Sunday 31 January 2016

They Were Like Family to Me: Stories by Helen Marles Shankman

A radiant debut collection of linked stories from a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, set in a German-occupied town in Poland, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.

1942. With the Nazi Party at the height of its power, the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish populations. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival often demands unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire—a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.

Blending folklore and fact, Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town.

Extract from the Goodreads description

January 27th was Holocaust Memorial Day, so I have moved this review forward a week to coincide with it. You might be forgiven for thinking that everything that can be said about the Holocaust and every way of saying it has already been published, but you would be wrong. They Were Like Family to Me  is an interesting addition to the corpus of holocaust literature, taking an original approach to the subject. 

This book is described as a collection of linked stories and so it is. But I would argue it is more than that. Each story is set in the town of Wlodawa and surroundings and each is seen from the point of view of a different character, German, Polish or Jew. The story of what happened in that town is built up in a way that is impossible if seen from one viewpoint. Certain incidents and characters which happen en passant in one story come to the fore and into focus in another. This is what a historian always experiences - there is no one narrative, no overriding story arc. There is only a series of perspectives that together enable you to form a view, but, and this is a big but, there is always the knowledge that there are millions of people's points of view that you never hear. Where is that historical reality more apparent than in the case of genocide? 

Helen Maryles Shankman comes from a family of holocaust survivors and she integrates aspects of her family's history into the stories. She also bases some of the storylines and characters on other historical personalities. The artist and writer in the title story is obviously inspired by the death of Bruno Schultz, whilst the benevolent and enigmatic Willy Reinhart bears strong similarities to Oskar Schindler and a similar less-known character from Shankman's family stories. 

One of the book's strengths is that its structure allows us to see the world through the eyes of the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The story They Were Like Family to Me is told from the point of view of a hardened SS killer who takes the artist under his protecton. In The Jew Killer the central character is an anti-semitic Pole, who is forced to confront his feelings when he has to protect a young Jewish girl. Finally of course there is the story at the end of the book told from the point of Willy Reinhart. These stories were my favourites in the collection and it seemed to me the enigma of Reinhart in some way was the narrative driver of the book. 

Magic realism pervades the stories - the resistance to the Germans is often personified in the form of a mythical being such as the Golem or a werewolf, and on one occasion the very land of Poland rises up against the oppressors. Wlodawa sits on the edge of the dark forest. It is where the Germans take the Jews to be murdered, but it is also where the mythical and subconscious dwell. It is where the Jewish partisans can be shapeshifters. The magic only partly succeeds. It cannot do otherwise. Magical monsters are no match in the long term for the real monsters of the Nazi killing machine. And yet there is a mysticism in these stories and a hope that transcends the darkness.

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

NB this book was originally titled In the Land of Armadillos

Sunday 24 January 2016

The Cowboy Bible and Other Stories by Carlos Velazquez

The much-anticipated English-language debut of "one of the most original and entertaining voices of contemporary Mexican literature"(Revista Gatopardo): a collection of surreal, ironic, and madcap stories about the comedy and brutal tragedies of life in Mexico.
Extract from the Goodreads description

This short story collection is unlike anything I have ever read. The language and style are extraordinary. Comparisons have been made between Velazquez's work and that of Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs. The tone is always ironic, frequently surreal and often spectacularly inventive. The use of contemporary Mexican popular culture, including Spanglish words, song lyrics and much more, made this a difficult book for me to understand and read. I am sure I missed a lot of references and even some plot points.

The Cowboy Bible and Other Stories is set in a mythical part of north Mexio called PopSTock! - a sort of Macondo on acid. The stories are linked by the magical Cowboy Bible, which changes shape between the stories - in one it is the talisman of a Mexican wrestling DJ and art critic, in another an unbeatable participant in drinking marathons, the leather for boots so desirable that a character sells to the devil a night with his wife, a television show on which cds are pirated by a female urban rebel, an overweight single mother, and a musical instrument. After a while you realize that the stories sometimes overlap. 

Despite the stories' obvious surrealism and fantasy they have a habit of hitting you in the face with realism. PopSTock! is a violent world in which drug dealers hold sway over people's lives and macho sexism is everywhere. It is clear that these stories are also a social and political commentary on Velazquez's homeland.

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

Monday 18 January 2016

The Song of the Jayhawk by Jack Marshall Maness

Before there were red states and blue states, there was Kansas. A place that divided the nation like never before, or since. A place where mayors were generals and journalists were terrorists. A place where drunken guerrilla armies roamed the prairies, threatening farmers and rigging elections. A haunted place where mysterious beasts led settlers into undiscovered countries.

Follow two young families as they struggle with rattlesnakes, tornadoes, ice-storms, childbirth and morality in a war-torn land. A growing love between them, built over holiday ham and whiskey, is threatened as they are drawn into the territory's cycle of political violence. They must ultimately decide if they are friends or foes, and it isn't long before they all have blood on their hands.

This is a story of loyalty and betrayal, courage and despair. Set in the 1850s, the dilemmas faced by the Dugan and Hawkins families are similar to those faced by every generation in a long-divided America. It asks how ordinary people cope with extraordinary times, why they sometimes turn to violence, and more importantly, why they usually do not.
Goodreads description

I have to confess that, although I studied history at university, I know precious little about America in the 19th century and the run-up to the American Civil War. I therefore came to this novel with a great deal of ignorance and had no idea what a catalyst Kansas was in the tragic turmoil that hit that great country. 

The book's introduction starts with the statement It has been widely noted that one cannot comprehend American society without a fundamental understanding of the Civil War. But can you enjoy a story set in that time without such an understanding? The answer is yes, I did enjoy The Song of the Jayhawk. I found myself emotionally involved with the Dugan and Hawkins families. Jack Marshall Maness, to his great credit, shows accurately the complexity and ambiguity of real people facing difficult choices. To fight or not, to protect family or the wider community, to help or to fight your neighbours. He shows that both families have come from difficult backgrounds and want to build a new future and he also shows that within families there are clashes between younger hot-headed members and their more experienced pragmatic elders. 

Whilst the point of view of the novel stayed with the various family members, this reader was engaged with the story. However when on occasion the narrative parted from that point of view and showed political developments on the wider stage, I found myself feeling frustrated. From what I have read in the introduction to the book Mr Maness is a historian and I sympathize with his desire to clearly set his protagonists' story in its historic context, but...

The magic realism in the book comes mainly in the form of the appearance of a mythical bird of the Kanza Indians, the Mialueka, which the author associates with the infamous Kansas jayhawk. The Mialueka was said to have lured people to their destruction, and appears at times of crisis to the Dugan brothers. Other magic-realist elements include the river changing location and some magic powers belonging to Patrick Dugan's wife. The latter are not fully developed narratively, although I expect they will be in subsequent books. It should be noted that the story does rather break off at the end of the book, as this is the first in a series, so if you are someone who likes everything resolved when you read the last page, be warned. 

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

Monday 11 January 2016

The Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

John Irving returns to the themes that established him as one of our most admired and beloved authors in this absorbing novel of fate and memory.
As we grow older—most of all, in what we remember and what we dream—we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present.

As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. “An aura of fate had marked him,” John Irving writes, of Juan Diego. “The chain of events, the links in our lives—what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do—all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.”

Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past—in Mexico—collides with his future.

Goodreads description

I confess that this is the first John Irving novel I have read. He is of course on my list of magic realist writers to read, but I just hadn't got round to reading his work. From what I can gather this book deals with many of the subjects of his previous novels, whether as well or worse I cannot of course say. 

The book is effectively two stories. One is the story of the writer Juan Diego, who may be in his fifties but he comes across as older than that, and one is the story of the boy Juan Diego and his sister Lupe. The novel drifts from one story to the next as the man dreams about his childhood both while he is asleep and as he is in a semiconscious state of daydreaming. Even when he is apparently fully conscious he does not seem to be in control of himself or what is happening to the degree that the reader cannot be exactly certain of the veracity of what is occurring. This is explained partly by the fact that he is playing with not taking the correct dosage of betablockers and combining that dangerous activity with taking viagra. Something that is covered over and over again. 

The problem with the novel is that the story of the young Juan Diego is more engaging than that of his older self. In part this is because of the elder Diego's somnambulist state and in part because the older man does not develop during the course of the book. Indeed he is incredibly passive at the mercy of an over-eager former student who organizes his travel itinerary and then at the mercy of two femmes fatales - a mysterious mother and daughter who are "women who appear". 

The story of Juan and his sister, whom we meet when they are scavengers in the city dump, is wonderfully drawn and yes, the way Irving reveals it in snatches as part of the writer's dreams is masterful. The character I would have preferred at the centre of the story is not young Juan but his mind-reading younger sister. Lupe for some reason speaks in a garbled language that only Juan can understand. He therefore acts as her interpreter and censor. There is much fun to be had reading what Lupe is actually saying and what Juan says she says. She is a much stronger individual than her brother, determined and angry. Not only can she read minds, but she can also see people's pasts. She also sometimes can see the future, but not always correctly. The story is in many ways driven by her and her abilities and when they combine with a fierce protectiveness towards her brother they result in a striking climax. 

Juan's early story is packed with colourful characters - Pepe the monk who encourages Juan to have an education, Edward the self-flagellating Hawaiian-shirt-wearing American Jesuit, the transsexual prostitute with a heart of gold, and the children's mother (monastery cleaner, prostitute and adult-child), to say nothing of the cast of characters to be found at the circus, that the two kids join in the run-up to the climax of their story. 

Of course there is loads of stuff in this novel about 'the avenue of mysteries', i.e. what makes us what we are, specifically what makes a writer what he is, in this case a lonely lost old man. There is a quite a lot of sex and even true love. And there is a lot on religion, the church and the uneasy relationship between the Catholic Madonna and the more native Mary of Guadalupe. But at its heart for me it was about a boy and a girl - as Lupe says "We are the miracles. . . . We’re the miraculous ones.”

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

Friday 1 January 2016

A Paper Son by Jason Buchholz

Grade school teacher and aspiring author Peregrine Long sees a Chinese family on board a ship--in his morning tea. The image inspires him to write the story of this family, but then a woman turns up at his door, claiming that he's writing her family history exactly as it happened. She doesn't like it, but she has one question: What happened to the little boy of the family, her long-lost uncle? Throughout the course of a month-long tempest that begins to wash the peninsula out from beneath them, Peregrine searches modern-day San Francisco and its surroundings--and, through his continued writing, southern China and the Pacific immigration experience of a century ago--for the missing boy. The clues uncovered lead Peregrine to question not only the nature of his writing, but also his knowledge of his own past and his understanding of his identity.
Goodreads description

Where do the ideas for stories come from? It is a question authors are often asked. The answer can be surprising. Anything can act as a stimulus - a conversation overheard, some music wafting from a doorway, a stranger passing in the street, a landscape. If the author is "in the zone" then s/he will detect these stimuli everywhere. Jason Buchholz's fictional author, Peregrine Long, finds inspiration in a cup of tea, in a swim in the rain, in an old man dressed in strange clothes and carrying a rifle in the street... But this is a magic-realist book and it becomes clear, with the arrival of the strange woman accusing him of stealing her family story, that this is more than abstract inspiration. The woman wants to know what happened to her uncle Henry - the boy at the heart of Peregrine's new work. History is leaking into Peregrine's reality. The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction become fluid. 

I use the word "fluid" deliberately. Water in all its forms appears throughout the novel. Peregrine starts the story as a major storm is about to hit San Francisco and it continues throughout the book. The first intimation of the story is in the tea-cup. What Peregrine sees in the cup is Henry's family on a ship returning to China. That water is hugely important is clear but why?

The story becomes a magic-realist mystery. What happened to the boy Henry at the centre of Peregrine's novel and the woman's real-life uncle? Why has Peregrine been chosen as the vehicle for Henry's story? The answer to the mystery can only come by Peregrine listening to his "inspiration" and writing the novel. 

As you can see there are a lot of layers to A Paper Son. The narrative keeps moving from Peregrine's story to Henry's, but the mystery and Jason Buchholz's writing kept this reader's attention.

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