Week #14: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Another week, another fairytale. As you can see in my picture above, Erin Morgenstern’s novel contains pages with black and white graphic designs interspersed throughout the text. The colors match the themed palette of Le Cirque des Reves, the night circus of the title. Arriving “without warning” and setting up on the outskirts of town, the circus “Opens at nightfall. Closes at dawn.” Everyone that attends falls in love with the enthralling acts staged in each tent – a medley of contortionists, acrobats, magicians, rides, and mazes.
Enchanting and mysterious, the novel deals with an epic contest between two ancient wizards: Mr. A. H. and Prospero the Enchanter. Each trains a young surrogate for this battle that can only end in the destruction of one of the contestants. Prospero uses his daughter Celia, while Mr. A.H. plucks Marco out of an orphanage. This young pair eventually begins their competition against the backdrop of the circus, where the magicians take turns conjuring up new and exciting tents. Although this rivalry presents itself clearly to the reader, the two surrogates are left to discover the true nature and consequences of their contest on their own. As with any good fairytale, Marco and Celia become star-crossed lovers attempting to subvert their fated end.
Morgenstern’s debut novel is also accompanied by an impressive amount of online content. In addition to a book trailer, Morgenstern’s website boasts an 8tracks playlist (I especially enjoyed track from the Vertigo soundtrack) and a chance to explore the world of the night circus online. I’m not sure that I enjoy book trailers generally, but I do appreciate the musical accompaniment.
Fairytale – check. Romeo and Juliet plotline – check. Happy ending? You’ll have to read to find out.
I had the privilege of attending Dan Ariely’s lecture at the University of Pennsylvania yesterday. Ariely calls himself a behavioral economist, and many of the principles he has researched inform the studies I do at work. His book, Predictably Irrational, has been on my to-read list for a while, and I was excited to attend. In his lecture “Free Beer: Some Experiments in Human Dishonesty”, Ariely detailed some of his recent studies on cheating. These studies show that cheating is common and that many people are creative with their justifications for bending the rules.
Week #14: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Siblings Daphne and George Sawle fall simultaneously in love with the charming poet Cecil Valance after he visits their family’s country estate, Two Acres. Cecil plays both brother and sister, writing the pair poems and stealing kisses when he can. Alan Hollinghurst’s sprawling novel begins in rural England in 1913 and chronicles Cecil’s legacy to the present day. Each time Hollinghurst begins a new chapter, he launches forward a few generations. Although I was hooked during the first book, I lost interest as the story advanced and it became more and more difficult to trace the plot back to Cecil Valance. Exploring issues of both gay English culture and societal classes, the novel was my least favorite of these two.
Week #15: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This mystery seemingly reveals the resolution at the outset: a group of five friends from Hampden College kill their friend Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran. Instead of trying to discover the crime or the culprit, the reader faces a different set of questions: how and why did this group of friends feel the need to murder one of their own?
When narrator Richard Papen finds himself on Hampden’s beautiful Vermont campus, he has only one wish - to join Julian Morrow’s elite Classics class. With only six students, Julian personally tutors each student and creates uniquely tailored curricula for each. Richard ingratiates himself with the other students and soon becomes part of Morrow’s cult-like student body. Honored by their acceptance, Richard ignores the warning signs of the group’s dangerous behaviors. Henry Winter, the wealthy and intellectual leader of the friends, induces the group to perform a Dionysian Bacchanal with calamitous results.
Donna Tartt’s debut novel held my attention long after identifying Bunny’s fate in the prologue. This campus murder mystery slowly unfolds, creating new questions each time one is answered. Despite its unrealistic plotline, Tartt’s novel succeeds partly because of how plausible it seems that these once harmless classics students transform into murderers.
Week #13: Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Nik Worth is a rock star. But no one knows about it.
Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia tells the story of Nik through his sister Denise’s eyes, alternately in third and first person. A guitarist in bands ranging from alternative to experimental to power pop, Nik has been creating music for almost four decades when Denise introduces him in the novel. Nik painstakingly records his journey as a rock star – the tour dates, the album reviews, the liner notes, the news interviews, and even the obituaries – in a set of journals he calls The Chronicles. Denise explains that in spite of the seeming authenticity of these journals, Nik plays the part of all the actors. Although Nik’s music is real, he never goes on tours or talks with reporters. Instead he invents his own critics. He writes both positive and negative reviews of his own work under these pseudonyms. Nik creates and records his own music, but instead of mass release he only makes a few copies of each album for his family and friends.
Denise, dubbed “an alternative version of me” by her brother, never doubts Nik’s talent in spite of his eccentricities. In a novel within the novel, Denise creates her own Chronicle after her brother’s mysterious disappearance. Denise, much like Julian Barnes’ narrator Tony, describes the fallibility of memory as she tries to recreate the seminal events of both her recent and not so recent history. As the narrator, Denise grapples with themes of memory, fame, and identity. The narrative switches awkwardly between her first person journal and brief third person narration. A variety of prose formats reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad but Spiotta did not achieve this deviation as successfully.
Week #13: Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
One out of five stars for this poorly paced story about a British lawyer in Russia. Russian literature intrigues me (I’ve been working on The Brothers Karamazov for the past 3 months) but Miller’s descriptions of setting and characters were superficial. Next!
Week #13: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Normally science fiction captures my fancy more than fantasy, but The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey was the perfect fairytale. Ivey’s novel takes place in 1920’s Alaskan wilderness, where husband and wife Jack and Mabel have relocated to start a new life. The couple has tried desperately but unsuccessfully to have a child, and Mabel especially believes that a change of scenery will lessen her sorrow. Their daily routine is tinged with sadness until one unusually fun evening during their first snowfall. Jack and Mabel throw snowballs, chase each other around the house, and end their night by sculpting a beautiful little snow-girl. They wake up the next morning to find their sculpture, mittens and all, gone. Soon afterwards a little girl turns up at their farm. She comes every few days and sometimes brings gifts like wild berries or small animals for dinner. Faina, the title snow child, refuses to stay overnight or tell Jack and Mabel much about her history. Because the situation mirrors an old Russian fairytale that Mabel read with her father growing up, Mabel feels terrified that her real life will have a similarly tragic ending. Even as Jack learns some tidbits about the girl, the couple and the reader are left wondering whether this girl is human, fairy, angel, or just a figment of the hopeful couple’s imagination.
Eowyn Ivey, an Alaskan native, depicts the setting beautifully. She manages to romanticize the isolated and unforgiving wilderness in a way that (almost) made me want one last snow before spring. Even as a non-parent, I appreciated Ivey’s portrayal of parenthood. Jack and Mabel struggle with letting their daughter go after they feel that they have finally achieved their happy family. I loved the light and dreamy feel of this fairytale even though it wasn’t the deepest thing I’ve read lately. I’ll always be a sucker for fairytales.
Week #12: The Submission by Amy Waldman
The premise of this novel intrigued me from the start: in the wake of 9/11, a contest is held to determine the design of the memorial that will be built at the site of the World Trade Towers. After picking The Garden, the jury is dismayed to discover that the architect of the chosen submission is Mohammad Khan, a Muslim. Uh-oh.
Initially, the jury refuses to announce a winner, sensitive to the reaction of their public. When an aggressive reporter breaks the news that a Muslim man won the competition, Khan steps forward and claims his victory. Khan, although mostly secular, takes his case to the Muslim American Coordinating Council for support. He wants the credit for winning even if it inspires anger and discontent among the families of the victims. When solicited to withdraw his submission, Khan refuses.
The victims prove to be just as unsympathetic. Claire Burwell represents the families of the victims on the jury, and spearheads the campaign to choose The Garden. She, like her fellow jury members, is unaware that her choice will cause such a dilemma. While many of the jury members hesitate to throw support in any direction, Claire persists in her support of The Garden. But under mounting pressure, she struggles to maintain an optimistic outlook for her original choice. Even though The Submission is a work of fiction, I was embarrassed to be American after this telling portrait of ugly Americans.
Author Amy Waldman wrote this novel after many years reporting for the New York Times, and her novel demonstrates her expertise in the world of geopolitics. In addition to the obvious meaning of the title, Islam is the Arabic word for submission. I usually don’t prefer novels about September 11th, but I had high hopes for the creative plot of this book. However, I felt that the novel didn’t quite match up with my expectations. There are characters I would cut out of the book, and the ending seemed contrived. After the plot was laid out, the action slowed too much. I also wish Waldman had created a more likable protagonist in Khan. I did find the novel provocative, and I didn’t begrudge Waldman her use of 9/11 to instigate this discussion.
Week #10: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer was a light interlude after many of my recent reads. The plot closely mirrors Lysistrata, the play that the local high school is performing. Aristophanes penned the comedy, in which the title character persuades all Greek women to withhold sex in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. As the school year begins, a spell is cast over the women of the small town that causes them to withdraw from their men. Not my favorite read so far, but fun.
Week #10: The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Dark and grotesquely violent, Donald Ray Pollock’s novel The Devil All The Time does graphic brutality like many of today’s television crime shows. This gritty story has a few major plotlines, but most action centers on Arvin Eugene Russell. He watches his father Willard deteriorate as his beloved mother Charlotte dies of cancer. Willard brings Arvin along as he sacrifices animals and pours their blood over his makeshift altar in the forest. After Willard’s suicide, Arvin learns to follow his father’s advice to “pick the right time” when enacting his own violence against those that pick on him and his family.
This gripping novel pulled me along in spite of all its violence. I’d recommend this novel for those who like Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds (I’m a fan of both). Also a good for those who are fans of the Southern gothic genre.
Week #9: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Julius Barnes tackles the intricacies of memory in his novel The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Split in two, the novel peeks at narrator Tony Webster’s youth as well as his present. Most of his memories revolve around two people: Adrian Finn, his grade-school friend and Veronica Ford, his university girlfriend. Now retired, Tony receives a call from a solicitor letting him know that he has inherited a small sum and some possessions from Veronica’s mother. As Tony reminisces and untangles memory from imagination, a very surprisingly plot begins to appear. In an interview with NPR, Barnes says:
I have a brother who’s a philosopher. He maintains that almost all memories are false, all fallible, and that memory is the act of imagination, rather than the act of a lucid remembering machine somewhere up in our brains. I have a more sort of old-fashioned, pragmatic view of memory. But I certainly increasingly think that it’s not only faulty but sometimes over-reliant on the imagination.
I do this all the time – look back on certain experiences and remember only the good or only the bad, or believe I remember an event just because I’ve heard a story repeated or seen a picture so many times. Memory is problematic in that way, but as Tony points out, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
Week #9: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Published in 2006, The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud won the praise of the New York Times Book Review (Best Book of the Year in 2006). I admired the novel but didn’t quite agree with the encomiums found on its covers. Messud’s prose was flowery and detailed and I had to keep a dictionary nearby to keep up with her vocabulary. In spite of its nearly 500-page length, I flew through the novel’s short chapters about each character. I wanted to like or identify with the characters but they repelled me as I dove deeper into the story.
Let’s set the scene: Manhattan, spring of 2001, three thirty-somethings. Ten years after their graduation from the elite Brown University, Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke find themselves floundering. Danielle produces documentaries and has enjoyed the most professional success of her friends, yet she feels forced to pursue silly topics in lieu of the more significant issues she prefers. Because of her Midwestern roots, Danielle may be the most sensible of the trio. Marina finds herself living at home in her parent’s ritzy Manhattan apartment after a break-up. After five years of procrastination and no money left from her advance, Marina still hasn’t managed to complete her first book, choosing instead to act as her pundit father’s amanuensis. Julius, both half-Vietnamese and gay and hailing from Michigan, struggles to make ends meet as a freelance critic. When he begins work at a temp agency to pay rent for his shabby apartment, he hides his new job from his wealthier friends in embarrassment. Messud quickly cycles between these three actors, and her omniscient narrator tracks their intersection with three other important characters: Marina’s father Murray Thwaite, Murray’s nephew and devotee Frederick ‘Bootie’ Tubb, and the attractive Australian Ludovic Seeley.
The Emperor’s Children seemed to me an overly harsh depiction of privileged young adults. Although I enjoyed the plot and the pacing, I found myself disliking every character. This may have been Messud’s intention, to comment on the young elite, but I like to cling to at least one likeable or sympathetic character. Young, snobby, overeducated, immoral, and above all else, entitled, these three battle for the title of most despicable. Danielle, usually the moral center of the novel, enters into an affair with her best friend’s father. When Julius finally finds the Pierre to his Natasha he knows he should be satisfied, but instead he finds himself cheating with strangers. Marina’s lack of empathy is eclipsed only by her blind devotion to her father. Murray’s hypocrisy and Ludovic’s sliminess ooze off the page. Bootie may be the least despicable character in the story, but he bites the hand that feeds when he writes a scathing expose about his uncle. Even Marina’s saintly mother Annabel shows weakness when she refuses to acknowledge her husband’s not-so-secret affair.
The way that Messud plops September 11th at the end seems sloppy compared to the rest of the novel. Far from the focus of the novel, the tragic event seemed to be the convenient deus ex machina to tie up the plot. I can forgive her for this device because of how successful the rest of her plot was. Despite my tough review, I would definitely read Claire Messud again.
Week #9: Of Mice and Men
Recently I’ve focused on contemporary novels, but I took a break this week and read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. A short break, because this novella ran only 100 pages. I’m not sure how I missed this in school - I found two copies in our basement because my brothers read the novella as an assignment. Steinbeck impressed me with his eloquent and powerful simplicity. Migrant workers George and Lennie travel from farm to farm looking for work during the Depression. Lennie’s mild mental disability precludes the pair from finding stable employment; every time they find a new job Lennie gets himself into trouble. The novel opens as the two men travel to their next gig. Initially I was exasperated alongside George every time that Lennie asked a question, but eventually I fell in love with Lennie through George’s eyes. As they begin work at their new job everyone from the boss’ ornery son Curley to the black stable buck Crooks gives Lennie a hard time, but George always stands up to protect his friend. Steinbeck also emphasizes the impossibility of achieving the American dream. The pair fantasizes about owning their own farm and “living offa the fatta the lan’,” a sentiment that resonates with the contemporary American dream of home ownership.
After reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, I realized that I had never read Moby Dick. For years I aggressively tried to read every book on top classics lists just to keep up with the allusions made during my English classes. But there are a number of novels I have never gotten to, that I hope to someday…
- In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
- The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
- Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes
- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
- Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
- The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
- Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
Week #8: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper,Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman
Judd Foxman and Tom Violet have many things in common: troubled marriages, vexing bosses, and snarky albeit well-meaning families. I read these novels by Tropper and Norman over the course of one weekend and found a number of similarities that I’d like to compare.
Judd Foxman sits shiva with his family and mother in fulfillment of his father’s dying wish. Mr. Foxman most often acted the atheist, but attended synagogue with his children for Jewish holidays. When asked why he persisted in such ritual, Mr. Foxman replied: “I’ve been wrong before.” The siblings and their celebrity shrink mother share a sarcastic humor that doesn’t jive with the setting of a family death, but that had me laughing at every turn. Judd’s family takes advantage of every chance to tease Judd about the infidelity of his wife Jen. She has cuckolded Judd with his boss, radio shock-jock Wade Boulanger, and the interloper has displaced Judd not only from his marriage but also from his home. Judd’s older sister Wendy potty trains her young children while her husband Barry spends most of his waking moments talking business on his cellphone. Youngest son and playboy Philip arrives with his life coach and now fiancee who is at least 15 years older. Paul, the first son and the only sibling still living at home and running their father’s sporting goods business tries unsuccessfully to conceive with his wife Alice, who also happens to be Judd’s first girlfriend. Judd narrates the novel and provides snapshots of his marriage interspersed throughout his week of grieving. Jen surprises Judd midway through the week with the news of her pregnancy - and guess whose baby it is? You’ll have to read to find out.
Tom Violet works an uninspiring copywriting job and lives in the shadow of his famous novelist father, Curtis. He has written a novel himself, but keeps it locked in his desk drawer at home and allows only his cute junior copywriter to read the draft. Tom’s wife Anna tries everything to inspire Tom in the bedroom in the hopes of having a second baby, but Tom fails to rise to the occasion. When Curtis breaks in one night drunk, he bears good news: he has won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. Thus begins Tom’s descent. He turns down a promotion at work, angers Anna by keeping a secret, and then discovers that his wife may be having an affair and that his daughter Allie may know all about it. When he crosses the line with his coworker, it may be too late for Tom to right things in his life.
Do all young married couples have affairs? Is marriage a doomed institution? And why are seven of the ten books I have read this year written by men? I enjoyed both of these books but I found myself wanting a female’s perspective on the situations pictured in these novels. I agree with Jennifer Weiner that women can write the great American novel just as well as all of those “dudes with MFAs”. New goal for 2012: try to read some of the female literary greats this year.