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Magical Realism

Magical realism is a genre which very much interests me, but one which I know I don’t read enough.  I have created a post where I wish to showcase ten works of magical realist fiction – five which I have personally loved, and five which very much intrigue me – with the hope of incorporating more books of the genre into my future reading.

97801404554651. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov *****
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.

 

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern ***** (review here)
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.   Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.  Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.  Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.  As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

 

3. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter ****9781844085231
One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

 

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger *****
Audrey Niffenegger’s dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control makes their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

 

97800995382645. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender ****
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.  On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother — her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother — tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.  The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them.

 

6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.  As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

 

7. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King 9781101994887
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”  Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.  But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

 

8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.  As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

 

97802419516519. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
”My name is Eva, which means ‘life’, according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’. Isabel Allende tells the sweet and sinister story of an orphan who beguiles the world with her astonishing visions, triumphing over the worst of adversity and bringing light to a dark place.’

 

10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
‘On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures in post-war Germany.’

 

What is your favourite work of magical realism?  Have you read any of these?  Which other books would you recommend?

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Short Story Series: Part Two

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
‘In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt Aimee Bender has created a world where nothing is quite as it seems. From a man suffering from reverse evolution to a lonely wife who waits for her husband to return from war; to a small town where one girl has a hand made of fire and another has one made of ice. These stories of men and women whose lives are shaped and sometimes twisted by the power of extraordinary desires take us to a place far beyond the imagination.’

2. Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres
”Welcome to the village of Notwithstanding, where a lady dresses in plus fours and shoots squirrels, a retired general gives up wearing clothes altogether, a spiritualist lives in a cottage with the ghost of her husband, and people think it quite natural to confide in a spider that lives in a potting shed. Based on de Bernieres’ recollections of the village he grew up in, Notwithstanding is a funny and moving depiction of a charming vanished England.

3. Collected Short Stories by Truman Capote
My reviews can be found here and here.

4. Black Venus by Angela Carter
‘Extraordinary and diverse people inhabit this rich, ripe, occasionally raucous collection of short stories. Some are based on real people – Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s handsome and reluctant muse who never asked to be called the Black Venus, trapped in the terminal ennui of the poet’s passion, snatching at a little lifesaving respectability against all odds…Edgar Allen Poe, with his face of a actor, demonstrating in every thought and deed how right his friends were when they said ‘No man is safe who drinks before breakfast.’ And some of these people are totally imaginary. Such as the seventeenth century whore, transported to Virginia for thieving, who turns into a good woman in spite of herself among the Indians, who have nothing worth stealing. And a girl, suckled by wolves, strange and indifferent as nature, who will not tolerate returning to humanity. Angela Carter wonderfully mingles history, fiction, invention, literary criticism, high drama and low comedy in a glorious collection of stories as full of contradictions and surprises as life itself.’

5. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler
‘In these tales, young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds. Half the tales here are true oral tales, collected by folklorists during the last two centuries, while the others are reworkings of oral tales by four great Russian writers: Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov. In his introduction to these new translations, Robert Chandler writes about the primitive magic inherent in these tales and the taboos around them, while in the afterword, Sibelan Forrester discusses the witch Baba Yaga.’

6. The Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
‘Anton Chekhov’s short fiction is admired and cherished by readers the world over. This stunning boxed set brings together the largest, most comprehensive selection of his stories, all full of humor, truth, and vast insight. Included are the familiar masterpieces-“The Kiss,” “The Darling,” and “The Lady with the Dog”–as well as several brilliant but lesser-known tales such as “A Blunder,” “Hush!,” and “Champagne.” The entire collection is introduced by Richard Ford’s perceptive essay “Why We Like Chekhov. while each individual volume includes a brief reminiscence on the meaning of Chekhov from a celebrated author, among them Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey, Cynthia Ozick, and Russell Banks. Amidst a sea of Chekhov translations, Constance Garnett, who brought Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev to the English-speaking world, has a style particularly suited to Chekhov’s prose. Her benchmark translations enable readers to immerse themselves in his world, experiencing the breadth of his talent in one voice.’

7. Paris Tales, edited by Helen Constantine
Paris Tales is a highly evocative collection of stories by French and Francophone writers who have been inspired by specific locations in this most visited of capital cities. The twenty-two stories – by well-known writers including Nerval, Maupassant, Colette, and Echenoz – provide a captivating glimpse into Parisian life from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The stories take us on an atmospheric tour of the arrondissements and quartiers of Paris, charting the changing nature of the city and its inhabitants, and viewing it through the eyes of characters such as the provincial lawyer’s wife seeking excitement, a runaway schoolboy sleeping rough, and a lottery-winning policeman. From the artists’ haunts of Montmartre to the glamorous cafes of Saint-Germain, from the shouts of demonstrators on Boul Mich’ to the tranquillity of Parc Monceau, Paris Tales offers a fascinating literary panorama of Paris. Illustrated with maps and striking photographs, the book will appeal to all those who wish to uncover the true heart of this seductive city.’

8. Astray by Emma Donoghue
‘With the turn of each page, the characters that roam across these pages go astray. They are emigrants, runaways, drifters; gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross borders of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, under duress or incognito. A sequence of fourteen fact-inspired fictions about travels to, in and from North America, Astray offers a past in scattered pieces, a surprising and moving history for restless times.’

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Flash Reviews (16th January 2014)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender ****

‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender

I had been looking forward to reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for rather a long time, ever since I spotted its delicious title and striking cover design in Birmingham’s main branch of Waterstone’s just after its publication.  I read it whilst on holiday in France in December, and found its prose pure poetry.  Rose Edelstein, our protagonist, is in the third grade when she samples a lemon cake baked by her mother, and finds that thereafter, ‘Every food has a feeling’.  Rose can tell, just by nibbling a particular foodstuff, how its chef was feeling as they were making it.

Bender has created such a thoughtful novel, and I warmed to Rose and her family immediately.  She writes beautifully.  The narrative voice which she has crafted is both believable and flows wonderfully.  The way in which she has made use of all of the senses throughout is masterful, and it makes the entirety of the novel so very vivid.  Bender is an author whose works I shall actively seek out in future.  I sense that I have some real treats in store.

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Clock Without Hands – Carson McCullers ***
I had been meaning to read Clock Without Hands for quite some time before I finally began to.  I kept picking it up and then not getting around to it.  It travelled with me to Menorca in September, where I got distracted by my Kindle and the use of a swimming pool, and it has been in my bag on several occasions since.  I took it to France on the same trip which I mentioned above, in the hope that I would finally get around to it.

I love McCullers’ writing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favourite novels, dripping with beauty and emotion.  Clock Without Hands tells the story of J.T. Malone, a pharmacist living in a small town in Georgia, who is diagnosed with leukaemia.  He is given between a year and fifteen months to live.  From the start, the story which McCullers presents is quite engrossing, and she builds up sympathy for her protagonist immediately.  The racial disparities throughout are exemplified well, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Sadly, it did not feel as thoughtful or as thought-provoking as the other novels of hers which I’ve read to date.  I enjoyed it on the whole, and I felt that the ending was marvellous, but I doubt that it is a book which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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The House of Special Purpose – John Boyne ****
My boyfriend very kindly bought this for me as a congratulations present for reaching my 2012 reading target.  I was eager to start it, loving Russian history as much as I do.  As soon as I opened the first page, I was immediately immersed into the story.  The House of Special Purpose is based upon the last months of the lives of the Romanovs, the royal family who were cruelly murdered during the First Bolshevik Revolution in February 1917.  Alongside their story, Boyne has crafted a fictional narrator, and the mixture of both plots works so well.

The plot was appealing, and the characters were so well crafted.  As with all of Boyne’s novels, his scenes are vivid and his plots believable.  I love the way in which he is faultlessly able to insert his protagonists into some of the biggest events in history, often in quite unusual ways.  Here, a seventeen-year-old boy named Georgy is taken from his rural Russian village in order to protect Tsarevich Alexei, after one gracious act causes him to be seen as a hero.  This story runs concurrently alongside that of when Georgy has become old, and is losing his wife to cancer.  The entire plot was thoughtfully constructed, and I admire Boyne for treating the Romanovs with the utmost respect throughout.  I did not adore this novel as I did The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, but as far as historical novels go, The House of Special Purpose is a great and gripping one.

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