Thursday, November 29, 2012

Magic Enough

Imagine a circus, which arrives in a field, at night while you sleep.  Unlike every other circus that you have ever seen, the only colors on the tents and decorations are black and white.   Unlike any circus that you have ever heard of, this circus is open from dusk to dawn.  This is the circus that Erin Morgenstern imagined in her novel, The Night Circus

In the night circus, unexplainable things happen. These happenings are not the result of magic, but of the skill of two particular people who are engaged in a secret contest with each other.  The contestants, Celia and Marco, claim not to be magicians or wizards, but they are able to make the circus feel as though it is enchanted.  Celia is an illusionist in the circus, and her feats range from changing the color of her dress to complement the clothing of others, to arranging for the circus to travel via train between cities such as Sydney, New York, and London.  Marco works behind the scenes, but creates attractions that astound Celia and the circus goers alike.  The story is set in the 1890s, and the first years of the 20th century, mostly in London and in cities in the Eastern United States, but it could have been set anywhere and in any time.

Bailey is a young boy when he first discovers the circus, and he is immediately enthralled.  He meets twins, Poppet and Widget, who are about his age, have a circus show, and treat him as though he is their best friend.  Poppet has the ability to read the future in the stars, while Widget can read people's pasts. What Widget reads, he records, not in writing, but in bottles containing smells that remind people of of where they have been.  Poppet realizes that there is something special about Bailey, even if no one can quite figure out what it is.  My favorite quote from the book is spoken by Celia to Bailey, and it is this:  "You're in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done.  Sometimes that's enough."  In this circus, it turns out that it is.

Morgenstern's circus is amazing.  One tent contains a cloud maze.  In another, everything is made of ice.  A wishing tree keeps wishes constantly burning, and feeding off of each other.  The entire circus always smells like popcorn and caramel.  I could go right now.

I listened to the book on CD, and while the reader was great, I think that I may have liked this one even better and found it more powerful, if I had read it myself.  Apparently a movie is in the development stages. If it is done right, it should turn out to be a "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" for adults.

At the end of the book, a visitor to the circus is handed a business card with an "@thenightcircus" email address on it.  Even though I'm an adult, and generally am not suckered in by these gimmicks, I am finding myself oddly tempted to write and let the addressee know that I really love his circus, and think it should swing by Michigan soon.

Next up on CD:  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

At Last

Finally, my mid-workday Googling has paid off!  The NYT Notable Book List for 2012 is online!  Last year, I found the list on line on November 23, so I have been anxiously looking for it for about a week now.  

Two of the books on my TBR list made it - Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  I have been trying to get Bring up the Bodies from my library for quite some time, and I thought that it would finally be available now that the Man Booker Prize hype had died down.  Oh well.  It's sure to be off the shelves for months now.

I was surprised that Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru made the list, given the conflicted reviews that it received from the Times.  The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont made the list too, which was just as unexpected.  No one seems to be talking about that book, and it deserves some publicity.

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn made the list too.  This is the fifth and final book in the Patrick Melrose series.  I haven't read any of this series, but my sister recommends it, and I aggressively hinted that I wouldn't mind if she bought me a couple of the books for Christmas.  I bought Building Stories by Chris Ware as a Christmas gift, and have been feeling a little unsure about whether my intended recipient will like it.  Now at least I can smugly tell him that the Times says he should like it.

What did I add to my TBR list?  I am sure that I could add 5 or 6, but so far, I have only added 3:  The Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz.  The Enchantments is about Rasputin and his family, and sounds perfect.  I love historical fiction about royalty, although my royals are usually British.  This is How you Lose Her has been flirting with my TBR list ever since it came out.  I didn't love The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Diaz, but my favorite character from that book, Yunior, is featured in this collection of short stories.  I had to force myself not to add Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon to the list.  But since I have 3 unread Chabon novels in my nightstand, I feel like I should work my way through some of his oldies before I earn this goody.

Can't wait to read!

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Typical Book Group Report - 8

The Typical Book Group met last night to discuss The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.  There were 10 of us there, which was a pretty good turn out.  Amazingly, we discussed the book for at least an hour.  All but one of us had read the book, and everyone liked it.  I was surprised that we didn't really have much to say about Martha, who was the character who raised the baby.  I also didn't expect people to think that Homan's story was boring.  I was never bored by it, but I was listening on CD, and maybe the reader added more to my experience than I realized.

One thing that bothered us is that we couldn't really explain how Martha's box of letters got to the museum.  My recollection was that the Lynnie read the letters, and I thought that she must have sent them to the museum with her art work.  Others disagreed.  No matter how the letters got to the museum, it didn't make any sense to us that Julia read the letters last.  They were written to her, and were in the house where she was raised, so it seems strange that Julia didn't see them until she stumbled upon them while on a field trip.

After I finished the book, I came across this article in the New York Times about how a power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy resulted in inmates in a halfway house being freed.  Some men apparently went to the women's housing, like the men did in Beautiful Girl.  As much as I like Chris Christie for crossing the lines of politics and complimenting President Obama on his handling of the disaster, I have to think that there is more to this story than the Times has uncovered, and Christie's name seems to be all over it.

Next month we are going to read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Sunday, November 18, 2012

In Love with Marriage

Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh is the story of a man, Ken Kimble, told through the eyes of his three successive wives.  The first, Birdie, was Ken's choir student when he taught at her Bible college in the 1960s.  When Ken leaves, Birdie's life starts a downward spiral, which eventually leads her to a night in a dirty bar straight out of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. In walking away from Birdie, Ken is also walking away from his two children with her, Charlie and Jody.  The next wife, Joan, is older than Birdie, and richer.  For her, Ken forgets his past as a minister, and suddenly becomes a Jewish Realtor.  The third wife, Dinah, is a few years older than Birdie was when Ken married her, but the gap in ages between Dinah and Ken, and the way he treats her as an accessory, leave Dinah feeling "like the punch line to a dirty joke."

The author describes Ken Kimble as a "serial husband", who is somehow able to convince each of his wives that he is exactly what she needs.  That Kimble can accomplish that is something of a feat, as one apparently needed a Christian minister and one would only marry a Jewish businessman.  Haigh maintains that Kimble is not a sociopath, and his wives are not victims.  While he may not be sociopathic, Kimble is absolutely a big fat liar, with no feeling for anyone other than himself.

We are only told about three Mrs. Kimbles, but at the end I was left wondering if there were any more.  When Ken married Birdie, he was already in his thirties, which seems old for a first marriage, for a man so much in love with getting married.

This book sat unread in my nightstand for years.  As such, it is fitting that it is the final book for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  When I picked it up, I thought that there was some connection between Mrs. Kimble and The Hours by Michael Cunningham.  Specifically, I had the notion that this book was supposed to expand on Cunningham's character, Mrs. Brown.  Birdie and Mrs. Brown are cut from a similar cloth, and would probably be great friends, but I can't find any indication that this was intentional.  I think that my idea may have come from the cover of Mrs. Kimble, which shows dresses that three different women would wear.  These are obviously for the three different Mrs. Kimbles, but they actually would fit the three women in Cunningham's novel just as well.

Next up on CD:  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Wrinkle in the Formula

The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller, is the story of a 14 year old girl, Iris, who is starting school in a new town, after her best friend from her former school committed suicide.  Iris has an imaginary friend, Edward R. Murrow, who she speaks to, sometimes aloud.  Iris doesn't need a rubber bracelet on her arm to remind her to ask WWERMD?  because she is constantly asking him what he would do in every situation.  At her new school, Mariana Academy, a group of rebels, who call themselves Prisom's Party, is exposing wrong doing among the staff and students.  However, no one knows who is in Prisom's Party, and the way in which they bring the misdeeds to light is more sensational than informative.  Iris sets off to find out who is in Prisom's Party, and what their motives are, but quickly finds herself tangled between a loyalty that she feels to a teacher and what she will have to do in order to find out more about the secret group.

I first heard about this book when the author, Jennifer Miller, sent me a message on GoodReads saying that since I had given Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl a 5 star rating, I would like her book too.  I was a little leery, thinking that Miller may have self-published her book, but I checked out the reviews on Amazon, and found that people liked The Year of the Gadfly, and that they also compared it to Special Topics.

As you will recall from my discussion of The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont a couple of months ago, there are certain books that follow a formula that I like.  This formula involves a student starting at a new school, identifying a group of students who he or she admires, and then once the student is finally accepted by the group, he or she learns that they are keeping a secret which the student would be better off not knowing.  When I discussed The Starboard Sea, I left out one other important element - there should be a teacher, with some degree of knowledge about the secret, and some involvement with the group.  Books using this formula are Special Topics, The Secret History  by Donna Tartt, and The Hidden by Tobias HillGadfly is also a formula book, with the wrinkle that the story takes place partially in 2000, and partially in 2012.

In the part of Gadfly set in 2000, the story mostly involves Jonah and Justin, who are twin brothers attending Mariana, Hazel, who is a year older, and Lily, who is dating Justin.  In 2012, Jonah has returned as a teacher at Mariana, Hazel has a job in town, and Iris is attending the school, while living in Lily's old house.  In terms of the formula, there are cliques and secrets in both 2000 and 2012, but the outsider isn't really admitted to the clique in either year.  There is a teacher, Jonah, involved in the 2012 story, but not in 2000.  The secret in both years involves the newcomer's admission to the group, and not a separate secret that the new person finds out.

Gadfly  is a complicated story, where the reader really never knows who to trust.  Iris being so young and talking to Murrow gave the story a Harriett the Spy feel which made it seem unsophisticated at first.  I think that Miller has Iris talk to Murrow so that the reader questions whether Iris is a reliable narrator, to add to the confusion.  In the end, everything ties together nicely, without feeling contrived.

In my library, Gadfly was in the mystery section, which I think is a little strange.  It isn't really a mystery - it is more like Iris is investigating what there is to investigate.  I guess that the identity of the people in Prisom's Party is a mystery, but that's not really essential to the story.  I would consider this book to be good prep school fiction, but not a mystery.

Next up:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Saturday, November 10, 2012


It is time once again for my library's biannual book sale!  I went today, and  bought 13 books for my family members, plus 11 books for me, all for $29.50.  Pretty amazing. 

I'm most excited about finding The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott, which has been on my TBR list for a while. 

I also picked up Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, which has been intriguing me.  But, I decided that if I want to read that, I should read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, first.  Death Comes uses Austen's characters, but puts them in a murder mystery.  I was pretty harsh about Austen when I read Emma earlier this year, but my sister informs me that I am *wrong* about her.  Apparently Austen is objectively a great author, and any subjective opinion to the contrary is sadly misinformed.  I'll give her another try, and I did find a nice copy of Pride and Prejudice
I stepped outside of my comfort zone, and checked out the science fiction section this year.  I figured that if some people consider Ready Player One by Ernest Cline to be science fiction, then maybe I like science fiction, and just didn't realize it.  I picked up Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke from that section, which looks like it will take my beloved British historical fiction and mix in a large dose of magic.  It might be interesting. 
Finally, I got new books by authors whose work I have read and liked:  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin; and The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett.  In fact, the sale was so crazy that I got home and realized that I had picked up two copies of Patchett's book, so I gave that, and a great copy of A Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker, which I just couldn't resist, to my friend, Kim.

Once again, I was disappointed not to find any Murakami, and I've never had any luck finding back issues of McSweeney's at these sales.  Apparently, those either are not at all popular in Beverly Hills 48025, or they are so well loved that no one wants to donate them.  My guess is the former.  Oh well.  I think I've got enough to restock my nightstand for another year.

Still Reading:  Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Still Listening to:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Signs of Intelligence

One dark and rainy night, a widow, Martha, is sitting at home, when there is a persistent knock at her door.  She opens it to find an African American man and a white woman, wrapped in blankets and banners.  She lets them in, even though they don't tell her who they are or why they are at her house.  She gives them dry clothes, and is startled to find that they have a baby who they were hiding in their wraps.  Soon, the authorities are at her door, hauling the woman back to her "school", while the man runs off into the darkness.  The woman manages to whisper two words to Martha before she leaves:  "Hide her".  Martha promises that she will. And so begins The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

The story starts off in 1968, and by the end of that year, the reader knows a lot more about Martha, the mysterious woman, Lynnie, and the man, Homan.  Lynnie was brought to the "school", which is actually an institution, by her family, when they felt that they could not handle her anymore.  Now we would call Lynnie intellectually or cognitively impaired, but in 1968, she was a "moron".  After witnessing horrors at the school, Lynnie stopped speaking, and no one seemed to notice.  Homan was born "normal", but lost his hearing after having a fever.  He learned sign language from some neighbors, but never learned to read or write.  He was found in an alley, assumed to be feeble minded since he couldn't speak, and taken to the "school".  Martha is a retired school teacher who thought that her days of learning were long past.  Her former students, who she has remained in touch with, help her to navigate her unexpected new life, as a grandmother.

Lynnie and Homan face incredible challenges over the next few decades due to their inability to communicate.  The world makes assumptions about them, but they each find advocates who help them to be heard.  Their advocates also help them to find their hidden talents, when they don't believe that they have anything worthwhile to contribute.

If Oprah was still picking books (is she?) The Story of Beautiful Girl would have the big O imprinted on the front.   It is destined for a Lifetime (or OWN) movie.  It is a little sappy, but still a sweet read.  I liked that some of the characters were based on real people, including one based on a young Geraldo Rivera.  There was an opportunity for a Water for Elephants ending, which I, personally, would have preferred, but the ending that Simon wrote will make a better movie.

There will be more about Beautiful Girl later in the month, when the Typical Book Group gets together to discuss it.

In other news, remember that card catalogue that I garbage picked in May?  Well, I have "after" photos for you. 

I refinished it, and gave it some legs.  Unfortunately, even with legs, it is a little too short for a coffee table.  So, I am thinking that I will put a cushion on the top, and make it into a window seat instead.

It seems to be just the right height for that.  If only it was a little more cushy. . .

Next up on CD:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Still Reading:  Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
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