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 www.wordswithoutborders.org.