Chopsticks and Roof Beams

chopsticks‘…she only managed to give birth to a handful of chopsticks and no roof-beam.’ I was struck by this way of referring to girls and boys. I had never heard it before, but it seemed to epitomise the manner in which the Chinese view the differences between men and women…

And so begins an explanation of why the narrator and her five sisters were only ever given a number as a name, and why their family faced much disgrace in countryside China – and why Three takes the opportunity as a young girl, to go to the city of Nanjing to find work when her uncle offers.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is an interesting and unusual story which shows many contrasts between:
1. values placed on girls and boys
2. attitudes in city and rural areas of China
3. old and new ways

Xinran was born in China, but separated from her mother by the Cultural Revolution, and so grew up with her grandparents in Beijing. In China, after the Cultural Revlotion ended, she became a radio broadcaster whose program, “Words on the Night Breeze”, encouraged lots of discussion about true picture of the daily lives of Chinese women. Her high media profile ultimately lead her to leave China for England in 1997, where she began to carve out her current career in journalism and writing.

With this background, you can understand that her stories, including Miss Chopsticks, are well-informed and genuine  reflections of China as she knew it , and China as she hopes it is becoming today. Her girls, Three, Five and Six, are not tragic figures in ‘Miss Chopsticks’ but rather succeed in overcoming their birth consequences. They represent a new generation of Chinese girls. Unlike many other Asian tales, it is a more lighthearted. While it portrays some harsh values which still exist in parts of China, it does offer hope.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is loosely based on many of the girls and women that Xinran has met –

“For a long time I have wanted to write down some of the stories of the girls I have met…”

Xinran gives an interesting insight to Chinese life and values. There is much to be learned from this tale. It would also be interesting to know how it might have been received in China…

For more detail about Xinran, there are many articles you can read from the Guardian.

‘Ten things…’ techniques authors use

ten-things-ive-learnt-about-love-978144722249101Books are not always straightforward in their presentation. Some have quirky links and techniques throughout. Some take a while to adapt to, others just make sense.

As ‘Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love’ progresses from chapter to chapter, the story jumps between characters and lists.

One of the characters is Alice, the youngest of 3 sisters, who feels as though she doesn’t ‘fit’ her family. She is, and always has, felt unsettled and disconnected. Then, after months of travelling overseas, she arrives home to the news that her father is dying.

The other narrator who gives voice to the tale is Daniel; a homeless drifter, in search of his daughter. His synaesthesia gives him a special and interesting quality, and he too is both restless and disconnected. Unlike Alice, he lingers in one place, London – for that is where he feels his daughter is to be found.

We can guess that there will ultimately be some kind of connection between Alice and Daniel. Throughout the story they both create lists – of wants and wishes, anxieties and memories, statements of love and sorrows. It is through these lists that the reader experiences the ebb and flow of their emotions, as Sarah Butler weaves her story.

For Butler, this is a debut novel, with a clever and gradual intertwining of their lives now. Past events are slowly revealed to allow the characters to fill in the gaps and make sense of turns that have occurred in their lives. There are many times when you wonder ‘what if?’ something else had happened or ‘why?’ did this event need to occur.

For many readers, there will be time for quiet pondering about their own relationships, in spite of sitting safely in comfortable times with family and friends. As stated in its blurb:

“Heart-wrenching and life -affirming, this is a unique story of love lost and found, of rootlessness and homecoming and the power of the ties that bind. It is a story for fathers and daughters everywhere.”

For more information about Sarah Butler read this article, a guest post written by the author discussing what she learned while writing ‘Ten Things…’

What further questions would you ask if you could talk to Sarah Butler?

Did you like her collection of lists to start each chapter?

Blizzard Lines by Tim Hawkes

In a moment of stupidity, John’s life changes course. His happy self-indulgent existence, as a school boy enjoying a comfortable home and cruising along at school, comes to an abrupt end. He is expelled from school and will face criminal charges – all over a few photos he shared with his mates.

Understandably, his parents are horrified by the prospect of their son being sent to gaol. They both question where they may have failed to reach him and guide him as a teenager. The difficulty for his dad is that he, Peter, is at work at Mawson Station in the Antarctic – and not likely to be heading home for some time.

From the icy and challenging environment of the ice station, Peter Harvey writes to his son in an effort to try to advise his future choices as John’s trial looms closer. Interesting parallels are drawn of the challenges faced by early explorers to South Pole, as well as the daily challenges faced by those at Mawson, and are reflected within the episodes occurring in John’s life at home, as the consequences of his actions become real.

No longer attending a private school with his mates, John starts work as a labourer for a bullying boss, Ben’s dad, and begins to realise what he has lost. He continues to party hard and seek quick thrills. He admires Ben’s slick car and the status it offers, and dreams of owning something similar. But dreams can sometimes turn into nightmares. (Indeed, Ben’s life isn’t as rosy as John first imagined.)

Away from home, his father continues to struggle with his absence from his family at this time of need, and calls on significant others to help his son. Uncle Geoff, and JJ, his grandfather, provide John with physical presences and seek to help him make sense of his predicament. In his own world, Peter seeks help and advice from his work colleagues – all of whom share differing perspectives, which Peter in turn shares with John in his stream of regular emails.

Blizzard Lines (as noted in its blurb) slips between two worlds. John’s world, once comfortable and easy-going, has become a place of stress, angst and danger. Peter’s world is isolated and distant from this, while the people he works with provide insight, comfort and concern.

As things change for both of them, we view conflict and peace, mistakes and choices; and nod knowingly to the feelings experienced by the many of people impacted in this tale. Tim Hawkes has developed real characters, tied them all together in situations which today’s teenagers could very well face. Added to this, he cleverly mixes in some interesting snippets of history, and facts about contrasting worlds in which people live and work. And he describes how different people cope in these different worlds.

Reading Blizzard Lines, you should wonder: Who will grow in character from their experiences? what can be learned? and importantly, who will listen? (and what might the reader take from this book?)