magical realism

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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Book Review of Men Without Women

men without womenAfter a hectic week, it was beautiful to spend a few quiet moment each night with the prose of Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors.  Short stories is such a fitting way to experience his odd stories of longing and love.

All of these stories explore – oddly enough – Men Without Women.  Some have loved and lost, others have chosen solitude. Some wonder about what the future brings and one or two are even hopeful.  But all have the emotional depth and clear, crisp lyricism readers have come to expect.  A standout for me was ‘Gregor Samsa in Love’ which imagines the famous character from Kafka reawakening in his old human body which feels soft, alien and vulnerable.  ‘Kino’ touches on the supernatural world that often runs through Murakami’s writing. ‘Scheherezade’ explores the power of storytelling and the capacity of words to create something like love.

Another refined and masterful collection by someone who feels full of quiet but real passion.  This is how I would write if I could.

Book Review of Exit West

UnknownThis is another Man Booker nominee, a slim kind of a volume with plenty to say within its pages.  Mohsin Hamid comments of love, refugees and out culture of fearing the outsider in Exit West.

Nadia and Saeed meet in a country on the brink of disaster.  Although the name of this place is never revealed, it appears to be somewhere in the Middle East.  He is traditionally and she – despite her traditional outerwear – a progressive.  They seem an unlikely couple, but are drawn together during the crumbling of their worlds.

They flee their homeland and cling to each other in various refugee camps – the way to many of which are opened though magical doors that lead you to another part of the world – an odd but fascinating little aspect of this story that Hamid tells in such a commonplace way that you would expect the door to your spare bedroom to lead you to London too.  It leads to an interesting sense of dislocation for the characters – and allows for fascinating depictions of the inhabitants of those lands who are suddenly overrun by refugees.  Hamid has a sharp eye and while it’s clear he condemns those who would reject those who need it a place in their country, in his magical world even these strange intrusions are eventually forgiven and ways forward are found.  And surely if they can, we an ourselves?

A fascinating and thought-provoking read – definitely one for our times.

Book Review of Fever Dream

I always make it a point to read at least a few of the Booker-nominated titles each year.Fever-Dream-Samanta-Schweblin  The first was Judas by Amos Oz – not a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but Oz is such a beautiful writer I thought it was worth a look.

Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very different kind of book.  A fast-paced novella, Fever Dream is a chilling mystery that is never fully solved.  This will alienate some readers straight away.  And even though I too was somewhat frustrated by the lack of resolution, Schweblin’s story is a hard one to put down.

The story begins in a darkened hospital room.  Amanda is near death, and telling her story to David, the enigmatic son of a neighbour.  David urges her to recount her last 24 hours to identify the exact time the ‘worms’ took over and caused her death.

In recounting her time in the Argentinian countryside Amanda ends up telling David about a conversation she has with Carla, David’s mother.  She is worried about David – ever since a psychic transmigrated his soul in order to save his life.  She calls this new David “a monster”.  Amanda is worried for her child Nina too.  Something is strange about this landscape, and she feels the “rescue distance” (the space between her and Nina that she feels is safe) is getting smaller and smaller.

David is a hard task-master, shaping and cutting off Amanda’s narrative, focused on getting to the story of the worms.  And something is definitely wrong here.  Schweblin’s all-pervading and lasting sense of foreboding is inescapable.

I doubt you’ll be able to put Fever Dream down.  I don’t know whether you’ll find it entirely satisfactory at the end, but you’ll be impatient to get there.