Magic Realism Brings Charm to Reading Fiction

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Who doesn’t love a little magic with their reading? I certainly do. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by magic realism, a genre that’s been around for decades but is getting more exposure of late.

Popularized in Latin-American fiction, magic realism combines surreal and fantastical elements in realistic settings. Fantasy slips into everyday life seemingly as if they belong there. But they don’t exist simply for the sake of entertainment. The magical elements are intended to question or emphasize real-world situations, whether they be societal, familial or emotional, among other things.

The works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende are frequently cited as key players in this genre. Marquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered a classic and a must-read for anyone who wants to explore this type of writing either as a reader or a writer.

What makes a story magic realism? Three key characteristics set it apart from other types of fiction:

  • The story is set in the real world, not in a make-believe setting.
  • The story contains magical and fantastical elements that have real-world implications, whether to question the political environment, society or familial environments.
  • The story is written as literary fiction but without traditional plot structure. The story may weave back and forth between the past, the present and the future.

Reading these types of stories requires an open mind. You have to be open to the nature of the fantastical and the surreal. Most important you need to suspend judgment about what is happening on the page.

I’ve read several of these stories over the past few years, from the light-hearted (Garden Spells) to the deeper exploration of a man’s identity (Song of Solomon). Some I liked very much; others not so much. But each one left me looking at the world a little differently. Isn’t that what writing is all about?

Are there any magic realism books you’ve read that you’d recommend? Share them in the comments.

Six magic realism titles I’ve read:

1.  Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. One of the first magic realism books I’ve read. This one reminds me a lot of Practical Magic with its two magical sisters. I love the garden setting, especially the apple tree that throws apples at people.

2.  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I loved this book by Morgenstern that pits two magicians against one another in a battle to the death – until they fall in love with one another. The magical creations at the circus are incredible.

3.  Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I have always loved Alice Hoffman’s writing, especially with the way she plays with plot lines and story structures. Historically, she has played with mystical characters and situations. PM is on the lighter side of her collection of works. It’s the first of a series about the Owens family who have been cursed in love for several hundred years.

4.  Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival. Charming story about the youngest daughter in a Mexican family who longs to be with her beloved Pedro, but can never have a relationship with him because of a family tradition in which the youngest must take care of her mother until she dies. Tita is only able to express herself when she cooks.

5.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The story follows the birth and life of Milkman Dead, who was born after a man jumps of a roof while trying to fly. It’s a strange journey for Milkman, who grows up stifled and alienated. His aunt Pilate, a bootlegger and a conjure woman, becomes a central figure in his life who helps him understand his family’s past.

6.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. When young Rose bites into her mother’s lemon cake, she begins to taste her mother’s emotions – that of sadness and longing. She learns to navigate life with her strange ability.  
Six magic realism novels on my reading list:

1.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When you talk about magic realism, Marquez’s book is considered a classic. It has set the standard that all other magic realism stories must live up to.

2.  House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Allende is on my list of must-read authors, and this title is considered a classic in the magic realism spectrum.

3.  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. This debut novel set in Alaska in the 1920s tells the story of a couple so desperate to have a child of their own that they create a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone, but in its place is a real little girl, wild and secretive.

4.  The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Imagine going to a library where one book tells the story of your current life, and all the other books describe your life as it could be if you had made different choices.

5. Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. An epic family saga set against the magic and atmosphere of the Virgin Islands in the early 1900s. Orphaned after a shipwreck, two sisters and their half-brother are faced with an uncertain future, but each possesses a particular magic that will either hurt them or save them.

6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Gaiman, so this title lands on my list. From Gaiman’s website, “This harrowing and bewitching tale of mystery and survival, and memory and magic, makes the impossible all too real.”



What’s Next on Your Reading List?

Great American Read
Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer

March is National Reading Month

Reading a book is much like going on a journey. You travel along with the narrator or protagonist through numerous ups and downs they experience, which hopefully concludes with a happy ending.

But then, you are faced with a new dilemma: what should you read next? Do you pull a title from your TBR list (to be read)? Or do you search the nearby Little Free Library for something that grabs your interest? Or do you go somewhere else?

There are several ways you choose the books you read. You might go by the author. You’ve read their works before and want to read others because you know it will be a satisfying reading experience.

Maybe genre is more important to you. For example, mystery fans will gravitate toward other mysteries and thrillers, even if they haven’t read the author before.

Then there’s the third option for choosing books: the plot. When you read the inside flap or back cover, you get an idea of who your protagonist is, what conflicts they’ll be facing and perhaps, the possible payoff. You start reading with the promise of a strong compelling plot line and hope for another satisfactory conclusion.

There are a number of ways I choose what books to read. Usually, it depends on my mood. One day, I might be in the mood to read a memoir, then next I might be in the mood to be swept away in a romantic suspense novel. Since I like reading a variety of genres, it sometimes makes it difficult to choose what type of book I want to read next.

Sometimes, rather than choosing the book, I simply browse my shelf and let the book choose me. Here are a few other ways I choose a book to read.

* Someone mentioned the book in conversation. When a friend describes a book they’re reading and their voice is filled with wonder and enthusiasm, I usually see it as a sign that I should check it out too. When someone loves what they read, they’ll happily share their book choice with others.

* I avoid reading book reviews. Book reviews are meaningless to me because they tend to over analyze the story. I think to myself, “You got that much out of that story?” I have never been convinced to read a book based on a review. I prefer recommendations from people I actually know and respect who have already read the book.

* It’s an author I’ve read before. This is perhaps the number one reason people choose certain books to read. If the author has an extensive list of books they’ve published and I’ve already enjoyed reading some of those titles, I am more likely to read other titles by them. Several years ago, I read Kristen Hannah’s Winter Garden based on a recommendation from a Facebook friend. I loved that book so much, I’ve read several other titles of Hannah’s since then.

* I pay attention to book titles. Some titles automatically draw me in because they exude an air of mystery and intrigue. Once in a bookstore, I came across a title in the discounted section with a simply designed book cover – plain orange with classic, somewhat ornate writing. The Places Between Us had no book summary or marketing blurb on the back side or inside the front cover, so I had no idea what the book was about, which only added to its mystery. Strangely, I kept pacing past it. After glancing in its direction several times, I finally picked it up and read the first few pages. I wound up buying it, and it became one of the most fascinating reads, worthy of a book club discussion.

* I find authors or book titles I’ve always wanted to read. For me, that includes some old classics that I never read when I was younger. To Kill a Mockingbird had been on that list for several years. Only after its author Harper Lee passed away did I finally pick it up to read.

* I avoid current national best sellers. I’m sure there are some quality books among the current best sellers, but not all of them. I’d rather choose a book because I’m interested in the plot.

* I look for an intriguing plot or character. Recently, I read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity.  The plot line is what intrigued me most, though admittedly, I also wanted to check out Moriarity’s work since I had seen her name on bookstore shelves. The main character, Alice, heads to the gym one morning and wakes up in the hospital, only to learn that it’s ten years later, and she can’t remember anything that’s happened to her over that ten-year span. She can’t understand why her relationship with her sister is so strained or why she is recently separated from a husband she adores. The plot compelled me to pick up the book and keep reading, so I could find out how Alice pieces together memories from that missing time in her life.

* I consider bookstore staff recommendations. If unsure what to read next, you can always ask your favorite bookstore employee, or check out the bookstore’s staff recommendations section, if they have one. These folks are avid readers themselves and are happy to share their favorite books with you.

* I refrain from depending on book club choices. Sure, a title might be an Oprah Book Club choice, but don’t make that the main reason for choosing a book. Choose it because the title or plot intrigues you, someone you know recommended it, or your local bookshop owner recommended it. 

Remember, it’s helpful to develop your own criteria for choosing books to read. At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment with new authors or genres. Every now and then, it can be fun to read something outside of your comfort zone. You never know when you discover new talent. 

No matter how you go about choosing a book, it’s exciting to know that we have so many choices available to us, more than we’ve ever had before. Half the fun of reading is deciding what to read next.