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An extraordinary museum – Alice Hoffman’s magic realism

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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.

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PREPARE TO BE SURPRISED: the-oh-so-strange world of Donald Barthelme

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I confess to being a latecomer to the work of Donald Barthelme. I had read other American classic humourists such as SJ Perelman and HL Mencken but Barthelme somehow slipped through the net. It’s no wonder: Barthelme is very hard to pin down – he can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment, deeply satirical the next, completely absurd or philosophically dense, often in the space of two or three paragraphs. Two storylines exemplify this perfectly: in the first, King Kong, now a professor of art history, climbs through a window to join a drinks party; in the second, the nonsense poet Edward Lear invites friends and acquaintances to witness his death. Reading is not necessarily believing; in Barthelme what you see is not what you get; and what you get can alter almost mystically after a re-read.

Confused? Good. No-one said that reading Barthelme would be easy. I’ve just come up for air after immersing myself in his Sixty Stories for the past month and only now feel ready both to put these thoughts down and to tackle his novels. Writing on Barthelme requires assiduous preparation and a big dose of humility: he has an encyclopaedic grasp of matters temporal and spiritual and he’s widely and deeply read. However, an enlightening interview Barthelme gave The Paris Review in 1981, eight years before his death, which you can read here, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3228/the-art-of-fiction-no-66-donald-barthelme  is a good starting point.

It’s almost a relief to acknowledge Barthelme as the quintessential post-modernist. And though such terms usually make me squirm, in his case the nomenclature fits like a glove. How else to explain the mish-mash of styles in different authorial voices, the sorties into slapstick and Existentialism, the quick-fire dialogue that melds into Joycean monologue? If Barthelme was a painter, he’d have to be Magritte, the wicked teaser with the dark underside, the trickster who makes you blink and think twice. And if he were a playwright, then he’d be Tom Stoppard, early on in his career (Stoppard serendipitously wrote a play called After Magritte), where startling, absurd sequences of events are presented to the bemused spectator, only to be revealed as completely logical by the final curtain.

So, to the stories. Or fables. Or pastiches. In Me and Miss Mandible, a 35 year-old man, mysteriously returned to his high school self, contemplates making love to his teacher and assiduously records the progress of his seduction in an elegantly written journal, while tackling fractions and geography. It’s wicked, subversive, supremely funny in a dark and dangerous way. Is it a dream, an adult fantasy? Its power lies in the way the narrative captures and reflects on childhood events from an adult perspective, rather than the absurdity of the situation.

The narrator in I Bought a Little City, however, is more forceful and dynamic. He happily buys the city of Galveston, Texas and then proceeds to change the landscape and infrastructure bit by bit to suit his whims. You can read it as a satirical take on urbanisation and the destructiveness of town planning, nor is the underlying premise of being able to buy a city so far-fetched when you consider the power of today’s mega-sized development groups. In fact, although written in the 1970s, the fable seems almost horribly prescient.

In a complete change of tone, The King of Jazz deftly mimics the riffing of jazz musicians, vying with each other in the rehearsal studio. The story reads like an improv session, setting out a melody, a refrain, a spotlight on a solo and then back to the original theme, all conducted in fast-paced dialogue.

One of my favourite stories, Margins, presents Carl and Edward, two dead-beats living on the fringes of society, as they wander through the streets of Manhattan. Their deeply philosophical and ridiculous dialogue recalls the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. There is a great deal of Beckett in Barthelme –snatches of vaudeville gleam through existential darkness – and there’s a great deal of Nabokov too, in his carefully chosen language, his word play, his authorial voice of linguist and savant.

Where, though, do you draw the line between being clever and too clever by half? Sometimes, I feel the balance is tipped against Barthelme. It would certainly be helpful to have an understanding of 19th and early 20th century philosophy before reading his story Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel – otherwise how do you get the joke? But just as you’re about to wag a finger and chastise Barthelme for unreasonable obscurity, back he comes with The Sandman, a deliciously accessible send-up of psychoanalysis, in which a lover writes to his girlfriend’s shrink proposing she give up her counselling sessions and concentrate on her relationship instead.

Go with the flow. Let Barthelme’s language and surrealism wash over you. Experience him like music, dive into in his bizarre universe. It’s definitely worth it. And it’s one hell of a ride.


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BROOKLYN DREAMING – Monica Trápaga’s NY Food Adventure

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A Bite of the Big Apple by Monica Trápaga   Published by: Penguin Lantern  $39.99

When she was little, my daughter was a devotee of the iconic children’s ABC TV series Playschool and particularly loved the “pretty lady with the hushy voice”. The lady was Playschool presenter Monica Trápaga and the “hushy voice” was my daughter’s attempt to say ‘husky’.

Well, times have moved on. My girl’s now at Uni and Trápaga divides her time between Sydney, where she runs a vintage emporium called Reclaim, and her Brooklyn home. In the Big Apple, she indulges her passion for jazz singing, entertaining, looking after her extended family and cooking up a storm.

It seems in many ways a divine existence, which Trápaga recounts in her cookbook, A Bite of the Big Apple, co-written with her daughter Lil Tulloch. It’s a big-hearted, rambling compendium, in which they take us on a culinary journey through NY, its multi-cultural influences, markets and produce. At the same time, friends are recalled, life-affirming experiences are recounted and many recipes are shared (I can vouch for the Lavender Lemon Pound Cake).

Part of the book’s charm lies in the gorgeous, colourful collages that accompany each recipe designed by Trápaga herself and the food photography has also been taken by family and friends. Unlike the fast-paced nature of New York itself, this is a meandering book to savour slowly. Dip in and out, try a recipe here and there, reread a diary entry. The only jarring note is the final section, which recounts Trápaga’s home decorating philosophy – this sits uneasily with her search for the ultimate dessert and her obsession with spring lamb.

I’ll be interviewing Monica Trápaga in the next edition of 3mbs’ book programme, Page Turners, where she’ll be talking more about her Big Apple culinary adventures.

Read it: If you enjoy wholesome cooking, and a glimpse into the inner heart of New York.