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The Literary Saloon Archive

11 - 20 March

11 March: Sam Tanenhaus to take over NYTBR | 3 AM issues | Hooke biography | Amis needs a publisher ? | Declining to review Cloud Atlas
12 March: la Martinière profile | Schiffrin in France | German bookselling | An American Boy appears as An Unpardonable Crime | Liquidation coverage | Yet another World Book Day ? | Literary Calcutta
13 March: Richard Ford | More popular dead than alive | Word power | de Bernières profile
14 March: Translation in China | Crumey on Mitchell | Mahfouz reviews | Kraus CD and other commentary
15 March: Scottish National Theatre | Bioethical reading matter | Reviewing foreign literature | Blurbs | Guy Davenport review
16 March: Japanese fiction in translation | Asian reading | Scottish and Canadian literature abroad | Orange Prize longlist | Nigerian literary situation
17 March: Sam Tanenhaus preview | New Isegawa novel -- sort of | Grolier Poetry Book Shop | Cheltenham preview
18 March: Hungarian writers and associations | Arab world ready for Frankfurt ? | Another bookstore closing | Marias on Faulkner | Carmen Laforet
19 March: Salon du livre | French book buying habits | The Confusion is coming ! | Double Vision review
20 March: New Peter Singer book | Samuel Johnson Prize longlist | Jewish Book Week | David Edgar profile | Michaux review

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20 March 2004 - Saturday

New Peter Singer book | Samuel Johnson Prize longlist | Jewish Book Week
David Edgar profile | Michaux review

       New Peter Singer book

       We only heard about it now, but Peter Singer's new book, The President of Good and Evil, sounds like it's of interest. The US edition is subtitled: The Ethics of George W. Bush (the junior Bush and ethics ?), the British edition: Taking George W. Bush Seriously. Hard to believe, but Singer actually tries to do that -- take the junior Bush seriously, or at least at his word -- and then apparently shows what has long been obvious: that what he practises bears little resemblance to what he preaches.
       Early reviews include Mike Holderness' in the New Scientist, Duane Davis' in the Rocky Mountain News, and Colin McGinn's in (the registration-requiring) The Washington Post.
       Davis writes:
Singer steps up to this barrel of fish with a 12-gauge shotgun and scores hit after hit. By the time you finish the book, you're surprised by two things: that you're starting to feel sorry for Bush and that Singer has managed to make bashing Dubya the most boring spectator sport this side of golf.
       McGinn, meanwhile, describes the book:
The bulk of the book is a litany of moral inconsistencies and failures, of persistent hypocrisy and doublethink. Singer's method is to contrast Bush's enunciations of principle with the realities of his policies, finding repeatedly that political expediency triumphs over declarations of principle. The list is by now familiar, but worth assembling.
       He also suggests:
Bush does seem sincere enough in his moral opinions, contrary to an entirely cynical interpretation of his words and actions, but there is an impression of callow simple-mindedness in his moral sentiments; at the least, he has not thought through the complexities of the issues he is called upon to deal with.
       In yesterday's issue of the Harvard Crimson Daniel Hemel writes about a Singer-event, introducing the book, Singer Challenges Bush's Ethics. He quotes the philosopher:
"One of his strongest campaign planks was that he was going to be an ethical leader," Singer said. "That was crucial in getting him elected -- or whatever word you want to use."
       Planks ? Surely he meant: pranks.

       See also the Granta publicity page, or get your copy at or

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Samuel Johnson Prize longlist

       The longlist (23 books !) for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2004 has been announced. John Ezard offers an overview in yesterday's issue of The Guardian.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Jewish Book Week

       Jewish Book Week is over, but Miriam Shaviv offers a round-up in The Jerusalem Post.
       A nice feature: the Jewish Book Week Online Archive -- currently only the 2003 sessions ("transcripts, audio files and additional background information"), but more to come.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       David Edgar profile

       John O'Mahony offers an in-depth profile of playwright David Edgar.
       (See also our reviews of Edgar's plays Pentecost (always a popular review at this time of year) and The Shape of the Table.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Michaux review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Henri Michaux's account of his experiments with mescaline, Miserable Miracle.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

19 March 2004 - Friday

Salon du livre | French book buying habits
The Confusion is coming ! | Double Vision review

       Salon du livre

       It's Salon du livre time -- the big Paris book fair, with Chinese literature (sans the obvious, Sino-French Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian -- see our previous mention) as the focus.
       There's lots of French coverage: see Olivier Delcroix on La Chine à Paris in Le Figaro, as well as any number of articles at Libération, Le Monde, and L'Express.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       French book buying habits

       So much for the great cultured nation: barely one in two out of ten thousand French 15-and-overs surveyed by TNS Sofres -- just 54 % -- reported having bought at least a single book in the past year.
       The average number of books bought: 7.5 (up slightly from the previous year), total average spending on books: € 84.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Confusion is coming !

       Actually, it came: we were very pleased to receive an advance reading copy of the second volume of Neal Stephenon's The Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, yesterday. Due out 1 April in the UK (pre-order at and 13 April in the US (pre-order at, there hasn't been quite the same buzz about this book as there was about volume one, Quicksilver (though it already has a decent
       We're tempted to get right to it, but it'll probably be two weeks or so before we do. It does look tempting -- presented this time as two novels, Bonanza and The Juncto (following the adventures of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, respectively, the one literally around the world, the other in Europe), Stephenson not presenting them one after the other but rather explaining:
I have interleavened sections of one with sections of the other so that the two stories move forward in synchrony. It is hoped that being thus con-fused shall render them the less confusing to the Reader.
       We'll see.
       And it's a mere 815 pages !

       Meanwhile: the Baroque Cycle site could certainly use some updating -- but at least there's a bit of information at the HarperCollins publicity page for the book.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Double Vision review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Walter Abish's new self-portrait, Double Vision.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

18 March 2004 - Thursday

Hungarian writers and associations | Arab world ready for Frankfurt ?
Another bookstore closing | Marias on Faulkner | Carmen Laforet

       Hungarian writers and associations

       Not much English-language coverage, but there's been considerable ugly turmoil at the Hungarian Writers' Union recently. Nobel laureate Imre Kertész already left the organisation in 1990 because of the tolerance of the expression of anti-Semitic sentiments, but now a much larger group has followed suit: 84 authors, including György Konrad, Péter Esterházy, and Péter Nadas have resigned from the 1200-member strong organisation following controversial remarks by the not so well-known Kornél Döbrentei (and the decision by the union not to condemn those remarks).
       A Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty report puts it: Anti-Nationalist Hungarian Writers Dump Literary Association (scroll down for story), noting that:
Most of the members of the group belong to the "urbanist" school of writers. (A divide dating back to late 19th century separates Hungarian intellectual life into "populist" promoters of national values and traditions and "urbanist" supporters of Western values and modernization.)
       (And people complain about the culture wars in the US .....)
       The report also states:
Hungarian Writers Association President Marton Kalasz responded to the mass defection by saying he is "tired of seeing the organization being slandered before the general public with charges of anti-Semitism and other fallacious presumptions." (...) Konrad said the leadership has shown itself to be unworthy of its tasks.
       Another report, in Ha'aretz, discusses the recent escalation in the dispute, noting that: Anti-Semitic Hungarian author to get 'alternative' literary prize. Yes, Dobrentei: "is set to receive the 'alternative' Kossuth Prize (.....) awarded by a rightwing organization and intended as an ironic counter to the official award."

       There's been good coverage of this in the German press. Of particular interest (links first seen at Perlentaucher):
        - György Dalos explains that this was Kein Ausrutscher in the Frankfurter Rundschau.
        - Istvan Eörsi's opinion piece in the Berliner Zeitung, Keine Zeile gelesen, in which he also explains why he is all for the dissolution of this organisation. He writes, inter alia:
Der Verband hat insgesamt 1200 Mitglieder, von denen ein großer Teil nicht wegen seiner literarischen Verdienste, sondern wegen patriotischer Gesinnung oder aus Kameraderie aufgenommen wurde. Die meisten dieser 1200 Leute können meines Erachtens nicht nur nicht schreiben, sondern auch nicht lesen.

(The association has a total of 1200 members, of which a large portion were accepted not because of their literary talents, but rather due to their patriotic disposition or out of camaraderie. In my opinion, most of these 1200 members can not only not write, but can't read either.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Arab world ready for Frankfurt ?

       The Arab world is "Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2004". As we've mentioned, there have been some efforts to prepare for it - but in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Lebanese writer and editor Hassan Dawud wonders: Verschläft die Arabische Liga ihren Auftritt ? (link first seen at Perlentaucher).
       Apparently, of the 22 Arab League states only four or five have put up the required money so far, raising only about one-fifth of the necessary $ 3,000,000.
       Dawud notes there has been little coverage or discussion in the Lebanese media about what might be done at Frankfurt and the possibilities it offers, and that there have been neither any suggestions for cultural activities nor any official book lists from which one could select what books might be translated.
       The situation in the other Arab League states is apparently little better.
       We hope they get their act together.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Another bookstore closing

       We mentioned yesterday that the Grolier Poetry Book Shop is probably closing, and several readers inform us that yet another Boston-area independent, Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, is giving up after 29 years.
       Their site offers some explanation of the circumstances (theirs specifically, and the independent plight in general). And, for the vultures (what the hell): "A general 50% off sale will commence Thursday, April 1st"

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Marias on Faulkner

       Among the few offerings from the spring issue of The Threepenny Review available online is Javier Marías on William Faulkner on Horseback.

       (See also our reviews of Marías The Man of Feeling and Dark Back of Time.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Carmen Laforet

       Carmen Laforet, best known as author of Nada (which does not appear to currently be in print in English translation), passed away 28 February.
       English-language obituaries can be found in The Independent (18 March, by James Kirkup) and The Guardian (5 March, by Michael Eaude).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

17 March 2004 - Wednesday

Sam Tanenhaus preview | New Isegawa novel -- sort of
Grolier Poetry Book Shop | Cheltenham preview

       Sam Tanenhaus preview

       As expected, The New York Observer offers the first in-depth profile of Sam Tanenhaus and what he might do at/with The New York Times Book Review, as Rachel Donadio offers: Oh, Sam Tanenhaus: New Cerebral Boss Takes Book Review (link will only last through next Tuesday).
       We don't care that much what his political leanings might be (though we are a bit concerned about the Red Scare fascination much of his previous work suggests), but we are concerned about his attitude towards fiction -- and it doesn't sound good:
Mr. Tanenhaus said he would re-examine the Book Review’s approach to fiction, which he said had long been "the great conundrum of the Book Review." And while he has no plans to abandon fiction -- contrary to the fears of many in the publishing world -- his enthusiasms seem to lie more in nonfiction. "We’re living in really an exemplary age of nonfiction narrative, and to some extent nonfiction has taken over some of the earlier attributes of the novel, which is story-telling," he said. "Nonfiction writers have inherited the classic technique of fiction. That’s what I tried to do in my biography, I tried to write it as if it were a novel."
       Nope, it doesn't sound good at all.
       Also disappointing; no indication whatsoever of a more worldly outlook or awareness than currently on offer at the NYTBR.

       Hey, it's still far too early to tell -- he hasn't even taken over yet -- and we keep our fingers crossed, but the signs aren't great.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       New Isegawa novel -- sort of

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Moses Isegawa's novel, Snakepit.
       Knopf just brought it out (and it will be published in the UK in November) -- but it's not exactly a brand new book. Though apparently originally written in English by the Ugandan author (and now Dutch citizen), it first appeared -- in Dutch -- in the Netherlands in 1999. It was even published in German and French translation long before any English-language edition came out.
       Usually we'd find this really outrageous; given that it's simply not that good a book we can sort of understand it -- though one would have to guess that it would have at least stood a better chance of selling well had it been released closer on the heels of Isegawa's debut, the impressive Abyssinian Chronicles (now it's been almost four years since that came out in the US (also after first appearing in Dutch)).
       In her Times Literary Supplement review of Abyssinian Chronicles (20/10/2000), Annmarie S. Drury wrote (and Knopf quotes in a blurb on the back-cover of Snakepit):
At this novel's conclusions, the lingering question concerns what more its gifted author might have to tell us.
       Snakepit, unfortunately, seems a somewhat misguided effort, and the question remains open; we're not ready to give up on Isegawa yet -- Abyssinian Chronicles impressed enough to assure that we'd seek out whatever follows -- but it would be nice to see what he's been doing lately.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Grolier Poetry Book Shop

       In yesterday's Harvard Crimson Claire Provost writes that Grolier Book Shop To Close.
       The Grolier Poetry Book Shop has had financial difficulties before and they:
had originally planned to close the store last January but media coverage of the store’s closing brought a boost in sales.
       So maybe there's hope this time around again -- though with "as few as 20 customers per day" the odds don't look great.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Cheltenham preview

       In today's issue of The Independent there's a preview of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, When politics is brought to book. Sounds like it might be of interest.
       The Cheltenham Festival of Literature runs 2 to 4 April; see their official site for additional information.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

16 March 2004 - Tuesday

Japanese fiction in translation | Asian reading | Scottish and Canadian literature abroad
Orange Prize longlist | Nigerian literary situation

       Japanese fiction in translation

       There was yet another nice profile of new publisher Vertical, this time in The New York Times, where Motoko Rich offered an article maintaining that "Now That Japan Is Cool, Its Fiction Seeks U.S. Fans" yesterday.
       Along with old standard-bearer Kodansha International (which recently published much-discussed books like Murakami Ryu's In the Miso Soup and Kirino Natsuo's Out (which we hope to review eventually -- and which Vintage will bring out in paperback, Rich notes)), as well as not to be overlooked Tuttle, Vertical offers yet another much-needed outlet for Japanese fiction. They've done a good job getting online reviews (we've covered several of their titles (Suzuki Koji's Ring, Yamada Taichi's Strangers, Ekuni Kaori's Twinkle Twinkle, and Kitakata Kenzo's Ashes), and others (including Bookslut) regularly review them), but, despite some nice profiles of the publishing house, they've gotten little mass-media review coverage.
       We're thrilled that Rich offers some Nielsen BookScan data to tell readers how the books are doing -- Ring, for example, has sold 7,900 copies, while Twinkle Twinkle managed just 130. (Remember that BookScan totals do not count all sales.)
       We're looking forward to the forthcoming Vertical titles; it'll be interesting to see whether the books catch on.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Asian reading

       The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival (yes, that's 'Man' just as in the Man Booker) ran 8 to 14 March, with a decent line-up of authors (including David Mitchell and Pankaj Mishra), but the only story getting much circulation now that it's over is an Agence France-Presse report. One variation, at eTaiwanNews finds: Books lose out in Asia to more 'attractive' entertainment, such as karaoke, movies -- noting that a recent survey in Japan found that even there: "48 percent of 1,869 people surveyed in October had read no books in the past month". The situation in Hong Kong is apparently also problematic:
"People are only interested in popular literature such as self-help books or bestsellers by someone like Stephen King or John Grisham," she said. "If you want to buy slightly older, good literature, you won't be able to find it."
       A variation on the AFP report can be found at the Straits Times, 'Can don't' attitude in Asia towards reading. We assume it was the newspaper that added this to original AFP report:
In sharp contrast, Singaporeans are passionate readers, a habit instilled in them by a highly competitive school system.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Scottish and Canadian literature abroad

       Two articles look at regional English-language literature trying to make a mark abroad: in yesterday's issue of The Scotsman Tim Cornwell and Craig Brown find that Literary stars far from lost in translation, while in the 13 March Globe & Mail Rebecca Caldwell writes: Fact: Canadian fiction, a hard sell ? (the latter link first sighted at numerous other weblogs).
       Cornwell and Brown find that: "Scots literature is enjoying a new found international popularity with a boom in foreign translations". Also:
The Scottish Arts Council has this year seen unprecedented pressure on its £30,000 annual budget for supporting translations. About 15 publishers from 13 countries have recently applied for help in translating 21 novels, plays and poetry collections by Scottish writers.
       Meanwhile, Caldwell finds lots of Canadian authors and agents are disappointed that they aren't being more eagerly sought out abroad.
       Caldwell's article is of particular interest because it recounts another wonderful example of publishing foolhardiness (i.e. business as usual). Canadian author Marie Macdonald apparently had a great Oprah !-success with her book Fall On Your Knees, and then:
Macdonald received a reported $1-million (U.S.) advance for her subsequent novel, The Way the Crow Flies, in a flashy, record-making deal secured at last year's London Book Fair by Andrew Wylie, the agent provocateur in the literary world. But sales of The Way the Crow Flies never quite took off. Although it was a bestseller here, only 24,000 copies have sold in the U.S. since its release last September, according to Nielsen BookScan.
       (Like we said, we love those BookScan numbers.)
       Apparently it got a similarly outrageous UK advance, and flopped similarly completely. The thing is, 24,000 copies isn't bad at all -- it would be phenomenal for a so-called literary book, or a book in translation. But if the publisher paid a $1-million advance, well, they're giving the author over $40.00 per unit sold (there's a royalty rate !) -- not to mention what they spent on marketing, etc.
       Y'all know we understand nothing about the publishing biz -- at least the mystifying business side of things -- but, yet again, we have to note that surely everyone would agree that this is not a sound business model.
       Think what a publisher could do with that money if they hadn't given it all to this woman for her only modestly salable book -- think of the translations they could have paid for, the publicity they could have given their deserving literary titles, etc. etc. -- all of which might actually have also made them some money.
       Point of comparison: in the article on publisher Vertical mentioned above, Rich suggests the whole company was formed with an initial investment of a mere $800,000. Point of comparison: the Scottish Arts Council has an annual budget for supporting translations of a trivial £30,000 (see above) -- but that seems to be paying bigger dividends.
       Amazingly, publishers continue to insist on making these mega-advances, for no sane or plausible reason -- and then continue to complain about their low rates of return on investment. Sorry, like the blurbs on the backs of their books, we no longer believe a word of what they have to say (and are, in fact, stunned that any of them are still in business).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Orange Prize longlist

       The longlist for the women-writers-only Orange Prize has been announced. Twenty books strong , and not a one under review at the complete review.
       For additional coverage, see stories in yesterday's issues of The Guardian and the Evening Standard, and today's issue of The Independent.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Nigerian literary situation

       Mcphilips Nwachukwu's Style, the Nigerian writer and other narrative merits.... in Sunday's issue of Vanguard (story first seen at offers a good overview over the current Nigerian literary situation and some of the issues writers and literary culture there face.
       So, for example:
In the development of a healthy literary culture in a country, we cannot ignore the importance of literary discourse and criticism. But I dare say that serious literary criticism or critique is today in danger of extinction in Nigeria and we must urgently reposition ourselves to ensure that this vital element in our national literature is re-invigorated

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

15 March 2004 - Monday

Scottish National Theatre | Bioethical reading matter | Reviewing foreign literature
Blurbs | Guy Davenport review

       Scottish National Theatre

       Scotland's National Theatre-project is moving along now; see press releases and articles at Scottish Executive and The Scotsman. A board has now been named: see the press release, which includes board-member-biographies.
       More interestingly, playwright David Greig (who we've been fans of since his early play, The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union) offers a manifesto for Scottish drama, Our New National Theatre ... Like An Elephant Let Loose Upon The Machair, in yesterday's Sunday Herald.
       The article seems to be cut off half-way through point seven ("This means", it ends, without telling us what); still, some interesting thoughts about theatre-making in general (and in that environment in particular) make it worth a look.
       Somewhat disturbing: his belief (also point seven) that: "Scotland does not have the population to be able to maintain a commercial theatre outside the panto season." Can that possibly be true -- or is it just a reflection of British (or even European) theatre culture, which is so much a subsidy culture that anything else (outside the West End) is unthinkable ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Bioethical reading matter

       First: didn't we mention this last April ? But for some reason it's gotten a lot of attention the past week: both The New York Times (13 March, Edward Rothstein) and the Weekly Standard (issue of 22 March, Gregory Feeley) review Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics. (Maybe because it's out in book form now ? But it's been available on the Internet for a year now .....)
       Rothstein says it: "may be the most unusual document ever produced by any government panel", while Feeley wonders: "can literature offer wisdom in the sense the volume's editors wish readers to find it ?" (Feeley also mentions: "The quality of the translations is erratic.")
       We sort of like the idea of literature being used to think about matters such as this; unfortunately, however, other issues concerning the President's Council on Bioethics are, at the moment, of greater concern.
       As Rothstein mentions (without properly going into the facts), recent changes in the Board's composition are very disturbing (though at this point one hardly expects anything better from this closed-minded administration that knows exactly what it wants to hear and disregards the rest, the truth (and the consequences) be damned).
       In particular, Elizabeth Blackburn's removal is troubling; see Timothy Noah's useful (and link-filled) Slate-article, Leon Kass, You Silly Ass ! (8 March). At least she didn't go quietly. As Reuters reported Friday, Spurned Researcher Sounds Off About Bioethics.
       Her article from the 1 April issue of The New England Journal of Medicine is already available online (only in pdf format, but still worth the hassle). She notes: "not one of the newly appointed members is a biomedical scientist", and concludes:
There is a growing sense that scientific research — which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth — is being manipulated for political ends. There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of advisory bodies and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports. As a naturalized citizen of the United States, I have an immigrant’s love for my country. But our country must not fail us. Scientific advice should and must be protected from the influence of politics.
       One wonders how long it will take the next administrations to undo the damage done by the junior Bush and his cronies.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Reviewing foreign literature

       Unsurprisingly, The New York Times Book Review remains essentially utterly indifferent to literature in translation: this week they manage only a brief 'Crime' mention of a Brazilian novel and a 'Books in Brief'-review of the admittedly worthy Irma Kudrova's non-fiction account of The Death of a Poet. (what with a mere 4 full-length reviews of fiction titles there's not much to go on anyway (though they do manage a whopping 7 full-length reviews of 9 non-fiction books, plus 6 non-fiction titles covered by 'Books in Brief'-reviews)).
       Compare that with the stunningly cosmopolitan selection in this Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle .....
       Or consider Andrew Ervin's look at Lost in Translation (The Journal News, 14 March), where he at least has a quick look at four titles that are certainly of some interest, Murakami Ryu's In the Miso Soup, Jacques Jouet's Mountain R, Qian Zhongshu's Fortress Besieged, and Vicente Huidobro's Altazor (which we've desperately been meaning to review, but which they won't send us a copy of). And this 'Journal News' (apparently situated in exotic if obscure Westchester), which we'd never heard of, even offers more extensive coverage of Jouet's novel: Harvey Pekar reviewed it 4 March.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -


       Regulars at the Literary Saloon are familiar with our contempt for blurbs; in the Telegraph there's yet another article on this terrible phenomenon, Authors admit faking blurbs on 'dire' books (link first seen at Bookninja).
       Unfortunately, despite these admissions of outrageous malfeasance and false advertising, it does not appear the authorities are willing to prosecute. So much for consumer protection laws .....
       Our recommendation is, of course, that you only read blurbs for their entertainment value. So sad is the state of affairs in publishing that only a fool could trust anything printed on the back cover of a book.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Guy Davenport review

       Guy Davenport is an author we figure would appeal to us, and we've had a stack of his books, waiting to be read, for years. But somehow we've never managed to make our way through them.
       A sometime reviewer for Harper's recently, it is now his new collection, The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writings that is reviewed in the April issue (by Wyatt Mason; not available online). "Two thirds of The Death of Picasso is devoted to Davenport's stories in the Fourierist vein", Mason says, and though we don't like selected and collected editions that certainly makes this collection sound even more up our alley (we're suckers for the whole -- as Barthes put it -- Sade - Fourier - Loyola (etc.) line of obsessive thought). So maybe we'll have a look.
       The volume is brought out by Shoemaker & Hoard (who, as we had occasion to mention just a few weeks ago, also brought out David Markson's new novel, Vanishing Point); see their publicity page, or get your copy at or
       And for some amusement, see Davenport's response to Irvin Ehrenpreis' 12 December 1974 review of Tatlin ! in The New York Review of Books (a review which, Mason notes, found: "People who desire an easy method of learning the anatomy of the genitalia may find these stories valuable."), where he writes:
Except that he says so, I would not otherwise have known from Prof. Ehrenpreis's review that he was airing his inept, feeble, and illiterate response to my stories.
       Lots of fun !

       (Note: Davenport also writes: "I have endured twenty-six reviews of my book Tatlin ! in stoic silence", and it's that statement that bring the tears to our eyes. Twenty-six reviews for Tatlin ! ! Talk about lost worlds ..... Where is the literary culture that allowed for that ? We often maintain that we think things are pretty much as bad as always, but this belies that notion. A quarter of a century -- and many honours and much recognition -- later, Davenport is unlikely to get anywhere near that coverage for The Death of Picasso. Damn.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

14 March 2004 - Sunday

Translation in China | Crumey on Mitchell
Mahfouz reviews | Kraus CD and other commentary

       Translation in China

       Xinhuanet reports on Chinese translation issues: Publishers balance translation speed, quality to fight against pirates.
       How very different from the translation-phobic English-language markets:
China's translation market has an economic potential of 12 billion yuan (1.5 billion US dollars), of which the country's 3,000 translation companies can only handle one-tenth, the Beijing News newspaper reported.
       Pirated translations sound less than ideal, as -- beside not giving the author his/her due -- "Translators omit many parts of the book if they don't understand them" (though we suspect that happens in translations into English too, even when done by supposedly bona fide translators ...).
       At least there are additional bureaucratic layers dealing with this sort of thing:
In December 2003, the State Commission for the Administration of Standardization issued a set of voluntary standards for translation services, defining the responsibilities of translation service providers.
       Still, it's sort of heart-warming to see such a demand for translated literature that people go to all these length, even the illegal ones.

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       Crumey on Mitchell

       David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is being reviewed all over the place (except at the Telegraph; see this mention). Generally reviews have been most favourable, but Andrew Crumey isn't quite so impressed in Scotland on Sunday, where he writes:
Scratch the surface and the virtuoso style peels away to reveal little underneath.
       He finds:
Mitchell shows himself in Cloud Atlas to be a highly gifted stylist and a writer of considerable intelligence and imagination. It is a pity that his baggy monster of a book is so much less than the sum of its parts, since many of those parts are truly excellent.

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       Mahfouz reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of two books by Naguib Mahfouz, the faint Echoes of an Autobiography and the impressive novel The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.

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       Kraus CD and other commentary

       Last fall we mentioned a CD-ROM edition of Karl Kraus's Die Fackel.
       Andreas Weigel makes us aware of his in-depth reviews of this and other CD-ROMs of interest (Arno Schmidt, etc.), as well as additional literary coverage (on Joyce, Kraus, Schmidt, Joseph von Westphalen, and Hans Wollschläger, among others) at Andreas Weigels virtuelle Nebenerwerbs-Germanistik. Yeah, it's in German -- but well worth a look.

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13 March 2004 - Saturday

Richard Ford | More popular dead than alive | Word power | de Bernières profile

       Richard Ford

       Richard Ford is having some fun in Oceania. Set to appear in Sydney as a guest of the Sydney Writers' Festival (which does things year-round, it seems, since the festival isn't for a couple of months yet), he's travelling around in that area and has nice things to say about back home. As Malcolm Knox reports in today's issue of The Age, he's apparently The man who calls Bush a moron:
When the US State Department designated a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as a "cultural ambassador", it probably did not plan for him to go around the world calling his president a "moron" who governs an "evil empire". Nor did it expect him to boycott Israel because of US foreign policy, nor to warn Australia that its culture would be "gobbled up" by a free trade agreement.
       We're not sure about his cultural ambassador status (the only State Department acknowledgement we could find was his piece wondering: How Does Being an American Inform What I Write ?), but it sounds like he's doing a fine, forthright job of it.

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       More popular dead than alive

       In today's issue of The Independent, in some article about yet another attempt to promote poetry (the 'Next Generation Poets promotion'), Louise Jury offers some of the impressive statistics:
About 96 per cent of poetry bought in the UK is by dead writers, fewer than 30 of the poets published by the eight major publishers are under 40 years old, and the value of sales has fallen by 15 per cent in the past five years.
       On the other hand: things probably can't get any worse.

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       Word power

       Today's issue of The Guardian offers edited extracts from Gail Rebuck's speech at the Guardian World Book Day Forum last week. She thinks there's some hope for the future of the book ..... (But, as chairman and CEO of The Random House Group isn't exactly a disinterested party.)

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       de Bernières profile

       Louis de Bernières new book is coming out this year, and so there has been (and will continue to be) lots of coverage. Boyd Tonkin's profile in today's issue of The Independent seems to cover most of the points of interest.

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12 March 2004 - Friday

la Martinière profile | Schiffrin in France | German bookselling
An American Boy appears as An Unpardonable Crime
Liquidation coverage | Yet another World Book Day ? | Literary Calcutta

       la Martinière profile

       A few months ago we mentioned French conglomerate La Martinière's takeover of literary house Éditions du Seuil. Now The Bookseller offers a profile of the man behind the company, Hervé de la Martinière.
       "All along, he has shown considerable chutzpah", etc. etc. But he has a point (though our guess is he's making it for the wrong reasons) that the Vivendi-Hachette merger is also an outrage.

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       Schiffrin in France

       The right guy to weigh in on publishing consolidation -- in France and elsewhere -- is, of course, André Schiffrin (whose book on The Business of Books was published in French (in slightly different form, as L'édition sans éditeurs) before it came out in English). So in yesterday's issue of Libération Ange-Dominique Bouzet talks to him about "la situation parisienne"

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       German bookselling

       It doesn't sound like really good news: in The Bookseller Anja Sieg reports from Germany: top 100 booksellers perform well in 2003.
       More book sales is a good thing, but that's not what happened: "Sales in the book trade as a whole were down by 2.4% in 2003, following a 2.8% drop in 2002." But the big retailers -- the equivalents of Barnes & Noble, W.H.Smith, and ... WalMart -- bucked the trend in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland:
According to a survey compiled by trade magazine Buchreport, the largest 100 book retail companies in the three markets beat the economic slump. The total sales of the top 100 grew by 5.8% to €2.8bn (£1.88bn), and their market share climbed to 26.6% from 23.9%.
       Meaning the small independents are getting squeezed there too. And all this is even before there is widespread price-competition (discounting of any sort is still tough to do in these markets).

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       An American Boy appears as An Unpardonable Crime

       Andrew Taylor's An American Boy (see our review) appeared in the UK last year. Now it finally is out in the US too -- but under a new title: An Unpardonable Crime. We're not sure what the reason for the change is; presumably the publishers are just toying with readers for the hell of it.
       Taylor's book -- whatever you want to call it -- did win the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger 2003; copies we've seen in bookstores have a sticker to that effect stuck on the cover. The more creative idea -- a little dagger stuck through the book -- apparently proved unworkable.

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       Liquidation coverage

       We reviewed recent Nobel laureate Imre Kertész's Felszámolás a while back.
       Knopf is bringing it out in English translation (possibly even directly translated from the Hungarian ...), as Liquidation, but only in October; see what little there is to their publicity page -- but that hasn't stopped Shmuel Thomas Huppert from reviewing it in Ha'aretz (coyly avoiding the whole translation-question while still claiming to be reviewing the not-yet-existent Knopf edition).
       Meanwhile Actes Sud actually has brought it out in French translation: see their (also unimpressive) publicity page and one of the early reviews, in Le Figaro.

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       Yet another World Book Day ?

       We mentioned last week that World Book Day was being celebrated on 4 March in the UK and Ireland -- and on 23 April (as World Book and Copyright Day) in the rest of the world.
       The New York Times, however, ran a tiny (and lazy) piece in yesterday's paper, in Lawrence Van Gelder's "Arts Briefing", proclaiming (in it's entirety):
Today is World Book Day. According to the BBC, accountants read more than anyone else, averaging five hours a week. Secretaries are next. Members of the clergy are least likely to be found with a book.
       So, apparently, 11 March is also World Book Day -- even if only at 229 West 43rd Street (though, as we've said before: every day is World Book Day here at the complete review). Hey, it's the paper of record, right ? So they must be right.

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       Literary Calcutta

       In today's issue of The Independent Boyd Tonkin writes that Calcutta's English-language tradition shows no sign of fading.

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11 March 2004 - Thursday

Sam Tanenhaus to take over NYTBR | 3 AM issues | Hooke biography
Amis needs a publisher ? | Declining to review Cloud Atlas

       Sam Tanenhaus to take over NYTBR

       As has been widely reported, Sam Tanenhaus was named to take over The New York Times Book Review (on 1 April ...) yesterday. (We assume the announcement was timed this way so that The New York Observer, which comes out Wednesdays, would have to wait a week before they could sink their teeth into this story.)
       Early mentions and commentary can be found at weblogs: Maud Newton, About Last Night, Return of the Reluctant, Collected Miscellany, and Beatrice, along with comments at The Elegant Variation (and expect many more to weigh in).
       News reports include The New York Times' press release and Bill Keller's memo (10 March; it's on top now, but presumably you'll eventually have to scroll down to find it).

       We have no idea who this guy is (of course, we don't really have much idea who old NYTBR head Chip McGrath is either). Bill Keller's memo assures:
Though he has made his reputation in non-fiction, Sam's M.A. from Yale was in English literature, and in our interviews we've found him to be an avid reader and incisive critic of serious fiction. To anyone who might have fallen for the notion that we were looking to dumb down this precious franchise: take that !
       Keller's gloating seems premature; the proof will be in the pudding (or rather: in the fiction coverage at the NYTBR), and we still have our doubts.
       There's not that much in the online domain to help get a better idea of the man and his interests: his work at The New York Review of Books and Slate is, however, worryingly American- (and Red scare-) obsessed. (Yeah, he recently reviewed some Updike, but he also wrote stuff like Hello to All That (on "The irony behind the demise of the Partisan Review").) Throw in the fact that he spent a couple of years in the Times' Op-Ed department and he looks very much like a guy who might agree with Keller's belief that: "The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world (.....) Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction."
       Of course, Tanenhaus the writer/thinker can't be equated with Tanenhaus the editor, and there's always hope that he's actually a fan of fiction, or vaguely aware that there's a world beyond the US (where they even write books in foreign languages ...) -- or that he at least knows how to delegate to people who do have an idea about such things (though one wonders whether there are any of this sort on the current NYTBR-staff, since we certainly haven't seen much evidence that there might be in recent years). But we are hoping for the best, and do, of course, wish him well.
       Oh, and if he really wants to endear himself to us, and get off to a great start, he can do that by retiring the god-awful annual waste of valuable book review space that is the baseball-issue of the NYTBR (see our complaint from last year) right along with Chip (but we suspect that Tanenhaus will take over too late into the season -- and, anyway, it would be a fitting last non-fiction-focussed issue for McGrath to foul his way out with).

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       3 AM issues

       3 AM magazine has been online for ages now, providing excellent literary coverage. A while back a UK tabloid launched a gossip column page, 3 AM, -- and they've now decided to spin it off into a full-fledged magazine called ... 3 AM. As Owen Gibson reports in The Guardian, Mirror's 3am spin-off faces legal challenge, as the real 3 AM is challenging this ridiculous upstart. Good for them !
       For additional information about the tabloid, see Brand Republic's bulletin, Trinity Mirror launches magazine unit with 3am offshoot (26 February), and Bill Hagerty wondering Can a new celebrity pull-out stabilise the Mirror's wobbles ? in The Independent (9 March).

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       Hooke biography

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Lisa Jardine's book on The Curious Life of Robert Hooke.
       (We were not aware -- until we read it in the book -- that Ms. Jardine (a recent ManBooker judge, too) is the daughter of Jacob Bronowski.)

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       Amis needs a publisher ?

       A fun article in today's issue of The New York Times (which we were first made aware of at Moorish Girl (where you can find a link to it, if you need it)) is Hugo Lindgren writing: Publishers, Note: Novelist Available. Martin Amis' contract with Miramax -- apparently a three-book deal signed in 1998 for around $ 850,000 -- is done with, and while Miramax publicist Hilary Bass is quoted as saying: "our relationship with Martin is extremely happy, and we expect it to continue" it's hard to believe they'd blow more money on this guy.
       As we have repeatedly mentioned: we just can't believe Amis comes anywhere near to earning in his advances, and the books under this contract seem to have been resounding duds:
According to Nielsen BookScan, through the first week in March Yellow Dog has sold 10,200 copies in the United States, a figure that trade-book editors say is very low for a writer of Mr. Amis's stature.
       (BookScan doesn't count all book sales, but a gives a good, rough idea of sales.)
       Stature sells ? Unfortunately only to publishers, who overpay for crap books because of the author's name (amazingly, Lindgren's article suggests there may well be a bidding war of sorts if Amis shops around for his next contract). Amis gets a lot of publicity (because of his name and a lingering reputation), and he's written some good books -- but come on, Tibor Fischer had it right from the beginning: Yellow Dog is a poor piece of work.
       Lindgren writes:
The contract called for three books, and Mr. Amis did one better than that. But the three that preceded Yellow Dog were not expected to be big sellers because of their less marketable genres and subject matter. The extra book was a short work of nonfiction about Stalin, Koba the Dread, published in 2002. There was also a memoir, Experience, in 2000, which received strong reviews, and The War Against Cliché, a collection of essays, in 2001.
       We don't know why these were expected not be big sellers (except the essay-collection -- though that's the best of the lot). Koba the Dread surely had some promise -- except that Amis again did a poor job of it --, and Experience was surely of interest to all Amis fans (whether of fils or père)
       As we often repeat, we understand nothing about the publishing business, but paying someone more than they make for you seems foolish, and this is what Miramax seems to have done with Amis. (The idea that a big name like his in the publisher's catalogue is some sort of great loss-leader is simply unfathomable to us.) Amis deserves to be published (well, maybe not Yellow Dog -- at least in this form; they should have spent some of that advance on an editor), but he's obviously getting more money than he's worth.
       Amis' agent (the infamous 'Jackal') tries to twist things to his client's advantage, arguing:
"Writers like Martin always sell over time," Mr. Wylie said. "Scott Fitzgerald was broke when he died, but his publisher has done very well."
       Aside from the fact that Fitzgerald isn't really comparable, we wonder about the idea that: "Writers like Martin always sell over time". Martin, too, has recently repeatedly talked about how what matters is posterity -- the really long term (since he apparently isn't looking too impressive over the short-term any longer) -- but, as we have repeatedly pointed out: you never can tell. Dad Kingsley, twenty years ago, likely would have been put in that same category, as everyone surely thought he'd "always sell well over time" -- yet there's almost nothing of his even left in print in the US.
       Publishing is a business that (theoretically) rewards success: if your book sells well you get royalties, a nice cut of each additional copy sold. That's a pretty good system. But advances that are far in excess of what an author can earn back (as, so our impression, has been the case with Amis in the US at least since The Information) screw that system up mightily. Which is why we hope Amis gets what he deserves for his next contract -- a nice mid-five-figures per book sounds about right. And if we underestimate him and his next book actually sells more than 20,000 copies, he won't be any worse off, as he gets to rake in those nice royalties.

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       Declining to review Cloud Atlas

       David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has gotten lots of review coverage in the UK (and good reviews at that), but Mark Sanderson explains (second item) that the Telegraph will not be covering the title:
(W)e have a policy of not reviewing books which the reviewer has found unreadable. Our reviewer, Harry Mount, found Mitchell's work impossible to finish: "Cloud Atlas is wilfully confusing and impenetrable (....)"
       As Mount did manage to review Helen Fielding's Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination last year one knows he's willing to put up with quite a bit, but Mitchell apparently defeated him.

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