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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 December 2007

1 December: 'Best Recommended' variation | Cultural bookshelf segregation ? | Nordic Council Literature Prize nominations | More about H. Hatterr
2 December: Reality checks and the Index Translationum | Kim Young-ha profile | Javier Marías piece | Akutagawa discussion winding down | The Rider review
3 December: Joseph Conrad's 150th | British sci-fi attitudes | The indigenous language debate | Library reports
4 December: New Boston Review | TNR on book reviewing | Laila Lalami on The Radiance of the King | Winter The Quarterly Conversation | Amis on 'Literature and Terrorism' | LBC Winter Read This! selection | On Chesil Beach review
5 December: Russian book awards | Give 'em away ? | Translating troubles for Les Bienveillantes ? | B.R.Myers on Denis Johnson | New PM, new PM prize | The Village Voice selections | Red Lights review
6 December: Writers protest EU-Africa summit | Matisse takes Russian Booker | Forugh Farrokhzad translation | Best translations of the year ? | Bestselling in NZ | Tezuka Osamu reviews
7 December: Toiset kengät takes Finlandia Prize | Translation talk -- and Ondjaki enthusiasm | Littell translation on track after all | Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence | The Economist books of the year | The City in Crimson Cloak review
8 December: Lessing's Nobel lecture | Profiles: Eco - Pamuk - Verhaeghen | French cultural decline reactions | (Aussie) trash canon | Byatt on Allingham
9 December: Bog books | Sex in the library | Akutagawa reviews
10 December: Oliver VII review -- and Journey by Moonlight film ? | Translation awareness | New York's Year in Books | Tanenhaus gets double-duty ?

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10 December 2007 - Monday

Oliver VII review -- and Journey by Moonlight film ? | Translation awareness
New York's Year in Books | Tanenhaus gets double-duty ?

       Oliver VII review -- and Journey by Moonlight film ?

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Szerb Antal's Oliver VII, which Pushkin Press have just brought out.

       Updating our other Szerb reviews, we also see that Mephisto-director Szabó István is apparently working on the film-version of Journey by Moonlight

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Translation awareness

       In adding our Oliver VII-review and updating our other Szerb reviews we came across Alberto Manguel's recent review in the Financial Times, in which he writes about Len Rix's translation of: "Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend, published in 1934 (but only now translated into English)".
       Unfortunately, The Pendragon Legend has long been available in a different translation: as a reader wrote in (scroll down) to The Guardian about Nicholas Lezard's review (which includes the same mistake):
He is, however, wrong in asserting that the Pushkin Press edition is the first English translation. I have a copy of the 1963 Corvina Press, Budapest, translated by Lili Halápy.
       You can argue that it's a pretty obscure edition, but since it was also the one that was my first introduction to Szerb, some twenty years ago, it's clearly not that obscure -- and I'd be a bit more forgiving if it wasn't the second time in a relatively short period that I've caught Manguel making such a pronouncement and be mistaken: his review of Carmen Laforet's Nada claims: "it now appears in English for the first time" -- when, in fact, there are two previous translations of that novel .....
       I harp on this because last week Chad Post admirably started collecting titles for the best translations of 2007 but said he was excluding new translations of previously translated works -- and then promptly listed two: Eça de Queirós' The Maias and Georges Simenon's The Engagement.
       The Simenon is almost understandable: it was previously published under a different title, and the Simenon-translations (and titles) are one of the great bibliographical messes of the 20th century: just to cite one example, my copy of Maigret goes Home informs me on the copyright page that it was previously published as Maigret and the Countess in (!) the volume Maigret keeps a Rendezvous -- and a bit of digging finds that this title (L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre in the original) has also been published as: Death of a Countess, The Saint-Fiacre Affair, and Maigret on Home Ground ..... Who can keep track of that ? But Eça de Queirós is the greatest Portuguese author of the 19th century and the The Maias his most famous work -- and long available in, for example, a Penguin Classics edition (in a 1965 translation).
       Now, as far as translation- (and, indeed, general literary-) awareness goes, surely Alberto Manguel and Chad Post are right up there among the most knowledgeable folk out there. Yet if their awareness doesn't extend to what's already long been out there ... that seems a bit worrying to me. We moan so much about how little gets translated, but if no one notices what is already out there (and if Manguel and Chad don't notice, surely pretty much no one does) then what hope is there ? (Sure, some of these are old and relatively inaccessible translations and editions, but they're not that inaccessible: my own -- admittedly deeper-than-most -- library has the/an earlier translation of all four of the titles Manguel and Chad mention.)

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       New York's Year in Books

       A bit more creative and interesting than most of the best-of lists: New York magazine considers The Year in Books -- and finds Roberto Bolaño The Savage Detectives the 'Most Deserving promotion to the Canon'.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Tanenhaus gets double-duty ?

       As widely noted and commented on, The New York Times Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus will take on the additional duty of leading 'The Week in Review'-section in a few weeks; see the Radar-report, which also offers Bill Keller's staff-memo on the move.
       Keller claims that: "Under Sam's leadership, the Book Review has been replenished" -- which isn't exactly the word we would have used .....
       There's also:
Nobody should mistake this for a diminution of enthusiasm for either the Book Review or for the Week in Review. Quite the contrary. Both are and will remain, undiminished, franchise sections of The New York Times.
       Franchise sections ? Wow. Well, while the NYTBR doesn't have the personnel issues the New York Knicks are currently enjoying, management comparisons to the Dolan-Thomas leadership don't seem all that far-fetched .....
       Still, we're surprised that Tanenhaus can take on more duties -- but Keller thinks:
This new configuration would be unimaginable if Sam was the kind of editor who made himself indispensable to every assignment, who vetted every line of copy, who hoarded the responsibility. But he is a leader who -- as his Book Review colleagues will attest -- surrounds himself with tremendously capable people, sets a direction, and backs off.
       Well, it's one way of leading. But, of course, it's the direction that worries us. And while 'The Week in Review' won't be able to avoid international coverage there seems little doubt that Tanenhaus will display as little interest in foreign voices (including foreign opinions and perspectives) as he does at the NYTBR.

       Among the reactions is Levi Asher's at LitKicks, who writes:
I am glad, though, that the Times is beginning to ease Sam Tanenhaus out of his uncomfortable perch atop the New York Times Book Review (I expect and hope that a new editor of the NYTBR will be announced shortly, possibly with Tanenhaus continuing to oversee). Today's announcement may be good news for the Book Review, but it's not good news for the New York Times.
       That's a spin we could live with -- but we don't count on Tanenhaus being eased out, or his 'direction' changing any time soon.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

9 December 2007 - Sunday

Bog books | Sex in the library | Akutagawa reviews

       Bog books

       In Scotland on Sunday Aidan Smith provides the obligatory seasonal overview of bog books in Are you sitting comfortably ?:
Toilet books -- what's the collective term for them, a great steaming pile ? -- swamp store displays in the run-up to Christmas. They feed off each other -- mutating, regurgitating and ripping each other off. It's impossible to ignore them. There's one destined for your stocking, and if you're really unlucky, two.
       Among the bizarre offerings: Harry Campbell's Whatever Happened To Tanganyika ? (get your copy at, whose main selling point seems to be a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith (who apparently: "reckons Campbell has created "a whole new discipline: nostalgic geography" "). We'd have thought that anyone who remembers the designation Tanganyika also remembers that it got together with Zanzibar, to form what we know as Tanzania, and that that's not a very exciting story. But presumably it's all in the telling ..... (In any case -- a sign of shoppers' desperation ? -- its Amazon sales rank suggests the book is selling well .....)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Sex in the library

       They've finally put their obscene material on display at the BNF in Paris, in the exhibit L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret -- and if even the French think it should be off-limits to under-16s you have to figure there's some pretty hard-core stuff on display. (Presumably, however, that under-age prohibition is just a library-trick meant to entice the kids, and make them think books might have something to offer.)
       Quite a few reports out by now, including Hugh Schofield's Library welcomes you to Hell – if you’re over 16, noting:
For the first time since it was catalogued in the 1830s, the Bibliotheque Nationale's special pornographic section, officially entitled "Enfer" ("Hell"), is being shown in all its priapic glory in an exhibition lasting till March. Such is the graphic nature of the material that under-16s are barred.
       Meanwhile, in The Independent John Lichfield reports extensively in Sex please! (we're French): Paris's dirty secret.
       For French coverage, see reports in: L'Express, Le Figaro, L'Humanité, and La République des Lettres.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Akutagawa reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our brief looks at two recent Akutagawa Ryūnosuke story-collections:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

8 December 2007 - Saturday

Lessing's Nobel lecture | Profiles: Eco - Pamuk - Verhaeghen
French cultural decline reactions | (Aussie) trash canon | Byatt on Allingham

       Lessing's Nobel lecture

       Doris Lessing couldn't deliver it herself -- apparently her British editor Nicholas Pearson read it out in Stockholm -- but her Nobel Prize lecture, On not winning the Nobel Prize, is now also available at the official site.
       A lot that's noteworthy, including about writing and publishing in Africa (and specifically Zimbabwe):
Books, literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man's world. But you may have a sheaf of paper (not typescript -- that is a book -- but it has to find a publisher, who will then pay you, remain solvent, distribute the books. I have had several accounts sent to me of the publishing scene for Africa. Even in more privileged places like North Africa, with its different tradition, to talk of a publishing scene is a dream of possibilities.

Here I am talking about books never written, writers that could not make it because the publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. But even before that stage of a book's creation which demands a publisher, an advance, encouragement, there is something else lacking.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Profile: Eco

       In the Sydney Morning Herald Ben Naparstek profiles The Armani of Italian literature, Umberto Eco.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Profile: Pamuk

       In The Guardian Maya Jaggi profiles last year's Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, in Between two worlds.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Profile: Verhaeghen

       It's great to see Time offer a profile of Omega Minor-author Paul Verhaeghen. As we've mentioned repeatedly, we think the book has a good chance for at least a bit of break-out success.
       Our favourite line from the profile:
"I'm completely exhausted. Omega Minor said it all; I have nothing left."
       Would that other writers would admit as much, and not -- as they so often do -- force the issue and insist on writing yet another novel when they don't really have it in them.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       French cultural decline reactions

       We mentioned Don Morrison's Time-article arguing that France was: "a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace" about a week ago -- and were surprised not to have come across more weblog or media reactions to it since then.
       Now, at least, Bernard-Henri Lévy takes it on in The Guardian, arguing 'American talk of the death of French culture says more about them than us'. Fun stuff, including the conclusion:
My feeling is that this article would not speak of the decline of French culture if it did not also speak of the fate of all dominant cultures, which at one time or another are condemned to watch their dominance decline. This article speaks truly of America and of what will happen to it on that day when the increasing power of Spanish, Chinese, or perhaps other Asian languages ensure that Anglo-American will no longer be the language of the formula and of universal translation. France as metaphor for America. Anti-French hostility as a displaced form of panic which dare not speak its name.
       (And in the Arab News Iman Kurdi writes about it in The Death of Culture.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       (Aussie) trash canon

       In The Australian Peter Craven argues that: 'Popular fiction is a tonic for the child within', singing the praises of The trash canon (which he considers from a decidedly Australian perspective).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Byatt on Allingham

       In The Telegraph A.S.Byatt admits: "I have never been able to read Agatha Christie" but explains Why I love Margery Allingham.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

7 December 2007 - Friday

Toiset kengät takes Finlandia Prize | Translation talk -- and Ondjaki enthusiasm
Littell translation on track after all | Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence
The Economist books of the year | The City in Crimson Cloak review

       Toiset kengät takes Finlandia Prize

       Toiset kengät ('The other shoes'), by Hannu Väisänen, has been awarded this year's Finlandia-palkinto -- the Finlandia Literature Prize, Finland's biggest book prize and one with a solid track record.
       See also the Helsingin Sanomat article, Artist Hannu Väisänen wins prestigious Finlandia Literature Prize, where they also note:
Apparently Väisänen's victory came as no great surprise, as Isle of Man-based gaming firm NordicBet closed its book on the results exceptionally well before the announcement, after a good deal of money had been placed on the advance favourite.
       Impressive to see that there was heavy betting action on a Finnish literary prize -- though given that it's a one-man decision that's a bit problematic: it would be too easy for the fix to be in .....

       See also an excerpt from the book at Books from Finland, where they also have Soila Lehtonen talking with the author about the book.
       And don't forget that you can catch an exhibit of his art at galerie anhava through the 20th.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Translation talk -- and Ondjaki enthusiasm

       Several weblogs linked to Stephen Henighan's translation-talk at Thirsty: A Biblioasis Miscellany, introducing the admirable Biblioasis International Translation Series, and it is certainly worth your while.
       Good to see him mention the fact that so many foreign authors do translations and almost no English-language authors do (as we discussed a couple of weeks back, and plan to discuss some more):
This is not true in North Atlantic Anglophone culture. The monolingual writer is a postmodern, Anglo-American invention. Try to imagine Jane Urquhart or Barbara Gowdy or Douglas Coupland or Guy Vanderhaeghe undertaking a literary translation. The image is almost surreal; this simply isn’t the way in which our writers approach literature. In ages prior to ours, when all writers, by definition, were multilingual, literature’s nature as an entity whose lustre was burnished by the fretting-together of different linguistic strands was so obvious that it did not need to be stated.
       He also noted:
The second book in the Biblioasis Translation Series is going to be the novel Good Morning Comrades by the young Angolan writer Ondjaki. I never would have got interested in Angola, I never would have travelled to southern Africa and met Ondjaki, had I not read an exquisite description of the first week of Angolan independence in a book called Another Day of Life by a Polish writer named Ryszard Kapuscinski.
       That caught our eye because it was actually the second time yesterday we'd come across an Ondjaki-mention (who, let's face it, is about the last author you're ever likely to hear of). As it happens, Aflame Books is also coming out with an Ondjaki-title, The Whistler: see their publicity page, or pre-order at or (We certainly hope to be able to get to both of them.)
       (Despite this sudden Ondjaki-interest, it's no surprise that English-language publishers are late jumping on the bandwagon: the French got to Bonjour camarades in 2004, the Germans published Bom dia camaradas in 2006 .....)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Littell translation on track after all

       A few days ago we mentioned that Pierre Assouline had reported that there were some translating troubles with Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes. Someone who we trust is in the know now assures us that the claims he makes are unfounded -- the translator originally entrusted with rendering it into English is still the one on the job (and the French actually are subsidising some of the translations).
       Curious how these things get started ... and we wonder what information Assouline was basing his claims on. But we do also find the whole secrecy surrounding the English-language version of Les Bienveillantes a bit mystifying. Sounds like they're trying to cook up some carefully-orchestrated publicity-scheme. Yeah, that's gonna work .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence

       Salman Rushdie seems to be constantly on the move. Last week it was Budapest, and from that stay we get an interview in hlo, In the world of things that never happened, and a profile in The Budapest Sun, Women central to Rushdie's story. In the latter -- and in yet another profile, Bombs, bands and birds recalled as novelist, by George Lowery -- we learn that, despite all the travelling he has managed to finish another book and has handed in the manuscript.
       It's called The Enchantress of Florence, and will be out in the UK in the spring and in the US next fall. already has a listing for it -- complete with cover and brief (and confusing) description. But at least he apparently avoids any American settings, which have so dreadfully tripped him up in his most recent novels.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Economist books of the year

       The Economist's selection of books of the year, their Pick of the bunch, is now available online too.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The City in Crimson Cloak review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Aslı Erdoğan's Rio-novel, The City in Crimson Cloak.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

6 December 2007 - Thursday

Writers protest EU-Africa summit | Matisse takes Russian Booker
Forugh Farrokhzad translation | Best translations of the year ?
Bestselling in NZ | Tezuka Osamu reviews

       Writers protest EU-Africa summit

       They're holding the EU-Africa Summit, and while British PM Gordon Brown is boycotting the event because of Zimbabwe-(mis)ruler Robert Mugabe's presence all the other leaders seem happy enough to put up with him. Not that it's much help, but a group of writers -- from Europe (Vaclav Havel, Günter Grass, Roddy Doyle, Tom Stoppard, Jose Gil, Colm Toibin, Jürgen Habermas, Dario Fo, Franca Rame) and from Africa (Wole Soyinka, Mia Couto, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gillian Slovo, Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, J.M.Coetzee, Goretti Kyomuhendo) -- have written an open letter to the 'statesmen' expressing their disappointment that neither the situation in Darfur nor that in Zimbabwe is to be the subject of either formal or even informal discussion in Lisbon: "What can we say of this political cowardice ? We expect our leaders to lead, and lead with moral courage"
       We've only found the full text of the letter in its German version, but see also reports at the BBC (Writers attack Zimbabwe omission) and DeutscheWelle (Authors Slam EU-Africa Summit For Overlooking Crises).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Matisse takes Russian Booker

       Matisse (Матисс) by Alexander Ilyichevsky (Александр Иличевский -- there doesn't seem to be any consensus on the transliteration yet) has taken the Русский Букер -- the 'Russian Booker' .
       Not much information to be found about the book, but see, for example, a (Russian) review in Time Out Москва.

       (Updated - 7 November): See now also Alexander Ilichevsky won the Russian Booker prize for his novel 'Matisse' by Victor Sonkin in The Moscow Times and Screaming to be Heard by Dmitry Babich at Russia Profile.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Forugh Farrokhzad translation

       The University of Arkansas Press has brought out a new translation of poems by the great Forugh Farrokhzad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpe. Once again it's the Daily Star that provides a good review-introduction, as Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes about Reading Forugh Farrokhzad (link likely only short-lived).
       See also the University of Arkansas Press publicity page, information at Sholeh Wolpe's site, or get your own copy at or

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Best translations of the year ?

       At Three Percent Chad Post is trying to figure out what were the Best of 2007 Translations. He's taking suggestions, and will collect and collate the results -- so go play along !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Bestselling in NZ

       The New Zealand Herald reports that 'Mister Pip' tops bestseller list for year -- and usefully provides at least a few numbers about the success of Lloyd Jones' novel:
More than 46,000 copies of the book have been sold in New Zealand. Another 25,000 copies have been sold in Australia and the book was now available in 30 countries worldwide, said Penguin Books publishing director Geoff Walker.
       Not exactly overwhelming numbers ..... Still, it's still atop the current bestseller list at Booksellers NZ (in its 29th week on the list, and counting), and easily beat out ... The Bone People by Keri Hulme for the title of Best of the Bestsellers 2007.
       (See also our review.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Tezuka Osamu reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of two big comic books by Tezuka Osamu:        Enjoyable, and even impressive on some levels, but yet another reminder of how much more depth can be achieved by words alone. Yes, the pictures add something that words can't readily convey, but it's a very limited dimension.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

5 December 2007 - Wednesday

Russian book awards | Give 'em away ? | Translating troubles for Les Bienveillantes ?
B.R.Myers on Denis Johnson | New PM, new PM prize
The Village Voice selections | Red Lights review

       Russian book awards

       It's the time of the year when they hand out some of the big Russian book awards -- like the unimaginatively title Большая книга ('Big Book') award, which went to Даниэль Штайн, переводчик ('Daniel Stein, the interpreter') by Ludmila Ulitskaya. (The other well-known-in-the-West author in the running, Victor Pelevin, finished fourth in the voting with his Empire 'V'.) See also The Moscow Times-report on the book from last year.

       Meanwhile, the Русский Букер -- the 'Russian Booker' -- will be handed out tonight, and at Bloomberg George Walden insists As J.K. Rowling Ousts Tolstoy, Russia Needs This Literary Prize.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Give 'em away ?

       Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading picks up on Chad Post's mention at Three Percent of the idea that maybe non-profit publishers should give away their books. Chad noted:
And in the nonprofit world, we usually don’t talk as much about sales as we do about reaching readers, about finding a way to cultivate an audience for a book or author outside of the traditional marketplace model.
       Giving away books seems a bit too extreme, for quite a number of reasons, but one of the things that has always astonished us is that non-profit publishers don't offer their wares more cheaply. Surely that should be part of their mission and mandate, but fiction titles by university presses, in particular, seem to often have list prices that are considerably higher than what for-profits charge for what appear to be similar texts. If they really wanted to reach a larger audience then competitive (or, better yet: heavily subsidised) pricing would surely be a good place to start .....
       Chad's former outpost, Dalkey Archive Press, is among the few non-profit presses that have long priced their books relatively reasonably (as one hopes Open Letter also will ...), but many others seem to opt for premium-pricing -- which, unfortunately, also plays into the whole literary/translated fiction-is-for-elites attitude that so many seem so eager to embrace. We, of course, wish everything were published in cheap mass-market paperback form -- though now even that format gives us sticker shock: Michael Crichton's Next (and quite a few of the other bestselling mass market titles) now go for $9.99 ?!?

       Meanwhile, the Crockatt and Powell Booksellers weblog offers an amusing/disturbing example of what some such presses -- in this case Manchester University Press -- will try in order to get your attention (but, hey, it worked).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Translating troubles for Les Bienveillantes ?

       Jonathan Littell's mega-bestselling and prize-winning -- and long -- Les Bienveillantes has been published in Spanish translation, but otherwise the foreign-going has been slow. Now Pierre Assouline also reports at his weblog that Pas de subvention pour Les Bienveillantes -- that the French aren't going to help out with translation-expenses, as they do with most titles.
       More interesting, however, is what he writes at the beginning, about the translation-into-English situation:
Jonathan Littell, qui est parfaitement bilingue, n’ayant pas une haute opinion de la traduction bien qu’elle n’en soit encore qu'à mi-chemin, lui a retourné sa copie en demandant qu’on change de traducteur.
       Can Littell really have demanded that a new translator take over ? As a fluent English-speaker (who, however, decided not to do the translation himself) he's presumably very well-positioned to judge whether the translation is true to his book or not. Still, mid-way through such a huge text is pretty late to be making a change (and would push back the publication time by a season or two at least.)
       We haven't heard who they hired for the translation in the first place, and we have no idea whether this report (the first we'd heard of it) is accurate, but we do hope some industry insiders pick up the story and look into it.

       (Updated - 7 December): Looks like Monsieur Assouline was relying on a lot of rumour and hearsay: a source that we feel we can rely on has let us know that his claims are unfounded. Specifically: there has been no switch of translators -- and, for what it's worth, the French are apparently subsidising at least some of the translations of the novel (into Vietnamese, for example).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       B.R.Myers on Denis Johnson

       B.R.Myers -- of A Reader's Manifesto-fame/notoriety -- reviewed Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke for The Atlantic Monthly, and the review is now available at
       Among other reasons it's an interesting review because Myers dwells at such great length on what other reviewers wrote about the book. This is, of course, part of Myers' programme, another chance to prove how rotten (in every respect) to the core the whole lit-crit/book reviewing community is.
       Johnson's novel has received a lot of praise; it came in second on the NBCC's recent Best Recommended fiction list -- proof that a lot of critics were very enthusiastic. Myers, needless to say, disagrees -- and he finds it hard to believe many of these reviewers were serious.
       Nothing we've read about Tree of Smoke -- all the praise, as well as the pans -- made us in the least curious about this book. Viet Nam war fiction would always be a hard sell hereabouts, and the quotes -- even those in the glowing reviews -- make it clear that this style is not up our alley, but we're a bit reluctant to side with the Myers-judgement -- that all these reviewers are wrong (or lying). Reading, and what you get out of it, is almost all personal; there are some authors whose writing is, by any measure, 'bad' that we enjoy, and there are more modern masters than we can count whose work we find unreadable. Surely the point of a review is to convey to readers what the reviewer thinks is worthy (or not) about a book, to explain why they liked or hated it, and why the reader might. So we're all for Myers tearing apart Tree of Smoke -- it looks about as flimsy as he makes it out to be to us -- but find it terribly annoying that he concerns himself so with other reviewers' opinions. It can be a useful exercise, to try to see how others have considered a work, and how and why they reached their conclusions, but Myers isn't open to that. Unfortunately he has an agenda, and here (as in much of his critical writing) it gets in the way of his criticism.

       For another reaction to the Myers-review, see BR Myers is Satan -- hyperbole that gives Myers far too much credit -- at Black Garterbelt.

       (Updated - 11 December): See now also the comments at The Reading Experience.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       New PM, new PM prize

       They've elected a new Prime Minister in Australia (Kevin Rudd), and in The Australian Corrie Perkin reports that as one of his first acts Rudd to reward Aussie writers, as there will be a new Prime Minister's Literary Prize:
In a bold and affirming cultural statement, the annual awards will have just two categories: published fiction book of the year, and published non-fiction book of the year. Each prize is worth $100,000, tax-free, with a further $100,000 to be spent each year on promoting and administering the awards.
       One hopes the big prize money means a serious commitment rather than just one-upmanship:
The $100,000 prizemoney for each award makes the Prime Minister's literary awards by far the richest in Australia. The annual Miles Franklin Award -- given for the novel or play of the highest literary merit, which presents aspects of Australian life -- has long been the most lucrative and is worth $42,000.
       But it presumably can't hurt to have another big-money prize.

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       The Village Voice selections

       At The Village Voice their writers pick their favorite 20 books of the year.

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       Red Lights review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Georges Simenon's Red Lights.

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4 December 2007 - Tuesday

New Boston Review | TNR on book reviewing | Laila Lalami on The Radiance of the King
Winter The Quarterly Conversation | Amis on 'Literature and Terrorism'
LBC Winter Read This! selection | On Chesil Beach review

       New Boston Review

       The November/December issue of the Boston Review is finally available online, and among the articles of interest are:        (It's great to see the Herbert-collection continue to get so much attention; we really do have to get around to putting up our review of it .....)

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       TNR on book reviewing

       We mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we had allowed our subscription to The New Republic lapse, in no small part because they have practically completely forsaken reviewing fiction. The 19 November issue was supposed to be the last we get, but, lo and behold, we found the 10 December issue in our mailboxes today (though the mailing label clearly gives a 19 November expiration date for our subscription). We can't complain -- but we're glad not to be paying for it, especially since we once again find four reviews (of six titles) and -- you guessed it -- not a fiction title among them (or do The Book of Psalms count ?).
       Nevertheless, the issue is of more interest than usual because not only do they review Gail Pool's book on book reviewing, Faint Praise (see also our review), but because the first-page editorial, The Battle of the Book, is on book reviewing. Alas, they don't mention why they've cut back so drastically on reviewing fiction in their editorial -- and James Wolcott's review of Faint Praise also doesn't go very much beyond regurgitating her book.

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       Laila Lalami on The Radiance of the King

       A new month, and a new book club at Words without Borders: Laila Lalami is tackling Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King and it should be interesting.

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       Winter The Quarterly Conversation

       The Winter issue of The Quarterly Conversation is now available online. On offer: a nice selection of reviews, as well as several articles in their Hispanic Literature Special, notably:
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       Amis on 'Literature and Terrorism'

       Last night Martin Amis gave another public appearance as part of his gig teaching up at Manchester, discussing Literature and Terrorism with Maureen Freely and Ed Husain. (The hoped-for confrontation with Terry Eagleton failed to materialise, as he had a prior commitment.)
       Early reports include Amis, Freely, Husain and terror by Tom Chatfield at the Prospect-blog, First Drafts, and Patrick Hurley's report at Small Differences ... The only newspaper report we've seen is Amis: "I'm not anti-Muslim" at the Manchester Evening News, but there should be more soon enough.

       (Updated): See now also:
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       LBC Winter Read This! selection

       The Lit Blog Co-op have announced their Winter 2007 Read This! selection -- The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck.

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       On Chesil Beach review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach.
       We only got our hands on a copy now, hence the late addition -- but at least this way a lot of other opinions have accumulated: we managed to find over 90 reviews to link to, which looks like it's the most we've ever started off a review with. (We also updated our other McEwan reviews, in the process taking out some fifteen dead review-links for Saturday -- but adding almost fifty new ones, putting it in the 90-total range too.)

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3 December 2007 - Monday

Joseph Conrad's 150th | British sci-fi attitudes
The indigenous language debate | Library reports

       Joseph Conrad's 150th

       Today is the 150th anniversary of Joseph Conrad's birth, but as Jonathan Brown writes in Conrad, the literary outsider ignored by his adopted country in The Independent:
Yet today, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Konrad Korzeniowski will pass largely unnoticed outside the tightly knit academic community which keeps the writer's spirit alive.
       At least Giles Foden offered a look at The moral agent in The Guardian, but otherwise there hasn't been too much of a fuss being made.

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       British sci-fi attitudes

       In the Sunday Times Bryan Appleyard wonders Why don't we love science fiction ?, arguing that: "No other country is quite so contemptuous of the literary genre" (meaning Britain).
       Pretty much the usual stuff, though we're not quite convinced by the conclusion:
But if new hard, logical, shingly-beach SF is now a rarity, at least there’s a lot of old stuff to read. The literary snobs will say it’s badly written, which most of it is. So is most "literary" fiction. Badly written literary fiction is, however, wholly unnecessary. There’s a lot of badly written SF that is driven by an urgent journalistic desire to communicate. That is necessary.
       But what we found really interesting was that:
In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves.
       Hey, it might actually have sold if it had been on the SF shelves ..... But what we find more disturbing is again the prominent publisher-role in determining what books are and aren't in the running for a prize (as is the case with far too many, from the Man Booker on up or down). If you're judging the best science-fiction (or whatever) novel of the year it shouldn't matter whether or not the publishers want it to be considered.

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       The indigenous language debate

       Yet another article on the subject, and not too much that's not been said before, but there's apparently more to come and it never hurts to wonder -- as Tolu Ogunlesi does in the Daily Sun -- What hope for indigenous African literatures ?

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       Library reports

       The Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked a variety of authors to write about their libraries, and they apparently collected it in some sort of supplement on Saturday. All in German, but maybe some English-language outlet will take them on -- good stuff.
       See Martin Meyer's introduction to the undertaking, Meine Bibliothek, and then the individual contributions:        And, as if these weren't enough literary riches, the December-Bücher am Sonntag supplement (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) is now also up at the NZZ.

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2 December 2007 - Sunday

Reality checks and the Index Translationum | Kim Young-ha profile
Javier Marías piece | Akutagawa discussion winding down | The Rider review

       Reality checks and the Index Translationum

       The December issue of The New Criterion is out, and among the limited number of pieces freely accessible on the Internet is a brief Notes & Comments-offering: Multiculturalism, a reality check. "But what does multiculturalism look like on the ground, so to speak ?" they ask -- and propose:
Yet surely one measure of curiosity about other cultures is the number of books that are translated every year from other languages. A few years ago, The World Press Review published a story with some interesting statistics on this question. Citing a report on twenty-two Arab countries overseen by the U.N., the article notes that the total number of books translated into Arabic yearly is no more than 330, or one-fifth of those translated in a small country like Greece.
       They then note:
By contrast, according to the U.N.’s Index Translationum database, since 1979 some 260,000 books have been translated into German, 194,000 into Spanish, 110,000 into English. Just something to keep in mind the next time some academic starts nattering on about "Eurocentricism," multiculturalism, etc.
       Okay, the basic argument isn't silly -- and there's no doubt that even with the Kalima-project underway (see our previous mention) far too little has gotten translated into and is available in Arabic. But the argument isn't quite as facile as the select numbers they toss out suggest.
       The first thing that should catch you eye is that they rely on the Index Translationum database numbers for the translations into German, Spanish, and English, but point to some article regarding the Arabic translations. In fact, that report the article -- and many others -- relied on, spouting the ca. 330 number, looks a lot like it came to that conclusion based on the Index Translationum database too. You see, there they list the number of Arabic translations as 9038 -- divide that by the number of years from 1979 to the time they issued the report and you get roughly 330 per year .....
       As you know, we're very interested in these whole how-much-gets-translated and into-what-languages question -- but you may have noticed we don't often refer you to the Index Translationum. And, in fact, we've mentioned it several times here already and still haven't linked to it. Wonder why ? Because even a cursory look suggests this data must be handled with extreme care -- so much care, in fact, that for most purposes it's essentially useless.
       Let's consider their list of top 50 target languages. The New Criterion does note that translations-into-German lead the way -- but doesn't extrapolate and wonder why, very roughly, seven times as many titles per native speaker are translated into German as are into English. Suddenly that look-how-multicultural-we-are-in-comparison argument doesn't sound quite as impressive any more, when the comparison isn't the Arabic-reading world. Take it a step further and it looks dismal: translations into English barely outnumber those into Dutch (99,191) -- a language spoken by a tiny fraction of people compared to the population of the US, much less all the English-speaking countries. (On top of that, the Dutch are notoriously multi-lingual, i.e. they can read a lot of stuff in other languages too and hence wouldn't need as many translations as most .....) All of a sudden English looks pretty damn provincial, in fact.
       Back to the Arabic translations: 9038 sounds pretty feeble, but it still tops the number of translations into Hebrew (8917), and while far, far fewer people read Hebrew than Arabic ... well, what about when we compare that to Danish (56,151 !) ? or Finnish (38,889) ? -- both languages with only a few million speakers.
       But where it gets really interesting is when you get to Chinese. Apparently only 1844 books have been translated into Chinese over this period -- one-fifth the Arabic total. If you believe that we have a bridge we'd like you to have a look at .....
       Do you really think more has been translated into Icelandic -- 6969 titles the Index says -- despite only having a couple of hundred thousand (!) speakers, or into Slovenian (12,859), Estonian (11,571), or Lithuanian (11,251) ? Let's just say: it's not likely.
       If you think about it there's a pretty obvious conclusion: there are some data-collection issues here. And if you move on to the year-by-year data for all the target languages you can see that for a lot of these languages the numbers obviously don't reflect the number of titles translated but the number reported -- and that can make a big difference. In fact, the Chinese seem to have reported the vast majority of theirs in a single year: just check out this five-year-period and the number of translations they claimed:
  • 1995: 9
  • 1996: 21
  • 1997: 1357
  • 1998: 22
  • 1999: 9
       So an article written in 1996 and relying on these statistics could have claimed: "According to the Index Translationum only nine books were translated into Chinese last year", and in 1998 could have said: "Surge in translations into Chinese by almost 6400% from 1996 to 1997". Hey, that's what the numbers say .....
       It's not just the Chinese, either. Sweden, for example, offers these numbers:
  • 1993: 60
  • 1994: 367
  • 1995: 2022
  • 1996: 123
  • 1997: 90
       So maybe you begin to understand why we don't bother much with the Index Translationum. The European numbers probably are reasonably accurate (if not necessarily on a year-by-year basis, as the Swedish example shows), but elsewhere there are obviously enormous data-collection issues. Add to that the problem/issue of pirated and otherwise not-officially-registered translations (very common both in China and the Arabic world), and suddenly some of these numbers look very dubious indeed.
       Sadly, however, these are among the best statistics we have to rely on -- and look how rotten they appear to be. But for a 'reality check' -- as The New Criterion-writers claim to offer -- you have to do a bit better than just blindly rely on a few cherry-picked numbers.

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       Kim Young-ha profile

       At APA Ada Tseng writes about Discovering Kim Young-ha; see also our review of his I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.

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       Javier Marías piece

       Among the limited number of pieces freely accessible in the winter issue of The Threepenny Review is A Borrowed Dream by Javier Marías.

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       Akutagawa discussion winding down

       My last post in the Words without Borders book group on Akutagawa's Mandarins is now up, on the story 'Cogwheels' -- but the discussion is ongoing in the comments-section for anyone who wants to play along.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       The Rider review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Tim Krabbé's The Rider.

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1 December 2007 - Saturday

'Best Recommended' variation | Cultural bookshelf segregation ?
Nordic Council Literature Prize nominations | More about H. Hatterr

       'Best Recommended' variation

       As we mentioned a few days ago, the National Book Critics Circle has started a Best Recommended list; among the variations on this type of critics'-choice list is the very popular German SWR-Bestenliste, where 30 German critics (see the current line-up -- a pretty handy list of many of the leading German literary critics) vote monthly. They do it a bit differently than the NBCC (and with far fewer participants): each critic names four books in order of preference, which are then assigned points -- 15,10,6,3. The book with the most points wins, etc.
       The focus is on current releases, and no book can make the list more than three times (assuring a steady flow of new titles). The December 2007 list is led by Annette Pehnt's Mobbing (81 points -- not a very grand sum, you'll note). Denis Johnson comes in at number three (and won't go any higher: it's his third month on the list), while a Ford Madox Ford makes it to number four, and a new edition of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus ties for eighth place.
       This is a widely cited list, used in advertising and bookstores; it'll be interesting to see if the NBCC list can be similarly successful. There certainly doesn't seem to be any reason why it shouldn't catch on (if they can keep everybody voting ...).

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       Cultural bookshelf segregation ?

       In The Age Simon Caterson looks at A world apart, wondering: 'Should Australian writing be separated from the books of other countries or is this cultural segregation outdated ?'
Visit a bookstore, library or university and more likely than not you will find Australian fiction, poetry and drama are kept separate from their counterparts in other literatures.
       (In the US and UK one rarely encounters such national segregation on bookstore shelves, but it is fairly common to have a separate local section, where the books of local authors are offered.)
       It makes for an interesting look at some of the problems Australian literature (and publishing) has -- with arguments that extend as far as:
McCaskill argues that the only thing holding back Australian publishing as a cultural export brand is, to some extent, a lingering timidity on the part of some publishers, but mostly the conspicuous lack of the kind of government support that has been given to the film industry and to the visual and performing arts.
"Literatures might be internationalising, but the cultural flows remain pretty much as they once were. Economically and culturally it's incredibly difficult for Australian writers to wield the sort of clout British or American writers can. This isn't because they're less good -- the success and reputation of many of our writers overseas is evidence of that -- it's about the realities of the way publishing works, about the size of our marketplace and, to be brutal, because it's often harder to command a local audience's attention with books set here."

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       Nordic Council Literature Prize nominations

       As Three Percent noted, the Nominations for the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2008 have been announced.
       They have a pretty good track record of picking solid winners, so it's worth keeping an eye on.

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       More about H. Hatterr

       About a month ago we wrote A bit about H. Hatterr, noting the enthusiastic reception (then and now) of the NYRB Classics reprint of G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr.
       The love won't stop: the past few days have seen reviews in The New York Sun (by Hua Hsu) and the San Francisco Chronicle (by Dan Zigmond) .
       And Zigmond offers lots of love for the whole NYRB Classics -line, offering the we're-sure-it'll-appear-in-the-next-ad lines:
Is there anyone in America whose reading life would not be improved by a steady diet of NYRB Classics ? It is probably possible to read equally well from other sources, but it is certainly very hard.
       But we can't say we disagree.

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