The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
“There is so much that glows in the circus, from flames to lanterns to stars. I have heard the expression “trick of the light” applied to sights within Le Cirque des Reves so frequently that I sometimes suspect the entirety of the circus is itself a complex illusion of illumination.”
Ephemeral, dark, elegant and daring, Ms. Morgenstern creates a tale of the enigmatic night circus which appears in cities unannounced, and is open only during the midnight hours. What most circus-goers don’t realize is that the circus is a clever venue for two of the most talented magicians of the century in which they battle each other for supremacy. Their ever more daring and risky feats are the creation of increasingly more elaborate schemes and attractions within the circus itself.
Set in the 1900s in London and traveling throughout cities of the world, this book provides a delicious glimpse into the opulent details of Victorian life, with a delicate edge of mysticism imbued into every day affairs, and a dark current of malice lingering in the shadows. Spanning the book is a mercurial love story, which results in the fiery near-annihilation of the equally matched protagonists as they struggle to outdo each other and they barely escape, although they become fractured from the world as they knew it but wander in the fringes, carefully imbuing the circus with the life-force they give it.
Ms. Morgenstern’s crisp prose will leave you wondering when Le Cirque des Reves will be arriving under the cloak of midnight sky to enchant your town.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
In a small Division III school, the Westish Harpooners baseball team have doggedly trained, with lackluster results, for the duration of their existence. Henry, an unassuming, scrawny speck of a shortstop, was keenly scouted by his team captain Mike ,who is a man about campus with a talent for football, baseball, beers and literary history. Henry soon rockets his team into national visibility. Henry comes across as simple, especially compared to his erudite and eminently scholarshipped roommate Owen, who is a fellow teammate (although with an entirely more casual attitude towards practice), but Henry’s transcendental understanding of Aparicio Rodriguez’s baseball bible, reveals the talent of Henry’s sporting mind.
Intertwining with the players are Guert Affenlight, the enigmatic Westish president, and his disaster-courting daughter Pella. Affenlight’s beautiful affair with a student leaves one grappling with preconceived ideas of morality, while Pella’s bohemian approach to life and love which leaves many messes in her wake ultimately makes her less lovable.
Wonderfully intertwined into this book are spot-on literary references, which were never over done. There is a lot of Melville in this book, which imbues the pages with a bit of a literary affair. Harbach’s prose is crisp and succinct and rich with subtext. He has placed himself in the esteemed footsteps of the American literary giants.
We The Animals by Justin Torres
“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on our TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
This sliver of a book sinks its fangs into the meat of family love, lust and hate; the brazen wonderment of a child’s mind, and the uwieldly emotional and physical transformation into adulthood. Torres’ first novel is redolent of his own experience with two brothers who exhibit a continuous cycle of fierce love, cruelty and ultimate self-sacrifice for each other. Beautifully written, vivacious, vibrant; this book is made to be eaten in one sitting.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Vietnam strikes again. Forever entrenched in the subject, I can say with some authority that this is the best narrative of the Vietnam war that I have read. This is partly due to the author’s experience as a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, but mostly due to his incredible literary prowess. In Matterhorn, the reader is submerged into the horror, the beauty, the futility, and most of all, the poignant camaraderie that was represented by the American involvement in Vietnam. This novel details the Bravo Company’s quest to occupy Matterhorn, a low, thickly forested hill on the border of Vietnam and Laos, the bumbling commandments to abandon the hard-won turf, and the subsequent re-conquering of Matterhorn at substantial human cost.
Though Marlantes was an officer and a graduate of Yale and Oxford in real life, he does not abandon his mythical infantry in this novel and brings their voices to the forefront. Of considerable acclaim are “Vancouver,” a Canadian who enlists for the good of the cause and becomes a revered Rambo figure, and “China” a black power bastion whose fight for what’s right back home becomes perilously entangled in the murky schemes of the Vietnam war.
Ultimately, Marlantes’ prose captures the love and dedication that the young Marines had for each other, the backwards logic of their superiors, and the futility of the whole mess as it is represented by the Matterhorn hill. Marlantes couldn’t have written more authentic feeling text if he had plucked it from the young heads of his company. Gritty, violent, and one-hundred percent worth it.
Post Script- Marlantes is a NW native; he grew up in Seaside, Oregon and currently resides in Woodinville, WA with his family. He recently published a new book which is garnering similar acclaim, “What It Is Like to Go To War.”
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
“Your mortality is at optimal distance, not up so close that it obscures everything else, but close enough to give you depth perception.”
Like a flight of exquisite wines, these loosely linked vignettes go down with warmth and light; and all too quickly, they’re gone. Ms. Bank brings to life the vivacious Jane, who initially steals the scene as a fourteen year old girl with thoughts far too big for her young head. Jane turns in to a complicated twenty-something year old navigating the perilous waters of dating an older man. Jane’s self-inquiry keeps this text crisp and delightful, full of unusually juxtaposed thoughts and phrases. While this book has nothing to do with hunting and fishing in the literal sense, the metaphorical conjugates lurk seductively beneath the surface.An uncommon piece of American literature, this work deserves your spare time.
The House of Hope and Fear by Audrey Young
I had heard whispers of this book during medical school at the University of Washington; whispers of derision, whispers accompanied with a “knowing” look. Not in on the secret myself, I surmised that this book must be an unflattering expose of Harborview hospital, my future (and now current) destination as a doctor, as it had been universially derided by everyone who brought it up. I also know that Dr. Young did not remain long at her post as attending physician at Harborview, though I do not know if that was her choice or if other factors were involved.
Since I am now an intern working at Harborview Medical Center, it seemed an appropriate time to bite into a juicy book about my workplace. My preconcieved ideas about the book were dashed, right off the bat, as Dr. Young displayed an affection and a sense of pride about her workplace. She also wrote about the far reaching accomplishments of Dr. Copass, controversial hero that he is, and repeated his oft-quoted mantras throughout the text.
The meat of the book regards the triumphs and challenges of being a young attending physician in a hospital that largely cares for poor and substance abusing patients. She brings to life the vivid characters I see every day in the ER, and tells their stories to not only to reveal their fascinating social situations, but to try to portray how the expensive, stop-gap medicine that we practice in the US does not go far in treating the patient as a whole, and that larger issues like social inequality need to be addressed in order to confer better health care outcomes.
To my own discomfort, I realized that this book would have benefited from the tension and relief of a narrative regarding a young doctor making a mistake and then fixing it for the benefit of the patient and her own development. Alas, no such plot device was to be found, and Dr. Young deftly maneuvers around any possible missteps on her behalf. The main source of narrative discord in this book are her plaintive railings against the broken US healthcare system, a larger beast than can be tamed by one doctor’s tale. My verdict though is that this is a nice, quick read, and will especially appeal to anyone who has had any involvement with Harborview Medical Center.
Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli
Lisa Napoli traveled to Bhutan, a mysterious enclave of mountaintop monasteries, terraced hillsides of Himalayan proportions, and one of the most curious monarchies in the world. Napoli, full of middle age discontent and a demon or two in her past, left her job in public radio in L.A. and moved to Bhutan to start the country’s first public radio station. The radio became a beacon for modernity in the Himalayan kingdom which had been frozen in time until the first traces of Western influence appeared during the 1990s. In a land where political metrics espouse “Gross National Happiness,” Napoli’s adventure is full of upbeat cultural anecdotes mixed with observations on what defines happiness within a culture and within oneself. Viewing the world through the eyes of her eternally enthusiastic young staff who hopelessly romanticize Western culture, the author casts doubts on the influence of American values in the formerly pristine society of Bhutan.
A short read, definitely worth it for those interested in the coming-of-age of Bhutan. Those who liked “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” by Jennifer Steil will also like this book.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Of absinthe, notes of jazz and opalescent dresses…
…this historical fiction of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage gorgeously captures Hemingway’s early years in Paris. McLain spent years researching the letters exchanged between Hemingway and his first wife Hadley Richardson, at a time when the boy, not long out of the WWI battlefields, had a head full of robust literary ideas and a briefcase full of publisher rejections. The author crafts a joyful and heartbreaking, beautiful and raw portrait of their courtship, their impulsive decision to move to Paris with barely a penny in their pocket, and their carefree ebb and flow through the flapper streets of the city. The prose seems authentic, but not forced or awkward, and the author’s intensive research into the plethora of letters between the pair is smartly ingrained into her prose.
Also revivified in dashing detail are Gertrude Stein and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, with whom many gregarious (mis)adventures ensue.
*This was the first book I read on my new Kindle. I had been resisting e-readers for a long time because I like the tactile satisfaction of a book, but the Kindle is slim and portable and will be great for traveling.
Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer
An inelegant glimpse inside of the travel writing industry, Thompson steamrolled my delightful little notions about glossy travel writing. Having written for travel industry for years, the author tells his readers what really goes down at all-expenses-paid resort visits for travel writers, and the dumbing down that occurs at the editing table of the magazine giants. Since I’m a devoted reader of several high-circulation magazines, I was dismayed to find out that most travel writers have sponsors’ silver spoons up their behinds, and write only blindingly positive reviews, which mask the true flavor of the destination. Also, Thompson points out that nearly all articles detail the uplifting, wonderful elements of place, rather than letting the more melancholic aspects into print; aspects that are a necessary counterpart to any “real” travel experience. Thompson’s prose is at times overwrought, but forgivable given frequent episodes of self-deprecating inanity. With chapters entitled “Canned Hams, Kendo Beatdowns and the Penis Olympics: The Education of an Accidental Ambassador in Japan,” this book should appeal to those with an affinity for travel and a sense of humor.
To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism
Chuck Thompson, take two. The author confronts the places that have repulsed him during his many years of travel writing, including the Congo, Mexico City, India, and Disney World. Thompson’s writing retains vestiges of his frat-boy past, but with an intelligent twist, making this book an equally entertaining read as the former, with some delightfully more mature realizations about our globalized orb. His expose on the brainwashing of Disney World employees is licentious, and his gastronomical misfortunes in India are explicit. The author’s experiences in the Congo with Mobutu’s former body guard are startling and left me feeling the desolation with which he paints this modern day hellhole.
Two fast, entertaining poolside reads, pick them up cheap online or borrow them from me.
Stalin’s Nose by Rory Maclean
I first became a Rory MacLean reader two years ago, when I got lost in his most recent book ‘The Magic Bus.’ I have since sought out MacLean’s other works, including ‘Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma’ and ‘Stalin’s Nose,’ which I just finished. These books detail divergent places, but the author brings alive the beautiful humanity he finds in each.
As an introduction to ‘Stalin’s Nose’, I will quote the writer’s autobiographical quip from the cover: “Rory MacLean trained as a screenwriter. But, during the premiere of his first feature film, his mother fell asleep and his girlfriend ran off with the financier. Not surprisingly, he took a holiday.”
Despite his modest inclinations, MacLean is a stellar writer. Stalin’s Nose details the author’s journey across Eastern Europe in the 1980s with his zany aunt Zita, an elderly aristocrat (with uniformly surprising political pronouncements) looking to revisit places of her glorious past. Also along for the journey is Winston The Pig, a very accomplished pig, although I will not spoil his tale for you. MacLean writes with lyric prose; with words that conjure diaphanous meadows and quiet churchyards. With agile contrast, his portrayal of the Fuhrer’s horrors and the concrete solemnity of communism are written with clarity and determination, leaving the reader trapped in the same collision of beauty and misery that Eastern Europe is finally shaking off. Don’t worry, Stalin’s nose does indeed make a dashing guest appearance in the book.
The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean*
This text practically jumped off the bookshelf and into my basket, sensing my restless wandering feet during an unending, rainy Seattle winter. I expected a lighthearted travel tale full of modern hippies trying to recreate their fore-bearers’ overland quest from the edge of Europe to the Himalaya. Instead, I found prose so liquid I got lost in its mercurial glimmer and fell into a book trance that was sadly broken when the last page fell away. MacLean puts a subtle magic into his words which transports the reader to the heat-scathed Turkish shores that tumble into blue oceans, and to opalescent Himalayan peaks where monks’ chants fall down around your ears before descending into bottomless valleys. He hauntingly portrays multiple characters along the way; I can still see the green eyes of Penny, one of the original Magic Bus travelers in the 70s, two years after reading this book. Maybe the words of this text are written in LSD-imbued ink for the dazzling visions MacLean gives to his readers.
*This is my favorite Rory Maclean book
Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma
Maclean, shaken by a brief visit to Burma long ago, returns to the country to travel by rail and collect stories of “ordinary” Burmese. The vignettes portray a government censor for the regime, a humble basket weaver, a woman in the tangles of a complex love affair, a freedom fighter, and others. I have been yearning to see Burma for years, but it has always been just out of reach, always in the throes of another bloody repressive episode when I’ve tried to visit from neighboring Thailand. The country is an enigma of violent government opression in a land of Buddhist monks, who physically radiate the lighthearted holiness of their faith. Naturally, I fell for this glowing collection of Burmese portraits.
Guest Blog: China Road by Rob Gifford
Reviewed by Zac Potterfield
This review is provided by my illustrious, acclaimed physicist cousin Zac, whose hobbies include writing neoclassical rock operas and contemplating the velocity-dependent curve of the impact intergalactic orbits on transcendentalism. Without further ado, his review of ‘China Road’:
Rob Gifford, a British-born NPR correspondent working in Beijing, is headed back to England after six years on the job. As a final goodbye to China, Gifford sets off on a two month adventure across China’s Route 312; nearly 3,000 miles of asphalt connecting an ever vexing web of people, places, problems and policy. Gifford tempers his Western bias with an overarching sympathy for many of the Chinese citizens he meets on the road. His ability to speak Mandarin allows for sharp insights into some of the sensitive issues of Chinese politics including the One Child Policy, Tibet, the Uyghurs, and attitude towards activist groups like Falun Gong. Gifford also makes sure to include enough historical background to allow the reader to understand China’s complex evolution and how its history (and subsequent alteration thereof) shapes the country’s future. Giffords’ most compelling analysis comes from his conversations with Chinese youth. The increasingly “lost” group of teen and college-age kids are sucked into a confusing capitalist economy with strong Party control, and as a result are lacking connection to Chinese culture, history, and moral groundings. Despite this diverse material, Gifford manages to create an easy and enjoyable read, sprinkled with delightful stories and good humor.
The Lotus Eaters by Tatiana Soli
Most people that have ever met me know that I love Southeast Asia. It should be no epiphany to anyone that I loved The Lotus Eaters, set in Vietnam. I first went to Hanoi with a head full of war history and “Fortunate Son” reverberating through my internal monologue, but I walked away from Vietnam shaken by the violent beauty of the landscape. I will try to tone down my effusiveness about Vietnam and this novel so that you don’t think I’m overreacting about what a treasure this book is.
Set during the Vietnam war, this is a tale about a young woman photographer, Helen, who drops out of college to chase the war. On arrival in Saigon, she realizes that she’s wildly out of her league in the old boy’s club of wizened war photographers and journalists. Intending to make a splash on her first night with the war correspondents by wearing a silk dress that gets ruined in the rain, she looks a fool, but she boldly makes friends with the arrogant, acclaimed photographer Darrow. Soon, she, Darrow, and Linh- Darrow’s invaluable “assistant”- are an inseparable trio, intoxicated by the drama of war and the irony of it taking place in the verdant landscape. Amidst glimmering rice paddies and the shell-cratered countryside, Soli creates a beautiful story of love, identity, life and loss. I was initially engrossed with Helen’s character; the fierceness with which she clamors after life, her feeling of instability during calm, and her relentless urge to pursue beguiling Vietnam.
As the story unfolded, Linh’s character added a thoughtful richness to the narrative. A countryside poet prior to the war, he was first a soldier for the Northern Vietnamese Army, and then defected to the the Southern Vietnamese Army and finally, disenchanted with the whole thing, went on something of a sanctioned AWOL to be a photographer with the Americans. Linh’s only true loyalties, like many Vietnamese of the time, were to his country as a whole, his community, and to his unlikely friends.
Ms. Soli has a delicate, elegant writing style with a razor edge that captures the intricacies of post-colonial, war-addled Vietnam and the incredible people who inhabit it. Beautiful, complex, and a portrait of a country that I love, I can’t recommend it enough.
Further Recommended Reading About Vietnam:
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene
Spies, journalism, brothels, intrigue and ill-fated love color this seminal novel written by Graham Greene in 1955. Although Soli takes an oblique jab at this book in her novel (Helen makes fun of herself for being a Quiet-American-toting idealist), this is probably required reading for voyagers to Vietnam to help understand the role of the French and other colonialists in the region. If you want to avoid scorn by Lonely-Planet-packing, dreadlock-bedecked backpackers in Vietnam, read it on the long plane ride over. It’s short.
The Lover, by Marguerite Duras
Like a boat trip down the Mekong- languidly enchanting and providing a feeling of space/time disconnect- ‘The Lover’ is a dreamy vignette of love in French Indochina. An unlikely union blossoms between a young French schoolgirl and a handsome Chinese millionaire; racial drama follows. Set in the eroding French Saigon 30 years before Helen’s austere roamings through Vietnam, this sliver of a book is a gem.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
Bruce Chatwin is one of those travel writing greats, pioneering the genre and remaining unchallenged by the deluge of travel writers in his wake. He wrote ‘The Songlines’ about Aboriginal Australia. He delves into the unique way of understanding the earth, the universe and our place in it that the Aboriginal people have. This web of understanding is charted by Songlines, which are physical, psychological, musical and universal navigational tools. A Songline denotes a physical route across the land, and a person is connected to his or her other ‘dreaming’ relatives along this Songline by a melody signified by their shared ‘dreaming’ animal. ‘Dreaming’ animals are assigned after birth, depending on the place of birth and significant geologic features in that area. The Songlines not only represent a physical map connecting members of certain ‘dreaming’ group, but delineate their place on the earth and their connection to all other creatures. Anecdotes abound throughout this book, some delightful, some horrifying, all a glance into the miraculous world of the Australian Aborigines that outsiders continually fail to understand, and sadly often denigrate. The middle of the book contains a transcendental collection of thoughts and quotes related to nomadic life throughout the ages- enthralling to any reader with wandering feet. Reading Chatwin’s careful, sparse prose, I had a brilliant glimpse into how the Aborigines likely have the most advanced philosophy or religion of any culture.
Freedom: A Novel. By Jonathan Franzen
Another bestseller I’ve been avoiding, largely because of the vague description on the book cover and acerbic cover itself (I do judge books by their covers). In truth, this book is hard to describe, but revolves around a family and their branching, beautifully odd relationships. Normally, the theme of suburban discontent makes me want to yawn and NOT contemplate the lame tragedy of SUV driving, resource abusing white people, but Franzen’s crispy fresh writing style managed to suck me in. He has an inventive way with words and uncannily captures the roving, self-deprecating female stream of consciousness. I wondered if ‘Jonathan’ was a nom de plume disguising a woman, but the picture on the book jacket is convincingly male. Undercurrents of this book explore ecological conservation, rockstarism, politically incorrect political activism, alcoholism, and exploitative relationships. Caution: this is a thick book, and the middle third felt like a marathon, mostly because I was under the gun to get it back to the library, and the book remained engaging throughout. Bottom Line: Read it if you have some extra time.
Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
I’ve been watching Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel for a long time and have been amused that a once-semi-famous, previously heroin abusing, now-washed-up chef created a show that intertwines travel, local food and some pretty crafty cultural observations. His literary snippets throughout the show hinted to me that he might be a good writer. When “Medium Raw” was published this winter, I went for it. It is definitely entertaining, with quite a few shock value stories, but it lacks a central thread. Besides food. It meanders from anecdote to anecdote, though his sarcasm and hilariously self-aggrandizing sentences will keep you turning the pages. When I finished it, I was sufficiently impressed to get his first book, “Kitchen Confidential” from the library. It came out 10 years ago and was a sensation at the time. I thought Bourdain has a more authentic voice in “Kitchen Confidential” and liked it better. (My fiance prefers “Medium Raw”). They’re not for the faint of heart; both have gritty and profane prose and some gruesome details of life in the innards of famous NYC kitchens. Both are enjoyable, but read them in order and not backwards like I did.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This thick and ambitiously titled Biography of Cancer was more readable than I anticipated. Mukherjee’s brilliance is in his layering of interesting historical tidbits, patient stories, and observations on how cancer has shaped culture. Otherwise, this massive topic, with it’s biochemical intricacies would be overwhelming and boring. As someone who suffered through medical school biochemistry with zero idea why we were learning tedious genetic mutations like bcr/abl and the drug subsequently invented to fix the cancer it creates, this book gave me some lightbulb moments. All of those befuddling DNA/RNA/protein product pathways we had to learn were very recently discovered and have advanced medicine light years since then. I would recommend this book to people who have an interest in cancer’s insidious ways, or medical people who hated biochemistry as much as I did.
Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi
This is the story of a prominent Iraqi family, beginning in the late 1800’s and continuing to current day Iraq. The family was an influential Shi’a (the religious minority in Iraq) family that weathered the fall of the Ottoman Empire, British occupation post WWI, and the unstable governments following. The family was forced into exile in London and Lebanon in the 1970’s, and the author was born in Beirut. Her family’s longing for their home country informed the author’s cultural identity, and just before the Americans took over Baghdad, she went ‘home’ to the country she never knew. An interesting look at the beautiful history of a dynamic population; the kind of peoples’ history that textbooks tend to forget in favor of white-washed atrocities and American heroism.
The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating and Island Life by Ann Vanderhoof
These are the kind of books I gravitate towards- well written mind vacations that take me away from the persistent rain of Seattle. In her first book, “An Embarrassment of Mangoes,” Vanderhoof tells the story of how she and her husband become disillusioned with their publishing jobs in cold Toronto (am I torturing myself with these stories?), and sell everything, buy a sailboat, and sail down the intercoastal waterway to the Caribbean, where they voyage in a mostly-happily-ever-after manner. In this follow-up, the couple, after a second Canadian epiphany, return to the Caribbean and delight in island life once more. I appreciate her descriptions of the differences between the islands and the lingering flavors of French, Spanish and Portuguese spices on their sandy shores. I also appreciate that their boat is named Receta (recipe), and their dinghy is called Snack. Throughout the book are many recipes, quite a few of which feature rum and/or coconut. Cue trip to the refrigerator.