The Night Circus

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

Anchor Books, 2012

516 pages

When my daughter was born, two very dear friends came to see us in the hospital. It was Christmastime, so they brought my present with them: a copy of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I had not heard of it, but our friends were emphatic that I would love it, and they were right.

I got through it quickly – thanks to frequent, slow nursing sessions – and I was heartbroken by the fact that there was no followup to the cliffhanger ending (which I won’t spoil for you here). It remains the best fantasy novel I’ve read outside Tolkien.

So imagine how thrilled I was to discover a read-alike: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I picked up Morgenstern’s novel last month, when I visited the library on a desperate hunt for reading material. I was about to fly cross-country on a business trip, and I had realized the day before departure that I had “nothing to read.” (Just on a side note: I should confess that me having “nothing to read” is like some folks having “nothing to wear.”)

The Night Circus was perched on a shelf, under a sign declaring it “recommended by our librarians.” It was of sufficient length for the trip, and the premise sounded fascinating. So I took it home, along with some fallback selections.

I was hooked from page one. Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it’s the story of two students whose teachers use them as proxies in a centuries-old magical conflict. Celia, the daughter of one magician, and Marco, the protege of the other, are bound from an early age to pit their skills against one another within the confines of a magical circus. Celia serves as the circus’ illusionist and travels with the show. Along with performing her own act, she uses her magic to build other attractions within the venue. Marco also magically adds to the circus, but from his home base in London.

Then, several years after the contest begins, the two antagonists meet face-to-face and fall in love. First, they collaborate with each other, building some of the circus’ most stunning attractions. But eventually, that’s not enough – they want out of the contest so they can become full partners, both in love and magic. That is when they learn what is really at stake: not only their own lives, but those of everyone connected with the circus.

I love the book primarily for its richness of detail and the way Morgenstern weaves together reality-as-we-know-it and the magical reality of the world she has so deftly created. This, the tight and unique plotting, and the orientation toward characters over action (always my favorite slant) are what make Night Circus an apt readalike for Strange & Norrell.

Granted, Morgenstern is not quite as skilled as Clarke – her ending is tidier but, in my opinion, trite and much less satisfying. And, though her narrative voice is similarly strong, it’s far too American for the book’s primarily British setting.

But Morgenstern’s novel has one thing Clarke’s novel is lacking: a strong female protagonist (though Arabella Strange could possibly qualify as a Super Secondary).

Celia is really the book’s main character, with Marco serving as a close secondary. Aside from getting more page time, she’s also more central to the plot – and to the circus itself.

And what a character she is. She has innate magical ability that stems not just from her parentage but also from her fierce temperament. She is the more powerful of the two contestants, capable of both more dramatic and more complex magic than Marco can execute.

She is the one, we ultimately learn, who holds the circus together. If she loses focus, it literally falls apart. So she is the one who must make a way out for herself and Marco, if she can. She is the primary mover, creator, and problem-solver. In short, she’s the heroine of the book.

Even better, there are some strong female secondaries to support her: the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko, Marco’s former lover Isobel, and the accomplished costume designer Tante Padva. They’re all flawed characters – as is Celia – but each is courageous and strong and creative.

It’s wonderful to read a book with so many self-assured women in it, especially when that book turns out to be a love story. I’ve read far too many books where, once the heroine falls in love, she loses her verve and becomes a passive pawn in need of rescuing. The Night Circus, by contrast, is a story where love only deepens the heroine’s strength and power.

The next time you’re in search of a good, fat book to spend some serious time with, I highly recommend it.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L’Engle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963

256 pages

A Wrinkle in Time is one of those books I think I have very clear memories of – and then I read it again and discover that I missed something entirely.

I first read A Wrinkle in Time – or, rather, had it read to me – when I was in elementary school. The school I attended, which housed grades K-8, placed a high priority on reading. Every day, the teachers focused on reading in three ways: they read aloud to their students (even in the higher grades), they had the students read aloud to each other, and they set aside time for the students to read on their own.

L’Engle’s science fiction novel was one of many inspiring books read aloud to me at that school. For whatever reason, my teacher didn’t continue with the series, but I came back to it as an adult and read the remaining four books in the quintet.

And then, just a couple of months ago, I read A Wrinkle in Time with my daughter. I prodded her into reading it with me because I remembered it as an inspiring book. And it was, but not in the way I recalled.

The story was as compelling as ever. Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry travels through space and time to rescue her father, who has been missing for years after taking part in some mysterious government project. Her brother Charles Wallace, her new friend Calvin, and three odd neighbors (Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit) accompany Meg on the trip.

Under the neighbors’ guidance, the children “tesser” to various planets in search of Mr. Murry. They learn that the universe is under attack from a Dark Thing – the embodiment of evil – and that Mr. Murry has become trapped on a planet, called Camazotz, that is wholly given over to the Dark.

Arriving on Camazotz, they find Mr. Murry imprisoned by IT, the disembodied brain that controls the planet and its inhabitants. He is a prisoner because he refused to succumb to IT, and the children are only able to bring him away because Charles Wallace yields to IT’s telepathy. Meg must then return to Camazotz alone to rescue her brother, if she can.

The travelers are a band of misfits if ever there was one. The neighbors, who sound as add as they look, turn out to be paranormal beings analagous to angels. Calvin is the most popular boy in school, but he’s also awkward-looking, deeply misunderstood and neglected by his parents, and unsure of how to handle his own inner gifts. Charles Wallace, a 5-year-old telepath and genius, has a reputation for being developmentally disabled because he rarely speaks to anyone but his family.

And then there’s Meg. She was the missing piece, the element I had forgotten. Sure, I remembered that she is the main character and (more importantly) the crucial operator in the rescues of both Mr. Murry and Charles Wallace. What I didn’t remember is that she is a complete anti-hero.

In short, Meg drives me nuts. For most of the book, she’s a whiny, entitled, hand-wringer with a near-pathological inability to control her own emotions. She wants everyone to do everything for her. She’s the kind of person you want to smack around or douse in cold water, the way cartoon characters do with blibbering hysterics.

But as the book progressed, I realized that’s the way many 13-year-olds are. Thanks to raging, roller-coaster hormones and the vicissitudes of adolescent neurological development, it’s completely normal for a child Meg’s age to be self-centered and emotionally volatile. L’Engle, being the mother of three children, was probably all too aware of this.

Once I had this epiphany, I started to feel grateful for Meg’s messiness. My own daughter is closing in on her tenth birthday, and I realized how edifying it is for her to read about a girl who’s fully in the grips of adolescent turmoil, yet is ultimately able to get beyond it when something important is at stake.

More than that, the very qualities that make Meg so hard to deal with are the ones that feed her ability to rescue Charles Wallace. She learns how to turn her weaknesses into strengths, how to redirect her liabilities into productive channels. She learns how to operate outside herself and attain maturity through the process of seeking a worthy and challenging goal.

And with adolescence looming on the horizon for my daughter, that is an inspiring example for her to have.

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

by Andrea Davis Pinkney; ill. by Stephen Alcorn

Harcourt, 2000

Where I sit writing, in one of my city’s newest public library branches, I can see people picking out magazines and books to read, checking out their materials, lounging in chairs with laptops propped on their knees.

I’ve been sitting here for about two and a half hours, and I’ve seen people of every age and color pass by. Right now, a very elderly black woman is reading a magazine at a nearby table. Earlier, a middle-aged white man stopped to skim a newspaper. Still earlier, a Latina woman with two small children walked by on her way to the circulation desk.

I live in the South, so library clientele weren’t always so diverse. The elderly woman across the room is the same age as one of my former library co-workers, a black woman who graduated from high school before segregation ended. When she first began her career with the library, she couldn’t enter most of the buildings in the library system.

I don’t for a minute believe that complete equality or reconciliation is reality, either in policy or in people’s hearts. You don’t erase more than 400 years of institutionalized racism, oppression, and brutality in a single generation.

But what progress has been made! My coworker, who held a master’s degree, was a third-generation descendant of slaves, whom it was illegal to educate. Our central library now has a renowned collection and education program celebrating the Civil Rights movement. I work and attend church with people of all races, and my daughter attends a racially diverse public school where teachers talk openly about the legacy of slavery.

That progress is the result of centuries of unrelenting work by many courageous people–many of them barrier-breaking women. And that’s the subject of Andrea Davis Pinkney and Stephen Alcorn’s book Let It Shine.

Written in Pinkney’s lilting language and illustrated with Alcorn’s dynamic, intensely colored paintings, this anthology is a collection of stories about black women who have fought for freedom of every kind. As Pinkney points out in her introduction, the focus is not just on freedom from slavery, but on freedom from misogyny, freedom to travel, freedom of expression, and more.

Pinkney includes the stories of several household names–Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker–along with mini-biographies of some who are lesser-known but no less deserving of fame–Biddy Mason, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Shirley Chisholm, to name a few.

I love the diversity of focus, the way Pinkney provides a glimpse of the many fronts on which wars for equality are fought. Freedom isn’t just about an end to slavery; it’s also about equal access to housing, the arts, education, and politics.

In a way that’s galvanizing, not discouraging, Pinkney shows that oppression is a bit like a Hydra. You can destroy one barrier, but it may spring up again in a new location or new form, and there are others to tackle as well. The idea gives readers a better appreciation for the depths of courage and stamina required to fight such a daunting monster.

I also love that Pinkney shows how various types of equality are intertwined. Many of the women in Let It Shine were dual activists: advocates for blacks and women, or blacks and the poor. She encourages young readers to look behind the reductionist facade, to realize that there are often points of commonality between supposedly disparate people, and to think in more complex, realistic ways about how we can help one another.

She also draws out each woman’s particular strengths and clearly connects them to that woman’s work. She shows, for example, how Sojourner Truth’s famous size and strength made her a more imposing speaker, sustained her during grueling travel, and helped her stand up to audience members who tried to intimidate her. The message: whatever your interests or skills, they have a purpose. There is a special way you can use them to make the world better.

And inspiration to make the world better is one of the best inspirations of all.

Special Delivery

Special Delivery

by Philip C. Stead; ill. by Matthew Cordell

Roaring Brook Press, 2015

40 pages

I’ve written before about how much I love books about girls who do. And if any book is about a girl who does, it’s Philip C. Stead and Matthew Cordell’s quirky little volume Special Delivery.

This picture book stars a heroine named Sadie who wants to send an elephant to her great-aunt Josephine. When the postmaster informs Sadie that she’ll need an entire wheelbarrow-full of stamps to mail the pachyderm, the revelation touches off a series of adventures as Sadie attempts to complete the delivery on her own.

Sadie and her elephant pal complete their journey by way of biplane, alligator, train, and ice cream wagon. Along the way, they crash-land in the jungle, fall in with monkey bandits, and eat a few too many beans. When they finally reach Josephine, we discover that this is not by any means the first time Sadie has taken such a trip.

The book reads like the kind of story your imaginative, confident four-year-old would tell you. It has a kind of hilarious internal logic that you simply can’t argue with, but at the same time it’s complete nonsense. Cordell’s squiggly illustrations, always skirting the edge of the disorderly, only add to the effect.

What I really love about this book is the nonchalance with which most of the grownups interact with Sadie. As though mailing an elephant, commandeering a biplane and an alligator, and paying for ice cream with peanuts (literal peanuts, not small change) are things that little girls do every day. Even the biplane owner, who gets dramatic, is only upset about fuel–the fact that Sadie’s flying the plan is itself no big deal.

And Sadie, naturally, sees nothing strange about what she’s doing. Josephine lives alone and likes animal companions, so of course Sadie must get her one. The fact that she has to do so by somewhat unorthodox means is irrelevant. After all, she’s just taking advantage of whatever solution presents itself.

These two elements–everyone’s casual acquiescence to Sadie’s plans, plus Sadie’s confident and creative problem-solving–are what make this book inspiring.

I think that, in our culture, the deck is still stacked against active girls. It’s a shorter deck than the one our mothers or grandmothers faced, but it’s still there. And girls who grow up to be active women continue to face pushback. Sometimes it’s overt, in the form of increased scrutiny, lower pay, and hostile remarks. Sometimes it’s more subtle, in the form of public comments about what female politicians and executives are wearing or how balanced their family lives are (issues that are almost never raised with men in the same roles).

Sadie gives little girls an early model for facing those kinds of obstacles: keep your eyes focused on your goal, and be firm that what you’re doing makes perfect sense for you to do. It doesn’t really matter if nobody or everybody has done it before. And if someone throws up an obstacle in your path, look over or around it for another way to get where you want to go.

With that kind of mindset, in the end, you’ll reach your destination–and you might just find a warm welcome waiting for you when you do.

Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes

by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al.

Blue Rider Press, 2014

528 pages

I have an ambivalent relationship to fashion.

I love clothes. I love expressing myself through what I wear. I love the idea that, by picking out an outfit, I can give people a piece of the code to who I really am (provided they care enough to pay attention). I love seeing how other people express themselves through what they wear. And I love parsing the interplay of color, line, fabric, flow, and drape in beautiful garments.

What I don’t love is what the fashion industry sells to women (and I don’t mean clothes). The sweatshops and wage-slave labor used to make the clothes we wear. The stale, sexualized commodification of the female body. The relentless onslaught of images of skinny, pale teenagers presented as an ideal of beauty for all ages, races, and body types.

So I love to read fashion magazines, but I don’t leave them lying around where my daughter can see them. She’s only nine; I want her love of body and self to be more fully formed before she experiences regular exposure to waifish models and slit-to-here-or-there dresses.

Fashion, in short, so often feels like my guilty pleasure–the mild vice I have to pretend not to participate in or care too much about because otherwise I might have to turn in my feminist card. Kind of like the way I feel about James Bond movies.

This is why I was drawn to Women in Clothes, which the summary I read described as a book about “a philosophy of fashion.” The blurb promised personal stories, photographs of the authors’ mothers, wry commentary on how women feel about their clothes, their personal style, and their bodies.

I think the person who wrote the blurb might actually have read the book, because she was spot-on. Heti, Julavits, and Shapton deliberately developed the book as a way to express and explore the side of fashion that so often gets short shrift in magazines and books: the why of choosing clothes, the way Everywoman feels about her body and what she wears, and the ways fashion and style are passed down or over to us from mothers, grandmothers, aunts, lovers, cousins, siblings, and friends.

The foundation of Women in Clothes is a survey, one full of both expected and unexpected questions that have to be answered in long form. Questions like “Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?,” “What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others?,” and “What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?”

The authors shared this survey with hundreds of women they know, and they posted it on the Web for strangers to complete. Excerpts from responses form the core of the book, which also includes photographs of women’s fashion-related collections (e.g., one woman’s collection of vintage skirt suits, another’s collection of black cotton underwear, and still another’s collection of clogs), snippets of overheard fashion-related conversations, interviews, parodies, and more.

Unlike my fashion magazines, Women in Clothes is full of women of every race, shape, age, and size. And they are all brutally, disarmingly, engagingly honest about fashion and their relationship to it.

There is the long-time fashion editor who praises her assistant’s habit of buying everything at Goodwill–not for frugality’s sake, but for the sake of Pakistani teenagers in sweatshops and overflowing landfills. There are the women who talk about their own jiggly thighs and sagging breasts–not ruefully, but affectionately. The women who remember certain items of clothing not because of how they looked in them, but because of precious memories associated with the days they wore them.

Reading Women in Clothes inspired me to love myself and my personal style a little more, to be more confident in wearing what fits my body, and to just enjoy the beauty of clothes. It was a much-needed reminder that there are other women out there trying to be thoughtful about what they wear and why.

Will I still read fashion magazines? Yes, though probably a little less often. Will I still think that it would be nice to lose the 5 pounds I seem to have suddenly gained now that I sit at a desk all day? Sometimes. But will I be more focused on what’s going on below the surface when I choose an outfit? Definitely.

In short, this book has inspired me to be more thoughtful about what I wear and why, and to be less heedful of what magazines and designers and culture tell me I should look like or wear. In short, it’s inspired me to be more me. And that’s always a good thing.

Rosie Revere, Engineer

by Andrea Beaty; ill. by David Roberts

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013

32 pages

Over on the Read Like a Girl Facebook page, I’ve been sharing a lot of posts related to the relative dearth of women in STEM fields.

It’s a subject that’s top-of-mind for me because my daughter, who has always had a science-y bent, is now showing a pronounced interest in STEM-related activities. She’s become an avid scratch Lego builder, and she’s fascinated by computer coding, electrical wiring, and just generally seeing what will happen if you put A and B together and stir. (Her current impromptu experiment is a glass jar filled with a slurry of water and dissolving candy, which I think may be starting to ferment.)

These interests are making me painfully aware of the way STEM-oriented toys are marketed. In short, usually to boys. And when they’re marketed to girls, they’re often turned pink and purple and themed around domesticity, fashion, or shopping–a la Lego Friends, for example.

So lately, I’ve been on the hunt for great STEM toys, activities, and books that will help my daughter feel that she has the same options boys do. I bought her a pink-free Lego set designed around mini-figures of women scientists. When my sister asked about buying her an engineering-themed kit for Christmas, I emphatically said “Yes.” And when I saw a mention of Andrea Beaty and David Roberts’ Rosie Revere, Engineer, I picked it up at the library and left it on the couch where she would see it. (She won’t usually read books if I recommend them directly–it feels too much like following orders. Hm, wonder where she gets that independent streak?)

Rosie Revere is an energetic story about a smart, creative girl who loves to build. But when an uncle laughs down one of her creations, she gives up her favorite hobby out of insecurity.

Years later, her elderly Aunt Rosie, “who’d worked building airplanes a long time ago,” comes for a visit and mentions wistfully that her only regret is never learning to fly. Young Rosie struggles all night with her fear of failure before finally breaking out the building kit and constructing a “cheese-copter” so her aunt can take to the skies.

The copter flies briefly, but crashes, and Rosie is about to give up again when her aunt comes to the rescue. Together, they build a functioning machine–and young Rosie goes on to inspire her school classmates to start building, too.

I love this book not just because it celebrates female engineers, but also because it’s very honest about the frustrations and failures that come with experimentation. Sometimes, people really do mock creative ideas–and prototypes sometimes crash and burn, either literally or figuratively.

Rosie’s response to these challenges is relatable–but so is her recovery. And that’s what makes this book inspiring. It shows girls that they can bounce back from naysaying and failure, and that they should focus on connecting with the people who will help them do so. Ignore the person who’s mocking you, stick with the one who picks up the tools and helps.

In other words, this is a story that doesn’t just encourage girls to think of themselves as potential engineers, but also as persistent, strong overcomers. So it’s valuable for girls like my daughter, who might be interested in STEM careers, as well as for girls who simply need to hear, “You can do it!” And in fact, those are both messages I want my daughter to hear.

Under the Egg

Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial, 2014

247 pages

I love literary serendipity.

A couple of years ago, while my husband was out of town one week, I watched a documentary called The Rape of Europa. It was my first encounter with the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) military section, and I was riveted. Later, wanting to learn more, I read Robert M. Edsel’s very long but also very interesting book on the topic.

Last summer’s mediocre–and not entirely historically accurate–George Clooney movie somewhat popularized the story, but here are the basics, in case you haven’t heard.

The MFAA consisted of British and American arts experts (both men and women) who embedded with Allied troops in Europe during World War II. The group’s initial mandate was to identify and protect significant cultural sites from being destroyed by war operations and combat. Over time, the mandate expanded to include the identification, recovery, and return of millions of artworks the Nazis had looted from exiled or murdered Jewish families, museums, and churches. My favorite part of the story concerned Rose Valland, a Paris museum volunteer who risked her life to hide and rescue tends of thousands of artworks from the Nazis.

I finished reading Edsel’s book in July. Three months later, I picked up Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg–and serendipity happened.

I chose Under the Egg after reading that it was a brainy mystery with a strong female lead. The book satisfied on both those counts, but (even better) it also turned out to be historical fiction about the MFAA.

In Under the Egg, 13-year-old Theodora Tenpenny must figure out how to support herself and her mentally ill mother when her grandfather dies unexpectedly, leaving behind only $463 and instructions to look “under the egg.”

Theodora eventually connects these cryptic last words with a large painting of an egg that sits over the mantel in her grandfather’s art studio. After accidentally spilling rubbing alcohol on the painting, Theodora discovers that it hides an Old Masters-style Madonna and Child.

She suspects that this hidden painting is a lost Raphael and sets out to determine why and how it came to be in her grandfather’s possession. In the process, she discovers that, like the painting, her grandfather was not what he seemed.

He had not, as he told her, sat out World War II because of poor health. Instead, he had served at D-Day, suffered in a German POW camp, and then served in the MFAA. And Theodora is only able to solve the mystery of the painting (and what her grandfather’s last words really meant) once she solves the mystery of what happened to her grandfather during his stay in the POW camp and his term as a Monuments Man.

I’ll be honest: this book is a little more uneven than those I usually review here. I was a bit bothered by some of the liberties Fitzgerald took with MFAA history. Characterization fell flat in some places, and the plot took a few deus-ex-machina-style turns, particularly at the end.

But the overall story was so engaging, the premise so unique, and Theodora such an inspiring heroine, that I couldn’t let it go.

Theodora’s situation is staggeringly difficult. Her grandfather’s death leaves her as caretaker for a mother and a house that are both falling part. Theodora’s clothes are likewise disintegrating, and all she and her mother have to eat are a few eggs and a handful of beans and vegetables harvested from their backyard each day.

Really, Theodora needs to ask for help, but she’s held back by the near-pathological self-reliance her grandfather taught her. The way she slowly opens up to the world, while building her courage and using her intelligence to solve the mystery, is what inspired me.

She’s one of those heroines who speaks to me not because she has it all together, but precisely because she doesn’t. She feels exasperating and real in her flaws. I can see myself in her failings.

But she grows. She recognizes her need to connect and pushes herself, however slowly and gradually, out of her own comfort zone. And in the midst of horrible circumstances, she remains positive and confident that she will, eventually, work it all out.

In short, she’s courageous, in a real-life maybe-I-could-do-that kind of way. When the book is over, her story continues in my head–she stays with me, reminding me to let others love and help me as I go about the challenges of my own life. It’s a lesson I’ve sorely needed to learn over the last several years, and I’m thankful Under the Egg reinforced it for me.


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