Friday, February 28, 2020

February Wrap Up

February was a pretty good reading month for me! I ended up reading a lot of things I enjoyed, and I even discovered a new favorite. Here's the breakdown:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (5/5 stars)
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (5/5 stars)
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (4/5 stars)
Black Boy by Richard Wright (4/5 stars)
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (4/5 stars)
The Financier by Theodore Dreiser (2/5 stars)

My favorite read of the month was The Starless Sea. I was so pleased that I found this novel to be just as good as Erin Morgenstern's first novel. It was a beautifully written adventure with books and reading celebrated on every page. I loved it.

My least favorite read was definitely Theodore Dreiser's The Financier. It wasn't terrible, but its slow pacing made it feel very long. Its overall theme was a little bit murky too, leaving me puzzled at the end.

It was a good month for graphic novels, with They Called Us Enemy and Hey, Kiddo both being very enjoyable and poignant nonfiction reads. The first dealt with Japanese internment camps during WWII, and the other explored the effects of drug addiction on families. I was quite moved reading both of them.

I planned a very ambitious TBR for March. I'm thinking that I might not get through all of these, but here's what I would like to do:

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
The Undoing of Thistle Tate by Katelyn Detweiler

If I actually make it through all those books, I will clear three books off of my Classics Club list, two books off of my Back to the Classics Challenge, and one book off my True Books Challenge. In addition, I will get to read two books just because I feel like it, which is always nice. With all my challenges, sometimes I don't do that enough.

I'm so looking forward to getting started here that I think I am going to be a little bit sneaky and start reading on February 29th - leap days don't count, right?

The Financier by Theodore Dreiser

*A few of the paragraphs below contains spoilers. They are clearly marked if you want to skip them.*

Does anyone else out there remember Borders? It was one of my favorite book stores to go to because I always had luck finding a wide variety of classic novels there. Quite a few of the books in my personal library came from their shelves, including Theodore Dreiser's The Financier. I sure do miss that place. Every time I see a Borders price sticker on the back of one of my books I wish it were still around. I am still nursing a grudge against Barnes and Noble classics, so now I do most of my classic book shopping on Amazon. This is fine, but lacks the fun of browsing the shelves and finding old books you've never heard of before. Clearly, I'm becoming an old, curmudgeonly woman.

Anyway, I put The Financier on my Classics Club list for two main reasons. First, I read Dreiser's Sister Carrie back in college and enjoyed it. Second, this is a Naturalism novel, and I tend to like books from that period (I do love a hopelessly bleak story). I decided to read it this month on a whim. I knew nothing about its plot before I started. In fact, I wasn't even sure how to pronounce its title. Nevertheless, I picked it up hoping for the best.

The plot of the novel concerns the rise and fall of Frank Cowperwood, a financier working in Philadelphia in the 1870s. Frank displays a talent for finance from a very young age, and as he grows to manhood, he uses his natural business acumen to climb the social ladder and become very wealthy. He builds most of his fortune through various schemes involving the stock exchange and investing in streetcars. Like most of the other financiers around him, he engages in shady business practices to control the market and further his interests, including taking out low-interest loans from the city's treasury with the help of a corrupt government official.

The good times end, however, when the Great Chicago Fire causes the bottom to drop out of the market. The panic comes at the worst possible time for Frank; he doesn't have enough ready cash to cover all of the loans he currently has on his books. When his various investors begin calling in those loans, he is unable to raise enough money to stave off bankruptcy. In his financial failure, his unethical activities with the city treasury are revealed and charges are filed against him for larceny and embezzlement.

From this point forward, Frank's life begins a downward spiral from which he struggles to escape. His strong business sense has always saved him from trouble before, but now that he has been caught on the wrong side of the law, all of his usual tricks are too risky or impossible to try now. He is largely stuck, and must find a way to weather the storm, if he can. The Financier is a detailed look at the prototypical American businessman, and how the great rewards that come with a life of ruthless ambition and incredible wealth can just as easily lead to ruin as they can to glory.

Reading this novel was a mixed experience for me. It was somewhat enjoyable, but there were a lot of elements in it that I found to be strange or dull. It's certainly not an on-the-edge-of-your-seat type of read, but the story itself was fairly interesting. I thought it was funny how Frank's unethical activities in the 1870s mirrored what modern Wall Street brokers get in trouble for today. The terms and investments, of course, have changed, but the basics remain the same. Insider trading, corrupt government officials, and playing tricks with other people's money are all scandals that still make headlines today. It was funny to consider how little people have changed over the years, especially when it comes to acquiring money and power.

Something I struggled with throughout my reading was the pacing. At just over 500 pages, this is a long novel. Frank's downfall starts early, around the 200 page mark. The rest of the novel describes his slow decline, sparing the reading few details along the way. For example, events like Frank's trial and sentencing are transcribed almost word-for-word, and every character and place Frank encounters, no matter how minor or inconsequential, are presented with long, unnecessary descriptions. The novel is almost all falling action, and it feels unbalanced to read. There are a lot of pages spent detailing financial transactions as well, which are difficult to follow for the uninitiated. Dreiser does a fair job explaining everything, and I ultimately understood enough to follow the story, but I don't feel like I every fully "got" everything Frank was doing with his money.

An aspect of the story that baffled me was Frank's characterization. He didn't show personal growth or depth throughout the story, and I'm not sure if this was on purpose or not. Throughout the plot, he maintained a laser focus on acquiring wealth and power, and enjoying what his money could buy. He was always scheming and planning ways to get ahead. Outside of those activities, he had no discernible personality or interests. His only defining trait was his skill at finance. While in most novels I would say that this was a flaw, here, I think Dreiser was using it for effect.

This probably was an intentional strategy to put a spotlight on the all-consuming influence of money. Frank is completely obsessed with his finances, to the point where he is able to rationalize a large number of unscrupulous and unethical actions. He ceases to care about much of anything, including the feelings of anyone except himself. As a result, he is much less worried or upset than most people would be in his situation. He consistently feels like everything will eventually work out in his favor, even when things are obviously going very badly for him.

**Start of spoiler paragraphs**

On the other hand, however, Frank's ultimate fate doesn't really match up with this concept. He goes to jail, but never feels sorry or guilty for what he's done. He is pardoned by the governor and released from prison after about a year of his five year sentence has passed. Once he is back on the financial scene, he quickly becomes a millionaire again, divorces his wife, and sets off for new horizons with his young mistress. So ultimately, all of his confidence and greed really pay off for him. Dreiser seems to like him too and characterizes his very positively, so I'm not sure if these events are meant to be interpreted ironically or not. Is Frank a new kind of American hero, persevering through setbacks and building an empire through his intelligence and ambition? Or is he an example of a man so thoroughly ruined by his quest for money that he doesn't even realize what he has become? 

Dreiser comments on this question directly in the final pages of the novel, but without really picking a side. He seems to condone Frank's behavior at first, using a metaphor about a fish to deliver a "survival of the fittest" message. However, he ends on an implication that Frank will eventually end up unhappy, saying, "Hail to you, Frank Cowperwood, master and no master, prince of a world of dreams whose reality was disillusion!"

So, basically, I don't really know what the theme of the novel was. The back of my novel calls The Financier a "scathing critique of American capitalism," but I found the actual text to be much more ambiguous than that. Frank was a very odd protagonist, and nothing about his journey was presented as being definitively right or wrong. I hope that I'm not imagining the layers of meaning that could be couched in his character, because it's not very fun to read a story about a selfish rich guy that never gets his comeuppance.

**End of spoiler paragraphs**

Some of my uncertainties might be cleared up in the sequels to this novel, because The Financier is the first book in a trilogy. After finishing my reading, I did a little research and learned that the second novel in this series, The Titan, was originally the second half of The Financier. Dreiser's publishers had him break it up into two books because of the length. This probably accounts for why I felt unbalanced reading it - it's actually half of a story. This is probably also why the ending consists of a weird little tacked-on section that makes a vague reference to some trouble being ahead. I have the feeling that Dreiser added that bit in after the fact to try and make some kind of bridge to the next book. I'm wondering if it includes some more concrete thematic ideas.

Even though this was not exactly a favorite read for me, I feel strangely compelled to read the other two books and see how Frank ends up...probably not right away though. I've had my fill of reading about stocks and securities for the time being. On its own, The Financier was an interesting look at the ambitious and corrupt world of early finance in America. The stock exchange has changed since that time, but this novel shows how in many ways it has stayed the same. That's one thing that any reader of classics knows - time changes, but the ways people behave do not, especially when it comes to money.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#35 on my list): 66/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 14

Monday, February 24, 2020

Hey Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

I've written before about how my eighth graders are currently working on a literary nonfiction unit in my class right now. The curriculum my school has adopted allows kids to pick their own books for each unit, so I have kids reading lots of different YA titles right now. Hands down, the most popular novel in my room so far is Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Hey, Kiddo. I have two copies that are becoming increasing more tattered as kid after kid picks them up. Part of its popularity is that it is a graphic novel, which a lot of my students prefer over traditional novels, but the amount of kids that told me I should read this suggests that their fondness for it is based on more than its format. When a kid is actually excited enough about a book to recommend it to me, I always try to read it, so I gave it a shot this month.

Hey, Kiddo is Krosoczka's memoir about growing up with a parent struggling with addiction. The novel begins with a few chapters detailing his family's background, then the action shifts to him. His childhood was difficult from the start. His mother was quite young when she became pregnant with him, and was addicted to heroin. His father chose not to be involved in his life at all. Jarrett lived with his mom for a time when he was a baby, but as it became apparent that she was unable to care for him properly, he was sent to live with his grandparents. As he grew from a child to a teenager, his mother was a spotty presence in his life. She was constantly in and out of prison and halfway houses, getting sober and then relapsing over and over again. Jarrett came to regard her with distrust and suspicion, although they did keep in contact from time to time via letters. He found solace with his grandparents, who treated him just like their own son, and with his art, which he worked on all throughout his childhood and teenage years. Eventually, the opportunity to meet his father arises, and Jarrett must decide whether he wants to open his heart to another parent who has disappointed him and risk being hurt again.

Hey, Kiddo is an excellent graphic novel, and it was very clear to me from the start why my students liked it so much. It's an incredibly genuine and relatable reading experience. Krosoczka doesn't hold back when describing the things in his life that have been difficult. The language he hears, the behavior he witnesses, and the emotions he feels are all shown plainly through his words and illustrations. No one in his story is perfect, and he doesn't disguise the more objectionable things that happen to him under his grandparents' care. The realities of living with an imperfect family leap out at you from every page. Many of my students are dealing with similar situations in their own lives, and I'm sure that they could see themselves in Krosoczka's story.

Another nice element of the novel was the inclusion of real letters, drawings, and other documents from Krosoczka's life. It added depth to the story to see actual pictures of his correspondence with his mother and some of his early drawings mixed in with the regular illustrations. It functioned as a powerful reminder that this story is real--that a real kid went through all the pain depicted on the novel's pages. It's amazing that Krosoczka was able to hang onto so many old documents and mementos from his childhood. He puts them to excellent use here.

The overall theme of the novel concerns what makes a family. While Krosoczka spends much of his childhood being continually disappointed by those who were supposed to care for him the most, he eventually comes to the understanding that being a parent is decided by actions more than blood. He develops a deep love and appreciation for his grandparents, who became his true mother and father. Watching him grow throughout the novel is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in turns, and his story is well worth the few hours it takes to read.

Addiction is a terrible disease that has torn many families apart. Hey, Kiddo is an excellent look at one kid's experience in one of these families, in all its messy and imperfect glory. Young adult readers like this novel because it doesn't skirt around tough issues or talk down to them. It shows them an example of someone who survived a difficult home life and turned out okay, a feat that many of them are currently struggling to achieve. Even readers who are older or who can't relate to the difficult subject matter will still enjoy Krosoczka's heartfelt story. I can definitely see why so many of my students recommended this novel to me, and I'm happy to have experienced it.

On a side note, this novel is another bonus entry onto my True Books 2020 Challenge List. At this rate, I'm going to end up reading quite a bit more nonfiction than I planned for!

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 5/14
Total Books Read in 2020: 13

Monday, February 17, 2020

Black Boy by Richard Wright

With February being Black History Month, I decided that it was a good time to pick up Richard Wright's Black Boy. I chose this novel for the "Classic by an Author of Color" category in the Back to the Classics Challenge, and it was on my Classic Club list as well. It's one that I had been wanting to try for a long time. I didn't know anything about this book when I started reading, but I very much enjoyed Native Son when I read it last year and was excited to try more from this author. It didn't take me long to realize the depth of my ignorance; I had absolutely no idea that Black Boy was nonfiction. I caught on after seeing that the protagonist's name was Richard Wright and doing a little Googling. This was embarrassing - I felt like I should have known this given how important this novel is to the cannon of African American literature. It was a pleasant surprise to discover though, as I'm actively trying to read more nonfiction this year. Happy to find out more about the life of Richard Wright, I sheepishly continued on.

Black Boy tells the story of Wright's life from his early childhood to his young adult years. The text is broken up into two parts. Part I, "Southern Night," focuses on his childhood and adolescence living in the South, while Part II, "The Horror and the Glory," focuses on his young adulthood in Chicago. Part I is around 260 pages, and Part II is around 125, so the majority of the novel centers around his early years in the southern United States. Wright paints a stark and desolate picture of this time. His father abandoned the family when Richard and his brother were very young, and from that moment on, his life was one of hunger and hardship. His mother moved the family around multiple times chasing various low-paying jobs until her health began to fail her and they were forced to rely on the help of family members. Money was always tight and there was never enough food to go around.

Young Richard became used to the constant moving, but he struggled to get along in his various living situations. His schooling was continually disrupted due to lack of money for books and clothes, he clashed with his religious family members over his lack of faith, and his restless behavior often got him into trouble. Aside from those issues, the racism of the time period filled him with a constant sense of fear and anxiety.  As he grew older and began working for white people, these fears sharpened. Wright had to be careful to behave in exactly the right way, or risk losing his job, or even his life. Eventually, he discovered a love for literature and writing. Knowing, however, that the South is not the place where a black man can become a successful author, he worked hard and saved enough money to move north to Chicago. He assumed that the racism would be better there, and that he would be more free to pursue his literary ambitions.

Part II of the novel begins as Wright arrived in Chicago. At once, he was struck by how different the atmosphere was. Whites were much less outwardly hostile to him, but he still struggled to regard them with anything but suspicion. Racism wasn't gone in his new home, but it was less severe; there was less need for the constant terror of whites that characterized his earlier years, but it took him a while to learn how to let that fear go. Eventually he became used to his new way of life, but things still weren't easy for him. The Great Depression was setting in and he struggled to find steady work.

As he moved in and out of a few different jobs, he began to work on his writing in earnest. He joined a writing organization with close ties to the Communist Party and soon found himself drawn further and further into his local Communist chapter. His resulting relationship to the Communist Party was characterized by paranoia and strife. He believed in their principles, but disagreed totally with their leadership and execution. The other members of the party weren't quite sure what to make of Wright's opinions, and branded him as an "intellectual" and a potential "enemy of the working class."  He eventually became completely disillusioned with the group and the novel ends as he works to extricate himself from it and follow his own principles.

Black Boy is an excellent novel of personal growth. Reading about Wright's journey from childhood to adulthood was both fascinating and gut-wrenching. His struggles against poverty, racism, and politics come together to create a story that feels brutal, genuine, and uniquely (sadly) American. Wright's depiction of what life was life for African Americans in the Jim Crow South was difficult to read. His everyday existence was completely consumed by fear and violence. One small slip up, like an ill-timed laugh or a negative facial expression, could result in tragic consequences, and the way Wright expresses this tension on the page is masterful. I felt his anxiety and shame as I read, and was torn between wanting to take a break and wanting to know more. Wanting to know more ultimately won out, and I finished this novel quickly. 

I thought Part I of this novel was essentially perfect. Wright's long and arduous escape from the South was expertly portrayed, historically interesting, and completely engaging. I was ready to call this a new favorite throughout my reading of it. Once I began Part II, however, I was a little less impressed. Wright spent a lot of time in this section discussing Communism. He described how he joined the party, how he struggled to contribute to the movement, how he became disillusioned with it, and how he eventually broke with it. In addition to describing his direct involvement, he also theorized about its impact on the African American community, and how he believed it wasn't functioning in a way that was helpful to his people. This was much less timely and interesting than Part I and I found my attention drifting from time to time as I read. While the overall novel is still excellent, this section dropped my rating from five stars to four. I would say that I wish Wright spent less time on the Communism aspect of the story, but as this is a work of nonfiction, I suppose that decision wasn't truly his to make. His life was consumed by his political activities at that time, so of course, his memoir is consumed by it as well.

I learned from the supplementary materials included in the back of my edition that Black Boy was originally published without Part II. Apparently, Communist leaders pressured Wright and his publisher to remove the parts of the novel that were critical of their party, and they complied. Later editions of the work have this section restored (obviously). While I didn't enjoy Part II as much as Part I of the story, I do think that Part II is necessary to understanding the message that Wright is trying to send. His flight to the North was ultimately a positive move for him, but it wasn't exactly the racial paradise that he was envisioning. Things were still difficult there and changing cities didn't solve all of his problems. To present the story without this ending would have been incomplete. It would have been disingenuous to allow the reader to assume that Wright moved to Chicago and lived happily every after.

Ultimately, Black Boy is a powerful novel. It's engaging, emotional, and very readable. Wright's brutally honest look at racism is illuminating as well. Everyone knows that this time period was grossly unjust and cruel to people of color. Reading about someone's firsthand experiences, however, sheds an invaluable light on the situation. Wright's words helped me to attain a deeper understanding of how damaging and insidious racism was to America at this time. This should be required reading in schools. I believe it would help people understand each other better. I'm very glad that I made this novel a part of my reading challenges. My only regret is that I didn't come into contact with it earlier in my life.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (Classic by an Author of Color): 3/12
Classics Club (#13 on my list): 65/100 
True Books 2020 (Bonus Book Added) 4/13
Total Books Read in 2020: 12

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

For the next book in my True Books Challenge, I decided to pick up another novel that's popular with my students right now. They Called Us Enemy is a graphic novel, meaning that it's infinitely more attractive to my eighth graders than a traditional book. As we're currently working through a literary nonfiction unit, several of them have picked this one up and told me they enjoyed it. As a big George Takei fan, I had been wanting to read this one for a while, so I decided to pick it up this week and see if I enjoyed it as much as my students.

They Called Us Enemy recounts Takei's childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The story is set up as a flashback, with Takei first shown in modern day, giving a speech about his early life. The action quickly travels back to when he was four, and his parents and younger siblings were forced from their Los Angeles home and onto a train bound for Arkansas. His family had to endure multiple indignities, like having all their money and property seized, the naked racism of the camp guards, and being forced to live in tiny, ramshackle housing. His parents did their best to keep everyone's spirits up and make the best of their situation. His father rose to become one of the community managers for his section of the camp, and his mother made sure he and his siblings had as normal of a childhood as possible. As Takei was very young at the time, he viewed a lot of what his family went through as an adventure, and he discusses how he had to reconcile his distorted memories of the camps with his more mature understanding of the situation that came as he grew older.

In addition to providing the details of his own experiences, Takei also explains a lot of the history behind the creation, and eventual dissolution of, the camps. I actually ended up learning quite a bit throughout my reading. My schooling did not spend much time on this part of WWII, so They Called Us Enemy filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. Despite the difficult subject matter, the tone throughout these sections manages to remain positive. While Takei is sure to emphasize how wrong and openly racist the whole situation was, he also advances the opinion that America is still a land of opportunity with a lot of potential. This is a remarkably positive stance for someone who lived through an internment camp to have. After the story of his family's imprisonment concludes, Takei briefly describes the rest of his life up until present day, including how he came to work on Star Trek. The vast majority of the work focuses on the camps, however, and the impact they had on Takei's life and on the lives of the Japanese-American community.

The images throughout the graphic novel were clean, attractive, and very effective at conveying the story. The only issue I had with the visual presentation was the lettering, which felt very tiny compared to some other graphic novels I have read. I found myself having to squint at a lot of the pages. I think the most likely reason for this is that I am just getting old. However, my point stands that the text size might present a slight issue to readers with less-than-perfect eyesight. Other that that, I really enjoyed reading this story.

The Japanese interment camps are a shameful chapter of American history that is often glossed over in our public education system. It is important to preserve knowledge about what happened and to teach our children about these events. They Called Us Enemy is a wonderfully accessible way to do that. Takei's story is informational, emotional, and very inspiring. My world feels wider after reading it. I can see why so many of my students enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this difficult part of our history.

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 3/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 11

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

After finishing my reread of The Night Circus last week, I was excited to move onto Erin Morgenstern's second novel, The Starless Sea. I purposefully avoided looking at reviews or plot summaries before getting started, because I wanted to feel like I was going on an adventure along with the characters. So, going into my reading, I had no idea what to expect. I was hoping for a magical story to get completely lost in, and I'm quite happy to say that I found it.

The plot of The Starless Sea is complex and multilayered, making it difficult to summarize succintly. The main thread of the story follows a college student named Zachary Ezra Rawlins. At the start of the novel, Zachary finds a mysterious book in his campus library titled,"Sweet Sorrows." It does not have an author listed inside of it, or any publication information at all for that matter. Intrigued, Zachary checks it out and settles in back at his dorm to read it. The book appears to be a collection of short stories; there is a tale about a pirate falling in love, a story about a vast, underground library, and, shockingly, a story about something that happened to Zachary when he was a little boy. The chapter tells about a time when he came across a door painted in an alleyway near his childhood home. The door looked so real that he almost felt like he could reach out and open it. Feeling foolish, he didn't try to open it at the time. When he went back to look at the painted door again the next day, it was gone.

 When Zachary recognizes himself in the book, he is understandably stunned. He had never told anyone about this incident from his past and has no idea who could have seen enough to write about it. What's even worse is the fact that the text implies that the door would have opened it he had tried, and he is bitterly disappointed in himself for missing his chance at a big, impossible adventure. Desperate to find out more about the mysterious book and eager to get another shot at the painted door, Zachary begins digging around for clues about the book's provenance. What he ends up finding leads him on a wild quest deep underground in a world filled with endless stories and something very close to magic.

I absolutely loved this novel, because I feel like it was made for me. Just like how Zachary found himself in "Sweet Sorrows," I found myself in The Starless Sea. The love and respect for books that filled each page, the mentions of knitting and video games, the labyrinthine underground library, and the bees buzzing all over everything spoke directly to my heart. There was even (briefly) a giant bunny at one point, which I absolutely adored. It was as if Erin Morgenstern sat down to write a novel that included all my personal favorite things. I tend to read in a bit of a hurry, because there are so many books I want to get to, but I took the time to read this slowly. I savored the intricate writing and the detailed descriptions of impossibly beautiful things. It was just so good and satisfying, I couldn't help but slow down and enjoy it.

The structure of the novel is very unique, with multiple threads weaving together out of order. We switch character perspectives frequently, get chapters of other books mixed in, and even get glimpses into the future occasionally. Characters end up being connected to each other and to the past in unpredictable ways and figures that appeared inconsequential at the start of the story end up returning and changing the plot in ways you would not expect. This is most definitely a book you have to surrender yourself to and just go with. It's difficult to tell what's real and what's a metaphor sometimes, and you have to be okay with that in order to enjoy the story. The Starless Sea begs for a second reading, in order to catch all the connections you probably missed the first time through.

This unusual structure means that this story definitely won't be for everyone. It's a dreamy, hazy reading experience that I can see some readers finding to be slow. However, the reward for making it through is an intricate story about love, friendship, courage, and, of course, reading. I absolutely loved this and consider it a new favorite.

Between The Night Circus and The Starless Sea, it's tough to pick a favorite. They are both excellent in their own ways, and both are filled with beautiful writing. It's always a nice treat when a favorite author comes out with a book you like just as much as their first. This month's Then vs. Now selection was a complete success.  

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 4/27 

Total Books Read in 2020: 10

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I first read The Night Circus in 2013 and I instantly fell in love with it. The writing was stunning, the story was well-crafted and complex, and world-building was completely immersive. I had never read anything quite like it, and it instantly became a favorite of mine. When I was designing my Then vs. Now Reading Challenge, I knew that I wanted this novel to be a part of it. I started my reread this month, excited to lose myself in Morgenstern's magical world once again.

The plot follows the story of two magicians unknowingly locked in a battle of skills by their magical teachers. Their battleground is a mysterious circus that appears only at night and is filled with spectacles that defy belief- a garden made entirely of ice, a maze with more twists and turns than could possibly fit in one tent, a landscape full of frolicking paper animals and more. As the magicians display their talents to the delight and amazement of the circus patrons, they are irresistibly drawn to one another and fall desperately in love. When the true nature of their competition is revealed, both struggle to find a way to be together in spite of the rules binding them. To reveal more details would spoil the mysterious vibe of the story; it's best to head into this book not knowing too much ahead of time.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about The Night Circus is its lush, descriptive passages. The imagery in this book is incredible. Morgenstern has created a world rich in magical details. It's very unusual for me to enjoy descriptive sections in books because I am generally much more interested in the plot of a story than the atmosphere. However, in this case I was completely hooked on drinking in the beauty of each scene. There were many passages I enjoyed, but the image that sticks in my mind the most is the illusion Marco creates of a ship made of books floating on a sea of ink. I have never wanted to step inside the pages of a book to see something for myself so much before. The story is set at the turn of the 20th century, and the old fashioned clothing and architecture adds to the picturesque ambiance. In fact, the whole setting of the story, and especially the circus itself, is another character in the book, growing and changing in unpredictable and brilliant ways. All this description does slow the story down, but in a way that feels like you are savouring a good story. I couldn't get enough of it.

The romance between Marco and Celia is similarly well done. Although the conceit of the story has them separated for most of the time, Morgenstern makes the times they are together passionate enough to make up for the long absences. Their feelings for each other felt real and I was pulling for them to find a way to be together. I also enjoyed the secondary character Bailey's story, especially the idea that he didn't have to be particularly special to be useful, he just had to care enough. At one point Celia tells him, "You're not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were if that would make it easier, but it's not true. You're in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that's enough." It's one of the harder truths in life that we generally aren't quite as special as we think we are, but I do believe that effort and care can make us special, just like Bailey.

I loved The Night Circus when I read it the first time, and I think I loved it even more on this reread. The creativity Morgenstern shows in its pages is unparalleled and I enjoyed slipping into the magical, intricate world she created. Any lover of whimsy and fantasy would feel right at home in The Night Circus. It's a slow burn that is totally worth the time. I'm excited to read Morgenstern's second novel, The Starless Sea next, and see if I enjoy it as much as this one.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 3/27 

Total Books Read in 2020: 9