Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng was required reading for my Spring 2003 Literature course, “Asian American and Pacific Rim Literature.” I purchased my copy used–and not just a little used, either. Five different resale stickers, three shades of highlighting, underlining in both pencil and pen. I never read it. Never even started it, as far as I can recall. I suppose I felt honor bound to keep this book, since I received college credit for pretending to have read it.
In the aftermath of a sister’s suicide, Leila Fu examines her family’s past in search of justification. With simple clarity, she narrates her experiences growing up with her younger half sisters, Ona and Nina, and their lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a city within a city, where she and her family are known to everyone. Her stepfather Leon emigrated from China, sponsored by a “paper grandfather” whose lost bones have been interred in Colma, instead of being sent home to China as he wished. Her mother was abandoned in San Francisco by her first husband, forced to tirelessly as a seamstress. In a bid for independence, the family opened commercial laundry. Its failure and dissolution proved a precursor to the partial dissolution of their family–Leila’s move across town to the Mission to live with her longtime boyfriend, Nina’s exodus to New York, and Ona’s leap from the top of a Chinatown housing project.
The narrative is structured like a tightening spiral, looping through time, but always anchored in grief and personal diaspora, loss and escape. The clean narration and corkscrew timeline create an effect that elevates the story above the simple facts it relates. It’s a fast, absorbing read. It was a special delight to read knowing the city. I work within a few blocks of the landmarks Leila describes. If I had read Bone as a college sophomore like I was supposed to, I would have missed that.
I was invited to review Snow and Shadow (gasp!). That means some poor assistant charged with scouring niche book blogs copy-pasted my url into a spreadsheet. This type of outreach was one of my responsibilities at my very first (paying) publishing job, so I was irrationally thrilled when in 2014, I received a digital copy for review. That’s right THREE YEARS AGO. Let me say it now: I’m so sorry.
I started reading immediately and finally finished over the weekend (again, SO sorry). The marketing campaign is of course long over, but archaeological evidence still remains: several blog reviews, posted as part of what must have been a major blitz, respectable coverage in more established outlets, an excerpt in the Guardian, another in The Margins (accompanied by a fairly literal piece of art), even a skeleton book site. (I was particularly charmed by this interview in which Tse, while gracious, essentially tells the interview, repeatedly, that they are mistaken, and/or asking the wrong sorts of questions.) Clearly, this was THE book at a boutique small press. I wish I still had access to Bookscan, because I’d love to see the numbers.
Snow and Shadow is not a direct equivalent to any Tse short story collection previously published in Chinese, but rather a greatest hits designed to introduce English-speaking readers to her work. The collection is an assemblage of dreamy, anti-moral parables set in the shifting topography of a surreal Hong Kong. Tse’s style is direct yet obscure, characterized by a loose physicality, impersonal, often iconic, characters, overtones of classic fairy tales turned in on themselves, and, as translator Nicky Harman notes, “a total absence of sentimentality.” Together, these elements create a sense of unreality that enables extreme violence with a minimum of true horror.
In the first selection, “Woman Fish,” a lying wife transforms into a sort of grotesque mermaid, her head and torso morphing into those of a fish while her legs remain human. The piece reminded me of Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” in which a woman watches her lover devolve into a turtle. In “The Love Between Leaf and Knife” a suffering couple engage in an inverted “Gift of the Magi” scenario in which each competes to sacrifice more. In another selection a boy wakes without a head. “Monthly Matters” features these amazing, jarring, violent one-line descriptions of pregnancy, popping balloons, stabbing of pregnant women, discarded fetuses, a girl cut, like Riding Hood, from the belly of a wolf. In the final, title selection, Tse re-imagines Snow White as a brutal hall-of-mirrors story of doppelganger princesses and obsessive emperors, in a snowy country where dwarves and animals with surgically enhanced human features patrol the forests.
I found myself drawn to my favorite tale, “The Mute Door,” initially by the lyricism of the language in the introductory passages. In it, an anonymous pizza delivery boy known only as “the stranger” wanders the constantly shifting halls of a maze-like building, searching for an apartment that may or may not exist. Its an ominous, alienating piece, one of the most concrete, and, for me, “easiest” offerings in the collection.
Reading Tse isn’t, generally, all that easy. The experience reminded me how little I know of Chinese literature. I’ve read the stories of Lu Xun, and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales–but that’s more or less it. This collection eluded me on some level, not only because it is deliberately fantastic, but because I’m only catching about 30% of the references. I know just enough to know that I’m missing something substantial. Serious critics could (and in Chinese I’m sure they probably do) spend scores of pages unpacking each of Tse’s tales, but the criticism that has appeared in English, at least online, is of the thinner “review” type, like the above. These works seem to deserve a deeper, more formal, more contextualized inspection than I can offer.
“Write blog” has been on my personal to-do list for the past 8 months. Then, on January 3 I received an email from my hosting company suggesting that there had been some “suspicious activity” on my site, along with a list of affected files. Two weeks later I responded, (“for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention”) to confirm that I’d removed the problematic items. I received an undeservedly prompt reply, indicating that I had not.
And so it goes. One message from me, suggesting that I might have got them all this time. One message from the most patient support person in the world, explaining that I didn’t. Finally I just wiped the whole thing and reinstalled it (incorrectly). Then Amazon S3 did whatever it is it did to break the internet. Also, I fucked up another element of instal. Whatever. Resident helpdesk miracle worker fixed all. I recovered the previous posts from the Wayback Machine.
Now here we are.
(That was rhetorical. I don’t know what next, but look for new posts.)
Reading Territory led to a dangerous chain of logic: Emma Bull -> other female SciFi writers -> Connie Willis. This culminated in the compulsive purchase of All About Emily, Remake, and Inside Job. Have spent the last week or so reading these on my phone instead of the, oh, say, two dozen unread hardbacks on my shelves. Sci-fi Old Hollywood is the best!
I can trace my love of Emma Bull back to The Other Change of Hobbit, yet another Bay Area bookselling institution that hasn’t survived the age of effortless online sales1Everyone should go to Boarderlandsand buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.. I’d never, ever have caught on to the awesomeness of Emma Bull if someone hadn’t hand-sold me War for the Oaks.2n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time.I worry about what I might be missing now that a disturbing percentage of my new book recommends come from Twitter.
I found my copy of Emma Bull’s Territory in the used Sci-Fi section at Green Apple in or around 2013, and for whatever reason, just didn’t get to it. I had it on the shelf, I tried to bully other people into reading it on multiple occasions, I even packed it on vacation. It just wasn’t the moment, I guess. Spiritually I wasn’t ready.
Set in an ever-so-slightly-fantastic version of the Arizona Territory, Territory deals with the conflicts and politics that divided the iconic Wild West community of Tombstone during the summer of 1881, and which would eventually lead to the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.3Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.”Bull’s Tombstone is a slippery blend of history, fiction, and fantasy. Fictional characters mix with real historical figures,4The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance. and a complex magical power struggle underlies real legal and physical battles.
The three pronged narrative is presented through the eyes of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp’s hard living dentist-cum-professional-gambler right hand man, “so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift” (59), Jessie Fox, an iterate horse trainer with East Coast manners and supernatural talents he can’t quite face, and Mildred Benjamin, a young widow making her living as a typesetter by day while writing sensational fiction at night. After the Benson stage robbery, all three find themselves, in different ways, embroiled in the escalating conflict between the ranchers and townspeople, and facing a mysterious and powerful magic.
The Genre Mash is always a crowd pleaser, instantly refreshing favorite tropes by placing them in a new context, and the Sci-Fi/Old West smashup is arguably the most fail safe.5Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered. If, in the process, the author manages to inject social morays that are a bit more palatable to the modern mind, so much the better. In most retellings of this particular Wild West creation myth women are incidental6Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts. or explicitly problematic.7Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good.Territory, however, is overtly feminist. Mildred comes into her own as a writer over the course of the novel. Kate sees through Earp’s plots and manipulations, engineering Doc’s arrest not because she’s angry with him, but as a means of protecting him. Wyatt Earp’s public infidelities call his character into question. Both Doc and Jessie, in very different ways, seem to value strength and individuality in their women folk.
Totally enjoyable, engaging read, but ultimately not destined for my future estate sale. I’d put this one on Amazon, but unfortunately in the process of reading it I managed to completely destroy it, so I’m afraid its bound for the Goodwill, if they’ll take it. One down. Approximately 200 to go.
Two bags full of worn out cloths and second-hand kitchen supplies have made their way to Goodwill, and there’s a box of purses and t-shirts bound for the same destination waiting in the corner. (It is an Amazon box, but it contained jeans, not books. I’m resolved: I’m not taking more until I’ve finished what I already have.)
I’ve also started a box of books. So far, I’ve identified the following:
The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fitzgerald translation). Read for my 2002-3 Epic Poetry seminar and, as far as I know, never opened again. A $10 paper back available in probably every public library in America, which I have moved approximately nine times over 15 years. Having already committed to this level, I’m actually kind of tempted to keep this one.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs. Read for my 2004-5 American Literature, History and Culture course. I think about Harriet Jacobs from time to time. Purging this tattered and sticky Modern Library Classics edition, but downloaded a free copy of Incidents for Kindle.
Manliness & Civilization, Gail Bederman. Read for the same history and culture class. People on the Internet hate this book. I spent some time reading one-star reviews, which seem to fall into three categories: people who misinterpret the analysis of 19thcentury culture as the author advocating in favor of the sexist and racist attitudes she attempts to explore, men who are angry that a woman would dare to comment on male identity under any circumstances, and students who would rather not have to read anything. For the record, found it to be a valuable piece of criticism.
The Prince and the Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli. Read for some class at some point—possibly Renaissance and Reformation England during my freshman year. That would mean I haven’t cracked the cover since 2001.
A load of lit mags purchased from the now-defunct Cody’s in Berkeley in 2005, most of which I have not read or did not enjoy: Noon, ZYZZYVA, Blue Mesa Review, Ploughshares, and one year’s worth of Tin Houses (2007).
Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell. Purchased used from the airport Powell’s (trust Portland). Discovered two bus tickets dated February 25 and 27 2008 marking page 158. I think I forgot I owned this one and later listened to the audio book.
Hot Pink, Adam Levin. Selected based largely on the cover art, and purchased using a Pegasus gift certificate. I read this book on a really wonderful camping trip, so that, although I only actually enjoyed a couple of the stories, looking at it leaves me with a hazy happy feeling. I will never read this again.
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Purchased at random based solely on the San Francisco setting and the Neil Gainman endorsement. I have no idea why this particular quote was so compelling. (Book marketers take note.) Preachy, boring, skimmed the last half.
All now for sale on the internet. Because….I don’t know, it feels like I should at least try? Will most likely haul these down to the Goodwill with the rest.
I have an unfortunate habit of forming emotional attachments to objects with considerable inertia but little to no measurable worth. A 300 pound, 30 year old sofa, which I moved four different times, including two trips up narrow Edwardian staircases. Only one trip down though. A 1973 Oldsmobile, like a living room on wheels, which remained parked for over two years more than 3,500 miles from where I lived at the time. As I write this, roughly 60 pounds of thrift store clothing and costumes which no longer fit me are zippered into clear plastic bags, shoved under my bed. All of this flies in the face of common sense and Marie Kondo.
By far the most glaring example, though, is my book collection. Stacked two and three deep on bowed shelves, piled in the cabinet of my nightstand, lined up between risers under the foot of the bed, and generally strewn behind me as I move around my apartment, they are slowly swallowing up my living space like gathering snow drifts.
There’s nothing objectively special about what’s on these shelves. A couple of first editions and signed copies, but nothing rare or valuable. There are several duplicates, purchased either because I liked the cover art, or had temporarily misplaced my first copy. Most of these books can be found in any public library in America. An embarrassing number have not been opened since college. A even more embarrassing number are still unread.
They have traveled though—extensively. In suitcases that consistently failed to meet with airline weight requirements; in duct-taped boxes mailed to college in the fall and home again in spring; in the back of a truck full of event tents and helium tanks bound for the Special Olympics; in moving vans and u-hauls and the trunks of cars driven caravan-style between nine different residences across the greater Bay Area. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t let them go. I never seriously considered it.
I learned to treat books as talismanic objects even before I could read them. They were an imaginative focus and, as I grew older, a symbol of personal ambition. As a teenager I carefully displayed my collection according to author, genre, and personal preference. Certain shelves were more prestigious than others. I’d take comfort and inspiration from looking at the spines lined up just right. I’d pull down a favorite and spend an hour rereading the best parts, sometimes just standing there beside the shelves, but more often sprawled out on the carpet in front of the hall heater, or pacing tight circles around my bedroom (because reading was too exciting to sit still for, obviously).
Even as a broke college student I can remember buying books with the intrinsic assumption that they would stay with me throughout my life. I believed, without applying a lot of scrutiny, that at some point I would live in a real house with actual storage space—built-in bookshelves down one side of a cozy living room, perhaps an office, or even (swoon) a library.
A question would arise and I’d go to the shelf and pull down a reference to search out the answer. Not that I have a lot of reference books or anything. I’d feel lonesome or nostalgic or bored and pull down one of my old favorites—a paperback, probably, but the edition with the best cover art, and the spine broken in all the right places. I’d loan books to friends and foist them upon my someday children at age appropriate intervals. What I expected, basically, was an old house, full of books and children, with a massive kitchen garden, set in the middle of someplace beautiful.
I’m sure this vision must be common among my particular subspecies of North American nerdy girl–former history and creative writing undergraduates, nature lovers who haven’t quite reached the multi-day backpacking level, people who form friendships based on mutual love of obscure (or embarrassing) authors, and those who thought a library degree was a good plan.
In the string of dorms and shared apartments where I spent my 20s, I attempted to preserve that early, strengthening combination of familiarity and safety, passionate admiration and excitement, by keeping my books close. This was not terribly successful. Somewhere along the way, the things that made me happiest started to feel more like a rebuke. (Why did I watch the entirety of Six Feet Under twice instead of reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men?)
And what, ultimately, will become of all those books anyway? When I’m gone, I suppose my library might give my hypothetical descendants an excuse for a cathartic fight. Maybe the collection could be auctioned; donated to a grateful and deserving public institution; sold to theaters, real estate agents and hipster bars as bulk set dressing. Failing all else my corpse could always be burned on a pyre made of paperbacks.
I still want that house, that calm and beautiful life. What I’m realizing though, is that my coping mechanisms (which are many) have gradually shifted from comforting to stifling. Maybe I don’t need a safe place full of things anchoring me to earth. What exactly I do need isn’t quite clear, but I think it has something to do with flexibility, and openness, the willingness to expose myself.
So, in an effort to be light and mobile, I will use up and throw away what I can, box away the things I want for my whole life, and find what’s next.
I need to throw a bunch of shit out. Seriously, look at those sagging shelves.
Almost a year ago I chose Atkinson’s Life After Life from the list of new ebooks on the Berkeley Public Library website based entirely on the cover art. In retrospect, I suspect I chose it because it reminded me of one of my favorites from high school, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.
I entirely missed what huge deal this book was. I took it with me on a trip, reading it in the plane and during a couple of long, hot afternoons stretched out on a beach chair, until, frustratingly, it expired, leaving behind only an Amazon form letter inviting me to buy a copy (worst sales pitch ever).
Back home in California I followed a Twitter wormhole to an article with the specious headline “Is Kate Atkinson Britain’s Most Ambitious Novelist?” The tag was almost unrelated to the actual text, the kind of thing an editor slaps on to court clicks–which worked on me (I could hardly wait to start my explicative studded list of names…. Zadie Smith, Salmon Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo-freaking Ishiguro!) I re-borrowed the book immediately and tore through the final third in the comfort of my own bed back in Berkeley.
Life After Life extrapolates on two well-worn tropes: what if Hitler had been assassinated before he rose to power? and, as the main character’s favorite brother puts it, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again…until we finally did get it right?”
The novel opens in 1930 Ursula Todd walks into a German cafe and shoots Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s life, we learn, is relived in endless permutations. In some lives she dies in childhood, drowning on a seaside holiday, or during the flu pandemic of 1918. In others she grows into an adult, living in London during the Blitz, marrying a scarily violent man, staying single and becoming a secretary, traveling to Europe and marrying a German–ultimately returning again and again to her birth in an English country house during a blizzard in 1910.
Gradually, the shadows of her past lives begin to guide Ursula’s steps, instinctively driving her away from known dangers. As the depth of her experience builds, she comes to consciously understand and trust her foreknowledge.
I was reminded of a passing comment one of my writing teachers once made on the underlying structure of another of my old favorites, Middle March. She remarked that Elliot spends the first half of the book just on set up and character development before stepping back to let the action take its natural course in the second half, effectively keying the story up, then letting it all unwind. Life After Life works much the same way. The pace accelerates as the novel continues, with lives coming in quick succession, slipping into one another, the heroine’s memory becoming slowly enmeshed with the reader’s as time and perspective bend, unwinding until we find ourselves back in that first moment in the cafe.
Despite the world-shifting stakes, Life After Life is largely–perhaps even primarily–a book about fraternal love, particularly Ursula’s relationship with her younger brother Teddy, whose well being often forms a personal proxy for that of the population at large. It is Teddy’s fate, even more than her own that Ursula seeks to change when she begins to exert agency.
The dramatic shifts through time are surprisingly easy to follow. Atkinson orients readers through a combination of dated headings and repeated passages echoing through the layered realties, creating a de ja vu effect that readers share with the heroine. This ease also owes something to the popular premises the author has appropriated. Any respectable TV viewer has been trained to interpret this type of story. From Science Fiction to Romantic Comedy, the alternative reality is such a standard device that explanation is unnecessary, leaving the author free to concentrate on character and relationship. The book is at its most engaging when tightly focused on Ursula, her family, and their experiences. When the scope widens to encompass familiar world events, it can feel overdone, a little dull.
Atkinson is a talented novelist, meticulous both in plot and language, true and faithful to her characters. Life After Life was an enjoyable read, a technical achievement, and a creative cultural remix.
…for my initial failure to connect Fun Home with every feminist’s favorite media analysis criteria, the Bechdel Test, with Allison Bechdel the cartoonist. I guess I was thinking of it along the lines of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, presuming it to be rooted deep in the murky academic writings of the second wave (although I guess we could makes a case for a 1985 issue of Dykes to Watch Out For…)