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The Literary Saloon Archive

2 - 10 September

2 September: More Yellow Dog fun | US perspective on the Man Booker | Assaying Poe | Eagleton on Hobsbawm | Mortified authors
3 September: Split opinions on Yellow Dog | A.N.Wilson on Iris Murdoch | Linn Ullmann's Stella Descending
4 September: Modern Sei Shonagon | Nell Freudenberger's book
5 September: Different Amis(s) standards ? | Roubaud's Great Fire | More AWS troubles ?
6 September: More Yellow Dog reviews | New reviews
7 September: Adorno's 100th | Down with the cult of the authorial personality ! | The Iris Murdoch biographies
8 September: Holy Innocents turned Dreamers | More Freudenberger | Bulwer-Lytton reviews | The year in poetry | Alan Ayckbourn conversations
9 September: Ali K.O. | Blogs back | TLS Kraus mention
10 September: Fischer favourites | Spark on Lucan | Holy eisteddfods ! Amis and the critics | Sex and the modern novel | Believer reaction

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10 September 2003 - Wednesday

Fischer favourites | Spark on Lucan | Holy eisteddfods ! Amis and the critics
Sex and the modern novel | Believer reaction

       Fischer favourites

       The Guardian has a decent occasional feature where authors choose their top ten books in a certain category. This week it's Tibor Fischer's turn, as he selects his top ten eastern European novels.
       We're quite disappointed by what appears to be his very half-hearted effort. Embers by Sándor Márai (see our review) is his number two title -- but he says straight off that it's "Not Márai's best novel" (and, no, he doesn't list a different Márai novel as his number one). The apparent excuse ? Of all of Márai's novels: "it's the only one available in English"
       On top of that, he fails to mention that it is a very dubious translation. As he wrote in his otherwise enthusiastic review of the book (The Guardian, 5 January 2001 -- a review to which there is inexplicably no link on the top-ten page):
Translation from Hungarian wasn't a problem, since this version has been translated from the German. This news caused me to throw furniture around my room, and I'd fear for the translator's safety if she ever went to Hungary.
       If he's going to limit his top-ten choices to books available in English, surely this is something worth a mention to poor unsuspecting readers.
       Even ignoring the Márai, it's an odd and unconvincing list -- especially since Fischer chooses to include Russian authors (greatly expanding the potential field).

       Incidentally, filming on Embers is set to begin soon. Milos Forman directing Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer, and Winona Ryder.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Spark on Lucan

       Muriel Spark wrote an entertaining novel about Lord Lucan, Aiding and Abetting (see our review), and so she is of course called upon to comment on the latest Lucan rumours -- which she does, in Loser Lucan was too dull for Goa (The Guardian, 9 September).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Holy eisteddfods ! Amis and the critics

       So Martin Amis isn't too concerned about the critical reaction his dog ... pardon, his: Yellow Dog is getting (see, for example, here for a few samples). As he explains to John Preston in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph, Posterity counts, critics don't.
       Oh, dear.
       We don't deny that critics don't count (we always hope that no one takes us too seriously in our limited critical capacity), but once a writer looks to how s/he will be judged by posterity ... that's very worrisome -- much as it is when politicians do the same. Better, surely, to concentrate on getting the job done in the here and now, and not about shaping future images (though one understands why Amis is getting antsy -- father Kingsley, certainly once a leading British author of his times, has only been dead a few years and is already largely forgotten and almost entirely out of print, at least in the US).
       Amis maintains:
As you get older you realise that all these things -- prizes, reviews, advances, readers -- it's all showbiz, and the real action starts with your obituary.
       Well, we wish him good luck with that.

       The piece is interesting enough, and offers some good (if a bit confused) Amis fun:
And, you know, the treatment I get in this country is always much harder than I get anywhere else. For instance, although Koba the Dread got mixed reviews in America, it didn't get the eisteddfod of hostility it did here.
       (Bonus points to all readers who don't have to rush to the dictionary to figure out what 'eisteddfod' is -- though it doesn't seem an ideal word-choice here to us.)
       So does he read the reviews or not ? Anyway: if the Americans didn't gang up on him in an eisteddfod it's surely simply because people didn't take the book as seriously (almost no book manages to get taken seriously in the US, after all), while the British are still at least passionate about this sort of thing. As best we can tell, many of the American reviews were as harsh as any of the British ones (though a few were admittedly written by Brits).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Sex and the modern novel

       Apropos of Adam Thirlwell's Politics (see our review) Sam Leith offers a lengthy discussion of The trouble with sex in contemporary literature in the Sunday Telegraph.
       Leith notes:
More and more, you find literary fiction preoccupied by clumsy sex, by failed sex
       A fairly interesting discussion (which will, no doubt, elicit many responses and comments).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Believer reaction

       For a couple of months now The Believer has been much-discussed. We'll eventually get around to adding our observations (and summaries of the other comments, probably in our November 'Year in Reviews' round-up), but so far have (relatively easily) managed to avoid concerning ourselves too much with it.
       Still, it's almost unavoidable -- especially Heidi Julavits' much-discussed manifesto, Rejoice ! Believe ! Be Strong and Read Hard ! -- responsible also for perhaps the most annoying word-coinage of the year, 'snark'. (We can't tell one snark from another, so we've avoided using the term so far -- and The Believer's Snarkwatch-feature hasn't really helped clear things up for us much either; we don't think it'll enter our vocabulary.)
       Another reaction now from Alex Good: The Believers, where he points out some of the disturbing aspects of Julavits' piece (and of some of the current confusing (semi-)literary debates -- such as Laura Miller's much-discussed Chuck Palahniuk review).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

9 September 2003 - Tuesday

Ali K.O. | Blogs back | TLS Kraus mention

       Ali K.O.

       Monica Ali's Brick Lane (sorry, not yet under review) has been getting a lot of critical attention stateside, where it's finally appeared. After mixed (but generally positive) British reviews (and a Man Booker longlist nod), it's been getting decent notices in the US.
       In The New York Times Book Review (7 September) Michael Gorra found:
Monica Ali already has a sense of technical assurance and an in-born generosity that cannot be learned. Brick Lane inspires confidence about the career that is to come.
       More tepid is Janet Maslin's review in yesterday's issue of The New York Times: "her work is much more impressive in the abstract than it is on the page." (Ms Maslin also notes that the book is "one of 23 books on the not exactly short list for this year's Man Booker"; 'not exactly short list' is right of course -- it's the longlist she's on: the (truly) short-list has yet to be announced.)
       The book is only briefly noted in this week's issue of The New Yorker, but it gets a real nice mention in The New Republic, courtesy of famously harsh James Wood, who finally finds something to embrace. He writes about her approach:
But it is not, in fact, an anti-style; it is the suppression of obvious authorial style in the interest of a character's style. (And so it is the greatest style.)
       Has he ever written anything this generous ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Blogs back

       Finally, a few of our preferred literary blogs have returned: MobyLives and Waggish have both started up again. We're grateful: more entertainment and information readily at our fingertips -- and less work scouring the Internet for this sort of stuff ourselves.

       As to the others that float in limbo -- e.g. Unibrow ! -- well, we check in every now and again, but so far: nothing doing.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       TLS Kraus mention

       A few weeks ago we were all excited to learn about Karl Kraus' Die Fackel -- all 23,000 pages of it -- now being available on a single CD-ROM (see our previous mention for additional information).
       We're pleased to see that in the 5 September TLS Edward Timms discusses it (and a variety of loosely related publications). He understands the significance of this convenient (if expensive) disc -- "the CD will be an essential resource for any research library" -- and finds:
the CD helps us to explore the multifarious ways in which the satirist subverted the dominant discourse of his day.
       We're tempted to beg a review copy from the publishers -- but worry that we'd be lost from sight for the next few months. 23,000 pages to leaf (or rather: scroll) through !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

8 September 2003 - Monday

Holy Innocents turned Dreamers | More Freudenberger | Bulwer-Lytton reviews
The year in poetry | Alan Ayckbourn conversations

       Holy Innocents turned Dreamers

       Among the reviews at the complete review that have been the most popular the past few weeks is that of under-rated Gilbert Adair's novella, The Holy Innocents. The reason for the surge of interest in this out-of-print title is that it's been made into a film -- and a much-anticipated and discussed one at that, by no less a director than Bernardo Bertolucci. The film is called The Dreamers (see, for example, the IMDb page on the film). It is based on The Holy Innocents -- but this opportunity to revisit his older work has led Adair to rewrite it, not just for the screen but also in book form. Yes, this is the first case we can recall of a novel being filmed where the filmed version is then 'novelized' again (by the original author, no less): Gilbert Adair's The Dreamers will be published by Faber in November (see their publicity page or pre-order your copy at We hope to have it under review by November.

       Adair (who really is an under-rated writer, and well worth seeking out) did very well with the last film of one of his books, Richard Kwietniowski's impressive Love and Death on Long Island. The first reviews of The Dreamers (it was screened at the recent Venice Film Festival) suggest another winner. In The Observer (7 September) Nick James writes:
It's been a while since the director of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor made such a coherent, stylish movie as The Dreamers. (...) It's so accurate an impression of youth misspent that you can forgive the element of pretentiousness as being all too apt.
       David Gritten is similarly enthusiastic (in the Telegraph), writing:
But the end product is all Bertolucci; his strongest work since the Eighties, it's a rich, resonant blend of personal, psychological and sexual politics. Without doubt, it's one of the year's most intriguing movies.
       Unfortunately, American audiences may not enjoy the film as is -- concerns have been raised that in order to obtain the (contractually mandatory) R-rating Bertolucci will have to cut the film to shreds. (America's peculiar morals allow those under seventeen to be exposed to no end of screen-violence of the most brutal sort, but god forbid they'd catch a glimpse of nudity or -- gasp ! -- actual sex.) David Gritten writes about this in another article, Bertolucci's dream becomes a nightmare (and Charles Taylor apparently writes about it in a recent (warning ! registration/subscription requiring !) Salon piece, Sanitized for our protection).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More Freudenberger

       A few days ago we mentioned that Nell Freudenberger's debut story-collection, Lucky Girls, has finally appeared -- providing links to a couple of early reviews as well, and noting that our previous Freudenberger coverage had apparently been noted in a link at a Salon article.
       First, for those in need of their Freudenberger-fix, two more bits of information; a profile in Pages, by Heather L. Hughes, and a brief article by Rob Cline in the Iowa City Press-Citizen (Freudenberger read in Iowa on Friday).
       Now: back to the Salon-mention. It drove a decent numbers of users to the site (over 1600 on Thursday alone, the most single-day referrals we've ever gotten from any media mention). We don't subscribe to Salon, and we don't visit sites that force cookies down our computer's throats for no good reason (as Salon's day-pass requires) so we couldn't tell what Curtis Sittenfeld had written. Now we've seen a copy of the piece -- and find also that it's posted at Powell's (see also the original -- but subscription / registration requiring -- version at Salon). (Note that in the Powell's version the link to our site has been excised -- though the Powell's folk did go to the trouble of adding a few links to their own pages -- yeah, that's in the spirit of providing information on the Internet.)
       The Sittenfeld-piece links to our main page, and notes that we closely monitor "Freudenberger's in-print activity ". We do so, of course, out of a vicious circle reasoning that we can't escape -- people come looking for information about Ms. Freudenberger here, and we can't help but oblige. As Sittenfeld notes: "The site is, apparently, providing a much-needed service" -- indeed, just as a year ago (when she appeared at The New Yorker festival), over the past few days "Freudenberger" (and "Nell") have not only been among the most popular search-terms leading users to the Literary Saloon, but rather to the site as a whole -- over 400 employing some "Freudenberger"-variation on some days (including, worryingly, the very popular variations "nell freudenberger picture" and "nell freudenberger pictures").
       Sittenfeld also mentions we feature: "a play about her ascension titled Whoa Nelly !" -- somewhat of an inflation of what we only bill as a Literary Saloon dialogue, but we can live with that. Slightly disappointing: she misquotes the one sample line she offers, changing our pointedly affected British spelling (the line reads: "I must say I do like the aluminium-foil skirt", not 'aluminum') -- and surely the spirit of the comment could be better understood if the immediate response is mentioned: "Don't know much about fashion, do you ?"
       The Sittenfeld-piece is interesting because it discusses, at considerable length, the apparently widespread loathing and envy of Ms. Freudenberger -- "a virtual cottage industry among ambitious literati". We seem to get lumped into that category too, though most of the reactions Sittenfeld discusses don't reflect what we've expressed. Sittenfeld suggests:
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that four factors could lead to one young writer's becoming the object of other young writers' loathing. Let's say these factors are that the writer in question is thought to be attractive, thought not to have paid her dues, known to have gone to Harvard (horrors!), and believed to be without talent.
       Several of these strike us as ridiculous reasons: if she's pretty or went to Harvard, well, those would be petty and pathetic reasons to loathe her for (though, of course, not unheard of reasons). As to her talent (or lack thereof) -- well, that's largely an open question: beyond the stories 'Real Life' and "Lucky Girls' we haven't read any of her stuff and haven't presumed to judge much, and even this first book-collection isn't enough to judge an author by (beyond perhaps acknowledging an initial success (which Sittenfeld finds: "her new collection is really good") or considerable potential). As to her paying her dues -- well, that's more complicated. But the idea of a writer paying his or her dues -- what does that even mean ? A writer writes something and it's good or bad and that's what they should be judged by.
       The big issue we've had, from the first, with Freudenberger, and the reason we've harped on her case so is that she got a fat contract (two, actually, one from Ecco/HarperCollins and one from Picador UK) without having written practically anything. This isn't her fault, it's the nutty publishing industry's fault -- but that doesn't make it any less worth complaining about: she may have great talent, but we have no respect for any publisher that pays good money in advance for unwritten work -- even if it's by a known entity (unless it's a paint-by-the-numbers author like Tom Clancy or John Grisham) We were particularly outraged by Picador's giving her a contract for an unwritten novel -- an entirely different beast from the short story. Why gamble before there's a manuscript in hand ?
       The reason why is, of course, found in the other objectionable aspect to the selling of Nell Freudenberger -- a selling of image over substance, coy pictures in glossy women's magazines over actual content. It's not that she's pretty (or not -- it's hard to tell from the ridiculous posed pictures we've seen), but that that is what is being sold rather than her actual words.
       Freudenberger may very well be a genuine talent, but she's being marketed as a doe-eyed dear, meant to seduce book-buyers (who are, after all, not necessarily book-readers) with her come-hither(-and-shell-out-twenty-five-bucks-for-my-book)-looks. Literati shouldn't loathe her for that -- but they should worry about the state of an industry forced to emphasise such pathetic superficialities. (See also this recent entry.) Sadly -- at least over the short term -- it seems a successful marketing strategy -- witness the hundreds that seek out our site searching for "nell freudenberger pictures" .....
       (Of course, the (apparent) ease with which Freudenberger found her work considered by those that wield publishing power is a reasonable reason to envy her, given that most writers find it quite difficult to get any editor (magazine or book) or even agent to even take a look at their work.)

       Note that, beside converted reviewers, Freudenberger has other defenders: a former Harvard-classmate writes -- with a typically American sense of entitlement (i.e.: hand it over on that silver platter, pronto) -- :
In sum, she earned her big break, and most of those who'd think otherwise are just trafficking in sour grapes.
       Freudenberger perhaps deserved her big break, on the basis of actual talent and promise (though we'd suggest it's far too early to judge that), but anyone who gets a two book contract on the basis of only one or two published stories has surely hardly earned it.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Bulwer-Lytton reviews

       Leslie Mitchell's Bulwer Lytton (see our review) continues to get decent amounts of critical attention. Recent reviews include Kathryn Hughes' (The Guardian, 6 September) and Martin Rubin's (The Washington Times, 7 September).
       Rubin wasn't particularly enthusiastic -- but then he doesn't seem disposed to agree with Mitchell's (and our) notion that Bulwer Lytton might actually be worth reading. Still, it's a fun nasty review, as he repeatedly kills two birds (Mitchell and Bulwer-Lytton) with one stone:
Yet I should be surprised if Lytton's biographer will succeed in making many converts with this book. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision to write in a manner that seems to ape Lytton's orotund phrases, but rather than lead the reader in towards an appreciation of such style, it simply makes this biography almost as impenetrable as those now-unread volumes of Bulwer Lytton's novels.
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The year in poetry

       Bob Hoover offers a decent summary of the poetry-related excitement of the past year -- Poetry's millions, a new poet laureate, etc. -- in yesterday's issue of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Alan Ayckbourn conversations

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Ian Watson's Conversations with Ayckbourn.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

7 September 2003 - Sunday

Adorno's 100th | Down with the cult of the authorial personality !
The Iris Murdoch biographies

       Adorno's 100th

       11 September is the 100th anniversary of Theodor W. Adorno's birth. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on him notes, "Unreliable translations have hampered the reception of Adorno's published work in English speaking countries", and there may not be much of a fuss outside of Germany (Adorno has competition, of course: 11 September is also D.H.Lawrence's birthday (though he's not celebrating a round anniversary)).
       For some background and information, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia article, or the Adorno pages at books and writers and -- or even find some English-language information about Theodor W. Adorno in Frankfurt ("An exhibition of the Stadt und Universitätsbiblitohek to celebrate the philosopher’s 100th birthday")

       German-speakers have a whole lot more to contend with, as special reports can be found in many of the major dailies and weeklies:

       In Die Welt Gert Mattenklott offers Eine Hommage zum 100. Geburtstag am 11. September (and the same issue contains a half dozen other related articles -- see links at the bottom of the page).

       In Die Zeit you can also find several articles and reviews:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Down with the cult of the authorial personality !

       We were just writing about aspects of this a few days ago; now Jonathan Heawood writes about The curse of celebrity writers in today's issue of The Observer, concluding: "Let's stop celebratising novelists and start celebrating novels."
       Hear, hear !

       He also suggests:
In fact, why not go further and remove author photographs, titles, cover illustrations and all those boring publisher details ? Why not just thrust a book out into the world in plain boards, with the text beginning on page one and continuing, undisturbed, to the end ? Reviewers would be relieved of the tiresome burden of commenting on the author's personality and would be free to get on with the task of describing the book to potential readers. Books could be numbered, rather than titled.
       It's not an entirely novel idea. Indeed, we remind readers that we've always been on the anonymous-bandwagon -- see, for example, our Literary Saloon dialogue On Critical Anonymity, where we called for "the removal of the cult of personality at any level".
       But we aren't holding our breath -- personality and image (and author-photographs rather than words) rule in these times.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Iris Murdoch biographies

       We previously quoted extensively from the reviews of what looks to be the most reviled book of the year, A.N.Wilson's Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her.
       In today's issue of The Observer David Aaronovitch writes about The Iris troubles, summing up a lot of what's been said.
       Disappointing only his conclusion, about the collateral damage:
I had it in mind at some point to read the Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti's two great works, Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power. Now that I know (from Conradi) that he used to take Murdoch in an arm-chair, holding the future Booker prize winner 'savagely between his knees', while his one-armed wife, Veza, made supper next door, I may pass. But nobody has made a film about Canetti and no one (as far as I know) complained.
       We gladly go on record here to complain about there not being any Canetti films. We have no patience for dementia portrayals (and so gave the Iris-flick a pass), but we are mighty curious about the very curious fellow Canetti seems to have been -- and imagine it might be cinematically interesting. As to Canetti's life: we don't know much about the later years (including the Iris episodes), but his autobiographical books on his formative years are among the few memoirs that have ever truly and completely enthralled us (and we'd commend them to Aaronovitch even ahead of his two more famous titles).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

6 September 2003 - Saturday

More Yellow Dog reviews | New reviews

       More Yellow Dog reviews

       They keep coming. New reviews of Martin Amis' Yellow Dog can be found in:        And we can't resist at least one quote (Liz Jensen, The Independent (6 September)):
an exquisitely written, 100-carat dud, a piece of work so unfocused, so militantly chaotic, sprawling, and garbled that I had to read it one and a half times in order to fathom what in the name of Crikey was going on.
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       New reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and the new collection of V.S.Naipaul essays, Literary Occasions (edited and introduced by Pankaj Mishra).
       Note that the Naipaul is only 'new' in this form; in fact, it recycles a lot of fairly familiar stuff -- but it is a cohesive collection.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

5 September 2003 - Friday

Different Amis(s) standards ? | Roubaud's Great Fire | More AWS troubles ?

       Different Amis(s) standards ?

       Yet another review of Martin Amis' Yellow Dog: Philip Hensher's, in this week's issue of The Spectator. First to his opinion: he begins "Though not as bad as had been suggested before the absurdly tightly guarded publication, Yellow Dog is certainly a disappointment" (and he goes on to make perhaps the cruellest comparison yet, writing that Amis' novel: "has the air of late-period Wilkie Collins"). But he offers a thoughtful consideration of the book and especially the to-do surrounding it (and Amis' other recent publications), and also finds:
I kept wondering what one would think of Yellow Dog if one knew nothing about Amis. I think it would look like an unusually promising first attempt at a novel: unsuccessfully put together, and indulgent towards some very weak material, but all the same capable of flourishes of great energy and comic exuberance.
       Inevitably authors get judged by what they've done before (a convenient, if not always sensible, point of comparison) -- and first-timers get something of a free ride. What any of that has to with the actual book in question is something that has always baffled us -- not that we manage always to avoid that trap either.
       It's interesting to see how Amis' book is being judged, compared with, say, Adam Thirlwell's Politics (see our review for quotes and links to most of the reviews -- including Robert Edric's not too enthusiastic but quite understanding review also in The Spectator) -- a book that also comes with some author-PR-burdens (precocious lad who has published essentially not a word before making the (in)famous Granta 20/40 list). Nell Freudenberger (see below) is a similar case in point -- fancy photos and a story in The New Yorker two years ago (and a sizable advance) were enough to make her debut "eagerly awaited" (we don't exactly know by whom, but that's the word the PR folk have effectively spread): the reviews all make much of this surrounding history and, while genuinely enthusiastic, also treat her with kid gloves.
       Author-obsessed as the contemporary publishing market is there is perhaps no getting around the focus on author (and author-image) over the works themselves. Books are widely seen as accoutrements rather than as things to be read: shockingly even Tibor Fischer mentions in his critical opinion piece that he'd be embarrassed to be seen reading Yellow Dog -- as if being seen holding and reading a copy of the book somehow reflected on him differently than admitting he'd actually read it (as he did to far more people than could ever possibly see him with the book in the pages of the Daily Telegraph). (Both Freudenberger's Lucky Girls and Thirlwell's Politics have striking covers, incidentally -- facilitating their being things to be seen with, like fashionable purses.) There's a lot to be said for the Japanese habit of wrapping books in plain paper covers, making them unidentifiable when one carries them around or reads in public .....
       Poor Martin Amis will, of course, never again be judged as a promising youngster, and perhaps Hensher is correct that that denies him a certain break. But one does well to remember that Amis is still guaranteed exceptionally extensive review and media coverage -- and, as a matter of course, Amisian sales (all of which most novices would kill for). Thirwell's Granta-millstone and Freudenberger's New Yorker-burden similarly assure them of coverage most first-timers can only dream of -- and, sadly, it's that, rather than the actual quality and/or promise of their work that endears them to publishers.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Roubaud's Great Fire

       Splinters points to the Center for Book Culture's worthwhile new Casebook on Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, a useful collection of essays and information that we certainly recommend. (Other casebooks available online include one for William Gass' The Tunnel (see also our review of The Tunnel) -- they do good stuff at the CBC !)
       At splinters Steve Mitchelmore also makes mention of his review-essay of the Roubaud -- both the piece and the novel are worth checking out. (See also our review; interestingly (or possibly not), it is consistently one of the top five books visitors to the site click through to from.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More AWS troubles ?

       We previously mentioned that Heinemann's classic African Writers Series was recently turned into a pure backlist line, with no new titles added to this once leading imprint. (Almost no one in the Western media seems to have taken much note or had much interest in this story; aside from a mention in the TLS (J.C.'s NB column) there was practically no coverage of this.)
       In yesterday's issue of Vanguard there's more news, in the depressingly titled: Dead end for African Writers Series. They report that cutbacks in the Heinemann International Division leave the AWS even more of a shell than before.
       Not a great deal of (clear) information, but we'll try to keep track of what happens.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

4 September 2003 - Thursday

Modern Sei Shonagon | Nell Freudenberger's book

       Modern Sei Shonagon

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Jan Blensdorf's forthcoming first novel, My Name Is Sei Shonagon.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Nell Freudenberger's book

       Nell Freudenberger -- one of the famous debutantes in the 2001 The New Yorker fiction issue, and poster-child for publishers throwing big advances at untested authors for unwritten work (see our rant from back then, Whoa Nelly !) -- has finally published her first book, Lucky Girls (its title taken from that story from The New Yorker, one of five included in this collection). We still occasionally mention her whenever we catch site of any of her doings -- for some reason people come to our site in search of her ("Freudenberger" and "Nell" are both among the top ten search terms leading users to the Literary Saloon (scroll down here for the statistics), and hundreds more find their way to the crQ-piece every month) and so we feel obligated to keep you up-to-date as best we can.
       We've seen the book in stores -- nice cover, but like the original title story nothing really grabbed us so we won't go out of our way to review it (which doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile collection -- but you should know by now that story-collections are a hard sell hereabouts). (Interested readers can order it at -- or pre-order it at, though it will only be available in the UK in April 2004. See also the HarperCollins publicity page.)
       The publication took us a bit by surprise -- not much mention of the work or author in the magazines and at the sites we peruse, but then we saw that the PR-focus is apparently elsewhere: in the part of Curtis Sittenfeld's review at Salon today that's freely accessible (reluctantly we link to that page ... here) she informs readers that Freudenberger "has appeared in recent issues of both Vogue and Elle". Apparently we're just reading all the wrong magazines if we want to keep up with what's new in the literary world ..... (Okay, one of these stories, "The Tutor" also appears in the current issue of Granta -- and got a nice mention in Jonathan Heawood's review in The Observer ("Yet Nell Freudenberger's story, 'The Tutor', stands out for the discreet economy with which she evokes a particular time and place").)
       What reviews of Lucky Girls we've seen have been positive (some very much so). Check out reviews in:        Ms. Freudenberger is also keeping a busy reading-schedule -- lucky New Yorkers can catch her tonight at Three Lives & Co.. And for what it's worth (and people keep mentioning it, so perhaps it's worth something): she's apparently quite an eyeful.

       (Our logs indicate that the Salon-piece has a link to the complete review (leading surprisingly many users here) -- but since we aren't Salon-subscribers (and our attempts to use their 'day-pass' failed due to our unwillingness to allow them (and the 'Ultramerical'-folk, whoever they might be) to put cookies on our computers) we have no idea what exactly they link to.)
       (Updated - 8 September): We have now finally been able to read the Salon-piece (where we also learn that Curtis Sittenfeld is, indeed, a woman -- see also 6 September update, below) -- the link is to our main page. For our additional comments, see above.

       (Updated - 6 September): In the original post above we referred to Curtis Sittenfeld as 'he'. We have since received an e-mail informing us that Curtis Sittenfeld is in fact a woman -- our apologies to Ms.Sittenfeld for the mistake (and our even greater apologies to Mr.Sittenfeld if, in fact, the e-mail is a hoax). (Mis-)identifying Sittenfeld as a man kept us from making another observation: for what it's worth (and we're not quite sure yet what that would be) all the reviews so far (admittedly very few) appear to be by women, a sexual imbalance that we're not entirely comfortable with. Obviously -- with Vogue and Elle apperances, etc. -- the appeal of the book is imagined to be with the female readership. We're curious whether male critical perspectives would differ .....

       (Also updated - 6 September): More Nell news: catch Karen Valby's profile (?) in Entertainment Weekly.
       It's here we find the strain of maintaining any semblance of neutrality getting to be quite challenging. Okay, we don't expect EW to offer hard-hitting journalism, but what is the point of this empty puffery ? Also: enough with the photograph poses already !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

3 September 2003 - Wednesday

Split opinions on Yellow Dog | A.N.Wilson on Iris Murdoch
Linn Ullmann's Stella Descending

       Split opinions on Yellow Dog

       It's hard to resist commenting on the continuing flow of Yellow Dog-comments and reviews (as we did most recently just yesterday). Now there are two more reviews, in the Telegraphs -- and, almost predictably, they're not in agreement.
       Jane Shilling finds that: "Yellow Dog is readable, amusing and clever, which gives it a head start on the majority of modern novels" -- though she does also write: "On the other hand, it doesn't give the feeling, which its publisher would clearly like to claim, of a great modern novelist at the full stretch of his powers."
       Lewis Jones isn't anywhere near as generous, insisting: "Yellow Dog (...) is a disaster." He also hits Amis where it hurts:
But more worrying even than the lameness of the characters, dialogue and jokes is that this decorated warrior against cliché seems alarmingly close to embracing it.
       (You can order Yellow Dog at or See also the Jonathan Cape publicity page.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       A.N.Wilson on Iris Murdoch

       Martin Amis' Yellow Dog has gotten a drubbing from some critics (see above, for example), but A.N.Wilson's recently published (in the UK) Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her (get your copy at beats it hands down as the leading contender for most-reviled book of the year.
       Iris Murdoch apparently asked A.N.Wilson to be her biographer (with some of the reviews suggesting she did so mainly to undermine other wannabe biographers). He failed in (or turned away from) his assigned task and settled for this, explaining:
My own tribute to her, which has just been published, is not a biography, but rather an account of what it was like to know her, and a demonstration of how difficult, perhaps impossible, it is to describe the most important part of a writer's life -- namely their inner life, the imagination that transforms the world.
       The reviewers have not been kind to (or pleased by) this tribute.
       Mark Bostridge wonders (Independent on Sunday, 31 August): "With friends like A N Wilson, who needs enemies ?" He finds: "This book reads like a hastily constructed hotchpotch", and concludes:
In his own way, A N Wilson is eager to claim relationship with her, though from his slighting reference to Peter Conradi, the man eventually chosen to write Murdoch's biography, I'd say the strongest odour emanating from Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her is one of sour grapes.
       Peter Conrad (not to be confused with Peter Conradi) finds (The Observer, 31 August):
The ordure in Wilson's book, spicily mixed with bile, is all his own, and he has dumped it on two people whose only mistake was their kindness to him.
       Anne Chisholm opines (Daily Telegraph, 2 September):
The biography was eventually abandoned, and the diary-based memoir Wilson has now produced reveals more about himself than about Murdoch. It is a confused, gossipy, spasmodically clever and painfully treacherous book.
       While Claudia FitzHerbert dismisses it (Sunday Telegraph, 31 August) as:
the aborted foetus of the biography he was contracted to write, pickled in a disturbing mixture of regret, nostalgia and distaste.
       She also describes Wilson's method:
Wilson uses an artful mish-mash of diary entries and accounts of Murdoch's novels and philosophical positions, padded out with tenuously related reminiscences of writers, Oxford dons and others, ranging from Philip Larkin to Hugh Grant.
       We haven't seen the book yet, so we, of course, won't presume to judge, but this does not sound like a winner. But it is getting considerable attention, for whatever that's worth.

       (In his semi-explanation Wilson cleverly diverts attention by praising another curious (but highly entertaining) semi-(auto)biographical tribute, Geoff Dyer's wonderful Out of Sheer Rage.
       See also the defensive portrait by Matt Seaton in today's issue of The Guardian.)

       (Updated - 5 September): Another review: Richard Canning's in The Independent (4 September). The now usual reaction:
(H)is occasional high-mindedness is more than cancelled out by pervasive spleen. To disjointed sallies against Bayley, he adds only a few trivial anecdotes and some impenetrable philosophical précis.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Linn Ullmann's Stella Descending

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Linn Ullmann's newly translated novel, Stella Descending. There's not that much contemporary (or other) Norwegian literature that finds its way into English, and this is worth a look.

       (Ms. Ullmann also comes with an extra-literary pedigree that might attract some readers: yes, she's the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.)

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2 September 2003 - Tuesday

More Yellow Dog fun | US perspective on the Man Booker
Assaying Poe | Eagleton on Hobsbawm | Mortified authors

       More Yellow Dog fun

       Sarah Lyall's Martin Amis-profile from The New York Times is now also available at The Age (i.e. a site you don't have to register at in order to read the article).

       Another review is now also out, Matt Thorne's in the Independent on Sunday. It's another review that's definitely in the thumbs down category:
Yellow Dog is a strange, sad stew of a novel, so aggressively unpleasant that it would perhaps be best accompanied by an author photograph of Amis flicking Vs at the reader. No doubt most reviewers will seize on the book's manifold weaknesses and use this as an opportunity to write off Amis for good. More interesting to me is trying to understand why a novel that sounded so promising should prove such a dramatic and disturbing misfire.
       No matter how bad this thing is (and we're getting mighty curious) it would be hard to write off Amis for good. And the reactions to the book haven't been universally bad -- witness the Booker longlist nod, and Douglas-Fairhurst's review in The Observer.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       US perspective on the Man Booker

       Elena Lappin offers an American look (or at least a look for Americans) at the Man Booker at Slate, wondering What does the Booker Prize long-list say about British fiction ?, noting that with this year's longlist "2003 seems to be the year of the moderately known to completely unknown novelist".
       She takes this thing very seriously, insisting:
It is crucial to open this very important literary award to all the best writing in the English language -- including the United States. The Booker Prize would then cease to be a tacit celebration of the former British Empire and would come alive with the most powerful and exciting contemporary voices.
       Why it is so important to do this we don't know -- why not just start up a new prize ? (Though the Man Booker crowd -- judges and judged -- apparently take themselves pretty damn seriously too: see David Smith's A prize bunch of literary egos in the 31 August issue of The Observer.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Assaying Poe

       Check out Jane Hirshfield's Poe: An Assay (I) in the Fall issue of The Threepenny Review.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Eagleton on Hobsbawm

       Terry Eagleton reviews Eric Hobsbawm's memoirs, Interesting Times, in this week's issue of The Nation.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Mortified authors

       In the current issue of The Bookseller Horace Bent previews a book that might prove fairly entertaining: Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, edited by Robin Robertson, expected from Fourth Estate in November (in the UK -- order your copy from
       It appears to be exactly what the title promises, and for those who enjoy others' misery -- tempered here by the fact that these quite illustrious authors have otherwise done very well for themselves -- it should provide good entertainment value.

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