Wednesday 29 October 2014

Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman

Nora Silk doesn’t really fit in on Hemlock Street, where every house looks the same. She's divorced. She wears a charm bracelet and high heels and red toreador pants. And the way she raises her kids is a scandal. But as time passes, the neighbors start having second thoughts about Nora. The women’s apprehension evolves into admiration. The men’s lust evolves into awe. The children are drawn to her in ways they can't explain. And everyone on this little street in 1959 Long Island seems to sense the possibilities and perils of a different kind of future when they look at Nora Silk...This extraordinary novel by the author of The River King and Local Girls takes us back to a time when the exotic both terrified and intrigued us, and despite our most desperate attempts, our passions and secrets remained as stubbornly alive as the weeds in our well-trimmed lawns.
Goodreads description 

A major event in the magic realism fans' calendar is when another book by Alice Hoffman, the queen of contemporary American magic realism, goes on sale. In September there was an enormous event - Hoffman's first eight books were published by Open Road Media as ebooks. As well as this book (Seventh Heaven) the following are now available for download: At Risk, Property Of, Fortune's Daughter, Illumination Night, The Drowning Season, White Horses, and Angel Landing

I have previously reviewed two of Hoffman's novels here: The Story Sisters and her most recent the acclaimed The Museum of Extraordinary Things. It was fascinating to go back to her early work. Seventh Heaven was first published in 1990 but it shows all the signs of what we have come to expect from a Hoffman novel: complex characters, especially well-drawn young women, and  magic slipped into the ordinary world. 

Hoffman's story is set in 1959 American suburbia, on the type of estate described by Pete Seeger in his song Little Boxes -

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same. 

This is an America where conformity is everything and into it comes a young divorcee, her mind-reading son and small baby. Nora's being divorced is in itself a challenge to the myth of happy ever-after that underpins the lives of the inhabitants of the estate. Through the course of the book Hoffman peels the mask off the families to reveal the truth beneath as they are forced to face the reality of their lives and aspirations. 

There are some writers (including some I have recently reviewed) whose magic realism is also happy-ever-after, avoiding the uglier sides of life and using magic as a sweetener. Hoffman is not one of those. She tackles difficult subjects. As is the case in her other books the issue of the treatment of women is at the heart of the novel. But she does this with a lightness of touch, a sense of humour and subtle magic that illuminates the world. 

I recommend this book.

Open Road Media have created an exclusive interview with Alice Hoffman, which reveals her thinking about writing, symbolism and fairytales, here:

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

Saturday 25 October 2014

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Winner of the National Book Award: In the shadow of the Holocaust, a young girl discovers the power of magic.

In the schoolroom of a simple European village, Kicsi spends her days dreaming of the lands beyond the mountains: Paris and New York, Arabia and Shanghai. When the local rabbi curses Kicsi’s school for teaching lessons in Hebrew, the holy tongue, the possibility of adventure seems further away than ever. But when a mysterious stranger appears telling stories of far-off lands, Kicsi feels the world within her grasp.

His name is Vörös, and he is a magician’s assistant who seems to have powers all his own. There is darkness growing at the edge of the village—a darkness far blacker than any rabbi’s curse. Vörös warns of the Nazi threat, but only Kicsi hears what he says. As evil consumes a continent, Vörös will teach Kicsi that sometimes the magician’s greatest trick is survival.

Publisher's description

I had seen this title on lists of magic realist books and so had added it to the list of books which I carry with me whenever I visit second-hand bookshops. However when I found a copy in Hay-on-Wye the cover put me off, making me think that whoever had listed it had made a mistake and that this book was too fantastical to be magic realism. Here is that cover

Then a few weeks ago I saw the book featured on Netgalley. It has been republished as an ebook by the excellent Open Road Media. My interest was piqued by the description and I requested a review copy. I am glad I did. 

For those of you who are interested in the debate about where fantasy begins and magic realism ends this is definitely a book to ponder. Yes, there are straight fantasy scenes showing the magician's duels with the rabbi which could be in a Peter Jackson movie, but there is also a historical reality about the book, a reality which was more horrendous than anything that can be dreamed up by any horror writer. The chapters depicting Kicsi's experience in the death camps are powerfully accurate. Lisa Goldstein, a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, asks some awkward questions about the role of magic in modern Europe.

The key thing to note is that the magic fails. The magician can foresee the impending holocaust but can do nothing about it. He fails to persuade the Jewish residents to flee.  The magician fails to create a golem to protect the little town where Kicsi lives. Although he is prevented from doing so by the Rabbi, there is an underlying question - could the magician ever have succeeded, was the old magic powerless in the face of the very real terror of the Nazi machine?

The Prague Golem legend has always struck me as tragic. The Golem was created to protect the Jewish community and was/is meant to be sleeping in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue waiting, like Arthur and his knights, the call to rise up at times of the greatest danger. But when that danger came, the giant in the attic did not stir.

The magic in magic realism is often that of the underclass, the oppressed, the disenfranchised. It gives power to the powerless. For that reason there is an important strand of magic realism, which draws on the ancient beliefs of the Jewish people. In the camp there are tales among the detainees of a red-haired man and people disappearing from the camp. Goldstein does not make clear if this is wishful thinking and the "escapees" have actually been killed. After the war Kicsi is found by the magician among the dying and physically recovers. But her spirit does not revive and she suffers from survivors' guilt. She accompanies the magician on a journey back to her home town and another duel between the two men. That process brings her back to life. 

As a book for teenagers I think The Red Magician would work particularly well, although it is suitable for adults too. The book is an excellent short read and I thank Open Road Media for making it available.

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

Wednesday 22 October 2014

On The Golden Porch & Other Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

Thirteen stories by the first woman in years to rank among Russia's most important writers celebrate courage and the will to endure among the people who live on the periphery of society but who dream with a redeeming passion.
Goodreads description 

I have a particular liking for Slavic literature. In a previous review I raved about the short stories of Ekaterina Sedia and one of my favourite authors is the French Russian writer Andre Makine.  To that list of excellent Russian writers I can now add Tatyana Tolstaya. They all share a way of portraying and seeing the world as hauntingly beautiful filled with people whose lives are doomed to disillusionment.

The writer Tolstaya most reminds me of is not her famous grandfather but Chekhov. There is an ironic humour about her writing and yet she does not laugh at her subject, nearly all of whom are struggling with the loss of their dreams and aspirations.  Some are trapped by their relationships, some by hopeless unspoken love, and some by an absence of identity. They could easily be Chekhovian characters. Tolstaya draws each with loving and detailed care.

I was particularly impressed by Tolstaya's very individual writing style, with descriptions that are capable of being poetic and humourous at the same time. Take this one of the lobby of a women's hair salon as an example: stiff green sabres grew hilt-down out of large pots, and photographs of bizarre creatures with unpleasant glints in their eyes stared from the walls under incredible hair - towers, icing, rams' horns; or ripples like mashed potatoes in fancy restaurants. At other times the style is conversational, with short verbless sentences: More tea? Apple trees in bloom. Dandelions. Lilacs. Oof, it's hot. Leave Moscow - to the seaside. Although poetic the prose is economical. The writer's touch is light, allowing impressions to build in the reader's mind. 

Tolstaya's use of magic is equally light and impressionistic. She does not feel the need to highlight it, because it is a magic which runs deep in the Slavic soul and tradition. In the first story in the collection for example a five-year old girl is talking about her governess Maryvanna, whom she dislikes. She ends the story with the lines: Farewell Maryvanna. We're ready for summer. What does she mean by that? It helps to know that the spirit of winter is called Morana in Russian and in a ceremony to welcome spring an effergy is often burnt and then thrown in a river. In another example of Tolstaya's light touch with magic,  Rendezvous with a Bird features a boy's grandfather who is waiting for death, which comes in the form of a bird. The dark garden rose and fell like the ocean. The wind chased the Sirin bird from the branches: flapping its mildewed wings, it flew to the house and sniffed around, moving its triangular face with shut eyes: is there a crack?

I could write an essay about the themes I found in Tolstaya's stories: of the importance of the passage of time, of memory, and dreams and self-delusion. But the format of a blog post does not afford the space to do so. Instead I simply urge you to find  this book and read the stories for yourself. 

Wednesday 15 October 2014

The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen

Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies something remarkable: a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. Local legend says that a visitor can gain answers to life’s most difficult problems simply by walking through its lush corridors.

Yet the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s beautiful and enigmatic caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonders if she at last has the courage to let someone in. As she and Sam reconnect, Olivia faces a difficult question: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?

From Goodreads description

There was something very familiar about this story. It is close to fairytales - a beautiful young woman is cursed by a magical gift that prevents her from accepting the man she loves. There is even a bit of Sleeping Beauty at the end. And like the modern fairytales (a la Disney rather than Grimm) you know even as you start to read that there will be a happy ending. 

The book falls into a type that I have come across before on this blog. There were obvious but not surprising similarities with the other book by Lisa van Allen that I have reviewed here (The Wishing Thread) and also with The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag. In the publisher's promotional material it is suggested that the book will appeal to readers of those by Sarah Addison Allen, Aimee Bender, and Alice Hoffman. I don't know about Addison Allen, but the worlds of Bender and Hoffman are harsher than Van Allen's. As I have said before I like my magic realism with an edge, but Van Allen is clearly writing for an audience that does not share my preferences. 

Those readers who like chick-lit magic realism will find much to enjoy here. The descriptions are lush (if with too many adjectives for my liking) and reflect the rich growth of the Pennywort magical garden in a world of drought-induced barrenness. This is in contrast with Olivia's life, which is spartan emotionally and restricted geographically. In fact all the main characters are in some way afflicted by an inability to feel and/or hold. Olivia's father has separated himself from the world by living as a hermit in a ravine, Sam literally cannot feel anything, having lost all sensation from his skin following an accident, and Olivia cannot touch those she loves without hurting them. 

Olivia's curse creates some interesting challenges for the writer. How do you write a love scene when there can be no physical embrace? If you are Lisa Van Allen, the answer is very successfully: the scene is surprisingly sexy. And how do you bring about a resolution to the story? I gather from fellow Goodreads reviewers that not everyone was satisfied by the somewhat ambiguous answer to the latter question, but it didn't bother me. Indeed, despite my comments about its familiarity at the beginning of this review, the plot is not without a few twists and unexpected revelations, which are definite plus points as far as this reviewer is concerned. 

If you want a book to curl up in front of the fire with, this might be the book for you.

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

Wednesday 8 October 2014

The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina B. Nahai

From Tehran to Los Angeles, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a sweeping saga that tells the story of the Soleymans, an Iranian Jewish family tormented for decades by Raphael's Son, a crafty and unscrupulous financier who has futilely claimed to be an heir to the family's fortune. Forty years later in contemporary Los Angeles, Raphael's Son has nearly achieved his goal--until he suddenly disappears, presumed by many to have been murdered. The possible suspects are legion: his long-suffering wife; numerous members of the Soleyman clan exacting revenge; the scores of investors he bankrupted in a Ponzi scheme; or perhaps even his disgruntled bookkeeper and longtime confidant.

Award-winning novelist Gina B. Nahai pulls back the curtain on a close-knit community that survived centuries of persecution in Iran before settling and thriving in the United States, but now finds itself divided to the core by one of its own members. By turns hilarious and affecting, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. examines the eternal bonds of family and community, and the lasting scars of exile.

Goodreads description 

Sometimes when I write reviews on this blog I have to make a case for or against the book in question being magic realism. This is not the case here. This is magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. I was reminded of Isabel Allende's House of Spirits, with an upper-class woman persecuted by a man whose mind is twisted by hatred of the family that rejected his claims. The magic is however more obvious than Allende's: every decade or so, a child - ususally a boy in the family - was born with a glowing heart.  Nahai's description of Raphael sleepwalking through the streets - the light from his heart attracting every moth and firefly and nocturnal bird in the city, plus an entire horde of restless insomniac ghosts - seems closer to the magic of Marquez' Macondo. Gina B. Nahai has however a strong and individual style of her own. 

For starters there is the use of the murder mystery genre as a frame for the family saga. This works really well, providing an external observer in the form of the police detective (also an Iranian Jew) and using this most American of genres to contrast with the more magical and mythical world of pre-revolutionary Iran. Nahai is excellent at portraying both of these very different worlds. She does not romanticize the world of the last Shah. She shows how unjust it was and how corrupt. Raphael's Son's abuse of others and corruption is learned during a childhood full of impotent anger. Both in Iran and in America there is money to be made at the expense of people who naively believe that justice will prevail above the interests of those with power and money. This is a lesson Raphael's Son learns from the lips of the head of the Soleyman family: No matter what you may want or how badly - you must understand that in this country, at this time, you and your kind don't hold a prayer against the likes of me. 

The other strong character in the book is Elizabeth Soleyman, who is innocent of any wrong done by the Soleymans to Raphael's Son and his mother, but who becomes the focus of Raphael's Son's campaign of hatred. Her experiences include the loss of all but one of her family, ruination and exile, and yet she survives. But rather than just show this as a simple triumph, Nahai shows that what doesn't kill you will nevertheless leave its mark... Elizabeth learns to suppress her pain and longings, but in doing so seems cold to her daughter.

This book is not just a mystery story nor a family chronicle, but also a book about alienation. The Soleymans may be well-to-do when the story starts but they are Jews in the Shah's Iran. When they move to the US they are both Jews and Iranian. Nahai paints a moving picture of what it is to be forced into exile. She explains how the Iranian exiles (like others the world over) soon learn that the hardest part of being an exile is the vanishing - not of the self but of its likeness in the eyes of others. But for Elizabeth and her daughter the exile is doubly hard: they have to abandon the graves of the ones they lost... The dead and missing cannot cross borders; their exile is our forgetting. 
Alienation is a recurrent theme in magic realism, closely linked to the other theme of dual cultures/worlds. This book could very easily have presented the worlds geographically. But Nahai is an altogether too subtle writer for that. There is harsh reality in Iran and there is magic (at the end of the book) in the US. She is quite simply a wonderful magic realism writer and worthy of the comparisons made at the beginning of this review.

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

Wednesday 1 October 2014

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

The definitive edition of Calvino’s cosmicomics, bringing together all of these enchanting stories—including some never before translated—in one volume for the first time

In Italo Calvino’s cosmicomics, primordial beings cavort on the nearby surface of the moon, play marbles with atoms, and bear ecstatic witness to Earth’s first dawn. Exploring natural phenomena and the origins of the universe, these beloved tales relate complex scientific concepts to our common sensory, emotional, human world.

Now, The Complete Cosmicomics brings together all of the cosmicomic stories for the first time. Containing works previously published in Cosmicomics, t zero, and Numbers in the Dark, this single volume also includes seven previously uncollected stories, four of which have never been published in translation in the United States. This “complete and definitive collection” (Evening Standard) reconfirms the cosmicomics as a crowning literary achievement and makes them available to new generations of readers.

 Goodreads Description

The Complete Cosmicomics was published in the UK in 2009, and  now American readers can enjoy the complete set of Cosmicomic short stories gathered in one volume. I say short stories, but that seems an inadequate description of the pieces to be found in this book.  Each piece starts with a scientific fact about the universe and then Calvino develops an imaginative story around that fact, usually narrated by a character called Qfwfq, who was witness to the great bang and everything that has happened subsequently . In some cases there is a clear narrative, in others the pieces are more theoretical and discursive. All the Cosmicomic stories are playful and in yet in their way logical conceits on ideas. 

Inevitably the theories Calvino chooses are immense. Calvino's stories ride these theories like Qfwfq's family dispersed to all corners of space by the Big Bang. They can be a fun ride, especially when Calvino humanizes or anthropomorphizes the stories, such as the game of marbles conducted with atoms. They can be witty in the way they highlight the impossibility
of illustrating something that we can barely conceive: We were all there... where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time packed in there like sardines.

But for this non-scientist the more theoretical Cosmicomics seemed dry and hard to relate to and I found myself skipping to the next stories. This collection offers a sizable number from which to choose, so I soon found something I wanted to read.  

The initial collection of Cosmicomics was first published in 1965. One of the things that strikes me is how some of the "facts" he quotes are now regarded as false, indeed as feats of the imagination no less unreal than Calvino's stories. Science's narrative moves on - theories are proved or disproved, survive or are replaced by others. Is science a fiction?

The reason why Calvino called these stories Cosmicomics is explained in The Origin of Birds where Qfwfq says:  Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other. But of course this too is playing with the reader. The Cosmicomics are constructed from sentences. Instead we are asked to imagine the series of cartoons with all the little figures of the characters in their places, against an effectively outlined background, but you must try at the same time not to imagine the figures, or the background either.
The above sentence is just typical of Calvino, playful, logical but at the same time upending logic. The writer I was most reminded of when reading this book was a mathematician - Lewis Carroll.

Cosmicomics regularly appears on lists of greatest magic realist books and I can see why. On the other hand it does seem to me that in these stories Calvino invented a genre all of his own.

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