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 | Yan Ge | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in a small town outside of Chengdu, a major city in the southwest of China. And I grew up there. As a teenager, all I wanted was to get out of this place, this muddy, tiny, sleepy town. Years later, when I actually left and lived in Ireland, all I wanted is to go back and to live in the small town where I spent my adolescence. That small town has been lost. It has changed so much. There have been lots of constructions, new buildings, the industrial and high-tech parks and tones of immigrants. The government renamed it last year, making it a district of Chengdu city. My hometown is officially being archived in the history book — there’s no way I can go back now. So I write about it all the time in my stories.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
Both of my parents were Chinese teachers so we have a sizeable collection of Chinese classics, contemporary Chinese fiction, and translated books. I can’t remember I read The Journey to the West for how many times. And I cried a lot when I read Su Tong’s books as a teenager. My parents love Russian writers and I read Gogol and Gorky with them.

Continue reading Interview | Yan Ge | Author of the Week

Review | Seven Terrors, Selvedin Avdić | Book of the Week

 “I noticed that the pigeons have completely lost their faith in people. It is impossible to get nearer than five metres to any one of them.” [p. 38]

Because of the war in Syria, an estimated 12.5 million people are displaced, and refugees seeking asylum in Europe invariably develop depression, anxiety and PTSD. The world is facing the highest levels of displacement ever in history, with 65.3 million people forced from their homes by war, internal conflicts, drought or poor economies. The walking traumatised are becoming a major challenge of the twenty-first century, requiring a global plan.

The Bosnian war of 1992-95 resulted in some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since the Nazi era. More than 100,000 people were killed and, according to a recent report by Al Jazeera, twenty years on many survivors suffering from trauma are not getting the help they need. 

 “I am solitary and depressed. A man with no one to look after him . . .” The narrator has spent nine months and three days in bed after his wife walked out on their five-year marriage. It is 7 March 2005, it is snowing, and he is coming back into life. He plays the Rolling Stones and watches the world outside his window.
Continue reading Review | Seven Terrors, Selvedin Avdić | Book of the Week

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

Here is our scrapbook of top 10 reads for March featuring new books from Kurdistan, Croatia, Tashkent, Latvia, the Caribbean, Iceland, Mexico, Kenya, and last but not least, England. Here at BookBlast® HQ we love translation! This year’s Translation Prizes were awarded by the Society of Authors at the British Library, in recognition of outstanding translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, Interlink are celebrating women’s voices and actions throughout the month. They are giving a free gift book with every purchase of an Interlink book written by a woman. With every order you place, you will receive a surprise gift (a novel, a cookbook, a memoir, or a history book) selected by an Interlink staff member to suit your taste (one book per order valued at $15 to $30). Just visit one of the following websites: www.interlinkbooks.com www.immigrantcookbook.net www.soupforsyria.com or www.palestineonaplate.net to place your order. You can also do so by calling 1-800-238-LINK.

Listing in alphabetical order according to publisher @Arc_Poetry @maclehosepress @peepaltreepress @PeirenePress @PushkinPress @SaqiBooks @SerenBooks @Silver_Press_ @TiltedAxisPress @InterlinkBooks
Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | March 2018

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

Here are our latest top 10 reads from a selection of indie publishers every book lover should know.  A good read underpinned by an open mind can change your lifeview irrevocably. Palestine in Black and White by Mohammad Sabaaneh is one such book.

Listing in alphabetical order according to publisher @BalestierPress @Carcanet @DarfPublishers @DeadInkBooks @NightLightNate @dedalusbooks @BelgraviaB @SaqiBooks @UnicornPubGroup

The Past is a Foreign Country

Liv by Roger Pulvers (Balestier Press) buy here

A fifty-five year old Norwegian woman who works as a volunteer for refugees is heading home on a suburban train in Sydney, Australia, in 1975. Liv Grimstad is discomfited by the man sitting opposite her. He is elderly with liver spots on his hands yet he is horribly familiar. Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | February 2018

Spotlight | The seemingly unstoppable boom in indie publishing & The Republic of Consciousness Prize

Indie Publishing vs. Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

With commissioning editors at mainstream publishers increasingly under the corporate cosh, any literary submissions calculated to sell less than 5000 copies are turned down regardless, which leaves the field open for independent publishers to come in and have a go at the roulette table imagining winners that might come their way.

An experienced commissioning editor may be able to spot high-quality writing and know their target readership, but s/he is no less a gambler than anyone else playing the publishing game. Their gut instinct counts for little in the corporate boardroom nowadays, even though the way in which advances are calculated is an inexact science, and tales of legendary rejections make for juicy water-cooler chat. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 12 times before being picked up; Gone with the Wind got the thumbs down 32 times; Under the Frog 22 times; Dune 20 times; and The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected so many times it was self-published.

Smaller publishers generally avoid formulaic writing for the genre market, provide greater personalised support, and as opposed to a vanity press do not ask the author for money. Added to which crowdfunding has become a more than viable option, not only to raise funds, but to develop a community of readers ahead of publication (Peirene Now! No. 3, Shatila Stories was recently successfully funded with 327 backers pledging £13,350 via Kickstarter). Best not confuse authors self-publishing their own books only generally via a digital platform such as Amazon or Kobo with indie publishers; the term indie authors would be more accurate.

According to a recent report in The Guardian, “Independent publishers have unleashed a boom in sales,” and “turnover across the Arts Council England-funded portfolio surged above its budget by almost £100,000 this year, reaching £277,930.”

Continue reading Spotlight | The seemingly unstoppable boom in indie publishing & The Republic of Consciousness Prize

Interview | Sam Jordison, co-founder, Galley Beggar Press | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Yes, my parents were very encouraging. Always recommending books and passing things on to me, reading to me as a child, finding new things for me to read, feeding my Roald Dahl habit . . . My Mum was a librarian too.  

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Depends how you define start!  I started out writing books and working as a journalist (mainly writing about books) – and those experiences led me into publishing. But I’ve wanted to be around books ever since I realised I couldn’t sing and would never be Mick Jagger.

Has your vision from when you started Galley Beggar five years ago changed?
Not really. Our hope has always just been to publish the very best quality books we can. I guess the thing that has changed is that we now hope to really be able to nurture our writers and keep publishing them, and keep doing the best editorial and production jobs we can for them . . . So we’re looking at careers as well as individual books. But that was something we aspired to quite early on. I suppose the change is that we have a track record now, so don’t have that element of surprise or coming from nowhere. But I still feel and hope we offer something different. Continue reading Interview | Sam Jordison, co-founder, Galley Beggar Press | Indie Publisher of the Week

Guest Review | C. J. Schüler | Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck

On 9 November, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published a list of 33,293 people who died trying to emigrate to Europe between 1993 and May of this year. The vast majority drowned in the Mediterranean. As a death toll, the figure is numbing. As a proportion of the EU’s population of 510 million, it is less than 0.007 percent – smaller than the population of, say, Skelmersdale or Haywards Heath – an influx that could easily be accommodated within our large, wealthy continent.

Jenny Erpenbeck, the brilliant German novelist whose four previous books have probed her country’s troubled 20th century history, has now turned to the greatest challenge it has faced in the 21st: the refugee crisis. Her latest book, Go, Went, Gone, eschews the magical realist elements of its predecessors in favour of a crisp documentary approach. It also draws on that classically German genre, the Bildungsroman, a novel charting the moral education of its protagonist. Continue reading Guest Review | C. J. Schüler | Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck

Review | Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg | Portobello Books

BookBlast® reviews Swallowing Mercury.

“‘What a strange world this is,’ he said to me suddenly when the bus turned into Pulaski Street. ‘Before I’ve even had time to blink, they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit’.” – Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury

helena rubinstein bookblast
SOURCE: The Express, Cheryl Stonehouse, ‘Helena Rubinstein, the penniless refugee who built a cosmetics empire’

Invasion, occupation, partition: Poland’s strategic location between Germany and Russia has made it a target throughout history. In 1990, after the fall of Communism, Lech Walesa became Poland’s first popularly-elected president. In 2004, Poland was one of ten new states to join the EU. Britain’s nationalist-minded tabloids make Poles the enemy, taking away jobs and homes. Post-truth politics thrive on ignorance, breeding fear and hate. We have much to thank Poland for – not least Chopin, Copernicus, Marie Curie, Joseph Conrad, Helena Rubinstein … and Häagen-Dazs ice cream!

Continue reading Review | Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg | Portobello Books