Nothing But Memory
Posts Tagged the night circus

All Is Quiet, on New Year’s Day

The beginning of a new year always makes me feel like doing random things in the name of having a fresh start; for example, this morning I flipped all the cushions on my couch, which I would probably never think of doing on any other day, but hey — it’s a new year! I also refilled my salt shaker, opened up a new toothbrush, and started rereading the Harry Potter books again.

Now a brief look back on 2011. I did some good things: went to England, managed the HPreread. Got to know my toddler niece as she developed her personality. I rewatched The X-Files. This may not seem like a big deal to anyone else, but I’ve tried to do that three or four times before and have never made it past the first half of season six. In 2011, I did all nine seasons plus both movies. It felt like an accomplishment! I also did a good job of getting myself back in the habit of reading every day, and as consequence I read 65 books. To be fair, many of those were short and some were things I’d read before, but I’d count about 30 of them as solid new books. I think I managed my personal life fairly well. I had surgery to fix up a health problem I’d been dealing with for a while and took advantage of the fact that I have dental coverage through my job to get some much needed work done on my teeth. I paid all my bills and knocked a fairly big chunk off my student debt. I did well at my job. I tried to make smart decisions about how I spend money and on what. All in all, it was a good year.

I also took in some good culture. Here are a few best and worst of 2011 picks:

Music

I liked Florence + the Machine‘s debut album enough that I was really looking forward to the followup, Ceremonials, which turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year. My picks for the best tracks: “What the Water Gave Me,” “Heartlines,” “Leave My Body,” “Only if for a Night,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “Shake It Out.”  But my most listened album of 2011 is undoubtedly Born This Way by Lady Gaga. It’s not perfect, but there are some truly great songs on there. The best, in my opinion, are “Heavy Metal Lover,” “Bloody Mary,” “Born This Way,” and “Hair.” “Hair” was easily my favourite song of the year. It’s so stupid, but so much fun.

My biggest musical disappointment of the year was Radiohead‘s King of Limbs. I never thought we’d reach the day when Radiohead made a bad album, but unfortunately it seems we have. It’s still possible King of Limbs will grow on me in the future. I hope so.

Movies

I was underwhelmed by the cinema of 2011 until July when I saw The Tree of Life, and I still think it was probably my favourite movie of the year. As I wrote at the time, I totally get why so many people hated it, but it really, really worked for me. I thought it was beautiful and brilliant, and it stayed with me for a long time after I saw it. Another movie that has stuck with me is the haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman who joins and then leaves a cult, but finds that she may never truly be able to escape. I’m not sure why this movie isn’t getting more awards buzz. Speaking of which, The Artist is just as good as people say. I found it very charming. In terms of more mainstream fare, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America — everyone seems to have a preference between Cap and Thor and, while I enjoyed Thor, I think I was more drawn in by Captain America‘s period setting. I thought the filmmakers pulled that off very well. Plus, Chris Evans was wonderful, and Hugo Weaving made a terrific Red Skull.

Movies I didn’t like: The Descendants, which I am officially naming the most overrated movie of 2011, was just as boring and pretentious as I expected it to be given my hatred of Sideways and my general dislike of George Clooney in serious movies. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 annoyed me so much the first time I saw it that it almost put me off ever watching any of the HP movies again. Then I saw it a second time and liked it more, but I still have to say that the series was overall pretty disappointing — apart from the absolutely excellent casting.

Books

I think the only 2011 releases I read were The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, both of which were great but fell just short of being truly outstanding. I read Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire series for the first time in 2011, and the third volume, A Storm of Swords, was most likely my favourite “new” (to me) book of the year. A low point in 2011 for me and probably for the world: I read all four Twilight books. Breaking Dawn created a whole new level of bad.

Television

The good: Fringe, The Good Wife, and The Vampire Diaries are the best things on television right now. I was overjoyed — overjoyed, I tell you! — by Smallville‘s series finale, which made me feel that the 10 years I spent watching that show were actually worthwhile. The second season of Boardwalk Empire also wrapped up in spectacular fashion.

The bad: I was disappointed when I heard One Tree Hill and Weeds, two shows that have really gone downhill, were being renewed. I finally stopped watching House.

The sad: No Mad Men.

The circus arrives without warning

The first time I heard about The Night Circus (2011, Doubleday) by Erin Morgenstern, it was being compared to Harry Potter. My love of Harry Potter is well-established, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I decided to investigate The Night Circus further. The reviews made it sound like something I would enjoy, and indeed, I did enjoy it quite a lot. However, now that I’ve read it, I have no idea why it’s being compared to Harry Potter. It does have magic in it, true, but it’s not a similar story at all, and it’s certainly not aimed at the same age group. The Potter comparison made me expect it to be a children’s or young adult book. Nope! My first clue to the fact that this might be aimed at older readers came on page 10, when a character uses some colourful language. In this way, it reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which also quickly dispels any notion that it might be a children’s book with a well-placed expletive.

The Night Circus, which takes place around the turn of the 20th century, is the story of a magical contest between Celia and Marco, both apprentices to older illusionists who’ve made a game for years out of forcing their students to compete, apparently in order to determine which of their teaching methods is superior. The venue for the duel is Le Cirque des Rêves, an arena of wonders designed completely in black, white, and grey, which opens only after dark and features not just the usual circus performers — acrobats, a contortionist, big (and small) cats, fortune tellers, and Celia, the illusionist — but also elaborate exhibits such as a garden made completely of ice, a carousel that is part mechanical and part magical, and a vertical labyrinth made of clouds. The novel tells the story of the creation and early years of the circus, weaving in many characters such as: Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, the perfectionist promoter; Mr. Barris, the architect; Tsukiko, a mysterious contortonist; Poppet and Widget, twins who were born on the circus’ opening night; Herr Friedrick Thiessen, the clockmaker who designs the circus’ centrepiece clock; and Bailey, who visits the circus as a young boy and forms a bond with Poppet. It soon becomes apparent that all of these people are being affected in unforeseen ways by the circus’ unbreakable link to Celia and Marco’s duel.

The story itself, while engrossing at times and generally strong enough to keep the reader interested, is not outstanding; it runs out of steam in the final act. But it almost doesn’t matter, because The Night Circus works extremely well as a sort of verbal scrapbook, a collection of memories of an enchanting time and place — much like the accounts of the circus compiled by Herr Thiessen in the novel. Through these published writings, “excerpts” of which appear throughout the book, Thiessen becomes “the unofficial leader, the figurehead” of the “most ardent followers” of the circus. It is Herr Thiessen who starts the tradition among “rêveurs,” as these circus followers are known, of wearing a splash of red with the circus’ traditional greyscale colour scheme: the greyscale, he says, makes him feel as though he fits in, while the red reminds him that he is an outsider. Perhaps this position as external observer and chronicler is what makes Herr Thiessen one of the novel’s most memorable and likable characters. Morgenstern leaves the rules of the game in which Celia and Marco find themselves embroiled unclear through most of the novel; if this is a deliberate strategy to enhance the story’s drama, it backfires a bit by making it somewhat difficult for the audience to identify with a situation it has no hope of understanding. Herr Thiessen, by contrast, is just enjoying the wonders of the circus — something the audience can easily get behind.

It is Morgenstern’s vivid descriptions, not only of the circus, but also of the strange and beautiful artefects in the lives of all her characters, which make The Night Circus an outstanding read. The world of the novel is a magical environment full of people who own and design mysterious and wonderful things, such as the clock Herr Thiessen creates for the circus:

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played. (p. 69)

Everything, from Marco’s intricate notebooks, filled with drawings of trees and arcane symbols, to Celia’s magically-changing gowns, to the incredible foods served at Chandresh’s midnight dinners, is painted with such skill that the reader can almost feel it — or taste it, or smell it, as the case may be. Like the circus itself, this is a book of marvels. The physical book itself is also beautifully designed, complementing the sensory aspect of Morgenstern’s writing.

While the story is somewhat flawed, The Night Circus is still a book to savour thanks to Erin Morgenstern’s masterful portrayal of an intriguing world of marvels. The Neil Gaiman comparison I made earlier is probably a good one; the concept seems like something that would appeal to Gaiman fans, and there’s a certain similarity in tone to his work as well. Certainly, it’s much more Neil Gaiman than Harry Potter.