Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman: book review

The Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014) is set on Coney Island, New York, from March to May 1911.

Coralie Sardie is 18 years old. Her father, Professor Sardie, is from France, and though that is what he called himself it was not in fact his real name. He is “both a scientist and a magician” and a “man of the future” for he is the owner of the Museum of Extraordinary Things.

The Museum is part original house, built in 1862, and part add-on museum. The Professor employs a dozen or so performers and rarities during the summer season to entertain the beachside tourists. He employs people such as conjoined twins, a man with a pointed head, and a boy with hooves instead of feet. He is a collector of unusual humans. If audiences lost interest in them, he would fire them and look for more “bankable” performers. He had too – he was in competition with Dreamland and Luna Park right down along the beach. He also collected bones, organs, deformed human specimens, and anything unusual. He conducts experiments and dissections too. In fact, he has a workshop cellar that has two bolts to keep people out. Not even Coralie knows what is in the cellar.

Coralie is his only daughter, raised by housekeeper Maureen Higgens, after her mother died. Her life is among extraordinary things and people. Coralie was also a “monster” for she had webbed fingers, which she covered with gloves. The Professor trains her to swim long distances and stay for long periods underwater. He is training her to become a “human mermaid.” He insists that she eats fish every day. They swim together in the evening, sometimes up to eight kilometres (five miles). But she is a shy child with no confidence, always doing as her father asks. At the age of 10, she becomes an exhibit in a large tank in the middle of the museum.

One evening, swimming alone in the Hudson River, she sees Ezekiel (Eddie) Cohen, “the man who couldn’t sleep.” He migrated to America with his father, from Ukraine, after the death of his mother. He had a “secret” nightlife as a photographer. He worked for Abraham Hochman, a mind reader and “finder of the lost.” Eddie feels compelled to solve the mystery of a lost girl – which brings him into contact with Coralie when he visits the museum.

Samuel Weiss, a tailor, and father of two daughters, Ella and Hannah, has heard of Eddie’s reputation for finding people. He wants Eddie to look for Hannah, missing after a factory fire.

This mystery novel is book-ended by two “great” fires – true historical fires on Coney Island in 1911: at the beginning it is the fire at the Triangle Shirt-Waist Company and at the end of the novel it is the fire at Dreamland. Both fires affect the lives and livelihoods of people at Coney Island.

The novel is written in the third person, but there are also sections written in the first person by Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen.

The main characters – Coralie, the Professor, and Eddie – and even the extraordinary people performing at the museum – are not what they seem. There are various levels of illusion and deceit – of showcasing their “deformities” for the public for pay and yet hiding them when among the public during their “ordinary life.” Shy Coralie, performing for eight years, becomes quietly defiant.

This is a mystery of opposites: summer and winter, day and night, exposed and hidden talents, illusion and reality, ordinary and extraordinary, life and death, and truth and lies. It is also a love story of two youths, both affected by the death of their mothers, and the dominance of their fathers, brought together in defiance and their search for freedom.

With interesting descriptions and dialogue by a master storyteller, and a combination of fact and fiction, it is both fascinating and fanciful. Yet often it is disjointed, swapping between narrators, and confusing the timelines, with periods of repetition. Actually I think the author could have deleted the love story and the entire character of Eddie and it would still have been an effective story focusing on Coralie and how she handles her “deformity.” Another downside is the fine print, much of it in italics (the first person narratives), in a lengthy novel of 384 pages. Nevertheless, it is worthy of a read, mainly due to its themes of exploitation, defiance, and freedom.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Monday May 25 is Memorial Day, commemorated in the United States of America to remember those who died while serving in the armed forces. The holiday is always the last Monday of May.

On the first Memorial Day – called Decoration Day – flowers were left at the graves of soldiers. Red poppies have been the traditional flower of rememberance since 1921. It’s usually called the rememberance poppy. It originated from the spring flowers in the Belgian Flanders region in 1915, one of the first flowers to grow in clusters around the battlefields.

J'adore: the hippopotamus

One of my favourite animals is the hippopotamus, especially the pygmy hippo of West Africa. My book, Liberia’s Deadest Ends (2013), mentions the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis). The largest hippo in my collection at home is a 250-kilogram wooden one in cherry wood.

I also love the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) that is mostly found in East Africa and South Africa. They look like pigs, but are not related to them. Their name, hippopotamus, means “river horse” but they are not related to horses either. They are related to crustaceans (whales and dolphins). Pigs, horses, whales, and humans are all mammals, but the whale and hippo are more closely related.

The hippo is semi-aquatic, living both in and around water. They are one of the largest land animals (only smaller than elephants and rhinoceroses). They have a strong bite, and can run fast over a short distance, making them an aggressive animal with a reputation for being one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Magic Within by Manal Shakir: book review

Magic Within (2015) is set in Pakistan. It is primarily about two married couples: Shara and her husband Zain, and Adnan and his wife Reena. They have mutual friends but they do not know each other directly.

Shara and Reena don’t work and have a wide social network. They spend a lot of time with their women friends. Adnan and Zain work. Zain manages a medical equipment factory with his father, but he works late and sometimes doesn’t come home. Adnan is an accountant.

Two years into Shara and Zain’s marriage they were drifting apart. Zain was good looking and had past lovers and current admirers. He has a woman friend. Adnan and Reena are in a loveless marriage.

Shara dreams she is at the circus about to be shot out of a cannon. Over and over the dream appears. Adnan can’t sleep. He dreams he is at a circus. The recurring dreams are about a woman he is falling in love with. In their dreams they perform together.

The Mazhar’s House of Masti is a circus on the beach with music and magic, birds and animals, acrobats and aerobatics, tightropes and tricks, clowns, cannons and a circus master. It it is the place where allusion and reality, and fantasy and fact merge.

When Zain’s affair is discovered, Shara and Zain must make a decision about their relationship. When Adnan reveals to Reena that he is in love with a woman in his dreams, they too are faced with a decision. As the dreams become more frequent, the more Shara and Adnan have to separate fantasy from reality, but do they have the ability to do so?

The relationships are juxtaposed with the country’s turmoil: “it truly was an era of paranoia” due to high crime, drone attacks in the north, and sectarian violence. However this theme of Pakistan’s reality doesn’t reach its true potential and neither does the circus, although the circus does parallel the relationships to some extent. For example, as the relationships of the couple change, so does the imagery of the circus – initially vibrant, then becoming dilapidated. Is the circus in Shara and Adnan’s dreams a predictor of their lives in the future or are they messages to prevent their disintegrated marriages? The couples and their relationships are superficial and not developed enough to bring any suspense to their decisions. The novel is too dreamy and not substantial enough for me to enjoy the exploration of their relationships.

The magic within is actually in the design of the cover. The hardcover version of the book has a dust jacket (design above), but it also has a design on the hardcover - both back and front. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pir-E-Kamil - The Perfect Mentor by Umera Ahmed: book review

The Perfect Mentorpbuh (2011) is set in Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan. The novel commences with Imama Mubeen in medical university. She wants to be an eye specialist. Her parents have arranged for her to marry her first cousin Asjad.

Salar Sikander, her neighbour, is 18 years old with an IQ of 150+ and a photographic memory. He has long hair tied in a ponytail. He imbibes alcohol, treats women disrespectfully and is generally a “weird chap” and a rude, belligerent teenager. In the past three years he has tried to commit suicide three times. He tries again. Imama and her brother, Waseem, answer the servant’s call to help Salar. They stop the bleeding from his wrist and save his life.

Imama and Asjad have been engaged for three years, because she wants to finish her studies first. Imama is really delaying her marriage to Asjad because she loves Jalal Ansar. She proposes to him and he says yes. But he knows his parents won’t agree, nor will Imama’s parents. That’s because she is from the Ahmadi community of Qadiani creed, and only converted to “true Islam” a few months before her proposal.

Imama’s father wants to accelerate the wedding date to Asjad. Imama is furious with her father, and her father is outraged that she had changed her faith. Her father confines her to the parental home. Imama seeks Salar’s help to act as a go-between with Jalal – even though she finds Salar obnoxious. Jalal tells Salar that he will reject Imama because his parents refuse permission to marry. It will complicate his life if he tries to go against his parents’ wishes. She is distraught. Salar, now 21 years old, thinks that a woman who is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love and is rejected by the man she really loves will “probably think of suicide.” He perversely thinks her predicament is “amusing” and an “adventure” so he deliberately lies to her. Her father lies to her, and everyone lies to her. But no, suicide is the last thing on Imama’s mind. She has another idea.

Salar changes his ways, cleans up his act, goes to university, and gets a job. But eight years later he is haunted by thoughts of Imama: from contempt, mockery, regret, hatred, envy, and even love. Friends urge him to get on with his life, and to marry, but he can’t get Imama out of his mind. He is wracked with guilt and shame for the lies he has told, and his despicable past.

Umera Ahmed is an accomplished storyteller, weaving social norms with the rebelliousness or collapse of teenagers against parental pressure. It is about folly, angst, desires, despair, and dreams. The story takes twists and turns as the characters mature over time – and people are not who they seem. Interesting novel.