Archive for December, 2004

Of Tsunamis

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

Since Saturday, I’ve been trying to figure out what a proper response would be to the disaster currently unfolding in South Asia. I type something, erase it, start over. I can’t think of a ‘proper’ anything-no response, no word, no feeling seems quite adequate. I struggle to find reference points, ways in which the catastrophe could be anchored, compared, examined. But I was not yet born when Agadir trembled. I have only vague memories of television images of Armenia. And Bam was knocked off the news within 48 hours. But this. This is different. The magnitude of the horror seems so great, so unbelievable that no natural disaster of modern times seems to compare. As I write this, the toll is believed to be 80,000, and is expected to climb with the spread of disease.

Most of the 80,000 victims are Asians, of various nationalities, religions, and ethnic backgrounds, though if you were watching CNN you’d think it was mostly tourists who’d been hit. Is the suffering of brown people so common, so habitual, so expected, that we only notice it when Westerners are involved? Perhaps we only notice pain when it has a face like ours, hair and eyes and skin the same as ours.

One thing has been amply demonstrated since the turn of this new century: even as we insulate ourselves, we’re not as remote as we think we are. Connections are there, whether we acknowledge them or, at our peril, deny them. The humanitarian toll of the earthquake and tsunami is only now beginning to be counted, but the economic and political consequences are not likely to be known for quite some time. If you haven’t done so already, consider making a donation to the Red Cross or Red Crescent or UNICEF or any other charity. Or you can go to tsunamihelp which is a clearinghouse of donation numbers, survivor info, tips, and images.

hokusai.png I haven’t been able to write since the weekend. I’ve been reading, but mostly I’ve been day-dreaming, thinking about the significance of this, how it relates to religious belief, and how it relates to art. Amateur video is being replayed on TV, but the image that I can’t seem to shake from my mind is from a print by Hokusai, In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa, with the tentacle-like curls of the wave, the fishing boats caught inside it, and Mount Fuji in the background, cold and distant, unaware of the horror beneath.

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Brief Hiatus

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Like many of our noted blogging pals, we’re going to take a break here at Moorishgirl until the first week of January. We’ll be using the time off to mull over some changes to the site and put the final touches on new features. See you all in 2005.

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The Awkward Dead

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

A few days ago I mentioned the novel that Zapatista leader Sub-Comandante Marcos is co-authoring with Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo, and which is being serialized in the Mexican paper La Jornada. The Guardian has translated a portion of the extracts.

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Bye Bye Library?

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Last week, Google announced its plans to partner with major libraries in order to give access to millions of books to its users. The plans raises issues of copyright, and yesterday’s editorial at the NY Times spelled them out:

At the outset, this project will be limited to books that are old enough to no longer be under copyright. This is as it should be. It will serve as a demonstration of the immensity – and the immense cultural value – of works in the public domain, and could well kindle a new appreciation of the significance of the public domain.

Beginning with older books will also give Google, the libraries and book publishers time to sort out the problem of creating a comprehensive digital library of books that are currently under copyright. As always in negotiations over intellectual property, the trick will be to balance public utility, corporate profits and the welfare of writers, scholars and editors, and to do so, if possible, without the intervention of Congress.

While I’m all for digitizing information and propagating it by the simplest means possible, I’m also concerned that some people on Capitol Hill might use this as a further excuse to cut funding for libraries.

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The Case for the Sarcasm Point

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Over at Slate, Josh Greenman makes his case for sarcasm punctuation.

The English language must evolve. Not with emoticons or lol or brb or l8r or GRATUITOUS all caps used for emphasis, not with Spanglish or bumbling Bushisms or even cryptic Kerryisms. We don’t need more quotation marks that “hedge” or try to make the same “old” thing sound “fresh.” What we need is an honest effort to incorporate the way we live today. My fellow Americans, we need to embrace a new punctuation markone that embraces the irony and edge of contemporary conversation and clarifies rather than condenses or confuses.

It is time for the adoption of the sarcasm point. Why the sarcasm point? We have a mark that conveys that we mean or know something. We have one that says it with volume and force! We have one that communicates that we don’t know something, don’t we? We need one more: to do for language what shade did for drawing, what color did for television, and what eyebrows did for expressions introduce finesse.

Believe it or not, the world we’ve landed in is not only more image-obsessed than we’ve ever seen. It’s also more text-based than ever. We finger-type and we thumb-type. We e-mail, we IM, we blog. And the forms cannot contain the content. There’s a dastardly disconnect. Among other things, it makes Dave Barry columns somewhat difficult to read. Someone must step into the sarcasm chasm

George Bernard Shaw would be so proud

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Take That, OFAC

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

The Association of American Publishers is offering grants to publishers interested in releasing three Iranian novels in translation here in the U.S.

The association announced recently that it would give $10,000 each to publishers who would release “The Drowned” by Moniru Ravanipur, “The Empty Palace of Soluch” by Mahmoud Dawlatabadi and “Christine and Kid” by Houshang Golshiri. Money would be divided among translation costs, promotion and publicity.

“We got the idea a few years ago when some Iranian writers visited the United States and complained that works from Iran were not available in translation,” Jeri Laber, a human rights activist and consultant to the association’s International Freedom to Publish Committee, said Monday.

The grant is funded by the Open Society Institute, which is part of billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s foundation.

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Jean Harfenist Recommends

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

weeds.jpg “I regularly give away copies of Weeds by Edith Summers Kelley,” Harfenist says. “It’s an old book (first published in 1923) about the daughter of a tobacco tenant farmer in 1920s Kentucky and it’s the unblinking, outspoken story of a superior young woman trapped by her body and her culture. With the emotional accuracy of Sister Carrie‘and without a sniff of sentimentality or self-pity’ it triggers something so strong that readers either love it or hate it. And that’s the sign of a book worth reading.”

harfenist.jpgJean Harfenist’s novel-in-stories, A Brief History of the Flood, received wide critical acclaim when it appeared in 2002. Michiko Kakutani called it “wonderfully wry-melancholy,” and declared it “an auspicious and stirring debut.” Harfenist is a native of Minnesota, a graduate of New York University, and now lives in Santa Barbara with her husband.

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From Movies to Books

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

First, it was filmmaker Neil Jordan, who went back to his literary roots in October, with a novel titled Shade.

That same month, filmmaker John Sayles also reconnected with his early work, this time with a collection of short stories titled Dillinger in Hollywood: New and Selected Short Stories.

Now filmmaker Alan Parker has also released a book, this time a historical novel titled The Sucker’s Kiss.

What next? A children’s book by Tim Burton? Oh, wait, that’s already been done.

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Bloggers’ Favorites

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

Newley Purnell rounds up some bloggers’ favorite books of 2004, including picks by Lizzie Skurnick (The Old Hag), Mark Sarvas (The Elegant Variation) and yours truly.

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Garrett in Review

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

Paul Mandelbaum, who provided one of the book recommendations in the Tuesday series, has a new book out, a collection of short stories titled Garrett in Wedlock, and it’s reviewed in the L.A. Times.

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Moorishgirl In India

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

Over at the Business Standard, Nilanjana Roy has a nice Op-Ed about OFAC, titled: The fatwa that almost was:

Over the last few months, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, an offshoot of the US Treasury Department, almost succeeded in doing what only the most stringently-controlled dictatorships have managed. They came close to shutting down free speech and crippling the right of writers to be heard.

Their weapon of choice was red tape rather than the religious fatwa, but if OFAC’s amendments to the regulations had gone through, it would have had just as chilling an effect on dissident writing. (…) Dissident writers cannot afford to lose the chance to be heard in the US; it took a battle to ensure that they didn’t lose this chance, but hey, the righteous won.

But too many of us are conscious of how close this could have been. It took the combined efforts of half-a-dozen influential US publishers, eminent academic institutions, a writers’ movement and a Nobel Peace Prizewinner’s lawsuit to get OFAC’s laws overturned.

Roy is also kind enough to mention Moorishgirl and my own take on the bloody mess.

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Rushdie Profile

Monday, December 20th, 2004

A full profile of Salman Rushdie in the Hindustan Times offers the usual tidbits about the icon’s life and work, the infamous fatwa, turbulent love life, and numerous honors. But for my money, nothing beats Kitabkhana’s report on the Rushdie reading in Delhi.

So the Babu met Rushdie during his visit to Delhi, and it was everything he’d thought it would be–ie two ships that passed in the night, one of them an ocean liner, the other a very small dinghy. We exchanged brilliant, sparkling conversation, or rather Mr R tossed off one bon mot after another while The Babu said, “Er, the kababs are that way” and “So how’s the Haroun opera doing” and “Um, haven’t read the anthology yet” and “Ain’t Padma hot?” (Okay, he didn’t say “Ain’t Padma hot?” But he definitely thought it.)

And, for those who want to read more about Salman + Padma, there’s always this.

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Sweet Irony

Monday, December 20th, 2004

Was Abe Lincoln gay? A new book by C.A. Tripp (a former researcher for Alfred Kinsey) alleges that the founder of the Republican Party claims that he was.

‘He was not very fond of girls, as he seemed to me,’ his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, once told a friend.

It also includes a diary excerpt by one upper-class Washington woman who wrote of Derickson: ‘There is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs L is not home, sleeps with him. What stuff!’

Scholars have long debated Lincoln’s sexuality, and as early as the 1920s were making veiled references to his relationship with Speed. However, critics say that in the pioneer days men sleeping together in rough circumstances was not uncommon.

The book is called The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.

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About Brown

Monday, December 20th, 2004

Erin Nowjack writes about the correspondence she shared over many years with Larry Brown, who passed away a few weeks ago. Nowjack became curious about Brown’s work after reading a blurb he’d given to her brother, John O’Brien (Leaving Las Vegas):

It was his first novel, “Dirty Work,” that gripped me. In it, Brown tells the story of two tragic Vietnam vets: one who lost his face to the war, the other his limbs. There is a scarred and burned woman. There is booze. Amid this bleakness, Brown manages to achieve tenderness. And humor. And humanity.

I already had begun to do my own writing and was flattened with awe. I devoured the rest of Brown’s books. The more I read, the more it fueled my curiosity about him and his relationship with John. Two and a half years after my brother punctuated his life with a single bullet, I wrote Brown a letter.

Update: The article is archived at Erin Nowjack’s site.

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Later

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

That’s it for me this week. The one and only Randa Jarrar takes over tomorrow and every Friday. Have a great weekend!

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Washington Square Mag Benefit

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Those of you in NY might want to check out this reading on Friday night:

December 17th @ 7:00 pm
James Frey (A Million Little Pieces)
Matthew Rohrer (A Green Light)
Hannah Tinti (Animal Crackers)
Benefit for Washington Square Magazine
19 University Place, 1st Floor lounge
New York City
$5; $3 for students

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Handler Profile

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

The L.A. Weekly runs a profile of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket, to coincide with the release of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The newspaper’s Dave Shulman tries to impress Handler:

When talking with an author of books in which prominent characters are named Baudelaire and Poe (and nary a page passes without some further highfalutin cultural or literary reference), one should feel intimidated by the author’s casual brilliance and, despite one’s public school education, try to impress him with the one thing you actually know:

“Baudelaire translated Poe, didn’t he?” I say, as if the thought had just occurred.

“Mm-hm,” Handler replies, duly impressed. “And you’re the first person, ever, to note that. Apart from my editor.”

“Really? Damn I win!”

“I was sure you were going to say, ‘Baudelaire . . . was a French poet, right?’ Then I could say, ‘Wow, you’re so smart for figuring that out. What was it ‘ was it the word Baudelaire that helped?'”

Heh. Read the rest here.

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LeGuin, Race, and Hollywood

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Writing in Slate, Ursula LeGuin reports on a significant aspect of her novels that didn’t make it to the small screen: race.

Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow. In my first big science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the only person from Earth is a black man, and everybody else in the book is Inuit (or Tibetan) brown. In the two fantasy novels the miniseries is “based on,” everybody is brown or copper-red or black, except the Kargish people in the East and their descendants in the Archipelago, who are white, with fair or dark hair. The central character Tenar, a Karg, is a white brunette. Ged, an Archipelagan, is red-brown. His friend, Vetch, is black. In the miniseries, Tenar is played by Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk, the only person in the miniseries who looks at all Asian. Ged and Vetch are white.

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

LeGuin reveals that her editors at Parnassus and Atheneum never gave her any problems for this, but filmmakers who brought Earthsea to the small screen simply excised race from the story, and cast white actors.

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For Austen Fans

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

A few days ago, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was voted the “most life-changing novel” by female readers. In the Guardian, Austen expert John Sutherland proposes a quiz about the author and the novel.

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Just Remember: The TV Adds On 10 Pounds

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Okay, so I’m told the blog panel for Housing Works will be broadcast on C-SPAN/Book TV next Monday at 12:00 am, EST. Set your TiVo.

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In The Library

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

All day I’ve had that Sesame Street song stuck in my head: In the library, you will find, books of every shape and kind, in the library, li-li-li-libraryyy! Now I know why: The town of Salinas, birthplace of John Steinbeck, will have no libraries next year. All three are closing, as part of a cost-cutting move.

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Blogging, Book Deals

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

I’m sure this has been linked to everywhere in the blogosphere, by writers and non-writers alike, but the NY Times has a piece about bloggers getting book deals. Salam Pax (Where is Raed), Jessica Cutler (Washingtonienne), Belle de Jour, Ana Marie Cox (Wonkette), and a few others are mentioned.

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They’re Human?

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Whenever the NY Times does a piece on a book featuring Muslim characters (or, more rarely, written by a Muslim author) I can always expect a few laughs. It’s no different with this article on The Kite Runner, the best-selling tale of a friendship between two Afghan boys, written by physician-turned-novelist Khaled Hosseini.

Let me decode a few things for you (emphasis mine). Consider the opening paragraph:

Few aspects of this swank oceanside resort call to mind the harsh grind of daily life in Kabul, Afghanistan. Yet when a local book group met here recently to discuss “The Kite Runner,” the stunningly successful first novel by an Afghan immigrant, many group members said they felt they were reading pages out of their own lives.

In other words, readers of this novel can be assured of its ‘universality.’ Of course, I suspect that when Muslim readers are bombarded with the latest John Grisham or Stephen King, no one bothers to convince them that the characters have lives just like their own.

And in case you missed that opening paragraph, let’s repeat the lesson:

People who have read the book, however, speak almost exclusively of how they were touched by its universal themes. “There are so many basic human emotions at work here,” said John Tegano, a member of the Palm Beach group.

But wait, there’s more!

The reactions of the Palm Beach group suggest that [it will continue to sell for a year or two]. “I recognized so many things that happened in my time,” Ms. Campbell said, referring to the years she spent living in a French convent, a Jewish girl hidden away by the nuns as her parents and dozens of neighbors were deported by the Nazis. “What struck me about the characters here is that they’re all very human.”

Gasp! You don’t say! You mean they’re the same species as us?

All joking aside, I was concerned when I read that the original draft of the book had the Afghan protagonist marry an American woman, but the publisher thought that it was too “unbelieveable” and made Hosseini change the wife to an Afghan. Recently, author Jervey Tervalon revealed in an L.A. Weekly article that he was told by his black editor that unless he “changed the white, upper-class love interest of my black protagonist to something, anything else” he couldn’t get the book published. Someone should ring publishers and inform them that miscegenation is legal.

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Nobel Judge Change

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Kjell Espmark, the chairman of the jury that decides on the Nobel Prize for literature has stepped down after 17 years, and has been replaced by another man, Per Waestberg. With secrecy typical of Nobel judging, no reason was given for the change.

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Nigerian Celebrations

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Emecheta Buchi, Ben Okri and 20 other writers were honored last weekend in Ibadan, as part of the celebrations for the “best 25 books written over the last 25 years” in Nigeria.

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Said Memoir

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Jean Said Makdisi’s new book Teta, Mother and Me is reviewed in the Daily Star. It’s a memoir of three generations of women in the Said family (yes, that Said.)

[T]he book is much more than just a memoir – it is a discovery for both the author and the reader of a richer and more complex past for Arab women than both ever would have imagined.

Using unpublished family documents, the memories of friends and acquaintances, and histories of the region and period, Makdisi traces her family’s personal story against the backdrop of political events as they take place in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and the United States. The story details her grandmother’s early childhood in Ottoman Syria in the 1880’s; her mother’s experiences of two world wars and their repercussions for the Middle East; and the author’s own experience of raising a family in Beirut, amidst the endless, futile, disillusioning fratricide of the Lebanese civil war.

Said Makdisi’s memoir is as yet unavaible here, but you can check out her previous book, Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir.

Thanks to Jonathan for the link.

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OFAC Backs Down?

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

Reuters reports that OFAC is backing down.

“OFAC’s previous guidance was interpreted by some as discouraging the publication of dissident speech from within these oppressive regimes. That is the opposite of what we want,” Stuart Levey, Treasury’s undersecretary for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a statement.

“This new policy will ensure those dissident voices and others will be heard without undermining our sanctions policy,” Levey said.

The new rule allows U.S. publishers to engage in “most ordinary publishing activities” with people in Cuba, Iran and Sudan, while maintaining restrictions on interactions with government officials and agents of those countries.

Under the previous rule, a license was required to publish authors from embargoed countries such as Iran — a nation dubbed in 2002 as part of the “axis of evil” by President Bush along with Iraq and North Korea.

For the legally inclined, the relevant document appears here.

Was it the fear of being seen as opposing that freedom of speech martyr, Salman Rushdie? Or being publicly rebuked by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi? Or the relentless work of activists, writers, publishers, journalists, and all others who have protested? Whatever the cause, OFAC’s backing down from the requirements of a license is a victory, though given their track record this past year, optimism should be tinted with caution.

Thanks to Hurree for the Reuters link.

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Rushdie Was Right Then, He’s Right Now

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

When Sudanese author Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was published in 1969, it was described by Edward Said as one of the ‘finest novels to be written in Arabic.’ Among other things, the story is a sarcastic retelling of Heart of Darkness: A man leaves his home, goes ‘native,’ and suffers the consequences, except this time, the journey is to the heart of Europe, where the narrator experiences violence and betrayal. The novel offered an alternative take on the issue of colonialism, and is probably one of the most important books of fiction to be published in the wider Arab world. It was banned in the Sudan for a long time.

Before poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas managed to leave Cuba in 1980, he had tried on three separate occasions to smuggle a manuscript of Farewell to the Sea out of the island without success. While he was serving a prison sentence for the ‘crime’ of being homosexual, a guard burned Arenas’ manuscript right before his eyes. Arenas finally succeeded in publishing Farewell to the Sea, a lament on the lack of freedom to be, freedom to love, freedom to speak in post-revolutionary Cuba. He died before his book could be published in his native country.

Iranian novelist and feminist Shahrnush Parsipur was jailed shortly after the 1989 publication of her novel Women Without Men, which offered a frank depiction of women’s sexuality to a society that wants to repress it. It wasn’t the first time that Parsipur had been sent to jail for her writing. Despite the commercial success of some of her fiction works, all of Parsipur’s books have been banned at one point or another in Iran. She now lives in exile.

I am able to tell you these things because, as a citizen of a free nation, I have access to the works of these fine writers in translation. For this to be possible, someone had to buy the rights, get the books translated, edited, published, and distributed.

If these three books were to be written today, they would all but be banned in the United States.

While the new rules put in place by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department do not (yet?) criminalize publication of books from countries under embargo (Iran, Sudan, Cuba), they prohibit U.S. publishers from editing, translating, or otherwise providing any ‘services’ to the authors. What OFAC is saying is that these authors should have had the forethought of being native speakers of English. And just because these people risk life and limb in their native countries for the right to speak doesn’t mean that they should be free to publish here in the States. After all, there are innocent American readers that need to be protected from evil-doer authors.

In a characteristically American response to this ridiculous situation, a lawsuit has been filed against OFAC by the Association of University Presses, the Association of American Publishers, Arcade Publishing, and PEN American Center. The text of the lawsuit contains a declaration by PEN’s president, Salman Rushdie, an author who knows all too well the price of freedom of speech.

And perhaps that is the biggest indication of how low we have sunk as a nation. That the man who, in 1989, had to defend his right to free speech from religious zealots, should in 2004 have to defend others’ right to free speech from OFAC zealots.

Stand with Rushdie, again.

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Paul Mandelbaum Recommends

Tuesday, December 14th, 2004

josip.jpg “I just finished reading Josip Novakovich’s wonderful novel April Fool’s Day,” Mandelbaum says. “It chronicles the life of one Ivan Dolinar, a Croatian whose knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time makes him a useful guide to that hauntingly perverse pocket of the world, the Balkans. Spanning fifty-plus recent years, the book naturally devotes some of its attention to war and its horrors (in a particularly chilling scene, Ivan comes across the crucified body of a Muslim friend from medical school), but the novel’s main focus is Ivan’s struggle for survival and a meaningful existence. Novakovich’s vision encompasses the broadly philosophical and the minutely sensory; his voice is inviting and compelling, morally alert without being moralistic, and he never loses sight of what makes for a good story.”

mandelbaum.jpgPaul Mandelbaum is the author of Garrett in Wedlock, part of which appears in the Winter issue of Glimmer Train Stories. He also edited the anthology First Words: Early Writings From Favorite Contemporary Authors, including juvenilia by Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Stephen King, Maxine Hong Kingston, John Updike and others.

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Rushdie In India

Tuesday, December 14th, 2004

Kitabkhana rounds up some of the reactions to Salman Rushdie’s visit to Kolkata (Calcutta) this week:

Rushdie, with quote marks
Looks like the man’s being mobbed on his Kolkata visit. He had fun: “In America, we have to deal with strange growths called Bushes.” And so did the press. In which Salman chacha reveals that he wants to write a book on Machiavelli, Padma Lakshmi says that his new book has “a lot on cooking“, and one news report does its best to put Rushdie’s life and works into perspective. Grimus was “a science fiction”, and Rushdie also wrote “The Moor’s Last Sight”. And the anonymous author serves up the most entertaining review of The Satanic Verses yet: “The novel was a story of two Indian actors who fell on the Earth after an Air India aircraft exploded mid air. The book criticised terrorism.”

Hurree also weighs in on that most important of all lit questions: Who is hotter, Salman Rushdie or Brad Pitt?

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