I always find it interesting how one has a thought about something and suddenly that subject is popping up everywhere in life. This happens to me frequently with books: I will decide to read a book about Paris, for instance, and three more will come to me, purely by chance, after I’ve finished the first. This time, the theme was the Romany, otherwise known as travelers or, in less politically correct nomenclature, gypsies.
First, I bought a Kindle book as one of my “daily dollar deals,” called The Snow Gypsy, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford. I have always liked stories about Travelers, ever since reading Rumer Godden’s book The Diddakoi as a child, and following it up with Meridon, the last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy as an adult. I didn’t read this one right away, though; my friend Bix had mentioned the other two books in the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris, and I decided to catch up with those first. But those introduced me to the itinerant boat people, including Vianne’s love interest, Roux, who seem to be some variation on Romany or pavees, as the Irish travelers call themselves, except that they travel by river boat rather than by horse and wagon. The French townsfolk of Lansquenet unflatteringly designate them “river rats.”
After finishing the three-book series, I went back and read The Snow Gypsy on my Kindle. Rose Daniel is an English veterinarian who specializes in alternative medicine for animals; in other words, she is an herbalist in her practice. Rose’s brother disappeared in 1938 in the mountains of southern Spain, fighting alongside gypsy insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. Rose knows that he had a love interest (or possibly a wife) in one of the villages near their base, and decides, in 1946, to drop everything and go there to see if she can find any trace of what happened to him. (She has, of course, an irrational hope that she will actually locate him, and/or possibly the woman and child.) She is on a collision course with Lola Aragon, whose entire family was murdered by the fascists eight years ago in one of those same villages while she was herding goats up on the mountain, and who rescued a baby girl from her dead mother’s arms when she descended and found the slain villagers. Rose connects with Lola, an aspiring flamenco dancer, hoping to get her help finding some trace of her brother and his family.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit, though it had its flaws. The parts I liked best were the details about flamenco (tantalizingly few, as it turned out), the herbalist knowledge Rose exhibits and learns throughout the book, the scene-setting in the mountain villages of Spain, and the lingering atmosphere of the Spanish Civil War that casts its shadow over all the characters. The coincidences were a few too many, and at least one of the relationships was hard to buy. I wished (in light of the title) that there had been a bit more detail about the Travelers—the few pictures that were given were evocative but not elaborate. Some of the details of the book that seemed superfluous became more understandable when I learned from the afterword that it’s based on the true story of a woman herbalist, so I reserved one of her autobiographies at the library and am waiting for its delivery.
In the meantime, my memory was jogged about another Traveler-related book that I read a few years back, and will mention here: The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. It’s poetic, beguiling, and different; a coming-of-age story, but within the subculture of the Irish Pavee—gypsies, tinkers, whatever name they are called by outsiders—circa 1950s rural Ireland. And within the already arresting picture of this nomadic people is the intimate story of Christy, who is at the brink of many unexpected discoveries about his family’s past and his own. I had planned, when I read it, to suggest this as a selection for my 10-12 Book Club—it was a real charmer, poignant and inspirational but also a good tale. Alas, I couldn’t get copies of the book in sufficient quantities at the time to make it work for the club.
That was my Romany serendipity; the following week, everything was about bees. Stay tuned…
Holding my breath…
If you don’t know this series, set your alarm clock for around June of 2020, start with The Thief, go on to The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, follow the fate of the kingdom in A Conspiracy of Kings, get some necessary background from Thick as Thieves, and wrap up your reading just in time to celebrate the denouément of the sixth and last book in the most amazingly underrated series in the world of fantasy. Seriously. I’ve read the first book four times and the others three apiece. Do yourself the favor.
Answer in the comments—let’s trade reads!
I have read two books recently that dealt with the ideas, emotions, and results of bigotry, both focused on the Muslim experience. One was, somewhat weirdly, the third volume in the Chocolat series, by Joanne Harris, called Peaches for Father Francis (I reviewed the other two books earlier on this blog); the other was a newish young adult novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi.
The first was a story of clashing cultures trying to co-exist in the same small French village, while the second was the devastating effect high school ignorance has on one Persian Muslim girl in a sea of white kids, one year after 9/11. Both were powerful statements and, while quite different, arrived at some of the same conclusions.
In Peaches for Father Francis (otherwise sold as Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé), it is eight years after the events of the original book Chocolat, and Vianne and her two daughters have made a life for themselves in Paris, floating on the Seine in a houseboat with the traveler Roux, father of Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Then comes in the mail a posthumous letter from Vianne’s old friend Armande, via her grandson, Luc, summoning Vianne back to Lansquenet because “someone here needs you.”
It’s August in Paris, which means it’s stiflingly hot and empty except for the tourists, so Vianne decides to indulge the impulse to take Anouk and Rosette for a holiday in the country. Roux somewhat surprisingly decides to stay behind, in Paris.
What Vianne discovers when she arrives is that the derelict housing on the other side of the bridge from Lansquenet, near where the travelers used to dock their boats, has been appropriated by a rather large immigrant Muslim community, the Maghrébins, and although their occupation had initially been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by many of the other villagers, now factions have broken out on both sides of the river, and friction is growing. Somehow, despite their formerly oppositional roles, the solution comes down to a cooperative relationship between Father Francis, the town priest, and Vianne to solve the impasse and narrowly avert a war.
The characters and situations in this novel are masterfully drawn. While it still retains a bit of the magical realism for which the first book is known (the shadow of Pantoufle still follows Anouk), this third tale is deadly serious in its exploration of warring cultures, tolerance, and understanding. It clearly and sometimes horrifically demonstrates the degree of misperception that can exist when people make shallow and blatant assumptions about one another and fail to take either human nature or love into account.
The young adult book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, was more problematical for me, partly because it relies so heavily on high school tropes, which become wearying after so many teen novels based on them; but the fact is, they do still exist, and are potent, especially for the teenagers experiencing them.
I found the protagonist, Shirin, confusing because she is so vulnerable and yet so hardened in her angry cynical belief that no one will ever give her a fair shake. Several things baffled me about her character, the first being that she spends almost a hundred pages (basically a third of the book) being angry about how people react to her because she covers her hair with the hijab; then, when asked why she wears it, her reason seems inadequate. Her parents don’t require her to wear it, and in fact questioned her decision to do so; while she celebrates Ramadan with her family, she isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t otherwise have any kind of spiritual practice; and what she finally reveals to her new boyfriend is that wearing the scarf is a control issue for her—she gets to decide who can see her hair. I was kind of stunned that she would put up with the treatment dealt out to her post-9/11 for such a stubborn but singular reason.
While acting and talking like she doesn’t care whether anyone sees and knows her or not, she seems completely blown away when her brothers’ friends, who are in the siblings’ break-dancing club (the side story of a break-dancing hijabi was one of the best images of the book), tell her she’s beautiful. This scene may have been constructed so that the black friend, Jacobi, can subsequently tell her that she’s also scary and mean, and that she has let her anger convince her that all people are assholes when in fact they’re not and she needs to let go of that belief; but the degree of her investment in her looks, after rejecting every superficial nice remark and compliment from absolutely everyone, felt a little off.
There is one raw-ly honest moment in the book when a teacher embarrasses Shirin in class and then keeps poking at her (after she cuts his class for three days) to find out why she’s so upset that calls out white privilege and is probably the penultimate speech Mafi wrote the book in order to include:
“I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way. I’m just—I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job? It’s not.”
But there are also a couple of bigoted remarks by Shirin herself—like when she somewhat snottily hopes that the boy who likes her will just give up and “find a nice blond girlfriend.” Ultimately, though, the book does a good job of breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions on both sides of the divide, and provides along with it a sweet, satisfying, and occasionally swoony romance. Most significant, perhaps, is the reaction to the book by this former teenager on Goodreads:
“Y’all mind if I cry? because if you’d told 16-year-old me that one day I’d read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.”
(Despite searching its pages, I have not figured out the title of the book: The boy protagonist has the unlikely first name of “Ocean,” but other than that, there’s no reference to a large expanse of sea. I’m sure it’s hugely symbolic and that I’m just being obtuse; if you get it, please enlighten me!)
I have either liked or loved and frequently recommended the books of Deb Caletti, ever since I discovered them in the Young Adult section. Hers can be thought of, I suppose, as a more mature version of the “soft read” so beloved of the parents of middle-schoolers, in that they tell compelling, real-life stories that are also frequently sweet. Her books are often compared to those of the ever-popular Sarah Dessen. But as Caletti’s career has progressed, the subject matter of her books has grown grittier and more real, even as she keeps the dialogue civil and mostly expletive free (something that is of much more concern to parents than to any teenager!).
Recently, she took a time out from YA and wrote a couple of books for adults, and although I read them, I found myself slightly let down. I can’t put my finger on why, but I didn’t connect with them or find them as involving as her YA books.
I waited, therefore, with both hope and trepidation for Caletti’s new offering for teens, A Heart in a Body in the World. Caletti talked on Facebook about how pleased she was with the book, its cover, and all the positive attention it was garnering, and I should have had confidence that she would deliver. I purposely avoided finding out the themes of the book and began it with no prior knowledge of its contents (I didn’t even read the cover flap), and the whole thing bowled me over.
The character of Annabelle was unlike yet familiar to me. As a woman (like most) who has had my share of difficulties, both in my teenage years and during the early years of adulthood, keeping men beyond the boundaries I tried to set—even while also guiltily trying to be nice and not upset or hurt anyone—I can see that this would be even more difficult for a beautiful, five-foot-three, 110-pound girl. (In fact, I believe that some of the large, ungainly, overweight girls and women like me may simply be attempting to reinforce those boundaries with our ponderous bodies, as we have come to realize that many men can’t be trusted to respect them, and that we don’t want to have to work so hard to do so ourselves.)
Caletti does a masterful job of letting the reader know that there has been a tragedy
here—perhaps a violation, certainly an event from which Annabelle hasn’t and may never recover—without initially coming out and describing what it was. The story unwinds along the road as Annabelle literally runs away from it—while hopefully running towards something else—and is revealed organically along with every apprehension, guilty feeling, and tic of Annabelle’s. Comic relief—or at least the relief of normalcy—is provided by Annabelle’s grandfather, Ed, her brother, Malcolm, and all the other people in her life who love her and are willing to support her on this journey. It’s a saga, a road trip, an adventure both internal and external, and it’s beautifully pictured and told.
For some reason, other YA books popped into my head as I read this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were similar, but perhaps both theme and feel suggest some affinity. The first is The Hate List, by Jennifer Brown, and the second is The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner; one for the comprehension of just how deeply we can misunderstand other people and what they’re about to throw at us, the other for the sheer perseverance and determination necessary to undertake such an iconic journey alone, on foot, and dependent for the most part only on your own resources. Read
them—you might enjoy them as well—but definitely don’t pass up Caletti’s book, which is deserving of every award it has received, and more.
Since I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at UCLA for the library masters program there starting April 1 (after a two-year hiatus since the last time I taught it), I am scrambling to catch up on my YA reading. Although the class deals primarily with the history of young adult lit, I certainly want to be up to the minute on my knowledge of what’s new and popular. So I splurged and ordered a few books from Amazon to read and review during my ramp-up to the class.
I should have known, the minute that I heard Jennifer Lynn Barnes had written a new book, that it would be good; but when an author has done a particular kind of story well and then writes something completely different, there’s always the fear that the magic touch won’t hold up when the genre is changed.
I have read and enjoyed Barnes’s series The Naturals multiple times; I read the first two in the series with my high school book club when I worked as a teen librarian, and then was happily entertained by the remainder of the books as they emerged. I also enjoyed her series that begins with The Fixer, about political intrigue in Washington D.C.
When I saw that she had written a book about southern debutantes, I thought Uh-oh, partly because I have read two or three of those by other authors who took a perfectly good set-up and turned it into puerile insta-love. I should have had faith in Barnes: Even though the premise couldn’t be more different than that of a set of gifted youth working covertly for the FBI, Little White Lies is fantastic in every way.
The concept of starting out in the middle of a particular scenario on a particular day in April and then jumping backwards in ever-lessening increments (nine months earlier, three months earlier, six hours earlier) is itself designed to hold the reader’s interest: What happened today, and what led up to it? At some point, late in the book, when you begin to figure out what’s going on, you will undoubtedly (as I did) thumb back through its pages to read those one-or two-page interludes sequentially and get a giggle out of them.
The other thing that really separated this from run of the mill was the outsider status of the protagonist, Sawyer, The reader sees a slice of her world (regular, if a bit bleak), and then experiences with her the contrast between that and the one from which she originally emerged, and would have grown up in but for her mother’s rejection of that lifestyle. Her new knowledge of her family gets to be revealed to her in a way that both validates and contradicts her mother’s version of events; but her mother has raised her with the ability to judge for herself, and that’s what is important amidst the disconnect.
If all of this weren’t enough, however, you also get the bonus story of secrets, scandals, blackmail, and revenge, with all the anticipation and satisfaction those bring. This book is clever, witty, and humorous in the most perfect of dark ways. And although it stands alone, one tiny detail is left dangling temptingly at the end for Barnes to pick up and continue from, should she decide a sequel is in order (which seems likely, since this book is labeled “#1” on Goodreads).
What can I do but echo the most used phrase of the debutantes and their eagle-eyed mamas when I say to Barnes, “Bless your heart”?
The terms “magical” and “realism” seem antithetical, don’t they? If there’s magic involved, isn’t it fantasy? How can it be realism if there are magical elements in the story?
The literary movement of magical realism began with Latin American authors, and it has often been used by them as a genre of political subversion. The fantastic and magical elements of the story are presented as normal aspects of everyday life, thus putting the standard structure of reality into question; this allowed authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende to question the political regimes of their day without being instantly labeled as dissidents. Essentially, magical realism allowed these authors to show or even suggest an alternative to an accepted or established political reality.
As it diversified from the Latin American authors, the genre has taken on additional qualities, adding surrealism, with its irrational juxtapositions and combinations, and fabulism, incorporating fables and myths into a contemporary setting. Unlike fantasy or science fiction, which set up worlds separate from our own, authors of magical realism simply introduce into our world some slight distortion that forces the reader to question what is real and opens up additional avenues for our minds to ponder. It can be quirky and fanciful or fraught with significance, but the specific characteristic that makes it magical realism is the author’s refusal to define which elements are real and which are fantastical. It is for the reader to decide.
Some original classics would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez; Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel; and The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende. Other more contemporary examples include Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami; most titles by Alice Hoffman; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton; and you could also include such offbeat books as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, by Robin Sloan.
Here’s the thing about recommending books containing magical realism: You have to be sure that your readers understand what it is and welcome its inclusion in the story, because they will either be delighted by it or they will be massively irritated. I am a person who has always enjoyed magical realism, and even I have a tolerance point beyond which I say to the author, “You’ve gone too far!” My breaking point, and it may be this way for others, is when the author begins to “fix” parts of the story as it unfolds by simply making things magical, instead of addressing the situation as it demands. When it is used as a crutch instead of as a delightful element or purposeful metaphor, that’s when magical realism can get out of hand.
All this has led up to my current reading, which is the trilogy about a French chocolate-maker who lets the wind dictate her destination in life.
Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, is a quintessential example of magical realism. It is especially potent because of the contrasts between the rural, parochial, cautious inhabitants of Lansquenet-sur-Tannes versus the mother and daughter who are swept into town with not only an ability but almost a mandate to upend everything traditional and narrow about the townspeople and insert some charm and whimsicality into their environs by opening a chocolate shop.
I had seen the movie version of this book several times, and so I felt I could dispense with reading it and move directly to the sequel, but it turned out I was wrong—the book has essential similarities, but also some crucial differences. So I actually ended up reading this trilogy in 2-1-3 order, which skewed my viewpoint of the books somewhat.
The first book is a nearly unalloyed delight. Using the device of injecting this footloose, free-spirited, pagan, magical woman into the humdrum life of a traditional French Catholic town allows the author to examine issues of tolerance and acceptance, religion, relationships, happiness, and even death in a serious but lighthearted manner. The touches of magic only serve to highlight these issues and keep the book from becoming too intense (and the constant talk of chocolate will have you noshing with one hand while you hold the book with the other).
The sequel, The Girl with No Shadow, on the other hand, was a puzzle to me. It’s four years later, and it’s clear that Vianne is fearful about something, though it’s hard to tell what or why. She and Anouk have assumed new names, their spirits have dwindled, and I couldn’t figure out how we got from the mostly upbeat Vianne at the end of the first book to the weirdly passive, unhappy, and self-deluding widow living in Paris at the beginning of the second. I became impatient at times with the levels of apprehension and timidity exhibited by Yanne, the name under which she now masquerades. She has developed a panicky need to be “normal,” supposedly for the sake of her daughters, that has left her open to the machinations of the malevolent trickster, Zozie, who shows up and essentially tries to steal Vianne’s life (and elder daughter) out from under her.
The story examines the debilitating effects of fear and the dangers to which it can expose us if we let it rule our lives. It also examines the sometimes desperate choices we make to obtain the things we need.
Even though she introduces some wonderful elements into the story, I so disliked the character of Zozie that it was hard to read about her triumphs and the way she insinuated herself into the lives all around Vianne. Ultimately I liked the book, but felt that it was a vehicle, a second designed to get you to the third—a long episode, if you will, to transition Vianne out of her fearfulness and back to embracing life.
I also felt that in this book, the author crossed that fine line from magical realism into manipulation. There was too much solving of problems with the flick of a finger or the drawing of a symbol, combined with an inadequate explanation of what magic was being sourced to do so.
I’m going to leave the discussion of the third book, Peaches for Father Francis, to a subsequent post, because it weirdly melded with a new young adult novel I picked up a couple of weeks later, and I want to put the two together. For now, suffice it to say that the third book documents a return to Lansquenet and also to the original spirit and intentions of Vianne.
My computer hard drive failed on Thursday, so instead of posting yesterday, I hauled it to the repair shop, where they can hopefully retrieve my precious data and then install a new robust drive. Meanwhile, I am continuing to read and note my thoughts (longhand! haven’t done that in a few decades), and once the computer is back and I transcribe, new reviews will appear. (I am currently typing two-fingered on my Kindle, which is not ideal.) Since I am gearing up for my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA in April, you can expect some great brand new YA reviews. Stay tuned…
As a regular feature here on the blog, I’d like to furnish an image of someone reading, and ask you what books you are enjoying. Please leave a comment and tell me what you’re reading this week!