In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth

On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.

One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog.🙂

Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.

So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews.  Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.

Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers.  9 were men.

Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.

This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer.  Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners  included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).

The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention.  She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment.  So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it?  Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse  than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.

And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.

Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun.  I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.

In the end it’s a numbers game.

A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.

 

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2016 – #WITMonth

WomenInTranslation Logo 2016Women In Translation Month is here again.  This event, in its third year, was started by the blogger Meytal Radzinski.  The idea came out of a number of posts she wrote in which she used The Three Percent website’s yearly translation database to determine the percentage of books in translation written by women which are published each year.  The 2014 and 2015 results were depressing and this year seems to be a continuation of previous years’ trends.

In case you’ve forgotten: the goals for Women In Translation Month are simple –

  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
  3. And if you’re a blogger or reviewer (or both) – BE AWARE!  Make sure you’re reviewing women in translation.  If publishers aren’t sending you the books, then start requesting them. It’s our job to let the readers know what they’re missing.

Want to be a part of the discussion?  –

I’ll be reading and posting about Women In Translation all of August. And while I probably won’t get to them all, here’s a peek at my TBR list –

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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.

Constellation by Adrien Bosc (Willard Wood, tr.)

Title:  Constellation
Author:  Adrien Bosc
Translator: Willard Wood
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2016)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 756 7

Is it on one of these bottomless nights that the airplane falls asleep and goes into exile?

Well-written prose can excuse a lot. That isn’t hyperbole – I truly believe it.  Portions of Adrien Bosc’s novel read like a historical report describing the 1949 crash of the Air France F-AZN, also called the Constellation.  A notable event mostly because the plane’s passenger list was filled with wealthy celebrities.  A champion boxer, a world renowned concert pianist, the inventor or the Mickey Mouse watch and a young woman from a poor family being whisked off to America by a rich, fairy godmother – together they amount to a metaphor no writer could resist.  Stars falling from the sky.

In his Almagest, a summation of mathematical and astronomical knowledge, Ptolemy offered the first analytical map of the celestial vault, identifying 1,022 stars and forty-eight constellations. In the Azores, after dusk, in an airplane named for a grouping of stars, forty-eight people went missing. At 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., no sign awakens the Atlantic. Reflected in the infinite puddle are the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and Scorpion.

Constellation CoverThe light and lyrical prose that runs through Constellation is typically French. Bosc’s sentences flow into each other as carelessly as events become memories. For this he will, inevitably, be compared to authors like Houellebecq and Laurent Binet. And it’s a fair comparison. He writes beautifully. But this is a book of isolated vignettes that never resolve themselves into a novel.  And I have to believe resolution was the author’s intention – to somehow create meaning out of tragedy; to find a pattern that will feed the symbolism; or (if we’re being cynical) to further invite those comparisons to Houellebecq and Binet.  Why else would Bosc inserts himself into the text, in textbook meta fashion, other than to bind together his stories of the dead.  Because his jarring and persistent presence has no other function. What his actual relationship is to the events he describes is never explained.  The ending, in which he speaks of his own birth, is particularly self-indulgent.  Readers will ultimately become confused.  It’s like spotting an ex at a cousin’s wedding, and wondering, what the hell are they doing here?

But Bosc does other things extremely well – all of which helps dilute Constellations flaws. Willard Wood’s translation captures the elegance in Bosc’s digressions. The epigraphs used as headings for each chapter were thoughtfully chosen by the author. The lives of the passengers, even those few who weren’t famous (a group of shepherds being flown from Italy to work in the American West), are treated as equally fascinating. Bosc writes them all mini-obituaries. He builds memorials to the dead.  The anecdotes he provides for each passenger make for a pleasurable afternoon’s reading.

That morning, she sees the great posters to her glory. In one stroke of the paperhanger’s brush, a SOLD OUT strip extends across each ad. Ginette chose her fate. It is easy to attach the label of “prodigy” to her precocious career and miss, through facile stereotyping, the child’s implacable will, hard work, and discipline, the mailed fist of her genius. A staccato like no other, fruit of the obstinacy of a serious child. We like fairy tales, Newton’s apple, Eureka moments, grace conceived as a punctual, innate, and ineluctable event, and we erase, because of our penchant of the marvelous, the prior groundwork, the tedious chores, the doubts. At seven, after a first concert at the Salle Gaveau, Ginette trains hard to overcome her anxiety, stop the trembling in her knees, conquer the sweat on her forehead and palms. In the evening, standing on the kitchen table practicing, she tells her astonished mother: “It’s to get used to performing onstage. The other day, I had stage fright, it was probably vertigo.”

There really isn’t very much else to the story otherwise. There’s no mystery sixty odd years after the crash of Air France’s Constellation to solve.  Without a black box there’s no way to be completely certain what happened, but the investigation at the time came up with a very reasonable theory of events. I was convinced. Bosc should perhaps take an example from another French writer, George Perec, who he quotes at the beginnings of both chapters 10 & 16. Perec was at his most brilliant when he was describing things without embellishment. Allowing the reader to see and experience them just as they were.

 

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (tr. Adam Morris)

Title:  Quiet Creature on the Corner
Author:  João Gilberto Noll
Translator:  Adam Morris
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2016)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 51 1

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a weird tale told from the point of view of an adolescent boy being punished for the rape of a young girl.  The assault occurs in an abandoned lot behind the slum-like apartment building where they both live and the boy describes the event so casually that we do not immediately absorb the import of what he is saying.  Our subsequent feeling of horror is subdued, perhaps because he is so young and lacking in self-awareness.  He has no direction and no future – abandoned first by the father he never knew and then by a mother overwhelmed by poverty. He is not a hero to like or relate to, but neither does he elicit a strong enough response for readers to entirely despise him. Everything about the character, by the author’s design, invites ambivalence.

For his crime the narrator is first jailed and then sent to a large country estate.  There he is cared for and kept in relative comfort (far more comfortable than in his previous existence) by an elderly couple named Kurt and Gerda.  He spends his time writing poetry in the solitude of his room. He carries on a secret, consensual relationship with a woman who acts as a servant at the main house. He comes to view Kurt as a father-figure and comes to subconsciously crave his approval. Days, months and (possibly) years pass unnoticed and unmarked upon  – occasionally he is surprised to realize that those around him, and he himself, have aged. In truth very little occurs to disrupt the groups quiet rhythm of existence until Gerda falls ill and must be taken to a hospital in Germany for treatments.  The trip serves as a catalyst for… well… for something

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

Noll plays with time and memory throughout the novella, inviting comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro (who gets a mention on the back cover). His narrator is filled with unspecified yearning and crippled by a total lack of introspection. The lens through which the boy sees the world is fogged.  The plot is further confused by the absence of contextual markers  that are usually assigned by the passage of time.  Noll is a complicated and challenging writer. Exactly what is going on always seems to lay just beyond the reader’s ken, but trying to solve the puzzle is surprisingly enjoyable.

I had affixed to the wall of my room an image that appeared nothing like the one I imagined when I first arrived at the manor: I’d recently found an old engraving in Amália’s shed, rolled up in a corner, yellowed in spots, likely by the drops of rain that came through the slats, depicting a boat setting sail. It was signed by the name Wilhelm Müller.

Kurt let me hang it up.

“That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland,” he said, as if half asleep.

The poem I was writing spoke of a farewell, and in that farewell exploded a hatred that tore through everything: ripped curtains, the walls to sawdust, blood on the lapel. One thing was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find.

The tone in which events are relayed, the sense that there is an underlying meaning, is designed to make readers uncomfortable.  João Gilberto Noll writes in  a muffled and detached narrative voice – as if the events that occur do so in another place and period,  – as if his narrator exists in a fugue state. Sentences run on for pages, an attempt by the author and translator to mimic “the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.” This use of an adolescent, first person narrator, one who feels no remorse and unencumbered by a moral conscience,  forces readers to enter and inhabit an alien mind… which may be the ultimate reason for the aura of weirdness that hangs about Quiet Creature on the Corner. We are unable to relate to, or even understand, the protagonist. Or is it ultimately his inability to relate to and understand us which we find so unsettling?

There is a plot. Things do happen, even if they initially seem to happen without reason or explanation.  Quiet Creature on the Corner is a book which benefits from re-reading (it is short, only 109 pages) and some understanding of Brazilian society in the late 80’s and 90’s. I definitely found this interview with the translator on Guernica’s website helpful. But the novel can also simply be read as a modern-day existential text. A boy/man disconnected from society is not a new device, or tied to a specific period of history.  And Noll’s narrator might easily call Meursault Uncle.