R55. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Year Published: 2011
Pages: 516

Pairing: Illusionist and accountant, but they're both also magic users
First Sentence: The circus arrives without warning.
Climax: The entire room trembles as they come together.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern | Two Hectobooks


Calling The Night Circus a romance is a bit tenuous, I must admit. The book is more about its setting than it is about any of its characters, and as such, the relationship between the two magicians who create the circus feels like an afterthought. No matter, though! I'll take any excuse to add to the number of romnovs I've reviewed.

Le Cirque des Rêves is a circus with a monochrome colour scheme (21st century branding in the 19th century!) that travels randomly around the world, opening at night and just generally being wonderful and mysterious. It is the site of a competition between two young people, Celia and Marco, who were trained in different "schools" of magic. Celia's teacher is her father, who is cold and abusive and a showoff, Marco's teacher is a man in a grey suit, who is cold and abusive and secretive. Celia and Marco spend over a decade adding magical things to the circus, trying to figure out the terms of their contest. That's sort of it.

I really enjoyed this book, but it had a bit of a style over substance problem. It took me over a hundred pages to notice that it was written in the present tense, for example, because I was busy having a great time reading about the origin of the circus. The point I noticed was about the point where the origin story ends and things shifted into the more plotty section of the book. Usually I'll notice present tense right away, because I hate it most of the time. I could practically taste the caramel corn, though, and that's not something to just brush off. Erin Morgenstern is masterful in describing her setting.

There are certain things in the novel and actions that the characters take that feel very unrealistic, though. For example, Marco is raised in almost total isolation, which would make him a total wreck as a person. But because the book takes place in a heightened reality I won't fault it for lack of realism. What I do fault it for is what I mentioned at the beginning of the review: there isn't enough attention paid to the relationships in the book. Over the course of five hundred pages, I'm not sure that Celia and Marco spend even fifty of them together in the same room. They talk about how they are surrounded with each others' presence at the circus and so they've fallen in love, but that's not enough for me, the reader, to really see any connection between them. Other characters who are instrumental to the plot are simply dropped at the end with no follow up. There are just these blanks scattered throughout that make this a decent book rather than a great one.

I would go to Walt Disney's Cirque des Rêves theme park in a heartbeat (having been to Disneyland, and given that Disney owns everything you love, I feel confident they could pull it off). I'll even see the movie that may or may not be coming. But I'm not sure if the content of this book will prove to be all that memorable.

Five Years Ago This Month: September 2012

Muffin and a glass of milk
I do remember baking delicious muffins
with wild blueberries that I picked
while working in The North.
Five years ago this month...

...I was extremely belatedly distracted. No idea why I was apparently too busy to post this until over half of September had passed.

...I was the regular amount of distracted. Great job, past M.R.

46. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Year Published: 1907
Pages: 269
First Sentence: Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad | Two Hectobooks


So the good news, for my sake, is that I liked The Secret Agent a lot more than Nostromo. The bad news is that The Secret Agent still didn't exactly blow me away.

The Secret Agent is a man named Adolf Verloc. He's a spy for some government—the presence of "Mr Vladimir" implies the Russian government—who lives in London and owns a porn shop. At the beginning of the novel, Verloc visits Mr Vladimir, who urges him to carry out a bombing at the Observatory in Greenwich Park. Verloc doesn't want to do this, but Vladimir threatens his job, so he agrees. I couldn't really follow some of the details in terms of who Verloc was actually spying on, but what ends up happening is that he recruits his wife's mentally disabled brother Stevie to carry the explosives to the observatory, and then everything goes very, very wrong.

Though not as opaque as Heart of Darkness or as relentlessly boring-to-the-point-of-indifference as Nostromo, The Secret Agent did lose me a few times. See my above comment regarding not being able to actually figure out who Verloc was supposed to be spying on. The real strength of the book is the way the perspective shifts from Verloc onto his wife, Winnie. I'm trying to say that the book has a superb climax without giving too much away. If the whole thing had had that level of clarity, I would've enjoyed it a lot more, because the characters were a lot of fun throughout. In fact, while I'm not an expert on portrayals of disability in literature, I'll even say that Conrad's handling of the Stevie character was a lot more sympathetic than I would've expected from a book published in 1907. (Though not especially kind, given Stevie's fate.)

Having read four of Joseph Conrad's books now (where, if not for this project, I probably would've only read one at most), I have to say that I'm convinced it's his style that's the problem. Certainly the content of the books is often action-packed, Conrad just can't seem to convey that action in an exciting way. I hate to pick on him, though, because the man was writing in his third language, which he didn't speak fluently until his twenties. (The other two languages are Polish and French. Conrad the man is much more interesting to me than his books have been.) The prose is often ponderous, and holds the reader at arm's length. That's why it's such a marked improvement when the focus shifts to action in a scene or a character's immediate feelings about something. Basically Joseph Conrad is Not For Me. It's especially frustrating given that I've found his Author's Notes 100% more approachable and readable than the novels.

Anyway, the final comment to make about The Secret Agent is that it seems to have a reputation for being either prescient or modern in terms of its subject matter. And I suppose a person could make that argument, but it's not one that I would make. The paranoia (and the sense of global political instability—or maybe that's just my own paranoia showing) that characterizes the modern world is conspicuously absent from this novel. There's no sense that anything going on in the novel affects anything at all outside of the events depicted directly. I'm willing to grant that maybe, in my struggles with wrestling Conrad's prose into my brain, I simply missed a whole lot of subtext and/or text, but there you have it.

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And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy's sake or for the sake of the customers.
These customers were either very young men, who hung about the window for a time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more mature age, but looking generally as if they were not in funds. Some of that last kind had the collars of their overcoats turned right up to their moustaches, and traces of mud on the bottom of their nether garments, which had the appearance of being much worn and not very valuable. And the legs inside them did not, as a general rule, seem of much account either. With their hands plunged deep in the side pockets of their coats, they dodged in sideways, one shoulder first, as if afraid to start the bell going.
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Born of industrious parents for a life of toil, he had embraced indolence from an impulse as profound as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which directs a man's preference for one particular woman in a given thousand.
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He had even gone so far as to utter words which true wisdom would have kept back. But Chief Inspector Heat was not very wise—at least not truly so. True wisdom, which is not certain of anything in this world of contradictions, would have prevented him from attaining his present position. It would have alarmed his superiors, and done away with his chances of promotion. His promotion had been very rapid.
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