Saturday, October 20, 2007

What a Week!

What a run! Start off the week with novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, followed by playwright Elizabeth Wong, followed by Nate Mackey, Nat'l Book Award-winning poet, followed by a live-accompaniment screening of Pabst's "Pandora's Box," followed by a great conference in the Adirondacks, organized by Littap, Just Buffalo, and NYSCA, the New York State Council on the Arts.

This current session is still going strong with a reading by Russell Banks and Chase Twichell.

Because of the the slow autumn, this is peak leaf weekend in the Adirondacks, and there's nothing better than to sit at Blue Mountain Lake. Simply gorgeous. Many thanks are due to Laurie Dean Torrell from Just Buffalo, and the lovely, most graceful Kathleen Masterson, head of the literature program at NYSCA.

So many wonderful people met, and a special salute to the New York State Council on the Arts' new chief, Heather Hitchens.

But the best thing of all was to be reunited with old friend Bob Holman, one of the best friends that literature could know. Cheers to you, Whole Earth Bob!

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We had a great time with the remarkably talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has quickly become the best-known Nigerian novelist after the master, Chinua Achebe (in whose house she grew up - a university house leased to her parents after Achebe left for another teaching post). What synchrony!

The head of the region's Nigerian civic organization rose from the audience to salute her for making Nigerian-Americans proud. It was a touching moment.

We also talked with Michael Janairo of the Albany Times Union. He had done a fine preview feature-interview with Chimamanda and has posted some more of his interview materials on his Books Blog, A Conspiracy of Smart People

We salute him on his enthusiasm and good work.

There is also a remarkable website on Chimamanda's work:

It is managed by a Belgian librarian and is without doubt the most comprehensive website I've seen on a contemporary author. If you go to the site, note that all of the bibiographic citations are hotlinks. A remarkable effort.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lessing, eh; kudos for Lydia Davis, Kany and Jonathan Spence

We were surprised and, well, underwhelmed by the choice of Doris Lessing for the Nobel. Well, we're happy for anyone who succeeds, but geez. There was a time when "Golden Notebook" and Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex" were de riguer reading for women as well as men trying to find their way through the sexual politics of a couple of generations ago. But Simone was poorly translated and misunderstood, and Lessing read as though she were poorly translated until one realized she had written in English. This is a lot like the William Goldman choice - maybe the Swedish Academy gets better translations than what appear in the original.

More important to us is that Lydia Davis, Institute Fellow, was nominated for a National Book Award. Now there's a writer.

Today was an Institute "long day" - in co-operation with people at our host, the University at Albany, the Institute organized a double visit by Kang Zhengguo and Jonathan Spence.

This was a homerun hit: Mr. Kang's "Confessions," a window onto the world of China in the heinous Cultural Revolution (which Jonathan Spence described as neither cultural nor revolutionary) is a landmark of writing about the time and stands with Da Chen's remarkable series of memoirs on the same period. Kang, whose English is good nonetheless worked effectively with Albany professor Jim Hargett who engaged in a translation/conversation/dialogue with Kang as Kang described his last trip to China, during which he was targeted by secret police who tried to draw him into a compromising web, and then physically tried to detain him. Kang, who was visiting his son in Shanghai barely escaped through the strange product of western influence on China's buildings: the upscale code entry system for apartment buildings that we see in New York. As he scuffled with the secret police, Kang was able to punch in his son's apartment entry security code, enter the building, and slam the door shut on his antagonists. What was pleasurable about the presentation was that Kang chose to tell his story in Chinese with Hargett as the on-scene interpreter. Kang would go on in his native languauge with an animated and engaging story. Hargett would enunciate, "Oh my," and then translate the next section of the long tale. It kept the engaged audience anxiously waiting for the next step of the story. Good fun, a great book, and a great individual, that Mr. Kang, a man who was willing to risk serious jail-time to read Pasternak's "Dr Zhivago."

"Do we love Jonathan Spence or what?" someone said to us on the occasion of his later afternoon presentation. Spence, who exhibits the kind of cool yet passionate, cunning yet scholarly mix that has won him lauds as an educator at Yale, and numerous prizes, among them a MacArthur, was in fine form. His "Return to Dragon Mountain," an exquisite book with all of the echoes of a Calvino novel and with a hero, Zhang Dai, a man of beyond Proustian brilliance, naturally carried the day. We would venture to say that since the passing of Shelby Foote, no one has been able to write as powerful a narrative sense of history as Spence. Look at the Circles of Pleasure section of "Return to Dragon Mountain." You'll see in a heartbeat.

A salute to all mentioned here.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Institute Fall Series; Nobel Sweepstakes

As the Writers Institute website morphs and grows, it's clear that there's a lot of updating ahead. The Summer wasn't quite completed, and the Fall Series is already going great guns, with Jane Hamilton, Kim Edwards, and native son Richard Russo. We'll write on each, especially Russo's sense that a) he does still live in New York State, albeit in his his head, and b) that in an almost jungian projection and balancing, Russo feels the three main characters of his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, are three essential parts of his his own psyche.

But enough of that for now. It's Nobel literature laureate prognostication time, and we're amazed that punters are attracted to Ladbrokes's current odds for winning the Prize, which will be announced on Thursday, October 11, when most Americans, or Western Hemispherians, potential winners among them, will be asleep.

Philip Roth has moved in the time time of my writing from 6 to 2 to 5 to 1 to 7 to 2. He remains leader of the pack no matter that, as a writer friend says, he makes him weary of being a man (allusion to the Neruda poem). Here's the current Labrokes's list - though the list will likely change within minutes of our posting.

Our sentimental favorites include Yves Bonnefoy, Claudio Magris (has anyone in America read him?), Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro, and well, because we're fond of Aussies, Les Murray. But where are John Ashbery, or Charles Simic? Or Nurrudin Farah? In time.

The Institute has brought through more than one-third of the writers listed, but there are a number of writers on the Ladbrokes list who are either unknown to us or so longshot that it's not worth the effort of speculation (JK Rowling, Bob Dylan, etc. - no matter that writers in these part love Dylan).

Our best guess: the award is always political without being political, so it's unlikely for an American to win,but Roth is Roth. Then there's Munro (front-row Canadian), Bonnefoy, Achebe, Magris, or some Mayanmar poet who has been laboring in obscurity and pain but who will be celebrated like a record-breaking NFL undrafted free agent.

Here are the current odds from a european-based bunch of brokers who don't read:

Philip Roth 7/2
Claudio Magris 6/1
Haruki Murakami 7/1
Thomas Transtromer 7/1
Amos Oz 8/1
Joyce Carol Oates 8/1
Les Murray 8/1
Adonis 10/1
Thomas Pynchon 10/1
Ko Un 14/1
Yves Bonnefoy 16/1
Cees Nooteboom 20/1
Margaret Atwood 20/1
Antoni Tabucchi 25/1
Milan Kundera 25/1
Assia Djebar 25/1
Bei Dao 25/1
Don DeLillo 25/1
Hugo Claus 25/1
Jean Marie Gustav Le Clezio 25/1
Mahmoud Darwish 25/1
Peter Carey 25/1
Alice Munro 40/1
Carlos Fuentes 40/1
Eric Elmsatr 40/1
Gitta Sereny 40/1
Harry Mulisch 40/1
Herta Muller 40/1
Ian McEwan 40/1
Inger Christensen 40/1
John Updike 40/1
Willy Kyrklund 40/1
Chinua Achebe 50/1
Cormac McCarthy 50/1
David Malouf 50/1
Mario Vargas Llosa 50/1
Michel Tournier 50/1
Umberto Ecco 50/1
A. B. Yehoshua 100/1
Adam Zagajewski 100/1
E. L. Doctorow 100/1
Eeva Kilpi 100/1
F. Sionil Jose 100/1
J K Rowling 100/1
John Banville 100/1
Julian Barnes 100/1
Mary Gordon 100/1
Michael Ondaatje 100/1
Patrick Modiano 100/1
Paul Auster 100/1
Salman Rushdie 100/1
William H Gass 100/1
Bob Dylan 150/1
2007-10-11 11:00:00

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