Literature lovers, along with historians, devotees of iconic architecture, the religious who revere its atmosphere and symbolism, and those who are simply moved by beauty, have all mourned this week at the devastation by fire of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The cathedral was inspirational to authors as diverse as Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, and Victor Hugo.
It is the story of Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that may console us the most in the midst of mourning; at the time of his book’s publication, reverence for and upkeep of the cathedral had fallen out of fashion, and his book, written to generate interest in its architectural glories, succeeded in its purpose: the cathedral was renovated. We will hope that it will rise from its ashes to inspire a new generation of writers, artists, poets, and reverent visitors.
There are those authors you discover by reading something they have just written and then, to your delight, you find out that they have been writing for years or even decades before you came across them. You eagerly anticipate exploring their “back list” to soak up every word this newly favorite writer penned, and as you proceed from first book to last, you are so happy to immerse yourself in their stories.
Then there are the authors you discover by reading their most popular work, but when you follow it up by seeking out the back list, yikes! you realize that some writers are on their game from the beginning, while others are definitely a work in progress.
My recent experience with the books of Jenny Colgan was on the median between these two extremes. I began with her delightful wish-fulfillment story, The Little Shop of Happily Ever After, otherwise known in America as The Bookshop on the Corner, published in 2016, and was hooked. What unemployed librarian wouldn’t love a tale about a book-lover who buys a big van, fills it with remaindered books from her now-closed library, and hocks them to the locals all over the wilds of Scotland, all while experiencing a new lifestyle and possibly even falling in love?
I read The Café by the Sea and its two sequels, the books set in the Beach Street Bakery and the ones about the Cupcake Café, and followed those with The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris. All similarly transformative (exchanging dull or stressful lifestyles for long-held dream jobs), all fun, all sweet, all entertaining, all good. Great characters, luminous settings, not-too-cloying love story elements.
Then, while waiting for her new book to come out this summer, I ventured further into the back list, and read her first, Amanda’s Wedding, published in 2000. The plot, when you read the synopsis, isn’t bad: Melanie and Fran, longtime friends who suffered at the hands of their frenemy Amanda throughout their school years, discover that Amanda is about to wed one of the nicest guys they’ve ever met, Fraser McConnell. Apart from such amiability being sacrificed to the nastiest piece of work in London, the friends discover that Amanda is marrying him not for his kindness and sweet nature but because he has just unexpectedly become a Scottish laird, and Amanda is social climbing for all she’s worth. So Fran and Mel decide to try a few acts of sabotage to get poor Fraser out of Amanda’s clutches.
The problem wasn’t with the plot, but with the execution. Colgan portrayed her protagonists in such a way as to make you wonder why anyone would find them either lovable or friend-worthy. Everyone in this book (except Fraser) is mean and snarky, not to mention frivolous, loose, and drunk most of the time. Amanda may have been the villain, but the contrast between her and everyone else in the book wasn’t great enough for anyone to buy it. My response upon finishing it was, “I’m so glad I read some of her later, truly delightful books before I got around to this first one, because I probably would have quit halfway through and never gone back.” It exhibited glimmers of the traits that make her other books winners, but not enough to notice if you weren’t already familiar with those.
After that, I decided to jump forward a few years and try again, with The Boy I Loved Before (2004). Flora, all grown up (she’s 32), in a long-term relationship with a “nice” man named Olly, and working for an accountancy firm, sees the writing on the wall when she attends her best friend Tashy’s wedding, and thinks to herself, Is this all there is? So as Tashy cuts the cake, Flora wishes she could just go back and be 16 again. Part of this has to do with a high school boyfriend who was a couple of years older than she was and walked off without a backward look after a year of being “in love,” but most of it has to do with not wanting the boring life she has chosen.
So she gets her wish; but no self-respecting fan of time travel or swapped bodies stories would put up with the convoluted (and ridiculous) way in which the change is made. The plotting is so inconsistent, inventing things to solve problems as they come up, that the only response you’re left with is “C’mon!” I enjoyed moments here and there, and some of the characterizations were fun, but for me this would be/would have been another “skip it.”
Finally, reminding myself sternly of how much I had enjoyed her later works, I moved up in time again to 2012, and assayed Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’s Sweet Shop of Dreams. It did, after all, have a title similar to those other books I had enjoyed; and I reasoned that Colgan had had eight years of writing other stories to improve, so I took another chance.
This one finally paid off. Rosie is living in London with her lazy and passive but pleasant and familiar boyfriend, Gerard. She’s a charge nurse, but has been laid off from full-time and is working short contracts at the moment. Her mother contacts her to say that Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian is in trouble. Lilian has been the purveyor of sweets from a charming little shop in a small country village for most of her life, and has always been fiercely independent, but now she has aged beyond the point where she can do it alone. Rosie’s mom wants Rosie to go there, sort out the shop, the house, and Lilian, and enact the hard decision to sell the properties and put Lilian in a retirement home. Rosie reluctantly acquiesces to this plan, partly because she feels like a change (and some time away from Gerard) would do her good; but of course, nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to. Lilian isn’t as compliant about her future as Rosie’s mother had indicated, and the disheveled charm of the shop and its environs gradually work magic on the relationship between the great-aunt and the great-niece.
I thought this was one of Colgan’s best. I liked that it wasn’t the usual sudden life transformation (as happens in most of her books that I have enjoyed) but began as a result of Rosie’s reluctant good deed. I liked that possible love interests weren’t obvious. I really liked the flashbacks into the aunt’s history, and the relationship that evolved between the two women. The sweet shop produced a truly sweet and beguiling book.
So if you have tried the earlier works and decided they weren’t for you, take another look; there are at least a dozen definitely worthy of your time.
I have never thought of myself as a romance reader (apart from Georgette Heyer Regency Romance novels, which stand alone!), but my friend Kim surprised me by referring to these as romances. When I debated her on that, her response was that she thought of these as “cozy reads,” like you find in the mystery genre. In cozy mysteries, the story is as much about the quirky characters (like Maisie Dobbs or the unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) and quaint settings as it is about the murder. I can definitely see what Kim means: The reason I like Colgan’s books is that most of them portray a woman who is in a rut, and who musters her courage to get out of it when she has to choose between safety and risk-taking. All of the books have a romantic element contained within them, but the happily-ever-after isn’t just about finding a mate, it’s about finding a life.
I blogged some months ago about books written about books and readers, a category of book beloved by avid readers, and promised more titles for those “afflicted” by bibliophilia. Here, then, is another batch to add to my previous post.
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
Queen Elizabeth, in search of her beloved corgis, stumbles upon a bookmobile near the palace. She feels compelled by good manners to check out a book, which she struggles through, returns, and again feels compelled to take out another. But this one she enjoys! This behavior is out of character for the Queen, who has previously allowed herself few hobbies or interests that express a preference for anything, and now here she is, preferring books, which habit begins to influence the person she is and how she reigns and interacts with her subjects. Not everyone approves, however; politicians and staff collaborate to steer her away from this selfish, isolating, alienating addiction! A charming and clever novella that contains some astringent commentary within its simple story.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend,
by Katarina Bivald
Sara travels all the way from Sweden to small-town Iowa to meet her penpal, Amy, only to discover that it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. The town’s residents rally around to make her feel better, and she ends up staying in Amy’s home, surrounded by Amy’s wide-ranging collection of books. She doesn’t want to return to Sweden, so she decides to open up one of the depressed town’s abandoned storefronts and sell Amy’s books. But she’s in the United States on a tourist visa…. I enjoyed the quirkiness of this virtual ghost town and its offbeat inhabitants who are finding revitalization through the presence of this strange and unassuming book-loving young woman from Sweden.
The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler
Set in California’s Central Valley, this book follows the stories of five women and one man who start a book club to read and discuss the novels of Jane Austen. The action takes place over a six-month period, during which many interpersonal issues (some of which reflect what’s happening within the novels of Austen) take place among and between these fans. This is a book about people who love reading and love talking about reading. It’s a little satirical, and apparently not for everyone—there are some passionate expressions both for and against in the reviews on Goodreads! One reader wrote: “I’m convinced the first thing Jane Austen is going to do on the Day of Resurrection is to hire a lawyer and sue the philistines who have commandeered her name and characters.” Try it for yourself (or chicken out and watch the movie, which some say was better).
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
A book based on letters between a London writer and a man on the island of Guernsey immediately after World War II. He finds her name and address in a used book, and writes to her about the literary club he and his friends formed to evade the curfew imposed by the German occupying force of their island. Some felt the epistolary style left out too much of the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, while others were inspired to find more letter-based books, so consider to which kind of reader you are speaking, before recommending
A Novel Bookstore,
by Laurence Cossé
Francesca, the lonely but wealthy Italian wife of a Parisian captain of industry, and Ivan, an indigent seller of comic books and classic novels, combine forces to open a bookstore in the heart of Paris that has one simple goal: to sell only “good” novels. They form a secret committee of eight celebrated writers, asking each to submit a list of six hundred titles. These dictate the inventory that fills the shelves of The Good Novel Bookstore. Imagine what happens when the publishing industry and the “literati” get wind of this pair who are daring to narrowly define what constitutes a good novel—especially when their enterprise is successful!
Voices, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Ansul was a peaceful town filled with libraries and books before the Alds came. The conquerors didn’t just pillage the town and rape its occupants, they burned all the books and set up an oppressive regime under which the people of Ansul suffer. Memer, an orphan who is a product of the rape of an Ansul woman by an Ald, has a secret bond with the Waylord, who hides and preserves books for his people. LeGuin explores the role of the occupier and the occupied, the double-edged sword of religion as a force of peace and war, and the value of storytelling to transform the lives of individuals and their culture. This is the second book of The Annals of the Western Shore series, but can be read as a stand-alone. (Young Adult Fiction)
Having re-explored all of these makes me want to seek out and read even more books about books! Stay tuned…
It strikes me that the difference between a nonfiction vs. a fiction reader is subject vs. type. That is to say, a nonfiction reader may be intrigued by a particular subject and then read widely and eclectically on that topic for information, whereas a fiction reader is more driven by the type of fiction that she likes.
For instance, in my most recent rare burst of serendipitous nonfiction reading, the subject was bees. The peril to pollinators has figured prominently in the news recently, and I have been distressed to find more than one dead bee in my driveway. While I haven’t used a pesticide in my garden in 38 years, I am confident that my neighbors and their gardeners are not so nice in their gardening behavior. Now that this is becoming a worldwide problem, with colony collapse disorder threatening not just the bee population but also the pollination of essential crops, I wanted to know more.
Being primarily a fiction reader, I first instinctively gravitated to a recent novel on the subject. The author’s mentor is Elizabeth Gilbert, and it was blurbed by Elizabeth George and heralded as a national bestseller. But I found Telling the Bees, by Peggy Hesketh, a disappointing read, not so much because it didn’t contain some information that I wanted, but because of the fictional aspects. The details about bee-keeping were surprisingly well detailed and quite informative, but the way the main character was written seemed so far from reality that I was dumfounded when I realized, more than halfway through the book, that he couldn’t have been more than 50 when the flashback part of the story began, while I had assumed he was in his late old age based on his affect. The book took more than 170 pages out of its 300 to get going (a murder takes place early in the book and then isn’t addressed again except tangentially for more than halfway through), and even then the progress of the story was glacier-like. There is a “secret” that is revealed to the clueless protagonist at the very end, but I guessed it less than halfway through, making the time spent waiting for this guy to “get it” an excruciating exercise. The story was also rather depressing, being a tale of missed chances, miscommunication, and a life not lived to the full.
The reason I had picked up this book was the recollection of a memoir I had liked almost 20 years ago. I was hoping for a similar experience to reading A Country Year: Living the Questions, by Sue Hubbell, but alas. The only thing I took away from Telling the Bees was some rather riveting folklore about communicating with bees, which I did enjoy.
I then decided to go back and reread the Hubbell book, and received nearly as much pleasure from it that I did the first time. The seasonally dictated round of farm, field, barn, and house, as she cares for her bees and harvests their honey, accompanied by her minute, delighted and delightful observations of the wildlife surrounding her acreage in the Ozarks of Missouri, was simultaneously soothing and inspirational. It led me to consider moving to the country to pursue bee-keeping, or at the very least made me want to drive immediately to my local nursery and get busy planting some bee-friendly foliage.
After this, having had a lengthy discussion with my cousin about a book she had recently, coincidentally, read, I addressed myself to a polemical debate that claims to reveal the inner lives of bees and calls for their better, more sensitive treatment. I found Song of Increase, by Jacqueline Freeman, a bit of a tough sell, even though my cousin asked me to keep an open mind to the end. I was quite impressed with Freeman’s observations and understanding of bees, and liked and appreciated her “bee-centric” approach to beekeeping, putting the welfare of the bees ahead of their “product.” She shows a lot of insight and makes intelligent observations, and her writing is pleasant and evocative.
What I had trouble with was her interpretation of the spiritual aspect of her relationship with them. I understood that she believed she was “channeling” messages from the bees, and I think I could have swallowed that content more easily if it had been presented as such—the bees as communicators with her as interpreter. But when she divided the book into parts and implied that the bees had literally and directly communicated certain parts in human words (in one case she uses phrases such as “the bees call themselves” this, and the bees “use the word” that), it put me off. The information about the bees was sufficiently fascinating that I didn’t believe there was a need to embellish by giving them human language or feelings. It’s not hard to believe that humans can be attuned with bees; I have read enough anecdotal evidence from other beekeepers who can translate the sounds the bees make into specific moods and intentions and who can figure out from pitch and intonation when, for instance, a new queen is about to start a swarm. But the way Freeman writes about it will set off some people’s BS meters, which is a shame.
Looking at the differences between these three books was instructive. The first, although fiction, was obviously written by someone who had a fair knowledge of bees and bee-keeping, and was filled with rather clinical descriptions of procedures accompanied by the aforementioned folklore. Sue Hubbell’s book was an interesting contrast to Jacqueline Freeman’s, in that both authors spent extensive time living with and trying to understand bees, but Hubbell’s conclusions were more along the line of “the longer I keep bees, the less I understand them,” while Freeman’s were to claim specific knowledge communicated to her directly by the bees themselves, which was seductive and in some cases completely plausible, but ultimately somewhat suspect. Also, Hubbell’s humility in disclaiming knowledge was contradicted by her humane practices, which agreed with Freeman’s conclusions, such as refusing to kill an old queen once a swarm was rehived, despite common commercial wisdom that to do so was the only way to promote an efficient honey yield. Hubbell was willing to do without that yield for a year, in order to accommodate the bees’ natural processes, which was precisely the kind of behavior being advocated by Freeman. I imagine if you could put the two authors in a room together, they would have much to share and agree on.
I rounded out my curiosity by checking into how the subject of danger to pollinators is being addressed in children’s books, by reading a charming one by Bethany Barton, called Give Bees A Chance. Although the book goes into much factual detail about kinds of bees, their physiognomy, the process of making honey, and their essential role in the food chain, one gets the feeling that the primary reason for writing and illustrating this book was to squash the first impulse of some children to, er, squash whatever they don’t understand! The book acknowledges children’s fear of and focus on a bee’s stinger, but tries to distract from and diminish that fear by presenting all its good qualities. Let us hope it succeeds!
All of this ultimately moved me to a search online for organizations that discuss the specifics of how to create a pollinator-friendly environment within your home landscape, and ways to enlist your neighbors in this campaign so that yours doesn’t prove to be a tiny island of safety in a perilous ocean of neonicotinoids. I noted down upcoming sales by local growers of native pollinator-friendly plants, bought a book on turning your lawn into a more natural, critter-friendly environment, and got ready to start digging, once the winter rains have (finally) subsided. Who knows, once the environment has been created, whether I will decide to add a hive or two?
Back to the theory about which I began this post… By contrast with the relative randomness of a nonfiction reader seeking information, the fiction reader may be more driven by type, and by type I don’t necessarily mean by genre. Although there are fiction readers who stick by preference to just one genre, be it mystery, fantasy, or science fiction, there are others who read widely in many genres. My theory here, however, is that if you are a particular type of reader, you seek out, within those genres, books with a similar feel to the writing.
That is, despite the fact that you have switched from mystery to fantasy, the appeals of the fiction you enjoy may stay constant across genres. So if you like a mystery in which there is a plethora of descriptive language and a resultant leisurely pace, perhaps that is also the type of fantasy to which you will gravitate. Likewise, if you are fond of thrillers with lots of action, you may seek out science fiction in the form of space opera, rather than reading something more clinical or philosophical.
Based on my own experience, I would say that this idea may be only partly true and not completely consistent; I am a mood-driven reader, and sometimes enjoy leaving behind the torturous detail of a Tana French for the three-page, adrenaline-fueled chapters of a James Patterson. But for the most part, I am a consistent reader who seeks out the same type of appeals regardless of genre.
This is an interesting concept to test out, first with yourself as a reader, and then with those for whom you advise, to see if it is legitimate and common. In her book Reading Still Matters, Catherine Sheldrick Ross remarks that “the varieties of ways to experience reading seem to expand the longer we consider the question, as do the dimensions along which readers may vary in their reading practices.” On page 168, she provides what she calls a “model,” which is a series of questions she uses to capture the experience of avid readers. It’s a query well worth exploring in our quest to become better readers’ advisors.
Post your book, and let’s chat!
“Kirsti reads a magazine” from my “people reading” series.
In the library masters program at UCLA, certain classes are only offered once every two years, because there are so many paths these days for a librarian to take that equal time must be given to covering all those avenues. One of these is my class on Young Adult Literature, which I last taught in the winter of 2017 and am going to be teaching during this upcoming spring quarter, beginning two weeks from now.
Since the last time I taught it was my first, I have been going back over my syllabus, assignments, and lectures to tweak them in ways suggested by the feedback I received from my students, and to update them, since much YA literature has been written in the interim!
Although I have read widely in teen lit for the past 12 years, the one area in which I am weak is graphic novels. Being an artist myself, one would think that I would enjoy this format more than most; but on the contrary, I find them difficult to follow. Even though I am a visual creator, apparently I am not a visual learner, and the effort to go from frame to frame seeking out the text and trying to understand the continuity of the story is daunting. (I honestly don’t know how the kids and teens read manga, which is also much of it read right to left!)
When I realized that I needed to choose some new graphic novels, both fiction and nonfiction, as the required reading for that week’s lecture, therefore, I turned to three of my students from last time who were enthusiastic about the format and asked their advice. Helen, Christina, and Alex were generous with their recommendations, and I proceeded to order about half a dozen for my Kindle and chose several afternoons to page through them in a search for good examples for my class.
Last time out, one of the GNs we read was the classic Smile, by Raina Telgemaier. I wanted something similar in terms of age level, which is middle school, and also a book that was autobiographical and “coming of age” oriented, so the first book I read was Real Friends, by Shannon Hale.
It’s a fairly simple story, and it’s probably nearly everyone’s story, depending upon your point of view. It’s easy, when you’re in kindergarten or first grade, to make a friend: You turn to your left or your right, you focus on the person sitting there, you ask “Will you be my friend?” and they are. This was the case with Shannon and her friend Adrienne. It’s harder, having been best and only friends together for a couple of grades, to confront the concept of popularity and to realize that while you are perhaps the one-loyal-bff-forever type, your friend would prefer to run with a crowd, a crowd that is happy to leave you behind because you don’t quite fit. The combination of the judgment made by the group and the betrayal by your friend, whose reluctance to go against the group outweighs her loyalty to you, is heart-breaking.
While there is much to appreciate about this memoir, including the myriad ways Shannon finds to cope and hold her own against bullying and her own OCD, the conclusion I came to after having read this was that it was well done…and reminded me way too much of my own grade school experience! The issue with reading books like this is that the level of angst, while probably completely true to life for that child in that moment, is a little much to read about after you have passed through it. (However, Susie Benveniste, if you are out there somewhere, read this book! I was Shannon, you were Adrienne, and Lori was the evil Jenny in our scenario.) The illustrations are adorable, and seem directed towards the younger end of this age group.
The next book I read was recommended by Christina as one that addressed similar themes: Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson.
In this story, there are also best friends (Astrid and Nicole) who have done everything together for years. Their twosome has been a little more long-lasting than that of Shannon and Adrienne, but they have reached a place (the summer before middle school) where their interests have diverged, and for the first time they are not in agreement. Nicole is a ballet girl, and is beginning to gravitate towards others who share her interests (in dance and also regarding boys), while Astrid has become fascinated by the prospect of skating with the local roller derby team, after seeing them play. Although Astrid’s skating skills are definitely lacking, she is so enthusiastic about this idea that she wants to sign both of them up for the summer for roller derby camp. She’s devastated when Nicole chooses, instead, to go to ballet camp, but grits her teeth and pursues roller derby alone. The rest of the book is her personal journey, including meeting new friends who are quite unlike her and her previous circle, and painfully gaining a new skill.
This was a really cute story, both verbally and visually. The illustrations were a little more adult and modern, and with more energy and pizzazz than those in Real Friends. It had just enough about changing friendships, growing pains, and growing apart to be entertaining, without quite so much self-obsessed angst; and all the roller derby details were great fun. I ended up agreeing with Christina that this might appeal to a wider range of readers.
The third book I read was also memoir, but nonfiction this time: March, Book One (of three), by John Lewis. March begins in 2009, when Lewis is a prominent Senator, and then flashes back to his beginnings on the farm and in small towns as he began his lifelong struggle for civil rights and human rights. This first volume looks at his youth in rural Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the beginning of the Nashville Student Movement, and their nonviolent protests at lunch counter sit-ins across the South. It poignantly references the 1950s comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as an influence on Lewis, whose own comics now enliven that history.
It was a powerful, emotional read, and the stark black-, white-, and gray-toned images were an excellent choice to convey the importance and the emotions of the theme. I will go on to read the other two volumes with pleasure.
Although I have a few more graphic novels to read, Roller Girl and March are both definitely going to be part of the curriculum for my class.
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…
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…