Reviewing the Review: January 4 2009

Based on about two hundred recent conversations with (or tweets from) literary friends and colleagues, I’m guessing that 2009 will be a big year for two important trends: e-books and international literature. The New York Times Book Review is still shutting its eyes real tight so it won’t have to see e-books (I assume they’ll schedule an endpaper essay full of bad Kindle jokes in the next few months, and start taking the trend seriously a year later). But they may be doing better on the literature in translation front, and even the globally minded Michael Orthofer has nice words about this weekend’s issue, which offers Sarah Fay on Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb, Elaine Sciolino on Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About and Ligaya Mishan on Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany.

I’d probably be interested in Chicago if Mishan didn’t have so much fun dismantling Al Aswany’s fatal failure to capture the nuances of American behavior, especially where race relations are concerned:

A beautiful young black woman is fired from her job at a shopping mall, supposedly because of her race … people on the street heckle a white man with a black girlfriend, yelling “How much did you pay for this slave girl?”

Franz Kafka’s Amerika: The Missing Person, newly translated by Mark Harmon, is another glimpse of the USA through foreign fictional eyes, though in this case the anomalies (most famously, the Statue of Liberty carrying a sword instead of a torch) may be the key to the work. I’m halfway through this new translation myself right now, and I appreciate Adam Kirsch for finishing before me and providing some helpful context for this slippery work. I don’t remember ever praising an article by Adam Kirsch before today, but this is nice stuff:

[Mark Harmon] follows previous English editions by retaining the German spelling of America, with a “k.” This lends the name, in American eyes, a more ominous and alien quality than it would have for the German reader. That “k” is hard to resist, however, and not just because readers have come to expect it. No writer has ever annexed a single letter the way Kafka did with “k.” Between the two in his own last name, Joseph K. of “The Trial” and K. of “The Castle,” the letter seems imbued with his own angular essence. Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited.

I’m not sure if I’ll finish this book myself, though I’m glad I started it; perhaps what I appreciate most of all about Adam Kirsch’s piece is that it lets me off the hook, first by explaining how this early Kafka effort was designed to work (it’s a classic picaresque) and secondly by confirming my suspicion that even at its best this book is not as essential as The Castle or The Trial. I think that’s all the excuse I need to move on to the next title on my to-read list.

Liesl Schillinger praises Louise Erdrich’s story volume The Red Convertible with her usual flair. I hoped to see a positive review of fun rock critic Chuck Klosterman’s first novel Downtown Owl, and one imagines that Peter Meehan hoped to write one, but had to tell the truth instead. I also had trouble getting absorbed in Klosterman’s story, which reads like Fargo Rock City slowed way down, though I hope the author will try again.

I don’t know what to do with Leah Hager Cohen’s soapy cover piece on a cancer memoir, The Mercy Papers by Robin Romm. There’s not much sport in attacking a positive review of a book about a dying and saintly mother, especially when an editor’s note reveals that the reviewer’s mother is also suffering from late-stage cancer. Cohen has started her own blog about her mother’s illness, she says:

… in a state of serious mortification, giving in at least to my agent’s urging. I hated the ugliness of the word ‘blog’ and the kind of self-involvement I associated with blogging.

Ugliness? Really? I always thought we were kind of cute. Anyway, this positive review is itself highly self-involved, though it will probably appeal to anyone currently caring for a sick relative. But then, so would a nice greeting card.

10 Responses

  1. Levi, when you say that the
    Levi, when you say that the NYT Book Review is shutting its eyes to e-books, are you saying that some books are only published as e-books? Because otherwise, a book review is a book review, and it’s up to the consumer as to whether they want it in the form of paperback, hardback, audio book, or e-book.

  2. Happy new year, Bill …
    Happy new year, Bill … well, yes, from a reviewing standpoint there may not be much difference between a book and an e-book. However, the NYTBR does cover the literary scene in general (via endpaper essays, bestseller lists, essays and columns) and this is where I think they ought to be paying some attention to the way e-books might change the publishing industry in the near future.

  3. Hey Bill, hopefully many many
    Hey Bill, hopefully many many people’ll vote fer many many writers, editors, zines, etc. Be nice if the Litkicks crowd would make this the top site in one or more categories. (or you could vote for Lit Up Magazine)

  4. Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in
    Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran chronicled a book club experience I envied. The Iran at that time, as chronicled, reminder this reader of the outgoing Bush administration but this is untrue, or only true if you’re not a target of the police. I read the review and this new book sounds very heavy emotionally.

  5. Just curious, but what
    Just curious, but what e-books have succeeded in being read and sold?

  6. Good question, Warren, though
    Good question, Warren, though unfortunately I don’t have a good answer. My enthusiasm for e-books is based on my belief in the potential, and in my observation that the technology sector (Lexcycle, ScrollMotion) seems to finally be paying attention. I don’t have any success stories to share, though! Soon, I hope.

  7. I’ve published an ebook of
    I’ve published an ebook of poetry-all of its been on Litkicks Action Poetry- sold 3 copies. A world record for someone who has never sold a poem in their life.

    Conversely it has been emailed to, I’m informed, dozens and dozens of people, and I tell everyone they can read on Litkicks for free, as will be the case with volume two (the publisher gets very cross about that).

    Selling books is not the object of writing literature, it’s brilliant when it happens, the writing’s the thing.

    Reading is another thing, its great if people don’t have to pay to read. not everybody can afford to do that.

    More free sites like Litkicks are worth their weight in literature, and that’s worth its weight in gold.

  8. I agree that ebooks are very
    I agree that ebooks are very close to becoming a real force. The Kindle is very cool, but it’s being outdone by something much simpler. I recently got one of those iPod Touches, basically an iPhone with everything except the phone. There’s a free application for the device called ‘Stanza,’ which is an extremely efficient ebook reader. It is very customizable and offers direct access to free and pay ebook download services. It has totally obliterated my once overpowering desire to own a Kindle. I am plowing through Nietzche’s ‘Antichrist’ which I got as a free download. I will gladly pay for other books now that I feel comfortable with this device.

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