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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 January 2004

1 January: New The Paris Review editor | reports | Egyptian round-up | Slate critical round-up | Jiri Grusa coverage | French literary prizes (and a few others)
2 January: Publishing principles | Fortunata and Jacinta review | One more best books list | Christopher Hope on South African writing
3 January: Laura Bush and her husband's poem | Arthur Miller visits Castro | New Will Self book | Leon de Winter review
4 January: Re-translations (and NZZ praise) | Most popular reviews in 2003 | His Dark Materials premiere
5 January: How not to tackle Don Quixote | Publishing preview ? | Vargas Llosa memoir
6 January: Kourouma mention | Middling minded mention
7 January: Party im Blitz review | Indian catastrophe | Whitbread, first round | Sexist NYTBR ?
8 January: Carlos Ruiz Zafón book | European bookselling | Francis Bacon aside
9 January: Ali Smith review | Hooshang Golshiri Foundation and Award
10 January: Nine Suitcases praise

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10 January 2004 - Saturday

Nine Suitcases praise

       Nine Suitcases praise

       Béla Zsolt's Nine Suitcases, just published (more than fifty years after the original Hungarian publication) in an English translation by Ladislaus Löb (available in the UK from, but not yet in the US) is getting heaps of praise.
       In a review in The Scotsman Roger Hutchinson says: "Nine Suitcases is a brilliant and beautiful book." Tibor Fischer also praises it in today's issue of The Guardian (though warning that it is not for the squeamish). And Clive Sinclair reviews it yesterday's issue of The Independent.
       (Updated - 11 January): Ian Thomson also reviews it in today's issue of The Observer.

       The most interesting piece we've read about it so far is, unfortunately, not available online: translator Ladislaus Löb wrote about it in last week's (registration-requiring) The Times. There he recalls:
In the small hours of December 7 in 1944 a German train stopped at the Swiss border station of St Margrethen near Lake Constance. It contained 1,368 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children, who had just spent five months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as captives of the Nazis. One of them was the famous writer Bela Zsolt. I, aged 11, was another.
       Zsolt was apparently a well-known figure, and he was even elected to the Hungarian parliament in 1947, but he died in 1949, and his writing does not seem to have made much of a mark outside his native Hungary.

       This isn't the only interesting project translator Löb -- Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Sussex -- is involved with. In the 2 January TLS there's a Steven Beller review of David Luft's Eros and Inwardness in Vienna (see the University of Chicago Press publicity page, or get your copy at or; it's certainly a book we'll try to get our hands on) -- a book that deals with Otto Weininger (and Musil and Doderer). Beller also discusses the old, anonymous translation of Weininger's classic Sex and Character and parenthetically remarks:
Reading the 1906 translation has made me even more impatient for the new one being prepared by Daniel Steuer and Ladislas Löb for Indiana University Press.
       No information about the book at the IUP site (or Amazon) yet -- but we're excited too. (To tide you over, consider Chandak Sengoopta's fine study, Otto Weininger.) We'll try our best to get our hands on a copy as soon as it is available, and we'll certainly let you know anything more we learn about it.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

9 January 2004 - Friday

Ali Smith review | Hooshang Golshiri Foundation and Award

       Ali Smith review

       Ali Smith's collection, The Whole Story and Other Stories, came out in the UK last year, and is due in the US in March. Our review is now available.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Hooshang Golshiri Foundation

       Iranian writer Houshang Golshiri (1937-2000) is among those whose works we'd very much like to review (not that that much is available in translation). Now, at Payvand, we learn there's a Hooshang Golshiri Foundation, "focusing on the promotion of contemporary fiction" in Iran (and founded by, among others, Mahmud Doulatabadi, who we do have several titles under review by).
       The Payvand article, by Syma Sayyah, reports on the Houshang Golshiri Annual Literary Award for 2003. These and previous winners -- see the foundation award page -- are, for the most part, unlikely to be available in translation soon; still, what information is available gives an interesting glimpse into the literary culture in Iran.
       The foundation page notes:
Modern Contemporary Iranian literature, especially fiction, has been mostly in official disfavor for about 2 decades. The exclusion of modern works of fiction from the annual list of "The Best Books of the Year" selected by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance every year reflects this fact.
       The foundation seems to be doing an impressive job in trying to foster a literary culture. Impressive also, that it also seems to embrace Iranian literature from abroad (i.e. including the exiles who, one must assume, are in even greater disfavour). Some of the judges also live abroad, suggesting politics and other extra-literary considerations really have been kept as far away as possible from the judgements made -- as they should be.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

8 January 2004 - Thursday

Carlos Ruiz Zafón book | European bookselling | Francis Bacon aside

       Carlos Ruiz Zafón book

       Among the spring titles we're most curious about is Carlos Ruiz Zafón's forthcoming The Shadow of the Wind (originally: La sombra del viento). It has been a huge bestseller in Europe, and looks to be the most anticipated book-in-translation of at least the spring season; Benedicte Page introduces it in a 5 January article in The Bookseller.
       Weidenfeld & Nicolson will be publishing Lucia Graves' translation in the UK, but it's gotten a bit more press for being on Ann Godoff's inaugural list at The Penguin Press in the US (disappointingly it is the lone fiction title on that list, to go along with a dozen non titles -- a fact that does make us wonder a bit about Ms.Godoff's so vaunted supposed literary credentials and interest).
       We hope to get our hands on a copy ... eventually. Meanwhile, you can pre-order it from or (or get the Spanish original at

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       European bookselling

       The state of publishing in the major continental markets is discussed by Herbert Lottman in The Bookseller, in Gloomy with bright spots.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Francis Bacon aside

       There are not too many people we'll make space for in an extra-literary aside, but Francis Bacon is one of them (or, rather: are -- either one would do -- though in this case it's the painter).
       Louise Jury reports in today's issue of The Independent that Too risque for Iran, Bacon's nudes could be shown in London. Apparently -- unlike the Taliban, 'freed' Iraqis, and Indian hoodlums (see below) -- small-minded Iranian clerics chose to express their opposition to (and distaste for) art (in this case, of the degenerate Western sort) not by looting or destroying it, but merely by putting it out of sight -- perhaps knowing that their theocratic state will inevitably fall on its false pretences and that they will be judged for the damage they have done. At least in the cultural realm that damage is not irreversible: they preserved these Bacon-bits, and they should certainly be praised for that. Good for them -- and good for us.
       The pictures in question are the 1968 triptych, Two figures lying on a bed with attendants (depicted here, at the Francis Bacon Image Gallery -- who believe: "Present whereabouts unknown"), purchased by the obscenity that called himself the Shah of Iran and was -- so Jury -- "displayed in his wife's dazzling museum of modern art". Possibly they'll now be lent to the Tate: "It would form the centrepiece of a small Bacon exhibition for six months from this summer."
       We can't wait.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

7 January 2004 - Wednesday

Party im Blitz review | Indian catastrophe | Whitbread, first round | Sexist NYTBR ?

       Party im Blitz review

       As we've mentioned previously, a posthumous (and incomplete) memoir by Nobel laureate Elias Canetti -- of his 'English years' (specifically late 1930s to 1950s) --, Party im Blitz, was published in Germany a few months ago. We now also have it under review.
       We imagine this volume will eventually be translated; his earlier autobiographical trilogy surely did well enough to justify that, and, at least in the UK, there's also much of local interest. In fact, we're a bit surprised that there hasn't been more coverage of this title in England yet. In particular, the sections devoted to Iris Murdoch surely would be some nice oil to add to the still simmering fire about various Murdoch-biographies (most notably A.N.Wilson's Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her, possibly the most reviled literary book of 2003 (see our previous mention)).
       Canetti's descriptions of their love-making (if one can call it that) are certainly ... memorable. Yes, most of this is more salacious detail than truly revealing -- but Canetti's take on Murdoch does offer some insight too, regarding both these odd characters.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Indian catastrophe

       Another horrific and senseless book destruction-rampage, this time in India.
       Ignorant and misguided goons and hooligans rampaged through the illustrious Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (see a description here, or this Times of India report on A learning house with a world-wide appeal) on Monday. A Times of India report notes: "Not even saplings outside the building were spared", but the real destruction was inside, as a great collection of books and manuscripts (many of the irreplaceable sort) appears to have been senselessly decimated. (See also a brief report at the BBC.)
       Ananova reports British book sparks ancient manuscripts destruction (link first seen at Arts Journal), noting:
on Monday, thousands of rare Sankskrit manuscripts, ancient books and palm leaf inscriptions were destroyed in half an hour as 250 protesters ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
       The events -- as the Ananova headline suggests -- were 'sparked' by earlier ones. Ketaki Ghoge's Indian Express article, Rape of culture leaves city in shock, offers a decent overview and summary chronology.
       It started, sort of, with the publication by Oxford University Press of James W. Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India in the summer of 2003. OUP India withdrew the book from that market in November, after protests (apparently Laine rankled some with his interpretation, which didn't fit the popular (Hindu) image of Shivaji -- something that's apparently not acceptable in these intolerant times). (Note that the book is apparently still available from OUP elsewhere -- see the OUP-USA publicity page, or read a sample chapter.)
       The protests were of the threatening and violent sort: professors were attacked, and in apparent desperation in the face of all this pressure another Shivaji-scholar, Gajanan Mehendale, was even driven to destroy "400 unpublished pages of his biography of Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj" (as reported in December by Manjiri Damle in the Times of India, in Scholar destroys own work on Shivaji). That pound of flesh, and the earlier devastating strikes against independent scholarship and intellectual freedom weren't enough for these pathetic buffoons, and so they went and destroyed the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
       (The events surrounding the Laine book are, by the way, eerily similar to those described in Githa Hariharan's book published last year, In Times of Siege.)
       Shaking in fury, there's not much we can say. There's no adequate punishment for the perpetrators of this outrage. The fact that these events are cause of great dismay in India is vaguely comforting (at least few are defending these scumballs), but the fact that it occurred at all is shocking -- a huge step back for the nation.

       Kitabkhana also offers links and commentary here -- and we're sure he'll offer more in the days to come.

       Also of possible interest: V.N. Datta's review of James W. Laine's book, An image that might be disturbing, Laine's faculty page -- and Laine's own reaction to these tragic events, in the Mid Day article, Pune institute's desecration shocks author. He suggests:
It is becoming clear to me that this turmoil is not really about the book, since I have seen nothing in the way of a detailed criticism of its contents
       If there is any lesson to be learnt from this, it is surely that one should never kowtow to special interests -- as OUP India did with their cowardly withdrawal of the book. Rather than placating the hooligan-groups it appears to have given them a sense of empowerment, leading only to even more outrageous and shameful acts from them.
       Maybe Laine's book is truly outrageous or unconscionable -- but he says he hasn't even gotten "a detailed criticism of its contents", which seems the least one could ask for. Open debate, that's what we like ! (Book-torching, less so.) If these hooligans actually had a real reason to be upset that is what they should be attacking: the contents, arguing with them, proving (or at least suggesting) where Laine errs. But since they apparently have no reasonable arguments to make, they resort to the unreasonable.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Whitbread, first round

       The first round of the Whitbread Book Awards have been handed out -- the category winners that will then go on to compete for book of the year honours (to be announced 27 January).
       Category winners include DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little (First Novel Award; see also our review).
       The winners hadn't been announced on the Whitbread page page last we checked (06:00 GMT), but should be up sometime today. Meanwhile reports can be found in The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, and the BBC.

       (And if you want to find out which judges are responsible for what, see this page.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Sexist NYTBR ?

       As mentioned at The Elegant Variation, this week's Press Clips column by Cynthia Cotts in The Village Voice considers Sexism at The NYT Book Review ?. Apparently:
The New York Times Book Review overwhelmingly favors books and book reviews written by men, according to a new study from Brown University. Over the course of a year, the study reveals, 72 percent of all books reviewed in the NYTBR were written by men, and 66 percent of all reviews also carried a male byline. In other words, the most influential venue in the publishing world showcases male authors and reviewers by an average of two to one.
       We've discussed this issue previously, when we wondered How Sexist are We ?. We found a similar total at the NYTBR -- though note that with 30 per cent of the books reviewed written by women it was the most female-friendly of the book review fora we examined.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

6 January 2004 - Tuesday

Kourouma mention | Middling minded mention

       Kourouma mention

       Ahmadou Kourouma passed away almost a month ago (as we mentioned), but at least The Guardian finally noticed and published an obituary (of sorts).
       As best we can tell, The New York Times and most US publications couldn't be bothered (there also doesn't seem to have been an AP report (just an Agence France Presse release, which apparently doesn't carry quite as much clout these days).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Middling minded mention

       As The Essay in this week's issue of The Village Voice, Howard Hampton offers a brief Magical Mediocrity Tour, in which he discusses Curtis White's recent book, The Middle Mind (see our review).
       Hampton describes the books as:
an apoplectic dose of magical thinking from the other side of the ideological tracts. White's vision is a No-Funhouse negative image of Schwarzeneggerism (.....) his book radiates the same affluent leftist contempt for the common people that's helped drive them into the open arms of Schwarzenegger.
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

5 January 2004 - Monday

How not to tackle Don Quixote | Publishing preview ? | Vargas Llosa memoir

       How not to tackle Don Quixote

       Among the books we're preparing for review is the new Edith Grossman translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote. A lesson in how not to tackle the work comes in yesterday's issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where Sandy Bauers finds it is Still a hefty undertaking.
       Bauers didn't opt for the print version, but rather the audio version (yes, there is such a thing -- 40 hours on 35 CDs, get your copy at -- thinking perhaps this was the easier way to get through the massive work (though the idea of juggling and keeping track of 35 CDs is enough to make our heads spin). Even that didn't meet with success:
All the mishaps were fun and funny for a while, but nothing seemed to develop. (...) I began to wonder who could have been so gung-ho about this ? I decided it was published in an era when storytelling was big. I could just see some upscale 16th-century family gathered for the evening, one person reading by the light of a candle. They'd do one chapter a night, and it would transform a dreary winter.
       (Never mind that Don Quixote was first published in 1605 (part one) and 1615 (part two) -- i.e. in the 17th century; never mind that the chapters average less than eight pages -- hardly much of a night's entertainment (except, perhaps, in our own short attention-span era).)
       Still, one has to admire Bauers' determination:
Curious about how would it compare to an older rendition -- and, truth to tell, hoping to move things along a bit by skimming the print version -- I went to the library, checked out a translation by 18th century novelist Tobias Smollet. I got my exercise for the day just carrying the thing to the car: 846 pages it was. And gadzooks - it was impenetrable.
       Why Bauers opted for the classical translation, rather than another one of more recent vintage (or even the print version of Grossman's (which, incidentally, weighs in at over 950 pages)) is unclear. Still: at least an effort was made. But we do hope we have better luck with the book. (We think avoiding the audio version is certainly the right place to start.)

       There's no shame in not liking a book, and the pacing and story-presentation of Don Quixote are certainly very different from what many contemporary readers might be used to or enjoy.
       We suspect Bauers is far from alone, and that this fancy-looking (and critically very well-received) new edition is destined to be one of those much-bought but little-read books -- with the ratio of total purchasers to those who actually complete the book being extremely low.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Publishing preview ?

       In the 1 January issue of the Boston Globe David Mehegan offers a preview, of sorts, of the year ahead in publishing (link first seen at the Waterboro library blog; note that link will not last very long).
       The possible worth of this piece can easily be judged by it's beginning and premise:
Like a battleship, book publishing doesn't turn on a dime, so the old year's trends don't usually determine a new year's books. However, conversations with literary agents, who are always trying to sniff out what publishers want, turn up a few trends in publishing that may affect our reading in 2004 and beyond
       Conversations with ... literary agents ? That's supposed to tell us about the year to come ? That strikes us sort of like asking snake-oil salesman to tell us about the advances in medicine expected in the coming year.
       Note that Mehegan even admits literary agents "are always trying to sniff out what publishers want". Funny, we thought the point of the publishing-business was to try to determine what readers want ..... (Readers -- remember them ? We know there aren't that many left (presumably in no small part because agents keep foisting crap on publishers that they convince publishers they want, rather than what the general public might actually desire), but still .....)
       But there are some pearls of ... wisdom to be found here, even from agent's mouths. So from one Ted Weinstein, who suggests that publishers are telling themselves: "If we don't get out there and sign up books, there won't be anything to read in 2005." (Is this one desperate agent or what ? Is there anyone out there, anywhere on the planet, who believes that this is possible ? Still, it's nice to see someone suggest that there aren't enough books being published, or that this might become a problem.)

       Elsewhere in Mehegan's article:
       One disturbing fact we agree with: "As for the books themselves, 2004 looks like a bigger year for nonfiction than fiction, at least through summer." (Still, that gives us more time to spend on older fiction.)

       And, then there's -- if it is to be taken seriously -- the single saddest statement about the state of literature in the US in 2004 we've come across so far:
In literary fiction, the biggest name in the year's first half may be Anne Tyler
       Good night, folks !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Vargas Llosa memoir

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Mario Vargas Llosa's 1993 memoir, A Fish in the Water.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

4 January 2004 - Sunday

Re-translations (and NZZ praise) | Most popular reviews in 2003
His Dark Materials premiere

       Re-translations (and NZZ praise)

       Literary coverage the way it should be: what a pleasure to click on to the pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and enjoy their literary and cultural coverage. We're just in awe. Okay, slight drawback for most of you -- it's in German -- but let us tell you what you're missing.
       First: yesterday we complained (as we so frequently do) about yet another book not translated into English. Elsewhere in the world, the situation generally isn't that bad. One stunning indication that, at least in Germany, there's some openness to and interest in literature in translation: yesterday's issue of the NZZ offers three reviews of books that aren't just translated, but that were previously available and have now been newly re-translated. (Okay, the new Don Quixote re-translation has been getting good press in the US, but other than that, how often do you hear of this kind of thing in the English literary world ? (Snide comments such as: "what English literary world ?" are not the appropriate response.)). The books reviewed are: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Henry James' The Aspern Papers, and J.D.Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. And last week they offered a review of yet another new re-translation, of Gibbon's massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
       Unfortunately -- and perhaps tellingly -- these titles were not published by those German mega-publishers that have taken over so much of the American publishing scene, but -- with the exception of the Gibbon (DTV) -- rather by niche publishers (Manesse, Triptychon) and mid-size KiWi, respectively. So don't expect this sort of thing to translate across the Atlantic .....
       The 3 December NZZ also offers more treats: a review of a Klaus Reichert collection on translating (a book we'd very much like to have a look at), and one of a new edition of the great Walter Höllerer's classic, Theorie der modernen Lyrik.
       One final treat, from the 27 December issue (to go with the review of Decline and Fall): an impressive Edward Gibbon-profile by Werner von Koppenfels.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Most popular reviews in 2003

       It'll be a few more weeks until we post our 2003 State of the Site overview (in the February 2004 crQuarterly), but we have posted our list of the 30 most accessed review in 2003
       In 2002 there wasn't much movement over the previous year -- and no title reviewed in 2002 made the list. In 2003 the top nine just got shuffled around, more or less, but after that there was considerable change. Two books reviewed in 2003 actually made the list -- João Magueijo's Faster than the Speed of Light and, even more impressively, Marjane Satrapi Persepolis.
       After 16 straight months as most accessed review of the month Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita yielded to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (conveniently) in January 2003, and Fast Food Nation went on to remain the most popular review every month of the year. It's the first year a non-fiction title has come out tops.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       His Dark Materials premiere

       We've mentioned the National Theatre production of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (and all the publicity it has received) several times already. The show has now officially opened, and so there are more articles, and the first reviews.
       In the Telegraph, Nigel Reynolds reports that all 126 performances are already sold out (save thirty tickets a day which are held back), and that:
The epic adaptation (...) is critic-proof whatever the professionals' verdict today. But the National cannot extend the run -- though it may be able to bring it back next winter -- and the show is so technically complex, requiring the full use of the Olivier's revolve, that there is no theatre in the West End that could handle it.
       In today's issue of The Observer, David Smith reports that Pullman's magical fantasy becomes a National treasure, while in today's Independent on Sunday Jonathan Thompson and Sarah Weaver report that Six-hour Pullman adaptation is a hit, but it's too long for some.
       The Independent on Sunday also offers a review, by Madeleine North.

       For those who can't get tickets, you can still read the book(s); see also our review.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

3 January 2004 - Saturday

Laura Bush and her husband's poem | Arthur Miller visits Castro
New Will Self book | Leon de Winter review

       Laura Bush and her husband's poem

       Readers may recall a poem that made the rounds a few months back, apparently written by the American president, George jr. Bush. Wife Laura read it in her speech opening the National Book Festival back in October, and much fun was had by all (see, for example, the much linked to 'rejection letter' Dear Mr. G.W. Bush / Re: Your recent submission Scott Kaukonen offered at The Missouri Review).
       In the seasonal rush readers may not have heard about Laura Bush's admission, on the 28 December episode of Tim Russert's chat-show, Meet the Press, that:
Well, of course, he didn't really write the poem. But a lot of people really believed that he did.
       There has been some commentary about this -- notably Matt Bivens' 'My Lump in the Bed'? at The Daily Outrage (who notes what many thought: "It was such an awful poem that it actually rang true, and therefore kinda treacly sweet").
       Bivens thinks it isn't a real outrage, but does call it a lie. We would argue he's wrong on both counts.

       Laura Bush's remarks introducing the poem were delivered with Clintonian precision. Read closely and note that she never claims her husband penned the poem. Rather she makes two discrete remarks (though readers naturally conflate them, leading to the erroneous conclusion):
President Bush is a great leader and husband -- but I bet you didn't know, he is also quite the poet. Upon returning home last night from my long trip, I found a lovely poem waiting for me. Normally, I wouldn't share something so personal, but since we're celebrating great writers, I can't resist.
       After reading the poem she also says: "I'm happy to be the inspiration behind this poem."
       So, all she really says is:
  • "President Bush is (...) quite the poet."
  • "I found a lovely poem waiting for me."
  • "I'm happy to be the inspiration behind this poem."
       Nowhere does she explicitly connect George jr. and the poem (the connexion is entirely implicit).
       So: she didn't lie.
       Nevertheless, this is a pretty outrageous thing. Surely most everybody believed that George jr. had some role in creating this poem (though obviously he had to have some outside help too -- at the very least having a speech-writer check his spelling). But apparently he didn't.
       This playing with language -- presenting information in a deliberately misleading way -- irritates us almost as much as outright lying would. It is still deception -- and it is representative of this administration, which used the same trick with regards to their claims regarding Saddam Hussein's alleged so-called weapons of mass destruction, deceiving the American public into supporting a war for all the wrong reasons. (There were some good reasons for getting rid of Saddam, but those weren't the ones the administration presented to the public. Similarly, the administration continues to be less than forthright or clear in playing down the threat from countries that do have actual WMDs, as well as not forcibly opposing quite a few remaining ruthless dictators who surely have all the potential of turning into full-blown Saddams in the near future.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Arthur Miller visits Castro

       In the current (12 January) issue of The Nation playwright Arthur Miller describes A Visit With Castro.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       New Will Self book

       We haven't gotten our hands on a copy of Will Self's new book, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, just out from Bloomsbury in the UK (no US publication seems set), but we hope to eventually.
       The first reviews are out: Henry Hitchings' in yesterday's issue of the Financial Times, and M John Harrison's in today's issue of The Guardian.
       Hitchings' suggests that -- as so often -- "Self's writing oscillates between perspicacious brilliance and a thumb-twiddling narcissism", and that while the four stories are "rather undercooked rashers", at least "the novella is as good as anything he has written".
       See also the Bloomsbury publicity page, or get your own copy at

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Leon de Winter review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Leon de Winter's Kaplan.
       This is the first novel by the Dutch author we've read, and we were pretty mightily impressed. As some of the German critics suggested, he appears to be in the John Irving-class of writers: this is a good, big entertainment, accessible but without making many concessions -- popular literature in the best sense of the expression. All the more perplexing, then, that this book -- and most of his others -- have not been translated into English. We have to ask, once again: what gives ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

2 January 2004 - Friday

Publishing principles | Fortunata and Jacinta review
One more best books list | Christopher Hope on South African writing

       Publishing principles

       In his A Week in Books column in today's issue of The Independent Boyd Tonkin suggests: Core principles are needed in the muddled business of books. He's joking, of course, when he writes that:
For far too long, personal hunch and taste have persisted in an industry that should adhere to the strict principles of modern management. So, to welcome the new year, let's propose a few core principles to clarify the muddled business of books
       Still, there's far too much here that publishers already strictly adhere to, from the principle that: "All books now are either quick, or dead" to "For débutant(e)s, talent come fourth -- after looks, youth and connections (in variable permutations)."
       But we're not too confident that 2004 will be a (much wished for) law- and principle-breaking year in this industry .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Fortunata and Jacinta review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Benito Pérez Galdós' 1887 novel, Fortunata and Jacinta.
       The edition we read was a Penguin Classics one (from 1988), and on the back cover they describe it as "arguably the greatest novel to have come out of nineteenth-century Spain". Despite this confident assessment, Penguin appears to have let this volume fall out of print. So much for -- as they also describe it -- "certainly one of the most important European masterpieces of its period".

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       One more best books list

       One last (?) best books list, as the Weekly Standard offers their staff picks of The Best Books of 2003.
       Bonus points for them waiting until 31 December to look back at the best books. (It pays to wait, apparently: Terry Eastland reports getting the book he chose as best on Christmas Day .....) But this is one strange list. Among these 'Best Books of 2003' are century-old titles Anna Karenina, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. It almost comes as a relief when Fred Barnes chooses a title that "was published 20 years ago" -- i.e. is practically brand new.
       But the focus on old books (which are at least real books) is still preferable to, for example, Rachel DiCarlo picking a true 2003 title, "Mitch Albom's new book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven" (though in making her pick she describes rather than praises the book, so maybe this and her other pick were the only books she read all year, hence also her unavoidable best-books picks)
       Finally, note also the disappointing closing non-answer by editor William Kristol, presumably meant tongue in cheek (though we prefer to read it literally, as the anti-literary cop-out it is):
Who has time to read books ? In any case, books are so ... second millennium. And most of them are overrated. And so many of them are too long. So, here's an idea: Read really good magazines -- e.g., The Weekly Standard (...). And have a good year.
       We have some other ideas (including possible alternative uses for periodicals that recommend Mitch Albom titles as among the best of the year); you can guess what they are.

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       Christopher Hope on South African writing

       Christopher Hope's article, Coetzee's curse, in the December issue of Prospect, is now freely available online.
       He notes:
When John Coetzee won the Nobel prize for literature this year, South Africans did not dance in the streets.
       The piece offers a brief overview of the situation regarding writing in South Africa (and how much of a role race still plays in the discussion of it, and in its reception).

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1 January 2004 - Thursday

New The Paris Review editor | reports | Egyptian round-up
Slate critical round-up | Jiri Grusa coverage | French literary prizes (and a few others)

       New The Paris Review editor

       In this week's issue of The New York Observer, Rachel Donadio reports The Paris Review Faces Its Future, Finds New Editor (note that this link will only last through next Tuesday), a good overview of what the periodical faces, post George Plimpton.
       Donadio breaks the news that Brigid Hughes, the current managing editor, will take over at The Paris Review; an official announcement is expected next week.

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       Alex Good offers his survey of The Year in Review at -- and hands out The Puffies - 2003, his annual look at the worst in literary puffery (a crowded field -- it's a wonder he's able to winnow it down to just these examples).
       Amusing though The Puffies are, it's hard to read this stuff (and the blurb-filled back covers of most new works published today) without a sense of shock and disappointment. But, despite Alex Good's best efforts, publishers (and blurbers) apparently can't be shamed into showing much honesty or integrity (or concern for consumers) -- or, as he shows this year, often simply to make any sense. And unfortunately this sort of stuff is apparently permissible under current truth-in-advertising laws.

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       Egyptian round-up

       There's a (literary) world out there: there are books published in languages other than English (not that many ever get translated into English) -- though even on the supposedly making-the-world-smaller Internet one often doesn't seem to notice. Still if one digs around, one can at least learn a bit about what's out there, and what the monoglots are missing.
       So, for example: the impressive English-language Al-Ahram Weekly recently took a look at the most significant Fiction and poetry published in Egypt over the past year. (It's a somewhat frustrating survey, as it seems unlikely that much of what is described here will soon (or, probably: ever) be accessible to non-Arabic readers.)

       (The cultural coverage at Al-Ahram Weekly is certainly recommended: other articles of interest in the most recent issue include a profile of Khairi Shalabi, this year's recipient of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and Plain Talk, in which Mursi Saad El-Din looks at some of the accomplishments of the AUC Press (which actually does manage to make some Egyptian literature accessible to English speakers). And there's even a review of Gabriel García Márquez's Living to Tell the Tale (see also our review).)

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       Slate critical round-up

       Ben Williams offers The Critics Critiqued in Slate, a round-up of highs and lows in critical judgements and reactions over the past year (literary and otherwise).
       The last item suggests that the Best Reason to Click Refresh is now "Culture blogs" (and who are we to disagree ?). We're pleased to find the Literary Saloon listed -- along with eminent literary blogs Bookslut and Maud Newton -- as among the bookish "culturally oriented favorites".

       (The link has brought a decent flow of additional traffic to the Saloon; interested readers looking for additional literary weblog coverage might also want to try the many other fine weblogs described in our overview of literary weblogs. Note, however, that 'tis not the season for loads of updates -- many of these sites are on vacation and the like; check back in a week or so, and you'll find a great deal more going on, here, there, and pretty much everywhere.)

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       Jiri Grusa coverage

       The ever-dependable Times Literary Supplement finally breaks what seems to have been an embargo by US and UK publications on coverage of Jiri Grusa's recent election to head International PEN, as J.B. discusses it in his NB column in the 19/26 December double-issue -- the first of two examples of "Anglophone insularity" he offers.
       J.C. also makes mention of our grousing on the subject, noting that:
The estimable website The Literary Saloon expressed surprise that Grusa's appointment went virtually unreported in the English-language media.
       So we did: see our previous coverage here and here (and, except for this TLS mention, we've found nothing more in the meantime).
       J.C. wonders too: "Does PEN still have a role in the literary world ?"; certainly, coverage to date on these events leads to a not very encouraging answer (at least from a US/UK perspective).

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       French literary prizes (and a few others)

       L'Express now offers a fairly convenient chart of the major (mainly French) literary awards (though for the "Prix Nobel de la littérature" they claim the "Date de création" is 1986, which makes us wonder how reliable the information offered here is).
       They also suggest there that:
La grande surprise, cette année, est venue du jury du Goncourt, qui a subitement décidé d'avancer de quinze jours la remise de son prix (le centième), finalement décerné à Jacques-Pierre Armette le 21 octobre pour La Maîtresse de Brecht.
       In this month's issue of The New Criterion Anthony Daniels then offers Booker vs. Goncourt, comparing this year's winners. He's not a fan of DBC Pierre's Man Booker winning Vernon God Little (see also our review), writing:
It is a relief to turn from the vulgar infelicities of Pierre (...) to La maîtresse de Brecht, by Jacques-Pierre Amette, the winner of the Goncourt. In fact, it would be a relief to turn from Pierre to the telephone directory, which is actually much more interesting than his book for those who know how to read it imaginatively.

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