Among the prizes being handed out on Monday (see our previous mention of some of the other events) is the Corneliu M Popescu Prize, awarded for translations of poetry into English from the past two years.
In today's issue of The Guardian one of the judges, Alan Brownjohn, discusses the competition and the decision-making process, raising some of the issues regarding translation of poetry as it is being practised in the UK at this time.
Not surprisingly, the overall standard of the submitted books seems to have been lower than for your average literary prize (though with still enough worthy titles to make it a real competition):
But we saw too many books that were too hastily and ordinarily produced.
These often lacked proper guides to the poet's work or status, or the credentials of the translator.
Why not wait until the money is there to do a better job ?
And why not make yourself aware of how the best translators and publishers tackle the task ?
Well, at least some broadsheet-space is devoted to mention and discussion of the issues.
At Brown University they have a new writing programme, the International Writers Project Fellowship, which "aims to support international creative writers -- fiction, dramatists, and poets -- who risk danger within their home country for artistic free expression."
The first selected author is Shahrnush Parsipur -- see this mention in the George Street Journal or Iranian novelist coming to Brown by Walter Driver in last week's Brown Daily Herald.
Only one title by Parsipur appears to be currently available in the US, but see her story The Story of the Men of Sialk Hills in Fiction, or this recent story in the Contra Costa Times about her adaptation of a classic Persian folk tale, The Guests.
The only slightly disturbing bit of information about this: applications for the programme went to Brown teacher (and author) Robert Coover -- and the BDHstory reports:
She plans to spend the year working on Persian translations of Coover's Spanking the Maid, and Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, which she hopes will alter common perceptions of psychological disturbances in Iran.
No doubt, Persian readers the world over have been clamouring for a translation of Spanking the Maid, but it still seems a bit too convenient to our tastes -- though admittedly it does give the translator a marvelous opportunity to work directly with the author, which is almost good enough an excuse.
The TLS-site offers information about this year's winners of the TLS Translation Prizes (links at the TLS site are publicly available too briefly for us to bother you with them); they'll be awarded Monday (22 September) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall -- after which Tariq Ali will deliver the NESTA 2003 Sebald Lecture, "Language and Power".
It's all part of two days of translation-packed activity.
It's hard to make heads or tails out of the various activities and auspices (TLS ! NESTA ! BCLT ! etc !), but here is what we've cobbled together as far as links go:
The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of three Eça de Queirós titles: The Relic, To the Capital, and The Yellow Sofa.
Two of them -- To the Capital and The Yellow Sofa -- are posthumously published works (Eça died in 1900, and his son published these in 1925), and there's some question about the textual integrity of them.
But even a manhandled bit of Eça ain't bad.
Curious too: British publisher Carcanet has done an admirable job in making some Portuguese literature (and Eça in particular) available to English-speaking audiences -- but their 1994 edition of The Relic gives the author's name on the cover etc. as "Eça de Queiroz", while their 1995 edition of To the Capital gives it as "Eça de Queirós".
We know both are vaguely acceptable -- but wouldn't some consistency make life a little easier for readers ?
We've mentioned the much-reviled A.N.Wilson take on Iris Murdoch, Iris Murdoch as I knew Her, several times before (see here, for example).
The consensus is pretty clear (and damning), but here's one more review of some interest (even though it isn't as cruel to Wilson as most of the others): Raymond Carr's in this week's issue of The Spectator, offering a bit more Murdoch background from someone who knew her well.
Much linked to the past two days (beginning with Transblawg and languagehat), and certainly of interest to our readers: Helge Nowak's piece on A.S. Byatt's Possession for British and American Readers (in the Erfurt Electronic Studies in English).
Some Americanisation -- of the covers, for example -- is perhaps understandable, but text-fiddling is disturbing, to say the least.
Interesting (though not really surprising) what low regard US publishers have for their audiences .....
We only now stumbled across last week's BookBabes column on what's Lost in Translation .
Not much that is new, except the disappointing news that yet another publisher is giving up publishing new translations: Czech-oriented Catbird Press.
When I checked in with Wechsler, I learned that the current squeeze is putting him out of business.
He'll maintain his backlist and website, he says, but cutting his losses on any future books, saying that favorable reviews have not convinced the chains, Amazon, and distributors to stock his wares.
Catbird has gotten some decent review coverage: the 5 September TLS featured review (cover and then page 3) was of Martin Amis Yellow Dog, the issue from the week before the same spots were devoted to two Catbird titles by and about Karel Čapek (and the Amis review was only a page and a half, while the Čapek titles got a full two).
One of the books discussed is Ivan Klíma's Karel Čapek – Life and Work (see the Catbird publicity page.
The review (admittedly not entirely glowing) didn't seem to help much: the Amazon.com sales rank for the book was an abysmal 330,488 when we checked yesterday (meaning that there were practically no sales of the book via Amazon.com).
Catbird does have an odd, soft focus, with titles ranging from some Czech classics (or at least semi-classics) -- well worth seeking out -- to things like The Handbook of Law Firm Mismanagement for the 21st Century.
They've done an admirable job with Čapek, and it's too bad they won't be introducing American audiences to more Czech writers.
So much for serious literature being taken more seriously in the UK: in today's issue of The Independent Louise Jury writes about Beckham v the Booker list, noting that Tom Watt's book, My Side (published as David Beckham's autobiography), has -- in a matter of days -- done considerably better than the combined Man Booker shortlist:
But the six works nominated for the Man Booker prize, which have been in the shops for several months, have, so far, mustered combined sales of less than 65,000 copies -- 21,000 fewer than David Beckham's My Side notched up in its first two days on the shelves.
Damon Galgut, the South African author who surprised many by securing a place on the Booker shortlist with his novel The Good Doctor, has sold just 67 copies since it was published in the UK in January, according to figures from Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales.
Still, maybe the situation is not quite as bleak as this article suggests.
Tom Watt's book, My Side, only ranked 13th at Amazon.co.uk when we last checked -- buy your own copy there ! -- while Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor ranked a fairly impressive 40th.
Actually, it's all the more impressive because Amazon.co.uk doesn't make it easy for book-buyers to get their hands on a copy of the Galgut (try yourself): the book is one of those listed as "usually dispatched within 4 to 6 weeks" (i.e. after the Man Booker has been handed out) -- and they actually charge extra: "This hard-to-find title is subject to an additional handling charge of £1.99 per item (excluding VAT)."
But at least the book is getting some coverage, thanks to the Man Booker nod -- see Julie Wheelwright's review in yesterday's issue of The Independent, for example.
Getting back to the Tom Watt book (see also the HarperCollins publicity page): we know this whole ghostwriting thing is really popular, and probably something approaching nine out of ten "celebrity" memoirs are written with minimal input from the "author" whose name appears on the cover (from Ms. Clinton's book on up or down), but who exactly is being fooled by this, and why ?
And why does the media play along ?
True, Jim White at least wrote about Watt's role (in the Telegraph) -- but even he goes along with the whole thing, describing the actual author as:
Tom Watt, the man who wrote My Side, the autobiography of the most famous man in Britain
That sentence (and the facts) seem to be stretching the concept of "autobiography" awfully thin.
We'd argue: how can publishers ever expect to be taken seriously if this is what they do to their readers (i.e. package a book as an autobiography when the ostensible author-subject probably hasn't even read it, much less contributed to the actual writing) ?
No doubt HarperCollins would argue: the way they're raking in money hand over fist on this thing who needs to be honest with the customers .....
Jhumpa Lahiri's new book, The Namesake, has been getting good reviews, and her book (or rather: Lahiri) have been getting a lot of media coverage.
(We're wondering when everyone will start referring to her as 'J-La' .....)
We don't have The Namesake under review yet (and don't plan to any time soon), but see the Houghton Mifflin publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Publishers Weeklydiscusses some of Houghton Mifflin's publicity efforts -- including some fairly unusual (if not that far-fetched) product placement:
The Namesake will make a cameo appearance on Everybody Loves Raymond late this month, when Ray's wife, Debra, will be seen reading it in bed.
Everybody Loves Raymond is one of the most popular American TV sit-coms (see the official site) -- and presumably at least a small percentage of its audience consists of people who actually buy and possibly even read books.
We're curious to see whether there will be any sales-bump the day after the show is aired.
We sort of hope there is, as that would then lead to additional literary product placement -- maybe even of serious and worthy books.
(Reading isn't a very popular TV activity (has anyone ever done a study ?) -- aside from the occasional bookish teen (Gilmore Girl Rory is the current prime(time) exemplar, allowing the writers to slip in bits about her enthusing over everything from Dawn Powell to Ginsberg's Howl) there's usually nary a book in sight.
A rare (and quite successful) exception: the episode of Friends where Rachel reads Stephen King's The Shining (Joey's favourite book, which he claims to read at least once a year) and Joey reads Little Women -- an episode which also offers viewers a good tip on how to deal with scary books.)
(Afterthought: have we just lost all literary credibility, by demonstrating such in-depth knowledge of contemporary junk-television ?
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of the second volume (of a planned three) of the English translation of Arno Schmidt's literary dialogues, Radio Dialogs II.
What can we say ?
Is there any (non-fiction) reading experience that could even come close to being this exciting ?
(Only a handful of titles -- The Anatomy of Melancholy, for example -- come to mind.)
Yes, it suffers some by comparison with the German originals (despite John E. Woods heroic efforts) -- including the fact that not all the dialogues are on offer -- but for anyone who can't read the originals and who is interested in literature we'd be hard-pressed to recommend something more highly.
Note: it is available -- demand it from your local bookseller.
Disappointingly, it hasn't yet registered at the American Amazon.com (where, if it were available, you'd find it here) -- though the Amazons in the UK and even Canada had no trouble listing it.
Toby Clements describes his attempts at joining in the BookCrossing 'craze'.
It seems to be a fairly successful idea, generally, -- though we haven't come across a BookCrossed book yet -- but things didn't work out quite as expected when Clements had a go at joining in the fun:
I left a copy of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (by Stephen Sherrill) in a pub in Stoke Newington and found it later that week in a second-hand bookshop, going for £ 9.
We have a few Michael Frayn titles under review (including his recent big play-success, Copenhagen), and we hope to soon add coverage of his newest drama, the unlikely Democracy, which has just opened at the National Theatre.
(Get your copy of the text at Amazon.co.uk, and see also the Methuen publicity page.)
Despite the subject matter it's been getting very good notices.
See reviews by:
Charles Spencer (Daily Telegraph) -- who calls it "a piece of rare ambition. But, in Michael Blakemore's lucid, superbly acted production at the National's Cottesloe Theatre, Democracy also offers great entertainment."
Paul Taylor (The Independent, 11 September) -- who found it "complex and richly rewarding"
Johann Hari (Independent on Sunday, 14 September) -- who writes that "Michael Frayn's new play is so unashamedly highbrow (like his previous play, the masterpiece Copenhagen) that at times he almost seems to be defying his audience to lose concentration with long, dense descriptions of the exact make-up of Willy Brandt's coalition. Amazingly, the writing is so vivid that this never happens."
Victoria Segal (The Sunday Times, 14 September) -- who writes: "At times it comes across as The West Wing meets the Eastern Bloc: hugely entertaining, packed with verbal parrying and effortless wit."
Well, here's a book on a subject we really enjoying delving into: The Story of V by Catherine Blackledge, which recently came out in the UK (get your copy at Amazon.co.uk; much to our regret it does not yet appear to be available in the US).
A couple of reviews so far: Joanna Briscoe is enthusiastic (Snatch squad, The Guardian, 30 August), finding it a "quite astonishingly thorough monograph".
This is as persuasive, comprehensive and wide-reaching a study as you could wish for -- should you wish for it.
Marcelle d'Argy Smith reviews it in this week's issue of the New Statesman, and is similarly impressed:
I love writers who are passionate about their subject.
And on the subject of vaginas (human, bird, animal, fish or insect), and everything related to them, you'd be hard pushed to find anyone more enthusiastic than Blackledge.
Of course, we don't mention this title (and the reviews) out of purely prurient interest, but also because it affords us yet another opportunity to note more publishing due diligence (or rather, of course, the lack thereof).
Marcelle d'Argy Smith notes:
But all writers need good editors, and it is a great shame that this book does not seem to have had one.
The repetition drives you nuts. Each time you think: "Haven't I read that before ?", you're absolutely right -- you have.
So here's what could have been a splendid book spoiled by the worst editing job I've seen in years.
Of course, the competition for the worst editing job of the year grows stiffer every passing season -- still, contenders are always worth noting (and complaining about).
We've previously (and so on) mentioned Nell Freudenberger and her debut story-collection, Lucky Girls (get it at Amazon.com -- or pre-order it at Amazon.co.uk).
We're glad to see we're not the only site receiving desperate and misguided traffic seeking out "nell freudenberger pictures" and the like: Moorish Girl reports similar user-interest (though she caters to it differently than we do).
For those who need more Freudenberger information, here's what else we've dug up (sorry, no pictures):
- the September Elle-mention (she is one of the "Elle 25")
- her readings-itinerary (the next event, for you groupies: 24 September at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto)
Note also that she got a very good review (by Jennifer Schuessler) in yesterday's issue of The New York Times Book Review (as you know, we don't link to registration-requiring sites of this sort -- hence: no link).
Schuessler calls it a "gorgeously written first book, a remarkably poised collection" -- and admirably avoids all mention of Freudenberger's advances, her debut in The New Yorker, and all those other sordid details.
(Our only question now: when is someone going to let a guy review this collection ?)
In Slate Adelle Waldman offers a modestly informative survey of "How four magazines you've probably never read help determine what books you buy".
She means the trade papers -- Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal:
the big four of book industry trade journals (...)
Their reviews -- 300 or so words of plot summary, context, and a quick verdict -- influence which books get noticed, bought, and promoted in the media.
A bit of interesting background and information, but nothing too fascinating.
Curiously, they only link to the Publishers Weekly site -- though the other three also have online presences (see Library Journal, Kirkus, and Booklist).
(None of the sites are particularly useful, though PW does offer the most information (though not as far as review coverage goes).)
It happens all the time in practically every American school district, but parents' groups' call for banning certain literary texts from school curricula can cause international outrage elsewhere too -- as the recent situation in Kenya demonstrates.
It helps, of course, if -- as was the case there -- one of the books and authors under fire is internationally well known.
Presumably there wouldn't be quite as much fuss about the banning of Said Ahmed Mohammed's Kitumbua Kimeingia Mchanga and Kiu (not available at your local bookstore, at least outside Kenya), but the third challenged text -- Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People, among the best-known novels to come out of Africa -- raises eyebrows.
Apparently, some parents' group (apparently with the Catholic church looming supportively behind them) felt it was pornographic, and therefore not proper for impressionable young minds.
For a whole variety of (not always very illuminating) reports and commentaries, see:
It's only come to our attention now: German playwright and author Peter Hacks passsed away 28 August.
He was one of the rare cross-over writers who left West Germany for the East (in 1955), becoming a leading playwright there -- intellectual, but more accessible (and more focussed on comedy) than say Heiner Müller or Volker Braun.
(He also wrote children's books, a good deal of poetry, and more.)
Essentially entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, the only English-language piece of interest we could find about him is in the English edition of the FAZ, amusingly describing: Hacks and Müller: mortal enmity -- the story of "a great, warmhearted, irreconcilable German enmity".
For German-readers, a round-up of obituaries and tributes:
We understand he's flogging Voyage to the End of the Room and presumably any publicity is better than none -- but is it really necessary to submit to things like this "interview" (with Tim Wapshott, The Guardian, 30 August) ?
Well, maybe it is: Horace Bent notes in The Bookseller that Fischer wasn't at the launch party for Adam Thirlwell's Politics at The Polish Club -- and mentions that:
Mr Fischer's recent assault on his fellow RH author Amis has not won him favour at the offices of their mutual publisher.
"He's dead meat," one partygoer was heard to mutter.
A bit more informative: John-Paul Flintoff's profile in the Financial Times, which also offers a glimpse of Fischer's reading list.
There are certain types of books that we try our best to steer clear of, including the surprisingly popular sub-genre of canine literature, fiction and non.
It wouldn't occur to us to review a book such as Paul Bailey's A Dog's Life (get your copy at Amazon.co.uk) -- but we still manage to enjoy reviews of it, such as Roy Hattersley's in today's issue of The Guardian.
The flyleaf promises that it will be "touching" and every page attempts, with a chilling deliberation, to appeal not to sentiment but to sentimentality.
I hated it, and I hated being conned into reading it.
Helen Osborne, reviewing it in the Sunday Telegraph (24 August), was similarly disappointed:
Strangers to the literary circus, and especially those seduced by the title, may think A Dog's Life an over-priced dog's dinner.
As one who, on the whole, finds dogs more charismatic and easier to handle than gays, I felt that both Circe and I had been short-changed.
But note that others were more enthusiastic -- Caroline Boucher liked it better (The Observer, 31 August), and Michael Arditti went so far as to write: "The book is delightful, as illuminating about people as it is about pets." (Daily Mail, 14 August)
At The Bookseller (11 September) Leslie Forbes offers an opinion piece again showing what fine business sense publishers possess.
Forbes wanted to write about the now bestselling but then relatively unknown writer Ian Rankin a few years back -- free publicity his publishers didn't exactly jump on:
The publicity rep wasn't convinced that they published Ian, then asked if he was a cookery writer and in the end sent nothing.
Later that year, praising Ian's books to a managing editor of Weidenfeld & Nicolson (a subsidiary of Rankin's publisher), I was told, "Shame his books don't sell. His editor is fighting to stop Ian being dropped."
Winning a big prize assured Rankin's future, but it's troubling (though hardly surprising) to find he was close to being dropped by his publisher.
(See also Nicholas Clee's comments (scroll down).)
The Guardian's online presence generally -- and its exemplary extensive and accessible book coverage at GuardianUnlimited -- make it one of the more useful websites around.
There's a good overview of the site and how it's run at Online Journalism Review.
We're not much for moaning about the decline of standards and civilization etc. etc., feeling that things are, very broadly speaking, as good and as bad as they've always been -- i.e. standards have generally been abysmally low, what passes for civilization an embarrassment (with notable exceptions, then and now).
Sometimes, however, even we get depressed by what we find around us.
Case in point: the most depressing book cover we've come across in ages.
Yes, it really does say: "The inspiration for the MTV original film" there (no doubt that was the ad-line they wanted to put on the first edition too, but for some reason they didn't do it back then).
Celebrities who'd like to play at being authors (and who aren't quite ready for the tell-all yet) often turn to what they believe is easier than writing adult fiction -- offering instead something for the kids.
One should perhaps be grateful that they don't try their hand at adult fiction (or, say, poetry) -- though it's not unheard of for them to try that too -- but poor little kids are even more defenceless than adult readers, since their reading material is usually bought for them by (generally) well-meaning adults who might think this is all harmless fun.
In Once upon a time ..., in The Independent today, Boyd Tonkin suggests that wariness is called for.
Some believe standards (not those of the publishers of course (they have no standards, after all), but of the market) will weed out the crap:
Philip Pullman, the Whitbread-winning author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and the most critically acclaimed children's writer in decades, is sanguine (.....)
"The rule is very simple, really," he says. "If a book is any good, it will survive. If not, there's no harm done."
That may do for posterity, but it's not true in the short run, where new children's books by big-name celebrities will at least initially sell well (and be foisted on defenceless kids).
It's money (and bedtime reading time) that could be better spent on qualitatively superior work.
(After all, surely almost no one believes these works will survive over the long term, do they ?)
In the spirit of this The Independent is also launching a new contest (scroll down to the bottom of the article for details):
(W)e would like to know just how a fable by one of our best-known public figures might read.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, by Ozzy Osbourne, say, or Alice in Wonderland, by Germaine Greer -- or even a Famous Five story by Tony Blair.
Send us -- in 50 words or less -- the opening to a children's book in the style of the celebrity of your choice.
We put up our review of Eliot Weinberger's 9/12 some three months ago, and are a bit disappointed in the lack of user-interest.
Even more depressing is the absence of other critical reactions -- the book has gone largely unreviewed.
Finally, Ed Park discusses it, in this week's issue of The Village Voice; perhaps the anniversary date will elicit a few more reactions.
(9/12 is a Prickly Paradigm Press title.
We have several others by them under review -- and many more look of interest.
It's a neat little series, well worth a look.)
The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of three James M. Cain titles (available in the collection Three by Cain): Serenade, Love's Lovely Counterfeit, and The Butterfly.
We haven't seen any of the film versions, but they're noteworthy for the casting -- the Serenade-adaptation starred Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, and Vincent Price, while The Butterfly wound up being made into the notorious Pia Zadora/Orson Welles/Stacy Keach vehicle.