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The Literary Saloon Archive

11 - 20 December 2011

11 December: Naguib Mahfouz at 100 | Memories Look at Me review | IBNA interview
12 December: Digital publishing in the ... Asia-Pacific | Aubrey Kachingwe profile | 'Newsweek/Daily Beast Writers' Favorite Books' | Please Look After Mom review
13 December: Man Booker Prize judging panel | Leg over Leg in English | The New Yorker's 'Reviewers' favorites from 2011' | The Saga of Dharmapuri review
14 December: Q & As: Georgi Gospodinov - Raymond Stock | Books of the year in ... France | The past 100 reviews ...
15 December: Reading in ... Lebanon | (Business) books success in India | Prizes: NOS Literary Prize - Prix Carbet | Sorry review
16 December: Not so poor poets: Montreal International Poetry Prize winner - Tanikawa Shuntarō | Worst books of the year | Independent bookstore success in ... Berlin | Literature in translation in ... Iran | Proud Beggars review
17 December: More 'best of the year' lists | Julian Barnes on the European Book prize | Writing in ... Uganda
18 December: Mahfouz as seismograph | Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library profile | Writing in ... Nigeria
19 December: Václav Havel (1936-2011) | Prix des prix littéraires | Professor Hanaa review
20 December: Institut d'Égypte | Burmese National Literary Awards | UK 'Literary Year 2011' | Passage of Tears review

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20 December 2011 - Tuesday

Institut d'Égypte | Burmese National Literary Awards
UK 'Literary Year 2011' | Passage of Tears review

       Institut d'Égypte

       Too horribly depressing to comment on; see coverage in the Egypt Independent:
(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Burmese National Literary Awards

       As Zon Pann Pwint reports in The Myanmar Times, in Burma National Literary Awards announced.
       The 'Translation (Aesthetic)' award went to Yekantha Kyataingayec for his translation of Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace (which does have a Burmese connection).
       Noteworthy, also: that they didn't award prizes for 'Best Novel' or 'Best Drama' (among a few other categories) -- never a good sign.

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       UK 'Literary Year 2011'

       In The Telegraph David Robson looks at The Literary Year 2011 (mainly in the UK).
       I assume the claim: "the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature went to the veteran Danish poet Tomas Tranströmer" is an intentional mistake (surely it's impossible that neither Robson nor some (copy) editor at The Telegraph know the unoverlookable fact that the guy's a Swede) -- a snide way of suggesting what a silly prize the Nobel is and how little it matters who the hell the laureates actually are; I'm surprised they didn't intentionally misspell his name too.

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       Passage of Tears review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Abdourahman A. Waberi's Passage of Tears, just out from Seagull Books.

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19 December 2011 - Monday

Václav Havel (1936-2011) | Prix des prix littéraires | Professor Hanaa review

       Václav Havel (1936-2011)

       Playwright (and president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic) Václav Havel has passed away.
       There's lots of coverage of this; see, for example, obituaries in The Guardian, The Independent, and The Telegraph. See also the Václav Havel site.

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       Prix des prix littéraires

       Not satisfied with all the literary prizes already on offer in France, they've created an über-prize, the Prix des prix littéraires (yes, essentially the 'literary prize prize'), which picks the best among the winners of the major French prizes -- Académie Française, Décembre, Femina, Flore, Goncourt, Interallié, Medicis, and Renaudot. This year's winner was the Renaudot-winning Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère.

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       Professor Hanaa review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of popular Egyptian author Reem Bassiouney's Professor Hanaa.

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18 December 2011 - Sunday

Mahfouz as seismograph | Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library profile
Writing in ... Nigeria

       Mahfouz as seismograph offers an English translation of Hartmut Fähndrich's Neue Zürcher Zeitung article on 'The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Naguib Mahfouz', The Egyptian Seismograph.

       (See also the complete review's Naguib Mahfouz page, with links to coverage of many of his books.)

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       Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library profile

       In the new Harvard Magazine Adam Kirsch profiles Harvard University Press' new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library-series, in Mysteries and Masterpieces -- noting:
Clearly, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) has its work cut out for it. Launched last year by HUP under the general editorship of Porter professor of Medieval Latin Jan Ziolkowski, DOML gives the Loeb treatment to classic texts from the Middle Ages, aiming to fill the gap between the ancient world and the Renaissance -- both on the library shelves and, if possible, in the minds of students and readers

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       Writing in ... Nigeria

       In the Daily Sun Henry Akubuiro has a Q & A with Egya Sule -- who argues that, among other things:
The institution of literature, just like any other institution in Nigeria, needs a total overhaul. That is, there must be a holistic approach that takes into consideration all aspects of literary production such as a good reading culture, workshop on creative writing, editing and publishing outfit, and writing residency. So, instead of putting a hundred thousand dollars in the hand of an individual, NLNG should (and this is urgent in the condition we find ourselves in Nigeria) establish libraries, editing outfits, writing residency, and sponsor creative writing workshop.

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17 December 2011 - Saturday

More 'best of the year' lists | Julian Barnes on the European Book prize
Writing in ... Uganda

       More 'best of the year' lists

       In Twelve Months of Reading the Wall Street Journal 'asked 50 of our friends to tell us what they enjoyed reading in 2011', which at least offers some variety.

       Among individuals' 'best lists' Eileen Battersby's books of the year at the Irish Times is, not surprisingly, a pretty solid one.

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       Julian Barnes on the European Book prize

       Julian Barnes was president of the jury for this year's Prix du Livre Européen -- the European Book prize -- and in The Guardian he writes about Judging the European Book prize for 2011.
       I agree with his (personal) complaint "that fiction wasn't represented at all strongly enough", but it's an interesting prize-concept.

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       Writing in ... Uganda

       In the Saturday Monitor Jim Oboth argues that Ugandan literature still cannot capture ideology.
       Many presumably don't really find this a problem -- and I certainly take issue with claims such as Oboth's that:
The author's background is crucial in guiding readers to where the writer stands in the moral axis of his writing since he aims at exploring fundamental truth.
       My preference is always to leave an author's background far in the background: the work -- and whatever its moral axis -- should stand (largely) on its own.

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16 December 2011 - Friday

Not so poor poets: Montreal International Poetry Prize winner - Tanikawa Shuntarō
Worst books of the year | Independent bookstore success in ... Berlin
Literature in translation in ... Iran | Proud Beggars review

       Not so poor poets: Montreal International Poetry Prize winner

       In this week's issue of New York Rachel Friedman offers a look at Livelihoods of the Poets, showing that it's hard to rake in the big bucks penning verse; 'representative paychecks' even from top-tier publications are not exactly overwhelming, and there aren't too many other opportunities to make a killing (or even a steady income).
       Nevertheless, some poets are able to earn a pretty penny, and don't even have to win the Nobel Prize to do so -- though winning a prize of some sort certainly helps.
       Case in point: they've just announced the 2011 Montreal Prize Winner -- "Walking Underwater" by Mark Tredinnick -- and he pockets a cool C$49,980 (the C$50,000 prize money, minus the C$20.00 entry fee). At 451 words -- you can read the whole thing at the official site -- that works out to a decent C$110.82 per word -- a rate any writer could live with.

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       Not so poor poets: Tanikawa Shuntarō

       In China Daily Mei Jia profiles Japanese poet Tanikawa Shuntarō (谷川 俊太郎), in Prosing the question.
       The piece begins:
Japanese poet Tanikawa Shuntaro has been high on the list as a Nobel Prize in Literature candidate. But he says he'd forgo the honor if it's awarded to him. "I reject the political inclination of the prize and any others of the kind," Tanikawa says.
       Given the money at stake, it can sometimes be hard to believe when authors say they'd turn the prize down -- but Tanikawa is the rare poet who apparently could easily afford to. You see:
Tanikawa wrote the lyrics of the theme song of Miyazaki Hayao's popular animated movie Howl's Moving Castle. He has written anthems for more than 100 Japanese schools, which he describes as challenging because they're specific to the schools' unique environments, histories and features.

In terms of media, he has written poems on Apple applications, under microscopes and on T-shirts.

He lives better than his Chinese contemporaries, earning annual royalties of $800,000 in lean years.

His Chinese translator, Tian Yuan, jokes that Tanikawa is probably the world's wealthiest writer in terms of copyright earnings.
       Several of his works have been translated into English -- including a Selected Poems collection; see the Carcanet publicity page, or get your copy from

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       Worst books of the year

       After a while all those 'best of the year' lists can get pretty tiresome, so it's good to see that at least some are also offering lists of what they consider the worst of the year -- see, for example, Steve Donoghue's Stevereads 2011 Worst Books of the Year: Fiction !.
       Given that he includes the recent Man Booker Prize winner, Cain by José Saramago, and The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño among the dregs of the year the choices are likely to be somewhat controversial, to say the least (and obviously he hasn't read Zoran Drvenkar's Sorry ...).
       (He also does a worst non-fiction list, and his best of the year lists should be up soon, too.)

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       Independent bookstore success in ... Berlin

       Farhad Manjoo's article at Slate, Don't Support Your Local Bookseller -- claiming: 'Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you' -- got a lot of attention and (emotional) reaction in the US (see, for example, The Internet Defends Independent Bookstores at Slate's browbeat blog for an overview) but apparently the Europeans don't get it: at Deutsche Welle Leah McDonnell reports that Berlin's indie bookstores find their foothold, as:
In Berlin, a kind of anti-trend is gaining force: the rise of the small bookstore. Even in this time of continual financial madness.

According to the Book Sellers Union of Berlin-Brandenburg, any profits made by the industry this year, was made by the "little guys" -- small businesses which are not going under, but proliferating and getting more specific and sophisticated with each new opening. In Berlin there are more bookstores per capita than any other German city, which should make it harder to survive, but it's the same as the phenomenon that more cafes on one street make business better for all. Apparently, everyone benefits when there are more small, alternative, specialized book shops.
       Interesting, no ?
       (It should be noted that while probably is doing okay too, they're aren't allowed to undercut brick-and-mortar stores on price (and there's no bickering over who has to collect sales tax, Amazon or the buyer, either), which makes for a far more level playing field.)

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       Literature in translation in ... Iran

       IBNA report that Statistics show a %14 growth in translated books.
       Yes, 2,723 of the 7,676 literary titles published in 2010 were translations -- 35 per cent of the total. However, there has also been a decrease in the total number of literary titles published -- so one has to wonder whether it hasn't simply become easier to publish (i.e. justify to the censors) foreign books than domestic writing .....
       (IBNA often mention what foreign books are now appearing in translation in Iran, making for a fascinating and confusing little window into the country: in the past few days alone they've reported on the publication of The Passport by Herta Müller (here) and ... The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (here), neither of which I would have guessed would be likely to get translated into Persian and published in contemporary Iran.)

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       Proud Beggars review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Albert Cossery's 1955 classic Proud Beggars, just re-issued by New York Review Books.

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15 December 2011 - Thursday

Reading in ... Lebanon | (Business) books success in India
Prizes: NOS Literary Prize - Prix Carbet | Sorry review

       Reading in ... Lebanon

       In the Daily Star Wassim Mroueh reports that Slow sales overshadow Beirut book fair, as:
The culture of reading is deteriorating in Lebanon and the Arab world, according to several publishers who participated in this year's Beirut International Arab Book Fair.
       Still, it's not all doom and gloom -- and, for example:
the poetry of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has also been popular. Darwish's last work, I Don't Want this Poem to be Over, has been in especially high demand.

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       (Business) books success in India

       Read for success ? India's business books take off AFP reports (here in the Hindustan Times) -- though noting that while sales have been increasing rapidly:
Volume, however, is small: Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple's Steve Jobs, for example, sold a little over 14,000 copies in its first week in India, compared with a massive 379,000 in the United States.

The current business best-seller -- entrepreneur and motivational speaker Rashmi Bansal's I Have A Dream -- has sold just over 43,000 copies between January and November.

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       Prize: NOS Literary Prize

       Mikhail Prokhorov is not only running for the Russian presidency (taking on that Putin fellow) and owner of the New Jersey Nets, he also runs a literary prize, and at Russia Beyond The Headlines Phoebe Taplin reports that Russian writers wait for a literary award organized by Mikhail Prokhorov, profiling the prize, and the books that have made the longlist.
       See also the official site for the NOS Literary Prize; the winner gets 700,000 roubles (about US$22,000) -- "and a prize statuette".

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       Prize: Prix Carbet

       They'll be handing out the Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe on Sunday, and as Haiti Libre reports, Haitian authors are very much in the running -- as:
Among the eighteen candidates for this 22nd edition, the Haitian literature comes in force with nine writers, other candidates for the award, are shared between Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Jamaica and mainland France.
       See also the report for the full list of finalists (which doesn't seem to be available at the official site).

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       Sorry review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Zoran Drvenkar's thriller Sorry -- a rare work of fiction in translation (by a living author ! who hasn't won the Nobel Prize !) given the full review-treatment at The New York Times Book Review (though not too many other places ...). (A peculiar choice -- Marilyn Stasio could have disposed of this in a paragraph ... -- but at least they're taking an occasional look at something in translation .....)

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14 December 2011 - Wednesday

Q & As: Georgi Gospodinov - Raymond Stock
Books of the year in ... France | The past 100 reviews ...

       Q & A: Georgi Gospodinov

       Focus News Agency has a Q & A with Georgi Gospodinov: I envisage art having a life-saving role as a machine for sense and solace, discussing his new novel, Физика на тъгата ('Physics of Sadness'; see also the Жанет45 publicity page) and much else.

       His two translated-into-English-titles are under review at the complete review -- And Other Stories and Natural Novel -- and I hope this new one gets translated soon too .....

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       Q & A: Raymond Stock

       Arabic Literature (in English) has a Q & A with Naguib Mahfouz-translator and (forthcoming-)biographer Raymond Stock.
       Among much else, he sheds some light on the Mahfouz manuscripts that are going on sale at Sotheby's -- see the Arabic Literature (in English) post raising Questions about Mahfouz Archives Up for Auction for more about that story .....

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       Books of the year in ... France

       I missed this when it originally came out, but Le Point offered their list of les 25 meilleurs livres de l'année at the beginning of the month. The click-through-gallery presentation is annoying, but it's interesting to see what registered there -- including several American books in translation, led by Stephen King's Dôme and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (as well as books by Siri Hustvedt and Jonathan Dee).

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

       The past 100 reviews ...

       There are now 2800 reviews at the complete review -- and, just as every time I hit a new century mark, I offer a statistical breakdown of the past 100 reviews.

        - The last 100 reviews were posted over a span of 167 days -- an average of 4.2 per week

        - The average review was 742 words long; the longest 2278 (with 15 more at 1000 or more words)

        - As always, fiction dominated: 79 reviews were of novels, plus 7 of story-collections; only 3 works of poetry and 1 drama were reviewed

        - Books from 40 countries were reviewed (up from 33 for the previous 100) -- with twice as many books (14) by American authors as in the previous 100 (followed by 13 by French authors, 7 by UK authors, and 5 by Egyptian authors)

        - Books originally written in English and 25 other languages were reviewed, the most popular being:
  • English: 22
  • French: 18
  • Spanish: 14
  • Norwegian: 5
  • Arabic: 4
  • Italian: 4
  • Japanese: 4
       See now also the updated language list, tracking the languages all books under review were originally written in.

        - Books were graded as follows:
  • A+: 1
  • A: 0
  • A-: 5
  • B+: 28
  • B: 47
  • B-: 13
  • C+: 2
  • (-): 4
        - Most books were fairly recent (remember though that I count year of initial publication -- not, for example, the year of the English translation), with 43 first published (in whatever language they were written in) in the past five years:
  • 2011: 8
  • 2010: 9
  • 2009: 12
  • 2008: 10
  • 2007: 4
       Interestingly, more books from the 1970s were reviewed (11) than the 1980s (5) or 1990s (9). Only 3 books from the 1800s were reviewed, and only 2 from before 1800.

       And, yes, as usual male authors dominated: 83.5 of the books reviewed were authored by men. That did raise the historic average from 14.72 to 14.79 per cent but, yeah ... not too impressive.

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13 December 2011 - Tuesday

Man Booker Prize judging panel | Leg over Leg in English
The New Yorker's 'Reviewers' favorites from 2011' | The Saga of Dharmapuri review

       Man Booker Prize judging panel

       Yes, 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction: Full judging panel announced: chaired by Peter Stothard, it consists of Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman, Dan Stevens, and Bharat Tandon.
       Most of the commentary -- despite headlines claiming Man Booker Prize adds intellectual glamour (Sameer Rahim, writing in The Telegraph) -- focus on the actor in the lot (i.e. the one name British 'readers' are likely to recognize), Dan Stevens.
       It's amusing to see how the press release tries to back up that choice by pointing to Stevens' ... literary bona fides ? He's: "a prolific narrator of audiobooks" ! His: "television work includes lead roles in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty and Andrew Davies's adaptation of Sense & Sensibility" !
       Well, I'm convinced ..... (Of what I'll leave for you to guess .....)

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       Leg over Leg in English

       In Arabic literature found in translation in The National Jessica Holland reports that:
The award-winning translator Humphrey T Davies [...] is currently hard at work on a translation of al-Shidyaq's masterpiece, the 720-page tome Al-Saq 'ala al-Saq, or Leg Over Leg.

The book (whose original, much longer title is practically an essay in itself) is scheduled to be released late next year in two volumes, as part of NYU Press's new Library of Arabic Literature series.
       This work -- الساق على الساق -- by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (أحمد فارس الشدياق) sounds quite fascinating -- as does al-Shidyaq, about whom Holland notes: "Experts call him the first Arab novelist and a modernist before modernism existed"; see also Barbara Winckler's older portrait at, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's Literary Investigations.
       You can actually already pre-order the two-volume edition from (volume one and two) or (volume one and two); I look forward to seeing them.

       Note also that the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute is holding a conference on World Literature and Translation for the next three days which looks worth a look -- beginning with Davies speaking on 'Translating Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's Leg over Leg' tonight.

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       The New Yorker's 'Reviewers' favorites from 2011'

       The New Yorker now offers A Year's Reading -- their 'Reviewers' favorites from 2011' (though it's just a list, with no attributions, much less explanations/justifications).

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       The Saga of Dharmapuri review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of O.V.Vijayan's The Saga of Dharmapuri -- which David Selbourne called: "one of the great works of modern Indian literature" in his TLS review.

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12 December 2011 - Monday

Digital publishing in the ... Asia-Pacific | Aubrey Kachingwe profile
'Newsweek/Daily Beast Writers' Favorite Books' | Please Look After Mom review

       Digital publishing in the ... Asia-Pacific

       In The Philippine Star Butch Dalisay considers Where we are in digital publishing, offering a bit of an overview of the situation in a number of Asian-Pacific countries, as:
There's no doubt that digital publishing has taken the Asia-Pacific by storm. A tsunami may be a terrible metaphor to apply to the region, but a gentler version of this big wave is what it is, a steady and sure encroachment of digital media on the terrain of traditional publishing.

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       Aubrey Kachingwe profile

       In The Sunday Times (Blantyre) Temwani Mgunda profiles Aubrey Kachingwe: One among literary greats -- "famed for being the first Malawian writer to publish with the prestigious African Writers Series. The celebrated writer published a political novel, No Easy Task, in 1966 just four years after African Writers Series was launched"
       Almost half a century later:
Ironically, Kachingwe confesses he does not remember the story in his novel. Born in 1926, the literary giant is now old and frail such that it is, surely, not an easy task for him to call to mind what he wrote decades ago but what he says he cannot forget is that "the story is political in a subtle way".

Another surprise is that currently the author does not have even a single copy of the novel and he discloses that each time he acquires one it immediately gets stolen.
       No Easy Task was actually published by Heinemann in hardback before it was published in paperback as part of the AWS series -- and now I feel a bit guilty about having a copy of that first edition .....

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       'Newsweek/Daily Beast Writers' Favorite Books'

       Another collection of recommendations, as "Newsweek and Daily Beast contributors and writers pick their favorite books of the year", in Newsweek/Daily Beast Writers' Favorite Books 2011.

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       Please Look After Mom review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Shin Kyung-sook's Please Look After Mom -- perhaps the first real 'international bestseller' from (South) Korea (yes, it made it to ... 95th in one of the two weeks it was on the USA Today bestseller list ...).
       Note that Shin has written a lot more, and I'm not sure this is the ideal book with which to introduce her to an American audience -- though given its phenomenal success in South Korea it presumably seemed like an obvious choice; note, however, that for example in France the wonderful Editions Philippe Picquier had already published two of her other titles before this one.

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11 December 2011 - Sunday

Naguib Mahfouz at 100 | Memories Look at Me review | IBNA interview

       Naguib Mahfouz at 100

       Today would have been Naguib Mahfouz's 100th birthday.
       I haven't gotten to as many (additional) Mahfouz-titles as I would have liked to, but there are quite a few under review -- and there are more to come.

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       Memories Look at Me review

       Tomas Tranströmer picked up his Nobel Prize yesterday, and the most recent addition to the complete review is my review of A Memoir by him, Memories Look at Me -- out in an appealing little pocket-sized edition from New Directions.

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       IBNA interview

       The Iran Book News Agency has a long interview with me, if you're interested (in Persian, too, if you prefer).

       (Note that some things clearly got a bit distorted in translation or transcription -- starting with the fact that I'm not a member of PEN. Maybe confusion with the National Book Critics Circle ? (Though I'm currently told that, despite them cashing my membership renewal check in February (and receiving an e-mail confirming "Welcome Again to the NBCC") they consider my membership expired, sigh .....))

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

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