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.

The Brooklyn Book Festival Cometh

BrooklynBookFestivalThe Brooklyn Book Festival is happening Sunday, September 23rd.  This year’s schedule is very exciting!  There are several panels – more than I can remember seeing in past years’ schedules – dealing specifically with International authors & translated lit.  England (see The London Review of Books), Central & North Africa, India, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago are all represented.  Almost all of them conveniently located in the Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room.  Below is a quick list (copied & pasted right from the schedule) of the panels which caught my eye.

  • 10:00 A.M. The London Review of Books presents The Novel and the City, a conversation about literature and the urban imagination with Mexican author Alvaro Enrigue, and cultural writer Christine Smallwood. Moderated by Adam Shatz, London Review of Books. – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 10:00 A.M. Home Is Not A Place. Four authors read and discuss their books whose protagonists are challenged to create and negotiate their identity in a new homeland–a journey fraught with confusion, rebellion and uncertain outcomes. Graphic novelist Leela Corman (Unterzakhn), and authors Patricia Engel (Vida), Luis Alberto Urrea (Into the Beautiful North)and Jose Manuel Prieto (Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire).Moderated by Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) – Saint Francis Screening Room (180 Remsen Street)
  • 12:00 P.M. Through the Eyes of a Child. Join Somali-English author Nadifa Mohamed (Black Mamba Boy), Maaza Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) and Congo’s Emmanuel Dongala (Johnny Mad Dog and Little Boys Come from the Stars) for a conversation on contemporary African novels which explore themes of identity, memory and violence through child narrators. Moderated by Bhakti Shringarpure, Warscapes – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 1:00 P.M. From the Ruins of Empire. Leading Indian writers Pankaj Mishra (From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals Who Remade Asia) and Siddhartha Deb (The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India) read from their books and discuss the modern world and the East, and the movements and personalities that helped shape both – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 1:00 P.M. Humanity in the Age of the Cyborg and Higgs Boson. The ancient question “What is the Self?” gets a new twist with the rise of nanotechnology, biotechnology and “smart” robots that increasingly assume functions previously handled by human muscle and mind. How do we define consciousness and existence in the age of cyborg bodies and artificial intelligence? Siri Hustvedt (Living, Thinking, Looking), Jim Holt (Why Does the World Exist) and Andrew Blum (Tubes) discuss mutating selfhood and what still makes us human. Moderated by Greg Milner – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)
  • 2:00 P.M. Calabash Presents. Jamaica’s legendary Calabash International Literary Festival celebrates 50 years of Jamaican independence with readings by premier Jamaican-born novelists and poets Chris John Farley (Kingston Noir), Jacqueline Bishop (Snapshots from Istanbul),and Ishion Hutchinson (Far District).Moderated by Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 3:00 P.M. BOCAS Presents. Trinidad’s groundbreaking annual NGC Bocas Literary Festival comes to Brooklyn to celebrate 50 years of Trinidad & Tobago independence with readings by Earl Lovelace (Is Just a Movie), Victoria Brown (Minding Ben) and Anton Nimblett (Sections of an Orange). Moderated by Nicholas Laughlin, BOCAS organizer and editor of the Caribbean Review of Books – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 3:00 P.M. Power to the People: Grassroots Revolution in the Post Hope Era  What’s the connection between social change and electoral politics? Does the hope we can truly believe in come from the ground up? And what can we learn from the peoples’ revolutions from around the globe? Tariq Ali (The Obama Syndrome), Todd Gitlin (Occupy Nation), and Marina Sitrin (Everyday Revolutions) will discuss the necessity and effectiveness of individual action in the political sphere. Moderated by Laura Flanders (The Nation) – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)
  • 4:00 P.M. Reality Denied. Science Fiction authors Carla Speed McNeil (Finder: Voice), Lev Grossman (The Magician King), Hillary Jordan (When She Woke) and Terry Bisson (Fire on the Mountain) read and discuss their books, which are part-medieval, part-magical, part-historical, part-apocalyptic and all reality bending! Moderated by literary agent Seth Fishman – Saint Francis Screening Room (180 Remsen Street)
  • 5:00 P.M. The PEN Translation Committee Presents North African Writing in the Wake of the Arab Spring. Noted translators, editors and poets Pierre Joris (Exile Is My Trade: a Habib Tengour Reader), Deborah Kapchan (Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition) and Peter Thompson (A Passenger from the West by Nabile Farès) explore the effects of the Arab uprisings in North Africa on poetry and narratives and discuss their recent works in translation. Moderated by Nathalie Handal (Language of a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond) – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 5:00 P.M. The Center for Fiction Presents Beyond Earth. From alternate histories to entire universes these writers create intricate worlds for their readers to explore. Naomi Novik (Temeraire series), N.K. Jemisin (the Inheritance trilogy), Rick Bowes (From the Files of the Time Rangers) and Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) will read brief selections from their work and discuss the art of world-building in fantasy writing and beyond. Moderated by Noreen Tomassi (The Center for Fiction) – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)

The events highlighted in that pretty shade of lavender?  You probably noticed they’re all science fiction related.  They (and the promise of food trucks) were just the leverage I needed to get my husband to agree to spending the day in the city.  Book festivals aren’t really his thing, but he’s a bit of a foodie and a definite sci-fi geek, so what you’re witnessing is a compromise in action.

If you’re in NYC that weekend it’s (in theory) only a quick subway ride from Manhattan – and worth every delayed train, local stop and transfer.  So, do any of these panels look good to you?  Or did you see something on the official schedule that I missed?  Leave a comment below.

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The 2011 Man Booker International Prize. Judge for Yourself!

The Man Booker International Prize 2011 finalists were announced yesterday. It’s more of  a “lifetime” achievement award, so no real dark horses to send us all scurrying to Wikipedia for bios and bibliographies.  The general consensus is that it’s a good list, – one likely to give the three judges some sleepless nights between now and May 18th.

  • Wang Anvi (China)
  • Juan Goytisolo (Spain)
  • James Kelman (Scotland)
  • John le Carré (Great Britain)
  • Amin Maalouf (Lebanon)
  • David Malouf (Australia)
  • Dacia Maraini (Italy)
  • Rohinton Mistry (India/currently living in Canada)
  • Philip Pullman (Great Britain)
  • Marilynne Summers Robinson (U.S.A.)
  • Philip Roth (U.S.A.)
  • Su Tong (China)
  • Anne Tyler (U.S.A.)

It looks a bit like the World Cup, except that the U.S. might actually have a shot this year of taking it home.  Especially since John le Carré has informed the judges that he doesn’t “compete”. It didn’t do him much good, the powers that be refused to accept his non-acceptance.  Still, it’s made his name the most buzz-worthy on the list for now.

But it’s still anybody’s game, folks.  At the time I am typing up this post, William Morris (that noble British institution) has yet to post the odds.  So…quickly… who would you be willing to put money on?  I’ll even allow for write-ins.

 

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Orbis Terrarum 2010 Reading Challenge

Dreadlock Girl, who blogs at  Dreadlock Girl Reads is hosting a Reading Challenge for 2010 that I am all about! Beginning April 1st and ending November 30th, the goal is to read 1 book a month from a country other than your own.  That comes to a minimum of 8 books.  Country is determined by author, not by setting.

So I did a little research and discovered the following:  10 of the books I read and reviewed in a 9 month period of 2009 were by non-American authors… without even trying!  Which leads me to the optional portion of this challenge –

The 2010 Orbis Terrarum Challengers Raising Funds for Clean Water Worldwide (optional!)

I am a big believer in not just reading about what is going on in the world, but about doing something about it. For this reason I am going to be reading away for Living Water International during the challenge and donating an amount per book. I also ask that you consider doing the same. If every one of us just gave $1 per book we read during the challenge, that is only 8 dollars, but if we all did it  that would be a good amount (last year we had 74 challengers, reading 8 books= $592 !)

I’ve chosen to contribute to another charity that is responding to the global water crisis.  I will donate an amount to Water for People for every book I read that meets the requirements of this challenge.  Anyone who knows me personally knows it’s unlikely they’ll ever have the opportunity to sponsor me in a marathon… or even a walk-a-thon.  So this may be as close as we’re ever gon’na get, folks!  If you want in on the action, leave a comment below.  Or, for those who would rather remain anonymous, email me at booksexyblog@gmail.com.

And if you’re interested in taking part in the challenge yourself, please visit The Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge.