Sunday 28 September 2014

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

A heartbroken American writer starts a story about an ice-cold sombrero that falls inexplicably from the sky and lands in the centre of a small Southwest town. Devastated by the departure of his gorgeous Japanese girlfriend, he cannot concentrate on his writing and in frustration he throws away his beginning.

But as the man searches through his apartment for strands of his lost love's hair, the discarded story in the wastepaper basket - through some kind of elaborate origami - carries on without him. Arguments over the sombrero begin, one thing leads to another and before long all hell breaks loose in the normally sleep town.

Brautigan's fertile imagination twists and pulls at the ensuing chaos to come up with a tender, moving, surreal and incredibly funny tale that is told by a writer at the very peak of his creative powers.

Goodreads description

MEANWHILE BACK IN the waste-paper basket -- what a way to start a chapter! And what is happening in the paper basket? The story discarded by the central character has decided it will continue without him. This is a magic realist story on both levels. It is metafiction and it contains a magical sombrero. What more could you want from a magic realist book? 

I had been meaning to read some Brautigan as part of my magic realism challenge and then the opportunity to review this new edition by Canongate (with introduction by Jarvis Cocker, which you can read if you follow the link below) came up and I jumped at it.  I am delighted I did - I love this book. It is a joy from start to finish. 

I am not sure what I was expecting. I rather had Brautigan down as some hippy author and suspected that his magic realism would be whimsical. Indeed I have seen it described as such, but it isn't, not by my definition anyway. This book is funny, but it is also sad. The central character, a humourous fiction author with no sense of humour, is devastated by the loss of his Japanese lover. The poor woman has finally fled this relationship with a man who is so complex that he ties himself into knots over whether to eat a tuna sandwich (even though he has no tuna). She was never going to go out with another writer: no matter how charming, sensitive, inventive or fun they could be. They weren't worth it in the long run. They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around the house that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it.
She wanted her next lover to be a broom.

Whilst her former lover obsesses about whether to ring her, imagining what she would say and that she is in the arms of another man, she is asleep and dreaming. The book shifts from the author to the woman and then into the story developing in the waste-paper basket. Nothing much happens in the "real life" stories: the writer is paralyzed by his revolving thoughts, the woman is simply sleeping, but Brautigan draws a brilliant picture of a relationship that is going nowhere. 

Brautigan's writing style is so economical and yet so beautiful that it reminds me of Japanese haiku:

Yukiko rolled over.
That plain, that simple.
Her body was small in its moving.
And her hair followed, dreaming her as she moved.
A cat, her cat, in bed with her was awakened by her moving, and watched her turn slowly over in bed. When she stopped moving, the cat went back to sleep.
It was a black cat and could have been a suburb of her hair.

That piece is one chapter in the book. Yes, a chapter. But what more is there to say?

Meanwhile back in the waste-paper basket the story is moving forward. The arrival of the frozen sombrero out of a blue sky starts a train of dramatic events: The crowd was becoming larger and more active... They were proceeding on schedule step by step down the path that would end with them battling Federal troops and cause their small town to be plunged into world focus. It wouldn't be long now. The comparison between the dynamic arc of the story, with its series of causes and effects, and the stasis in the life of the humourist is marked. Is this the difference between fiction and reality? But then the story of the humourist is also fictional.

But what about the sombrero? It's still there, lying in the street... How can you miss a very cold white sombrero lying in the Main Street of a town? 
In other words: There is more to life than meets the eye.

Indeed there is. Wonderful!

I am very grateful to the publisher, Canongate, for allowing me to read this book in return for a fair review. It has been one of the highlights in my career as a reviewer. 

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Wednesday 24 September 2014

The Wilds by Julia Elliott

At an obscure South Carolina nursing home, a lost world reemerges as a disabled elderly woman undergoes newfangled brain-restoration procedures and begins to explore her environment with the assistance of strap-on robot legs. At a deluxe medical spa on a nameless Caribbean island, a middle-aged woman hopes to revitalize her fading youth with grotesque rejuvenating therapies that combine cutting-edge medical technologies with holistic approaches and the pseudo-religious dogma of Zen-infused self-help. And in a rinky-dink mill town, an adolescent girl is unexpectedly inspired by the ravings and miraculous levitation of her fundamentalist friend’s weird grandmother. These are only a few of the scenarios readers encounter in Julia Elliott’s debut collection, The Wilds. In these genre-bending stories, teetering between the ridiculous and the sublime, Elliott’s language-driven fiction uses outlandish tropes to capture poignant moments in her humble characters’ lives. Without abandoning the tenets of classic storytelling, Elliott revels in lush lyricism, dark humor, and experimental play.
Goodreads description

When I saw the cover and read that the contents were being compared to the stories of  Karen Russell, Aimee Bender and Kelly Link I thought this would be a great book to review for this magic realist blog. I should have been warned by the phrase "genre-bending stories" that the book would not fit neatly into magic realism. In an interview, which appears on the publisher's website, Julia Elliott is quoted as saying:  For me, minimal evocation of “unreal” elements is the best way to hit upon certain emotional or philosophical insights, though other writers do this more effectively by adhering to a strict “realism” or throwing themselves whole hog into “fantastical” worlds. Both methods, to be effective, require a meticulous mastery of language and tone. To me, genre is not a package for a story, but a vehicle to be used within it—and some of my favorite fictions genre-mix liberally and magically.

Elsewhere I have seen the collection described as Southern Gothic, which for readers who, like me, have not come across the term before, is defined on Wikipedia as a subgenre of Gothic fiction that takes place exclusively in the American South. It regularly features deeply flawed, disturbing and eccentric characters.. grotesque situations and other similar events. Examples of writers of Southern Gothic include Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner.  The Wilds is certainly dark, too dark for me at times.  But there was also much that I enjoyed, not least the flashes of humour that leavened the darkness.

The stories are generally very different from one another and totally immerse you in their worlds. These worlds may be very different from my own, but they are so well written that I had no difficulty in seeing them. The dialogue in particular is extremely strong - it is as if it is transcribed from real conversations. The narrator also often speaks as if directly talking to the reader, whilst at the same time being almost poetic in her description: His skin's as smooth as the metalized paint that coats a fiberglass mannequin. His body's a bundle of singing muscles. When he walks, he hovers three millimeters off the ground - you have to look carefully to detect his levitational power, but, yes, you can see it: the bastard floats.

Levitation is one of the few clear examples of "magic" in the book. It is also appears in one of my favourite stories in the collection, Rapture, in which two girls go for a sleepover with a family whose live-in grandmother has mysterious religious powers. "Aw crap," said Brunell. "She's got the Holy Ghost on her. We'll never hear the end of it now."
From the depths of Meemaw, a strange voice came bubbling up: the voice of a primordial masculine spirit, the voice of Darth Vader.

The issue of old age and dementia appears in two other stories. In Jaws a woman on holiday with her elderly parents slowly recognizes her mother's confusion. Limbs has to be my favourite story in the book. It is a tale of an old woman with synthetic limbs whose memories of her relationships with two men become clear as she becomes more mobile.

The title story is about a young teenage girl drawn to a feral family next door which includes a boy who wears a wolf mask at full moon. It is a portrayal of acne, teenage awakening and insecurity. The Whipping is also about a teenage girl, this time in her own weird family, waiting for and trying to put off the beating that is coming her way. Organisms is also about teenagers but this time seen from the adult point of view. 

The stories that worked less well for me tended to be the ones which deal with the obsessions of middle age, which is interesting as I am 56. There are two stories that satirize health resorts and their users. In these the central characters, women, are in failing relationships and are looking for someone else. The same is true of the central character in Feral. The Love Machine is the exception to the general rule that the central character is female but then he isn't male either - the character is a robot. 

An interesting collection, but not one I will reread. But I am sure Julia Elliott will find readers who will.

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

Wednesday 17 September 2014

By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente

From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in. Across 13 stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief.
Goodreads description

The short story form seems extremely well-suited to magic realism and vice versa. I have reviewed some excellent short story collections on this blog and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of this collection from the publisher. I wouldn't say that By Light We Knew Our Names is as high in my estimation as Moscow, But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia or Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, but it is very good.

The focus of the stories tends to be on relationships, especially on those things that go unsaid when people in a marriage or a family experience a trauma, such as the death of a loved one: 

To a Place Where We Take Flight - a teenage boy prepares to play a concert in the hospice where his mother is dying. The story explores the relationship between father and son as they try to cope with the impending death.
Terrible Angels - this time the story explores the experience of a teenage girl and her father after the death of her mother, with the ghostly presence of her grandparents leaving clues around the house.
If Everything Fell Silent, Even Sirens - a strange noise, perhaps a tornado siren or perhaps the call of dolphins, reflects or calls forth the deep anger and pain of a young pregnant wife, who has lost her father.  
A Taste of Tea - a mother's response to her husband's desertion seen through the eyes of her teenage son.
Minivan - the narrator, a teacher, worries about his partner, who has been sexually assaulted, and is unable to reach her. 

Anne Valente is very good at portraying the otherness of the world of children and sometimes uses magic realism to explore this:

Latchkey - when Sasha receives her birthday present from her parents she refuses to open it, although urged to do so by her friends - Ben whose head is encircled by planets, Travis whose belly is a fishbowl, and Jane who has a small librarian in her pocket. What is in the present and will Sasha open it?
A Very Compassionate Baby - a baby becomes obsessed with a flower in the garden and his father becomes worried that the baby sees something else.
Not for Ghosts or Daffodils - a father and his daughter try to cope with the departure of his wife and her mother for a new life which excludes them. The girl creates an imaginary friend (the ghost of a daffodil). When a pink baby dolphin arrives in the bay, the animal takes on special importance for both of them.
Until Our Shadows Claim Us - a class of children believe they have summoned up the phantom of a childkiller as over a year members of the group disappear from their beds.

Another subject that features in Anne Valente's stories  is the world of teenagers and their rites of passage:
Dear Amelia - a group of girls follow the exploits of Amelia Earhart admiringly as they realize that they are trapped in a life which condemns them to be half bear.
Everything that was Ours - the story of a group of young men who steal two dinosaurs from a theme park.
By Light We Knew Our Names - a group of girls, trapped in a town where abuse of women is common, meets under the Northern Lights to practice fighting back. 

Not all the stories are magic realism; some might be but the treatment is so ambiguous that you cannot know and some aren't magic realism. As always there are some stories I liked better than others. I found the themes and their treatment a bit narrow. I suppose I like my magic realism to fly more, but that is a personal preference. Nevertheless the collection shows that Anne Valente is an author to watch.

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

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Neuri Shape-Shifter by Leigh Podgorski

The third book of the Stone Quest Series finds Luke and Beth's marriage reeling as daughter Bridget Grace struggles for autonomy, her psychic abilities, as she approaches menses, soaring.

Adding to the tumult is the case of three missing girls vanished from the Lower East Side of Manhattan where Luke lived as the disciple of the black magician Armand Jacobi. Luke's investigation takes him to the raging Vampire Club scene where ominous signs point irrefutably to Jacobi's involvement.

Then, BG vanishes, leaving behind only a cryptic note.

Luke's world is further shattered by the sudden appearance of a beautiful older woman-- Danuta Dabrowitz, his mother, bringing with her the memories and painful secrets of his childhood.

Luke's investigation grows more gruesome, and more deadly-- turning up the skeletal remains of Matthew, the boy whose murder twenty-five years ago has haunted Luke all his life. Working closely with retired NYPD Detective Stan Banor and his men, and with retired Sheriff Esther Rinaldi, Luke is no longer working a missing persons case, but a homicide.

Then Danuta tells him of their heritage to an ancient people, the Neuri, who possess enormous powers, including the power of shape-shifting-- a power that Armand Jacobi himself may share. In battle against his arch-enemy once again, surrounded with warriors he is not sure he can trust, including himself, Luke Stone follows the trail from New Camen, NH, to Alphabet City, NY, to the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan, in the race of his lifetime to save his daughter's life.

Goodreads Description

Leigh Podgorski is a member of the Magic Realism Facebook group I administer and one of the bloggers involved in the Magic Realism bloghop. In the two years of the Facebook Group I have watched as Leigh wrestled with whether she wrote magic realism or not. When I saw Neuri Shape-shifter go free on Amazon I downloaded it to see what I thought. 

The first thing I thought was this is a rollicking good read. Leigh certainly knows how to structure a story to keep the reader turning the pages. Do I detect some of her theatre background here? She uses dramatic irony to such good effect - allowing the reader to see inside the mind not only of Luke and his daughter, but also the antagonist Armand. These shifts of point of view increase the tension for the reader, who can see the impending trap. The POV changes are really clear - the voices are so individual and well-drawn. One suggestion - Bridget's journal entries are formatted in italic, which I thought unnecessary, especially as blocks of italics are hard to read.

The second thought was that I don't envy Leigh's job of classifying this book. When she started the Stone Quest series Leigh described it as magic realism, but in her contribution to this year's bloghop she has changed her mind -

This book could be put in so many categories. Paranormal came first to mind - spirits, black magic and satanism all appear in its pages.  I see that Leigh did label it 'paranormal' for a while but gave up doing so. The trouble with that moniker is that what generally passes for paranormal (and what the typical reader wants) doesn't really allow for the depth of the psychology or the spiritual nature of the book. 

So what about magic realism? This really got me thinking. My instinct is that it is not magic realism. But why?  This question is something that is a constant source of debate on the Facebook Group and in the bloghop posts. Yes the book is set in contemporary USA and yes it features magic, so why not? For me the magic was too upfront, too all embracing for magic realism. But then what about The Master and Margarita? In that book we have not just a satanist but the devil himself wreaking magical havoc on Moscow. It is the nature of magic realism to make us question both reality and magic. Leigh's book didn't have me questioning reality. And Bulgakov's classic does that. Moreover the actions of Woland and his servants are directed at the realists who will not accept magic or faith as real. If pushed I suppose I would say that it is dark fantasy perhaps, in the way that I would say Neil Gaiman's novels are.  Amazon lists it as "horror - occult". I have to say that I never read horror, unless it is also magic realism, and even then have problems with it.
The third thing was how detailed the characterization was. Armand's attitude to Luke is ambiguous - moving from hurt to pride to vengeance in a matter of sentences. There is a strong Jungian influence here and not just in the superficial Hollywood Hero's Journey way. Luke and Armand aren't opposites so much as mirrors. They have much in common. I was struck that all three main characters were gifted with magic, including the antagonist. The magic/realist clash is not reflected in the characters' relationships. And yet one might say the clash is internalized in the central character. In this book Luke is confronting not only his nemesis Armand but also the Shadow in himself: the possibility that he too has murdered. 

What to do with a series of books with strong focus on character development is a problem I have experienced myself. A major story arc across the books is the main character's self realization. Then in each book there is also the battle with Armand. I read this book without having read the first two in the Stone Quest series and I think that was a mistake. Leigh does an excellent job in setting up the book so that you can read it as a standalone, but there is so much to set up that I felt somewhat overwhelmed. I needed the slower build up that the other two books would have provided.  That is because my interest is in the character development rather than the will he/won't he storyline which this book has in buckets.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

A young Native American woman remembers her volatile childhood as she searches for her lost brother in the Canadian wilds in an extraordinary, critically acclaimed debut novel

As she races along Canada’s Douglas Channel in her speedboat—heading toward the place where her younger brother Jimmy, presumed drowned, was last seen—twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill recalls her younger days. A volatile and precocious Native girl growing up in Kitamaat, the Haisla Indian reservation located five hundred miles north of Vancouver, Lisa came of age standing with her feet firmly planted in two different worlds: the spiritual realm of the Haisla and the sobering “real” world with its dangerous temptations of violence, drugs, and despair. From her beloved grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, she learned of tradition and magic; from her adored, Elvis-loving uncle Mick, a Native rights activist on a perilous course, she learned to see clearly, to speak her mind, and never to bow down. But the tragedies that have scarred her life and ultimately led her to these frigid waters cannot destroy her indomitable spirit, even though the ghosts that speak to her in the night warn her that the worst may be yet to come.

Publisher's description

This is another excellent example of magic realist writing by a member of the North American native peoples. In this case the writer is from the Canadian Haisla people who live in British Columbia. Monkey Beach is full of the detail of the Haisla life, which is a significant part of its appeal. The book, like its heroine, at once embraces elements of Haisla tradition and mysticism and at the same time faces the hard realities of life. Not least of those realities is the legacy of abuse experienced by Lisa's uncle and aunt in the residential schools that a generation of Haisla children were forced into. One of the aspects of the book which I admired was the way Eden Robinson did not overplay this, relying instead on the reader's intelligence to work out what happened to Mick and how that was still impacting on him and his behaviour.

It is generally accepted that an important element in magic realism is the portrayal of a world in which the spiritual life of an indigenous people comes up against the dominant rationalist beliefs of the colonizer. But, as I have noted elsewhere in this blog, there is also a role for magic realism in the portrayal of psychology. It seemed to me when I read this book that the magic realism here was as much about Lisa's psychology as a cultural clash. Lisa is a feisty teenager with a tendency to confront rather than flee. But when it comes to the "gift" of foresight, she tries to ignore it. When something terrible is going to happen she is visited by a little red-headed man. I was reminded of Graham Joyce's Toothfairy when I read about Lisa's visitor. Lisa's resistance results in a crisis when she blames herself for her grandmother's death and she runs away from the ancestral homeland to the big city, where she sinks into a cycle of hedonism and self abuse. Eventually saved by the ghost (?) of her cousin, she returns home and in so doing starts to rediscover herself, seeing a Sasquatch on the road:I felt deeply comforted knowing that magical things were still living in the world.

The monkeys in the title are the legendary Sasquatch or bigfoot, who appear throughout the book, but always in our peripheral vision. Robinson's writing in some ways is more "realist" than in other novels I have read tackling similar subjects. At times the magic is so vague as to make it unclear whether it is not just a dream or Lisa's imagination. Lisa herself is unclear. I liked this ambiguity and felt it to be an accurate portrayal of real-life magic. 

The book is told in a series of flashbacks. These are at times confusing, but so they should be - we are inside Lisa's head as she travels not only to a real location but also to a legendary one. Her journey is a mystical one, she is travelling to the land of the Sasquatch, to the land of ghosts and the dead. As she nears her destination the tone and style of the writing changes. Some people might find the shift somewhat abrupt and thus might find the ending unsatisfactory. I didn't, though I could also have done with more knowledge about the beliefs and customs which lie under the text, as I felt I was missing out on some things which are significant.

The novel was first published in 2000 and now has been digitized and published by Open Road Media as an ebook along with two other books by the same author.  I received my copy from the publisher in return for a fair review.