Wednesday 30 July 2014

Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto

Chorus of Mushrooms heralds the debut of a young Japanese Canadian feminist, Hiromi Goto. Until the publication of Chorus of Mushrooms in 1994, the primary voice heard from Japanese Canadians was that of the people interned during World War II. Hiromi Goto examines the immigration experience of the Japanese Canadian beyond war and into present day Alberta. Celebrating cultural differences as a privilege, Chorus of Mushrooms explores the shifts and collisions of culture through the lives of three generations of women in a Japanese family living in a small prairie town.

Amazon description

I am often asked how I find all the magic-realism books I have in my collection and which I review here. Sometimes it is by recommendation, such as the inclusion in one of the magic-realism lists you find on the web, sometimes (if it is a new book) through Netgalley and Edelweis, but sometimes it is by luck, one might say magic. My husband and I are a great frequenters of second-hand and charity bookshops. In which case I usually work my way along the shelves with an alphabetical list of books I am looking for and occasionally I pick a book off the shelves which is not on that list. Chorus of Mushrooms is such a book. I think what caused me to take down this book was a combination of the author's name (I find that authors with non-English names are more likely to write magic realism) and the title, which sounded as though it might be magic realist. Sure enough, on the back was a quote from a review referring to the book's magic realism. So I paid the £2.50 being asked and went home with it in my bag. I opened the book with trepidation. I had been playing with a short story idea about mushrooms and was worried that Hiromi Goto had got there first. I am relieved to inform you that she has not.  

So what  is this novel about? As is the case with much good literary fiction it works on several levels. As the description states, the immigration experience of a Japanese family in Canada is at the heart of the novel.  The three generations of grandmother (Naoe), daughter (Keiko) and granddaughter (Murasaki) have very different attitudes to their Japanese roots. Naoe refuses to speak English and mourns the loss of her life in Japan. Keiko rejects her mother's Japanese culture, trying to be more Canadian than the Canadians. And Murasaki tries to find her own Japanese/Canadian heritage. I am reminded of If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz, which I reviewed last year, which had a similar inter-generational culture clash. Not only would it seem that this is part if the immigration experience but that it is highly suited for a magic realist treatment. 

The cultural clash is also expressed through language and story-telling. Naoe, refusing to speak English, sits near the door speaking continuously in Japanese. Keiko in turn refuses to speak Japanese, with the result that mother and daughter do not appear to communicate. Murasaki wants to communicate with her grandmother but is denied the language. But as the book progresses it becomes clear that language exists on more than one level. Throughout the book there are conversations between Naoe and Murasaki, which seem able to happen in their heads and without them physically speaking to each other.  On two occasions first Naoe and then Murasaki are not sure what language they are speaking. 

Storytelling is an integral part of the book. Murasaki asks Naoe to tell her traditional folktales, but it is not clear how accurately she is in their retelling: Child, this is not the story I learned, but it is the  story I tell. It is the nature of words to change with the telling. They are changing in your mind even as I speak. The book is framed as a story being told by Murasaki to her boyfriend, which allows Goto to expand on the metafiction aspect of the book.  She uses it to draw the reader's attention to the book's structure. For example, the unnamed Japanese lover says: You switch around in time a lot... I get all mixed up. I don’t know in what order things really happened. To which Murasaki/Goto replies: There isn’t a time line. It’s not a linear equation. You start in the middle and unfold outward from here.  Goto is on record at expressing her frustration that people require closure to the story, whilst women's lives tend to go in circles. As Naoe says: there is always room for beginnings.

Naoe's story begins again halfway through the book. And as her story separates from those of Murasaki and Keiko we move increasingly into mythic realism. Is this Naoe's story or Muraski's imagined story about her grandmother? Freed from her place on the chair by the door Naoe takes (or is taken on) a road trip across Canada, where she becomes both a real and mythical figure.  Meanwhile Murasaki and her mother begin to connect through the medium of food.  There is a whole essay to be devoted the function of food in this novel. As Murasaki says: There are people who say that eating is only a superficial means of understanding a
different culture... I  say that’s a lie. What can be more basic than food itself? Food to begin to grow? ... But don’t stop there, my friend, don’t stop there, because food is the point of departure. A place where growth begins.”

There is so much to write about this slim (220 page) novel. I wasn't sure about it at first, as it took some time getting going and I took some time getting used to Goto's style, but I really enjoyed it and as you can see I have been thinking about it ever since I read the last word.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

The Grass Dancer by Susan Power

Back in the 1860s, Ghost Horse, a handsome young heyo'ka, or sacred clown, loved and lost the beautiful warrior woman Red Dress. Since then, their spirits have sought desperately to be reunited, and it is the ceaseless playing out of this drama that shapes the sometimes violent fate of those who have come after them. Now, in the 1980s, Charlene Thunder, a teenage descendant of Red Dress, is in love with Harley Wind Soldier, the dashing traditional dancer of Ghost Horse's lineage. When Harley's redheaded soul mate, Pumpkin, dies in a crash, Charlene guiltily suspects her own grandmother, the notorious witch Anna Thunder, of causing it - as she well may have caused the collision that claimed Harley's father and brother, which even today obsesses him. Charlene and Harley each strive in solitude to make peace with the ghosts of the old ways, while they contend with the living: Jeannette McVay, an eastern college student who has been studying the tribe; Crystal Thunder, who must escape the reservation in order to understand her past; Herod Small War, whose spiritual guidance is both revered and resented; Margaret Many Wounds, Harley's grandmother, who walks on the moon.
Goodreads description 

I loved this book and could hardly bear to put it down. In fact it is now one of my favourite magic realist books, which is saying a lot (this is the 116th review on this blog). There are some books that you should read in one sitting or as near to one as you can get. This is one such book. Each chapter in the book is almost a separate story, narrated by different characters at different times (it is important to make a note of the year that appears under each chapter heading). This patchwork of stories comes together to form the larger picture. This structure is why it is important to read the book rapidly, because you can lose your way if you take too long. I felt very much that I was dreaming when I read the book - experiencing a series of instances, visions, references that came in and out of focus, until at last they formed one vision. 

Dreaming and visions are at the heart of this book. The full story of Red Dress does not come until towards the end of the book, but she appears in the dreams and visions of the characters throughout the book. I read somewhere that that is how Susan Power got the idea for the book - the woman in a red dress appeared to her. The line between the real and the dream is constantly blurring. Which is real - the dream or the waking? Power makes it clear how central dreams were and are to Sioux culture. I can't help thinking that they should be more important to the culture of the white man (and woman in my case). It seems to me that we have lost something when we forgot to take our dreamworld as seriously as our waking. 

There are some memorable characters in this book - the most notable being the awful and awesome Anna (Mercury) Thunder. She could so easily have been a stereotype, but Power gives her a back story that shows that she was not always the witch she becomes and also explains why she changed. Of course the book's structure of telling characters' stories in reverse makes the revelation of Anna Thunder's past tragedy all the stronger.

If I have one criticism it is that there are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, especially as the book's chronology jumps about so much. One of the reasons for my confusion was that the storyline is structured almost as a series of variations on a theme, with incidents reappearing through the generations.  In this I was reminded of Alan Garner's books, which so influenced me as a child and which also feature legends that reappear in the present day.

I have read a number of excellent magic realist books dealing with the complexity of life of modern Native Americans in a predominantly white society, but none have shown mixed marriages and mixed parentage as this book does. The different generations (apart from Red Dress's) all feature inter-race relationships. And yet this book shows the native "magic" as very much a part of accepted everyday life. On the reservation magic just happens and everyone accepts it.  This is contrasted with the attitude of the white schoolteacher who comes to live with and study Anna Thunder.  Despite being around Anna and supposedly respecting Sioux heritage and culture, she is shocked and scared when she realizes that Anna can actually work her magic.  As Anna affirms: I am not a fairytale. 

No Anna you are not and nor are your beliefs and nor is magic realism.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Invisible Beasts by Sharon Muir

Sophie is an amateur naturalist with a rare genetic gift: the ability to see a marvelous kingdom of invisible, sentient creatures that share a vital relationship with humankind. To record her observations, Sophie creates a personal bestiary and, as she relates the strange abilities of these endangered beings, her tales become extraordinary meditations on love, sex, evolution, extinction, truth, and self-knowledge.

In the tradition of E.O. Wilson’s Anthill, Invisible Beasts is inspiring, philosophical, and richly detailed fiction grounded by scientific fact and a profound insight into nature. The fantastic creations within its pages—an ancient animal that uses natural cold fusion for energy, a species of vampire bat that can hear when their human host is lying, a continent-sized sponge living under the ice of Antarctica—illuminate the role that all living creatures play in the environment and remind us of what we stand to lose if we fail to recognize our entwined destinies.
Excerpt from Amazon description

This is a hard book to categorize -  short story collection, novel, bestiary, philosophical contemplation and of course magic realism, all could be used in the book's description and all somehow fall short. Some people will have problems with that. But those of us who love magic realism also love the playing with boundaries, with ambiguity. 

Each chapter is a description of a species of invisible animal, narrated by Sophie. These could be cutesy bits of fantasy, but instead in Sharon Muir's hands they are used to explore our human relationship with animals. This could in turn simply be an environmentalist parable, but Ms Muir also uses it to reflect on human nature and indeed what is humanity. 

The subjects of the tales move the enormous, such as the continent-sized sponge, to the minuscule, such as the wonderful Fine Print Rotifers (FPR). The stories are at times laugh-out-loud funny - the FPR eat the ink on printed documents, thus making the fine print unintelligible - and sometimes sad and profound. The story of the invisible dogs falls into the latter category - the dogs in question being so low in canine social order that they choose to be invisible. 

The animals featured in this book may be fictional, but the stories are strengthened considerably by the obvious scientific knowledge that underpins them. That knowledge feeds into the writer's imagination, whilst at the same time making it clear that there is nothing that human beings can imagine that is more remarkable than that which is created in reality by Mother Nature. 

The use of a narrator, Sophie, adds commentary to the stories as well as personalizing them. Through her narration we catch glimpses of Sophie and her family. Sophie is a likable young woman who is struggling with a sense of responsibility for the invisible animals that she can see. 

I spoke earlier of the philosophical nature of this work. To my mind it is influenced by the Renaissance bestiaries and by Renaissance philosophers such as Erasmus. The book hints at its debt to the great Dutchman: the FPR erase the lines with which Erasmus's In Praise of Folly was censored, revealing the truth of what he had written and Sophie's influential granduncle is called Erasmus, who in turn quotes from the poetry of Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus Darwin's poems combined fiction and scientific observation and proposed evolution seventy years before his better-known grandson Charles published his theories. 

At the heart of this book is an exploration of the relationship between imagination and science. "You," laughed my sister, "totally have an imagination. And you care about animals. You know what I think? Without imagination, we can't stop extinction." 

The publisher Bellevue Literary Press' mission statement states that they are devoted to publishing literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences because we believe that science and the humanities are natural companions for understanding the human experience. I shall certainly be watching out for more of their books.

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

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Monday 14 July 2014

White Rabbit by K.A. Laity

Sometimes the shadows that haunt us are what lead us back to the light

Disgraced former police detective James Draygo has sunk as low as his habit allows, working as a fake psychic despite his very real talents. When a media mogul’s trashy trophy wife gets gunned down at his tapping table he has to decide whether he can straighten up long enough to save his own skin. He may not have a choice with Essex’s loudest ghost bawling in his ear about cults, conspiracies and cut-rate drugs. Oblivion sounds better all the time…

From Goodreads Description 

This book starts as old-fashioned crime noir: a rich woman fearing her man seeks help from washed-up former cop. It happens to be a genre I am very fond of and before my self-imposed task of reading and reviewing magic realist books I would often be found with my nose in a Ross Macdonald or Raymond Chandler. So when this magic realist take on crime noir crossed my laptop screen I jumped at the chance to read it. 

From the first line Draygo is narrating in the crime noir style with dry witty descriptions. Add a wise-cracking tough young female reporter who Draygo compares to Lauren Bacall and we are in familiar territory. This is a clever book and it wears its cleverness on its sleeve: Draygo has a habit of referencing Shakespeare, Webster, P G Wodehouse, Ghostbusters, famous spiritualists, to say nothing of various fictional detectives and of course Lewis Carroll. 

Then you get the twist - Draygo is playing at being a fake medium, but actually does communicate with the dead, or rather they communicate with him, much against his will.  This is not a completely new idea. Hilary Mantel used it in Beyond Black, but that was not a detective story. The victim in White Rabbit - an Essex moll by the name of Peaches Dockmuir - makes a wonderful ghost who is seriously pissed with her husband for bumping her off. 

So far so good. I was really enjoying the read and the ride, but with the arrival of the villain (an Australian media magnate with headquarters in Canary Wharf) and his heavies things started to go wrong for me - not seriously as I still enjoyed the read but not as much as before. The book started to move away from magic realism.  Instead of being in a Philip Marlowe book we had moved into a comic sci-fi adventure with a James Bond villain. Whilst I loved the crime-noir spiritualism mash-up, this was taking it a bit too far and the plot became predictable: climax scene in the villain's lair, anyone? Nevertheless White Rabbit was an enjoyable read.

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

Wednesday 9 July 2014

The Second Magic Realism Bloghop is Approaching.

Last year I was joined by sixteen wonderful bloggers for the first Magic Realism Bloghop.  Over the three day bloghop we generated twenty-five posts about magic realism. 

I am inviting bloggers to join me again for the second Magic Realism Bloghop. All you have to do is write a post about magic realism on one of the days of the hop and provide a link to the other blogs on the hop (I will send you the link you will need to include via an email).  

Not sure what to write? Take a look at the posts in the 2013 bloghop -

If you are interested sign up below.  Please publicize the bloghop to your readers - feel free to download and reuse the image above and/or this smaller version:

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link

Kelly Link’s engaging and funny second collection — call it kitchen-sink magical realism — riffs on haunted convenience stores, husbands and wives, rabbits, zombies, weekly apocalyptic poker parties, witches, superheroes, marriage, and cannons — and includes several new stories. Link is an original voice: no one else writes quite like this.
Description from the author's website 

I have been reading this collection of short stories for a while,  not because I have not been enjoying it but because I have. The stories work best to my mind if you stop between them to allow each one to sink into your mind and your subconscious. Believe me these are stories that have a habit of coming back. 

Kelly Link has a way of writing which is at times witty: the zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you and at times very dark, and sometimes both simultaneously.  This can be very disconcerting. The description above talks of "kitchen-sink magical realism".  Link's voice is often quite conversational and even chatty,  so when the fantasy/horror elements appear they shock all the more.

Stylistically the stories are deceptively simple.  You think you are reading one story and find that there are actually several stories.  In the title story you think you are reading about a group of teenagers who are obsessed with a strange TV series, but then you begin to realize that the teenagers could themselves be in a TV show and even that the two shows are linked.  At one level the book is about a teenage boy coping with his growing feelings about girls: Jeremy Mars knows a lot about the planet Mars, although he's never been there. He knows some girls, and yet he doesn't know much about them. He wishes there were books about girls, the way there are books about Mars, that you could observe the orbits and brightness of girls through telescopes without appearing to be perverted.  These feelings slide into his obsession with the weird TV series and the reader begins to understand that the surreal world of the TV series is not simply fantastical but is reflecting the central character.  

The story Stone Animals is a very strong horror story, which starts with a family buying a house. The family is a recognizable one - the wife is pregnant and is obsessively nest-building, the husband is torn between a demanding boss and the demands of his family. We discover in the first paragraph that the house is said to be haunted. This haunting is expressed in the family members feeling such unease about their possessions that they can't bear to have them in the house and this spills into the family relationships. Is the haunting real or has the house move placed a strain on the family.  Later in the story you discover that the wife had previously invented an affair in order to give her husband a problem to solve, so clearly all is not right with their relationship. I found myself more disturbed by this narrative than many more "horrifying" stories.

Other stories - such as  The Faery Handbag and Catskin - were closer to fairytalesBoth of which were great, but they are probably not magic realism. And there are two zombie stories, The Hortlak and Some Zombie Contingency Plan, which probably are. As is the case in most collections of stories there were some I liked less than others.  The Lull and The Great Divorce dragged for me.  

You can get four of the nine stories from the collection free online:
Go on, try a few.