Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Country: Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

It snowed! Now it feels like December. Only last week it was in the 60's.
Check out the contrast:

Even my dog was confused.
Then Stella remembered snow angels.

Burning bush berries add festive color.
A major storm is coming today, the first school Snow Day.
If I’m not online later, you’ll know why.

It’s time to curl up by the fire with a good winter book. I’ve discovered a new author: Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Her debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, follows Rumi’s search for her Japanese mother in snow country. Like her protagonist, the author has an American father, a Japanese mother and true talent.

“But when you are talented, you are special. You will have troubles, but they won’t be any of the ordinary ones.” So begins the narrative and sums up my review.

In the northern mountains of Japan, villagers welcome winter with hot sake and dancing devils. Buddhist priests exorcise lost souls, and Shinto spirits can occupy any object. Bridges to the Underworld appear over multi-colored hot springs. Reality vanishes in the sulfur mist of Japan and in the fog of San Francisco.

Mocket’s writing brings to mind other masters of mysticism, such as Isabel AllendeGabriel Garcia Marquez and Amy Tan (whose endorsement is on the cover.)   The ghosts of ancestors and past injustices haunt the present. Individuals belong to an extended family, including both the living and the deceased. Such literature drops us into another culture and its system of beliefs.

Mocket does not strand the reader in Wonderland. She explains Buddhism and Shintoism with the voice of a scholar. At times these long passages of exposition risk sounding didactic and slow the pace. More integration would have been better. Expository sections also introduce the reader to the world of Asian antiques and porcelain. Rumi is an antique dealer who listens to the voices of objects, which literally tell her of their past. I loved how this worked in the narrative.

The experience of reading Picking Bones from Ash is quite like soaking in a hot spring in the mountains of Japan (I did so a decade ago.) The heat and vapor rest the body but blur the vision. Time slows; outlines are unclear. There wasn’t much plot or narrative tension in the novel, and yet I kept reading. The writing was lovely and easy to follow. Mockett favors short paragraphs and lyrical descriptions (eg “Snowflakes the size of dandelions bloomed in the air.”) I felt totally immersed in another culture and its landscape. Mockett captures the bi-cultural experience of many Americans.

Although this debut novel was beautifully original and evocative, there were some novice glitches. Rumi and her mother had strong narrative voices, but the dialogue sounded unnaturally formal. None of the romantic relationships made much sense. The section set in Paris felt tacked onto the narrative and unnecessary; two countries would have been enough. The story felt intensely personal, like a memoir. There is definitely a first-novel feel to Picking Bones from Ash, like watching a young bird on its first flight. It can be awkward, but then it soars.

“Eventually the snow stopped falling, and the clouds parted. Moonlight hit the white earth and the air took on a silver quality. Now I could see the outline of trees, the shadows of forests on the snow-covered ground. Sometimes I looked ahead and saw the figure was trudging before me and I felt as though I were watching a negative of a film unfold in slow motion: white earth, black sky, blue trees. It was eerily beautiful and foreign.”
-Marie Mutsuki Mockett


A Cuban In London said...

Loved the snow, the photos and the review. This called my attention:

'At times these long passages of exposition risk sounding didactic and slow the pace. More integration would have been better'

Agree, up to a certain point. I guess that certain authors do not want to leave their readers stranded like shipwreck survivors in the middle of an ocean of incomprehension. And yet, too much explanation migth come across not just as you put it, didactic, but also patronising. I think writing is the only art (I'm being biased now) where this balance between erudition and subtlety is never ever resolved. The 'show-don't-tell' approach works fine as long as you don't have to explain a historical era, or detail a social upheaval.

I was very taken by the 'coincidence' :-) of the author being half-American and half-Japanese. Shall we speculate how much it's fiction and how much it's autobiographical? On second thoughts, forget it, just enjoy the book for what it is.

Many thanks for such a fine review. I feel jealous of your snow. :-)

Greetings from London.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...


Enjoyed the book review. The snow pictures are gorgeous! It's unreal how the weather can change--all through November we had weather in the 60's and 70's now the cold weather has hit us hard.

Oh yes, the last the picture goes so well with the quote--very catching.

Joan Mora said...

I happen to be reading this one right now. Just started Part 2 (Rumi). This is my kind of book, ancestral ghosts, secrets, an international setting. Agree so far with your comment about the relationships--I attributed the first one to Satomi's inexperience. I am enjoying the story, though. Many of the passages are lovely.

Gorgeous pictures, as always.

Rosaria Williams said...

Beautiful pictures. I'm intrigued by your review of Picking Bones from Ash. Thanks.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, Mockett never sounds patronizing. I know more about Japanese culture than the average reader, and I learned a lot from this book. It was fascinating material, but a first person narrator shouldn’t sound like a professor unless the character is one. You brought up a good point that exposition is necessary in historical fiction. It’s a skill weaving the necessary material into the narrative without leaving seams. After posting my review, I read a couple of author interviews (links on her website.) Her parents were classical pianists, like Satori, the mother character. I think it’s a really good idea to write from experience for a first novel. I’m curious to see what she will write next.

Tracy, so you’ve had some volatile weather too. I can’t remember a warmer November or a snowier early December. I’m enjoying it – the snow is so pretty. I had fun this morning skiing with my son and dog, less fun shoveling twice. We must have a half a foot already, and it’s still falling. That final picture was from last year’s ice storm. It was the image in my mind when I was reading that passage. It’s fun when I have photos that match the narrative.

JM, I thought you might like this novel, given the cemetery theme in your WIP. I just couldn’t understand why a strong, creative woman like Satori would let herself be used by Western men. It felt out of character. Maybe if the men themselves were more appealing…I won’t say more. Let me know if you post a review too – I’d love to hear your final opinion.

Lakeviewer, thank you. I think you’d like the multi-generational aspect of this novel from post WWII Japan to present time.

Elenka said...

Lucky for 'snow' that it's pretty, otherwise I would go nuts.
And it's only started!
A day off, anyway.......

David Cranmer said...

We just had to put studs on our jeep. Maine weather is tough. We're from New York but the weather you got really kicks some serious butt.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elenka, I can’t believe how much has fallen already! I’m out for a second quick ski before it shifts to rain. It seems to be letting up a bit.

David, it’s the wintery mix that I dread. We put snow tires on just in time. On days like today, I’m better off on skis than on tires. I have snowshoes with crampons too – studs for my feet.

Keri Mikulski said...

Gorgeous pics and great review. You really set the 'scene' and 'feel' of the book. :)

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Wonderful snow, Sarah! What magic...and I'm playing "Baby it's cold outside" and "Let it snow"! Tropical dreams? I think I will get a bit of snow this season even though it would melt here in Puerto Rico...I'm planning a couple of trips to the north. Thanks for the visit to Oasis...and I will keep my eyes open for the book. (I like Amy Tan.)

Sarah Laurence said...

Keri, thanks!

Cynthia, I love how I get my tropical fix on your blog and you get snow on mine. A bunch of other reviewers compared this novel to Amy Tan’s work, liking both. They both focus on the mother-daughter bond. I like both authors too. I didn’t read the other reviews until after I posted mine. It’s quite impressive to get a jacket quote from a bestseller author on a debut novel.

Delwyn said...

Hi Sarah

thanks for this review. I have just finished the Tale of Murasaki and am now moving into the Tale of Genshi so this novel will be a great accompaniment.

Happy days

walk2write said...

Your watercolor of the burning bush is spectacular, Sarah! Mockett is a name I will remember the next time I visit the bookstore or library. Thanks for the review. Stay warm and safe!

SG said...

Beautiful snow... in the first picture, the snow covering the branches (or is it bushes?) looks like cotton puff candy!

The review was fantastic.

TBM said...

Oh, I've been wondering when we'd see some snow photos from you. It was worth the wait!! Lovely, just beautiful.

I think that book sounds like a perfect winter read. Thanks for the book review.

troutbirder said...

What a great sounding read. I love learning, yes learning, about other times, places and cultures thru a good book. Now learning what a real Minnesota blizzard, (its been a while)is like, ... not so much.

Rose said...

Sounds like an intriguing book, Sarah, and your review was excellent, as always. But what really caught my eye this time were your photos. You always manage to find appropriate photos to illustrate your reviews, but the special effects you added here were beautiful and so fitting for the theme of the novel. The second berries photo looks like a Japanese painting!

Love the photos of Stella in the snow! I'm anxious to see what Sophie does with snow--whenever we get some.

☆sapphire said...


Beautiful snow photos and very intriguing review!! Your photo and drawing of burning bush berries are just like elegant suiboku-ga(a painting in sumi)!

The novel sounds very exotic even to me. Does the novel contain Magischer Realismus(magic realism)like Borges's or Garcia Marquez's? If so, I think the setting in the northern mountains of Japan would be very attractive!! Thank you for sharing! I'd like to read it!!

Kelly H-Y said...

Oh my goodness ... love the pic of the burning bush berries. And your dog!

Sarah Laurence said...

Delwyn, I read a chunk of The Tale of Genji for a college course on Japan. I found it fascinating that this most famous work of Japanese literature was written by a woman in the 11th century. I’ve always intended to go back and read more. I’m impressed you’re reading the whole novel, as it is very long. You’ll appreciate Mockett’s understanding of Japanese classic art and culture.

W2W, I love that you thought that photo was a watercolor. My husband made the same mistake. I was aiming for abstraction. If your library doesn’t have this new release yet, you can try requesting it. That way you’ll get it first. Good warning on staying safe – it was slippery today.

Phoenix, the dry puffy snow did look like cotton candy – perfect simile! That is a Rhododendron bush but large enough to appear to be a tree.

JAPRA, we had a dusting of snow in October in coastal Maine, but this is the first snow that really stuck. It is beautiful. We got maybe 6 inches in this last storm and 4 before that (the one I photographed). Now it has compacted with an icy crust after last night’s rain. Inland they got over a foot of snow. Picking Bones from Ash is definitely a winter read.

Troutbirder, this is the book for you if you want to learn about Japan. The way that culture deals with winter is very different.

Rose, my husband said the exact same thing and he has studied Japanese art a bit. I had the novel and Japanese woodblock prints in mind when I was taking the photos. I keep the burning bushes carefully pruned into tree shapes as if in a Japanese garden. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and his wife once visited our house. She asked if the two trees were planted to symbolize our love. We had to admit that they were already there when we bought the house. We do love them. I bet your Sophie will love snow too.

Sapphire, I google imaged suiboku-ga, but I’m not sure if I found the same painting you had in mind. I can see the connection in the hazy trees and wilderness. The novel does have magic realism like Garcia Marquez’s work. I’d be very interested in hearing your opinion of this novel from a Japanese perspective.

Kelly, thank you!

Barrie said...

I love the way you integrate photos in with your review.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, it’s fun when my photos match the book. Too bad I didn’t find any cacti growing in Maine for your book review.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

As a fairly novice writer, working towards being published, I appreciate your pointing out certain things in this review. I immensely enjoyed the review and especially the quote at the end; Mockett's voice is so clear, I can hear it.

The photos are intoxicating.

Sarah Laurence said...

MS, Mockett does indeed have a beautiful voice throughout the narrative. Her novice mistakes are few compared to her accomplishments. Good luck with your manuscript!

cynthia newberry martin said...

So jealous of all your snow--just in time for the holidays! I enjoyed your review as well. How did you find this novel? Great point that Mockett's novice mistakes are few in comparison to her accomplishments.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, the snow has mostly melted in the rain. It is nice to have a white Hanukkah, and I’m hoping for more snow by Christmas. I found Mockett’s book by coincidence. I was in NYC for Thanksgiving checking out the new releases at the new Barnes & Noble on 86th. I spotted Ellis Avery’s endorsement on Picking Bones from Ash’s book jacket. Ellis compared this novel to two of my favorite books, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I loved Ellis’s Teahouse Fire, another novel about Japan, the US and France. Ellis and I also share an agent. All the stars had lined up. I read the first page and was hooked.

Shaista said...

I agree with Cuban, I feel jealous of your snow :) I thought we had Snow, and now I realise you have the real thing!
Thankyou for this wonderful honest review - I can't decide whether or not I want to pursue this author, but I certainly want to pursue your blog - Happy New Year to you!

Sarah Laurence said...

Shiasta, now you have to be jealous of Cuban too: he just told me that London is blanketed in snow. I noticed in your profile that you are also based in England – it must be the same storm.

I try to give full descriptions in my reviews to match books with readers. I’m also more critical than many reviewers, but I only blog about books that I like. If you are on the fence, Mockett is definitely a new author well worth sampling. Her lyrical words have stayed with me.

Welcome to my blog! I shall come visit yours too.

Katherine Warlund said...

I don't mind the sections that might seem didactic. It's a cool blurri of the borders around fiction. Think of the awesome appendices that Ruth Ozeki has in A Tale for the Time Being. Bring it on, I say!