The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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“Stories have changed, my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep overlapping and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there in no telling where any of them may lead.”

The Night Circus introduces us to two very different magicians who appear locked in some sort of feud or debate over their magic and the ways of teaching it. One man has a daughter; the other acquires a young pupil. The men bind the two children to one another and to a magical challenge with unclear rules and no obvious time-frame. The two unwitting children, Celia and Marco, are to be extensively trained for this mysterious game and then eventually pitted against one another.  Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) is the setting for this game or challenge; a nocturnal circus that appears and disappears mysteriously, full of intriguing performers and magical acts. In this circus, things are never quite as they seem.

The world of The Night Circus is a vivid and colourful one; an elegantly Victorian, multi-coloured place that smells of magic and smoked caramel.  Anything seems possible, and indeed, it is. However, this world is also dark and sinister, full of characters with ulterior and unclear motives. The game, which is never clearly defined, becomes more menacing the more we learn of it. Celia and Marco are mere pawns in this game, used as a way for two older men to scrap with one another by proxy over some ancient feud. Celia and Marco’s lives are completely consumed by this second-hand, vicariously played-out rivalry, and the claustrophobia at their predicament develops and snowballs throughout the novel. Without giving too much away, their lives become inevitably and inexorability entwined in more ways than one, making the inevitable outcome of their situation even more distressing.

The game that they play involves creating the circus, and the descriptions of this fantasy world are so rich and lucid that I ended up feeling as though I was actually there, in this magical circus where anything is possible. The story follows the circus and the central characters over many years, and the introduction of a new generation is effectively done, with the story jumping between a period of around 30 years. At the end of the novel, the years join up and a full picture of events is formed. I thought that this was a particularly effective way of telling this story. Snippets here and there revealed just the right amount to keep me intrigued and vying for more. In the end, I read the entire book in two brilliantly sunny afternoons.

The world reminded me a little of the one portrayed in the film The Prestige, which I watched recently and loved. That Victorian, theatrical, magical aesthetic and setting is one that had never really appealed to me before. Hugh Jackman is undoubtedly partly responsible for my change of heart and for me approaching this book in the way that I did to begin with, however I don’t think anyone should be put off by the setting or the paranormal-esque content. This version of such a world is incredibly well-rendered and detailed, creating, through words, a visually rich world. Did I mention its vividness? I swear I was actually at The Circus of Dreams. I was quite upset to finish the novel and realise that I was actually in Manchester, UK, in my dining room, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

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Why did it take me over a year between starting this book and finishing it? I do not have a good explanation for this. I was either too busy or I was wary of reading a book narrated by death; perhaps afraid of the inevitable ensuing existential angst. Such an excuse now seems silly. This book is, yes, about death, its ubiquity during a horrible time in history, about pain and suffering, but it is also not really about death. Death does not write about itself an awful lot. It is fascinated by humans, their lives, what they do to get by, survive and help one another. World War 2 is a time of despair and a display of the very worst humans can do, but also a place where humans show both their best sides too.

A place where words are used in powerful ways, both to cajole people via rhetoric and fear into a belief system they don’t necessarily support, but also to act as a way to stay human.

Liesel, the Book Thief, gets sent to live with foster parents, the Hubermanns, in small-town Nazi Germany after being sent away from her communist parents and losing her brother to the narrator itself. She has already, by this point, stolen a book. Her foster father, Hans, who plays the accordion and smokes roll-ups, teaches her to read and their relationship is built around this sharing of words and stories. We follow Liesel, her family and her community through the years before the war and see how things change for them. From relative peace time to full on war time.

Things are fairly ordinary for Liesel for a time. She plays football in the street with other children. She helps her stepmother with the laundry that she does for wealthy families.  She befriends a boy named Rudy and they join a gang that steals things. Liesel steals books and reads books.

Then her foster family end up taking in and hiding a Jew. It is at this point that the characters really come into their own. Liesel’s development as a thoughtful and fearless young woman is really cemented by her friendship with Max. Rosa, Liesel’s stepmother, who is foul-mouthed and obnoxious at first, proves herself as a woman of strength and integrity, and Hans proves the same about himself (as we had already suspected). Details about Max really add to the sense of tragedy at the loss of his previous life as a free man. He lives in the Hubermann’s basement, and we see flickers of the man he used to be; a creative, spirited person reduced to living in permanent darkness. His and Liesel’s friendship is based on the sharing of stories and creativity that cannot be stifled. The book that he writes for Liesel on painted-over copies of Mein Kampf is incredibly touching and finds hope in friendship and words. I loved that Liesel reads him stories and steals newspapers for him.It is obvious that living such a life makes Max feel dehumanised and that the words that Liesel brings him give him back some humanity.

This, I feel, is the central theme of The Book Thief. That stories and words are central to the human experience. They occur just about everywhere that humans exist. You can take away a person’s liberty and freedom, but their stories persist.

The Book Thief is not a happy book by any means; however the richness of the storytelling and the way the characters are drawn suggests that death has a surprising fondness for humans. In this sense, The Book Thief is a life-affirming book human resilience during a terrible time. It is also unlike anything I’ve ever read, in terms of narration, layout and format. I would rarely say that I would recommend a book to anyone, but this may be one of those rare occasions.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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“The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”

The first thing that struck me about Fahrenheit 451 was how beautifully it is written. It is almost poetic in style, and a lot of the time I felt like I was reading stream-of-consciousness prose rather than a novel (not that a book can’t incorporate both, of course, as this one indeed proves). I’m not sure why, but I thought that the themes of censorship, knowledge, etc. would be central, and the language would be used to effectively convey these themes, rather than become a thing in and of itself. It ends up being both.

Guy Montag is a fireman; his job is to burn books, which are banned in the world Bradbury writes of. Montag has been burning books for ten years and has never questioned his role; in fact he appears, at the beginning of the novel, to enjoy it. Then a few things happen: he has a conversation with a man in a bench, he meets a seventeen year-old girl named Clarisse who speaks of the joy of the world and questioning things and being free, and his wife tries to commit suicide.

After that, Montag attends a fire where a woman decides to stay with her burning books, thus essentially choosing death. He ends up questioning why someone would sacrifice themselves for something that has no worth. He cannot get these events out of his head and becomes fixated on the horror that he and the other fireman are responsible for.

Suddenly, Montag finds himself thinking about things. His wife spends all day plugged into her virtual “family”. His colleagues do their job without thinking. Montag has to make a choice, and it will not be easy…

I had been meaning to read this book for years, and upon hearing of Bradbury’s death, decided to ask for a copy for Christmas. The book was written in 1953 and it is interesting how many of the inventions Bradbury wrote of have come to pass: seashells pumping sounds into ears, giant television monitors, and a “family” which is not really there – projected via giant walls. Wars, almost barely noticeable, which start and end in the course of a day. Everyone switched off from the reality of things, alienated from the people around them and switched on to instant entertainment.

I think that this theme of instant entertainment was rather more pertinent, to me at least, than the idea of book censorship, although the two are obviously connected. Reality television and 24-hour news are especially interesting to think about when reading this book. Does television close us off from our stories, or is it simply another vehicle by which they are told? Does instant entertainment destroy creativity or develop it? This novel, whilst definitely veering towards the dystopian viewpoint, does not actually answer these questions.

Bradbury writes with great clarity about issues that we can relate to things that are currently being debated, things such as: does the internet isolate people? Does 24-hour entertainment switch us off from the realities of life? Are we so caught up in constant noise that we have forgotten how to be silent and thoughtful?

My take on the matter is that, yes, perhaps these things can and do occasionally isolate us and switch us off from the realities of the world, but that this is not the necessary or logical outcome of the technologies that Bradbury envisioned. In this sense, I believe that perhaps the power of such technologies is overstated. However, that he raised points such as these before, for example, the internet had even been invented is proof enough of his skill as a writer. That these topics are still being debated makes it clear that this book has something important to say.

In the end, I thought that perhaps the overriding theme was one of the nature of human evil; the great “Universal Truth” my GCSE English teacher talked about so often. Are books a threat, or is it what is contained within them? Are weapons a threat, or what we do with them? It isn’t about these things. It is about us.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”

I finally bought The Snow Child after reading Ana’s review and remembering that my boyfriend’s cousin & I had a discussion about it last time I saw her. After I started reading it (on the bus one morning, just as it started snowing) I mentioned it to a few people at work, and “I LOVED that book!” was the standard response. Then last week, before I had even had a chance to suggest it, everyone asked if we could read it for our next staff and 6th form reading group. That night, I went home and read the last 200 pages in one sitting. Now I’m finished, I can’t help but agree with all I’ve heard.

The Snow Child tells the story, loosely based upon an old Russian fairy tale, of Jack and Mabel, a couple who have moved to the Alaskan wilderness after being unable to conceive and, tragically, losing their only baby many years before. They set up a remote homestead with the intention of living a simple, isolated life, retreating from their old life as a way of dealing with their grief. Jack works the land and Mabel bakes and keeps their home, her life punctuated by despair and depression. One day, in a frivilous moment, they build a snow girl, wrapping it in Mabel’s mittens and hat. The next day, the snow girl is gone and the mittens and hat have disappeared. Mabel and Jack then start spotting a blonde-haired girl in the trees, accompanied by a red fox. Who is she, and where did she come from? The girl, who calls herself Faina, ends up becoming a part of Mabel and Jack’s life, appearing during winter, disappearing during summer. As Jack and Mabel grow to love her as their own, the mystery of who Faina really is and where she came from deepens.

As the novel opens, you can feel Jack and Mabel’s despair, reflected in the extreme environment they have chosen to escape to, as well as their wonder at the world and their eventual hope and love when Faina appears. Mabel’s grief is palpable, as is her isolation in the cabin as Jack attempts, mostly in vain at first, to carve a reasonable living from the land. The beginning of the novel describes beautifully the growing sense of despair, bourne of an inhabitable climate and the eternal residue of grief.

Ivey evokes the Alaskan wilderness so beautifully and vividly: the extreme cold, isolation and struggle simply to survive in such extreme conditions. I am a total sucker for winter settings, both in life and in fiction, and this is one of the most beautifully created I have come across. The extreme landscape, accompanied by heavy snow, is the perfect setting a novel that is inspired so heavily by a fairy tale. But the rewards of such an environment are also evident. Esther, who, along with her husband George and son Garratt, become good friends with Mabel and Jack, says to Mabel when they first start spending time together that she would never leave, despite the challenges. When Jack becomes injured and Mabel starts tending the land in his place, she finds satisfaction and a sense of purpose in such work. Although Faina disappears in the summer, Mabel and Jack build their farm on their land and tend to their crops and build a life for themselves in the wilderness.

Faina is presented as a magical, mystical being and is used as a vehicle for Ivey to explore other characters’ feelings, for example her impact on Jack and Mabel and adds to their development as characters. The best scenes are the ambiguous ones, where you are not quite sure whether what is being described is real or imaginary. There is a sense of wonder and mystery in these parts, which is perfectly encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of this entry. Finding magic amongst the trees is a fundamental part of being alive, and reality is sometimes just as fantastical as a fairy tale.

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne / Submarine directed by Richard Ayoade

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First of all, I must confess that this is all the wrong way around. I watched the film before I read the book. It was a mistake, I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again, etc.

The film, however, is fantastic. I will discuss this first, simply because I watched it first. Oliver Tate (played by Craig Roberts) is a teenager with a large vocabulary, a penchant for dramatics, and a mission to lose his virginity. He’s an interesting creation: strange, precocious, ordinary and obsessive in equal measure. He is not, in many respects, a likable character, and he captures some of the very worst parts of being a teenager: the tendency to think that knowing lots of things intellectually equals understanding lots of things full stop, the certainty of everything (that you know it all; that your parents don’t), the all-consuming/terrifying nature of sex when one has never experienced it, bullying, peer pressure, rebellion and the self-absorption that inevitably comes with the teenage years.

The film follows 15 year-old Oliver through a series of both ordinary and life-changing events. At the beginning, we see him at school, going through the motions, trying to fit in and getting involved in some playground bullying. It is clear that Oliver is very bright, but also that he susceptible to peer pressure. However from his subsequent actions (writing a pamphlet for the victim of his bullying on how to fit in) it is clear that Oliver is both a) in possession of a conscience (he has thought about events a great deal more than someone without one would have) but b) is misguided in his attempts to act on it.  After this, situations arise that mostly involve the various complications surrounding a girlfriend and a child’s reaction to parental marital problems.

Although Oliver does lots of things along the way that are not likable, there is an undeniable charm to the way Roberts plays the part. He adds a vulnerability to Oliver that means all his actions can be seen through the lens of trying to do the right thing, albeit in a slightly confused, misguided way.

Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins both do a fantastic job of playing Oliver’s parents: his father, a depressed marine biologist; his Mother, an office worker who is tempted by an old flame.

The film’s strength lies in the fact that does not simply tell Dunthorne’s story without attempting to add something to it. The set and costume design are fantastic and the film has a very clear red/blue/white colour scheme. The characters wear duffel coats and carry satchels which gives the film an almost timeless quality, and the grey coastal Welsh sky looks particularly moody, which is apt. Alex Turner of the Artic Monkeys provides the soundtrack (and, funnily enough, looks a little like an older version of Roberts). There are parts of the book that the film misses out, glosses over slightly or doesn’t explore in as much detail, but overall I think it is a great adaptation that remains faithful to the overall mood of the book.

The book is, I think, quite different. It’s ruder (in a good way) and funnier and more uncomfortable than the film. Oliver’s voice has the same tone, but is particularly effective written down; it makes you feel more disturbed by and immersed in his irreverently funny, bleak-but-hopeful world.

“I bought a packet of Trojan® Ultra Pleasure Extra Sensitive condoms: ‘No. 1 in AMERICA’. They smell nothing like a positive first sexual experience.”

One aspect of the book that I really like is that Dunthorne does not romanticise the teenage experience. Chips, Oliver’s friend, is crude and disgusting; Oliver can be cold and unemotional; Jordana is obsessed with setting things on fire; the victim of their bullying becomes, upon moving schools, sex obsessed and flirtatious as a result of reinventing herself. Everyone swears a lot. It is refreshing to see such an honest portrayal of the teenage experience: one where nobody quite knows their place in the world so they try really hard all the time to prove to everyone how grown-up they are and things are awkward and messy and you have to learn that, even if you are clever and have a large vocabulary, you still do not have control over anything.

Dunthorne plays on such perceptions, and much of the book is full of hilarious, self-knowing one liners and razor-sharp observations.

“Exercise II.

Write a diary, imagining that you are trying to make an old person jealous. I have written an example to get you started:

Dear Diary,
I spent the morning admiring my skin elasticity.
God alive, I feel supple.”

Although I never knew anyone during my teenage years who spoke like Oliver Tate, I certainly remember people who thought of themselves in the same terms. The whole book has a ring of truth to it. Not only that, it is hilarious and made me laugh out loud on the bus. Always a good sign, in my experience.

My Friends & Things that I Like on the Internet and in the World

Today I thought I would share some things that my friends have done and some things that I like. These two things are obviously not mutually exclusive. My friends are very talented people.

ART

One of my interests outside books, education and libraries is art. At least 50% of my friends are artists so I end up going to a lot of exhibition openings and the like. Manchester has loads of stuff going on, from huge commercial exhibitions to tiny independent galleries.

Recent Exhibition # 1

twoducksdisco at Trove Cafe, Levenshulme, Manchester

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My boyfriend teaches Graphics to A-Level kids and also runs his own one-man design company, twoducksdisco. He designs t-shirts, CD artwork for bands, gig posters and recently had an exhibition of his work at one of our favourite local cafes, Trove in Levenshulme.

Recent Exhibition # 2

The First Cut at Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester

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This exhibition ran from October 2012-January 2013 and featured all sorts of paper art, including sculptures made out of old books, sinister fairytale scenes and giant leaves suspended from the ceiling.

Recent Exhibition # 3

How Are You Feeling? By David Shrigley at The Cornerhouse, Manchester

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I’ve always been fairly ambivilent about Shrigley’s artwork, loving some pieces and being fairly nonplussed about others. However, I really enjoyed this exhibition. It had a sense of fun that many art exhibitions lack, and was interactive and original. There was a giant burden (rucksack), videos, a napping station, walls covered in sketches, a opportunity to act in a play and a lifedrawing class featuring a giant man sculpture. The sound of laughter was a large part of the exhibition – nobody seemed able to stop, especially in the sketch room.

Recent Exhibition # 4

VS at Rogue Artists Studios Project Space, Manchester

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On Friday I attended an exhibition at Rogue Artist Studios Project Space where my good friend Taneesha Ahmed is co-curator. This particular exhibition was entited “VS” and was an “art fight” between Manchester artists and Lincoln artists. It was good fun and featured, amongst other things: A Wii dance-off, a spaceship, Rambo, Vimto punch and a giant balloon. (Lincoln won, but Manchester gave its best shot).

NEXT EXHIBITION: All That We Are Is All That We Leave Behind – Illustrations by Peter Jackson at Trove Cafe, Manchester on Monday 4th February.

OTHER ART THINGS:

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My friend Lydia Meiying is a lovely person, illustrator and surface-pattern designer from Manchester. Her stuff features lots of birds, animals and patterns and is amazing.

My sister, Emily Reid is currently in her 3rd year of a Visual Communications degree at Leeds College of Art. Her tumblr account is full of fun, lovely and brilliantly weird things that she has made or found online.

WRITING

Emily McPhillips has known me for a Long Time, has a way with words and is an all-round Good Egg. 

Giles Ruffer once dressed up in my clothes. I can’t remember why. His waist size was smaller than mine. He also writes and the writing is top.

Ilona Burton writes about raising mental-health awareness and has recently written a book about anorexia.

OTHER STUFF

I found out today that an old work colleague has been writing a blog, LilyLovesLola for ages and I never knew! It’s got loads about fashion, crafts, pugs and general lovely stuff.

A library-school colleague, Ana, writes the brilliant book blog Things Mean a Lot. Ana knows more about books that I could ever hope to.

Alex Steward is Umber, am ambient musician from the Leicestershire countryside.

I have probably missed out lots of things that I like, so there may be a part two to this post! That is more than enough information for a Sunday afternoon. Now I think I may eat a Creme Egg.