Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des RĂªves, and it is only open at night. But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway — a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

This is a story about a circus, and a man and a woman, and immortality, and consequences, and sense and sensibility, and being a pawn in someone else's games, and magic (of course there is magic), and love, which is a kind of magic. But more than anything it is a story about life, where everything is connected and where everything we do today is a part of where we will end up tomorrow, and where there is only one ending to the game.
This book didn't captivate me immediately but rather grew on me. At first I thought that first and second person narration was getting on my nerves, and that the jumping around in place and time was too hard to follow. Then the former made me feel as if I were part of the story and the latter became almost a game of figuring out when the "you" parts were set. And then it was all clear and when for the very first time I saw the different narrator's stories coming together like branches on a tree all connecting to the trunk a delicious shiver ran through me and I knew that this was going to be just the right kind of book to keep me up at night. Which it most marvelously did.
For some reason before I picked it up I thought that this was a YA novel, which probably has something to do with the cover blurb about young magicians. Yet from the very first pages it was obvious that a YA novel it is not. For starters the main characters aren't all that young, the story is more elaborate than it is in your average YA novel, there are too many variables for the book to be straightforward, and nobody has any doubts as to their own identity (although I questioned the identities of a few characters, and still do), so there is no point in journeys of self-discovery. Finally the very style of writing and the language put it firmly in the adult category, or at least new adult, which has recently emerged.
There aren't any spells and the mechanics of magic aren't revealed enough for people to start putting magical formulas on t-shirts, because after all the spells aren't that important here, there are matters much more pressing than knowing how exactly the heroine makes her dress change color. I did love though that those who are capable of doing magic in this novel are the quiet, bookish types, who will get lost in a library on purpose. I also loved how great a role books played in the story, I think all bibliophiles will get a thrill out of that. And those who belong to any kind of fandom will be delighted to see themselves and their peers in this story. Fandoms are not to be underestimated and Morgenstern takes a close and intimate look at this phenomenon. Something tells me she herself belongs to one.
There are so many things I want to add but they would be so terribly spoilerish that I think I will stop here and will only tell you one last thing: I borrowed this novel from the library because I tend to not re-read books, but as I turned the last page I knew that I had to get a copy for my collection because for me this one is a keeper.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Special Feature: Happenings

NPR's Interview with Paula Byrne discussing how small objects reveal 'The Real Jane Austen'.
Saving The Sounds Of America: the Library of Congress has released a plan for preserving the country's long but fragile archive of recorded audio
The Book of Kells has been digitized and is now free to view online in its entirety. Happy St. Patrick's day!

Lara Santoro of Huffington Post asks Are Women In Fiction More Limited?
Patrick Wensink's take on why indie authors, no matter how near the top of the best-seller lists, don't talk about money.

The Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly The Orange Prize) longlist has been announced.
Barnes & Noble isn't doing so well with its Nook sales. According to NY Times they are looking at discontinuing the Nook line. Hope not.
Debut authors writing short stories, as well as novel-writers, rejoice! More literary fiction imprints coming for Amazon.

Write Place, Write Time: where authors create

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

When I first finished Frankenstein I was glad it was over, primarily because of Victor Frankenstein, the selfish brat that he is. I just couldn't stand how nothing was ever his fault or responsibility, how self-absorbed he was, how uncaring and unkind. I also felt sorry for the monster, who is a victim of circumstance if there ever was one. And then I thought about it some more, after all there has to be more to it than it simply being one of the first novels that are considered modern science fiction for it to have stood the test of time.
The first thing that popped into my mind was "Ok, I can see the moral lesson: don't be like that guy, he's awful". Then the layer of "faults of obsession" registered. Then the cliche "don't judge the book by its cover" surfaced, along with examples from the text and ruminations about what this kind of judging does to the book, as it were. Then the new thought came to mind that although Victor Frankenstein refers to his creature as the monster it is he who is truly monstrous. Not a new idea, but it was new to me. And so I found depth in the novel and looked past the fact that a creature who barely learned to speak was reading the works of prominent philosophers and had no trouble processing and applying it all, or that the scientist is an abhorrent creature. I appreciated the lesson of applying moderation to the pursuit of passions, as well as the lesson of not forgetting those who love you while chasing after a dream. I fully understood why it's still around after almost two centuries.
It's still too slow-paced for the modern reader and the heart-rending terror Mary Shelley was going for is not anywhere as effective as it might have been in the 1800s (I imagine too many episodes of Law & Order, CSI, Criminal Minds and local news broadcasts are to blame for that) but although I didn't love it I still recommend it as an excellent examination of certain sides of the human character and nature, as well as for the value of taking a closer look at the forerunner of an entire literary genre. Just don't expect a mute green creature with bolts sticking out if its neck, that's all Hollywood's doing.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

The first time I read Dracula was in high school and I read it purely for entertainment. Back then it seemed ok, definitely entertaining but I remember thinking that I didn't know what all the fuss was about. Fast forward 15 years. I signed up for a fantasy and science fiction course on Coursera and Dracula was on the syllabus. I was curious to read it again and see how different my impressions would be.
I don't know whether it's because this time I was watching for more than a bloodsicking monster in order to successfully complete the course assignment or because I am generally more attentive in my reading these days, but this time around it seemed like I was reading a completely different book. It still didn't spook me (people in Stoker's time were much more impressionable) but I did understand why it's considered a classic and is so highly esteemed in the literary circles.
Stoker's theater experience informed him in the importance of voice in character development, which sometimes made it necessary to read out loud but at the same time gave the narrative flavor. Stoker got the regional and international accents to sound authentic and my husband and I still joke around using Van Helsing's reference to an episodic character as "loud and red of face but a good fellow all the same". Another fun Suspence was a vital part of the book and while some ends were never tied it made the generally familiar story seem fresh. I didn't always see the point of how many characters there were and that spoiled the experience a little bit - there are only so many people this reader can keep track of!
My favorite part of this novel was the incredible layering of social, psychological and economic issues. I would've never noticed this before so the discovery was that much sweeter. There were references to the early feminist movement rerred to as the New Woman, classes, position in society, insanity, a look into what it takes to deceive in broad daylight and how to make witnesses more forthcoming with information. I felt like I was peeking in at a real society while reading this novel, because while things like bribes and break-ins may not be a daily occurrence they are a part of life and I liked that Stoker included them in the book.
Reading the novel this time I noticed Mina's references to the New Woman, which made me curious about this movement. Having looked it up I saw that she was in a way an early feminist: she had a job and undertook additional training in disciplines not very common at that time, such as typing and stenography. She was very intelligent and enterprising, and she was the center of the "six degrees of Mina" group (which in this case is more like two than six). Her input was crucial and her health is an indicator of the group's progress. And yet she was traditional in a very old-fashioned way, which combined with the general attitude towards women as feeble-minded and neurotic to the point of ineffectiveness irked me. The more Van Helsing praised Mina's "man's brain" I wondered what the wide-spread opinion about "woman's brain" was at the time. I didn't get a sense that it was particularly complimentary. Without a doubt life for women in the 19th century left much to be desired.
If you haven't read Dracula yet, whether that's because you don't read vampire books or because you only read modern fiction, I highly recommend that you make an exception - this book isn't so much about vampires as it is about 19th century England and about human nature, which isn't subject to time.