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Discoveries: 'Picking Bones From Ash' by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

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Picking Bones From Ash

A Novel

Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Graywolf Press: 284 pp., $24

Some fiction makes the world a little smaller; illuminates the dark corners, puts the taste of, say, breakfast in a small mountain village of Japan in the mouth of the reader (rice balls, in a ryokan, made by your mother the night before). Art school in Tokyo; vermilion leaves in autumn, cherry blossoms falling on city streets after a rain. In this debut novel, a little girl grows up in a small village with her mother. The other women in the village are suspicious of the mother's beauty; they ban her from the public bath. But the daughter is a talented piano player and this earns the little family some respect. The mother tells her daughter that she is a moon princess. She warns her about the forest demons. She teaches her about elegance and objects: "Given a choice between two kinds of tea bowls -- a gaudy and greenish Kutani teacup or a wabi-sabi style Shino -- she would always choose the latter." The girl grows up, goes to Paris, has an American daughter. The past, her ancestry, becomes a kind of fable, but the objects, her mother's aesthetic taste, make her an excellent authenticator of Asian antiquities. The ghosts of her ancestors appear at night -- mysterious women in red and silver kimonos; many-armed deities. The novel, so firmly anchored in a sensuous reality, veers into a dream world. A reader has the sense that even the author was driven by her most powerful character: the original mother, raising her daughter alone, shunned by villagers, forced to make decisions that haunt her descendants.

All That Work

and Still No Boys

Stories

Kathryn Ma

University of Iowa Press: 148 pp., $16 paper

These 10 stories offer an intimate look at Chinese-American life; the careful distances, the family obligations, the wounded pride and myriad slights that fester over generations. In the title story, a mother refuses to take the kidney of her only son. Her four daughters are ready and willing, but their kidneys are not compatible. The preciousness of boys, the disappointment of girls (even though they are the ones who most often care for their aging parents) is thick. "No matter what anyone said about girls, how daughters were just as good as sons or even better, they didn't believe it, not fully, deep down. They were speaking lies when they praised her daughters, and their lies burned Ma like swallowed acid." In "Second Child," an American family brings their adopted daughter on a "reunion tour" to China. When their son repeatedly runs away from the group, it becomes clear that the orphanage visit at the end of the tour is a bad idea. The guide, a Chinese woman whose sister was given to an orphanage, also refuses to go there. There it sits, this sad truth at the center of so much happiness; all those unwanted girls. "For Sale by Owner" gives a reader fresh insight into the thicket of racism in America in the '60s; in this case between Asians and African Americans. Ma's stories are layered and carefully written. The characters try to do the right thing -- there are no good guys, no bad guys, just the deep suffering that ripples through families -- the things that everyone knows and no one talks about.

The Interrogative Mood

A Novel?

Padgett Powell

Ecco: 164 pp., $21.99

It is not without trepidation that I call this book, 164 pages of questions, to your attention. "Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople?" Gamely, the reader tries to answer each question. Then the next, then the next. Soon, a headache looms. Some pages remind the reader of questions asked repeatedly by a child in the back seat of a car while you, the driver, fight serious traffic and are increasingly late to a very important appointment. "If civil war or an invasion or other circumstances somehow effected martial law and the need to take up arms and fight, and your father was put in local command by virtue of his having been a combat veteran, would you serve under him happily or with reservations or not at all?" More questions follow in this vein and the author catches himself: "Why have I bogged down so in this area?" he asks. We don't know. "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?" he asks after 69 pages of asking. "Are you curious to know what I'll do with the answers you've given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful 'profile' of you?" The reader feels reduced, exhausted. Of course, some of you might like it, the relentlessness. "Are you leaving now?" he finally asks. "Would you? Would you mind?"

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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