Category Archives: books

In fifteen minutes, it will be time to feed the cats

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I have no ideas for a fresh blog post. That’s why I typed the header about the cats. Right now, none of my three cats are anywhere. They lurk. I think they actually have a Narnia-wardrobe somewhere in the house and disappear for voyages on the Dawn Treader with Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, and Prince Caspian.

Fine, maybe they’ll start writing sage and quasi-luminous posts in exchange for their four squares a day.

[time passes as I wonder how many people reading blogs today know what four squares a day means.]

In ten minutes, it will be time to feed the cats. I’ll probably get to the kitchen on time because I’ve decided that those who don’t know what “four squares a day” means can Google it.

I thought perhaps I’d announce a book sale or an Amazon giveaway. Tomorrow, I think. Watch my twitter account (https://twitter.com/MalcolmCampbell) for notices. That’s where I mention Amaon giveaways because those come and go way too fast for a WordPress post.

The lights just flicked. One thing about being hard of hearing means that I don’t hear rain. The weather radar, which is showing red for this part of the county, indicates it’s raining like hell outside. Who knew?

Maybe that’s why the cats are missing. They’re under a bed or a couch.

[time passes while I go look outside]

I hope the weather radar liars got their pay docked today. It’s not yet raining like hell outside. But now that I wasted time going to look, I’m probably going to be late feeding the cats.

It’s what they’ve come to expect. I don’t know about you, but just looking at the photograph of their dinner makes my mouth water.

Keep watch on that twitter account tomorrow for some great giveaways.

–Malcolm

 

Re-reading a classic: ‘The House of the Spirits’

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“One of the strongest impressions I took away from this book was that despite everything there is an optimism about the book’s ending. Throughout the book one has felt strongly the inevitability of events – that the blindness of the right-wing Esteban to the liberalism of his family, which one might argue is inherited from his wife’s parents, will lead to disaster, that Esteban’s casual abuse and rape of peasants will rebound on future generations of the family – and yet at the end Alba breaks the cycle of anger and hatred.” Zoe Brooks in Magical Realism

Books change each time we read them–unless we’re cursed with a photographic memory. Presumably, the words don’t re-arranged themselves on the pages, nor do heretofore unknown pages creep into the book with new characters and subplots from Central Casting.

The world is probably stranger than we know, so it’s safe to assume we change in between the readings. I’m not the same person I was when I first read The House of The Spirits in 1986 when my Bantam mass market paperback edition was published. Years have passed and governments and attitudes have come and gone since then.

Imagine the differences in first-reading perception of this 433-page saga between the rushed college student who has a few weeks to read it for a 400-level college course in order to compare and contrast it with the somewhat similar multi-generational magical realism sagas The Hummingbird’s Daughter and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and his/her twin reading the book on a rainy afternoon in a mountain cabin.

The first will be speed reading, taking notes, and writing in the margins. The second, (depending on whether the rain has interrupted planned outdoor activities or not) may be either relaxed or bored. They won’t see the same book. A third person who is reading the book leisurely in order to savor every line will come away with a very different memory of the story.

Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Mexican setting) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (South American setting), The House of Spirits (unspecified Latin American setting, but presumably Chile) includes peasant workers and their beliefs, strong patróns who control the people’s temporal destiny, harsh and potentially unstable governments, and leftist or other guerrillas seeking change.

To my mind, the magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude is more overt and widespread than the magic in the other two books, one with the young girl Teresita (in the very mystical “Hummingbird” based on  a real person) who can heal, the other with the family matriarch, Clara, who talks to spirits and moves objects without touching them. Before re-reading The House of the Spirits during the last several days, my memory of the book was that it contained a lot more magic than it does.  I remembered its gritty realism, but had blocked out the worst of it.

Had I taken a lie-detector test about the story in Allende’s debut novel several weeks ago, it would probably show (with no hint of fabrication) that my mind had mixed some of the characters and circumstances with those from her other books and that I recalled a much more ethereal tale than physically exists on the pages of my 31-year-old paperback. I don’t read books with the eye of a college English professor who also reads critical reviews and in-depth analyses of the books s/he teaches in class and/or writes papers about. So, if somebody asks me to tell them what the books I’ve read are about, my knowledge of the plots and characters will always be imperfect.

Somehow, books read by many an avid reader often run together over time unless the stories are constantly studied and compared with other books in the same genre. If there’s a blessing in a poor memory, it’s that in re-reading a book, the opportunity for fresh discoveries is all the greater for it. I suspect The House of the Spirits changed me more this time than it did in 1986, for now I am seeing more clearly a story that I had mythologized over the years. I am older, so I see the aging Clara with fresh but older eyes and, having come to terms to some extent with the amount of hatred and evil in the world, I see Alba’s hope at the end of her horrid torture as more authentic than when my anger–as a younger, more volatile man–at her treatment blinded me to her transformation.

Like absent old friends, old books usually aren’t the books we remember exactly. That’s the beauty of meeting up with them again and then going away all the wiser for it.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

 

Review: ‘The Invisible Library’

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The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very clever fantasy involving a protagonist who works for a library that exists between worlds. Her mission, which is rather like a James Bond in search of books, is to find and obtain meaningful texts in alternate worlds and bring them back to headquarters.

In some ways, the book is mix of fantasy, faerie and steampunk because the alternate realities have their own systems and amount of magic, including fae, werewolfs, and dragons. The main character, Irene, is a junior level librarian with a fair amount of experience. On the current mission, she’s assigned to take a long a student for whom she will be a mentor. This makes her job more difficult while making the plot more interesting.

As it turns out, there are many factions in the “London” to which she is sent, all of whom seem to know about the rare book. She has to figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted.

The book has a lot of talk in it, and by that I meant Irene and her student have to talk a lot, but are also thrust into situations where they–and potential allies and villains alike–are constantly having to explain things to each other. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Bond films wherein when the bad guy gets the upper hand, he always has an egotistical need to explain the wonders of his technology and his plans–giving Bond a chance to get the drop of him and win the day.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of intrigue here along with some action scenes that will knock your sox off. The book kept my interest enough to tempt me into placing the next book “The Masked City,” on my reading list.

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‘Mountain Song’ is a story about love that might be too broke to fix

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As far as I know, we all experience “first love” and ultimately we all “come of age,” yet these subjects have become so cliched, that they are very difficult for writers to tackle with any hope of getting it right. We know in spades what it’s like to experience what our elders in a other era used to call “puppy love,” telling us it was immature, part of growing up (like falling off a bike), and ultimately wouldn’t matter.

mountainsongcover4We all know the territory, don’t we: the love that seems both fresh and infinite that for reasons unknown collapses without warning as thought it never happened. But we never forget and we could easily bore young people with our stories about it, but just in telling old secrets about long-gone moments, we would appear to be discounting what people in high school and college are feeling right now.

There’s always something heroic about the risks of first love, yet when it comes to fiction, we can hardly turn a boy-meets-girl story in a college geography class into and epic of star-crossed lovers such as Romeo and Juliette. It strikes me odd that such a common occurrence as first love boils down to something each of us must suffer alone when we experience its collapsing.

The world seems to end for us and while it’s ending, we’re mostly silent. From time to time, I read a short story or a novel where the author gets it right. I’ve tried to get it right–but the words never seem to match the experience. Perhaps they can’t because we’ve all been there and have our own stories to tell (should we ever dare) about what it was like.

Based on a true story (kind of)

That said, Mountain Song has kernels of truth in it. I’ve obscured them because the real life characters, one of whom was me, were two people who had a summer romance while working at a resort hotel. By itself, that doesn’t make for a compelling novel because we took long walks in the moonlight and stole guarded kisses while on duty, and there’s just so much that can be said about that.

Plus, the characters had to be very different than their real-life counterparts. Otherwise, one has to worry about libel and invasion of privacy. So, in Mountain Song, the characters’ diverse backgrounds provided the framework for the story. Bottom line, as was true in real life, the two main characters were poles apart in terms of upbringing, home towns, and lifetime goals. But neither of us had the bizarre, flawed upbringings of the characters representing us in the novel.

The people who knew me then, said the true story ruined me. It did for a while. Then I recovered (mostly). If you’ve read everything I’ve ever written about Glacier National Park (and heaven help you if you have), then you’ll know I’ve tried twice before to tell this story. The first time was in an experimental novel that made Finnegans Wake look like an easy read. The second time, I had a publisher who wanted the book turned into commercial fiction. That didn’t work.

I’m not sure whether I’ve gotten it right yet because, truth be told–and it can’t be–I’m not a fan of sentimentality, worse yet novels where the protagonist comes across as a whiner with a “poor me” attitude because, well, nobody likes reading that schlock and one way or another we’ve all had a wedding ring ready and waiting in our pocket for the right moment when things fell apart.

–Malcolm

 

 

Review: ‘The Paper Magician’

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The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1)The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just doesn’t work, though it has an interesting (and brave) main character as well as an inventive premise. A young woman graduates at the top of her class at magic school, is apprenticed against her hopes and dreams to a magician named Emory Thane who does magic with sheets of paper, and before she can learn more than a few basics is suddenly thrust into a battle with a master magician who hates her new mentor.

The problem is simply this: a vast portion of the book is taken up with a very lengthy vision sequence in which most of the elements are symbolic, old memories, wishes and dreams which the reader has no way of understanding or relating to. This is rather like reading a long drug trip experience with characters one doesn’t yet know well enough to understand most of the imaginary stuff, much less how (or if) it connects to the plot.

Secondly, since the protagonist, Creony Twill, has only learned a few minor paper folding techniques, the idea she can defeat the master magician who dislikes Thane is about as believable as, say, Harry Potter going up against Voldemort after who days at Hogwarts while on LSD.

The characters and story have a lot of promise, but the vision/imagination trip is not well anchored and just seems to float out there in space where nothing is real and nothing seems to matter. Even fantasies must be plausible.

Malcolm

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Writers, who’s your fashion icon?

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Flavorwire has a regular feature called “Sweetest Debut” in which they interview emerging authors to “find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.”

On February 15, they featured Teresa Messineo (“The Fire By Night”), on February 14, the column’s author, Sarah Seltzer, talked to Ethel Rohan (“The Weight of Him”), and on February 9, the focus was Kathleen Kent (“The Dime”).  The interviews begin with the question: What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

fashionOkay, fair enough, “elevator pitch” is today’s jargon for a short, logline kind of statement that quickly explains a novel without getting boring. The point is, you’re in an elevator and have just moments to speak. If the whole “elevator pitch” thing has value, it teaches authors to get to the point, whether they’re trying to sway an editor, movie producer, or a reader.

I’ll stipulate that Flavorwire is a pop culture magazine. The column is, no doubt, supposed to make writers human, to dredge up fun facts about them that everyday folks (e.g., non writers) will find absolutely fascinating. That said, I stumbled when I saw that the column’s guests were being asked to name their fashion icon as well as the name of the TV show they “binge watch” when they’re not writing.

Since these are emerging authors, they’re a lot closer to being everyday folks than, say, the Hollywood celebrities who try to pretend like they’re regular people even though they own two or three houses with a combined value of $50 million. After all, most debut authors haven’t had a chance to get filthy rich and start acting, well, uppity.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not really drawn to an author who has a fashion icon. I don’t even like the term “binge watching,” because it sounds like a slovenly thing to do. Worse yet, since the authors being interviewed are younger than I am, they’re listening to music and watching television shows I’ve never heard of. One of them did say The Great Gatsby is overrated, and so I crossed her off my list immediately, though I was pleased she mentioned a book that wasn’t about the rise and fall of the little black dress.

I don’t know how long “The Sweetest Debut” has been running because, the columns I saw didn’t interest me enough to drag me back to past months. I did hope to see a man interviewed to find out if he would get a different set of questions, I dunno, something stereo-typically masculine like “What fashion model do you wish you were having sex with?” or “Who’s the most famous NFL quarterback you beat up back in a high school PE class?”

I’m not saying the column is asking “women’s questions,” but I’m suspicious.

Could be, I’m just out of touch. If they interview me (fat chance), I’ll tell them my fashion icon is Levi Strauss and that I binge watch old episodes of “Walker Texas Ranger.” Actually, I watch Masterpiece Theater, but I have a feeling that answer might get edited out for lack of, well, popular flavor.

As for fan-fiction fantasies, Flavorwire, you’ve got to be kidding.

–Malcolm

 

 

Briefly Noted: ‘Hoodoo Food!’ with conjure cook-off winners

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Some of the best recipes often come out of special cookbooks published by church groups, friends of the library committees, clubs, and historical societies. The recipes in Hoodoo Food! The Best of the Conjure Cook-Off and Rootwork Recipe Round-Up are no exception.

hoodoofoodNot only are the book’s recipes solid and well-thought-out by traditional cooking standards, they’re grouped by type, that is to say, the conjure category where they’ll provide extra blessings and benefits:

  • New Year’s Luck
  • Money Matters
  • Affairs of the Heart
  • Enemy Tricks
  • Dreams and Divination

The book was published in 2014 by the Ladies Auxiliary of California’s Missionary Independent Spiritual Church and includes the first-, second- and third-place winners of  conjure cook-offs held between 2010 and 2013.

In addition to the handy categories, the recipes’ ingredients include parenthetical notations showing their conjure benefits. As a fan of Hoppin’ John, I see that the New Year’s Luck recipe notes that the beans, diced bacon, spicy sausage, and red onion are great for luck, that the rice helps with prosperity and fertility, and that the spices help with protection.

Under Money Matters, who can resist “Valentina’s Hot Money-Draw Texas Chili” even if they already have plenty of money? The recipe is filled with ingredients for protection, pleasure, gold, blessings, and love luck. If you want more love luck, then feast your taste-buds on the treats listed under Affairs of the Heart, including “Love Honey” and “Ashta Special For Romance and Seduction.” This is the book’s largest category.

When you’re ready for more than a good night’s sleep, I like the “Astral Travel Tea” in Dreams and Divination, and suspect that the roasted dandelion root is a key ingredient here. Of course, good food is good food, and that applies to recipes like “Haters Be Gone Hot Wings” even if everybody loves you, and “Red Eye Gravy to Keep Your Man Working” even if he’s already busy.

You’ll notice as you read the book, you’ll find words of wisdom in the header at the top of every page. My favorites are “Men may come and men may go … but pie goes on for ever” and “The most dangerous food is a wedding cake.”

With this 96-page cookbook, you’ll eat well, live long, and prosper. Of course I can’t guarantee any of that, but it’s worth a try if you like having fun in the kitchen.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat.