Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic: A Novel by Emily Croy Barker

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic: A Novel.  Emily Croy Barker. Viking: Penguin Group (USA). July 2014. 576 pp.  ISBN#: 9780143125679.

Nora Fischer has just been dropped by her boyfriend and her Supervisor has informed her that her slowness with her dissertation writing is proving to be a problem that might mean she’ll be out of the program.  All in all, she’s in a bad place, unable to be inspired to do the requisite research and writing and in a surrealistic way unable to accept that her former lover has dumped her.  So she decides she needs a break and sets off to a friend’s wedding.  One day she decides to take a walk, one that will change her life forever!

For Nora has literally walked into another world, time and place!  Ilyssa becomes Nora’s mentor, guiding her with gifts of dress, makeup, and introductions to the “partying” crowd who share love and fun indiscriminately.  In time Nora can hardly believe she was the troubled woman of before as now she sees herself in an entirely new way – beautiful, smart, and loving life!  Ilyssa’s son Raclin is an artful, teasing and seductive lover with whom Nora becomes obsessed!  It all seems too good to be true and so it is – after their wedding, Nora begins to realize that something is dreadfully wrong.  Raclin has no time for her and disappears for days, eventually telling her that now she is pregnant, he will have very little time for her.  Now Nora begins to realize something is dreadfully wrong and that these people are far from human and are her sinister imprisoners.  One ray of hope appears in the magician Aruendiel who will rescue Nora, albeit reluctantly!

Nora longs to return to her own life but must learn the magic she abhors in order to go home. This portion tends to slow down and drag a bit but she will learn what she needs to, to a certain degree.  The relationship between Aruendiel and Nora seems to be of growing attraction the never really evolves to reality for some unspoken reason.  However, the last portion of the story picks up the pace with a few unexpected and stunning turn of events, leading this reviewer to believe there will definitely be a follow-up to his intriguing novel.

There are allusions to Pride and Prejudice, Game of Thrones, Alice in Wonderland and a few other vaguely veiled connections.  I’m not sure these work so well but they perhaps increase the tension-filled plot.  The origins and purpose of the enemy are slowly and even lately provided, which is interesting to a point but then inches into frustration.  Standard formulaic fare or a new addition to the Harkness, Potter, Martin-style fiction – you the reader must decide!

Interesting, Ms. Baker!

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician’s Shiva. Stuart Rojstaczer. Penguin Group (USA). September 2014. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780143126317.

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch’s mother is dying and he would like to protect her final days and the aftermath of her death with a small family’s presence and quiet dignity.  But Rachela is one of the most famous mathematicians in the world and it is believed she secretly had solved the most difficult mathematical problem in the world, the Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem.  They fear she will take it to her grave and therefore plan on being there to find it either before she is laid to rest or before the family takes control of her material legacy.  Sasha is just as determined to keep order and not let these crazy people create chaos and dissension in the days ahead.
Sasha is mourning, both before and after his mother’s death, a great woman.  He knows perhaps she wasn’t the warmest mother to him but she was definitely a “brilliant” mother, a woman who always used reason and common sense in her advice to him.  She spends the few months before she dies trying to do years’ work as she wanted to leave nothing unfinished. Such determination and fortitude marks her mothering of Sasha, who has also become a renowned geophysicist.  Reason and common sense borne of suffering are the hallmarks of Rachela’s parenting.

We learn from her own words the suffering she and her family endured as a Polish Jewish Russian in WWII. It was a time when individuals abandoned family members in order to survive.  Later on, the fact that she was a woman in the world of mathematics totally dominated by men led to this same survival instinct rearing its head; victory was the reward but a victory borne out of incredibly hard work coupled with obsession and highly creative thinking.

Interspersed between the meetings of family and friends are Rachela’s own words about her own moving, dynamic life. It includes her meeting with the man who was to be the mentor behind her career, a man whose genius has remained unsurpassed except perhaps by Rachela.  Years later, the mathematicians who gather to sit Shiva are a crazy lot who converse in a slapstick comic style.  Their time together, monitored and limited by Sasha’s rules, is a mixture of sadness, speculation, careful and not so careful questions, and just plain schmoozing back and forth. It has smatterings of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Woody Allen humor and dialogue. For Sasha, it’s endearing and crazy-making in this world of geniuses with whom his mother had worked, lived and loved. It’s a truly abnormally normal family Shiva, a delight!

Stuart Rojstaczer has written a very clever novel about the past and present as well as the allowing us to share the minds and hearts of those who foster and share sheer genius!