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.
Every once in a while I find a book so dense that it seems impenetrable. The kind of book that requires research to read. Like Joyce’s Ulysses (I took an entire course on Joyce in college) or Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (Cliff Notes provided by my High School English teacher). I’ve always enjoyed information mining. But, the Geography of Rebels Trilogy is next level… I can’t imagine who the intended audience was or is.
It’s not a bad book. I find it fascinating, though I don’t entirely understand it. Llansol plays with language in ways I’ve never encountered, and her translator Audrey Young does an excellent job of conveying this. Pick a page at random – one of the benefits of a book that doesn’t recognize linear structure – and read. There’s always something interesting happening at a sentence level.
Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of “normal” expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations.
The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into the Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol “discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.” These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol “suddenly understood that ‘several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.’”
This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books——a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages. Saint John of the Cross was a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, still revered in Spain for his poetry. One poem, in particular, stands out—his Spiritual Canticle, in which he coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Ana de Peñalosa was his patron, with whom he corresponded. (Llansol lifts whole quotes directly from the letters John wrote Ana de Peñalosa). Thomas Müntzer, a German theologian alive at the turn of the 15th century was imprisoned and tortured, as was John, for his faith. In the pages of Llansol’s book all three talk and interact like old friends (despite Müntzer walking around with his severed head in his hands, having died seventeen years prior to John’s birth).
Lately, I’ve been having trouble focusing. I’m restless and nervous all the time. I’m constantly playing with my phone – jumping from app to app; checking my Gmail; posting on Twitter; should I be posting on Litsy? check Litsy; did my table sell on Letgo? check Letgo; new episodes of my favorite podcast? download; listen to podcast; put phone down. Jump on internet or turn on the television. Anything I want to stream on Amazon Prime/Netflix/Hulu? Watch trailers. No. Turn off the television. Pick up a book. Read. Think of something to Google. Maybe I should be writing? Put down book, pick up phone. Open game. Play game until out of lives. Begin cycling through apps again.
Tech is playing havoc with my reading.
I’ve become obsessed with de-cluttering my house. The truth is that my head is crammed full of information/to-do’s/desires/ideas/regrets. Like a Japanese Zen garden (resist Googling Japanese Zen Garden – success) that’s littered with trash, I need to devise a slow and purposeful way to rake the sand clean again.
My phone is trying to addict me. Not really the phone – just like not opioids, not meth, not nicotine, not caffeine. Drugs are not viruses. They do not consciously recognize that they benefit from my addiction. Companies recognize the benefits. It is in Google’s/Facebook’s/Twitter’s/Amazon’s/Instagram’s/YouTube’s best interest if I don’t disconnect from my screen. There have been articles and studies (resist Googling synonyms for “built-in” – success) explaining that tech companies build-in features to make their applications addictive, complete with psychological triggers and rewards in the form of likes, emojis, hearts, hearts that sparkle and pop (resist Googling articles and studies – fail) which make us feel seen. Everyone wants to be seen.
I like Star Trek’s version of the future. I bought a Google Home Hub because it came with two free minis. I already own a mini. Our house is small. A friend who works for a big tech company I’ve already mentioned doesn’t own any home devices. His social media footprint is small. He’s surprisingly analog outside of work. Should I be paying attention to this? Does he know something I don’t? The Matrix wasn’t intended as metaphor and yet, metaphorically, I can’t help thinking we’ve all voluntarily connected ourselves to the matrix. The film (resist Googling for “the matrix film” – fail), released in 1999, is no longer a convincing depiction of the future. The tech has aged badly.
Fortunately, my addiction isn’t wreaking havoc on or disrupting my relationships, other than my perception of them (FOMO). But if it’s interfering with my reading life, an activity that brings me happiness, can I still say tech has improved my life? (Google “breaking tech addiction”. Resist tinfoil hat paranoia – fail. Google “quit smoking”. Click on smokefree.gov. Substitute “screens” for “cigarettes”).
Make a Plan – Set limits in order to wean yourself off screens. This is something Cal Newport talks about in Deep Work (download audiobook from Audibles.com). Rather than schedule time off – the oft-cited tech hiatus – designate your time on. Beginner goal: keep screen surfing time to ninety minutes per day. Track in journal.
Stay Busy – Find meaningful projects to replace screen time. Plan things to do: books you want to read, write more, visit friends, go to the gym, work in the garden, take the dog for a walk. Gretchen Rubin recommends scheduling phone dates with long distance friends on her Happier podcast. I’ve tried and find it a satisfying alternative to Facebook for keeping in touch.
Avoid Triggers – Limit impetuous searches. Write down the things you want to search and go back during designated screen time. Delete games. Gradually delete social media sites, starting with the ones you rarely use. Set Forest phone app (resist Googling “phone apps to keep you off screen” – success) for maximum minutes to discourage picking up phone. Use internet blocks when writing. Avoid SNL videos on YouTube.
Stay Positive – Limit Instagram & Twitter use. Identify the kinds of online activity that makes you sad or nervous. If you feel disconnected, find offline ways to connect (yoga class, browse a book store, go to the park).
Ask for Help – Ask your partner to hold your phone for blocks of time. Ask close friends and family members to call if they need to reach you instead of texting. Go somewhere. Be around other people. And, (resist cliche – fail) recognize that other people will probably be staring at screens of their own.
The Governesses is easily one of the stand-out books of 2018 for me. I love everything about it – from the playful and mannered prose to the cinematic and stylized storytelling. The fenced in house and garden remind me of an elaborate glass terrarium like you might find in a Victorian parlor… a whimsical, shrunken down version of the Temperate House in Kew Gardens. And all the eccentric characters! I imagined herds and herds of children, boys and “maids” (I never quite figured out whether the maids were meant to be little girls or the domestic help) stampeding through every scene. The entire effect is magical.
Below is an excerpt from my review. The Inhumanity of Isolation: Anne Serre’s The Governesses, translated by Mark Hutchinson at Vol. 1 Brooklyn (October 31, 2018).
The Governesses by Anne Serre teases its readers with elements of allegory and fairy story. Three young women stroll through the gates of a manor house, the kingdom of M. and Mme. Austier and home to innumerable little maids and boys. Eléonore, Laura and Inès, the titular governesses, are entirely lacking in their roles. It is immediately clear to even the densest of readers that no one would hire this trio to watch over a pen of guinea pigs, let alone a houseful of children. As the narrator tells us – “You would even wager there was something fishy going on.”
Fishy, indeed. This “scatterbrained band of young women” seldom do the work for which they are employed: i.e. – educating the little boys in their identical sailor suits, who are forever rolling hoops up and down the stairs and looking for all the world like the faceless figures in an M.C. Escher drawing. Instead, the governesses prefer to spend their time lolling around naked in fields, performing lewd pantomimes for the elderly gentleman who spies on them from across the way, and ravishing the strange and anonymous men who innocently “stray into the garden”. They behave and are treated more like pampered princesses than employees. Shallow and vain, if cell phones existed in their sheltered little world (and there is no indication that they do) Eléonore, Laura and Inès would be posting an endless stream of selfies to Instagram – #BlessedLife.
All through the house, on the stairs and landings, little boys march up and down, passing each other in silence. Sometimes a hoop trundles down the stairs and bounces across the wide hall. Only once does it go all the way through the wall without stopping and on into the salon, catching on a vase on one of the side-tables. Whereupon children arrive half a dozen together to pick up the pieces.
Just when it seems dystopian horror has had its moment, a new iteration emerges. The Water Cure, the Man Booker-nominated, debut novel of Welsh writer Sophie Mackintosh, depicts a distinctly female dystopia and arrives amidst the cyclical tides of the #MeToo movement.
So, what fresh hell this? Three sisters are raised on an island by their Mother and father, a man they all call King. The family lives in isolation, cut off and protected from a world where men carry a fatal sickness which afflicts only women. Or so the sisters have been taught. A lesson enforced by the broken women who stumbled ashore in search of the titular cure all through the girls’ shared childhood. But by the time we, the readers, enter the story, years have passed since the sick women stopped coming.
The women drank the salt water first, their faces pained. They threw up repeatedly into the buckets. Their bodies convulsed. They lay on the floor, but Mother helped them up, insistent. They rinsed their mouths, spat. Then they drank from the second row, glass after glass of our good and pure water, the water that came from our taps like a miracle, the water that the sprinklers cast out in the early dusk like a veil across the garden.
It is not explicitly stated how or why women suffer in this society – whether it is institutional, biological, or the same mundane misogyny of our world assigned greater urgency. The information is conflicting. Do the men carry a virus, or is this just male “cooties” the young women have been trained to fear? Grace, Lia, and Sky are shown a list of symptoms, which include “unexplained bleeding from anywhere, but particularly eyes, ears, fingernails.” But, this story is told primarily from the points of view of the two elder sisters, Grace & Lia, and it’s difficult to determine if they are reliable narrators. With no outside contact and only vague memories of the time before they were brought to the island, the sisters exist in a societal and family construct entirely designed and controlled by King and Mother.
The construct cracks when King fails to return from a supply trip to the mainland and the women believe him drowned. Within days or weeks of his disappearance (because time, itself, is a construct) two men and a boy wash up on the beach, interrupting the women’s mourning and exposing deep fissures in their family unit.
Mother — bereft and the keeper of dark secrets attempts to maintain what passes on the island for normalcy. “‘I would do anything for my girls,’ Mother says, stoic.” The history of her relationship to King is told in short bursts, in a style reminiscent of a Greek chorus and scattered throughout the book. Mother is an easy character to overlook, overshadowed by her three daughters. But it’s an important part of her role in the book, to speak for older women who find themselves invisible because they are no longer deemed desirable — first wives, actresses in their 40’s, stay-at-home moms.
Grace, we quickly learn, is pregnant. There is no question of who the father is because only one option exists. And Lia, as decreed by King’s law, has been designated “least loved” for the year – making her particularly vulnerable to the attention of one of the castaways. Only Sky, born on the island and innocent to the point of vacuity, seems unaffected by the intruders. But, then, we are never privy to Sky’s interior life in the way we are her two sisters’. She is more feral pup than a human girl, and it’s easy to wonder how the story might be changed if Sky had been allowed her own voice.
When we were younger, Grace and I played a game called Dying. It involved folding your body over and wadding your eyes up tight. It involved shaking. I was always the one who died – of course I was – so I lay in front of my sister as she threw salt on me.
‘We told you not to go out in the world!’ Grace would shout in imitation of Mother. ‘What did you wear?’
Just my body. Just the gown.
But even without Sky, Grace and Lia build a powerful and disturbing narrative. Lia, hungry for affection and love, always takes on the hardest tasks to spare her sisters physical and emotional pain. She is desperately lonely. Grace is an entirely different creature. Her interior life is everything. She exists as cold consciousness inconveniently contained within a female form. Grace’s contributions to the tale ring out over the text like the voice of an old testament prophet and, despite Lia being assigned the bulk of the chapters (including the entirety of Part II. Men), Grace’s chapters contain the most shocking revelations.
The three men (even the boy is designated a “man”) — James, Llew, and Gwil — expose the women in ways they can’t and don’t understand. Their rituals and therapies become absurd when performed in the presence of strangers. They are exotic, ever-so-slightly ridiculous creatures who do not know how to behave. And the oddity of their behavior is further exposed when we learn they are older than we believed them, or even they knew themselves, to be. The book’s tension comes from watching as the utopian glamour is stripped away layer by layer from their island sanctuary, revealing the twisted and ramshackle nature of the family’s existence. In some aspects, it is your typical “serpent in paradise” situation playing.
Mackintosh has said in interviews that she started writing with the question, what if masculinity were actually, physically, toxic? So we must accept the premise that the danger men pose in her novel is very real. In all other details, the world she describes is futuristic only in that readers are conditioned to assume all dystopias are, by default, set in a distant future. Nothing these women experience is so far removed from our own world as to be inconceivable. Their daily life is regimented by superstition and odd rituals, but so are the lives of the women trapped in misogynist cults and religious sects. Which is why The Water Cure is so canny. The same quality that makes Margaret Atwood’s work so chilling and seductive – describing a society where more is familiar than is foreign — imbues Mackintosh’s novel with a terrifying prescience. When James tries to convince Grace that “‘the world is not what you have been told… I mean, the world is very terrible, but you have been told a number of things that are untrue’” she, the most clear-sighted of the sisters, understands that “the world has not been kind to him… yet he loves it anyway. It is a man’s place. His survival is implicit, a survival taken for granted.” Readers can recognize male privilege on display.
Reviews in the UK made the inevitable comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, but Mackintosh’ sisters possess a fierceness that I don’t remember in Atwood’s handmaidens. Anger and hostility underpin The Water Cure, as does a sense of tangible, feminine rage. Mackintosh is uncompromising in her message: Men are selfish. Men lie. Men manipulate. And so it comes as no surprise that James, Llew, and Gwil are not who or what they seem. Nor King. There can be no good men. Mackintosh goes all in and gives her characters over to their raw emotions. At the same time, she explores the classic female archetypes. Sky the virgin, Lia the whore and Grace the mother. Mother, herself, has evolved into the crone. Always recognizing that these archetypes are also patriarchal constructs and reminding us that each woman, with the possible exception of Sky, is complicit in her own and her sisters’ subjugation.
Three soldiers sent by King Herod to massacre innocent babies experience a moment of doubt, only to have their resolve strengthened (and hearts hardened) by the words of a sinister old man. An urchin boy styling himself King David sacrifices everything to keep his subjects safe. A rich man seeks out healers and prophets, desperate to cure his first-born son of a debilitating stutter. A prostitute searches for the man she loves and finds acceptance and community with a group of strangers. This baker’s dozen collection of short stories by Swedish writer Lars Petter Sveen reimagines the Bible as a work of speculative fiction, freshened up with contemporary prose. Featuring an overlapping cast of lepers, prostitutes, orphans, murderers, and thieves – these stories remind us that Jesus’ followers were often society’s outcasts. Sveen gives voices to the men, women and, children who are mentioned, but not considered important enough to name, in the Christian Gospels.
Children of God is told in the straightforward, character-driven style of a genre novel. There’s a substantial amount of dialogue. The prose does the job, but Sveen is not a stylist and Guy Puzey’s translation (from the original Norwegian) reflects that reality. But if you like fantasy-style novels, and aren’t quick to cry BLASPHEME!, this isn’t a bad read. In “I Smell of the Earth” a dead woman seeks to escape her demon lover. The demon is defined only by his voice, there is no physical description. We recognize him by the sibilants of his speech patterns. The way he hisses out the “s” in Ssssssarah, appearing suddenly out of the darkness, is chilling.
In “Martha’s Story” a young girl plays a game with an old man in which they both must tell stories to Martha’s little brothers and sisters. This old, blind man “stays in the shadows while light falls elsewhere” and connects the material world to the spiritual. He appears throughout the book. More Saruman than Satan (though, of course, we’re meant to recognize him as the latter) he plants doubt and corruption wherever he goes. He will tell the children a story to make them cry. Martha must make them smile or laugh again, or he will take her as a forfeit (one guesses to suffer Sarah’s fate). “Martha’s Story” is formatted differently from the others in the book – surrounded by wide margins which compress the text, giving it the appearance of a children’s book. It’s the second to last story. In my opinion, it should have closed the book out. Without spoiling too much, when it’s Martha’s turn she pulls a character we’ve met before into her tale, allowing him a chance at redemption. It’s a surprising, metafiction moment that had me thinking of another Graywolf book, The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, which touches on the same idea: the performance of author as a god. A strange and unexpected connection.
Discovering how the stories overlap and tracing the connections between the individual characters is a large part of the fun. For that reason, I recommend reading in order. There’s very little world-building otherwise, either historical or genre, and there appears to be the implicit (if unspoken) understanding that the reader brings at least a superficial knowledge of the Bible to the page. Eight years of Catholic school, after which I lapsed hard, stood me well. While probably not necessary, having that foundation did make things more interesting.
Children of God is Sveen’s English language debut. An entertaining, occasionally formulaic collection based on New Testament stories by an author who recognizes that the foundational themes/tenets of Christianity, in which the forces of good and evil battle for the hearts and souls of mankind, lend themselves handily to the genre of speculative fiction.