Wednesday 29 May 2013

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Tayo, a young Native American, has been a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, and the horrors of captivity have almost eroded his will to survive. His return to the Laguna Pueblo reservation only increases his feeling of estrangement and alienation. While other returning soldiers find easy refuge in alcohol and senseless violence, Tayo searches for another kind of comfort and resolution.

Tayo's quest leads him back to the Indian past and its traditions, to beliefs about witchcraft and evil, and to the ancient stories of his people. The search itself becomes a ritual, a curative ceremony that defeats the most virulent of afflictions—despair.

Goodreads Description

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren't just entertainment. 
Don't be fooled. 
They are all we have, you see, 
all we have to fight off 
illness and death...

The only cure
I know
is a good ceremony,
that's what she said. 

So begins this remarkable book. It is at its simplest a tale about a young native American survivor of a Japanese death march being cured of his post-traumatic stress by an extended healing ceremony, which puts him back in touch with his roots. Central to the Pueblo belief is the role of stories within the ceremony and by extension within life itself. But the author argues that it is not enough to repeat the old ceremonies and the old stories. 

The first medicine man to attempt to treat Tayo is a traditional one, but he fails - Tayo vomits the medicine. Instead Tayo finds help from two other sources. The first is a traditional medicine man, Betonie, who combines modern artifacts such as calendars and phone books into the ceremonies and is like Tayo of mixed blood. At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only the growth keeps the ceremonies strong. The second is a woman, Montano, who is close to nature and shows Tayo the healing plants and ritual offerings to nature, as well as love, which he has not experienced before. 

Tayo's sickness is symbolic of the damage done to the Pueblo people through the theft and destruction of their land by the white man. This damage is particularly to be seen in the war veterans, who briefly had been accepted in white society (while they were in uniform) and had seen a world beyond their reservations. Outsiders in their own land once more they turn to drink and violence to fill the void. The damage to the people runs parallel to the white man's destruction of the land - sacred lands bounded by large barbed wire fences, wild animals that the Pueblo had honoured shot for sport, the uranium mine poisoning the surrounding land.

Tayo's illness and alienation are beautifully described: For a long time he had been white smoke. He did not realize that until he left the hospital, because white smoke had no consciousness of itself. It faded into the white world of their bed sheets and walls; it was sucked away by the words of doctors who tried to talk to the invisible scattered smoke... They saw his outline but they did not realize it was hollow inside.

Tayo's healing is in some ways a more general healing, his ceremony part of a wider ceremony for his people: he cried with the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern. the way all the stories fit together - the old stories, the war stories, their stories - to become the story that was still being told.  

I loved this book. It is a fine example of magic realism addressing real issues in a profound way and this is something I look for in a book.

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Friday 24 May 2013

Last Summer At Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Twelve exceptional stories by the multiple award–winning author of Waking the Moon and Black Light prove that Elizabeth Hand is just as adept with short fiction as she is in the novel form. The title story traces a world-changing summer at a New England artists’ colony for young Shadowmoon Starlight Rising, who comes to know life, death, and an unbelievable secret about the strange apparitions that dwell in her community.

Other stories include “Snow on Sugar Mountain,” which features a young boy who has the power to shapeshift into any form with the help of a Native American artifact; “The Bacchae,” in which womankind rules a savage futuristic version of our world; and “The Erl-King,” where a fairy tale horrifyingly comes true. Each story includes an afterword by the author.

From Goodreads description 

Before I started this blog I had read very few collections of short stories, but since starting I have discovered just what I had been missing. This collection is no exception.

Elizabeth Hand is a writer of speculative fiction and horror. This collection of short stories first appeared in 1998 and has just been issued as an ebook. The story that gives its name to the collection won the 1995 Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. 

When is speculative fiction magic realism? It seems to me that especially in short stories the boundaries can very definitely overlap. This is partly because the brevity of short stories makes it easier to start in reality than in a constructed world. There are a number of stories in the collection for which a strong case can be made that they are magic realism. 

My two favourites were Last Summer at Mars Hill and Snow on Sugar Mountain.

The wonderful Last Summer at Mars Hill is set in a spiritualist retreat in Maine. The characters and their alternative beliefs are recognizable, as they try to deal with their feelings about their mortality. The magic element is used brilliantly to look at those feelings in a totally different perspective.

In Snow on Sugar Mountain a teenage boy who has inherited from his mother an amulet that allows him to shapeshift meets with a dying former astronaut. The story follows the growing relationship between the old man and the boy. It has one of the best opening lines I have ever read: When Andrew was seven, his mother turned into a fox. 

The Have-Nots is a tale of a woman deprived of her new-born child but given a cadillac by Elvis. It is narrated by a cosmetics saleswoman to a customer, which at times got wearisome, but nevertheless is engaging with a magical twist in the tail. 

Engels Unaware focuses on a down-at-heel (literally) temporary secretary working in a financial investment house at the height of a financial boom. The arrival of brother and sister Graedig and Avaratia Engel sets in train financial Armageddon. 

As you might have observed, my favourites in the collection tend to be the stories with the more optimistic endings. But Elizabeth Hand is known for her horror and some of the stories are distinctly dark. The Bacchae was even voted the "most hated" story by Interzone readers in 1991! The Erl King is a take on the fairytale and Goethe's poem, and reflects the bleakness of the originals. Hand's work has been described as having heart and also sharp little teeth, which I think is an excellent description of this collection. 

Elizabeth Hand is obviously much inspired by Greek myths - Justice is inspired by Circe, On The Town Route by the Persephone story (with a bit of Pied Piper of Hamelin thrown in), then there is the Bacchae...One of the pluses with this collection is that after each story we get the author's notes on its creation and influences. These make for fascinating reading.

The weakest story, to my mind, is the Prince of Flowers. The story of a malevolent puppet is not original. It is interesting though to consider why puppets in literature (and film) are so often stereotyped, but that would take up a whole post. Nevertheless it, like all the stories in this collection, is beautifully written. Hand is a wonderful writer - every word is chosen for its contribution, building strong images and stories. I may not be a fan of the horror genre, but I am delighted that the publisher offered me this book to review.

This book was given to me, via Netgalley, by the publisher in return for a fair review.


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Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud's first book of short stories, The Magic Barrel, has been recognized as a classic from the time it was published in 1959. The stories are set in New York and in Italy (where Malamud's alter ego, the struggleing New York Jewish Painter Arthur Fidelman, roams amid the ruins of old Europe in search of his artistic patrimony); they tell of egg candlers and shoemakers, matchmakers, and rabbis, in a voice that blends vigorous urban realism, Yiddish idiom, and a dash of artistic magic.

The Magic Barrel is a book about New York and about the immigrant experience, and it is high point in the modern American short story. Few books of any kind have managed to depict struggle and frustration and heartbreak with such delight, or such artistry. 

Goodreads description.

As I have said before one of the joys of this blog has been discovering great authors. Malamud was unknown to me, but once I started reading it became apparent that these short stories are by a master of the form. The majority are not magic realist in terms of the simplistic definition used by this blog, but all conform to the definition used by the inventor of the term Franz Roh: We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things. This [art offers a] calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces, [this] means that the ground in which the most diverse ideas in the world can take root has been reconquered--albeit in new ways.

Malamud certainly endows these apparently simple stories about Jewish life in New York (and Italy) with profound meaning. They are parables of the mundane in which you can find layer upon layer of meaning and reference. I am sure that I, not being familiar with Jewish culture, missed much, nevertheless I felt compelled to put the book down after each story to think. You begin to question whether some of the characters, such as the wedding broker in the story that gives its title to the book, are not angels or messengers. Often there are the lightest of touches of magic in a story - for example when a baker describes that he had no success until his tears mixed with the dough, whereupon customers started queuing for his bread. 

The Angel Levine is a magic realist story by whatever definition you choose to use. It is the story of a tailor, who Job-like is in danger of losing everything and prays to God for help. Then the Angel Levine appears, but he is not what the man expects at all - the angel is black: The tailor could not rid himself of the feeling that he was the butt of a jokester. Is this what a Jewish angel looks like? he asked himself. This I am not convinced.

You can read another Malamud magic realism story, The Jewbird, free online here. In this story a Jewish bird fleeing the persecution of  bird “Anti-Semeets” takes refuge in a Jewish house, only to be persecuted by the Jewish homeowner. Witty and as ever profound, the story is just wonderful and says more than many novels. 

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Monday 20 May 2013

Forged In Grace by Jordan E Rosenfeld

Grace Jensen survived a horrific fire at age 15. The flames changed her: badly scarred in body and mind, Grace developed an ability to feel other people’s pain. Unable to bear human touch, she has made a small life for herself in Northern California, living with her hoarder mother, tending wounded animals, and falling a little in love with her former doctor. Her safe world explodes when the magnetic Marly Kennet reappears in town; Grace falls right back into the dynamic of their complicated friendship. Marly is the holder of many secrets, including one that has haunted Grace for over a decade: what really happened the night of the fire?

When Marly exhorts Grace to join her in Las Vegas, to make up for the years they have been lost to each other, Grace takes a leap of faith and goes. Although Marly is not entirely honest about her intentions, neither woman anticipates that enlarging Grace’s world will magnify her ability to sense the suffering of others—or that she will begin to heal wounds by swallowing her own pain and laying her hands on the afflicted.

This gift soon turns darker when the truth of Marly’s life—and the real reason she ended her friendship with Grace—pushes the boundaries of loyalty and exposes both women to danger.

 Goodreads Description

This is a magic realism book with the emphasis on the realism. The only magic element is Grace's ability to heal others: My hands ache as I hold them over her. When I rest them upon her, I feel as though someone has opened a window and let in humid and cloying draft of air. She groans slightly and shifts, and my serpent and I make our way into the wet and sticky interiors of her illness. Of course to believers in such things, Grace's healing ability would also by realistic.

What Grace sees when she begins to heal is shown to us using strong visual imagery to describe the ailments: a stagnant pond thick with debris and sludge, or hot tar or a black pulsing stone. But this poetry works because it is counterbalanced by the psychological realism with which Grace is drawn. The book is written in the first person, which takes us straight into Grace's mind, fears and anxieties. The healing seems to come from Grace's ordeal as a burns victim. It gives her empathy for others that translates into being able to see and feel their pain. We in turn empathize with Grace from the very beginning of the book: her alienation manifested by her physical pain on being touched and her feelings of entrapment in her body and in the home she shares with her hoarder mother.   

But Grace's empathy is dangerous - not only does healing wipe her out, draining her of strength, but she blames herself when things go wrong or she finds herself unable to heal. It is at its most dangerous in the relationship with Marly, which clearly was mutually obsessive when they were teenagers and which picks up where left it off at their reunion. It is an extremely complex relationship - both nurturing and damaging. Whilst the story of Grace discovering and using her gift is fascinating, the book's main focus is on how Grace comes to understand her relationship with Marly and therefore what happened in the tree house fire which caused her injuries. 

The true strength of this book is the psychology of the characters. Not just Grace and Marly but all the characters are brilliantly drawn, three-dimensional and credible. No one is shown as simply good or bad; the characters are drawn as complex individuals. This is aided by the first-person narrative, for Grace as she grows in knowledge changes her views of people around her. This in turn allows for some unexpected plot twists. 

I really enjoyed this book and found it easy to read, despite its depth. A fine example of how the new generation of indie writers are producing work as good as anything coming from traditional publishing houses. 

Wednesday 15 May 2013

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

In one of the most important and beloved Latin American works of the twentieth century, Isabel Allende weaves a luminous tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies. Here is patriarch Esteban, whose wild desires and political machinations are tempered only by his love for his ethereal wife, Clara, a woman touched by an otherworldly hand. Their daughter, Blanca, whose forbidden love for a man Esteban has deemed unworthy infuriates her father, yet will produce his greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future.

The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate.

Goodreads Description

Where does one begin to write a review of this classic of magic realism? It is a book which, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude, set the benchmark by which other magic realism books are read. There are similarities between the two books - both tell the story of a family over several generations, a story which is set against turbulent times of an unnamed South American country, both include magical elements as a normal part of the families' lives, although the magic in The House of Spirits is mostly limited to the clairvoyant mother Clara.  

Allende's book differs from the Marquez classic in two important ways:
  • House of Spirits has a strong female perspective. Although the patriach Esteban Tueba is a presence throughout most of the book and is in some places the narrator, it is the women - Nivea, Clara, Blanca and Alba -who  are the main characters, and the view we have, including that of Esteban, is through their eyes. The four women are strong characters, living in a male world, and Esteban despite his power and strength is unble to understand or control them. As I have said in previous reviews, magic realism is a useful medium for exploring women's power.
  •  The book's realism. It is not difficult to see that the country in which the book is set is Chile and the military coup with which the book climaxes is that of General Pinochet's overthrow of President Salvador Allende (the author's uncle, who is refered to in the book as the Candidate). Other characters are clearly based on figures of that time - such as the poet Pablo Neruda and the singer Victor Jara. This realism gives the book considerable force, especially as Allende does not spare the reader the harrowing details of Alba's torture or of her uncle's death. And yet even in this section one finds magic - Alba is visited by the spirit of her grandmother, Clara 
Interestingly Allende has said that even the magic is inspired by real life. Clara, who communes with spirits and is able to play Chopin without opening the piano lid, is based on one of her relatives.

One of the strongest impressions I took away from this book was that despite everything there is an optimism about the book's ending. Throughout the book one has felt strongly the unevitability of events - that the blindness of the right-wing Esteban to the liberalism of his family, which one might argue is inherited from his wife's parents, will lead to disaster, that Esteban's casual abuse and rape of peasants will rebound on future generations of the family - and yet at the end Alba breaks the cycle of anger and hatred:

And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it. I feel its flame going out as I come to understand the existence of Colonel Garcia and the others like him...It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain.


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Monday 13 May 2013

Goldenland Past Dark by Chandler Klang Smith

A hostile stranger is hunting Dr. Show's ramshackle travelling circus across 1960s America. His target: the ringmaster himself. Struggling to elude the menace, Dr. Show scraps his ambitious itinerary; ticket sales plummet, and nothing but disaster looms. The troupe’s unravelling hopes fall on their latest and most promising recruit, Webern Bell, a sixteen-year-old hunchbacked midget devoted obsessively to perfecting the surreal clown performances that come to him in his dreams. But as they travel through a landscape of abandoned amusement parks and rural ghost towns, Webern’s bizarre past starts to pursue him, as well.

Along the way we meet Nepenthe, the seductive Lizard Girl; Brunhilde, a shell-shocked bearded lady; Marzipan, a world-weary chimp; a cabal of drunken, backstabbing clowns; Webern’s uncanny sisters, witchy dogcatchers who speak only in rhymes; and his childhood friend, Wags, who may or may not be imaginary, and whose motives are far more sinister than they seem. 

Publisher's description

As I read this book I found myself asking what is reality. The question is of course highly pertinent to this blog: How do we define realism, the background against which the magic is projected? The world which the author creates and in which the hero Webern finds himself is the world of the freakshow, but is that unreal? Clearly not. Throughout the first half of the book I assumed that there was an "ordinary world" beyond the circus. We glimpse it in the roadside diners and the punters filling the seats of the big top. But then in the second half of the book, the focus shifts towards Webern's family, which seemed to me weirder than the circus performers I had come to see as real and detailed personalities. Webern's Grandmother is a formidable character with one eye, who lives with a chimpanzee as a servant and hunts racoons for food under her neighbours' houses and now as she approaches death, cuts out the middle man and lies down in her coffin to die. Webern's sisters are similarly strange. 

I received this book via Netgalley. One of the difficulties of using Netgalley is ascertaining whether or not the book is magic realism from the publisher's description. In the end I just have to apply for the book and see. So is it magic realism? I am still not sure. It is categorized as contemporary fantasy in Amazon, but that does not preclude it from being magic realism. So if this beautifully drawn world of the "freaks" is real, where is the magic? It may be that this is provided by the character of Webern's friend Wags. He is seen by Webern as real, but others do not see him. Is he a figment of Webern's imagination or is he something more complex than that? I will not spoil the ending of the book by elaborating further.

I really enjoyed this book and was drawn to the central character. Webern may be the archetypal unhappy clown, but his psychology is drawn in great depth. In fact I sympathized with many of Webern's circus buddies. It was maybe because of this that I had some trouble with the book's structure. It is divided into two parts and by the time you get the second part most of the characters so carefully drawn in the first are either dead or have left. It is as if one is starting a new book. I can see what the writer is trying to do, but it left me somewhat unsatisfied. There is a good reason why the traditional story structure is in three (or maybe five) parts: it works. At the end of the book I found myself wanting a part three.

This book was given to me by the publisher via Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill

Against all his expectations, Dr Siri Paiboun has rather enjoyed his first five months in office. Now, as hot-season nights close in, Siri is spirited away from Laos' steamy capital on a Matter of National Security. Arriving in Luang Prabang, he's a busy man, examining carbonized corpses, dining with the deposed king, attending a shamans' conference and being rescued by the ghost of an elephant. Not that Siri's complaining ... Luang Prabang is in mountains and a good fifteen degrees cooler. Meanwhile, back at Vientiane headquarters, it's hot. Bloody hot - savaged bodies are piling up in Siri's absence. Is it the missing black bear from the circus, or could it be a weretiger? Siri's trusty assistant Nurse Dtui goes snooping but, unlike her boss, the spirits aren't looking out for her... And just what creature, if any, has thirty-three teeth?
Amazon Description

This is the second book I have read in this detective series. I read The Coroner's Lunch, the first in the series, a couple of years ago. Colin Cotterill's magic realist approach to detective novels is both fascinating and enchanting. 

The books are set in Laos shortly after the communist takeover in 1975 and show a society which is changing and at the same time has close links to the traditions of the past. This dual nature is reflected in the book's leading character,  Dr Siri Paiboun, who combines his job as Laos' only coroner with being a traditional shaman, the embodiment of an ancient spirit. The coroner has no problems using both his scientific training and his shamanic calling to solve crimes. This duality is the reason why this makes such classic magic realism. 

The author's biography ( reveals why this book works so well: this is a man who has lived and worked within Laos and its culture for years. The book has an authenticity about it that makes the magic element work. You really get a sense of the weary run-down feel of the country, the stupidity of those in authority and people going about their lives the best they can. That is not to say that the book is dry, far from it, it is full of satire about life under the new regime: Under a recent directive, inspectors had to apply for weapons from the armoury on an 'as needed' basis. A total of nine signatures was required. Uniformed officers still carried guns but they had to get thirteen signatures if they wanted bullets to put in them. One of the joys of the book is watching the seventy-two year old Siri getting around the restrictions of authority.  

All in all the book is an enjoyable read, although I found the climax of Siri's female assistant trapped and needing rescuing a bit of a cliche, and goes to show that magic realism is an approach that can be applied to the least likely of genres.

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Wednesday 1 May 2013

The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce

Sam and his friends are like any normal gang of normal young boys. Roaming wild around the outskirts of their car-factory town. Daring adults to challenge their freedom.

Until the day Sam wakes to find the Tooth Fairy sitting on the edge of his bed. Not the benign figure of childhood myth, but an enigmatic presence that both torments and seduces him, changing his life forever.

Goodreads Description

In my review of This Magnificent Desolation I talked about the use of magic realism as a means of portraying the psychology of leading characters. This book is an excellent example of such an approach. 

As has been the case with so many of the books I have reviewed on this blog this is a coming-of-age tale. Sam's coming of age, and that of his friends, is set in early 1960's Coventry and so not surprisingly reflects the confusion of the age as young people challenged their elders through drink, drugs, and sex. At the heart of the book is the friendship of the gang of three boys - Sam, Terry and Clive. The blurb above may talk of a normal gang of normal young boys, but each is in his way disturbed: a badge which the boys wear with pride. Although the basis for Terry's disturbed nature goes back to a terrible incident early in the book and Clive's problems seem to stem from being academically brilliant when he wants not to be, Sam's pyschological problems are not explained.  The gang's exploits start as petty vandalism and move into very dangerous behaviour with dire consequences. 

With occasional exceptions this book is seen from the point of view of Sam. We see the tooth fairy through his eyes, but what is it? Sam's psychiatrist regards the Tooth Fairy as a creation of Sam's mind, but is he right? The Tooth Fairy's incarnation certainly reflects Sam's state of mind: at times supportive, at times malevolent, full of the burgeoning sexuality and violence that one finds in teenage boys. The Tooth Fairy at times seems to be an external expression of Sam's hidden obsessions, fears and desires. On one occasion the boys are being taught to ride. Clive and Terry are having problems with their mounts, but Sam's is quietly waiting until: “I LOVE HORSES!' shrieked the Tooth Fairy over his shoulder and off the horse hurtles with Terry clinging on. It's as if Sam's caution is overthrown by a deeper need for speed and danger. In Jungian terms the Tooth Fairy is Sam's shadow, the repository of everything we repress about ourselves and which will break out at times of stress. In Jung's view it is good to embrace the shadow and so at those times when Sam accepts the Tooth Fairy, the Fairy ceases to be malevolent and introduces him to astronomy.
At no time does Sam ever doubt the reality of the Tooth Fairy, including at the end of the book when Sam is a young man. So should we dismiss it as Sam's fantasy? As his psychiatrist says Sam seems to be quite normal apart from his belief in the Tooth Fairy. A key point would appear to be that occasionally other people (including the psychiatrist) are reported as seeing the Tooth Fairy. But Joyce's treatment of the Tooth Fairy remains ambiguous - the reports of sightings could be a result of Sam's interpretation of other events and there are dream sequences which only are shown to be untrue at their end. As has been noted in other reviews on this blog ambiguity is a common trait in magic realism.

I found this book fascinating. I normally would have shied away from it, as it is often labelled as horror and that is a genre that I don't choose to read. This book defies genre. I would have classified it perhaps as contemporary fantasy, pyschological, or simple magic realism. 

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