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The Literary Saloon Archive

21 - 28 February 2011

21 February: McEwan picks up Jerusalem Prize | The Anarchist Cookbook and its author, forty years later | H.M.Naqvi Q & A | Blue Has No South review
22 February: Tahrir Book Fair | Exploring Happiness review
23 February: Censorship in China | Elif Shafak on Turkey | LA Times Book Prize finalists | Chick-lit in ... South Africa
24 February: Fan the flames of negative publicity ! (?) | Festival of New French Writing | Chinese fiction abroad | Fiction in ... Pakistan | The Information review
25 February: Iraq Literary Review | Vertical take-over | E-books in ... Russia | Bookselling in ... Iran
26 February: 'Officialdom fiction' ? | JQ Wingate Prize shortlist | Looking ahead in Egypt | Site news: odds and ends | Arriving in Avignon review
27 February: Arnošt Lustig (1926-2011) | Ivor Indyk profile | The Alice behind Wonderland review
28 February: Moacyr Scliar (1937-2011) | Miguel Syjuco Q & A | Time for Outrage ! review

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28 February 2011 - Monday

Moacyr Scliar (1937-2011) | Miguel Syjuco Q & A | Time for Outrage ! review

       Moacyr Scliar (1937-2011)

       Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar has passed away.
       Several of his novels are under review at the complete review:
(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Miguel Syjuco Q & A

       At Florence Pia G. Yu has a Q & A with Ilustrado-author Miguel Syjuco, in Inspiring interaction with Miguel Syjuco.
       The novel he is working on, he reveals:
It's about corruption and power in third-world countries. And celebrity, which to me is just another form of power.

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

       Time for Outrage ! review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of nonagenarian Stéphane Hessel's mega-bestselling mini-essay, Indignez-vous !, now available in English as Time for Outrage ! (the bestselling title -- by far -- in France in 2010, and still ranked number one at the French Amazon (and the German one, too)). It apparently appears -- in full (it's extremely short) -- in the current (the 7-14 March 2011) issue of The Nation in the US.
       I'm curious to see how it does in the English-speaking lands (and I'm a bit baffled why it's done so well in France: content-wise this is piss-poor stuff, though admittedly the story/author behind the book makes for a pretty good story).

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

27 February 2011 - Sunday

Arnošt Lustig (1926-2011) | Ivor Indyk profile
The Alice behind Wonderland review

       Arnošt Lustig (1926-2011)

       Czech author (but longtime US resident) Arnošt Lustig has passed away.
       See, for example, this 2001 interview at Central Europe Review, or Arnošt Lustig at books and writers.
       Most of his work has been translated into English, but little of it seems readily available; Northwestern University Press brought out quite a lot of his work -- see, for example, their publicity page for The House of Returned Echoes, or get your copy at

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

       Ivor Indyk profile

       In The Australian Miriam Cosic reports that Incandescent Ivor Indyk turns down the heat, as the Australian has put out his last volume of the influential journal, HEAT.
       A fairly interesting and impressive career -- and interesting to learn that his brother Martin is a former US ambassador to Israel and now a Brookings Institution vice-president.

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

       The Alice behind Wonderland review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of the prolific Simon Winchester's new monograph, The Alice behind Wonderland.

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

26 February 2011 - Saturday

'Officialdom fiction' ? | JQ Wingate Prize shortlist | Looking ahead in Egypt
Site news: odds and ends | Arriving in Avignon review

       'Officialdom fiction' ?

       In The Guardian Tania Branigan finds Wang Xiaofang exposes world of Chinese bureaucracy, as:
Personal ambition, political intrigue and detailed renderings of the country's land management system fuse in the unlikely literary phenomenon known as "officialdom fiction"

Wang is king of the genre, -- general secretary might be more apt -- having sold 3m copies of catchily titled works such as Director of the Beijing Reception Office.
       English-speaking readers will apparently soon get a taste, as Penguin will apparently be publishing his A Civil Servant's Notebook later this year (no Amazon listings yet).
       Before you get too excited about this new genre: Bai Ye, of the Literature Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, cautions:
people aren't reading officialdom novels for literary merit. The first group of readers are interested in news-related literature. The second are those who plan to become officials. They are reading them to get tips, to be prepared.
       But Wang thinks pretty highly of what he's done:
He prefers to talk art, not politics, dropping in references to Goethe and Italo Calvino and comparing himself to last year's Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. "He created some new literary structures and so did I. He talks about corrupt officials and so do I. I don't feel he is any better than me," Wang observed.
       Okay .....

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

       JQ Wingate Prize shortlist

       They've announced the shortlist for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize -- "now known as the JQ Wingate Prize".
       Only two titles under review at the complete review:
(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Looking ahead in Egypt

       In Al-Ahram Weekly Rania Khallaf finds: 'Egyptian artists and writers have different visions for a new Egypt, expressing various wishes for an ideal new society', in Cultural visions for a new Egypt.

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

       Site news: odds and ends

       A few complete review odds and ends:

       - Google announced two days ago at their official blog that they've tuned (or rather: overhauled) their algorithm, claiming now that they're Finding more high-quality sites in search, as:
in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking -- a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries -- and we wanted to let people know what's going on. This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites -- sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites -- sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.
       Apparently the complete review is exactly the kind of "low-quality site" that is "just not very useful" they were targeting, as search result positions have plummeted for most of the review-pages at the site.
       They note:
To start with, we’re launching this change in the U.S. only; we plan to roll it out elsewhere over time.
       Searches drive most (ca. 80 per cent) of the traffic to the complete review, and Google is responsible for the overwhelming majority of that traffic (over 92 per cent in 2010), so any 'Google dance' has a profound effect on the number of visitors to the site. While daily traffic fluctuations make it difficult to say precisely what the immediate impact was, it appears that, despite only affecting US searches, traffic was immediately down some 10 per cent at the site.
       I would figure that the complete review's review-pages -- providing not only original content (my reviews, however dubious their value ...) but also links to and quotes from other reviews, as well as links to any and all other information about the books that I can find would be among the most useful pages for any given book-search. But I suppose that can also be interpreted as "low-value add for users", as linking to and summarizing other reviews is algorithmically deemed a major negative. (Google's page-rank system rewards sites that get lots of in-bound links; few complete review review get many (or, indeed, any), and now, apparently, are heavily penalized for aggregating links outward -- go figure.) In any case, most complete review reviews now show up far, far down on even the most targeted Google-searches.
       [Just to get a bit self-righteous: surely my review-page for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 is among the most useful non-Japanese ones currently available (certainly better than what Wikipedia has on offer), yet it barely breaks the top fifty results in a search for 1Q84 murakami; surely the review-page for The Yacoubian Building is a useful starting point for anyone interested in the title -- but a search for yacoubian building alaa al aswany doesn't even find it in the top hundred (add the 'the' and it comes in as about the 70th result ..... Etc., etc.]
       Obviously I'm not even remotely objective in judging where the complete review's reviews should appear in search results, but I do note that in collecting links for forthcoming reviews Google's new search results have proven considerably less useful than previously. Maybe this algorithm works for the big search-picture; for the small book-information picture it seems to have fallen pretty flat -- frustrating all around (well, all around what I do, i.e. both in finding links, and then making it easy for interested readers to find the reviews of the books they're looking for).
       Maybe they'll fine-tune it in the coming weeks, but I'm not counting on it.
       [(Updated - 27 February): I appreciate and am glad to see the interest in the above post; I'm curious whether other sites will report similar issues. Few other book sites provide a similar mix of content, links, and quotes as are found at the complete review -- but, as I mentioned, results for book-review and -information searches that I've conducted for upcoming reviews via Google have also not been quite as ... efficacious as they were before this new algorithm was launched.
       Differentiating between 'content-farms' -- clearly the main target of the new algorithm -- and more useful sites (as I like to think the complete review is) apparently isn't quite as simple as Google figures .....
       Meanwhile, traffic continues to be down about ten per cent -- and considerably more from US visitors (which makes sense if the Google algorithm is only working for the US region for now). I'll let you know how things develop (or deteriorate ...).]
      [Updated - 3 March: See now my next discussion of this issue.]

       - In Blogging Hegemonies anonconfidential kindly takes a closer look at the Literary Saloon -- though finding: "the lack of visual merit dissolves any essential blogging authority that derives itself from the interesting posts". (I know, I know -- and that site-upgrade (or at least slight polishing) will happen some day ... though as I always say: content is what counts, appearance shouldn't matter .....)

       - Ever want to read our Editorial Policy in Belorussian ? Okay, I've never had a request for that; nevertheless, Martha Ruszkowski has kindly taken it upon herself to provide a Belorussian translation. Enjoy !

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

       Arriving in Avignon review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Daniël Robberechts' 1970 Arriving in Avignon -- an author that's a nice little discovery from Dalkey Archive Press.

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

25 February 2011 - Friday

Iraq Literary Review | Vertical take-over
E-books in ... Russia | Bookselling in ... Iran

       Iraq Literary Review

       At the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa they post issue number one (of what, I hope, will be many) of the Iraq Literary Review (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) -- a promising start, and a great idea.
       As editor Sadek R. Mohamed writes about the journal:
Its main aim is to be fully engaged in charting out the contemporary Iraqi literary scene and translating it into English. It will also be engaged in observing what goes on in the Arab and World literary circles and bringing it to Iraqi English readers and the whole Anglophone at large.
       Sounds good.

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

       Vertical take-over

       In Publishers Weekly Calvin Reid reports that Kodansha, Dai Nippon Acquire Vertical Inc.
       Vertical had an impressive start, but as of late their focus has been less on fiction and more on manga (and cookbooks ...); as Reid notes:
Although Vertical has always received high praise for its mix of contemporary literature, the publisher has been chronically undercapitalized and has sometimes struggled on the financial side. "We've done well going directly to authors for licenses but now we can work with Kodansha and Dai Nippon to get better licenses as well as the printing and production advantages DNP offers. And DNP is also looking to get its publishers more access to the U.S. market. Otherwise nothing has changed: quality books are the key to what we do."
       I hope the backing allows them to pursue more fiction again -- they've brought out quite a bit of worthwhile stuff (most of which is under review at the complete review), and there's a lot that remains to be translated.

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

       E-books in ... Russia

       At the weird Rossiyskaya Gazeta supplement at The Telegraph (what the hell is that about -- except, I guess, sponsorship money ...) they report that Russia's e-book boom is a page-turner.
       What struck me:
Oleg Naumenko, 29, the Ukrainian entrepreneur who launched the best-selling Pocketbook e-reader, realised that a product designed for the Russian-language market could profit from the huge number of free (pirated) files on the internet without infringing copyright laws.
       I am not too sure about the idea that they're not infringing upon copyright laws ..... But interesting (and clever) to realize there was enough content already freely (if not legally) available to make for demand for an e-reading-device.

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

       Bookselling in ... Iran

       At Reuters Ramin Mostafavi reports that Booksellers of Tehran falling on hard times -- in particular as:
The cuts in long-standing subsidies on essentials like fuel and food do not directly affect books, but cuts to some $100 billion of annual subsidies which have kept prices artificially low for decades, is having a knock-on effect on demand for books, store owners and customers say.

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

24 February 2011 - Thursday

Fan the flames of negative publicity ! (?) | Festival of New French Writing
Chinese fiction abroad | Fiction in ... Pakistan | The Information review

       Fan the flames of negative publicity ! (?)

       In The Stanford Daily Jenny Thai reports that Bad publicity may boost book sales.
For lesser-known or new authors, bad publicity may actually be good news. According to a recent study co-authored by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Alan Sorenson and Wharton Business School professor Jonah Berger, B.A. ’02, Ph.D. ’07, bad reviews can dramatically boost sales.
       The paper is: 'Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase Sales', published in the 9-10/2010 issue (vol. 29, no. 5) of Marketing Science; see the abstract, where it is noted:
Whereas a negative review in the New York Times hurt sales of books by well-known authors, for example, it increased sales of books that had lower prior awareness.
       See also what is apparently the draft version (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) -- then still under the title: 'Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: Can Negative Reviews Increase Sales ?'
       Among the surprising findings: "reviews have a causal effect on sales" (really ? the anecdotal evidence that comes to my ears and eyes is almost uniform in suggesting at best an almost negligible causal effect).
       But, of course, the fun finding is that for books (and other products) that are un- or little-known, bad publicity is, indeed, good publicity -- leading the authors to suggest:
Though producers of major motion pictures or highly anticipated books might want to attempt to deaden negative press, smaller producers might want to allow, or even fan the flames of negative publicity.
       I look forward to seeing what the reactions to these findings are (and I look less forward to all those unknown authors soliciting bad reviews ...).

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

       Festival of New French Writing

       The Festival of New French Writing runs from today through Saturday in New York, with quite a few interesting authors lined up.
       Multiple books by several of the visiting authors are under review at the complete review:
(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -

       Chinese fiction abroad

       In Bought to book, in the Global Times, Wu Ziru reports on the recent China-UK Literature Translation Forum, which: "Eight editors from imprints such as Random House, Little Brown and Atlantic attended".
       Among the observations:
But it is no easy task for a publisher to pick out a writer whose works would likely be welcomed by British audiences.

With different cultural backgrounds, Chinese and British audience have different appetites.

The novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong was a widely cited example of the cultural gap between the two countries. With millions of copies sold in China, the book sold less than 10,000 copies when Penguin released it in the UK.
       It's a book I do hope to get to eventually (I have a copy), but honestly, I'm surprised it's sold that many copies ..... (Get your copy at or
       It's still hard to shake the feeling that, as far as Chinese literature goes, US/UK publishers have no idea what they're doing and/or getting themselves into. (Of course, I can't shake that feeling re. most foreign language literatures that US/UK publishers deign to consider (or are hoodwinked into ...) publishing ...)

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

       Fiction in ... Pakistan

       In Dawn Shehryar Fazli writes on the English-speaking tongue -- and that:
A great Pakistani novel doesn't have to be Great Pakistani Novel. But the mere possibility of the question is exciting enough. The joy of a robust literary life, and a robust national literature, is that it builds a vocabulary and body of knowledge that honours the ambiguities of life, language, human relations, motives.
       It's been a pretty good year for Pakistani literature -- and such pieces are encouraging, suggesting things might continue to develop well.

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

       The Information review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.
       This should -- deservedly -- do well. It's a very good read.

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

23 February 2011 - Wednesday

Censorship in China | Elif Shafak on Turkey
LA Times Book Prize finalists | Chick-lit in ... South Africa

       Censorship in China

       Murong Xuecun (慕容 雪村) was recently prevented from giving his acceptance speech at a Chinese literary prize, but he delivered a version of it at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club yesterday, and Time prints the whole speech, on the Absurdities of China's Censorship System.
       He notes:
I am not angry; I am just describing my situation, because I believe it is certainly not just my situation, but the situation faced by all of China's writers. And the fear I feel is not just the fear felt by one writer, but by all of our writers. Unfortunately, I have dedicated great effort to the task of compiling this 'sensitive words glossary,' and I have mastered my filtering skills. I knew which words and sentences had to be cut, and I accepted the cutting as if that was the way it should be. In fact, I will often take it on myself to save time and cut a few words. I call this 'castrated writing' -- I am a proactive eunuch, I have already castrated myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.
       (This is, of course, a familiar problem, for writers through the ages, under all sorts of systems that forced either censorship or self-censorship on them.)
       Murong also said:
The only speakable truth is that we cannot speak the truth. The only acceptable viewpoint is that we cannot express a viewpoint. We cannot criticise the system, we cannot discuss current affairs, we cannot even mention distant Ethiopia. Sometimes I can't help wondering: Is the Cultural Revolution really over ?
       (Murong's Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu has been translated into English; see the Allen & Unwin publicity page, or get your copy at

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

       Elif Shafak on Turkey

       Turkish (but sometimes English-writing) author Elif Shafak has an op-ed in today's issue of The New York Times, finding Finally, Turkey Looks East, as she notes that until recently:
Paris, London and Moscow seemed closer in spirit to Istanbul than Cairo was. We saw our own writing as part of European literature, even as our country waited and waited to become a full member of the European Union.
       Amazingly, Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy apparently "wasn't widely available in Turkish until 2008".
       She suggests, however, that Turkey has shown that there's hope for the (now revolutionary) Arabic-speaking states:
A society with a multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious empire under its belt and 80 years of experience as a constitutional republic, Turkey has managed to create its own passage to democracy, however flawed.
       (Meanwhile, Shafak is also featured in this week's Small talk-column by Anna Metcalfe in the Financial Times.)

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

       LA Times Book Prize finalists

       The fifty finalists (five each in ten categories) for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes have been announced.
       Predictably enough, only a single one of these titles has been reviewed at the complete review -- Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen.

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

       Chick-lit in ... South Africa

       In The Times (South Africa) Kate Sidley has a Q & A with Moky Makura, Love in Africa.
       They discuss Nollybooks Bookazines™:
a series of easy-to-read, chic-lit romance fiction titles with South African storylines and characters that reflect the lives and aspirations of the people who will read them.
       Each 'bookazine™' apparently has the look and feel of a book, but also: "elements of a magazine, such as word puzzles, a celebrity interview", as well as a glossary and "a page of discussion points for book clubs". No sex, however .....
       Makura notes the inexpensive volumes, sold in magazine sections, are geared towards young women who might be intimidated by book stores (and book prices ...), and suggests:
We see these books as a stepping stone to the world of reading.
       Sounds like it's worth a try.

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

22 February 2011 - Tuesday

Tahrir Book Fair | Exploring Happiness review

       Tahrir Book Fair

       They understandably never quite managed to hold the Cairo International Book Fair as planned this year, but it's great to see that the American University in Cairo Press has now announced that they plan to hold 'The Tahrir Book Fair' in its stead -- and they're planning on doing so at the end of March already. A welcome return to further normalcy !
       See also Marcia Lynx Qualey's report in Al-Masry Al-Youm, One book fair closes, another one opens.

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

       Exploring Happiness review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Sissela Bok's book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science.

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

21 February 2011 - Monday

McEwan picks up Jerusalem Prize
The Anarchist Cookbook and its author, forty years later
H.M.Naqvi Q & A | Blue Has No South review

       McEwan picks up Jerusalem Prize

       Ian McEwan picked up the Jerusalem Prize as the Jerusalem International Book Fair has now opened.
       No copies of the actual speech that I could find, so far [updated: the text can now be found here], but there are now numerous press reports, some of which quote extensively from it -- and it appears McEwan took the occasion to voice some criticism all around.
       See, for example:        (Updated - 26 February): See now also McEwan's criticism appears hypocritical, a letter with numerous signatories published in The Guardian.

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

       The Anarchist Cookbook and its author, forty years later

       In Newsweek Tony Dokoupil profiles William Powell, author of the 1971 classic and bestseller, The Anarchist Cookbook, in Sorry About All the Bombs.
       (It's still selling well, too; get your copy at

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

       H.M.Naqvi Q & A

       Home Boy, by H.M.Naqvi, recently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (see my previous mention), and in The Hindu Ziya Us Salam finds out from the author that 'It's a lonely vocation'.
       Naqvi reveals:
In the four years it took to complete the novel, however, I made about $11,000, net of taxes. I lived below the poverty line.
       And in response to a question about the "reverse brain drain to Pakistan" of "well established writers coming back home", Naqvi says:
I don't have empirical data on the matter. I can, however, speak for myself. I returned because I had no money. In any event, there's no place like home.
       (Get your copy of Home Boy at or

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

       Blue Has No South review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Alex Epstein's collection of very short stories, Blue Has No South

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

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