A Circus-Themed Post

A Circus-Themed Post

I’ve recently read two novels with circus themes that I think lovers of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would enjoy.

Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was our book club selection this month, and it was incredibly polarizing. On one side, you have those like me, who absolutely loved it, and you have those who really didn’t think much of it at all. I thought it was an incredibly lovely book. The language was lush and poetic, the setting well-structured and highly visible in the reader’s mind’s eye. It is the story of two women in a drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape. One girl travels with a floating circus, her act involving a trained, dancing bear who is also her dearest friend. The other conducts funeral rites on her lonely island wreathed in mist and surrounded by floating bird cages.

There are many story-lines happening in this novel. Perhaps the author was a little over-ambitious in such a short novel, for there are questions that were not answered to their fullest and loose ends that could have used tighter tying. Despite its minor failings, I thought the novel was so enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down. I loved North, the bear girl, especially. She is courageous and strong. Her circus, the ship Excalibur and its flotilla of coracles, sounds like a rough but adventurous life. I found myself drawn to this watery world, where trees are so rare it’s a crime (or even blasphemous) to harm them in any way. It is only vaguely fantastic, so it will appeal to readers who ordinarily stay away from fantasy stories.

BookSpeculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler was another incredible circus book (how I ended up reading two almost in a row, I don’t know). In this novel, narrator Simon Watson is a librarian who lives by himself in his ancestral home on the harsh coast of the Northeastern United States. The house, due to erosion, is so near the cliff’s edge that it threatens daily to go over, but that is the least of his problems. His parents are dead, and his sister is the fortune-teller in a traveling circus. Simon one day receives a book in the mail from someone he has never met–a book that shows a frightening trend in his family’s women’s tendency to drown on a particular day of the year. The women in his family are side-show “mermaids” who can hold their breath for impossibly long periods of time; Simon and his sister both possess this ability as well. The drownings lead Simon to believe that perhaps there is a curse on his family, and his sister seems to have arrived at home just in time for her own drowning, unless Simon can do something about it.

I apologize if I made this sound like a thriller. It is thrilling, but it is so much more than that. It is, in part, a beautiful homage to the written word. Simon and several other characters adore rare and antiquarian books, and it is a feeling with which many of the novel’s readers will feel kinship. It is also, in part, historical fiction, as the narration flips back and forth between first-person in the present day with Simon, and third-person following a mute circus “Wild Boy”-turned-seer in the late 18th Century. Swyler’s prose is eloquent, and her plot is so exciting that I didn’t want to put this book down. One thing I enjoyed in particular was being witness to the origin story of several of the antique relics that Simon comes across in his search for truth–an old theatrical curtain, mysterious portraits of unknown persons, and a crumbling deck of tarot cards that his sister obsesses over.

Though the supernatural is only hinted at and never quite makes a verifiable appearance, it adds enough of an air of mystery and intrigue to hook its readers. Are Simon and his family descended from an Eastern-European water spirit? Is there truly a curse, or are the family merely victims of truly bad luck? Is it wishful thinking, or does Simon truly hear his mother’s ghost in the water? What’s up with the horseshoe crabs?

These books are must-reads for lovers of somber, beautiful prose; sorrowful, nostalgic stories; ethereal setting; and the draw of a carnival atmosphere providing a light in the darkness.

12.35–State of Wonder

12.35–State of Wonder

A customer recommended this book to me as I was ringing it up for her.  She bought several copies to give as gifts because she said it was just phenomenal.  Naturally, I thought, Hey, I gotta get me some of this.  Maybe it’s because I built it up in my mind as being super awesome, but it was a little less awesome than I thought it would be.  It was still good.  Ann Patchett’s prose is lovely, but it wasn’t give-copies-to-all-of-my-friends-for-Christmas good.

Marina and Anders are lab partners at a massive pharmaceutical company in Minnesota.  When Marina finds out that Anders, who months before traveled to the Amazon, has died of a nameless fever, she journeys to the very place where he lived out his last months.  Her mission, for her own sake and for the sake of Anders’ wife, is to discover what exactly happened, how he spent his last moments, and what happened to his body.  While she is there, however, she discovers a lot about herself and what she truly wants for her life.

The premise had potential, but when Marina discovers what the doctors are working on in the Amazon, the research they are doing, and the drug they are attempting to develop, the novel takes a turn for the bizarre and the far-fetched.  It is reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both in that the forest is a living entity with evil intent toward outsiders, and that the forest people are somewhat inferior to “civilized” people.  The jungle seems to change according to its own will, closing paths that once existed and opening new ones where none were before.  At first the natives that Marina and her fellow doctors live with sometimes seemed more like  domesticated pets than human beings.  Other tribes were more wild and would like nothing more than to put an arrow through any and every stranger.  Slightly less off-putting than the whiffs of racism, but perplexing nonetheless, is the truly odd project that Marina’s employer is funding, and the hard-assed doctor who is its leader.

I don’t want to give it away.  There are secrets and surprises that are necessary for enjoying the novel.  But there was also something strained about it.  The events are too far beyond the realm of possibility.  It is classified as fiction, but its element of fantasy is just a little too strong. That said, it at times feels more like an acid trip than true fantasy or simple literature.

A good many parts of it were enjoyable.  Ann Patchett’s characters are fully developed and enjoyable.  Her prose is simple but elegant, and the novel is deeply emotional, as it deals with the connections and relationships between human beings in spite of age, language, and lifestyle barriers.  Though Marina does not enjoy Brazil–in fact, she fears it greatly–Patchett’s descriptions of the ugliness of Manaus and the filth of the river are somehow beguilingly beautiful.  Whether it’s an accurate picture she paints I cannot say, but it certainly is easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Due to its being well outside the realm of what I normally read, I did enjoy the novel.  Though the plot is a bit weak, other aspects like setting and character development are strong enough to hold up the book.  Like I said, not Christmas gift or rave review worthy, but a decent read nonetheless.


12.20–Tumbleweeds

12.20–Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds is the second novel by Leila Meacham, whose novel Roses was a NYT Bestseller a few years ago. Roses I did not read, but Tumbleweeds is the novel of choice for a book club being hosted by my mother and me, so I figured I should probably read it.

It is entertaining, certainly.  The story line is tense and, at times, unutterably sad.  It follows the story of Catherine Ann Benson, who is orphaned at age 11 when her parents die in a car accident. She is uprooted from her posh life in California and becomes the ward of her grandmother in the Texas Panhandle.  At school, she is “adopted” by two other orphans, Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell, a popular and handsome pair of best friends.  The trio become inseparable all through high school, until one tragedy and a series of misunderstandings threaten to rip their friendship to pieces and scatter them to the winds.

The premise is your classic love triangle.  Obviously, with two boys and one girl, someone is going to be hurt and left out.  It was predictable in that way.  There were a lot of moments that I wanted to throttle Trey, for his ridiculous assumptions and his stubborn hard-heartedness.  Poor Cathy is the most sympathetic character, and seems to be the only innocent bystander in the whole mess of the novel.  It is entertaining, certainly.  Meacham creates enough mystery and tension to make the reader want to reach the very last page just to find out what secrets everyone is keeping.

The secrets are what got to me the most.  No one tells the truth until the very end of the novel.  Lives have been ruined, and the poor people of the town of Kersey all have to move on and get over one thing or another.  In the beginning it seems that Kersey is an idyllic heaven and nothing can go wrong. But the secrets kept by its citizens, most especially its two golden boys, are what tear it apart.  With the exception of Cathy and some of the older people, there is no one who is really likable or trustworthy.  It is melodramatic and reminds me of a Lifetime movie.  In fact, I would not be surprised to see

Tumbleweeds

Based on the novel by Leila Meacham

A Lifetime Original Movie

sometime.  Except I don’t watch Lifetime, so maybe not.

The prose leaves something to be desired as well.  It’s very juvenile–not at all as if it was written by a veteran novelist.  While the narration is always done in omnitient third-person, it follows different characters after they all split up and go their separate ways. In the chapters that follow the men, especially Trey, Meacham seems as if she is trying entirely too hard to simulate a male’s tone of voice and manner of speaking.  It is not at all natural, and this was a real problem for me when reading the novel.  I understand it is a special and somewhat unique skill to smoothly portray the voice of the opposite sex, but sadly Meacham failed more than most at this.  In a novel that predominantly about men, this is a problem.  Also, some of her sentences forced me to read them two, three, or four times, just to discern the meaning.  Dialect and accent are great things to write within dialog, but including colloquial phrases in the narration just adds to the feeling that neither you nor your editor know grammar very well.

I read the novel quickly, so there must have been something I enjoyed about it.  I didn’t hate all the characters.  Cathy manages to turn her situation around and make a decent life out of the misfortune that befalls her in her youth, and for that I admire her. John Caldwell is a great character, and I greatly admire almost everything about him–the exception being his extreme piety, which caused the story to veer wildly from where I wanted it to go. Meacham also created a web of intrigue so thick that it kept me interested despite the fact that the characters were mostly completely unbelievable.

I wish I had more good things to say about this book, especially because my mother read it before me and was raving about how good it was. For plot it was pretty good, but everything else came up lacking, and there are vital things like character and tone that cannot be overlooked. But maybe I’m in the super-picky minority.  Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

12.19–Frankenstein

12.19–Frankenstein

****Welcome everyone visiting my brand new website.****

**Thank you for finding me!**

****Please subscribe here as the other blog will soon be gone****

So sorry I’ve been out of it lately. I’ve been job hunting, and we all know how fun that is. Also, I’ve been creating a new domain all my own, www.BibliographyBlog.com, and that’s taken some work.  But I’m back! And hopefully back to normal.

Obviously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein needs no introduction.  It is read every year by perhaps millions of kids all over the globe (or it’s supposed to be…we all know teenagers don’t love to read the things they’re told to read). This, then, is less of a review and more of my reactions to the text.

In school, I loved studying the Romantics.  As bombastic, long-winded, and miserable as they are, I felt at that time that I identified with them.  In some ways I still feel that way, but it is mostly their regard for nature and their hope for escape from the complicated society of man that I feel.  The melodramatic sorrow is something I’ve mostly left behind. Still, I love the Romantics.  In the center of this movement exists Gothic literature, and at the center of this–perhaps the most famous work of Gothic literature–is Frankenstein.

The incredible thing is that this enduring work of literature and the infinitely infamous monster therein were created by a teenaged girl as the answer to a challenge by her older husband and friends.  For those that do not know the history of the novel, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy visited Lord Byron in Switzerland.  One night, Byron proposed a challenge to the poets residing in his home: create a ghost story.  For days Mary strained her brain in an attempt to come up with something good enough to compete with the Romantic titans around her.  According to Mary herself, she was visited by the specter of the very monster she would proceed to create, and out of that visitation arose one of the greatest stories of all time.  It has been adapted for the screen more than any other work of fiction in history. It certainly makes one reflect on our present society.  It was written by a teenager, and most teenagers now can’t even read it.

The text itself is beautiful, and utterly different from what most people think they know of it.  There is not much of a description of the monster himself, and what does exist is nothing like the public’s common conception of him. He is large, yes, and ugly.  But he is extremely smart, well-spoken, and very fast.  He possesses super-human strength, but his massive size seems to reflect the massive heart within him, capable of great love, or of great sorrow and hatred.  Sadly, it is this last emotion that he settles upon in the end, after his creator has rejected and betrayed him. Events do not move swiftly and the novel is not packed with action. As with any good work of Romantic literature, it is mostly self-reflection, thoughts on the great beauty of the surrounding landscape or the nature of man and beast, or long passages of “woe is me” written in about 14,000 different ways.

So, what’s to like about the novel? After all, it’s full of sorrow and tragedy and wrath and destruction. To start, language.  Call me a nerd (I’m totally ok with that), but nothing really gets to me like beautiful, elevated language.  In Mary Shelley’s time, people spoke and wrote in a way that is elegant and thoughtful.  There is a lot of vocabulary in the book that was unknown to me, and I like to think I have a somewhat expanded vocabulary. Both Frankenstein and his monster are bombastic and loquacious. The monster tells a story that lasts for several chapters. Though it could have been shortened drastically, the language is so mesmerizing in its eloquence that one hardly notices the passing of the pages.

Frankenstein’s story, similar to those of the infamous Doctor Faustus or Lord Byron’s Manfred, tells of a man who seeks knowledge far above what man is entitled to know of the universe.  He seeks to create human life, but the unnamed forces of nature do not seem to appreciate this, nor does Frankenstein truly understand how to do so, and his experiment goes horribly wrong.  As with other Gothic heroes, Frankenstein is extremely melodramatic. It is possible for him to solve his own problem in one of several ways, but he must choose to focus on something other than how horrible is the abomination he has created.  Sadly, he cannot move past the hideousness of the creature and the things it does when it is hurt and lonely. He loses everything and everyone he loves due to his single-mindedness, and the creature pulls Frankenstein down to the creature’s own level: completely alone and devoid of happiness. Frankenstein is punished for his arrogance and ambition by powers much greater than himself.  It is this epic human struggle, so common throughout this literary movement, that I find so emotional and compelling. Having never seen any of the numerous Frankenstein adaptations, I had virtually no concept of what the story contained (excepting the obvious). It was extremely intense and stressful for me to read this book, as I knew that nothing good could happen, but I couldn’t help but hope anyway!

I loved this book. The fact that a girl so young could write such an enduring and tempestuous work–one that caused numerous powerful emotions to arise within me–is incredible, and I admire young Mary Shelley greatly for her brilliant work.  It is so unbelievably beautiful.

 

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

12.13–Postcards from the Edge

12.13–Postcards from the Edge

My reason for reading this novel is an interesting one. One day while strolling the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland I spotted a plastic bag in the grass.  Outraged, I stomped over to pick up the litter, but noticed that inside the bag was a book.  Happily, I had discovered a Book Crossing free book.  It travels around the world, being read and then released to be found again by person after person after person. How cool is that?

So far, Texas is the only other place the book has been outside of Ireland. I haven’t released it yet. Not sure where to do it. I’d like it to be somewhere uniquely Austin, but also somewhere it won’t be misconstrued as litter and thrown away. Perhaps my readers would like to suggest something?

As for the book itself, it was mediocre at best. I can see why people wouldn’t have a hard time letting it go.  I know I certainly won’t! A book by Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), it reads as a fictional autobiography of Fisher’s life.  The protagonist spends a stint in rehab and then lives the rest of her Hollywood life attempting to make her big break and to find love. Sadly, the story falls a bit flat. It is disjointed and difficult to follow–a jumble of narrative styles that follow no pattern and therefore make reading more of a chore than a pleasure.  The plot is dull and the character is not one I was at all interested in.  I wish I had more to say in praise of Fisher’s writing, because it seems that a great many of her ventures have been flops.  But she is not a very talented writer, and the only reason I finished the book was to be able to review it and pass it on for the next person to find. Who knows? They may enjoy it more than I did.

I did appreciate the humor in the novel. Fisher portrays well the egotistical and shallow nature of Hollywood by creating characters that are vain and vapid.  I also enjoyed the fact that, though it’s a story about a recovering drug addict, it wasn’t incredibly and morbidly depressing.  She wrote it so that even the most dire of the addicts’ circumstances were light and humorous.  Fortunately, everyone got help and most “lived happily ever after.”  Oops! I gave away the ending, but I don’t recommend the book to anyone, so I don’t feel bad!