CIRKUS by Patti Frazee

In Patti Frazee’s astonishing debut novel, enchantment and illusion casually commingle with reality as the Borefsky Brothers Circus makes its way across the American Midwest in the summer of 1900.

Mariana, the fortune teller, makes herself invisible and drifts through the nighttime circus, listening in on conversations and watching over her beloved Shanghai, a fire-breathing dwarf who closely guards his secrets, even from Mariana’s second sight. Conjoined twins Atasha and Anna cling to each other and weep for their home and for their mother and father who sold them to the circus. Jakub, the circus manager and husband to Mariana, fears his wife’s gifts, grieves his own failures, and drinks to forget it all. The stories and closely guarded histories of the troupe of performers dance around each other until a love affair between Shanghai and Atasha destroys the delicate balance.

As secrets are revealed and old wounds are opened, the consequences are unbearable to some and liberating to others. Lyrically graceful and populated by vividly drawn characters, Cirkus is a haunting novel of devastating heartbreak and exquisite loveliness.

OK, it is about a dwarf, a gypsy fortune teller, conjoined twin teenage girls, all in one of those turn of the century (twentieth century) small traveling circuses that plied the rural areas of the USA, as well as Europe.  It is a story about the trials and tribulations of side show “freaks” and other nomadic circus personnel. mostly of Czech origin, as they travel around the midwestern US entertaining the “rubes” and trying to deal with each other. It is full of  melodramatic romance plots of unrequited love, frustrated passion and star crossed lovers.

Hard to pigeonhole it as to genre, but I would say fantasy, quasi-historical fiction, where dreams have a reality of their own, and it is all a bit surreal.

I enjoyed it, although the first half was a bit slow.  But the last quarter was a toboggan ride, that’s for sure!

 

 

 

THE CONFUSION by Neal Stephenson

In the year 1689, a cabal of Barbary galley slaves — including one Jack Shaftoe, aka King of the Vagabonds, aka Half-Cocked Jack — devises a daring plan to win freedom and fortune. A great adventure ensues — a perilous race for an enormous prize of silver … nay, gold … nay, legendary gold.

In Europe, the exquisite and resourceful Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, is stripped of her immense personal fortune by France’s most dashing privateer. Penniless and at risk from those who desire either her or her head (or both), she is caught up in a web of international intrigue, even as she desperately seeks the return of her most precious possession.

Meanwhile, Newton and Leibniz continue to propound their grand theories as their infamous rivalry intensifies, stubborn alchemy does battle with the natural sciences, dastardly plots are set in motion … and Daniel Waterhouse seeks passage to the Massachusetts colony in hopes of escaping the madness into which his world has descended.

“When a thing such as wax, or gold, or silver, turns liquid from heat, we say that it has fused,” Eliza said to her son, “and when such liquids run together and mix, we say they are con-fused.”  _ from the book.

This second volume takes place during the end of the Nine Years’ War (and the period shortly after) and explores the beginning of the Enlightenment, complete with politics, war, modern economics, science and the scientific method, currency, information technology, trade, religion and cryptography. Usually, when Newton or Leibniz are discoursing, Stephenson is waxing philosophic about atoms, thinking machines, or currency.  This time the plot is more straight forward and adventure-oriented (and incidentally a lot more fun than Quicksilver), but again the characters main purpose for their existence is to discourse on matters political, religious, scientific, and economic.

Again, another loooooong book, (the three volumes of the Cycle together comprising 3,000 pages), and you either love it or hate it, because if historical fiction with a dash of sci-fi mysticism isn’t your thing, it isn’t your thing.

I do love Neal Stephenson, yes indeedy.  On now to the final volume, The System of the World.

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford

What a darling book.  “In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s—Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent love that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.

It is the story of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, both twelve years old, both sent by their parents to a semi-prestigious school.  They are both there on scholarship, and work in the kitchen at lunchtime. They are the only ethnic students, and are taunted and bullied for it, Henry because he is Chinese, and Keiko because she is Japanese.  It was the early years of the second world war when the Japanese were hated and feared, and the story is set in the time right before the Japanese are rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Young love has a hard time surviving distance and time, and it is acerbated by Henry’s father, who hates the Japanese, and does what he can to see that the delivery of the letters between the two are disrupted, leaving each to believe that the other no longer cared.

Before the families were rounded up, most of them stored as much as they could of their personal belongings — documents, photos, important mementos wherever they could and with non-Japanese who agreed to keep them.  Many went into the Panama Hotel’s basement, a real place and a true event.  Most never returned for these belongings.

The two teens had a shared love of jazz, and a thread weaves through the story revolves about the existence of an old vinyl recording of a famous musician.

There is a lot about the anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, and the conditions in the internment camps, which for those of us who would prefer to pretend that that ignominious time in the history of the US did not exist, it was a stark reminder that the US’s immigrant and foreigner phobia is not a new phenomenon.

 

PORTRAIT IN SEPIA by Isabel Allende

Portrait in Sepia is actually the middle volume of a trilogy, between Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits.   I read House of the Spirits long before I started this blog, so it is not among my musings here, and have not read Daughter of Fortune.  But never fear, this is a stand alone novel, you don’t need the first volume at all.

It is the story of a young woman, daughter of a beautiful young girl who dies in childbirth, granddaughter of a Chilean woman and a Chinese man, very unusual in the later part of the 19th century in San Francisco, and of the neer-do-well son of a very wealthy Chilean couple, also living in San Francisco.  The son refuses to acknowledge his paternity, and a male cousin formally adopts her so she will have a name, and still belong to the Del Valle family.

There is a great deal about grandmother Paulina Del Valle, an obese but astute woman who has such a head for business that the family’s money soon becomes the family’s great wealth, and they have a huge mansion in S.F. where she dominates the social scene.

The little girl, Aurora (Lai Ming) is brought up by her Chilean grandmother and Chinese grandfather until age five, when the grandfather is murdered by the tangs, the wife wants to take his body back to Hong Kong for burial, so the grandmother turns the child over to the wealth grandmother.  At some point, they return to Chile, to Santiago, a back water compared to San Francisco, but is the biggest most progressive city in Chile.  There, Paulina sets up shop again as the big cheese, the granddaughter Aurora falls in love with a handsome son of a ranching family several days travel from Santiago, where they have vast landholdings that had been in the family for centuries.  The marriage fails, because the husband has been in love for years with the wife of his brother.  The granddaughters perfects her craft of photography, and when she learns her grandmother Paulina is close to death, travels to Santiago and never returns to her husband.

The story covers the Chilean civil war, a couple of them, actually, and runs from 1862 to 1910, and is told in the form of a memoir by Aurora. The title refers to her feeling that although family members and events from early in her life are clearly outlined in the black and white photos, and the later ones in the color she begins to use in her film, a lot of her family history is not clear, and appears more as a portrait in sepia.

A fine story, as are all Allende’s books.

Oh, did I mention the translator?  It is Magda Bogin.  Allende writes in Spanish, being a native born Chilean.

THE MURMUR OF BEES by Sofía Segovia

I have been reading a number of translated works, lately, to the benefit of my horizons, expansion-wise.  Sofía Segovia is a Mexican writer, with several other acclaimed words, but I believe this is the first in translation.  The translator is Simon Bruni, and as in all great translations, if you haven’t a clue it is a translation, then it is a good one.  A good translation doesn’t just exchange original language word for an English word, sometimes it must actually rephrase something so that it has the same connotation and feel in English as it does in the original language.

In The Murmur of Bees, as I seem to find in most Latin American writing, there is that ever-present soupçon of fantasy, or magical realism, that small touch of the surreal that distinguishes the Latin American soul from the prosaic core of the American canon.

Written in 2010, the time setting spans the turn of the twentieth century through the remainder of that century, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, whose capital is Monterrey.  At this time, Monterrey is very small, and the state rural and remote.

An elderly nanny sits rocking, day after day for decades, in the shade of a shed on the grounds of the Morales family ranch, when she suddenly disappears, to be found the next morning sitting in the shade of a bridge, kilometers from the ranch, holding two bundles wrapped in her aprons.  One was a beehive and its residents, and the other was a day-old infant covered in bees.

And thus begins the story of Simonopío, born with a badly disfiguring cleft lip and palate, who was taken in by the Morales family.  Reviled and mocked by most because of his deformity, but loved unconditionally by his foster family, he proves to be a strange child, devoted to his bees and his Nana Reja.  He has an inborn ability to sense things afar, to sense danger, and even, to know a little about the future.  It would seem his ever-present bees tell him things, things they have learned in their travels and on the wind.

When late-life Francisco Morales Jr. is born after his two older sisters have grown and married and started their own families, his middle-aged mother finds him so different from his sedate sisters, this boisterous boy.  Simonopío has completely taken him under his wing, from before he was even born, and is his companion and protector.

What makes this such a wonderful story is the background of Mexico during those years, years of the internal civil war, years when the Catholic Church was banned, the churches closed or burned, the priests in hiding. holding secret services and secret schools.  It was the years that the plague, brought back to the U.S. by returning WWI soldiers made it way southward, no respecter of borders, and took its terrible toll on the citizens of the small town that was the center for life in the area of these ranches, where no one escaped losing family members.  Franciso Sr.  seeing what was happening, gathered up his family and his workers and took everyone to a far distant ranch he owned, where everyone crowded together in isolation to wait out the disease.

It was a time when land reform was beginning to come to the fore, when the government was seizing lands from the big landowners to distribute among the non-land owning, and Franciso Sr.  was hard put to hangon to his extensive holdings.  The bees led
Simonopío year after year, farther and farther from the area, where he discovered growing healthy, productive orange trees, planted long ago by someone.   He brought back the oranges to his foster father, trying to make him understand that this was the future.  The laws at this time were that the government would seize without notice any non-working land, so farmers and rangers were struggling to keep all their fields active, although they needed to lie fallow from time to time to recover.  But Franciso could see that by planting orchards, instead of grains, etc, the fields would always be in use, and in three years or so, newly planted trees would start producing fruit.  So he converted almost all of his extensive holdings to orchards, where they prospered.

Most workers on these ranches at this time worked for small wages, but were given a small house and a parcel of land of their own to work on a sharecrop basis, and eventually could pay it off and own it outright.  The bulk of the story revolves around one disgruntled man from the southern part of the country, who wanted it all now, then lost his wife and all but two of his children to the plague, and lived for revenge on Franciso, Sr.,  his son, and the foster boy, whom he considered the devil incarnate because of his deformity, and whom he was convinced had come to destroy them all.

It is told primarily in first person by Francisco, Jr. as an old man,  with a few disconcerting changing narration voices to third person, and to first person of other characters, but all it all, it was a compelling page turner, just wonderful in its execution and pacing.

This is her only translated work, I believe, and I loved it.

To the lower left of the green colored state of Nuevo Leon you will see the outline of the state of Zacataces, which is where I live.

 

 

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker

Now this was certainly a fun read, combining the golem myth with the jinni (or geni) myth in what turns out to be Love, Actually.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale. “

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There are lots of fascinating and lovable human characters populating the tale, and although this is fantasy/fable/magical realism/sorta historical fiction, it is also a ripping tale, as our British counterparts might say, and is a page turner of the first water.  Loved it.  LOVED it.

Some definitions for you.

‘of the first water’.  Ever wondered where that expression came from?  Wonder no more.  Of course you already know it means of the finest quality, as in That was a play of the first water . This idiom refers to a grading system for diamonds for their color or luster (compared to the shininess of water). The system is no longer used but the term, used figuratively since the early 1800s, has survived it.

Golem – In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing.  The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the golem was brought to life and afterward controlled. According to Moment Magazine, “the golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope and despair.”

Jinni – as in I Dreamed Of  —  Jinni, plural jinn, also called genie, Arabic jinnī, in Arabic mythology, a supernatural spirit below the level of angels and devils. Ghūl (treacherous spirits of changing shape), ʿifrīt (diabolic, evil spirits), and siʿlā (treacherous spirits of invariable form) constitute classes of jinn. Jinn are beings of flame or air who are capable of assuming human or animal form and are said to dwell in all conceivable inanimate objects—stones, trees, ruins—underneath the earth, in the air, and in fire. They possess the bodily needs of human beings and can even be killed, but they are free from all physical restraints. Jinn delight in punishing humans for any harm done them, intentionally or unintentionally, and are said to be responsible for many diseases and all kinds of accidents; however, those human beings knowing the proper magical procedure can exploit the jinn to their advantage.

Belief in jinn was common in early Arabia, where they were thought to inspire poets and soothsayers. Even Muhammad originally feared that his revelations might be the work of jinn. Their existence was further acknowledged in official Islam, which indicated that they, like human beings, would have to face eventual salvation or damnation.

Now, go forth and amaze your friends and enemies with your erudition.

What makes this story so fun is that it is highly unusual to have a golem and a jinni in the same tale becauze they come from different cultures and myths.

Apparently there is a sequel.  See ya later  – I am off to locate a copy.

PURE by Andrew Miller

pure1111_1925194fA truly engaging and delightful work of historical fiction.  I didn’t read historical fiction in the past because I somehow had the idea that it was all Regency romances, but I am learning that anything set in an older time is historical fiction, so …. horizons widened.

This story is set in Paris a little before the Revolution.  A young engineer has been sent to some functionary whose offices are in the Versailles Palace.  He is given the job of excavating and demolishing an ancient cemetery in the heart of Paris, Cemetery of Les Innocents, and its resident church.  The cemetery was apparently used during the plague for enormous mass graves of the plague victims, but over the centuries, its contents have started to leak into nearby houses and basements, and the air smells truly foul.  It is so bad that the residents of the area can be identified by their breath, which smells of the carnal house.

Our engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is made to understand he does not really have a choice to accept the job, nor can he resign.  He is told he is not high enough up on the food chain to have the privilege of resigning, so he sets himself to getting the job done.  He goes to a friend working in a mine several days journey away, and arranges for 30 men to come for the job.  Although the job is gruesome, the men are happy to change careers, since the pay is better, the hours are better, they get fed and given a drink allotment.

An old caretaker and his young granddaughter live on the grounds, as well as an ancient definitely batty priest, who appears and disappears.  There have been no masses held in the decaying church for decades, and when Jean goes to examine the state of the building, he meets a fellow, dandily dressed, who is the organist for the church.  He still gets paid his stipend, although there is no one to play for, and no one to work the bellows, so his playing is only the clicking of the keys. A couple of times a month, he pays some local lounge-abouts to work the bellows so he can hear the music he is playing.  He and Jean become friends, and he becomes central to the story.

Those in charge of the operation have arranged for Jean to board in a nearby house, owned by an odd couple with a twenty-something year old unmarried daughter.  The house has the smell of the cemetery, and the food has a strange taste.

The workers arrive, they set up camps in the cemetery and start digging, piling up bones into huge mountains, waiting for the go -ahead to transport them to a catacombs in the city which will be used as a sacred resting place.

Jean becomes obsessed with a prostitute he has seen who was selecting books at the booksellers.  He was astounded that not only could she read, but that she read books.   He continues to think about her and look for her, eventually meets with her and in a strange state of mind, invites her to move in with him.  He sets up housekeeping with her in his boarding house.

The story progresses until a wonderful denouement, (See what I did there?   Used a French word for finale or climax. I impress even me.)  where  life, death and all the in betweens come together in one conflagration.  (Yeah, and that conflagration word was a hint, but I had to point it out because you wouldn’t know how clever I was unless you had read the book.)

The whole thing is a meditation on death, life, and the eternal verities.  Here are some great quotes for you.

A gloom and doom priest preaches from Isaiah:  Beware the Lord will empty the earth and turn it upside down and scatter its inhabitants.  The earth dries up and withers, the whole world withers and grows sick, the earth’s high places sicken, and the earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live in it.

Damn!  Isaiah had it going on, didn’t he?  Sounds like our near future, what with climate change and all.   OK, let’s move on to some other topic:

The poverty of the villages is almost picturesque from the windows of a coach that is not stopping.  How much has changed in two hundred years?  Did the people not live much like this in the days of Henri IV?  They may have lived better, with fewer of them and the land less tired and the lords, with their just glimpsable chateaux, less numerous.

Arrrrggg!   Now doesn’t that sound like today, too.  The average folk living less and less well as the billionaire class increases, living off the money of the average folk.   Whew.  Well, let’s try something about the future:

One does not resent the future.  Nor its agents.

However, one can very well be afraid of it.  Moving on to families:

The visit, like all visits home for a long time now, has been an obscure failure.  When is it we cease to be able to go back, truly go back?  What secret door is it that closes?

And a last musing on violence:

Violence is respected;  he has learnt that much about the world.  It may even be one of those virtues the young man on the chair was preaching about.  Gentlemen with blood up to their shoe buckles, bowing and making to each other un beau geste.  Virtuous violence.  The virtuous necessity of it.  Violence as a duty.  It is, very likely, the coming thing.

Indeed.

Beautifully written,  great story, wonderful characters.  Do read it.

The author, in an interview talking about his choice of subject matter, said, “After the age of fortysomething, death is a taste in your mouth, and never goes away again.”   He may be right on that score.   He got the idea for the story ten years before actually writing the book after reading a book about Les Innocents cemetery by French medievalist and historian, Philippe Ariès.