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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 9 September 2002

1 September: New Washington Post online policy
2 September: Gaby Wood review | August cr roundup
3 September: Narration extremely Ltd. | Moby does live
5 September: Lipogrammatic surprises | New Statesman "online"
6 September: The Spectator reviews of: Mark Dunn | Geoffrey Hill
7 September: Bollingen celebrations | Back to the classics
8 September: Dr. Glas x 2 | Writers and politics
9 September: Literary Africa | Nadel's Stoppard-biography

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9 September 2002 - Monday

Literary Africa | Nadel's Stoppard-biography

       Literary Africa

       A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (issue of 6 September) by Daniel Del Castillo, Decaying Manuscripts Reveal Africa's Literate History, is worthy of attention.
       There are no links at the Chronicle, so here are some for those interested in more information about what Del Castillo describes:        Fascinating and important work, deserving all the support they can get.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Double Act, double the fun

       The newest addition at the complete review is our review of Ira Nadel's Tom Stoppard-biography. And yes, here we once again have a book that comes doubly titled: once for the British market (Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard) and once for the Yanks (Tom Stoppard: A Life). And yes, that scream you once again hear is our despairing cry at the ways of the publishing world .....
       The book is a fairly hefty tome -- over five hundred pages of text, and some fifty pages of densely-packed notes. We eagerly awaited it, since there have been no previous Stoppard-biographies and there is much about the master's life we wanted to know and hoped a biography might reveal.
       The book did not disappoint. It's informative, it covers most (though, alas, not all) the points of interest -- and it doesn't get carried away with textual (and psychological) analysis -- at least not too often. (There's a double-act theme which Nadel harps on on occasion, but it can (as the American publishers showed) readily be ignored.)
       We're not great fans of biography (see our limited selection of such books), but this is pretty much exactly how we want our biographies to be. It reads easily and well, is heavy on information (and light on everything else), and doesn't try too hard to make more of everything than there is.
       Most reviewers did not agree. Indeed many really didn't like the book. Quite remarkable, that a biography (a book supposedly of dry facts) can elicit such reactions.
       Charles Spencer, in the Daily Telegraph (6 July) went so far as to remark that: "There were moments ploughing through Nadel's stodgy and repetitive prose when I felt like slitting [my wrists]"
       Others aren't much nicer. Helen Osborne, in the Sunday Telegraph (30 June), writes of Nadel's "plodding, often prissy struggle". David Kipen, in the San Francisco Chronicle (1 September), writes: "To call Ira Nadel's new biography of British playwright Tom Stoppard workmanlike would be to insult workingmen the world over." Ouch !
       Charles Spencer also nicely undermines Nadel by quoting from an interview Spencer conducted with Stoppard three years ago, the playwright revealing:
He's called Ira somebody or other and he keeps turning up like a character in a Christopher Isherwood novel. I've told him he's on his own. As far as I'm aware, I'm not hiding anything, but I find it all invasive and I'd rather it didn't happen. He's written me a rather plaintive letter saying: 'Will you at least read the typescript to correct any factual errors?' and I've replied: 'No, I want it to be as inaccurate as possible.
       Some of the criticism is misplaced -- so Kipen's sarcastic remark "the imaginatively titled Tom Stoppard: A Life" (blame there surely falls squarely on the American publisher who thought Double Act would be too challenging a title or American audiences). The rest ? Everybody seems to revere Stoppard, and believes he deserves better treatment -- along the lines of Michael Arditti's conclusion in the Daily Mail (21 June): "As the most intellectually agile of present-day playwrights, Stoppard deserves to be treated with a lighter touch."
       We think Nadel deserves a bit more credit than he gets (though Aleks Sierz does give some in his review in The Independent (24 June), and Philip Hensher allows for even more in The Spectator (22 June)). Biography as art doesn't seem to us the ideal way to go -- it's great when it works, but when it fails it's a disaster. Better mustier tomes that stick to the facts.
       Part of this difference in opinion no doubt can also be attributed to the fact that most of the British reviewers have lived with tabloid coverage of Stoppard's life (and broadsheet profiles, year after year) for decades, and so are likely far more familiar with the details of Stoppard's life than those (like us) who are further from the scene and likely largely only familiar with Stoppard's work. We don't want or need artful interpretation; just the -- to us unknown -- facts (and some of the juicy gossip) will do. And it does just fine in Nadel's book.
       As an added bonus, the reviewers' reactions make (as you can see) for good entertainment .....

(Posted by: complete review)

8 September 2002 - Sunday

Dr. Glas x 2 | Writers and politics

       Söderberg's classic revisited

       Hjalmar Söderberg's classic novel, Dr. Glas, first published in 1905 and first translated into English in 1963, was recently re-issued. We were pleased and excited to hear this, and offered our review; in August we also suggested it on our Editors' Choice list. Then we waited for the many enthusiastic reviews (and the increase in traffic to our review-page). We're still waiting.
       Söderberg's novel isn't entirely unknown. It was recommended by Margaret Atwood in the recent Lost Classics, a volume of tributes to forgotten works (edited by, among others, Michael Ondaatje) that received considerable coverage. Atwood also wrote the introduction to the new edition of the work. Some of her words of praise can be found in this article.
       She writes: "It occurs on the cusp of our century, opening doors we've been opening ever since" -- which sounds pretty interesting, right ? (Note how this sentiment mirrors Adrian Mitchell's from his 1964 (!) review in The New York Times Book Review, that it "maps territory still being explored by the writers of today".) But, apparently, not interesting enough.
       Well, it looks like a few people have been buying the book (its sales rank, checked yesterday, was 73,960), but the book seems to have largely been ignored -- and it has certainly not received the press-coverage it should be getting. Susan Salter Reynolds' brief review in The Los Angeles Times is the only mention we've stumbled across in the press so far -- and she was less than thrilled by the book. Interest in our review has also been ... extremely limited, to put it mildly, so perhaps the newspapers are right to ignore it (almost no one wants to hear about it), but we think it is a shame. Dr.Glas is both a timely and a good book -- creepy, admittedly, but worthwhile.
       The reason we bring it up again is the unlikely recent appearance of a book based on Dr.Glas. Yes, someone is pinning at least part of their hopes on a literary homage to a book no one has heard about or seems much interested in. The author is Dannie Abse, the book The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas (sorry, it's not under review -- though we think we'd like to take a look; you can get a copy at (but not -- it hasn't yet been published stateside)).
       Mr. Abse's book has also not received an overwhelming amount of attention, but it has received some (see, for example, this BBC article). The book did receive a nice write-up in the Times Literary Supplement (issue of 9 August; sorry, no link available) by Paddy Bullard. And it did get that most prized bit of attention of all (at least for this time of the year) -- it made it onto the 2002 Man Booker Prize longlist (though punters note: it's the longest shot on the list at 25-1).
       Mr. Abse -- so Mr. Bullard (whose review we're relying on in our account, as we haven't seen the book ourselves) -- tightly "weaves the narrative of Dr Glas" into his novel. It sounds to us like he does so to good (and quite clever) effect, transposing the story to more recent times.
       Interestingly, Abse's novel is not set in the present -- as if perhaps the moral dilemmas presented in the novel (very similar, we presume, to those in Söderberg's novel) are better considered from a safer distance. But temporal remove barely helps: what makes readers uneasy about Söderberg's novel is, of course, that the issues are so very current.
       It's nice to see that an author found inspiration in Söderberg's novel (we like that sort of thing, most of the time), and we hope that the two books will both find audiences.

       (For a bit more information about Dannie Abse, see this interview at The Guardian (issue of 29 September 2001).)

(Posted by: complete review)

       Littérateur bashing

       A recent piece by Hywel Williams in The Guardian (issue of 6 September) again tackles the ever-popular subject of writers meddling in politics. Williams cites some of the usual examples, and fairly easily dismisses these political interlopers. They're easy targets, these poor authors supporting the wrongest causes. And it's hard not agree with his assessment of the book that presumably caused this particular outburst, Martin Amis' recent Koba the Dread (sorry, not under review at this time -- though eventually it will be):
Martin Amis now revisits the scene of the morally obtuse. But he then produces a surreal form of ambulance-chasing obtuseness. Twenty million dead and the gulag become an episode in a north London autobiography.
       Politics and fiction (and drama and poetry) are a tough mix, and when it goes wrong (as it so often does) the results make one cringe. Still, we're not sure Williams' particular arguments are entirely convincing. He remarks:
But the power of the littérateur -- that seductive ease with language -- is an argument for scepticism when it comes to the pronouncements of the novelist, the playwright and the poet on politics then and now.
       We're all for scepticism, at every turn -- yet this "power" should also not automatically disqualify the poor littérateurs. Williams is right to insist that: "A way with words is not the same as an understanding of the way of the world" -- but on the whole authors are no worse informed than most any other segment of society, their pronouncements no less (or more) worthy of being heeded. (Listen to the insanity and inanity that is spouted at your local bar/pub/Literary Saloon -- or anywhere else -- and you'll see that misinformed, offensive, and preposterous political opinion is the norm, not the exception.)
       Except Williams suggests authors' spoutings are less worthy: "Whether right or left, the political interventions of the littérateur have been a disaster." Which doesn't seem entirely fair. Certainly most in the West approved of the work of samizdat and dissident authors from the Soviet bloc, and arguably much that these authors penned helped effect change and promote the fall of the regimes that misgoverned those countries -- a change that most will agree was largely for the better. Similarly, political works such as Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (see our review) and Professional Foul (see our review) were interventions that were (rightly) seen positively (except of course by those in the former Soviet Union and former Czechoslovakia who were criticized in these works). Other authors in other parts of the world also come to mind -- there's a rich anti-colonial and anti-imperialist literature, for example. (Not that there aren't also many examples of horribly misguided works in these areas as well.)
       Williams seems to be suggesting that there is something pernicious about authors using their talents to convey or even touch on political opinion, as if to say: 'They're so damn good with words, it's unfair of them to take advantage of their talents and put them to such use.' The danger seems overstated. Regardless of how misguided authors' pronouncements (and they are often catastrophically misguided) they also tend not to be taken very seriously. Who one earth cares about Kingsley Amis' political leanings ? Or Céline's ? How many votes did they change ?
       Yes, writers can reach a larger audience than the average person on the street (though note that others -- including journalists -- often have far greater reach, especially when compared to littérateurs), but their influence in real-life matters (and politics) hardly impresses. The public simply doesn't take them very seriously -- in part, amusingly enough, because of that very "way with words". Part of the current American president's appeal to a large segment of the American population (which is admittedly a more anti-intellectual one than found in, for example, Europe) appears to be that he has no way at all with words, which apparently makes him seem more down-to-earth and trustworthy -- the thinking presumably being that if he can't express himself comprehensibly, well, at least you can be sure he isn't trying to fool you. (Note that few would also ever accuse the president of much of "an understanding of the way of the world"; lack of a way with words is unfortunately no guarantee of political competence either.)

       Williams' nicely written piece is, superficially, fun, but there's too little to it. To this commentary too. But it's a hard subject to resist .....

(Posted by: complete review)

7 September 2002 - Saturday

Bollingen celebrations | Back to the classics

       Bollingen celebrations

       If you're a fan of American poetry and you're in the New Haven (Connecticut) area 19-20 September you won't want to miss the The Bollingen Prize for Poetry at Yale 1949-2002 festivities.
       On 19 September you can enjoy "Readings by Bollingen Winners". Get a load of this list: John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, W.S.Merwin, Gary Snyder, Mark Strand, and Richard Wilbur. Hell, even if you aren't a fan of American poetry that's mighty tempting.
       On 20 September there are two panels. The first is one "American Traditions in Poetry", the second on "The Craft of Poetry Today". Probably worth your while.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Back to the classics

       A book that we haven't yet reviewed but that sounds like it might be of interest is Tracy Lee Simmons' Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (get your copy from
       For some background, see this recent Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez with Simmons (at the National Review), as well as his 1998 article (guess where), Greek Ruins, about the decline of classical education. For a review of the book, see Dennis Drabelle's in The Washington Post
       We are fans of the classics (and very embarrassed that practically none are under review at the complete review), but can't wholeheartedly endorse the back-to-the-classics movement. Yes, familiarity with much of the literature and thought of those times (even if not in the original Latin and Greek) should be a given -- but since the American educational system is one that seems to have difficulty imparting basic literacy skills (in English) to a large segment of the population it is meant to serve, it doesn't sound like pushing dead languages on the kids is really the best allocation of resources.
       And the literarily (and theologically) focussed education of say the 19th century wasn't really that great of an education (though, since it only served a small elite, the damage was minimal -- and some even benefited from it). Science is a relatively new school (and university) field, but has obviously proven to be a far more fruitful one (though -- in this nuclear age -- there is of course an argument against aspects of that too).
       Sure, we'd rather have spent our university careers (such as they were) reading Aristotle (or something more fun, like Aristophanes) in the original (god save us from the translations), but on the whole we think it preferable if students focussed on more useful things -- engineering ! agriculture ! medicine !
       Best of all would, of course, be the well-rounded education (the liberal arts ideal), but that is so far from contemporary reality (even at the liberal artsiest college) that it's almost absurd to even discuss it.
       Well, maybe we'll read Simmons' book and find more arguments in favour of the classical position .....

(Posted by: complete review)

6 September 2002 - Friday

The Spectator reviews of: Mark Dunn | Geoffrey Hill

       Kevin Jackson on Mark Dunn

       We note with some amusement that within days of reviewing books by Kevin Jackson (Invisible Forms) and Mark Dunn (Ella Minnow Pea; see also previous entry), we find Kevin Jackson's review of Ella Minnow Pea in The Spectator (issue of 7 September).
       It's not surprising that Jackson reviews the book, interested as he is in language and literary games. Still, we would have thought he might have been a bit more understanding. He writes:
It is a sweet-natured piece (...) but the innocence can encompass a mildly irritating naivety: at this late stage (for even the ancient Greeks wrote lipograms), the only point in wilfully skipping letters is to create something quite fresh and funny and prodigious.
       We disagree. Greatly admiring all feats Perecian and Oulipian, we nevertheless feel Dunn's exercise is more than justified. Jackson seems to suggest that for there to be much value to the book Dunn would have had to push the envelope, to go even further. We would argue that there is virtue in simplicity: Dunn doesn't set out to do that much (certainly not to push any linguistic envelopes) but he succeeds at the task he set himself -- and does so very well.
       Ella Minnow Pea seems to us clear proof that even at this stage there is a point in "wilfully skipping letters" other than what Jackson looks for -- while noting also that this little novel is both "quite fresh and funny" (though admittedly far from prodigious).
       Jackson's focus seems too much on technical prowess; what should count is the novel as a whole. And Dunn's charming little work works very well indeed. Of course it can't be compared to Perec's masterpieces -- though we do suggest that for English-speaking audiences much Oulipian fun (and technical dazzle) is lost in translation (despite the commendable efforts of Gilbert Adair, Ian Monk, and others) and so there is even more to be said for Dunn's English-oriented fiction. The awesome feats of the Oulipians are something very different from what Dunn tries here, and we think Dunn's work should also be considered on its own terms (which we believe it lives up to fully).
       Note, however, that Jackson isn't the first reviewer to be largely unimpressed by Dunn's lipogrammatic games .....

(Posted by: complete review)

       A.N. Wilson on Geoffrey Hill

       With the British publication of The Orchards of Syon (see our review) a few more reviews of Geoffrey Hill's book are appearing. The latest is A.N.Wilson's, in The Spectator (issue of 7 September) -- and it's one that is full of enthusiasm.
       Part of that seems fuelled by his intense admiration for Hill's ... conservative point of view. (Cf. The Independent's recent review of Wilson's new book, The Victorians (which notes -- surprise ! -- "Towards the end of this big, bold book, A N Wilson lets us into a secret: he would like to have been a Victorian country parson").) Wilson also bemoans that decline of civilization and:
what we all lost when we lost our religion, and, at the same time, became deaf to the voices of our ancestors, their literature, their lives and thought-processes
       Hill is, of course, a model for those embracing a clinging to the traditions and values of yore, showing in his work that even so one can still find new-in-the-old, and create true art. (Though we wonder how good a model he is: he's a genuine artist, a true poet, which doesn't really help prove the point. It's when the demi-talented achieve success by holding onto (or breaking) a certain tradition that we're more likely to be convinced there's something to it.)
       In any case, it's nice to see some enthusiastic support for Hill and his work, and perhaps Wilson's review will help lead a few more readers to venture into the difficult but rewarding Hill(y)-terrain.

(Posted by: complete review)

5 September 2002 - Thursday

Lipogrammatic surprises | New Statesman "online"

       Mark Dunn's little gem

       Okay, so even we occasionally fall for publicity material. A publisher sends us some ad copy, a bunch of pulled-out-of-context quotes from reviews and the author's buddies or a nice picture of the book cover, and something about it will catch our interest. We'll request a review copy -- and generally read a couple of pages and toss it aside. Few books live up to their billing (especially the billing publicity departments are wont to give the crap they have to try to flog).
       So a few weeks ago we got a postcard announcement from Anchor Books for Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea. The book was actually first published last year, by independent MacAdam/Cage and is now being published in trade paperback by Random House subsidiary Anchor. We hadn't paid much attention to the book when it first came out (shame on us), but the Anchor-advert described it as "the epistolary lipogram about Nollop's pangram" -- and who could pass that up ? (We actually have a couple of lipogrammatic works under review, and we're suckers for any such Oulipo-like works.)
       So we got the book, with more ad copy (shudder) -- including warning of a too-cute publicity ploy: the book is going to be published with three (very nice) different covers (one of Ella, one of a minnow, one of a pea -- which sounds almost clever, but given the book really isn't). We also learnt the book was a 2001 Borders Original Voices Award Winner (huh ?) and a 2002 Book Sense Book of the Year Award finalist (okay ...), storied awards (they've been around for ... a couple of years) which apparently impress ... somebody. (Actually, we were impressed by the monies involved -- but we note that awards for products handed out by the product-sellers are often a bit dubious (and also note that no major American or foreign book-award, from Booker to National Book Award to Goncourt, is given by book-sellers).)
       Still: all was forgiven. What a pleasant surprise ! Ella Minnow Pea really is a good book (see our review)
       It's a small book, with some large ambitions, and it manages to do everything it sets out to do -- a rare accomplishment. This isn't the great American novel or anything, but it's a good, entertaining story, well-handled, very clever -- a breezy little read that works (nicely) on a couple of levels (and can be enjoyed on all of them).
       So it's nice to see that a book like this can rise pretty much out of nowhere and get some recognition (which we acknowledge many others -- including Borders & B & N -- seem to have given it before we ever even took a look) and a nice paperback deal. We were surprised that the few reviews we did find (see our review for quotes and links) weren't all that enthusiastic (and truly surprised the book could elicit a sourpuss-reaction like Mark Luce's in the San Francisco Chronicle).
       We hope the book continues to attract notice and readers -- as well it should. It's worth your while. Really.

(Posted by: complete review)

       New Statesman online

       The excellent New Statesman -- with its much-loved book section -- has been inching towards inaccessibility (except for registered, paying customers) for ages. For about a year now, only the most recent reviews have been freely accessible -- though they did leave a nice backdoor open, where if you had the URL for a review you could still get to it without any problem (or paying). (Links we often provided you with at the complete review.)
       Now -- for the past two weeks or so -- it appears that all content has been restricted, so that it is only available to subscribers. And we're afraid this is the way it will stay (not that we could find any place on their site explaining their constantly shifting policies).
       Ah well, another review source closed off to us, more links we can't provide for our users (and consequently: fewer users we can send on to the New Statesman). They are, of course, free to do as they please at their site. We just hope and pray that you do not go along with it and -- despite the tantalizing content available from them -- don't give in and register and pay.
       We'll miss the New Statesman and its very good literary content. We're sorry that we will no longer be able to provide our users with links to their reviews (or, in most cases, review summaries and quotes).

(Posted by: complete review)

3 September 2002 - Tuesday

Narration extremely Ltd. | Moby does live

       The abasement of fiction continues

       What is the world coming to ? Apparently this: after Fay Weldon sold out to Bulgari and penned a book-length advertisement for them (calling the final product a "novel") one didn't think things could get much worse, but now two more former advertising workers (remember, that's what Fay did before she found literary success) have come up with a new twist. As reported in The Observer of 1 September, Simon Gibson and Adam Lury have formed Narration Ltd., "a fiction writing company which promises to produce a popular novel on a theme of your choice". (At least they seem to have a sense of humour, as the very descriptive company name, Narration Limited, suggests.)
       They aren't talking about penning your life-story or anything like that, either: they're aiming much higher:
Gibson and Lury believe stories are the best way to communicate complicated ideas and they expect their talents to be hired by commercial corporations as well as by political groups.
       In fact, they already completed a project for a customer -- UK Labour Party think-tank the Foreign Policy Centre, for whom they produced Need to Know -- described at the FPC site as follows
Need to Know is a book of fiction that attempts to make sense of open-ended and complex policy issues in a non-linear way. The rationale of the project is that through stories people can better engage with, and think through, complex policy issues. By using a narrative framework the aim is to make foreign policy debates more accessible to a wider audience and to illustrate the relevance of foreign policy to our everyday lives.
       This promising title is also available from -- but better yet, you can read the text online. At the Need to Know site readers learn:
Need to Know describes what happens when an antiglobalisation activist decides takes on the establishment, not on the streets but across digital networks.
       But you really have to read it to believe it.
       There's some information about the book-producers there too:
Narration brings the power of narrative to the world of business, enabling companies and organisations to convey often complex issues through stories and works of fiction. In short, it is about moving from information to imagination.
       God bless the advertising folk, for shifting the emphasis from information to imagination ! Who cares about facts when you can sway minds with catchy phrases and cool stories ! (And remember: those pesky regulatory agencies that demand some sort of truth in advertising (though admittedly barely any) can't touch this stuff: say whatever you want, make whatever claims you want !)
       The Observer article quotes Weldon's reaction to this endeavour -- amusingly even she is quite dismayed.
       Leaving the politics of the undertaking aside -- and note that these clowns .... pardon, these 'writers' seem to be willing to write for any political or corporate line -- is this kind of polemical book-on-demand service in any way a good thing ? Well, one has to acknowledge that fiction propounding a party line (political, religious, corporate) isn't all that new. Lots of fiction has been written that tries to assist readers to "better engage with, and think through, complex policy issues" (i.e. buy my product, vote for my party, etc.). Usually, however, the writers are true believers -- religious or political fans (or fanatics) who prefer to convey their ideas in fictional form. Little (though presumably some) of this literature is created overtly on a for-hire basis (though note that it is very common in journalism and on television, where many articles and programmes are essentially fully funded (if not always credited as such) by corporations or political organizations). So Gibson and Lury are just making some money doing this ..... Who says they have to believe what they write ?
       Still, we're not exactly thrilled about this (to put it mildly). And once one gets into the corporate world, pushing corporate products through fiction (hmmmm, Ms. Weldon ....) it gets even more problematic.
       Well, make up your own mind -- but be warned: that book you're reading, somebody may have paid for the message (or the products) to be found in it.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Moby does live

       Just a reminder, that the whale is finally back: MobyLives, probably the best literary weblog currently out there, is finally back at it (after taking most of August off).

(Posted by: complete review)

2 September 2002 - Monday

Gaby Wood review | August cr roundup

       Living Dolls v. Edison's Eve

       It's called Living Dolls in the UK, and Edison's Eve in the US. Whatever it's called, our review of Gaby Wood's new book is now available.
       There's a doctoral dissertation to be written on the subject of variant titles in Britain and America. Maybe this is what editors do to justify their existence -- to show they actually do anything. "Look, I came up with a different title for the same book ! Whee !" Or maybe it was the geniuses in marketeering who insisted on the change.
       Living Dolls is the far better title, though Edison's Eve obviously has some name-recognition benefits in the US. However, as Edison's Eve only refers to one of the five major episodes referred to in the book it is quite misleading. (Living Dolls can, in a pinch, be stretched to cover most of the book.)
       The role of editors is relevant here not only regarding the title. There is a lot of fascinating material in this book, and Ms. Wood (daughter of the prolific Michael Wood, by the way) writes quite well, but this is a messy and ultimately disappointing work. It doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, and so Wood just stuffs and twists everything she's come across into her book -- with decidedly mixed results. Ms.Wood looks here like the prototypical author in search of an editor -- someone who might have helped her organize the material and work on presenting it better.
       For the record: she apparently did have editorial help -- the author even thanks two, "Julian Loose at Faber and Robin Dresser at Knopf". It is unclear what they did; certainly they can't hold this book up as shining examples of their craft. (On the other hand, the book has been widely (including by suckers like us) and often well reviewed, and seems to have sold quite well, so they must have done something right in how they packaged this thing, alternating titles and all.)
       Some reviewers flat-out fell for the book (the good material, in particular, winning them over), while only a few were completely dismissive (notably Brian Aldiss, in the 3 May Times Literary Supplement). Most had some reservations but still found big words of praise (making for good ad copy). The ambivalent attitude is perhaps best summed up in Steven Connor's comment: "I believe that there is great seriousness of intent here" (The Guardian (2/3/2002))
       The book suffers a bit due to unfortunate timing, as one chapter is devoted to the chess-playing machine that Tom Standage devoted a whole book to, The Mechanical Turk (see our review) -- and Standage's book suggests how much more interesting a more in-depth study can be. If Wood had actually written Edison's Eve -- just a book on that subject, instead of devoting only a fifth of one to it here -- she might have produced something truly worthwhile. The same if she had expanded on Vaucanson's story. (Anything, in fact, except the misguided last chapter -- though a book of interest to some could be made out of that too.)
       As is, Living Dolls / Edison's Eve is the sort of book where you wonder why it exists at all. It's not a bad book, but it serves almost no purpose. All it does, on page after page, is remind readers of what wonderful material this is -- and wonder why something better wasn't done with it. Since Wood is a gifted and obviously intelligent writer (though her style is here still geared too much to the more casual magazine audience) it is a shame that no one could guide her better.

(Posted by: complete review)

       The complete review in August

       Usually summers are quiet times for sites like the complete review, with traffic only picking up well into the fall semesters -- the end of September or so. But this year there has been an earlier surge of interest.
       Nothing in particular seems to have fuelled it, and the increase in interest was fairly evenly spread. One standout, not unexpectedly, was our look at literary weblogs in the new issue of the crQ. An older article, on B.R. Myers' piece in The Atlantic Monthly, also attracted a great deal of interest, largely because the book-version of Myers' piece is about to be released. Both pieces were linked to by a number of sites.
       Eighteen reviews were added in August. Review-views were over 26 percent higher than in July. Our monthly list of most popular reviews showed no great changes. Among newer reviews Murakami Haruki's After the Quake (41st) had the best showing, while several books only added towards the end of the month -- V.S.Naipaul's The Writer and the World and Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia looked to be potential top-25 candidates in September.
       The big change at the site in August was the addition of this weblog, the Literary Saloon. So far it has had little impact in terms of site traffic, reached, even on its best days, by less than two percent of our users.

(Posted by: complete review)

1 September 2002 - Sunday

New Washington Post online policy

       The Washington Post tells online Book World users to go to hell

       O.k., they don't tell users to go to hell. In fact, they do something worse: they insist users register (complete with accepting a cookie on their computer) in order to gain access to the Post's book coverage.
       The complete review understands that The Washington Post can choose to make its content available in any form it wishes. It can ask people to pay to view it, or to register to use the site, or to accept an onslaught of pop-up or other ads, or to hand over their first-born or whatever. But we don't have to like it. And, oh boy, we do not like this.
       Users who clicked on The Washington Post's book coverage this morning suddenly found they were not taken to the book page but rather were asked to "register". Indeed, all over the site one finds the new warning: "To Our Users: You now need to provide a few details about yourself to access parts of the site". They promise that: "It's fast and it's FREE." Why, it's almost impossible to resist. And the questions on the pop-up page don't seem that terrible: sex, birthdate, and zip code (for US residents) or country. Harmless enough: punch in some wrong data (never, never, never give accurate data in these circumstances) and you should be done, right ?
       So what happens ? When we tried to register another page popped up, telling us:
Our software detected that 'cookies' are turned off in your browser. Cookies need to be turned 'on' to use
       So much for fast and FREE.
       It turns out the request "to provide a few details" was only a ruse to implant a cookie on your computer.
       Of course we have our browser set not to accept cookies (and we pray you do too -- you'd have to be nuts not to). And there is no way in hell we're letting The Washington Post (or anyone else) deposit one on our computer.
       The Washington Post tries to allay the concerns of people like us, providing some cookie questions-and-answers. But consider:
Are 'cookies' a threat ?
The 'cookie' set by a Web site can only be read by that site. This means that your 'cookie' will only be used by to store small bits of information regarding your visit to the site.
       Note that this response (which is here reproduced in its entirety) does not in any way answer the question of whether or not a cookie is a threat (i.e. specifically how and to what extent the cookie-depositing site will (ab)use the information it collects).
       The problem with the Post policy is not so much their cookie (although that worries us too), but rather the fact that we have to leave our browser on like an open door for all the other cookies out there. (Yes, we know we can set our browser to 'prompt' us for every cookie that is sent our way, but on a commercial site overflowing with ads like the Post's that sometimes means dozens of prompts on a single page .....) And unfortunately the Post doesn't give a damn about those other cookies. Read the Post's privacy policy, where they themselves admit: advertisers, or Web sites that have links on our site, may also collect personally identifiable information directly from you. The information practices of companies collecting data on our site or Web sites linked to are not covered by this privacy statement.
       In other words: 'Dear user, we'll sort of respect your privacy but we'll let advertisers on our site do whatever they want to you, including placing additional cookies on your computer and they are free to do whatever they want with the information they gather (including reselling it or otherwise making available to other parties).' Or, in even simpler terms: 'You're screwed -- and there's not a thing we'll do about it.'

       We would like to have free, easy access to the marvelous Book World. We understand that The Washington Post is under no obligation to provide that, and that they have every right to raise whatever barriers they want to keep users from reaching content. We suggest that this new policy is a particularly bad one for a variety of reasons, including that they lose interested (though admittedly demographically highly unattractive (because desperately poor)) readers such as us. We also do not believe that the gains made through collecting cookie data are worth it -- especially in a niche area like Book World. And we're very disappointed in the Post for not being completely forthright with users in telling them what is being demanded of them and what the costs might be (telling users instead: "it's FREE" -- as is, under their definition, selling your soul to the devil (which seems to us preferable to what they're asking)).
       Leaving aside our personal objections to the policy there are other reasons to be concerned about it. They explain that they want users to provide some basic information in order:
To better understand who our readers are and the areas that are of interest to them online. The sign up allows us to bring aggregate user information to our advertisers and thus deliver ads focused on reader demographics.
       Unfortunately, demographic data that relies on user-provided data is notoriously flawed. We strongly recommend always lying to any website that asks for any personal information (we always make ourselves multi-millionaire CEOs -- sometimes teenaged, sometimes in our 90s) -- and we're pretty sure most every sane Internet user does lie (all the ones we know do). And honestly -- the Post doesn't care that much about what answers you give. 'Cause the good stuff -- the honest answers -- they (and the advertisers collecting information alongside them using their own cookies) find through the use of the cookies. Because you can't lie about that trail of webpages you visit -- and they're right there tracking you, collecting all that information. And that trail can be -- or at least seem -- highly revealing, and that's what the advertisers are after.
       See, if they just wanted you to "register" and answer a few questions about yourself they could do that without using cookies. The Daily Telegraph site, for example, allows you to do that (just invent an e-mail address -- any address will do -- and other information ! it's great, the way registration should be !). You have to remember the fake e-mail (and the password) you registered with to log into the site, but at least there are no cookies (though, of course, there's still some nasty -- but far more limited -- tracking of your doings going on).

       Amazingly, few users seem to show much concern about the privacy issues a policy like the Post's raises. We're curious to see whether there is any sort of press coverage of the Post's change in policy -- and a user-backlash. We can't imagine anyone would use the site under these conditions, but of course there are sites out there that do much worse and people continue to go to these as well. We do hope you'll think about the implications of visiting the site under these new conditions. And if, as we hope you do, you want to let The Washington Post know what you think of their new policy -- if you hate it, or even if you love it -- please do e-mail them.

       Meanwhile, we mourn another book review site that has essentially been rendered inaccessible. A very sad day.

(Posted by: complete review)

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