Thursday, August 30, 2012

Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Alison Wonderland
by Helen Smith

I do not pick up books I think I will dislike. Unlike some more traditional reviewing positions, I am not "assigned" books, and there are more out there that I want to read than I ever will be able, so every book I decide to read has promise. Something about it struck me as interesting, and in the case of Alison Wonderland, it was probably the London location mixed with a bit of mystery that made me open the cover. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be a hot mess. If it had been any longer than its 189 pages, I don't think I would have finished. And while of course no author wants to hear that — and there are readers out there who think that unfavorable reviews of small press books are bad form — I think that Helen Smith is capable of a better book. I know she has others (I have not read them) and that this is an early book of hers, but Alison Wonderland suffers from a lack of focus both in character and plot. The writing itself is not bad, nothing extraordinary, but not overly cringe-worthy and cliché-filled either. Still, somewhere along the line, someone needed to say, "What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish here?"

The basic premise is this: Alison Temple works for the same all-female private investigative firm that busted her cheating (now ex-)husband. She is assigned to pay attention to a company that might be involved in some shady genetic engineering. Mostly though, she spends time talking to her nutter best friend Taron and her love poem-writing, inventor neighbor, Jeff. Taron's mother, who thinks she is a witch, is sick and she tells Taron that she thinks she needs a baby in order to be cured. Taron, as though it is perfectly natural, pays Alison to research where babies are frequently abandoned. Also, nefarious military types have stolen Taron's address book, believing it is Alison's, and they are busy roughing up the people listed trying to find out what she knows.

Each of these "plot" points run out of steam quickly. Characters who are so committed to something on one page suddenly seem to go, "Oh, never mind" on the next, and it's on to the next loopy scene. For some reason, Smith felt the need to tell the story from multiple points of view. Alison's story is told from the first person, but everyone else is in the close third. There is nothing gained by this other than superfluous information about minor characters. Anything that we find out in those third person chapters could have easily been rewritten as discoveries made by someone who is supposed to be an investigator.

Alison herself is one of the most inconsistent characters, and part of me wondered if the whole book was just some sort of fevered cokehead dream. She and Taron are snorting up by page 14, and no big deal of it is made, so one assumes that it is a regular occurrence. On one page, she can seem quite clever — for instance, telling people at bars that she's a TV researcher so that she can talk about the people she investigates like documentary subjects — and then later, I was rereading paragraphs, thinking, This woman is beyond barmy.

When I first learned to drive and I bought petrol, I went to great lengths to trickle the final drops into the petrol tank so it cost a round amount of money like ten pounds. Now I try and spend ₤19.87 or ₤20.04 or some other amount that I hope will disturb the cashier's sense of neatness and uniformity. I'm bluffing him, hoping he'll think I cannot control the petrol trigger properly because I'm not a man.

Honey, that cashier is not even fully paying attention to you or anyone else filling up their tank. I've worked that job. We do not care about petrol charge uniformity; we care about getting a paycheck, hopefully without crazy people such as yourself coming through the door.

She is equally erratic when it comes to her friends. With Taron, she thinks, "I'd quite like to drive around with her forever and never have to do another day's work again," (no kidding, since you hardly seem to work now), yet she is always thinking about how she finds Taron's habits irritating. Also, she seems to have no qualms about assisting her in the abandoned baby mission. Then, she rambles on to Jeff the Neighbor about Taron in a block of dialogue that's... problematic.

"I like her. I know she can be a bit weird sometimes. I can never believe anything she says, she makes it up as she goes along. It doesn't matter. I find it quite difficult to trust anyone anyway after I caught my husband cheating on me, so I might as well be friends with someone with a fairly relaxed grip on the trust. She's a lot of fun though. She's always up for it."

Jeff is quiet, still working. [ed. That's because he has long since tuned out your BLATHER.]

"I didn't realize how much time I spent on my own until I started seeing her. I wasn't lonely, exactly. I spent a lot of time on my own, though. I've got you, of course. I like spending time with you, too. Thanks for telling me about the yabbie [crayfish] thing. That's funny. I'll call you while we're away. I'll miss you."

No one talks like this. This is not Shakespeare soliloquy time. Also, she's quite mean to Jeff in the way she soaks up his attention but never returns it, though at least she has the decency to realize that later.

The investigation and the baby-finding plots are only barely linked, almost by accident, and the more fantastical elements — psychic postmen, magical thinking, etc. — are not played up enough if that's the direction Smith wanted to go. And if this really is some sort of drugged up nonsense, then that should be more clear. As far as the "Wonderland" usage goes, it's a one-note joke used maybe twice, and the Lewis Carrol references stop there. Either the joke needs to be lost — and either way, the book needs a better title since it's not only from Alison's point of view — or it needed to be a modern retelling. Bizarre characters and investigation elements certainly could have accomplished this, but as the book stands, it's nothing but Alison's out of control car going round the bend and straight off the cliff.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author. I thank her for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews. 


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Record Machine: Evidence - Cats & Dogs

Evidence's Cats & Dogs album is actually my husband's. Jeff Scolley recently bought it for him while on a trip to Portland. The mister listens to far more hip-hop than I do, but I liked this well enough. The real reason why I am posting it has more to do with Ooh, colored vinyl than me being a big fan.

Pink and green! I love it.

Song list:

(Green) Side A:
1. The Liner Notes (f/ Aloe Blacc)
2. Strangers
3. The Red Carpet (f/ Raekwon and Ras Kass)
4. It Wasn't Me

Side B:
5. I Don't Need Love
6. You
7. God Bless that Man
8. Fame (f/ Roc Marciano and Prodigy)

(Pink) Side C:
9. James Hendrix (StepBrothers)
10. Late For the Sky (f/ Slug & Aesop Rock)
11. Crash
12. Where You Come From? (f/ Rakaa, Lil Fame and Termanology)

Side D:
14. To Be Continued...
15. Falling Down
16. Well Runs Dry (f/ Krondon)
17. The Epilogue

(2011 Rhymesayers)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Record Machine: Walter/Wendy Carlos and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

To anyone paying attention (perhaps all 6 of you), it might have seemed as though I'd forgotten about my Record Machine project. No, I've just been lazy about listening to vinyl, a.k.a I needed to clean off all the stuff I'd accumulated on top of the player.

However, when I was looking through some of my inherited vinyl collection and I saw the title The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, I thought, "Well, now I have to know what something called that sounds like."

Turns out, a lot like this:

YouTube is not particularly forthcoming with songs from the album itself. Released in 1969 by Colombia, this collection of classical tunes ala synth sort of made me feel like I was at a RenFaire in the 1980s. Or perhaps a bizarro episode of Downton Abbey. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Walter-now-Wendy Carlos also contributed music to the films A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and the 1982 version of Tron.

The Well-Tempered Synthesizer: Back Liner Notes

Well-Tempered Synthesier: SongList

(Click on through to Flickr for a more in focus song listing.)

This album is a follow-up to Switched-On Bach, another synth-filled album, which won 3 Grammys in 1969, including Classical Album of the Year. Again, somewhat unsurprisingly, that album is sitting in my dad's old collection too. I'm not sure how he acquired these two, as it's not really the sort of music he was into. Perhaps, like me, he just found the idea amusing and found them for cheap.

Particularly funny was this note on the back:
Well-Tempered Synthesizer: Stereo Balance

"Important: This record has critical stereo balance. For maximum enjoyment, please balance your speakers by using the test tones on Side 1, Band 1. You will hear four tones in the exact center, followed by Left, Right, Left, Right."

Yeah, sorry. My current crappy turntable is a mono one-speaker deal. I'm sure the balance is quite lovely over headphones instead.

I wouldn't necessarily say I enjoyed this or that I would be in the habit of putting it on, but I do like that I have it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars
by Tracy K. Smith

How do I even begin to tell you how wonderful Life on Mars is? Tracy K. Smith's poetry fills me with peace and such fullness, even when she writes about how inhuman we can be. Her poems are almost meditative — I really enjoyed slowing down and focusing on her words, their rhythm, and the overall picture of the poem before me. Part space opera, part elegy, part wartime commentary, Life on Mars exceedingly deserves the Pulitzer it received, won on Smith's birthday, no less. Forgive me if I quote too much.

Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they — we — flicker in.

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
  • from "My God, It's Full of Stars"

Smith's father, an engineer who helped build the Hubble Telescope, inspired her love of space and of science fiction tales, and the book takes its name from another tribute to possibility, David Bowie's "Life on Mars." The book is divided into four sections: The first, all the vastness and potential of the universe; the second, the fuzzy line between life and death, between mourning and acceptance; the third, when Earth becomes a nightmare, when Earth forgets what humanity can do; and the fourth hovers dreamily between present and memory. All have elements of beauty, of grace.

What I also particularly loved about Smith's poems was that they did not require major mental gymnastics to understand. That might sound like either a diss or an admittance of limitation on my part, but what I mean is that I don't think poetry has to be "difficult" to be "literary." She wants to be as clear as the day they fixed the lenses on the Hubble, unambiguous in the idea that it is amazing that people have such a great capacity for both love and violence, as though our views are Universally Important, when we are mere specks of cosmic dust. Impressive specks, surely, but small nonetheless. "Our time is brief," she writes. "We dwindle by the day."

I don't want to hear their voices.
To stand sucking my teeth while they
Rant. For once, I don't want to know
What they call truth, or what flags
Flicker from poles stuck to their roofs.

Let them wait. Lead them to the back porch
And let them lean there while the others eat.
If they thirst, give them a bucket and a tin cup.
If they're sick, tell them the doctor's away,
That he doesn't treat their kind. Warn them

What kind of trouble tends to crop up
Around here after dark.

  • from "They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected"

Much of the political content centers around the last Bush administration, and while it is heartening to know that we are no longer under that particular variety of governmental strain, it is disheartening to see what is now happening domestically. Some days it feels like we're pretending the fight against terrorism no longer exists, and that we've conveniently shoved it into an invisible computer program — always running, and little progress being made while soldiers continue to die. Believe me, I'm glad that we've mostly moved beyond the "Freedom Fries" stage, but in the absence of Patriot Profiteering, those same people have moved onto rekindling the war against anything that isn't a rich, white, straight man. The same people who were fine with prisoner torture now want to redefine rape and redefine a "person," and all manner of other unsettling things. You don't need me to tell you — the news brings another WTF-story or twelve every day.

All this time, we've been a country — been a planet — and this is how far we've come? No wonder we turn to the movies, to television. No wonder we want The Doctor to show us the edges of time, and we want the Battlestar fleet to survive. Captain Kirk kisses green women with ease, and why not have a best friend who is a 7 foot tall Wookiee? For all our struggles, and for all the fictional struggles we watch, at least we can temporarily remind ourselves: "The human race will continue, despite this present ridiculousness."

Yes, I find peace in Tracy K. Smith's writing. Reading her words, I am at once thinking of nothing else, yet everything else. The radio dial is gone, and it's all flooding in. We can be so much more.

(Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by Graywolf Press at my request. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.)


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Internal News as of 8-16-12:

Your life will be better if you play the above video while reading this post. It's true.

Recently Published at Persephone Magazine:

  • Alphabet Soup: The Letter N: featuring Fiona Apple, Richard Ashcroft, Fleetwood Mac, The Noisettes, Blind Melon, Pretenders, Ryan Adams.
  • Book Review: Yes, I'm still talking about Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins.
  • Alphabet Soup: The Letter O: featuring Ani DiFranco, The Verve, Ryan Adams, Roy Orbison, Goldfrapp, and bonus David Tennant photos. Get in.
  • Lunchtime Poll: What's the Most Interesting Job You've Had? I used to work at a busy gas station. Oh, there are some stories.

Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:
  • NFE 8-3-12: Coming out stories, Indian folk art, how to make a stab-bound journal, and more.
  • NFE 8-10-12: Writers of color, the periodic table of fonts, Jess Walter being funny, among other things.
  • NFE 8-17-12Ciarán West being adorable while swearing, Lidia Yuknavitch and Vanessa Veselka having a conversation, and an excellent essay from Kevin Sampsell. Plus other goodies.

By next week, I should be able to link to a review I'll have going up over at Word Riot, and coming in early September, I'll have a piece of flash fiction in the latest Little Fiction collection. So stay tuned.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
by Shehan Karunatilaka

Prior to picking up The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, nearly all I could tell you about cricket is what the bat looks like and that I once saw a bowler on the Jonathan Ross Show who was apparently very good. I can't remember his name. Yes, I do know they're called bowlers, not pitchers. Also, my friend Karo loves cricket. That was the extent of my knowledge.

After reading The Legend of Pradeep Mathew? Well... I perhaps gleaned a small amount of knowledge, particularly regarding Sri Lankan and Australian corners of the sport. I still have no idea how the scoring system works, but maybe I could better figure it out were I to watch a cricket match now. Not that they really show cricket in the US... but in theory, perhaps.

Does minimal knowledge of cricket impede my enjoyment of the book? Absolutely not. Shehan Karunatilaka's novel is surprising, funny, and interesting — though I imagine that if you love the sport, it is even more so. This was an impulse read for me, after seeing it on the 'New' shelf at my local library. I'm so glad I gave into the urge, however massive my reading queue was otherwise.

W.G. — "Wije" or "Gamini" to some — Karunasena has just been told by his doctor that his liver is shot and that if he keeps drinking like he does, he will most certainly die soon. He is sixty-four, a retired sports journalist, married, and has an adult son named Garfield with whom he has a contentious relationship. He asks the doctor:

"What if I cut down to two drinks a day?"

He doesn't look surprised. But at least he lets go of the smile. "A year or two. Maybe more."

Thus it was settled. I would attempt to do a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket. There is nothing more inspiring than a solid deadline.

W.G. enlists the help of his best friend and neighbor, Ari, and other cricket enthusiast friends they share. Fights have occurred over who are the best players of all-time, and every man has different criteria. Over the objections of others, W.G. insists that the best of them all was a little-known Sri Lankan called Pradeep Mathew. He more or less only appeared in test matches in the 1980s before disappearing from the game — and seemingly, from everyone — after his impressive-but-brief playing run. W.G. wants to know what happened to him, and he wants the rest of the cricket-watching world to know of Mathew's importance.

What starts as a documentary project soon morphs into an ongoing quest, and the book is written as though we are seeing the compiled notes and initial manuscript from W.G., and he is fond of talking directly to the reader. Of course, he is not the most reliable narrator when it comes to the treatment of his son or his dismissal of his wife's concerns about his drinking. Documenting cricket becomes a frame around which Sri Lankan life and politics hang, with W.G.'s goals and failures mirroring the process. What can be taken at face value? Almost nothing. Every character, every scene, has layers upon layers of Best Foot Forward mixed with the Appropriate Amount of Deception.

Love is the Magic
What follows was not revealed in one sitting. Neither was it revealed by one person. What follows is a stitching together of hearsay. I held the needle, so apologies if the seams show.

I have quoted only those who agreed to speak to me.

Charith describes Pradeep as having long fingers and being unusually supple. Some mornings, Mathew would be stretching, other times he would be reading his English books, some days he would be in the toilet vomiting.

"He told me his mother wanted him to give up cricket and look after his father. He was determined to become the first regular Tamil player in the national side. 'Ado, Silva. As a Tamil I have to be ten times better than the Sinhala spinners. Now I am only eight times better.' Sometimes fellow had swollen head."

This is a long novel, and because I'm not overly familiar with Sri Lanka or cricket, I would sometimes think, I'm not sure what he's talking about or what exactly is going on, yet I was enjoying myself. It takes a special sort of outstanding writer to make a non-sport person love reading 400 pages filled with it. Karunatilaka imbues W.G.'s voice with a subtle humor throughout, even as the man's health deteriorates.

Just when I started to wonder how it would all play out, this massive cast of characters and information, Karunatilaka wraps up the story in an unusual but absolutely fitting way. Any flaws the book has a relatively minor and probably come down to my personal taste — sometimes the timeline of events could be a bit confusing, for instance — but in general, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is excellent. And if you love cricket, you'll likely love it wholeheartedly.

I got this book from my local library. Support yours.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Girl Below by Bianca Zander

The Girl Below
by Bianca Zander

For whatever reason, London-based mysteries have caught my attention lately, and in addition to The Girl Below and Hide Me Among the Graves, I have a few more books with similar elements sitting here that I haven't read yet. Unfortunately, The Girl Below wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped, though it wasn't entirely bad.

Suki Piper has just returned to London after living in New Zealand for ten years. She's in her late-twenties, jobless and nearly friendless, and she hopes that whatever familiarity she had with the city of her childhood will provide her with direction. Estranged from her father and still reeling from the loss of her mother to cancer, she feels orphaned and restless. Whenever she does run into people who knew her mother, she's unsure of what to say.

"She moved to Scotland to look after Grandma," I'd explained to one old acquaintance, telling another that she'd gone to India in the mid-nineties to find herself and was still there on an ashram. Lousy fibs but much kinder on us all. Everyone had loved my mother — no one more so than I — and if I never said out loud that she'd died, then I sometimes believed that she hadn't.

She goes to visit an old neighbor, Peggy Wright, who is now a sickly alcoholic living in semi-seclusion. Peggy still has a statue of a kneeling young girl that frightened Suki as a child. "Madeleine," as she's called, is just as unsettling to look at as an adult. Despite the concrete, dead-eyed stare, Madeleine always gives Suki the feeling of being watched.

Also unsettling is the absence of the WWII-era bunker that used to be accessible in the back garden. Though she assumes that the bunker was eventually filled in and covered, Suki can still sense its presence somewhere in the dirt. She is haunted by the time she fell inside it, the day after a party her parents hosted.

I stepped backward up the stairs toward Mum, but lost my foothold and slid in the opposite direction. The candle flew from my hand and blew out, and for a few seconds, I too was airborne before landing in a puddle of freezing cold water. From my mouth came a crunching sound, as if I'd bitten down on gravel, and a second later, my jaw exploded with pain. Hot liquid pooled in my throat, and I tried to breathe but gagged. The surrounding water was gritty with sediment and I shivered as it rose over my limbs. I reached for the glasses that should have been on my face, but they had come off in the fall.

Instead of only memories though, she starts experiencing what seem like real trips to the past. All of the sudden, she is back at that party, staring out at the darkened garden and watching her parents' friends misbehave. She doesn't yet know what she is supposed to learn by re-witnessing this night, but her flashbacks start affecting the rest of her "real" life.

Honestly, I expected something far more sinister than what actually transpires. All of these objects are affecting her, and the reasoning behind it — without completely ruining it for you — didn't feel like enough for me. I kept waiting for more progress, for the plot to pick up the pace and for Suki to get more of her shit together, but instead the bewilderment keeps carrying on. I found Suki's background interesting, but the stakes of her situation weren't so clear, other than to say, "I'm a damaged person who would like to know why creepy stuff keeps happening."

Perhaps I was missing something while reading, some grand moment of symbolism or maybe some detail that revealed a greater point, but if it was there, it must not have been made very clear. I'd like to think I'm a fairly insightful reader, and despite my tendency to take things at face value before metaphor, after the fact, those metaphors do sink in. It's just that, for me, the setup and the resolution are mismatched. The creepiness could have been amplified.

Zander's writing itself is good though, and she has an excellent talent for detail, though I must point out one quibble — The show is not "Dr. Who," it's Doctor Who. He's The Doctor. Yes, yes, I know, it's one sentence, and I'm being a pedantic super-fan, but come on. You are supposed to be an England-raised child, Suki. You should know this. (Or a decent editor should, anyway.)

The Girl Below is Zander's first novel, after an initial career in journalism and screenplays. I do think her fiction writing has loads of potential, and if she writes another novel, I may still pick it up, but this one was only so-so. Another reader might find it more satisfying than I did, but next time, I want more.

Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

To say that nearly every review or mention of The Night Circus that I've seen has been positive understates this novel's reception. What I have heard goes beyond general positivity and rises into full on adoration. People love this book, even some who did not expect such a reaction, and having seen very few voices of dissent, I needed to see what the fuss was about.

You will not find dissent here either, for The Night Circus is a beautiful, bewildering, and romantic tale that reminds me of the best imaginative stories told between friends. "The circus arrives without warning," the book begins. "Opens at Nightfall. Closes at Dawn." People gather around its gate and wait, wondering what will be contained within the many black and white striped tents. Time seems to slow, but finally, night falls.

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.

Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back.

At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. A q, oddly, and several e's. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:

Le Cirque des Rêves

The Circus of Dreams. It's true that the entire book seems to exist in a dreamlike state. It travels back and forth in time and in point of view, and there are almost as many characters as there are individual tents — the mentioned tents, at least. At the heart of the circus is Celia Bowen, an illusionist who is able to manipulate the details of the world around her to such a degree that she must consciously act as though it is a trick during her show. The audience must be wowed, but they still must think that what they see must have some explanation — other than its being entirely real.

On the opening night of the circus, in London on October 13 and 14, 1886, a set of twins are born. Winston Aidan Murray is born six minutes before midnight, and his sister Penelope Aislin Murray is born seven minutes after midnight. They are the children of a wild-cat tamer and his wife, and they are soon given the nicknames Widget and Poppet. Besides their bright red hair, they are also notable in that they are strangely alert for being newborns. As they grow older, their own special skills become more clear.

Eleven years later, a boy named Bailey encounters the circus for the first time in Concord, Massachusetts. He loved every moment of it and can't wait to go back for a second night. While waiting with his sister and some other children during the day, his sister dares him to break into the circus and to bring back something as proof. Though it seems risky and impossible, his curiosity wins over and he manages to sneak in through a gap in the fence. A girl about his age, dressed entirely in white except for her "exceptionally shocking" red hair, tells him he should leave, but first gives him one of her gloves.

Bailey cannot stop thinking about the girl and the circus, and how much he wishes he had a life outside of working his father's farm.

He reads histories and mythologies and fairy tales, wondering why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves. It strikes him as unfair to not have the same fanciful opportunity himself. And he is not in the position to do any rescuing of his own.

Behind all this is an ongoing challenge between Celia and an initially unknown competitor, a game begun by her father and an old friend — though friend isn't quite the right word — and the circus is the board on which they play. The rules and details are not clear even to the competitors themselves, though they do know that creating some of the circus' more impressive features are a part of it.

There are many more characters and plot elements, but to describe them all would ruin much of the experience of reading. Because the book jumps around in time and point of view, it can take some time to acclimate to what is going on and when, but it does all make sense, especially by the end. I can only imagine how much work editing the book was for Erin Morgenstern, to make everything flow together in a coherent way that also maintained the lucid dreamlike environment.

One criticism I have read about The Night Circus is that it relies too much on set description at the expense of action, and I suppose I can see that point, but I rather enjoyed all the scene-laying. If we are to believe in the fantastic beauty of this place, then we need to be able to see it. The plot, especially the challenge, is a slow-burner, but I didn't mind.

Part of what makes the book so effective is that it taps into our desires for something greater than ourselves, and our yearning for moments of magic. The circus provides an escape for all who visit it, a place where they have no responsibilities other than to enjoy the experience. Because there are different tents instead of one big tent with different scheduled events, the guests are invited to choose their own path. The circus does not dictate what one should find pleasurable, or when one should see it. A person can spend all night in one tent, or they can try to visit as many as they can before sunrise. It's a lovely idea.

The Night Circus also recognizes our attempts at holding onto our memories, and how some details slip out of our minds despite our best efforts, while at other times, they can come rushing back with a force that is startling.

He recalls what the tag said about opening things, wondering what could possibly be inside all of these jars. Most of the clear-glass ones look empty. As he reaches the opposite side of the table, he picks one at random, a small round ceramic jar, glazed in black with a high shine and a lid topped with a round curl of a handle. He pulls the lid off and looks inside. A small wisp of smoke escapes, but other than that it is empty. As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts. Curious, he inhales deeply. There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles. He can almost feel the snow, the excitement, and the anticipation, the sugary taste of a striped candy. It is dizzying and wonderful and disturbing. After a few moments, he replaces the lid and puts the jar carefully back on the table.

He looks around at the jars and bottles, intrigued but hesitant to open another.

While I did not fall head-over-heels for this book — which was likely for anything that I read post-Beautiful Ruins — I still enjoyed it immensely. The Night Circus is a sprawling and wonderful world in which to retreat, and I am glad that the hype did not scare me off. Do seek this one out.

I got this book from my local library. Support yours.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

PANK 5 edited by M. Bartley Seigel and Roxane Gay

edited by M. Bartley Seigel and Roxane Gay

Forgive me, I read PANK 5 a few months ago, and because there is so much content within its 250 pages, I will perhaps not do the publication justice. Still, this print edition of the online magazine is quite excellent, and my memory and slowness should not temper your interest.

I bought 5 instead of 6 because of the number of writers whose work I already knew somewhat, including Jamie Iredell, J.A. Tyler, xTx, Brian Oliu, Kyle Minor and Deb Olin Unferth. Jamie Iredell's contribution comes from The Book of Freaks, which has since been published by Future Tense Books. I haven't read the book, but I'm always curious about what sort of changes transpire between an excerpt printed in a journal or online and the final product.

Brian Oliu's "O Self Extracting Executable" reminds me a bit of Alex Shakar's Luminarium, in that it is framed around a computer program and poses thoughts about the nature of life. Oliu's lyrical style is quite lovely:

This is how technology and you and I and there have drifted; the desire to put more into smaller things, to crunch, crush and raster in search for a resolution, the spreading of air, plates both tectonic and served at meals where we would sit across from each other or at a right angle, water glasses filled with reckless abandon like storms in water glasses, teacups, even, though the water encompassed by glass was not heated, cold, cold from a cold sink, processed from water elsewhere, plants elsewhere, and brought here, cold. We crash our crystal-capsized ships together, ringing true like it once was, delicately.

Speaking of a story framed within computer programming, Kaitlin Dyer's poem "He'd Leave Her Notes in Code" is excellent. I know just enough about CSS coding that I understood the creativity she uses to talk about a relationship.

/*CSS Document*/
body {
background-color: translucent white skin against my chest makes me feel tan;
font: veins drawn up your arms in aquamarine are plump and spongy;
background-image: auburn ringlets twist off my fingers;
margin: your legs span my lap;
background-repeat: please;

I love the "please" at the end of that stanza.

I also really liked that the editors included two translation pieces — in this case, Toshiya Kamei translating two poems by Mexican writer Isolda Dosamantes — with the Spanish and English side by side. Because I know a little bit of Spanish, I like to match up the words and increase my knowledge of the language, as well as see how one person might translate a line that another person might do a different way. Obviously, one can't do this with a whole novel, page by page, but in poetry translations, I think it's the best approach.

Another highlight: Janey Smith using song titles from The Smiths in her "Vignettes: Short Fictions on My Life as a Cheerleader." She also has a short piece that makes fun of purposely vapid, stoned hipster art with, "Bedtime Stories for Hitler (Or How to Sell Your Next Book to Urban Outfitters)."

Probably my favorite story was Teresa Milbrodt's "Blue," about a woman whose saliva is blue to the point of staining clothing, silverware, and boyfriends' lips. She starts doing drastic things to her appearance to distract people from noticing her "Grape Lips."

It was her nails that gave her the inspiration, how easy it was to distract from one garish thing with something even more garish, cover the light blue with emerald or orange. She got the rest of the idea from a joke she'd heard, how Eve was not Adam's rib, he was her third tit. It seemed the way to go. If people wanted to stare, she'd give them something to stare at. She wanted a new start, a new job, a new town. It wasn't hard to convince her husband to move. They bought a van and a secondhand trailer, had both repainted before they went on the road.

She glued the prosthetic breast to the middle of her chest, used an adhesive the woman in the costume shop said would last for a week. The breast looked perfectly natural, right down to the nipple.

Her methods only escalate from there. When I finished reading "Blue," I literally said aloud, "Now that's a story."

Really, I enjoyed most everything offered in PANK 5 with only a few exceptions, and it certainly made me want to buy other print issues of the magazine when I'm able to do so. In the meantime, I will continue to catch up on some of their online archives. I hope you will too.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.