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World's top 10 literary cities from National Geographic Traveler

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If you're an Angeleno hoping to visit one of the world's top 10 literary cities, you'll have to start looking for a plane ticket. Only two American cities made the new list from National Geographic Traveler, and Los Angeles wasn't one of them.

Edinburgh, Scotland, tops the list, which is admittedly a little Eurocentric. That's good news for literary tourists trying to hit every one of the magazine's top 10 cities. Fly to Scotland, then Dublin (No. 2), then to London (No. 3) and then take the Chunnel over to No. 4, Paris. Maybe traveling in order isn't such a great idea -- closer Stockholm is at No. 6, with No. 5, St. Petersburg, Russia, being a bit farther off.

The requirements for what makes a literary city from National Geographic Traveler's perspective are idiosyncratic. Edinburgh "has inspired more than 500 novels," which could easily be said for New York, a city that's not on the list. Edinburgh also has a Writers Museum, though, and a couple of literary pub crawls, which propels it to No. 1.

Number 7 and 8 are the two U.S. cities that made the list: Portland, Ore., and Washington. Portland is, of course, home to the excellent, sprawling Powell's bookstore. It's also a community that likes to read -- as is demonstrated in the "Portlandia" video clip, "Did You Read?" which is after the jump. Washington makes the grade because of the Library of Congress. Right. Hard to argue with that.

Bringing up the end of the list are Melbourne, Australia, at No. 9 (it has a walking tour) and Santiago, Chile (for popular Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda), at No. 10, the only cities included in the Southern Hemisphere. For literary cities in India or Asia, well, we'll have to wait for another list.

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End of Moammar Kadafi's book bans celebrated in Libya

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The protests and uprising that led to the eventual fall of Moammar Kadafi have led to significant changes in Libya, some as yet to be fully played out. One thing is certain: Longstanding censorship rules have been removed. That happened Monday, commemorated by a ceremony at the Royal Palace in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

Tables were piled high with once-banned books as political hopefuls, returning expats and intellectuals gathered to celebrate the unbanning. The Toronto Star reports:

The palace, converted to a library and museum during Gadhafi’s post-royalist rule, grew quiet as half a dozen speakers took turns remembering the dead and wounded that sacrificed for this day.

“Here in this historic place, knowledge was banned. The previous regime called it a national library, but it was more like an indoctrination centre to control our thinking,” said Dr. Salah Abdallah Rajeb al-Aghab, a senior official with the Libyan government archeology section.

“This place was used to distort culture. It was used to terrorize. And so this is the proper place to say Libya now is ready to embrace knowledge and thought without limits.”

Among the attendees was journalist and human rights activist Hassan al-Amin, one of the Gadhafi regime’s sharpest critics during his years of exile in London, who shared a bittersweet swirl of emotions as the books were revealed.

“This is a major moment for us because this is where we reclaim our intellectual freedom. We say goodbye to an era where free thinking was forbidden, where ideas were dangerous,” Amin told the Star.

Books that were unbanned included Arabic-laguage versions of "The Secret Life of Saddam Hussein," "The CIA Files of Arab Rulers" and "Sex in the Arab World." Those and many more are on display the rest of this week at a public book fair sponsored by the newly formed Society For New Libyan Horizons and the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Soldiers loyal to Libya's Transitional National Council remove posters of Moammar Kadafi in Tripoli on Oct. 15. Credit: Marco Longari /AFP/Getty Images

Happy 105th birthday, Eva Zeisel

Eva Zeisel

Reaching the amazing age of 105 is an incredible accomplishment, but that's not all Eva Zeisel has done. An immigrant to the U.S. after World War II, she became a noted ceramist. Chronicle Books released a photo book of Zeisel's work as part of a series featuring designers Ingo Maurer and George Nelson.

But -- as they say -- wait, there's more. Living the high life in Berlin in 1932, Zeisel traveled to Russia, where a visit turned into a five-year stay. The last 16 months she was imprisoned, accused of plotting to kill Stalin and often being thrown into  solitary confinement. For many years, Zeisel kept mum about her time in Russia, fearing reprisals by the KGB, although it is said they in part formed the basis of "Darkness at Noon," written by her friend Arthur Koestler.

The literary journal A Public Space has recently run Zeisel's autobiographical prison memoir. Zeisel's daughter told the magazine, "When a friend read these memoirs, he found them disingenuous. He did not believe that one could write about such a serious situation with so much humor and charm. But that is Eva."

Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself—slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise reporting my memories....

It never occurred to me that I could have done something wrong. Not even then did it occur to me that something might happen to me personally. I looked around and saw a woman and the building superintendent. I got up and put on my housecoat, a green-checkered one of wool flannel. Suddenly there were more men in the room. I became quite ill at ease. They looked at my letters and at my photographs. They stopped at two of them. One was an enlarged snapshot of me on a beach with my eyes closed. It looked like a mask of my dead face. The men passed the photograph from one to the other and they smiled, and it scared me. I do not know whether I realized then or later that they thought I would soon be dead.

They also found a picture of a pistol, an enlargement I had made. It had been the fashion at that time to make partial enlargements of things so they looked like something else. Like speaking a word over and over again and changing the meaning of a syllable. At the time I got my camera, which I had bought with my first earnings from the Schramberg factory, I was living with the Leichsenring family. They had a little girl, and I took pictures of her dolls’ heads, heads of broken dolls. I also took a picture of her father’s pistol, a tiny one, with many little bullets laid out in a row, and I enlarged it into a pattern. They took other photographs, too. It must have been interesting for them to see what a foreigner had among her letters and photographs and personal belongings.

I remember feeling life receding from me and myself being set apart. They were not rude. They were extremely polite.

Today, Eva Zeisel turns 105. Her prison memoir is in A Public Space 14, available in bookstores and from the journal's website.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Eva Zeisel with an exhibit of her pottery designs in 2005. Credit: Talisman K. Brolin / Associated Press

Prix Goncourt goes to high school teacher Alexis Jenni

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France's highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, was awarded Thursday to Alexis Jenni for his novel "L'Art Français de la Guerre" (The French Art of War). Jenni is a first-time novelist and father of three who teaches high school biology.

For now, Jenni will have to keep his day job. Despite its prestige, the Prix Goncourt comes with just a token financial reward -- about $13. Yet the attention it brings often means a significant increase in book sales for the winner.

Previous winners of the Prix Goncourt include some of France's most important writers, including Marcel Proust, Marguerite Duras and Simone de Beauvoir. In 2010, the bad boy of French literature, Michel Houellebecq, received the award for his novel "La Carte et le Territoire" (The Map and the Territory).

Jenni's 600-page novel is "a journey through France's military history in Indochina, Algeria and at home," the Guardian writes, "told through the eyes of Victorien Salagnon, a war veteran who becomes a painter, and the young man he teaches to paint in exchange for writing his story."

The Guardian adds that in August, Jenni told the French paper Le Monde, "a year ago, I thought I would never be anything other than a Sunday writer. Today, I am exactly where I wanted to be, but where I never thought I would arrive." He also keeps a blog.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Alexis Jenni surrounded by media after winning the Priz Goncourt. Credit: Thibaut Camus / Associated Press

Turkish publisher's arrest sparks outcry

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Ragip Zarakolu, founder and director of the Turkish publishing house Belge, was among more than 40 activists detained Friday in Istanbul. Belge has published Turkish editions of books that are controversial in that country, including books documenting the Armenian genocide and "The KCK File/The Global State and Kurds Without a State" by Mehmet Güler. For 20 years, Zarakolu was prevented from traveling outside of Turkey, and in 1995, his office was firebombed.

His recent arrest was part of an official crackdown on Kurdish political parties that follows a violent attack that killed 24 Turkish soldiers. "It is essential not to confuse the efforts of those who, like Ragip Zarakolu, have worked to bring down barriers of censorship in Turkey with those who press political agendas through violence," PEN American Center Freedom to Write program director Larry Siems said in a statement. "Zarakolu is an honored PEN colleague and an internationally-recognized defender of the right to write and publish freely. We emphatically protest his arrest."

Additional calls for Zarakolu's release have come from the International Publishers Assn., the Guardian reports.

Bjørn Smith-Simonsen, chair of the International Publishers Association's freedom to publish committee, said that Zarakolu "does not belong to prison, he deserves a Nobel prize". Calling him "the pride of publishing" and "the limelight of freedom to publish in Turkey", Smith-Simonsen demanded he be released immediately.

"The trial is likely to begin in a year's time only. Ragip Zarakolu's health is not good. We fear that he will not stand his detention conditions in the terrible F-type (high security) prisons," he said. The IPA is intending to meet the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations Office in Geneva as soon as possible to urge the Turkish government to release the publisher immediately.

On Tuesday, PEN American Center President Kwame Anthony Appiah said that Zarakolu's arrest was "a disturbing sign of a decline in the climate for free expression in Turkey after several years of hopeful developments."

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The 16th-century Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Ragip Zarakolu, founder and director of the Turkish publishing house Belge, was detained Friday. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

Microsoft's Bill Gates turns to book reviewing

Bill Gates has put his talents to book reviewing
Billionaire Bill Gates, who remains chairman and chief software architect of his company, Microsoft, has put his talents to book reviewing. On Wednesday, he posted his review of "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines" by Vaclac Smil (MIT University Press) on his personal website, Gates Notes:

As a history buff, I appreciate books that give you a sense of the people behind important inventions and the sweeping impact they have had on society. Often -– as in the case of the diesel engine and the gas turbine -– incremental advances obscure the profound impact of technology. In Prime Movers, Smil focuses in on a slice of 20th century technological innovation and shows the phenomenal impact it has had on international trade and travel.

To put the significance of the diesel engine and the gas turbine in perspective, Smil points out that until coal-powered steam engines came along a few hundred years ago, animals and human muscle were the “prime movers” of manufacturing, and wind and sails the prime movers of international travel and trade. The steam engine was an important underpinning of the industrial revolution. But its impact pales in comparison to the diesel engine and the gas turbine. ...

There are a lot of fascinating historical points and statistics in Smil’s book that make it an interesting read, but what most fascinated me was learning about the incredible impact these two innovations have had on so many aspects of our lives.

It turns out that Gates has been reviewing books on the site every few weeks since March. His recent reads include "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools" by Steven Brill, "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding" by Charles Kenny, and "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson.

His first posted book review was back in February 2010, of Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's "SuperFreakonomics"; frankly, it wasn't much. "I had a chance to read a prepublication copy of SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released," it began. "I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better." If one of my freshman writing students had turned that in, it wouldn't have gotten a B-minus.

Since then, Gates has much improved as a book reviewer. He often uses a personal take, explaining why he's interested in this topic, and sometimes comes with a critical eye. He picked up Johnson's book "with a little bit of skepticism," he wrote. "Lots of books have been written about innovation -– what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish," he said, but he found Johnson's book to be a cut above.

Most of the books Gates writes about fall into the line with his philanthropic pursuits with the Gates Foundation: education, healthcare, technology and the underlying processes affecting those systems. It makes sense that he's reading about them -- but few billionaires take the time to write up their thoughts and share them as a book reviews.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bill Gates, left, with Warren Buffett in 2007. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press

Imprisoned Russian entrepreneur puts pencil to paper

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Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin, and for his efforts he was arrested for tax evasion, fraud and money laundering in 2003. While the charges are widely thought to have been politically motivated, Khodorskovsky still wound up behind bars, where he has engaged in the grand Russian tradition of writing while imprisoned, as Los Angeles Times reporter Sergei L. Loiko writes:

Already imprisoned for nearly eight years, the inmate who once was Russia's richest man must still see at least 1,800 more sunrises from behind his barracks window, his view of the real world beyond the camp fence with barbed wire on top.

But armed with a pen and pencil, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is following in a grand, if grim, Russian literary tradition: writing about his life in a gulag-style camp he has described as "an anti-world" where "lying is a norm and truth an exception." ...

[T]he 48-year-old former billionaire has contributed more than 100 articles, interviews and short stories to media organizations in Russia and abroad. In the writings, he not only defends his honor and denies all the charges against him, but also responds to the political, economic or moral challenges that Russian society faces.

In recent weeks, Khodorkovsky has started a series of columns called "Prison Folk" for the New Times, an influential Russian weekly political magazine. In them, he approaches his characters with the sharp eye of an intellectual observer but also the compassion of a fellow prisoner, giving his prose a touch of the desperate hope prevalent in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's classic "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."

Read more about Khodorkovsky's literary evolution in Loiko's article.

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— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2007. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times

Africa's most influential celebrity is author Chinua Achebe

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Author Chinua Achebe is Africa's most influential celebrity, according to Forbes magazine. The octogenarian author beat out dozens of musicians, soccer stars, two supermodels, a film director, a talk-show host and the world's top long-distance runner when he topped the 40-person list.

Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930 and came of age when European colonies in Africa were making their way toward independence. His novel "Things Fall Apart," published in 1958, is said to be one of the most widely read works of African literature. His 1975 essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'," remains a significant work for its combination of literary criticism and politics. As Brown University, where he is now a professor, puts it: "This critique is recognized as one of the most generative interventions on Conrad; and one that opened the social study of literary texts, particularly the impact of power relations on 20th century literary imagination."

In the late '60s, Achebe was involved in politics, serving as an ambassador from Biafra. He has lived in both Africa and the U.S., where he spent 15 years at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., before taking his current position at Brown in Providence, R.I. In 2007, he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for his lifetime body of work.

Three other authors also made Forbes' list. Two are from Kenya: 40-year old Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the widely read satirical essay "How to Write About Africa" and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, 73, author of "Wizard of the Crow," who is a professor at UC Irvine. The youngest is 34-year-old Nigerian-born Chimamanda Adichie, educated a Johns Hopkins and Yale; her novel "Half of a Yellow Sun" won the 2006 Orange Prize, and she was awarded a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 2008.

It's interesting to see so many authors among the ranks of African celebrities. In America, we often have celebrities first who only secondarily become authors  -- like, for example, "Jersey Shore's" Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, whose second book, "Confessions of a Guidette," comes out Tuesday.

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Photo: Chinua Achebe in 2008. Credit: Craig Ruttle / Associated Press

Julian Barnes wins 2011 Man Booker Prize

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Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel "The Sense of an Ending," it was announced Tuesday at a black-tie ceremony in London. The Man Booker is one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes and among the most lucrative for a single book. This year, the award is about $80,000.

Barnes, who has three times before been shortlisted for the award, had been favored to win this year. His book was selected from a six-book shortlist announced in September. Other contenders included "Jamrach's Menagerie" by Carol Birch, "Half Blood Blues" by Esi Edugyan, "Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman and A.D. Miller's "Snowdrops." Patrick deWitt, a former Los Angeles bartender, made the shortlist with his bawdy cowboy noir, "The Sisters Brothers."

At 65, Barnes is a long-established, well-respected writer in England. His first book was 1980's "Metroland" and he's such a known literary figure that he appeared in the film "Bridget Jones' Diary." The U.S. publication of his Booker Prizewinning novel, "The Sense of an Ending," was moved up from January 2012 to October after the award's shortlist was announced.

This year complaints were leveled at the Man Booker Prize for being "dumbed down" after comments made by head judge Stella Rimington while announcing the shortlist. "We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books," she said. "We wanted people to buy these books and read them. Not buy them and admire them." Last week, a rival award  was announced; it is supported by some of Britain's most prominent writers, including former Booker prize winner John Banville. The Literature Prize, intended to "establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence," is looking for funding.

Yet funds have been flowing for this year's Booker Prize finalists; sales of the six books were more than double those on the shortlist last year. The big seller was A.D. Miller's "Snowdrops," a contemporary thriller set in Russia.

Writers from Ireland, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, India, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are eligible for the award.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Julian Barnes. Credit: Ellen Warner / Knopf

French writer's sex case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn dropped

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French writer Tristane Banon's sex case against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been dropped. Banon had accused Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape in 2003; authorities decided that the evidence suggested a lesser charge of sexual assault, for which the statute of limitations has expired.

In 2003, Banon was interviewing Strauss-Kahn for an essay collection; that interview ended with a sexual assault, she has said. She initially alleged the attempted rape in 2007 on a French television talk show, although Strauss-Kahn's name was bleeped out during the broadcast. She made her official complaint this summer, after Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper in New York.

The BBC reports:

Under French law, the statute of limitations for attempted rape is 10 years, but three years for sexual assault.

Ms Banon's lawyer described the decision as a victory: "[Mr Strauss-Kahn] will have to be satisfied with being an unconvicted sex attacker, protected by the statute of limitations, allowing him to escape criminal prosecution, but not a legitimate suspicion," lawyer David Koubbi said.

The ruling demonstrated "the facts that [Ms Banon] complained of were not 'imaginary' contrary to Mr Strauss-Kahn's claims", he added.

Mr Strauss-Kahn's lawyer has said the decision means her client has been "completely cleared".

The criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn in New York have also been dropped; a civil case is pending.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, left, in September (Credit: Mathieu Cugnot / Associated Press); Tristane Banon in September (Remy de la Mauviniere / Associated Press)

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