Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Scholar of Moab by Stephen Peck


Young Hyrum Thayne, an unrefined geological surveyor, steals a massive dictionary out of the Grand County library in a midnight raid, startling the good people of Moab into believing a nefarious band of Book of Mormon thugs, the Gadianton Robbers, has arisen again. To make matters worse, Hyrum’s illicit affair with Dora Tanner, a local poet thought to be mad, results in the delivery of a bouncing baby boy who vanishes the night of his birth. Righteous Moabites accuse Dora of the murder, but who really killed their child? Did a coyote dingo the baby? Was it an alien abduction as Dora claims? Was it Hyrum? Or could it have been the only witness to the crime, one of a pair of Oxford-educated conjoined twins who cowboy in the La Sals on sabbatical?

Take a blazing ride with Hyrum LeRoy Thayne, the Lord’s Chosen Servant and Defender of Moab. His short rich life spans the borderlands of magical realism where geology, ecology philosophy, and consciousness collide, in Steven L. Peck’s rip-snorting tale The Scholar of Moab.

From Amazon Description.

This book is unlike any of the other books I have read on this magic realism challenge. It is tremendous fun to read and definitely on the weird end of the magic realism spectrum. There are few books which have had me laughing out loud, but the Scholar's experiment - in which he measures the faith of bumblebees - had me guffawing.  

The story is told through a series of documents drawn together by the anonymous Redactor. This allows the author the opportunity to write in a wide range of voices, from the uneducated Hyrum, to the highly educated William (one of the conjoined twins) via the poetic and alternative Dora. It also allows us to see the story of the missing child and Hyrum's rise to status of Scholar and Moabite hero through conflicting eyes, even Hyrum's account is not all it seems. Peck gives a virtuoso performance in writing in these different voices. I got the distinct impression that he was  enjoying himself writing as much as I did reading. 

The characters are slowly revealed through the course of the book. Dora at first appears to be a crazy poet, but by the end of the book we see her as probably the most trustworthy of all the characters. Peck's book is an object lesson in the use of dramatic irony.

The book's surrealism and multi-voice format allow the exploration of a host of themes, such as the nature of consciousness (a specialism of the conjoined cowboy scholars), religious and scientific belief, and the relationship between religion and science. The book is grounded in Mormonism. The book is set in the small-town mormonism and gently satirizes the faith and attitudes of that community. As a Brit, alas,  I am sure many allusions escaped me. But it was clear that this is a world in which people can believe in alien abductions,communist conspiracies and all sorts of hokum. A world ideally suited to the magic realist treatment. 

It is a tribute to the author's skill that despite the fact that the book is written in a range of voices and styles, I still got a strong impression of the landscape in which the book is set.  The Hyrum works for a geological survey team and Dora is inspired by the area. 

My only qualm about the book was the ending, which I find somewhat unsatisfying. I have been trying to work out why, but so far have failed to do so. 

I was given this book by the author in return for an h0nest review. 

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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Chocolat by Joanne Harris



When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious moral danger to his flock - especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial.
Goodreads Description


This book is popular magic realism for women. Its popularity is no doubt enhanced by the fact that it was converted in to a popular film with heartthrob Johnny Depp as love interest. But the film softened the book's story, the antagonist is the mayor and not Father Reynaud, and the ending ties up the romance nicely. 

I very much enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of the sensuous (and sensual) delights of chocolate. Although this hedonism is set against the austerity of Father Reynaud's world view, it is wrong to simply see this as a paganism versus church story. It is equally a story of the arrival of outsiders in a small community.  In a small community the arrival of one individual can shift the power dynamics of the village. 

The book is about rebirth and resurrection. The action takes place during Lent and culminates with the Easter feast. Some critics have attacked it for being anti-church. But it seems to me that love and forgiveness are shown as the redeeming values in this book. 

Reynaud believes Vianne to be a witch, but her magic is not one of spells. She is superstitious, but so is Reynaud. Vianne's magic is in her cooking, her free spirit, her love and acceptance of others. The only clear example of magic is when Vianne and Armande are able to see Pantoufle, the imaginary kangeroo pet of Vianne's daughter. One aspect of the book that helps make it magic realism is the way Harris deliberately does not set the novel in a specific place or time. This helps give the book a fairytale quality as well as universality.

I have two criticisms of the book. Firstly the chapters in the books written from Reynaud's point of view felt repetitive. I understand why that was, but nevertheless... Secondly I found the ending rushed. Otherwise the book was a lovely, if easy, read.



Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Alchemist -


Paulo Coelho enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom points Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transformation power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.
Goodreads description

Normally you get testimonies on back covers from other authors or press reviews, this is the first one I've come across with a quote by Madonna! This book is very different to the other books I have read on this magic realism challenge. It is a fable, a folktale and a fairytale. It is therefore quite a simple book, with strong messages - follow your destiny, worrying about what might happen stops you from acting and you will often find what you seek in your roots. All of which is good advice and clearly the book has had a profound impact on a lot of people (including Madonna).  And I respect that. 

But the book left me underwhelmed, even though I am a lover of fairytales and folktales. I could have done without the messages being so stressed e.g. Wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure. And I wasn't even sure I agreed with all of the messages. Like fairytales there is not much in the way of character development. Yes Santiago finds his treasure and is learning throughout the story, but there is little in the way of conflict in this book. As a woman I'm not sure I agree with the message re women waiting patiently for their men, who are off pursuing their dreams.

That said I am going to give this book to a young relative of mine, because I think it will appeal to her. Some of my problems with the book are I think because I am of an age when I have already done my own thinking about the issues it raises. 


Friday, 7 December 2012

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka


A masterful mix of horror and absurdity which tells the story of travelling salesman Samsa who wakes up one day to find out he has turned into a giant insect. This change in circumstances makes his previous way of life impossible and causes his family to turn on him. "Metamorphosis" is one of the most remarkable stories ever written. Kafka's surrealistic approach shocks us into a new appreciation of a basic truth: when we have outlived our usefulness there are no longer any certainties. But there are many different levels on which to understand events. 
Amazon description

We writers are told to start our books with a killer opening paragraph which will hook the reader. There are few books whose opening sentences are as good as this one. In my translation (by Karen Reppin) it reads When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. In that one sentence we capture the surreal situation that triggers the story.

I read this book while in my Czech home (I spend half my time in the Czech Republic) and I was surprised by how Czech it is. Much is made of the fact that Kafka was a German-speaking/writing Jew living in Prague, but I was struck by a dark surreal humour that pervades the story, which seems very Czech to me. Kafka isn't usually associated with humour but it definitely is there in this book - for example Gregor's reaction to his metamorphosis is not "Oh my god I've been turned in to a monster bug," but "I'm going to be late for work." I could see that scene (in fact the whole story) being performed by Monty Python.

The story is nevertheless a sad one, as we know the best humour also has that edge of tragedy. Gregor has been used as a meal ticket by his family, but once the transformation takes place he is ignored and despised. Arguably Gregor's social and emotional metamorphosis started when he had to give up his dreams and identity to serve his family. Only his sister continues to show some affection, but by the time the story finishes she too has undergone a transformation and not for the better. Gregor's continued concern for his family despite his affliction counterpoints what the reader sees to be the reality. The story could be seen as an allegory for how people who are suddenly unable to work, whether through accident, illness or misfortune, are treated by our society. An allegory painfully relevant in these times of cutbacks to welfare and healthcare.

But the allegory can be taken to mean many things. The exact translation of the opening sentence refers not to an insect but "einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer" which literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice". Only later does the cleaning lady refer to Gregor as a dung beetle. What the German word Ungeziefer sums up is Gregor's own alienation and possibly Kafka's own. Ungeziefer was a term used by the Nazis of Jews, and  the novella was published in 1915 when anti-semitism was already rife in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which Czechoslovakia was part. Towards the end of the novella his sister argues that the family must get rid of it (Gregor) "If it were Gregor, he would have realized long since that it isn't possible for human beings to live together with such a creature". The permutations on interpretation for this books are endless. That is what makes this such a great novel.

And is the book magic realism? Yes most definitely - Gregor's metamorphosis is not explained or seen as remarkable, it just is. Is it influential - you bet - it not only influenced the magic realist writers that followed him, but all those movies such as The Fly in which man is transformed into another creature.

See also my post on Kafka's Prague