In today's issue of The Guardian Kate Figes asks five publishers about The ones that got away, books they feel "missed the mark in 2003" (i.e. flopped -- undeservedly, of course).
The big surprise -- to us -- is Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.
It's been a popular review all year at the complete review -- and was clearly a success for Pantheon in the US, widely reviewed and selling well.
But Cape apparently couldn't convince anyone in the UK of the worth of the book, publisher Dan Franklin complaining:
Easily the most reviewable of Cape's graphic novels, but it only got one proper review, in the Times.
The feature coverage was excellent but somehow it just didn't translate into sales.
(We've sold 4,000.)
In America the story was very different.
It was reviewed everywhere and sold 40,000 copies.
In France 150,000 copies have been sold.
The 15 December issue of The Scotsman offers the favourite expressions of "a selection of writers, poets, screenwriters and songwriters" in A cellar door to the soul.
(J.R.R.Tolkien apparently felt that "'cellar door' was the most beautiful sounding combination of words in the English language".)
The stage-adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials at the National Theatre will apparently soon open.
An Aleks Sierz interview in the 12 December issue of The Independent with both Pullman and director Nicholas Hytner mentions some of the difficulties encountered so far -- including the fact that "the 20 December press night has been delayed until 3 January".
That hasn't stopped The Economist from offering their review in this week's issue -- and they're certain that: "The National Theatre's staging of His Dark Materials will be the season's delight".
Jackie Loohauis reports that Marquette expanding Tolkien collection in the 17 December issue of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
It turns out that Marquette's J.R.R. Tolkien Collection is "one of the two most important in the world, together with that at the Bodleian Library in Oxford".
Who'd have thought ?
Marquette owns the 9,250-page original manuscript of The Lord of the Rings, and the original manuscript of The Hobbit -- having paid about $ 5,000 for those (and more) back in 1957.
They'll also be hosting a conference 22-23 October 2004, titled 'The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004', "to mark the 50th anniversary of the fantasy trilogy's release."
More information can be found here.
After Amazon.com's introduction of full-text search capability of many titles available for sale at its site, Google now is also phasing in a more limited book search capability.
Chris Sherman reports that Google Introduces Book Searches at Searchenginewatch.com, noting that:
Google is indexing only a small excerpt from each book, typically taken from the inside cover, jacket reviews, author biographies or the book's introduction.
William Sutcliffe's New Boy is old news -- the author's first book, published in 1996.
We've had his two more recent titles under review for quite a while, and so once we finally got our hands on a copy of this title we figured we should review it as well -- as we now have: see our review
The online half on the Winter edition of RainTaxi is now available.
Reviews include one of Phoebe 2002, which we recently mentioned (but still haven't reviewed).
Here Steven Moore opines:
If Phoebe 2002 doesn't sweep every poetry award this year, it will be as unjust as Bette Davis's failure to win an Oscar for All About Eve.
The endless creativity on display here, the deep erudition, the Talmudic ingenuity, and the sense of fun against all odds make this the most impressive book of poetry I've read in years.
It looks tempting: leafing through VAS: An Opera in Flatland (reassuringly also described as: "A Novel") one is struck by how carefully (and arrestingly) designed the book is.
There's something eye-catching on nearly every page, and one is curious what it's all about.
Written by Steve Tomasula and with "art + design" by Stephen Farrell, this nearly 400-page tome published by Station Hill Press uses (among many other works) Edwin A. Abbott's classic, Flatland, -- there are characters named Circle and Square -- to very different ends, the focus now genetic, rather than geometric.
The design and layout is what one first notices: the text aligned with a margin-line (which sits on the right-hand side for the even-numbered pages, on the left-hand side for the odd) -- with additional marginal lines and some cross-over of text to allow several levels of marginal thought.
For most of the book text is sprinkled all over the page, rather than presented in generic paragraph by paragraph form.
There are a variety of typefaces, and the text is littered with quotes, from Abbot's book and many others.
And there are illustrations and graphics, including DNA-sequence charts and web pages and a medical consent form and much more.
It all looks real good, and intriguing.
There's text too, -- an actual story, apparently.
Having to do with reproduction (biological, mainly, but not only) and genetics.
(The couple at the book's centre consider the implications of Square getting a vasectomy or Circle having another child.)
In his review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction Adam Jones describes it:
The prose, which balances terrifying facts and a desperate humor with an ease worthy of David Markson, worries over what we are making of ourselves and our fictions about ourselves.
These concerns, as implied by Square’s name, are borne from wanting to not be hip to the times
This is a book that doesn't shy away from devoting twenty-five pages to reproducing the composition of chromosome 12 in humans (i.e. twenty-five pages filled solely with combinations of the letters A, C, and T, in what might as well be random order) -- i.e. truly unreadable text.
The approach, the fill of observation and titbits and asides, and the attempt to convey scientific issues through a fiction appealed to us.
But we just couldn't get into it.
Maybe we just don't have the patience for disjointed fiction right now.
(In part it's certainly also the writing, which didn't really grab us.)
Still, it might be of interest to some readers.
We recently mentioned the Oswyn Murray article in the 26 November issue of the TLS on Edward Bulwer Lytton being "More than just a dandy" (which argued that: "A forgotten work establishes Bulwer Lytton as a pathbreaking historian of Greece").
We were going to cover it in a bit more depth once we got our hands on a copy but now find a good reason to wait a while longer: in a letter to the editor from the 12 December TLS (which uncharacteristically reached us in a timely fashion) someone affiliated with publishing house Routledge wrote:
Your readers may like to know that the text of Bulwer Lytton's history, as well as a fuller version of the story of discovery by Murray, will be published by Routledge in March 2004.
What thrilling news !
We do hope that Routledge will be kind enough to send us a copy when the time comes, so that we will then be able to offer you our fuller coverage.
For those who are as excited as we are: you can pre-order a copy of the book, Athens: Its Rise and Fall, at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Patti Thorn offers a very grumpy Christmas wishlist at the Rocky Mountain News (link first seen at Arts Journal).
The wish we have the least understanding for:
A way to stop the avalanche of self-published books.
I've gotta be honest with you, Santa, Internet publishers such as iUniverse, 1st Books and Xlibris are making my life miserable.
Now every Tom, Dick and Harry can self-publish a book relatively cheaply, then call me up to demand I review their "book."
Given the more than 60,000 titles published legitimately every year and the space we have for, oh, say 500 of them, it's just not possible to tackle these vanity titles.
We're inundated by requests (and, surprisingly frequently, demands) to review self-published books too -- maybe not to the extent that a prestigious periodical like the Rocky Mountain News is, but it's certainly something we deal with on a daily basis.
We're not impressed by most of these titles, but we'll request the odd review copy if a book sounds like it might be of interest (though so far we haven't reviewed any).
We have a considerably smaller budget than the Rocky Mountain News-book section (our guess: our annual budget is roughly equal to Patti Thorn's weekly take-home pay) -- and we do review fewer titles (a bit under 200 per annum).
Nevertheless, it wouldn't occur to us to think of the mass of books being published (self- or otherwise) to be anything less than a boon, and to do anything other than cheer on every Tom, Dick, and Harry who takes this (or any) publishing route -- even if, on a day-to-day basis, dealing with authors trying to get their terrible self-published books reviewed is something of a waste of our time.
In the first place: surely it's not that big a problem.
Ms. Thorn is being very misleading when she mentions that there are "60,000 titles published legitimately every year".
She certainly receives nowhere near that many to consider -- and, in fact, the number of books that are 'reviewable' is only in the thousands.
From Harlequin romances to the bulk of science fiction to cookbooks, how-to manuals, and much more, the vast majority of books published every year won't even be considered by any newspaper review-section, and are dismissed without a look.
Ms. Thorn can surely just as easily lump self-published books in with all these other types of books she won't touch, if that's how she feels.
(She wouldn't be the only one: recall that Bob Hoover recently tried to explain in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette why Reviewers mostly draw the line at self-published submissions; see also our discussion of that idea.)
But, as usual, we suggest it is unwise to summarily dismiss all such books.
In constantly dealing with "legitimately" published books Ms. Thorn sees every day the many failings of commercial publishers; indeed, she even complains on her wishlist about her many disappointments -- odd that she doesn't draw any of the obvious conclusions from that .....
With many publishers no longer accepting unsolicited manuscripts, and an emphasis on blockbusters and formulas over literary worth commercial publishers likely don't take chances on many works of quality by untested (or possibly in some respect (not a pretty enough face, for example) unmarketable) authors.
Self-publishing might make it too easy for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to publish a book -- but the possibility (if not likelihood) that there's a gem or two among all the loads of crap seems, to us, to be too great to simply write off self-publishing as a vanity exercise.
We continue to be fascinated by this apparently widespread and often very heated anti-mass-publishing sentiment -- especially coming from people like Thorn and Hoover whose jobs entail dealing with books (and who, one would have thought, actually like them).
(It's nothing new: we discussed a few other such complaints in our Literary Saloon dialogue In Praise of Slush, May a Hundred Million Books Bloom, a couple of years ago.)
Yes, we too would like only brilliant, worthy works to be published, so we don't waste our time looking through (or reading) crap -- but commercial publishers (and newspaper and magazine book reviewers) have failed miserably in separating wheat from chaff, so we think the only way to go is: the more the merrier.
We simply don't understand what the problem is with self-publishing (and, in fact, we see a far greater danger in the anti-book sentiments of those so fervently opposed to it).
Another Oulipo author, Jacques Jouet, that the Dalkey Archive Press introduces to English-speaking audiences (or will, in a month or two -- we're a bit premature here) with the translation of Mountain R, which we now have under review.
He's an interesting writer, and Mountain R isn't worrisomely Oulipian (unlike, say, his Fins -- 216 paragraphs arranged in 6 x 6 x 6 permutations of how many sentences per paragraphs (and each section with a certain finality to it ...).)
Oulipo-scholar Warren Motte offers a good introduction to Reading Jacques Jouet in the most recent Context -- and note that Motte not only reviewed the book for World Literature Today back when it first came out in France, but also gets a nod in the novel itself, as the writer in the book applies for a grant "from the Warren Motte Foundation".
As we mentioned a few days ago, Ahmadou Kourouma recently passed away.
There have been many remembrances in the French-language press, but little notice in the English-language press.
So bonus points to The Independent: Margaret Busby's piece in today's issue is the first in a major UK or US paper we've come across.
A bit hasty (it begins ungrammatically and inelegantly: "Known the 'African Voltaire', Ahmadou Kourouma by the time of his death could lay claim to being the best-known African writer in France") it nevertheless offers a decent overview of the author -- and considerably more than the competition.
There has been another English report -- Tunde Okoli's "Obsequies" in the African paper, This Day, Ivorien Writer, Ahmadou Kourouma, Dies at 76.
We like the enthusiasm: "The news of the death of Ahmadou Kourouma in Lyon, France on Friday hit the African literary firmament like a thunderbolt."
Noteworthy here also: the reliance on material from the complete review ("The complete-review.com opined that Kourouma's career is an odd one", etc.)
We're sort of flattered -- and a bit embarrassed.
We've read his four novels and collected a bit of information about him, but that's the extent of it; authorities on his life we ain't.
(We're also a bit sad that there hasn't been greater interest in Kourouma as measured by page-views at the complete review.
Previous deaths of authors we've had under review -- Augusto Monterroso, Gellu Naum -- have resulted in large spikes of interest in our reviews of their works.
Kourouma is the first author we have an author-page for who has died, and that's the page that comes up as the top Google-result if one searches for "ahmadou kourouma", and yet interest hasn't increased by very much.)
As we've mentioned, the BBC's Big Read ended Saturday.
Ostensibly about books, Rebecca Ellinor noted in Saturday's issue of The Guardian that:
rather than thumb through pages of print, it seems more people would rather sit back and watch a dramatisation of their favourite novel.
Sales of the 21 shortlisted books have shot up by up to 450 %, but sales of adapted TV and movie versions have gone up by three times as much.
David Sexton picks up on that and more in a very enjoyable dismissal of the BBC's undertaking in today's issue of the Evening Standard, One Big absurd outcome.
Regarding the bigger increases in DVD sales, he notes:
Why be surprised ?
The audience for The Big Read naturally consisted of people who preferred watching to reading, and it was obvious at every stage of the proceedings that votes were being cast for films and TV adaptations rather than for the texts themselves.
Two weeks ago we mentioned that Jiří Gruša (Jiri Grusa) had been elected the new president of International PEN.
We were a bit surprised that there was no English-language press coverage at the time, but we figured a fair amount would follow in the week to come.
Boy, were we wrong.
Two weeks have now passed, and not only have there not been the big summary articles about the PEN Congress and the changing of the guard we expected, there don't seem to have been any mentions.
Not even an AP report tucked away among the incidental arts coverage in any major or minor American or British newspaper or magazine.
Shame on them all !
International PEN obviously has a bit of a PR problem (rather desperately their press release about the Mexico City conference promises: "Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa will be present" -- and they don't seem to have yet managed to post a press release regarding the election of Gruša to lead the organisation), but surely this is real news.
Okay, not the most impressive news, just a couple of authors getting together and making statements condemning abuses of writers across the world, and electing a new president, but still of some interest.
(And Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa were apparently present !)
Still: how can this go entirely unreported ?
Or is it a sign of how truly and utterly insignificant writers are considered to be in the contemporary world ?
(Or is it simply a sign of how much newspapers and magazines rely on press releases (since there apparently hasn't been an official one about the election) rather than actually paying attention to what's going on in the world ?)
The best we can do as far as pointing you to additional information and English-language coverage is this pathetic Radio Prague report, Jiri Grusa on his plans as PEN Club President.
We'll look for additional coverage, but don't hold your breath.
In today's issue of the Sydney Morning Herald, Valerie Lawson reports that a Decision looms on White's house.
Now that it's vacant, a decision has to be made as to what should happen with Patrick White's house.
Trustees will meet today to make their final recommendation to the Premier, Bob Carr, on how the State Government could buy the property, and maintain it as a historic house, perhaps housing a writers' retreat.
Two trilogies in the top five -- and four fantastical titles.
What to conclude ?
Ah, probably not much.
So far the only commentary we've found is Simon O'Hagan's article in today's issue of The Independent, Tolkien triumphs in the BBC's 'Big Read'.
He notes, disturbingly, about the winning title(s):
As chief advocate of the book that earned such characters as Gandalf and Frodo Baggins an indelible place in literary history, the television presenter and survival expert Ray Mears stressed its environmental message, declaring it "the most important book ever written in the English language".
The shudders still run up and down our spines .....
Sad news: as we learned from La Muselivre, the Ivory Coast author Ahmadou Kourouma passed away on Thursday.
An AFP report says he was in hospital, in Lyon, "for surgery for a benign tumour".
Well-known in France, Kourouma hasn't received all the attention he's due in the English-speaking world.
It's surprising and disappointing: there's no question that he is one of the most important (and best) African writers.
The recent critical success of Frank Wynne's translation of the wonderful Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (previously translated -- in an edition completely ignored by every book review forum in America -- by Carrol F. Coates as Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals), and Wynne's forthcoming translation of the prize-winning Allah n'est pas obligé may help to bring his work to a larger audience; we would certainly recommend you have a look.
(We also have his first two novels under review: Monnew and The Suns of Independence.)
It will be interesting to see what kind of obituary-coverage he gets in the English-language press.
Along with Sembene Ousmane, he's probably the leading Francophone author to come out of Africa, and there's no question that Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is one of the best books to come out of Africa in the past twenty years, so we'd certainly expect that he'd merit a few paragraphs in at least some of the major dailies.
The French-language press has done a decent job so far: L'Express only has a brief note, but proper appreciations and overviews can be found by:
The new issue (awkwardly dated December, 2003- January 2004) of the Boston Review is now available online.
There are a few pieces of some literary interest.
Recommended: Conrad’s List by M. G. Stephens, in which he reminisces about working at the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village ("For a young writer to work in the Eighth Street Bookshop was like a young painter apprenticing with Michelangelo or Titian.").
Today's issue of The Age offers The gift of words, in which "a host of literary types reveals the books that impressed them most over the past year".
Among the "literary types": Richard Flanagan and John Banville.
The latter suggests:
J.M.Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello is not -- surely ? -- the best novel of the year, but Coetzee's vision is so compellingly bleak, his interrogation of literature so profound, and his wit so sly, that I must choose it as my fiction of the year.
Today's issue of The Guardian also offers "Robin Buss on the centenary of the Prix Goncourt", in Few shall have prizes.
Filler material, bit if you can't read all the French coverage it will probably do.
In today's issue of The Independent, Danielle Demetriou reports that: "The Big Read translates into big sales as the BBC's shortlist turns classics into bestsellers".
The twenty-one shortlisted titles have done very well indeed:
Figures released yesterday showed that combined sales of the books have increased by more than 425 per cent since they were chosen two months ago.
(See all the increases at the bottom of the article.)
Not much to complain about here (except that perhaps a few other titles might have been more deserving).
But it's amusing to read about the concerns of publishers, worried about how they will fill the post-Big Read void (and sales-slump).
As we learnt at Golden Rule Jones, Stephen King's much-discussed acceptance speech when he was awarded the "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award" at this year's National Book Awards is now available at the NBA site (you can listen to it there too).
Interestingly, the actual prize-acceptance speeches (including Shirley Hazzard's, in which she responded to King) are still only listed as "Coming Soon".
Enough has probably been said about this speech, but we'd like to add a few points.
Tokenism is not allowed. You can't sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, "Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question.
In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we'll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists."
It's not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.
What do you think ?
You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture ?
He makes it sound like the National Book Awards are some elitist prizes, only awarded to ultra-literary, high-brow serious fiction which absolutely nobody reads.
He would have done well to consider what books have received the prize (at least in the fiction category) over the past few years.
Among the winners are mega-selling titles (all in the million-copy vicinity, all of which made the bestseller lists):
Okay, Danielle Steel doesn't seem to have made the shortlist recently -- nor have John Grisham, Tom Clancy, or Mary Higgins Clark -- but these are some pretty popular writers (or at least these books sold extraordinarily well).
King also said:
There's a writer here tonight, my old friend and some time collaborator, Peter Straub.
He's just published what may be the best book of his career.
Lost Boy Lost Girl surely deserves your consideration for the NBA short list next year, if not the award itself.
Have you read it ?
Have any of the judges read it ?
This is the kind of ignorant statement that drives us absolutely nuts.
This may be the greatest novel ever written, but it deserves absolutely no consideration for next year's NBA shortlist or prize -- simply because it is not eligible.
The NBA entry rules clearly state:
Any United States publisher may enter books with scheduled publication dates between December 1, 2003 and November 30, 2004. These may be submitted as finished copies, if available. Proofs, bound galleys, and bound manuscripts are also acceptable.
Lost Boy, Lost Girl was published in early October, 2003.
If, then it should have been a contender this year, not next -- and the interesting question is, of course, whether Straub's publisher, Random House, bothered to submit the title.
Indeed, we'd be curious to know how often the publishers of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Mary Higgins Clark actually bothered to submit their books for this award.
We suspect: rarely.
Why didn't King tell his audience how often his publishers submitted his novels for NBA-consideration ?
If they've submitted all of them, then he might have a valid gripe about how popular fiction is being ignored by these prize-committees.
If (as we suspect) his publishers have submitted none of them, then he should turn his attention to -- and direct his criticism against -- them.
The two most popular search terms leading users to the Literary Saloon are, once again, freudenberger and nell (ahead of, in turn: saloon, literary, review, the, and, book, new, and summary).
Since there's obviously interest, we've continued to keep our users informed about most of the Nell Freudenberger coverage (though we're unable to supply much for the single most popular query: "nell freudenberger pictures") -- and now we've gone and taken the biggest plunge of all: we've reviewed her recent story-collection, Lucky Girls.
You can find it -- if you really want to -- right here
Note also that Ms. Freudenberger will be reading as part of the KGB Reading Series in New York on 14 December.
(Looks like the last stop on the current publicity tour; UK publication of Lucky Girls next spring will probably see her make those rounds.)