The Age of Miracles is a very odd name for this book, which starts off in a beautiful little coastal town in California, a very normal, modern town, and then everything changes. Suddenly, the earth’s rotation is slowing, incrementally, but resulting in longer and longer days and longer and longer nights. The difference is small at first, but grows.
Julia is in sixth grade, a painful time anyway in most lives where your body suddenly changes and all your relationships with all your friends change, and boys become a major factor. Imagine. All this AND the earth’s rotation is slowing.
No one knows what to expect. No one knows why or how the rotational slowing is happening, and no one has a clue how to fix it. Do you stay on a 24 hour clock, as the days grow to 30 hours? Forty hours? Can you even function in a forty hour day, or sleep a 40 hour night? How do you stay on a 24 hour clock and force yourself to sleep when the sun is shining brightly overhead? How do you have a school day entirely in the middle of the darkest part of the night? How does food continue to grow? What impact does this have on birds? Migrations? How does kicking a soccer ball feel when earth’s gravitational field starts to lessen?
The author does a brilliant job in a what-if situation, and manages to make it quite real. Don’t read this book if you are the suggestible type – it’s just one more thing you’ll start worrying about when you don’t need to. If you can read speculative fiction without letting it influence you, then by all means read this book, it is a good read.
Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors because she tackles large topics fearlessly, humorously and with great compassion. I first read her many years ago in a novel called Children Of God; you can read it stand-alone as I did, but I should have read The Sparrow, which preceded it. That one is about the Jesuits who take the Gospel into outer space, and has some laugh-out-loud moments in the midst of utter hopelessness. Yes. She’s that kind of author, my kind of woman.
Here is the ending Question and Answer from an interview at the back of Doc, an interview with John Connelly:
Q: Authors are often asked what advice they’d give young writers. I would like to ask you a similar question: What do you think the worst advice a young writer could get is?
Mary Doria Russell: Major in English. Join a writer’s group. Blog.
My advice is to major in and do something REAL. Have an actual 3-D life of your own. And please, shut up about it until you’ve got something genuinely wise or useful or thoughtful to share. Then again, I’m a cranky old lady! What the hell do I know?
Reading a book about legendary heroes of the Old West is not something I looked forward to, so the book languished on my “to read” pile until one day I picked it up just because it is written by Mary Doria Russell, and because she has knocked my socks off with every book I’ve read by her.
It starts off slow, summing up the early genteel years of John Henry Holliday in Georgia, just prior to, during and after the War Between the States. At 22 he is diagnosed with acute tuberculosis, and is advised that a drier climate out West might provide him with a more comfortable life, as short as it was likely to be. He had trained as a dentist, so he had a skill. Times were hard, and while he was a very very good dentist, it was a good thing he also had skills with card playing, to supplement his income when people didn’t have the money to go to the dentist.
Don’t skip over the early years, because what happens in the early years resonates into his years living in the West. The majority of the book takes place in Dodge, a border town where laws are made over a card game and by the men who will profit from them. Lives are hard, and short. While it is surely the wild west, the focus is on the relationships Doc builds – Wyatt and Morgan Earp (all the Earp brothers), Bat Masterson, the gals . . . here is where Russell’s artistry shines; the cardboard figures begin to become real people. We start to like one or two, admire another, despise one more.
Here’s what I love about Mary Doria Russell – without being at all preachy, she makes you stop and think about some of the values you hold most dear. Once you get west, 80% of the women featured in the book are prostitutes. Most of the characters drink heavily, and routinely use drugs which are today restricted to prescriptions. There is corruption, and murder, and arson, and abortion, and contraception, and adultery, and there is no one character who is purely good or purely evil, they are all complicated, just as we are. She can lead you to dislike a character, who at just the right moment knows just the right thing to say, and suddenly, you see that character differently, because another facet of his or her character has been revealed.
In the questions at the back of the book, we are asked if we were to meet Doc Holliday, would we like him? I had to ask the question the other way around – if I were to meet Doc Holliday, how would he perceive me? I found myself thinking outside the box, found myself thinking that if I knew my life were going to be very very short, would I want to hang around with normal people, dull, predictable people? Maybe people who look better on the outside than they are, or think more highly of themselves than they ought? Doc Holliday hung around with lawmen and gamblers and prostitutes and bartenders; his patients were law-abiding church-going citizens. Who gave greater color and meaning to his life? Who were more likely to be down-to-earth and practical and unpretentious?
There is an absolutely delightful segment about a Jesuit priest from an old Hungarian aristocratic family who finds himself riding out to visit all the small Catholic Indian parishes on a donkey, replacing a highly popular priest who is very sick; he is teased and mocked and treated with disrespect. One night, cold and wet, covered with dirt and filth in the desert, he has an epiphany that changes his life. Mary Doria Russell books have these luminous moments, worth reading the entire book for, and which will bring a smile of memory to your face long after you have finished reading the book.
Every now and then a book comes along that engages me so thoroughly that I don’t even want to read another book for a while after finishing it. The Night Circus was that book for me; one of the most memorable and unique books I have read in a long time. From its much quoted opening line to the very end, I was enchanted. I loved living inside this book.
And then I got a surprise. Have you heard of Good Reads? I was introduced to Good Reads by an acquaintance, a friend-of-a-friend (whose reading I still follow on Good Reads because she introduced me to a book, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness which was one of those books that come just at a time you need them; I had another friend who was off her meds, and struggling with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder. I didn’t know how to help her. The book helped me understand what she was going through and why she would go off her meds.)
So when my friend invited me to join Good Reads I did. I had started notebook after notebook, trying to keep track of books I’ve read so I could look them up when I needed to recommend them to someone, and here was this wonderful spot where I could record the books I read and keep track of them. Even better, they send me little notes and recommend books they think I will like based on books I have rated – and their recommendations are GOOD!
So when I went to Good Reads to record The Night Circus, I ended up reading other reviews, and discovered that this is a book few are neutral about. Many people love it. There is also a strong contingent who heartily dislike it.
The people who love it, love it for the same reasons that the people who dislike it dislike it. That’s always a shock to me, no matter how experienced I become, no matter how long I live – what? Other people see through different eyes and have different opinions???
To me, The Night Circus is a very sensual book. It has layers and layers of things going on, and, as in real life, you catch glimpses, especially at the beginning, but you don’t really know how these glimpses connect. As you read through the book, the scenes and events you read about earlier start to form a more complete picture, the puzzle pieces start to come together, but you never really know how this puzzle is going to look when it is finished.
For me, each glimpse was a jewel. The Night Circus tackles the nature of existence, what is real, what is a trick of distraction, a manipulation of the laws of the universe or pure deception. It features a contest between two talented men who pit their student against one another in a very long contest.
Each page of the book has layers of textures, scents, flavors, sounds and visions, woven together with the eye of an artist. I love the aromas integrated into the circus, cinnamon caramel apples, hot spiced punch, buttery popcorn, all with elusive and intriguing undertones, scents that you can almost – but not quite – identify. I love the descriptions of the clothing, of the circus tent constructions (there were many) and the sharp discipline of a circus all done in black and white. I loved the music, and the feats of engineering that constructed some of the circus wonders. I loved the artistry of the clock, and the winter garden. I loved the magic of the breathtaking acts, and the humanity of the characters.
Some complain on Good Reads that the descriptions in The Night Circus overshadow the plot. OK. Maybe. The descriptions nourished my imagination, took me on circular routes, just as this novel does. As I read the complaints, I could see a sharp divide between those who want to accomplish, and those who are happy to enjoy the journey. The Night Circus is a journey, in the old tradition of “there is no frigate like a book,” a journey that will take you places you have never been before. Just as I feel when I return from many of our travel adventures, I miss this great exploration of the landscape put forth in The Night Circus.
After reading The Paris Wife, I had to read Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. I wanted to see how he saw his Paris years, and how his version integrated with the fiction version of Hadley’s. I was prepared to not like the book.
I was not prepared to like it as much as I did. Hemingway writes of the years when he was young, newly married and wildly happy, living a stimulating and lively life with lively friends. They were poor, but he was following his dream. They had a lot of fun.
Hemingway wrote this book, full of stories of their Paris life, full of names you know – Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Closerie des Lilas, Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, the Louvre . . . and as you read it, you are there. He writes in the moment; you are right there experiencing it along with him. He writes of people he likes, and people he doesn’t like. He writes about his own vices – an addiction to horse racing, for example – and he writes with enormous sadness about how he came to be distracted from his marriage and lost the most wonderful relationship that ever happened to him. He blames it on the careless rich. He takes some responsibility.
He also writes very frankly and openly about people he doesn’t like and why. I couldn’t help but think it is a heady thing, being an acclaimed author, where you can take revenge by putting people you dislike in your books. Hemingway uses real names and real people and often portrays them in a distinctly unflattering light. It made me wonder if he was planning to commit suicide all along; that or he just didn’t care what people think, and it seems he might have been the kind just not to care.
Just after finishing this book, and talking one last time with his first wife, Hadly, Hemingway committed suicide. It leaves me wondering if he was driven to suicide by regret, or by fears that his bigger-than-life life of adventure, travel, high life and travel was over, or if he had serious bouts of depression all his life, and this was just another, deeper depression?
It is a great read, especially paired with Paula McLain’s book, The Paris Wife. I thought it might be “he said – she said,” but Hemingway and the fictional Hadley in The Paris Wife both agree that they had a love and marriage that was very special, that Paris was a wonderful stimulating, alive environment, and that it was a great tragedy when the marriage ended. A Movable Feast seems to say that destroying his marriage to Hadley was one of a cocktail of self-destructive behaviors over which he tried to ride herd (gambling on the horse races, drinking, drugs, a coterie of star-struck sex partners outside of marriage, inability to focus on his work, a curmudgeonly nature . . .)
It’s also an easy read. I particularly enjoyed reading it on the iPad because you can do that swirly-finger-thing and find out what words mean or see the street locations as he walks Paris, see whether a cafe or restaurant in Paris still exist. It would be a good airline read – keeps your attention and finishes quickly.
As little as I like Woody Allen, it was fun to see Midnight in Paris, and to have some visuals of this go-go inter-war era.
Two things that stuck out for me: Hemingway loved walking in Paris, as do I. He also talks here and there about the benefits of being hungry. There were times when money was tight; they wore old shabby clothes, and there were times they didn’t have much food. He talks about hunger sharpening your other senses. On the other hand, very quickly when he has money, he has a great meal and a drink – or two – or three.
Bottom line, I’m glad I read this book. It’s given me a lot to think about.
While it is unusual for me to comment on two books at the same time, Bring Up the Bodies follows so seamlessly the preceding book, Wolf Hall, as to be one book. It is also unusual that I would choose to read a book about Thomas Cromwell, whose great-grandson brings into dictionaries the adjective Cromwellian, and whose morals and values drift so far from my own. Most unusual of all is that I would find myself liking – and understanding – Thomas Cromwell as described and defined by Hilary Mantel.
While reading, if forced away from the book, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I felt totally immersed in the 1500′s, I felt like I was there. Hilary Mantel uses the senses to bring an immediacy to the story that makes you feel you are there, participating, perhaps one of Cromwell’s clerks.
Thomas Cromwell has a rough beginning, son of a blacksmith and sometimes moonshiner, often beaten to within an inch of his life by his father, Walter, who seems to hate him. He leaves home and the next few years of his life are murky – he fights for the French, he becomes a servant and later a clerk in a high ranking Italian household, he learns the wool trade, and the silk trade, he spends some years in Antwerp and then he finds himself as chief clerk and messenger to Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII.
We experience losing our loved one to the plague. In these two books, through Cromwell’s eyes, we watch that spoiled, self-centered King Henry VIII rationalize his divorce of Katherine, and then the beheading of Anne Boleyn.
Here is something I hate about Thomas Cromwell, no matter how human and humane and lovable Hilary Mantel made him, that his primary value throughout was that whatever Henry wanted, he would work to make it so.
We learn early in Wolf Hall how very dangerous it is to go up against King Henry, we watch Cardinal Wolsey stripped of his honors, his luxuries, humiliated and defeated. We see Thomas More badgered to execution. So we can understand, a little, Thomas Cromwell’s motivation to keep his hard-earned money, honors, position, etc.
What I don’t understand is how a really, very smart man like Cromwell doesn’t see that he needs to be hiding his wealth away, investing in places where Henry can never find it, so that he can leave the King’s service, withdraw from public life and from the dangers that go with it. By the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell has made a lot of enemies. Such a nice man, such a benign man, but he relentlessly prosecutes the four men who may – or may not – have slept with Queen Anne Boleyn. It’s what the king wants. He does it.
This is a protrait of Thomas Cromwell painted by the famous Hans Holbein:
Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Bring Up the Bodies is sometimes referred to as Wolf Hall #2. These are books you can’t stop thinking about, and I am hoping there will be one more.