Wednesday 29 April 2015

Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur

Shortly after the 1989 publication of Women Without Men in her native Iran, Shahrnush Parsipur was arrested and jailed for her frank and defiant portrayal of women’s sexuality. Now banned in Iran, this small masterpiece was eventually translated into several languages and introduces U.S. readers to the work of a brilliant Persian writer. With a tone that is stark, and bold, Women Without Men creates an evocative allegory of life for contemporary Iranian women. In the interwoven -destinies of five women, simple situations—such as walking down a road or leaving the house—become, in the tumult of post-WW II Iran, horrific and defiant as women escape the narrow confines of family and society—only to face daunting new challenges.
Goodreads description

What the description above does not say is just how beautiful this novella is. Women Without Men does tackle the issues facing Iranian women, but it does so in a magical and poetic way. Magic realism is used to make bearable and visible the oppression these women face and to give voice to their dreams. 

I am not surprised this book so shocked the Iranian establishment. We see behind the veil into the lives, hopes and disappointments of the five woman. One is murdered by her brother for dishonouring the family, although all she did was to leave the family home for a few days. She rises from the dead, able to read the thoughts of those around her. Another, in her desire and need to be loved by a man, acts as an accomplice to the murderer only to be betrayed by him. One turns into a tree in order to protect her virginity while expressing her sexual desire. Another, a prostitute, leaves the brothel when she starts seeing men as having no heads. The fifth is a beautiful wife, who kills her controlling husband by accident, and buys the garden that becomes the refuge for the other women and herself. 

Women's sexuality, its suppression and indeed the denial of its existence by the patriarchal Iranian society is at the heart of the book. Parsipur shows that this denial is destructive of the relationship between men and women. Men are shown to suffer by their failure to see the truth about women. For example, the murderer marries a girl who is outwardly everything a good Iranian girl should be: very beautiful, soft and quiet, modest, shy, diligent, hard-working, dignified, chaste, and neat. She wears a chador, always looks down when she is in the street and blushes constantly. But he has been deceived.  

Interestingly there is a sixth occupant of the garden - a man known only as the Good Gardener. His behaviour is shown in contrast to that of other men. He is a nurturer and lover of women. He enables the tree to bear fruit and marries the former prostitute and fathers a child by her, but the child is not a baby but a lily. The garden he creates changes the women in  different ways; not all are magically transformed, two simply are able to reconsider and reset their relationship with men. A key point is that none of the women, including the tree, stay in the garden once it has worked its magic. The long-term answer is not for women to live separate from the man's world. 

I recommend this book to you. It may be short but it holds far more than many books four times its length.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

The Memory Thieves by J.T. Robertson

The right memories are worth a lot of dough, and that’s just what Jacob needs to get square with the big man, Hoven. One last memory heist, one more job, and he’ll be able to clear his debt, leave the business, and start a new life with a clean slate. When stolen memories resurface, everything falls apart, and Jacob is caught in a dangerous web of lies, unsure of whom he can trust—including himself.
Goodreads description

Robertson has spun an enjoyable yarn in the tradition of crime fiction. The central character is a thief, trying with one last heist to pay off his debt to a criminal boss. But as is the way with such tales, things go wrong: the hero's partners in crime are murdered and he realizes that they have been double-crossed and betrayed. Add the reappearance of the thief's former love and we would be on familiar territory were it not for the fact that hero steals memories.
I understand that Robertson began with the premise: what if memories were financially valuable? They would then be coveted and guarded, bought and sold, and kept in bank vaults. They would be sought after by memory thieves, supplying people who wished to indulge in someone else's past. What if also they were living creatures, like germs, which could infect and indeed kill someone to whom they didn't belong? People could become addicted to them, craving an illegal and potentially fatal high.
It is this premise that gives the story its originality and its magic realism. Robertson stays true to the crime novel formula, which to some extent allows him to play with the idea. Personally I would have liked him to have gone further and deeper into the implications of memories having a value, but this is a novella and the author was limited by the short form. Nevertheless I found the book an easy and enjoyable read.

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

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Seasons of the Fool by Lynne Cantwell

A Fool’s journey begins with a single step… 

Julia Morton Michaud has fled Chicago for her grandparents’ summer home in Michiana. She believes the cottage near Lake Michigan will be a refuge – a quiet place for her to pursue a writing career while her spirit heals from a string of failed relationships. But her past keeps intruding. Her ex-husband, Lance, is under investigation for defrauding his wealthy investors, and the specter of having to testify at his trial hangs over her. She begins a new relationship with a man she hardly knows. And her neighbor and former lover, David Turner, is trapped in his own troubled marriage. 

Julia discovers a labyrinth in the woods near her cottage. It belongs to Elsie and Thea, the elderly ladies who live at the end of the lane. Julia wants to use it for meditation, but she doesn’t know the risks. For the women have their own agenda, and it’s tied to the rug Elsie is endlessly weaving. The truths Julia learns in the labyrinth have the potential to change all their lives – if only she will take them to heart.

Goodreads description

I really enjoyed this book. Lynne Cantwell is a good example of an indie writer who is as professional in her approach as any traditionally published author. Indeed she is more so, because she has a hand in all stages of her books' production. Her commitment to writing can be measured by the fact that her Goodreads page lists some 30 book credits. And her commitment to helping others is evidenced by her involvement in a number of Indie author groups. 

Most of Cantwell's books would be categorized as (Urban) Fantasy. This book however is not - being contemporary romance with an element of magic realism. I got the impression that this was a very personal book for the author. It is set in northwest Indiana, where she grew up, and so in a way Julia's homecoming is also Cantwell's. Then there is the presence of the two older women, who play an important part in Julia's "fool's journey". It is implied in the book that the rug has a magical quality to it and that the two women are wise women. A visit to the author's blog reveals an interest in knitting and the production of textiles and in Wiccan beliefs. 

I say in the paragraph above that the magic is implied and indeed it is. The reader is left to decide how much of what happens is influenced by the older women and how much would have happened anyway. Julia is susceptible to their influence, because she is at a point in her journey where she has lost everything and must start again. Like the Tarot fool that she sees when she enters the labyrinth, she must step into the void and fall. I have recently read and reviewed several magic realist books, which use this symbol. 

But don't let my talk of Tarot and symbols mislead you. This is a book which is well-grounded in the real modern world and it is perfectly possible to read this book as a jolly good romance. One of the things I liked about it was the fact that Julia's love interest is not an Alpha male, indeed she has had enough of them, but is instead a gentle caring man, who is torn between his love for Julia and his responsibilities as a father, and as a husband to a mentally ill wife. 

This book works in many ways and on several levels. Another excellent example of indie magic realism. 

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

Wednesday 8 April 2015

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov


Set mainly in Uzbekistan between 1900 and 1980, The Railway introduces to us the inhabitants of the small town of Gilas on the ancient Silk Route. Among those whose stories we hear are Mefody-Jurisprudence, the town's alcoholic intellectual; Father Ioann, a Russian priest; Kara-Musayev the Younger, the chief of police; and Umarali-Moneybags, the old moneylender. Their colorful lives offer a unique and comic picture of a little-known land populated by outgoing Mullahs, incoming Bolsheviks, and a plethora of Uzbeks, Russians, Persians, Jews, Koreans, Tatars, and Gypsies.

At the heart of both the town and the novel stands the railway station—a source of income and influence, and a connection to the greater world beyond the town. Rich and picaresque, The Railway is full of color. Sophisticated yet with a naive delight in storytelling, it chronicles the dramatic changes felt throughout Central Asia in the early twentieth century.

 Goodreads description

Have I told you that I have developed a liking for Russian magic realism? Yes, I think I have. And now I can add that I also enjoy magic realism from Uzbekistan, the now independent state which was part of the former Soviet Union. Hamid Ismailov is clearly in the tradition of Russian satirical magic realism that I admire so much in Bulgakov and Gogol, but this is combined with the traditions of Muslim Central Asia, which remind me of the magic realism of Salman Rushdie for want of better comparators. The result is fascinating and intoxicating.

If you are looking for a simple narrative and a conventional story structure then this is not the book for you. For starters the central character is the town of Gilas, rather as Macondo is a major character in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But unlike in Marquez's classic, we do not follow one family, but dozens of townsfolk over several generations - the author very helpfully provides a list. What is more the book references Uzbek historic events and customs - and again the writer provides footnotes. Add the fact that the book jumps around cchronologically and you can see why this is not an easy read.

So how did I approach reading The Railway? I could, I suppose, have been studious about it - referring to the dramatis personae and footnotes as I read. I could have, but I didn't. Even though I review all the magic realist books I read, I do not approach them in a methodical way. Instead I tend to be more impressionistic in my approach. My love of magic realism is partly because it speaks to the subconscious, and deals in visions and the poetic. To experience these it is best that I do not analyse too intellectually, at least not while I am reading. This then was my approach to the book and it paid off. 

It was an approach that I used when first I watched Tarkovsky's film Stalker. I was reminded of that film as I read this book. I am left with some crystal-clear images, so clear that they could be scenes in a film. There is the image of the boy angry and alone beside the railway, looking up and, seeing a girl on a passing train, blowing her a kiss. There is the image of the railway itself against the vast steppe - a ladder from earth to the sky. There are images galore. There is some sublime poetry in The Railway. I say sublime because the book has a strong strand of Islamic mysticism. Obid-Kori meditates in prison: Words can turn out other ways, words can be replayed and replied, relayed and re-lied., rehearsed and re-versed... but life is one, and life is from Allah. And what do we know of it? It cannot be sensed or weighed between words any more than the rays of the sun can be sensed between leaves... leaves... leaves... And only the leaves' shadow catches the little patches of light, surrounds, frames, defines, confines. As he gazes through the iron grating at the sky we are told that the grating was formed by two verticals and six rusty crossbars. It mirrors, although the writer does not say so directly, the form of the railway ascending to heaven. 

But if this book reminds me of Stalker it also reminds me of Master and Margarita. Ismailov's satire is brilliant, laughing at Russian attempts to homogenize the local inhabitants. They in turn take the communist slogans (written in a tongue they do not comprehend) to be magical charms to ward off harm. We laugh at the absurd language of the oppressor, e.g. circumcision is made the crime of "sabotage of the member". 

The way the narrative moves from one time to another allows us to see repetitions and variations. Throughout the book characters are shipped off to the gulags and some return. Others, like the Koreans, are deported to Gilas. The threat of imprisonment, deportation and death is present, regardess of whether it is the Tsar in Moscow, or Lenin or Stalin. Life goes on for Gilas, the book's central character. New people take the posts vacated by the disgraced. The people of Gilas continue on their own sweet way: drinking, pursuing their own advancement, and even making money as the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of the Silk Road turns even communism to their advantage. 

This is a book I want to read again. It certainly merits it and probably needs it. If you like One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Master and Margarita you will probably like this. 

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

Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar

Shadowing an elderly librarian on his first day at the great Central Library, Máximo is thrilled to get a peek at the exclusive Encyclopedia of Medicine. It's a dizzying collection of maladies: an amnesia that causes everyone you've ever met to forget you exist, while you remain perfectly, painfully aware of your history. A wound that grows with each dark thought or evil deed you commit but shrinks with every act of kindness. A disease that causes your body to imitate death, stopping your heart, cooling your blood. Will the fit pass before they bury you - or after?

As Máximo soon discovers, medicine at the Central Library may be more than he bargained for.

The Afflictions is a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopedia of archaic medicine written by a contemporary physician and scientist. Little by little, these bizarre and mystical afflictions frame an eternal struggle: between human desire and the limits of bodily existence

Goodreads review 

You can detect two distinct influences on this collection. Firstly there is Vikram Paralkar's profession and calling as a hematologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, which means that he is very familiar with medicinal encyclopedias and the history of medicine. Secondly there are the literary influences, which he lists on his Facebook author page as including those leaders of Western literary magic realism: Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, José Saramago, and Franz Kafka. I would have said that the influence of the first three writers is the most obvious.

This is a clever, entertaining and thought-provoking book.  It may be short - only 147 pages - but the descriptions of illnesses merit concentrated reading. The reader should read each description, and then sit back and ponder it, because each disease raises philosophical and ethical questions. For example Immortalitas diabolica grants its victims the ability to will away every pain, but it transfers their afflictions to other people and Vulnus morale or the Moral Wound expands or decreases according to the sufferer's bad or good deeds. Some stories focus on illnesses that impact on the individual, others on illnesses that impact on society.

 The setting is archetypal and unspecified - an old monastery in some Catholic country at some unspecified time. I would have liked more made of that. The book is narrated by the old librarian who is speaking to Maximo. Through this narrative we gain some information about Maximo, but only enough to make the reader want to know more. If you are looking for a storyline, you will be disappointed. 

In researching this review I found myself giggling at Paralkar's Twitter feed.  Paralkar's writing style is reflected in both this book and the Twitter feed: dry and witty, and not wasting a letter, let alone a word.

This book is recommended to anyone who enjoys Borges, Calvino or Saramago.

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