Friday, November 18, 2011

Marian Librarian reviews: The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming

Circus Week continues!

I had heard some glowing recommendations of this book from some colleagues and so, when trying to think of a book to go with my Circus Week, I sought it out.

The book is The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum by Candace Fleming.

Unlike some, I actually have a great affection for the Circus.  I'm aware of the controversies surrounding it.  I know all of the sort of seediness that people attribute to it, but I still enjoy it.

Barnum didn't invent the circus but he made it sparkle.  He found his calling in being a showman and was unapologetic about it.  He knew what people wanted and he gave it to them.

The story follows the entirety of Barnum's life, so truthfully the Circus doesn't factor in until very late in the story as he didn't even get into the circus game until he was 60 and didn't meet his business partner Bailey until he was 77.

Before that, you hear of his childhood, where he learned the value of practical jokes and the fact that he was an idea man rather than a hard worker.  It talks about how he met a local celebrity in his hometown of Bethel: an elephant named Old Bet.  Her owner made a small fortune taking her from town to town, so it was then that Barnum famously learned: "When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant."

Much of the story is dedicated to Bailey's exploits with his "American Museum," a place of curiosities, oddities, and animals.  It was chock full of things and people we would associate with documentaries on the Discovery Channel or Ripley's Believe it or Not.  This is the place where Barnum got his infamous reputation as a liar or "humbug."  His philosophy was that he just used his "humbugs" to draw people in, then entertained them.  They always got their money's worth.

It's interesting to melt the man with the seedy side-show image.  He was a deeply religious man, a friend to children, and the acts that some would say that he exploited, like the small man known as General Tom Thumb whom considered him a great friend.  He was not a perfect man by any means, but he was also not a mustache-twirling villain.  It's a fascinating look at the beginnings of an American institution and the man behind it.

There are anecdotes in here that are stories in themselves: how Barnum moved Circus's from 1 to 3 rings, the story of Jumbo the great elephant, the first circus train.  Also, stories of the people who crossed into his life: his partner James Bailey, the diva Jenny Lind (the inspiration for the Ugly Duckling who broke Hans Christian Anderson's heart), Mr. and Mrs. "Tom Thumb," and the oldest woman alive Joice Heth.  It's the kind of book where you'll find yourself reading passages to people out loud until you just press the book in their hands anyway.  Great for a kid who needs to do a biography project and the adult who's as curious as Barnum's audiences were.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Marian Librarian Reviews Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I have declared it Circus Week!

Why?  Because it is National Novel Writing Month and two of the biggest NaNo success stories happen to be about Circuses: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  (Take note, Nano'ers.  Circus books for all of us next year!)*

(*Don't actually do this.)

I'm going to be honest, every time I approach an "adult book" these days, especially a "bestseller," I feel trepidation.  I think it's because I've had some truly awful experiences with adult fiction and bestsellers (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Devil Wears Prada stand out for me.)  So, when I went into the Youth Services field I engrossed myself in YA and Juvenile literature, feeling like I was behind and could never read enough of it anyway (I still feel this way.)  My whole outlook on reading changed then.  I was actually enjoying things I read.  I'd found a home in YA lit.

A few months ago, I started to hear about The Night Circus.  First, I heard of it because it was a NaNo success story even before it was released, and as a NaNo'er I appreciate every one of us who take 50,000 desperately typed-out words and turn them into something amazing.

Then I started to hear about it from the YA community because it was going to be placed in YA sections, then graduated to adult but branded "has crossover appeal."

Interesting that this book seemed to beckon out to me just like the Night Circus itself does, with word of mouth and an image of circus tents in striking black and white.  I got on the hold list for it and was already number 257 in line at the library, but I cut ahead of everyone by spying a non-requestable Best-Seller copy on the shelf.

The Night Circus gave me everything I want to fall in love with in a book.  A beautiful setting and atmosphere, lovers who make your heart ache with them, mystery and intrigue that keeps you turning page after page, and, of course, a little magic.

It was a book that I devoured and wished I hadn't so that I could have savored it longer.  It's a world that I did not wish to shut the back cover on.

The story follows the life of the mysterious and fantastic Night Circus and the lives that are entwined in it.  I say the life of the circus, because it's the true main character that seems to live and breathe on its own, rather than just a setting.  The magic and splendor in this Circus isn't just sleight of hand, it's real.  Dreams conjured by dreamers for dreamers; two magicians locked in a high-stakes game.  A lot of fantasy demands a limit or price to magic.  These magicians do pay a price for their magic but anything they wish to make happen- living carousels, cloud-filled playgrounds, exotic labyrinths -they bring to life.  I understand "price of magic" philosophy but here, it was refreshing to see that any dream could take shape.

I know this review has been more like a love letter to this book, so I'll get down to the nitty-gritty briefly.  The narrative moves forward and backward in time from scene to scene, picking up threads of different characters at different parts of their lives.  This causes a build in tension but does, at one very brief point, added frustration because there were times where it cut to characters I didn't find as compelling when I desperately wanted to follow another storyline.  Sometimes I find books that use this frame tiresome because they use it as a thinly veiled device to hold off the climax.  However, this book was certainly not the worse offender.  One other gripe is a main character, Bailey, is meant to be an ordinary kid in an extrordinary world, but I think that point was driven too far because I never connected to him.

These are minor problems in any book, but are especially forgettable in such a fast read.  I have heard some complain about the lengthy descriptions in this book, but I frankly don't know what they're talking about.  The descriptions are brush strokes, touches that help you fill in the rest with your imagination.  The movie rights have already been sold and I know people are already a twitter about it.  I almost not, because I love the world Morgenstern helped me to see in my own imagination.

A big part of growing up is seeing through magic, realizing that magicians are just fancy liars with pulleys and mirrors.  The ciricus loses its luster, becomes a lie and illusion.  This jaded adult reader was glad to step into a world where the magic is as real and shiny as ever.

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's Monday, What are you Reading?

This is my first time participating in Sheila @ Book Journey's Monday meme: What are you reading?  And mapped out my week as a reader.

Plans this week is to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen in honor NaNoWriMo.  I bought this book years ago and didn't read it because something scared me off from it.  This is one of the first non-library books I've allowed myself to read in...years really.

Also, I'm going to finish the children's non-fiction book: "The Great and Only Barnum" by Candace Fleming and Ray Fenwick.

Obviously I have Circuses on the brain.

I'm listening to "Alice I have Been" by Melanie Benjamin, whom I've actually chatted with through #litchat and found to be lovely.  Nothing is wrong with the book but I have been having trouble turning on the CD player to listen to it, which is never a good sign.

What are you reading this week?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bruce Campbell Week Part Three: Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way


I'm whispering because I don't want Bruce Campbell to hear this.

Especially since we're best friends now after he retweeted my previous blog entry.  (Allow me my delusions.)

I wish I had loved: Make Love!*  *the Bruce Campbell Way.

But I didn't.

It's all had such promise.  Bruce Campbell on the cover dressed as he was in that awesome Old Spice commercial (see below).  A comedy novel by the King of the B-list about a B-list actor trying to get off of the B-list.  I loved If Chins Could Kill.  I liked Man with the Screaming Brain.  I love Bruce Campbell. What could go wrong?

The thing about Make Love!* *the Bruce Campbell way is that while it is fictionalized, real people's names are used: Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Mike Nichols, Christopher Plummer.  Bruce Campbell is "himself" (one prays the real Bruce acts nothing like this).  I suppose the idea was that they're celebrities, so how do we really know if they're acting out of character right?

Well, we know they're acting out of character because no one on God's green earth talks are behaves the way that this book portrays.

I know that, as I read the book, I was supposed to shut off my brain and enjoy the zaniness.  I couldn't.  I knew too much that what I was reading was completely contrived and unfunny.  In fact, it made me cringe.  Have ever wanted to see Bruce Campbell -not a character, but the man himself- doing things so moronic that it made you embarrassed for him?  Me neither.

Someone on Amazon said it's like he wrote a fan-fic of himself and I have to agree.

I still love Bruce Campbell but when it comes to his fiction novels...his films and autobiography are very entertaining.  Leave this one lie.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bruce Campbell Week Part Two: Man with the Screaming Brain (Comic)

Today, we discuss the great Bruce Campbell as a comic book writer.

In 1986, Bruce Campbell was a man with a dream.

His dream was to make a corny, 1950s style science fiction flick.  And in 2005, that dream became a reality.  (Yes, it took 19 years.)  Man with the Screaming Brain was born.

The Man with the Screaming Brain is talked about a little in If Chins Could Kill, though I've never been entirely sure why this was the story that Campbell lobbied for for years.  Not that it's bad.  It's exactly what you're expecting from a campy scifi-picture show movie.  I just think it's an interesting insight on Bruce Campbell that this is the story that he felt called to share with the world.  My kind of guy.

He felt so called to share this story with the world that, in addition to the movie, there is a comic book version released by Dark Horse comics.

I read the comic book before I watched the movie.  Campbell says of the comic:
"I'm calling the comic a 'director's cut,' mainly because it doesn't cost you more to set the scene at the edge of a cool cliff, or at night like it does in the movies.  The comic is closer to what the original intent was - dark and noir-like."

The Plot: Campbell plays William Cole, who travels with his unsatisfied wife Jackie to Bulgaria to oversee some business interests there.  They meet former KGB-turned cab driver Yegor and when they run afoul of the murderess gypsy Tatoya, she kills all three of them.  Luckily, Bulgaria's friendly neighborhood mad scientists are there to place part of Yegor's brain in place of the damaged part of Cole's brain, and Jackie is placed in the body of a robot.  The two halves of the brain work together to get their revenge.

I'm a huge MST3K fan, so all I could think about as I read this story was of the movie The Atomic Brain, where there's a man with a dog brain, a woman with a cat brain, a girl with a dead brain (zombie), and an old woman's brain in a cat.  I like these mad scientists who don't believe in waste, no brains or usable body parts left behind.

Because of that, I feel the story accomplishes everything it set out to do; it feels just like a cheesy 1950s scifi movie.  The comic is a fun read, though I think you just have to pair it with a watching of the movie, because it's Bruce Campbell's delivery and facial expressions that really sell it, though the comic does have an awesome look to it.

I give it 4 misplaced-brains out of 5!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Bruce Campbell Week! Part One: If Chins Could Kill

It's November, a time to look back on all our blessings to reflect on what we're thankful for.

This Mild-Manner Librarian is thankful for Bruce Campbell.

Bruce Campbell is the second man I ever loved.  The first was the Red Power Ranger, Jason, and, in hindsight, that was just lust.  The first time I looked at a boy and thought, "Hey, he isn't icky."

Then I started watching a leather-pants clad Bruce Campbell in "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." and there was a new man in my life.

Side by side comparison, there is not contest.

Unlike the Red Power Ranger, my love for Bruce Campbell endures to this day.

But what does this have to do with books, Librarian Blogger, you may ask?

Well, my friends, the mighty Bruce Campbell is not just a god among actors, he's also an auteur.  And I'm reviewing three of his works this week.

Now, I'm not a horror gal for the most part, so my exposure to Bruce Campbell had mainly been limited to Brisco, then Xena and Hercules, the sadly short-lived Jack of All Trades, then later his appearances in the Spiderman Movies and finally Burn Notice.  Evil Dead what now?

It took me a while to hear about Evil Dead, and then there was a long time that I just felt an overwhelming guilt as a Bruce Campbell fan for not having seen it.  Then, I came across a co-worker who loved Bruce Campbell as I did, and she loaned me his book: If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor.  I never returned this book. (Sorry Carrie. I also lost the book and bought another one, then found out that her copy was in the Take a Book, Leave a Book area at my work at the time, so the Bruce Campbell joy continues to be passed on!)

In, If Chins Could Kill, one of the highlights is the section on the making of Evil Dead.  How they did so much with so little, how Campbell would come home every morning dowsed in syrupy fake blood while church goers would stare at him, and, of course, detailed notes about "Shemping" a low budget movie.

If Chins Could Kill came out in 2001, so if you haven't read it I don't know what the hell you're waiting for.  Still, there could be unenlightened among us who have not read it just as someone who counts Bruce Campbell as her second love didn't watch Evil Dead until the late 2000s (shame face).  I suggest it for Bruce Campbell fans, diehard or otherwise, but also for the beginning film-maker.  You get to see the ingenuity that went into making a horror movie on no budget.  Also, you see how Hercules and Xena basically home-grew a film industry in New Zealand.  There's a lot to learn from his sections about almost being "The Phantom" and the desperate attempts to keep Brisco on the air, which included Rodeo visits.  It's a fun, delightful read.  Also, there are pictures.  Pictures of Bruce Campbell.

And, after reading all about the making of Evil Dead.  I got the courage to watch it, figuring that since I knew all the behind the scenes info I wouldn't be scared.  Finally, I could be a true Bruce Campbell fan!

I didn't sleep at all that night.

I give If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-movie Actor 5 chins out of five.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

And now for something completely different: A Conversation about Princess Leia and Han Solo

It all starts with this picture.

Holly despairs that a girl feels a need to make Vader Pink to be comfortable being him.  I say that I think it's empowering, since all the girl characters aren't that great in Star Wars that she made Vader her own.  Then this conversation happened:

Holly: True, the female characters are sex slaves and a girl who loves a cocky guy who doesn't say he loves her back, even in the face of being frozen in carbonite.

Me: I know! If I were Leia and he pulled that whole "I love you"/ "I know" thing on me, I'd have yelled down at him: "You know what? Nevermind, buddy."  And Lando Calrissian would be all like, "Dude, that's cold," while he was being frozen in the carbonite.  Then Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and the Stormtroopers would all be snickering in their helmets.  It would have been glorious.

Holly: It would have been!  I mean, I sort of get the guy machismo, you're surrounded by enemies and you don't want to be a sniveling baby.

Me:  Yeah, but he's been the one initiating things the whole time and then the minute she sort of breaks down he's all like, "Sucka! I was just trying to have sex with you the whole time."

You know what a woman loves?  Being embarrassed in front of a room full of her enemies.  Screw you, Han Solo/Harrison Ford (because I know it was your ad lib).