Beast from the East: Ten Short Reviews


Border by Kapka Kassabova  
The Unmapped Country by Ann Quin
Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton
Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong  
Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa
The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie  

The snow rolled in from the east this week and smothered the country. It has piled up in newsfeeds and snow drifts, powdery and air-filled, unreal and strange. Large crystals gather on third floor windowsills. Boundaries have been blurred and crossed. Milk and bread are missing from the shelves. Pavement meets street. Pedestrians walk on the roads, and cars go nowhere. DO NOT TRAVEL banners top train and bus schedules of cancellation after cancellation marked out in red. Days of standstill roll into one another. We look out of the window. Still thick, still white. Gradually, cars have emerged waveringly and churned it up on their uncertain journeys down the street.

I have compulsively searched for infrastructure updates. A temporary hobby. I look at traffic services warnings, motorway rescue updates, transport secretary videos, meteorological explanations, updates from friends stranded away from home, looting, shortages, event cancellations, diagrams of polar regions and weather directions across Europe that I do not really understand, worker’s rights statements, weather related hashtags, and the name of the city I live in on Twitter. I have also read. In January, I read very little. A book here, an abandonment there. No energy, no will, after trudging through the dark mornings and evenings. I looked up sunrise and sunset times to find hope in the increments. But in the last week, I’ve read a book a day, give or take, in between looking out of the window, working from home as best possible, and loading up on flu tablets. On Wednesday I went out under a peaceful bone china blue sky in the time gap before an amber warning turned to an unprecedented red warning, and returned within the half hour in snowflakes so thick I couldn’t see to the end of the street. But I had new books, bread, and wine in my bag.

DWQjoqrX4AcrOMLOn Saturday afternoon one week ago, before the snow hit, I finished Kapka Kassabova‘s Border (Granta, 2017). I had ordered the chunky paperback after it won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year award. In reading it, I went back to the map at the start and traced the lines often, referring to the place names in the forested, mountainous borderland between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, where Kassabova travelled in a return to her homeland of Bulgaria and to research this prize-winning book. I did not know any of these places. Thrace, Rhodope, Edirne, Strandja. It explores the legacy of political borders; leftover from ideological eras, the rural towns of dwindling populations, economies, and industries. The threat to forests of machinery and factories, mining natural resources. The push and pull of displacement, on people who have travelled back and forwards, taken new names or returned to old homes. DWQjoqmXkAEUEKXIllegal border crossings; the risk and adrenaline, the happy and sad endings, the locals who policed them. Belief, superstitions, and apparitions in the forests. Ancient rituals, evil eye, and fire dancing, which still just about survive the ways of modernisation and fractured communities. The looting of archaeological artefacts by Nazis, prophets, politicians and treasure hunters. What it means to belong, to feel deep roots, to a place on a border line. It’s a fascinating book, filled with original research and stories. After Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, it strikes me it’s the second book I’ve read with a focus on Bulgaria in as many months.

DVynwOHXkAEia1xThe Unmapped Country, by 60s cult author Ann Quin (And Other Stories, 2018). Editor Jennifer Hodgson’s introduction, which can be read here, gets to the heart of this collection. She says: “Quin was part of a remarkable coterie of innovative writers that emerged in Britain during the 60s… Her stories and fragments are murky, voyeuristic and formally off-kilter, filled with sudden blazes of intensity, occult images and erotic artifice.” I was intrigued by this short story collection by the description of Quin, a working class woman, as much as I was by how little I’d heard about her, these pieces uncollected until now. The titular story is an unfinished piece of writing (Quin died while swimming at sea when she was only 37) set in a mental institution, comparable to Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Other stories are surrealist shorts, fragments trying conversational registers, or straightforwardly odd tales, such as the rural, wonderfully titled menage a trois of Never Trust a Man Who Baths with his Fingernails or the creepy Ghostworm, which begins “I’ll take the ashes back to his wife tomorrow.”

Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) is a short non-fiction DXN8kR1XUAUEXFAexploration of the American shopping mall and suburban isolation, and it’s from the Object Lessons series, which I have frequently raved about, about the ‘hidden lives of ordinary things.’ I read Jet Lag by Christopher J. Lee last year when I was spending more time than I’d have liked to on planes, and I previously reviewed Hotel by Joanna Walsh, which I particularly loved, for the Glasgow Review of Books. (There’s also a short video here, with terrible sound quality but where I am wearing my favourite dress, where I talk a bit about it.) While the series is a broadly pop-sociological look at each subject, each writer takes a different approach, weaving in sources and experiences of their own. Shopping Mall starts strongly, when Newton takes a taxi to the earliest big American mall, Southdale Centre in Minneapolis. It opened in 1956 as the oldest fully enclosed shopping mall, a now very familiar model. His driver is confused as to why he’d want to go there above the bigger, shinier, more tourist-friendly mall nearby. We learn about architect Victor Gruen, who designed it, and later disowned the concept, dismayed by how the original dream of a social and commercial suburban space had panned out. “‘Victor Gruen designed Southdale from memories of Europe,’ Architectural Forum rhapsodised in 1956… the court featured fountains, goldfish ponds, plants and flowers, an aviary, and commissioned works of art…” He believed there was a “psychological climate peculiar to suburbia” which could be met with good planning, “affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can fill an existing void.” Over time, the reality shifted from this plan. Later, Gruen was to say in a speech in London in 1978, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” It’s this kind of context which makes Shopping Mall an interesting read, but Newton mostly goes pins his exploration of these spaces to his personal relationship to them. We learn how important he considered them as spaces to socialise, as a young boy and later teenager. It’s a testament to the role of shopping malls as spaces in individual lives. Unfortunately, the breathless joy of family conversations recounted in impossible saccharine detail lets the book down with its emotional flatline note, and renders it repetitive. I wished for more depth and wider analysis, such as of race, when white flight to suburbs is given as context for the role of the mall in Newton’s community, but not probed particularly deeply. Not a series highlight but still, a quick and reasonably interesting read. For a really entertaining look at the fortunes of the American shopping mall, it’s worth checking out The American Mall Game: a 2018 retail challenge from Bloomsberg, an immersive mini-game which I’ve now played several times, where the object is to keep it afloat while income is plummeting. The ear piercing challenge is the best bit. The novelty of this coverage joins the ranks of my favourite multimedia articles alongside the Guardian’s Firestorm from 2013, about the Tasmania bush fires, and the New York Times’ Snow Fall. I’m looking forward to reading more Object Lessons this year (and have dreamed of writing one.)

DW8omI2X4AEoaWmOn Monday morning I went to work, having read the forecast anticipating heavy snow, but imagining it would be much like the snow of a few weeks ago; annoying, slushy, difficult to walk through but not entirely prohibitive. I put Who is Mary Sue by Sophie Collins (Faber, 2018) into my bag, hoping I wouldn’t spill coffee on its pristine white cover. It is a short and unusual book, part poetry, part assembled narrative, exploring the ‘mary sue,’ a construction familiar to fan fiction but presumed elsewhere too, of “an idealised and implausibly flawless character; a female archetype that can infuriate audiences for its perceived narcissism.” This is ripe for a feminist creative analysis, which is what Collins does in this book. It explores invention and narrative control, picking out quotes from female authors who have been asked to what extent their characters reflect their own lives, while remarking on how male authors are presumed to invent (with genius, with originality) whereas female authors are presumed to reflect themselves, with the double bind that narratives of female lives are often culturally demeaned and dismissed. In one of these quotes, Rachel Cusk says, “The misuse of the term ‘narcissism’ in relation to my work is nauseating. My life is the trash going into the incinerator to power the book I’m trying to write.” Joanna Russ is also quoted, with an anecdote where she sits as interviewer for a creative writing course alongside two male peers. Her colleagues dismiss two female applicants whose writing she is impressed with, one whose anger they find disbelievable; the other narrative “unrecognisable.” Russ is quoted further, “If woman’s experience is defined as inferior to, less important than, or “narrower” than men’s experience, women’s writing is automatically denigrated… She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it’s unintelligible / badly constructed / thin / spasmodic / uninteresting, etc, a statement by no means identical with She write it, but I can’t understand it (in which case the failure might be with the reader.)’ Reading Who is Mary Sue? leads me to think on instances in which I have witnessed male and female authors approached differently, sometimes very subtly, like the different weights of paper; the implications in questions asked of them at readers’ events; ways in which I have been spoken to as a female publisher; and once a particularly dickheadish prize shortlisting for an especially good emerging writer which considered her centring of young women’s experiences as a kind of flaw the reader should overcome in appreciating her talent. Sophie Collins’ words are neatly formatted on a page but familiar: what can you do in response to this stuff, when sexist and limited readings of writing by women creeps into personal reality? Perhaps rise above it, and all the more consider its bearers poor in critical thinking and literary abilities. For the provoking of thought and way in which it takes up a very deep rooted conversation about language and gender, canonisation and gender, literature and gender… I enjoyed this book, particularly the prose and quotations sections, and wished it had been longer. I read it before I managed to spill coffee on it, after all.

On Tuesday, the snow started to fall. I came down crashingly with a head cold. The rest ofDXB9f4-X4AEUrnK the week was to be spent bunkering down, emerging rarely to press a foot into the snow to see how deep it would sink, waiting for weather updates and office closure notices, the drama of rail networks advising GO HOME NOW. I felt sickly; difficult to distract myself, rolling around in loosened sheets feeling choked up and headachy. But when I picked up Ocean Vuong‘s debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Jonathan Cape, 2017), I was gripped and forgot all about my body. Gripped is not typically how I would describe my response to poetry, which I read but not especially often, but Vuong’s writing sucked me right in. Powerful is an overused adjective, but here it can be applied truly. A Vietnamese American, writing often about war in Vietnam, Vuong’s themes include family, grief, violence of war, and the fleetingness of life. I learned from an interview with the Guardian that the photograph which adorns the cover was taken in a refugee camp in the Philippines after the family left Vietnam. “A fellow refugee was bartering photographs for food. “That picture cost my family three tins of rice, according to my mother,” he says. “Each of us gave up our ration just to be seen.”” It’s a detail which feels remarkable, learning of it after reading the strikingly good poetry collection, which has been successful enough in the US for Vuong to buy his mother a house. One of the poems, Aubade with Burning City, weaves in sentimental lines from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which was played as a code for evacuation during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The poem is at once beautiful and haunting, violent and otherworldly.

The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                                facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                             A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
                beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white     A white     I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
I loved this collection, and I thoroughly recommend it.
DXIX9G7WAAAzJJKLauren Elkin‘s Flaneuse: Women Walk the City (Vintage, 2017)  has been on my to-read list for ages and I picked it up this week. It’s a book to be curled up with, despite the subject of walking. It sets out by describing the psychogeographer clad in Goretex, the “ones you read about in the Observer at weekends” who “at any given moment you’ll find them writing about each others work.” (which is much like the feedback loop of political commentary.) It makes the case that women walk their cities too, and off we go, with profiles of flâneuses such as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, George Sand, Agnes Varda, Mavis Gallant, Martha Greenhorn, and others. It’s a very bookish book, and while accounts of these writers (and artists and filmmakers)  strays off the subject of walking itself, it’s interesting and quite inspiring to consider ways in which they’ve reacted to their environments, used it as inspiration, and generally claimed space. The book is as much about Elkin’s own relationship with various cities she has lived in or spent time in, from New York to Tokyo to Venice, and especially Paris. (I recognise myself in the misfortunate Tokyo chapter, where Elkin describes the city enthusiast, who loves the place and does not understand why she didn’t get on with it.) It’s clear a lot of research has gone into this book. Certainly, I learned a lot from it about the women it profiles, and made notes of works mentioned to look up afterwards. It ends with a train pulling away from the station, past back yards and industrial spaces, with Elkin’s excitement at the place around her and how she is moving through it. There is a lot of pleasure in that moment; of really being there.
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami (Pushkin Press, 2017), translated by Louise Heal Kawai, is an enjoyable DXN7VppXUAAmzVlgrief and goodbye themed novella told from the perspective of a young boy who becomes fixated on a woman with bright blue eyeshadow who works in a supermarket at a sandwich counter. The way in which she wields shining silver tongs impresses him. He draws pictures of her, trying to get the blue just right, while he is at home with a very elderly, ill grandmother and distracted mother. He is troubled when his idea of the sandwich woman’s magnetic beauty doesn’t match that of his classmates, overhearing them talk in derogatory terms about this unusual woman, but he is encouraged by a budding friend to reach out to her. Ms Ice Sandwich really captures something of the spirit of childhood fixations and confidences, and it’s a sweet read. This is part of a series of Japanese novellas and short novels from Pushkin, each with bright, bold covers. The sandwiches on this one make it my favourite.

, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press, 2017), translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff explores mental health on the tipping point in a domestic, rural setting. Charco Press are new to the scene, setting up in Edinburgh last year, with a focus on translating Latin American literature. I was excited to see a quote from Samanta Schweblin on this one, whose Fever Dream I loved. She describes Die, My Love as “truly original” one of “those books that deliver something new, that open windows and doors and allow the breeze to blow the cobwebs off the literary world.” And I find myself agreeing here, as the book really is quite an unusual read, notably for the degree of vehemence with which the narrator describes her life with son and husband, and his extended family. She looks at her boy “the way a crab looks at a child,” feeling disassociated from the happy scenes of birthday parties and backyard star-gazing her family are partaking in, gradually reaching the point of institutionalised care. This is an earthy, dirty book: the narrator lies down in the dirt, she tangles herself in grasses and aches to consummate lustful thoughts outside, while mentally screaming out her misanthropic horror for domesticity.

DXYHEKmX0AQ9PxxSlow Boat by Hideo Furukawa (Pushkin Press, 2017) translated by David Boyd is another of Pushkin’s Japanese novellas. “I’ve never made it out of Tokyo,” it begins. The narrator tells poppy stories of three relationships which correspond with three attempts to get outside the boundaries of Tokyo district. A young love at a summer camp, a woman who ends up leaving on a geographic pilgrimage after never coming home from a bar job, and a young chef with impeccable knife skills who works in the restaurant he opens later in life. Each of these is quite enjoyable, set within the ongoing frustration at feeling trapped within city boundaries, almost institutionally limited in options and self-determination attempts cut short. The in-between sections which tie the book together are a bit more patchy and rambling. Furkawa is a Haruki Murakami devotee, and named the book after a Murakami short story with a similar title. When one of the female characters has a plot device linked to the shape of her areola, Murakami’s influence is unfortunately most detectable. But even at that, it still has more depth than the god-fucking-awful nipple-infested iq84, so Furukawa transcends his mentor with this reasonably entertaining if unpolished short read.

The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie (Pushkin Press, 2017) translated by Geraint Howells is simply lovely, about the reunion of two friends in the French countryside. Broken into three stories, the one which gives the book its title is a mediation on friendship, by way of musings on the French lexicographer Émile Littré, family members who made it out of concentration camps, a La Fontaine fable, about a bear and a man becoming friends, and the maturing of personalities. It’s a rich little novella, with moments of wonder (most notably a journey to the coast to see a particular view of a landmark, as mentioned in a book written long ago) and the warmth of old friendship. I just loved this one, felt nourished by reading it, and thoroughly recommend it.

Meanwhile, the snow lingers on the ground outside. This week I’ve dreamt of snow and cities. I doubt it will have melted any more perceptibly when I wake up tomorrow morning, but I hope it thaws soon.