Posts Tagged ‘Magical Realism’

I picked up Katie Crouch’s YA novel The Magnolia League thinking it sounded something like last year’s Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. Forget that.

Despite a similarity in plot — motherless girls whisked away to genteel Savannah — Hoffman’s coming-of-age tale is sweetly conventional. Not so with Crouch’s spicy story, in which 16-year-old Alexandra Lee lands among the mean Magnolias and discovers “nothing in Savannah is what it seems.”

Wicked fun ensues as dreadlocked Alex, raised on an organic farm commune in California, is taken in hand by her formidable grandmother after her bohemian mother Louise is killed in a car accident. Grandmother Lee heads the elite Magnolia League and immediately deputizes two of its younger members, the impossibly privileged and pretty Hayes and Madison, to transform Alex into a designer-clad debutante so she can assume her rightful place in society.

Alex is an uneasy Cinderella, comfortable in her vintage T-shirts, aghast at her new friends’ consumerism, longing for the boyfriend she left behind who seems to have forgotten her. She finds a pal in Dexter, another high school outsider who doesn’t care about the Magnolias, but she’s still impressed by Hayes’ handsome prepster brother. She’s curious, too, as to why her grandmother keeps her mom’s girlhood room locked and warns her to stay away from Dr. Sam Buzzard and his family, who appear to have a strange hold on the Magnolias. Can you say hoo-doo?

Alex is both fascinated and repelled as she learns more of the old African rituals and potions. Suspense builds as the annual debutante ball approaches. Will Alex accept her “destiny”? It’s no mistake that “That Old Black Magic” (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics) is playing in the background as Crouch adroitly sets the stage for a sequel. Can’t wait.

In such previous books as Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen has captivated with her own brand of dreamy Southern magical realism.  She’s a kinder, gentler Alice Hoffman, so her tales are not as dark nor deep.

The Peach Keeper, set in a North Carolina mountain town, offers family rivalries, secrets, superstitions and an actual skeleton that appears when old peach tree is uprooted during the renovation of the old Jackson family mansion, The Blue Ridge Madame, into a ritzy inn.

 Willa Jackson, who has returned to her hometown after a disappointing decade, runs a small sporting goods/coffee shop catering to out-of-town hikers. Paxton Osgood, whose family ascended into society after scandal befell the Jacksons, is overseeing the opening of the Madam with the same poise and efficiency with which she runs the local women’s club founded by hers and Willia’s grandmothers.

 Both old ladies reside in the same senior home, but Willa’s grandmother Georgie has slipped into senility. Paxton’s grandmother remains sharp as a tack but keeps secrets as well, especially as regards Tucker Devlin, the traveling salesman who long ago charmed her, Georgie and every other young woman in town.

Paxton and Willa have their own romantic troubles. Paxton believes her love for her handsome best  friend is unrequited, while Willa won’t admit her attraction to Paxton’s twin brother, in town for the gala opening. Oh, what fools these mortals be! Can’t they feel the magic stirring in the shadows, smell the scent of smoke and peaches?

Allen displays her usual light touch. The story’s not much in the way of suprises, but the resolution should please readers. My favorite scene remains one midway through when Willa rescues an unusually drunk Paxton from some local thugs, and the two begin to sift through years of misunderstanding on both sides.

Open Book: I read a digital advance of The Magnolia League (Little, Brown) through NetGalley. I’m probably going to buy a copy to go with my other Katie Crouch books, Girls in Trucks and Men and Dogs, both set in the South Carolina lowcountry. Crouch has family on Edisto Island, as do I, and really knows the local color. I bought my copy of Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper (Bantam).

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The new normal is the paranormal in much of today’s fiction, both literary and commercial. Here a ghost, there a zombie, everywhere a vampire or a werewolf. But several recent novels enchant with the magic of storytelling even as they trip the light fantastic.

Alice Hoffman, of course, is one of the leading practitioners of American magical realism, known as much for her luminous writing as her tales tinged with whimsy. My favorites include Seventh Heaven, Practical Magic,  The River King and Blackbird House. The latter is comprised of  stories linked by a Cape Cod house built during Colonial times by a fisherman who drowned at sea. A blackbird with wings of white reappears to succeeding generations as they experience fable-like encounters and transformations.

Hoffman’s most recent book, The Red Garden (Crown), is similar in form and style as its stories tell the history of  the small Massachustts town of Blackwell. All stem from town founder Hallie Brady’s determination to keep herself and her fellow settlers from starvation by forging a kinship with the wilderness, especially its black bears. A river full of eels, a mysterious garden, tomatoes that grant wishes, a woman with hair so long she can step on it. Hoffman’s lyrical fables are full of fate and magic and metaphor. And how wonderful that  Johnny Appleseed himself visits Blackwell once upon a time.

“Wonderful” is a good word, too, to describe Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others (Tor). It’s a coming-of-age, sense-of-wonder tale told through the journal entries of Welsh teen Mori, a stranger in the strange land of a British boarding school. She and her twin sister used to escape from their witch of a mother by playing in the magical outdoors and talking to the fairies. But now Mori, still limping from a terrible accident, keeps to herself, seeking refuge in science fiction and fantasy books. 

“There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.”

Mori’s world expands, thanks to to inter-library loan, a SF reading group, and the rebellious drop-out Win, “rarer than a unicorn, a beautiful boy in a red-checked shirt who read and thought and talked about books.” But before she can begin the next chapter of her life, Mori must reckon with the spells of the past. 

Among Others reminded me of how many hours I spent as a teen lost in the other worlds of Delany, Heinlein and Le Guin. My to re-read list gets ever longer. I’ve also added Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger, although her new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight (Grove/Atlantic) is altogether different, mixing Appalachian mountain myth with the poignant story of a conflicted man’s life. It begins: “Of all the props I saved, only the coffin remains.”

Eddie Alley was once a TV weatherman who gained small-town fame as Captain Casket, host of a late-night horror show. His love of monster movies dates back to his Depression-era boyhood in rural Virginia, where a WPA writer named Tucker Hayes shows Eddie a flickering Frankenstein with a hand-held projector. Eddie is as captivated by this visitor as Tucker is taken with Eddie’s mother Cora, who gathers ginseng (“sang”) and has a reputation as a witch.

Holman shuttles between present-day New York, where aging Eddie leaves a phone message about sang to his TV anchor daughter Wallis; to Panther Gap, where Tucker, a reluctant World War II draftee, stays longer than planned; to the late 1970s, when Wallis is 12 and her father brings home the orphaned Jasper. Holman also artfully shifts perspectives as mystery and magic meet.  The overall arc is a bit uneven because the events at Panther Gap overshadow Wallis’ suburban childhood.

Deborah Harkness’ debut, A Discovery of Witches, is pop paranormal, crowded with witches, vampires and daemons living among us poor unaware humans. Impossibly smart and attractive, Diana Bishop comes from a long line of famous witches, but she prefers to do her historical research without magic. But then she opens a medieval manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and finds the palimpsest thrumming with magic. Suddenly, many of the undead are on the trail of the book and its secrets, including the impossibly handsome and brilliant vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. 

Once you buy into the premise, the tale proves to be a well-written escapist romp with just enough romance and real history to make its 500-plus pages mostly worth reading. (I admit to skimming through the yoga sessions). Be forewarned: The ending isn’t really the end. This is the first book in the All Souls trilogy.

Open Book: I bought hardcover copies of The Red Garden and A Discovery of Witches and e-book versions of Among Others and Witches on the Road tonight. This is the thing with e-book pricing; sometimes the dead-tree format costs less or pretty much the same with discounts. As many books as I buy, I’d still rather save money than space.

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I spent a couple hours yesterday trying to find a Steven Millhauser short story I read years ago. Of course, I couldn’t remember the name of it, although I was pretty sure I had the anthology where I first read it. Something about libraries. But what was the name? Many internet searches later, I had the name of the book, Reading Rooms. But I still couldn’t find it on my many double-stacked shelves. So then I found the next best thing — my original Orlando Sentinel review from April 14, 1991: “You can actually taste the books in Steven Millhauser’s fantastic fantasy ‘The Library of Morpheus.’ The narrator reports that a volume of Dickens tastes like ‘roast lamb, peas, and mashed potatoes with gravy,’ while Kafka is ‘like pure cold-burning water.’ ” Mmm. Love the idea that books have distinct tastes and real flavors.

With that in mind, I expected Aimee Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, to taste like its title and the cake on its cover — lovely lemon layer cake with gooey chocolate frosting. It would be light, spongy, sweet with just a hint of tang. No, not really. It’s quite tart. Either there’s not enough sugar mixed with the cocoa, or the zest in the cake includes some pith. Bittersweet. Still good, though.

To nine-year-old Rose Edelstein, her birthday cake tastes so strange and sad. Then she realizes that she is tasting the inner emotions of the person who made it — her outwardly cheerful mother. The next day she can’t swallow her homemade PBJ sandwich. Too much despair. And then there’s her older brother Joseph’s crunchy toast — awful, horrible, lonely. “I’m ok,” he protests. “I’m fine.” But she knows he’s not. And neither is her distracted father, who is so phobic about hospitals he stands on the street and waves to a window  when his children are born.

Rose’s sense of taste becomes so acute that she only eats cafeteria food made by one lunch lady. She knows by an egg’s taste what farm it came from and if the hen was happy. She can distinguish a Florida orange  from one from California. One batch of bakery cookies are full of anger. Some made by another baker are rushed and worried. To protect herself from things she’d rather not know, Rose  subsists mostly on tasteless processed fare from vending machines.

As Rose grows up, her peculiar gift/curse provides a detailed portait of her way-dysfunctional family. She’s actually delighted when her mom’s roast beef tastes good, even though it means she’s having an affair. But Joseph is the most disturbed, and disturbing, family member. He appears to have some form of autism, sharing his genius with math and physics with one brilliant friend.  Still, his grades aren’t good enough to get him into Cal Tech, or anywhere else but a community college. He moves into his own apartment. And then he disappears. Maybe.

Bender’s deft touch nicely blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, even though hers is a melancholy magic, seasoned with empathy and loneliness. Her sentences are often quite lovely; scenes have a quiet gravity; the ending promises new hope for Rose. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake may sound odd, but try it. You may be surprised how much you like its particular taste.

Open Book: I bought Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday) and gave it to a friend who makes the most magical pies.

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Oohhh… Forgive me. I’m feeling giddy, word-drunk, high on the sights and sounds and smells of Connie May Fowler’s intoxicating new novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly.

Thickets of roses. Heat-blanched sky.  A marble tumbling on a heart pine floor.  Faint fiddle music. Ghosts and graveyard dirt.  A woman standing on the worn planks of an old front porch.  A buzzing fly drawn to the faint scent of ripe apples.

June 21, 2006, and the north Florida hamlet of Hope steams under the midsummer sun. “But this day was not normal. It was the solstice, and Clarissa was becoming undone, and though she was unaware of the fact, there were spirits afoot.’’

Thirtysomething Clarissa, a successful novelist, is determined to love this day, despite the writer’s block that has dogged her for months, the surly behavior of her indifferent husband of seven years, and the self-doubts that have plagued her since her trailer-park childhood. Even as she envisions gory spousal death scenarios and attacks mundane chores with a vengeance, her imagination is stirring with the possibilities of change. But it won’t be easy; she’s been a wimp too long.

Fowler, perhaps best-known for the award-winning Before Women Had Wings, reaches new heights with this tale of one woman’s journey of self-discovery. Heard it all before? Hardly. Elements of magical realism – a disgraced angel, a chorus of “ovarian shadow voices,’’ the aforementioned ghosts, a carnival of dwarfs, the Poor Spot Cemetery – give the story whimsy. A subplot of the dark history of Clarissa’s house offers tragedy, a meeting with a male writer lends a little romance, and Clarissa’s eventual resolve to risk life again finally brings redemption.  The ending, in which Fowler knots the wandering storylines under a stormy sky, provides the necessary “oomph’’ that Clarissa likes in her literary heroes.

Riding on the back of a Harley midway through the book, “charging through time and space,’’ leads Clarissa to “venture that angels prefer flight to heaven.’’ No wonder she longs to fly. Hang on for a wild ride.

Datebook: Connie May Fowler joins authors Gerald Posner and Bob Morris as guest speakers for “Reading between the Wines,” the annual benefit for the Adult Literacy League, at 6 p.m. April 9 at the Orlando Marriott Downtown. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased online at www.adultliteracyleague.org. More info at 407-422-1540.

Open Book: How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly will be published April 2 by Grand Central Publishing, which sent me an advance copy of the book. Connie May Fowler is a friend from her days teaching at Rollins College in Winter Park.

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A modern-day Medusa with anger-control issues. A snarky vampire worried about his 800-year-old looks. Blades of grass growing like sharp knives in a suburban backyard.

These were just three of the fantastic images generated by participants in a recent writing workshop on magical realism sponsored by MAD About Words and moderated by current Kerouac House writer-in-residence Alicia Shandra Holmes. A dozen of us gathered on a Saturday morning at the cozy Kerouac House in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood. We spent the first hour talking about magical realism,  which is often defined as fiction incorporating elements of the fantastic in an otherwise realistic narrative and is generally associated with Central and South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But as Alicia pointed out with several pages of short examples, magical realism or “non-realistic” writing can include elements of the classic fairy tale, fantasy, mythology, miracles, the grotesque, ghosts, surrealism and so on. It is the imagination unleashed by Toni Morrison in Beloved, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Margaret Atwood in her futuristic novels and myth series, Alice Hoffman in her contemporary novels, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt and Rick Bass in their short stories.

We then were unleashed for the next hour to write whatever we wanted. The last hour was spent reading and discussing our various offerings. We left exhilarated and promised to continue our conversation on-line at the the MAD About Words website.

Since then, I’ve read several books that cross the boundaries between fantasy and reality.  Ice Land by Betsy Tobin draws on Icelandic legend and Norse mythology to tell the story of Freya, the goddess of love, her search for an enchanted golden necklace, and two star-crossed lovers whose families are tearing them apart. It’s 1000 A.D., Mount Hekla is threatening to erupt and Christianity is spreading across Iceland. If you like Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon), you’ll enjoy Toibin’s tale.

I had high hopes for Ali Shaw’s first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet, a contemporary fable set on a snowy archipelago where the mundane meets the magical — albino animals, strange miniature cow-like creatures akin to dragonflies, and a mysterious ailment that slowly turns some people to glass. Ida is the young woman who was infected while on vacation and now returns looking for a cure; Midas is the island loner who is initially reluctant to help her. Shaw’s writing is often appropriately lyrical and dream-like, and the imagery often striking, but this story is a sad one, weighted by woe to the point of dreariness. Curious to see what he does next.

Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners collects her playful short stories where magic is matter-of-fact. The titles give you an idea of what has been called “kitchen sink magical realism” — “Catskin,” “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” “The Faery Handbag.” In the latter, an entire village moves into a woman’s purse. Really. Magic for Beginners is a bit misleading overall title — it’s one of the stories — because newcomers to this kind of writing may well be puzzled, even put-off. But if you like weird, it’s wonderful.

Open Book: I received a galley of Ice Land (Plume) from the publisher last summer; I checked out The Girl with Glass Feet (Henry Holt) from the library; I bought my copy of Magic for Beginners (Harcourt).

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