Join us for the 11th annual “Company of Authors” on Saturday!

April 17th, 2014

carnochanWe’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Casper on Arendt, with Robert Harrison. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also  the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.

michalski2At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave.  We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt  here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.

Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?


Isabel Allende in New York City: “Don’t expect to write the great American novel in one sitting.”

April 16th, 2014
Isabel Allende, America's Society/NYC, April 15/2014

She will receive an award tonight. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Our roving photographer/reporter Zygmunt Malinowski has been out and about this week – yesterday, he photographed renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende, hours before her public chat with Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman at the Americas Society, the premier New York City institution providing a forum for Latin America.  Allende will attend  the 2014 Gabriela Mistral Foundation Humanitarian Award Dinner tonight and receive an award.

Isabel Allende, America's Society. April 15/2014

She shows up. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Said Zygmunt: “I attended the press conference for her recent novels Maya’s Notebook and Ripper, photo-op was included, even though I had to rush and skip the public conversation because of a planned trip [webcast of the discussion is here]. Her latest book is Ripper (2014), a crime novel, was something new for her. She had a rough start and it only jelled for her when she attended a Marin County conference for crime book enthusiasts.”

“Who doesn’t remember House of the Spirits?” he said of one of the magic realist author’s successful first book, which became a major film. “The film was also popular overseas. When it premiered in Warsaw in 1994 in the Palace of Culture/Congress Hall, the three thousand-seat theatre was filled to capacity. Many dignitaries attended, including government representatives, politicians, and actors.”

From Zygmunt’s notes during the press conference:

On writing fiction:

“The first responsibility of fiction writer is to make your story believable, it has to have a solid foundation. That’s why I research.” (She used a researcher for her latest book.)

A question from Writer magazine: “What is the most important thing you learned about writing?”

“Show up. In the beginning it’s work. Later it’s pure joy.”

“Don’t expect to write the great American novel in one sitting.”

“There are only very few that make their living as writers.”  She remembered another writer who told her:  ”Don’t expect your art to support you otherwise the weight will kill you.”

Les Misérables comes to Stanford – and Book Haven gives a pre-show talk about it.

April 13th, 2014

lesmiserablesLes Misérables has come to Stanford – and the Book Haven was asked to give a talk about it to a small group of students and alumni, as a warm-up for the opening-night event (see poster at right). The reason for the invitation was the high Google ranking for our earlier post, “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight.” Apparently, it appears fourth in the search engines when you type in “Les Misérables” and “misconceptions.” It was a late invitation, and we had little time to prepare. Hence, devoted followers of this blog will recognize some of this text from earlier posts, with amendments and additions. Here’s what Humble Moi said last night:

Do what we may to shape the mysterious block out of which our life is quarried, the dark vein of our destiny will always show forth within it.”

So wrote Victor Hugo in his masterpiece, Les Misérables. And so the book seems to be part of my own personal destiny – a book which, according to the author, is “a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Man takes second place.”

I run a popular blog, the Book Haven, on the Stanford website. A year or two ago, at the launch of the movie version of the musical, I wrote a post called Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight,” which is now pushing close to 100 comments – not bad for a literary blog. But this is a love story that began long, long before, as an 11-year-old girl who discovered Jean Valjean, and spent my evenings with him, hiding my bedroom lamplight so my parents wouldn’t see that I was still awake long after midnight, still reading. Modern literature tends to be intensive rather than extensive nowadays, with texts that are descriptive not demonstrative – and so, despite the devotion of a few of us, Hugo’s meandering cathedral of a novel has been démodé for awhile.

Thanks to the world’s longest-running musical, which you will see tonight, this terribly out-of-fashion book suddenly is in fashion. I cannot say the same for the history of the period, which somehow fell by the wayside. We are repeatedly told to go see this story of the French Revolution.

Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe.  No surprise, perhaps, since even the Les Misérables movie director Tom Hooper seemed a little muddled muddled about French history.


Louis-Philippe: the (perceived) problem.

I don’t have to tell a Stanford audience that the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  The insurrection of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century, different sensibility. But some of the details may have become fuzzy since your years in the classroom, and many of them rush by rather quickly in the show, so it’s worth revisiting. Two years before the rebellion featured in Les Misérables, the July Revolution of 1830 had put the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe on the throne. Popular for awhile, that is.  Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Hugo commended as good and admirable, the poor got poorer, crime was rampant, and poverty was everywhere. Some of the Republicans felt they had spilt their blood in vain on the 1830 barricades, that the revolution had been co-opted by the cronies who put Louis-Philippe in power.

By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic brought Paris to a breaking point, ultimately taking 45,000 lives in the city. The epidemic’s most prominent victim was the popular General Lamarque, a Republican and Napoleonic war hero who was forever lamenting Waterloo and hating Wellington. Hence, in the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris.  The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse en route to his native district in the Pyenees, as the funeral cortege made its wide arc around the Seine’s right bank.  Mourners and rebels merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.

There were cries of “down with Louis-Philippe, long live the Republic.” A group of students took control of the carriage carrying the coffin, diverting it to the Place de la Bastille where speeches followed and eventually someone waved a red flag with the words “Liberty or Death” on it – you should see some sort of a flag in the production. Soldiers had been under orders to refrain from the use of deadly force, but when a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began to throw stones at the military. The June rebellion began.


Lamarque: sore loser.

Hugo was an unwitting participant. The 30-year-old author was nearby, in the Tuileries, writing a play and taking the fresh air his doctor had recommended.  Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles.  He should have gone home to safety, instead he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. The shops and stores had been closed for some time. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles.  Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde – in English, the street at the end of the world, which was more than a fitting tag that afternoon. Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was trapped, surrounded by the barricades. He flung himself against a wall and took shelter between shop pillars. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways. Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.

The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets, and the barricade is a central image in the show you will see tonight. But there wasn’t one barricade in Paris, but dozens. They took as little as fifteen minutes to set up.

traugott_bookAccording to historian Mark Traugott, insurgents ripped the saplings that had been planted to replace the larger trees cut down in the earlier revolution, in 1830. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These raw materials added mass and helped knit the structure together. In the hour-and-a-half between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were first reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the river.

As the first barricades were going up, the rebels searched frantically for weapons. Some made do with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were vital. Bands of insurgents seized them from soldiers on the streets; others looted the Paris gunsmiths shops.

But they needed more than weapons: they needed the citizens to rise up and join them. The insurgents pleaded for help, but no help came. The citizens of Paris were not as quick to join the revolution as they were to join the rowdy funeral procession.  In theshow, the army officer warns the insurgents:

You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!


The 1830 revolution: it was better in the Delacroix version.

And so it was.  The casualty toll among the insurgents mounted as high as 800 dead and wounded, particularly heavy because the people of Paris had abandoned them. The most committed insurgents paid for their rebellion with their lives.

That should have been a tip-off for the modern theater reviewers who got it wrong: after all, the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries  won.  Recall the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and the rest.  This was different. In 1832, the last guns were silenced barely twenty-four hours after fighting had begun.

That about does it for the 1832 insurrection. We could follow with the 1848 revolution.  And then the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. And then the destruction of the last Napoleonic empire in 1871.  It goes on and on.  With all the upheaval, it’s a wonder they could manage an empire at all … oh, that’s right, they couldn’t… It does go some way to explaining the insane decision to sell off a third of the North American continent in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. They were distracted – in that case, by a slave rebellion in Haiti and an impending war with Britain.

llosa2We don’t have much in the world to remind us of this ill-fated one-day insurrection – except this book, and now this musical. Yet the influence of the book over the years has caused me to wonder: Can good be contagious, the way evil is? Can we make it so? One Peruvian writer thought so. He called the Les Miserables an “ideological time bomb that can explode in the mind and imagination of its readers.” It may have been a short-lived blip, but after publication there was an increased interest in philanthropy and the plight of the poor in France. Many people all over the world have drawn strength and inspiration from this novel, but I think, in particular, of this young man in a military academy in Lima, Peru, a century after Les Miserables was published. The Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa would go on to write a remarkable book about Les Mis, called The Temptation of the Impossible. He wrote: “Les Miserables is one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one that they live in.”

I know that in the winter of 1950, in my military uniform, shrouded by the drizzle and the fog on top of the cliff at La Perla, thanks to Les Miserables, life for me was very much less wretched.”

Manhattan’s iconic bookstore Rizzoli closes its doors today amid protests.

April 11th, 2014

Rizzoli, April 9/2014

Our man in New York City, the roaming photographer (and occasionally reporter) Zygmunt Malinowski writes to tell us that the iconic bookstore Rizzoli, at 31 West 57th Street in mid-Manhattan, will close today. “I went to see this six-story townhouse for the last time. The building’s prime location off 5th Avenue within a few blocks from Central Park, Plaza Hotel and Rockefeller Center with St. Patrick’s Cathedral nearby contributed to its popularity. Elegant interior with oak shelves, decorated vaulted ceilings, with cast iron chandeliers, and columned arches – it was truly majestic. Its collection of books was special – for instance, a section of graphic novels. Besides general interest, there were a substantial number of coffee table books,” he wrote.

It didn’t go down without a fight. It just lost potential status as a landmark, despite the pleas of thousands of booklovers and others. As reported yesterday by the International Business Times:

In yet another blow to the thousands of preservation advocates fighting tooth and nail to save New York City’s Rizzoli Bookstore, the building that houses the bookstore doesn’t meet the requirement for interior landmark protection, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The determination, announced on Thursday, follows months of impassioned appeals from preservationists, city officials and New Yorkers who live and work near Manhattan’s rapidly changing West 57th Street, and who have been rallying to save the century-old building, which is presumed to be facing demolition to make way for yet another glass skyscraper. More than 16,000 people have signed a petition in an effort to save the charming, six-story property located at 31 West 57th Street, where Rizzoli Bookstore has been since 1985. The bookstore is set to close its doors for good on Friday, when a rally arranged by Manhattan Community Board Five is scheduled for 10 a.m. EDT outside the building.

According to Zygmunt, a printed window sign mentioned that Rizzoli would relocate – but when? and where?

As always, he’s documented the sad day with photos.  Take a look for the last time.

Rizzoli, April 9/2014


Rizzoli, April 9/2014

Rizzoli, April 9/2014

“Try to wear gray.” One vote for the greatest commencement talk of all time.

April 9th, 2014

griefMaria Popova over at Brain Pickings offers this candidate for the “Greatest Commencement Address of All Time” – delivered at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in 1988. She’s very likely right. So it’s worth revisiting, by both of us, as we head into the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, and the beginning of the dreary commencement speech season.  Here are two paragraphs from what she’s excerpted – you read more over here, or better yet go to On Grief and Reason: Essays, as I did, rereading the bits she left out.  (And yes, his paragraphs really are this long).

Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be one at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous. On the whole, there is always something faintly unpalatable about being better off than one’s likes, and when those likes come in billions, it is more so. To this it should be added that the rich and famous these days, too, come in throngs, that up there on the top it’s very crowded. So if you want to get rich or famous or both, by all means go ahead, but don’t make a meal of it. To covet what somebody else has is to forfeit your uniqueness; on the other hand, of course, it stimulates mass production. But as you are running through life only once, it is only sensible to try to avoid the most obvious clichés, limited editions included. The notion of exclusivity, mind you, also forfeits your uniqueness, not to mention that it shrinks your sense of reality to the already-achieved. Far better than belonging to any club is to be jostled by the multitudes of those who, given their income and their appearance, represent — at least theoretically — unlimited potential. Try to be more like them than like those who are not like them; try to wear gray. Mimicry is the defense of individuality, not its surrender. I would advise you to lower your voice, too, but I am afraid you will think I am going too far. Still, keep in mind that there is always somebody next to you, a neighbor. Nobody asks you to love him, but try not to hurt or discomfort him much; try to tread on his toes carefully; and should you come to covet his wife, remember at least that this testifies to the failure of your imagination, to your disbelief in — or ignorance of — reality’s unlimited potential. Worse comes to worst, try to remember how far away — from the stars, from the depths of the universe, perhaps from its opposite end — came this request not to do it, as well as this idea of loving your neighbor no less than yourself. Maybe the stars know more about gravity, as well as about loneliness, than you do; coveting eyes that they are.


brodskyAt all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blaine-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, a victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim-culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it — but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No.” On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.

News that’s not news: CIA funded Dr. Zhivago

April 7th, 2014

No trip to Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Hoover Institution)

The internet is all abuzz with the news that the CIA funded Boris Pasternak‘s classic Doctor Zhivago.

Except that this is not news. I wrote about Pasternak, who was awarded a 1958 Nobel Prize that the U.S.S.R. would not allow him to accept, here.  An excerpt from the 2007 article, featuring a Stanford conference on Pasternak’s famous book:

The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecution—poet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold place—or worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.

Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that “both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember.”

“Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn’t arrested,” Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. “This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet.”

The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. “Such a reprehensible organization—and such nice deeds,” Tolstoi told the Moscow News. “How is that for thinking evil, but doing good.”

At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocket—it was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.


Skip the movie. Read the book.

It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “Warsaw bloc” of socialist countries.

[Nikita] Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.

“In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. “Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never.”

It was known that the CIA was underwriting other efforts, such as the YMCA Press in Paris, which published Aleksander Solzhenitsyn‘s astonishing Gulag Archipelago. That’s what made the work of Ardis so astonishing – it didn’t.

So what’s new?  The Washington Post article here makes use of 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing, so it’s worth a read. It’s just not the lightning bolt it’s made out to be.

Photos from London: Adam Johnson wins £30,000 prize

April 6th, 2014

“We are making psychological truths that are often squeezed out of everyday life.”  So said Stanford’s very own Adam Johnson, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, at his acceptance speech, when he won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story award, which carries a £30,000 prize.  The event was covered in The Guardian here, The Sunday Times here, The Bookseller here, Book Trade here, and The Book Haven here. The awarded story was “Nirvana,” which originally appeared in Esquire (we wrote about it here).  We’ll have to do with photos, because the Book Haven could not even attend via Skype, alas.

We heard that Adam got laughs when he briskly and very quickly pocketed the big cheque – an event captured by photographer Tom Pilson below:

ST Short story Award

Here’s Adam exchanging a few words with actor Simon Callow, who read “Nirvana” at the event – also caught by photographer Tom Pilson.

ST Short story Award

And now, dear reader, it’s for you to judge: which of the two photos below best captures the suave author Adam Johnson?  (Both by Tom Pilson.)

ST Short story Award


ST Short story Award

Right about now, Adam Johnson is bagging a big prize in London!

April 4th, 2014
ST Short story Award

With writers Tom McKay and Emma Hamilton, at a reading last night at Foyles bookshop in London (Photo: Tom Pilston)

It’s the world’s most valuable prize for a single short story – and Pulitzer prize-winning Adam Johnson has won it. Just about right now, Professor John Carey, the Sunday Times literary critic and prize judge, is presenting the award at an evening ceremony at the Stationers’ Hall in London.

The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story prize carries a £30,000 prize. The story that was awarded, “Nirvana,” has already been featured in the Book Haven here. (We’ve also written about Adam in a zillion other places – here and here and here and here, for example.) The prize caps Adam’s exceptional year, which has brought him a Guggenheim and a Pulitzer, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.  Which is why we won’t stop crowing about him anytime soon.


Big boy gets big prize … again.

Adam’s only-slightly-futuristic story describes how a husband uses technology, a dead president, and Kurt Cobain to confront his own grief and to alleviate his wife’s suffering, as she deteriorates from a incurable, wasting disease. Adam built his reputation on the short story form, and although he has most recently been fêted for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, says he is still “deeply drawn to the short story form—its power, its focus, its mission of emotionality.”

Said Adam of “Nirvana”: “I was inspired by a combination of my wife’s struggle with cancer and a friend who took his own life. When my wife was going through chemo, and my friend shot himself, I began asking questions about what our duty is to dying people and the departed, where they go, what remains and how we speak to them and share what they go through.”

In his presentation speech, John Carey described “Nirvana” as “a mind-expanding, futurist story, and a story about redemption.” Another judge, novelist and comic David Baddiel, said, “I loved ‘Nirvana’. It was both sad and, rare in literary-competition-land, funny. Plus it proves that genre fiction – the story is, at heart, science fiction – can work, emotionally and artistically, at the highest levels.”

Adam is the fifth consecutive international winner of the prize, drawn from a shortlist that included Americans Marjorie Celona and fellow Pulitzer prize-winner Elizabeth Strout, as well as three British-based authors, Tahmima Ahnam, Jonathan Tel and newcomer Anna Metcalfe. Each received £1,000. Here’s the cool thing: all six stories will be published as an ebook Six Shorts, available on amazon.


Last year’s winner … another familiar face.

Previous winners include Dominican-American Junot Díaz (we’ve written about him here and here and here) who won last year’s award with his story “Miss Lora”; Irish author Kevin Barry, whose story “Beer Trip to Llandudno” won in 2012; American Anthony Doerr, who won in 2011 for his story “The Deep”; and New Zealander C. K. Stead, who won the inaugural award in 2010 with “Last Season’s Man.”

Other judges, besides Carey and Baddiel, included Elif Shafak, internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist, columnist and speaker; Booker-shortlisted novelist and short story writer Sarah HallAndrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times, and Lord Matthew Evans, chairman of EFG Private Bank and non-voting chair of the judges.

Said Shafak: “Blurring boundaries and crossing genres, the Sunday Times Short Story Award has no doubt an unequalled place for both readers and writers, whether they are established or emerging. This is a truly international platform and the most valuable prize for a single short story. But these are not the only reasons why it matters so much. It is also, as I believe we shall see in the years ahead, a trendsetter in the literary world.

Farewell, Jonathan Schell (1943-2014), our remarkable “observer, writer, moralist”

April 3rd, 2014

“His lens could not have been wider.” (Photo: David Shankbone)

Last May I attended a memorable dinner at the home of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik, following a panel discussion sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum (I wrote about it here). The dinner was magical for a number of reasons, but among them was journalist Jonathan Schell, who came as the companion of a friend, the Polish scholar Irena Grudzinska Gross.  I sat across from, or perhaps it was next to, the author and activist. I remember his gentle courtesy and curiosity, particularly as we spoke about René Girards most recent book, Battling to the End, discussing the escalation to extremes in modern warfare.

schellWhat a difference a year makes. I learned yesterday that Schell had died on March 25 – according to the Washington Post, he succumbed to leukemia and skin cancer, possibly, according to some sources, caused by long-ago exposure to Agent Orange, the poisonous defoliant chemical so widely used by U.S. forces in Vietnam.

David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote, “Schell was an invaluable voice in this country—as an observer, as a writer, as a moralist.” Schell had written for the New Yorker for two decades. His many books include  The Village of Ben Suc (1967), The Time of Illusion (1976), The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Real War (1988), The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (1998), The Unfinished Twentieth Century (2001), The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003), A Hole in the World (2004), and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (2007), among others.

I recognized his name at the dinner, but remembered little more about him than a famous byline – that he had risen to public notice with a scathing indictment of the Vietnam War, then turned his pen to the threat of nuclear war and the necessity of disarmament. The comments from the obituaries have focused on the Vietnam years, the Watergate years … but it’s too easy to categorize him as a critic of old wars and old causes. His words resonate today. “No doubt people have a natural tendency to try to forget about wars the minute they are over,” he commented of the Vietnam war in 1971, “but we may be the first country to try to forget about a war while it is still going on.” And so we still do.

Or these words from a 1974 New Yorker article:

schell1Over the last decade or so, two standard reactions to bad news seems to have developed in our country. One reaction is “It didn’t happen”, and the other is “They all do it”. In the early Vietnam years, the tendency was to react in the first way… About five years ago the second reaction began to emerge. … The man who sees no massacre and no Watergate and the man who sees massacres & Watergates as the inevitable lot of all societies in all times have one thing in common: neither of them can be expected to take any action… This state of mind is new in the U.S. But it’s familiar to anyone who has spent time in Eastern Europe or South America or any place where people have lost the bold spirit of the free and adopted the easy sophistication of the powerless.

Tom Engelhardt of, writing in Huffington Post recalled his Vietnam war coverage during his time at Pantheon and added, “at another publishing house in 2003, in an even grimmer century, I put out his book The Unconquerable WorldPower, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  His lens by then couldn’t have been wider.  In it, he appropriated a hollowed-out term from the war in Vietnam, the hopeless American effort to ‘win hearts and minds,’ celebrating instead the untamed ‘rebellious hearts and minds’ across the planet that might find new sources of people power and alter a world headed for destruction.  It was a book so far ahead of its time that, in the invasion-of-Iraq moment, almost no one noticed.”


Happy birthday, Milan Kundera! A few of his thoughts on “true human goodness.”

April 1st, 2014

The birthday boy in 1980

Today is the 85th birthday of Czech writer Milan Kundera. The Czech Republic apparently has a lot of feelings about the event and the author, who has written only in French since the mid-1980s. From Radio Prague:

“Critics like Jiří Peňas from the Czech daily Lidové noviny have argued that Milan Kundera owes the Czech Republic nothing and that if anything, on the occasion of the author’s 85th birthday it is Czechs who could offer him thanks. In an opinion piece published Tuesday, Peňas reminded readers that Kundera’s novels cast a positive light on Czechoslovakia during the Iron Curtain, informing the West that the country was, culturally-speaking, not a Russian governorate where locals “blew their noses in the tablecloth”.

“In his Op-ed, Peňas alluded to the weight of Kundera’s “absence”, a question that has come up routinely since the Velvet Revolution. Why? Examples abound: when Mr Kundera allegedly visits friends in the Czech Republic it is incognito to avoid detection; when he was awarded state honours by the late president Václav Havel, he chose not to attend; and he has forbidden any of his new work to be translated into Czech. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in 2006, was the last.”

birthday cakeHis publisher Miroslav Balaštík said on the occasion: “For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.” I’ve just discovered the author for myself. I know… I know… I’m late to the table. My battered copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is heavily penciled, with all sorts of marginalia now. Those who have read it will appreciate his addition to the annals of literary canines, with Teresa’s dog Karenin – not to mention a very memorable pig as well. Since I am holed up right now, taking care of an ailing and disabled (but very beloved) dog, I thought a few of his animal-loving remarks would be pertinent for the occasion:


Please get better, Poopsie.

“The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.

The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game – a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars’ – and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice on his dinner plate and apologize (belatedly!) to the cow. …

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”

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