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Arabic literature

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Apparently the recent London Book Fair featured Arabic literature. That would have been really interesting to go to.

As compensation, I found an interesting article in the Guardian. They asked a good number of authors and academics about what it’s like to be an Arab or Egyptian author today and what books they would recommend or like to see translated into English.

Here’s an excerpt from the Guardian article:

Adania Shibli
Palestinian writer

I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.

In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.

I keep thinking about him standing there with his arms full of laundry watching his home being destroyed.

Sadly, I found pretty much none of the mentioned authors available in English, but I did find a few in French. I’m going to try the bookshop at the Institut du Monde Arabe, they should have a good selection.

It’s wonderful to finally be able to read in another language — even if I still need my dictionary. The ones I learned in school and forgot don’t count because I was foolish enough to lose them. So now I’m discovering all kinds of new writers: French, Italian, Spanish, African, and on and on.

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The KFC Origin of Starbucks Species by Chuck E. Cheese Darwin

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Product Placement.

I still remember it: I was sixteen, sitting in the movie theatre, watching an unbearably sad movie. She loved him, he died violently and unexpectedly. She has been walking around numb for months when one day she reaches, without thinking, for a CD.

We know what she’s going to do. She’s going to listen to it — their song. I started to tear up, Oh God, how would we bear it?!? She pops it into the stereo and just as the heart-shattering first chords begin, I see through my tears, not our beloved heroine’s face revealing the state of her anguished heart, but a full screen close up of her CD player. “SONY!!!!” it screamed in letters that loomed above me, four feet tall and twelve feet wide.

“What the f—?”

Now, I’m not unrealistic about the world. I know that advertising very often pays the bills. But am I the only one that thinks things are a bit out of control? Hamlet, head to toe in designer clothing labels, sporting a fetching Gucci handbag, waving a Big Mac around instead of Yorick’s skull. Ahab obsessed with an iPod wearing whale. I’m probably giving these people ideas… What happened to restraint? Subtlety?

And look what I found in an archeology article:

The earliest known shoes, rope sandals that attached to the feet with string, date to only around 10,000 B.C. For the new study, the clues were in middle toe bones that change during an individual’s lifetime if the person wears shoes a lot.

“When you walk barefoot, your middle toes curl into the ground to give you traction as you push off,” explained co-author Erik Trinkaus, who worked on the study with Hong Shang.

“If you regularly wear Nikes, moccasins or any other type of shoe, you actually wind up pushing off with your big toe, with less force going through the middle toes,” added Trinkaus, a Washington University anthropologist who is one of the world’s leading experts on early human evolution.

Whoah! Hold on a minute! “Nikes, moccasins or any other type of shoe…” Nike is not a type of shoe, it’s a BRAND. Sandals, slippers, flip-flops — these are types of shoes. At least they could be logically correct. How much do you think they got for that? It’s unbelievable that newspapers don’t have a version of the American Society of Magazine Editors guidelines.

Even if they don’t care about the fact that we are exhausted by the tsunami of advertising that is our daily lives, perhaps they might consider that editorial product placement in articles just might undermine our confidence in the rest of the information offered.

Next thing you know you’ll buy a copy of Darwin’s The Evolution of Species and discover that the Western Galapagos finches evolved his unique L-shaped, six-sided beak so that they could better assemble IKEA furniture.

finches sell out

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Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translate Tolstoy’s War and Peace!

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I suppose you’ve guessed what this post is about.

I’m so excited!!! I’m not sure when I’ll get it here, maybe late October, early November. Time to call in sick at work! Too bad I’m self-employed.

When Brigg’s translation came out I was devastated. I’d been hoping and waiting for eons for my favorite Russian-to-English translators to get to War and Peace. I thought surely no publisher would release another translation of it for at least for a few years. How happy I am to be wrong.

While we’re all waiting, I found a wonderful article (reproduced in full) about Russian-to-English translators, translations and translating issues. It includes interesting details about V and P’s technique and the rather astounding fact that D.H. Lawrence and Constance Garnett were friends. (Somehow I can’t possibly imagine them in the same room together, let alone speaking.) There’s a lot of wonderful information in it, but I must say that I did find the writing of the article itself a bit uneven. Not that that stopped me — I devoured it in minutes!

I copied the text from the comments of this post on Prufrock’s Page (thank you!) and pasted them into a word processing program, then printed it out. I think if I’d read all 17 pages of it in that teeny text on my dreadful screen I would have gone blind (”…or insane!” Remember that from Love and Death? Ah, how I miss the early Woody Allen films…)

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

I normally have a policy of not mentioning contemporary fiction that I didn’t like. The reason being that all the published writers I know google themselves. I absolutely hate the idea that I might discourage anyone or make them feel bad. The only time I break this rule is if the book is truly, deeply awful and the author needs to be stopped from wasting trees or, if the author is insanely over-hyped, winning awards (therefore quite likely to be delusional about the quality of the work) and rolling in piles of money.

The Kite Runner falls into the second category.

The covers of this book were bristling with those familiar, gushing clichés: “Powerful.” “Haunting.” “Moving. “Genuine.” “Riveting.” “Unforgettable.” Exhausting. Ooops, that last one is mine. But it’s how I feel being assaulted by all this manic, hysterical selling. There was even a review quote on the spine, as well as a NYT Bestseller warning — I mean boast. The word “powerful” actually appears six times on the outside of the book. Strangely, three of those six times are from the same NYT review. Guess they were proud of that one. As the too oft quoted Shakespeare line goes: “I think the lady doth protest too much.”

So I ended up starting this book with Dostoevsky-level expectations, when all I originally had in mind was reading something based in Afghanistan–as I know shamefully little about it, past or present.

The impression I had throughout was of a rather strained first novel with a lot of structural flaws. Not to mention that emotionally, it felt dishonest. I didn’t get much of a feel for the country and virtually none at all for the people because the narrator is a little overprotected rich kid. The “harshness” is TV-style and the violence clichéd and unreal. The first third is the better crafted, after that it devolves and by the last third we are reading an outline for a screenplay: plant, pay off, plant, pay off. It almost gives you motion sickness. And he just keeps hitting the beats; again, bad TV comes to mind. The ending is insultingly TV-ish: unreal and neatly tied up. Does anyone actually think that life is that simplistic?

There was one section that completely stood out, in a very odd way. It’s a scene in a hospital where a doctor is described as having a “Clark Gable” mustache, blinding white teeth and looking like a soap opera star. Then there is a highly technical one-page description of the character’s injuries. At the time, I thought, okay, he did some research and shoveled it in a bit heavily. But that scene kept coming back to me as just being, well, strange. Like it had some subliminal neon thing going on. Why? I did a bit of rooting around on the web… and wouldn’t you know it, the author is a doctor.

Now, I’m going to say something completely politically incorrect, so brace yourself. I think the reason this book is so hyped and popular is because people are always curious about the people they are–how shall we say it–subjugating? crushing? bombing the crap out of? Britain was obsessed with India, France with everything Egyptian (Napoleon), then the South Pacific, then Africa… Chinese scholars are fascinated with the Tibetan cultures China is doing its best to annihilate. If you look at the front page of the author’s website, you can see the two active ingredients here: guilt (note the author’s UN work video and the “ways to aid Afghanistan” section) and curiosity (”Buy the book!”).

If it hadn’t been hyped to death, I wouldn’t be angry. This is a slipshod “product”, more marketing than substance.

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