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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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One From the Archive: ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ by Haruki Murakami ****

I have wanted to read this novel for about five years, ever since one of the rather beautiful quotes from it was acted out as an audition piece on drama school-based ‘Nearly Famous’, one of my favourite television programmes.  Sputnik Sweetheart follows three characters: aspiring novelist Sumire, Miu – the woman whom Sumire surprises herself by falling in love with – and K, our male narrator.  A love triangle of sorts soon ensues; K is in love with Sumire, two years his junior, and Sumire treats him more like a friend and almost prophetic teacher than as someone whom she is interested in. 

The one problem which I tend to have with translated Japanese fiction is that the conversations can sometimes feel a little lacklustre and void of emotion.  I’m not really sure why this tends to happen (can anyone enlighten me?), but the problem is sadly present in Sputnik Sweetheart In the grand scheme of things however, the prose was often so lovely that the conversational patterns were somewhat outweighed.  Sputnik Sweetheart was not at all as I had expected it to be, but it was both engaging and compelling, and twists and turns were taken which made it an intriguing work of mystery.  The three protagonists were all well developed and believably constructed, and I now want to read more of Murakami’s work.  I shall leave you with this beautiful quote, which I hope will encourage everyone who has not done so already to pick up this peculiar but memorable novel:

“And it came to me then.  That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits.  From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere.  When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together.  Maybe even open our hearts to each other.  But that was only for the briefest moment.  In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude.  Until we burned up and became nothing.”

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‘Kafka on the Shore’ by Haruki Murakami ****

As a fan of Haruki Murakami’s works, I was looking forward to reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’, a copy of which I had bought months ago but for some reason was still sitting on its self. And thanks to a community read-along, I had the chance to finally read it.

My feelings about this book are, in fact, kind of mixed. When I started reading it, I found myself hooked. I loved Murakami’s writing style, and as some of his previous novels that I had read, the plot was simple and realistic, not giving the reader much to think about initially. There were some boring parts, alright, but I was pretty satisfied with it.   kots

However, there were some pretty disturbing parts in the story. And me being weak-hearted and intolerant of some certain displays didn’t help at all. The story itself has quite a few ‘supernatural’ elements, or rather, quite a few elements that transcend reality and conventional storytelling. I was kind of confused about these parts at first (the incident about raining leeches, for example, even though it was never really fully explained) but as the story progressed, I came to realise that the events themselves weren’t the vital part of the story, but what came out of them. Therefore, there were many (peculiar) incidents that occured but were never given an explanation why or how they came to be. But given Murakami’s tendency to confuse dream and reality in his writings, this may have been how he wanted it to be. Or maybe he decided to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Which worked quite fine for me, actually.

Despite the disturbing scenes and the certain unexplainable events, I loved how wise, coming from Murakami once again, this book was. It was filled with the character’s uncertainties, insecurities and constant facing of dead-ends at certain points in their lives. Feelings we encounter all the time during our lives. The advice given, the wise words of the characters and the eventual determination to go on despite the hurdles that may occur in one’s life, made me fall in love with this book. It made me realise I should try harder if I want to change some things around me, and that I should accept everything that happens because they are what made me myself.

All in all, ‘Kafka on the Shore’ is definitely not Murakami’s best book. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, either. But still, it contains these elements that make you think about your own life and where you’re headed. And even if you’re pretty sceptical about this book at first, somehow, it manages to win you over.

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Flash Reviews (29th May 2014)

‘The Whole Story and Other Stories’ by Ali Smith (Penguin)

The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith ****
Merely to be a gushing Ali Smith fangirly, I thought that I would begin this review by saying that it is really cool to open a library book written by someone so prolific and to see ‘local author’ scrawled on the front page.  If you had not guessed from this, I adore Smith’s quirky writing and creative stories, and she is certainly one of my favourite authors.

Before I begin each one of Smith’s short story collections, I know that I will very much enjoy every single tale which has been included within its pages, often for very different reasons.  As I very much – and rather predictably – loved or very much enjoyed every story in The Whole Story and Other Stories, I thought that I would jot down a few thoughts about each story, and the reasons as to why I liked them so much.

– ‘The Universal Story’: I loved the conversational stream-of-consciousness style; the way in which Smith describes how one can adore books and the promise of treasures in secondhand bookshops; one man’s admiration for The Great Gatsby, and the collection of copies of the novel.
– ‘Gothic’: the personification of personality traits; the growth of the story’s protagonist.
– ‘Being Quick’: the use of the reader as a character of sorts; the use of two different first person narrators; the fact that the couple who feature as the protagonists are nameless.
– ‘May’: an original idea; I have read this story several times before and still find its beauty striking.
– ‘Paradise’: the use of very long but perfectly constructed sentences; the imagery which Smith builds.
– ‘Erosive’: the sheer number of characters and the way in which they were introduced so seamlessly.
– ‘The Book Club’: the structure, which cleverly told both a present day story and a backstory.
– ‘Believe Me’: the skill and tightness of the conversation between the protagonists.
– ‘Scottish Love Songs’: the very contemporary style of the prose.
– ‘The Shortlist Season’: thoughtful and urgent.
– ‘The Start of Things’: the dual perspective of the same event.

Please, if you have not done so before, go and pick up one of Ali Smith’s books.  Whether you read a novel, a short story collection or a work of non-fiction, she is a novelist who is well worth discovering.

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Mary by Vladimir Nabokov **
Another book which I borrowed from the lovely Cambridge Central Library, determined as I am to really enjoy at least one of Vladimir Nabokov’s books.  I decided upon borrowing it that if Mary, like Speak, Memory and Lolita, was a three star read or below, I would not go out of my way to read any more of Nabokov’s books.  Surprise, surprise then, that Mary was only worthy of a two star review in my opinion.

I had no idea what the novel was about when I first picked it up, but I believed that as the work had been translated in collaboration with the author, it would at least be relatively true to the original.  The novel begins in Berlin, in a pension which was ‘both Russian and nasty’, and which hosts inhabitants as diverse as a Russian poet and two ballet dancers who are ‘both as giggly as women’.  Mary, the titular character, is the wife of Aleksey Alfyorov.  As I have found before with his work, the way in which Nabokov crafts his prose is lovely, but the conversations between his characters often feel stiff, awkward and unnatural.  The descriptions throughout are neither as grand, nor as frequent as they are in Lolita, and the characters never quite cross the line into feeling like real, rather than imagined, beings.  Like Lolita, the novel is almost entirely fixated upon relationships, sexual desire, and frustration.  The story did not grip me at first, and whilst it does become marginally more interesting as one reaches the halfway point or so, it soon becomes a little dull again.  The uneven plot and abrupt ending have not allowed me to award Mary more than two stars, and on reflection, I feel that even that is a little generous.

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‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ by Haruki Murakami (Vintage)

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami ****
I have wanted to read this novel for about five years, ever since one of the rather beautiful quotes from it was acted out as an audition piece on drama school-based ‘Nearly Famous’, one of my favourite television programmes.  Sputnik Sweetheart follows three characters: aspiring novelist Sumire, Miu – the woman whom Sumire surprises herself by falling in love with – and K, our male narrator.  A love triangle of sorts soon ensues; K is in love with Sumire, two years his junior, and Sumire treats him more like a friend and almost prophetic teacher than as someone whom she is interested in.

The one problem which I tend to have with translated Japanese fiction is that the conversations can sometimes feel a little lacklustre and void of emotion.  I’m not really sure why this tends to happen (can anyone enlighten me?), but the problem is sadly present in Sputnik Sweetheart In the grand scheme of things however, the prose was often so lovely that the conversational patterns were somewhat outweighed.  Sputnik Sweetheart was not at all as I had expected it to be, but it was both engaging and compelling, and twists and turns were taken which made it an intriguing work of mystery.  The three protagonists were all well developed and believably constructed, and I now want to read more of Murakami’s work.  I shall leave you with this beautiful quote, which I hope will encourage everyone who has not done so already to pick up this peculiar but memorable novel:

“And it came to me then.  That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits.  From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere.  When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together.  Maybe even open our hearts to each other.  But that was only for the briefest moment.  In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude.  Until we burned up and became nothing.”

Purchase from The Book Depository