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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 January 2003

1 January: Hungarian reviews | Telegraph year-end lists | Best and worst in 2002 | Scott Turow on the death penalty
2 January: Anita Brookner rounds up the French | What to expect
3 January: More Eugenides coverage | Year in Review
4 January: Granta's best young Brits | Scruton looks East and West
5 January: 2 x Frayn | Not Latin American enough | Granta 20 < 40
7 January: Amis does Stalin | More thoughts on the Granta list
8 January: Europe's Cultural Capital | NYer fiction editor interview | Whitbread awards
10 January: Evening Standard ! | More on the Granta-list | An editor's life

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10 January 2003 - Friday

Evening Standard ! | More on the Granta-list | An editor's life

       Evening Standard !

       A while back we complained about the Evening Standard's redesigned "This Is London"-site. Book coverage was completely lost from sight for a while (hidden several clicks away from any normal page, under "Staying In") and we couldn't even find a book-review page to link to on our Links-page. And never mind looking for any reviews in any sort of archive -- or using all the links to specific reviews we had collected over the years (they all dead). We were not pleased.
       Taking a peek at the This is London page again after a long absence we find things much-improved. Best of all: we can link to their book-page once again: it's right here !
       Impressive too: the easy-to-use search engine for those looking up old reviews -- just fill in title and/or author and the results are neatly presented. (All the review-URLs have changed, so it will be a while before we can link you to specific reviews from our own reviews .....)
       They promised improvements to the site with their redesign, and at least as regards their book-review coverage -- after an early spectacular failure -- they have lived up to it. There's less pop-up irritation, no registration requirement -- and tons of easily accessible material. (the folks at the Telegraph site could learn a thing or two from the Standard-folk.) There are still a few things that have to be fixed (many of the archived reviews are suddenly anonymous, the names of those who penned them for some reason no longer provided), but overall they've done a very nice job. Since the trend has been towards ever less user-friendly book review sites from the mainstream media (The Sunday Times, The Washington Post, and the New Statesman leading the recent charge to make the online book-review-reading experience as complicated and unpleasant as possible), the Evening Standard's sensible approach is all the more welcome.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More on the Granta-list

       We've mentioned the Granta-list of top British authors under 40 several times.

       A decent overview can now also be found in yesterday's issue of the Evening Standard: Voices for a generation ? by Claire Allfree.

       You can now also check out How Ian Jack of Granta answered your questions on the Best of Young British Novelists 2003 at ObserverTalk.

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       An editor's life

       The most recent addition to the complete review is of Diana Athill's Stet: an editor's life.
       Athill (now in her mid-eighties) has made a nice second career out of writing her memoirs and the like; we're a bit behind the times, having just reviewed the 2000 memoir, while Nicholas Lezard just (The Guardian 4 January) tackled the more recent volume, Yesterday Morning.
       Stet focusses more on personalities than we would like -- and yet not enough: they're only sketches, really. Still, for an idea of what André Deutsch, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester (a Cynthia Ozick classmate), and V.S.Naipaul, among others, were like it is probably of some interest and use. (We would have preferred less about the authors and more -- a lot more -- of the editing nitty-gritty.)

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8 January 2003 - Wednesday

Europe's Cultural Capital | NYer fiction editor interview | Whitbread awards

       Europe's Cultural Capital

       This year Graz (birthplace of, among others, Austria's biggest contemporary cultural export, Arnold Schwarzenegger) is Europe's Cultural Capital -- see, for example, this BBC report (23 December 2002).
       There's an official site (and considerable English-language content too). The literary ambitions are limited (and largely in German), but one of the more amusing ideas is a collection, Kafka in Graz. The idea is:
In the 1960s and 70s Graz established its fame as a city of great literary activity. Assuming that authors such as Faulkner or Anaïs Nin had stayed here during the crucial phase of their creative work, how would they have spent their days ? Would they have been inspired by Graz ? 14 young Graz writers have found answers to these questions and written down the "secret" Graz episodes of renowned representatives of world literature.
       You can find some of the pieces (only in German) through links here

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       NYer fiction editor interview

       There's a Q & A with Deborah Treisman at Book Magazine. She is, of course, the (relatively) new fiction editor at The New Yorker. Or, as the folks at Book Magazine put it: "the woman who holds the future of American fiction in her hands"
       At least one really disturbing quote from Treisman, in response to whether she finds any good submissions in the slush pile:
Someone who's submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn't all that savvy about publishing and probably not about writing either.
       Her response suggests a curious attitude -- including expectations of publishing-savvy in authors (which might explain why so many shameless self-promoters get published, and why a considerable number of able talents don't).
       The channels Treisman says lead to publication -- agented submissions and recommendations/discoveries by literary acquaintances (i.e. nepotism) seem to us the worst sort of ways to find worthy literature. But it seems to work for The New Yorker .....

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       Whitbread awards - round one

       The five category-Whitbread awards have been announced, and Michael Frayn's Spies (which we recently reviewed) won for best novel. (See this article in today's issue of The Guardian for all the winners and nominees.)
       To make things modestly more exciting (hey, they're book awards, they can only be so exciting ...) Frayn's wife, Claire Tomalin, was the winner in the biography category -- and so they get to square off for the ultimate prize, the Whitbread book of the year (to be announced 28 January).
       Naturally, the press loves this story: The Guardian calls it "one of the supreme tests of marital harmony and a sense of humour", and there's sure to be many more cute stories to come .....

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7 January 2003 - Tuesday

Amis does Stalin | More thoughts on the Granta list

       Amis does Stalin

       Actually, it's not really clear to us what Martin Amis does in his recent book, Koba the Dread -- but our review is now available.
       Most of the reviewers seem to have been similarly confused and confounded by the mix of Stalin's horrors and Amis reminiscences -- and "self-indulgent" seems to have been the most popular way of describing what Amis did in these pages.
       Amis' focus on Stalin insulates against certain criticism: after all, Amis is right in his wholesale and complete condemnation of the man and all the horrors he was responsible for -- and there is something to be said for reminding readers of all his evil. Which led critics like Tony Judt, writing in The New Republic (4 November 2002), to note: "I dislike this book intensely but I take no pleasure in saying so." Many seem to have felt a similar ambivalence.
       As far as the Stalin aspect goes: few of the historians (including Orlando Figes) had much good to say about it, disappointed both by the heavy borrowing and the factual errors. (Editors, fact-checkers, ... does anyone still employ such people ?)
       Quite a few reviewers (including Michiko Kakutani) suggest that the book is at least good because it might lead readers to revisit these horrors and read other, more comprehensive accounts. Jason Cowley even suggests (in The Observer, 8 September 2002):
But this book is not as egregious as many critics have suggested, on both sides of the Atlantic. For a start, Amis's celebrity may lead many readers to a subject in which they thought they had scant interest -- and, from there, his extensive bibliography may lead them to follow him still further into the darkness of the Soviet inferno.
       Maybe the British edition allows for that; the American one (published by TalkMiramax) has no bibliography, and the list of sources cited is given in a three-page "Permissions"-appendix (where "the author and publishers wish to thank the following for permission to reprint" ...) -- and consists of one single sentence (defying anyone to to find anything). (Admittedly, the text itself offers citations of many of the most important sources -- but a bibliography would have been very helpful too.)
       The idea that people are unaware of the Stalinist horrors informs much of Amis' text -- and yet seems an unlikely premise. (We're not entirely sure of this: we thought the Belgian Congo outrages under King Leopold (comparable to Stalin's own) were similar common knowledge, but Adam Hochschild admits to knowing practically nothing about them before he researched the topic for his book about these horrors, King Leopold's Ghost.)
       Disappointing then, for one who is so outraged, is that Amis focusses only on Stalin, who has been dead nearly fifty years now. Mini-Stalins, like father and son Kim in North Korea, or the new despots in the Soviet Central Asian after-states, continue to do his handiwork (and in recent times we've had other outrages, from Milosevic to Rwanda to Saddam Hussein) and surely this is where the focus must be now. The past should not be forgotten, but it is the present horrors, so much nearer in every sense to us, that must be condemned and dealt with first.
       But Amis has an odd sense of history, and lives a very Anglo-American centred life, seemingly rather blissfully unaware of the world at large -- until, that is he sits down to devour several yards of books on some foreign topic (such as this one), turning himself into an instant expert. (An odd moment in the book comes when he does admit to touching foreign soil, writing to Christopher Hitchens from Uruguay of all places -- but it comes as no surprise that he's only picked up two sentences of Spanish there, one of which is: "Yo no sé nada" (which he translates as: "I don't know anything).)
       Stalinism is deserving of some special attention, for a number of reasons. One is that there were many Soviet apologists in the West for a very long time; indeed, Martin's father, Kingsley, was a card-carrying Communist Party member for quite a while (before going to other extremes). We were led to believe by early press reports about Amis' book that Koba the Dread was a reckoning with these apologists -- and some of the reviews do maintain that's what it is. If it is, we missed that part completely. Amis bothers very little in exploring what was supported, and why. Indeed, the focus of the book is Stalin, but even Amis acknowledges (albeit slyly, in a footnote) that Hitchens (the standard-bearer Amis seems to take as representative for those he is arguing against) was "strenuously anti-Stalinist".
       It's a shame. A study of the apologists (focussing on Kingsley and Hitchens and others Amis knew) could have been an interesting book .....
       Others have also suggested it is a book about grief, with Stalin a way for Amis to deal with the grief over the death of his dad and sister Sally. We weren't convinced -- and the contrast is, in this form (and most any other, we imagine), ill-conceived.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More thoughts on the Granta list

       As we mentioned previously, the Granta list of the twenty best British authors under 40 has appeared.
       The list gets its share of critics, especially for the age-restriction. The comment in today's issue of The Times is fairly typical. They make sensible suggestions, such as: "both readers and writers might be better served by a list of the 20 best older British novelists", and grandly state:
But surely the promise which matters in literature is not the title bestowed on a fresh name, but the guarantee to the reader of sustained pleasure from a proven writer whose best work is yet to come.
       Fundamentally, we agree (especially about that "proven writer" bit) -- but part of the fun (indeed, perhaps all the fun) of the Granta list is that it allows for the potential of failure. The judges name some of these kids on the basis of a few pages (Obscure unpublished novelist joins the elite runs one headline in yesterday's issue of The Guardian) and so a great deal of guesswork is involved. Watching some of the anointed excel is no doubt something everyone looks forward to -- but there's surely also some hope of a few grand failures, writers where two or three decades from now the literary pages will run articles crying: 'What were the judges thinking ?'. A simple best author list, without age-limitations -- and based on an actual body of work and not merely a few pages (and an agent's PR work) -- would be much less likely to allow for such entertaining failures.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

5 January 2003 - Sunday

2 x Frayn | Not Latin American enough | Granta 20 < 40

       2 x Frayn

       The newest additions to the complete review are reviews of two works by Michael Frayn -- an older drama, Balmoral, and his latest novel, Spies.
       Spies is an odd, in part very irritating, work -- or so we found. Most reviewers actually liked the aspect (authorial perspective) that most put us off, and only one that we could find -- Max Watman, in his review in the May 2002 New Criterion -- was similarly bothered by what Frayn keeps from the reader (or rather: how he keeps it from the reader). Meanwhile, others raved: "Frayn has written nothing better", Paul Bailey opined in The Independent (16 February 2002).
       Amusingly, Robert Nye (in The Times, 23 January 2002), felt: Spies "is not the sort of ambitious effort that gets into the running for any prize" -- only for the book then (well, about ten months later) to be shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Novel Award. We'll find out in a couple of days -- on 8 January -- whether it won, and, if it did, then on the 28th whether it emerges as the Whitbread Book of the Year.
       Spies is almost too clever for its own good; it bears re-reading -- and suddenly reads very differently. But that doesn't quite compensate for Frayn's annoying narrator .....
       (Note that a review or two -- not ours -- reveals what seems to us considerably more than it should about the book ....)

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       Not Latin American enough

       Yesterday's issue of The New York Times had an article by Nicole LaPorte about a new generation of Latin American authors who have turned "to Big Mac Culture" and away from 'magical realism' and the like. A semi-Chilean author -- "he was reared in Southern California and moved back to Chile when he was 11" -- gets most of the attention ("the name is pronounced foo-GET", Ms. LaPorte usefully informs readers); among the amusing bits of information about him is that: "he did a brief stint at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was told his writing wasn't Latin American enough."
       The actual criticism he received was, one hopes, a bit more ... constructive (and simply a bit more), but even the idea that the criticism he received could be misconstrued in this way appeals to us. And maybe the folks at the IWW really do have such narrow and bizarre expectations ... supporting notions of national and regional types of writing that writers from those parts should and must live up to !

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       Granta 20 < 40

       The list -- of Granta's top twenty British authors under forty years of age -- is out, available here in today's issue of The Observer.
       Other useful pages in today's paper: Geraldine Bedell's overview of the judging process, and a guide to the "class of 2003".
       Among the interesting titbits: two of the authors haven't even published a single work ..... Ben Rice gets aboard on the basis of the slim Pobby and Dingan (see our review) -- with one of the judges (Nic Clee, apparently) saying: "it's marvellous, such a perfect little gem of a thing that I wanted him in". And among the authors who didn't make it was Alex Garland:
His publisher didn't submit any work, and it is rumoured that the author of The Beach is blocked and doesn't expect ever to write another word. Nevertheless, McCrum thinks that he ought to be there: 'Even if he doesn't write again, we're missing a towering talent without him.'
       Alex Garland towering ? Over what ?

       As to Ben Rice -- is it just a coincidence that the US paperback edition of Pobby and Dingan is coming out in April (some two and half years after the hardcover -- when paperbacks usually come, if they ever do, a year after hardcover publication) and Granta 81 (the issue in which he will be featured) is appearing ... hey, what do you know ? in April ?
       Also: The Observer writes: "Among the lesser-known authors on the list, the Granta judges believe that he could prove one of the most important discoveries of the 2003 list." Discovery ? How many of the other authors have had their lone book published in Spanish (buy your copy of Pobby y Dingan, German (Pobby und Dingan), Italian (Pobby e Dingan), Swedish (Pobby och Dingan), and Dutch ?
       Also: any idea who "discovered" Rice ? Hey, what do you know, chief judge (and Granta-head) Ian Jack first published Pobby and Dingan in Granta 70.
       Another of the judges had occasion to previously praise Rice's little work -- Robert McCrum called it a "pocket masterpiece" in a review (of sorts) in The Observer almost exactly two years ago. Amusingly Rice's British qualifications (essential to make the Granta-list) weren't so clear to McCrum back then, as he hailed Rice as a great Australian hope .....

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4 January 2003 - Saturday

Granta's best young Brits | Scruton looks East and West

       Granta's best young Brits

       The time draws near -- Granta 81: Best of Young British Novelists 2003 is due out any second now. They even have a countdown-clock on that page -- and you can request immediate e-mail notification as soon as the list is announced; the names will also be found in tomorrow's issue of The Observer (and soon enough thereafter in many other media outlets).
       It's an odd idea for a list, but Granta certainly manages to get a lot of publicity with it. Some take the list fairly seriously -- such as Helen Brown in the 28 December 2002 Daily Telegraph. Others don't: Giles Coren (in today's issue of The Times) suggests "to be named in the new crop of the best 15 or so novelists of today is as much of an accolade as to be called one of the best 15 British tennis players."
       Both the age-restriction and the passport-requirement (Brits only) make the top-20-under-40 list of limited value, but what bothers us most is, of course, the idea that an author can be judged on the basis of a book or two (as was the case for most of the honorees from previous lists -- and will, no doubt, be true again). A book (or two) does not an author make. Just look what happened to apparently deserving 20/40 man Philip Kerr .....
       It isn't completely clear to us how the selection process works; we hope there will be an explanatory essay (or a couple of tell-all pieces by the judges) such as there was for the 1993 list, when Bill Buford revealed some of what went on behind the scenes. At that time each of 211 novels (representing an unspecified number of authors) was apparently read by at least two of the judges; "the system proved efficient" Buford states (National Book Award judges take note !). The only details we've read by any of this year's judges is Robert McCrum's mention that in the process he read "some 50 new novels by British-passport-holding writers under the age of 40".

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Scruton looks East and West

       Roger Scruton's The West and the Rest has been getting considerable attention over the past few months. We don't have it under review, and even though it sounds vaguely tempting we probably won't get around to it. Much of it is available online (see links below) and some of that so off the wall (and so typical Scruton) that we can't quite bring ourselves to devote the necessary time to tackling the whole thing.
       Scruton might have some valid points, but when he maintains such things as that Islam "has been until recently remote from the Western world" one wonders how seriously he can be taken. ("Remote" Islam surely didn't feel that way to, say, the Spaniards between ca. 700 and 1000 (when much of the country was the Western Caliphate, i.e. under Islamic rule) or the Viennese in the late 17th century, when the (Islamic) Ottomans were at the city gates.)
       Scruton's ideas about the state even of the contemporary Western world are also often curious:
Americans have been careless of their cities, with the result that no one wants to live in them. But their suburbs radiate homeliness and comfort
       For those interested in the book, here are some links:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

3 January 2003 - Friday

More Eugenides coverage | Year in Review

       More Eugenides coverage

       Apropos of pretty much nothing (at least as far as we can tell) The New York Times offered a prominent Bill Goldstein author-profile of Jeffrey Eugenides in its 1 January edition. Starting on page one of "The Arts" section, it comes with two pictures of the Middlesex author -- and is the usual sort of soft author/book-promoting article that appears when an author's new work comes out (or s/he's won a prize, or done something else of note, or the film version of the book is coming out, etc.). But Middlesex appeared four months ago and it's unclear what reasons there are for such a puff piece now.
       Admittedly The New York Times doesn't appear to have done a similar piece on Eugenides when Middlesex actually did come out (though the book got a couple of mentions, and was reviewed both in the daily Times and the Sunday Book Review), and it's sort of nice to see an author get some attention even when s/he isn't in the middle of a book tour flogging the latest hit (or miss) -- but it's not like Times-readers won't have come across much of the coverage of this author over the past couple of months. Surely, there are other authors that haven't gotten as much publicity worthy of some attention too .....
       A clue as to why specifically Eugenides gets the prominent treatment is perhaps found in the article itself. Goldstein notes:
The novel has been named one of the best books of the year by publications including Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review, but despite the praise, sales have been disappointing.
       (Note: can one really call being named a best book of the year "praise" ? Surely it's an honour, or something of that sort; no one, after all, says a book was "praised as best book of the year". Middlesex (and Eugenides) were praised in some of the reviews (see our review for links and quotes) -- but Goldstein doesn't bother with any of that.)
       We're not sure what "sales have been disappointing" means -- and don't understand why it can't be spelled out for ignorant readers like us (but god forbid hard-working journalists like Goldstein and the Times-staff would actually provide us with some real reporting and research and maybe a hard number or two ...). Is that compared to the huge initial print run ? The marketing budget blown on this thing ? The too-generous advance no doubt given to Eugenides ? The success of his previous novel ? 'Expectations' -- whatever those might have been ?
       In any case, some PR department managed to convince somebody that this was a good story about a worthy, overlooked title that should be brought to people's attention again. (Apparently the best-book-of-the-year-list-praise isn't enough free publicity.) We're not sold: we liked the book well enough (see our review) but we could think of quite a few better titles that received far less attention (and had much smaller marketing budgets) and that are more deserving of such prominent (or indeed any) press-coverage. (If there is such a thing as a fair share of this type of thing Eugenides would be hard pressed to claim he hadn't received his even before this piece appeared.)
       The Goldstein-article itself is a modestly informative puff piece of the too-familiar sort, relying extensively on quotes from Eugenides himself.
       Among the curious bits:
     Mr. Eugenides left the Midwest to study writing at Brown University with John Hawkes. He decided which college to attend "based on what writer was teaching there," and Hawkes's prose "intoxicated me though I had no idea what the books were about," he said
       The admission -- to be impressed by a writer (indeed to want to study at such a master's feet) whose books are apparently incomprehensible to him -- seems to us a disturbing one. Yes, it's neat that Eugenides could sense in Hawkes' work "some kind of world away from the Midwest and away from the world I knew in Grosse Pointe", and certainly many books offer new worlds, new ways of seeing things when we first read them, and may require greater study or additional information for us to truly get what they are about -- but to embrace some specific novelty, to want to emulate it and study under a practitioner like Eugenides under Hawkes without knowing in essence what one is getting oneself into seems an odd way of going about things.
       (To his credit, it seems to have worked out for Eugenides: he may have learned from his masters but didn't allow himself to be hemmed in by them: there may be John Hawkes and Gilbert Sorrentino (under whom he did graduate work) influences in his novels, but he has also found his own voice (a very different one, on the whole, than Hawkes' or Sorrentino's).)

       What is it about young authors blindly aspiring to something that they don't even understand ? Jonathan Franzen ("Mr. Eugenides is a friend of Jonathan Franzen" Goldstein helpfully informs in his article) wrote similarly in the 30 September 2002 issue of The New Yorker (see our previous mention). As a young would-be author he identified a "canon of intellectual, socially edgy white-male American fiction writers" (including DeLillo, Gaddis, Hawkes, and Pynchon) who were praised and anthologized -- and he wanted to join "this guild". The problem he found was that "with a few exceptions, notably Don DeLillo, I didn't particularly like the writers in my modern canon." In fact, he couldn't even get through their books: he liked "the idea of socially engaged fiction", but not the stuff itself.
       Both Franzen and Eugenides seem to have overcome their initial silly romanticization of image over substance and actually produced some good work (though Franzen looks to be in danger of sliding back ...). But one wonders about all those young wannabe authors who don't get it and continue following in the footsteps of the incomprehensible masters -- eventually, presumably, themselves becoming the masters, the blind leading the blind. (Which would explain a lot, actually .....)

       (FREE BONUS COVERAGE - John Hawkes anecdote: a complete reviewer was actually a student at the same liberal arts institution as Eugenides, almost at the same time (some two decades ago). He recalls taking an introductory English literature class there, taught by some wide-eyed TA completely in awe of master Hawkes. Ambitiously the TA included a book by the living legend on that semester's reading list -- and announced that, as a special treat, the author had agreed to come address the class when the time came. The book was read, but the time never came: Hawkes couldn't be bothered to make an appearance. The class probably didn't mind much, and certainly the future complete reviewer didn't (knowing already then one of our mantras: the work is everything ! the author nothing !), but the poor TA was quite crestfallen.
       The incident says nothing about Hawkes as author, but it certainly doesn't speak for him as person, educator, or colleague (though he presumably hardly considered himself a colleague of some graduate student TA). He had a couple of months to make a token appearance (and it's not like it was far out of his way or anything -- he was, after all, teaching on the same campus), but presumably these introductory-literature-course-taking students weren't worth his while. (No doubt he had a few good excuses along the way but he had months to show his face and still managed not to do so -- while both the class and certainly the eager-beaver TA would have done pretty much anything to accommodate him.)
       So maybe it does say something about Hawkes as author: image, again, is more important than substance. The students in this class weren't the creative writing-obsessed acolytes like Eugenides (hell, some of these kids might actually have understood what Hawkes' books "were about"). Apparently they weren't the kind of readers Hawkes could or wanted to impress (or, indeed, have anything to do with). Uncomprehending Eugenides, on the other hand, appears to have gotten all the attention he wanted from Hawkes ..... Perhaps Hawkes preferred speaking only to the select few, a closed circle, a guild ... god forbid he'd make any effort to try at all to share his experiences and opinions and wisdom with even the elitist common masses attending the academic institution that employed him .....)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -
 Year in Review

       Our State of the Site report for 2002 will appear in the February edition of the cr Quarterly, but we're glad to see some other sites already have such round-ups of the year that was (and warnings about the year to come) -- such as that at the worthy
       It's good to see that "Canada's Premier Independent Book Site" is still going strong (though it would be nice if there were a bit more competition out there for the title ...).
       Sadly, Alex Good does note: "Reading today is an increasingly marginal activity" -- a truth we (grudgingly) acknowledge (and the implications of which we aren't quite willing to face). Fortunately this hasn't stopped him either -- and we hope the warning "about how much I plan on cutting back this coming year" also doesn't quite work out for him !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

2 January 2003 - Thursday

Anita Brookner rounds up the French | What to expect

       Anita Brookner rounds up the French

       Other than the TLS, The Economist, and World Literature Today (none particularly easily accessible online) there isn't much English-language coverage of foreign-language literature in the (even vaguely) popular press. A rare exception is Anita Brookner's annual round-up of recent prize-winning fiction from France, appearing in The Spectator. This year her piece on the Prize-winning novels from France appears in the 28 December 2002 issue.
       The brief, largely cursory discussions only gives a glimpse of the current state of French fiction; we'd have loved to hear more. The focus on the prize-winners is perhaps understandable (winning them gives these books a huge publicity push, and they probably do become among the most-discussed French titles), but doesn't (we hope) do justice to the broader scene -- though Olivier Rolin, for example, has long been an author we've been interested in covering (though we'll probably tackle some of his other work first ...).
       As to Brookner's judgements: we're not too sure how much we trust them. She wasn't particularly impressed by complete review-favourite Amélie Nothomb's Fear and Trembling when she covered it in a previous such round-up of prize-winners (issue of 1 January 2000; not available online), so we're a bit wary of her opinions .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       What to expect

       The new year is, for many people, a time of new beginnings. We figure we'll continue to do, pretty much, the same old thing. Still, for those who like to know what's in store for them, here are some complete review ambitions for the coming year.
       Aside from the usual mix of new publications and old standards we've gathered a couple of titles we're particularly looking forward to reviewing in the next weeks and months:
  • We found a copy of Réza Barahéni's Shéhérazade et son romancier (2e éd.), previously published in Sweden and Baraheni's native Iran and now available in this French translation (but not -- despite the fact that Baraheni is a Toronto-based, English-speaking exile -- in English). The 500-page storytelling-tome looks looks very promising.

  • We picked up a copy of the German translation of Baltasar Grácian's El criticón (yet another work unavailable in English translation) and we're very eager to tackle it; see also our previous entry.

  • Perhaps to make up for all the works unavailable in English translation we hope to finally buckle down and review the many translations there are of several plays by Sanskrit-great Kalidasa (we have four versions of the Sakuntala alone) -- to augment our three Meghaduta-reviews (see our review of The Cloud-Messenger, for example).

  • And there are even books originally written in English that we'll deign to cover -- we're pleased to say we found a copy of another Ayi Kwei Armah title, The Healers (recall Liu Zhang 's difficulties in Looking for Ayi Kwei Armah, as recounted in the complete review Quarterly), and we look forward to covering that soon. (And maybe we'll get around to reviewing The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born while we're at it .....)
       Other ambitions include finally expanding our Paul Feyerabend coverage, and tackling the pile of Stewart Home we have ..... (There are, of course, many other ambitions hereabouts, but these seem among the most realistic -- we have the books, we're ready go .....)

       Did that chase the last of you away ?

       Hello ?

       Anyone still out there ?

       (Just kidding: we know this is exactly what you expect from us.)

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1 January 2003 - Wednesday

Hungarian reviews | Telegraph year-end lists | Best and worst in 2002
Scott Turow on the death penalty

       Hungarian reviews: Kertész and Szerb

       We ring in the new year with what we hope is fairly typical complete review-fare -- or at least gets us going down the right road with the sort of book-coverage that we hope to offer you throughout the year (more literary, more international, and including coverage of more older texts -- i.e. away (far, far away) from, say, Prey ...).

       The first two reviews of 2003 are of Hungarian novels: Imre Kertész's A kudarc and Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight.
       Imre Kertész is now a vaguely familiar name, having pocketed the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature (see this previous mention); in typical complete review-fashion we offer you a review not of one of his two books available in English translation, but rather of his Sisyphean A kudarc, which is available in numerous translations (including French and German ones which we relied upon) but not in English. (But maybe it will soon be available in a Carol Brown Janeway-translation of the German translation (the way Sándor Márai's Embers (see our review) outrageously was presented ...).) (Sorry, we can never resist even the cheapest of digs at American and British translation-practises.)
       Antal Szerb (1901-1945) isn't entirely unknown either, and Journey by Moonlight is now available, in a translation by Len Rix, in an attractive little Pushkin Press edition. (See also our previous mention of the fine Pushkin Press products.) Again a book that has gotten little review coverage (a TLS review seems to be about the English-language extent of it) and deserves at least a bit more.

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       Telegraph year-end lists

       We're not great fans of the year-end lists, but the Telegraph site offers a couple of some interest and/or use:

       - There's David Robson's Best of the best of the year summary, tallying up which books got the most best-book mentions in the roundups at the British broadsheets, as well as the TLS, Spectator, New Statesman, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

       - I wish I'd published that gives a glimpse of what books editors at various British houses "most admired from their rivals' catalogues" -- always a fun exercise.

       - David Robson's review of the past year's fiction, The way we don't live now, is about as useful as such a summary can be (i.e. not very), but does at least offer observations such as:
Ludicrously oversold first novels in 2002 included The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru and, across the Atlantic, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: decent enough stabs at fiction, but not worth a tithe of the brouhaha surrounding them.
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       Best and worst in 2002

       Our annual State of the Site report for 2002 will appear in the February edition of the cr Quarterly, but since the year has now come to an end we can at least offer you a glimpse of the best and worst books we covered during 2002.
       We only reviewed 184 titles in 2002; few truly stood out. No book got a grade of "A+" (indeed, none has in a while; see our Grade Distribution page to see the grades-spread).
       The best books we reviewed were probably:        Many other books also impressed, but these were probably the finest. (As to which left the most lasting impressions and which resonate strongest months after we read them ... we'll have to mull that over for a while longer.)

       Many books disappointed, but only a few really stood out as bad. Probably the worst won't, in fact, be published until this year (which is still too soon), but was already reviewed months ago: Max Barry's Jennifer Government. (see also our previous mention of Mr.Barry and his writing efforts.)
       However, hands down the most unpleasant and truly upsetting reading experience we had all year was in perusing John Polkinghorne's intellectually offensive The God of Hope and the End of the World.

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       Scott Turow on the death penalty

       Scott Turow's bestselling Reversible Errors (see our review) is being billed as a death-penalty novel (see also our previous mention). The death penalty is (in a way) at the centre of the novel, but it didn't strike us as particularly effectively discussing the pros and cons and all the implications of that particular sentence.
       Now Turow offers a non-fiction piece in this week's issue (6 January) of The New Yorker on "confronting the death penalty". Mainly an account of his personal experiences, especially as a member of the Illinois commission that recently studied capital punishment in that state, it is a far more useful piece (at least as far as this subject goes) than his novel.
       Turow doesn't go quite as far as he should (but, hey, it's a complicated issue, and the magazine apparently only had a few pages to spare), and though he closes the piece by taking a specific position (acknowledging: "I have changed my mind often, driven back and forth by the errors each positions seems to invite") it is one with little enthusiastic (or other) conviction.

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