• December 31, 2013

    As Al Jazeera demands the release of its four journalists detained in Egypt, the Committee to Protect Journalists has released a grim accounting of the year, declaring Egypt, Syria, and Iraq the most deadly nations in the world for the press. According to the report, seventy journalists have been killed for their work in 2013. Twenty-five more deaths are still under investigation.

    Margaret Mitchell

    Margaret Mitchell

    “The Great American Novel—always capitalized, like the United States of America itself—has to be a book that contains and explains the whole country,” writes Adam Kirsch in a review of Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel. Surely, books such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom fit the script. But what about Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which covers many of the same themes as Faulker’s masterpiece, outsold it by a factor of fifty to one, but hardly qualifies as an uncontested classic of American letters?

    In the meantime, the Millions estimates that there are currently some 250,000 novelists at work in America.

    The man behind the New York Times Magazine’s most striking cover designs is leaving, and moving to Apple.

    Soon to be spun off of Time Warner, Time Inc. is planning to strike out on its own.

    According to a federal judge in Chicago, Sherlock Holmes has tumbled out of copyright protection and into the public domain.

  • December 30, 2013

    Jeff Bezos

    Jeff Bezos

    Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth talks about the paper and its new owner, Jeff Bezos: “People have stopped wearing ties, that’s the biggest change around here” since Bezos bought the paper for $250 million last fall. The D.C. daily is in a “great position,” she says. “We have a credible brand, deeply engaged readers, [and we] cover Washington. And now we are owned by someone with deep pockets who cares what we do and is willing to invest for the long term.”

    For its end-of-the-year roundup, Salon asked critics to name their favorite books—and their least-likable characters.

    Gawker, meanwhile, has issued a list of the year’s least important writers, including Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Andrew Sullivan, and Elizabeth Wurtzel—ouch.

    At the Awl, Sharan Shetty looks at trends in design-font history.

    The Los Angeles Times shifts from looking back to looking forward with a preview of good books to come in 2014, including Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, “the great Delaware novel everyone’s been waiting for,” according to Hector Tobar.

    “There has always been something deliciously dubious about pulp.” No kidding! In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kaavya Asoka reflects on the subversive charms of Tamil pulp fiction, as packaged in a new, multi-volume series of anthologies.

  • December 27, 2013

    As an alternative to the Queen’s annual Christmas missive, the UK’s Channel 4 aired a message from surveillance whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, warning of the dangers of a future without privacy—a future, he says, which will look and feel a lot worse than George Orwell’s 1984.


    Lila Abu-Lughod

    On the New York Times’ Arts Beat blog, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod talks about her new book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, inspired by the (craven, spurious, cynical) argument that the US went to war in Afghanistan to free women from the Taliban and liberate them from their burqas (Abu-Lughod’s argument is more measured and scholarly than Arundhati Roy’s mischievous, feisty diatribes on much the same subject, ie: “Can we bomb our way to a feminist paradise?”). After returning to Egypt to interview women about the everyday complications of their lives, Abu-Lughod report: “There’s no such thing as the Muslim woman. We know that. It’s common sense. But somehow it’s been lost as common sense.”

    A new non-profit organization in Detroit is offering free houses for writers in search of a residency or retreat.

    According to the Times of India, nonfiction ruled over fiction in 2013.

    In the days before Christmas, the Strand, that venerable New York City bookstore representing eighteen miles of books, reported the best sales in its eighty-six-year history, suggesting that books are not, in fact, dead. In the same last-minute shopping spree, the store also played host to at least two marriage proposals.

    Has the holiday season shattered your attention span? Fear not, at Salon, some thirty writers try their hands at some very short fiction, with no story running more than two sentences long.

  • 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.