Archive for May, 2005

New York, New York

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

I’ll be heading off to New York later this week, to visit with family and friends, and to attend RAWI’s first annual conference. RAWI is an Arab-American writers organization (the word ‘rawi’ means ‘storyteller’ in Arabic), and the theme for its first gathering is: “Kallimuna: Speak To Us.” The conference takes places June 3rd through the 5th at Hunter College in New York, and features workshops with the likes of Naomi Shihab Nye, Elmaz Abinader, and Hayan Charara, and panels on topics as diverse as “Sexuality, Gender, and Silence,” “The Global Hood,” and “Hybridity in Arab American Literature.” I will be moderating a panel on blogs on Saturday, with partners in crime Randa Jarrar (a.k.a. Rockslinga), and Leila Abu Saba (a.k.a. The Dove). I’ll post a reminder on this site at that time.

I’ll also be attending Book-Expo, which also takes place June 3-5, and which will be an entirely different sort of animal. It will be my first time at BEA, but the presence of a few familiar faces will help, I’m sure. I’ll be taking part in the Emerging Voices Panel on Friday, to read an excerpt from my first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. (Don’t look for my name on the site, it’s not there. But I will be.) And then chilling out on the floor and trying to take it all in.

I’ve posted a bunch of things for you below, but I doubt I’ll get a chance to post anything tomorrow, as I pack up and head out to NYC. Posting should resume from there on Thursday.


Stephen Elliott Recommends

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

bissell.jpg“There are so many underappreciated books. It’s a tough question,” Elliot says. Instead of picking just one book, he rattled off a few that deserve more readers: “Tom Bissell’s Chasing The Sea was underappreciated, I thought. It’s a travel story about a former Peace Corps volunteer returning to Uzbekistan but it’s also a history of the region, and it’s also the story of the Aral Sea, the greatest man-made environmental disaster in history. Wow, what a book! Reads like lightning. It’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read even though I have zero interest in Uzbekistan (no offense to the Uzbekistanis).

rentgirl.jpgThere’s also the great Chicago novel, The Beggar’s Shore by Zak Muncha which was published by Andrew Vachss in paperback original. Also the illustrated novel Rent Girl by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin which came out last year and really pushed the mix of art and lit to its next level. People are going to be copying that book for years though I don’t think it sold that many copies.

Then there’s Craig Clevenger’s The Contortionist Handbook and Dennis Cooper’s Try, but both of those books have large cult followings. I could name some of Nelson Algren’s lesser works, and also Notice by Heather Lewis but if I’m going to push someone in the direction of something they should read I prefer to encourage indulging living writers and thereby taking part in our cultural conciousness.

At any rate, we should appreciate books that are more gritty, that have something to say about class stratification. Every book published by Softskull Press or Manic D Press is underappreciated, as are many, though not all, by Last Gasp.”

elliott.jpg Stephen Elliott is the author of four novels, including the critically acclaimed Happy Baby, and the editor of the anthology Politically Inspired. His most recent book is Looking Forward to It, an account of his experiences on the campaign trail in 2004. His work also has been published in GQ, the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Believer magazine. He lives in California.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.


Men Don’t Read Books By Women, But They’ve Learned To Pretend That They Do

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

The Observer reports on a study on sex differences in reading habits, which found that, “while women read the works of both sexes, men stick to books written by men.” The article says:

The research was carried out by academics Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London, to mark the 10th year of the Orange Prize for Fiction, a literary honour whose women-only rule provoked righteous indignation when the competition was founded. They asked 100 academics, critics and writers and found virtually all now supported the prize.

But a gender gap remains in what people choose to read, at least among the cultural elite. Four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer. Women, however, often gave several titles. The report said: ‘Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men.

I think that in a male-controlled world, women have long learned to place themselves in the minds of the dominating gender, and to view the world through its eyes. Men have no incentive to see the world through female eyes, unfortunately. At least some men recognize they have a problem.

The article goes on, perhaps more worryingly:

‘Consequently, fiction by women remains “special interest”, while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style.’

Basically male authors have the advantage of having both male and female readers, which helps them get a greater hold on the literary conversation, and define what constitutes literature. The study concludes:

Jardine said: ‘When pressed, men are likely to say things like: “I believe Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is a really important book – I’m afraid I haven’t read it.” I find it most endearing that in 10 years what male readers of fiction have done is learn to pretend that they’ve read women’s books.’


R.I.P.: Martin Lings

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Some sad news: Sufi scholar and author Martin Lings has passed on. Read the NY Times obit, which provides some interesting tidbits. (I didn’t know, for instance, that Lings had studied under, and was close friends with, C.S. Lewis.) If you are new to Lings’s work, I highly recommend his biography of the Prophet, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources.


Mid-East a Hot Trend: In Publishing, as in Empire

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

I missed Anne-Marie O’Connor’s article on Mid-East books when it came out in the Los Angeles Times last month, but here it is, reprised in the Register-Guard. It’s essentially about the current craze in U.S. publishing for all things Middle-Eastern:

Charlotte Abbott, the book news editor at Publishers Weekly, said the demand for [books on the Middle-East] has been driven by a widespread curiosity about Middle Eastern countries in the news since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Publishers really woke up to the fact that there really weren’t a lot of books that could satisfy that kind of hunger,” Abbott said. “Publishers went out and pursued acquiring those books.”

And so O’Connor briefly rounds up a whole bunch of current titles, including Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul, Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning, Mohammed Moulessehoul/Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Roya Hakakian’s Journey From The Land of No, and Afschineh Latifi’s Even After All This Time, among others.

Amid all this hodge-podge of fiction books and memoirs, the only clear point is that “the Mid-East is hot in publishing right now,” a point that I’ll concede easily enough, even if that attention seems myopic to me at times. What troubles me is the tone in the latter end of the article, which seems to intimate that there’s one or two interesting books coming out of a country:

In Saudi Arabia, a male author, Yousef Mohaimeed, has written a book called “The Bottle.”

This is just bloody ridiculous. People in the Arab world have been writing books long before the U.S. publishing industry took an interest in their stories.


Department of WTF

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Add this to the list of “must-do” things for a hot, young author: Marry another hot, young author. Then the media can file useless pieces about your relationship, other famous literary pairings, and what it all means for literature. Ugh.


Stop The Presses! You Mean To Say Women Want To Break Out Of Stereotypes?

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian, profiling young Japanese author Hitomi Kanehara, whose first, best-selling novel, Snakes and Earrings, has supposedly shocked the country with its “violent and graphic opposition to the traditional cultural expectations of how Japanese women should be.” Reporter Angela Neustatter writes:

Kanehara is part of a burgeoning subculture of contemporary women expressing the same loud, emphatic message through fashion, graphics, comics, subversive graffiti, photography and fiction. It underscores a growing generational divide, a significant shift in values and attitudes.

Only later in the article does the trend supposedly embodied by this new author get placed in a more historical context. Worth a look.


Ruland on NPR

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Moorishgirl pal and sometime guest blogger Jim Ruland has a piece on NPR’s Day to Day, called “Vets? No, But They Write What They Know.” In addition to being a fine writer and punk rock enthusiast, Jim is also a Navy veteran. In his most recent incarnation, he is teaching a composition class for Santa Monica Community College. He designed the course specifically for veterans, except that part was left out of the catalog description, resulting in an unexpected enrollment: most of the students were teenagers, most of them were female, none of them were vets. Listen to what happened next.


Debut Books

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Over at the Herald, Alastair Mabbot discusses first books and their importance in the artist’s career.

It’s the music business cliche known to everyone: an artist gets his whole life to write a first album, but a few months to write the second.
That’s usually true of books as well. There’s a unique quality to debut novels, most of which were written with as much passion, intensity and conviction as an author can hope to experience, but usually without any hope of being published.
“This is something they might well have been working on for as long as they can remember,” says Pru Rowlandson. “Whereas, the second book, most of them manage to get out in a couple of years. It is also likely to be the most autobiographical thing you ever write.”

I guess I went about it the wrong way, then. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits isn’t autobiographical in the traditional sense (I’ve never tried to cross the Mediterranean on a boat, never hustled for a job, etc.) while the novel I’m working on now is much more personal. One of the two main characters is a Moroccan woman who comes to the United States to study, for example, and the other is a man with a very conflicted relationship with his father.


On Lit Blogs

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

The Daily Telegraph ran a piece about lit blogs a couple of weeks ago, and now it’s finally online. It features several popular and deserving blogs, among which The Elegant Variation, Maud Newton, Edrants, and, of course, The Complete Review, whose proprietor I’ve had a huge online crush on for a while.


See Ya

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

That’s it for me this week. The one and only Randa Jarrar takes over tomorrow and every Friday. Monday being a holiday in these parts, I probably won’t be back here till Tuesday. Have a great weekend!


Reagan Arthur on Case Histories

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

Over at the Lit Blog Co-Op site, editor Reagan Arthur talks about the selection of Case Histories for Read This!

So, no, CASE HISTORIES was not lurking shyly in the corner, waiting for someone to notice it but I can tell you that despite all that good news and good fortune, it has not hit the New York Times bestseller list, and its sales, while certainly respectable, are not so stratospheric that the Read This! recommendation is the blog equivalent of sending coals to Newcastle. I get the sense that some readers are disappointed enough in the book’s success and its corporate publisher that they’ll give it a miss on principle, and that old maternal stand-by comes to mind: don’t cut off your nose to spite your face! Borrow it from a friend, or the library — I’m not interested in boosting our sales figures, only, like the estimable folks behind the LitBlog Co-Op, in sharing the rare satisfaction to be found in reading a great book.

Agree? Disagree? Hit the thread with your comments.

BTW, while this doesn’t have the same weight as the hallowed NY Times bestseller list, the selection seems to have at least some impact on online sales. Over at’s bestseller list, Case Histories is currently at #21.


On Symbols

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

Ibrahim Abusharif, the editor of Starlatch Press, contributes a thoughtful column to the Christian Science Monitor about the recent reports of desecration of the Qur’an at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After talking about what improper handling by American soldiers of Islam’s holy book means to Muslims, he also reminds us that Muslims themselves abuse their own symbols, as we have witnessed in the Nicholas Berg case.

Those who doubt the staying power of symbols and religion may want to reconsider their stand.

It is a striking reality that human sensitivity to symbols has survived, despite the postmodern flattening of the world and its aggression against belief in the unseen. But while humans have God-given emotional accouterments naturally sensitive to such things as desecration, we also have been given the intellect that keeps that sensitivity in check and within the realm of moderation.

Just as we know that this episode of the desecration of the Koran is not reflective of the ethos of religious tolerance among Americans, we must also learn never to attach to Islam – either the religion or the civilization – the acts of vigilante Muslims who unwittingly desecrate the name of Islam and, perhaps, inspire others to desecrate their book.

Read the full column here.


Free Moroccan POWs

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

Please take a moment to visit, a new website that seeks to bring world attention to the plight of more than 408 Moroccan POWs–the world’s longest-held prisoners of war. Captured in the early days of the conflict in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario Front, these people have been held for nearly 30 years. Senator McCain, a former POW, has recently joined the Free Them Now group.


Our Guests Go On To Bigger Things

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

Frequent Moorishgirl contributor Dan Olivas has joined La Bloga, a group of kick-ass Chicano bloggers posting on all things literary. Something to add to your bookmarks.


New Anthology for Young Writers

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

Random House editor Jillian Quint writes in to inform us of a contest for young writers called Twentysomething Essays By Twentysomething Writers. Says Jillian:

Basically we’re looking for cool, short nonfiction essays by good (but not super famous) writers in their twenties. The top essay wins $20,000 and up to 28 others get published in a book due out in September 2006.

Check out the website for more details.


Guest Column: Peter Laufer

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

Below is a guest column from Peter Laufer, author of Wetback Nation: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border, sharing his thoughts about the Minuteman Project, which California’s immigrant governor has recently praised, and which has been denounced by civil rights groups.

No one disagrees that the U.S.-Mexico border is out of control. Virtually anyone who wants to come north across that line simply comes north. If they survive the crossing, they try to disappear into an America anxious to take advantage of their labor, and they usually succeed.

But it’s murderous chaos on the border today: desperate migrants succumb to harsh weather, vicious bandits and the brutal extortion techniques of the smugglers they hire to help them gain access to the American Dream. The Border Patrol doesn’t only try to keep undocumented travelers out of the U.S., it often saves the border jumpers’ lives before it deports them.

The so-called Minuteman Project — the stationing of self-selected volunteers along the Arizona border this spring in a vain attempt to stem the flow of illegal traffic north — is only exacerbating the crisis. I’ve spent time on that border with these self-appointed guardians. I know that a motley bunch of thrill-seeking publicity junkies will not keep hungry Mexicans from making the trek north. At best the vigilantes will be an irritant to the travelers. At worst they’ll spark tragic and unnecessary violence.

Chris Simcox is one of the Minuteman Project ringleaders. When he moved to Arizona from California in 2003 and bought the Tombstone Tumbleweed he slapped an editorial across the front page of the paper that screamed: “Enough is enough! A public call to arms! Citizens Border Patrol Militia Now Forming!” The immediate result was to disrupt life in his new hometown.

I stayed at at Curley Bill’s Bed & Breakfast, a few blocks across town from the Tombstone Tumbleweed offices. Owner Larry “Curley Bill” Alves expressed disgust with Simcox. “I’m a conservative Republican, but I’m an ex-senior non-com in Vietnam. He’s a little kid who never got to play soldier as a kid.” And hotelier Alves sees a direct relationship between his bed and breakfast business and Simcox’s ability to draw national news coverage. “This militia stuff hurts tourism. People in this town don’t like this at all.”

Alves’s wife, Sally, readily agreed. “If you could still run people out of town on a rail, he’d be run out of town on a rail. I’ve had a couple of people cancel reservations, afraid Simcox and his group were walking around with assault rifles and camouflage. It’s too bad when a guy doing something bad owns the town’s newspaper.”

A few miles down the road from Tombstone, Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, born and raised in the border town he now governs, just wishes Simcox and his followers would go back where they came from. He calls the volunteers assembled on the US side of the border a charade. “The only thing it lacked,– he told me about the border chaos, –was an idiot like that guy Simcox up the road. Simcox writes that idiotic call to arms, and I really don’t think that he, in his lifetime, would have ever dreamt that he was going to get the attention he got. The media jumped on it. Before you know it he’s a media cutie. Not because he’s saying things that are going to be effective, but because it’s so outlandish and it’s reminiscent of the Old West. The media built him. He’s a fraud.

There is a simple solution to securing the U.S.-Mexican border: let Mexicans who wish to come north, come north. Regularize that which cannot be controlled, which we in fact do not wish to control because we need the labor.

The best arguments for eliminating attempts to control Mexican migration are that such a policy is counterproductive to attempt and impossible to achieve. Instead, open the border to Mexicans. These people are coming north despite US laws. Open the border to Mexican workers so that the bad guys cannot hide in their shadows as they sneak across the border. Open the border to Mexicans the US wants and needs, and then the Border Patrol will know that the people trying to break into the US — the ones in the tunnels, those running across the desert and jumping the fences — are the real villains. Open the border to Mexicans, a significant fuel for the US economy, and make it easier for the Border Patrol to keep out the drug traffickers and the terrorists.

Opening the border to the free passage of Mexicans who wish to come north is the only reasonable and long-term solution. Over time the Mexicans and we will learn to blend, not collide. And once Mexicans can again travel freely north, the US government will know that the people in the tunnels and jumping the fences and running across the desert are the villains and not the fuel of the US economy.

You can acknowledge the reality that this policy is correct and work to make it happen, or just allow events to overwhelm you. Because now or later, the artificial line separating Mexico from the US (and Mexico’s former land) will disappear.


Guest Column: Catherine Wald

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

wald.jpgI never thought that the biggest win in my life would come from being a Class A loser. But that’s the way it went down. Let me explain.

I’m the wordsmith who penned The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors, a book about how we scriveners can deal with the thumbs-down, but my pipe dream was to become a published novelist. When all else failed, I decided to latch onto rejection instead, which is what finally led me to a real live book.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d been published before, in some magazines you’ve heard of and plenty you haven’t, and I’d been making a living as a corporate hack for a good chunk of time before I even dared to attempt writing a novel. And I got plenty of rejections along the way. But believe you me, nothing is as personal, painful and ego-shattering as the rejection of a first novel. Or at least, if there is, I haven’t found it yet.

You may be wondering if my novel was any good, or if maybe it deserved to be rejected? All I know I worked darn hard on it for five backbreaking years, and that I was pleased as punch when I wrote “The End.” Hell, anyone who even finishes a novel, no matter how bad it is, deserves some pride! And mine was good enough to land me a top New York agent. We just never found the proverbial happy home for it.

A lot of the people I interviewed for The Resilient Writer have plenty of rejected novels hidden away in their drawers or closets. Maybe my first novel deserves to be deep-sixed, too. I can’t be the judge of that. All I know is, when my then-agent gave up on it for good, after sending it out for two-and-a-half years, I had a bad case of the blues. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I even pulled the plug on my second novel, that’s how broken up I was.

Then I had the bright idea of taking my tormented emotions and putting them to good use. First I whipped up a website,, for other crazed rejects like me to beef about the unfairness of it all. Then I came up with a book proposal for a book about rejection, which was rejected, and a second one, likewise. But by the third or fourth rewrite I finally had a winner.

So here I am today. I’m not known as a sensitive novelist, but as a hard-boiled rejexpert. But I guess this is one twist of fate I’ll just have to learn to live with.


Jonathan Edelstein Recommends

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

habiby.jpg“Emil Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is classic satire and may also be one of the first examples of peculiarly Israeli Arab literature,” Jonathan says. “The Arab Israelis are ethnically Palestinian, but their experiences have been shaped by life in an Israeli society to which they simultaneously do and do not belong, and this has given rise to a distinct literary voice. Habibi – who was a communist member of the Israeli Knesset – experienced these contradictions in full, and the exploits of his absurd anti-hero illustrate how surreal they must have seemed to those living through them.

The term “pessoptimist” – the author’s coinage for a pessimistic optimist – is a good one to know for those who follow Middle Eastern politics, because the news from that region is often both hopeful and depressing. The continuing validity of Habibi’s satire a generation after it was written inspires the same mix of emotions.”

Jonathan Edelstein is a lawyer practicing in New York City and the author of The Head Heeb, which analyzes Middle East affairs and democratization in the developing world.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.


Alarcon Asks: What Kind of Latino Am I?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Over at Salon, Daniel Alarcon analyzes some of the reactions he’s been getting recently while on tour promoting his collection, War By Candlelight.

Last April I was invited to a literary fundraiser of sorts. It was a fancy affair, full of very wealthy people and well-dressed waiters carrying trays of wine and strange-looking appetizers. A couple of dozen writers had been invited, and we were plied with alcohol and dispersed into the party. I fell into a few pleasant conversations with some very kind people, all of them genuinely excited for me — You’re so young to have published a book! etc. — and then was seated at dinner next to a woman in her 60s, who spent her meal asking me about the exotic origins of my last name. I’m Peruvian, I told her. But that last name, it reminds me of a bug that bit me when I was living in Mexico! Oh, I said. Where does it come from? she asked. I explained to her at one point that most words in Spanish that begin in “Al” are Arabic in origin, that the Moorish influence transformed the language, so that my last name may have been Arcon or Arco. I’m not sure why I told her this. I’m neither Spanish nor Moorish, and certainly not a linguist, but I felt she needed something to keep her occupied for a bit.

She gave me this wide-eyed look: That is so topical, she said. Like al-Qaida.

Even in the dim light, I’m sure she sensed she had stunned me: not that I’m saying you’re one of those people.

Oh, no, I stammered. Because I’m not.

She patted me on the shoulder. I understand, she said in a conspiratorial whisper; my daughter married a Mexican.

It goes downhill from there, with Alarcon getting increasingly frustrated that he doesn’t fit the image that is expected of the Latino writer, which is to say that of the struggling immigrant who writes novels or stories that are merely thinly disguised versions of his autobiography, how it’s all heartbreaking and so, so real.

Oh and the answer to that question? Clearly, one who can write.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Masterpiece or Racist Fluff?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Over at Slate, Stephen Metcalf deconstructs reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, starting with how it affected 19th century readers to how it is loathed (or rehabilitated by more modern readers, including African-Americans and women.

James Baldwin, in a famous essay for The Partisan Review in 1949, saw the priority of Tom over Harris as anything but innocent and pious. Harris, Baldwin argued, is a “race apart” from the novel’s blackest characters the little girl Topsy, and Tom himself. Harris’ dignity is therefore tied, as Baldwin puts it, to his being “sufficiently un-Negroid to pass through town, a fugitive from his master, disguised as a Spanish gentleman, attracting no attention beyond admiration.” It is tied, in other words, to his whiteness. Tom is therefore Stowe’s “only black man,” whom she has “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” Baldwin loathed the novel, which he felt yoked a terror of blackness to a “terror of damnation,” then “saved” Tom by rendering him an intellectual and sexual eunuch who gives himself over entirely to martyrdom. Baldwin finally sets his thermometer on roast: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, is activated by what might be called a theological terror, the terror of damnation; and the spirit that breathes in this book, hot, self-righteous, fearful, is not different from that terror that activates a lynch mob.”

Metcalf also cites Jane Smiley’s reactions to the work (she considers it passionate and insightful). I tend to agree more with Baldwin than Smiley on this one. Metcalf concludes by saying that “maybe we can delineate the understandable limits of its heroism and admit its manifest crudity as a work of literary art.”


Penguin: Mostly White, It Turns Out

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Michael at Lit Saloon links to this Observer article about Penguin’s plans to celebrate its 70th anniversary by issuing 70 short titles–but only two of the authors are non-whites.

Although Penguin has published two of the most important figures in modern black literature, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe, neither is included on a list that finds room for popular modern names such as Jamie Oliver, Marian Keyes, Gervase Phinn and India Knight, as well as paying tribute to significant white landmarks of world literature such as Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Theroux, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Sigmund Freud and even Homer, a segment of whose Odyssey gets a look in.

The only two black authors included are Zadie Smith, the young Briton who made her name with the award-winning novel White Teeth, and Hari Kunzru, who is best known for The Impressionist and Transmission, and has a worldwide following.

If this is a list meant to represent the best of Penguin’s work, then the exclusion of Achebe makes no sense. And if it is meant to represent their best selling authors, then Achebe–who is routinely assigned in high school and college classes–should certainly have fit the criteria. The publisher’s response is that they weren’t going to do “quotas,” that they were looking at “sales only.” In that case, what about Salman Rushdie? Isn’t he published by Penguin (through Viking)? The sales from The Satanic Verses alone probably surpass those of any writer on that list. And he’s not included either. Next time I hear someone moaning about a minority-only prize, I’ll have to remind them of things like this, which are far more common than people think.


Guest Column: Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Confessions Of A Compulsive Reader
Lauren Baratz-Logsted

The words blur together on the page, becoming one long stream of fast-moving letters…

Oh, no! My life has become a cliche!

On New Year’s Eve, having failed in previous years to reach my goal of becoming perfectly thin, I decided to set my resolve in a new direction: in 2005, I decided, I would read 365 books, one for each day of the year.

I’ve always been a big reader. Since the age of 10, 32 years ago, I’ve averaged 100 to 250 books per year. I read widely, I read everything. Since my first novel, The Thin Pink Line, was published in 2003, I’ve given a lot of talks as well as receiving a lot of mail from readers, and often the question arises: What makes a good writer? I always answer that, to me, the most important thing is to be a big reader. And it amazes me how often, when I ask a would-be published author what they’re reading at the time, the response comes back: “Nothing. I don’t have much time for reading.” To me, this is like saying, “I want to be a brain surgeon, but I really don’t have time for med school.” A.O. Scott, reviewing Joyce Carol Oates’ Uncensored: Views and (Re)views in the NYTBR on April 17, wrote, “Of course, every serious writer of fiction must also be a serious reader; the only way the art can really be mastered is through a compulsive, self-administered pedagogy of worship, derision, imitation and intimidation.” While I find myself, these days, disagreeing with much that gets written in the NYTBR, I believe in Mr. Scott’s sentiment wholeheartedly.

Once upon a time, very early on in my writing journey, the dying novelist Lyll Becerra de Jenkins, mother of a writing friend, heard I’d made the statement, “The only thing that ever bothers me about my own mortality is that I know I’ll never live long enough to read all the books I want to read,” and she asked to meet me, a meeting I still treasure. Since then, I’ve grown a bit older and had a child, so naturally there are now a few other things that bother me about my own mortality, not least of which is that I now know I’ll never live long enough to write all the books I want to write either. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with me, but the list of titles on the storyboard in my basement of books I want to write is long and vita is all too brevis.

But no matter how burning the desire to get those books written before I turn my toes up and they cart me away, the impulse to read remains. In my life so far, I’ve read nearly all of Shakespeare, for example, not because I plan on spouting iambic pentameter at the next turn, but because it informs, if only marginally, the books I create.

It is the impulse to inform that writing, and inform it as quickly as possible, that I think led me to begin this insane yearlong journey. My original intent was tied up, to some degree, in a desire to define myself as a writer. I am blessed – or cursed, depending on how you view it – with the ability to come up with ideas for high-concept books that I can then produce fairly quickly, if by no mean painlessly. Despite the state of near madness that breakneck pace induces in me, it is simply all too easy. It’s too easy for me to skate, too easy for me to say, “Oh, that’s good enough.” So I guess I felt that if I crammed enough of other people’s books into myself, I’d be in a better position to finally say, “This is what I despise. This is what I admire. This is what I will strive for.”

Thus far, this Sisyphean journey has proved thematically to be not unlike Book #134, Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, by Jennifer Jordan, which I read last week. Currently 141 books into this insanity, I’m finding my reasons for selecting books is evolving. I’m finding the onus has turned away from my own previously obsessive-compulsive need to read every word: it is now the author’s job to fully command my attention or run the risk I will skim. And, finally, I’m finding sometimes I select a book for sheer brevity so I can get my daily quota in.

You probably noticed the next-to-last sentence in the above paragraph, which answers the question of how I’m managing to read so much – while still writing every day, while still promoting my books, while still keeping an incredibly bright five-year-old sufficiently entertained: I skim. Oh, by no means all the time. In fact, I’ve read every single word of every nonfiction book I’ve read since January 1, including Giovanni Caprara’s The Solar System, a book I scarcely understood, science being my weak point. But having once been a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, I am well versed in the art of skimming. I’d feel a lot worse about that admission were it not for the fact I’ve read articles in the Guardian about reviewers and blurbers who don’t read the books they’re assigned…at all.

When I first started reviewing books, I read every word, just as I had compulsively read every word of every book I’d read up to that point in my life. But somewhere into my 292-book reviewing career with PW, I discovered something: if I could tell by page five that a book was not going to be to my taste, that I would in fact hate it, the resulting review was about as nasty as it could get. After all, I’d suffered. Why, then, would there be any grace left in me? So I learned, in those cases, to skim judiciously. And I discovered that I could still review a book both descriptively and analytically, and yet the resulting review was fairer, because I was no longer bitter. There was no longer a need for me to be cruel and I cannot help but think the world a better place with a little less cruelty.

Some people, knowing about my project, have wondered if it’s true what they say about quality, that after a while it jumps out at you. The answer is simple: yes. For while I may skim, sometimes, I never do it when an author commands my attention, not when someone is good enough to make me slow down and savor every word.

The following is a list of the books that, so far this year, have made me sit up and take notice:

The Queen of the South, Arturo Perez-Reverte
Something Borrowed, Emily Giffin
The Kreutzer Sonata, Margriet de Moor
Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland
The Autobiography of God, Julius Lester
The White Rose, Jean Hanff Korelitz
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, Marion Meade
Will They Ever Trust Us Again?, Michael Moore
Strange But True, John Searles
The World Still Melting, Robley Wilson
The Pleasure Was Mine, Tommy Hays
102 Minutes, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
The Falls, Joyce Carol Oates
Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson
The Bones, Seth Greenland
Savage Summit, Jennifer Jordan
Windows on the World, Frederic Beigbeder

I look at the above list and try to see the common ground in the books I’ve felt passionate about so far this year. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be any. Certainly, you can’t find books further apart than Emily Griffin’s Something Borrowed, with its uber-pink cover, and 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, which follows hundreds of lives and deaths during the time it took for the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse after being attacked. And, indeed, they have nothing in common, save for the fact that both books moved me for different reasons: the former, for taking a seemingly unsympathetic situation – a maid-of-honor sleeps with her best friend the bride’s fianc� before the wedding – and artfully exposing the flawed humanity in us all; the latter, because despite the sadness and frustration in reading about all of the mistakes that were made on that most awful of awful days, there are some shining accounts of bravery, in particular those enacted by Frank DeMartini and Pablo Ortiz, that will remain indelibly in my mind for as long as I have memory.

Really, though, when I look at the nonfiction on the list, there’s no connection: an account of writers in the ’20s, the letters of soldiers to Michael Moore, an account of September 11, an account of five female mountain-climbers who summitted K2.

It’s when I look at the fiction – moving past the fact that it’s comprised of both literary and commercial, since I could never abide a diet of just one or the other any more than I could stand to eat chocolate mousse for every meal of the day – that I see the common thread. All of those books achieve the blend I find most pleasing in fiction: the books that are mostly heavy still have a trace of irony or humor to some of the proceedings; the books that are seemingly light all have some sort of serious social commentary underlacing the whole. They are the kinds of books I like to read best, perhaps because they are also the kinds of books I like to write best. I see myself – surely not in the actual writing; no, I have no pretensions of that – but in the intention and the palpable love of creation. So that’s where the journey has brought me thus far: to a place where I can see where I’ve been and where I want to go deeper.

Who knows where the next 224 books this year will take me?

I do know that a friend has embarked on a similar journey, in his case tackling a short story a day for the entire year. And maybe at the end we’ll collaborate on a joint tale: The 365-Book, 365-Story Year, detailing in fuller form our individual motives, experiences, and where the journey finally washes us up. Regardless of the future, right now I hear Book #2 calling my name, Ginger Strand’s Flight.

Looks like it’s time for me to go read.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line. Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, will be published in July 2005. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1.


Women Writers of the Arab World

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

wwaw_poster.JPG Hedgebrook‘s latest initiative, in partnership with the Arab American Community Coalition, is nothing short of groundbreaking. It’s called Women Writers of the Arab World and it brings together six writers from different countries and different experiences: Raja Alem of Saudi Arabia, Suheir Hammad of Palestine and the US, Choman Hardi of Iraqi Kurdistan and the UK, Alia Mamdouh of Iraq and France, Somaya Ramadan of Egypt, and Ibtihal Salem of Egypt. The women were awarded a month-long residency at the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, where they worked on a fiction or non-fiction project. In addition to this gift of time and space, the writers were given the rare opportunity to meet with each other and with readers from the Northwest, through readings, panels, and workshops (listed here.)

wwaw_panel.JPGThis weekend, Alex and I drove up to Seattle to attend one of the events, which was held in a packed auditorium at the University of Washington. Moderated by Therese Saliba, the panel featured Raja Alem, Choman Hardi, and Ibtihal Salem. They read from their work (poetry for Hardi, short fiction for Salem and Alem) and discussed the role of translation in their lives. Hardi made a conscious choice to start writing in English; she was dissatisfied with translations of her poetry from the Kurdish, which came out sounding ‘precious’ and so she preferred to write directly in English and to reach English readers that way rather than through translations. Salem stressed the importance of culture in translation. “It’s important,” she said, “that the translator be not just familiar with the language but with its people. Ideally the translator has lived in the cuture he/she translates.” And Saudi-born Alem talked about how, despite her country’s censors, she has managed to have her voice heard within the Kingdom. “The trouble,” she said, “is getting heard outside of it, because all the outside world wants is stereotypes of veils.” After writing seven novels in Arabic, Alem has now written her first in English.

laila_and_fadia.JPGLater, at the post-event reception, I spent way too much money at the Elliot Bay Book Company stand, which had a very impressive array of literature by Arab and Arab American authors. I also got to meet and chat with uber-cool poetess Suheir Hammad, and with the amazing Fadia Faqir, who was due to fly back to the U.K. the next day. A wonderful event. I only wish that there were more like these in the Northwest.

Seattle P.I.: Arab women writers take part in ‘an amazing event.’
Seattle Times: Arab women writers making Seattle appearances.
Seattle Weekly: Unveiling the Middle East.
Moorishgirl: At Hedgebrook, Peace and Quiet, At Last.


Iranian Blogs

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Richard Nash writes in to alert us about an interesting new book from Soft Skull Press: We Are Iran, by Nasrin Alavi, which reviews the thousands of Iranian blogs that have cropped up since 2001 (making Farsi one of the pre-eminent languages of the blogosphere.) The book is all the more important in the face of the recent crackdown on Iranian bloggers by their government. You can also read this article from Open Democracy about the role that Iranian bloggers are playing in their country’s forthcoming election.

Journalists who are silenced in newspapers quickly find an audience for their writing in blogs or news websites.

It is precisely because so many of these affluent young people are online, that the candidates are reaching out to them on the web. So far, a dozen news websites have appeared in direct or subtle support of candidates in the pre-election period. They function as the unofficial public-relations machinery of the candidates, especially in the recent campaign wars.

The main newspapers would never dare author the kind of views that are expressed on these sites but they have no problem quoting them. In this way tough censorship rules are being circumvented and an unprecedented amount of information is available to the public.


Hass & Soueif In Conversation

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

I’m not sure how I managed to miss this, but apparently Israeli journalist Amira Hass gave a talk recently at the Lannan Foundation, and was later interviewed by Ahdaf Soueif (whose new book, Mezzaterra, is due out in the U.S. in October.) You can listen to the talk and conversation here.


A Quiet American

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Thomas Friedman’s latest book gets a significantly chillier reception in the Guardian than in Friedman’s own paper, the New York Times.

In her introduction to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Zadie Smith says of Alden Pyle, the American of the title: “His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism.” She goes on: “Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world. They do not mean to hurt us, but they do.”

Greene has Pyle travelling with books such as The Role of the West and The Challenge to Democracy. A modern-day Greene could substitute the works of the real-life Thomas Friedman – a contemporary quiet American. Like Pyle, Friedman is “impregnably armed by his good intentions and his ignorance”. In The World Is Flat Friedman has produced an epyllion to the glories of globalisation with only three flaws: the writing style is prolix, the author is monumentally self-obsessed, and its content has the depth of a puddle.

The reviewer, Richard Adams, finds The World Is Flat to be a mere rewrite of Friedman’s earlier book, The Lexus and The Olive Tree, the style “grating,” and adds that the book “contains no surprises for anyone who hasn’t been locked in a cupboard for the past five years.” In contrast, Fareed Zakaria, reviewing the book in the NY Times, finds the metaphor of a flat world “ingenious,” and the style “accessible.”


The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Over at the Guardian, Caryl Phyllips reports on how he and Russell Banks climbled Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this year.

Russell and I first talked about this climb in Saratoga Springs during the 2004 summer programme of the New York State Writers Institute. One night, in a bar called The Parting Glass, we found ourselves bragging to each other, and the assembled writing students, about how we had both climbed Kilimanjaro. I had done so three times, and Russell once, but it was some time now since either of us had been on the mountain. Also, Russell had gone up the easier Marangu route, and over drinks I was trying to introduce him to the idea that the more difficult Machame route was the way to go. Predictably, by the time the barman called last orders we had talked ourselves into an expedition.

I read the article with a mixture of awe and dread. In one of my weaker moments, I promised Alex (an inveterate hiker/backpacker) that someday within the next ten years, I would hike up Kilimanjaro with him. We’re now three years into that promise, so I have some time yet, but I can’t imagine how I will do it–I can barely summon enough energy or excitement to do Mount Whitney. Besides, I find reading about the Kilimanjaro hike much more exciting.



Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Thanks to Randa for watching the site on Friday. I have a whole bunch of things to share with you this week: a great event held in Seattle, a book recommendation from a good friend, a guest column on writers’ rejection, and a sneak preview at a bunch of recent reads. Stick around.


It’s A Wrap

Thursday, May 19th, 2005

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

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