Wednesday 25 December 2013

The Lieutenant of San Porfirio by Joel D Hirst

Something is afoul in the Revolutionary Socialist Republic of Venezuela. Despite food shortages, blackouts and the terrible violence, El Comandante's iron grip is stronger than ever. Newly decorated Lieutenant Juan Marco Machado lovingly caresses his shiny AK-103 as he thinks about his promotion and what he would be willing to do to defend his revolution, and his position. He is about to find out it's more than he ever would have believed. Doña Esmeralda is in trouble. Ordered to demonstrate her solidarity for the revolution and open her colonial mansion (in which she carefully protects her dead husband's ghost) to the barrio dwellers, she decides she is left with no choice but to plot a counterrevolution. Meanwhile, Freddy, an American high school student is propelled by his parents to attend a socialist youth summit in Venezuela, pitting him against Pancho Randelli, a freedom activist and leader of the struggling student movement. And so the fates of four people are about to be intertwined within a country plunged into revolution. The Lieutenant of San Porfirio is the compelling story about four people seeking to find themselves under the chilling pall of socialism. People from different backgrounds and across the hemisphere will find something to love, as well as something deeply disturbing, in this new magical realism twist on a South American classic genre, the dictator novel.
 Amazon Description

This book combines comedy with serious political commentary. In Latin America, which Joel Hirst is familiar with and which he clearly loves and cares passionately about, that is the reality, a reality which is mixes with magic in this excellent novel. 

The comedic is always close to a serious, even tragic, consequence, as exemplified in the character of Lieutenant Machado, who at first appears to be a bumbling drunken fool, but morphs into Porfirio's Head of Security, recruiting a sadistic interrogator. That that interrogator is said to have been the child of a magical being shows how the magic works in this novel. Further examples are Machado's spies - a man who seems able to turn himself into an owl, or the servants at Dona Esmerelda's country club who were specially bred to be invisible. The magic in this book is not on the side of the freedom activists. 

Reading the book blurb I was not sure whether I would enjoy the book, fearing that it would be too politically right-wing for me. This is a shame as I was pleased to see that the book shows an understanding of the motivation of all the main characters, nor does it portray the opponents of the revolution in a universally good light - Dona Esmerelda, the old oligarch, is a selfish elitist, but: each had been searching in their own way for freedom and for meaning. All in different places and by different means.  The book is very good at showing how the most laudable of aspirations can be perverted.  On a minor point Mr Hirst and his publisher should note that democratic socialism has many supporters in the UK and other European countries, where it does not mean the same as it does in the Americas, so references in the description to the chilling pall of socialism will put off potential buyers.

The book weaves together the story of the four characters - the naive American youth Freddy, Lieutenant Machado, the activist student leader Pancho and Dona Esmerelda - as they move to the inevitable violent showdown. If I were to make a criticism of this book it is of how this happens. The story is told by an omniscient narrator, who allows us to see that the Lieutenant knows about the others' plans. This reduces the dramatic suspense to that of watching a slow-motion car crash. At the end it seems that the book is the first in a series and that more will be revealed in future books. I look forward to reading them. 

I recommend this book to you. 

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier

A few years after its liberation from French colonialist rule, Haiti experienced a period of unsurpassed brutality, horror, and superstition under the reign of the black King Henri-Christophe. Through the eyes of the ancient slave Ti-Noel, The Kingdom of This World records the destruction of the black regime--built on the same corruption and contempt for human life that brought down the French--in an orgy of voodoo, race hatred, erotomania, and fantastic grandeurs of false elegance.
Goodreads description

This is arguably the book that launched Latin American magic realism. First published in 1949, the book opens with a prologue which sets out to distinguish what the Cuban author calls the "marvellous reality" of Latin America from the surrealist marvellous of Europe:  But what many forget, in disguising themselves as cheap magicians, is that the marvellous becomes unequivocally marvellous when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality ( a miracle), a privileged revelation of reality, an unaccustomed or singularly favourable illumination of the previously unremarked riches of reality, an amplification of the measures and categories of reality, perceived with peculiar intensity due to the exaltation of the spirit which elevates it to a kind of "limit state".

You can read the full Prologue here

Carpentier succeeds in this book in delivering beautiful and powerful magic realism. One of the key points made in the Prologue is that the magical depends on who believes it. Ti-Noel, who stands at the book's centre, is a black slave who believes in voodoo and its powerful magic. It is suggested that when Henri-Christophe stops believing in voodoo and adopts Christianity he starts to lose his power. It is not an accident that his personal crisis takes place in a church. Voodoo drum beats herald revolutions and echo through the book. Macandal, the first revolutionary leader, is said to be able to turn into animals, as at the end in a turning of the circle does Ti-Noel. But neither are successful in their bids for freedom.

The story is ultimately a sad one. Ti-Noel and the black slaves throw off the brutal chains of  one master only to lose their freedom to another - first their French slave owners, then black King Henri-Christophe who has them building a fantastic fortress palace in the jungle and neglecting their crops and finally the mulattoes with their measuring poles seizing the land.  It is not a surprise that many have compared it to Animal Farm. As we know, the bloody history of Haiti has continued ever since. And yet there is something affirming about the book's ending: at the end Ti-Noel understands that a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either,  for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man's greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is.
 Carpentier uses nature symbolically throughout the book. There is Macandal and Ti-Noel's shape-changing. Henri-Christophe's fortress is being covered by lush red fungi even as it is built. When Ti-Noel returns to the plantation where he had been a slave, he finds it destroyed and overgrown. Nature is at once on the side of the slaves (they are aided by the weather and poisonous plants) and yet at the same time it is beyond them. 

Regular readers of this blog will know how I believe in the value of magic realism in accurately portraying history, for the very reason Carpentier sets out in the prologue - what is magic depends what people believe. Anyone wishing to get a feel for the history of Haiti would do well to read this book, which reveals as much about the island and its past as any non-fiction account.

This short book (150 pages) is unquestionably one of the masterworks of magic realism. Read it.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

The first short story collection by award-winning author Ekaterina Sedia! One of the more resonant voices to emerge in recent years, this Russian-born author explores the edge between the mundane and fantastical in tales inspired by her homeland as well as worldwide folkloric traditions. With foreword by World Fantasy Award-winner Jeffrey Ford, Moscow But Dreaming showcases singular and lyrical writing that will appeal to fans of slipstream and magical realism, as well as those interested in the uncanny and Russian history.
Goodreads Description 

The twenty-one short stories in this stunning collection o=often focus on the outsider or displaced, whether it be the adopted Russian child, the ex-countess in Soviet Russia, the impoverished Prince of Burundi in exile in Moscow, or Hector of Greek myth with a mundane job yearning for a heroic death.  Magic realism works when there is this sort of dichotomy and in these stories it works really well. 

The stories are often infused with Russian myth and history.  In Kikimora a lesbian couple discover their true magical natures. In Tin Cans an old man working as a security guard at the Tunisian Embassy faces the ghosts of girls, sadistically raped and murdered by Stalin's henchman and KGB chief Beria. Other stories are set at the end of the October Revolution or at the Stalingrad Seige. All combine historical realism with fantasy and often violence.

Another element of alienation that we find in many of the stories is an alienation with  post-communist Russia, in which many people have seen their livelihoods and neighbourhoods decline in the face of materialism and gangsterism. In By the Liter two men absorb vodka and the memories of murdered mafia victims. 

Sedia is brilliant at taking a story in a way you don't expect it. It is virtually impossible to predict the ending even though the stories are short (about 15 pages). In addition she will often take a fictional genre and twist it: as in Zombie Lenin, in which a girl is pursued by the mummified Bolshevik leader, or in A Handsome Fellow - a take on the vampire myth (Upyr in Russian) set during the Stalingrad Seige. One of my favourite stories is The Bank of Burkina Faso which is based on this premise: what if those email scams about money frozen in overseas banks were actually true - and what if the banks only exist in dreams.

All the stories in this collection were excellent. The two that didn't work quite as well for me weren't set in either America or Russia (Ebb and Flow and Munashe and the Spirits), but that is quibbling. The author's writing is beautiful, her imagery unusual and the psychology of her characters is complex, even if she only has a few pages to draw it. 

Quite simply this is one of the best books I have read as part of my magic realism challenge.

Monday 9 December 2013

Solstice Magic by Jean Stringam

Read about the magical world of cowboys, rabbits, and Ukrainian goddesses that unfolds when Zo’s gruff baba from Ukraine arrives with her savage Caucasian Ovchorka dog. The ensuing chaos of clashing cultures catapults the characters into the extreme sport of rodeo at the Calgary Stampede. There, Vince Lapin, bull-rider extraordinaire, meets up with Susie Lago, protégé of Zo, and the outcome for the other rodeo contestants as well as the animal athletes changes stampede history. Good thing Zo has a best friend with an attractive older brother to soften the trauma. Solstice Magic is magical realism for everybody who ever wished to be more than they are. You'll love this first-in-a-series tale of the Calgary Stampede.
Goodreads description

This is a book for young adults, and I would probably put it at the lower end of that age range. Zo is at senior school but, despite a bit of a crush on her friend's brother, is mostly interested in training her rabbit to compete in hopping courses. I also think  therefore that it is unlikely to appeal to boys. 

I suppose it should be said here that I am not a young adult and haven't been one for a very long time, so long in fact that my son isn't one either. But I do get the impression that this a book which isn't being properly targeted at its core readership. The cover (above) speaks of cowboy adventure to me, not of a tale predominantly about a girl, her magical rabbit, and a fierce Ukrainian grandmother. 

So laying aside these quibbles let me say this is an enjoyable read suited to the market I outline above. It opens with the arrival of a rodeo "clown" at the Calgary rodeo and then shifts back several months to give the build-up to that arrival. Most of the story concerns Zo's family and the arrival of a grandmother from the Ukraine who doesn't want to be there and who refuses to fit in. Grandmother Dolia arrives complete with enormous fierce dog and a hatred of rabbits, which she refers to as vermin. The point of view in the story is mostly that of Zo or of her rabbit. I would have liked more about why Dolia is the way she is. She does come over as rather two-dimensional, although that might be because she is seen through Zo's eyes. 

I am sure many of the book's young readers will enjoy the portrayal of animals in the book. There is rabbit training, sheepdog trials and of course the rodeo. As a Brit I am unfamiliar with the latter and found the descriptions fascinating. All the animals are presented as conversing with each other. 

But is the book magic realism? Well almost. The book is based around Ukrainian beliefs and mysticism. Zo's grandmother brings with her from the Ukraine fierce fundamentalist views on these and she clashes with the family over their more "modern" take on them. Personally I would have liked more about what the book is based on in some sort of postscript - after all the book comes with a glossary of Ukrainian terms. In some magic realist books it doesn't matter that you do not know, maybe because they are written from the point of view of someone who believes in the magic. But Zo is as at sea about what her grandmother believes as we are. Perhaps if Zo had learned more during the story, we could too. As this book is the first in a series, perhaps this will happen in the subsequent volumes.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for a fair review

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The Dedalus Meyrink Reader

Gustav Meyrink is one of the most important and interesting authors of early 20th-century German Literature. To establish his reputation in the English-speaking world Dedalus has translated his five novels plus a collection of his short stories and published the first ever English-language biography of Meyrink. Now is the time to produce an overview of Meyrink in a single volume. The Dedalus Meyrink Reader has excerpts from all the translated books and a whole section of hitherto untranslated material, including the stories from the collection Flederm use and autobiographical articles. This volume is perfect companion for both the Meyrink scholar and the first-time Meyrink reader, containing as it does the whole gamut of Meyrink's writing from his love of the bizarre, the grotesque and the macabre to the spine-chilling occult tales and his quest to know what is on the Other Side of the Mirror. Novelist, satirist, translator of Charles Dickens, dandy, man-about-time, fencer, rower, banker and mystic seer, there are many, sometimes contradictory aspects to Gustav Meyrink, who must also be the only novelist to have challenged a whole army regiment to a duel. He has left behind a unique body of work, which can be sampled and enjoyed in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader.
Goodreads description

Gustav Meyrink has suffered from being overshadowed by his fellow Prague resident Kafka. The publisher Dedalus have set out to reinstate Meyrink and his reputation. This collection includes samples of his novels, including the best known The Golem, and as tasters some work better than others. Also included are some fascinating short stories and articles, which shed a different light on Meyrink's writing.

The first question is how does Meyrink's writings relate to magic realism. This is a man who had an extraordinary life, where the real bordered on the magical - when he was accused of fraud in the running of his bank it was said he used spiritualism in the fraud. He was a man fascinated by the occult and esoteric and so the content of his writings are very much based on his beliefs. This means that "magic" is a part of the world he portrays.  In the Cardinal Napellus short story he gives the main character the following words: Some subtle spiritual instinct tells me that every act we perform has a double, magic meaning. We cannot do anything which is not magic. 

He produced a wide range of fiction. This includes psychological suspense, as in The Golem, where the Golem appears almost as a projection of the fears of Prague's Jewish population. It is never clear in the book what is real, especially as the leading character is said to have been mentally ill prior to the events portrayed. Meyrink also tried his hand at historical fiction, as in the Angel at the West Window, an account of the lives of English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, magic realism has a role to play in portraying lives of people in the past where magic was seen as reality. 

Meyrink's short stories reveal an unexpected lighter side to his character. I particularly enjoyed The Ring of Saturn, which starts darkly and you expect it to be one of his horror stories but it twists unexpectedly. In this story a soul which has been captured escapes into the firmament and the magician, from whom it has escaped, has to recapture it and in so doing must sacrifice himself. However as he dies he tells his followers what horror the soul had been in the process of committing and why. The why is because the soul is that of a vicar's wife, being the only type of human that is truly useless and the horror was she was crocheting a ring for Saturn.

Written in 1903 the story Petroleum, Petroleum is horribly prescient. It tells of an oil magnate who deliberately releases oil into the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil flowing from huge reserves soon covers the whole of the ocean, but humanity is unable to react in a concerted way to counter the problem. 

There are also some fascinating non-fiction pieces in the book. One deals with a point in Meyrink's life where in despair he was about to shoot himself, but is stopped by a leaflet being pushed under the door. The leaflet's title was "On Life After Death." Since then I have never believed in coincidence, I believe in the Pilot.  Another is an essay on Prague, The City with the Secret Heartbeat. Prague appears almost like a leading character in much of Meyrink's writings. In this essay Meyrink says that it is indeed a character, a city that lives, but in a ghostly form: If however, I summon up Prague, it appears more clearly than anything else, so clearly, in fact, that it no longer seems real, but ghostly. Every person I knew there turns into a ghost, an inhabitant of a realm that does not know death.  As someone who spends time in the Czech Republic and knows Prague well, I have to say I know exactly what he is talking about.  As a writer myself, I cannot help but feel the magical other realism that is that great city.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven

In a world that knows too well the anguish inherent in the clash of old ways and new lifestyles, Margaret Cravenas classic and timeless story of a young man's journey into the Pacific Northwest is as relevant today as ever. Here amid the grandeur of British Columbia stands the village of Kingcome, a place of salmon runs and ancient totems - a village so steeped in time that, according to Kwakiutl legend, it was founded by two brothers left on earth after the great flood. Yet in this Eden of such natural beauty and richness, the old culture of totems and potlaches is under attack - slowly being replaced by a new culture of prefab houses and alcoholism. Into this world, where an entire generation of young people has become disenchanted and alienated from their heritage, Craven introduces Mark Brian, a young vicar sent to the small isolated parish by his church. This is Mark's journey of discovery - a journey that will teach him about life, death, and the transforming power of love. 
Goodreads Description

I loved this book. It is short (only 146 pages) and in many ways quite simple tale, but it moved me profoundly. At its heart is a man (the young vicar Mark) finding himself and his place in the context of nature. He does so as he comes to understand  Here every bird and fish knew its course. Every tree had its own place upon this earth. Only man had lost his way.

But it is just Mark who has lost his way, but also the younger members of the Kwakiutl tribe. This is personified in the clash of two young men: Jim, the young man who helps Mark, and Gordon who leaves the tribal lands for the city. Both men love Keetah, who must choose between the old tribal life and the white man's city. As the bishop tells Mark: The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town or even his own bit of land... The myths are the village and the winds and the rains. The river is the village and the black and white killer whales... The village is the salmon... the seal... the bluejay... Throughout the book we, like Mark, learn to regret the loss of the tribe's old ways and affinity with the natural world of their land. The clash of cultures may be unavoidable but the reader shares Mark's sadness at what is lost. 

Mark's approach to the tribe and its beliefs is contrasted with two other sets of visitors. He refuses to help some Californian tourists gawp at the villagers. Then an English woman anthropologist arrives, who criticizes Mark's calling: What a shame that Christianity had come her! If the white man had not intruded.... the village would have remained a last stronghold of a culture which was almost gone. But she leaves after ten days having finished her studies. Mark's sympathetic commitment to the tribe's customs is demonstrated when he helps preserve the old tribal burial ground.

On the first page of the novel we discover that Mark is dying, but he doesn't know until quite late in the novel. This creates a tension within the story. According the tribal belief a dying man hears the owl call his name, and this happens to Mark. But this is more than just a bit of magic. The bishop has previously said, when talking about the Indian view of the village, that the village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the man who is going to die. Throughout the book the village has called to the dying man.

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Saturday 23 November 2013

Netsuke Nation by Jonathan Maganot

Before Manga captured the imagination of the world, Japanese artists sculpted a miniature society of human and not-quite human characters. These are ‘netsuke’: tiny figures, threaded by cords, which were used to hold in place the ‘purse’ that hung from a kimono. Carved from wood, ivory or bone, they formed an exotic society, reflecting the history, culture and fantasy life of Japan.

Now, for the first time, their individual stories come to life, and the unfamiliar and often startling nature of their society. Meet Momo, the beautiful but conflicted geisha cat; discover the dreams of the mermaids who worship Esther Williams; witness the rise and fall of a ruthless politician who plays the ‘alien’ card; encounter the creatures of legend and the demons who star in horror movies; learn the peculiar practices and customs of netsuke sexuality; try to solve the mystery of why netsuke suddenly disappear; admire the heroic quest to create a national orchestra; enjoy the embarrassment of a martial arts struggle gone peculiarly awry; share the hopes of an autumn and spring love story; face the threat to netsuke society of the plastic invasion. 

Goodreads description 

This book of unusual short stories was inspired by the author's collection of netsuke. Each story is inspired by a different netsuke. The stories are whimsical and often funny - for example in the discussion of what is the best partner for a mermaid - man, cod or octopus. 

The author has said: I found they [netsuke] offered a fascinating introduction to Japanese culture. On my daily walk to the university in Fukuoka where I was teaching, some character in my small netsuke collection, would suggest a story that fed into an emerging idea of Netsuke Nation, a mixture of imagination and the experience of Japanese life.

The stories are therefore more than just tales about the individual figurines, they are tales of "Another Japan" and as such some are musings on the Netsuke nation's politics, social class (the old ivory netsuke are superior to the cheap plastic and resin ones) and even hilariously on sexuality. 

The author's style is I think influenced by the Jewish rabbinical tradition. He is the author of a number of theological books, the latest being A Rabi Reads The Torah and I think that shows as he muses on these small figures and extrapolates meaning and indeed a world from them. 

Not all the stories worked for me. I was less taken with the politics of the Netsuke nation, as with those stories which focused on the individual netsuke characters - such as the geisha cat and the wrestlers of the opening story. 

The book was produced by Matador, which is I think a self-publishing company.  If this is the case I feel that the price of £5.14 for a self-published volume of short stories is too high in the current market. 

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review

Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes, by celebrated writer and thinker Kobo Abe, combines the essence of myth, suspense and the existential novel.

After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an amateur entomologist is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a vast sand pit. But when he attempts to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans. Held captive with seemingly no chance of escape, he is tasked with shoveling back the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten to destroy the village. His only companion is an odd young woman. Together their fates become intertwined as they work side by side at this Sisyphean task.

Before reading this review, please be aware that it is not possible to talk about it in any depth about The Woman in the Dunes without giving away some key plot elements. But then in a way the plot isn't the most important thing about this book. I suppose there is the question of will he, won't he escape from the hole, but as the blurb says this is an existential novel, so you can probably work out the answer to that question. No, this is one of those books you carry on thinking about for days after you finished reading and not just because you are writing a review for your blog. It makes you ask some serious and fundamental questions about not only the book but also your life. 

So what are you doing with your life? Is it anything more than endlessly shoveling sand in return for food and a place to lay your head? Are you trapped in a hole looking up occasionally at the sky, but never seeing the horizon? If your life is more than this, why is that? What gives your life an added meaning? Is it love? Is it creating something?

This is in many ways a bleak book. It is regularly described as Kafkaesque, which I think is a fair description. There is a hopelessness about the central characters's position, but in this case the man is an innocent prisoner of people who are themselves outcasts. The writer has made his "hero" not particularly likeable: he is not brave, he is not pleasant, he is often indecisive, he is not particularly intelligent, his relationship with the woman (she doesn't get a name) and with his former lover (known simply as the other woman) is totally self-centred and mechanical. He is not the sort of person you would want to make friends with, he is the geek in the corner of the staffroom. He's a man who likes sticking pins in insects for goodness sake! He in turn becomes the insect we are studying.

But is the book totally bleak? That turns on how you interpret the ending. There is no right or wrong answer here. It could be bleak - the man has lost the will to escape and is thus trapped. Or there could be some sort of redemption - he has found some meaning in life in the hole. The choice is yours and that depends on your view of life.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Track to Bralgu by B. Wongar

In these powerful stories B. Wongar deals with the clash of cultures, with what it means to be a  black man in a white man's continent: Australia.

This short collection of stories packs one hell of a punch. Beautiful, angry, haunting, bitter,  they show the world through the eyes of Aboriginal Australians of the Northern Territory. Wongar's characters call on the spirits of the wind and the rain, but even Jambawal, the Thunder Man, cannot drive away the white man who is destroying the Australian landscape: The settlers cleared the bush long ago and the country hereabouts looks like a skinned beast.

It came as a shock therefore to discover that the author is a white man, a Serbian. However he lived with the Aboriginal Australians of Northern Territory and married a local woman. According to his autobiography, Wongar's wife and children died of radiation poisoning arising from the uranium mining. Wongar's legitimacy as a writer about the experience of Aboriginal Australians has been called into question. Maybe that is a way of deflecting the serious issues he wrote about. It should also be said that Australia is an enormous country and so the culture, legends and experience shown here are of a specific tribe and area. 

It is a shame that it is necessary to refer to Wongar's biography, because as I say above this is a powerful collection. To this British reader the stories ring true, but who am I to know? It strikes me that Wongar is neither an Aboriginal Australian nor a white Australian. He is an outsider to both cultures and maybe this gives him an insight. 

So let us look at this book at face value: These stories are written with a stark beauty, like the landscape in which they are set. Wongar's writing style is poetic, full of powerful imagery. The stories are written in the first person (spoken by Aboriginal Australians) and are in the present tense, which gives them immediacy. 

Bralgu of the title is the land of the dead: The Rijatjigu elders say often when a man dies his spirit splits in three parts: one goes to Bralgu to join the ancestors; another sits on the bottom of the totemic waterhole and waits to be reborn; while the third, the Mogwoi, they call it, wanders around tribal country. In the stories these three parts appear. Many of Wongar's characters are on the track to Bralgu. They see the Mogwoi around them, the most startling example being the narrator of one of my favourite stories, Maramara. And they are shocked by the destruction of the sacred waterholes or are separated from them by the seizure of their lands and the brutal enforcement of anti-trespass laws. 

The ironic portrayal of the white man is as someone who values the uranium and ore-rich rocks and yet tears them from the soil, so destroying the land. Even people who should be caring, such as the priests, come with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. The nurse Helen in Maramara carries a bag for rocks and it is she that finds the uranium-bearing rocks in the tribe's sacred cave. There is the suggestion that she poisoned the children: your friend the nurse gave him a biscuit and he died soon after. 

This is a bleak and powerful book and a good example of how magic realism can tackle serious subjects.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Growing Up Golem by Donna Minkowitz

In the tradition of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Donna Minkowitz’s Growing Up Golem is a sharply funny memoir about growing up inspired by the Jewish legend of the golem. The author's mother told Minkowitz that she could do Jewish magic and, growing up, Minkowitz completely believed her. Her mother, an unusually domineering figure, exerted even more sway over Minkowitz than mothers typically do over their children, so it is the "magical realist" premise of the book that instead of giving birth to her, her mother actually created Minkowitz as her own personal golem, a little automaton made of clay.

In the book, Minkowitz struggles to control her own life as an adult, even as she publicly appears to be a radical, take-no-prisoners lesbian journalist. In her career, dating, and especially with her own eccentric family, Minkowitz finds herself compelled to do what other people want, to horrible and hilarious effect. In sex, for example, she often feels like "a giant robot dildo."

Matters come to a head when a disabling arm injury renders her almost helpless (and permanently unable to use a computer). She must find a way to work, find people who love her, and stand up for her own desires—against the bossing she's always tolerated from girlfriends, mother, and every other single person—before her injury gets even worse.

When I saw this book I was fascinated by the idea of the magic realist memoir - the idea of combining magic realism and non-fiction. I was interested to see how the author managed it and whether it did seem arch. The answer, dear reader, is that it works brilliantly.

The author's mother appears to have been the Jewish mother from hell, manipulative, demanding, and egotistical. Add to that an abusive father, whose response to the taunting of his wife was to beat the daughter, and it is no surprise that psychological damage was done to their daughters and to Donna specifically.  This damage is portrayed through the image of the Golem.

The Golem of Jewish tradition are artificial persons that learned sixteenth century rabbis made out of wet clay to do everything their makers told them to. Their masters could destroy them by the erasing of just one letter in a word.

Throughout the book the author portrays herself ( and her sisters) as golems: I have known I was a magical being, handcrafted rather than born, from my earliest days. I'm not sure when I first found out, but it goes back at least to the time my mother , when I was four, began telling me and my sisters that she herself could perform at magic, could make us do anything she wanted, like puppets. 

Like the golem of old she feels bound to obey her mother and the other women (and occasional men) who enter her life.  She is unable to say no.  In addition golems are bred for self-disgust and a permanent discipline and this leads her into other abusive relationships. Some of these relationships are sexual (a number of lesbian affairs are described in some detail), but other non-sexual relationships are also abusive, including sadly with therapists who are supposed to be helping Donna.

This could be heavy stuff but for the way the author delivers her story, using magic realism and wry humour, indeed this book it is at times laugh-out-loud funny. The magic realism both explains and puts an emotional distance between the reader and the subject matter.  Ironically that detachment reflects the author's own psychology: a golem cannot feel.

How do you break a golem spell?
It is not easy, my dear puppet and acolyte.
The only way there is, is feeling pain.

The pain that breaks the spell for Donna Minkowitz is that of RSI, a particularly debilitating illness if you are a writer. The pain forces her to look after herself, to protect her arms, and in so doing refuse her mother and others.  The story is therefore one of healing, for just as her arms slowly heal so the author heals her psyche and sheds her golem identity.  As it happens I am writing this blog and my current book using voice recognition software because I too have developed RSI.  I cannot imagine what it must have been like for her coping with severe RSI over several years.  It seems an awful lot of pain to go through to break an evil spell. But to Minkowitz it all seems to have been worthwhile: I felt feelings from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. My head felt effervescent, as though a flowery beer had been poured into it and my hair was curling up from the blood vessels in my scalp to the tips of my curls. 

 I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review .

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Nutmeg by Maria Goodwin

Meg is growing up in a world of food filled fantasy; where her first tooth was so sharp her mother used her as a can opener, and eating too many apples once left her spitting pips. Then, age five, she is humiliated in front of the other children at school and turns her back on the world of fiction, deciding to let logic rule her everyday thoughts and deeds.

Years later, Meg's mother falls ill, and as she struggles to deal with the situation in an orderly fashion, her mother remains cocooned in her obsession with cookery, refusing to face up to her illness.

Slowly, Meg uncovers the truth about her childhood and is now faced with a humbling decision: to live in a cold harsh reality, or envelop herself in a wonderful world of make-believe.

Maybe life isn't defined as fact or fiction perhaps it can include truth, lies, and everything in between.

Amazon description

I want you to understand that these are all my mother's words, not mine. I myself am mentally stable and under no illusion that any of this ever happened.

Meg's mother's fantasies may be dismissed by her no-nonsense daughter, but is Meg right to do so? Meg's scientist boyfriend, Mark, regards her mother's fantasies as deliberate lies and urges Meg to confront her. It becomes clear that the mother's fantasies are a way of dealing with trauma in her past, perhaps also a way of protecting her daughter, but that now she believes in them. We have seen fantasy used to portray psychology in other books, e.g. The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce. So it is not a surprise to read that Maria Goodwin wrote the book during her final year as a counselor and was influenced by the study of psychological defenses. It is probably not an accident that magic realism emerged at the same time as psychoanalysis. 

Meg's mother isn't the only character to have an fantasy take on the world. There is also Ewan, the young gardener. What do we make of him and his talk of slugs responding well to honest explanations? But he is shown to be more self aware: I might sometimes have my head in the clouds... but that doesn't mean I don't have my feet on the ground.  And Meg observes how the frog he speaks to obeys him and leaves the garden. 

This book poses a key question that is at the heart of magic realism: Is fantasy a better way of describing/understanding/dealing with the world than realism?
Ewan certainly understands the value of myth and fairytale in answering the big questions in life. He tells Meg the tale of Pandora's box at a key point in the story. The contrast with scientist Mark is obvious. Mark may know how the world is put together, but he doesn't understand the why. He certainly has no empathy with Meg or other people. I could criticize the rather two-dimensional portrayal of Mark and the obvious set-up of Meg's relationship with Ewan. But then this story is a fable, and fables work to predestined patterns. The ending therefore seemed predictable, even inevitable, but then there was a doubt in my mind about the neighbours' response to the death of Meg's mother, was it another example of fantasy?

This is a fun, feelgood book. The mother's tales are wonderfully inventive, but the author knows when to bring us down to earth just when the fantasy is about to become tedious. The book has been compared to Chocolat. I can see why - there is of course the magic of food, but more importantly at the heart of the book is the mother/daughter relationship, which is beautifully portrayed. And yes I had tears in my eyes at the end. 

Nutmeg is being released as The Storyteller's Daughter in Australia and New Zealand and was released in the US as From the Kitchen of Half Truth.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Sinistra Zone by Adam Bodor

Lyrical, surreal, and yet unsettlingly realistic, The Sinistra Zone swims in the totalitarian backwaters of Eastern Europe

Entering a weird, remote hamlet, Andrei calls himself "a simple wayfarer," but he is in fact highly compromised: he has no identity papers. Taken under the wing of the military zone's commander, Andrei is first assigned to guard the blueberries that supply a nearby bear reserve. He is surrounded by human wrecks, supernatural umbrellas, birds carrying plagues, albino twins.

The bears - and an affair with a married woman - occupy Andrei until his protector is replaced by a new female commander, "a slender creature, quiet, diaphanous, like a dragonfly," and yet an iron-fisted harridan. As things grow ever more alarming, Andrei becomes a "corpse watchman," standing guard over the dead to check for any signs of life, and then ...

Goodreads description

This is a strange book, combining poetic descriptions, earthy humour and satire, sometimes in the same sentence: Hamza Petrika took his brother’s rubber boots under his arm and started back toward the bear reserve without a word, letting out colossal farts on the way, as if his soul was fast departing his body. 

Some readers will be shocked by this earthiness, by the casual way the "hero" shares the wife of another man and especially by the portrayal of paedophilia. A Goodreads group I belong to has recently been reading and discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude and many members object so strongly to the incest in that book that it clearly completely colours their view of the book's merits. They certainly wouldn't like The Sinistra Zone. As you know One Hundred Years of Solitude is one my all time favourite books and additionally grew up in a family which enjoyed fart jokes. I have also spent a lot of my time in a country which endured four decades of communism and so have some understanding of the impact of totalitarian rule, its absurdity and its cruelty. 

The location of the Sinistra Zone is deliberately ambiguous. To my mind the setting seems to be somewhere on the borders of Ceaușescu's Romania. The author is a Transylvanian Hungarian. But this land is also a land of the imagination, albeit a very bleak one. The lives of the inhabitants are desperate: their diet seems to consist of dried mushrooms and forest fruit, washed down by a lethal moonshine which has to be filtered before consumption. Whether you live or die is down to the whim of the local military commander: short, hunched and pallid, Coca Mavridin-Mahmudia was... like some lurid nocturnal moth giving off the stink of dead bugs. The commander also decides what job you do and who you sleep with. The book's grotesque imagery and story holds up a mirror to the obscenity and brutality of life under a dictator like Ceaușescu. 

Bodor ignores many of the rules of structure. The chapters overlap, information is repeated,  the book shifts from first to third person narration without obvious reason. At first I wondered whether this approach was a form of magic realism metafiction, but later decided that it wasn't and that Bodor just seems to work to his own rules. Maybe the structural oddities reflect the arbitrariness and unpredictability of life under totalitarian rule. There is instead magic realism of the type we see in Marquez's work. Throughout the novel the umbrella of a former commander flies above the zone like an oversized bat. When the same commander dies a bird builds a nest in his mouth. 

This is a book one should approach with an open mind. If you do that you might find, as I did, that you are drawn into the weird and terrible world of the Sinistra Zone.
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Wednesday 23 October 2013

If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz

'I should have known that this would happen. My granddaughter is too like me, My daughter too. Sometimes holding something too tightly, trying to guide it too closely will only make it turn against you. Like a river bursting through the dikes and dams and flooding over the fields.'

Ilana has her ways. They are old ways, the ways of the forest, full of magic and mystery, elemental, fundamental. When she leaves the deep, dark, ancient lands of the east for a new life in a bright new country, she carries the spirit of the forest with her, and hopes she can create her own way, create her own story. For her, her daughter Sashie, for her granddaughter Mara and even her great-granddaughter Nomie, in the stories of their lives men are mostly absent, children are mostly wayward, the past is ever present and survival is slippery.
Goodreads description

This novel,  starts in the shtetls of eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century but it could have been any century as so little has changed. Ilana's childhood world is one of medieval superstition, where fairytales live, as do wood spirits, witches and other demons. It ends in what I took to be modern-day New York.

The opening chapters of Ilana's childhood, youth and escape to America are simply wonderful. The magic and surreal works perfectly here, as you might expect given the beliefs of the people in the "old country". But it is not an idealized view of that world. Buditz does not spare us the brutality and grind of life in which everything is dull and grey: In a place like that, the colour of an egg yolk was something of a miracle. Understandably when Ilana gets to see another world in the interior of a Faberge egg she wants to go to that colourful place. In so doing she rebels against her mother and escapes. In so doing she sets the pattern for daughters rebelling against their mothers that occurs over the four generations of women, whose narratives make up this book. 

Another pattern which is repeated across generations is the role of men, sons and brothers are idealized and more intelligent sisters are both neglected and expected to sacrifice themselves. Nevertheless the men come and go: they disappear, they go to war, they die in foreign lands, even Ilana's husband drifts away mentally before dying, after hearing of his family's deaths in the holocaust. But through it all Ilana remains strong, almost ageless, something her great granddaughter recognizes: Ilana, whom I could not bear to call my great-grandmother because saying the word is like trying to shout across a canyon, across a great distance. And she did not seem far away at all. And Ilana carries the old ways and old beliefs to America, something her daughter and granddaughter despise and dismiss. 

Fairy stories and folktales are woven into the book, appearing in new clothes but still recognizable - one reason why the author has been compared with Angela Carter. I had great fun recognizing spotting them: Little Red Riding Hood, a female Bluebeard, Baba Yaga and the Pied Piper were the most obvious. And what is more they work within the novel. It is partly because of the familiarity of these stories that one can fill in gaps. 

I enjoyed reading this book. Yet again we have a magic realism book which tells the tale of several generations of mothers and daughters. If I were to fault this book it is that with Ilana beinge such a strong character it is difficult sometimes to sustain the same level of engagement when the story turns to Sashie and Mara and they pick up the narrative. This is partly because neither is particularly likeable, indeed Mara is downright psychotic. Both doubt Ilana's tales of life in the old country and dismiss them as lies and fabrications, but when their view of the world and Ilana are also clearly fabrications and self delusions. As Ilana says: The trouble is not in my eyes; my vision is as sharp as ever. It is the world that has become more blurred. My sympathies and interest returned with the arrival of Nomie, who comes to believe her great grandmother: I had not been paying attention in the right way. I had thought her stories were only about her, I had not thought they had anything to do with me. 

The book is beautifully written. There are some wonderfully evocative descriptions: The men made a fermented liquor so colourless it was invisible, nothing but a raging headache stoppered in a bottle.  Images occur and reoccur, with variations, woven into the fabric of the story, sometimes reinforcing Ilana's account of her youth. The book ends with one of loveliest last lines I have ever read, but I will not spoil it for you by repeating it here.  


Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Long White Sickness by Cecelia Frey

On a remote lonely mountain, Constance skis toward her death and Harry Weinstein loses himself in an avalanche. Meanwhile, back in the city, Gully Jillson is the suspect in the investigation of a murder that has taken place in Constance's high-rise condo. The collision of this strange menage a trois is at the heart of Cecelia Frey's latest novel of love and death, sex and life. Complicating matters for Constance in her pursuit of a recalcitrant and perfidious muse are the ongoing intrusions of Sgt. Rock, homicide detective with ulterior motives; daughter Lara and her rock musician partner, Rowlf, fugitives from a California religious cult; and 84-year-old Aunt Olive, one floor down, who shoots from the lip, and the hip, if anyone messes with her boyfriend, Fred. In the ensuing hijinks, Constance becomes a character trapped in her narrative, which is hijacked by her former husband. Ultimately, a novel about how to find a way to live in the world.
Publisher's description.

This is a fun book to read, whilst at the same time it tackles some serious subjects. When I came across a review in the Calgary Herald, I was pleased to see that this is a book written from the point of view of a 60-year old woman and so when the review also mentioned that the book has a magic realist twist, I approached the publisher to ask for a review copy. 

The magic realism comes at the end of the book and is in the metafiction strand of magic realism. As the publisher's description says above: Constance becomes a character trapped in her narrative, which is hijacked by her former husband. Writing and in particular the struggle women writers have with other demands on their time is at the heart of the book. One gets the impression that Cecelia Frey is writing from bitter personal experience as children, elderly relatives and the demands of husbands all contribute to Constance's inability to write. 

Much of the fun in the book is in the interplay of characters. For starters Constance is an unreliable narrator, and as each character arrives we see her through their eyes and vice versa. We realise how Constance and the others are continually developing narratives (which are often contradictory) about themselves. The characters at times seemed to me a little stereotypical, but then is that because of the way Constance sees them. 

Add to that a murder mystery and fraught love life and you have a fun read. 


Wednesday 9 October 2013

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Magpies whisper to lonely drivers late at night. Trees can make wishes come true - provided you know how to wish properly first. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A teenager's growing pains are sometimes even bigger than him. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, Cornish folklore slips into everyday life. Hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wrecker's lamps, standing stones and baying hounds, and relationships wax and wane in the glow of a moonlit sea. This luminous, startling and utterly spellbinding debut collection introduces in Lucy Wood a spectacular new voice in contemporary British fiction. 
Goodreads description

Amazon Recommends usually fails to throw up much of interest or if it does the book is often one I already have (it even recommended to me one that I wrote), but once in a while Amazon recommends a gem. This debut collection of short stories by Lucy Wood is one such gem.

It has been suggested that Western writers aren't in touch with their magical past, but this book gives that notion the lie. Diving Belles reminds me of the works of Alan Garner, a British writer who had a tremendous influence on me as a child. Just as Cheshire runs through Garner's books, so Cornwall does in this one. Lucy Wood is remarkable at creating a sense of place:  Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window. Like Garner, Wood takes the folklore and myth of her home county and weaves into her stories. You might also compare her with Susan Clarke, but Wood's roots are strongly local and combine the mundane and the magical. For example: one of my favourite stories is Countless Stones in which a woman is struggling to get through a list of tasks (turn off the electric, close the windows) and is waylaid by her needy ex-boyfriend - only she isn't going away on holiday - she is turning into a menhir.

Many of the stories are about grief and loss, and, as is so often the case in magic realism, about the spaces between people. Most have a female central character, beautifully drawn, as shown in this description of a mother and adult daughter reunion: June helped her up and dusted off the back of her T-shirt. She had strong, capable hands. Tessa had always assumed her own hands would change somehow when she reached thirty, becoming strong hands for brushing off backs and changing tyres, but they hadn't so far.  

Another daughter/mother reunion also appears in one of my favourite stories, Of Mothers and Little People, in which a daughter realises that she has seen her mother in completely the wrong light, that her mother is not lonely but instead has an fairy lover normally invisible to the human eye. The story ends: When you look back his thumb is touching the smooth dip of her throat. Look again and they have gone – there are only the leaves rustling and the branches swaying in the wind. You can hear your mother’s footsteps somewhere close by but you cannot see her. You hear her laugh, or maybe it was just a bird trilling, you are not entirely sure.

If you are uncomfortable with such an ambiguous ending, then these stories are not for you. There is a sense of incompleteness about many of the stories, but why is it necessary for short stories to be neatly tied up? I love ambiguity: maybe that's why I love magic realism, and have no such problem.

 The final short story is about a traditional Cornish storyteller. As it starts the droll teller is thinking he had let the stories slip away. They weren’t buried anywhere. He thought they might have been buried somewhere. He realised now why the world had become flat and empty. Things were ending. But by the end of the story He could hear the story creeping out of the mine towards him... and now here he was beginning again; somehow, despite everything, he was beginning again. I felt the same about the folklore in these stories and for that reason was very excited by this book by an interesting debut author.
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Saturday 5 October 2013

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

Kabu kabu-unregistered illegal Nigerian taxis-generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor's Kabu Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn't know you needed. This debut short story collection by an award-winning author includes notable previously published material, a new novella co-written with New York Times-bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, six additional original stories, and a brief foreword by Whoopi Goldberg.
Goodreads description

Nnedi Okorafor is an American-born daughter of Igbo Nigerian parents and that mix of cultures is just perfect for the writing of magic realism. This collection of short stories draws on Okorafor's West African roots more than her American life. But the writer being American brings an outsider's point of view. The eponymous story is a good example of that. A successful American lawyer hails an illegal taxi (kabu kabu) to take to the airport for her flight to a family wedding in Nigeria, but the taxi takes her on a ride into the Nigerian supernatural. Another story features two American sisters staying in the house their parents built and furnished in Nigeria but which the family has denuded of furniture. 

The twenty-one short stories in this collection tackle some serious subjects: intolerance, genocide, stereotyping, war including the civil war, persecution of the other, and the environmental and social destruction wrought by Western oil companies. Foremost is the treatment of strong women who dare to break with the patriarchal society in which they live. There are several stories about windseekers - women who are physically marked out by their dada hair and independent spirit, and who can fly. They are feared and persecuted as witches. Fortunately the book comes with notes from the author, which give an interesting insight into what inspired these stories. The notes also explain that, as I suspected when I read the stories, some of the stories were originally parts of or side stories from full-length novels: the windseeker stories come from a novel Zahrah the Windseeker which won the 2o08 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. 

Some of the stories are very definitely magic realism, others are closer to fantasy and/or science fiction. Biafra won The Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism Short Story Contest. It also happens to be one of my favourite stories. I am old enough to remember the terrible images of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 - 1970) that fed into my childhood home via the BBC News. I can't imagine how they would haunt every Nigerian family. This story shows brilliantly how magic realism can tackle horrific subjects. The central character is a windseeker living in America: like so many of our people who were abroad, she'd felt the words deep in her bones. Come home! There are some incredible images in this story. A dying girl asked what the spirits of the girl's family and friends look like, replies: Like large pretty green lizards with long long rough tails. Helicopters are described as giant metal vultures dropping excrements of death.

I found Okarafor's work fascinating. I have only limited knowledge of the African heritage that inspires her work, but I can see how she is forging an African/American approach to magic realism. Her recent magic realist novel Who Fears Death has just been added to my to read list.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.
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