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Shan Sa – Empress

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Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…

Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-14787-6
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.

Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb and beyond her death. It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.

Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.

Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. Sa gives her what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)

Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.

The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that you can assume it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.

And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.

You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.

Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.

But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.

This may be ironic.

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Linda Stift – The Empress And The Cake

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There’s no way out. There’s every way out.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 172
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67030-4
First Published: 2007; 30th September 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Stierhunger (Bulimia)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

A young woman is approached by an older woman, asked if she’d share a cake because the cake is too large for one person. The older woman’s clothes are very old fashioned, from the 1800s, and her companion is similarly dressed. Though she avoids rich foods, the young woman agrees to take half the cake; after the purchase the older woman suggests sharing first her own half. The young woman finds she cannot say ‘no’, and whilst she believes it was her choice, it sets a precedent for the future.

The Empress And The Cake is an Austrian novella about three women of different generations who are connected. It’s got a bizarre, strange, atmosphere, a lot of history, looks at mental and physical health, and sports a brilliant uniqueness.

There are four major characters in this book, three in the present and one in the past. The present-day characters are our unnamed narrator, Frau Hohenembs, and the latter’s friend/servant, Ida. The fourth is the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, of the mid to late 1800s. Elisabeth is included via descriptions written by a friend – we view these scenes as reflections – and her presence in the novella is to show the basic ideas behind Stift’s drawing of Frau Hohenembs and Ida and thus the connection she has created between the factual Empress and the fictional characters.

This reviewer would recommend doing a bit of research into the personality and life of the Empress prior to starting the book. The book’s meaning won’t be lost without it but some knowledge of her will really enhance your reading experience and allow you to figure out what might happen, which when you consider the fact the Empress is likely well-known in Austria and this is an Austrian book, just makes sense. Elisabeth’s story is quite fascinating; she was reluctantly married to an Emperor who adored her and spent her time away from the court she disliked, often travelling incognito. Her mother-in-law practically removed her from her children’s lives and she was assassinated by a man who wanted to assassinate a royal and hadn’t been able to get close to his first choice, nor his second.

Part of the connection between the characters and something that is a major theme is an obsession with slimness, which in the unnamed heroine’s case is a disorder, bulimia. The book gets into very graphic detail at times so that Stift can show the way bulimia affects a person. It is a very frank portrayal, Stift’s character telling herself, or us, how this will be her last vomiting session, how she’s going to stop weighing herself so much – she’ll weigh herself several times a day instead of a dozen, for example (a difference the reader sees as inconsequential) – how she’ll start eating more again, only for her to revert almost instantly. The heroine is bound by her disorder but does not see it – she views herself as in control of it. And her increased contact with Frau Hohenembs furthers her it. (What’s interesting here is that the way the passage of time is shown in the book, the rough slowness that can be attributed to Stift’s detailing and repetition of the regular makes it seem as though more time passes between decisions than it truly does.)

Similarly she views herself as in control of her visitations to Frau Hohenembs’ apartment, and in control of the choice to go out, which happens often, with said lady and her servant; the truth is different. Not quite so different is her lack of control of her eating disorder, but a big part of the psycho-thriller aspect of the novella is the dwindling nature of personal agency. This is where the plot thread of cocaine comes in; the drug is not referenced directly for some time and we do not know whether the heroine and Ida take the drug, but there’s a vagueness, an ambiguity, in the story, that lets you imagine what is most likely. What, for example, was in that cake? Stift does not say either way – just sugar, or something more addictive? – that’s up to you to decide. (Does sugar itself perhaps reflect the addiction?)

Empress Elisabeth wanted to be very slim, and favoured being stitched into her clothes. Whilst the present-day fictional part of the story does not go this far, the factual forms a sort of backbone. Frau Hohenembs’s obsession with Elisabeth (does she think she is her or want to emulate her?) never wavers, and as such the heroine falls into line behind her. This thread is not resolved neatly, but then it doesn’t need to be. It’s the connection that Stift wants to show rather than any reason d’etre.

On the gruesome front it should be noted there are visits to a ‘specimen’ museum. These, as well as the vomiting scenes, if the reader finds them difficult, can be skipped because the importance in them lies in the sentiment rather than the scenes themselves – so long as you’ve the cause in mind, flicking past shouldn’t be a problem.

In regards to the translation, it reads well. Jamie Bulloch seems to have opted for a balance between literal word meaning and flow; there are some German words you may want to look up but the rough meaning is there in the text.

It’s hard to say exactly why The Empress And The Cake is so good. It has something to do with the complexity, the number of ideas in it, and the amount of thought that’s gone into it, but enough to say it’s excellent. It’s bizarre, random, and totally unique, and it makes you think, so much.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers

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Learning and living.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-50147-3
First Published: 27th February 2007
Date Reviewed: 23rd June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Zhuang Xiao Qiu has come to England to learn English so she can have a better career in China. Early on she meets a British man at the cinema and they quickly become lovers. He’s twenty years older than her and, as she comes to realise, very different in personality, but she loves him. And with her ever improving language skills she hopes it will all work out.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers is a pretty easy-going book about cultural and personal differences that hold sway over even the hottest sexual chemistry (though not all of it’s graphic; I’m saying it to allude to the slightly humorous nature of the book). Told in a broken English that begins with little knowledge of the language and slowly improves over the course of the novel until it’s edging towards fluent, it’s quite a lovely book even if it’s far from perfect.

In regards to the language, obviously it is part of the whole concept. Guo wants to show not only the literal improvement of someone with only a basic knowledge when they first land in England but also how much can be conveyed no matter the speech, and this works. Granted, in choosing this book you have to be happy to read a whole novel in this broken language, but there is much to like about it. The chapters are driven by dictionary definitions, each chapter revolving around the aspects and real-life examples of a word definition. There are also a few pictures, mostly basic maps, and the passing of time is marked in months, episodes segregated by the months they occur.

One of the best things about Guo’s development of the story as a whole is the way you get a very clear picture of Xiao Qiu’s lover no matter her terminology. Guo succeeds in fleshing out the nameless male main character without our ever hearing from him directly (we only hear of him through Xiao Qiu and through a couple of letters he writes to her), and whilst some of his characteristics elude Xiao Qiu for some time, you as the reader cotton on to him pretty quickly. You see the drifter in him, the non-commitment that he tries to explain to Xiao Qiu but fails to do so well enough for her to truly understand (and that’s not to do with her English but to do with his dithering). On the other hand, this man seems to be unaware that he may feel more than he says, more, even, than he realises, and so at times the novel is quite powerful emotionally.

At the same time, Xiao Qiu is rendered rather stereotypically and with a strong focus on sex. I’ve noticed this about Guo, that she spends a lot of time, needlessly, on sexual subjects and it’s the case here, too (hours spent at a peep show, for example). It means that, because Xiao Qiu is understandably meant to be, at least somewhat, a reflection of a Chinese immigrant, that reflection comes off badly. Doubtless most people will recognise that she isn’t representative of Chinese women except in the ‘proper’ sections on culture (as in the sections where she speaks of things that are more a true representation of a Chinese woman’s thoughts) but this doesn’t change the confusion – why did Guo write Xiao Qiu this way? Especially as Guo moved to Britain from China herself? (And we could also question the way Xiao Qiu moves in with her lover soon after meeting him when we’ve been informed of how traditional her mother is and, later, that Xiao Qiu wants the married-with-house-and-children life herself.)

To reference a later book of Guo’s that I’m including because I read it first, there is the same plot detouring here as there is in I Am China, but its impact is not as overwhelming on the story. Xiao Qiu goes off to travel for a few months and it’s just a series of train journeys and meet and greets with a particularly negative ratio of creepy strangers to caring strangers that doesn’t advance the plot and, despite Guo’s suggestions to the contrary, doesn’t contribute to character development either. But as soon as Xiao Qiu is back in Britain the story picks up again.

There is some commentary on Communism here, as well as Mao’s era and the distinct differences between British and Chinese culture. A good half of Xiao Qiu’s relationship with her lover is composed of conflicts caused by both parties’ relative inability to accept the other’s cultural differences, and this is where the showing of both personalities is most prevalent. You as the reader can see where Xiao Qiu has made a relationship with someone who is not a good fit – and that’s without any of the cultural differences – and where both could do with better communication of the sort that is not down to language.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers isn’t perfect. There’s the filler section, the gratuitous references to sex and the plot that’s not particularly compelling – a fact that manages to slip under your radar at times due to the language, a fact that may or may not be considered convenient. But it’s a nice read, it’s got a lovely literary fiction aspect to it that can be enjoyed by both lovers of the genre and those who don’t tend to like it, and it makes you look at situations in a particular way. Those who have learned English as a second language may relate directly to some of Xiao Qiu’s frustrations and those who haven’t will appreciate what Guo is trying to do.

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Marie Sizun – Her Father’s Daughter

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Don’t tell children only half the secret.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 144
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67028-1
First Published: 2005; 13th June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 9th June 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Père de la Petite (The Father Of The Little)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Her Father’s Daughter is a superb book about something that doesn’t often get thought of when we talk about war – the effect of a soldier’s homecoming on his very young children. It’s also a study in how war messes with the emotions of those back home, and in this case the damning effects that can have.

Sizun writes in the third person from the perspective of the child. France, the girl at hand whose show-of-patriotism name is rarely used, is at once spoiled, kind, and almost precocious. The author brilliantly shows how, for example, a child may be annoying but not at fault – we all know this, that children do not understand subtleties especially when adults don’t answer their questions comprehensively, but it’s how Sizun goes about her detailing, putting the point out there in an ironically comprehensive way.

The book studies the change when France’s father returns, after which she’s no longer the only person in her mother’s life and no longer possesses her.

‘When your poor little daddy comes home’… Off hand. Just like that. […] But right there, in what her mother said, in those words, something loomed before her, something quite new. Something that intruded into the intimate, familiar world of the kitchen. Something the child perceives as a threat. When. Come home.

This is where Sizun addresses the breach: to the mother, everything will right itself and life will be good again but to France a stranger is set to arrive, a man whose role she has no concept of. She doesn’t know a father is like a mother and the photograph of him in the apartment has no meaning for her. She’s resentful, sees disruption ahead in the life she likes. Her mother has spoiled her to the point of madness, letting her draw on the wall, sing loudly inside, even letting her pick her (the mother’s) outfits. We can assume the mother does this out of sadness and, on some level, guilt.

What is a father? The notion of fatherhood is beyond the child… Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal or not very kind.

In Sizun’s child-sized detailing we can read between the lines – we can tell what this big ‘secret’ of the mother’s is, where the ‘baby’ has gone. Sizun shows how important it is to tell a child the why instead of just telling them it was a dream.

When the father comes home the parents don’t perform a proper introduction, instead they push a kiss on a child from a stranger. The father is strict – he doesn’t like the drawing and singing – and it’s a while before France sees his fatherly side, Sizun demonstrating what happens when there are different parenting styles with the addition of having to adapt to life after living in a prisoner of war camp. The father does not represent all fathers of his situation – the author also shows a man who has come home in good spirits, a neighbour with a daughter France’s age. And some of the changes France must make are due to the time period – seen but not heard.

As her father starts to treat her with kindness she turns against her mother. Does the mother use poor discipline as a weapon, as a way of having control in spite of her own mother’s words? Is it down to the guilt she feels over her illicit situation? The mother is an ambiguity; Sizun leaves her open for your interpretation.

Her Father’s Daughter is downright splendid. It tells an unfamiliar tale in a particularly affecting way and succeeds at making you question a child’s actions in a child’s context because you’re never out of her head. Whilst translated (Adriana Hunter is on top form) the word choice is everything, the length of the sentences key. This is a World War II book you don’t want to miss; and it’s in the top tier of Peirene Press’s acquisitions.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Marie-Sabine Roger – Soft In The Head

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But now getting better and better.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 210
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27204-5
First Published: 2008; 9th June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Tête En Friche (Fallow-Headed – as in a field in fallow)
Translated by: Frank Wynne

Walking in the park one day, Germain sees an old woman spending time with the birds he likes to count. He’s semi-illiterate, had a neglected upbringing, and doesn’t consider himself worth much, whereas Marguerrite has been through university and worked in science; the unlikely pair begin a friendship based on their mutual interest in the park’s birds, and Marguerrite’s wish to read aloud. Slowly Germain finds himself changing.

“Well, well. Germain sitting at a bar? Now, there’s a coincidence!”
I used to think it was his way of saying, Hi, nice to see you. But, no, apparently, it meant he thought I was a pathetic drunk clinging to the bar like a limpet to a rock.

Soft In The Head is a stunning book that’s comprised of so much more than its thinness suggests. It was first written in French and adapted for the big screen, and now it’s been translated into English.

Perhaps the most important factor, at least initially: the translated text is superb. Wynne has transposed the French into the English equivalent, for example he’s used swear words and distinctively British terms, such as ‘chav’ (I’ve no idea what the French equivalent is or if there is one, but know the Australian is ‘bogun’) so that you get a picture of Germain from the first. What Wynne has effectively done is take the book and give it an English flavour meaning that the intended English-speaking market will understand the book more than they might have if it was a straight translation. In other cases you might feel a bit duped but here it just makes sense and the book is incredibly readable. It means that all the showing, rather than telling, Rogers has done, is carried over – the atmosphere and feel of the book. Despite the fact you can tell it’s a translation (the French names contrasted to British terms kind of make this obvious) you can see Roger’s text underneath. She was writing for her students and thus the translation matches this sort of concept of youthful phrasing and unimpeded speech. You can see the teacher’s mind in this book.

This book is a page-turner. It’s full of literary references and humour and observations and a beautiful admiration, a platonic love of sorts. Whilst we never get to hear from Marguerrite as a narrator, Roger has ensured we know enough about her – Germain may spend more of his time on himself but Marguerrite, as the driving force, gets a lot of time.

Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.

The beauty of the book lies in what is shown, in the way that Germain starts out believing he’s not worth much of anything, swearing a lot, using simple terms peppered with words he’s learned from the dictionary (he includes the definitions), and as the novel progresses the reader sees him become more educated, intellectual – he starts to use these words he’s learning from his time with Marguerrite, sees the conflict (that seems more an anxiety on his part than a reality) that occurs when his friends think he’s getting too ahead of himself, and sees if not a completely different future then at least a happy one. He comes to view love differently, see more to the world, and so forth. He comments on this change from time to time, as he does the learning, but it’s in the subtext and what is shown through the words themselves that the reader will discover just how much he’s achieved.

A book about books, this novel is delightfully satisfying. Marguerrite and Germain read Camus and a couple of other authors (who aren’t as well-known). They discuss the text mostly by way of Germain’s understanding; Germain, knowing more than he realises, brings in different interpretations. Marguerrite teaches him by example; it’s a friendship of equals.

By now it should be obvious – there’s a thread of the thought of tolerance in this book. It’s not a theme, more that Roger promotes tolerance towards others, in this case someone who hasn’t had the privilege of growing up book-rich, who has never set foot in a library. Germain may seem stupid but how much of that is actually true and how much does that thought depend on his own view of himself?

It’s hard to say exactly how wonderful and well-written Soft In The Head is without quoting a swath of text. Suffice to say if you like reading about reading and if you’ve even the slightest interest in education and educational access issues, you will very likely appreciate this novel.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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