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The Literary Saloon Archive

11 - 31 December 2002

11 December: Ficowski on Bruno Schulz | Kertész's Heureka ! | Non-readers | The horn curves back
12 December: VL(non-)S book list | TextArc
13 December: Houellebecq and Kourouma translations
14 December: Bellesiles' Bancroft rescinded | Omissions
16 December: Ann Quin (and B.S.Johnson) | Light
17 December: Stanislaw Lem coverage
18 December: Breton auction | Calvino's Hermit
19 December: Prey: it's a failure ! it's a success !
20 December: John Kendrick Bangs | Where has lit. crit. gone ?
21 December: Season's Greetings etc. | Philip Kerr does Newton | Author-reactions: John Reed and Snowball's Chance
31 December: Contemporary philosophy and philosophers | Murray Bail | The Aunt's Story - the play

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31 December 2002 - Tuesday

Contemporary philosophy and philosophers | Murray Bail | The Aunt's Story - the play

       Contemporary philosophy and philosophers

       The December/January issue of the Boston Review is now available online, with a variety of interesting articles (notably also Their Liberties, Our Security by David Cole (with ten responses, and then a response from Cole), part of their New Democracy Forum).

       Of particular interest: Seyla Benhabib on Taking Ideas Seriously, a review of Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse by Richard Wolin, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla, and Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (edited by Steven E. Aschheim). (None of these titles are currently under review at the complete review, but all tempt us to some degree.)
       Benhabib notes (among other things) that while philosophy per se doesn't appear to be attracting that much interest, biographies of philosophers have become increasingly popular in recent years:
The fixation on biography, particularly when it is mixed with interpretive suspicion, suggests a retreat from philosophy’s aspiration to truth; we wallow in the particular and revel in salacious detail
       The article is worth a look; on a vaguely similar note readers might also want to consider Philip Pullman's musings on "the relationship between art and society" from the 28 December issue of The Guardian.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Murray Bail

       We're big Murray Bail fans (see our Murray Bail page), and were pleased to find a piece about him in the (online) Winter edition of RainTaxi: Murray's Performance, by Joel Turnipseed.
       We're surprised Bail's recent Camouflage hasn't elicited more coverage; perhaps the confusing editions (the US one includes many more pieces -- of which many were previously published in other collections -- than the UK one) was partially responsible for the limited coverage. Of course -- as the RainTaxi article shows --: it's never too late .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Aunt's Story - the play

       It's been around for a while, but we were reminded recently by Robert Brustein's review (in The New Republic, issue of 23 December; scroll down for review) of the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of a stage-adaptation of Patrick White's marvelous novel, The Aunt's Story (see our review of the novel).
       A few other articles and reviews about the play:
  • An article from the Sydney Morning Herald (8 October 2001) about adapting the novel for the stage
  • A review from the The Age (27 October 2001) by Helen Thomson
  • A review from the Sydney Morning Herald (16 August 2002) by Bryce Hallett
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

21 December 2002 - Saturday

Season's Greetings etc. | Philip Kerr does Newton
Author-reactions: John Reed and Snowball's Chance

       Season's Greetings etc.

       With head bowed deep in shame, even the complete review succumbs to seasonal pressures. Given that everyone involved with this site claims other obligations (often at considerable distance from their computers -- or so they say) we have little choice but to ... take a little break for a few days. Unprofessional though it is, we will not be attending to our Literary Saloon-related (and other complete review) duties until around 31 December (give or take a day). The Saloon, of course, remains open during this "hiatus" -- there just (probably) won't be any new material on it.
       We're very embarrassed by our inability to continue providing you with the latest in our opinions (and reviews) during this time -- though given the annual seasonal swoon in user-interest between Christmas and New Years it would seem that most people have better things to do than read our musings during this period anyway.
       Meanwhile, we take this opportunity to thank you for your patronage, and we hope you'll come back and visit in the new year.
       For all those celebrating diverse and sundry holidays over the next few days: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Joyous Boxing Day, Cheerful Three Kings Day, etc. etc. etc. For all those ignoring these or celebrating other holidays: enjoy whatever you're doing !
       And since most people do wind up with a bit of free time on their hands around this time of year: just a little reminder that your time might be well-spent reading a good book ... !

       Wishing you all the best (and all the rest), from all of us at: the complete review

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Philip Kerr does Newton

       There have been few odder literary careers of late than that of Philip Kerr. He impressed greatly with his early Berlin Noir-trilogy, then again with A Philosophical Investigation. He made one of those Granta lists of best authors under forty -- and rightly so.
       But with and after Dead Meat he's been a different writer -- raking in the big bucks (at least for a while) but offering semi-thriller pap. After the horror that was Gridiron (US title: The Grid; not under review) we skipped his next two books, but gave him a go again with The Second Angel, another disappointment. We skipped The Shot (just what the world needs, another book on the Kennedy assassination), but when we heard the newest book starred Isaac Newton, well, we couldn't pass that up.
       The new novel is Dark Matter. It's published by Crown in the US (yet another new publisher for Kerr -- recent titles were published by Holt and Simon & Schuster); oddly, it's apparently not available in the UK yet (except as an import) -- we're not even sure any English publisher has picked it up yet. It is available, already, in a German translation (as Newtons Schatten) -- why can't English/American publishers ever bring out foreign books in translation this fast ? (Recall that Donna Tartt's much-anticipated The Little Friend came out in Dutch before it was published anywhere in English .....)
       An advert for the book (found, for example, in the 18 November issue of The New Yorker) quotes a Boston Globe review or article (no name give; no link found):
Nobody who reads Dark Matter will ever think of the real Isaac Newton quite the same again.
       The author at least implies that there is a difference between the "real Isaac Newton" and his fictional counterpart; nevertheless s/he expects all readers' thinking about Newton to be changed by Kerr's invention ? This strikes us as a troublesome idea: fiction, especially of the very fanciful sort (as this is), shouldn't really shape how we think of real people, should it ? Possibly, if it is well-researched historical fiction -- but Kerr only uses the basic facts about Newton (and his name) as a template for his character. The story itself is pure invention
       The entire novel takes place during that time in Newton's career when he headed the Royal Mint. In an Author's Note Kerr nevertheless feels obligated to state: "The reader may also like to note that England's greatest scientist really did work for the Royal Mint." -- as if there had been some great doubt (or, perhaps, because readers might otherwise well have believed that part of the story too was invention).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Author-reactions: John Reed and Snowball's Chance
       Occasionally we get e-mail from authors we've discussed on these pages. They range from the grateful (authors of obscure books no one else mentions tend to be especially grateful) to severe reprimands.
       Thursday we received this e-mail (with "Snowball's Chance" in the subject line) :
Reviewing books you haven't read, eh? No writer takes credit for it, eh? Way to encourage discourse. Really, very open-minded. Those are some high journalistic standards, you have there. I hear the Iraqi department of information is looking for people, maybe you could get a nice position there.

John Reed
       We remembered having briefly mentioned a John Reed's Animal Farm-sequel a few weeks back; we assumed this was what Mr. Reed was referring to. Looking back at what we had written we were quite surprised that those few words could elicit such a reaction. (As it turns out, the same e-mail was also sent to Bookslut's Jessa Crispin (minus "No writer takes credit for it, eh? " (since Jessa does)); she had also mentioned Reed's book on her weblog.)
       Our response pretty much sums up our reaction:
     Dear John Reed:

     Thank you for your interest in the Complete Review, and for your comments.
     We find ourselves a bit confused by ... well, most of what you write. For example, you start: "Reviewing books you haven't read, eh? " We assume (from the subject line in your e-mail and from the fact that you sent the e-mail to our weblog address rather than the main review section) you are referring to our coverage of your new novel, "Snowball's Chance". The only coverage of that work we could find on our site was a weblog entry titled "Animal Farm sequel/parody", at:
     As you correctly point out, we haven't read the book -- and so our coverage was limited to links to other sites with information about the book (your publisher's and the NYPress article; we don't provide links to the registration-requiring NYTimes site), as well as some discussion of the information to be gleaned from these.
     None of this, it seems to us, even remotely resembles a review of your book. (For our actual review coverage check out the Complete Review itself; see, for example to see how we review a book).
     I can only guess that you were affronted by some part of our coverage -- perhaps the closing suggestion that "Certainly, taking on an old classic is easier than writing anything original -- and it also ensures that one gets a great deal more publicity (recall Pia Pera's Lo's Diary)." (Though I hope you're not so thin-skinned as to be insulted by something like that -- it's perhaps a debatable point, but (I thought) a valid one, and doesn't mean your work is a poor one (or a great one -- indeed, it says nothing whatsoever about the quality of your book).) But perhaps it was something else about our coverage that so offended you (perhaps even some entirely different weblog-entry) -- if so, we'd love to know what .....
     As to your other comments:
      - True, no writer takes credit for most of our weblog entries, but that's because we prefer to think ourselves of "the Complete Review" and almost all of these blog-entries are "written" (or at least put together) by more than one person. It is unclear to us what benefits there are to identifying who exactly is responsible for what.
     - "Way to encourage discourse." you write (meaning, we presume, that you believe we are doing a poor job of encouraging it). I didn't know our object (or duty) is to encourage discourse (or discourage it or worry about it one way or another). But in fact we do like discourse -- and as you see, we are responding promptly and fairly courteously to your attempt to engage us in discourse (and, I can assure you, we do our best to answer all those who write to us). Would people feel more comfortable in engaging in discourse with us if they could put names to our blog-notes etc. ? Perhaps, but it doesn't seem like a big hurdle to us. Look how easily you cleared it !
     - "Really, very open-minded." We try to be as open-minded as we can; admittedly, we're probably not always successful. But, for example: we'd love to share your e-mail (and any comments and concerns you might have in response to this one) with our (few) readers on our weblog; we hope -- in the interests of open-minded discourse -- you don't mind if we do that.
     - "Those are some high journalistic standards, you have there." We note that you're referring to a piece that appeared on a site calling itself "the Literary Saloon". You're expecting journalistic standards here ? On every page, right at the top, we also remind readers what can be found here: "opinionated commentary on literary matters - from the complete review". We do, however, make an effort to provide balanced coverage so readers can make up their own mind. In the entry you are apparently referring to we provide links to your publisher's publicity page on the book (where it's hailed as "a wildly scathing, landmark novel" -- whatever that means; is the use of publicity gush like that of any higher standard than what we're offering ?) and John Strausbaugh's very generous article about the book.
      - "I hear the Iraqi department of information is looking for people, maybe you could get a nice position there." We assume this is hyperbole -- i.e. that you have not, in fact, heard of any such openings. Our lack of qualifications (no Arabic language skills, giggling fits whenever we see those huge Saddam-pictures plastered all over Baghdad) likely precludes us from obtaining any such position in any case. I'm a bit at a loss in trying to make the connection between Iraqi-style dis- and mis-information and what we have done on our site; perhaps you could explain it to us.
     Your somewhat heated e-mail suggest you read great wrongs in our coverage. Except for the fact that we don't sign our names to most of our blog-entries we don't find your comments to be well-founded; perhaps if you explained more specifically what it is that bothers you we could get a better sense of where we have erred.
     I also note that as far as I can tell you sent almost the same e-mail to the Bookslut-blog (merely deleting the line about non-attribution in her copy) -- was she guilty of exactly the same crimes ? And do you think the Iraqi department of information really has positions for all of us ?
     NOTE: we would love to publish this e-mail exchange (along with any response(s) you care to make) on our weblog; if you have any objections to that, please let us know. Also: would you prefer that your e-mail address be included in any publication of these texts (so readers can contact you directly), or do you prefer that it not be provided ?

Sincerely yours,

Michael Orthofer

Managing Editor, at
the Complete Review
       John Reed was kind enough to respond quickly; however, all he had to say was:
Sure, you can publish it, and I really appreciate your lengthy reply. I don't think I can give out an e-mail address however, as I'm already swamped. Thanks again for having some thoughts on the matter.
       While we appreciate the tenor of the letter ... well, we're still befuddled by what was originally meant. So much for encouraging discourse, we guess. (And we haven't heard from the Iraqi department of information either.)
       (Jessa Crispin also received a response to her answer to Reed's original e-mail; it was slightly longer and more elaborate.)

       We still haven't reviewed Mr.Reed's book; for those interested in additional information, there's now a Snowball's Chance site, and you can buy it at or (possibly) The book also got a brief mention in a Boston Globe article by Cathy Young (found at the Reason-site); we're not sure whether or not Ms. Young received any e-mails from Mr.Reed

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

20 December 2002 - Friday

John Kendrick Bangs | Where has lit. crit. gone ?

       John Kendrick Bangs

       And now for something completely different: the most recent addition to the complete review is our review of John Kendrick Bangs' The Dreamers. The 1899 text is actually even available (apparently in print-on-demand form, from Wildside Press). It's nothing too exceptional, but it is fun.
       Bangs was a leading humorist of his day, and what he did seems (to us) vaguely comparable to, for example, what the McSweeneys crowd does, or Neal Pollack or the like. Not quite as heavy on the irony, but the humour isn't that far off. The Dreamers is almost all pastiche, ranging from a Sherlock Holmes story (A. Conan Doyle was, for some reason, a favourite Bangs-target) to a now largely incomprehensible Mr.Dooley-imitation. (Who on earth remembers -- or should -- Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley nowadays ?) Along the way he also pokes a lot of fun at writers and writing generally.
       It's an odd, mixed picture of the literature of the day -- some familiar names and voices (William Dean Howells, Rudyard Kipling), some markedly less so. But it is particularly effective as that: readers tend to romanticize the days of yore and the supposedly higher literary standards of bygone days, and Bangs shows there's little to that. Things were as good -- or bad, or worse.
       It's surprisingly fun too: Bangs writes almost effortlessly and shows great imitative and inventive flair.
       Some of Bangs work (but not, apparently, The Dreamers) is available online -- you can find some of his books at Project Gutenberg or Classic Reader. A House-Boat on the Styx is the standard text, but most of the others are of some interest too. Still, he's one of these authors that just -- but really just -- aren't remarkable enough to really devote much time to -- but seem like they shouldn't be entirely forgotten either.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Where has lit. crit. gone ?

       David Herman's article Silence of the critics (Prospect, December 2002) is now available online. He laments -- or at least remarks on -- an apparent transition:
(...) once I got to the literary criticism shelves, Leavis's work wasn't there. Nor were any books by Raymond Williams or George Steiner. It's not as if they have been replaced by an exciting new generation. It feels more like the end of an era.
       One might suggest he visit better-stocked bookstores, but he has a point:
There is a break in our culture. Our literary past looks remote, even incomprehensible. Most of us don't know the Bible, can't read Latin or Greek, don't know our ancient history or classical mythology. The kind of criticism which deals with pre-1960s literature is out of step with the larger culture. The best literary critics understand and enjoy the references and echoes most of us miss. By insisting on the value of what is sometimes difficult, by reminding an amnesiac culture of once resonant references, they are still doing something valuable, and largely unappreciated.
       Not too many new thoughts on the subject, but it's something that is always worth some attention.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

19 December 2002 - Thursday

Prey: it's a failure ! it's a success !

       Prey: it's a failure ! it's a success !

       A while back we mentioned Martin Arnold's 5 December "Making Books" column in The New York Times, where he wrote about the somewhat disappointing sales for new books by big-name authors; he singles out Michael Crichton's Prey (see our review) -- noting it's selling well but not quite meeting expectations. There have since been quite a few more articles reporting on this apparent big-name-bust phenomenon. The oddest of these we've come across is from the 15 December issue of The Observer, proclaiming 'Brand name' novel loses its appeal. We learn there:
The mood around the country is similarly downbeat. 'My customers are looking for quality, rather than a book written to order by some big name,' said Elaine Petrocelli, manager of Book Passage
       Apparently the idea that book-buyers would seek out quality rather than simply blindly buying up brand-name products is a depressing one .....
       The article also claims:
Most are trying to work out what went wrong. One explanation is that traditional bookstores are suffering because the big supermarket chains have moved into bookselling.
       While traditional bookstores likely do suffer from supermarkets selling books that surely doesn't explain a drop-off in big-name-author book sales -- which are, one would imagine, the kind of books most likely sold at supermarkets (none of our local supermarkets sell books of any sort so we can't be sure about this).
       Meanwhile, the HarperCollins folk have clearly been doing some damage control, and a 16 December Publishers Weekly piece by Daisy Maryles enthusiastically counters Arnold's claims. Proclaiming Crichton Sales Are Up ! Maryles writes:
Michael Crichton's Prey, #1 on the national charts, including PW's, was offered by reporters as an example of a big book not meeting sales expectations. Not true ! First-week sales for Prey at the three national chains —- Barnes & Noble, Borders and Waldenbooks —- are ahead of first-week sales for his last hardcover bestseller, Timeline
       (We like the use of exclamation marks here ! In the article-title too ! Very professional !)
       Still, even chart-topping success is relative: given the huge advance Crichton got (generally reported as 30 million dollars for two books, though this CNN article claims it's 40 million), it's hard to see how the publishers can ever really make money on this deal.
       Reviews of Prey continue to be mixed, with the negative prevailing ("dull, dull, dull" Susan Geason wrote in the 14 December Sydney Morning Herald), but it got a near-rave from Peter Millar in The Times, and Ned Vizzini is also enthusiastic in this week's issue of New York Press.
       Still, thriller-standards ain't what they used to be: Vizzini is enthusiastic but can't do better than suggest: "If you buy Prey, you’ll finish it in three days." Apparently finishing a good read in one sitting or one night can no longer be expected .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

18 December 2002 - Wednesday

Breton auction | Calvino's Hermit

       Breton auction

       An article in yesterday's issue of The New York Times reports on the auction of the contents of André Breton's apartment at 42, rue Fontaine scheduled for early April. Auctioneer CalmelsCohen has set up a site offering some information about the auction (including a bit of information in English)
       Lots of grand art, but, of course, of greatest interest to us are the holdings of his library. Many Breton manuscripts will be up for sale, but we're more curious about the books he read and kept on his shelves. Some 3,500, at least, are up for grabs -- but the site (and the Times-article) aren't too helpful as to titles etc.: books dedicated to Breton by Freud, Trotsky, and Apollinaire, art catalogues, and copies of journals like La révolution surréaliste are about all they mention.
       The auction catalogues (six, at least, are planned) won't be ready until February; we hope to get our hands on the one devoted to the book-lots and then be able to report in-depth on what is on offer.

       (For more on Breton, check out the Breton page at books and writers, or read his piece, What is Surrealism ?)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Calvino's Hermit

       Today's issue of The Times has a review of Italo Calvino's The Hermit in Paris by Jeanette Winterson, the first (English) notice we could find of the book. (Jonathan Cape is publishing the Martin McLaughlin translation in the UK in about a month; Pantheon is offering it in the US in March.)
       Calvino's pagine autobiografiche aren't exactly new: Eremita a Parigi was first published in Italy in 1994 -- but it's presumably worth the wait.
       Meanwhile: additional links of possible interest:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

17 December 2002 - Tuesday

Stanislaw Lem coverage

       Stanislaw Lem coverage

       It's nice to see that Stanislaw Lem is getting some attention in conjunction with the release of Stephen Soderbergh's Solaris-remake (see also our previous mention). New articles of interest include The Lem Chronicles by Jeet Heer in the 15 December Boston Globe (link first seen at Bookslut; note that this probably won't be a long-lasting link) and this profile by Gary Wolf in the December issue of Wired -- both of which focus on the author Lem more than on the new flick.
       Lem's 8 December comments on the Soderbergh-Solaris can be found here; since he hasn't seen it they are only moderately useful. But there's other good stuff to be found here in the English version of the Oficjalna strona Stanislaw Lema (i.e. the official Lem site). The FAQ-section includes answers to some apparently popular questions such as: Why was Stanislaw Lem expelled from the Science Fiction Writers of America ? (it's almost nice that writers could get so excited about one of their own, but of course this was quite a different (and a pretty ugly) affair).
       Also of interest -- and truly amazing -- is the fact that Solaris is, in its English version, a book that has gone through a lot to get here -- indeed gone through all the wrong things, including translation into another language first. Yes, the English editions (all of them -- there've been quite a few) of Solaris are Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox's translation of Jean-Michel Jasienko's French version of the text. That too is -- far too briefly -- addressed on the Lem-FAQ-page. Since Lem (who does read English) isn't satisfied with that version, and since decent sales of the movie-tie-in paperback reissue (available both in the US and the UK) are pretty much guaranteed, one would think someone would have gone through the trouble of getting a decent translation done straight from the Polish. But the publishers couldn't be bothered and the author's concerns apparently don't count and readers ... well who gives a damn about the readers (certainly not publishers) ? Anyway: why not save yourself at least some trouble and read the original French translation .....
       (But you've got to love the publisher's chuzpah: Faber publishes it as a "Faber Classics"-edition, like it was something really fine and special, rather than a second-hand reworking that the author is embarrassed by ..... Yeah, publishers: gotta love 'em. And literature in translation -- yeah, they'll always go that extra mile to do that right ..... And despite all this publishers are surprised that literature in translation doesn't impress the book-buying public !)
       Lem obviously hasn't been ideally served by his English-language publishers, but at least a fair amount of his fiction is available (in some version). A surprising amount isn't, too -- see this partial list.
       For an (English) excerpt of a recent work, see A Challenging New World (from Okamgnienie (A Blink of an Eye)) at the Central Europe Review -- and see also Peter Swirski's review of the book.

       We regret not having any Lem (other than what's found in Swirski's Stanislaw Lem Reader) under review, but we're glad to see he's pretty well-covered on the Internet. Beside the official site, we can recommend Vitrifax: The writing of Stanislaw Lem, as well as Stanislaw Lem at The Modern Word

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

16 December 2002 - Monday

Ann Quin (and B.S.Johnson) | Light

       Ann Quin (and B.S.Johnson)

       With our review of Ann Quin's Passages we now have the complete quartet of Quin-titles under review. In addition, we now also have an author page for Quin.
       Dalkey Archive Press is responsible for rescuing Quin from almost complete obscurity, re-publishing all four Quin titles (and in the process making two of them available in the US for the first time ever); see their publicity page.
       Often lumped together with the slightly better known B.S.Johnson, Quin is an author of some interest. Her books can be considered to be mainly curiosities -- but they are worth a look. She had interesting ideas ("experimental", as one might say), and she had a nice ear for language.
       Meanwhile, B.S.Johnson does get a bit more attention -- though his books (now) aren't always as easy to find (especially in the US). And we're still waiting for the Jonathan Coe-biography to appear. But fans can look forward to (or submit papers for) Recovering the Truth ? B .S. Johnson and the 1960s/1970s World, a one-day conference scheduled for 22 November 2003 at London Metropolitan University (where Quin no doubt will also get a mention or two).
       (We're curious to see whether there will be much interest in our Quin-page; our B.S.Johnson-page ranks as the lowly second-most-unpopular of all our author pages (but there are several more useful B.S.Johnon sites which users probably refer to in greater numbers) and our Quin-reviews are also very rarely sought-out, so probably not .....)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -


       We also recently added a review of M.John Harrison's Light, an impressive work that deserves more attention than its science-fiction designation will probably permit.
       Yes, Light is "science fiction", but it's the kind of book that proves that such genre-designations aren't necessarily very revealing. Here's a writer who really knows how to write; that the book involves fantastic future-worlds doesn't change that. There aren't too many books we've read recently where the author's command of his material and the presentation has impressed us so.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

14 December 2002 - Saturday

Bellesiles' Bancroft rescinded | Omissions

       Bellesiles' Bancroft rescinded

       Emory University "historian" (at least until 31 December, when his resignation becomes effective) Michael Bellesiles won the 2001 Columbia University Bancroft Prize for his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Awarded for works of "impeccable scholarship" the Bellesiles book didn't quite make the grade, and the trustees of Columbia University voted to take it back. And they want the 4000 dollar cash prize returned too (though it's unclear whether they're demanding the accrued interest).
       Reports on this latest blow to Bellesiles' standing can be found in today's issue of The New York Times (in an article by Robert Worth), as well as an AP report by Hillel Italie published, for example, here in The Washington Post; no official press release is yet available at the Columbia University site, though it should be by Monday (update 16/12/2002: it's now available here) -- and note that Bellesiles' name hasn't been excised from this list of previous Bancroft winners.
       Arming America has stirred controversy from the get-go. The whole matter was investigated by Emory University, with the Investigative Committee's final report (only available in .pdf format) pretty much putting the last nail in the coffin.
       For other information about the book and the controversy see:
  • Bellesiles' Arming America page
  • Joyce Lee Malcolm's review in the January 2001 Reason (already arguing: "The controversial book Arming America has the facts all wrong").
  • Articles about the whole scandal in:
  • And, if you're still interested in reading the discredited book, you can buy it at:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -


       Just a few omissions that struck us over the past week:

       We complained a few days ago that the most recent issue of The New York Times Book Review was too heavily non-fiction weighted in its review coverage. Apparently 'tis the season for that: The New York Times managed not to review a single work of fiction all week. Usually they offer a review a day, and usually there's some sort of balance. This week there were admittedly only four reviews -- on Thursday the usual space was given over to some Janet Maslin Christmas gift book recommendations (all -- you guessed it -- works of non-fiction, generally of the very glossy kind) -- but one would have thought at least one work of fiction might have been deemed review-worthy over the course of the week.
       (Update 15/12/2002: The 15 December issue of The New York Times Book Review has full-length reviews of four works of fiction and one of poetry -- and 14 (!) full-length reviews of 15 non-fiction titles. For god's sake !)
       Possibly there are less new works of fiction being published in these final pre-Christmas weeks, possibly publishers are exerting pressure not to distract from the fiction blockbusters they've released over the last month -- but we don't think there is any excuse. There's so much fiction crying for (and deserving of) attention and it's just not getting any.

       Also: a week has passed since Imre Kertész's gave his Nobel lecture. Even we didn't immediately make note of it, only mentioning it a few days later. But we're stunned and surprised how little mention of it has been made anywhere. Most of our favourite book-related-weblogs, who often remind us of the obscurest prizes and literary happenings, completely ignored it. Similarly, we haven't seen mention of it (much less re-publication of the text -- as anyone is allowed to do) in any of the English-speaking newspapers we regularly consult -- some, surely, must have done it, but we haven't seen any. (Update 16/12/2002: Arts & Letters Daily did link to it today, which should help it reach a much larger audience.)
       Focus was, perhaps rightly, on former American president Jimmy Carter's words -- and all the winners in the sciences certainly were also completely ignored. Still, Kertész's speech seems worthy of a bit more attention .....

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13 December 2002 - Friday

Houellebecq and Kourouma translations

       Houellebecq and Kourouma translations

       Translator Frank Wynne was kind enough to let us know that his translation of Michel Houellebecq's controversial and much-discussed recent novel, Platform, will, finally, also soon be available to American audiences: Knopf has scheduled to release it June 2003 (at which point we do hope to finally get around to reviewing it). (The UK edition has been out for quite a while; Wynne's translation has also gotten a couple of mentions on various critics' book-of-the-year lists -- get your copy at (or get the original at

       Of interest also: Wynne's commitment to the works of Ahmadou Kourouma. We have all four of Kourouma's novels under review. The latest -- the Prix Renaudot-winning Allah n'est pas obligé -- remains unavailable in English, but Wynne reports that he will begin work on a translation (for Heinemann) early next year. Before that book appears, however, (English-speaking) readers are in for a greater treat, as Heinemann will first publish Wynne's translation of what seems to us to be Kourouma's best book to date, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages.
       That book actually has already been translated -- as Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals (see our review), by Carrol F. Coates (published by the University Press of Virginia in 2001), but for the UK edition Wynne is having another go at it. Kourouma's inventive use of language certainly allows for different translations (or, some might argue, defies all translation); Wynne reports specifically that he "felt that the US translation completely lost the Homeric quality of the voice". So we're curious to see another take on Kourouma's impressive fiction.
       If nothing else, the new British edition and translation might at least bring some well-deserved attention to Kourouma. The American edition of Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals has not attracted much review-attention and Kourouma remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world. (There is some interest out there, however: among the 36 author-pages we have, his ranked a respectable 24th in popularity last month -- ahead, surprisingly, of authors such as Geoff Nicholson, Geoff Dyer, and Harry Mathews.)

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12 December 2002 - Thursday

VL(non-)S book list | TextArc

       VL(non-)S book list

       The Village Voice used to publish a literary supplement -- the Voice Literary Supplement. Occasionally they still do. For a while, they published it on a monthly or almost monthly schedule, and what a nice thing that was -- fairly interesting, varied book coverage, and so much of it !. Now they don't even seem to be able to keep up a quarterly schedule. The Village Voice itself also offers book reviews most every week, but it's not the same -- and not as much.
       Tuesday night we visited the Voice-site and found: Voice Literary Supplement - Top Shelf - Our 25 Favorite Books of 2002. We looked forward then to picking up a copy of the Voice the next day and enjoying the full Supplement .....
       Yeah, right. There is a Supplementary list, but no Supplement -- and they've even been too lazy on their website to pretend the list belongs to the VLS and stick it on the actual VLS page -- go there and you'll still find the last edition without any mention of 25 favourites. (And, since they stuck the worthless list of books in the pages of this week's The Village Voice, they couldn't be bothered to actually provide any book or review coverage in that issue either .....)
       We're not huge fans of best-book lists -- and we cringe when they're called book-o'-the-year lists and are published before the year is actually done. The VLS list offers little descriptions of interesting titles (most of which we seem to recall have been previously reviewed in either the VLS or the Voice's pages). We suppose it's a nice reminder -- but really it's just a cheap way of filling space without providing any actual content.
       Since we're really ticked off at them we're going to rag on the list some more: on the Voice cover it is billed as "The Year's Best Books", while the list itself only claims to list "our favorite books". Which is it ? The two aren't the same, after all.
       Our favourite slip: in the table of contents they bill it as: "The best books of 2003" (which, though very premature, would at least be slightly more original and interesting -- we're sure Michael Kinsley, notoriously able to judge books without reading them, could have helped them pick some winners based merely on publishers' advance catalogue descriptions and authors he's overheard chatting at cocktail parties about their works-in-progress). Apparently they're skimping on both reviewers (no new reviews) and copy editors.
       In the table of contents the Voice describes their list as:
The best books of 2003 -- as determined by the Voice Literary Supplement's panel of secretive, verbivorous judges
       Well, if they're "verbivorous" then they must be a truly impressive panel whose choices are, no doubt, impeccable. After all: verbivorous !
       Funny, then, with such a panel that it looks like the list is largely restricted to books that have been previously covered in The Village Voice (or its occasional supplement). In fact, it looks like there weren't many (or any ?) judges, verbivorous or otherwise, either but rather just some editor who went through the list of reviews and book coverage from the past year, tossed in a few big or bad names that had been overlooked or forgotten, and picked twenty-five titles that s/he thought fit the Voice's image (throw in a couple of graphic novels, something mainstream (McEwan's Atonement, Stiglitz's Globalization and It's Discontents), don't forget the Voice standards (Gary Indiana, Juan Goytisolo, Lynne Tillman, etc.), don't forget some first-timer and there you have the pretty predictable list).
       Funny also how we hear here, about You Shall Know Our Velocity, that : "Eggers gives us the mausoleum of all hope and desire." As we recall, Joy Press, in her decidedly less enthusiastic Voice-review found: "Eggers's novel limps along, strangely static." (Apparently she wasn't one of the secretive, verbivorous judges for the year-end list .....)
       Finally: while we applaud the Voice making readers aware of Nigel Dennis' Cards of Identity and reviewing it (as we seem to recall they did a couple of weeks back, though we can't find it on their website) we maintain that a book that was first published in 1955 has no business being on a best-book (or even a favourite-book) of the year list in 2002. (Once you open that can of worms (including books published long ago -- even if you restrict it to those republished in the current year) you have to approach the whole list differently.)

       In conclusion: their time -- and the valuable newspaper space -- would have been better spent providing actual and new content. And they shouldn't have labelled it a VLS-list. And they should have considered more books when making the list. And so on.

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       TextArc is an interesting site which we only now came across. (The New York Times ran an article on it when it started up in April, and there has been some coverage since.)
       What is a a TextArc ? They try to describe it on their site:
A TextArc is a visual represention of a text -- the entire text (twice!) on a single page. Some funny combination of an index, concordance, and summary, it uses the viewer's eye to help uncover meaning.
       But you have to see it to get an idea -- and understand what one can do with it. We've only played around with it a bit, but we're pretty impressed and it will definitely be something we'll look at more closely. It also looks to be both fun and useful.
       Be warned -- the computer programme doesn't seem to have found universal favour (see this thread at Slashdot to read some problems people have had). For what it's worth: we didn't have any problems with it.
       For additional information check out articles at:
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11 December 2002 - Wednesday

Ficowski on Bruno Schulz | Kertész's Heureka ! | Non-readers | The horn curves back

       Ficowski on Bruno Schulz

       A book that's been getting considerable coverage recently is Jerzy Ficowski's 'biographical portrait' of Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz, Regions of the Great Heresy. (Not under review at the complete review at this time.)
       Of particular interest is Jaroslaw Anders' review in The New Republic (25 November; this review does not appear to be available online). It usefully informs readers of Ficowski's "lifelong and almost religious devotion" to Schulz, and the important role he has played in preserving Schulz's memory (and works). Anders suggests Ficowski might be considered to Schulz what Brod was to Kafka. One consequence of this, however, is that:
(T)he Schulz we have is distinctly Ficowski's Schulz -- his own version of a writer and an individual who, from the strictly factual standpoint, remains a puzzle, a subject of conjecture, hypothesis, and invention. Ficowski is not only the archaeologist of Schulz's life, he is also the creator of the Schulzian myth.
       Other reviews seem largely to have ignored and/or been unaware of this, focussing, if at all, only on Ficowski's devotion without considering all its implications.
       Interestingly, the associate literary editor from The New Republic, Ruth Franklin, also reviewed Ficowski's biography -- but in another publication's pages (see her piece on The Lost in this week's (16 December) issue of The New Yorker).
       (Other reviews that can be found online include Susan Miron's (in the 25 October Forward) and one at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore. (Other reviews include Michael Dirda's in the 8 December issue of The Washington Post, and one in the 3 November issue of The Los Angeles Times; fools who register at these sites may be able to obtain access to these reviews.)
       Other information can be found at W.W.Norton's publicity page for the book (and you can purchase Regions of the Great Heresy at in the US and in the UK).)

       The Schulz story is an oft-told one and should, by now, be fairly familiar. Oddly, despite the attention, and the frequent re-publication of his small books, he doesn't really seem to have caught on in the English-speaking world. (Maybe that's just our impression -- he never really caught on with us, and we don't, at this time, have anything of his under review.)
       Among the most interesting takes on Schulz is, of course, Cynthia Ozick's fictional one in The Messiah of Stockholm (see our review).
       Recently there was also some to-do about the ... (mis?-)appropriation of some of his artwork by an Israeli museum. (In her review Ruth Franklin suggests: "The murals' disappearance, though, was strangely appropriate.") For more on that fun affair see:
  • The Yad Vashem statement on how they see things ("As Bruno Schulz was a Jewish artist -- forced to illustrate the walls of the home of a German SS officer as a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust, and killed by an SS officer purely because he was a Jew -- the correct and most suitable place to house the wall paintings he sketched during the Holocaust, is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem", etc.)

  • A letter to the editors of The NY Review of Books (29 November 2001) about the mural-appropriation, signed by some two dozen scholars -- and then the reply by Aharon Appelfeld and others (along with a response from the original letter-writers) (23 May 2002).

  • An article in The Guardian (2 July 2001)
  • An article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (German)
       And for more on Schulz, see:
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       Kertész's Heureka !

       Nobel laureate Imre Kertész's Nobel lecture, Heureka ! is now available at the Nobel-site..
       Kertész addresses the old writerly question:
For whom does a writer write, then ? The answer is obvious: he writes for himself. At least I can say that I have arrived at this answer fairly straightforwardly. Granted, I had it easier -- I had no readers and no desire to influence anyone. I did not begin writing for a specific reason, and what I wrote was not addressed to anyone. If I had an aim at all, it was to be faithful, in language and form, to the subject at hand, and nothing more. It was important to make this clear during the ridiculous and sad period when literature was state-controlled and "engagé".
       Which is something we can appreciate. A concern remains, however: that the creation will now be lost and ignored in a different way, as image (Kertész's, in this case) overwhelms text. It happened, in a very different way, with Bruno Schulz (see above), whose texts seem (at least to us) completely overwhelmed by the image that has been created of the man/writer. Kertész now lives with the burden of the million-dollar prize, identified first and foremost as 'Nobel laureate' rather than being a distant figure somewhere behind what is truly significant -- his books. We worry that, now in a different sense, he will continue to have "no readers" (which he can probably live with but seems a shame, since his work looks like it would be worth reading).
       In the English-speaking world the situation is compounded by the fact that Kertész's works remain largely inaccessible (only two novels been translated, and no doubt university press Northwestern is having trouble keeping even those in stock) while a fair amount has been written about him -- first and foremost as an Auschwitz survivor. Again: the texts are relegated to decidedly secondary status, while personality and the weight of that awful history are at the fore.

       (The latest addition to the complete review is Patricia Fara's Newton: The Making of Genius -- demonstrating very clearly how Newton's image has been twisted over the centuries. Everywhere we turn: image is all, reality nothing. Everywhere. Everywhere.)

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       A curious piece by John Allemang in the 7 December Globe & Mail, The secret life of non-readers (link first seen at Arts Journal). It discusses, at quite some length, people who:
(...) don't read. Not the real stuff anyway. We are, as the experts like to say with a horrified sense of wonder, aliterate -- able to read, and read well, but disinclined to do so.
       The aliterate masses are, of course, all about. We're always surprised how few people actually read many books (and occasionally, sitting in a subway car for example, surprised by how many do ...).
       This aliteracy is foreign to us. Some of its consequences -- literature isn't considered to be important, not enough books are published, not enough foreign literature translated, etc. -- bother us, but if people don't want to read we wouldn't want to force them to. We find it hard to think of reading as per se a superior activity -- and a lot of reading (tackling the latest James Patterson ...) surely is no less edifying than watching daytime television. ("Reading is held up to us as an undeniable good" Allemang writes, which might explain why it scares some off.) And yet we don't understand how so many people can fail to see the wonder and pleasure of reading a good book .....
       (And, yes, examples such as "Eric, a young publishing executive who is a literary underachiever and proud of it", who, over the past five years, "reckons he has read a total of five books" do worry us a bit .....)

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       The horn curves back: J.F.Walker reacts to Michael Kinsley

       We've mentioned -- several times -- Michael Kinsley's admission that he only judged the National Book Award non-fiction contenders but didn't actually read most of them. In that column he made fun of one book by title (though he did not mention the author's name): A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola by John Frederick Walker.
       Walker has now responded to "Kinsley's 'cheap ridicule'" at Poynter Online (no direct link; scroll down to entry of 12/9/2002 3:00:47 PM). (Walker sent us an e-mail making us aware of this mention; see also Jessa Crispin's comment at Bookslut.)
       While we agree wholeheartedly that Kinsley's dismissal of Walker's book (and all the others he dismissed without even cracking their spines, as he proudly noted) is completely unacceptable we do find it hard to stifle a giggle at his 'cheap ridicule'. Readers will recall he wrote:
You tear open the next shipping envelope and out comes, A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola. Once again: No offense intended to the author of what may be a brilliant book. But the title seems designed to repel invaders rather than welcome visitors.
       Kinsley may have a point (it really is an off-putting title, for those who care about such things) -- though, of course, the point should be that the title should be of no interest or concern to Kinsley: he was hired to judge the National Book Award, not the National Title Award.
       Walker's somewhat unfocussed response to Kinsley tries to suggest what might be interesting about A Certain Curve of Horn -- which is largely beside the point. Even Kinsley acknowledges it "may be a brilliant book", after all; the problem is he couldn't be bothered to find out whether it was or not.
       Walker also mentions the good reviews he received, and suggests that "You can read the reviews in full on Grove/Atlantic’s website." This does not appear to be true: the Grove/Atlantic publicity page appears to offer nothing more than the the usual radically edited (and therefore essentially useless and/or misleading) review-quotes.

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