Interview | Toby Litt | Author of the Week

Toby Litt grew up in Bedfordshire. He has worked as a teacher, bookseller and subtitler. A graduate of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing M.A. at the University of East Anglia, Toby is a Granta Best of Young British Novelist and a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb. He edited the 13th edition of New Writing (the British Council’s annual anthology of the finest contemporary writing in fiction, non-fiction and poetry). His story ‘John and John’ won the Manchester Fiction Prize. He teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College. The author of over fifteen books, Toby Litt’s latest book, Wrestliana, is a memoir which interweaves reminiscences and an exploration of manhood.

How has Ampthill changed from when you were growing up there in the 1970s?
When I was five or six, there was a dairy a few doors along from our house. It had a Mynah bird, in a side room, in a cage, which would occasionally say a word: a word that shocked my mother, if I was lucky. The diary sold milk, butter and chestnut yogurts from a refrigerated glass display cabinet. When I remember details like this, I start to believe I grew up on the peripheries of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Continue reading Interview | Toby Litt | Author of the Week

Review | Wrestliana, Toby Litt | Book of the Week

“I decided to write a book about William, and to pay tribute to him by calling it Wrestliana. By doing this, I would explicitly take William on, on his home ground. Because all of this ‘being a man’ stuff was something I needed to wrestle with. To be a better son and to be a better father. To be a better man.” — Toby Litt

The author of over fifteen books, Toby Litt continues to be effortlessly experimental as he moves skilfully between genres, from a thriller set in high-octane Media London (Corpsing), a coming-of-age tale which turns disturbingly murderous (deadkidsongs), and a parody of chick lit in Finding Myself; to a Henry Jamesian portrayal of bereavement casting a blight over life (Ghost Story), facing the male midlife crisis as a Canadian rock band goes on tour in I play the drums in a band called okay, and a superb collection of twenty-six essays on a diverse range of subjects (Mutants). At times he combines a variety of forms in one book. Continue reading Review | Wrestliana, Toby Litt | Book of the Week

BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | June 2018

This month’s top 10 reads take in calypso and a debut children’s book by Junot Díaz; Europe and the Middle East; murder most foul in the Australian Outback; tales of survival and hope; and life on the road.

Listing in alphabetical order according to publisher @carcanet @commapress @elandpublishing @gingkolibrary @hauspublishing @oneworldnews @peirenepress @peepaltreepress @pushkinpress

The Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961-1993 by Anthony Burgess. Edited by Will Carr (Carcanet) buy here

The general public does not care much for genius. Originality is dangerous, so is the naked truth . . . How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things? But nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word. They prefer to hear about failure really being success, about a great writer killing himself at the early age (my age) of 62.” ― Anthony Burgess

a clockwork orange anthony burgessBest known for his novel, A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester in 1917. A novelist, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator and critic, he wrote over 60 books of fiction, non-fiction and autobiography, as well as classical music, plays, film scripts, essays and articles. Burgess contributed to newspapers and periodicals around the world, among them the Observer, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, Playboy, and Le Monde. During his lifetime, he published two substantial collections of journalism, Urgent Copy (1968) and Homage to Qwert Yuiop (1986); a posthumous collection of occasional essays, One Man’s Chorus, was published in 1998. Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | June 2018

Review | The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, Yan Ge | Book of the Week

Chilli bean paste was big business, had been for Gran’s family for four or five generations. Sichuan peppers, on the other hand, were the sort of thing any small trader could sell. All they needed was a place to set up their stall. But, humble though the trade was, the Sichuan pepper was as essential as chilli bean paste at all Pingle Town dinner tables [. . .] Dad had kicked around the chilli bean paste factory for over twenty years, learning the ins and outs of his trade under the tutelage of his shifu, Chen, and if it had taught him one thing, it was that people were born to sweat. You ate chilli bean paste, and Sichuan peppers, and ma-la spicy hotpot, to work up a good sweat, and screwing a girl made you sweat even more. The more you sweated, the happier you felt, Dad reckoned. He remembered the fiery heat that the sweat-soaked bed-sheets in Baby Girl’s house gave off.”

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a rags-to-riches tale about a small-town Chinese family’s survival following on from China’s rapid industrial revolution during Mao Zedong’s rule, and the later economic turmoil of the 1990s. Economic growth entailed a rise in social corruption in all areas of life along with social alienation and a breakdown in moral values.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is in the tradition of the neighbourhood novel – a kind of literary soap. The big three authors of the genre are Naguib Mahfouz, William Faulkner and Vasco Pratolini (who did for Florence in the 1940s what Elena Ferrante has done for Naples today; Pratolini became a screenwriter, collaborating in films such as Paisà by Roberto Rossellini, Rocco e i suoi fratelli by Luchino Visconti and Le quattro giornate di Napoli by Nanni Loy.)

A Loving Family

Widowed matriarch, May Xue, is the archetypal grandmother of olden times who loves her family with steely resolve, an overriding concern with social status, and much meddling. She is the owner of the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory which is run by her youngest son, Shengqiang. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, is away at university being a brilliant Professor while his sister Coral Xue – the family peace-maker – lives in the big city with her family and is a successful TV news presenter. Narrated by Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and Anqin, the tone is warm, sharp-eyed and irreverent.  

Shengqiang endured a harsh apprenticeship in the factory stirring the vat of chilli bean paste while his brother went off to university, but now in his forties he is very successful. Money is everything to him – as are regular sex, food and getting drunk with his friends since they make him feel good about himself. His wife is “the only woman in Pingle Town who is fortunate enough to have found a husband as rich and as generous as Dad.” Anqin plays mah-jong, reads novels, goes shopping using her husband’s credit cards and turns a blind eye to his succession of mistresses, until one falls pregnant . . .

Shengqiang was close to his older brother Zhiming when growing up, since “he got good marks, he could play snooker and he could pull the girls, [. . .] and was the coolest dude in Pingle Town.” But after Zhiming screwed Baby Girl in the notorious red light district, an intense rivalry had developed and intensified over time.

As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, the family comes together to plan a great celebration for her. Zhiming takes over organising of the event, reminding his brother Shengqiang that, “We’re the Duan-Xue family. It’s got to be grand, and really classy, but it mustn’t be tacky. The Prince’s Mansion Hotel or whatever, that’s fine, but getting signers along is just a way of throwing money around! The Duan-Xue family’s not like other families. Pingle townsfolk are really uneducated, right? . . . They just do things so-so . . . We’re going to make this a very grand occasion indeed.

Secrets and Lies

Since Grandad’s death, Shengqiang has been the head of the family, a role which he fills with alcohol-and-nicotine-fuelled capability and underlying irritation. He sets up his mistress Jasmine in an apartment in the same block as his mother, and helps out his brother in law, Liu, when he gets a mistress on the quiet. “That day, like a proper head of the family, he got out the keys and gave them to Uncle Liu. ‘I’ve paid six months’ rent in advance,’ he told him. ‘Now it’s down to you’.” Shengqiang does this despite his action being a betrayal of his sister; he realises that “this was the worst thing he had done to a woman in his whole life.

Debilitating secrets gradually emerge as preparations are made to hold Gran’s birthday celebration in the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory yard; programming all manner of festivities entails the involvement of various locals. As tensions build, Shengqiang feels increasingly put upon. His internal monologue comprising lurid thoughts and rude comments – indicative of his emotional immaturity – is both hilarious and bordering on the tragic since on the surface he continues to be the usual compliant son and brother. His frustration boils up to a fever pitch.

It turns out that Gran’s ruthlessness in furthering the family fortunes meant that she forced arranged marriages on her children. As skeletons rattle out of the closet, even she is not immune to the embarrassment of past misdemeanours coming to light.

Gentrification – Chinese-style

The dynamic tension of the Duan-Zue clan mirrors China as it enters the modern era. The fictional protagonists navigate the distinct social and economic peregrinations of where they live; with the neighbourhood playing a central role. The narrative is littered with references to limousines, hostesses, brothels, the County Party Committee, new apartment blocks, the single-child policy, Chinese Mandarin vs. Sichuan dialect, and other tidbits affording insights into Chinese life – as well as food glorious food! I felt increasingly hungry as I read: Sichuan cuisine is delicious, hot and spicy.

pingle ancient town yan geThere were no dirt roads left in Pingle Town, and you didn’t see many telegraph poles either. In 2000, or 2001, the powers-that-be got some mad idea into their heads that the town needed a facelift. Up went the stepladders, and the buckets of paint, and all the buildings on, and off; the four main roads were covered in white paint. They looked like they’d been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, chilli turnips and spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes, riceflour shortbread and griddled buns filled with brown sugar, even the scissor-menders and knife-grinders, were all swept ruthlessly from the face of the town. All those old faces so familiar from his childhood just vanished. The few souls that remained retreated into their shells like tortoises and made do with shopfronts as narrow as the gap between your front teeth.”

A curse of capitalism the world over is the homogenising effect of gentrification: towns and neighbourhoods that are cleaned up means that the eccentrics, creatives and impoverished misfits are swept away out of sight and out of mind. This is a global phenomenon: from Ladbroke Grove W10 to The Marais in Paris and the Lower East Side in Manhattan – as in a small town near Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, Money makes the world go around  . . .

Nicky Harman’s dignified, pacey, idiomatic translation featuring colloquialisms and colourful insults radiates erudite energy, drawing the reader into a world of muddle and intrigue, blending farce and nostalgia.

Yan Ge was a Chinese literary sensation age seventeen, and has twelve young adult books to her name. She is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of a trilogy of adult fiction: what will happen next in Pingle Town, Sichuan Province?   

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman | Balestser Press 13.99GBP 18.99 USD trade paperback 270pp | ISBN 978 1 911221227 | Winner English PEN award

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Spotlight | Staging France: Beyond Words Festival of French Literature, London SW7

Cafés, books and debate are a mainstay of French culture in a uniquely seductive way, so to savour some French flair, head to the Institut français in London this week for the second Beyond Words Festival. Forty writers, translators, actors, musicians and journalists are taking part in talks and live performances, presenting iconic films, and engaging the broader public, not just Francophiles.

How Paris changed the world

Baudelaire looked at what being a bohemian meant and invented the word “modern”; Hemingway made Paris an obligatory destination for aspiring young American writers on their European Grand Tour; the French capital was home to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco; and Nabokov was published there.

philippe gras photo bookblast diaryMay 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of May 1968 when French workers joined student protesters in Paris with a one-day general strike. Although the government was not overthrown, the protests ushered in a cultural revolution.

The Photo Exhibition AU COEUR DE MAI ’68 by the late French photographer Philippe Gras tells the story of May ’68, fifty years after the event. There is free access to the exhibition at the Institut français during La Médiathèque’s opening hours, until 19 May. Continue reading Spotlight | Staging France: Beyond Words Festival of French Literature, London SW7

Interview | Viviana Prado-Núñez | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and lived in Gurabo until I was five. After that, my mother moved to Maryland so I spent a lot of my time both there and in my father’s house in Puerto Rico. (And in airplanes. Lots and lots of airplanes).

What sorts of books were in your family home?
I’m not sure actually. I know my mother has several boxes of children’s books somewhere in the basement, but I don’t really remember those. Most of my books growing up were from the library. I’d go once a week, stick my nose in the corner of the fantasy section, and come out with an armful. I know it took several years of rereading before my mother finally gave me the Harry Potter box set for Christmas.

Who were early formative influences as a writer?
Sandra Cisneros — she was the first (and only) Latina writer I ever came across in a classroom growing up. After that I think came the epiphany of “Oh, I can use Spanish in my writing?” Also I still credit my fiction teacher at Brown University, Michael Stewart, for teaching me not only how fiction worked, but how to think about writing for myself.

Continue reading Interview | Viviana Prado-Núñez | Author of the Week

Interview | Ian Holding | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe and have lived here all my life.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
As a family we belonged to a small municipal library up the road and every second Saturday, religiously, we would go to the library and browse books, make selections. I think this is where my love of books and reading was fostered, really. At home I always remember there being a great deal of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Gerald Durrell, amongst others; some would have been library books; some we owned (or where perhaps “former” library books!). Plus there was this whole other unreachable top shelf of alluring paperbacks I suspected at the time were not intended for the eyes of a young, inquisitive boy. When I was finally old enough to reach that shelf, its contents were actually, on the face of it, quite disappointing. Except there was a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but I was such a pathetic loser as a kid I could never seem to find the bits that made it so notorious! Continue reading Interview | Ian Holding | Author of the Week

Interview | Rosemarie Hudson, founder, HopeRoad Publishing | Indie Publisher of the Week

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
No, I only started my career in publishing twenty years ago; previously I spent most of the time in the film industry.

Has your vision from when you started HopeRoad 7 years ago changed?
No, in that I still want to continue to publish authors and writings from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It’s a big, rich vision that will last my lifetime.

How do you balance originality and profitability?
Our remit is to publish books of quality – to add a third word – that would otherwise not see the light of day. Profitability is something one can depend on when selling shoes, for instance – but book sales are mainly a gamble. Perhaps most publishers would agree with this! However, I believe in every single title we publish and gain great satisfaction from seeing these books in print and also from working with talented writers. We are still looking forward to that “big win”, but in the meantime, with occasional help from Arts Council England, along with grants for our translations, we are able to keep going, and to keep our standards high.

Continue reading Interview | Rosemarie Hudson, founder, HopeRoad Publishing | Indie Publisher of the Week

Interview | Bridget Blankley | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Nottingham, as were my parents, but I grew up in Southern Nigeria. When we came back to the UK we moved around a bit before settling in Essex. I stayed there until I had my children.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
There was a real spread of genres. My sister read historical fiction, lots of it, we were always battling for space on our joint bookshelves. My Dad liked humour and detective fiction, the Father Brown Stories, Simenon’s Maigret, and Jeeves and Wooster. There were also quite a lot of autobiographies in the house, I’m not sure who brought them, probably mum, but we all read them.

I was lucky as a child, there was no limit on what we could read. If it was in the house anyone could read it. My dad believed that if it was too advanced for us we would lose interest in the book and put it back on the shelf. I think it probably worked. I never felt I had to finish a book that I wasn’t enjoying, but I never felt that any books were beyond me.

Continue reading Interview | Bridget Blankley | Author of the Week

Interview | Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, founder, Istros Books | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
I actually come from a working class family, and my parents didn’t even have bookshelves when I was growing up. But there was a good library nearby and at some point in my childhood I realized that books are one of the best things about life on this planet (at least in the man-made world).

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Despite the fact that my tutor at university predicted I would go into publishing, it wasn’t something I considered until later on. In my twenties I wanted to travel and worked a variety of menial jobs in order to fund that. Afterwards, I trained as a teacher, but my main subject was always literature. When I decided to found Istros, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world: a coming together of the disparate strands of my life into a meaningful whole.

Continue reading Interview | Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, founder, Istros Books | Indie Publisher of the Week