Review 2070: Little, Big

I read this book because of a friend’s strong recommendation. Its genre is magical realism, not one I’m strong on.

In its little sense, Little, Big is the story of a family that has a curious, vague mission. They live in a strange house that is many houses combined on a property to the north of the City. The house is the gateway, they believe, to . . . something. The family are part of the Tale.

Although we get a summary of the lives of some of Violet Drinkwater’s forebears, the story gets going with Smoky Barnable, who meets Daily Alice Drinkwater through her cousin, George Mouse. After Smoky and Daily Alice decide to marry, Smoky must walk to her home and follow some other rituals for the wedding, which is part of the Tale.

Smoky doesn’t ever understand what’s going on, and neither, really, do we. And frankly, nothing much does go on for a long time, although everything is beautifully and minutely described. Children are born, a couple whose parentage is confused. Fairies may or may not exist, but one child is certainly substituted for another. Sophie, Violet’s sister, sleeps for years and then can’t sleep for years. One character has almost certainly been turned into a fish.

This description makes the book sound ridiculous, but it is not. It is for readers who want to take time with a book. It is beautifully written and playful with language. It is also slow building with a carefully constructed plot that everything builds up to. I think it goes a little astray with a political plot in the middle, and how much it pays off for you depends, I think, on how much you put into it. I scented distinct religious overtones at the end, but perhaps others won’t see it that way.

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Review 2015: A Girl Called Rumi

In 1981, nine-year-old Kimia is a strong-willed girl having problems with the restrictions of post-revolution Iran. Her parents’ fight for freedom has ironically ended in an almost total lack of it. Kimia hates her chador and prefers roaming around with her cousin Reza, despite it being a crime for girls and boys to play together.

One day the two children find a trap door that leads to the home of Baba Morshed, a storyteller. As he tells an ancient Persian story about the Simorgh, a mythical creature like a bird, the children can see the figures in the tale. Kimia continues to return to hear Baba Morshed’s cryptic tales.

In 2009, Kimia lives in California and works as a life counselor. She is still traumatized by events from 1981 and sometimes cuts herself. She is also full of anger against her mother. She is horrified when her mother tells her she wants to return to Iran and Kimia and her brother Ammad must come, too. The trip to Iran reveals family secrets but also involves unexpected dangers.

I liked this novel for its glimpses into Persian culture and descriptions of its food. However, some of you will not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t as comfortable with the magical realism, especially as it isn’t completely clear whether it’s the children’s imagination, rendering the ending less believable.

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Review 1863: Not the End of the World

I was fairly sure I had read everything by Kate Atkinson, but I couldn’t remember Not the End of the World. So, I decided to revisit it.

This collection of stories is a relatively early book. Some of the stories are apocalyptic or macabre, some have an element of magical realism, some are whimsical, some capture a moment in ordinary life. Although the stories stand alone, some of them are linked by recurring characters or by more subtle means. I suspect, if you were very attentive, you could find many links. For example, in the first story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” the two have a conversation about wedding favors that is repeated in “Wedding Favors” between two different characters. And is the accident driven past by a character in one story the one that kills another character in another story?

Atkinson’s prose is, as always, witty and vivid. I found a few of the characters, like the battling teenage siblings in “Dissonance,” irritating but realistic. On the other hand, a boy who looks like a fish turns out to be the son of Triton. A bold girl removes a cloak from an old lady and the old lady disintegrates. A dead woman tries to get back her life. An adopted alley cat grows bigger and bigger and bigger.

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Review 1649: The Hoarder (aka Mr. Flood’s Last Resort)

Best of Ten!
Let me just start out by saying I hate the trend of changing the name of a book from the British edition to the U. S. edition. In this case, I got caught out buying both versions of this novel just because I didn’t realize they were the same. I loved this novel, but I don’t need two copies of it. If they are going to do this, the least they could do is warn us in really big letters on the cover.


As with Things in Jars, it took a bit of time before I plunged myself into the eccentric world of The Hoarder. But when I did, I was all in.

Maud Drennan is a care worker whose job it is to feed the difficult Cathal Flood and attempt to make some headway in cleaning his house, for the old man is a hoarder. There are odd rumors surrounding Flood, not only about his recent behavior—he is supposed to have tried to brain carer Sam Hebden with a hurley—but also about his past—his wife died after falling down the stairs.

Maud herself is a little eccentric. She is followed around by the ghosts of saints, particularly St. Dymphna and St. Valentine, and her best friend is Renata, an agoraphobic transgender woman with an elaborate wardrobe. It is Renata who suggests that perhaps it was Cathal Flood who pushed his wife down the stairs.

Certainly, something is going on, because Maud is approached by Gabriel Flood, Cathal’s son, who is looking for something in the house. Then, Renata and Maud discover that Gabriel had a sister, Maggie, who disappeared as a teenager. Maud’s sister, we learn, also disappeared, so Maud becomes immersed in an investigation and attempts to search the blocked-off portions of Cathal Flood’s house.

This novel is a bit gothic, a bit funny, a bit haunting, and Kidd’s writing is brilliant. Love this one. Need more.

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Day 1077: Four Letters of Love

Cover for Four Letters of LoveBest Book of the Week!
I was so enchanted by History of the Rain that after finishing it, I soon looked for other novels by Niall Williams. Four Letters of Love is his first.

Nicholas Coughlin is a boy when his father abandons his career as a civil servant to paint, saying that God wants him to. For two summers, he leaves Nicholas and his mother home alone while he goes out to paint. The rest of the year, he obsessively reworks the paintings he did in the summer.

Then Nicholas’s mother dies, but stays to haunt the house. His father intends to go out as usual and leave Nicholas home alone for a few weeks, but Nicholas follows him. His efforts all along are to try to capture some of the attention of this obsessed, abstracted man.

Isabel Gore is the daughter of a schoolmaster on an island off the coast of Galway. Her brother Sean is a gifted musician, but one day after playing for hours while she dances, he has a fit and after that is mute and wheelchair bound. Isabel blames herself for Sean’s condition.

The Master sets all his ambitions on Isabel’s academic career and sends her to Galway to a convent school. But Isabel has a streak of wildness in her and sometimes walks off from school. On one such expedition as a teenage girl, she meets Peader O’Luing. He is a poor excuse for a man, but she doesn’t see that and falls in love.

The novel makes no secret that it is moving toward the meeting of Nicholas and Isabel. To get there, it tells their stories with some whimsy, some pathos, and a touch of magical realism. Although the writing style and voice are not as distinctive as that of History of the Rain, the novel is still beautifully written. I enjoyed it very much.

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Day 616: The Rathbones

Cover for The RathbonesBest Book of the Week!
The Rathbones is a strange and wonderful novel, part gothic mystery, part magical realism, about a whaling family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mercy Rathbone is a girl, the last of a mysterious family. She lives in a massive house only partially built that used to house dozens of people. Now only her aloof mother lives there with her and her cousin Mordecai—who stays in the attic and acts as her tutor—and a few servants.

Mercy has vague memories of a brother that her mother and cousin tell her never existed. She has not seen her father for more than ten years, although packages from him occasionally arrive. She is curious about the family portraits in a gallery, all with the names removed. She knows the names of her mother and father but has no idea who her grandparents were, or how they related to Moses, the patriarch of the family.

One night Mercy is attracted by the sound of a boy singing and ventures into a part of the house where she is not allowed, the widow’s walk where  her mother goes every night. There she witnesses her mother being embraced by a strange man, and that man chases her through the house. She finds refuge with Mordecai, and the two decide to go to sea to find her father. They flee in a little dory, pursued by the strange man.

So begins a wonderous adventure, where they encounter an island occupied only by old ladies; an island of rich, eccentric cousins with a massive collection of furniture and art; an island of birds occupied by a woman who only speaks bird language. At each stop Mercy learns more about the odd and sometimes grotesque history of her family, many of whom have a magical affinity for the sea.

I do not usually enjoy magical realism, but with this novel I loved never knowing where the story would go. It is an odd one, certainly, and probably not for everyone, but it is imaginative and unusual.

Day 464: Practical Magic

Cover for Practical MagicI’m ambivalent about Practical Magic, the first novel I’ve read by Alice Hoffman. It reminds me a bit of the Vianne Rocher books by Joanne Harris, only it is more heavy handed and less principled.

Gillian and Sally Owens have grown up in their aunts’ house in Massachusetts and have always longed for something different. Their aunts are considered witches, and people walk on the other side of the street when they see the girls. Sally longs for normalcy and tries to keep the untidy house clean and feed everyone wholesome meals. Gillian is spoiled and beautiful.

Eventually, both of them leave. Gillian runs away to begin a series of ill-conceived marriages and affairs. Sally’s brief marriage brings her two daughters of her own, Antonia and Kylie. When her husband is killed in a car accident, she flees the dark old house for suburbia and a chance for a normal life for her daughters.

Thirteen years go by before Gillian arrives unannounced at Sally’s house bringing trouble. Her latest boyfriend Jimmy is a dangerous criminal, and Gillian has accidentally killed him. His body is out in the car, and she has come to her sister for help. Together, they bury the body in the yard, but soon they are being haunted.

This story is told in a fairy tale style, and despite several setbacks, we are in no doubt that everything will turn out all right in the end. Characters fall madly in love on sight, and the troubles between both sets of sisters are worked out. The final removal of the spirit requires the assistance of the aunts themselves. Of course, it turns out that Gillian didn’t really kill her lover.

I guess I felt as if everything was tied up too neatly in this story. It’s a romance novel lightly disguised as magical realism, and I haven’t much patience for either.

On the one hand, I found myself mildly enjoying the novel. On the other hand, I found it too cheerfully immoral. We are supposed to accept through most of the book that Gillian killed her lover, however accidentally, and that it is okay to cover it up. Finally, the law officer who tracks them down while looking for Jimmy is required to fall in love with Sally on sight so that he can help cover up their crime, despite his being perfectly straight-laced up to that point. Even if the “murder” turns out not to be as big a crime as they thought, now he has committed a crime, too, which everyone immediately forgets so that they can live happily ever after. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Day 431: Butterfly Winter

Cover for Butterfly WinterI have to start right out by saying that Butterfly Winter was a poor choice for me. W. P. Kinsella is beloved by many, and I know that people are excited that this is his first novel in fifteen years. However, I should have known better than to select a book by the “master of magical realism,” as one reviewer put it, because I have a problem with magical realism. It is a very tough sell for me. I have to be fully bought into the realism before I can accept the magic. In the case of this novel, though, I don’t even think it can be called magical realism, because the realism was left out.

This novel is about baseball. That shouldn’t be a problem, although I am not a sports fan. I was willing to be wooed by The Art of Fielding into at least grasping that it can be pretty fantastic. But Kinsella doesn’t try to convince us of that. He just posits that it is wonderful and magical and obviously thinks everyone should agree with him.

I think I could have dealt with either of these two issues, but the first chapter of this novel, where the Gringo Journalist is trying to interview the Wizard, and the Wizard refuses to answer his questions but goes off on a bunch of tangents, is the most annoying piece of writing I have ever read. The novel picks up a little in the second chapter when it changes to a narrative style and picks up again every time it returns to that style, but unfortunately the irritating voice from the first chapter is the novel’s primary narrator. The tone of the novel is arch, to me a little forced, and the humor unsubtle.

http://www.netgalley.comNow to the story. Julio and Esteban Pimenthal are twins who play baseball in their mother’s womb (a wince-inducing image). One of them is born with cleats on, and the other with a baseball glove. (I think it is safe to say that only a man would have thought of that.) They are inhabitants of Courteguay, a fictional country wedged between Haiti and the Dominican Republic where magic is commonplace. (Silly me, when I read “magical Caribbean island” in the blurb, I was thinking scenery and beauty.) When Julio and Esteban are ten years old, they travel to the United States to play pro ball. But first we hear about the Wizard and how he came to the island in the late 19th century and introduced baseball to it.

I have to admit, I did not finish this book. I’m sure that many will think it delightful, but I found the narrative style too annoying to continue. This novel was the wrong one for me to choose to become acquainted with Kinsella.

Day 361: The Circle of Reason

Cover for The Circle of ReasonBest Book of the Week!

Although magical realism is often mentioned in reference to The Circle of Reason, as Amitav Ghosh said himself in an interview for the New York Times review, there is nothing fantastical that happens in the book. Still, it continues to be compared to the works of magical realists such as Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie.

These comparisons may be because of the book’s rambling narrative style or its peculiar characters. The main character is Alu Bose, but we get to him only slowly through his uncle Balaram, a scholar turned teacher in a small village in India who develops a mania for the pseudo-science phrenology and worships Louis Pasteur. As Alu’s head is covered with odd-looking bumps, like a potato, he provides a subject of endless study for his eccentric relative.

Later, Balaram becomes obsessed with cleansing the village and begins a campaign to convince the villagers to coat every object with carbolic acid. His feud with the local politician combined with his obsession results in disaster, and Alu ends up fleeing India because of being mistaken for a terrorist. He is pursued by a policeman named Jyoti Das, who would rather be an ornithologist.

Thus begin Alu’s adventures, first in the Middle Eastern port of al-Ghazira, where he develops his own obsession for cleanliness, and then moving farther west, ending up in Algeria. On the way, readers encounter a myriad of other characters and stop to hear the stories of their lives or learn a little bit about weaving, say, or the history of al-Ghazira.

I was less reminded of magical realism than of One Thousand and One Nights, the tales of Scheherazade in which, in the middle of one tale, another begins. I attempted to read them at one time but despaired that I would ever get to the end of a tale or keep the various stories straight. Luckily, Ghosh’s narrative is a little more coherent, although not much. It is purposefully rambling, running off in delight to tell one fabulous story after another.

The novel is wonderfully well written, beautifully written, but sometimes I wondered where it was going or what the plot actually was. The feeling was only momentary, however, because I was always compelled onward. The ending is actually satisfying and less chaotic than I expected.

When I read that Ghosh wanted to write something like Moby Dick, that explained a lot about the novel’s narrative style. Fortunately for us, Ghosh’s style is a lot more accessible than Melville’s. Still, I prefer some of his more recent novels, particularly Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The Circle of Reason is Ghosh’s first novel, and he keeps getting better and better.

Day 257: Galore

Cover for GaloreA whale comes ashore at the remote coastal town of Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, in the early 19th century. The people, who have been starving all winter, come out to scavenge what they can of the meat. When Devine’s Widow, an old Irish “wise woman,” cuts open the belly of the whale, a man falls out, pale as an albino, mute, but still alive. Although he stinks like a fish, the Devine clan gives him room in a shed and calls him Judah. Nevertheless, he is treated with dread and superstition until he goes out fishing one day with Colum Devine and they take a huge load of fish in waters that have been barren that season.

The Devines have been at odds with the powerful King-Me Sellers since he proposed marriage to a young Irish bondswoman years ago and she refused him rudely, then went off to marry Devine, practically the first young man she met. Their relationship was not improved years later when King-Me’s daughter Lizzy married Colum Devine.

When King-Me’s spite turns against Judah, the only way the Devines can save him is by marrying him to Mary Trephyna Devine, Colum and Lizzy’s daughter and King-Me’s granddaughter.

Michael Crummey’s multigenerational novel captures the relationships between these two families along with the history of the town, with all its eccentric characters, ghost stories, myths, and tall tales. The novel is fascinating, unusual, and beautifully written. I don’t usually enjoy magical realism, but in this novel it is handled so well that I accepted it and was engrossed in the story. Galore is probably unlike any novel you are going to read, although in its focus on a sea-going people and its occasional feel of a sea tale, it reminds me a bit of We, the Drowned  by Carsten Jensen.