Sunday, January 15, 2012

THE NIGHT CIRCUS – Erin Morgenstern


The Night Circus has been on my bookshelf for a month now and it was with much anticipation I finally was free enough to sit down to enjoy. I new it was going to be a wonderful artistic read, or I thought I could tell that by looking at the cover and end sheets. So lovely, it is one of the most attractive books I have purchased in a long time. Black shiny cover with white, red, and swirls of silver showing a tattooed arm holding up a tiny black and white circus with tents and a clock. The whole feel of the tangible book is magical and mysterious. I was not disappointed. This is one of those books that is tasty to examine before you start.

There was a fair amount of prepublication hype for this book which helped and hindered my reading. Being a debut novel I was prepared to dismiss a few annoying elements but some hype led me to expect things that did not develop. For instance the pr about star-crossed lovers was overdone. The lovers, Celia and Marco aren't very fleshed out with clear personalities and therefore, as a reader, I wasn't much invested in them. Plus the love story doesn't even start until over half of the novel has transpired. The introduction of Bailey, a farm boy who loves the circus, changed the whole feel of the book for me and I was by then tuning out my environs to sink into the story. Bailey, along with the twins Widget and Poppet, born in the circus to the animal trainers, and the circus itself are the real personalities that I cared about. The circus appears to be a living breathing entity with a personality and all the performers are integral to the life of the circus.

I would call this an ethereal, Gregory Maguire type fantasy novel. It even has a mysterious clock like Maguire's Wicked, characters who never age, people who aren't who they seem to be, mystery, and magic. While Celia and Marco seem flat there are a multitude of other interesting characters such as Isobel the fortune teller, Tsukiko the tattooed contortionist, Barris the architect, and Freidrick the clock maker.

Trespassers Will Be Exsanguinated,” how could you not like a book with lines like that? This book is rich in interesting language and the well-turned sentence. Some members of book group were put off by the construction of the novel since the chapters are not chronological and the perspective shifts. I have to admit it did make it a bit difficult and I had to flip back once in a while but I even liked that aspect. If one tries reading this novel via an e-reader the flipping may be annoyingly cumbersome. There is a lot going on and many characters.

Le Cirque des Reves/The Night Circus is conceived at one of the much coveted culinary delightful “Midnight Dinners” of Chandresh LeFevre. Lefevre presents his plans to those who become the designers and collaborators; Friedrick Theissen the clock maker, Scottish sisters Tara and Lainie Burgess business consultants, Mme Padva the costume designer, and Ethan Barris the architect. Lefevre envisions a different kind of circus than one of elephants and clowns. He wants a magical show of enchantments and beauty. So begins this adventure.

Hector Bowen (Prospero the Enchanter) and Mr. A.H. (Alexander) are centuries old magicians who groom and then place two of their pupils in a “game” for which the players will need to figure out the rules and who their opponent is on their own. Both of the budding young magicians become involved with The Night Circus and the circus becomes the venue for their game. Celia becomes an illusionist in the circus and Marco becomes the personal assistant to Chandresh the owner/designer. The circus is a work of art and beauty all its own. The Night Circus travels the world, seems to appear magically, opening at dusk, closing at dawn, and the enchanted visitors while becoming enamored of the circus never suspect that they witness real magic. There are many mysterious and wonderful sights in the circus such as The Ice Garden, The Tree of Wishes, The Stargazer, living statues, the Cloud Maze, and of course the wonderful clock.

So many sub-plots to keep track of too! Celia and Marco know they are players in a game but they don't know the rules or how to determine who wins so they become collaborators in the circus and fall in love. A farm boy who wants to leave home for college or adventure but whose father expects him to take over the family farm becomes friends with Poppet and Widget, twin performers in the circus. Reveurs, like modern day groupies follow the Night Circus all over the world and dress in black with red scarves. Those associated with the circus become aware that they no longer age. Mr. Barris falls in love with the Scottish sisters. Isobel is in love with Marco but he does not love her back. Oh my and that isn't all!

Loved it, loved the adventure, even loved the non-linear plot and the many characters.

One thing I didn't love. In the beginning and at the breaks between chapters there is a constellation. I, nor any one at book group could find out what it is! Annoying.

Surprising – there is no dedication page. I like those usually and missed it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

SARAH'S KEY – Tatiana De Rosnay


Ahh, that is my release from having just finished Sarah's Key. I have actually been meaning to read this title since we had a guest speaker two years ago at school who spoke about surviving the Holocaust. She recommended it. The Jay County Public Library Book Group has chosen to read it for January so I was spurred into picking it up again.

The book is constructed about half way in alternating chapters from 1942 to I believe 2002. The 1942 chapters contain the heart wrenching narrative of Sarah Starzynski who at 10 and not understanding what is going on locks her little brother in a secret cupboard to keep him safe as her family is being arrested. The 2002 chapters deal with an American journalist Julia Jarmond who does research in order to write an article covering the 60th anniversary of a little known and almost never talked about event that is a blot on the French psyche. Apparently on July 16, 1942 following Nazi orders, thousand of French Jews were arrested by the French police, held in inhuman conditions and then sent to be executed at Auschwitz. This event was/is called Vel' d'Hiv referring to the winter athletic stadium where the families were held before being sent to their deaths.

Eventually, the book is narrated just from Julia's perspective. As Julia researches she finds that her family has a dark and lasting connection to Sarah Starzynski. She then becomes obsessed with finding out all the details of Sarah's life and death. Julia is also 45, pregnant, married to a Frenchman and in a troubled marriage. The time shifting in the beginning was more interesting to me than after the shift to present tense only happened. The first half of the books kept me much more engaged also but overall I have to say I liked the book.

It isn't the first time for looking at the behavior of the French during the Nazi occupation and wondering at their inaction and silence. Several contemporary books have asked us to ponder their silence and their desire to “not know” parts of their own history or to examine their collective behavior during WW II. Our American culture is no different. We all want to believe we would be different, better, braver, but would we?

Not all of the characters are well-rounded and I really wanted Julia to evolve as a stronger person. The love story in the end seemed contrived. But the character of Sarah will stay in my mind's eye a long time.

I'll have to come back and make a new entry after group meets this month. Wondering what they will say.


THE BOTTOMS – Joe R. Lansdale


Late in blogging about The Bottoms. AC Adult Literati discussed this book early in December. I was not personally familiar with Lansdale and had not remembered the reviews so had no preconceived ideas of what I was about to encounter. My my, what a bloody and often quite shocking book! I would call it a southern, pre-civil rights, coming of age, murder, mystery. At one of his websites Lansdale is called a Mojo storyteller and The Bottoms is often called a mix of horror and mystery, which it is.

As a group we all jumped right in to discuss. No one made comments about not liking it or having adverse feelings which surprised me a bit as that often happens when a book has ugly parts. We were all repulsed early and yet drawn into the story with a need to finish it quickly.

The Bottoms has that ethereal, mysterious, foggy feel where half the time you feel disoriented and confused. Sometimes you are sure what is happening when a twist appears and you are no longer sure. Set in the 1933 bottomlands of the Sabine River, Texas this is horror, mystery, but also a tale of a boy learning to deal with adulthood in pre-civil rights South, learning right from wrong, and how to be a good man. Harry is an aging man when he relates to the reader his memorable pre-teen year when he and his sister discovered a body of a murdered and mutilated black woman. More murders ensue. Solving the crimes when black lives were not considered valuable and a black prostitute not worth investigating at all seemed almost impossible. There are suspects many. A new barber, the Klan, a young doctor, even Goat Man, a local mythological creature, are all suspect at one point or the other. Harry and his sister, Tom continue to roam the Bottoms alternately uncovering clues and putting themselves directly in the path of danger. A spunky grandma comes to stay and adds color and excitement to the story.

It was excellent. I read it on my Nook. I prefer to have hardcopies of book group books so I can leaf through and add sticky notes. The highlighting and noting in my Nook is too cumbersome.


Friday, January 6, 2012

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE – Aimee Bender


A friend of mine suggested a different public library group since sometimes I come away disappointed in the local one. He goes to one in Muncie which is about 35 miles from my house. This was the December book choice for that library book group. I really enjoyed the book and the group so I may go back.

While making drop offs at the Goodwill Store it is a must to schedule enough time to go in and check out the books. One day this summer The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake attracted my attention. A colleague last year had suggested it as a good read and the book has a beautiful cover for which I am a sucker every time. The dust jacket is robin's egg blue with a nice piece of yellow layer cake with chocolate icing, mmmm. Even the title page is a lovely work of typographic art with a combination of script and type. A treasure found for $1.50!

Delicious cover, delicious read. Aimee Bender has created a book so engrossing it's hard to put down once begun. Nine-year-old Rose becomes aware of her extrasensory perception in her taste buds as she tastes the lemon cake her mother made for her birthday. As she eats the cake Rose realizes she can feel her mother's emotions and they are not what she would expect. With horror Rose realizes her mother is depressed, confused, unhappy, and has feelings of desperation. These are not things the child expects or wants to know. From that day Rose must navigate around food being careful when, where, and what she eats. She can now feel the emotions of every food preparer. Her life becomes a complicated dance around food, eating mostly prepackaged and factory prepared foods to evade the overwhelming and often scary emotions contained in the food. As her gift/curse matures she learns that food also reveals its heritage. She can tell what part of the country a farm is where eggs come from, meat may reveal if the animals were content, food handlers emotions relay to Rose if they are decent people or jerks.

Rose also has to navigate complicated family dynamics. Older brother Joseph seems to be the favored child. A boy of unusual brilliance, social inadequacy, and a strange ability to disappear. Mom smothers Joseph and battles her depression and feelings of being adrift until she settles on a course of woodworking projects. Dad is dedicated yet aloof from his family. He loves his family but has a strange phobia to hospitals and seeks security in workaholism. Rose has a crush on Joseph's friend George who appears to be the only stable person in her life. The sadness of the lemon cake is not limited to Rose's mother's sadness. The sadness for Rose is that her gift and her family so cripple her life that while her peers and friends move on to college and to young adult lives, Rose remains behind and at home.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake felt somewhat like a thriller and also like supernatural mystery. Reading it felt similar to reading a Niffennegger novel and at one point I really did feel like Joseph might be a time traveler. It is also a coming-of-age novel and one feels a true sadness for Rose while hoping and believing she will prevail in the end. One thing that was a bit of a put-off for me was the absence of quotation marks. I am never sure what that is all about. Perhaps there is some new literary movement to dispense with such and I have read many recent novels where they are not used. However, usually I can navigate through a novel like this pretty well, but this one left me pondering sometimes as to who was speaking, and often I wasn't sure if the person was actually speaking out loud or thinking. But some of the prose was breathtakingly beautiful.

One gentleman at book group did not warm up to the book and thought it contrived but the rest of us really liked it. I would read it again.





A RED BIRD CHRISTMAS - Fannie Flagg


Oswald Campbell is a reformed, terminally ill drunk in Chicago who seeks refuge in a small Alabama village intending to relax and live out his last days in peace. His life quickly becomes entangled with the locals including the grocery owner and his pet cardinal Jack, a crippled avian orphan, and a gaggle of middle-aged spinsters who aspire to see him married. There are quirky characters, like the woman who dies her hair unnatural colors, the mail deliverer who does business by boat, the surly Cajuns who refuse to mix with the villagers, and the store owner who harbors the redbird and has been nursing a broken heart for decades. The plot progresses lazily like the lifestyle of the town and it is an amusing read.

However, it reads like a Hallmark made-for-tv movie. This is not my particular cup of tea. I don't enjoy the predictable and the saccharine so I was disappointed. I have read and very much enjoyed Fried Green Tomatoes and Can't Wait to get to Heaven by Flagg. Both books had well-rounded characters and wonderfully rich plots.

The book group over-all liked this book as escape from the holiday stress. But we agreed it was beneath our abilities and did not meet our taste for books that provide fodder for significant discussion.