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The Literary Saloon Archive

11 - 20 September

11 September: Hare's Stuff Happens | Hilary Mantel on Saudi Arabia
12 September: F-ing crazies | Naipaul profile | Erotic evisceration
13 September: Ariel restored | Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell review
14 September: Checkpoint odds and ends | Faber at 75 | Keuner + 15 | Outrageous blurbing
15 September: Howard Jacobson | Arab literary world | Indigo as cultural department store | Scottish literary list | Book storage PSA | Too much Lewis and Clark
16 September: ManBooker longlist sales | Checkpoint confusion | Preserving Sebaldianism | Pamuk reviews
17 September: Man Booker longlist guide | French longlists | Arab presence at Frankfurt Book Fair
18 September: More on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell | The Guardian Review
19 September: Booker blurb complaints | Clarke attention | Toussaint reviews
20 September: Kirkus "Discoveries" | Ubiquitous Freeman | Suhrkamp covers

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20 September 2004 - Monday

Kirkus "Discoveries" | Ubiquitous Freeman | Suhrkamp covers

       Kirkus "Discoveries"

       Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind alerts us to this newest pay-to-get-reviewed effort, Kirkus Discoveries (from the same people who give you Kirkus Reviews). Bewildered ?
Here's how it works:
You commission a review from us. The Kirkus Discoveries team will provide a report on it to publishers, agents and producers, who can then pursue a rights relationship with you.
       The Submission guidelines (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) note: "Submission Fee of $350 must be included with your manuscript" -- though, in a nice touch, checks shouldn't be made payable to Kirkus Discoveries, but rather: "Kirkus Awards".
       Well, we look forward, in a year or two, to hearing about the many rights relationships that develop via this novel route -- or, in the alternative, the class action suit filed by the many authors who feel they've been ripped off.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Ubiquitous Freeman

       Looking for reviews of current titles on the Internet one often finds that the same review is recycled, over and over, found at numerous local American newspaper-sites -- often described as "special to". These are apparently syndicated, like the comics, and among those that one finds reprinted (albeit usually with an acknowledgment of where they were first published) are reviews from The New York Times and The Washington Post. But there are some unaffiliated reviewers who also get around -- John Freeman, in particular. So also with his review of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which can be found, among other places, in the Houston Chronicle, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Star Tribune.
       We were a bit surprised, however, to see that even Scotland on Sunday couldn't be bothered to commission their own review, and instead chose to also publish Freeman's. Presumably, it's cheaper to reprint Freeman's review rather than have someone write a new one -- and perhaps there's not that much more to say -- but it's still pretty disappointing. Scotland on Sunday offers some decent review coverage, but this sort of approach doesn't exactly enhance their image. (It also has the feel of a subtle -- or not so subtle -- slap in the face of the Clarke book (recall that SoS-literary editor Andrew Crumey complained about all the pre-publication publicity it received ...), as if saying it's not worth their time to really bother with, and that some foreigner's (an American's, no less) previously available opinion about it is adequate.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Suhrkamp covers

       As reported and discussed (in German) at DeutschlandFunk and FAZ, German publisher Suhrkamp (which recently went through a tumultuous change in leadership) has decided to change their striking book-cover design, starting with their Suhrkamp Taschenbuch paperback line. After more than three decades of the colourful and much-loved Willy Fleckhaus-designs, they're moving to more austere greys.
       (As long as they don't change the size, i.e. inch upwards from mass-market to the horrible trade paperback size, we're not that upset -- though we think a move away from the striking and well-known designs is a bad marketing decision.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

19 September 2004 - Sunday

Booker blurb complaints | Clarke attention | Toussaint reviews

       Booker blurb complaints

       It's a story that's so big it apparently took three reporters to write: in the Sunday Telegraph Chris Hastings, Roya Nikkhah and Andrew Neal report: 'Booker-winning novels' are cheating the public, say authors. Okay, the fact that it's literary lights like Frederick Forsyth and Jilly Cooper that are yammering makes this a bit less compelling, but their point is a valid one:
Some of Britain's biggest-selling authors have accused publishers of "massively misleading consumers" by falsely portraying books as literary prize winners when they have not actually won any awards.
       Publishers misleading consumers ? Is that possible ? Who would have believed it ? But yes:
Dozens of novels which are currently in shops carry marketing slogans such as "Winner of the Booker Prize" and "Winner of the Orange Award" despite not even having been shortlisted for the accolades. In each case, the victorious work was a different novel by the same author, although this is rarely, if ever, made clear. Critics point out that far from being literary masterpieces, many of the books carrying the misleading marketing have, in fact, received poor reviews.
       (Since the Man Booker and the Orange both specifically honour a book, and not an author this is obviously entirely unacceptable.)
       You know our opinion -- strict enforcement of truth in advertising laws, preferably with fines and jailtime for the offenders -- but not everyone thinks it's a big deal:
JG Ballard, the author of Empire of The Sun and Crash, said that he thought publishers were right to sell their works in any way they could. "On the whole publishers do a very good job. Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it," he said.
       Sure, why not lie and deceive, if it helps sell the product ? Though we're convinced: misleading consumers into purchasing bad books -- though very popular -- is not a good long-term business strategy.
       (Another open question: why are people impressed that a book has been awarded a Man Booker or the like ?)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Clarke attention

       In the Independent on Sunday Anthony Barnes reports 'Harry Potter for adults' is the Booker Prize's dark horse -- and actually writes of the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Few had heard of Clarke before she was named on the 22-strong "longlist" last month
       Which, given the publicity Clarke and her book have received on both sides of the Atlantic for the past year, is among the stupidest statements we've read in a while. But then this is a guy who also writes about some of the books on the Man Booker longlist:
Their nomination at the expense of established names has prompted growing criticism about the way the list has been compiled. David Lodge, V S Naipaul, Louis de Bernières and Jonathan Coe have all been ignored, even though they had new books that made them eligible.
       As we've repeatedly noted, merely having a new book does not make you Man Booker eligible: the books have to be submitted by the publisher (or -- the longshot route -- get called in), and it's not clear that these were. Amazing though it sounds, it's distinctly possible these books weren't even among those from which the longlist was drawn.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Toussaint reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of two novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Television, which Dalkey Archive Press is bringing out this fall, and Monsieur.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

18 September 2004 - Saturday

More on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell | The Guardian Review

       More on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

       The British reviews of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are starting to roll in. Of particular interest: the anonymous one in this week's issue of The Economist (link will only be freely accessible on or after 24 September).
       The judgement and advice is a bit bizarre:
By all means, read the book that everyone will be talking about this winter, but don't worry if you don't get through it. Not everyone will.
       Don't worry if you don't get through it ? But why would anyone want to waste their time on a book they're not particularly likely to finish ? And how can one recommend a book ("By all means, read the book" !) if the reviewer doesn't believe it's compelling enough to hold a reader's attention all the way through ?
       But the interesting information is elsewhere in the review:
This years Man Booker prize committee called in Ms Clarke's book and put it on its longlist. Not all the judges were enthusiastic, though, and it remains to be seen whether the book goes any further.
       As we've mentioned the ridiculous Man Booker rules lead to odd games. Publishers are only allowed to submit two titles -- but since a certain number of titles get 'called in' they can risk leaving off high-profile titles (like Clarke's book) to try to slip in possibly less obvious candidates.
       What books were nominated (and which were called in) is -- outrageously -- not made public, so this is the first we've heard that Clarke's book was not officially submitted by her publisher, Bloomsbury, but rather only called in. So for Bloomsbury the gamble paid off -- though one wonders how Ms Clarke feels about them taking this chance with her book.
       Also interesting: the gossip that: "Not all the judges were enthusiastic".
       Well, only a few more days until the shortlist is announced .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Guardian Review

       This week's The Guardian Review is packed with interesting stuff. Beside the reviews and articles, a few notes of some interest:

        - In Nicholas Clee's The Bookseller column he notes:
Graphs in the Bookseller this week show that the average price paid for a hardback novel in bookshops in 2000 was £13.50; in 2003, it was just over £12. The average price paid for a paperback novel declined from about £5.40 in 2000 to just above £5 in 2003. The graph also has further evidence of the sensitivity to prices apparent in the "books are expensive" complaints: as the prices paid have come down, the number of books sold has gone up.
       As best we can tell, American prices have not followed a similar trajectory (though it's hard to tell: list prices have definitely gone up, but widely available discounts may have kept the actual average amounts paid down) -- maybe the British experience ("as the prices paid have come down, the number of books sold has gone up") will rub off there.

        - Jonathan Coe says I am, therefore I write, explaining why the best advice a writer can get -- don't ! -- is generally (and occasionally wisely) ignored.

        - Amelia Gentleman writes (unfortunately not very informatively) about the French publishing mess that is the rentrée littéraire.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

17 September 2004 - Friday

Man Booker longlist guide | French longlists | Arab presence at Frankfurt Book Fair

       Man Booker longlist guide

       The Man Booker 2004 weblog (affiliated with 3 AM and not the prize itself) points to a new feature at the official Man Booker site, the awkwardly titled mymanbookerfavourites.
       This is actually a pretty useful feature, offering a sort of quick guide to each of the longlisted titles -- a brief description, followed by a list explaining: "You'll love this if / You'll hate this if" (click on the title for the description and recommendations).
       The love/hate lists are particularly interesting, and those intent on betting on the outcome might want to subject them to a closer analysis. They range from a single reason each for and against (Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) to a staggering 12 reasons each (for Cherry by Matt Thorne). So is it total love-reasons that make a book a favourite ? Or the differential -- plus over minus ?
       Clarke's book looks to be an exception, but otherwise we'd figure books with more reasons you'll love them to be the front-runners -- and if there's a plus-differential, that surely only weighs even more heavily in their favour. Hence, we suggest you might want to consider The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (10/7) and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (10/8) the favourites -- with Clarke's book (1/1) a not-to-be-ignored joker in the equation.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       French longlists

       Expand your horizons and get excited about foreign longlists ! The French literary prize-industry is almost as insane as the British one -- and the prizes tend to be more conveniently lumped together, awarded one after the other in a busy prize-season (which just started up). Most of the longlists for the big prizes are out, and there's a great site to help you keep track: Prix-Littéraires net
       Just announced: the prix Femina longlists. Particularly impressive: Sarah Hall's The Electric Michelangelo, already Man Booker longlisted, also gets longlisted for the prix Femina 2004 Etranger (i.e. the foreign fiction prize).
       Already announced last week (sorry we missed all the fanfare) the Goncourt longlist -- which includes Amélie Nothomb's Biographie de la faim (which we'd love to review, if we could get our hands on a copy ...) -- and the Renaudot longlist.
       If nothing else, the longlists give a decent overview of most of the most-discussed new French titles this season.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Arab presence at Frankfurt Book Fair

       The Arab World is guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair (coming soon, 6 to 10 October), and at least Al-Ahram Weekly keeps you up-to-date with how that's going. In this week's issue two more articles: in An equivocal optimism Juergen Stryjak interviews fair-president Volker Neumann, while in The writing on the wall Dina Ezzat gives a more general overview.
       Neumann seems reasonably satisfied, though he notes:
I think the most important thing is that more Arab countries should officially participate. Much to my regret, countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Kuwait and Iraq are not taking part in the official presentation. Of course, they will be represented by authors, but the countries themselves will not contribute to the official guest-of-honour presentation, and I really do regret that.
       Ezzat reports that guest of honour status has already been a small boon:
According to Ibrahim El-Muallim, chairman of the Arab Publishers' Union, the average number of books translated from Arabic into German every year is 10-12. This year, with the Arab guest-of-honour presentation, some 50 books have been translated.
       (No mention of how many are/were translated into English.)
       And there's hope that this will lead to other things:
Judging by the increase in Spanish titles following the Latin American guest-of-honour presentation at Frankfurt, the Arab organisers should expect a significant increase in their business in the next few years. In addition, it is hoped that the fair will improve the business of publishers who work with Arab authors writing in foreign languages, mainly French, by generating interest among Arab publishers in translating such work into Arabic. Arab plans for establishing a fund for translating Arabic books into other languages are currently being debated as well; and one such plan may be launched during the Frankfurt Book Fair.
       Sadly, translation funds/subsidies are often necessary (and most major languages/nations offer them) -- since especially English language publishers seem congenitally incapable of making any money with translated literature and thus are unwilling to publish any unless they are paid to do so --, and so there shouldn't be any debate about this. The problem is, of course, how to organise it: ultra-dirigiste Arab governments are unlikely to cede control (or comfortably work together), much less make any effort to get the most worthy titles translated, preferring -- like the old Warsaw Pact foreign publishing efforts -- to support regime-friendly crap-realism. Still, at least having a fund and an office would be a start, something to build on.

       (We're curious why Iraq didn't join in the official presentation. Obviously there are organisational issues, now that America broke this country, but they had no problem making it to the Olympics -- so what happened here ? Did the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority thwart Iraqi ambitions or what ?)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

16 September 2004 - Thursday

ManBooker longlist sales | Checkpoint confusion
Preserving Sebaldianism | Pamuk reviews

       ManBooker longlist sales

       In this week's Literary Life column Mark Sanderson notes (second item) that the 22 Man Booker-longlisted titles (well, actually only the 15 that have been published so far) weren't exactly selling like hotcakes before they were nominated -- 32,913 copies between them. The more interesting statistic will, of course, be what kind of sales-boost being long- and then short-listed gives these titles, but these are still pretty depressing statistics.
       Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire did best pre-longlisting: it "had sold 9,287 copies in hardback and paperback". David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas -- out for quite a while, and widely praised -- has sold "more than 5,000 hardback copies" -- which sounds pathetic to us (no wonder it only came out as a paperback original in the US). But most of the other titles -- some of which admittedly were only published very recently -- have done far worse.
       But this is where we learn what the ManBooker -- and especially the ManBooker longlist can achieve: will sales skyrocket ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Checkpoint confusion

       A few more reviews of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint keep turning up (this week: the Daily and Sunday Telegraph), with the occasional interesting take among them.
       Worth a look: Caroline Moore's in the Daily Telegraph. She found:
As an anti-war diatribe, I have seldom read anything so lame, so simultaneously ranting and dull, outside the terrifyingly private and needy "blogs" (Internet diaries) one stumbles across online.

In fact, when I first read Checkpoint, I was surprised. All those Republicans, I reasoned, must have misread this weird novella. It seemed to me to be an intermittently funny (if cruel and somewhat unfair) satire upon the dangerously self-deluding nature of anti-war rhetoric.
       So she thought when she read it -- but the publishers (and Baker) tried to convince her otherwise:
Then I discovered that I had been wrong. Belatedly, I learnt -- from the external evidence of the publisher's notes - that Checkpoint was actually a tract written from "seething" anti-Bush fury. I felt cheated. As anti-war propaganda, Checkpoint is pathetic.
       We mentioned a similar 'defence' of the book (straight from Baker, that one) that we felt undermined the whole undertaking. Why can't publishers and authors let books simply stand in their own defence ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Preserving Sebaldianism

       Here's the kind of review -- and view of literature -- that drives us nuts: Joanna Kavenna's take on W.G.Sebald's recently translated and published poetry collection, Unrecounted. (Get your copy from, see the Penguin publicity page, or pre-order your copy from
       Only some of Sebald's work was translated into English while he was still alive, and the four unusual volumes of semi-fiction made his reputation in the English speaking world. They were Sebaldian -- a unique and distinctive style and presentation -- and that's what people (or at least Kavenna) want and expect from Sebald-books. Too bad that much of what he wrote doesn't fit that narrow image -- including, apparently, Unrecounted:
Sebald's work was often categorised as "strange", but Unrecounted is strange in a very un-Sebaldian way.
       Oh dear !
It's not automatically a bad thing for a writer to step out of his mould, to publish something surprising. But it is Sebald's posthumous works that have been increasingly un-Sebaldian -- the orthodox essays of On the Natural History of Destruction (2003), the free-form verse of After Nature and now the haiku-esque poems of Unrecounted. These are works that fall out of the quartet of novels published during and shortly after Sebald's life, works that seem increasingly remote from the literary world he created. The publication of Unrecounted poses the question of how many more such posthumous works Sebald's reputation can carry, before Sebaldian comes to mean something different, something less superlative.
       Yes, much better to ignore all the other stuff he wrote and preserve this Sebaldian illusion rather than admire his much broader talents (or acknowledge his other strengths -- and weaknesses). Note that On the Natural History of Destruction -- whose centrepiece was a lecture first delivered in 1997 -- is only one of at least four essay-collections available in German (i.e. there are a hell of a lot of other "orthodox essays" already out there; they just haven't been published in English translation yet).
       We haven't read Unrecounted, but we note that some of the German critics see it as an integral Sebaldian work, with echoes of his life-long interests and preoccupations. But the Germans have always seen and read Sebald completely differently (and, one must add, considerably less reverently) -- perhaps because they've been presented the work in a different manner and order (his essayistic work having been published alongside the more creative works all along, for example).
       Troubling about this edition also: Kavenna's description of translator Michael Hamburger's introduction -- which, from the sounds of it, practically imposes such a disappointed reading on the reader.

       (This misguided and extremely limited Sebald-veneration reminds us of Borges, who is also practically not allowed to be the far richer writer that he was in the English-speaking world: only a few of his stories are allowed to stand as truly Borgesian and his "reputation" rests on these; meanwhile the bulk of his non-fiction and much of his poetry has never even been translated into English.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Pamuk reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of two Orhan Pamuk titles: his new novel, Snow, and his IMPAC award-winning My Name is Red.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

15 September 2004 - Wednesday

Howard Jacobson | Arab literary world | Indigo as cultural department store
Scottish literary list | Book storage PSA | Too much Lewis and Clark

       Howard Jacobson

       Howard Jacobson's The Making of Henry is coming out in the US now -- and somebody actually noticed: Elizabeth Manus interviews him at Nextbook.
       Among the questions:
     You don't have readers in America ?
     It turns out that the specifics of my English Jewish voice can be problematic. In the Land of Oz -- my fourth book, a travel book -- nobody in America would publish it. They thought it was too ironical. I talk about a Jewish sense of humor, but if you add to it an English sense of humor, it's a bewildering mix.
       Nobody would publish any of his previous fiction either, as far as we could tell -- including the very enjoyable The Mighty Walzer:
The response from American publishers was that the very thing that made it good -- the evocation of Jewish boys in Manchester growing up in 1950s -- made it too foreign. The feeling I got from American publishers is they felt interest in ethnic life had passed. Augie March had already covered it. I didn't touch a contemporary nerve.
       Not that we have much respect left for American publishers we could possibly still lose, but their consistent foolishness is a wonder to behold.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Arab literary world

       None of the major US papers are paying much attention to the Arab countries being the guests of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but Brian Whitaker takes it as a starting point and "deconstructs US claims of a Middle East 'knowledge deficit'" in The Guardian (link first seen at Bookninja).
Arab books became a political issue earlier this year when the Bush administration launched its "greater Middle East initiative" and blamed low output of books for a "knowledge deficit" in the Arab countries.
       The jr. Bush -- a master of all deficits, budgetary, knowledge, and moral included -- is, of course, not really one to talk.
       Most important though:
The flow of ideas between east and west ought, of course, to be a two-way traffic so we should also consider whether the west has a knowledge deficit of its own where Arab books are concerned -- a question that I hope to look at in a future article.
       The knowledge deficit isn't just restricted Arab books, of course (as the disastrous American bumbling in Iraq has so clearly illustrated).
       (While we're on the subject, and leaving aside the infuriating and tragic Iraqi quagmire (where each new catastrophic and heartbreaking misstep has brought our blood to a boil several days running now) why so little news and discussion about the just-announced Saudi postponement of municipal elections ? If the jr. Bush administration can't even convince these bozos to take this tiny, symbolic step towards democratisation -- and the Saudis didn't even bother offering an excuse for the postponement this time around (they'd already been postponed once, because of a supposed conflict with Ramadan), and we certainly don't count on them being held next spring, either -- how much hope is there for foisting democracy on the region ? Come on, a little pressure, a token reprimand, something to make people believe Americans still have any interest in this whole "democracy" concept. Hey, even George jr.'s buddy -- one of the few foreign heads of state he likes -- Putin got criticised for his efforts at reStalinization (as well he should be -- though the concern is kind of late in coming). Unfortunately, in the Middle East, the rules are different and the outrageous is tolerated -- as long as the Americans perceive the outrageous to be in their best interest (hence continued unquestioning support for countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to many of the obscene Central Asian Soviet after-states, countries that are an affront to any and all senses of human decency). Not a promising long-term strategy, in our eyes -- but what do we know ? )

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Indigo as cultural department store

       Nancy Carr's Canadian Press report notes Indigo to expand non-book sales, add health and business advisers in revamp. Apparently major Canadian bookseller Indigo doesn't think selling books is a good business plan, so they're trying to diversify their offerings, hoping to reduce books from the current 80 or 85 per cent of their offerings down to 60 per cent:
Indigo Books and Music Inc., the country's biggest bookseller, aims to beef up sales of gifts and accessories while depending on books for a smaller proportion of its business as it revamps its stores.
       How much better, indeed, that it:
repositions itself as a "book lover's cultural department store."
       (We're always thrilled to hear about repositioning efforts, since they're usually this brilliant.)
       They'll now also sell cultural stuff like cards and jewelry -- much less bother than books, no doubt.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Scottish literary list

       Every day somebody comes up with a new list of best books or most influential reads or whatnot -- it's easier than reviewing books or providing real literary coverage, we assume. The list of the day is from The Scotsman, a Salute to the best of our nation's writers.
The Scotsman has compiled a list of 30 Scots authors and their best works, whether it is novel, theatre or poetry -- some of Scotland’s strongest literary contributions have been in verse -- and we are asking our readers to choose the one they think is best.
       Yes, in the newest trend, it's not just a list -- readers are invited to vote on their choice ! Don't you feel involved ? A contributor to a meaningful dialogue ? A shaper of the way Scottish literature is seen ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Book storage PSA

       Given that many of our readers probably do have sizable book-collections we offer this public service announcement:
       We understand that it's easy to run out of room to store your books. Nevertheless, we strongly recommend that you exhaust all other possibilities before storing them on your stove. For those who are still tempted to do so (bookshelves ? who needs bookshelves when you have that convenient stove-top space !), please read this article from the Times-Record, as John Lyon finds Officials Blame Fire On Books On Stove:
Boxes of books that were sitting on the kitchen stove apparently ignited because a burner on the stove was accidentally turned on, Fire Marshal Jim Bell said. The burner was on a low setting and probably took a long time to get the boxes hot enough to ignite, he said.
       See, even keeping the heat on a low setting is not enough to prevent your books -- and house -- going up in flames.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Too much Lewis and Clark

       In the Seattle Post-Intelligencer John Marshall reports that The Lewis and Clark books keep coming, but readers aren't buying.
       It is pretty amazing:
Or perhaps the real measure of the deluge came when there was not just one, not just two, not just three, not just four, but five books devoted to the Newfoundland dog that accompanied the expedition. Yes, five children's books about Seaman, three more books about the dog than there are about its owner, William Clark.
       Publishers are showing their usual good business sense:
The publishing business has always had a tendency to hop aboard a bandwagon, but that tendency has become far more pronounced these days when commercial success has become the prime driver for what is now a conglomerate-controlled industry.
       Too bad there's the usual disconnect with reality (and, especially, the book-buying public):
But the flood coming from publishers has dwindled into a trickle of books leaving stores, an indication of just how overwhelmed readers have been by the outpouring, and for good reason.
       They can publish a fifth kid's book about some 19th-century dog, but not Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Walzer because it's "too foreign." (see mention above) -- no wonder the American publishing industry is doing so wonderfully well .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

14 September 2004 - Tuesday

Checkpoint odds and ends | Faber at 75 | Keuner + 15 | Outrageous blurbing

       Checkpoint odds and ends

       Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint may not be selling well, but it continues to attract attention -- at least from the media.
       Alasdair Palmer interviewed Baker in the Daily Telegraph. In the piece Baker offers at least one revealing (or confusing) defence of the book:
"The book is a heartbroken lament at the innumerable fires our country deliberately set in a crowded theatre of war ... It's raising questions and asking people to think about the war and its moral cost."
       Ouch ! When authors start describing their books as "heartbroken laments" we usually run the other way as fast as we can. Too late to do that here, but at least it reaffirms our opinion that authors should stick to writing (not speaking) and that publicity tours and authors explaining themselves (and their work) are bad, bad ideas. (Honestly, if we had read this quote before getting our hands on the book we never would have read Checkpoint -- which would have been a shame.)

       On the lighter side, Yankee Pot Roast feature Checkpoint as the inaugural volume in their Y.P.R. Book-of-the-Month Club:
wherein this humble journal will select a book each month (thus upholding the promise implied by the club’s namesake), and encourage good, old-timey satire based upon said book (thus negating any semblance to a real book club). At the end of the month, we’ll run the barrage of parodies, deleted chapters, foreign mistranslations, screenplay adaptations, off-topic reviews, random thoughts whilst reading, or whatever else you creative folks dream up
       You have until the end of the month to submit your satire -- though we think most of the best ideas were probably taken by the many pre-publication commentators who said all those wild and nutty things about the book before they read it.

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       Faber at 75

       In The Independent today Christina Patterson writes about Life in the house of Eliot, about "peerless publisher Faber and Faber" at 75.
       A decent, very cursory overview, with some interesting points:
But it is perhaps the concept of "continuous publishing" that marks Faber out from the literary crowd. The traditional view is that they publish you until you die.

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       Keuner + 15

       Bertolt Brecht is best (and often only) known as a playwright, especially in the English-speaking world, but he arguably is one of the three greatest German poets of the 20th century (Rilke and Celan would be up there too) and wrote some damn good works in prose as well. Among the most popular of his prose pieces are the Keuner-Geschichten -- published in English by City Lights a few years back as Stories of Mr. Keuner (a volume that has received nowhere the recognition it deserves, and went almost entirely unreviewed). Recently a cache of long-lost Brecht goodies was found, and among the best were more Keuner stories -- fifteen of them.
       Suhrkamp has now published Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner. Zürcher Fassung (see their publicity page, or get your copy from, edited by Erdmut Wizisla, with the fifteen never-before-seen stories -- and with numerous facsimiles ! (We expect to get a copy soon and can barely contain ourselves.)
       The first reviews are out (yes, all in German): Martin Krumbholz's in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Julian Schütt's in the Weltwoche.

       We wonder whether some brilliant editor of some English-language literary magazine has bought the translation rights for these fifteen pieces yet ..... (Though given how the City Lights volume was ignored -- despite the Brecht name -- maybe readers don't care. The critics certainly don't seem to.)

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       Outrageous blurbing

       At Slate yesterday Eric McHenry reported on Starbuck the Great. It's not the poet that's that interesting, but what the publisher -- a university house, no less -- perpetrated:
The front cover of The Works, a new edition of selected poems by the late George Starbuck, features the most shamelessly misleading blurb I've ever written. Someone at the University of Alabama Press saw my review of an earlier Starbuck collection in the San Francisco Chronicle and extracted the words "It's impossible to resist the language" from the sentence, "It's impossible to resist the language of masonry and carpentry when describing Starbuck's work"
       We ask, yet again: whatever happened to truth in advertising laws ? Can misrepresentation get any worse than this ? Fine these people, pulp this book, set an example.
       Okay, none of that will happen -- but next time you see the University of Alabama Press imprint (not that one often sees it) remember this and ask yourself whether they can be trusted and whether you really want to spend your money on one of their products. (And remember it too next time someone defends university presses -- yeah, they really set a higher standard, don't they ?)

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13 September 2004 - Monday

Ariel restored | Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell review

       Ariel restored

       Usually we're all for an author's words being presented as they originally intended and wished it, but in the case of Sylvia Plath's Ariel we're a bit disappointed to hear that: Upbeat and sunny Plath emerges from new book. Yes, Ariel: The Restored Text (so the Faber edition; pre-order your copy at -- or Ariel: The Restored Edition : A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement (so the HarperCollins edition; pre-order your copy at -- will be published in November. And, after decades of enjoying the oversized and nicely tragic Plath-myth, we apparently now will have to adjust to an entirely new spin:
A new "uncensored" edition of Sylvia Plath's masterpiece, Ariel, will prove that she was not a doomed depressive but an upbeat, optimistic character whose suicide in 1963 came out of the blue, according to friends.
       Which sounds much less fun.
       Still, it probably is good that:
For the first time, readers will be able to see an edition of the poems complete and in their original order, instead of the heavily edited version, published by her husband after her death.

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       Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Susanna Clarke's heavily publicized (and Man Booker longlisted) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
       The book has received heaps of pre-publication publicity and attention -- as Andrew Crumey correctly complains about at Scotland on Sunday. As he puts it:
It may indeed be a wonderful book, but what’s interesting is the way its wonderfulness becomes an accepted fact before anybody has even had a chance to see it for themselves. Like all those clichés about the "new black", Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has become the new Harry Potter -- for this season at least.
       Interestingly, this is one of those rare big and much-anticipated British books that come out in the US before it appears in the UK; just out in the US, it's only due in British bookstores next week. Bloomsbury publishes it on both sides of the Atlantic, so it's a conscious decision on their part -- though we don't quite understand the reasoning. But -- except for an unimpressed 'Briefly Noted' review in The New Yorker (13 September; "her attempt to graft a fantasy narrative onto such historical realities as the Battle of Waterloo is more often awkward than clever, and the period dialogue is simply twee") -- it has been getting raves all over, so maybe this is the way to get some additional momentum.

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12 September 2004 - Sunday

F-ing crazies | Naipaul profile | Erotic evisceration

       F-ing crazies

       Lloyd Grove wrote about it in the NY Daily News on Friday and now Martin Bright reports that Colin Powell in four-letter neo-con 'crazies' row in The Observer today:
A furious row has broken out over claims in a new book by BBC broadcaster James Naughtie that US Secretary of State Colin Powell described neo-conservatives in the Bush administration as 'fucking crazies' during the build-up to war in Iraq.
       There's apparently some dispute over whether he actually expressed himself this way (he strongly denies it), though there's surely little disagreement about the accuracy of his assessment.
       Poor Powell -- once respected, but reduced by the jr. Bush administration to a figure of ridicule with no political credibility whatsoever abroad any more (the Sudanese government must have been rolling on the floor, laughing with relief, when the Americans sent him to reprimand them about the situation in Darfur -- a clear signal, surely, that the administration isn't at all serious about doing much about that situation (as their Rwandanesque inaction over the past many weeks has now proved)). Rather than recognising that his opinion counts for nothing and resigning months ago over the implementation of countless insupportable policies and actions (specifically but not solely in Iraq) -- as any man with any self-respect would surely have done --, Powell continues to allow the administration to ride roughshod over him, and takes yet another bullet, as Grove reports:
"This is nonsense," Powell said. "I never said anything like that to Jack, nor him to me. Anyone who says I did is wrong."
       The book in question is James Naughtie's The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency. Get your copy at or, and see the publicity pages at PublicAffairs and Macmillan

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       Naipaul profile

       In The Observer today Tim Adams speaks with Nobel laureate V.S.Naipaul -- and his wife -- in A home for Mr Naipaul.
       Choice exchange:
     'Well, clearly Iraq is not the place to have gone. But religious war is so threatening to the rest of us that it cannot be avoided. It will have to be fought... there are certain countries which foment it, and they probably should be destroyed, actually.'
     Saudi Arabia ?
     'I would like to think so, yes.'
     Iran ?
     'I think Iran has to be dealt with, too.'
       So there still are some authors out there who go for the simplistic, big-picture (or at least big bomb-to-oblivion) solutions. And even a guy like this doesn't think invading Iraq was a good idea .....

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       Erotic evisceration

       So Rowan Pelling -- best known these weeks for being a Man Booker judge -- sold the magazine she founded, The Erotic Review, last year. It was quickly re-sold, and Pelling apparently doesn't like the direction (and the locale) it's being taken: she and her cohorts all resigned Thursday.
       Ciar Byrne reported that The Erotic Review falls into bed with Penthouse in The Independent yesterday, and Adam Lusher reported Surrey proves the ultimate turn-off at Erotic Review in the Telegraph.
       As 3 AM summed up at their Man Booker 2004 weblog:
In short, if you want your editorially successful/commercially unsuccessful cult journal to continue in existence, don't sell it to Dennis Publishing.
       Indeed, selling out may be remunerative, but often does little for the greater good -- as has been seen from what has become of so many independent publishers that cashed in.

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11 September 2004 - Saturday

Hare's Stuff Happens | Hilary Mantel on Saudi Arabia

       Hare's Stuff Happens

       David Hare's Stuff Happens has now opened. (See the National Theatre publicity page, get your own copy of the playscript at, see the Faber publicity page.) A few reviews are out:
       In The Guardian Michael Billington finds it: "a very good, totally compelling play". And it sounds like Hare doesn't opt for a totally simplistic approach:
The great surprise of the show, however, is the way performance leads to reassessment of character. Bush, in many British eyes, is seen as some kind of holy fool or worse. But, through Hare's writing and Alex Jennings's performance, he emerges as a wily and skilful manipulator who plays the role of a bumbling pseudo-Texan but constantly achieves his desired ends.
       In the Daily Telegraph Charles Moore writes about An unsentimental play about stuff happening:
Except for the slightly sententious and uninteresting final speech by an Iraqi, Stuff Happens is a play, not a polemic.
       There's also an AP report (here at NY Newsday) Hare's Play About Iraq Divides Critics.
       Last week The Guardian (apparently controversially) solicited some preview reactions For or against ?, getting the (very mixed) reactions of Robin Cook, Polly Toynbee, Scott Ritter, Gavyn Davies, David Aaronovitch, Ann Widdecombe, Tim Collins, and Max Hastings. This preview-reviewing apparently caused a "ruckus", and led to Michael Billington's call that Previews must go !.

       (Updated - 12 September): See now also Neal Ascherson's review in The Observer, The war for minds ... but not hearts.

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       Hilary Mantel on Saudi Arabia

       Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is being re-issued, and she writes about living in Saudi Arabia (where the book is set) in The Guardian in Veiled threats.

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