Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, in the vein of Nicole Krauss’s bestselling The History of Love, is an imaginative story that delves into the heart of Jewish mysticism, faith, and family.

“This is not an ordinary tree I am making.

“This,” he said, “this is the Tree of Knowledge.”

In the half-Hasidic, half-hipster Montreal neighborhood of Mile End, eleven-year-old Lev Meyer is discovering that there may be a place for Judaism in his life. As he learns about science in his day school, Lev begins his own extracurricular study of the Bible’s Tree of Knowledge with neighbor Mr. Katz, who is building his own Tree out of trash. Meanwhile his sister Samara is secretly studying for her Bat Mitzvah with next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Mr. Glassman. All the while his father, David, a professor of Jewish mysticism, is a non-believer.

When, years later, David has a heart attack, he begins to believe God is speaking to him. While having an affair with one of his students, he delves into the complexities of Kabbalah. Months later Samara, too, grows obsessed with the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life—hiding her interest from those who love her most–and is overcome with reaching the Tree’s highest heights. The neighbors of Mile End have been there all along, but only one of them can catch her when she falls.

Goodreads description 

I am unfamiliar with the Jewish mysticism that is at the heart of this book. This didn't stop me enjoying the story and indeed the author helped me understand enough to allow my enjoyment, but I do wonder if I missed out. Note to self: do some background research. 

At the heart of the story is the concept of the tree of life or tree of knowledge ( and the way the desire to climb the tree takes over the lives and minds of several key characters. Mr Katz's eccentric behaviour causes local amusement and frustration, but is shown to be a consequence of his obsession with climbing the tree and should have been a warning to others. Of course it is a warning that goes unheeded and two key characters also lose touch with reality. Early in the book one of the characters says: 

What is the moral of this story?
Don't see signs in everything. It makes it impossible to live.

He is quite right.  But we cannot ignore signs altogether, they are how human beings communicate.

The book's subject matter is more than just mysticism and esoteric Jewishness. It is also about two children who have lost their mother and have a father who does not communicate well with them. Indeed communication or its absence is equally important as a theme. Even non-communication can be a sign - as is the case of a phone ringing but no one speaking when it is answered. Samara literally puts up a sign in her window, which simply says "Please call" and which their non-Jewish neighbour, Alex, responds to. Alex in turn is obsessed with getting a message from space, and with coding and decoding messages. Alex may be a scientist by inclination, but isn't he also trying to find meaning and order in the universe in much the same way the kabbalists are? 

The structure of the book with four parts, each narrated from the point of view of a different character (Lev, David, Samara and Alex), allows us to see just how often they misinterpret each other. Lev misreads his father. Alex misreads Samara. But in the end the book makes the case for communication, no matter how faulty. You cannot climb the tree of life on your own. 

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

Wednesday 21 October 2015

This Strange Way of Dying by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Spanning a variety of genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror—and time periods, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's exceptional debut collection features short stories infused with Mexican folklore yet firmly rooted in a reality that transforms as the fantastic erodes the rational. This speculative fiction compilation, lyrical and tender, quirky and cutting, weaves the fantastic and the horrific alongside the touchingly human. Perplexing and absorbing, the stories lift the veil of reality to expose the realms of what lies beyond with creatures that shed their skin and roam the night, vampires in Mexico City that struggle with disenchantment, an apocalypse with giant penguins, legends of magic scorpions, and tales of a ceiba tree surrounded by human skulls. 
Goodreads description

The author of This Strange Way of Dying approached me for a review ages ago and I am embarrassed to say I forgot about it. I therefore apologize to Ms Moreno-Garcia and to you my readers as this is a short story collection I can recommend.  Not all the stories are magic realism, as the description above states, but several are, and I enjoyed the examples of other genres as well. But then many of the stories actually span genres and move between them. 

She takes what might be conventional genre characters - aliens (Driving with Aliens in Tijuana), historical zombies (Cemetery Man), vampires (Stories with Happy Endings),  witches (Bloodlines) and shapeshifters (Nahuales) - and gives them a new spin and a depthMost of the stories feature complex female protagonists, not necessarily the "strong heroine" stereotype, but ones that are dealing with difficult and real issues. Her central characters are often outsiders in some way, alienated from the world they find themselves in. I loved Dopplegangers,  a tale in which a daughter wishes away her embarrassing non-comformist parents and chooses their dopplegangers.  Name me a teenager that hasn't felt that desire at some time or other.

The author's website describes Moreno-Garcia as "Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination". This dual identity can be detected in the stories. Although all but one of the stories are set in Mexico and use Mexican folklore and history, the collection was published in Canada for a Canadian market by Exile Editions. As we have noted elsewhere on this blog duality is at the heart of magic realism. 

My favourite stories in the collection were This Strange Way of Dying (a love story with Death as one of the lovers), Bed of Scorpions (in which a female con-woman has a choice) and Jaguar Woman ( a story about colonialism, and the woman as the conquered wild spirit of the indigenous people). But yours are likely to be different as there are fifteen to choose from and all offer something different to the reader. 

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

Saturday 17 October 2015

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

Bruno Schulz has foreseen catastrophe and is almost paralysed by fear. His last chance of survival is to leave the home town to which, despite being in his late forties, he clings as if to a comforting blanket. So he retreats into his cellar (and sometimes hides under his desk) to write a letter to Thomas Mann: appealing to the literary giant to help him find a foreign publisher, in order that the reasons to leave Drohobych will finally outweigh the reasons to stay. 

Evoking Bulgakov and Singer, Biller takes us on an astounding, burlesque journey into Schulz's world, which vacillates between shining dreams and unbearable nightmares - a world which, like Schulz's own stories, prophesies the apocalyptic events to come.

Goodreads description

This is a novella about a Polish author who was hugely influential on magic realism and writers of magic realism, despite Schulz' small body of  work - The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Magic realist authors Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman, Nicole Krauss, and Milan Kundera have all acknowledged his influence and some (Ozick and Grossman) have even referenced Schulz in their writing. Now German writer Maxim Biller can be added to that list. 

In Biller's short novella Schulz is writing to Thomas Mann about a man who is pretending to be Mann. It is unclear to me whether the impostor is real or a figment of Schulz's fevered imagination. The novella is perhaps more surreal than magic realist with a nightmarish and scabrous quality. The sofa Schulz sits on walks out of a room when he pats it. Schulz's students (he was an art teacher in reality and in this novella) appear as talking birds. 

Biller mixes fact and fiction in this insight into the writer's mind. The novella is set in 1938 in the small Polish town of Drohobych. He gives the Jewish Schulz a prescient fear of the holocaust to come. The false Thomas Mann holds court to members of the Jewish community in a bathroom the size of a large school hall. The room has no fixtures, just showers. Everyone is naked and smoke pours out of the shower heads. The imposter is seen giving a German dressed in a black leather coat a list  of Jewish names. "Dr Franck and I... are in no doubt, Dr Mann, of what is going on here: we are being spied on."  Schulz was to die, shot casually by a Gestapo officer, as he walked home to the ghetto with a loaf of bread. 

The novella comes with two of Schulz's own short stories: Birds and Cinnamon Shops. And it is possible to see from these how Biller has incorporated themes in Schulz's works into Inside the Head. It is also possible to see that skilful though Biller is, he is not as gifted as his novella's subject. 

I have to confess that I have yet to read Schulz's other works, although they have been on my to-read list for many years. In fact I first came across Schulz's work in the Quay Brothers' animated interpretation of The Street of Crocodiles in 1986, which I share with you below. Like Biller's novella it is a work of dark surrealism. 

I received this novel free from the publisher, the excellent Pushkin Press, in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

The Fairy Wren by Ashley Capes

The Fairy Wren is a contemporary fantasy set in Australia, where Paul, a bookseller, struggles to juggle attention from a strange bird, a shady best friend, an Italian runaway and a missing ex-wife, all the while struggling to cling to a long-buried dream.

From the moment a fairy wren drops his lost wedding ring at his feet, Paul realises there's more magic to the world than he thought...

When Paul Fischer receives a strange phone call asking for help, from a woman who might be his estranged wife Rachel, he’s drawn into a mysterious search that threatens not only his struggling bookstore, but long-buried dreams too...

Unfortunately, the only help comes from a shady best friend, an Italian runaway and a strange blue fairy wren that seems to be trying to tell him something – yet the further he follows the clues it leaves the less sense the very world seems to make. Is he on the verge of a magical, beautiful discovery or at the point of total disaster?

Goodreads description

The Goodreads description doesn't do Ashley Capes or his novel justice when it places the book in the fantasy genre: this is very definitely magic realism. Nor is it the sort of cosy magic realism I first took it to be. The novel (especially the second half) has a darkness about it which means that the ending is not pat or completely feelgood. 

The magic comes mainly from the fairy wren, which lives up to its name. As a Brit I did not realize until I googled it that the fairy wren is a real bird species in Australia. The book is set in the realistic setting of small-town Australia with all the local politics and personality clashes of small towns anywhere.

The central character Paul isn't perfect. In fact he is the sort of person you like whilst being frustrated with. Self-pitying and at time irresponsible, he makes some morally dubious decisions, especially when helping out his shady best friend. This adds to the uncertainty and suspense of the novel. I kept thinking - he's not going to get away with this. Whether he does or not, I will not divulge here. You will just have to read the book.  

One bugbear of mine (which I know isn't universally shared) is that Paul is a bookshop owner and a struggling one as well. I understand why authors have a tendency to write about bookshops and their owners, but please isn't there some other profession that central characters can have? 

The Fairy Wren is an enjoyable read, which keeps you guessing until the end.

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

Monday 12 October 2015

A Kingdom of Souls by Daniela Hodrová

Through playful poetic prose, imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments, Daniela Hodrová shares her unique perception of Prague. A Kingdom of Souls is the first volume of this author’s literary journey — an unusual quest for self, for one’s place in life and in the world, a world that for Hodrová is embodied in Prague.
Goodreads description

I actually approached the publisher for a review copy of this novel. This is unusual as I normally receive my review copies via Netgalley or Edelweiss, but this is a book about Prague and I am a Czechophile. Prague of course was influential on magic realism, given the importance of Kafka. Indeed this is the fourth magic-realist book I have reviewed on this site that features that great city. As in many of Meyrink's writings the central character of this book is Prague and in particular a small area of Prague focused on an apartment block overlooking the Olsany cemetery. 

I am writing this review in my Czech house in South Bohemia. In the shops and supermarkets at this time of year the shelves are packed with candles and candle containers. Along the journey home last night I noticed candles burning at roadside shrines to the dead. We are drawing near to All Souls Night and the Czechs are getting ready to remember their ancestors. The souls in the title are of both the dead and the living. The two "live" alongside each other in the house and in the pantry and as most of the action takes place between the time of the Nazi occupation and the Velvet Revolution some characters move from the living to the dead in the novel. This is not however a ghost story but merely a presentation of a world in which the dead exist alongside the living. That this world should be in Prague is not a surprise to me. I too have felt the presence of history there and the presence of those who have walked the streets before me. Hodrová's portrayal of this other city is realistic to my mind.

This is an extraordinary book - erudite, moving and poetical. At times a non-Czech reader, even this one who is relatively familiar with the city, its history and culture, will have difficulties picking up all the references. It helps to read the Introduction, which explains some of them, but I would suggest that footnotes might have been useful. But even without catching all the references it is possible to enjoy this book. The Introduction tells us that Hodrová is interested in Jungian concepts. This is apparent throughout the book and her use of archetypal symbolism allows us to respond to themes, even if we do not consciously know the specific references. 

As the Goodreads description states, this is the first volume in a series by this author all focusing on Prague. The publisher very kindly gave me copies of the two books published so far (Prague, I See A City being the other). I look forward to reading more.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

A wry, affecting tale set in a small town on the Indonesian coast, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man ordinary in all particulars except that he conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. The inequities and betrayals of family life coalesce around and torment this magical being. An explosive act of violence follows, and its mysterious cause is unraveled as events progress toward a heartbreaking revelation.
Goodreads description

Most stories about murder focus on the question who did it. This short novel (192 pages) has a different approach. We are told who did it in the opening sentence: On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kayai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond;  the question the book answers (in its last sentence) is why. Set in Indonesia, the book is filled with the beliefs of the country's rural communities and as a result everyone seems to accept Margio's explanation that the white tigress inside him (inherited from his grandfather) caused him to tear at the throat of the father of his girlfriend. So the question evolves further to why did the tigress explode in violence. 

The violence of the murder - the young man literally nearly bites the older man's head off - is decribed graphically and may not be to every reader's taste. But this is contrasted to the ordinariness of Margio, who is not naturally a violent man, and helps the reader share the locals' acceptance that something supernatural took over Margio and made him behave in such an extraordinary way. 

But the book is not without psychological motivation. With different chapters telling and retelling incidents in Margio's life and those of his family from the perspective of different characters, we come to understand the boiling anger that the young man identifies as the tigress. 

This style of writing might seem at times repetitious and tangential, but it reminds me of the oral storytelling tradition and I am sure that Kurniawan is drawing from the Indonesian tradition in this and in so doing is creating something new and surprising. This is the first Indonesian magic realism that I have read and it would appear that this is a region (and an author) worth watching. 

I received a free copy from the publisher in return for a fair review