Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Dangerous "Jewel"

This year, September 28 - October 4 marks the annual observance of Banned Books Week, an event sponsored by the American Library Association, to promote awareness of issues surrounding censorship and intellectual freedom. It thus seems sadly appropriate that the controversy surrounding an American novel called The Jewel of Medina reached a new level when the office of its British publisher was firebombed early Saturday morning. The Jewel of Medina was recently published in this country by Beaufort Books after its original publisher, Random House, dropped the book for fear of inciting violence.

It all began last year when Random House signed author Sherry Jones to a two-book, $100,000 contract, the first book being The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Aisha, one of the wives of the prophet Muhammad. The scheduled publication date for this first book was this past August 18. As is common practice , Random House sent out pre-publication galleys to a number of individuals, looking for endorsements. At the recommendation of Jones, one of those galleys went to Denise Spellberg, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas.

From this point on, what happened is a matter of dispute and controversy. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Asra Nomani (herself a Muslim writer), Spellberg was appalled by what she read and called the editor of a Muslim website warning him of this "incredibly offensive" book that was about to be published by Random House. Soon, word of the book began to spread across the Internet, and it was being called "an attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam" by bloggers who, of course, hadn't actually read it. Spellberg also called Jane Garrett, a contact of hers at Random House, and warned her that publishing the novel could have serious repercussions.

In a letter to the Journal, Spellberg denied that she was solely responsible for Random House's subsequent actions, and claimed that she was just one of a number of experts who expressed their concerns to the publisher. She added: " I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard to its richness or resonance in the present."

Whatever the situation, Random House made the decision not to follow through on its contract to publish the book. In a public statement, the company said it had received "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence....we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel." Random House returned the rights for the novel back to Sherry Jones, and it was published in the US earlier this month by Beaufort Books (the same company that ended up publishing the controversial O J Simpson book, If I Did It).

As might be expected, there was wide outrage at Random House's decision, though not everyone was equally convinced it was a dangerous precedent. Law professor Stanley Fish, who blogs for the New York Times, said it was more a matter of "judgment" than "censorship," pointing out that other publishers were free to publish the book if they chose to. However, Bill Poser, writing for the "Language Log" website, disagreed: "A free society cannot permit anyone, government, corporation, church, or individual, to decide what may or may not be published. That a publisher should cancel publication of a novel out of fear of violence by religious fanatics has everything to do with the Western tradition of free speech."

What happened to Gibson Square Publishing in England this past weekend seems to have raised the stakes. Three men were arrested for the firebombing on charges related to terrorism, and a hardline Islamic cleric said that, in his opinion further attacks could be expected since publishing the book could call for the death penalty under Sharia law. As of now, Beaufort Books in this country hasn't reported any threats, but has taken action to increase security.

Nobody is arguing that The Jewel of Medina is a book of tremendous literary value. In an early review, Publishers Weekly labeled it "not bad for a first novel...a page turner, but not outstanding." Still, the fact that one company decided not to publish the book, at least in part due to fear of attacks from extremists; and the fact that another publishing company has evidently experienced such attacks; should be of great concern to those interested in the freedom to read and the freedom to exchange ideas.

More about this controversy, with links to various documents, can be found here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

On vacation -- the sequel

Yes, Page 854 is taking time off again (man, sounds like I work for the government or something). Happy Mabon/fall equinox, and remember, Charles Price will be here next Friday.

Page 854 will return around the beginning of October, and, in the meantime, you can keep up with things via our website.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Friday, 9/26, at Accent on Books: Charles Price

Charles F. Price is a writer who has always occupied a special place in the world of Accent on Books. We have held launch parties for two of his novels, and have always enjoyed his visits to the store, both formal and informal. Alas, he and his wife Ruth have not been traveling to Asheville from their home in Burnsville much recently, but we are delighted that Charles will be coming back "home" to Accent on Books next Friday at 6:00 to talk about and autograph copies of his new novel, Nor the Battle to the Strong.

Charles' previous four novels, which comprised the "Hiwassee" series, were set in Western North Carolina during and immediately after the Civil War, and were based on his own family history. In his new book, he moves a bit further back in time to the American Revolution and General Nathanael Greene's military campaigns in the South. Again, Charles calls upon family history, as a main character, Private James Johnson, is one of his ancestors.

Charles Price is a stunningly gifted writer whose books have won a number of awards. The reviews of his new novel have been uniformly positive, which hopefully will lead to the kind of success he so richly deserves. We hope you can join us on September 26 at 6:00 to celebrate his latest accomplishment.

In the meantime you can check out Charles' website. And ours.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Spy Who Almost Went to the Cold

A former British intelligence agent with MI6 named David Cornwell -- better known as the spy novelist John Le Carre -- made a rather startling admission last week: he once considered defecting to the Soviet Union.

In an interview with the London Times, Le Carre emphasized that he wasn't tempted for ideological reasons or a desire to betray his country. Rather, he was quoted as saying, "...when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border...it seems such a small step to jump...and you know, find out the rest." (Come to think of it, that sounds like it could be a quote from a Le Carre novel.) Le Carre worked with British intelligence from 1959-1964. Ironically his own career was ended by a defector: he was one of the agents betrayed to the Soviets by Kim Philby.

By the way, John Le Carre has a new novel coming out in early October. It's called, A Most Wanted Man, and deals with issues raised by the "war on terrorism."

An AP article on the Times interview can be found here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

American literature lost one of its most prodigious talents when David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home last week, an apparent suicide. Wallace had suffered from depression for years, and, according to his father, his condition had gotten significantly worse over the last several months and no form of medication or therapy seemed to have a mitigating effect. David Foster Wallace was 46 years old.

Wallace's abilities were evident from the start. His first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), brought him national attention and critical praise. A collection of short stories and a book of non-fiction followed. Then came Infinite Jest (1996), a sprawling, audacious, postmodern riot of a novel which ran to more than 1000 pages, including more than 100 pages of footnotes. It centered on a film which had an hypnotic, addictive effect on anyone who watched it and the battle for control of the film by a wide range of (mostly unsavory) characters. Time Magazine later named it one of the 100 best English-language novels, and a year after its publication Wallace was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

In the years that followed Wallace wrote nonfiction essays and articles on an almost impossibly wide range of subjects: cruise ships, tennis, lobsters, pornography, David Lynch and the 9/11 attacks, among many other things. His last book-length work was about John McCain, whom Wallace covered for a time during McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

In November, 2007, Wallace was among a number of writers invited by The Atlantic to write an essay on "the future of the American idea." Wallace audaciously suggested a "thought experiment" in which it was assumed that "a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism" is part of the American idea. He went on to suggest that "a democratic republic cannot 100% protect itself [from terrorism] without subverting the very principles that made it worth protecting." "Have we become so selfish and scared," he asked, "that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety?"

An appreciation of Wallace's work by Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic of the New York Times, can be found here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pandemonium in Wasilla

It's tempting to ascribe psychic abilities -- or perhaps political savvy -- to Shannon and Leonard Cullip. That would be one explanation as to why, this past June, they named their new bookstore in Wasilla, Alaska, "Pandemonium Booksellers." Wasilla is, of course, now known for having the most famous "former small-town mayor" in the country, and "pandemonium" might be one way to describe what has taken hold of the town since Sarah Palin joined the Republican presidential ticket. Not surprisingly, Pandemonium (the bookstore) has been quite busy, and sales of political books from all parts of the ideological spectrum have been strong. Shannon Cullip observes, however, that if there are townspeople who aren't fond of their ex-mayor they "aren't saying much."

The Cullips have no additional information to clarify the question as to whether Palin really wanted to ban books from the local library back when she was mayor. However, this does give me an opportunity to mention that Banned Books Week is observed nationwide every year during late September. You will no doubt be hearing more about this from us in the near future.

More about the Cullips and their bookstore -- and about Banned Books Week -- can be found here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What -- a Gideon Bible wasn't good enough for them?

Here's a possible creative writing exercise:

Imagine you check into a hotel room, and the previous inhabitants of the room have left a certain book behind. Write a story about those people based upon the book you've found.

What book would it be? Well, for suggestions you might want to check with the British budget hotel chain Travelodge, which every year produces a list of the books most often abandoned in their hotel rooms. Some of the titles might prompt quite salacious tales (The Best 50 Lovemaking Positions for the Over 50s) and others tales of economic woe (You and Your Money was high on the list). If you wish to locate your story in a specific location, Travelodge can help there too. For example, travelers in Cornwall were most likely to leave behind spiritual titles. And while ten visitors to Peterborough abandoned copies of the Kama Sutra, one traveler to Southampton discarded The Kama Sutra for Dummies. We'll let Peterborough and Southampton battle that one out.

Overall the categories left behind the most were autobiographies, chick lit, and thrillers, and most of the top ten titles were books of specifically British interest (the top-ranked abandoned book was a memoir by Labour politician John Prescott). However, On Chesil Beach came in at number nine (I hope not too many honeymooners were reading that one), and tenth on the list was The Secret.

For more inspiration -- or just to satisfy your curiosity -- The Guardian's article on the Travelodge list can be found here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sunday, 9/14 at Accent on Books: "Together We Read" discussion

"Together We Read" is an initiative that seeks to promote an interest in books and reading throughout Western North Carolina by offering a series of events related to one specific book each year. Books chosen in the past have included The French Broad, Our Southern Highlanders, and Brighten the Corner Where You Are. This year's selection is Boone, by Robert Morgan, and Accent on Books will be hosting a discussion of this book Sunday, at 3:00 PM. We are grateful to Molly Pace, a cousin of the author, for agreeing to lead the discussion.

Robert Morgan, a native of Western North Carolina, is primarily known as a poet and novelist. With Boone, he turns to nonfiction, but nonfiction very much written with a novelist's sense of place and character. Though the book's subtitle labels it as a biography, it is almost more of a "life and times" of the famous pioneer, with much historical background about the world into which Daniel Boone was born and on which he had such a profound effect.

"Together We Read" is an important and effective program to promote interest in the written word, and Accent on Books is delighted to be a part of the effort. More about "Together We Read" can be found at their website. Out store website can be found here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

An Award for Herman Wouk

"This is not at all bad, except as prose."

That was Gore Vidal's caustic evaluation of Herman Wouk's famous novel, The Winds of War. Vidal's disdain is far from universal, however, as will be made clear this week when Herman Wouk is presented the first Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. In his citation, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington says, "Herman Wouk's work epitomizes the historical novel and its ability to transcend its time and place to achieve universality in character and themes."

Wouk, now 93 years old, is probably best known for The Caine Mutiny, his 1951 Pulitzer Prize winner which he later adapted for the stage; and his two epic World War II novels from the 1970s: The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. Yet his long career includes many other quite different types of writings: novels about life in New York (Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke), historical novels about the state of Israel (The Hope, and The Glory), nonfiction about Judaism (This Is My God), and even a book about a man's midlife crisis that Jimmy Buffett turned into a musical (Don't Stop the Carnival). His most recent novel, A Hole in Texas, deals with particle physics.

Herman Wouk has always straddled that blurry line between being a "literary" and a "commercial" writer. Yet his has undeniably been one of the most important literary careers of the last half-century. This recognition from the Library of Congress deservedly honors that career.

And it gives Gore Vidal something else to be grumpy about.

More about Herman Wouk and the Library of Congress can be found here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Not So "Happy" Ending

Sad news from Columbia, SC: The Happy Bookseller, one of the most renowned independent bookstores in the Southeast, is closing in October. Co-owners Carrie and Andy Graves sent a letter to their customers earlier this week saying that competition not only from the internet but from two chain superstores that opened less than a mile away meant that the store could no longer earn enough money to support themselves and their two sons.

The Happy Bookseller was opened in 1974 by Rhett Jackson, who became a prominent member of the southern bookselling community. His enthusiasm and exuberant personality made him an unmistakable presence at regional gatherings, and he worked hard to promote independent bookselling in this area of the country. In 1996 he sold the store to Andy and Carrie Graves, who actually first met each other when they both worked there.

As might be expected, the reaction from the store's regular customers has been one of sadness and disbelief. One customer, a literature professor at the University of South Carolina, did not mince words: "The closing of The Happy Bookseller is a disaster for the cultural scene in Columbia."

More on The Happy Bookseller and its closing can be found here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The candidates are going for a touchdown (or something like that)

As I write this, people are looking forward to one of two events that will take place tonight: John McCain's acceptance speech or the beginning of the NFL regular season. Or they are looking forward to both. Or neither.

At any rate, as we continue to celebrate ** our 25th year in business ** here at Accent on Books we thought we'd open September with a 20% sale on all our political and current events books. With this in mind, here is but a small sample of what we have on hand:

For Barack Obama fans: Obama's own two books, of course, which have been out for awhile. Plus, Barack Obama in His Own Words, and Barack Obama for Beginners.

For John McCain fans: Three books by McCain himself -- Faith of My Fathers, Hard Call, and Why Courage Matters.

For Joe Biden fans: Promises to Keep, Biden's memoir, now out in paperback.

For Sarah Palin fans: Um, nothing yet, but there was a biography of her released earlier this year which we have on order. It's called, appropriately enough, Sarah.

For fans of other politicians: America: Our Next Chapter, by Chuck Hagel, and A Time to Fight, by Jim Webb.

For fans of bipartisanship: What You Should Know About Politics -- But Don't, which is endorsed by both Bob Dole and Barack Obama.

For fans of cable news networks: Independent's Day, by Lou Dobbs; Life's a Campaign, by Chris Matthews; Culture Warriors, by Bill O'Reilly; and Truth and Consequences, by O'Reilly's good buddy Keith Olbermann.

For politics junkies: Safire's Political Dictionary, by William Safire. An amazing book.

And finally, books for the largest special interest group of all -- those who can't wait till the whole blasted thing is over with: Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots & October Surprises in U. S. Presidential Campaigns; and The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics.

I'm Patrick Covington, and I approved this message.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sunday, 9/7 at Accent on Books: Nan Chase

Last fall we enjoyed having an author event with Nan Chase who had written a new history of Asheville (still available at Accent on Books). This coming Sunday we will be welcoming this versatile author back to help launch her new book, which is entirely different. Nan and her co-author Chris McCurry have written, Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs from Nature, a volume that is both beautiful and eminently practical. And, as a special added treat, Nan and Chris will give a demonstration of bark shingle installation.

So join us this Sunday at 3:00 PM for a fun and informative afternoon as Nan (who herself lives in a bark house) and Chris talk about their new book and demonstrate this fascinating building process.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Harry vs Hari

Happy New Year! More specifically, Happy Accent on Books Fiscal New Year, since, as I mentioned last week, our year runs from September 1 through August 31.

And what better way to start the new year than with an item from our Department of Silly Lawsuits.

Warner Brothers has announced that it has filed a lawsuit against Bollywood outfit Mirchi Movies because Mirchi is coming out with a film entitled, "Hari Puttar: A Comedy of Terrors." As Warner sees it, that title comes too close to its valued franchise surrounding you-know-who (and I don't mean Voldemort). However, an official with Mirchi explains that "Hari" is a common Indian name, and "puttar" is Punjabi for "son." In addition, far from imitating Harry Potter, the plot for "Hari Puttar" actually sounds like a ripoff of an entirely different Hollywood property -- "Home Alone."

The plaintiffs are not convinced by this. "Warner Bros. values and protects intellectual property rights," a spokeswoman solemnly declares.

Sorry, Hari.

More on this epic litigation can be found here.