Welcome to Reader at Large!

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.

*If you would like to know why the name change, please see my 6/17/2016 post.

In the Distance With You by Carla Guelfenbein, tr. John Cullen

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.

National Book Critics Circle: The Craft of Criticism

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.

We Kiss Them With Rain by Futhi Ntshingila

An excerpt from my review of We 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.

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvu Sene Mongaba

Title: Mr. Fix-It
Author: Richard Ali A Mutu
Translator: Bienvu Sene Mongaba
Publisher: Phoneme Media, Los Angeles (2017)
ISBN: 978 1 944700 07 2

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, a Congolese writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a book I’m really excited about. It was originally written and published in Lingala, a language spoken by roughly 10 million people and almost exclusively in the DRC  and the Republic of Congo*.  The U.S. publisher, Phoneme Media, explained in an email that Mr. Fix-It was “put out by a publishing house based between Kinshasa and Brussels, run by Ali A Mutu’s translators.”  The house, Editions Mabiki, “publish textbooks used throughout the DRC, as well as a small number of fiction titles in both Lingala and French.” 

An excerpt from the novel (at 102 pages it’s really  more of a novella) was originally published in the anthology Africa39 in 2014. For those not familiar with the Africa39 project or its significance, it was “a partnership with Rainbow Book Club, celebrating Port Harcourt: UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 by identifying 39 of the most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora”.  For context: Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is also a contributor to the Africa39 anthology.

The title Mr. Fix-It is a play on the hero’s name, Ebamba, which  means “Mender” in Lingala. A misnomer, as this young man is anything but. His is a story about love, betrayal and loss. Ebamba is a sad-sack protagonist in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and while much of what happens to him is beyond his control, if there is a bad decision to be made it seems likely he will be the one to make it.

The book opens with a dowry negotiation during which the bride’s mercenary family recites an ever-growing and ever more expensive list of demands. When Ebamba’s uncle (who is negotiating on behalf of his nephew) attempts to interject he is immediately cut off.

“But…”

“But, but… What are you arguing for? Are we going to haggle over this? Is this the market?”

“No, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘no but’? You have a problem with this? We aren’t even finished yet. The girl’s uncles haven’t spoken, or her mom. Her older brothers and sisters have yet to state their demands…”

Eyenga, the fiance, also attempts to protest the mercantile treatment of her potential marriage. But to no avail. Her mother explains that when she was young “they only asked for salt and some kola nut. It was the good old days when we lived according to the traditions of old. Now things have changed. When you have a daughter, you have a readymade treasure…” 

As bad as the situation is for the couple, it’s hard not to laugh at the machinations of their friends, relatives and neighbors. Ali A Mutu balances humor against hard truths about the economic situation for young people like Ebamba and Eyenga, caught in a world transitioning from tradition to Capitalism. Jobs in Kinshasa are hard to come by and so, despite being intelligent and well-educated, Ebamba is unemployed.  There is no hope of his fulfilling Eyenga’s family’s list of goods. He is past due on his rent and avoids homelessness only because his landlady has decided he will make the perfect husband for her daughter, Maguy. Maguy wholeheartedly agrees with her mother and initiates a campaign of seduction Ebamba is too weak to resist for long. It all ends in tragedy, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Ali A Mutu has a gift for writing funny, back-and-forth banter and takes full advantage of that talent. Mr. Fix-It reads like a genre novel, though it’s a genre I’ve never encountered. A rom-tragi-com, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s entertaining as hell and goes by much too fast.
Mid-way through the most wonderful thing happens. Ebamba and Eyenga go on a date, and while sitting at a bar begin to sing to each other. For nine pages, Ali A Mutu transcribes the lyrics to Cheval by the Congolese Soukus (a type of dance music) singer Koffi olomide.  A little digging turned up this video on YouTube. It’s a duet, and the singers have beautiful voices… I recommend giving it a listen.  

 

 

Cheval is just one example of the many ways which Mr. Fix-It feels like it’s been written for a local audience. In some ways it reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s work, though less cosmopolitan in scope. Ebamba’s trials and travails call to mind the journey of the hero of Black Bazaarin particular, perhaps because both men write with humor and empathy about their characters’ attempts at navigating relationships. But, despite some similarities of spirit, Richard Ali A Mutu’s prose remains distinctly and uniquely his own. Uncluttered by preoccupations with style and concerned only with serving the story, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Fix-It as a graphic novel.

These are exciting times for readers interested in contemporary African fiction. Writers like Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Wilfried N’Sondé (Republic of Congo), Naivo (Madagascar), Ondjaki (Angola), Amir Taj Al-Sir (Sudan) and the aforementioned Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) are all available in English and can be easily found online. All thanks to the work and dedication of small university and independent presses.

 

 

*For context: There currently 570 million Spanish speakers, 300-400 million English speakers, and 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers. The population of North Carolina is estimated at 10,273,419 people.

 

 

 

WOMEN IN TRANSLATION MONTH 2018 – Thank You, Meytal! #WITMonth

Women In Translation Month is upon us!  Meytal Radzinski (Biblibio to those who knew her back in the day 🙂 ) embodies the idea of being a “literary citizen” to her core. She is a force of nature and someone I hugely admire. In 2014 she began a conversation on her blog which  evolved into an international celebration of women writers in translation.  The fact that it has spread as far as it has in the four years since then is entirely due to her hard work and lovely personality. I do not mean to minimize the work of the publishers, translators, booksellers, bloggers and all the other people who make #WITMonth a success year after year – but I think it’s important to acknowledge who this community is built around and why she built it.  So, in her own words:

Approximately 30% of new translations into English are of books by women writers. Given how few books are translated into English to begin with, this means that women are a minority within a minority. The problem then filters down to how books by women writers in translation are reviewed/covered in the media, recognized by award committees, promoted in bookstores, sent out to reviews, and ultimately reach readers themselves.

While imperfect, WITMonth gives many publishers the chance to promote their existing titles written by women in translation, while also giving readers an organized means of finding the books that already exist. WITMonth ultimately serves to help readers find excellent books to read… those books just happen to be by women writing in languages other than English!

For my part – you will find most of my Women In Translation Month recommendations on Instagram and Twitter. Every day of the month of August I will be featuring a book written by a woman and translated into English. You can follow me on IG @taracheesman and on Twitter @booksexyreview

And don’t forget to check out all the #WITMonth hashtags on both Twitter & Instagram.