Required Reading

Dear Renea,

[During our phone conversation she brought up her concern over a book on here daughter’s required reading list called, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. She bought a copy and began reading it for herself first (brava!), and in so doing found the book to be pornographic. So I affirmed her for being involved, and asked her to send me the list of approved authors so that I could find an alternative that will be so academically attractive the teacher would feel foolish turning it down.]

I am forwarding you our high school’s board approved A/P authors (as contained in another memo I was cc’d).  However, A/P exam board does not put any requirements on certain authors.  If you can find somebody on this list in the magical realism genre, fine; if not, I’m definitely open to other authors.

Thank you so much for your willingness to help.

Dear ________,

I went to the library and perused through a book in the Magical Realism genre that looked very academically attractive called One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (who you’ll find on your list of approved authors 🙂 ).

Here are a few characteristics of the genre that I wanted to stick to in my selection:
1) The literary genre of Magical Realism derives generally from South America.
2) It tells a story of fantastic things mixed in with realistic things in a tone that considers the mixture ordinary, natural, and unsurprising, even unexciting.
3) It presents various versions of reality as equally valid.

I think criterion one and three are good reasons to engage this genre. This literary movement speaks a lot about South America’s rich history and the South American experience: the things that are given, or presupposed, in a South American’s context. For example, our North American context, particularly Anglo-American context, comes with certain ideas that are woven into our social fabric, that we sort of grow up with and generally accept without really thinking about: ie. individualism. For South Americans this includes the rich mythic histories of Native American ancestors mixing with the Colonization Era and the rebirth into a Post-Colonization identity.

The third criterion is important to engage because it promotes the relativism that’s so prevalent in our society: true for you but not true for me: your version of reality is equally valid as mine (as long as you believe mine is equally as valid as yours). Relativism is a dangerous attitude of the society in which we live. It’s totalizing under the guise of tolerance; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But we can, and should, empathize with the relativistic climate of our culture. It’s the ‘in sheep’s clothing’ bit that we can understand looks good, and we can constructively and compassionately engage with those who hold these beliefs by acknowledging it’s attractiveness, uncovering it’s ruse, and pointing to the Lamb of God. (Other helpful articles on Relativism can be found here.)

In the broadest application of the genre, Magical Realism brings many Christian works to mind: works such as Madeleine L’Engle’s Time series (of which the first is A Wrinkle in Time) and CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy for example. These books mix the fantastic in with the modern world and the characters come to understand this mix of seemingly mismatched realities into one new and non-contradicting reality. They represent what Lewis calls, “The Myth Come True”. The story of redemption which climaxes in the Incarnation is every story ever told come to life. Reality truly is a paradox in which the paradigm of fantastic and mundane mix and mingle naturally and organically when we have eyes to see. Likewise, Magical Realism is in part a movement in reaction against the genre before it not surprisingly called Realism. And as Christians, we reject the Naturalism that derives from Scientism and empiricism where there is no supernatural and no “non-observable” realities.

But I digress a bit. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s an interesting read, and it’s a major contributor to the genre as well as to the much needed boom of Latin American lit. It deals with lust and loneliness and sex and love, murder and family conflict, and all the sorts of things we need to openly talk with our kids about. Only as far as I can tell, these themes aren’t divulged in a pornographic way like in Allende’s books.

On the down side, potentially, it’s a little over 400 pages long, and per the cultural custom, several characters’ names are very similar—so it can be confusing at times, but entirely manageable (and Sparknotes is good for that!). Like I said however, it’s a good read: it’s well-written and reads rather fluidly without getting bogged down in laborious detail.

Magical Realism certainly isn’t confined to Spanish and Latin-American writers. Very popular and critically acclaimed works of Magical Realism also come out of Japan (among other countries as well). When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (who is also on the list of approved authors) looks interesting; the sexual themes are there, but again, the porn is missing; roughly 350 pages. I read through some excerpts on, and it felt readable and enjoyable to me.

Another alternative might be the widely popular Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It has sections that drag a bit, but it’s an interesting story and perspective. It doesn’t deal with sexual themes as much as the others — hardly at all — or in the same manner for that matter; and is roughly 350 pages. (I found this review to be accurate and helpful.) This choice would be a slight stretch to fit under our genre, but not an over-reaching one by any means.

For more about the genre in general, I found Wiki’s page on Magical Realism to be helpful and generally scholarly trustworthy.

Well, I hope you’ve found this helpful. Let me know how things turn out.

Dear Renea:

Just wanted to let you know we had some unexpected good news yesterday.  The English teacher has decided not to teach House of Spirits. We have not heard what she plans to teach instead.  Hopefully we will be able to have some input – thanks to you!

We are still pursuing the matter at the school board level – Asking for book reevaluation at a sophomore level, a more informative “opt-out” letter, and instruction for students who choose to “opt-out”.

You have been such a great help.  Thank you again for your time and expertise!


Need help?

Doing your homework on what your children are reading in school? Drop me a line:

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4 Responses to Required Reading

  1. Brian says:

    Wow, Renea. That was really helpful, and really smart. I’ll file that away.

  2. Brian says:

    And as for recommendations, you could also find some magical realism elements (although not quite the same thing) in lots of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories (Young Goodman Brown, Rappaccini’s Daughter, The Artist of the Beautiful, and others)

  3. jravca says:

    Hey! My mom’s senior sem. class is especially focused on Latin American Female Authors. If you need more reccommendations as a real parallel to Allende (whom I’ve never read, but the fact that she’s a woman might mean that the teacher wants to read a Latina author), I can get her in touch with you. But yeah! Way to engage!

  4. reneamac says:

    Thanks, Val, for getting your super smart mom involved!

    Below is Prof Kepner’s Allande alternatives:

    [Renea] should try some of the short stories by Isabel Allende; very fun but not too sexy. Los cuentos de Eva Luna. Also some of the short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: such as Un hombre muy viejo con alas de angel, etc.

    Thanks, Christine!

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