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Reading the World: ‘Feather’ by Cao Wenxuan ***

Cao Wenxuan’s Feather is the only children’s book which I have chosen to include upon my Reading the World list.  It has been translated from its original Chinese by Chloe Garcia-Roberts, and has been written by China’s answer to Hans Christian Andersen.  Feather felt like something a little different, both to read and to write about.

31817594Feather opens with Wenxuan’s inspiration for writing the tale: ‘One day a great wind blew through Beijing.  As I was walking into the gale I suddenly noticed a single white feather on the ground go fluttering and floating up into the sky…  The feather was riding the wind with grace and ease yet at the same time precariously and helplessly.’  He wonders about the fate of the feather, and in his book, has made it visit a whole host of different birds to find out where it comes from.  Whilst this circular structure has been designed for children, Wenxuan writes: ‘Underlying this simply story… are actually the core questions of human thought: where do I come from?  Where do I want to go?  Who do I belong to?’  Essentially, he has decided to emulate the human desire of finding a sense of belonging.

Roger Mello’s illustrations were my favourite part of Feather; they are both beautiful and quirky, and really augment the story.  The writing itself is rather simplistic, as one might expect, but some very nice ideas have been woven into it.  The use of the feather’s own perspective is rather sweet and imaginative: ‘How she longed for the sky!  How she longed to soar!’  Feather is sure to delight children with a love of art and nature.  It is difficult, however, to know which age group makes up the target audience; the text is not advanced enough for a lot of children, but includes too many words to make it accessible to younger readers.

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‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera ****

I was determined to read more translated fiction from South America after realising a year or so ago that I had missed out on an awful lot of classics, or hotly tipped novels.  I travelled to the beautiful Mexican island of Cozumel in September too, and wanted to read some Mexican literature before I set off.  Yuri Herrera, deemed ‘Mexico’s greatest novelist’, struck me as an author whose work I should be more familiar with, and I thus requested Signs Preceding the End of the World from the library.

9781908276421The blurb of the novella states that Herrera ‘does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it.  He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.’  Signs Preceding the End of the World thus felt even more timely, dealing as it does with the migrant experience, which is, of course, at levels of crisis at present.

In Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young woman named Makina is tasked with crossing into the United States to find her brother.  Of his moving to a different country, Herrera writes: ‘…. but he insisted Someone’s got to fight for what’s ours and I got the balls if you don’t.  Cora [their mother] merely looked at him, fed up, and didn’t say a word, until she saw him at the door with his rucksack full of odds and ends and said Let him go, let him learn to fend for himself with his own big balls, and he hesitated a moment before he versed, and in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that, holding back his tears, but before letting them out he turned and cursed and only ever came back in the form of two or three short notes he sent a long while later.’

Makina’s uncertainty about this task, and her place in the world, has been quite startlingly depicted: ‘She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the neverending front, coming forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds.  If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.’  Despite this, she is a headstrong and assertive protagonist; she is in control of her own body, to the point of violence at times.

Signs Preceding the End of the World has been split into relatively short sections, with headings such as ‘The Earth’, ‘The Place Where the Hills Meet’, and ‘The Obsidian Mound’.  It is short, even for a novella, and can easily be read in one sitting, but its themes and core ideas are so important that it will be thought about for weeks afterwards.  Herrera’s writing is sometimes beautiful, and at times startling; for instance: ‘There was still some light in the sky but it was burning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.’

Lisa Dillman’s translation of Herrera’s novella is both intelligent and fluid.  Of course, it is difficult as a non-Spanish speaker for me to ever compare it to the original, but I very much enjoyed the reading experience.  Herrera is so perceptive of the entire migrant experience, and the wealth of emotions which swell within one.  He has made Makina’s crossing at once personal and universal.  Signs Preceding the End of the World is perfectly paced and important, and should be read and chewed over by everyone.

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‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It’ by Jessie Greengrass ****

To begin, I must just say that Jessie Greengrass’ debut short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, has perhaps the best title which I have ever come across.  It had been on my radar for quite some time before I spotted a copy and immediately picked it up, and whilst I was planning to read it on holiday, I simply could not resist reading it a couple of days after it was added to my shelves.

An Account… holds great promise, and as Greengrass was the winner of the Sunday Times‘ Young Writer of the Year Award, I was even more excited to begin.  As soon as I started to read, I greatly admired Greengrass’ use of vocabulary, and the way in which she shapes sentences, which is nothing short of beautiful.  With each tale here she pulls one in and mesmerises; each act of violence, or point at which a creature is being hunted, or danger befalls the weak, then, comes as a sharp shock, which makes her stories all the more gripping. 9781473652040

There is a fantastic diversity within An Account…; each story leaps between different time periods and places, and whilst deliberately ordered to feel as varied as is possible, there is a marvellous cohesion to the collection.  Thematically, there are some similarities; for instance, Greengrass writes quite extensively about exploration and travel, and is clearly intrigued by dystopias.  Her use of both nature and wilderness, and the ideas of loneliness and being alone, build a coherence between each story.  All of the perspectives which she uses, and voices which she crafts, have been sculpted beautifully and realistically.

One of Greengrass’ real strengths is in capturing emotions.  In the story entitled ‘Winter, 2058’, which deals with the aftermath of alien ‘intrusions’, she writes: ‘… there were times when I couldn’t say for certain if it was fear that afflicted me or only the cold creeping into my bed.  I became so afraid.  At first the fear was nebulous, lacking an object, so that, while it spread like a film across all that I saw, still I couldn’t have said what it was that I feared; but by the end of a week I was afraid of everything, of shadows and empty rooms and of the wind; of darkness and light, silence and noise; of spaces that were empty and those that were full.  I was afraid of my hands reflected in the windowpane and my face in the mirror, and of my breath and the sound of my heart.  And although I knew that somewhere I had an explanation for this fear, when I tried to recall if my thoughts slipped out from my grasp, spilling and dissolving, leaving only the fear swelling up to fill the space they left behind.’

An Account… is an intelligent and rather wonderful short story collection, from an already distinctive voice within the genre.  It does not read at all like a debut; rather, it is incredibly accomplished, and there is not a weak story to be found.  An Account… is hard to fault; it is rather an original collection of thought-provoking stories, and her work here makes me very excited to see what she will publish next.

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‘The Lost Daughter Collective’ by Lindsey Drager *****

I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective.  Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.

The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole.  This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well.  We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.31305921

Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms.  The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life.  The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city.  The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’  The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing.  ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism.  When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life.  The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait.  Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’

I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles.  The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm.  The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them.  There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective.  There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.

Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously.  She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories.  Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale.  Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.

There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own.  The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards.  The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach.  It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.

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‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami ****

The second book from Pushkin Press’s Japanese Novellas series which I am going to review today is Ms Ice Sandwich by Kawakami Mieko (yes, she shares the same last name as Kawakami Hiromi whose Record of a Night Too Brief I reviewed last week, but the two authors have no relation whatsoever as far as I am concerned).

Ms+Ice+SandwichI had never read anything by Kawakami Mieko before, but I have to admit that this novella caught my interest from the outset. It might have been very brief and left me yearning for more, but I developed an instant liking to her quirky yet utterly captivating writing style.

The story revolves around a young boy whose name and exact age are never really revealed (I’m guessing he’s a junior high schooler but I could be wrong), who has fallen in love with the lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the supermarket. His innocent infatuation drives him to visit her sandwich stand every so often just so he can catch a glimpse of her face. When he descibes the lady, he places specific emphasis on the beautiful characteristics of her face and her “ice-blue eyelids” which earned her the nickname Ms Ice Sandwich.

The only people who know about the boy’s infatuation are his grandma, who is stuck in her bed, unable to move and to whom the protagonist often entrusts his deepest thoughts and feelings, and his best friend from school, Tutti, with who he seems to start developing a deeper relationship as the story progresses. During one of the boy’s visits to Ms Ice Sandwich, he hears one of her customers shouting ugly words at her about her face, which he also happens to overhear from some of his female classmates the day after the event. The author does not really spend any time weaving a mystery around the lady’s face (something which I rather expected to happen), she chooses to focus on the boy’s feelings and perceptions of the woman instead.

Ultimately, this is not at all a love story and it was never supposed to be one. Instead, it is a fascinating, touching and quiet coming-of-age story with a plethora of lessons to be taught and inspiring passages. One of my favourites was from Tutti’s motivational speech to our protagonist:

If you want to see somebody you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them anymore. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.

Another issue this short novella tackles is, of course, difference and how people and the society deal with people who are “different”. While I felt that the author could have expanded a lot more on this issue rather than just leaving it as a side-issue, perhaps nothing more was needed to be said. One thing I have definitely learned from reading Japanese literature is that, sometimes, subtlety is much more powerful.

That brings me to the last thing I want to discuss about this book. The translation was excellent and flowed very naturally, so very much so that at some point I forgot I was reading Japanese and not Anglophone literature. Not having read the original, I cannot know whether that was a feature of the original text itself or whether it was the translator’s magic, but I was quite satisfied with it.

Overall, Ms Ice Sandwich is a very heart-warming and quiet novella about growing up, first love, loss and learning to cope with all these new feelings which inundate kids at that age all of a sudden. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with no exception, as you are certain to gain something upon reading it regardless of your literary preferences.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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