course, voting him out of office). (Voters who approve of this idiocy are, of course, encouraged to support Mr. Schomburg in his misguided efforts -- but we hope they think long and hard about what they're doing.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

21 June 2003 - Saturday

Patrick White | Staging Murakami

       Patrick White

       Even down under native son Patrick White apparently isn't getting the respect and attention he deserves. Today's issue of the Sydney Morning Herald offers "an abridged version of a lecture in the Key Thinkers series at the University of Sydney in April" by Ivor Indyk, A paler shade of White.
       Indyk writes disturbing things such as that:
White, who in 1973 won the Nobel Prize for Literature and who, 20 years ago, was extolled as the greatest writer Australia has produced, is now available to Australian readers in editions published only in Britain -- a sure sign that he is not widely read in this country. At least one of his novels, The Solid Mandala -- possibly his greatest -- is out of print. He is rarely cited in debates about literary value or referred to as a precedent by the coming generation of Australian writers.
       We've long complained about how ridiculous it is that White's books are almost all entirely unavailable in the US (the recent NYRB reprint of Riders in the Chariot is a too-rare exception), but it's sad to think that his oeuvre isn't readily accessible in its entirety at least in Australia.
       (Here's an author Oprah could have resurrected -- there are a couple of his works that fit her predictable requirements and still make for incredible reading experiences (White is damn good). And White could have used the boost more than Steinbeck, whose East of Eden was still being bought by tens of thousands of readers annually even before Oprah's uninspired choice.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Staging Murakami

       Simon McBurney decided to stage some Murakami Haruki stories -- and writes about it in today's issue of The Guardian.
       The Elephant Vanishes plays at the Barbican 26 June - 6 July. See also the Complicite production page.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

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