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!)
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.
When I first finished reading All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater, I was eager to put my thoughts about it down on paper. But when I actually sat down to write, I realized that I couldn’t figure out what I thought of this book. Part of me thought “It was amazing…” but on reflection, I didn’t know if I liked it. Let me try to make more sense.
I am a pragmatic person who isn’t really into saints, miracles, or allegorical tales about same, so I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read this book. I have intensely disliked such books as Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist and Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior, and wondered, based on some reviews, if that was where Maggie was going. (I also presumed VOYA magazine was way over the top in comparing it to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and I have read a few dissents about appropriation of other people’s culture that I took somewhat seriously when approaching this book.)
But…I have always enjoyed good magical realism (Alice Hoffman and Anna-Marie McLemore come to mind), and I presumed that Maggie Stiefvater, with all her speculation about Welsh kings and making something out of nothing, would possibly do a good job at this. Also, I was intrigued by an essay she wrote on her Facebook page talking about the extreme difficulty with which she birthed this book, given that she was suffering from a severe, initially undiagnosed autoimmune disease. So I picked it up.
At first, the sheer number of incidences of magical realism overwhelmed the story for me. It was too much, too fast, and way too facile, and I felt like I wanted to quit reading. But gradually, I was intrigued enough by some of the characters that I wanted to know what happened to them, so I kept going. I didn’t find it an easy book to read, perhaps because my skepticism of the outcome was high, so it took me a lot longer than I expected this slight volume to last. (Although it is 323 pages long, the type is set generously with about 1.5 line spacing—leading, if you want the technical word—between lines. So if it were single-spaced, it would probably have been about 200 pages.)
Ultimately, I was beguiled by this book, for several reasons. The first was the language and the way Stiefvater sets about exploring the miraculous within the mundane through the agency of her characters. I actually copied a couple of quotes from the book, after they had forced me to read them three or four times, savoring them more with each reading.
“The problem with ideas is that they never come all at once. They emerge like prairie dogs. An edge of ear, or the tip of a nose, and sometimes even the whole head. But if you look straight at an idea too fast, it can vanish back into the ground before you’re even sure of what you’ve seen. Instead, you have to sneak up on it slowly, looking out of the corner of your eye, and then and only then you might glance up to get a clear look.”
The second was the epiphanies experienced—or made—by both the Soria family and the pilgrims who seek them out. They seemed simultaneously true to life and completely allegorical, which I believe was the author’s intent, although perhaps she was more fixated on storytelling than I believed when I first finished reading. Certainly it turns out to be a gripping story, but so permeated by meaning it almost overflows.
I also loved the folklorish use she makes of the natural world—the owls in particular, but also the overwhelming atmosphere of the desert, the black roses desired so persistently by Francisco, the rain and butterflies that follow Marisita—and their parallels to emotion.
After I read this book, but before I wrote this, I went on Goodreads and looked up a couple of the books mentioned in my second paragraph—the ones people think of as a combination of allegorical revelation and self-help. In a comment about The Alchemist, one reader said, “This is either a beautifully written and fable-like illustration of simple and universal truths, or a load of crap.” One could probably react in the same way to All the Crooked Saints—but ultimately, I don’t believe either of those summations. It’s a story. If you read it first just as story and then come to appreciate the other mysterious and lyrical elements hidden within, I believe it deserves the encomiums it has received from reviewers. Readers of Barbara Kingsolver might also enjoy this.
One warning: It’s not like anything else Stiefvater has written, so if you go into it expecting that it will be, you will be disappointed. Also, I would in no way categorize this as young adult fiction. Some teens may read and appreciate it; but it is not specifically written for that market, even if that was the author’s intent (which I find hard to believe). It’s just the next story to come out of the complex being who is Maggie Stiefvater.
Are you a person who enjoys reading about reading? Who loves it when a book has an author as its character, is set in a bookstore or a library, or involves you in some magical aspect of story? If so, here is an eclectic annotated list for you. Some are written for teens, some appear in sci fi or mystery, and some in general adult fiction, but all are great reads for readers:
The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The planet Aka used to be a backward, rural, but culturally rich world. But once it came into contact with the Hainish civilization, abrupt changes were made by its ruling faction to transform it into a technologically advanced model society. Sutty, an official observer from Earth, has been dispatched to see if the disconnect has been too great. She learns of a group of outcasts living in the back country who still believe in the old ways and practice a lost religion called the Telling, and seeks them out, at some personal risk to both herself and them, to discover what this society is missing. (Science Fiction)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This is the story of foster child Liesel Meminger, who is living just outside of Munich during World War II. Liesel steals books (thus the name) and–once she learns to read–shares them with her stepfather and also with the Jewish man hiding in their basement. The novel is narrated by Death. The language, the imagery, the story, the unusual point of view are all stellar. I’m not sure why this was pigeon-holed as a teen book, because it’s a universally appealing story. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Thirteenth Tale,
by Diane Satterfield
Biographer Margaret Lea lives above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. One day she receives a letter from one of Britain’s premier novelists. Vida Winter is gravely ill, and wants to tell her life story before it’s too late, and she has selected Margaret to do so. Margaret is puzzled and intrigued (she has never met the author, nor has she read her novels), and agrees to meet with her. Winter finally shares the dark family secrets she has long kept hidden, and Margaret becomes immersed in her story, which is a true gothic tale complete with a madwoman hidden in the attic, illegitimate children, and some ghosts. (Adult Fiction)
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly
David’s mother has died, and the 12-year-old has only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him, leading him through a magical gateway to a series of familiar, yet slightly skewed versions of classic fairy tales and aiding him to come to terms with his loss and his new life. (Adult Fiction or sometimes shelved as Young Adult)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, falls in love with a book, only to discover that someone is systematically destroying all other works by this author. A combination of detective story, fantasy, and gothic horror. (Adult Fiction)
The Eyre Affair,
by Jasper Fforde
In an alternate-history version of London in 1985, Special Operative Thursday Next is tasked by the Special Operations Network with preventing the kidnapping of literary characters from books. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of the book by that name, Thursday is determined to prevent the trauma experienced by its fond readers. (If you like this one, there are many more in the series.) (Adult Mystery)
Inkheart (plus sequels Inkspell, Inkdeath),
by Cornelia Funke
Meggie’s father, who repairs and binds books for a living, has an unusual gift that became a curse in their lives: He can “read” characters out of books. But when he is reading a book to young Meggie, some characters escape into their world and her mother gets sucked into the story! Now it’s time for Mo and Meggie to change the course of that story, send the book’s evil ruler back into his book and maybe retrieve the person dear to them both…. (Children’s Fiction)
Not as directly reader-related, but with twisted versions of fairy tales interspersed throughout its exciting contents is Cornelia Funke’s “Mirrorworld” series that starts with the book Reckless. Again, this series was billed and sold as a series for children and teens, but it’s really a powerful and sophisticated fantasy about an alternate world that will appeal to all ages. There are three books, and more to come, according to Cornelia! (usually shelved as Young Adult Fiction, but…)
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
The historical saga of how a book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–came to be, and its storied history down through five centuries, written from the point of view of a curmudgeonly rare book conservator. Inspired by a true story, and beautifully written. (Adult Fiction)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, a website designer who has lost his job as a result of the dot-com disaster, finds part-time employment on the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore. But soon the strange goings-on at the store have Clay and his friends speculating about how the place stays in business; there are plenty of customers, but none of them ever seems to buy anything, and Clay is forbidden from opening any of the dusty manuscripts they periodically arrive to peruse. But when he gets bored and curious… (Adult Fiction)
Ink and Bone,
by Rachel Caine
This series is set in an alternate world, in which the Great Library at Alexandria never burned down. Centuries later, having achieved a status not unlike the Vatican in contemporary life, the Great Library and its rulers control the flow of knowledge to the masses. Paradoxically, although anyone can order up any of the greatest works of history from the library (via alchemy), personal ownership of books is forbidden. Jess Brightwell’s family are black market book dealers, but Jess decides he wants to play it straight by entering the service of the Library. Or does he? The sequels are Paper and Fire, and Ash and Quill. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Fikry, the owner of Island Books on Alice Island (think Martha’s Vineyard) is in a bad way: His beloved wife has just died, sales are dismal, and someone has just stolen his rare edition of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. But then an unexpected discovery—an important “package” abandoned in his bookstore—changes his perspective on everything. (Adult Fiction)
There are probably dozens more books about books, reading, and writing; when I discover them, I’ll share!