Wednesday 30 January 2013

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother's homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother's emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she's privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father's detachment, her mother's transgression, her brother's increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can't discern.
Goodreads Description

This review comes with a spoiler warning.

The book concerns an apparently happy normal middle-class family in modern-day Los Angeles.  In many ways it is the Bildungsroman of the central character and the book's narrator Rose. But the family is far from happy and normal. The book opens with Rose's discovery of her "gift" and at the same time she discovers how unhappy her mother is. At the age of nine this is a difficult discovery: Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn't appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early. But the discovery is made worse by the fact Rose is unable to talk about her gift, on one occasion she gags as she tries to eat food prepared by her mother she says YOU'RE IN MY MOUTH, I said. GET OUT OF MY MOUTH and not surprisingly her mother doesn't understand and the doctor's reaction is to suspect bulimia. After that Rose finds ways of avoiding eating emotion-tainted food, but cannot avoid all her mother's food which means she is able to taste when her mother starts an affair. 

Her brother has autistic tendencies and seldom responds to his little sister. Her father seems blissfully unaware of what is going on and is bad at communicating. Each appears to be in their own world, with the sensitive and undervalued Rose bearing their sadness. I found the simple statement Mom loved my brother more quite heartbreaking.

After the first part, the focus of the book shifts to Joseph, Rose's brother as he tries to get away from his doting mother and find a space for himself. Then he disappears only to reappear again. He fails to get into the Ivy League College of his choice but still manages to persuade his mother to allow him to take a room near his college. He keeps disappearing and then one day Rose discovers him turning into a chair. We are now at the surreal end of magic realism. 

Furniture seems to play an important and symbolic part in the lives of the family. Rose's father persuades her mother that he is reliable by finding a pink stool, which Rose sentimentally saves. Her maternal grandmother sends packages of broken furniture and household goods to the family, including the chair Joseph becomes. Rose's mother succeeds in keeping a job which makes furniture - her affair is with a fellow worker. I haven't been able to work out what this symbolizes. 

When at last Rose talks to her father about her gift/curse he tells her that her grandfather had a similar gift and that he (her father) feared he might have one too, which is why he does not go into hospitals for fear that he will find out what it is. It seems all the family have been trying to cope with their "gifts" some better than others. Towards the end of the book Rose starts working in a restaurant.

I have been trying to analyse my response to this book. Although I am a fan of magic realism, I do tend to like some logic within it and there were a number of aspects of the tale, especially the chair transformation scene, which felt somehow wrong. Maybe if I had understood the symbolism involved, I might have felt happier. Maybe I don't like surrealism. The book also felt very bleak, the resolutions even for Rose were only partial at best.  

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Tuesday 22 January 2013

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of "Norwegian Wood" and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves. 

A college student, identified only as "K," falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments-until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, "K" is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.

Goodreads Description

This is another book it is impossible to review without giving a spoiler warning. 

If you like unambiguous storylines and endings that tie-up don't read this book. This is a short book easily read, but much harder to grasp. I found myself thinking about it and wondering what happened to Sumire and Miu long after I put the book back on the shelf. For there are at least two mysteries - Sumire's disappearance and what was it Miu saw on the Ferris wheel and neither are fully explained. 

The book starts as a love triangle - K in unrequited love with Sumire, Sumire in love with Miu, whose feelings are at this stage unclear. But this is not a romance book or a book about relationships. Instead it is a book about how alone human beings are: I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.  But even the sputnik image is ambiguous. Because it's not actually true: satellites pass each other regularly on their different orbits and I can't believe Murakami doesn't know this. If that is case, what does it mean for the mysteries in the book? 

Just as Sumire, transformed by Miu, appears to be slipping away from K into her new life, the book shifts. Miu contacts K and asks him to come to the Greek Island where she and Sumire have been holidaying. Sumire has vanished and Miu needs K's help. He discovers a computer floppy disk and on it two documents that Sumire has written. These take us towards a metaphysical answer to the mystery. An answer of parallel worlds, of Miu split between the two - in one world sexual and in the other not, and Sumire seeking the world in which the woman she loves can respond to her. The characters do not even know themselves: I have this strange feeling that I'm not myself anymore. It's hard to put into words, but I guess it's like I was fast asleep, and someone came, disassembled me, and hurriedly put me back together again. That sort of feeling. 

Sputnik Sweetheart is also metafiction. Sumire is an aspiring writer, but stops being able to write when she falls in love. And so the theme of the dissembled person - the two Mius, one feeling and the other not - is very much about the writer's condition. The writer is involved in the world and at the same time detached. The Sumire at the beginning of the book is never satisfied by her work, it is clearly good but it doesn't breathe. K tells her about the ancient gates of China, which contained the bones of fallen warriors and the blood of newly sacrificed dogs. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive.... Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn't make it a living breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.  Of course the image of sacrificed dogs also appears in the story of Laika the Russian dog sent into space. In the first of Sumire's documents she refers to the sacrificed dog and at the end K looks for bloodstains on his hands.

Murakami's writing style is deceptively easy and unpoetic. The poetry comes from the weaving of images and themes, which evolve, shift and change. It leaves you with the sense that you have been dreaming. But as K says: “The answer is dreams. Dreaming on and on. Entering the world of dreams and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time.” 
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Thursday 17 January 2013

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukú—the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim. 

Díaz immerses us in the tumultuous life of Oscar and the history of the family at large, rendering with genuine warmth and dazzling energy, humor, and insight the Dominican-American experience, and, ultimately, the endless human capacity to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loss. A true literary triumph, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao confirms Junot Díaz as one of the best and most exciting voices of our time.

Goodreads Description

At first as I read the trials and tribulations of Oscar, the over-weight fantasy geek who desperately wants a relationship with a woman, I wondered how the author was going to sustain Oscar's story for a whole book. I needn't have worried: the book rapidly expands beyond Oscar's limited life to become a story of three generations of his family set against the terrible history the Dominican Republic. 

The other issue a reader encounters early on is the regular use of Spanish slang, of swear words and of geeky references to Sci Fi, fantasy and Japanese anime. Later one is hit by the misogyny that is displayed by many characters as well as a racism - for example the Oscar's mother is blacker than her family and not only is this considered a problem by them but even she likes to go out with paler skinned men.

The book's structure is complex. The book opens with Oscar's childhood and adolescence told by a (then) unnamed narrator, then shifts to a first-person narrative (which starts in the second-person) by Oscar's big sister Lola, then to a third person account of their mother's youth and so on  through the book. When an identity is finally given to the anonymous narrator, one realizes why the narration is the way it is - with swear words, slang and casual misogyny - namely that the narrator is a typical Dominican dude. However just as you realize that, you also realize that at times the narrator talks in an eloquent academic way and combines real insight and empathy alongside his Latino machismo. You also begin to question the accuracy of the narration - how could the narrator have known certain things? is there another narrator? Diaz's narrative style has you standing on shifting sands. 

The story of Oscar's family is a dark one, like so many who suffered under the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor.  For those of us who know nothing about the tragic history of the country Diaz provides footnotes. 

The parallels with One Hundred Years of Solitude are made clear, Macondo is referenced by the narrator. Oscar's family, as is the case with Marquez's Buendias, is cursed to repeat the mistakes and tragedies through the generations. The book opens with a definition and history of this curse which was carried in the screams of the enslaved from Africa. It is called fuku.  Fuku is a curse that lies on all Dominicans and their country - not only is Trujillo  portrayed as a purveyor of fuku, but it becomes clear that Dominican male attitude to women is also a curse. The counter to fuku is zafa. The narrator expresses the hope that Oscar has found zafa for his family by the end of the book. 

Fuku and to a lesser extent zafa are core themes to the book, and are clearly part of its magic realism. There are two other elements of magic realism, which might be said to be embodiments of fuku and zafa  - the golden mongoose who helps when members of the family are in extreme danger and the negative counter to the mongoose the eyeless man who appears as family members are going into danger and even in one case appears to take part in a brutal attack. 

Oscar's fuku is in some ways not that he is a geek, fat or with an difficult family, it is because unlike other Dominican males, he wants a meaningful relationship with a girl/woman. He rather sweetly hopes that being a good friend would lead to love and sex, only to have the object of his desire prefer a macho alternative. I don't want to spoil the ending, so I will simply say that Diaz suggests that the zafa Oscar may have found is also his fuku.

I enjoyed this book: it left me with all sorts of thoughts and ideas. It clearly is not suited to someone who likes simple linear narrative and unambiguous characters, but if you like to be challenged this is a great book. 

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Thursday 10 January 2013

The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

An epic mystical drama of a young woman's sudden sainthood in late-19th century Mexico. It is 1889 and civil war is brewing in Mexico. A 16 year old girl, Teresita, illegitimate but beloved daughter of the wealthy and powerful rancher Don Tomas Urrea, wakes from the strangest dream. This passionate and rebellious young woman has arisen from death with a power to heal - but it will take all her faith to endure the trials that await her now that she has become the 'Saint of Cabora.'
Amazon Description

In my last post (a review of One Hundred Years of Solitude) I talked about a magic realist approach to historical fiction, I then read The Hummingbird's Daughter, which is a fine example of what I was talking about. The book's author is well known for his non-fiction. He researched the story of Teresa Urrea - the Saint of Cabora - for over twenty years, garnering information from source materials, history books, visiting shamen  and all the miracles included the book are from accounts of Teresa's life. There are aspects of the story that are familiar to me from hagiographies throughout church history, for example Teresa having risen from the dead smells of roses. 

In Teresa we have a traditional healer, trained in Mayo medicine and beliefs, which are combined with the Catholic religious beliefs of central America. These are portrayed realistically. We are seeing the world through Teresa's eyes and those of her followers. The book does not attempt to analyse or dismiss their beliefs, which I find refreshing. As a historian I approve of this approach, it seems to me more accurate than historical novels which try to give rationalist accounts. I am extremely excited by this use of magic realism. As Urrea said in an interview: I think the magic of fiction is that in many ways it's more true than non-fiction. By that I mean that fiction can take you into truths of feeling and it lends itself better to the kind of trance that allows a reader to smell and taste the world I'm trying to evoke. 

I have written in several previous reviews of how magic realism is often used to tell the stories of the oppressed and marginalized  This story of a woman who gave voice to the sufferings of the "People", the native peoples of Mexico, and became the focus of their hopes almost had to be a magic realist novel. 

In addition it is a story of a strong woman in a very masculine world, which as I pointed out in my review of Nights at the Circus is again well suited to the magic realist treatment. As some of you reading this blog will be aware, I too write magic realist novels. One of the reasons I delayed reading this book is that I have also written about a woman healer and did not want to be influenced by Urrea's novel. The motif of a woman healer who is perceived as threatening the male establishment and who is revered by her supporters as a saint, (a view she rejects) appears in my book too. This polarizing view of women as either witches or angels, nuns or whores, rather than as just strong women is to be found in all ages and cultures and magic realism has the subtlety to explore this conflicting duality. 

I realize I have been speaking about the magical in this book and not the realism. The book is beautifully written - I have never visited Mexico but I really felt I could feel, see, smell and taste Teresa's homeland. All the characters seemed very real to me. Teresa is a spirited young woman, who does not consider herself a saint and doesn't always behave like one. Her relationship with Tomas, her father is complex and entertaining. Tomas is frustrated by her and at the same time extremely proud. Tomas himself has the double standards of his time and class, but he does have a sympathy with the People, which is explained by his backstory and which opens him up to acknowledging his illegitimate daughter. 

The realism with which the magical is treated is summed up in a tale told to Teresa by Huila, the old healer who is her mentor, about how on ascending to heaven the Virgin Mary got stuck on top of a huge cactus from where she spoke to the People.  Teresa asks what the Virgin said. Huila answers, "Get me a ladder"

Are there any faults? None that I can see. This has to be my favourite read on the magic realism challenge so far. The prose is not as dense as that in One Hundred Years of Solitude and the plot keeps you reading, which makes it an ideal recommendation to anyone interested in trying out a magic realist novel for the first time.
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Wednesday 2 January 2013

One Hundred Years Of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One of the 20th century’s enduring works, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a widely beloved and acclaimed novel known throughout the world, and the ultimate achievement in a Nobel Prize-winning career.

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.

Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility—the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth—these universal themes dominate the novel. Whether he is describing an affair of passion or the voracity of capitalism and the corruption of government, Gabriel García Márquez always writes with the simplicity, ease, and purity that are the mark of a master.
Goodreads description

This blog post is part of the Classic Reads Bloghop, in which a number of book blogs will be discussing what makes a classic read. Among fans of magic realism there can be little argument that Marquez's tale of one hundred years in the lives of the Buendia family and of Macondo, the town founded by patriarch Jose Arcadio is a magic realism classic.  People who don't like magic realism hate it.

I first read this book about thirty years ago, when I had just finished university. It was a formative time for me - I discovered my favourite poet (Anna Akhmatova) and the magic realist films of Tarkovsky at the same time. This book was just as influential: it totally blew me away. Just as Kafka's Metamorphosis transformed Marquez's views on what he could write, so this book completely changed my understanding of literature.

I had grown up on fantasy and historical fiction: loving books by Alan Garner, Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault. I had then been introduced to "literature" at my strait-laced grammar school, where fantasy and historical fiction were regarded as inappropriate for serious reading. I gave up any thoughts of studying English Literature at university and instead pursued my love of history. With One Hundred Years of Solitude I found a book that brought together both history and fantasy and was clearly literature.

It may come as a surprise to people who have problems with the magic in this book that the author started work as a journalist. But as he said in an interview in The Paris Review
It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.

Some people might argue that the magical elements cannot possibly be confused with reality. Take the incident of the massacre at the train station in which three thousand people are machine-gunned down and the inhabitants of the town believe the government propaganda that nothing happened. That is incredible isn't it? And yet think of all those Germans who failed to acknowledge the holocaust, even though they lived close to the camps or of the people who believed the official accounts of the Hillsborough disaster and suddenly One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes less fantastical. Magic realism is often used, as here, to talk about serious political issues and about the oppressed. The bloody history of Latin America is mirrored in the history of this fictional town in an unnamed land and time, in the book's thirty-two bloody and pointless revolutions, the exploitation by ruthless foreign capitalists and the suppression of workers' protests. 

I am not a journalist, but I am a historian. And I am struck by how similar One Hundred Years of Solitude is at times to historical texts I have studied, such as chronicles and hagiographies as well as oral history sources. The fantastical is reported with equal seriousness as the realistic. In Marquez's novel the same is true. Marquez acknowledges his grandmother's storytelling style as a major influence: She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.
That is the definition of magic realism and that is why this book is a magic realist classic.

Another aspect of the book that I love is the richness of the descriptions. You can feel the heat of the sun-baked streets, smell the lemon trees and the shit, hear the scream of love-making or the chomping of the ants in the beams, and see the yellow butterflies that surrounded Renata Remedios whenever her lover was nearby. 

Does the book have any flaws? I have to confess that I do get confused with the characters, especially in the first fifty pages, and was grateful for the family tree at the beginning of my copy. Of course there are good reasons for the repetition of names - it's common practice in Latin America and it is symbolic of the way history and the Buendia family are doomed to repeat their mistakes. One of the themes of the book is that time was not was turning in a circle. As a result readers will not find the conventional storyline or character arc in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the six generations of the family come and go in the book, there is only one character, that of the matriarch Ursula, who is present almost to the end of the book and when she dies the force that has held the family, and perhaps even the town, together fails. 

If you love magic realism and maybe even if you don't, this is a book that you should read.

  If you wish to explore other blogs on the Classic Reads Blog Hop, please click on the links below:

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