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.
So here we are again. Another August and my Twitter and Instagram feeds are filling up with photos, lists and reviews of books by women in translation. Five years in and #WITMonth is bigger than ever. All thanks to Meytal, who founded and continues to grow what has become an international event. (If you want to learn more about Meytal, click the link to see last year’s thank you post or visit her blog to get the latest news, updates, and links to WITMonth content).
This month, like everyone else in the translation community, I’ll be posting reviews — new and old — of books by women in translation. One thing I’ve noticed, possibly because so few books in translation are published in general and even fewer of those are by women, is that we all seem to be reading the same books. It’s unavoidable, of course, but there it is. You can’t even say we’re all just reading new releases because that’s not the case either. It really reinforces how small the pool to choose from actually is. (Two examples of what I’m talking about occurred in the last week or so: Meytal mentioned she plans to post a review of Suzanne Dracius’ The Dancing Other and someone else, I can’t remember who, posted on Twitter that they were reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both books are sitting on my TBR&R pile. This happens all the time). It also highlights how small presses are carrying the load in publishing translations. And how so many of the reviewers I follow, and I myself am guilty of this, seem to focus on literary fiction in translation and overlook genre in our coverage.
In other news: I’m always on the lookout for novels that feature interesting, middle-aged and above female protagonists. I’ve had some success, but I wouldn’t call it a huge category. Betty Boo by Claudia Pineiro, Eventide by Therese Bohman (which I’ll be reviewing later this month) and Minae Mizumara’s novels immediately come to mind. Last year the Best Translated Book Award judges received a little book titled An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good: Stories by the Swedish writer Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy. The only word for it is DELIGHTFUL. It was a favorite among the judges, even though it didn’t make the longlist. Tursten is best known for her Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nystrom series, which I need to read. Both Hus and Nystrom make an appearance in the last of the five stories, but it’s the elderly lady who steals the book.
My favorite in the collection is An Elderly Lady Has An Accommodation Problem. Maud, who is 88-years-old, has been living in her rent-controlled apartment (rent-controlled = free) in a now gentrified (gentrified = expensive) section of Sweden since she was a child. The building’s housing association wants rid of her to no avail, her contract is ironclad. Her family is all dead, she never married, and she mostly keeps to herself. So when her young neighbor, a flighty artist named Jasmin, becomes extremely — even intrusively — friendly Maud can’t quite figure out why. Is the girl looking for a friend? A mother figure? A project?
It wasn’t until she read a new entry in Jasmin’s blog one day that things started to become clear. I’m so excited! I might soon be moving into a bigger apartment! Which means a bigger studio, of course!!!! I really need more space. And when I say bigger, I mean BIGGER! MUCH BIGGER!!! …
…That little bitch was after her apartment.
Obviously, something will need to be done.
All the stories are Maud’s and each one is more deliciously wicked than the last. Tursten injects just the right amount of joie de vivre into the old biddy’s activities. It comes as a surprise to learn, in a brief note at the end, that Maud was a character born out of necessity. Her creator needed a short story for a Christmas anthology and had no idea what to write. Until she hit upon the idea that a frail old lady would make the perfect criminal. No one would suspect her. She could get away with murder! And so she does, quite literally, to all our amusement.
Which sounds a bit twisted when said out loud. It goes without saying that nobody likes a serial killer, even a clever one. And yet… there’s something truly endearing about Maud and her antics. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Honestly… all her victims had it coming. *side eye*
Title: An Elderly Lady Up To No Good Author: Helene Tursten Translator: Marlaine Delargy Publisher: Soho Press, New York (2018) ISBN: 978 1 64129 011 1
A question that came up during this year’s Best Translated Book Award was how much attention should be given to supplementary material? Or, put another way, how important is the context in determining how you feel about a book? An author’s or translator’s note, a forward or afterward by a famous fan, a podcast analyzing the text chapter by chapter or an interview with the author — all of these things can drastically change your relationship to a piece of writing.
But there are also times when extra information, additional insight into the text, can enhance your reading. You can’t always depend on being able to navigate a novel intuitively. This is often a challenge when reading translations, where we’re navigating cultural, historical and linguistic differences in addition to the complexities of plot and structure. Hybrid Child, by Mariko Ōhara, is a futuristic novel that spans centuries. Crowded with multiple narratives, any one of which could be detached and developed into a standalone book, understanding it as a work of “widescreen baroque” is essential to appreciate the intricacies of Ōhara’s writing.
Hybrid Child is divided into three sections, each one set in a completely different time and terrain. The sections are connected by a small group of reoccurring characters, chief among these is a cyborg, B #3. But Ōhara uses a cacophony of perspectives and voices to tell her stories. Hybrid Child is a chaotic and noisy text. Her secondary characters are often the more compelling: a young man who is kept alive in a mobile egg he likens to a coffin and a housekeeping robot whose emotions push against the borders of her programming are two of my favorites.
Suddenly, the tin robot felt sad and hopeless. At least if she were human, she could have a short nap, or a deep sleep, or get tipsy on booze — there would be all kinds of options.
Deep in reverie, the tin robot thought about the girl who had flown away and left her.
“What is it? Looks like you want to say something. Come on, say it. It’s almost time for you to make dinner.”
The tin robot looked at the old master with her two widely spaced eyes.
As for the plot: the first section is a horror story which descends into a standoff with the military. We are introduced to an unnamed, middle-aged woman, living inisolation. Everything about her home, from the house to the landscape around her (snowcovered), is relentlessly and antiseptically white. B #3 has escaped from the government facility where he was created and is being tracked by soldiers. As he approaches the house he shifts into the form of a Dadazim, a doglike creature genetically engineered to be the perfect house pet. The woman welcomes and feeds him. B #3 begins communicating with the home’s only other occupant, the house’s A.I., which manifests as a holograph of the woman’s dead daughter. It’s not exactly an Ex Machina situation but conveys the same sinister feel.
B #3, we soon learn, is capable of taking on the form of any biological creature by sampling its cells. He can even combine samples of different organisms, creating entirely new species. By the end of the first section, B #3 will take the form of his host’s dead daughter, Jonah. As Jonah, he escapes and finds temporary sanctuary and happiness in Section Two: Farewell. In Section Three: Aquaplanet (which makes up the bulk of the novel) she will make a journey through space and time to a new planet whose inhabitants live with uncertainty. The A.I., Milagros, who controls the planet’s systems is teetering on the edge of madness.
According to the translator, Jodie Beck, whose clear prose styling deserves credit for holding the book together, “the three stories that compose Hybrid Child were originally serialized in SF Magazine in Japan between 1984 and 1990, and all three were compiled together and published as a single book by Hayakawa Publishers in 1990.” That, and the knowledge that the author intended this as an example of “widescreen baroque”, goes a long way toward explaining the disconnected nature of the three parts. Though Ōhara threads elements and characters through the different plots in an attempt to unify them, the changes in the setting are abrupt. Time jumps add to the discord.
Perhaps Ohara’s greatest strength is the vividness of the characters she creates. One of these is the Military Priest, for whom time is not a linear construct. He slips through the time stream, manipulating it to bear witness to key events and to pursue B #3/Jonah. The fact that he exists untethered to a specific time or place eventually drives him insane. But not before he hatches a plan to put an end to B #3/Jonah. He is an irredeemably evil character, endowed with godlike powers.
Like Yoshio Aramaki, whose novel The Sacred Era* is also part of the University of Minnesota Press’ Parallel Future series, Ōhara’s book is burdened by Judeo-Christian metaphors. Mother-figures weighed down by Freudian symbolism appear in every section. There are awkward (and disturbing) sex scenes. There’s a lot to unpack… more, perhaps, than is necessary. I’d argue that, in the end, each individual section is better than the sum of its parts.
I found Hybrid Child a problematic book on many levels. In a way, Ōhara’s novel can be read as a complex coming of age story that explores our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness and the existence of god. But these themes are so deeply buried under extraneous rubble that they lose definition, becoming amorphous. And, despite being written by a woman, there are parts which have me questioning it being labeled a feminist work of science fiction.
This perceived messiness, though, is also an essential characteristic of the project. And, admittedly, there’s something charming about its imperfections. But are they working in service to, or distracting away from, the emotional connection the reader is meant to feel to the story? Therein lies the danger of writing within the framework of a genre.
*”The Parallel Futures book series is dedicated to translations of key works of Japanese science fiction intervening creatively and critically into temporal processes of social and political subjectification… These works prefer temporal juxtaposition, disjunction, and multiplication, seeking intensifiers of mobile force and difference rather than forms of representation, aiming not to pull the future into the present but to generate parallel, diagonal, and transversal futures whereby space-time emerges, as not yet again.”
Thing #1 — I’ve been a listener to the Book Fight! podcast pretty much from the beginning. I own a tee-shirt. I frequently laugh out loud while listening to the two hosts, Tom & Mike, banter about NANOWRIMO, Kit-Kats, fan fiction and, occasionally, books. And it’s through them I learned about Barrelhouse, a magazine devoted to literature and pop culture (but not always in that order). I wrote my first review for their recently re-vamped Book Reviews section back in May.
Thing #2 — Did I mention I wrote my first review for Barrelhouse’s website on Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan? It begins like this:
I’ve long been a fan of Andrea Wulf’s non-fiction. So when the follow-up to The Brother Gardener was announced in 2011, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation (it’s a mouthful!), I immediately pre-ordered a copy. Despite my initial enthusiasm, though, it sat on the shelf. In the end, it took me eight years to read, and even then I chose to listen to the audiobook.
Meticulously researched, well-written, thoughtful and rich in detail… in short, Founding Gardners is everything I’ve come to expect from Wulf. But this particular story, which she chose to put so much effort into telling, never engaged me in the same way as The Brother Gardeners. This isn’t Wulf’s fault so much as a weakness in the material. Where her first book introduced readers to the largely forgotten character of John Bartram and described his influence over gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, this new book (new being a relative term of course) goes over what is already well-covered territory. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – these are quite famous men who have had thousands, if not millions, of pages written about them. The question becomes, is there anything new to say?
Divided into nine parts, with each part focussing on a different event in which gardening can be tied to the birth of the United States of America, Founding Gardeners makes the case that the answer to that question is a “yes!”. Wulf devotes an entire section to how Jefferson and Adam became close friends while touring gardens in England. And in another shows Jefferson betraying that friendship a few years later, rallying political support in the Northern states under the guise of touring the gardens of New England with Madison. She describes the creation of Washington, D.C., the capital city that almost wasn’t. And how George Washington wanted his gardens at Mt. Vernon to showcase plants “Made in America”. She even revisits the 1786 visit to Bartram’s garden which facilitated the founding of a nation.
All of which is very interesting, but to my mind, the true gardening gems in Founding Gardeners get much less space. For example, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actively procured seeds from around the world, through a variety of means, in order to make the United States agriculturally and (as a result) economically independent. Jefferson smuggled grains of rice out of Italy in 1787 at great risk. He was looking for a type of upland rice that could be grown in dry instead of flooded fields, which were often mosquito-infested and the breeding ground for malaria and yellow fever. Franklin, ever practical, “believed that the colonists’ reliance on agriculture for their main income, combined with seemingly endless resources of land, could be turned to their advantage. America could be self-reliant…” While overseas, he was constantly sending seeds back home to friends to plant and cultivate.
Every time someone told Franklin about a new edible plant, he was thrilled by the possibility of its economic potential. “I wish it may be found of Use with us”, he told one correspondent when he forwarded seeds for a new crop, and when he heard of tofu, it so excited his curiousity, he said, that he procured the recipe from China, dispatching it together with chickpeas to a friend in Philadelphia.
The pages Wulf spends on Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are much less interesting (and more numerous) in comparison. In the United States, these three places are hallowed ground and the destination of many a school trip and/or family vacation. Maybe that’s why much of what Wulf relays about them felt “potted”, — the kinds of facts gleaned from a group tour. And not an altogether thorough one. The flaw in Founding Gardeners is that for the amount of time she spends on Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Montpelier, too little is given to exploring the role of enslaved people in the creation and maintenance of these plantations. Because, despite their pretty names, that is what they were: Southern plantations. I’ve taken the tour at Monticello, and one of the facts we learned was that Jefferson not only built his house on a hill using slave labor, but when he was short of funds he would sell the men, women, and children who lived there in order to continue the work. So, while Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and Madison’s homes are impressive in a grand way, it’s important to understand what the grandiosity cost.
I bring this up because there’s a definite unevenness in how the gardens of the Founding Fathers are discussed, with the obvious preference being given to the men from Virginia. I couldn’t help wishing for more time spent farther North in the more modest gardens of Adams and Franklin. Peacefield, Adam’s home, remains elusive even after reading the book. And Franklin’s modest Philadelphia garden is given only one paragraph in the Prologue — and for a man who we know to have been a botanist, and are told was “proud of his botanical books and enjoyed showing them to visitors” this seems like short shrift.
Overall, while it didn’t meet my expectations and I was frustrated by what I felt were significant ommissions, I did enjoy Founding Gardeners and will revisit parts of it again. The audiobook narrator, Antonia Bath, does an excellent job – but I recommend the print format in this instance. There’s a lot of information, loosely organized, that I think needs the kind of focus that comes from reading words on a page.
Title: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature & the Shaping of the American Nation Author: Andrea Wulf Audiobook Narrator: Antonia Bath Publisher: Knopf, New York (2011)
I also seem to be a bigger fan of a certain Voltaire quote than I realized.
My review of Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden will be available later this week. I listened to it on audiobook, so it was an entirely different experience. But more on that later. For now, I think this old review holds up surprisingly well a decade on –