Boyd Tonkin reports in today's issue of The Independent that a Moving novel of Spanish Civil War wins 'Independent' fiction prize.
The book is Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean; the two will share the prize-money.
The book has gotten excellent reviews, but surprisingly few of the reviews comment on Anne McLean's work; given the prize-emphasis one would expect she did better than what one usually finds.
And Tonkin thought she did a good job ("Anne McLean's deft translation captures all its humour, and all its gravity") in his review (The Independent, 14 June 2003), but one of the few American reviews so far -- Logan Browning's in the Houston Chronicle (9 April) -- suggests otherwise:
Unfortunately, the book's chance for success is not enhanced by this translation.
Though we are told in the end matter that the translator, Anne McLean, has converted many other texts from Spanish to English, too many passages here read as though she had simply run the original through a translation software program.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries.
Gray also has a semi-new play out -- The Holy Terror -- but Michael Billington, for one, was not impressed:
Simon Gray has totally revised his moderately successful 1987 play, Melon, without in any way improving it.
In fact, he's made it worse by a jarring disjunction between form and content. The subject is mental breakdown, but the style is almost that of intimate revue
So maybe we won't be reviewing that any time soon.
Not a book that's of any interest to us, but we always like to point out the far too frequent (or at least far too frequently justified) reviewer-swipes at editors missing in action.
In her review of Jane Smiley's A Year at the Races in USA Today, Deirdre Donahue writes:
Smiley's editor should have taken a riding crop to the writer and her disorganized, lazy dronefest of a manuscript.
In all fairness, other reviews have been more generous (e.g. Sharon Barrett's in the Chicago Sun-Times), but still .....
(See also the Knopf publicity page.)
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka gave this year's Reith Lectures, and they're being broadcast (and the transcripts archived) at the BBC's site (link first seen at wood s lot).
Only two of the five lectures have been broadcast so far; the next one is up 21 April.
Interesting stuff, which we'll probably revisit once all the transcripts are available.
Soyinka's lectures have already stirred some controversy; see: Laurel Reith (Sunday Herald, 4 April), BBC chiefs face row over Reith lecture attack on war and Bush (Daily Telegraph, 27 March), and a profile of Soyinka by Alice Thomson, 'Blair and Bush lied to the world' (Daily Telegraph, 30 March).
Is this a good idea ?
Alan T. McKenzie has written a book of 'Seven Pastirodies' (a word the author himself apparently coined ...), Enlightening Up Postmodernism.
Purdue University Press is bringing it out (see their publicity page) -- but only as an 'e-book'.
Part pastiche and part parody, Enlightening Up Postmodernism brings the techniques, values, and terms of the Enlightenment into collision with the strategies, misgivings, and terminology of postmodernism.
Oh dear !
See also this Purdue Newsreport.
Amazon.com doesn't list it; Amazon.co.uk does -- but, oddly, claims "This item is not in stock" (odd because e-books aren't particularly difficult to stock).
A new Iain Sinclair book is about to come out (at least in the UK): Dining on Stones.
The first review we've seen of it is now available at The Observer.
Only moderately enthusiastic:
This book might have been subtitled 'Being Iain Sinclair'.
It is a tortured retrospective, a stepping stone towards the autobiography which may, one day, follow.
Sinclair pieces the fragments of innumerable abortive projects into a long, rambling book that is more about the landscape of his psyche than the psyche of any external landscape.
Occasionally, he offers a tantalising glimpse of the places he purports to describe, but, finally, there is less dining on stones than chewing on bricks.
We hope they send us the requested review copy; meanwhile, you can get your copy at Amazon.co.uk.
It's nice to see a literary weblog exclusive like Moorishgirl's interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie !
Another interview that's attracting a lot of attention (in the German press, at least) is Le Figaro's interview with Peter Handke -- with the headline quote: "On m'a accusé d'être serbophile comme si j'étais nécrophile..." ("I'm accused of being a Serbophile as if I were a necrophiliac ...").
The focus is on Handke's support for Serbia over the past fifteen years; we'll keep an eye out for the fall-out.
The charities Oxfam and Barnardo's are moving away from their core business of second-hand clothes and intend to open dedicated book stores in the coming months to benefit from booming sales in second-hand titles.
Oxfam is reported to have made a staggering: "£13m from books last year and has doubled book sales in the past four years".
The massive book sales please us, regardless how they come about, but we're not entirely thrilled: registered charities no doubt (or: little doubt, at any rate) do good things -- but we dislike the market-distorting effects of charities doing business.
(We're not familiar with all the British tax and other benefits afforded registered charities, but their cost of doing business is surely lower than for any for-profit business.)
And they are apparently major market-players: a single Oxfam store in Reading sells "1,500 titles a week" -- does any other used bookstore in town sell that many ?
Hell, how many real bookstores shift that much ?
But the phenomenon does seem to point to one fact publishers seem unwilling to admit to: books sales are very price-sensitive.
As the manager of the Reading-Oxfam bookshop is quoted:
Everyone can remember when you were young and buying one book a week was extravagant but now it can be quite normal to buy three or four books a week because they are so cheap.
This sounds like fun (though it actually came out in French quite a while back): Emmanuel Carrère's I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick.
It's reviewed in this week's issue of The Economist (the review should be freely accessible here -- but only on or after 23 April).
See also the Henry Holt publicity page -- or get your own copy at Amazon.com.
For additional information about Carrère, see this page.
We figure we'll certainly review it -- though it may take a while (we've never been able to convince Holt to send us a review copy of any book).
Mexican author Carlos Fuentes was honoured as a Chubb Fellow at Yale and as part of the fun gave a speech on Globalization: Pros and Cons (see the press release).
From Anna Levine-Gronningsater's Yale Daily News report, Author Fuentes places globalization in context it would be hard to guess -- much beyond the headline -- that Fuentes is (or at least was) involved in fiction-writing -- which seems sort of a shame.
Getting political messages across is also a worthy cause, but we think there's something to be said for writers using their creative talents creatively.
(We know there are all sorts of factors involved here -- writers get washed up, they like to use their fame for good causes, etc. -- but still .....)
Fuentes' speech also doesn't seem to be anything new: hire him from his speaking-agency, Royce Carlton, where it's one of the standard suggested speeches.
We recently reviewed Peter Singer's The President of Good and Evil, and thought it a reasonable exercise, and fairly well done.
We also wondered about reactions from those more supportive of the current American president's policies.
There's been little reaction at all from that front, so far, but now there's a devastating review from someone who actually doesn't support the junior Bush policies: Michael Lind's in the 19 April issue of the New Statesman.
Among other complaints:
Like a number of other recent books, The President of Good and Evil provides troubling evidence that the bad habits of the blogosphere are corrupting the world of print discourse.
As in a blog, caches of documentary material are dumped between rambling riffs of opinion.
We didn't get that impression; Singer's book doesn't seem worse in this specific regard than most non-fiction works we read, including many from before the time there was a "blogosphere".
(We also didn't find the book as slapdash as Lind suggests it is, and we actually approved of Singer considering things from all possible ethical perspectives, even ones he doesn't agree with.)
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Jerzy Pilch's His Current Woman.
This 1995 novel (first published in English in 2002) appears to still be the only work of the Nike Award-winning novelist available in English.
He has a nice touch, and we'd certainly be interested in seeing more by him.
As usual, a fair number of the prestigious and remunerative Guggenheim Fellowships went to writers.
Among the newly well-endowed: Timberlake Wertenbaker, Eric Bogosian, Peter Ho Davies, Alberto Manguel, Scott Spencer, and Manil Suri.
Several literary weblogs mentioned it (though we didn't bother), and it was a much-discussed literary affair in Germany: Thor Kunkel wrote a book called Endstufe (having to do with Nazi-era pornographic films) which his publisher, Rowohlt, then refused to publish.
Eichborn stepped in, and the book came out earlier this month; for an English-language account see Tony Paterson on German publishing falls out over novel about Nazi porn (Sunday Telegraph, 14 March).
Now an episode of 3sat's Kulturzeit adds an interesting twist, questioning the authenticity of the films on which the book is based.
As also reported by Peter Körte in yesterday's issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Werner Grassmann screened underground erotic movies at the Abaton cinema in Hamburg in the early 70s -- and to make them sound more intriguing, claimed they were from the Nazi era.
He is quoted:
Grassmann sagt jetzt, man habe die Filme damals als Nazifilme etikettiert, um die Nazis "in ihrer Verlogenheit lächerlich zu machen".
Der Programmzettel, den das Abaton damals druckte, hatte behauptet, die Filme seien von den Nazis produziert worden, um sie gegen Rohstoffe und Rüstungsgüter einzutauschen.
Natürlich sei das lächerlich, und genauso sei es auch gewollt gewesen.
(Grassman says now that they labelled the films as Nazi-productions in order to "ridicule the Nazis' own mendacity".
The programmes that the Abaton printed back then had claimed the films were produced by the Nazis in order to exchange them for raw materials and armaments.
Of course, that's ridiculous, and that's exactly how it was intended.)
There's no doubt that some of the so-called Sachsenwald-Filme existed, but it looks like Kunkel may have been making quite the mountain out of a very small molehill.
Adding insult to injury, all this press-coverage doesn't seem to have spurred book sales, which are reported to be disappointing.
The critics also seemed generally unimpressed.
(See, for example, coverage in the taz: Der Porno, der verpuffte.)
But if you still want to get your copy, it's available at Amazon.de (where, interestingly, there are no reader-reviews yet).
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Daniel Wagner's faux-cinematic novella, A movie ... and a book.
The book is only due out in July, and we're curious what kind of pre-publication hype it will receive -- and whether the movie-rights will have been sold by then.
We recently discussed More second-hand Hungarian fiction, noting that Hungarian author Ágota Bozai's forthcoming To Err Is Divine was appearing in English translated not directly from the Hungarian but via Christina Kunze's German rendering.
The author herself now assures us that this isn't as bad as it might seem, writing:
I really appreciate your being worried about the quality of Hungarian novels in English, but I assure you that this particular translation is not the case.
Being a translator of English fiction myself I trust and treasure David Kramerís work.
The style of the original text positively allowed a mediated translation.
Moreover Counterpoint insisted on Mr. Kramerís close collaboration with me, so I checked every word of the English version and had long e-mails exchanged about short passages.
So luckily I donít share your worries.
Certainly, it is comforting to hear that the author herself was consulted on the translation, and provided some input, and does make seem it likely that the English version meets the standard she set in the original.
But it still seems an oddly roundabout way of doing things .....
A couple of weeks back there was a "Downtown for Democracy"-event in New York, at which many well-know writers read and spoke, in a big (and apparently successful) fund-raising effort.
There was considerable weblog coverage, and a few media mentions -- see, for example, Mark Sorkin's Political Fictions in The Nation -- but that's about all we came across.
We were surprised then to come across two interviews with Jonathan Franzen, paying considerable attention to the event -- surprised because the interviews aren't in any American or even English-language newspaper, but in two German papers: Wieland Freund's interview in the large daily, Die Welt, and Tim Schaffrick's interview in Freitag.
The opinions of authors on world events are occasionally still solicited and discussed in the US, and the rare foreign author who gets interviewed by an American paper may also -- if its topical -- be asked about the political sitaution back home, but to give this kind of prominent coverage would be unusual; it's sort of nice to see that in Europe it's still a matter of course.
But it is strange that Franzen finds such ready foreign media interest in his opinions -- and, apparently, so much less domestically.
A few weeks ago we mentioned the collection Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics, a collection of literary material to do with contemporary bio-ethical questions.
A couple of reviews appeared back then, and Gregory M. Lamb now reviews it in the Christian Science Monitor.
He gives a favourable opinion, but notes:
Unfortunately, the council has distributed all 5,000 copies of Being Human to the public.
No more are available, and it plans no second printing.
However, the table of contents, chapter introductions, and sample readings are available at www.bioethics.gov/bookshelf.
And a commercial publisher may decide to reprint the book in the future.
Here the government has come up with something that is apparently of interest to a large number of people -- but only disseminated 5000 copies (a fair number of which must have gone to the press).
The official site does now offer this note and explanation:
Notice: If you are interested in receiving a copy of Being Human, we regret to inform you that we have run out of copies due to the unforeseen demand for this publication, which contains a number of reprints of privately copyrighted material.
Unfortunately, our agreements with the copyright owners prevent us from posting the book on our website or from printing further copies at this time.
We are looking at different options and if you have already requested a copy, we will keep your name on a waiting list.
We thank you for your understanding.
The poor planning comes as no surprise from a government agency, but it is sort of amusing to see the government get tangled up in copyright questions in this way.
We're not much for confessional literature, and the popular memoir-exercises of the day, so maybe we should have stayed away from this one.
Still, it sounded interesting: Donald Morrill's forthcoming The Untouched Minutes.
We have now reviewed it.
In yesterday's issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, David Kipen insists: New N.Y. Times Book Review editor is a smart conservative (link first seen at Romenesko).
He notes that Sam Tanenhaus has now officially assumed his position as head of the NYTBR, and discusses some of the worries that have been floating around about the new direction it might now be headed in.
And he comes up with something new, too:
Literary insiders have done everything to divine his standards except, typically, to read a whole book Tanenhaus wrote on the subject in 1984.
This slender, out-of-print volume is called Literature Unbound: A Guide for the Common Reader.
And he proceeds to divine Tanenhaus' standards based on this book.
We have some doubts about the value of this exercise -- using what a twenty-something wrote twenty years ago (a book that is notably different from what he's been up to since, too), but maybe there's some value in it.
But we aren't convinced by some of Kipen's conclusions -- including that: "Tanenhaus loves fiction".
While the twenty-something Tanenhaus very well might have, one often hears that as they age men don't bother much with fiction any more, and the focus of Tanenhaus' writing over the past two decades doesn't really show him to be an obvious fiction-lover.
He certainly may still be, but we're not quite as convinced as Kipen.
One thing Kipen (and many others) got wrong: there's no need to fear the NYTBR will gut its fiction coverage: that chapter's been written.
Given the changing of the guard, we're not sure who to blame the 11 April edition of the NYTBR on but we'll once again offer the horrible statistics: 8 full-length reviews of 9 non-fiction titles, and 6 books-in-brief reviews of non-fiction titles (total: 15 non-fiction titles reviewed), versus a mere 4 full-length reviews of fiction titles.
After a glimpse in the 11 April NYTBR (where she reviews Catherine Texier's Victorine), expect more sightings of Nell Freudenberger in the UK in the weeks to come.
Her Lucky Girls (see our review) has finally come out there; the first British review we've seen is Sukhdev Sandhu's in the Sunday Telegraph.
Even reviewers want to have some fun, and Nicholas Blincoe apparently couldn't restrain himself: his discussion of Kevin Jackson's Letters of Introduction is A review in 26 sentences.
Yes, the reviewer imitates the author's abecedary form .....
The book does sound like it might be some fun: see the Carcanet publicity page, or get your own copy at Amazon.co.uk.
As the dust jacket proclaims, the stories are generally about people in "the last stages of physical, moral and social decrepitude", which explains the reflective and occasionally melancholy undercurrent in many of the tales.
Welsh refers, of course, to the original British edition.
Canongate has now also brought out the book in the US, in a similar-looking edition, but the dustjacket is no longer exactly the same.
The back-cover now features "Advance Praise" for the book (such as a quote from Welsh's review) and the like, and there's certainly no mention of such dreary things as: "the last stages of physical, moral and social decrepitude".
On the inside flap there is some description, but it's all upbeat -- explaining that these are: "wry, topical, often hilarious stories" and mentioning Gray's: "angular, playful style, prodigious wit, and razor-sharp intellect".
Apparently, the danger is too great that potential American book-buyers might be scared off by any mention of decrepitude or the like .....
We mentioned Anne Applebaum's article, The Literary Divide, in The Washington Post, last week (and can now offer a non-registration requiring link to it, at The Mercury News).
At Collected Miscellany Kevin Holtsberry was inspired to offer an off the cuff rant -- and solicited responses thereto.
I'd like to oblige, but find myself stymied -- as I did already after reading the Applebaum-piece.
I simply don't understand what the issue/complaint (or whatever the hell it is) is.
I get a vague sense of what people are going on about, but I'm largely missing the point.
Applebaum, for example, writes:
I'm not quite sure how it got to be this way -- writers of heavy books on one side, mass media on the other -- because it wasn't always so.
The great American cultural blender once produced whole art forms, such as Broadway musicals and jazz, that might well be described as a blend of the two.
Where to start with the problems I have with these statements ?
First the definitions: what the hell is a "heavy book" ?
What can we consider "mass media" ?
(Do newspapers count as part of the mass media any longer ?
Did they ever ?)
And isn't "mass media" such a modern phenomenon that it's hard to make any useful comparisons ?
(Or does Applebaum mean the situation has changed so drastically in the past few decades ?)
Next: It was not always so ?
First, I don't see that it necessarily is so: Edward Jones' book (since that seems to be the example du jour -- though I have no idea if it qualifies as a "heavy book") got a fair amount of what looks like (to me) mass media coverage even before it started raking in the prizes, and so do many books that are considered literary and serious.
All the evidence I see suggests things never really were that different.
Maybe there's evidence to the contrary out there, but no one ever seems to offer it.
Applebaum states a bald -- very bald -- fact ("it wasn't always so":), and then -- though she's been talking about literature -- offers culture-blender examples jazz and the American musical.
All well and good, but what do they have to do with the question of mass media and heavy books ?
Another Applebaum claim:
But most people do write for money.
Surely this is not true.
Most people do not write for money: many do hope eventually to make money or achieve recognition or fame, but most stories and poems and novels that get written are written on spec, without a contract promising payment upon completion of the work.
The many people submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers, and now the many publishing their works themselves through on-demand publishers, etc., they'd all probably like to get paid, but that is surely not the primary reason why they wrote.
Most hope eventually to get paid for their efforts, but from James Joyce to William Gaddis to any number of amateurs penning thrillers in their spare time (not to mention all the amateur poets out there), there are a stunning number of people who, it seems, just can't be stopped from writing, no matter how little financial reward they find in it.
(This isn't at all a 'high art' phenomenon, either -- from what people want to send us for review it seems far more are writing what they believe to be popular works, thrillers and mysteries and bestseller-imitations.)
(Applebaum is talking about a relatively small number of people who almost all have already been paid for previous efforts and now would like to continue getting paid for their next projects, people who are part of the publishing system and want to continue to play within the system.)
Applebaum also writes:
There are still a few "crossover" writers (...)
But my sense is that their numbers are shrinking, that there's almost no more middle ground.
Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it. High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it.
Is the number shrinking ?
Again: I'd love to see some evidence.
Any sort of evidence.
(She may be right, for all I know, but I'd like to know what she's basing her sense on ....)
As to the aggressive campaigns against high culture -- where are these ?
Was the to-do about Franzen's The Corrections one of them ?
(I don't think so: the reaction was -- correctly -- against Franzen and his many poorly chosen words; the book remained largely unscathed.)
Applebaum wonders whether Edward Jones "even inhabit[s] the same universe as MTV" and I wonder how she can imagine he doesn't.
MTV appeals to a limited demographic, but I imagine that among college students (admittedly also something of an (un)popular elite) who pick up Jones' book (and I imagine it is doing reasonably well with this audience -- though that is only a guess) a significant percentage also watch MTV.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the difficulties I have in any way responding to Applebaum's article.
Which also leaves me ill-equipped to respond to the Holtsberry-rant.
He seems to accept the high-low divide as a given -- and I'd still love for someone to explain what the hell they mean by it before expounding on the reasons for it .....
He suggests that: "middle and even lower class citizens looked to high society and art for inspiration", and I can't even think of when and where this was --
1950s America ?
fin de siècle Vienna ?
the Middle Ages ?
ancient Greece ?
-- all the while wondering exactly what sort of inspiration he means, and what art, and what high society .....
(I don't mean to be obtuse, but I can't help it.
Are these things really so self-evident to everyone else ?)
He writes: "We are all pop culture consumers now".
I take it that means me, too, so I figure this is something I can judge -- and I'm not sure it's true.
On a certain level, certainly, I consume a good share of pop culture (ranging from a great deal (television, movies) to relatively little (books, music)) but as far as the one thing that matters to me -- literature -- I think I manage very well far away from what appears to be the pop culture.
I don't find pop culture has come to dominate the literary (or let's say: the book) world completely, nor do I believe the opportunities for quality-literary consumption and appreciation to be appreciably less than they were for previous generations.
This society looks very much like one that's gone to the dogs (so have most, over the ages, as far as I can tell) and there are problems galore with art-production, consumption, and appreciation -- but I couldn't imagine a time where it's been appreciably better.
So there's my little rant (penned late-night, rushed, all the usual excuses), only partially a response to Kevin Holtsberry's.
His no doubt deserves closer attention, but even with more time and patience I don't think I'd have much more to offer.
I look forward to seeing other reactions, which may help me understand what the debate is about in the first place .....
Two more sites to demote from our book review links page: The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald.
The tantalizing review-titles and summaries are still freely accessible, but the reviews can now only be accessed by registered users.
The registration requirements -- lots of information -- aren't completely outrageous (fake e-mail addresses can (and, of course: should) be used, and so no accurate information whatsoever must be disclosed (making the whole registration-procedure pointless for demographic and similar purposes)); still, this requirement renders these sites essentially useless (at least for our purposes).
Sorry: no more links to the often useful and interesting reviews at these sites.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Christoph Hein's new novel, Landnahme.
It's not yet available in English translation, but has been much-discussed and (generally) highly praised in Germany (with a few very notable exceptions -- Die Welt thought it was basically rubbish).
Henry Holt imprint Metropolitan has bought the English-language rights -- though we wonder how they feel about it after they published Hein's Willenbrock last fall, a book that garnered practically no English-language review coverage whatsoever (and which we can't imagine has sold very well).
Sad to see, the headline plays everywhere -- in this case: India, where Ikram Ali reports: 'Commercialisation has edged literature out' (as reported in today's issue of The Times of India).
Here: Gopi Chand Narang, president of Sahitya Akademi, laments that: "The electronic and print media in the country, governed by commercial considerations, have hardly any place for literature".
Not much that we haven't heard elsewhere (unfortunately) -- but it does make us aware of Sahitya Akademi, "India's national academy of letters", which seems to do a nice job of handling the interesting multi-lingual literary situation in India.
Still not much coverage of Neal Stephenson's The Confusion (but see, of course, our review), but SB Kelly includes it in his round-up in Scotland on Sunday (last item).
He is distinctly underwhelmed: "the plotting is plodding" etc.
But he does recommend The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy (first item), and we certainly agree that: "Dedalusís range of European anthologies is eminently collectable, and offers pleasant appetisers of less well known literary cultures."
We've found that publishers are generally very generous with review copies, sending us everything we ask for (and often much more).
But some won't provide us with any, and some used to and don't any longer -- much to our regret.
So it was heartening to read in J.C.'s NB-column in the 3 April TLS that, "despite repeated requests" -- half-a-dozen, in the end -- the TLS could not obtain a review copy of the Library of America edition of Ezra Pound's Poems and Translations and the reviewer had to go find a copy himself.
If even the TLS can't convince a publisher to send a review copy .....