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An extraordinary museum – Alice Hoffman’s magic realism


The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman            Simon & Schuster  $19.75

Apologies, readers – writing deadlines have pushed my pen into other directions recently, but I will try and make amends!

Alice Hoffman is the author of 1998 Oprah’s Book Club pick Here on Earth. This, her 24th novel, has all the hallmarks her fans have come to expect – magic and mystery, the richness of folktale, the haunting power of myth.

“Museum” is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Coralie is the only daughter of “Professor” Sardie, the proprietor of the The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island, resplendent with freaks such as the Wolfman, the Birdwoman, Butterflygirl and many animals, including an ancient tortoise. But the Museum is failing to bring in crowds. Coralie, a keen swimmer, is turned into a human mermaid, resplendent with swishing tail, as she dives and surfaces in a ginormous tank. When she turns 18, her father forces her to perform a lascivious routine before high paying, male-only customers to make ends meet. She also accompanies Sardie as he tries to recruit more and more oddities and freaks in low-life parts of town. By now she loathes both her father and the Museum, and wishes to flee but has nowhere to go. And she also has a secret shame: she was born with webbed fingers.

After training in the Hudson River (in 1911 there were repeated sightings of a silvery “sea monster” and Sardie believes he can capitalise on Coralie’s swimming expertise by turning her into this beast), she comes across Eddie, a young man who lives in the woods. He has fled his Orthodox Jewish community and is now earning a living on the fringes of society as a newspaper photographer and detective. As a young boy he was apprenticed to the “Seer of Rivington Street,” and has become adept at tracking down missing persons.

Coralie and Eddie are immediately drawn to each other. They share much in common. Both are outcasts and live on their wits, seeking a place to belong. Their paths cross briefly, disperse and meet again, brought together through a tragic and true event, the famous fire at Brooklyn’s Triangle shirt factory. When it burns down, killing 146 Jewish (and mainly female) workers, Eddie captures the blaze on film. He is subsequently hired by the father of one of the missing seamstresses, and during his investigation, is pulled back into Coralie’s orbit, when he discovers Sardie has found a drowned woman in the river and has gruesome plans of his own for the body.

There is much to admire in this story – the impact of modernisation and industrialisation on New York – electricity had begun “snaking through Brooklyn, turning night into day,” the birth of the union movement and the exploitation of migrant workers are beautifully described. So too is the twilight world in which Coralie lives, with its freaks and fantasies. At the same time, something jars. The plot, which combines the real-time tragedy of the Triangle conflagration with a purely imagined and grotesque world, never quite gels. Coralie’s world of magic and peep-shows blends uncomfortably with that of a lapsed Orthodox Jew. Still, Hoffman has researched this piece well and for the most part, her prose sings.


15 Writers’ Bedrooms – an insight into creativity

capote woolfhemingwayo'connor

masters  burroughs  plath  thoreau

hugo  dickinson  seymour  roach

proust  morpurgo  faulkner

Reblogged from Susan Johnson on Twitter, via Literary Style,

It’s true; we find the secret lives of others fascinating. Especially if those others are writers. We get to know them through their work, and we yearn to learn more about them as people…

We feel a kinship, with their experiences or with their characters, and we begin to imagine what their lives must be like. We read biographies about them, tour their homes and visit their graves, all in an effort to gain insight into their own particular genius. And nowhere is the essence of the artist more present than in the bedroom. It’s here that one can intuit much about a writer’s process. Is it a hermit’s lair? A sanctuary? A work space? Is it the place where they do all of their best work, or the place that allows them to leave that work behind?

Whatever it may be, often what it is most is a space that reminds us that, genius aside, writers are people… just like you and I.

Top row, left to right: 1. Truman Capote: The author’s bedroom at his Hamptons beach house is simple, but elegant.

2. Virginia Woolf : Full of details — the bookshelves house the author’s artful collection of books, many of which she recovered with colored paper. 3. Ernest Hemingway: Light floods the Nobel Prize-winning author’s bedroom at his Key West home.

4. Flannery O’Connor: The author did most of her writing at the desk in her bedroom. The aluminum crutches were used to help her get around her parents’ dairy farm.

Second row, left to right:

5. Alexander Masters: This author’s bedroom reflects his process — he just wakes up and starts writing. The crocodile above his bed is a talisman and was featured on the cover of his book, Stuart: A Life Backwards.

6. William S. Burroughs: Patti Smith, a friend of the Beat writer, sits on the bed in his room at The Bunker on the Bowery.

7. Sylvia Plath: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author stayed for several months at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. This image is taken from an advertisement for the hotel and suggests what Plath’s room may have looked like at that time.

8. Henry David Thoreau: Intent on simple living, Thoreau furnished his 10’x15′ home with only the necessary basics – a bed, a table, a desk, and three chairs.

Third row, left to right:

9. Victor Hugo : Dark, rich and red – Hugo’s bedroom at his home on the Place des Vosges in Paris’ Marais district is all that you would expect from a writer heavily influenced by the Romanticism movement.

10. Emily Dickinson: Most of the poet’s writing was done at a small writing table in her bedroom.

11. Miranda Seymour: Another author that prefers writing at a small desk in her bedroom, this writer has slept in the same room, on and off, since she was 14 years old.

12. Mary Roach: One might expect something a bit more macabre from the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but the bedroom in the writer’s craftsman home in Oakland, California is simple and serene.

Bottom row, left to right:

13. Marcel Proust: A victim of asthma and severe allergies, Proust’s bedroom was a masterwork in shelter and seclusion. All apertures were shielded or sealed, and the walls and ceiling were covered in cork to protect the author from the dust and noise of the outside world.

14. Michael Morpurgo: Technically a writing room — the author of War Horse designed this room around the bed, where he does all of his writing — in longhand.

15. William Faulkner: More of an office with a bed — the Nobel prize-winning author outlined the plot of The Fable on the walls of the room and then shellacked his notes to preserve them.