Tag Archives: Magical Realism

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  422

Published:  March 12, 2013

Format:  E-book

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2013), Sunburst Award for Adult (2014), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2013), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Kitschies for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction (2013)

This is a beautiful novel that drew me in immediately.  A barnacle encrusted bag washes up on the shores of a quiet island off the coast of British Columbia to be found by Ruth.   Ruth is a character loosely based on the author herself.  Ruth and her husband have lived on the island for decades and never had children.  Her life’s work has been writing, and she is currently working on her autobiography, but she is also suffering memory lapses.  Inside the plastic bag is a diary of a 14 year old Japanese girl written in purple ink on the  pages of what on the outside one would expect to be  Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu.  Also in the bag are a second diary written in French, and a watch.   Ruth’s husband, Oliver, immediately questions whether this could be jetsam or flotsam, part of the trash washed into the ocean after the giant tsunami struck Japan years earlier.

Nao, the author of the mysterious diary, states she is writing in these “last days of her life” to tell the story of her grandmother, Jiko.  She never gets to the actual biography of Jiko, but instead details the extreme bullying she has endured, her contemplations of suicide and the spiritual journey she undergoes with her grandmother to develop her own superpower.  Nao spent her younger growing up years in California, but when her father loses his high powered corporate job in Silicon Valley, the family moves back to Japan.  Nao had been living a middle class life, attending school with close friends and enjoying an active social life in California.  Suddenly, she is thrust back to a country whose culture and social norms she is unfamiliar and living with her parents, in a tiny one bedroom apartment.  Her mother initially spends her days staring at jellyfish in the aquarium.  Her father, a seemingly depressed caricature of his former self, is unsuccessful at finding a job and also at suicide.  He actually is arrested for failed suicide.   Nao, although Japanese, is seen as quite different for having grown up in California.  She is mercilessly bullied, both physically and  emotionally, by the students and teachers.

Interestingly, we learn Nao’s story as Ruth is reading it and interacting with it, seemingly affecting changes to the story by actions in her dreams.  In this way the two characters are very much linked in some seemingly real but magical way.  It almost seems like they become one character as the story is being read, two parts of a whole.  This effect is concurrent with the theme of time and Nao being a “time-being.”  Nao, which is pronounced “now,” likes to think of herself as existing in this moment.  The concept and fluency of time within this novel is a key theme.  The connectedness of beings across generations and continents is important.  This is part of the Buddhist philosophy that plays an integral role in the spiritual journey Nao undergoes as the diary unfolds in Ruth’s hands.

Nao’s life is certainly at a pivotal point as she contemplates suicide while sitting in a French cafe trying to avoid “dates” (being pimped out to customers).   However, Ruth also undergoes this spiritual journey alongside Nao.  She had cared for her mother who has recently died and feels like her life is slipping away.  She is contemplating leaving the sparsely populated island and moving to the city.  Reading Nao’s diary has Ruth pondering Buddhist philosophy and engaging in the connectedness of all things.

Nao tells of how she is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother Jiko.  She begins a soul searching journey as she gets to know her grandmother.  She practices zazen meditation, bath rituals, and tries to develop her superpower, because everyone needs a superpower.  She also begins recognizing the superpower in others, even eventually her father whom she viewed as a “freeter.”   Her father becomes an even greater hero, when he finds a new life’s purpose in developing a “mu mu” which will hide one’s past and present on the computer.

I loved the timelessness of this book and the Buddhist philosophy that is life changing for so many of the characters within this novel.  There is real darkness and depths of despair for the characters Nao and Haruki #2 that are overcome through a spiritual journey, where they learn appreciation of ancestors and each other.  They begin to appreciate the duality of all things.  I found it fascinating that the author wrote herself into this book as Ruth, connecting herself with these characters as well.  There are many layers and depths and truths contained within the lovely novel. I highly recommend it to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the Japanese culture of bullying.  Compare and contrast this with bullying in the United States.  How does cyberbullying take bullying to a whole different level?
  2. Why do you think that Nao participates in bullying Daisuke?  Why do you think the teacher participates?
  3. Compare and contrast American and Japanese cultures in the areas of intensity of schooling, therapy, self improvement and bullying.
  4. Compare and contrast Haruki #1 and Nao.  Consider how they were bullied, their writing, and suicidal ideations.
  5. Haruki #2 wanted to know what defined conscience.  Discuss the reasons that led to the loss of his job.  In what ways are Haruki #1 and #2 similar?
  6. Explain what a “freeter”  is and who in this novel might be perceived as a “freeter?”
  7. How would you say time is defined in this novel?  What does it mean to be a time-being?
  8. What Buddhist philosophies did you agree with or appreciate?
  9. Jiko teaches Nao and guides her on a spiritual journey by teaching her daily practices and rituals.  How do you think these affect Nao?  Do you think Nao would have done better with some other form of therapy?
  10. What does the presence of the jungle crow represent to Ruth and Oliver?  What does it represent to you, the reader?
  11. There is a theme of global connectedness in this novel.  Discuss the ways in which countries and beings across continents are connected.  How does the internet affect this connectedness?
  12. There is also a theme about social and environmental connectedness on a global level.  Discuss the ways in which this was touched on within the novel.

 

 

New York Times Review by Leslie Downer

Ruth Ozeki’s website

Reader’s Guide  by Penguin Random House

 

TTT: Ten Book Recommendations for Lovers of Magical Realism

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Anyone can play.  Each week there is a suggested topic, usually with some wiggle room for individual variation.  This week the suggested topic was “Ten Book Recommendations for_____________.” I chose to do recommendations for lovers of magical realism, a genre I have loved over the ages.  Magical realism lives somewhere between fantasy and reality.  It doesn’t create new worlds as fantasy does, but it suggests the magical within our own world.  What is your favorite book that contains magical realism?  All of the books listed here, I’ve read prior to starting my blog.  Clearly, I need to read more again from this genre, so would greatly appreciate any recommendations you might have.

  1.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – tells the story of the rise and fall of a mythical town through the history of a family.
  2. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison – a journey and coming of age story of Milkman Dead through a black world, full of many varied and sometimes mystical beings.
  3. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende – a familial saga spanning generations of a family in politics, but also touched by magic.
  4. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel – a romantic story where food and cooking plays a magical role.
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – Janie at 16 is forced into marriage, however 2 marriages later, she falls in love with a man who offers her a packet of seeds.  A feminist novel written in 1937, much ahead of its time.  
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison – Sethe was born a slave, but escaped to Ohio. Eighteen years later she is still not free, haunted by the ghost of her baby and memories of the farm where she worked, Sweet Home.
  7. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A love story set in Columbia where the girl, Fermina, chooses the doctor rather than the man, Florentino, she had been exchanging love notes with.  Florentino has hundreds of affairs but his heart remains loyal to Fermina.
  8. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – a middle aged man returns to his hometown for a funeral.  He visits the home of a childhood friend and the memories and stories that haunted as well as protected him come flooding back.
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – Things have never been easy for the overweight Dominican nerdy Oscar, but may never improve due to the Fukoe curse that has haunted his family for generations.  
  10. The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld – set in an ancient stone prison where a man is on death row visited only by a priest and the Lady, an investigator.  Evil and magical collide in the novel where dark truths are uncovered.

 

 

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

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Pages:  352

Published:  February 16, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

Brilliant, insightful, imaginative,  philosophical and unique!  This novel, written by Russian born Olga Grushin is an incredible read.  It is a collection of short stories each taking place in a room that the narrator has lived in or spent time in during her lifetime.  The stories initially are set in Russia and then move to America when the narrator travels there for college.  There are so many life truths illustrated beautifully within this novel:  the twists and turns life takes us on; it’s meaning;  the perceptions of others as well as ourselves;  the changing vision and perspective of life as we age;  the rooms we choose to inhabit and their impact on us.  This was so despite, or perhaps as a result of, the overwhelming use of fantasy/magical realism within the book.

This novel is so powerful and rich with language, metaphors, imagery, mirrors and reflections.  There is so much depth to the novel added by the insertion thoughts that the various other characters are having; by repeating scenes with different scenarios, leaving it open to interpretation what might have actually transpired and what was fantasy;  and of course by the magical or fantastical characters.  The whole novel has a “dizzying,”  dream-like quality to it.  Many of the scenes occur, followed by Mrs. Caldwell waking up.

The novel is divided into parts which represent different time periods in Mrs. Caldwell’s life.  Within each part are chapters representing the rooms within which each of the short stories occur. Forty rooms was very purposely chosen.  As the narrator’s mother tells her: “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit.  It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true.  Oh, you know what I mean- Noah’s forty days and nights of rain,  Moses’ forty years in the desert, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation.  Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size too.  In the Bible, forty years makes a span of one generation.  Forty weeks makes a baby.”

In the beginning of the novel, the young Mrs. Caldwell hopes to achieve immortality.  She wants only to write poetry and devote herself fully to that art.  She is told by her Apollo that “the meaning of a single individual human life,.. consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind’s mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile.”  She really does work hard at her poetry and it seems all-consuming until she meets Paul and settles into married life, not even telling him her aspirations or love of writing poetry.  She becomes a mother in a foreign country, with no friends and does not even learn to drive for quite some time.  She seems to have lost herself and is trapped in her family life, and in so doing, her marriage starts to fail as well.

I loved that this novel encompassed an entire life.  The reader is able to observe the changes occurring from childhood through adulthood to the very end.  It leaves you wondering how Mrs. Caldwell’s  life might have been under different circumstances or had she made different choices.  As a mother to young children who has made career concessions of my own, I felt swept away with this novel eager to hear the author’s final message or verdict on what might the right path be.  I think this book is amazing!  It is wonderfully written, incredibly insightful and sends many powerful messages!  I must say, this book would appeal much more to women than men and would make a great book club read.  images

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think is the meaning of life?  How does it change as we age?  Do you think that meaning is different for men and women?
  2.  Where is truth in this novel really found?  In the real life circumstances or in fantasy?
  3. What is the perspective on the “showing of wealth”:  the large house and the many belongings and how it affects people?
  4.  Paul makes a statement about how easy it is to stay at home.  How easy is it really?  What sacrifices are made?
  5. Why don’t you think Mrs. Caldwell ever confronted Paul about his affair?
  6. Do you think her poetry was ever any good?
  7. Who is Olga to her?  Does she exist or is she fantasy?
  8. Do you think the man who visited her mother in the afternoons was real or fantasy?  Do you think this is the same person as her Apollo?
  9. How might her life have been different had she gone back to Russia?
  10. How might her life have been different had she gone to Paris with Adam?
  11. Why do you think she kissed Adam in the wine cellar?
  12. Do you think Mrs. Caldwell ultimately led the life that made her happy?
  13. What are Mrs. Caldwell’s reasons for having children?
  14. Her grandmother tells her she won’t find happiness unless she gets greedy and looks for it.  Does she follow this advice?
  15. What do you think makes for a happy life?  Is it the small moments as Mrs. Caldwell alludes too?
  16. What do you think the author’s opinion is of the institution of marriage?

Olga Grushin’s website

New York Times’ Review

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

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Pages: 272

Published: February 9, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

Ways to Disappear is a humorous mystery novel whose protagonist is an American woman in Brazil, searching for the woman whose novels she translates into English.  The author utilizes hilarity, magical realism, stories within stories, imagery, and subtleties of word meaning to create her lovable, lyrical, beautiful novel.

Emma, the protagonist,  feels very close to her author, Beatriz Yagoda, through her works as well as her yearly visits with her.  Once she hears that Beatriz has disappeared, seeming into a tree with her suitcase and cigar, she immediately packs her bag and heads to Brazil, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend.  Brazil, and the exciting search for Beatriz, seem a separate and freer world for Emma, one where she is happier and more herself.

The events that ensue are hilarious.  The characters are interesting and perfectly described. I thought the subtext about the difference between American and Brazilian ways of life very accurate and entertaining.

I couldn’t help wondering while reading this novel if the author was a translator herself, which I realized at the end of reading, that she was.  Now I wonder how much of the novel has a root of truth versus fantasy of her own.

This was an excellent read, such an enjoyable ride!  I highly recommend it to everyone.images-2

brazildisappear

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you describe the relationship between Miles and Emma?
  2. What is the reaction of Marcus and Raquel when Emma arrives?
  3. What differences in culture between Brazil and the United States are highlighted in the book?
  4. Why do you think that Beatriz uses characters from her novels when contacting Rocha?  What additional meaning does this lend her communications with him?
  5. Do you think that Raquel questioned her paternity prior to reading the manuscript on her mother’s computer?
  6. Do you believe that Beatriz is still alive at the end?
  7. The novel is preceded  with the following quote:  “For a time we became the same word.  It could not last.” by Edmond Jabes, Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop.   How does this relate to Indra Novey’s novel?

Idra Novey’s website

NPR’s review