Welcome to Reader At Large – formerly BookSexy Review* – a book review blog about translated and international fiction. What can you expect to find here? Well, if you were a visitor to BookSexy Review then Reader At Large will be very familiar. For those new to the site you can expect reviews of books from around the world – books from small, independent publishers that you might be discovering for the first time. You’ll also find book related news, general thoughts on reading and living with books, and occasional links to my work outside of the blog. I hope you’ll find something here of value to you. Something you didn’t know before that sparks a conversation or puts another book on your TBR pile.
I started blogging in 2009. The reason this blog continues is because of the generosity and friendship of an incredible international community of like-minded readers, bloggers and independent publishers. Thank you all for your support and passion… but mostly thank you for reading.
In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, somewhat predictably, bleak. Japanese children are frail and infirm creatures, cared for by grandparents and great-grandparents who remain strong and vigorous well past the hundred-year mark. The two main characters, Yoshiro and his great-grandson Mumei, live in a world recovering from the aftermath of an unspecified disaster. The intervening generations, — Mumei’s grandparents, father, and mother, — are all conspicuously absent. Yoshiro has a vague idea of where they are and what they are doing, but no strong inclination to connect with them. He is entirely invested in, and responsible for, the care of Mumei. Everything and everyone else is of tertiary significance.
There are no cars. English words are taboo. Banks have closed. Higher education has been exposed as a mercenary business that takes students’ money while doing very little to prepare them for finding jobs. The ground has been contaminated and most animals have gone extinct. (Dogs still exist. Yoshiro rents a dog from the Rent-A-Dog store every morning to take on his run along the river). The nation of Japan is cut off from the international community and “closed to the outside world.”
“Why is it closed?”
“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”
Over the course of the book, Mumei goes from barely being able to walk to being confined to a wheelchair. We learn about his and Yoshiro’s daily routines. We watch as he makes a friend and falls in love. To a certain extent, we’re given hints at the fates of their extended family. But The Emissary poses a lot of questions and is frustratingly short on answers. What happened to isolate Japan? Why are children physically deteriorating so rapidly? Why are the elderly, in contrast, so healthy and long-lived? What is the state and status of the generations in between? What is the role of the reader in this story? Tawada is all about world building on the micro scale, to the extent that this novel contains very little plot and an inexplicable fascination with incidental details. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful. Emotions are conveyed using fluid and clean sentences. It’s easy to understand why The Emissary won newly re-instated, 2018 National Book Award for Translation. But it a work of fiction that is disconcerting both in its construction and lack of hope.
The two fell silent, both thinking roughly the same thing. Since orchards are actually factories that produce food, working in one all day, cut off from the outside world, might be pretty miserable. The word orchard brings a paradise to mind, which makes people envious. They imagine workers walking in the mountains looking for wild mushrooms, discovering miniature farms made of moss on the forest floor on the way as they breathe in moist air wafting through the ferns… That’s not what Amana was doing, though…
Mumei is a remarkably sweet child for whom eating an orange is a feat of strength. He and children like him, are empathetic, kind and wise far beyond their years. They have a cryptic way of speaking – like Greek oracles – making pronouncements that the adults dedicated to their care accept without question. When the pediatrician asks Mumei whether he likes milk, the child says that he prefers worms. Instead of treating it as the nonsensical statement that we imagine it is, the doctor explains the pros and cons of an insect-based diet and advises sticking to flying insects due to ground/soil contamination.
Yoshiro is perpetually sad. He despairs because of his great-grandson’s failing health and his own helplessness against it. He believes he has nothing to teach Mumei as all the institutions and belief systems on which he based his past life on have proven false… or at the very least, no longer applicable in this new society. This strain of impotence and defeat – the inability to fix or make the world better – runs through the story. Tawada makes a feeble attempt at introducing something else resembling a plot to carry the reader forward. We learn that there is a program to smuggle these wonderful children out into the wide world as emissaries of hope. But the percentage of the book spent on what is, at best, a sub-plot is negligible. Tawada appears barely interested in it as an idea, so why should we care?
This is a book that is defined by the number of unanswered questions it contains. Most important among them being: what is the role of the reader in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary? Dystopian fiction is seldom written without an underlying message. So that when I come across this type of book I ask myself – a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge – what does it mean, Spirit? Tawada has incorporated multiple criticisms of our current institutions – distrust in banks, failures in our educational system, the super-aging society of Japan (according to one article, by 2025 “20% of Japanese nationals will be at least 75 years old and 30% at least 65. In other words, Japan will become a super-aged society with no parallel in history”), – but provides very little context. Is this an exercise in immersion? Is it a cautionary tale? An attempt at a genre novel or a reimagining of what a genre novel might be? It’s very difficult to gauge the writer’s intention. And without that…
At it’s best, The Emissary is a remarkably polished and seductive exercise in world building. Tawada plays with and develops the details for what we can imagine eventually becoming a more expansive story – one containing a plot, character development, and a narrative arc. But when she halfheartedly attempts to inject those elements here, adding weak plot elements to pad out her page count, that The Emissary is at its weakest. While not her best book, Yoko Tawada has the ability to submerge her readers into strange, new worlds and The Emissary still accomplishes this feat brilliantly.
But The Embalmer is not a crime novel, though it does feature the occasional victim. Written in the first person, a nameless narrator conducts a series of interviews with her father about his work. He was a mortician — an embalmer. In short vignettes, he describes working with the dead. And she, in turn, describes him. They meet at a diner. The premise is that simple. Except when it’s not. Anne-Renée Caillé manages to convey a great deal with only a few lines of text.
The mother is in the lab, asks for the skates. They are still on his feet, the request is disturbing, then he tells himself she has some ten children, after all.
He unlaces the first skate and pulls gently, but the foot comes off.
In the skate a foot — the mother doesn’t want it anymore, she lets it go.
Parent-child relationships are complicated. The embalmer/father is cautious, trying to protect his daughter (and himself) while still honoring her request and answering her questions. His daughter carefully watches his mannerisms and describes to the reader what she observes. “He thinks and adds…”, “Clearly he saved this for last, put it off — uncomfortable with the stories he tells me two…”, “He moves quickly through the short list in front of him, handwritten, folded, unfolded, refolded, folded, refolded, higgledy-piggledy.” There is love, but also a distance maintained, in their interactions. Though they are only the briefest of sketches on the page, no names or physical descriptions are provided, these two characters gradually solidify in our imaginations. We’ve all been to diners. They could be sitting in the next booth.
If you’ve read Gabrielle Wittkop (The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene ) then this subject matter is familiar. A shared fascination with death. But while both writers lay out a veritable smorgasbord of death and decomposition, they are very different in approach and intent. Whereas Wittkop’s work is gothic and visceral, almost cloyingly so, Caillé takes a more practical and moderate approach. She is more respectful. While Wittkop’s narrators are gleeful and gossipy, the embalmer is reticent. He summarizes. The rare details volunteered are unembellished.
Morbid fascination. Macabre. Gallows humor. Black comedy. Horror. We want to look, but only when it’s our choice. When no one we care about is involved. When we have the ability to walk away emotionally unscathed. My sister, who has never lived more than fifteen minutes from my parents, jokes that when they die she will have their bodies stuffed and sit them at her kitchen table. “Dad’s forehead is looking a little dusty, get the Swiffer.” We all laugh until she starts to tear up and leaves the room. This has happened more than once. Our parents, though in their seventies, are in amazingly good health. Our father is retired. He drives a shuttle bus on the campus at the local college because he hates sitting at home. Our mother watches my nieces during the week with more energy and patience than anyone else in the family can muster. My point is, neither is teetering on the brink of the grave. And still, the idea of them not being there is terrifying.
Eventually, the stories told across the table, between father and daughter, become more personal. Caillé writes with emotional vulnerability and a complete lack of cynicism, and yet she still manages to insert a twist which surprises and changes her reader’s experience of the book.
There are dozens of novels written by edgy, young writers. They all seem to be short, with unusual formatting, and truncated chapters. They all seem to be published by small, indie presses. Though no one else has that beautiful, textured, Coach House paper. But The Embalmer stands out. It’s worth your time… and not because of the paper. Anne-Renée Caillé walks you to the edge of a cliff and makes you look down. The ending of her book is abrupt, unexpected, and initially, that bothered me. I thought it was a flaw. But it has lingered with me for weeks now. Regardless of whether I wanted it to or not.
I know some bloggers/critics don’t want to waste their time reviewing books they don’t like when there are so many good books to talk about. Which makes perfect sense. But for me — and if you follow Reader@Large you already know this — I enjoy talking about books that aren’t exactly masterpieces. I think it comes out of my art school background. When visiting museums the works that excite me the most are the ones where the pencil lines are still visible under the paint. Or, even better, an incomplete study in an old sketchbook where the artist is working out ideas for his or her final piece.
I’m also fascinated by the whole wabi-sabi home thing.
Below is an excerpt from my review of Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance With You, which was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books site (August 31, 2018). The title of the piece, which I didn’t choose but still love, is Messy Human Beings: On “In the Distance With You”.The novel, itself, is a bit of a mess… but a delightfully well-crafted mess. Despite that (or maybe even because?) this is one of my favorites of all the reviews I’ve written over the years.
THERE’S NO DENYING the thrill of a well-constructed book in which plot and characters move across the page in perfect synchronicity. Why, then, is it so often the messier books, riddled with inconsistencies and never reaching logical resolutions, which capture our imagination? Books that, intentionally or not, invite us to stick our fingers into plot holes and probe around, and that cause us to shake our heads in frustration at the incomprehensible choices of their authors. Those are the ones that stay with us, that we pick apart in our book clubs, that provide the endless fodder for heated discussions with other like-minded literary obsessives.
Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance with You starts with a promising premise. An 80-year-old writer is discovered unconscious in her home, her half-naked body crumpled at the foot of the stairs. The obvious conclusion is that she tripped and fell. But Daniel, the friend and neighbor who finds her, believes she was pushed. He convinces the local authorities to open an inquiry and, at the same time, begins his own investigation into what happened. As he searches for answers, he compulsively carries on a one-sided conversation with her, at her bedside and in his head.
Your hands were curled into claws, as if they’d been scratching invisible bodies before they surrendered. A pool of blood encircled your head. You also had a long scratch on one arm, a reddish streak that ran from your wrist to your elbow. Your nightgown was bunched up around your hips, and your pubis, smooth and white, showed between your open, elderly legs. I covered you as best I could with your nightgown.
This is our undignified introduction to Vera Sigall, the fictional Chilean writer who spends the majority of Guelfenbein’s novel in a coma. She is modeled on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom Guelfenbein has cited as a literary influence, along with Virginia Woolf), but could just as easily be based on any number of the 20th-century female artists — Georgia O’Keeffe, María Luisa Bombal, Agnes Martin, and Victoria and Silvina Ocampo — whose tumultuous lives and savage talent gained them cult-like followings in their lifetimes. This link, between Vera and her historical counterparts, is the lure. But though it is presented ostensibly as her story, Vera Sigall is merely the juncture at which other stories converge.
Over the last few months I’ve been working on a series of Q&A’s for The National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Fran Bigman and I ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts on contemporary criticism. What I really enjoyed about these interviews was that – despite being limited to NBCC members – we were able to choose subjects who come to book reviewing and criticism from a variety of styles and backgrounds. So I got to speak with Donna Seaman, who is the Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a publication that specializes in short, succinct reviews (usually under 250 words). And Carlos Lozada, the Nonfiction Book Critic for The Washington Post — a job I do not envy him at this particular juncture of time. I also spoke with Michelle Dean, who started out reviewing online EVERYWHERE and recently wrote the book Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion. And Yahdon Israel, — a power player in the NYC literary scene, exploring the intersection between fashion and literature (which is an incredibly reductive description, so if you aren’t already familiar with Yahdon you really should read the interview and then check out everything he’s doing online and on social media. #literaryswag). And, one of my favorites, Ilana Masad, who approaches the books she reviews as parts of a bigger and more complicated cultural conversation.
We’re on hiatus for a little bit, but for those who want to catch up I’ve listed the interviews below, with links to each.
An excerpt from my review ofWe Kiss Them With Rain by South African writer Futhi Ntshingila, which can be read in its entirety over at Necessary Fiction. It might be the mood I’m in, but I’m finding subtle allusions to the Victorian-era in quite a few of the books I’ve been reading. Frankenstein In Baghdad is the most blatant call-out, but there’s also The Governesses by Anne Serre, Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefroy… and, of course, this novel. The writing in these books feels more-than-a-little old-fashioned, with a hint of a moral/life-lesson at the end. Of course this might all be entirely in my head, but it’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about as I look back on 2018.
We Kiss Them With Rain is a social novel, more in line with the works of twentieth century writers like Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Richard Wright,* than crusaders of the modern era. Like those earlier works, it is written with a dual purpose – to both entertain and inform – and relies on a series of somewhat far-fetched coincidences to resolve major plot points. The tone can be, at times, a bit earnest, but that earnestness is in service to highlighting institutional poverty, social inequality, victimization, and sexual assault. The virus is a palpable presence (the text is seeded with acronyms – HIV, AIDS and ARVs) and exists in the same room as the characters, like furniture. For Mvelo, who watches both Zola and Sipho die of AIDS, it is an obsession.
It was that day, when her mother’s disability grant was discontinued, that Mvelo stopped thinking any further than the day ahead. At fourteen, the girl who loved singing and laughing stopped seeing color in the world. It became dull and grey to her. She had to think like an adult to keep her mother alive. She was in a very dark place. One day she woke up and decided that school was not for her. What was the point? Once they discovered that her mother couldn’t pay, they would have to chuck her out anyway.
This is a charming book. Ntshingila’s writes simple prose, keeping comfortably within a young adult reading level. Her characters are awkwardly written, — as in one scene where Mvelo’s friend and neighbor attempts to read a Dylan Thomas poem over Zola’s grave and what is meant to be a poignant tribute becomes a belabored, if sincere, performance. What initially appears to be a flaw is ultimately a strength. The awkwardness covers the project with an unexpected blanket of authenticity. We Kiss Them With Rain is narrated in the third person, but this lack of polish on the final text makes it easy to imagine fictional Mvelo being the book’s actual/model author, writing her own story as if it were someone else’s. Little life lessons are sprinkled throughout, balancing the instructional (characters are constantly visiting clinics to be tested for HIV) with an aspirational happy ending. The final chapters are downright Dickensian, with an ending which encourages Ntshingila’s readers in their childlike hope that these characters – specifically Mvelo, one of the many orphans left alone in the wake of a terrible disease – will find happiness if only they follow the correct path. Not because everything is guaranteed to work out, but because she is given the gift of a future.
*Dickens was left off this list, because I didn’t want too long a string of names. But I do call him out later in the review. His fingerprints are all over this particular book. Specifically, his way of weaving social issues into his plots without allowing them to take over or keep the story from being entertaining.