Running Away to Join the Night Circus

circusWhen I picked up the book The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, I wanted something light. Basically, I wanted a break from the historical reading that had kept me in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries since January.  This seemed the perfect escape novel–part fantasy, part romance.  A bit like running away to join the circus! But more and more as I got caught up in it I began to realize there was a little more going on than I’d expected from an escape novel.  The story revolves around two circus performers capable of real magic who are forced by their trainers to duel against one another using alternating magic tricks that are increasingly complex. The performers, Celia and Marcus, create elaborate magical settings first in competition with one another, and later, as they fall in love from afar, as a tribute to one another. I liked this story for it’s unusual characters and unique plot, but I also liked that it went a step beyond just telling an interesting tale. The author uses her narrative to explore ideas about time, and love and reality. Clocks, for example, are a repeating symbol, and time affects different characters differently. And then there’s color. Everything in the circus, which opens only at night, is black and white.  Overall, I’m not sure this novel was as “enchanting” as I’d expected, possibly because the love story between the two main characters takes a long time to develop. But I thought the author did a great job of pulling me into the story, and making a credible premise out of an incredible concept–that is, a circus where magic is real, even if the visitors see it only as a series of fascinating tricks.

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Did We Really Need Another Book About Anne Boleyn? As it Turns Out, We Did.

bringupbodiesWe all know this story, don’t we? How King Henry VIII first pursued Anne Boleyn, and then later had her executed? After reading the novel Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel I was surprised by how much I didn’t know. But then, the book isn’t really about Anne Boleyn, nor is it about Henry VIII, even though it is about that famous 16th century episode. This work of historical fiction focuses on Thomas Cromwell, who helped orchestrate the execution of not only Boleyn, but a number of men accused of committing adultery with her, including her own brother.  What makes this such a great book is the complexity of it. Mantel presents all the facts, but there were, for me, still so many questions as to why it happened.  In the end, it seems that the king murdered all these people, and found a way, with Cromwell’s help, to do so publicly and  legally. There were both personal and political reasons for this. Which took precedence? It’s hard to say. The king was already in love with Jane Seymour and married her within 24 hours of Boleyn’s death. Even more puzzling is the character of Cromwell, who not only carries out the king’s wishes to get rid of Boleyn, but devises the scheme to make it happen. Nevertheless, Cromwell is presented in such a way that he isn’t an altogether unlikable figure.

Unfortunately, I made a mistake when I read this book, which won the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and is the sequel to Mantel’s earlier award-winning book, Wolf Hall. My mistake? I never read Wolf Hall. While Bring Up the Bodies can stand on its own, a great deal is missed by not beginning at the beginning with Wolf Hall, which I have since purchased. So, I wouldn’t recommend doing that. However, I do recommend this book. Cromwell is an enigmatic and complex figure, who played a key role in a pivotal historical event. And Mantel does an amazing job mixing history with just enough fiction to tell the story and hold our interest. My advice, though? Read the first book first.

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Six More Weeks of Winter? Here’s the perfect book for it.

distantmirror So many books are billed as great beach reading. But for me, the best time to settle into a book is a winter evening, when it’s too cold, too dark and too icy to want to leave my house. This winter, there were a lot of such evenings (see photo on right taken outside my house this morning). I filled them by reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by historian Barbara W. Tuchman. Weighing in at over 600 pages, the book reveals in greatwinter detail and fascinating anecdotes the tragedies, wars and disasters that filled the 14th century. Tuchman, in her preface, explains that she set out to write the book in order to learn what the impact of the Black Plague had been on that era. I wondered that too, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. But what wound up keeping me transfixed was not the story of the plague, but rather the combination of “calamities” that occurred over that 100 year period. The plague, as it turns out, was only one chapter in this book, and only one of many devastating turns history took in the 1300s. It would be interesting to know how many times the word “slaughtered” appeared in these pages, generally in reference to people, not animals. Knights, operating under the ideal of chivalry, were brutal in battle. And when there were no wars, the companies that fought them would return home to France–which is the primary setting of the book–and practice brigandage. That is, robbing and pillaging, often accompanied by murder, rape and other brutalities. They were so destructive, crusades were sometimes organized just to get them out of the country. And this was after the plague that killed 1/3 of the population of Europe. Today, we worry today about over population. By the end of the 14th century, depopulation was a serious problem and not just because of the plague.
I’m not really a reader of history, so it’s saying something that I found A Distant Mirror jaw-droppingly fascinating. It’s a credit to Tuchman that she made the chapter on the Papal Schism so gripping that I stood at the kitchen counter reading it while I cooked dinner one night. The Papal Schism sounds like a yawner. In reality, it was a unique, astonishing historical event that began when the cardinals, many of whom were corrupt and politically aligned, elected an archbishop to the papacy because they believed he was “a pliable protege.” In fact, once he’s enthroned as Pope Urban VI, he goes mad with power and condemns all the cardinals for their many excesses. The cardinals seek to invalidate their election of Urban and eventually a faction breaks off and elects a second pope. Shockingly, the man they elect was a cardinal known as “the Butcher of Cesena,” for having lead the slaughter of over 1,000 villagers in the town of Cesena years before. For 40 years thereafter, two popes ruled. Neither of them were good people.

The title, “A Distant Mirror,” which was published in 1978, refers to Tuchman’s observation that the events of the 14th century reflect in some ways on the 20th century, particularly after World War I and II.  She notes in her preface that the people of the 1300s lived very differently from the way we live today so that “Qualities of conduct that we recognize amid these alien surroundings are revealed as permanent in human nature.”  She also points out that “it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse before.” Which is really what I found most interesting about this book.  We are often focused today on tragedy, change, disasters, wars and lost values. In the 14th century, things were a lot worse. A Distant Mirror isn’t a fast read, and it is sometimes heavy, and difficult. I thought it was well worth the effort.

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You Probably Never Heard of this Book; I think Everyone Should Read it

800px-KristinLavransdatterCoversI was first introduced to the Norwegian classic trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter when I was in college. I’ve read it twice since. After making my way through its roughly 1,000 pages for a third time, I still feel the way I felt after my first read: it’s still my favorite book.

It was written in the 1920s by Norwegian author Sigrid Undset, who won the

Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, in part for her accurate

Author Sigrid Undset, 2014

Author Sigrid Undset, 2014

depiction of the middle ages in this trilogy and another four-volume work. Undset was also highly regarded for the complexity of her characters.

So what do I like about it? No sooner had I picked it up again after not having read it for 15 years, than I was instantly drawn into the setting. The houses, the landscape, the politics, the interpersonal relationships of Norway in the 1300s are factored into the story. This is a time period and a place so remote from ours it normally seems unrelatable. But as I followed the title character through her childhood, unsanctioned love affair, marriage, motherhood and finally to the Black Plague, I felt connected to that time period. So much so that sometimes, while reading at night, I would look up and feel surprised not to actually be there. Which is kinda funny considering I was reading it on my Kindle.

It’s not just the setting that I love, but the characters and the complexity of their relationships with one another: love, regret, loss all have their place in every life, regardless of what century you live in.

Finally, it’s the language I like most about this book. The descriptive passages–something I occasionally skip over in lengthy books–are so well drawn that they carry the reader easily to the 14th century:

“Kristen went out on such a day, when the water was trickling in the ruts, and the snow on the fields around glistened like silver.  The snow-wreaths had been eaten away hollow on the side toward the sun, so that the fine ice-trellis of the snow-crust edges broke with a silver tinkle when her foot touched them.  But everywhere, where the smallest shadow fell, the sharp cold held the air and the snow was hard.”

Don’t you feel cold just reading that?

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What I Learned From Trying to Read a Book a Week (besides abject failure)

A year ago I started this blog, with the goal of reading a book a week. I kept it up until October, and then dropped the blog. Nevertheless, I kept reading. Sad to say, I fell far short of the 52 books I’d been hoping for, missing my goal by a good 20 books. Despite having to admit to abject failure, I decided to get the year off to a fresh start by rededicating myself to the task of reading and blogging. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. It is possible to read almost any book in a week. Sometimes, though, you have to push yourself. If you are already pushing yourself to achieve other goals and you become overwhelmed in life, the book may become the first piece of freight you throw off your ship.
  2. What ever happens, it’s still good to set a reading goal. About two years ago, I got stuck on page 187 of the book No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’d been enjoying the book, which is about  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, until I completely stalled on a section about tax laws. I usually read at night, and the minute I’d pick up the book and begin a lesson on tax laws of the time, I’d immediately fall asleep. Eventually I gave up on it. Over the past year I discovered that having a goal helped me push through the boring parts (or skip over them, if it came to that!).
  3. Writing helps you remember. I noticed it’s actually a lot easier to read a book a week then it is to blog about it.  I just couldn’t always manage to find the time to compose a blog post after I’d finished a book. But I’d be hard pressed to reel off the titles of those dozen books I didn’t blog about. Writing about books helps you retain what you’ve read. Or at least it gives you a place to check back and jog your memory.
  4. There are a lot of great books out there. The main reason to set a reading goal is that it motivates you to keep reading and ultimately to discover more great authors and great works. Even if I didn’t meet my main objective, I still read many more books last year than I otherwise would have.
  5. Blog are best if they are kept short. I’m stopping here so I have more time to read.

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The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

Mysteries of Pitts
I decided to read this book because my daughter recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English Writing and the author, Michael Chabon, is a Pulitzer Prize winner who also graduated from Pitt. Besides, I was drawn to the fact that it was set around the Pitt campus. So, pulled in by the setting, I wasn’t really sure I would like this book. I didn’t even know what it was about, really.
As it turned out, I loved it.
What it’s about: The novel centers around the experiences of Art Bechstein, fresh out of college in the 1980s and working in a bookstore. He is on shaky terms with his father, a high ranking gangster whose connections play an increasingly important role as the novel progresses. But the heart of the story is in the three friendships Art forms over the course of the summer: his new girlfriend Phlox, her gay library co-worker Arthur, and a tough but sensitive biker named Cleveland. Art finds himself attracted to Arthur and caught up in Cleveland’s desire to get involved in the organized crime world of Art’s father.

What I liked: This book didn’t grab me right away. But about 50 pages in I found it difficult to put down. The characters were so well-drawn and complex, the relationships were intricate, and the plot grew ever more interesting with each page. I felt so connected to the narrator that I had separation anxiety when I finally came to the end. Ok, maybe not that bad, but I was sad when I finished the book.

What I really liked best was the language. I’m a language person, and I love when I writer says something that relates perfectly to the way I’ve felt at some point in my life. Here’s an example:
Watching his girlfriend walk away after a fight he thinks: “I fancied that in a moment I would be standing on nothing at all, and for the first time in my life, I needed the wings that none of us has.”
Later, thinking of someone who has died, he ponders that “everything recalled him to me, as though he’d left the whole world to me in his will.”

Do I recommend it: Definitely, especially if you’ve spent time in Pittsburgh. Most of the action takes place around the University of Pittsburgh and I feel being familiar with that area made the book that much more interesting.

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Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

noahs_compass  Anne Tyler is one of my favorite writers. I’ve read almost all her books, and several (Accidental Tourist and Saint Maybe) I’ve read multiple times. I love her characters, who are all somewhat ordinary, but quirky people who have undergone a great loss or are experiencing a major change. Often her books deal with the death of a spouse or family member. So, now that I’ve written that, I see that you might wonder why on earth I would want to read such books. Truth is, they aren’t depressing. They are upbeat, and often humorous. And on some level they are also true to life. A common theme in her books is someone falling in love with a person who is a bit odd, not at all like themselves. There’s something enjoyable about watching this happen, particularly because Tyler’s characters interact in a way that readers can relate to. They speak in colloquialisms. They become annoyed over small things. Sometimes they dress strangely, but overall, these characters are people that we know and like.

Noah’s Compass was a book by Tyler that I’d never read. When I saw it on the shelf at the library I snatched it up and went right home to read it. Its plot centers around 60-year-old Liam Pennywell who has been fired from his teaching job and moved into a new apartment. Shortly after moving, he is knocked unconscious by an intruder–an incident he has no memory of.  He finds this memory loss disturbing, and, while visiting a doctor, meets Eunice, who works as a sort of “personal rememberer” for a wealthy man. He forms a relationship with her that leads him to begin looking more closely at all that he has forgotten or lost in his life.

What I liked: As with all of Tyler’s books, I liked the characters. Eunice is socially awkward and much younger than Liam, but clearly drawn to him. Liam has interesting relationships with his daughters and first wife. But he’s at a crossroads, faced with sudden unemployment, he struggles to fill his days. At one point, he sees a group of office workers walking into a building and he envies their camaraderie–a scene which I thought strongly captured his own sense of loneliness. But it’s also a good example of the kinds of insights Tyler’s books contain, and that yearning people have for sometimes pretty common things.

What I didn’t like: For the most part, I liked almost everything about this book, but sometimes the main character seemed too distanced from everyone around him, so he wasn’t my favorite Anne Tyler character.

Would I recommend it: If someone had never read an Anne Tyler novel, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend they start with this one, simply because there are a few others I’ve liked better. For example, I recently read The Beginner’s Goodbye, which centers around a man whose wife dies suddenly and then visits him occasionally. And of course, there’s always my favorites: Accidental Tourist and Saint Maybe.

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