Friday, April 20, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A beautiful book cover can be quite seductive, much like the dreamlike spectacle of the circus. However, just as the circus is ultimately an illusion designed for frivolous entertainment, so is Erin Morgenstern’s glitzy but ultimately hollow attempt at a fantasy novel. While rich in visual imagery, The Night Circus is an insipid and tedious read that is all flash and no substance, and has more to offer in common gimmicks than in plot coherence and characterization.

Narrated in a nonlinear fashion, The Night Circus takes place in Victorian London, where a magical touring circus only comes into being when the sun goes down. At the center of this phenomenon are two apprentices—Celia, daughter of Prospero the Enchanter; and Marco, the adopted protégé of the mysterious Mr. A.H.—who have been trained extensively in magic and the art of show business in order to settle a rivalry between their mentors. Along with their intersecting storylines, we have a vast menagerie of performers and patrons, including the M. Chandresh Lefèvre, the ringleader; Tsukiko, the contortionist, Herr Frederick Thiessen, the German clockmaker; the teenage twin psychics, Poppet and Widget, and their friend, a curious young circus enthusiast named Bailey, who turns to the circus to escape his family problems.

Morgenstern clearly enjoys introducing new characters and incorporating new plot threads, which she does in excess. However, she fails to do them justice, as she lacks the ability the construct a coherent narrative. The world she conjures never achieves depth, being populated by one-dimensional characters and meandering subplots that don’t go anywhere. The vivid descriptions and striking visuals only serve to please readers on a superficial level; take that away and all that’s left is a flimsy skeleton of a half-realized, poorly conceived excuse for a novel.

Supposedly, Celia and Marco have been brought up to take part in a magical duel that pits them against each other, despite being unaware of the rules and conditions, and the whole premise of the duel itself being deliberately vague. When the details are finally revealed in the eleventh hour of the novel, the big revelation is completely predictable and anticlimactic, and from there a lazily written ending soon follows that is as ambiguous as it is contrived.

I would strongly advise readers not to waste their time with such a weak, muddled mess of cheap spectacle masquerading as a story. There are very few redeeming qualities in this one, so don’t let the pretty cover entice you into this nonsensical vortex.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

Despite little being known of the Bard’s mysterious wife, over the years she has been much maligned by Shakespearean scholars, who are convinced beyond doubt that she was little more than an untamed shrew and a thorn in the side of their exalted dramatist. Yet noted feminist Germaine Greer, armed with extensive historical records and a keen understanding of the cultural zeitgeist of Elizabethan England, provides a revisionist assessment with Shakespeare’s Wife, a meticulously researched and vividly written show of support for the much misunderstood Ann Hathaway.

 The family trees of both Ann and William Shakespeare are thoroughly traced and examined, as are the social mores of Stratford-Upon-Avon during the 16th and 17th centuries, negating the various myths that have surrounded the courtship of eighteen-year-old Will and twenty-seven-year-old Ann. Due to the couple’s age difference, scholars have long speculated that Ann was a manipulative “old maid” who seduced an impressionable young man and ensnared him in a discontented marriage. Historical as well as fictional portrayals of Ann Shakespeare, from Thomas De Quincey’s Shakespeare: A Biography to Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, depict her as homely and opportunistic, even depraved and desperate for a husband. In playing the part of Ann Shakespeare’s advocate, Greer suggests what no scholar has dared contemplate before: that young Will initiated the relationship, wooed the future Mrs. Shakespeare with his poetry, and that love was present in their marriage.

Due to the lack of hard facts regarding both the Bard and his wife, Greer structures her theories based on the social context of their lifetime. For example, while Shakespeare was off in London, pursuing his career, Greer believes Ann may have earned wages as a knitter or a spinner, as business in those fields was booming during that era. By the time the Shakespeare family gained money and status, Ann could have very well have taken up brewing ale, another prevalent business venture in that time and place. Greer also provides multiple answers for various questions raised, such as whether Ann could read and write; the health and condition of their ill-fated son, Hamnet; and Shakespeare’s reasons for omitting his wife from his will.

Always consistent with her citations of court and tax records, church records, deeds, charters and other such sources, Greer provides ample support for the many theories presented, and in doing so argues a persuasive, compelling and insightful case in Ann Hathaway’s favor. Various excerpts from Shakespeare’s works—both his plays and his poems—are also analyzed for possible clues as to certain aspects of the Bard’s life as well as his marriage.

Shakespeare’s Wife is an ambitious and commendable piece of work; a book of painstaking detail, shrewd commentary, and an eloquent and credible literary voice. Needless to say Germaine Greer has succeeded in righting the wrongs done to the wife of England’s greatest playwright, and lending a voice to one of history’s underdogs.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Besides being one of history’s highest esteemed Renaissance men, Leonardo Da Vinci is also a figure shrouded in the mystery he left behind in his work; mysteries that thriller novelist Dan Brown made use of to write The Da Vinci Code, an entertaining and at times thought-provoking whodunit that somehow manages to be a light read despite all the extensive research that has gone into it.

The murder mystery begins in the Musée du Louvre, where the curator, Jacques Saunière, has been shot to death, his body laid out in the pose of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. During the final minutes of his life, Saunière managed to leave behind a cryptic message, and the police summon Harvard professor Robert Langdon—described as looking like Harrison Ford—and cryptographer Sophie Neveu—who happens to be Saunière’s estranged granddaughter—to decode it. What they discover leads them to dealings with Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion, Westminster Abbey in England, the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, and eventually to revelations about Jesus Christ and the Holy Grail that the Vatican has been keeping secret for centuries.

An effective method Brown has of keeping the pages turning is his short chapters—some as short as a page or less—most of them ending in cliffhangers. He knows how to keep the suspense going with twists, turns and new revelations. Readers who hold an interest in art history and theology ought to have plenty to relish, and more to discover. Though not always accurate, Brown’s assessment of secret societies and their enigmatic rituals should appeal the curiosity of the masses.

Besides the interesting theories, the history lesson made fun, and a good amount of suspense and action, The Da Vinci Code does not offer much more in the way of substance. The characters are underdeveloped and forgettable, the ending anticlimactic, and the writing style lackluster. While readers can expect to have a good time, they should not be setting their standards too high for Brown, as his creative vision only goes so far.

In a nutshell, The Da Vinci Code is a fun, gimmicky romp involving secret societies, conspiracy theories and a pseudo-Indiana Jones. Those who enjoyed this one should probably pick up Angels and Demons and The Lost Symbol, two similar thrillers also featuring the protagonist Robert Langdon.