Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Night Circus ~ Erin Morgenstern

I may have hinted at this last week, but I love Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus.  Seriously.  I love it in a even-though-you've-never-heard-of-her-and-her-novel-doesn't-come-out-for-two-and-a-half-months-you-should-still-preorder-it-now kind of way.

Since it's not coming out until September, I feel that a rough summary is necessary here: magic is real but it's not really magic-magic, more like manipulation.  It can be learned and it comes in different varieties.  Two masters have pledged their pupils to a challenge, the venue for which is a circus, Le Cirque des Rêves.  The circus arrives without warning, only opens at night, and is adorned only in white, black, and shades of grey.  It is exhibition of any and every kind and is controlled almost entirely by Celia and Marco, the two young magicians who eventually fall in love, further complicating their lives.

I want this circus to exist.  It's quiet and beautiful, where classic circuses are noisy and flashy.  It's full of life, despite it's lack of color.  It considers time and consequences and how destinies can be altered.

Morgenstern's writing is quiet and beautiful, unique without harshness.  The story is built of many very short chapters (something I normally dislike, preferring longer chapters) which, like the circus itself, manage to beguile you into staying up half the night, unsure of where the time has gone.  These chapters consist of snippets of life related to the circus, from the perspectives of all involved, in many locations.  Nothing seems extraneous and nothing is lacking.

I could go on and on, but I'll stick with discussing three elements I particularly enjoyed:

-The Murray twins' relationships.  Writers tend to view twins as tools without substance.  Look at Fred and George Weasley - they're loyal, comedic, lacking in depth, and identical to the core, more often present for purposes of comic relief than anything else.  You have evil twins, freakily connected twins, creepy twins, creepily cute twins, et cetera.  And then there are the Murray twins, who were born on the circus's opening night and grow up among the black-and-white striped tents.  Their love for one another is palpable and they are unique in themselves.  They are both gifted, yes, in ways that ordinary mortals are not, but this arises more from the circumstances of their birth than their twin-ness.  They are complete characters rather than plot devices, plus they charm kittens.  Literally.  Need I say more?

-Celia and Marco's relationship.  The novel is full of relationships, but their relationship is probably the most complex while at the highest risk of cliches.  Thankfully, Morgenstern manages to avoid cliches and create a beautiful, enchanting love complicated by their positions as opponents, in which each person's turn is a tribute to the other rather than an attack.  Though there is dramatic, Rome and Juliet-style, fatal element to their love, Morgenstern transcends this by introducing consequences and the consciousness of such.  These are mature lovers, not children, making their love all the more satisfying and believable.

-The novel continues outside of the novel.  For most books, this means stuff, i.e. fake wands and action figures and overactive merchandising departments.  What's so lovely about The Night Circus is how (at this point at least) it avoids all this.  The cover, for example, of my ARC guarantees unlimited admission and threatens exsanguination for anyone who attempts to sell it (the same punishment as for trespassing on circus grounds).  The book as an object becomes a part of the novel.  Also, a side project of Morgenstern's while she was writing the novel was painting an all black-and-white tarot card set which sounds just like the custom deck that the circus's fortune teller uses (view here).  These elements bring the novel to life, letting it burst from the page without cheapening it.  I've never seen the like and I really love that.

This is probably the best book I've read in a while, and I fully encourage anybody to read it, particularly those who enjoy the ordinary merged with the fantastic.  Because these are real people and real emotions, despite being set in a fanciful setting, and well worth the investment of time and emotion.

I kind of wish this was more of a critical book review, but it grabbed me so fully that I just absorbed the details and thought about little else, which is probably good because it means that the story didn't trip over the writing.  However, I like to think about the how as well as the what.  I guess I'll just have to read it again.  Darn.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Reads: The Night Circus

The Night Circus is Erin Morgenstern's debut novel (coming in September) and I have to say, I am loving it.  It's been a while since I've really loved a novel, but this is definitely picking up the slack (AKA, I keep staying up too late reading).  I'll go more into it in my review when I finish it, but suffice it to say that it is filled with subtle magic and lovely characters.

The image on the right is the ARC cover, which,
excellently enough, threatens to exsanguinate
anybody who attempts to sell it.
I just read on Morgenstern's blog that Jim Dale is doing the audiobook, which anybody who has listened to him read Harry Potter knows is amazing news.  I may actually buy this one instead of borrowing it from the library.  Who knows, maybe I'll go crazy and preorder it!

I still have one hundred pages to go and I can already tell you, this is one to look out for.  Thank you, Random House, for sending the bookstore where I work a copy and thank you, Ms. Morgenstern, for writing it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Room ~ Emma Donoghue

**The second-to-last full paragraph contains spoilers.  Watch out.**

As soon as I heard about Emma Donoghue's acclaimed novel, Room (thank you, book blogging community, without whom I would not have known of it), I knew that I had to read it.  I'm ashamed to say that I don't pay much attention to the news, largely because it angers me and I have a hard time disengaging myself.  However, there is the occasional news story that grips me so much that I can't read enough about it, often rereading the same information from different sources in the hopes of a new detail.  One that comes instantly to mind is the story of Foxy Knoxy, an American student in Italy who was found guilty of murdering her flatmate.  Another more relevant story is the Fritzl case, in which a man held his daughter (and their ensuing children) trapped in a dungeon in the basement of the house where he lived with his wife.  It would appear that there is something wrong with my head, because these are both prime examples of why I avoid the news, but there you have it.  At least it explains my compulsion to read Room which, I was not surprised to learn after finishing the novel, was inspired by the Fritzl case.

This is one of those cases where the truth is stranger (or at least more disturbing) than fiction.  Room, though completely horrifying, is actually very toned down compared to it's real-life counterpart.  There's only one child, the woman's only been locked up for seven years, they are above ground and have a skylight through which they can see the sky, the ceiling is high enough that nobody has to stoop.  Interestingly, Old Nick seems to acknowledge this outside influence at one point, saying, "Aboveground, natural light, central air, it's a cut above some places, I can tell you" (69).  It's still not Barbie's Dream House, but Donoghue's choice to make it so much more human is interesting.  Would the extent of the horrors in the Fritzl case be too much for a reader to handle?  Does the experience of looking at the news from the outside in some way make it easier to deal with the horrors of the world than the experience of immersing oneself into fiction?  Quite possibly.

The novel itself was well-done.  Choosing the five-year old child as a narrator was inspired - it transforms the tiny cell in which he and his mother live into a complete world where Jack feels safe and is never bored, a place from which he never wants to leave (though this as much thanks to his mother's ingenuity as his own imagination).  Jack knows no other world except for what happens in the TV, and all of that is pretend.  Outside is only outerspace.  Though Jack is happy in his captivity, there is an undercurrent of loneliness to his narrative.  The room is Room, the wardrobe is Wardrobe, and so on.  They are referred to by gendered pronouns and spoken of as friends.  Jack never comments on the lack of other people in his world, though he seems to unconsciously acknowledge it by turning things into companions.

The mother-child relationship is so beautiful.  You could easily imagine a mother hating a child born to her of rape and captivity, but as Ma says, Jack saves her.  In Jack's five years of life, they've never been more than a few feet away from each other and, except when Jack goes into the wardrobe at night so that he won't have to see Old Nick (and so that Old Nick can't see him), they are never more than a glance away.  Ma loves Jack for who he is and easily separates him from the cruel man whose sperm brought Jack into being (like Ma, I hesitate to use the "f" word*).

I only have two complaints about the novel.  Occasionally Ma (and later, others) will say something to Jack that one wouldn't normally say to a child and which he doesn't understand.  Occasionally this kind of thing will happen in "real life" and when it happened in the room it was understandable as she had nobody else to say it to, but out in the world it's a little hard to believe.  Why does Jack need to hear about crashing stocks?  Well, he doesn't.  Those little bits were obviously there for the benefit of the reader, and I could have done without them.  I want dialogue to be natural between characters and not provided for the purpose of an imaginary third person.  My other issue with the novel is personal: it is far too topical.  I'm not sure why, but I take issue with elements of novels that set it too fixedly in the present day.  This is probably a topic that deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the references to Lady Gaga and Dora the Explorer detracted from the novel for me.

Overall, this was a good read.  Disturbing, yes, but a beautiful look at the relationship between a mother and her child, particularly from the angle of the child whose mother is, quite literally, his world.

*Okay guys, this was a weird book to review on Father's Day.  I'd wait, but it's been over a week since I last posted and I just want to get something up there.  Happy Father's Day to all the true fathers and father figures out there!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Middlemarch ~ Character List

I'm pretty sure that Middlemarch just continues for the rest of my reading life.  Not only is this the second post I've written complaining about it, I've read two other books while attempting to read Middlemarch and number three is coming up.  Of course, that's far less than the number of books I've read since I promised myself that I would return to The Sound and the Fury, so really this is an improvement.

The thing is, there are so many damned people in Middlemarch, and some of them are Significant but only show up once or twice every couple of hundred pages, so that when they return and aren't reintroduced, I am left to ask Gosh darnit, and who are you?  I've noticed that George Eliot likes to do this as even Silas Marner, which is a fraction the length of Middlemarch, manages to include so many townspeople that I couldn't tell the innkeeper from the butcher even while I was reading it.  But anyway, here's the story of the first five books of Middlemarch as a means of introducing the people it seems we should know about, in no particular order:

First we meet Mr. Arthur Brooke and his nieces, Dorothea and Celia.  Dorothea is idealistic and doesn't wear jewelry and decides to marry a man three times her age because he is creating a Great Work and she wants to help him.  She also wants to build cottages for poor people, and is helped with this by Mr. James Chettham, who loves her even though she thinks he loves her sister.  So Dorothea marries the old dude, Mr. Edward Casaubon, and Chettham settles for Celia, both of whom think that Dorothea is making a sad mistake.

Mr. Causabon has a cousin, Will Ladislaw, who he financially supports and despises, and who enrages Mr. C by befriending his new cousin-in-law and going into business/politics (which even then were the same thing) with his new cousin-in-law's uncle.  This contributes to Mr. C's fainting spell and ensuing Condition, which necessitates a visit from the new doctor, Tertius Lydgate, who is a medical outcast because he thinks that one pill can't cure everything and sometimes you don't need any pill at all (there is a hilarious chapter on nineteenth-century small town conceptions of medicine).  Mr. C dies happily (for us, not him), but leaves behind an attachment to his will that says that if Dorothea and Will marry, Dorothea gets to go to the poor house (or Celia's house, that's cool too - a baby suddenly appears there in a very Victorian manner, so that should be fun).

Lydgate accidentally finds himself marrying Rosamond Vincy, whose family seems to be one of the few that actually lives in Middlemarch.  Her father is the mayor and has high hopes that his son, Fred Vincy, will either make himself useful or inherit a huge pile of money from Mr. Peter Featherstone, a grouchy old widow related to the Vincy family by marriage.  Mr. F kicks it, but not before his servant (or something) Mary Garth refuses to burn one of his wills, which ultimately cancels out the will leaving everything to Fred (who thus returns to school), and instead leaves everything to Mr. F's secret son, Rigg Featherstone, who looks like a frog (or is it a toad?) and according to Wikipedia (a valuable source in cases like this) is crucial to the plot.  Mary is sad about this but still refuses to marry Fred and instead goes home because she no longer has a job, and is sad about it to her parents.  Her father, Caleb Garth, is quite poor because of his tendency to accept jobs for the fun of it and to loan out money to young rascals like Fred, who can't be trusted to pay him back.

The Garths tell Mr. Camden Farebrother, a vicar who'd rather be a naturalist, about Mary's refusal to burn the will.  That's not very important, but it does come up again when he tries to find out how she feels about Fred (on Fred's behalf) and reveals that he loves her.  That may turn out to be important, but I'm not sure yet.  Farebrother is friends with Lydgate, but Lydgate votes against him being posted in the new hospital he's helping to build because Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, his benefactor and the hospital's financier, likes somebody else.  Mr. Bulstrode is an apparently unpleasant man, through no reason more apparent than he uses his money to throw his weight around, which is probably as good a reason as any to dislike a person.

Finally, there's Mr. Raffles, who I only very vaguely remember as being frog-faced Rigg Featherstone's stepfather.  Mr. Raffles is a Bad Man.  Everybody in Middlemarch is flawed, but it seems that Mr. Raffles is the only truly Ban Man because a) everything he says is greedy and self-serving, b) we never get to hear this thoughts and feelings, and c) he aggravates people who actually live in Middlemarch (and the surrounding areas because very few of these people seem to actually live in Middlemarch).  He also knows a Big Secret about Mr. Bulstrode (aka Nicky) and uses this to earn a living via blackmail.

Wikipedia's character list seems to think that I should also mention the Cadwalladers, who I don't really remember but live next door to Mr. Brooke and have Opinions; Mr. Hawley, who I don't remember at all but is apparently a "Foul-mouthed businessman and enemy of Mr. Bulstrode"; Mr. Mawmsey, a grocer who knows that Lydgate is full of crap because the pink pills make his wife feel better (Or maybe he's the one who votes for whoever buys the most food.  Or maybe he's both); and Mr. Tyke, who Lydgate votes for over his buddy.  There are also a bunch of Mr. Featherstone's relatives (who all have different last names; the only one  I can remember is Waule) who do a lot of complaining about how far they travelled to mourn him only to inherit a couple of bucks each when you know they were just there for the cash and the ham.

Moral of the story, if you've actually read this whole thing: there is a crap-load of people in Middlemarch who all tie back to one another and none of which seems to be particularly happy.  On the plus-side, the spine of my book is starting to look like I've read the first five-eights of the thing a dozen times, which can only be good for my street cred.  Of course, if I stop now, it will be woefully apparent.  On I go.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ~ Junot Diaz

I'm not sure what to say about Dominican novelist Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I didn't like it exactly; appreciate is probably a better word.  That's not to say that I disliked it - it just didn't blow me away or suck me in like I want a novel to do.  It did, however, keep me with it, which is more than I can say for, oh I don't know, Middlemarch (which I will be returning to next).

The novel follows the lives of Oscar de Leon and his family, particularly as influenced by the fuku (or curse) upon them.  Oscar is a ghetto nerd, obese and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, growing up in New Jersey though of Dominican descent.  We hear a lot about his Dominican ancestry and national history, particularly as it relates to former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.  There's probably nearly as much Dominican history and stereotype as there is Oscar in the novel which, to be particularly honest, can get tiresome (Though informative - did you learn a drop of Dominican history in school?  Neither did I.).

The barrier that existed between me and the novel was its narrator, Yunior.  Like I complained about the other day, his English is poor and rife with slang and rather offensive terms, which made it difficult to connect with the book as a whole (does that make me sound like a snob?).  This isn't constant - Part II is narrated by Oscar's sister and, as a result, was much more accessible to me - and it tones down as the novel goes on, but that just leant an unpleasant sense of inconsistency.  Often, Yunior seems unable to escape his own story, which begs the question of what the novel is "really" about, though it potentially being about an well-educated, uneducated-sounding, selfish family historian who can't keep his peep in his pants, I'm really not that interested.  I can connect with fat, unloved Oscar far better (at least he doesn't lie about watching Doctor Who).

Despite this poor connection, sometimes it feels like the novel is for me specifically.  Oscar lives quite close to me, and as I read about his in-state movement, I sometimes found myself wondering if five year old me was ever in the Game Room at Woodbridge mall at the same time as him, or if I could have seen him jump from the New Brunswick train bridge onto Route 18's divider from my kitchen window (not quite).  Even while being put off by the narration, it had the ability to evoke waves of nostalgia in me.

I'm not sure that I really understand the Pulitzer Prize, but Oscar Wao was worth my while.  Sadly, it did not live up to the hype ascribed to it, but that's how hype works: designed to disappoint.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Crying and Reading

There was a period of time in my early to mid teens when I cried over everything.  By everything, I mean books.  Every book.  Maybe I was reading particularly sad books at the time, maybe my crazy adolescent hormones were making me overly weepy, or maybe I just thought there was something cool about a book moving you to tears.  Whatever it was, it left me, and now it's incredibly rare for me to cry over a book.  The one exception to this is a chapter almost at the very end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

**DON'T READ ON IF YOU DON'T KNOW HOW THE SERIES ENDS AND DON'T WANT ME TO SPOIL IT FOR YOU**

The chapter I'm talking about is number 34, "The Forest Again."  I remember reading it before leaving for work (which was only five minutes away) and actually thinking I'd be late but not being able to stop.  I bawled throughout this entire chapter.  This wasn't attractive, "oh look how sweet it is that she's crying over a book" weeping.  This was swollen face, snot running down, ink-smearing sobbing.  I rarely cry like this even over real-life things, but Harry Potter managed to do it to me (and made waitressing awkward, what with tear-streaked cheeks [not the only time I waitressed with tear-streaked cheeks there, though usually the manager, not fictional wizards, was to blame]).

Since then, I've probably reread and listened to that chapter on audiobook about five times, and though I've never quite reached that pathetic state, those familiar words still have the ability to elicit a reaction more powerful than most books could hope for.  Today, listening to that chapter while driving from work to Target, I found myself tearing up yet again at one particular line.  The bit in question was just after Harry has conjured those he has loved and lost, while they accompany him on his death-march into the forest:
A chilly breeze that seemed to emanate from the heart of the forest lifted the hair at Harry's brow.  He knew that they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.
"You'll stay with me?"
"Until the very end," said James.
"They won't be able to see you?" asked Harry.
"We are part of you," said Sirius.  "Invisible to anyone else."
Harry looked at his mother.
"Stay close to me," he said quietly. (700)
Musing on this while I pushed my cart up and down the aisles, I realized that it's not the heart-wrenching sadness of Harry giving himself up to stop the war and save the others, or the presence of those whose loss has hit him the hardest that makes the scene so moving.  What really did it to me was the word "quietly."  No matter how tragic the moment is, how much inner strength it requires of Harry, he can't escape his own humanness.  He lowers his voice when he begs his mother to stay at his side so that, presumably, only she can hear, shielding this moment of weakness and desperation from the men accompanying him.  It is the fact that he needs his Mummy but even at the point of no return has trouble admitting it.  He is not just a hero here - he is a person as well, which makes his decision all the more real and all the more heart-breaking.

What about you?  Do you cry over books?  What sets you off?  Did you smear the pages of this chapter too?

PS. Is it weird that I hope that they will do this scene well enough in Part Two of the movie to elicit the same reaction?