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

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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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

Review | What Happened to Us, Ian Holding | Book of the Week

The bleakness and violence of life in modern Zimbabwe underpin this powerful coming-of-age tale, as thirteen-year-old Danny comes to understand critical truths about himself, his family and their milieu – and his country. His social observations and attempts to put to rest some of the painful questions surrounding the brutal event which lies at the heart of the novel offer an eye-opening look at life in another culture, and the tensions that lie behind the news headlines.

I think what happened to us started the day I as out playing on the streets of our neighbourhood and accidentally pissed on the President’s face. I was a thirteen year old kid, skinny, lean-boned, full of shit.”

Continue reading Review | What Happened to Us, Ian Holding | Book 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 | Carolina Orloff, co-founder, Charco Press | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
My father owned and ran a large bookshop right in the centre of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I am from originally. It was a bookshop that had been in the family for three generations, and where the likes of Borges, the Ocampo sisters and Bioy Casares had current accounts. Both my parents were and are great readers and I grew up surrounded by books from a very early age. No doubt my love for literature grew from that. I even started writing at an early age, and had a book of poetry published when I was thirteen.

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Definitely in literature, in some form. I’ve always studied and worked with literature. I did an BA in Literature, followed by an MA in Translation and a PhD in Latin American Literature. I then lectured on literature, translated literature, examined literature papers and even wrote articles and books on one of Argentina’s most celebrated writers, Julio Cortázar.

Continue reading Interview | Carolina Orloff, co-founder, Charco Press | Indie Publisher of the Week

Interview | Megan Dunn | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Invercargill, a small city at the bottom of the South Island in New Zealand. But my formative years (if they ever ended) were spent in Rotorua, a tourist town in the centre of the North Island. Rotorua – “Rotovegas” to the locals – is stepped in Maori history and is a geothermal wonderland known for strong wafts of sulphur, hokey motels and hotels, putt-putt golf. The McDonalds in Rotorua has Maori carvings on the walls.

What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
I grew up in a flat above an old peoples home with my single parent Mum, who was a night nurse for the elderly residents downstairs. The sign at the top of our drive read: “Residence for the Elderly,” I walked past it to school every day. Books: loads. From Men and their Mothers, and other pop psychology, to Sweet Valley High. At fourteen, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer on the back porch, while the elderly residents ate shortbread and drank tea in the lounge below me. They read Mills and Boons in large print, when they weren’t listening to the TV. Continue reading Interview | Megan Dunn | Author of the Week

Review | Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917, Pete Ayrton (ed.) | Book of the Week

The city is destroyed, plundered. A very interesting city. Polish culture. An ancient, rich Jewish colony. These frightening bazaars, dwarfs in hooded coats, hoods and side-locks, the aged, a school street, ninety-six synagogues, all half-destroyed, and stories – American soldiers were here, oranges, cloth, thoroughfare, wire, deforestation and wasteland, endless barren land. Nothing to eat, no hope, war, everyone is equally bad, equally foreign, hostile, inhuman, before life was traditionally peaceful” – from Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary in which he describes his experiences with the Cossack cavalry during the Polish-Soviet war.

To actually feel what it was like to be caught up in the most momentous event of the 20th century, and to walk in the shoes of those who either stayed and wrote under the increasingly tricky conditions of censorship, or fled to become émigrés pining for a lost world, or visited from abroad wanting to see revolution in action . . . read Pete Ayrton’s anthology Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917. Of all the books marking this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution, this is the one to go for. Continue reading Review | Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917, Pete Ayrton (ed.) | Book of the Week

Review | The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life, Clara Beaudoux | Book of the Week

I’d been drifting from one studio apartment to another for several years already. I didn’t feel at home anywhere. In July 2013 I ended up in this little place. And I never suspected that the secrets it concealed might one day lead to a book,” writes Clara Beaudoux in the preface to this unusual read.

The mixing up of genres and categories that is characteristic of the way we read online has gradually fed into new forms of writing ‘in print’. Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually (Gut gegen Nordwind, translated from the German by Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch) tells the story of an internet love affair through the emails of Leo and Emmi. Other Ways of Seeing (Un Autre Regard) is based on blogger Emma’s comic strip. Her take on news stories and accepted “truths” challenges the status quo and questions what liberté, égalité, fraternité really means in France today. Shaun Usher’s blog ‘Letters of Note, an online museum of notable letters’, was published in book form in 2013 to international acclaim. The internet is a numbers game: if you hit the jackpot, it’s life-changing. Continue reading Review | The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life, Clara Beaudoux | Book of the Week

Interview | Clara Beaudoux | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up? 
I was born and raised in Paris.

What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
There were many books in my family home, and my parents were used to take me to the library when I was a kid. I remember Roald Dahl, a magazine for kids called Astrapi and some comics like Marion Duval.

Why do you write?
Writing helps me to think. Continue reading Interview | Clara Beaudoux | Author of the Week