Magical Realism Part V: In the Cold

Even though this will be posted on the other side of spring, I read today’s book in the winter that was not a winter and then all of a sudden became intensely a winter.  March started out like a lamb and became a lion, so hopefully kitty goes back to being a lamb by the end of this month. I can’t wait to do yoga on my patio like a hipster.  I want to see lambs this week.  Lambs! I want tulips to come up at a time that does not give me intense anxiety that the planet is melting.

winters tale

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin is long enough to have its own cold and magical realist post.  It is my second book over 500 pages of the year, the snow read, topping out at 768 pages paperback and 27 hours of listening at normal speed, but I listen to books at 1.25 and so it was closer to 23 hours for me.  And I wanted to read it for awhile but I am going to be honest, it kept getting pushed down the list because it did not have awesome reviews on Goodreads.  I used to have a friend that did not want to come to the movies to see something that was not highly rated, and I used to think that was absurd, but here I am, doing it with books ten years later.  My excuse is that books are more of a time commitment, 23 hours over 2.

Reading the reviews to gel my own thoughts for this post, I felt validated in my dislike for it. Sometimes I read something that I don’t like and wonder if there is someone out there who is way smarter who thinks that it makes the most sense in all the world.  If there is such a person I have not read his review on Goodreads (well in full disclosure a five star rating of the book by someone who has miraculously read it more than once was discovered but then I saw more interesting disdainful entertainment. I focused on that so I could continue to cradle my delicate ego).  Someone put it on their dumpster-adjacent shelf.  Someone else shelved it as meh.  Someone else posted a picture of a taxidermy small rodent that looks like a horror movie creature come to life to eat your brains because they feel that reading this book is an accomplishment warranting such a statement.  I mean, sometimes when I have a patient that has a serious breakthrough (and I do get to see them) I could use an animal like that.

All right though, I do intend to be “productive” (a therapist word) with this post and talk about why it felt like chewing concrete.  I love turn of the century NYC.  I read all kinds of books about the grime and the prejudice and the immigration and the hard life of those times.  So I was attracted by that.  I have a book on the history of the city itself that warrants my attention.  Helprin is long winded but it is beautiful to listen to if you get into it (one reviewer called it narrative fearlessness). I loved the initial story of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, but after Beverly dies this thing falls apart into nonsensical further plot threads whose later interweaving is wholly unsatisfactory. I thought the whole thing would have it some Beverly Penn, but the consumptive rich woman who was straddling two worlds before she died pretty much stayed on the other side of the veil after she died. I really thought she was going to come back more than she did.

And, it was shelved as Magical Realism, and it was, with the author messing with time, and epic snow and winters, and a horse that is the size of a barn who practically flies.  And it was cold magical realism in the north, where people are more private and don’t have sprawling, messy inter-generational families. It was all very proper to have magical realism in the winters in NYC.  With the added element of time, where it was not like characters would not stay dead, the did not die in the first place, hanging out over a century in the underbelly of the city like it would always be the turn of the century.  It dabbed magic into the usual world.

But ultimately, it did not have a lot of plot and it did not come together at the end, which I was really rooting for.  I read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and he can get really dense and you don’t know where he is going, but at the end he pulls it together in a really gratifying way that makes you glad that you followed his lead when you were not sure that it was going to lead anywhere.  (I felt The Bone Clocks was more gratifying than Cloud Atlas but I would give Cloud Atlas another go.) Barbara Kingsolver is another who can wind out threads and then weave them, although she does not make you wander as far out into an unknown and seemingly pointless land before pulling you back in.  She keeps you tighter the entire time, which is why I love her, even if she writes about the environmental preservation themes that make me intensely anxious.  So, the fact I go back to her even when I know she will say something that freaks me out is high praise.

I potentially considered abandoning it, but I didn’t want it on my dead soldier shelf that haunted me until I picked it up again. I read other books in the meantime, my Sarah Addison Allen for one, that was enough of a break for me to be ready to wrestle another long winded chapter with events whose purport evaded me.  Writing advice I have seen over and over emphasizes that you can have the most exquisite turn of phrase, but you need plot, too, to cull the masses.  We should all be writing for ourselves, I agree, but if one really wants to write a big hit with the populace it has to be more than beautiful language and unwinding backstories. It just has to.

Do I regret reading this novel? I don’t.  Syfy ruined my faith in books turned into miniseries with The Magicians, so I won’t be looking into the movie anytime soon, but I was intensely curious about this epic that involves many of my reader’s kryptonite.  What is a better magical realism turn of the century NYC book?  The Golem and The Jinni, which I know I have mentioned before but has never gotten its own post.  Talk about winding together the magical plot threads with some twists to knot you up in the end.  Damn.

A thousand words and 23 hours later, I would love comments, shares and likes on this post. I wanted to add The Master and Margarita to this post but I feel that that one will have to be waded through at another time.  The devil comes to Russia.  We don’t need to talk about that with a huge horse, a dead woman and an orphaned immortal amnesiac mechanic with occasional psychotic symptoms.





Read Down 2017: When the world was mysterious

Education, internet, and the ease of travel, in my opinion, have lifted the veil of mystery that once shrouded the natural world.  We don’t know everything, and certainly I don’t, but when reading down my kindle books that I gathered long ago, I am reminded that stories could be woven out of metaphysics and travel and the precarious nature of life way back when.  I like being reminded of the comfort and knowledge that I take for granted.

Plus, it will be officially spring in another week and the re awakening around here is a magic in itself that never gets old.

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A Dreamer’s Tales, Lord Dunsany

I picked up another Irish writer (William Hodgson was Irish, too), and I read that these works were an influence on Tolkien, Lovecraft, and LeGuin.  This is a short work, only a few hours of listening on Librivox or an even shorter time to read, I enjoyed this on a very snowy Sunday and finished it even with an hour and a half break to play outside in the torrents with my son. He paints a magical and mythical natural world, considering issues both earthly and spiritual.  Of those writers influenced I have only read Tolkien, but I have hoarded both Lovecraft and LeGuin because I am optimistic they can create a similar magic.  My favorite two and most memorable stories were the ones where he dreams that he has committed a heinous act and therefore the living won’t allow him to be properly buried and he is in a perpetual state of unrest and limbo, even in death, and a pirate captain who learns to curse his crew and does so even after they mutiny.  Of course these things are not so plausible to audiences with more knowledge and exposure to more points of view than the audience that he was writing for.  Magical and fun tales, a short read, an all around win.  Don’t know what that is supposed to be on the cover, but it’s a better cover than the standard public domain covers on my kindle books.

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The Green Mouse,  Robert W Chambers

I should have reviewed this one for Valentine’s Day, being an amusing story about a machine that pairs up lifelong lovers due to matching their “psychic vibration.” It’s quirky and delightful, with the inventor having the luck of being the love interest of a rich woman who can put capital behind his idea.  Of course, it is a highly successful invention also because it matches up people based on social status, which must add to the compatibility of psychic waves.  Skin color must also contribute to compatibility waves, because the rich widowed man who accidentally sets the machine out to draw his match to him worries that it might reveal that someone “black” might actually be his soul mate, and oh, what a tragedy would that be, but thankfully it is a lovely snow white woman of his own class, even if she is “closer to 35 than 25” but the bloom is thankfully completely not off the rose.  He’s probably fat and ugly but since she’s getting a little old and he still thinks she is pretty it’s cool.  The Green Mouse understands that love is not just about love. It is about reinforcing stereotypes and pairing up the “right” people.

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The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling

I did an extensive project on Rudyard Kipling in the 8th grade, but I think this is the first time I had read something other than his poetry. This story is normally part of a collection of his works, but for some reason I had this 30 page tale as a separate work. This is significantly darker than the other two books I have been mentioning in this post.  Kipling knew the realities of the white man trying to conquer the rest of the dangerous and little known world.  The story is about two white opportunists who decide that they want to live by their own rule so spirit off to a distant land to conquer and rule it, and it ends badly.  Tragically.  Like, madness and death tragic.  But it’s a thrilling ride.  I was having trouble focusing on reading it so I dug up the Librivox version, aptly narrated by a woman named Phillippa with a strong British accent, which just completely made the whole thing.  I have to see what else she has narrated because I need to read all her things.

The world is not so magical or quite so conquerable nowadays. We have to read about times when the world was more mysterious, which I intend to do with reading more Jules Verne and some of the H.G. Wells that also need to be devoured in my quest to read down the neglected titles at the bottom of my kindle books list.


Magical Realism, Part III

The books today dance in and out of the classification of Magic Realism.  They are not bright and mostly beautiful stories in lush and exotic climes with burning (if misdirected at times) sexual desires that must be gratified.  No.  The element of Magical Realism from which I am drawing in this post is the piece of the definition that involves oppression, and trauma: as the wikipedia definition puts it, implicit criticism of the elite.

These books are more heartbreaking than magical, in my opinion, because the oppressed that are talked about are African American people in the American South.

It seems that every list I have found of these texts always has


Beloved, by Toni Morrison

even though people don’t even always agree that it even counts in this genre.  It does fit my definition of “people who won’t stay dead,” however.

This book is about trauma: the trauma of slavery, oppression, growing up with tenuous connections to others, losing a child.  Yes, this book  accepts what seems unreal and questions what is more commonly considered real, but it is more a trauma narrative to me.  Trauma can blur the lines between real and imagined, adding another element of unpredictability to a world that already feels unpredictable.  The characters don’t know who they are and cling to their children as the only things that they have in this world.  They are desperately trying to gather a sense of self after the identity of slave no longer applies. Slavery was not an appropriate identity, but then when slaves are freed, what do they have to move forward in a place and time that hates them and considers them not even full people?

Consequently, I had to use SparkNotes on this one, to be sure that I was gaining all relevant facts through the beautiful, yet intentionally disjointed, narrative that is shared from a number of perspectives.  It is not an easy read on a number of levels, and yes, it has a ghost in it, but it is about getting on after the level of oppression has been reduced.  It is about what is real and what is not and what is heartbreaking.

Maybe this post is a little soap boxy today, but I can’t avoid it.  These books are the oppression and critique of the powerful part of the genre.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

This book broke my heart and for more subtle reasons than Beloved. There are those who stretch this into the Magical Realism genre due to some of the nature metaphors (especially with the hurricane and its serious consequences as a turning point), and it is about a black woman in the American South in the 30’s just trying to find love and be happy.  This is the first book that could be considered in the genre where there is no ghost or supernatural being, just ties to nature and its volatility.  And the heavy oppression.

Some of the articles I have skimmed about this one are critical of Janie for taking her identity from the men that she is with and not developing her own, but that is far from a cultural norm of that time. The woman who raised Janie tells her as an impressionable young woman, due to past family trauma in her own life that it is more important to be safe and secure than it is to be loved.  Anyone who knows about Maslow’s hierarchy knows that people need safety and security before there is love or self actualization.  In an unpredictable, oppressed and scary existence, it makes perfect sense that in the beginning that she would be following a strong personality, like her second husband Jody, for security because that is what she was told love is.  I felt that a critique of her that she follows men all the time is a very white-centric and privilege blind one.  I rooted for Janie. I wanted so badly for her to be happy.  When Tea Cake started with his craving for but aversion to water I had to shut the book off for a minute to brace myself for what was coming. I didn’t think it was okay for Tea Cake to hit her, but I certainly was not yelling to the book that she should pack up and leave.  And when her second husband died, she did not rush out to find another guy, even though with her beauty and means she had her pick. The men she knew had been drooling over her for years. She was a little burned out on it before Tea Cake came along and won her heart fair and square.  She trades love for the security that she was told to look for instead.

The audio for this book is an amazing performance piece. The heavy use of vernacular is of course criticized as well but through the language comes those beautiful and poignant things that you always knew to be true and universal, even if you have not thought about it that way before.  I think that if one is planning on teaching this book in high school, the audio should be used to draw students in and help them not get tripped up on getting through the language.  I read this book because it is a modern classic, but I absolutely fell in love with it, despite the deep sadness and oppression. I am sure as a high school kid that it would not have been the same to me as it is now. I should probably re-read the Maya Angelou that I read in tenth grade, to see how it feels differently now.

I am looking for North American magical realism that is more magical and less sad.  Sometimes I have a hard time reading about whites in the South because of how their opulence and privilege was at the expense of so many, but maybe I can find something that feels magical and not because there is, as Roxane Gay puts it, a magical n-.  I was thinking about Sarah Addison Allen for this, or maybe some Alice Hoffman.  Magical Realism also takes place in cold places, and further into Asia, and I have to read about that too.

Hope everyone is enjoying the intensification of spring. It can’t help itself now.  Even if it wants to keep snowing we are tilting toward the warmth of the sun and the expanding hours of daylight.


Read Down 2017: my first e-book scores

The best part of getting my first Kindle back in 2010 (my husband’s first birthday gift to me…you would have married him too) was the discovery of all the classic literature that was available for free in the public domain in ebook format.

I had already started on my journey of reading classics that I made it out of school without ever having to read. I had already been picking up the Barnes and Noble paperback re issues and using Bookins to trade out my used books for classics to build my library. But all of a sudden , they could be downloaded for nothing and I did not have to sit in front of a computer to read them. With no shelves overflowing with books!  Moving my stuff was always the most fun, with all those crates of books.

Some of the first free Kindle books I procured I had not gotten to yet, and when I am in the ReadDown mood, I scroll to the bottom of the books to choose a file that has been waiting entirely too long.  I had a collection of William Hope Hodgson huddled at the bottom, among the fairy tales, A Dreamer’s Tales, which I am looking forward to getting into soon and other obscure pieces that looked appealing at the dawn of the book buying binge. The tide that I have been trying to ebb with moderate success.  I should probably have unsubscribed to all the discount book emails I get and Modern Mrs. Darcy on Facebook, who has my favorite kindle deals on the web when I decided I would stop buying books in 2017.  I also have the Iliad and the Odyssey on there, and I wonder when I will gather it up to read those.  I did the Aeneid in my own travels through school and enjoyed it.

A word about Hodgson first:  He’s in my wheelhouse with his horror and occult themes, but his writing is unwieldy. I am feeling validated that his wikipedia entry agreed with my assessment.  He reminded me some of Jules Verne but Verne is clearly better.

Onto the Read Down:

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Carnacki the Ghost Finder

The cover on my Kindle is not as cool as this cover, of course. Hodgson created Carnacki after an occult detective of Algernon Blackwood’s, which does not surprise me that I liked Carnacki if he was inspired by a Blackwood creation. Mr. Blackwood is also becoming a find for me.  Anyway, it is a compendium of his shorter works where the detective sets to dispel ghost stories. Clearly an old premise that is still a good one, given the popularity of Ghostland  released in 2016. It is my favorite of the three that I talk about in this post, but probably because it has a ghosty theme and is not spinning through the cosmos or sailing, which the other two are. Also I was thinking about modernizing one of the stories in the compendium for my own ends.  There was one that has an appreciable twist.

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The House on the Borderland

This book was highly rated on my Librivox app, and I was not sure if it was a rating of the reader, who was good, or of the actual story. If we are going to go supernatural I like ghosts more than space time mashups and traveling through the cosmos, but I can appreciate it. Also, an appreciable appearance of demon creatures, which really were freaky, especially in that they seemed completely random. So, I stumbled on the writing but the plot kept me guessing.  The man’s incorrect and copious amounts of commas were distracting when I was actually reading and not listening.

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The Ghost Pirates

This one was the most difficult for me due to the vernacular and the heavy reference to sailing. I could figure it out, but a nautical knowledge would have made this one easier. And where there was vernacular, the narrator clarifies what was said.  This one actually had an audio available on Audible.  Sometimes Audible surprises me by having professional narrations of books that I consider obscure. I recognize that I am not exactly the yardstick for obscurity, however. This one was good though in the fact that it was insidious. The takeover is subtle, quietly debated among the crew because the captain does not want the sailors scaring themselves with superstition.  Bad things happen and there is disagreement over why. So despite the unfamiliar context and some of the writing it is a good story and does have a suspenseful buildup.

So Hodgson found his way into my awareness and my Read Down because life just wouldn’t have the same luster without an ebook reader and all the freebs.

Time for Spring. I can’t stand it.  I need my morning walks at dawn.

Comments/shares/likes?  Maybe a little different than the types of books I usually blog about, but classics, right?









The Reading Resolutions 2017

Happy New Year!

So this post is called resolutions, but I think of it as plans.  What am I going to do with my creative and me time in the upcoming year?  Maybe they are resolutions.  They are what I want to do, and maybe that’s enough of an explanation.

Regardless, I like that there is a designated time to start fresh and to think about what I want to accomplish by the end of the year.


It is the year of making challenges of reading what I already have.  Reading challenges are fun, and they really have diversified my reading base, which will help me on my quest to being a writer, but I pursue books to read that I do not already have while my good friends right in front of me remain neglected. So sadly neglected.

A fraction of the neglected:


This is the pile in  my room.  It isn’t the shelves I have in my office at home.

It isn’t my kindle.  Or my back issues of The New Yorker and Tin House.

Please don’t call hoarders.  They clean out people’s houses before processing the trauma that caused the hoarding in the first place. And, I haven’t been traumatized…there’s just so much in the world that my brain wants to eat.

I have considered making my own categories of what I already have.   Potential categories would be:

Hoarded Authors, or authors whom I have never read but have managed to collect a number of their works, like Susanna Kearsley, Alice Hoffman (I may have read an Alice Hoffman but not recently, so she counts), Octavia Butler, Mary Kubica, and Chris Cleave.

Books about fairy tales/collections of lesser known tales

The Psychology of fiction and creating compelling fiction

Victorian Sensation novels

books set in/about NYC

Freud’s works

Literary criticism

Abandoned Books

Short stories


books I bought because Amazon would not let me forget them

books about the science of cancer

books about world religions

books over 500 pages: five over 500 2017! This will be a thing.

continuing the Magical Realism world tour (this one has to happen anyway.  I didn’t schlep through 100 Years of Solitude and Beloved to stop before I get to the books that hold more appeal to me)

Okay, some of these books are fodder for my own writing and probably would not interest the audience that I believe I target.

Which brings me to another topic.

Reading Challenges keep me knitting and reading, more than taking the emotional risk of writing.  I have been on a fairly aggressive knit down and charity knitting binge, which is an awesome excuse to download an audiobook and stick in my headphones and leave all my writing threads dangling where I don’t have to confront my plethora of writing related insecurities.

I would really like to finish another draft of the novel I did get back to for like two weeks of NaNoWriMo.  And writing for the blog isn’t really that distracting from my writing goals. I have handwritten notes of books I have not written about on here and post ideas I could dash off if needed.  I need this blog to keep me arriving at some sort of page and thinking more about what I like in what I read.

I will pick up more audiobooks and use my credits related to books that I already was looking to read before the year started. I will try to hold to the same idea with library books.  There could have been a burst of book buying during the holiday week but I will blame that on the amazing Amazon ebook deals.  Goodreads awards winners on sale?  Whaaaa?  It wasn’t the new year yet.  That’s my excuse.

But what I really need to do is read less, knit less, and write more.  Knitting may have to be reduced to near extinction levels, which would be a real sacrifice, as I bought a gorgeous cable cardigan kit recently in a crimson red.

Briefly, other resolutions:

Drinking more water. It’s not a healthy habit that I have managed to get myself into.  I exercise and eat reasonably well but I got into diet soda and I am slowly cutting it back out, doing flavored water and more tea for a wake up in the afternoon.  Reducing general caffeine consumption will be a continued focus.

Increasing gratefulness.  I started this one last year because I read that what you want from the world you should start by sending into the world.  It’s the same recommendation that I make to people looking to improve relationships:  be the person you want the other person to be first, instead of waiting for them to change.  The only person we have any power over is, you got it, ourselves. Coparenting can be decidedly unromantic, but my gratefulness for my husband’s prowess as a father helps me when I feel frustrated that he can never remember the time that soccer practice starts.  It’s also pretty romantic when I come to a clean house and sometimes even a meal waiting.

Competing in another sprint triathlon, possibly a Warrior Dash again. I liked the flames when I finished, like I did something mad important.  Flames when I finish!  There are no flames that spring up when I pull a sweet intervention to help one of my kids.  I need good flames.

What are your creative/leisure plans for the upcoming year?  Leave a comment below!