Heidi Julavits reviews Nicholas Mosley's Inventing God in this week's issue of The Village Voice.
She begins her review: "Nobody reads British writer Nicholas Mosley -- author of 23 books of fiction and nonfiction -- and this is utterly mystifying."
We're more mystified why anyone is allowed to make such a statement.
Is there room or need for hyperbole in book reviews ?
We admit getting carried away on occasion too, but come on ... !
Mosley perhaps doesn't reach quite the audience one might expect him to, but as far as authors who have no readers -- there are a lot who do far worse than him.
Inventing God hasn't been widely reviewed in the US yet, but then it just appeared here.
In the UK it got the sort of widespread review coverage most authors can only dream of -- pretty much every major newspaper and weekly weighed in (see our review for links to many of them).
And even in the US a great deal of his work is in print -- admittedly only at the non-profit (i.e. fairly low-profile) outfit, the Dalkey Archive Press, but while they may be generous folk they probably wouldn't publish so many of his books if literally nobody were reading any of them.
Also very irritating: Julavits explains the (possible) appeal of Mosley's works and wonders: "What smart reader could want for more ?"
What of us poor stupid readers, we wonder ?
Last week's blackout was modestly annoying here at the complete review -- preventing us from ... well, pretty much doing anything (except retiring to some sunny corner with a book).
Astonishingly, we now find ourselves bogged down by something that's almost as efficient at keeping us from any proper work -- the Sobig.F-virus.
While safe from the virus itself (we don't open our e-mail attachments, and that's the only way to release this thing) we receive an endless stream of e-mails -- over a hundred an hour for the last six-hour period -- and all the infected e-mails come with large attachments, taking forever to download (since we're an essentially no-budget operation we work with the slowest of modems).
So we're left with less time and opportunity to seek out links for you.
We hope this thing peaked yesterday (rather than just beginning to pick up steam ...) and that we'll be able to spend our time doing more constructive things than trying to pick out the few legitimate e-mails among the hundreds of infected ones.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of José Maria Eça de Queirós' The Crime of Father Amaro.
Still somewhat controversial stuff -- and still, in some places, very relevant: witness the fact that a movie based on it (changing period and locale) came out (to considerable acclaim and outrage) in Mexico last year.
The very readable nineteenth century author Eça de Queirós may well be poised for some twenty-first century success -- this new translation (by Margaret Jull Costa) has been fairly well-received (not widely reviewed, but Michael Dirda, for example, was very enthusiastic in The Washington Post) and there are now several of his titles (of varying heft) available (from New Directions, Dedalus, and Penguin).
The September issue of Harper's (a magazine that barely has an Internet presence -- certainly not one of any use or interest (see it here)) has a review-article (not available online) by Terry Eagleton in which he discusses V.S.Naipaul's new non-fiction collection,
Literary Occasions (see the Knopf publicity page or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk) and Naipaul's Strangers by Dagmar Barnouw (see the Indiana University Press publicity page or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk).
(We don't have either of these titles under review at this time, but hope to cover Literary Occasions relatively soon; the only readily accessible review of either we've found is Lois Wolfe's of the Naipaul, in The Miami Herald.)
The Eagleton isn't particularly satisfying.
There are the annoying autobiographical intrusions (Eagleton also attended Oxford and, among other things, compares his experiences to Naipaul's -- "My own entry into the dreaming spires, a decade or so later" ..., etc. etc.).
There are the attempts at humour (?): "The patricians were still in evidence, but rumor had it that there were plans for confining them to a special reservation in Magdalen College deer park, where they would be publicly fed three times a day."
There is some discussion of Naipaul (and of popular debate about Naipaul), and he's not wrong in considering the colonial context, and the England Naipaul came to, but there's a whole lot of arguments being presented here, making for something of a muddle.
And there's also stuff like: (about Barnouw's book) "Its pages are everywhere redolent of the smell of incense", or (about Trinidad): "Racism permeated the place like an invisible gas" .....
Also, then, the conclusion -- that Naipaul is an artist who:
exemplifies one of the minor catastrophes of the twentieth century: the fact that the conflicts and instabilities that issued in so much superb writing led also, all too often, to a harsh, unforgiving elitism.
Great art, dreadful politics: it is the link between the two that needs to be noted.
Eagleton, it seems to us, doesn't do so convincingly (great art and dreadful politics are each noted, but the link remains elusive).
- Yamada Taichi's Strangers.
It's also been made into a movie (back in 1988); it certainly has cinematic potential, but perhaps didn't make it big in the US because it was apparently released under the less than tempting titles The Discarnates and Summer Among the Zombies (neither of which really does the story justice, despite the supernatural elements to it).
- Jordan Ellenberg's The Grasshopper King.
The book was enjoyable -- but we were particularly put off by the blurbs.
The ridiculous praise -- "perhaps the funniest and best-written 'college' novel I've read since Pale Fire" (John Barth) and "Jordan Ellenberg's one of the funniest, flashiest, zaniest, cleverest and also one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable new young writers around" (Stephen Dixon) -- isn't that unusual, of course, and the blurbers names are fairly impressive.
The problem ?
As one article about Ellenberg explains:
He attended the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, one of the nation's top creative writing programs.
There, he studied with some of contemporary fiction's greatest figures -- John Barth, Stephen Dixon.
Odd coincidence, no ?
Of course: no.
Blurbs are, of course, always dubious (and generally worthless) -- but still: stuff like this is hard to ignore and can't help but impress a bit (at least if one isn't aware that there's a connexion between author and blurbers).
At least it illustrates the true value of taking creative writing courses or pursuing an MFA: it gains one easy access to illustrious names who then spout ridiculous over-praise about anything that you publish (as they presumably feel so guilty about taking money for 'teaching' writing that they try to pay back their students in this manner).
The only one who is harmed by this is the gullible reader who isn't made aware of the author-blurber-connexion -- but blurbers clearly don't have much respect for readers.
Yes, it's that time of year again -- time for the two month ordeal that is: Man Booker mania !
First the longlist (which came out yesterday), then, in a month, the shortlist, then the big awards ceremony.
What to say ?
First: the over-fancy Man Booker Prize site is a horror -- frames, Flash, etc.
Outrageously: they had not even posted the longlist by the time we checked early Saturday GMT (when it had long been available at all sorts of other media outlets).
Okay, so the longlist -- see, for example, Justine Jordan's article in yesterday's issue of The Guardian.
In typical being-on-top-of-it style we have exactly one of the longlisted titles under review (The Light of Day by Graham Swift) -- and we can't imagine getting more than one or two more under review before the prize is handed out.
So we certainly can't say whether the list is good or bad or indifferent -- though we are a bit surprised that Peter Carey didn't make it (he won it two years ago for a book we certainly didn't think deserving of such high honours, True History of the Kelly Gang, and his My Life as a Fake (see our previous mention) sounds much more intriguing).
But the flood of articles (and the heavy betting) will no doubt swell in the days to come and you'll be able to learn everything you want about the authors and the judges (John Carey, D.J. Taylor, Rebecca Stephens, Francine Stock, and A.C. Grayling).
Early articles of interest include judge Taylor's Novel solutions, in which he "explains what reading 100 books did to him".
See also: Bright young things make Booker prize list by Matt Born in the Telegraph.
We have three Pennac titles under review -- Passion Fruit, The Scapegoat, and Write to Kill -- but he doesn't seem to have really caught on in the UK or US.
There's a profile of him by Matthew J. Reisz in today's issue of The Independent -- maybe it will help bring him to the attention of a larger audience.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Wilfried Steiner's novel in the footsteps of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Der Weg nach Xanadu.
(Yeah, it's in German -- but hey, we haven't burdened you with too many reviews of not-yet-translated literature recently .....)
As visitors to the site may have guessed, we were hampered in out efforts to provide any new information on the site by a lack of electricity at the complete review-HQ for a twenty-six hour period Thursday and Friday (allowing, however, for more reading and drinking time -- though by the end the beers were getting damn lukewarm).
Fortunately, our servers are located elsewhere, and neither the Saloon nor the site went dark -- at least not because of the blackout.
There was a ten minute interruption of service (the first in some 200 days) due to a chassis upgrade or something of that sort -- we hope it did not inconvenience anyone.
Oddly, the complete review recorded the greatest number of single day page views since mid-May on Thursday .....
Richard Posner caused quite an odd stir about a year and a half ago with the publication of Public Intellectuals.
It was a widely-reviewed and discussed book -- though few were able to take his endeavour entirely seriously.
The paperback edition is scheduled for publication in a few weeks -- and it promises: "a new preface and epilogue" (pointedly implying that the text proper would remain unchanged).
We haven't seen these new bits yet, but we're very curious as to what Posner has to say; we're hoping for some fun responses to his critics .....
Meanwhile the newest Posner title (remember: he churns them out at an alarming rate) is Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.
We don't have it under review (yet) -- but see the Harvard University Press publicity page (or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk).
And for some review see:
It's nice to see that Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell" continues to enjoy success and receive generous review-attention (from ever farther afield) -- most recently in the Telegraphs (Daily and Sunday) and the Sydney Morning Herald.
Abroad the American focus of the book attracts even more attention, but even so it's recognised for the significant book that it is.
Somewhat to our own surprise we only have two Peter Ackroyd titles under review (Milton in America and The Plato Papers); his mammoth London did scare us off a bit, but we do hope to eventually cover the recently released The Clerkenwell Tales.
(It's not even listed at the US Amazon.com yet, but is available at Amazon.co.uk.)
There's an interview with Ackroyd at The Guardian, and the first few reviews:
A few months ago we mentioned an article by David Sexton in the 14 May Evening Standard which suggested, among other things, that Orlando Figes' book, Natasha's Dance -- which had just been shortlisted for the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize -- had nevertheless essentially been ruled out of contention for the prize by the judges because there were supposedly questions about improper attribution and plagiarism of some of the material found in Figes' book.
Shortly thereafter, we were contacted by Figes' solicitors (David Price Solicitors & Advocates) informing us that their client maintained there were inaccuracies in the article and that they were filing a libel complaint on behalf of their client.
A libel complaint was indeed filed, and the matter has now reached its conclusion; we appreciate Figes' solicitors making us aware of the outcome.
To sum up: the Evening Standard printed a note of apology in the 25 July 2003 issue (we unfortunately didn't notice it on any of our Internet-reading forays), reading:
In the High Court today the Evening Standard apologised to Orlando Figes, author of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, for suggesting that his book had been ruled out of contention for a major literary award because of allegations of plagiarism.
The Standard accepted that the judges for the 2003 BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction denied that the book had been ruled out as a possible winner.
They had shortlisted it because they regarded it as one of the best non-fiction books of the year and harboured no doubts about its integrity.
Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London, did not seek damages over the article, "On the £30,000 shortlist, the book that won’t win the prize" (14 May), and accepted costs.
The Statement in Court -- provided to us by Figes' solicitors, and consisting of a summary (of the circumstances, the case, and the resolution reached) by Figes' solicitor-advocate (David Price), as well a very brief statement by Defendant's advocate, Julia Schopflin, ("I agree with everything that Mr. Price has said and offer the Defendant's apologies to the Claimant") -- adds a bit more information.
So, for example:
The article claimed that the book had been ruled out of contention for the prize after the five judges had considered charges of plagiarism, made against the Claimant, and found the evidence to be "devastating".
The Claimant accepts that as a historian and an author, his work is open to the widest review and criticism.
However, he regards an allegation of plagiarism as a serious attack on his honesty and integrity and he was not prepared to allow it to remain unchallenged.
The Statement notes that the claims of "cavalier use of sources" in the book had first arisen in a TLS review (27 September 2002, by Rachel Polonsky -- a much-discussed piece hereabouts), but found that: "Shortly after the Claimant published a thorough rebuttal of the allegation and justifiably regarded the matter as closed".
(Figes responded to the Polonsky review in a letter to the TLS editors, printed 4 October -- presumably this was the "thorough rebuttal"; generally in cases of such rather heated disagreement there's a bit more to and fro between author and critic (or between their supporters), but no response by Rachel Polonsky was printed in the TLS -- certainly closing at least this part of the matter.)
The Statement continues: "The prize judges short-listed Natasha's Dance in full knowledge of the TLS review and the Claimant's rebuttal" -- facts that the article in question acknowledged.
As the Statement points out, regarding the prize-judges: "If they had harboured any doubts about the book's integrity, they would not have short-listed it" -- one of the always more puzzling aspects about the claims in Sexton's article.
(Prize judges have been known to do weird things, but short-listing books with such questions surrounding them -- if there is anything to those questions -- would be pretty far out there.)
As soon as the matter was drawn to the Defendants' attention, they expressed their regret that the Claimant had been caused upset by the article.
It had not been their intention to accuse the Claimant of plagiarism or misuse of source material and they accept that such allegations would be false.
They re-affirmed that they had high regard for the Claimant, had recommended Natasha's Dance more than once among the year's best reads and had recently published a laudatory feature about the Claimant.
End result: Defendants agreed to pay Claimant's legal costs, publish an apology (see above), and Claimant in turn did not seek damages and "is prepared to treat the matter as closed".
A couple of interesting points about all this.
For one -- and we find this of particular interest -- David Sexton does not figure in the proceedings.
He wrote the article in question, but he was not named as a defendant (nor, remarkably, was he named in either the Statement in Court or the printed apology -- something one would have thought would have been difficult to avoid).
Certainly, Associated Newspapers Ltd (the Evening Standard's parent company, apparently the only defendant) has the deeper pockets (and obviously is partially at fault in allowing the article to be printed) -- but Mr. Sexton surely deserves some of the blame and opprobrium and legal consequences of his actions (or, in the alternative, his day in court -- to explain himself and his article).
Matters might perhaps be clearer if there had been a court case, in which the various points at issue could have been addressed individually -- and, specifically, Sexton allowed (or required) to explain how he came to write what he wrote.
It did not, however, come to that.
One additional point: in their apology the Evening Standard notes: "The Standard accepted that the judges for the 2003 BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction denied that the book had been ruled out as a possible winner."
Similarly, in the Statement in Court it is stated re. the judges: "Indeed, shortly after the publication of the article complained of, they issued a statement denying that it had been ruled out as a possible winner."
The only statement we are aware of is one issued by the Samuel Johnson Prize's PR firm (Colman Getty PR).
While it does state: "The judges made their decision to include the book on the shortlist in full knowledge of the controversy surrounding the book", as to the point in question the wording is:
The organisers of the BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2003 refute the claims in today’s (Wednesday 14th May) Evening Standard that one of the shortlisted titles, Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes (Allen Lane), has been ‘ruled out’ as a possible winner.
(If they actually refute it, they don't do a very good job of it -- surely what they meant (and how everyone seems to have understood it) was that they deny it ... ?)
Possibly there is another statement that actually is from the judges (not, as this one is, the organisers), but we were not made aware of it, nor have we read any on-the-record statement by any of the judges (Rosie Boycott, Michael Portillo, Tim Radford, Andrew Roberts, Fiammetta Rocco) regarding this affair.
(Our own efforts to obtain any comment from the judges did not meet with any success.)
None of the judges did come forward to suggest otherwise, which does indeed make Sexton's claim look unfounded.
Still, we would have preferred it if we had the simple denial straight from the judges' mouths (rather than a PR release speaking for the organisers .....), and we're surprised no one seems to have asked them about this (the media has studiously and decisively managed to avoid essentially all discussion of this whole affair -- leaving insignificant (and not exactly widely respected) us to try to figure out and chronicle what the hell is going on).
Oh, right: one last thing: Natasha’s Dance didn't win the Samuel Johnson.
Steve Aylett recently came out with a CD, Staring Is Its Own Reward.
With "Words, music, voice etc by Steve Aylett" it offers considerably more than your usual book-on-CD.
Aylett reads/performs excerpts from many of his works -- and it's more than just reading, as Aylett creatively explores some of the aural possibilities of the form (you know -- or should -- what he can do with words; well, he's as inventive on disk as on the page).
It doesn't appear to be available at Amazon.co.uk etc., but see the official page at his site -- where it's promisingly described as: "Like a field recording from a toxic spill being cleaned up by clowns".
We prefer the written to the spoken word (can't stand the usual books-on-tape and the like) but Aylett tries to do more with the form (offering ambient Beerlight sounds, among much inventive else) -- and generally succeeds.
Fun stuff, recommended.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Andrew Taylor's The American Boy.
Taylor has (somewhat surprisingly) apparently not had too much success in the US, where very few of his works are available.
This volume at least -- more ambitious (or at least more weighty) than much of what he's done previously -- is scheduled for eventual American release (early 2004 or thereabouts).
A fairly impressive period piece (and with Edgar Allan Poe -- the boy of the title -- in a supporting role), it should get at least some attention -- and perhaps more: as some of the British reviews have noted, this sort of historical fiction has done quite well in recent years.
This is the first Taylor we've reviewed but we've enjoyed some of his early works (beginning way back with Caroline Minuscule) and regret not having ready access to more of his more recent work.
In what could be one of the more entertaining intellectual property spats in recent memory the Fox News Channel is apparently suing Al Franken and Penguin over the (sub-)title to his new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (see the Penguin publicity page -- or pre-order a copy at Amazon.com).
It seems Fox trademarked (!) the expression "fair and balanced" .....
(Story first seen at Blogcritics, who quote extensively from The Washington Post.)
No reaction yet at the official Al Franken site -- and (showing what a quality news organisation Fox is) Fox News Channel only has the A.P. report on the story.
(See also a Newsdayreport.)
This is actually a fairly interesting case, and (unfortunately) not quite as ridiculous as it appears at first sight.
See, it's not a copyright issue -- where parody and satire have generally been fairly widely tolerated -- but rather a trademark case.
And neither the law nor the courts have been quite as welcoming of that sort of parody/satire (though cases generally involve corporate names rather than slogans).
If nothing else this might serve to draw attention to two important questions:
How on earth (or at least in the US) can anyone be allowed to trademark something like "fair and balanced" ? (Yeah, we know, it's applicable only to something fairly specific -- which Franken is admittedly poking fun at -- but still .....)
What ever happened to truth-in-advertising laws and where are the consumer protection laws that should forbid this sort of thing as a matter of public policy ? (Unless Fox is demonstrably "fair and balanced" -- and not even its most ardent admirers could claim that it is -- there is simply no way that they should be allowed to make (much less trademark) such preposterous claims)
We're certain there will be a lot of discussion about this in the days to come; we look forward to it.
We recently reviewed Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao, an impressive Chinese fiction recently released by Columbia University Press.
In yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle we found the first national broadsheet review of it, by Roger Gathman.
And he liked it:
The best novel of the year isn't that DeLillo-on-automatic-pilot thing that broke out, along with SARS, this spring; nor the smutty, anti-Islamic screed by the superannuated French juvenile delinquent; nor even Jane Smiley's excellent investigation of the unlikely souls of real estate agents.
Rather, it is this "dictionary" of the dialect of a fictitious village, Maqiao, lost in the squat hills of South China.
We imagine Mr.Gathman doesn't throw around best-of-year labels lightly (though the books he comapres Han's to -- at least Delillo's and Houellebecq's -- surely will figure on almost nobody's lists), and we can understand his enthusiasm.
We weren't quite as overwhelmed, but the book certainly is among the more literarily exciting works we've come across in recent times.
We also appreciate Mr.Gathman taking the time to rag on the American publishing industry and its failure to provide the public with foreign fiction:
Recently, however, American publishers have displayed an alarming timorousness about trying to persuade Homo americanus to read foreign authors.
Perhaps this is another indication of some nationwide popular disengagement with the rest of the world: It is getting harder to get people to go to foreign films, too.
The commercial presses are obviously lying down on the job.
Han's novel, so lovingly translated by Julia Lovell, should shame them all.
(Unfortunately, we don't think American publishers are easily shamed -- otherwise they'd have all shrunk into the ground in humiliation and disgrace long ago.)
It's filler material of the summer sort (god forbid they'd devote the space to actually reviewing another book or two ...), but it's a decent overview of what eventually happens to books: Christopher Dreher's piece on Life After Retail in yesterday's issue of The Washington Post.
(Note that The Washington Post requires registration to read their articles.
In their case we don't mind too much: we flush their cookie as soon as we're done with them (allowing us to re-register at our next visit, with all-new (mis-)information), and they don't ask for money.
As to the registration form: it's nice and short -- and since no one in their right minds would give accurate information about themselves it seems relatively harmless (we change our sex, make ourselves younger or older (as the mood strikes us), and always imagine wonderful exotic locales (Mali ! Mongolia !) where we might reside -- anything to skew their demographics !).)
There's been a stale smell to the operation lately.
It appears that a sameness began sprouting in publishing after the terrorist attacks and continues to grow like mold in our damp basements.
He (re-)considers some of the coming fall fiction highlights -- and we can't say we're surprised that he's not exactly jumping for joy.
But then the books he lists don't really tempt us in the first place -- so we offer some suggestions as to what you might actually get excited about:
First, some books we already have under review:
Any new publication by Harry Mulisch is reason enough to get very excited, and his Siegfried is surely among the fall-highlights -- something everyone should be eagerly looking forward to (expected in November)
Adam Thirlwell is the youngest of the Granta best young whatever list, and his debut Politics is certainly of some interest (scheduled for a September release in the UK, October in the US)
Shan Sa's The Girl Who Played Go is already available in the UK (US publication scheduled for October) and is also of some interest
As to what we're looking forward to:
As we've mentioned we can barely wait to get our hands on Tibor Fischer's Voyage to the End of the Room (and we're also curious about Martin Amis' Yellow Dog -- despite what Fischer says about it)
We've also mentioned Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake, and that certainly sounds like a promising title
Edith Grossman is offering up a new English translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote -- we're always wary of translation (even as we rely on it constantly), but this will certainly be worth a look. (See an excerpt at archipelago.)
J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello is coming to the US in November
And -- since we have to mention at least one American author -- Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (volume one of "The Baroque Cycle") is expected in October. Stephenson hasn't disappointed us yet, and we very much look forward to 944 new pages by him . (See also the official Baroque Cycle site.)
There are probably large numbers of titles whose existence we're still unaware of which are as enticing as those listed above, but the situation doesn't look entirely bleak.
(There might even be some non-fiction books of interest appearing in the fall -- though we do find it considerably harder to get excited about those.)
So it's been a whole year since we started up this Literary Saloon (go back to the first entry if you're feeling nostalgic).
So far, so good, we guess.
We haven't accomplished everything we'd like to -- but then we never do.
We'd like to link more extensively.
We'd like to comment more extensively.
Etc. etc. etc.
We're a bit surprised there isn't more literary-weblogging activity of our sort to be found elsewhere, but we're glad to do what we can.
There seems to be something of an audience for this sort of thing (though not exactly a huge one -- the weblog only fairly recently began to have more readers daily than the most popular review of the day at the complete review -- and still receives only a small fraction of the readership of the complete review).
Anyway: we hope you enjoy what we do -- and we hope to provide you more of the same in the coming year and years.