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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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Reading the World: Russia

We come to one of the most fascinating countries which I have ever had the pleasure to visit now – Mother Russia.  I have read much literature and non-fiction (particularly that which deals with the Romanovs) set within the vast country, and it has been rather difficult to narrow down my recommendations.  Rather than make a series of posts, as I have done with Scandinavia, I have chosen six of what I believe to be the best books set within Russia.  (NB. I am painfully aware that no Tolstoy makes the cut, but that is solely because I have read very little of his work to date.)

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 9780099540946
‘In Soviet Moscow, God is dead, but the devil – to say nothing of his retinue of demons, from a loudmouthed, gun-toting tomcat, to the fanged fallen angel Koroviev – is very much alive. As death and destruction spread through the city like wildfire, condemning Moscow’s cultural elite to prison cells and body bags, only a madman, the Master and Margarita, his beautiful, courageous lover, can hope to end the chaos. Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign and circulated in samizdat form for decades, when The Master and Margarita was finally published it became an overnight literary phenomenon, signalling artistic freedom for Russians everywhere.’

2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
‘Banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, Doctor Zhivago is the epic story of the life and loves of a poet-physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Yuri Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds, and in love with the tender and beautiful nurse Lara.’

97803757190113. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘Constantly rebuffed from the social circles he aspires to frequent, the timid clerk Golyadkin is confronted by the sudden appearance of his double, a more brazen, confident and socially successful version of himself, who abuses and victimizes the original. As he is increasingly persecuted, Golyadkin finds his social, romantic and professional life unravelling, in a spiral that leads to a catastrophic denouement.’

4. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
‘Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…”The Siege” is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.’

5. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘The twenty-six-year-old Prince Myshkin, following a stay of several years in a Swiss sanatorium, returns to Russia to collect an inheritance and “be among people.” Even before he reaches home he meets the dark Rogozhin, a rich merchant’s son whose obsession with the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna eventually draws all three of them into a tragic denouement. In Petersburg the prince finds himself a stranger in a society obsessed with money, power, and manipulation. Scandal escalates to murder as Dostoevsky traces the surprising effect of this “positively beautiful man” on the people around him, leading to a final scene that is one of the most powerful in all of world literature.’

6. Gulag by Anne Applebaum9780140283105
‘This landmark book uncovers for the first time in detail one of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: the vast system of Soviet camps that were responsible for the deaths of countless millions. “Gulag” is the only major history in any language to draw together the mass of memoirs and writings on the Soviet camps that have been published in Russia and the West. Using these, as well as her own original research in NKVD archives and interviews with survivors, Anne Applebaum has written a fully documented history of the camp system: from its origins under the tsars, to its colossal expansion under Stalin’s reign of terror, its zenith in the late 1940s and eventual collapse in the era of glasnost. It is a gigantic feat of investigation, synthesis and moral reckoning.’

 

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Flash Reviews (7th November 2013)

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov ***
I absolutely adore The Master and Margarita, so when I spotted A Country Doctor’s Notebook on a book shopping trip, I could not resist picking it up.  I was expecting great things from this short story collection, but I must admit that I was a touch disappointed.  Most of the tales here are based upon experiences which Bulgakov had during the eighteen month period which he spent in a doctor’s practice in rural Russia.  The stories here, therefore, are partly fictional constructs and partly biographical.  The characters who feature in each are often highly dramatic, and provide an almost farcical addition to the whole, which I think was my least favourite aspect of the book.  The stories themselves were very well written and just the right length.  Whilst I enjoyed some of the scenes which Bulgakov created, others were a little too gruesome for my liking.

Paradise by Toni Morrison **
Paradise takes part in an all-black town named Ruby, in Oklahoma.  The building of the town is described in the first twenty or so pages, and whilst Morrison does set the scene well, it feels a little dry.  The novel is told by way of an omniscient narrator setting out the stories of eight different women – Mavis, Grace, Seneca, Divine, Patricia, Consolata, Lone and Save-Marie.  These women do not all live within the town limits of Ruby, but for all it is either a starting point or a destination for their stories.  The novel is therefore essentially made up of short stories which are geographically connected.  This technique works well, but it does add repetition into the whole, which is a shame.

Mavis’ story, the first in the collection, begins after her baby twins have been suffocated inside her car whilst she went inside the supermarket to buy her husband’s supper, and forgot to leave any windows open.  This was my favourite of all the tales, despite its melancholy.  Throughout, I did not always love Morrison’s writing, and the flow was not as good as it was in Sula.  The entirety of the book felt rather unsettling, and a little dark.  I did not love all of the stories – I did not even like some of them, if I’m honest – and I am glad that this isn’t the first of Morrison’s novels which I’ve read, for I would not have been overly enthused to pick up any of her other work on the strength of Paradise alone.  The construction of the novel was interesting, but it did not quite work for me overall.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams ***
I was a little unsure as to whether The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would appeal to me or not, but my boyfriend loves it, and so I thought I would give it a go.  I do not like science fiction as a rule, so I was rather surprised that I enjoyed the book.  I wasn’t expecting it to be such a light read when I began.  Overall, I felt that the novel was a very clever one.  I liked the parallels drawn between things on Earth and those in the wider galaxy – for example, the demolition of a house to create a new bypass, and the destruction of Earth to do the same thing on a larger scale.  If Roald Dahl had turned his hand to sci-fi, I imagine his creation would have been something akin to this.  Whilst I liked the novel, I am not interested enough in it to read the entire series.  I am, however, going to be watching the film adaptation (admittedly, mainly because darling Stephen Fry is in it).