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Monday December 31

A BIZARRE YEAR: "The creepy revolution that has been transforming the business most radically since the mid–90s or so — the eradication of independent publishing houses and booksellers by massive, international "mass–media" conglomerates — has been the over–riding story of our recent literary times, with each year bringing sickeningly deeper realization of the impact of that take–over upon our intellectual and spiritual lives, not to mention how much you pay for a book, and who gets to write them. This year, however, that story seemed to become, suddenly, old news, or at least news too wearying to acknowledge anymore." MobyLives 12/30/01

POET IAN HAMILTON, 61: "Highly regarded British poet and biographer Ian Hamilton, whose unauthorized life of J.D. Salinger was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, has died at the age of 61." Nando Times (AP) 12/30/01

Friday December 28

DEFEATING THE ARAB MYTH: Novelist Hanan al-Shaykh is a remarkable writer, but she sometimes wishes that people would stop assuming she's a remarkable woman as well, simply because she chose to leave her home in the Arab world to make a life in the West. In her newest book, she is determined to cut off at the knees some of the stereotypes that Westerners are forever laying at the feet of Arab immigrants. Nando Times (CSM News Service) 12/27/01

Thursday December 27

SADDAM HUSSEIN, HUMBLE AUTHOR: Saddam Hussein has published a second novel. "Al-Qala'ah al-Hasinah ("The Fortified Castle") appeared this week in bookshops and all public libraries in Baghdad and was hailed on state-run television and by the newspaper al-Jumhouriya as a 'great artistic work.' The cover gives no clue to the writer's identity, saying cryptically that it is a 'novel by its author,' while a note inside explains that the writer 'did not wish to put his name on it out of humility and modesty'." CNN.com 12/20/01

Wednesday December 26

THE STORY WITHIN: "English-language writing about Hong Kong and much of Asia has long been the province of Western expatriates or writers passing through, but increasingly this work is being done by Asian authors." The New York Times 12/25/01 (one-time registration required for access)

Friday December 21

BRITISH ACADEMY SPLITS ITS BOOK PRIZE: "An acclaimed biography of Hitler and an account of the medieval English "empire" shared the first British Academy book prize, announced yesterday. The judges said both Ian Kershaw's second volume on the Nazi leader, Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis, and The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, by Rees Davies, fully deserved the prize as works of impeccable scholarship which were accessible to the general public." The Guardian (UK) 12/20/01

THE FEARLESS BARRY TROTTER: Writer Michael Gerber has written a parody of the Harry Potter marketing machine called Barry Trotter and the Unauthorised Parody. "The book is a dig at Warner Bros' enormous marketing campaign for the recent blockbusting film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and what Gerber regards as their excessively zealous control of the Harry Potter brand. 'I got really annoyed when I heard about Warner Bros shutting down kids' Potter websites,' he said. 'Their behaviour seemed mean-spirited and overbearing, not to mention silly. Potter fans have a very intense, personal relationship with the books, and I don't think that's something you can disregard, just because you've purchased the rights'." The Guardian (UK) 12/19/01

THE NEW NEW JOURNALISM: The idiosyncratic personal-style journalism which marked much of the second half of the twentieth century may now be fading away. "The kind of exquisite description that brought forth drama from the everyday seemed excessive, even grotesque, when applied to mass carnage in downtown New York. Perhaps in part as a result, two different genres - genres deeply out of fashion in the 1990s - have now reemerged. The first is the essay - the non-reported, non-narrative, political or historical analysis. The second is the somber profile of a person in power." The New Republic 12/20/01

A YOU-DUNNIT: Edinburgh writer Ian Rankin is auctioning off characters in his next crime novel. "The creator of Inspector Rebus is offering two places in his next work to the highest bidders. One will go to the person who bids the most in the e-mail auction and the other to the company which offers the most. The auction, to be held by e-mail, will raise cash for two charities supporting people with disabilities in the Third World and in Britain. 'Worldwide fame and immortality. It’s not a bad deal really'." The Scotsman 12/21/01

Thursday December 20

LIGHT HOLIDAY READING: "For the professionals there are two kinds of reading. There's work reading, with an editing eye, as manuscripts come to the office in whole or part, to be read and re-read, the writer's art in progress as it goes through its creative transmutations. And there's zeal that comes with reading for fun those books that one selects carefully and puts aside for pleasure, for vacation reading. If such reading is exquisite recreation for most of us, imagine the luxury for someone who reads for a paycheck all year." The New York Times 12/20/01 (one-time registration required for access)

KID LIT WAS DIFFERENT A GENERATION AGO: With the emergence of JK Rowling, and the resurgence of JRR Tolkien, it's easy to assume that magic and fantasy have always been staples of children's literature. But 35 years ago, Gore Vidal was complaining that "the librarians who dominate the juvenile market tend to be brisk tweedy ladies whose interests are mechanical rather than imaginative. Never so happy as when changing a fan belt, they quite naturally want to communicate their joy in practical matters to the young. The result has been a depressing literature of how-to-do things while works of invention are sternly rejected." New York Review of Books 12/03/64

TO JUSTIFY FANTASY: "To read Shakespeare is respectable, but if you read Tolkien, well, aren't you supposed to outgrow it? Unfortunately, among much of the literati, there's a belief that fantasy literature is something less than what the classics of the Western canon teach. You know, fantasy is just escapism. But it's also about the search for truth and for our place in the world, a yearning that has only heightened since Sept. 11." Christian Science Monitor 12/19/01

Wednesday December 19

WHAT'S HAPPENED TO WRITING ABOUT FOOD? What could be more sensual than food? So why do so many modern cookbooks read so unimaginatively? "When it comes to cookbooks, it's hard to be critical, because the poor modern recipe is about as original and engaging as the dishwasher manual, and every bit as literary." Salon 12/19/01

THE STRESS OF BEING A READER: The guilt can be almost overwhelming. Sure, you read - good books, too, and hefty tomes that take weeks to plow through. "But at some point along the path to discovery, the reader confronts his or her reading mortality. There's only so much time. And there are so many great books." So how do you choose what to read, and what you can afford to let slip by? National Post (Canada) 12/19/01

Tuesday December 18

1 SONNET, 3 COUPLETS, AND A BUCKET O' VERSE TO GO: What's that? You say you'd love to spend your days sucking down verse after verse of cool, refreshing poetry, but simply haven't the time, what with the conference calls, the board meetings, and all? Well, now you can have it all, with Poem-Me, the fabulous new British poetry service which delivers daily helpings of "thought-provoking" poesy right to your very own cell phone! Don't wait another minute - order now! BBC 12/18/01

DYING REQUEST: The words of a terminally ill poet are flying off shelves at Barnes & Noble, and their author has signed a multi-book publishing deal to write more. Six months ago, no one had ever heard of Mattie Stepanek, and never would have, but for the sympathies of a publisher who agreed to his (apparent) deathbed request to have his work publshed. Stepanek is still fighting for survival, and still cranking out the verse. Oh, and he's eleven years old. Minneapolis Star Tribune (courtesy Washington Post) 12/18/01

REMEMBERING SEBALD: When novelist W.G. Sebald was killed last week in a horrifying auto crash, the literary world lost one of its most intriguing stars. From one of his editors at Random House: "His project was the most heroic I know - he looked unflinchingly at things all of us find easy not to look at, and dragged them into the light.'' Boston Globe 12/18/01

Monday December 17

DO BOOKS COST TOO MUCH? "Across the country this holiday season, recession-minded book buyers are suffering a wave of sticker shock. Cover prices have crossed thresholds over the last two years, and the big bookstore chains and online retailers have pulled back from previously widespread discounts. More shoppers face prices like $35 for hardcover nonfiction, $26 or more for a hardcover novel, $15 or more for upscale paperbacks. Customers show signs of resistance." The New York Times 12/16/01 (one-time registration required for access)

WORD COUNTS: Word counts can tell a reader plenty about a piece of writing - like the cultural context, the tone, the hidden meaning. Any writer who overuses "very" for example, is probably over-enthusiastic. Computer word counting has made this kind of analysis of any text, easy for anyone. Sydney Morning Herald 12/17/01

Sunday December 16

PRIZE MESS: Literary awards are good for encouraging and promoting new books. But the ill-fated Chapters Prize, launched three years ago by the Canadian book superstore, forgot one crucial rule - administration counts. The Prize's three year history (it was canceled in mid-contest this year) is an example of everything that can go wrong. The Globe & Mail (Canada) 12/15/01

Friday December 14

BOOK SALES REBOUNDING: In the weeks right after September 11, sales of books collapsed. Booksellers were pessimistic for the usually lucrative holiday season. "A key reason for that anxiety was the lack of attention that new books and authors had received from radio, television and other news media that were focusing their coverage, almost exclusively, on terrorism But higher-than-expected sales in the days after Thanksgiving have raised hopes throughout the book-selling world." Chicago Tribune 12/14/01

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN: Eighteen months ago, e-publisher MightyWords was the hottest thing in digital online publishing. Stephen King wrote a novella that the company sold for download over the internet, and hundreds of thousands of buyers jammed the site. But the market for e-books never developed and the company is closing. Toronto Star 12/14/01

ALLOWING WRITERS TO WRITE: "Northern Rock, the Newcastle-based bank, is giving three northern writers £20,000 a year for the next three years to do what they do best - write - a revolutionary concept in a world where the paltry sums available usually have lots of strings attached. The money, limited to writers who live in the north-east, is further proof of the widening gap in the way writers are treated in the north compared to their neglected southern cousins, and could spark an exodus north." The Guardian (UK) 12/13/01

POWER OF THE WORD: "The King James Bible is, without question, a monument to the rhythmic power of the English language, but it also circumscribes the language itself, defining its linguistic and metaphoric possibilities - and thus the possibilities of how we think about ourselves and our place in the world." Reason 12/01

Thursday December 13

THAT'S WHAT BEING A RECLUSE WILL GET YOU: A collection of letters by famously moody author J.D. Salinger and his daughter Margaret has failed to sell at an auction in New York. Sotheby's had estimated that the collection, which spans 35 years of correspondence, would net upwards of $250,000. The bidding never got above $170,000 and was halted. Nando Times (AP) 12/12/01

Wednesday December 12

THE DARKER SIDE OF POOH: Winnie the Pooh is 75 years old and never bigger: "The spiritually minded can read The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet while logicians have to choose between Winnie-the-Pooh on Problem Solving and Pooh and the Philosopher. For literary critics there is The Pooh Perplex and The Postmodern Pooh while businessmen take lessons from Winnie-the-Pooh on Management. There is even a book for urban hipsters looking for the grungy side of the Hundred Acre Woods; Karen Finley's Pooh Unplugged." And yet, a case can be made for the insidious side of the Way of the Pooh. National Post 12/11/01

Tuesday December 11

NAIPAUL GETS HIS NOBEL, IF NOT IMMORTALITY: The Nobel Prizes, announced weeks ago, were handed out this week, and author V.S. Naipaul, one of the year's most controversial recipients, picked up his literature Nobel. But unlike some of the Nobels, which tend to make lifelong heroes of their recipients, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been largely a hit-or-miss thing in the century that it has been awarded. Philadelphia Inquirer 12/11/01

Monday December 10

EXTRAVAGANT CLAIMS: A new biography of JRR Tolkien claims him as one of the great literary authors of the 20th Century. But "the tone of many reviews - including the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books and the Guardian - has been one of condescending scorn. The e-mail from bastions of higher learning have the same complaint. How can he treat Tolkien and his hobbits, elves and dwarves as literature?" Philadelphia Inquirer 12/09/01

TRENDSETTING: Some trends are easy to trace - it makes sense that a successful book about embroidery will spawn a cluster of imitators. But what drives the myriad boomlets of books about arcane things - like a wave of books with the color red in the title or the word "honeymoon"? Surely there's some cosmic order to it all... Mobylives 12/09/01

Sunday December 9

PROTECTING ENDANGERED WRITERS: Salman Rushdie is the most famous, but there are many writers living under death sentences. To try to help protect them, The International Parliament of Writers was set up in 1993, "in the wake of the Rushdie fatwa and the growing incidence of similar attacks on writers. It aims to protect not only freedom of speech and publication but also the physical safety of writers. In its early days, the IPW (or PIE, as it is known abroad) came up with the idea of providing cities of refuge for writers forced to live in exile. There is now a flourishing network, hosting writers from many countries, writing in many languages." The Guardian (UK) 12/08/01

Friday December 7

OPRAH THE GOOD: At first look, the highbrow literary book clubs of yesterday might seem not to have much in common with today's Oprah Book Club. But "their respective goals are similar: to enlighten and to instruct and, importantly, to somehow elevate their audience in so doing." The Atlantic 12/01

ROLE FOR WRITERS: "Even during the Soviet era, when virtually all of Russia’s finest writers and poets were exiled, killed, imprisoned, savagely censored, or forbidden to publish, Russian literature has persisted in addressing the core issues and dilemmas of human existence, taking humanity’s measure, and explaining Russia and Russians to themselves and the world." The Idler 12/07/01

Thursday December 6

CANADA'S WELL-READ GIRLS: A new international test measuring the reading ability of kids, shows that Canada ranks high in the world, second only to Finland. But the terrific showing was due entirely to Canada's girls, who scored well . Canada's boys scored significantly lower - an average of 30 points lower - causing some to call for a plan to raise boys' literacy. National Post 12/06/01

HOW TO KEEP THE PAGES TURNING: The publisher of Lord of the Rings only ran off three thousand copies the first time around, figuring not many readers would wade through 1077 pages. Yet tens of millions of them have, and the reason is "there is one big thing that Tolkien got right: he got rhythm. His instinct for the procedures of Dark Age saga was as reliable as his indifference to the mores of the machine age, and he soon established a beat — a basic pulse, throbbing below the surface of the book and forcing you, day after day, to turn the page. We can no more leave Frodo stranded on his mission than his friends can." The New Yorker 12/10/01

Wednesday December 5

THE POWER OF AN UNREAD BOOK: Recently, Canada's largest bookseller announced that it would not carry, or place orders for, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler's infamous manifesto. The announcement caused much discussion of the dangers of censorship, but, asks one critic, do you know anyone who has read Mein Kampf? Assuming not, isn't the real power of the work its very existence, rather than its availability? The Globe & Mail (Toronto) 12/05/01

A SNIT OVER SNICKET: Children's literature tends to focus on the supernatural and suspenseful, and is therefore an easy target for adults who mistakenly think that kids' lives should be nothing but sweetness and light. Since September 11, author Daniel Handler has been criticized for continuing to churn out his popular series of darkly comic "Lemony Snicket" books, which feature evil plots, scary situations, and narrow escapes for its youthful protagonists. But Handler is turning the criticism around, and insisting that it is those who would shield children from the truth of the world around them who are irresponsible. Chicago Tribune 12/05/01

GETTING PAST THE WHOLE UGLY SUICIDE THING: "Ted Hughes was perhaps the greatest British poet of his generation but it was his tragedy to be chiefly known, particularly in North America, as the dastardly husband whose infidelities drove the fragile Sylvia Plath — feminist icon — to gas herself at the age of 30." But a controversial new biography of the poet claims that such tragedies are no reason to ignore one of the geniuses of 20th-century writing. Toronto Star 12/05/01

Monday December 3

AN AUTHOR WHO WANTS TO DO IT: Burned by her last choice of a book for her Book Club, Oprah asked Rohinton Mistry, her latest choice, if he really wanted to be chosen. Mistry's A Fine Balance is the first Canadian work she has chosen and only the second by a non-American. He said yes. Toronto Star 12/02/01

BOOK SALES RECOVERING: Booksellers are still cautious, but sales of books in the US since Thanksgiving seem to be up a bit over last year. Large booksellers are deeply discounting popular books, but even at independent stores sales are good. Publishers Weekly 12/03/01

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