Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern - Guest Review by Adina Ciment

Guest review by Adina Ciment

I have to be honest here. I picked up Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011) for two reasons: first, because I shamelessly bought into the hype surrounding it, and second, because I really liked the cover. Add the two main topics of the novel – circuses and magic – and I was pretty much sold. Call me a sucker for promotional gimmicks, but whatever it was, it worked.

The Night Circus tells the story of two master magicians, the extraordinary competition between their two protégés, and the wondrous circus that serves as the backdrop for their games. While Marco and Celia, the star-crossed pair who find themselves caught up in the manipulations of their respective teachers, are the main show in this circus of dreams, Morgenstern paints a collage of other characters whose stories and personalities unfold within the circus walls. In fact, there are so many principal players here that at times you might feel like you’re lost in the freak-show tents. From astonishing contortionists and exclusive midnight parties, to dark magic and fantastical engineers, the circus comes alive on the pages of the book. Cool cover notwithstanding, this is a book that lives up to the hype.

Though the rivalry between the magicians drives the plot, the circus itself is the centerpiece here. The Night Circus opens at nightfall and “arrives without warning” with its black and white striped tents. This Cirque des Reves is certainly the greatest show on Earth, and Morgenstern gives you a front row seat. Each section of the novel begins with a personal tour of the circus written in second person. You walk between the sideshows and watch the tents grow and expand as the circus becomes more elaborate and magical. In essence, you become a reveur - the term used to describe the people who follow the Night Circus like Phish fans.

As fantastic and magical as the circus is, it quickly becomes clear that it takes more than pixie-dust to run the show. This is a dark story, with brooding characters and menacing magic. Circuses are freaky enough by themselves without the added bonus of workers who don’t age, shadowless producers, and unusually prophetic twins who seem like they stepped out of The Shining. Though any circus that sets up at night and never has a midday matinee should be a warning sign, most visitors and virtually all the workers ignore the very real magic in front of them. When they start to realize that something is amiss, they are pretty much too far involved to extricate themselves from the power of the Night Circus and the competition between Marcos and Celia. 

Morgenstern’s pacing is slow, but her descriptions of the circus and its various attractions are definitely fun to read, though there were some I had trouble visualizing. The narrative jumps between times and locations that tend to get confusing, particularly at the end as the chapters become more concise. At a certain point I needed to backtrack and figure out where I was in the story. The competition itself is so shrouded in mystery that for the majority of the book, you’re reading blind, so to speak, without any real way of knowing where it’s heading. Some readers might enjoy that, but others might find it distracting. In addition, the love scenes between Marcos and Celia are a bit over the top. I found myself rolling my eyes as lights burst and chandeliers shook each time they touched.

There are many books about circuses, and Morgenstern’s is right up there with the best, though clearly more aligned with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes than Gruen’s Water for Elephants. The Night Circus is one of those rare novels that you will want to revisit and explore long after the tents have folded. Grab your red scarf and get comfortable. You’re in for a treat.

Adina Ciment is an English teacher by day, mother of five by night, soon-to-be famous author in between. She writes for Tailslate and has contributed to The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. You can also find her on twitter. It is always a delight to have her as a guest here on Books, Personally - she is the author of this outstanding ode to the marvelous Molly Weasley and this brilliant holiday gift recommendation.

Happy reading!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Daring Books for Grown Up Girls

This weekend finds me off to the remote internetless wilderness at the end of the earth a scout lodge on a winter campout. While I'm out summoning up all my own daring (and in case I get eaten by a bear), I thought I'd leave you with a few excellent short story collections that depict women's lives with honesty, emotional range, complexity, and yes, daring writing.

Author Elissa Schappell holds nothing back in Blueprints for Building Better Girls (Simon & Schuster, 2011) the stories are raw, often heartbreaking and resonant, covering the terrain of relationships, marriage, conception, motherhood, self-image, high school ostracism, eating disorders and assault. If you are like me, you may find yourself urging this book on your closest friends when you are done. I was also thrilled to have the chance to ask Ms. Schappell some questions, and absolutely loved her very open, very forthright answers about the collection, writing about women, her own writer's journey, and her work as an editor at Tin House literary magazine. You can read the interview here.

This is Not Your City by Caitlyn Horrocks (Sarabande Books, 2011) is an elegant and yet unsettling debut. One of my favorites in the collection was “Steal Small,” in which a woman, just scraping by, reflects on the past while struggling to make peace with her present. It is a hard existence, she and her husband each working low-wage jobs, collecting and selling want-ad dogs to pharmaceutical companies for extra cash. Her closest family, a younger sister, is in another city starting college. Just as the woman was unable to protect her sister in childhood, she is unable to protect the dogs now. She is grateful, however, for what little she has, and in one of the most beautiful lines in the book, one that I thought summed up Horrocks’ take on her characters in general, she offers:
If this is what I get in this world, I’ll take it. Love and squalor, but mostly love. I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.
Horrocks does not shy away from complicated moral and emotional terrain in any of her stories, and her characters own the complexity of their feelings — they are not sorry. The stories may leave a reader pondering, uncomfortable, surprised and even disturbed, but they are all striking. 

Access: Thirteen Tales, by Xu Xi (Signal8Press, 2011)
While most of the stories in this collection are told from the point of view of Asian women, this is perhaps the only connecting theme, for each takes the reader in completely new and unexpected directions, radically shifting perspectives between types of women, circumstances, and even countries. Xi’s characters are – in constantly shifting combinations – smart, desirous, powerful, heartbroken, damaged, dutiful, hungry, jealous, sometimes defying convention and sometimes struggling under their compliance with it. The stories in Access tend to challenge, they’ve got a bit of an edge, and don’t even always leave the reader with clearly defined conclusions. But for the more adventurous lover of short, literary fiction, Access may be both a very memorable introduction to Xu Xi (recipient of an O. Henry prize; author of seven books of fiction and essays, one of which was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize; and editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong literature in English) and also a striking reminder of why it is well worth expanding one’s reading horizons beyond the familiar and the comfortable.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, release date March 2012) is about women and their most fundamental relationships — to lovers, spouses, children and parents — and their most primal hopes, disappointments, fears and desires — the loss of a parent, fear of loneliness, the desperate wish to have a child. What makes the stories most unique is their profound and beautifully observed connections to nature, and most notably, to animals. The animals in this collection are as important as the human characters themselves, and Bergman draws upon her own first-hand experience to write about them with exceptional insight and expertise (her husband is a veterinarian, and lives with four dogs, four cats, two goats, a horse, and a handful of chickens). Bergman is also the mother of two and a professor at Bennington College. I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask her about her work, teaching, and forging a writing life in the midst of all those animals, you can read the interview here.

Have you read any daring books for grown up girls recently? Share in the comments!

These reviews were originally published in longer form at Complimentary review copies of all three books were provided by the publishers; all opinions expressed are my own. 

Happy Reading!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Eye: LitStack Flash Fiction Challenge #2

The following is my entry for the LitStack Flash Fiction Challenge #2. Writing at 5am... not so sure how this will read later today, but here goes...

For what seemed like the millionth time in his career (if you could call it that) Miles pressed a chloroform soaked cotton ball to the top of the vial and waited for the Drosophilia melanogaster to still. The fruit flies dropped to the bottom, dead. Miles carefully tipped them onto a tray and began preparing a slide.

And so began every dreary day: Alarm, coffee, car, beltway, flies, flies, flies, car, beltway, tv, bed - and then it started all over again. Daylight hours spent, not in actual daylight, but under the artificial light of the lab. Miles felt a bit like a fruit fly in a vial himself.

He gently lifted one of them with his tweezers and placed it carefully on the the glass. Miles could do this by rote and his mind often wandered. In his fantasies, he was floating untethered, completely unbounded in space.  He imagined his limbs buoyed and soothed by weightlessness, his spirit calmed by the absence of walls and infinity of the universe. But today Miles was stirred from his daydream by a noise never before heard in the lab. A soft, but clear hum.

Miles put the tweezers down and looked around. All of the other technicians were still hunched over microscopes, seemingly oblivious. He listened again, there it was. Miles slipped out of the lab. Now on high alert, he followed the hum down the hallway. Surely something in the utility area, he ought to just call a custodian. But when he turned down the next corridor there was an opening, what looked like an air shaft missing its grate. The hum was louder and seemed to be calling to him.  He slipped inside.

The shaft wasn’t much larger than Miles, and for a moment he panicked. But the hum was now more of a buzz that came from somewhere ahead. He felt the vibrations under his hands and knees, and crawled faster. After what seemed like hours, the shaft gave way to a tunnel in which Miles could almost stand. It was odd, but he felt freer in this cramped tunnel than he’d felt anywhere in years. He walked on, feeling his way through the near darkness until he eventually reached a larger tunnel, which finally gave way to a huge cavern. What was this place? Did his supervisor know?

The hum had by now become a deafening roar, and as Miles peered across the cavern, he saw an enormous glowing oval, made up of smaller, geometric rods. Mesmerized, he walked closer and reached up to touch them. Miles suddenly realized what they were and stopped. These were ommatidia, and this was an eye. A behemoth of an insect’s eye. Welcome, he heard it hum. Welcome home.

Miles looked up, and around, taking in the vastness of this eye and its owner. He reached out his hand again, this time extending it right into the radiance. He smiled, and in an instant he was gone.

# # #

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Thorn and the Blossom

The Thorn and The BlossomA Two-Sided Love Story
Theodora Goss, Quirk Books, 2012

You can always expect the unexpected from the creative, innovative and, well, quirky Quirk Books. The Philadelphia-based independent publisher is the literary home of the NYT bestselling, runaway hit Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, the itch-inducing thriller Bedbugs, and now the charmingly designed The Thorn and The Blossom, A Two-Sided Love Story.

From the publisher: "The Thorn and the Blossom tells the story of Evelyn Morgan, who, when she walks into the Thorne & Son bookshop, meets the love of her life. When Brendan Thorne hands her a medieval poem called The Book of the Green Knight, he doesn’t know that it will shape his future. After that first meeting, they don’t see each other for years—and yet neither ever stops thinking about the other. It’s as if they are the haunted lovers in the old book itself... ."  What makes this book unique is that the tale of Evelyn and Brendan's romance is told twice- once from Brendan's point of view, and once from Evelyn's. Their stories are printed on opposite sides of accordion-fold paper with a spineless binding, allowing the reader to choose which story to read first.

The book is truly very pretty, and it is clear the publisher has taken a lot of care with the details. The cover art reminds one of an embroidered tapestry such as you might find hanging in The Cloisters, the book is printed on fine quality paper, with beautiful title pages and endpapers, and comes in an attractive sleeve. First impression: perfect for gifting. The pictures depicting the hero and heroine (of the modern story and the Green Knight poem) at the beginning of each story remind us of the prints or etchings found in antique books, hearkening back to medieval times. The concept of the dual stories, and the idea of Brendan and Evelyn's connection to the original characters in the poem, hold much promise.

How does one decide which story to read first? For no particular reason, I chose Brendan's story. The novel itself is very brief (the length limited, I'm guessing, in part by the unusual design) and I read through it briskly and for the most part, enjoyably. There is not a lot of depth to the characters, or much complexity to the plot, but The Thorn and the Blossom makes no pretense of being a sweeping novel or a literary heavyweight of a book. It is a simple tale of out-of-step lovers, with a hint of enchanted connection to the past. As far as the romance goes, it's a little unfulfilling - there's an open-endedness to the two stories that, while it encourages you to continue onto the other side, doesn't leave one feeling exactly satisfied in the end. Overall more style than substance, but stylish indeed.

If you would like to learn more about the book and see the accordion fold in action, check out this trailer:

Happy Reading!

I received a complimentary copy of The Thorn and the Blossom from the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Three Good Things for the New Year

Sometime over the past few weeks, we hit the one-year mark here on the blog - woo hoo! It has been an awesome, awesome year - many thanks to all of you who, in one way or another (readers, commenters, sharers, writers, guest posters and interviewees) have helped to make it so fun, and so very rewarding. Hard to imagine life without it now (though I like to think I'd be doing more - er, make that, any - yoga, or have become fluent in another language, or something healthy like that instead).

One of my 2012 resolutions (and perhaps it was one of yours, as well) was to keep working on my non-blogging writing. At the rate I'm going, I might have a publishable short story, in oh... say... a decade or two. But it's fun, when I get to it, and it definitely gives me far greater insight and appreciation for all you writers and authors out there. So with the art and practice of writing in mind, I'd like to share a few good things to encourage and inspire writers in the New Year:

  • The online journal Necessary Fiction not only publishes wonderful short fiction, reviews and more, but also offers two series that more deeply explore the writing process itself. The first, Origin Stories, invites authors and writers to look back at and share some of their earlier work, and to discuss inspirations, influences, and their own development (the post from Matt Bell about his story "Blanket" is an excellent place to start). The second, Research Notes invites writers to consider the information-gathering process (defined as broadly as they want) that went into their first books - for example, Ryan Bradley writes about pumping gas and other life experiences as research for his upcoming book Code for Failure.)
  • Back by popular request: the LitStack Flash Fiction Challenge (formerly the BDCWB Flash Fiction Challenge). This is a fun and very friendly way to get the creative juices flowing - LitStack posts a photo prompt, you write up to 500 words, post it on your blog or tumblr or what-have-you, and leave a link in LitStack's comments. It is wonderful to see how the same picture leads to such different stories. Everyone is welcome, so please join in! Check out our first prompt here, and come back this Wednesday for a new round.

Happy reading... and writing!


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Zazen, Vanessa Veselka

by Vanessa Veselka, Red Lemonade, 2011

Della is tormented by the violence and sadness in the world around her: a world that has succumbed to the hyper-consumerism of big box stores, big box banks, and big box churches; a world torn apart by social strife, race and class violence, militarism, terrorism. War is looming. Many of those who can, have left; those who can't, or won't, struggle to make sense of it. Della moves between the different people and strains of the counterculture - community organizers, vegans, yogis, her own 1960's style hippie liberal parents - seeking a place that makes sense to her, striving to find solace and a salve to the pain, to the Weltschmerz of her existence. She flirts with taking action of her own, calling in bomb threats without planting bombs, until suddenly bombs actually go off in the places she chose. She seeks connection in a nearby collective. Della finally feels at home, until she uncovers a secret, and must finally come to terms with how she will be in the world.

This book was, in some ways, a challenge read for me, and I knew that going in. Zazen came so highly recommended I had to give it a try, and am glad I did. Veselka captures, in often beautiful, exciting, and poetic language the atmosphere of this world in collapse, the ironies and details of the counterculture movements she describes (yet also eliciting the sincerity and humanity in them as well). I found Della herself to often be so self-involved in her own pain and fragility it was alternatingly enchanting and excruciating to read, and for a good part of the novel I both wondered whether (and hoped beyond all hope) this was intentional. I should not have doubted; eventually it becomes clear that this is the author's intent -Veselka even calls attention to it in a confrontational moment as events begin to escalate.

The author herself is quite fascinating, having had many non-traditional professions before writing this novel, and the breadth of her knowledge and experience comes through brilliantly in her writing. If you would like to know more about her, I highly recommend this interview with Vanessa Veselka over at The Rumpus. The publisher, Red Lemonade is also quite interesting, having founded an online community in which writers can share their works in progress with readers, getting feedback as they go along.

Zazen may not be a read for everyone, but it will appeal to thinkier readers, writers, folks who are drawn to stories that explore collapsing societies and identity and morality. I found it to be very thought provoking, if not always an easy read. If the story sounds like your kind of story, and Della a character who would intrigue you, it's well worth your time.

I received my copy of Zazen as a gift.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Story Sundays: Comma, Hilary Mantel

"Comma," by Hilary Mantel (in The Guardian, August 13, 2010) is a dark and suspenseful story of a little girl and her forbidden friendship with Mary Joplin, a slightly older child from a less well off, looked-down upon family. Despite being warned away from Mary, the narrator sneaks out with her, and the two girls spend their summer days exploring the town, especially sneaking onto the grounds of the home of the Hathaways, a wealthy family who lives just beyond the graveyard. Mary insists that if they watch long enough, they will see the "comma", and one night they stay late enough that they do. The tenderness they witness there brings out Mary's jealousy, and causes her to act out.

I've been meaning to read Hilary Mantel's books for a while but haven't gotten to them yet, and so was delighted to have the chance to get to know her writing a bit through this short story. I especially enjoyed the way she captured the tension and inequalities inherent in this unlikely relationship - they put the reader on alert. The narrator is drawn to Mary because she is different, taboo, and perhaps a bit dangerous. But while she goes to meet her every day, the narrator carefully navigates her ambivalence about the friendship, for she is not exactly a loyal friend to Mary. When the girl makes excuses about her whereabouts to her mother and aunt, she makes them at Mary's expense, and they all have a good laugh over the Joplin family. The story ends with a later-in-life meeting between the now-grown women, the emotional content of which rings stark and a bit sad, but sadly true.

You can read Comma here. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the story. For those of you who have read other books by Hilary Mantel, how does "Comma" compare? Which of her books do you most recommend? Are you looking forward to the soon-to-be released sequel to Wolf Hall?

Story Sundays are all about short fiction here on the blog. This weekly meme was created by Ellen at Fat Books, Thin Women and is also celebrated at Novelniche: A Place for Books. Be sure to check out their blogs for wonderful short fiction selections and other excellent reviews. All stories reviewed can be read free online.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Snakehunter of Liberty Grove: LitStack Flash Fiction Challenge

The following flash fiction piece is my entry in LitStack's Flash Fiction Challenge #1, based on the photo prompt you see on the left. (By the way, everyone is invited to join in! Just check out the photo prompt,  let your imagination take you where it will, post your story up to 500 words and leave a link in the comments of the challenge post at Happy writing!)

It was said that Corey Mayfield’s soul must have been owned by the devil, for how else could anyone look right into a serpent’s eyes, hypnotize the wicked adder into submission, and send it to kingdom come with a single flick of his knife or, under certain circumstances, the blunt end of his pistol? Corey’s pitiable lack of salvation didn’t stop the farmers and ranchers for sending for him when a particularly menacing rattler or sidewinder made its way onto the property and threatened the livestock, but it did stop their wives from inviting him to stay for supper after the job was done, though not from gossiping about him in town or at church socials. As one might expect, Corey kept his own company, with the exception of venturing into the saloon on the occasional Saturday afternoon for two beers and a whiskey, but never a game of cards, and rarely a conversation.

You could have heard the flick of an asp’s tongue the day Maisy Jaspers strolled into Davison’s just as carefree as you please, chin high, basket tucked into the crook of her arm and the brazen notion that Mr. Mayfield might possibly care to join her on a picnic down yonder by the creek. And damned if Corey didn’t look her fixedly in the eye and declare that yes, ma’am, indeed he might, especially if that fine aroma meant blueberry pie. Damned also if he didn’t take one last sip of his beer and leave the whiskey right there on the table, push back his chair, stand up, place his hat on his head, take her arm, and go.

After that, Maisy and Corey were often seen in each other’s company.  Maisy’s family were decent folk, her mother active in the ladies guild and her father in The Grange. No one understood what could cause Maisy to behave in such a fashion, though several of her friends confided that that Mr.Mayfield certainly was an attractive man, albeit an unusual one, and giggled about what Miss Maisy must have come to know about Mr. Mayfield that they didn’t. The older ladies outwardly expressed their horror and inwardly sighed a breath of relief that here, at last, was gossip of a truly juicy variety. Maisy’s mother pursed her lips;  Maisy’s father was grateful for the farmwork that kept him mostly in the fields and out of the town, where people tended to stare.

Maisy and Corey raised five beautiful children, each of whom could charm a snake every bit as well as their father, and though they were odd, people came to accept them. When Corey passed on at 83, having encountered a copperhead he hadn’t (what with age-weakened eyesight and hearing) seen or heard with fair enough warning to pull his knife or pistol, all the townspeople came to the service. He was buried in his finest, the ones you see here, and that is how we remember him to this day, the Snakehunter of Liberty Grove.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Be it Bookishly Resolved

Happy New Year! 

January! Nothing like a brand new, clean, uncluttered calendar page to get the imagination going and inspire a fresh start. I'm not always one for making resolutions, but have been feeling recently that I'm spending more time doing things I ought to do, and not carving out enough time for the things I want to do. With that in mind, here are a few of my bookish and bloggish resolutions for 2012 - what are yours?

  • Write more (fiction, not reviews). Preferably something that isn't completely dreadful - but will take whatever comes as part of the learning process.
  • Continue to blog slowly* (have drifted, mostly out of necessity, into a once or twice a week posting schedule, and have found that works really well for me... if not as well for the page hits)
  • Do more of what I love best on the blog: writer/author Q&As, Three Good Things, and Story Sundays.
  • Read some new literary magazines
  • Spend less time/spend more productive time on the computer (errr... hmm.)
  • ...and on a non-bookish note: get back to doing yoga... and cut down on the cookies.

Wishing you a happy & healthy New Year! Are you a resolution maker - why/why not? What aspirations do you have for the New Year?

*see Anne R. Allen's philosophy on blogging