Thursday 29 November 2012

Updated Reading List

Here is the list of magic realism books I will read and review on this blog over the next year. The intention is to read one book a week, with  two weeks off for holidays. The sharp-eyed among you will realise that there are more than 50 books on the list, this is because I intend saving some of the longer books for after the challenge and giving them the time they are due.

You will note too that there is only one book per author listed, which means I am missing out some major works by leading writers of magic realism. This is because of the nature of the challenge and I intend, having completed it, to read works by writers I have been impressed by. It is also my intention to keep adding reviews to the blog after the challenge is completed.
  • The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser
  • The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
  • The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman
  • Winter’s Tale by Mark Halpern
  • The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
  • Just Relations by Rodney Hall
  • Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  • Love In The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda
  • Chocolat by Joanne Harris
  • Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill
  • Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
  • Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
  • Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Fludd - Hilary Mantel
  • Book Thief - Markus Zusak
  • Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
  • Nights At the Circus by Angela Carter
  • The Cure For Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
  • The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago
  • Ruby Holler by Sharron Creech
  • House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
  • Famished Road by Ben Okri
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
  • Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  • Metamorphasis by Franz Kafka
  • Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  • Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
  • Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
  • Garden Spells by Sarak Addison Allen
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Magician and Other Stories by Murilo Rubiao
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Grass Dancer by Susan Power
  • Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado
  • The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredi Vea
  • The Scholar of Moab by Steven L Peck
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
  • The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  • Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Holes by Louis Sacher
  • Cloud Street by Tim Winton
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
  • Skellig by David Almond
  • The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Grass Dancer by Susan Power
  • Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado
  • The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredi Vea
  • The Scholar of Moab by Steven L Peck
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
  • The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  • Holes by Louis Sacher
  • Cloud Street by Tim Winton
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
  • Skellig by David Almond
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 
  •  Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
  • Coyote Cowgirl by Kim Antieau
  • I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven
  • Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan
  • Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman
  • The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich
  • The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono
  • White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
  • The End of my Tether by Neil Astley
  • Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
  • Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
  • The History of Danish Dreams by Peter Hoeg
  • Mysteries by Knut Hamsun
  • Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfi Anayo
  • Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
  • Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • Jitterbug Perfume by Tim Robbins
  • Temple of my Familiar by Alice Walker
  • How to Travel Terra Incognita by Dean Francis Alfar
  • The Silence of Trees by Valya Dudycz Lupescu
  • The Story Trap by Masha du Toit

Wednesday 28 November 2012

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Five thousand years on - and the Minotaur, or M as he is known to his colleagues, is working as a line chef at Grub's Rib in Carolina, keeping to himself, keeping his horns down, trying in vain to put his past behind him. He leads an ordered lifestyle in a shabby trailer park where he tinkers with cars, writes and re-writes to-do lists and observes the haphazard goings on around him. Outwardly controlled, M tries to hide his emotional turmoil as he is transported deeper into the human world of deceit, confusion and need.
Amazon Description

This book is totally unlike any of the other magic realism books I have read on this challenge so far. It is incredibly realistic in its approach to the tale of a few weeks in the immortal life of the M. The book follows M's sad and mundane life. The point of view (POV) is entirely M's and as is appropriate to a creature that is half human and half bovine this tends to make the pace slow as M tries to understand the world of humans. Sherrill shows in great detail the practicalities of life for someone whose upper torso and head are human - the problems of speech when one has a bull's tongue and lips, the sore area where human skin meets hide, the grooming requirements when one has horns. 

I found this book hard to read at times, not only because of the pacing but also and more importantly because I cringed for M. He is almost paralysed with his incomprehension, embarassment and expectation of rejection, yet hoping for some sign of affection. 
The architecture of the Minotaur's heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps - the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his lif - is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster's veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love.
Gone are the days when he was feared, now he's trailer trash on the margins of the world. This is not one of Neil Gaiman's American gods, still playing with human lives, but a sad creature burdened with immortality and tormented by humans who once he would have torn limb from limb. He is not alone: we catch glimpses of other immortals trapped in modern America - a satyr in a scrapyard, a dryad in a gas station - all demoted to the edges of society. 

The book is extremely well-written with M's world expertly captured. But, and this is a big but, Sherrill has written himself into a corner by the limitations of his protagonist's POV. He sees people's reactions but doesn't understand and empathise with them, and so nor do we. In particular I wanted to know more about the girl M falls for and why she responds to him. Is it because her epilepsy makes her feel she is also an outsider?

For the same reason the book is very slow and reading a number of readers' reviews I see that some people did not finish the book for that reason. When the pace quickens it comes in a rush at the last tenth of the book, which felt unsatisfying. I wanted more. 

Nevertheless this book is worth reading.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

From the double Man Booker prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, this is a dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors.

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?
Amazon Description

Okay so this was a bit of a cheat. I read this book several years ago, but at that time I was unfamiliar with the concept of magic realism so I wanted to read it again.

This book was published in 1989 long before Mantel became a household name (in households that pay attention to the winners of the Booker Prize), indeed when I first read it she was relatively unknown. It was the second book of hers that I read, the first being Beyond Black another magic realism novel. And as a result of reading both I went on to buy every book of hers I could find.

There have been a flurry of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon recently by people who have read Wolf Hall and want to read more. Some were disappointed. This book is an altogether different beast to her prize-winning tomes - short (less than 200 pages), set in the 1950s and of course magic realism. I loved it the first time, but found so much more to enjoy on second reading. I was perhaps more attuned to the way the magic in the book builds, knowing more now about the lost art of alchemy that underpins this book.  As the opening note explains the real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar and alchemist. In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.  The book may appear lightweight (literally and in terms of content), but that is deceiving. Look closer and reflect (as you are reading and afterwards), there is more here than meets the eye. The book (like some other magic realism novels) has been compared to a fairytale, which can be considered both a criticism or praise depending on your point of view. For me fairytales are about eternal patterns and truths. The theme of transformation is central to them, as it is in this book. Fludd transforms and redeems the people he comes in contact with.

The 1950's village setting is bleak, but Mantel brings a humour to the book, which is both wicked and humane.  Open the book at nearly any page and you will find a gem of description:
The women liked to stand on their doorsteps. This standing was what they did. Recreational pursuits were for men : football, billiards, keeping hens. Treats were doled out to men, as a reward for good behaviour: cigarettes, beer at the Arundel Arms. Religion and the public library, were for children. Women only talked.
She is laughing, but she is not laughing at her characters. This is a book about happy endings.

As I have observed in reviews of magic realism books (and indeed of my own) some readers are frustrated by the lack of clear answers. Who or what is Fludd? Mantel plays with us - hinting that he might be the devil: He as a handy type with tongs, Father Angwin could tell or maybe the local tobacconist is as Father Angwin believes. What exactly did happen to Sister Perpetua as she pursued the fleeing nun? Maybe these readers should heed to the message of this book - there is more than one way of looking at the world.

Friday 16 November 2012

The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredo Vea

The Silver Cloud Cafe is a novel that goes beyond and beneath. Beyond and beneath the glossy surface of San Francisco. Beyond and beneath the clean-scrubbed image of American life. It goes to the Mission District, where two neon angels stand watch over the ramshackle cantina known as Raphael's Silver Cloud Cafe and where the lost and lonely, desperate and dispossessed, come for a meager portion of solace and salvation in the form of companionship, drink, and sex. It goes to the dark waters under the Fourth Street Bridge, where the corpse of a failed priest surfaces, and to the jailhouse, where a nattily dressed midget takes credit and demands punishment for the crime. This amazing novel is at once a gripping murder mystery that probes two macabre killings forty years apart and a panoramic meditation on the magical, mystical mix of race and culture in America. Its spellbinding story of intertwining guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, ranges over the century, from the bloody Christero Wars of the Mexican Revolution to the stifling rigidities of class and caste in the Philippines to the bitter harvests of migrants in the California farmlands to the feeding frenzy and human downsizing of the 1990s. Its characters include a Chicano lawyer and a Jewish investigator who have seen too much and believe too little; a Mexican priest torn by twin lusts for sex and vengeance; a black ex-boxer who is down but not out; a bar owner with a sense of divine mission; and a host of other unforgettable men and women who join in a superbly orchestrated symphony of voices and visions.
Goodreads Description

The Irish comedian Dave Alan told a joke about a priest telling a girl that in order to be married in white the bride needed to be a virgin. The girl replied that her wedding dress would be white, but with wee spots of blue.  I feel very much the same about this novel. Quite simply it is a masterpiece which will stay with me forever, but it is a flawed masterpiece, but not so much as to mar the book for me.  

It is perhaps easiest to start with the flaws, as, I'm afraid, does  the book. The opening chapter focuses on the detective inspecting the body of a murder victim and undertaking an unsatisfactory interrogation of a witness to the killing. I enjoy American crime fiction and like its sparseness and wit. But then I was then hit in the second chapter by a very different style. Vea seemed to be setting another scene - a picture of San Francisco taking from street level, reminding me at times of Helprin's Winter's Tale and as in that novel I found the style too rich for my liking - too many adjectives, too much political soapboxing,  the way some of the speech of the characters disappears into philosophical mumbo jumbo (personally I prefer my magic realism in actions rather than speech) and too many lists (you see what I did then, clever eh!) .  

But then the real story kicks in - that of the young boy who would grow up to become the lawyer and the itinerant Mexican and Filipino farm workers who were his stand-in family. As the Goodreads description makes clear the cast is a wonderful one, very believable and at the same time somehow magical. At times with these larger-than-life characters I found myself thinking of Carter's Nights at the Circus. The story is a dark one in some ways, these are men overworked, despised, victims of violence without a chance of justice, with no future and yet there is a camaraderie and gentle love between them that is quite wonderful - such as the scene where all the men take a day off to go to the boy's school to be fathers to him. 

The magic realism flows naturally in this tale. These people live in an alien world to ours and in which magic is real. It is a world that the lawyer has forgotten, and with it the terrible event of 1959 which sets his friends fleeing across America. But that terrible deed is the reason behind the strange murder of the priest and the lawyer must remember his past and in so doing remember too why he became a defence lawyer in the first place. The magic and the diverse crowd of dispossessed come together in the Silver Cloud Cafe in 1993,  a place guarded by two neon angels. The scene is set for a marriage and two deaths.

I loved this book, despite its faults. I loved its characters, the way the narrative (once it got going) built across time, the poetry, and its humanity. And I loved the way the way the author wasn't afraid of dealing with love and faith.  Maybe a book can't be this wonderful without flaws.

Friday 9 November 2012

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.

A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.
Goodreads  Description

This is full blown Latin American magic realism. A world in which the tears of the cook send the wedding guests eating her food in to grief and a woman so aflame with passion she sets fire to the shower. Food is at the heart of the book, not only does each chapter includes a recipe, but the preparation of food and its consumption is magically linked to the heroine's sensuality. Even the imagery is food-based: Tita was literally 'like water for chocolate' she was on the verge of boiling over.  I found the structural use of food and recipes in this way innovative and effective.

The story of suppressed love in a household ruled by an oppressive mother is highly suited to the genre. It is some ways a classic fairytale - Cinderella in fact. The magic allows for the expression of what is suppressed and yet the recipes also give a realistic grounding. In addition the book shows different cultures abutting each other - the earth-based magic of women like Tita in a more realistic world. Not only is Tita an inheritor of culinary magic and at the end a transmitter of it to future generations, but also provides traditional healing.  

Okay so far, so good. Now for my misgivings: I had a problem with the love story. Tita falls for Pedro at first sight and that passion lasts through the book. But Pedro is a selfish ass much of the time, who doesn't seem to care how much he is hurting Tita or indeed the sister he marries in order to be near Tita. The argument seems to be that the physical attraction between  Pedro and Tita is enough to sustain their love over the years. There is an alternative for Tita's affections - a gringo doctor - who is a lovely considerate man. Maybe this is just too much of fairytale for me: much as I love fairytales they aren't known for their emotional complexities and I do like emotional depth in a book.

I'm sure that this book will appeal more to women than men and to cooks and foodies in particular. The book is relatively short, only 222 pages in my edition, and so is a good introduction for someone who wishes to dip their toes into magic realism. 

Sunday 4 November 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

'Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs...' A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic - Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather's death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for 'the deathless man', a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger's wife.
Amazon Description

This book comes with lots of plaudits from the critics and the Orange prize no less.  But it seems to divide the readers' reviews on Amazon, some loved it, some hated it and some who hated it blamed this on it being magic realism. Where do I sit? Somewhere in the middle. I was frustrated by the book, which could have been great but somehow left me wanting.

The book explores big themes through the personal. Set in the Balkan wars it is a study of how people deal with death - Natalia's response to her grandfather's death, the family searching for a body in the vineyard and her grandfather's attitude to the death as expressed through his tales of the deathless man, the tiger's wife and the striking account of the hotel meal in a town about to overrun by the Serbian militia. I am sure there were all sorts of references and symbolism that someone from the Balkans would have recognized and which alas passed me by, which was frustrating, if inevitable. 

It is also a tale about the meeting of superstitions and science and perhaps the death of the former. This is embodied in Natalia's grandfather, a man of science and yet a teller of tales. So this was a perfect book for the magic realism treatment.  So why did I not love it?

The answer is that somehow I did not engage in the book. Despite the fact that nearly every character seemed to have several paragraphs of backstory I remained detached. I know there is a school of thought that writers should draw even minor characters fully, but it is not one I subscribe to, especially if excess of backstory has the effect of breaking up the flow of the story. Ironically I did want more about the character of Natalia. She has just lost her grandfather, but we don't feel her grief nor her fears about lying to her grandmother about it. We didn't really get a feel for her relationship with her friend.  But I did understand the relationship between the tiger and his wife, which perhaps says something about the author's interests.