• December 24, 2013

    For six years, the New York Times not only held the story of Robert Levinson, an American spy on a CIA mission who went missing in Iran in 2007, but also repeatedly described Levinson’s visit to the country in a manner which the paper’s editorial writers and news reporters knew to be false. Public editor Margaret Sullivan weighs in on the reasons why.

    Mikhail Kalashnikov

    Mikhail Kalashnikov

    Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, has died. Read more about him here: “In the final days of the Soviet Union, when the old icons were fast decaying and any future ones were frantically packing off to escape the ruins,” writes Andrew Meier in Bookforum, “the guardians of Russia’s past had few relics to showcase. One of the last heroes standing, a Stalin Prize winner and two-time Hero of Socialist Labor, was Mikhail Kalashnikov.”

    A dire statistic for 2013: Book bannings are up 53 percent in school libraries across America, according to an anti-censorship group known as the Kids’ Right to Read Project. Among the most contested titles, reports The Guardian’s David Barnett, are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

    A former Italian senator and influential consigliere to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “has been caught up in one of the biggest book-theft scandals in history,” reports Rachel Donadio in the New York Times. Marcello Dell’Utri claims to have turned over to the authorities all but one of the allegedly stolen books—a rare edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, which he says is lost in storage.

    Charles Ramsey, the reluctant hero who discovered and helped free the captives of Ariel Castro, is writing a book.

  • December 23, 2013

    The New York Times Magazine will take a bit longer before deciding who the new editor, replacing Hugo Lindgren, will be. Times executive editor Jill Abramson sent a memo to staff on Friday saying there were “urgent issues and questions” to consider before the new appointment, and has named a committee to “plunge into the challenges facing the magazine.”

    boris akunin

    Boris Akunin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has created a new writers’ club, the Literary Assembly, which will hold its first congress in the spring of 2014, ahead of 2015 being designated a “Year of Literature” in Russia. “The Kremlin intends [the assembly] as a replacement for the Union of Russian Writers, itself the replacement for the Union of Soviet Writers,” writes The Guardian’s book blog, “which was established under Stalin in the 1930s, to catastrophic cultural effect. Allegedly, more than 1,000 Russian writers, critics and publishers will participate.” Grigory Chkhartishvili, who writes detective fiction under the pen-name Boris Akunin, was not impressed: “I would enjoy talking to Putin about literature after all the political prisoners are released. Until then, it is not possible.”

    The National Book Critics Circle has announced the finalists for the first ever John Leonard Prize, which honors an outstanding debut book.

    The New Yorker is starting a poetry podcast hosted by Paul Muldoon. First up, Philip Levine reads and discusses Ellen Bass.

    Fans and friends mourn the death of YA novelist Ned Vizzini, the author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

    At Hyperallergic, Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio considers Vivian Maier’s self-portraits.

    Over the weekend, M. Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog took a break from all of the annual year in reviews to honor the shortest day of the year, posting twelve very short stories from around the Middle East, including Adania Shibli’s “Silence” and Ibrahim al-Koni’s “The Teacher.”

  • December 20, 2013

    Donna Tartt

    Donna Tartt

    With eleven days left in the year, the New York Times’ book critics Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, and Dwight Gardner have weighed in with their lists of favorite books from 2013, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.

    In New England, a vendue is an auction. In the south, a mourner’s bench is a pew set aside for penitents in the front of a church. In the northwest, to hooky bob is to hold onto the back of a vehicle while being towed along across ice and snow. Welcome to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), in the works since 1965, and now complete and available online, featuring 60,000 words drawn from more than a thousand different linguistic communities. More than a guide for distinguishing shades of meaning, however, the dictionary is a record of vanishing dialects: “DARE is valuable as a documentary rescue mission, in that the regional diversity it documents has been diluting since after World War II.”

    At the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin calls bullshit on the publishing crisis: “This is the story, for me,” he writes, “that there is no story, or more accurately, that the panic that’s defined publishing for the last several years has calmed.” He then segues into a fine manifesto for reading: “Call it local, call it artisanal, call it slow reading: I call it a mechanism by which we are enlarged. That, in turn, goes back to why we read in the first place: not to be entertained or distracted but to be connected, to experience a world, a life, a set of emotions we might not otherwise get to know.”

    Conrad illuminated: Boing Boing reports on a striking new edition of The Heart of Darkness, illustrated by the artist Matt Kish.

    Nabokov vs. Vonnegut, Saul Bellow vs. Raymond Chandler: The Guardian wrestles with the question—Who is the greatest American novelist?—in this three-part series.

    The ALCU is circulating an online petition, requesting that President Obama “grant Edward Snowden immunity now.”

  • December 19, 2013

    Eliot Higgins

    Eliot Higgins

    Eliot Higgins, the blogger best known as Brown Moses, is launching a new web site in early 2014, devoted to his specific and resourceful brand of investigative journalism, which relies heavily on public data, social media, user-generated content, and open-source technology. Higgins has been tracking the Syrian civil war since 2012, with an eye toward munitions and the movement of weapons. The new, as-yet-unnamed web site, however, is set to pursue a broader mission, melding classical reporting skills with the most up-to-date fact-finding tools: “I don’t want it to be old journalism vs new journalism,” Higgins says. “I want them to work together because this new stuff, investigations using open sources, can inform traditional methods.”

    Political satirist and author P.J. O’Rourke (Eat the RichHolidays in Heck) has joined the staff of the Daily Beast, for which he will write a weekly column titled “Up to a Point.” The Daily Beast is “not predictable in its politics,” O’Rourke said in a statement. “And even though I’m pretty politically conservative, the whole idea of having to be constantly predictable on your politics is just exhausting and stupid, because you’re leaving out half of the stupid things that people do—you know, the half you agree with.”

    On Point has posted an interview with New York Times writer and memoirist David Carr, who discusses Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post, Edward Snowden’s leaks, Time magazine’s decision to name the pope the latest “person of the year,” and other big media stories of 2013.

    On the New Yorker’s book blog, Rachel Syme considers our reading habits with regard to history, lurching from, say, the months required to plow through the brick-sized volumes of Robert Caro to the fleeting seconds of distraction with a Twitter feed. “For better or worse, this is how we interact with the past now,” she writes. “The lists of nostalgic curiosities compete with thousand-page tomes.” In the work of the British historian Richard Holmes, Syme discovers an alternative.

    Why do fans of the Hunger Games series tend to avoid the Twilight books and vice versa? Ben Blatt tries to answer this question by doing a “comprehensive textual analysis” (and throws in Harry Potter for good measure). He finds that Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer, and J.K. Rowling favor very different adjectives.

  • December 18, 2013

    Samuel Beckett

    Samuel Beckett

    Only around five recordings of Samuel Beckett’s voice are known to exist. This forthcoming documentary—about the making of Beckett’s first and only feature film, starring Buston Keaton and usefully titled Film—includes one of them. Directed by Ross Lipman, a filmmaker and restoration specialist, the documentary, cleverly titled NotFilm, features a wealth of archival material, including photographs from location scouts, film footage, and rare bits of dialogue between Beckett and the director Alan Schneider.

    Quercus, publisher of the late Stieg Larsson’s astronomically bestselling Millenium trilogy, has announced plans to continue to the series. Apparently, Larsson had mapped out a total of ten books starring the cyber-sleuth Lisbeth Salander, and was at work on the fourth at the time of his death. Quercus has now hired David Lagercrantz, a journalist and the author of a biography about a Swedish soccer star, to write the next installment, scheduled to be released in the summer of 2015.

    Sixty-three years ago, Lillian Ross wrote a New Yorker profile about Ernest Hemingway, which many of her peers and colleagues characterized as a “hatchet job.” Hemingway loved it, the two writers became friends, and his prose style eventually grew on her. Here, Ross returns to annotate the piece: “I don’t judge,” she writes. “There was one Hemingway, one and only. Just as there was only one J.D. Salinger. I was privileged to know both men, and to eventually write about both of them…. These men are just themselves. I love and respect that. Everything they said was of interest to me, and a joy.”

    The New York Times debates whether Bob Dylan was a musician or poet.

    The fretting has begun about a forthcoming movie about David Foster Wallace, which will star Jason Segel.

    Shia LaBeouf has admitted that he’s “embarrassed that [he] failed to credit” Daniel Clowes in a new film that bears many similarities to Clowes’s 2007 comic “Justin M. Damiano.”

  • December 17, 2013

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    When Lolita was first published by an obscure French publisher of erotica in 1955, it came packaged in a plain green wrapper. Since then, the book’s had many evocative covers, most of which ignore Nabokov’s ardent art direction: “No girls.” There’ve been knocked-kneed legs in schoolgirl skirts, lollipop-licking seductresses, and button-nosed cuties smiling wanly. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving examine the ways in which Nabokov’s most famous book has been portrayed, and commission new takes on the book’s cover from eighty artists and designers, along with essays by Mary Gaitskill, Barbara Bloom, and Leland de la Durantaye, among others. We see textual treatments, the most successful of which uses the famous opening enunciation of the nymphet’s name (“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps . . . ”), and another that illustrates a tongue taking those three steps. There’s a cover that pictures Humbert Humbert in a sweaty reverie, as well as a school-girlish notebook page, and some sexualized bobby socks (and scrunchies). Looking at the covers on display here one can sense the difficulty of the designers’ task: How to even hint at the devilish and unstable mix of beauty and cruelty in Nabokov’s most shocking work of art? Perhaps the book would be best served by a simple warning: “Contents may be combustible.”

  • Adelle Waldman

    Adelle Waldman

    Looking back on the year in fiction may not be the usual purview of an op-ed columnist, but the New York Times’s Ross Douthat appears to have launched the last literary feud of 2013 by doing so. Over the weekend, he used Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., to make a somewhat specious point about social conservativism, premarital sex, and the chaotic romantic lives of the book’s characters. In an interview with the New Republic, Waldman responds with admirable thanks-but-no-so-fast nuance. “Douthat makes the classic . . . conservative mistake,” writes Marc Tracy, “of assuming that rigid social conventions must do the work that we cannot trust young adults to do themselves.”

    Looking ahead to the next twelve months, Wired predicts that 2014 may be the year the tech bubble bursts, again, while the Los Angeles Times’s book blog sees a viable (if counterintuitive) future in print, with online-only ventures such as Pitchfork, Jezebel, the New Inquiry, and the Los Angeles Review of Books getting into the publishing game with books, journals, and magazines.

    In a deal reportedly worth six figures, Random House has acquired the rights to publish The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison, a recently discovered nineteenth-century manuscript said to be the first prison memoir ever penned by an African American writer.

    Al Jazeera America may be hemorrhaging money and viewers but the network’s owners in Qatar apparently don’t care: For now, reports Buzzfeed, “[they] would rather accumulate prestige than profit.”

    Despite the lingering controversy over Lara Logan and Max McClellan’s retracted report for 60 Minutes about the attack, in 2012, on a US compound in Benghazi, says Politico, both reporters are allegedly returning to the program after taking temporary leaves of absence.

    American Zoetrope has bought the screen rights to Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, a memoir about growing up with Steve Abbott, a prominent writer in the New Narrative movement. Sofia Coppola is set to adapt the book and produce the film.

  • December 16, 2013


    Beyoncé on tour in 2013

    On her new track “Flawless,” Beyoncé samples Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author, most recently, of Americanah. The sample, taken from Adichie’s Ted talk, states: “We should all be feminists,” and makes up most of the song’s second verse.

    As the deluge of end-of-year best-of lists continues, it becomes easy to wonder if we should care about any of them. At the New Yorker, Elif Batuman helpfully explains, in convenient list form, that we should.

    Hate-reading our way through 2013: Obamacare is Obama’s Katrina, Iraq; Hipsturbia; Mr. 300 Sandwiches; etc.

    Gallerist reports on a dust-up over sacked freelancers at Blouin Media, publisher of Art + Auction, Modern Painters, and Artinfo.com.

    Toronto’s Globe and Mail profiles a new series of slim books by Melville House, the Neversink Library, inspired by “Lawrence Weschler’s call for ‘investigative poets’ and ‘lyrical journalists’ to create nonfiction with the imaginative dexterity of a novel.”

  • December 13, 2013

    The New York Observer is ditching its iconic salmon tint and moving to plain white paper. If New York magazine’s decision to bail on its weekly publishing schedule isn’t enough to jolt the print-media landscape, come February, the Observer will lose its classic pink look as part of a larger effort, according to Capital New York, to transform the weekly newspaper’s format and give it a major image overhaul.


    Robert Levinson, last seen in a video addressed to his family

    After reporting a story for three years and delaying its publication three times (at the request of the US government), the Associated Press finally breaks the news: Robert Levinson, an American man who disappeared in Iran seven years ago, was working for the CIA. But his mission was never approved, and it broke many of the spy agency’s most basic rules: “The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts [by the US government to bring Levinson home to his family] have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years.”

    The director Ari Folman, who was nominated for an Oscar five years ago for Waltz with Bashir, is turning the diary of Anne Frank into an animated film.

    Margaret Wrinkle has won the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Flaherty-Dunnam First Novel Prize. Set in nineteenth-century Tennessee, Wrinkle’s debut novel, Wash (Grove), delves into the relationship between a troubled American Revolutionary War veteran and a young man born into slavery. In her acceptance speech at the Union League Club on Wednesday night, Wrinkle said her book was born of her own experience, growing up in Alabama: “In a still-segregated world,” she said, “these profound relationships were not supposed to be acknowledged, so I grew up crossing racial boundaries carrying divided loyalties. And I think I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to capture the whole of that particular story.”

    A Russian designer is developing a Franz Kafka video game, which is set to be released next year. According to NBC News, Denis Galanin, who turned Hamlet into a video game two years ago, is working on “a puzzle-based adventure game inspired by some of Kafka’s best-known works including The Castle, The Metamorphosis, and Amerika.”

    The Millions reports that The Paris Review and the 92nd Street Y have a new collaboration going, publishing footage of their onstage author interviews online. The series kicks off with Garrison Keillor, Iris Murdoch, and William Styron. It follows an initiative by the 92nd Street Y to digitize its collection, including audio interview footage, dating back to the 60s and 70s, with Nadine Gordimer, Kurt Vonnegut, and many more.

  • December 12, 2013

    Thirteen news organizations, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the Associated Press, have written a letter asking all parties to the conflict in Syria to stop kidnapping journalists on the job. More than thirty journalists have been abducted in 2013, seven in the past two months alone.

    Tonight at the 92nd Street Y, Jonathan Ames, Sheila Heti, and Lawrence Weschler will appear for an evening of reading and discussion celebrating The Best of McSweeney’s, an anthology covering the influential lit mag’s first fifteen years.

    Gerald and Sara Murphy on a beach in East Hampton, circa 1915

    Gerald and Sara Murphy on a beach in East Hampton, circa 1915

    MoMA is reissuing Calvin Tomkins’s classic book Living Well is the Best Revenge, about the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, American expats who were living in France in the 1920s, and served as the models for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s main characters in Tender is the Night. First in Paris and later in Antibes, the Murphys entertained Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter, and Fernand Léger, among others. Tomkins’s text, written for the New Yorker in 1962 and published as a book in 1974, is illustrated by more than seventy photographs from the Murphy’s family albums. Next month, MoMA is also reissuing Tomkins’s much-admired biography of Marcel Duchamp.

    The Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa has won the annual Naguib Mahfouz medal. But he failed to secure an Egyptian visa to attend the ceremony last night, so he sent a letter instead: “For once I ask in shock about the purpose of writing, and confess that my illusions ended when I discovered that we are so weak, unable to help a child refugee in the camps and return him to the warmth of his house, or the body of a man shot by a sniper for passing wrongly in the wrong place at that wrong time, but, at the same time, it has removed from my eyes a haze I dared not confess before. We work in fragility because we produce beauty.”

    Scholars at Yale University believe that an 1858 manuscript that it has acquired is the “first recovered memoir written in prison by an African-American.” In the book, The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, Austin Reed describes his experiences at a state prison in upstate New York.

    Jason Segel has been cast to play the part of David Foster Wallace in the film The End of the Tour. The screenplay is based on transcripts of the novelist’s conversations, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest, with Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky.