Friday 31 July 2015

Interview with Scott Wilbanks

Next week I will be reviewing The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster but this week I am interviewing the book's author Scott Wilbanks.

1. Who are your favourite magic realist authors and why?

Thanks for interviewing me, Zoe.  And try not to chuckle too hard at my responses. (Eye rolls are optional.)

Many will think I’m off my rocker for including him on the magical realism shelf, but A.A. Milne would have to be at the top of my list, primarily because his protagonist embodies our greatest virtue—humanity—and yet he is not human. He’s a teddy bear, a living, breathing instructional guide who teaches us how to live in the present with his philosophy of innocence. And while he lacks a beating heart, he is the more alive than anyone I know.

2. What is your all-time favourite magic realist book?

And that would be The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh, not only for the reason I listed above, but because—for me, at least—it is a time-travel portal.  (And you know how I love time-travel portals.) I don’t merely read the book, I dream it.  

And when I dream, I relive the charms of my childhood. Of those books I’ve read with an adult audience in mind, I’d have to say Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has come the closest to duplicating the wakeful dream state I experienced with Winnie The Pooh. I didn’t even bother to close the book cover when I’d finished it, and simply flipped back to the first page to start all over again.

3. Can you give us your definition of magic realism?

I learned from the onset that defining magical realism is a slippery endeavor. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and no two are alike. I’m not even sure it can be defined—concretely, anyway.  If forced, I’d simply say that it involves any artistic enterprise in which fantastical elements seep into an otherwise realistic world. 

And while I may have trouble defining it, I do have a tried-and-true barometer. It’s anything within the arts containing fantastical elements that sneaks under my mom’s radar. I’m not kidding.

She’s a realist to the core who doesn’t simply dislike fantasy, she has a deep-down-in-the-bones loathing for it. She wants the world within any literature she reads to be rational, and her range is… narrow. If a novel containing any sort of fantastical element passes her sniff test, it’ll be magically realistic.

4. Why do you write magical realism?

Strangely enough, it all goes back to Tolkien. He’s the reason I became a book-a-day nerd by the age of fourteen—all of it sci fi and fantasy—while simultaneously fuelling my outside-the-lines imagination.

It was inevitable, then, that fantasy would inevitably splatter all over the page when I decided to try my hand at writing. It presented a challenge, however. I wanted my mom to read whatever it was that I wrote so I decided to infuse the magic in a world with trees and people and sounds she’d understand.

5. Tell us about your latest magic realist book?

My current work-in-progress recounts the misadventures of a young, Southern man who is burdened with the world’s only confirmed case of chronic, incurable naiveté—the result of a curious subtype of ADD and a lightning strike at the age of four.  A veritable magnet for con artists, he is reduced to becoming a shut in and a night owl.

Thank you, Scott.

Scott's online/social media links are:

Twitter: @scottbwilbanks


Thursday 30 July 2015

Magic Realism Videos - Lois Zamora

This post is part of the Magic Realism Bloghop 2015. It is also the first in a new series of blog posts that I am planning for this blog. Every weekend over the next year I plan to bring you a video about magic realism.

My aim is to comb You Tube and other sites to find a wide variety of videos that will expand your understanding of the genre. Some will be interviews with magic realist writers, some writer profiles, some animations of magic realist fiction and some will be academic lectures. We start the series with an excellent example of the latter.

The University of Houston has made available online (in this case on You Tube - but it is also available on the University's own website) a course delivered by magic-realism specialist Professor Lois Zamora. There are 25 (yes 25) lectures on the course. The course title is Contemporary Literature - Magic Realism. The focus is on a number of key magic realist books: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez), Labyrinths (Borges), The Kingdom of this World (Carpentier), Tracks (Erdrich), Ceremony (Silko) and The House of Spirits (Allende). But it also touches on magic realism in art and its influence on the concept of magical realism in literature.

Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community by Professor Zamora and Wendy B. Ferris is the classic textbook on the subject. So these videos are the perfect way to study the genre.

I have included videos number one (above) and two (below), which focus on What is Magical Realism.

You can view the other lectures here:

Summary of lecture contents:
Lectures 3, 4 and 25 - The Art Historical Beginnings of Magical Realism
Lectures 5, 6, 7, 8 and the first half of 9 - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Lectures Second half of 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 - Jorge Luis Borges
Lectures 14, 15, 16 - Alejo Carpentier
Lectures 17, 18, 19 - Louise Erdrich
Lectures 20, 21 and beginning of 22 - Leslie Marmon Silko
Lectures 22, 23, 24 - Isabel Allende and Magical Feminism

Tuesday 28 July 2015

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, renowned as a master of magical realism, creates stories that grip the imagination. Set in exotic locals, peoples with unforgettable characters, and crafted with exquisite prose, his stories transport the reader to a world that is at once fanciful and real.

One of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's most intricate and ambitious works, The Autumn of the Patriarch is a brilliant tale of a Caribbean tyrant and the corruption of power. Employing an innovative, dreamlike style, the novel is overflowing with symbolic descriptions as it vividly portrays the dying tyrant caught in the prison of his own dictatorship. From charity to deceit, benevolence to violence, fear of God to extreme cruelty, the dictator embodies at once the best and the worst of human nature.

Goodreads description

This novel by the great Gabo himself comes with a reputation for being hard work and dark. And to be sure The Autumn of the Patriarch deals with the darkest of subjects - inside the mind of a psychopathic dictator. So I was nervous as I settled down to read this book in advance of this review. I needen't have worried. Afterall this is a book by the master.

First of all I had to develop a new way of approaching reading the book. The Autumn of the Patriarch is made up of six huge chapters, each consisting of one paragraph. Sentences can go on for pages and are divided almost exclusively with commas (the semicolon is discarded). And within these sentences the narrative voice can shift from the Patriarch's to another character to the general mass of the Patriarch's subjects like a Greek chorus without either punctuation or formating signposting. 

Clearly you cannot read this book anywhere where you will be interrupted, but even so I soon found myself relaxing into the book and not worrying when I lost sense of who was speaking. There is a reason for that - the subject of the entire narration is the omnipresent Patriarch. The nation is an extension of the Patriarch. Or at least that is how he sees the world - he is totally self-centred - and it is one reason that The Autumn of the Patriarch is a "poem on the solitude of power" as Garcia Marquez has described it. 

It is a tribute to the author's genius that I found myself at times feeling sympathy for the monstrous Patriarch. He is a man who cannot feel love. He is also a man for whom the power he seeks and clings too brings no joy:
but he learned to live with those and all the miseries of glory as he discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth, he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of
being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority.

The book opens with the people he rules breaking in to the palace to find his body. They cannot believe that he has died: afterall he has already died once. That first death was when the Patriarch's double is killed and he watches his subjects' response to his "death" - some grieving, some celebrating. When he reappears he takes typically brutal action against the latter. So it is not surprising that his subjects are cautious when he dies a second time. He has magically lived longer than a normal mortal. Can he die?

The book focuses on the Patriarch after his first death, in the autumn of his years to his end. Of course the book moves backwards and forwards in time without warning, as you would expect, but a portrait of the old man evolves as layer upon layer of story are applied. The story is at times grotesque (but no more grotesque than reality, as the stories of dictators like Idi Amin or Caligula or Pinochet show us). The cruelty of the Patriarch is likewise all too true to life. People are tortured, killed and disposed of. The shocking fate of several thousand innocent children, whose only crime was to have drawn the numbers of the lottery that the Patriarch always won, is perhaps the hardest to take. 
At the same time there is a crude gallows humour about the book, which at once relieves and heightens the horror. Some of that humour comes from the Patriarch himself: 
the day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole. 

The book reveals that the Patriarch came from a poor background, and there may have been a time when he had some sympathy for the underclass. He is set up by the British as a puppet and then they abandon him and the island. He doesn't use their departure to restore the island's fortunes but to plunder them as the British did. Towards the end of the book we learn that the Americans too have exploited the country and brought it so much into debt that they demand and get the sea surrounding the island in payment. This is magic realism as political comment as well as an exploration of the psychology of the individual. 

This is an amazing book. Whether it is a pleasurable read is another matter.

This review is my first contribution to the Magic Realism Bloghop 2015. I am planning two more posts on this blog and there are plenty more posts on the hop to be enjoyed (see below).

Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Catalain Book of Secrets by Jessica Lourey

Faith Falls is a snug little Minnesota town constructed over a mystery, a place where the most impressive building is a gorgeous Queen Anne with turrets, cantilevered gables, and a wraparound porch. In a concealed room beneath the twisting stairs of the Queen Anne lies the Catalain Book of Secrets, the repository of the wisdom the Catalain women have gathered since the beginning of time.

Ursula Catalain, current keeper of the Book of Secrets, is content to concoct spells in her garden cottage until the ghost of the man she murdered when she was 12 appears at her door in a new form. His return pulls Jasmine, Ursula's daughter, back into the fold. Once believed to be the most powerful of the Catalains, she foreswore her gift years before to bury a shameful secret. The ghost of the murdered man also calls home Katrine, Jasmine's sister, who has been banished for fourteen years. Finally able to return to Faith Falls and the beloved Queen Anne, Katrine must claim her true Catalain power to save her mother and sister from the dark family curse.

Told in a majestic mosaic of strong women’s voices, The Catalain Book of Secrets weaves together alchemy, hope, tragedy, and true love to spin a tale in the style of Garden Spells, Eva Luna, and Practical Magic.
Extract from the Goodreads description
The description makes major claims: a book that is in the style of Garden Spells (by Sarah Addison Lee), Eva Luna (Isabel Allende) and Practical Magic (Alice Hoffman). The trouble is that whilst all three of these books are magic realist books with strong female characters they are very different and appeal to different readerships. Of these readerships I think the Addison Lee crowd are the ones who are going to have most problems - with the rape that forms a major plot element in the book and with Ursula's sexual promiscuity. You know that I do not have a problem with grittiness in a story (it's one of the reasons I like Alice Hoffman) but others will and I don't understand why you would invite Addison Lee readers to buy the book.

So what did I make of The Catalain Book of Secrets? There is a lot of magic in this book - all the Catalain women are witches and each has a different form of magic. One makes magic food, one brews potions in the garden shed, one makes magic sweets, one sees people's potential, another their emotional wounds... Usually in magic-realist books (particularly of this type) the central characters will have one form of magic. Add to this that the Catalain witches are fighting a demon and I begin to wonder if this is close to being urban fantasy or something similar. 

A main theme of the book is that of sisterhood both in the literal sense but also in the sense of the sisterhood of women in the face of violent men. As the Catalain Book of Secrets says:
Nothing multiplies your power like a sister.   
 And the converse is also the case: what weakens women's power are secrets kept from one another, silence in the face of male abuse, and the rivalry and tensions we feel for one another. When the Catalain women act on their own, they are too weak  to take on the male demon, but when all seven act together...

The mother/daughter relationship is also explored with both Ursula and Jasmine trying not to be like their mothers and making different mistakes. As a mother and a daughter that theme rings very true to me.

This is a more demanding book than those by Addison Lee and similar cosy magic realism writers. Not only because you are made to think, but also because of the narrative style. The book is written from the points of view of the main characters and moves between them. There is also some movement in the time settings. This does have the effect of slowing the book a bit as we get up to pace with the different characters, but after a while the story really kicks off. The author's slightly poetic style of description also might slow things for some people, but I enjoyed her turns of phrase - there are some particularly good descriptions of taste as you might expect given the food magic. 

I understand that this is Jessica Lourey's first magic-realist book and one which she used crowdfunding to publish - she already has a successful career as a writer of mysteries. I am fascinated to find out why she decided to diversify into magic realism and will be interested to see what she produces next.

I recieved a free review copy from the author in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to record their unique music, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again.

Now, years later, the surviving musicians, along with their friends and lovers—including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager—meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own versions of what happened that summer. But whose story is true? And what really happened to Julian Blake?

Goodreads description

Can a ghost story be magic realism? And if not, why not? 

This book rang a lot of bells for me. I spent my teenage years listening to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Led Zeppelin. I was into ancient British customs and mythology (especially Celtic legends), wore Celtic crosses, Indian cotton blouses and layered skirts, I even had the ubiquitous Afghan coat which smelled when it rained.  The posters that lined my bedroom wall were of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (if you are over 50 you will know the one I am referring to) and sensitive poetic lead singers. Oh yes, I would have been a fan of Julian Blake and band. Elizabeth Hand is of my generation and I guess that she too was into the same things as I. She certainly knows how to conjure up the atmosphere of the time. 

This realism is added to by the narrative style - a series of short chapters each part of an interview with one of the surviving characters. These build to create a picture of the events of that summer. It took me a little while to form an image of the characters and to hear their voices, but they are generally well-drawn and distinct and so I soon settled back into the story. 

Other aspects of the story are more predictable, indeed regular, parts of any ghost story:  a tumbledown labyrinthine abandoned manor house, strange local customs, the locals coming out with cryptic comments which give the impression that they know something of the hall's dark secrets but aren't saying, and even a naive bunch of teenagers fascinated with the occult. I had the added insight that I know enough about the traditions and myths referenced by the book to see where things were heading. With the exception of one sentence (which I will not reveal to avoid spoiling the book for you) I was not surprised by the climax of the story, however that did not worry me or dent my enjoyment.

All of which brings me back to my opening questions? I think the answer to the first question is yes, ghost stories can be magic realism. And to the second: why can't they? Just because these are British traditions and beliefs and not those of Latin Americans or any other ethnic group, why are they not acceptable as magic in the magic realist sense? It is precisely because ghost stories are moored in a deep British collective subconscious that they work so well. 

You will note that I say ghost stories can be magic realism and not that they all are. Wylding Hall certainly is magic realism as far as I am concerned. This is because of the realism in the book, which is partly down the way the narrative works. The voices are real. They also differ in their interpretation and even in their accounts. There is an ambiguity about the conclusion to the story and how the characters feel about Julian. I would go so far as to say that despite the ghost story/horror set-up the book isn't actually about what really happened to Julian. For this reason the predictability I refered to earlier does not matter. For me the book is about the dynamic of the group and their relationship with the missing man, the way they are still trying to come to terms with and explain not only Julian's disappearance but also with him their ability to regain the magic of the music generated in the sessions at Wylding Hall. 

I really enjoyed this book and thank Open Road Media for granting me a copy of the book free in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

The Missing Body Parts of Mr Doherty by Luke Kondor

Every day Paddy Doherty wakes up to find another body part missing. Before he disappears completely, he wants to leave something of value in the world - a detailed guide on finding love.
 Amazon description

In Gogol's short story the main character loses a nose, in Luke Kondor's short story (some 50 pages long) the losses start with an arm and just carry on happening. Kondor's book is therefore in the tradition of surreal European magic realism, that includes Gogol, Kafka and Bulgakov.

The story is narrated in the first-person by Paddy Doherty himself. He proves to be a witty and it turns out a none-too-reliable narrator.  His guide to the sixteen ways to a girl's heart turns into an account of his life and relationships, which it emerges haven't been very successful. Doherty's accounts are laugh-out-loud amusing at time, his narration has a habit of subverting itself when it is getting too serious:

I couldn't tell you exactly what happened, but I felt like I experienced what some people refer to as the Aleph - a point where everything, the whole universe is contained - or it could've been the dodgy falafel I'd eaten. 

This is just one example from the book of how Kondor's writing works on several levels. The comment about the Aleph, I am sure, references the short story by Coehlo. And how about this:

And then I saw a man in the street doing a handstand, he reminded me of an old friend. I tried to applaud him, because I was clapping with one hand - the right one. 

The image of the man doing a handstand returns late on in the story by the way. 

So why is Paddy disappearing piece by piece? The doctor has a theory: that Paddy has never given himself to something completely, so his body is giving itself with or without his permission. Maybe the answer is to give heart to someone or something. Or maybe the theory is bullshit, as Paddy says to the medic. I hope it isn't.

Monday 6 July 2015

2015 Magic Realism Blog Hop Sign Up

Calling all bloggers!

Last year as part of our Magic Realism Blog Hop we had 25 posts about magic realism spread over a wide variety of blogs and it was fascinating. If you are interested in taking part this year, please sign up below.

All you have to do to take part is write a post about any aspect of magic realism on your blog and programme it to appear on one of the three days. I will provide you with some code to put at the bottom of the post which will automatically generate a list of other posts on the hop. And I will email you with instructions and will help if you have any problems (most people don't).

If you want to get an idea of what you might write: here's the link to the first post in last year's hop: 
The links to all the posts on the hop are at the bottom of that post, hop around the blogs and see what people wrote about last year.

And if you like the idea click on the button below to add your blog to the list for this year (at the bottom of this post).

Please do copy the bloghop logo above and feature it on your blog to advertise the hop to your readers.

Any questions, just email me on

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Abrán González always knew he was different. Called a coyote because of his fair skin, the kid from Barelas found escape through boxing and became one of the youngest Golden Gloves champions. But the arrival of a letter from a dying woman turns his entire life into a lie. The revelation that he was adopted makes him feel like an orphan and sends him on a quest to find his birth father.

With the help of his girlfriend, Lucinda, and Joe, a Vietnam veteran, Abrán begins a journey that hurls him from the barrio into a world of greed and political corruption spearheaded by Frank Dominic, a con artist running for mayor with visions of building El Dorado on the Rio Grande.

Rudolfo Anaya’s vibrant novel celebrates a land and a people struggling to preserve and reshape ancient tradition. Rich in spirituality and sense of place, Alburquerque cuts across class and ethnic lines to tell a story of hope and displacement, love and regret, and the age-old quest for roots, identity, and family.

Publisher's description

This is one of nine of Anaya's books republished as ebooks by Open Road Media. Anaya is best known for his novel Bless Me, Ultima, which I reviewed on this blog here. Open Road are to be applauded for bringing more books by this Chicano magic-realist author back into circulation and I welcome the opportunity to read and review his work again

The book's themes are familiar ones - a young man trying to find out who he is, corporate and political corruption and abuse of the environment, a love interest, the contrast between the old ways of local peoples and the new ways of the white population. These are all themes we have seen in other magic-realist books. I was reminded of Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko in particular, which also features a native American Vietnam veteran. 

Magic is definitely present, coming with a prescient traditional healer or curendara. The curendara at the beginning of the book gives Abran the answer to his question "tú eres tú" or you are you, but it takes him the length of a book to understand what she is saying. Ultima in Anaya's previous novel is also a curendara. This female archetype also appears in one of my favourite Chicano magic-realist novels The Hummingbird's Daughter.  The second form of magic realism in the book is the way the characters of the novelist Ben Chavez have a life of their own. Many writers will tell you that their characters talk to them, well in this case they really do. And the last element of magic realism is the appearance of the Coyote figure from indigenous American tribal mythology. All of these elements work well.

It is perhaps the realism I have a problem with. There are times where it feels unreal, too much in the mode of popular culture, particularly at the end  - the book climaxes with a boxing match a la Rocky Bilboa. The Hollywood treatment is popular but it is unrealistic.

I would have liked the characters to be less black and white, more complex and ambiguous. Looking back at my review of Bless Me, Ultima I realise it was an issue I had with that book too. The most important theme in the book to my mind is the importance of knowing one's roots. Does it matter? And where are your roots? Are they in the genes or are they learned? This question not only relates to Abran's relationship with his adoptive parents and his genetic ones, but also to the story's villain, Frank Dominic, who has reinvented himself. By making Frank Dominic a black-hat baddie, Anaya misses a chance to develop the theme. Neverthless it is a tribute to the book that I am thinking about the question.

I missed this book when it appeared and I am grateful to Open Media for contacting me about it. I received a free copy in return for a fair review.