TARA CHEESMAN lives on the East Coast of the United States. After three decades of reading English literature, she decided to branch out and explore what the rest of the world had to offer. Tara’s now an active member in a growing online community dedicated to promoting international authors and books in translation, and we have her here with us today to help celebrate World Book Day. Her reviews can be found across the Internet, including the sites Literary Kicks, Necessary Fiction, and Harriet (the blog of the Poetry Foundation). Since 2009, she’s written the blog, BookSexy Review, under the pen name, tolmsted (now Reader @ Large).
Lori Hettler: When did you first develop a passion for reading?
TARA CHEESMAN: My parents started reading to me when I was a little kid. I remember the day they took me to get my first library card. After that, my father used to drive me to the library after working the night shift and nap in the car while I went inside to look at books. I was reading Jane Eyre in second grade, and the teachers were sending notes home to my parents that I was reading during lessons. I can’t remember a time when books and reading weren’t a part of my life.
What prompted you to begin blogging about the books you were reading?
It was two-fold. First, I moved to the suburbs and was desperate for someone to discuss books with. You know — we live in a Book Club desert! I tried to start a book club in my area, but didn’t have much success (I think we had 4–5 meetings total.).
Second, I’m an obsessive reader of book reviews. The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Book Forum, The Times Literary Supplement — I love these periodicals as much as I love reading the books themselves. Sometimes more. I just finished reading Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub. It’s a collection of the book column he wrote for The Believer. I’d read a chapter a night before bed. Some of his reviews were so funny I read them out loud to my husband.
Let’s talk about the name, BookSexy Review. On your blog’s About Page, you refer to its name as “tragic.” What was the initial thought process behind it, and what has the name come to represent now?
There used to be this daily email newsletter called Daily Candy — I think it’s still around, but I’m not sure. They had a newsletter for a bunch of cities: Daily Candy New York, Daily Candy Philadelphia, Daily Candy Everywhere … They’d recommend things like a great new restaurant, a movie you had to see, a website, sometimes a book. They were so enthusiastic. They made you feel like the thing or place they were recommending was the most awesome thing in the world. I initially wanted to do something like that, but with books. I went with BookSexy Review because it sounded catchy. Except once I started writing it, I realized I wasn’t that kind of reviewer. The way I was writing felt too superficial, too slick.
So I switched gears. But I already had the name, and followers, and page views, etc., etc. It was just too much work to change. There’s probably a lesson there. Anyone out there who’s thinking of starting a blog, choose your name very carefully. Because you’re pretty much stuck with it.
About four years ago, your blog’s focus shifted primarily toward books in translation and international authors (Happy World Book Day!). What was the catalyst for the shift, and how do you think that impacted your readership?
There was a write-up in the NYRB about Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. It looked interesting, so I went looking for a copy (which I found at the Housing Works, by the way). The book is incredible, and I could easily have written a 10,000-word review on it. And I’d been toying with the idea of focusing on translations and international lit for a while.
I’m a small blog, but I believe I fill a need. I only know of one or two other bloggers in the U.S. who specialize in translations (and who aren’t attached to a publishing house). Biblibio, I believe, is American, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is in Australia, Stu at Winston’s Dad, and Rob Around Books are in England — to name a few of my favorites.
Focusing on international literature and translations has really opened up my world. BookSexy Review has become a part of an international community — which is amazing.
When I’m browsing BookSexy Review, what am I going to discover? What do you hope your readers walk away with?
I try to bring a critical perspective to the exercise. Nothing against snark, but there needs to be substance, as well. My approach is to treat the author and translator as collaborators. I’ve a limited interest in whether or not the translation is ‘true’ to the original. That’s important, obviously. But in the end, all that really matters is the finished product — which is the book as it exists in English.
I want readers to discover books that will introduce them to new authors and new perspectives. I want them to discover new parts of the world, where people might think differently than they do. Mostly, I want to connect them to amazing books they might not hear about otherwise.
Who are your go-to publishers for books in translation and international fiction?
Small, indie publishers are leading the charge here. Open Letter, Other Press, Pushkin Press, Two Lines Press, Tin House, New Directions, Melville House, And Other Stories, and Wakefield Press all have amazing catalogs. Deep Vellum has a book coming out in April, Sphinx by Anne Garréta and translated by Emma Ramadan. Garréta is one of the few members of the French movement known as Oulipo — a group in which writers and mathematicians collaborate. Italo Calvino was also a member. I am dying to read that book! Every time I see Deep Vellum on Twitter, I harass them to hurry it up.
Which other upcoming releases are you most looking forward to?
New Directions has two titles by Enrique Vila-Matas coming out in June that look really interesting. And we’ve all been waiting a looong time for the new Kazuo Ishiguro novel.
There’s been a lot of amazing contemporary authors from the Middle East who are being published. That’s probably the part of the world I’m most interested in at the moment. Penguin has recently announced that it bought the rights to a book titled, Frankenstein in Baghdad, by an Iraqi author named Saadawi. From what I read, it is a re-interpretation of the Frankenstein monster myth (At this point, we can call it a myth, can’t we?) set in modern-day Iraq. That, unfortunately, won’t be out until Fall of 2015 or 2016.
If I were unfamiliar with foreign literature, where would you recommend I start?
Anywhere! What are you interested in? If you liked The Hunger Games, then try Battle Royale by the Japanese writer, Koushun Takami. If you want something funny, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole is a surprisingly sweet novella about the young son of a Mexican drug king. Europa Editions has a series of crime novels and thrillers, called World Noir, that is amazing. The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (Iraq), A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan), and The Last Days by Laurent Seksik (France) are more literary, less genre — I suppose they’d all loosely fall under the category of historical fiction.
I’m getting ready to write a review for an older book, a tiny novella by Georges Perec called, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. He sat in a café in Paris and just wrote down everything he saw. He kept track of the buses passing and the people and the pigeons. You’d think it would be the most boring thing in the world to read — but it’s beautiful. Like poetry. You begin to feel like you’re the one sitting there. Wakefield Press published it in an absolutely lovely paperback edition with French flaps. I want to carry it with me everywhere.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are soooo many books out there from so many places in the world. You can really start anywhere.
I understand you were invited to PEN World Voices Festival this May as a panelist. Congratulations!
PEN is this amazing organization, and I was so honored to be invited to sit on one of their panels. PEN America started in 1922 and is a part of PEN International, which has members in over 100 countries. They believe that literature promotes understanding between cultures, and they’re politically active in protecting the rights of writers (I tend to describe them as Amnesty International for authors — I’m not sure if they’d agree with that description, though.) all over the world.
How are you preparing for the event?
This year’s PEN World Voices Festival focuses on Africa. The panel I’m on is sponsored by the Translation Committee — and so they’re focusing specifically on French-speaking countries. I’ve been going through my shelves and copying down the names of books and authors who’d qualify; though, to be honest, I don’t know how much it will matter in the end. The panel is really about blogging about translations, which seems more general to me.
What’s your favorite —
Place to browse for books? I used to volunteer at the Housing Works Book Shop on Crosby Street in NYC. I’d go on a Saturday and spend 2–3 hours shelving books just to relax. It’s still one of my favorite bookshops in the world. If you’re not familiar with it: the Housing Works is a non-profit. All the books are donations — so you get a huge variety. It’s like a surprise box; you really never know what you’re going to find there. They also have the best cappuccino in the city. I could spend days there.
Albertine is the new French bookshop that just opened on Fifth Avenue. Right across the street from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They opened over the summer so I feel like the collection is still evolving. Despite the fact that they stock books in French, as well as translations into English, I feel like it still hasn’t developed a personality yet. Is it geeky to find that exciting? The space is beautiful, and I’m looking forward to having an entire day when I can go spend a morning in one of their big armchairs and pile up a stack of books in front of me.
Last, but not least, is Carroll & Carroll in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Lisa and George Carroll have owned the bookshop on Main Street (Yes! It’s really on Main Street!) since I was thirteen years old. They stock both new and used books, and George has built an incredible collection of books there. Over the years, they’ve run out of room, and the space has gotten a bit cluttered — but I’ve never been able to walk out without finding 5–10 books on my wishlist.
Book venue to attend? The Brooklyn Book Festival and PEN World Voices Festival.
Foreign setting for a book? I don’t think it’s about the setting. People think that if you read translations or international literature, it’s about the foreign setting. But I just finished reading this great novel — a thriller, really — by the Norwegian author, Vidar Sundstøl, that’s set in Minnesota. He calls it his Minnesota trilogy, and two books are out so far. I’d argue that it has much more in common with Scandinavian crime — in how it’s paced, the types of characters — than with American crime writers. More interesting, to me at least, is how differently writers from different regions actually write. So, at the moment, I’m really into books from the Middle East because they haven’t been ‘Americanized’ like so much Western world literature at the moment. And the French Oulipo school is always fun. But I sort of answered this in the other questions.
International Author? It’s always changing. It was César Aira for a long time. But I think he’s been displaced by the Iranian author, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and the French author, Marie NDiaye. Oh, and the Congolese author, Alain Mabanckou.
Place to curl up with a good book to read? When I lived in NYC, I was always reading in public. On the train, on line in a store, in a book or coffee shop. I miss that. Nowadays, I do most of my reading at home.
Interview originally published on 3/5/15