magical realism

Book Review of Lily and the Octopus

LilyI had this saved on my Audible wishlist and when it came on sale I thought I might give it a try.  I’d obviously marked it some time last year as an interesting reading possibility.  The result was both beautiful and devastating. This is a book both for, and not for dog lovers.

Lily is a much-loved dachshund, and one day her owner notices an octopus on her head.  It seems to be attached there and not coming off.  After several minutes of confusion it becomes clear to the reader that the octopus is some form of tumour or cancer that the narrator, Lily’s owner, does not want to confront.

What follows is a blend of the realistic and the fanciful – the magical realism of battling an ‘octopus’ for mastery of Lily’s body (including a bizarre scene set at sea) and the hauntingly real scenes of love and loss as the narrator realises nothing he does can save Lily from her fate.  The novel talks about their whole life together, including their weekly routines of watching TV and gossiping about boys (the narrator is gay and Lily can speak to him).  Lily was his first real love in so many ways.

As a dog person, I both loved and wanted to switch this off in so many ways.  I cried at the difficult moments and loved the relationship Steven Rowley portrayed so painstakingly between the man and his dog.  Definitely worth a look.


Book Review of Killing Commendatore

killing commendatoreI’ve seen reviews describe Haruki Murakami’s latest opus as ‘rambling’, and I would have to agree.  Killing Commendatore is a slow-paced and lengthy odyssey into a traditionally mysterious and unresolved Murakami wonderland.  This time, I struggled to keep my eyes open for long sections in the early and middle sections of the book. But this is just something you have to accept about a Murakami novel – he spends painstaking time creating both the ordinary and the extraordinary worlds his characters inhabit.  But I’d suggest this is one for the fans only – his earlier works are a little punchier.

Isolation is a key theme of many of Murakami’s novels, and the unnamed protagonist here is a portrait painter unceremoniously rejected by his wife.  Seeking refuge and solitude, he ends up living in the remote mountains of Odawarra, in the home of a once famous painter, Tomohiko Amada.  There he uncovers a painting that was never made public.  It depicts a Japanese portrayal of a murder in Don Giovanni (opera being another key element in many of Murakami’s works).  The discovery of the painting sets off a chain of unusual events that are never really brought completely into the light.  he befriends a rich stranger , who encourages him to paint the portrait of a young girl – a girl he believes may be his daughter.  Alongside this, a mysterious bell chiming in the middle of the night leads him to a tomb and a mysterious little figure, an ‘Idea’ personified in the form of the Commendatore of the picture.

While the painter is inspired anew and begins several new works, yet each disturbs him somehow.  He senses he is being drawn into a mystery that ties together Amada’s piece, Amada himself and the young girl he befriends. Eventually he must quest to save her when she disappears from the world to a place only he can enter.

The painter likes to keep many of his portraits unfinished – a reflection of Murakami’s own desire not to tie up the ends of his narrative neatly. Once again this is a lyrical, strange and beautiful novel, but one that may have been more satisfying.

Book Review of Rose Madder

rose madderI decided to fill in one of my Stephen King gaps by listening to Rose Madder, a title that hadn’t caused a lot of interest in the past.

Rose Madder differs from many other Stephen King novels in two ways; firstly, it is largely set in an um-magical world.  The focus is on Rose, a woman who escapes her abusive husband a corrupt and violent policeman.  Secondly, the supernatural element is closely connected to Greek Mythology which isn’t a clear direction for much of King’s work.  This is brought about through a visit to a pawn shop to sell her engagement ring (which turns out to be cubic zirconia), where Rosie encounters a painting of a woman wearing Greek dress.  She is drawn to the power and self-possession of the figure and takes the painting home.  She is later drawn into the landscape the painting depicts and sent on a mission to rescue a baby from the maze of the bull Erinyes.

Eventually the two worlds collide and Rosie’s husband Norman becomes Erinyes and must be confronted and destroyed in the world of the painting to protect those Rosie loves in the read world.

Readable, dark and mildly disturbing, this isn’t one of King’s best (apparently he agrees) but it is a reasonably good way to spend a few hours.

Book Review of Audrey Niffenegger’s Raven Girl

raven girlI found this short book in a library sale. Picking it up for our book nooks, I could not resist reading it myself first.  After all, The Time Traveller’s Wife was a pretty great read, I even if I didn’t enjoy Her Fearful Symmetry.

Raven Girl is a lot of things.  Niffenegger says she wanted to create a Fairy Tale for our times, and in many ways she has.  It has the slightly disturbing nature of those real Grimm’s fairy tales – this probably isn’t a tale that Disney will make into a movie.  It’s definitely not for small children either – despite being shaped much like a children’s book and full of illustrations.

It begins with a postman, who falls in love with a Raven.  After some time, they have a child, who is human in shape, but Raven in mind and speech.  As she grows older, she comes to realise that she must take steps – radical ones even – to make the exterior match the interior.

This is an unsettling story in an era of body dysmorphia, But I guess at it’s heart, it is about being different and embracing your differences.  And the illustrations are beautiful.  I’m not sure this is for the younger boys at school, but might be an interesting short read for a more mature student who might find much to ponder in this.


Book Review of Elevation

elevationStephen King’s latest novella, Elevation is a short read or short listen if like me, you’re a fan of audio books.

It’s a touching rather than scary story of a strange affliction – and how it works to actually bring people together.

Scott is a fairly lonely man living in a small town after the break-down of his marriage.  Then he notices something strange – he’s losing weight.  But only on the scales – his large frame remains unchanged.  And even more puzzling – is that no matter what Scott carries on the scale, his weight remains the same as it does when carrying nothing.

But with this lightness also seems to come a lightness of being.  Although concerned about what happens when the scales hit zero, he still takes the time to befriend a gay couple who move into the town and open a restaurant, supporting the two women to be accepted amongst the townsfolk who have fairly traditional views.  His actions change their lives and secure their future.

It’s a beautiful little story and on audio comes with an even shorter story about the power of animals to heal.  Worth a look.

Book Review of The Underground Railroad

underground railroadA complex story that would have been better explored in the written word rather than by audio, which is how I experienced it.

What’s powerful about this book is its bleak depiction of the cruelties of slavery  – of the lives of slaves on plantations, of slaves on the run who are hunted like animals and never feel safe, and even of free black men and women in a time where their brothers and sisters are kept as property.

The story centres on Cora – a black woman with some degree of freedom through her mother’s possession of a small pocket of land, although no matter what she does, she cannot escape capture and enslavement.  She escapes and lives under an assumed name but is taken – she is freed again and lives amongst other runaway slaves, but that same slave-catcher comes for her.  I guess like Cora, none of us can escape this history.

It’s important to understand that Whitehead has included many fantastical and anachronistic elements in the novel – likely to suggest the connections between many human cruelties and the ongoing nature of these.  For example, Whitehead makes the metaphorical underground railroad into a real one.  Cora also encounters a eugenics movement – this time looking to sterilise black women to limit the number of blacks in America.

Fascinating and compelling, this is indeed a story worth attention, discussion and no doubt at some point – study in schools.

Book Review of Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping BeautiesStephen King co-wrote this novel with his son Owen, passing the chapters between them and re-writing each other.  The result is a novel that feels very much like King himself – his stamp is all over it.

Sleeping Beauties imagines a world in which women fall asleep and begin constructing some kind of cocoon. It’s a dangerous kind of slumber – when someone attempts to wake them unnatural strength and aggression is the result.  The world of men goes pretty much as you would expect – sense and reason fall very much by the wayside.  King is clearly a feminist.

Meanwhile, the women wake up in an alternative setting and begin setting up their own society which, while technologically behind the times, is pretty successful.  Time passes differently there, and while the Aurora virus has only taken hold in the real world for a few days, a year or more passes in the world of the sleeping women.

Behind it all is Evie Black, the supernatural force you would come to expect from a Stephen King novel.  Both malevolent and insightful, its hard to cast her as either hero or villain. She clearly sits somewhere in between.  Awake and safe in a prison cell, she forms much of the conflict in the text as the characters battle for what to do with her.

Nothing extraordinary here, this novel is very much “in the pocket” for King.  No more than a comfortable read.