Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tracking a meme

Robert Lemos in Wire News.

It was an experiment by comparative literature graduate student, Scott Eric Kaufman, to measure how quickly a simple idea would jump between blogs covering different academic disciplines. It was a scientific experiment to track the 'meme' - a quantum of cultural thought popularised by evolutionist and author Richard Dawkins.

Wired News says: "The idea that Kaufman decided to track was his blog post on the experiment itself ... The post languished on his site for a few hours and then got picked up by a colleague's blog. After that, the meme took flight in a way that surprised the literature student: Almost 50 blogs, including a number of science forums, linked back to the post in less than three days ..."

"The success of the experiment is all the more revelatory in that the meme in question is hardly new or novel ... In the end, Kaufman's experiment might prove less about how any particular meme moves through the web, and more about the attention span of the internet. Just two years after a nearly identical experiment, enough bloggers believed the experiment to be new and relevant that the meme traveled quickly and widely."

Full report:,72207-0.html?tw=rss.index

Who will criticise the critics?

Shinie Antony writes in

Everyone is a critic. There is no formal training school for writing literary reviews. No formal standards. But we know all about that. We can clearly see from some of the reviews in our newspapers, that often the writer has not even read the book, or else what goes for a review is merely a synopsis of the story. The prerequisite of reading a book before doing a review is also probably one reason for the lack of local book reviews in our local papers, it being easier to source a review of a foreign book using Google.

Shiny Anthony writes: "Okay, we know where Indian writers come from. They come from the West. But where do critics come from? What are they made up of really? And, more importantly, who will criticise the critics?"

And on book reviews she says: "... Either they are all-out gush or a nasal nasty. A book page is the newspaper's cover-up of its corporate concerns with a pseudo-cultural cough. The space so sacred that nuances are martyred in the marvellous new world of cut-paste editing and the ensuing sloppy scribbles served sunny side down."

Methinks she should be grateful for the pseudo-cultural cough. The local newspapers don't even pretend. But this I like: "A book is a body of thoughts. A critic is meant to ponder upon these thoughts, not parade his paranoia and prejudices, however arresting they may be. Books are to be picked up just like people, listened to and enjoyed or be cast aside with finesse."

Full report:

Bloomsbury: a one trick pony?

From The Times. Without a Harry Potter book for the year 2006, reports say that Bloomsbury's earnings are down 75%.

The company said this in a Stock Exchange statement. Bloomsbury said that profits before tax "may be in the region of GBP5 million" - well below the anticipated GBP20 million to GBP20.5 million.

Other titles by Bloomsburys have been The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseni, and The Blunkett Tapes, the diaries of David Blunkett, the former Cabinet minister, for which Bloomsbury is said to have paid an advance estimated at GBP400,000. Both titles are reported as being sold at a 40 per cent discount on the Bloomsbury website.

But I like this interesting bit: "There have also been problems with "reference rights sales" - deals under which the company sells on the rights to the reference books that it owns to third-party publishers." Bloomsbury should learn from 'best' practices of Malaysian businesses. Sell to your own companies at inflated prices!

Full story:,,9071-2499926,00.html

Literary paradise lost in Australia

Peter Holbrook writes in The Australian lamenting the death of 'imaginative writing' in Australia, and about the latest news is 'that the University of Sydney will soon possess the sole remaining chair in Australian literature' and how it 'signals a genuine crisis in our literary culture.'

"I suspect … that the formal study of literature generally is imperilled at most levels of the educational system. How much classic English literature of any kind is now vigorously and creatively taught by well-trained experts anywhere in Australia?" he says.

It is not just classics by English speaking writers that appear to be imperilled. "... I doubt Euripides, Dante or Chekhov are faring any better."

He ends with a warning: "For if the formal study of great literature, ancient and modern, is neglected, the outlook for literary creativity here is dim. A significant literary culture needs educated readers, discriminating and cosmopolitan critics, informed editors and sound scholars. Every substantial creative writer was once an enthusiastic reader. No readers, no writers."

Full story:,20867,20922771-7583,00.html

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hollingshead wins Bad Sex prize

From the Associated Press: Iain Hollingshead beat David Mitchell, Mark Haddon, Will Self and Thomas Pynchon to win the 'Bad Sex prize' which aims to skewer "the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel."

Iain Hollingshead won the literary award for his first novel, Twenty Something. The judges said that his description of "bulging trousers" and "a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles," won him the prize.

Hollingshead, 25, received his award from rocker Courtney Love in London ceremony, said he was delighted to become the prize's youngest winner. "I hope to win it every year," he is reported to have said.

Other cringe worthy erotic writing of the past year were:

Tim Willcocks, The Religion: "In the pit of his stomach a cauldron boiled and some seething and nameless brew rose up through his spine and filled his brain with the Devil's Fire,"

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green: for a passage in which one character's breasts are compared to "a pair of Danishes" and another's to "two Space Hoppers."

Tom Pynchon, Against the Day: a scene involving a spaniel that ends: "Reader, she bit him."

Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother: "Images went off in her head like little fireworks. The smell of coconut. Brass firedogs."

But one feels none match last years winner, food critic and novelist Giles Coren for comparing a male character's genitalia to a shower hose.

Full story:

Rent a blurb

From Outlook India.

Khushwant Singh says, "It's dishonest ... you're not judging a book by its merits but to please your friends. I do it because I can't say no."

Pankaj Misra says, 'We don't have a critical culture in English ... we rely on celebrity endorsements to assess a piece of writing.'

Whatever it is, it appears that Indian writers have developed name-dropping to a high art form. We are, of course, talking about the two or three line blurb on the back cover that helps to sell a new book.

Sheela Reddy reports how celebrity writers are wooed by publishers and new writers "to provide jacket blurbs for books they have neither the time nor enthusiasm to read."

William Dalrymple is described as a 'most promiscuous blurber' for "providing craftily worded lines of praise for books ranging from Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods and most recently Malvika Singh's Freeing the Spirit - The Iconic Women of Modern India ..." the report says he "gets 4-5 manuscripts a month from either first-time authors or their publishers."

The report also says how Kushwant Singh was approached by an MP who prides himself as a Punjabi writer 'with an English translation of his short stories.' "I like the fellow, so I gave in," he says, and how he "... kept ticking off more and more stories for me to read until I had to tell him: 'For god's sake, don't make me read the whole lot'."

Full story:

Six-year-old boy writes novel

The Independent: A six-year-old boy who turned stories of his toys' adventures into novel and whose book will be published in the UK claims as the world's youngest author.

'Christopher Beale completed his 1,500-word, five-chapter novel This and Last Season's Excursions when he was six years and 118 days old, beating the previous Guinness World Record by 42 days.'

Christopher who is from Zug in Switzerland, is now seven. He has landed a publishing contract with Aultbea Publishing and his book will be launched in London on 25 November.

'His story follows a boy and his favourite stuffed animals, his puppy Biscuit, his kitten Daisy and the fierce Big Hinnies, as they rescue owls, fight lions and search for a mysterious moving city, Quarles.'

Christopher has his own website,, and he says he is working on his second novel, in between playing football. (there is no mention of him going to school, but we suppose he does.)

Full story:

The Robert Pirsig interview

It was 1974 and I had not been long out of college when I was introduced to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Fooch. (I don't even know where he is now.) Was it the book I had been looking for? Maybe it was the book a lot of people were looking for at that time. It blew my mind away. The author was writing from so close to the edge - the verge of insanity - it was freaky. I loved it. (The only other time I have felt that was listening to Kurt Corbain for the first time). It was a new age book, long before the term New Age became fashionable and spawned a whole spew of wannabes. (Please don't even mention Deepak Chopra.)

According to The Guardian, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the biggest-selling philosophy book ever. He was rejected 121 times (the most, according to the Guinness Book of Records) before he was published and has sold 5,000,000 copies.

Robert Pirsig, 78, who had an IQ of 170 when he was nine years old picked up Buddhism as a young GI in Korea. He was a 'radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat over a definition of 'quality'.' 'No two classes were the same. He made his students crazy by refusing to grade them, then he had them grade each other …'

Diagnosed as catatonic schizophrenia by a psychiatrist, Pirsig was treated at a mental institution. He had 'no job and no future in philosophy; his wife was mad at him, they had two small kids, he was 34 and in tears all day.'

When he was released, he got worse. He got crazier; pointed a gun at someone, he was committed by a court and underwent comprehensive shock treatment - they zapped his brain like they did the Jack Nicholson character in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Zen came out in 1974, edited down from its original 800,000 words. George Steiner in the New Yorker likened it to Moby Dick. Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights but Pirsig refused.

Full story:,,1951397,00.html

Censorship in Iran

From The Guardian: Girl with a Pearl Earring has been banned in Iran after six print runs. This and 'Dozens of literary masterpieces and international bestsellers have been banned in Iran in a dramatic rise in censorship that has plunged the country's publishing industry into crisis ... under a cultural freeze instigated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.'

The report says that several thousand new and previously published works have been blacklisted by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Newly banned books include Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code 'for upsetting clerics within Iran's tiny Christian community'. (What, not bad prose?) And William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Also banned are books featuring lyrics by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Black Sabbath, Queen and Guns n' Roses

Wasn't there a time when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to allow women to watch football games?

Full story:,,1950280,00.html

Friday, November 17, 2006

Alice Munro's new book

From The San Diego Union-Tribune: In her new book The View From Castle Rock Alice Munro mixes stories with autobiography.

'Alice Munro has been writing fiction since 1950. She has only published short stories, unless one counts Lives of Girls and Women (1971), which is labeled a novel but is really a series of interlocking stories ...'

This is indeed remarkable, given how we live in an age where 1000 page plus footstools have become the norm, and where most publishers (particularly in the UK which publishes 200,000 books a year) will not even consider looking at a collection of short stories. Ask Tash Aw. But where would most readers be now if not for our diet (in our formative years) of Poe or Dahl? Or for that matter even PG Wodehouse? Or Phillip K Dick, Murakami and, of course, Borges. The list is too long. (Another short story writer I admire tremendously - especially for her technique - is Bharathi Mukherjee.) Yes, it is true that short story prizes are (slowly and, it appears, grudgingly) coming back, but the truth is it has become unfashionable to be seen (reading or not reading) a small book in public. The thicker the better it appears even if it is airport fiction or Harry Potter, like as if people who read thick books look more intelligent then those who read small ones. Try telling JM Coetzee or Milan Kundera that.

The San Diego Union-Tribune continues: But her new book surprises, for while it's billed as a collection of stories, it resides in a halfway house between fiction and autobiography ..." They were not memoirs," she writes in a Foreword, "but they were rather more personal than the other stories I had written, even in the first person."

Kenyans Ignore Their Own Writers

The East African Standard reports: "... the professor (Ngugi Wa Thiong'o) of comparative literature sat behind a lonely table for the launch of the second instalment of Murogi wa Kagogo ... launched a controversial novel and as silently as he arrived, departed ..."

Here are some extracts from the story:

"When I am through with this exam, books aside as my search for a job begins in earnest."

"There was no point in trying to stock books that my clients would not want to borrow ..."

"From the total respondents, 80 per cent said that they would subscribe to the library, with most of them preferring romantic and thriller novels ..."

"In many ways, the school curriculum has been blamed for the half-baked readers that the school system releases into the job market ..."

"Most of new graduates do not value reading for leisure and broadening of knowledge. Many admit that they read only when they have exams ... during literature lessons, learners are drilled for exams ..."

And finally this:

"Those who are not reading should not try to force others to think that no one reads any more," says Munene Wa Mumbi, a Nairobi-based journalist.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Being released in Czech Republic

Yes, you read that right: Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being has finally been released in the Czech Republic.

Nesnesitelna lehkost byti, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was originally written in Czech in 1982. This was shortly after Milan Kundera, who was born in Moravia left Czechoslovakia and settled in Paris. Its first publication was a French translation in 1984. The novel was soon translated into English, German, Hungarian, Polish and Russian, and received international acclaim. But surprisingly it has never been released in his homeland. The only edition ever released in Czech was that published in 1985 by the publishing house, Sixty-Eight Publishers, run by Josef Skvorecky and his wife, Zdena Salivarova, in Toronto, Canada.

Radio Praha's website reports (quoting Jiri Srstka, Kundera's Czech literary agent): At first glance this doesn't appear to be a big deal, but in the case of Milan Kundera, who is known
for his perfectionism, this is a huge job. Also because the Toronto edition was published under difficult circumstances, and therefore Kundera had to read the entire book again, re-write sections, make additions, and edit the entire text. So given his perfectionism, this is was a long-term job, but now readers will get the book that Milan Kundera thinks should exist.

Milan Kundera's own message to the Czech people: The Unbearable Lightness of Being … (is) a novel, a tale of love, and not as a work of political commentary.


Best science book ever?

If you thought it was the The Voyage of the Beagle or The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, think again. According to a report in The Guardian, Primo Levi's The Periodic Table won the vote as the best science book ever written at an event organised by the Royal Institution in London. The Periodic Table, which was published in 1975 is a memoir of life as a Jew in Mussolini's Italy told through the science of chemistry. Levi survived Auschwitz and later became a chemist in post-war Italy before committing suicide in 1987.

The shortlist:

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon's Ring
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Read the whole article here.

Literary police

In a programme called Literature On Alert, Mexican Police officers in Nezahualcoyotl take part in literature workshops, chess and PE to broaden their minds and improve the force's reputation, Guardian Unlimited reports.

Pistols on their hips and submachine guns slung across their shoulders, a classroom full of shoeless police officers trample (aiyoh, major pantang ; after, seven generations stupid!) somewhat sheepishly over the volumes spread out on the floor. "Feel them enter your body," the teacher urges the men and women in blue as they pass over Honoré de Balzac, Arthur C Clarke, Rafael Alberti, Rudyard Kipling, Octavio Paz, Ruth Rendell and others. "We must lose our fear of books, we must get to know our new friends."

Nezahualcoyotl is a working-class city of 2 million people.

"The principle is that a police officer who is cultured is in a better position to be a better police officer," says José Jorge Amador, Neza's head of public security. He claims that there has been a drop in crime, for which he credits the "cultural dimension". He is proud of the drop of the city's car theft national ranking from No 3 to No 8 over the past three years.

The experiment began early in 2005. All the 1,200 officers of the municipal force are required to attend fortnightly book groups for any hope of promotion. In Mexico only 28% of the population aged over 15 read more than two books a year and 40% read none at all.

Sounds like another country we know, doesn't it?

Read whole article here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Microsoft - evil empire - turns good guy

The Guardian reports: Microsoft, in an agreement with Kirtas, which has developed the fastest robotic scanner in the world, will scan up to 2,400 pages per hour (with a guaranteed error rate lower than 1 per 10,000 pages) in a bid to muscle in to Google territory.

Last year Google ran into a storm of protests when it announced plans to put online 15million volumes from four top US repositories - the libraries of Stanford, Michigan and Harvard Universities, and of the New York Public Library. (It is currently being sued for copyright violation.)

It appears Microsoft has learned from the mistakes of its enemy. It is limiting its own initiative to out-of-copyright material and in-copyright books with explicit permission. (What?! Microsoft turns ethical? I hear a cry.)

So, how much will that impact booksellers? In my opinion, not much. Libraries have always existed and must continue to exist. Then we have a situation like the University of Malaya library. I know, they had a fabulous collection when I was a student there. I will assume they still do and have not made too many appointments with the paper-lama man. But, it is quite obvious from their policies that they do not actively encourage free public access. I agree that a collection in a library like in UM is priceless (hundreds of years old in some cases) and you do not want to risk damage or loss. But knowledge is a human right.

I cannot but support the efforts of Microsoft even if they are the evil empire.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize

My immediate reaction, like that of many others, was a predictable, "Are you kidding?!" As much as I love Orhan Pamuk's work (who can fault My Name is Red, or his autobiographical Istanbul), my gut feeling was that this had to be the most politically motivated Nobel award of recent years.

Pamuk was the first author in the Muslim world to publicly condemn the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie

Pamuk faced prosecution in Turkey for "insulting Turkishness" The charges against him sparked widespread protest, particularly from the European Union which Turkey wants to join. The cases were dropped earlier this year.

Pamuk has also been outspoken about, "the confusion about political Islam and religious Islam ... Political Islam abuses religious Islam in a totally scandalous way, employing terrorism. Religious Islam, like other great civilizing religions, is a peaceful thing."

But all this does tend to detract his wonderful genius as a writer. My name is Red is definitely up there on my all time best books list. (I sent out for a hardback from Amazon after reading the paperback. I couldn't get a first edition.)

He would have, surely, won it one day. Congratulations Orhan Pamuk

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The big deal about the Booker

I ignored most of this year’s hype about the Man Booker. Only two names stuck in my head. One was Kiran Desai (‘It’s been some time since she wrote a book,’ I thought). The other was Sarah Waters. (Don’t ask me why, but the name just stuck.) Then I remember vaguely reading about some bellyaching about Peter Carey and David Mitchell not being on the list, and how they were streets ahead of all those who were, and so on. In short, it was the silly season all over again.

Then, why was I so excited when I read news this morning that Kiran Desai had won the Booker for the her latest novel The Inheritance of Loss? A familiar name with dynastic connections, perhaps? Because she is Indian? Asian? I don’t know. I guess that is the magic of the Booker. Love it or hate it, it has a way of grabbing your attention. And, the best part, it gets people interested in books all over again. It has given books and reading a certain sexiness, a certain cool, and glamour – something the stodgy Pulitzer has, somehow, never managed to do. Go figure.

Oh, this one is for the fans of trivia. Kiran Desai at 35 is the youngest woman to win the Booker. The previous youngest woman was Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things a month short of her 37th birthday in 1997. The youngest person to win the Booker is Ben Okri in 1991 at 32.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Best novel in the past 25 years?

Recently the New York Times named Toni Morrison's Beloved as the greatest work of American fiction in the past 25 years. Not to be out done, The Observer carried out its own poll to determine the best non American novel. The asked 150 literary heavy weights to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005. (The Obsever says, 'Only one writer voted for himself,' but does not identify that writer.)

And the winner was … Disgrace by JM Coetzee, the unforgettable novel about South African race relations which won the author his second Booker in 1999. JM Coetzee (whose works include Waiting for the Barbarians, The Age of Iron and The Life and Times of Michael K) won the Nobel in 2003.

I cannot help but feel a quiet satisfaction with that choice, despite my general reservation of 'top' lists. A small book, a story told with such understated simplicity, and, yet, with the power of a sledgehammer. I remember being in a daze for several weeks after that. I still cannot shake it off, not that I want to, enduring the daily disgraces - the slights, the unsaid 'rules', the outright insults - all in the name of a dubious 'greater good'. The last time a book made me so helpless and angry was The Trial (Kafka).

Anyway, hardly anyone agrees with any list - not entirely, at any rate. Take a look at it here and air your pet quibbles.

Lemony Snicket calls it the day

I must admit that that my first reaction to that bit of news was, "What? Is he still writing that crap?" But then I have never been much of a fan of the Baudelaire orphans. After the first three books, I found them quite tiresome
and repetitive. But then, what do I know about children's books? (I liked the movie though!) They obviously have a big following. According to a Seattle-PI story, at one point, seven of the books in the series, were in the New York Times top-ten children's books.

Anyway, with the 13th book, a franchise that started in 1999 comes to a close. The final episode, The End, will be launched on October 26, and bring to a close the adventures of Violet-the inventor, Klaus-the bookworm, and baby Sunny. And oh, of course, the deliciously wicked Count Olaf.

Lemony Snicket's real-life alter ego, author Daniel Handler is 36 now and lives in San Francisco with his wife, children's book illustrator Lisa Brown and their son, Otto, 3.

Read the full story here

Poets in love

From The Guardian: Ted Hughes was a domestic tyrant who issued a 'Draft Constitution' to his mistress, Assia Wewill, instructing her how to carry out household chores and look after his children, according to a new biography: A Lover of Unreason: The Biography of Assia Wevill

The report continues: He banned her from staying in bed beyond 8am, ordered her to dress straight away and told her not to catch up on sleep. The two pages of typed instructions said that she should teach the children German, play with them for at least an hour a day and introduce at least one meal with 'a recipe we have never had before' on a weekly basis. Hughes made clear he had no intention of cooking 'except in emergencies'.

Wevill told friends the poet's lovemaking was so ferocious that 'in bed, he smells like a butcher'.

Hughes' better known affair was his tempestuous marriage to American poet Sylvia Plath, which ended with her suicide in 1963 after he had begun an affair with Wevill. Six years later Wevill herself committed suicide and took the life of their four-year-old daughter, Shura, after she discovered that Hughes was having an affair.

Other poets in love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
TS Eliot and Vivien Haigh-Wood
Dylan Thomas and Caitlin MacNamara

Know any more? Read more here.

Literature from the 'Axis of Evil'

George bush called them the 'Axis of Evil' - Iran, Iraq and North Korea. And now, an anthology from Words Without Borders examines literature from Syria, Cuba, Libya and Sudan in addition to Iran, Iraq and North Korea - countries that feature in American and world headlines daily, George Bush's Mordor.

Apart from the few Iranian movies we see on the 'International Screens' what do we really know of literature? (Okay, Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran not withstanding.) Let us be honest. Despite our protestations, how much do we really know of any of these countries? We may not quite regard them as 'Axis of Evil', but what image do these countries leave in our minds? At worst, they are a brutal, repressed people, devoid of culture, barely civilised? At best they are unknown terrains. But, people are living there.

Words Without Borders is an online magazine for international literature that was created to combat this ignorance of other countries by offering insights into how people from different cultures live through their literature. Literature From the "Axis of Evil": Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations (The New Press; September 5, 2006), includes twenty-one works of fiction and poetry from seven countries, most translated into English for the first time. Visit

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Indian books in China market

China yearns for books on Information Technology (IT), science and technology, management, medicine, yoga, jewellery and Bollywood. And leading Indian book publishers have noticed. They are making inroads into the Chinese book market, which has been long dominated by the West.

The Director of the National Book Trust (NBT) of India, Nuzhat Hassan is quoted as saying, "Major Indian book publishing companies have succeeded in gaining a foothold in the huge Chinese market," after leading a delegation of Indian book publishers to the recent Beijing International Book Fair for the second time in two years.

Chinese publishing market is growing by more than $ 300 million a year. 400 new titles are launched every day, though only six per cent are translations. Deputy head of the Government's press and publications administration, Yu Yongzhan said China's 573 publishing houses produced 6.4 billion books, including 1,28,578 new titles, in 2005.

Including newspapers and magazines, the publishing market in 2003 is estimated at 193.7 billion yuan (USD 24.2 billion).