Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a fantastic debut novel by a writer to watch.  While not a perfect novel, it ranks high on my list for the year.

The novel opens beautifully:
The circus arrives without warning.  No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers.  It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The book is about a contest between two illusionists who have been trained since childhood by their masters.  Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the players, Celia and Marco, spend their lives battling in a game, the rules of which they do not know.  The forum for the contest is a circus, Le Cirque des Reves, a travelling circus that opens at nightfall and closes at dawn.  Celia's father, a famed illusionist, takes custody of her as a young child and trains her for this contest.  Marco is plucked out of an orphanage and trained by a mysterious man.  In the circus, they create magical (not slight of hand) illusions that dazzle attendees.  The contestants know they are in a contest but don't know each other (for at least a while) and are inextricably bound to each other.  Over the course of the novel, they learn about themselves, the contest, others affected by the contest and each other.

The writing beautifully captures the magical and ephemeral quality of the characters' existence.  The novel jumps through several time periods and to many different locations, further creating the feeling of an illusion.  The chapters are well constructed, not too long, and full of movement.  At no point does Morgenstern wander into long (or short) boring narratives.  Morgenstern is a painter, and her novel feels like it is a painting.  She masterfully employs color to create moods.

Where the novel came up a bit short is at the ending.  It was good and brought closure but it lacked the richness that filled the rest of the novel.  In an interview, Morgenstern said that creating scenes and images are her strength, not plot.  For a debut novelist, she admirably handled all of it but the plot came up a bit short  at the end.

Usually, I do not love "magical realism" books.  This is an exception.  The advance buzz for this book was immense; the novel held up to expectations.  Comparisons have been drawn to Harry Potter, Twilight and other magical universe books.  I would recommend reading this book.  It is enjoyable and will be the first of many from Morgenstern.

The book preview:

An interview with the author:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Kindle Books Now Available at Local Libraries

Amazon announced on the Kindle blog that Kindle books are available through the library (the NY Public Library has them as well). Many libraries already offer other e-books in epub format (usable on the Nook, the Sony reader, Kobo etc.).

The Kindle post is below:

We’re excited to tell you that starting today, Kindle and Kindle app customers can borrow Kindle books from more than 11,000 libraries in the United States. When you borrow a Kindle book from your local library, you’ll find all the unique features you love about Kindle books:
  • Whispersync automatically syncs your margin notes, highlights and bookmarks – even once you return a Kindle book to your library, we’re going to back up your notes and bookmarks, so the next time you check out the book (or if you decide you want to buy the Kindle book) your notes and bookmarks will be there, waiting for you.
  • Read Everywhere – when you check out a Kindle book from your local library, you can read it on your Kindles and your free Kindle apps for the most popular devices and platforms.
  • Real Page Numbers – our page numbers match the page numbers in print books, so you can easily reference and cite passages and read alongside others in your book club or class.
  • Facebook and Twitter Integration – Share meaningful passages with friends and family with built-in Twitter and Facebook integration.
  • Wireless delivery – Your Kindle library books can be delivered via Wi-Fi, so there’s no need to transfer books to your Kindle via USB
To learn more about borrowing Kindle books from your local library, go to: www.amazon.com/kindle/publiclibraries. To find out if your library will have Kindle books available, visit your library’s website.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side: A NovelOn Canaan's Side is a new novel by two time Man Booker shortlisted author Sebastian Barry.  This novel was on the 2011 Man Booker long list but, to my surprise, did not make it to the shortlist.

The novel is the story of Lilly Bere's life, told over the series of days immediately after the passing of her grandson, Bill.  Her story spans decades, wars and countries.  Bere was born in Ireland, where her childhood was shrouded with the death of her mother and brother.  As a young woman, she had to flee her country and seek refuge in the United States.  Throughout her life, Bere continuously confronts loss and heartbreak; yet, she manages to love and grow.

The writing is the strength of this book.  Barry creates a wondrous intimacy with Bere through beautiful and picturesque writing.  While the book is quite sad, Bere does not drown in her sadness.  Barry does a masterful job carrying the story forward.

I like stories from the Irish literary tradition, for example Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), William Trevor (Selected Stories) and John Banville (The Sea).  Barry fits right in.  Beautiful descriptions, moving stories, well-developed characters.

Although this did not make the Booker shortlist (I have issues with the list and what is not on the list), this novel is well worth reading.  Read it slowly and savor it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The Submission: A NovelThe Submission, a first novel by Amy Waldman, deservedly has received a lot of attention because of the book's timely theme: 9/11.  I enjoy reading books that thematically tie to life events: The Hunchback of Notre Dame while sitting next to the gargoyles in Paris;  The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire while sitting in the Forum in Rome; Moby Dick while on Martha's Vineyard.  The right book can add a lot of meaning and texture to an experience.  The Submission has mostly succeeded at fulfilling that need for me as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Amy Waldman, a former New York Times reporter, has written a book that is worth considering in our post-9/11 world.  The novel opens in the aftermath of an unspecified Islamic-fascist terrorist attack.  A committee has been created to consider submissions in an open, blind process for a memorial for the victims of the attack.  The committee is chaired by a stately former bank chairman and includes artists, architects, political representatives and a widow who represents the victims' families.  As the novel opens, the committee has completed its selection process and chosen a geometric, memorial garden.  When the chairman opens the envelope, to the committee's shock, it realizes that the winning selections was submitted by a Muslim architect, Mohamed Kahn.  Kahn is an American born, non-religious Muslim.  Kahn and his submission become a wrenching political and emotional flash point for the committee, the victims' families, the politicians and the nation.  The characters must decide whether to allow the result of a democratic process stand, whether it is appropriate to allow a co-religionist of the terrorists to design the memorial and whether tolerance should trump fear.  Making matters worse, Kahn will not denounce the terrorists (I'm an American like you; why should I have to denounce them), Kahn refuses to pander to the fears and concerns of the committee, the politicians and the victims' families.  Further, his design appears to be inspired by Islamic victory gardens.  The story, which Waldman began prior to the Ground Zero mosque controversy, challenges the characters and readers to consider how our values have changed as a result of the attack.

As a novel, The Submission was very good, fast reading, relevant and well constructed.  Kahn's motivations for submitting the garden could have been explored more.  While the dialogue was believable, a few of the characters could have been developed a bit better.  Given the timing of the release of this novel and the writer's background (NYT), the novel has received a fair amount of attention, perhaps a bit more than it deserved on its merits alone.

If you are like me and enjoy reading timely books, I would strongly consider The Submission.  If this does not sound quite right to you, Commentary Magazine has issued a list of 9/11 literature.  Click here.  Many of them use 9/11 as background (e.g., a marriage being pulled apart in the aftermath of the attacks) rather than deal with the attack or its aftermath head on.

Click here for a very good interview of Waldman with the NYT.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Man Booker Short List Announced

Earlier this week, the 2011 Man Booker Prize Shortlist was announced.  The titles are:

Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape)
Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail)
Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops (Atlantic)

What a surprising list!  The list includes two debut novelists (Miller and Kelman), four independent publishers and two Canadians.  Alan Hollinghurt, a former Booker winner whose The Stranger's Child was a very strong contender, surprisingly did not make the shortlist. 

So far, I have read three of the shortlist novels: Barnes, Miller and Birch.  Of them, Barnes, who has been on the Booker short list three times, is my favorite.  I was not a fan of Miller's book, and Birch's, while good, was not amazing.  Edugyan's is an interesting story -- the black experience in Nazi Germany.  (Since that is a less well-worn story, I think that's why my favorite, Alison Pick, didn't make the list.)  Pigeon English has received a lot of very good press and one the Guardian First Novel Award. It is the story of an 11 year old Ghana-born child living among the gangs and projects of London.  I've read part of it and the voice is strong.  Strangely, it includes a talking pigeon.  Critics don't like the pigeon but seem to forgive Kelman for it.  Lastly, there is The Sister's Brothers, a western.  While U.S. books are not eligible participants for the competition (and, many westerns come out of the US), since this was published first in Canada, it made it into the process.  

My guess is that it is either Barnes, Edugyan or Kelman.  (If Miller wins, I'm done making predictions.)  Because the process has favored the "new" and "innovative", I'm guessing it is Kelman.

The winner is announced on October 18.  Meanwhile, enjoy reading these novels.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Far to Go by Allison Pick

Far to Go: A Novel (P.S.)Far to Go by Alison Pick is on the 2011 Man Booker long list, and it really belongs there.  It is a gripping work that reads beautifully and easily.  It is one of my ten favorites of the year.

The novel is about a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia in 1938.  As the Nazis attack, the family must deal with fear, security and the unknown.  The family (a father, mother and young son) are barely affiliated Jews who must confront the fact that in the eyes of the Nazis, they are Jews.  The story is told from the point of view of their long-time nanny, Marta, a devoted, non-Jewish woman.  As she watches the horrors in the street and the impact on the family, she also must make hard choices.  A second (though minor) strand to this story is an unnamed modern-day historian who is studying the Kindertransport and the children that escaped.  Interspersed between the chapters are letters written to various family members, which adds to the authenticity of the story.

Having read many stories about the Holocaust, I was drawn into this one almost immediately.  Pick tells the tale convincingly.  The only critique is that Marta comes across as a bit naive sometimes, making her less credible.  Otherwise, the drama and pain that Pick portrays is moving.

If you like great historical literature, Holocaust oriented books or books like 22 Britannia Road, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, The Invisible Bridge, this is a definite pick for you.  It is a terrific selection for any reading group.