Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

With a book as hyped as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, it’s impossible not to wonder how your reaction is tied up with the massive advertising campaign devoted to the novel. Reading about the novel as some sort of one-shot Harry Potter, of a movie deal before publication, of circus events set up to advertise the book, makes the book hard to see for itself. On one hand, you’re only reading the book because of the hype machine; on the other, the book can never live up to all the pre-publication praise; from another angle, you want to love the book so you can join the crowds that are heaping praise on it; from another, your inability to love the book the way you’ve been told you should makes you resent the reading experience more than you otherwise would.

In some regards, The Night Circus is a gorgeous book. Revolving around two illusionists, Celia and Marco, the book follows them and the competition they’ve been bonded to. The night circus, which moves from location to location with little notice and is closed during daylight hours, is the canvas for their competition, which over the years morphs into a collaboration of sorts between the illusionists. They don’t compete against each other Harry Potter-style, dueling with their Ollivander wands, but rather work as if they’re playing a chess game; one creates a new tent or attraction for the circus, and the other responds in kind.

Morgenstern takes chapters from four views: Celia’s, Marco’s, Bailey’s (a boy who visits and falls in love with the circus, eventually being pulled into the competition), and the second person. What she seems to be aiming for, with those last two views – the “you” and Bailey – is a sort of wonder with the circus; by telling us what the circus is, what it means for its guests, she attempts to imbue the novel with the same magic Bailey feels when he visits the circus.

The problem with this is that while some parts of the world are drawn gorgeously, fully, others are left so bare as to drag the story down. The competition that Celia and Marco are a part of is so vaguely defined that it reads as if the author herself doesn’t know what the aim or rules of the contest are. As if to keep the world of the night circus in the world of the fantastic, she never moors the world to any recognizable set of rules. This might seem appealing when you’re thinking of a fantasy novel – nothing to hold it back! – but reading The Night Circus serves to remind that one of the things that makes Harry Potter such a loved series are all the rules (to the magic lessons, to quidditch, to how Harry can interact with Voldemort), that the world of Lord of the Rings is defined right down to the grammar structure of each and every language, that what makes it possible to love the fantasy stories of our childhoods is not the lack of rules and boundaries but their clear and defining presence. Perhaps Morgenstern wanted to say something about the limitless nature of fantasy by not placing any limits on the contest between Celia and Marco; but it reads as though she was too lazy, or too consumed with the imagery of her text, to define the contest – if not for Celia or Marco, then for the reader at least. Celia at one point asks her father, “How can I excel at a game when you refuse to tell me the rules?” The reader, likewise, can’t be expected to experience the book as fully as he or she might, without knowing what guides the central conflict.

Morgenstern devotes much of her authorly energy to detailing, rather than illuminating, the world of the night circus. This is a novel that may well make an extraordinary movie; the best parts of the novel are Morgenstern’s descriptions of Marco’s and Celia’s illusions, but even these fall flat as Morgenstern is unable ever to show us why something is extraordinary, but only to tell us that it is. Celia and Marco’s love for one another, which is meant to stand at novel’s center, is hardly believable; we’re told that the power of their feelings for each other touches everything around them, even heating the air at a party, but that love never feels like more than a plot device.* We have ships made out of books, seas of ink, tents filled with cloud mazes, extraordinary clocks, but these images, every last one of them, read better as directions to a film director than as passages in a novel.

The verdict? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but The Night Circus is a book that I see doing better as a movie, with a director who will give credit to Morgenstern’s images while providing more shape to the plot. I’m in the minority in not loving this book, though, so be sure to read the reviews up at Words and Peace, Entomology of a Bookworm, and Confessions of a Booklush if you’re looking for a more positive opinion.

* I feel uncomfortable even using the phrase “plot device” here, as the greatest failing of The Night Circus is that its plot is so damn vague.

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The women of Game of Thrones

Maybe six months ago, I got pulled out of my Macedonia-induced cultural stupor, introduced to this Game of Thrones phenomenon by a billboard for the HBO show near the Peace Corps office in Skopje. (Yeah, there’s HBO in Macedonia! Just not in my house.) My interest in the series was pretty low, though, because (a) I am not a high fantasy kind of person and (b) I hadn’t read much about the first book of the series except for a review taking a critical look at the roles for women.

But in early July, standing in a Barnes & Noble in Florida with my dad, having already picked out copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Blind Assassin and one other title which clearly means a lot to me, given I’ve forgotten what it was, I picked up Game of Thrones from the massive center display, read the first page. Read the second page, put all my other books down on the floor, and read the prologue as my dad did whatever my dad was doing. (He bought Matterhorn that night. See, good taste in literature runs in the family.)

I usually yell at people for starting reviews (or reflections, in this case) by explaining why they aren’t qualified to write the review they’re writing, but…you know, I have nothing to compare Game of Thrones to, there’s no useful commentary I can make regarding its place in the world of high fantasy, so I’m not even going to pretend. I am just going to write about the women, because I come out so far from that post that introduced me to the series. (I can’t remember who wrote about the women of Game of Thrones – if you know, let me know.) There are plenty of spoilers in here.

Martin’s world is so strongly characterized, so fully described, so elaborately peopled; and the women aren’t left out of this. Some of Martin’s characters can be labeled as types (Cersei: manipulative, cold-hearted bitch) but they’re never defined by those labels, they are always able to act in honest and sometimes surprising (but ultimately believable) ways.

Cersei Lannister, the wife of King Robert of the Seven Kingdoms, is a woman who initially appears to be little more than a woman cuckolding her husband and subscribing to some old time views on the value of pure bloodlines, but reveals herself over the course of the novel to have more power than any of the men around her. By the close of Game of Thrones it’s clear that she’s the one really ruling the Seven Kingdoms, despite her son’s unpredictable actions after being crowned. Not just that but that, without anyone’s knowledge, she has for years been manipulating those around her, sometimes acting without the knowledge of any others, to edge her way into greater power.

Catelyn Stark, wife to Robert Stark of Winterfell (who becomes the King’s Hand early in the novel), likewise reveals herself to have more depth than the woman who first appears, furious that her husband’s bastard son (Jon Snow) is living with the rest of her family at Winterfell. Apart from that slip, though, she turns out to be a wise mother and advisor to her husband, and even her tactical error of taking Tyrion Lannister into captivity is admirable for the sheer ballsiness of the move.

Daenerys Targaryen, a teenager living in exile with her brother Viserys, the only survivors to King Aerys II Targaryen, who was violently replaced on the throne by King Robert. Easily cowed by her brother Viserys early on, forced into a marriage with Khal Drogo of the Dothraki (horseback riders), she gains a sense of self and of leadership after her marriage to Drogo, eventually ordering the execution of Viserys, who has repeatedly offended and threatened her and her husband. Dany is awesome. She is totally the best character in the book. Killing her last family member! Owning dragon eggs! Learning the limits of compassion and killing a woman she earlier rescued, who she blames for the death of her husband! Awesome, Dany, awesome. If Martin kills her off in the next four books I’m going to be so pissed.

Then there’s Arya Stark. Arya, Arya, Arya. Born to be a lady, doesn’t want to be a lady, close with her bastard half-brother Jon Snow, who gives her a sword, “Needle,” allowed by her father to train in dancing, aka the Braavosi method of sword fighting. Arya is like a Tamora Pierce character transplanted into the high fantasy world, running around hearing secrets, finding secret passages, being mistaken for a boy. It’s not clear, when Game of Thrones ends, what’s happened to Arya, but as with Dany…if Martin doesn’t keep her around, I’m going to pitch a fit.

I tend to think of high fantasy as being the realm of dudes. My reluctance to read Game of Thrones was due in large part to this idea (which I’m still not willing to label a misconception, outside of Martin’s world. Tell me if I should). Even the minor female characters in Martin’s world, though, are notable for their strength, like Catelyn Stark’s sister who opts to sequester herself in a mountaintop fortress with her nutty son, threatening to throw prisoners out of doors in the floor. Women may not garner the notice of the men they stand with, but Martin repeatedly points to the ways in which the women of the Seven Kingdoms wield as much, or sometimes more, power than the men surrounding them. I am so psyched to read the rest of this series.

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Story Sundays: Cat Rambo’s “Magnificent Pigs”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Cat Rambo’s “Magnificent Pigs” is, at its heart, a story about loss and a young man’s attempts to protect his younger sister from the knowledge of where her cancer will lead her. The narrator’s parents, died in a car accident, leaving him the parent to his sister Jilly, whose increasing stomach pains are diagnosed as cancer.

There are so many eerie elements to this story that are heightened by the central figure of Jilly, a girl who’s going to leave life almost before she’s been in it. Pig farming isn’t enough to pay the medical bills, and the narrator decides to take his interest in art and work on opening a tattoo business. There isn’t much demand for tattoos in their town, though, and he quickly runs out of friends to practice on, so he begins tattooing the pigs. This comes together with Jilly’s illness as they read Charlotte’s Web; the scenes in which the narrator tries to show his sister that Charlotte isn’t ever really dead, because they can turn back to the start of the book, or in which he tattoos some of Charlotte’s words across a pig, are heartbreaking.

I’ll stop here, but the end of this story is extraordinary, at first almost grotesque as the narrator heads into the barn to tattoo the six pigs he gave to Jilly, her fill-ins for the runt of Charlotte’s Web, then, again, shattering. Rambo brings elements of the extraordinary into the close of her story, and it works so well because of her slow build and consideration of the more ordinary aspects of her characters’ lives.

Read “Magnificent Pigs”

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Book vs. Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle

Book: This was my first Diana Wynne Jones and it was – well, I guess not quite what I was expecting. Sophie, a teenage girl who works for her stepmother in the hat shop her father ran until his death, doesn’t expect to have an interesting life because of her place in the birth order. The oldest child is never the one to go off on adventures, but the one to stay home. She’s turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste and leaves her home, finding refuge in the moving castle that’s been looming over her town. There she meets Calcifer, a fire demon, and Howl’s apprentice Michael. Sophie makes a place for herself as a cleaning woman, promising Calcifer that she will find a way to break the agreement he has with Howl that keeps him in the castle; in return, Calcifer will break the Witch’s spell over Sophie.

With Howl Sophie is living a more exciting life, but it’s still a quiet one. Jones has these fantastic elements to the story, like the door to the castle opening to four different places (one Howl’s birthplace, our world), Seven League Boots, fire demons being fallen stars, but these things often seem haphazardly thrown into the story. Some parts of the story aren’t sufficiently developed, so that Sophie and Howl’s declarations of love for each other at the end of the novel come as a surprise; these are characters who throughout the book may develop a certain respect for one another, but don’t show any growing affection until, bam, they do. The fight scenes are lackluster, Jones’s descriptions not adding any urgency or clear choreography to the scenes. Howl’s Moving Castle has countless intriguing and magical elements to it, but they all read as flat.

Movie: The animated film of Howl’s Moving Castle makes countless bizarre departures from the source material, and while the film may be good on its own, it was hard to watch after reading the book. Many of the changes made to characters and storyline are impossible to understand; for what reason does Howl’s apprentice, Michael, go from being 15 years old to a child? Why is the wizard Suleman changed into a woman and made the villian? Why does the Witch of the Waste turn from the villian into a goofy, often harmless old woman? Why does the door that in the book leads to Howl’s home country (in our world) lead here to night skies that Howl flies around in bird form? Why the war?

Visually, the film is stunning. In terms of plotting, nothing’s been gained by the filmmakers’ changes; the story doesn’t become any more coherent as a result of their retooling of characters and plotlines.


Winner: Book.

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Review: Megan McCafferty’s Bumped

Disclaimer: The publisher provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Megan McCafferty’s Bumped has been getting hype up the wazoo. I’ve heard almost nothing but good things about it – you know, good world building, topical issues, young adult dystopian (which instantly makes me think of The Hunger Games – I expect every YA dystopian novel to be as good as Suzanne Collins’s, I guess), inventive language – and I was practically drooling thinking of reading this book.

Only, then I got it, and I found that the things everyone was talking about and praising, like the way McCafferty doesn’t do an “info dump” at the start of her novel to explain her world and the lives and vocabulary of her characters, drove me nuts. Sure, giving a chapter of exposition isn’t the most gripping way to open a novel, but not everyone can pull off making this information an organic part of their story. Then there are some people who don’t even try, at all – and as a reader it felt to me that McCafferty gave up on building a strong world, resting her story instead of the questionable strengths of its storyline and wacky vocabulary.

Bumped takes place in a vaguely future version of our world, in which an AIDS-like virus causes most men and women to become infertile once out of their teens. Teenagers thereby become responsible for the propagation of the human race, “bumping” as amateurs or professionals to produce babies that are adopted or purchased by older couples. Pregnancy isn’t just a way of life but a fashion; girls can purchase not just t-shirts about “pregging” and being “fertilicious” but fake baby bumps to wear.

McCafferty’s narrative flips back and forth between Melody and Harmony, sixteen-year-old identical twins separated at birth who have grown up in cultures that treat teenage pregnancy differently. Melody has grown up in “Otherside”, as Harmony calls it, raised by parents who believe in the move to monetize pregnancy. She’s the first girl in her school to turn “professional”, though two years after signing her contract she hasn’t “bumped” and is nearing obsolescence.

Harmony grew up in “Goodside”, a strict community of “Godfreaky” (as Melody would put it) people who marry and preg young but raise their children themselves. Harmony contacts Melody and unexpectedly shows up in Otherside, where she hangs around with Melody and her friend Zen.

So, not a bad premise for a young adult novel, though aspects of it are contrived enough that I should have guessed I wouldn’t fall in love with the book the way everyone else has. McCafferty hasn’t formed her story around a cast of deluded teenagers as much as she’s thought of caricatures to place into her narrative. Melody, Harmony, Zen, Melody’s friends and their pregnancies, Melody’s parents, Harmony’s huge extended family – none of them feel real to me, but rather as if they’ve been put in this narrative to stand as examples of or for something.

McCafferty comes up with a lot of future words and slang for this novel, which I started writing down halfway through – “paps” for papparazzi, “foto” for photo, “Avatarcade” (future version of the arcade, with avatars!), “GlycoGoGo Bars” (energy bar), “US Buff-A” (restaurant), “Mi-Net” (crazy future internet, accessed with contact lenses and earbuds), “pro boner work” (instead of “pro bono work” – well, this one was kind of funny I guess), “procreationists” (Christians who believe in spreading the seed), “starcisstic” (instead of narcissistic), “breedy bits” (you know), “facespace” (speaking to a person in person), “MasSEX parties” (orgies). These words seem to stand in the place of world building (McCafferty doesn’t build a world as much as she suggests, via future words, that she has built a world), and McCafferty’s characters seem just as superficial as her world and its language.

Over at I Swim for Oceans there’s a pretty interesting interview with McCafferty in which she talks about some of these things, like why her characters speak the way they do and how that changes over the course of the novel. All my notes about this book are kind of disappointed scribbles (e-bookishly speaking) about how she goes for the most obvious ways to distinguish her characters. Harmony’s grown up in a Godfreaky community, so her internal monologue is filled with references to God and the Bible, while Melody’s is more along the lines of wondering whether she is “fertilicious” and what she will look like with a baby bump. McCafferty lays this on thick early in the book, and it fades away as time passes. Like she says in the interview, McCafferty used that sort of internal monologue to show character development – as the narrative progresses the girls are finding their own voices and freeing themselves from the voices their families and cultures have given them – but this reads, like so many other aspects of the novel, as superficial and contrived, because this use of the language is the only way McCafferty chooses to show character development, and also because Bumped takes place over such a short time period that this shift in internal monologue isn’t believable.

Bumped deals in issues that are pretty heavy – questions about who owns the rights to their own bodies, how teenagers’ bodies are taken advantage of when it becomes the only way of surviving as a race, monetizing sex and pregnancy – but the tone of the novel doesn’t fit these issues. At novel’s end the characters are rethinking their world and their places in it and how they treat their bodies, but the decisions they reach about these issues largely take place behind the scenes. As readers, we see little deeper than the slang they use to express themselves. The disconnect between the subject matter and the voice is huge and distracting, and lets down this story and the potential it had. McCafferty drowns what could have been an interesting and thought-provoking story beneath her top-heavy world – developed in terms of language and fashion but feeling barren in every other way.

Bumped is released on April 26th, and judging by the ending (or lack thereof) there’s a Bumped v. 2.0 on the way.

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