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.