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Book Review: The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (W.W. Norton and Company; 224 pages; $23.95).

            On the first page of Mette Jakobsen’s stylish novel The Vanishing Act, a dead boy washes up on a small snow-covered island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.”  He is about fourteen or fifteen and, curiously, a fragrant odor emanates from his corpse.  He smells of oranges.

Minou, the twelve-year-old girl who found him, desperately wants to tell her mother about her discovery.  But she cannot.  Her mother has disappeared.

Jakobsen writes, “It had been a year since the circus.  And a year since Mama walked out into the cold morning with a large black umbrella.” Mama had performed a magic trick with the Boxman, a magician who lives on the island.  Shortly after the “vanishing act,” she went missing.

Everyone on the island thinks Mama is dead.  “Priest had found her shoe washed up on the beach after she disappeared.  Papa never spoke of the day they put it, salt-stained and minus its heel, in an old shoebox and buried it.”  Minou believes her mother is still alive.  “She is not dead, Papa,” she vehemently tells her father, “she is coming back.”

Minou’s father values reason above all things: he proudly counts the philosopher Descartes as an ancestor.  He thinks his wife, in her heels and umbrella, tumbled over a cliff and perished.  Then, the tide carried her body out to sea.  In time, perhaps her body, too, will return just as her shoe did.  “Things lost to the ocean always return.”

Seeking answers, Papa puts the corpse in his wife’s bedroom.  He opens the windows and allows the corpse to freeze.  He has three days with the boy, who he says resembles a young Descartes, three days before the supply boat returns for the body.

Minou searches for answers of her own.  She seeks out the Boxman, “who used to work in a circus, but after arriving on the island he began to make boxes for magicians.  The kind in which women are sawn in half.”  Boxman has an interesting theory.  The love of his life, Cosmina, used to help him in his performances.  “After they had added a vanishing act to their performance, Cosmina began to talk about things she had never mentioned before.”  She seemed unhappy.  Eventually, Cosmina left him to find herself.  She wanted to “study the stars from the foothills of the Himalayas.”  The Boxman does not think Mama left the island to pursue her dreams, though; he thinks she is dead.

Minou may carry an important piece of the puzzle.  She recalls seeing a “reflection in a mirror.”  She is uncertain exactly what she saw and reminds herself “that Boxman could conjure up doves, rabbits, roses and coins and that nothing was unusual in his barn.”  But the image of “Mama’s lips, her closed eyes, and Boxman’s hand, his red-stone ring against her pale breast” will not go away.

Is Minou recalling an actual event or is the mercury in the lighthouse bulb affecting her sanity?  After all, she sleeps in the lighthouse every night.  “Lighthouse keepers have gone mad” living there on the island, seeing “things rising out of the sea: strange creatures, pirate ships, goats, pigs, all sorts of scary things.”  At times, Minou’s recollections of her mother paint Mama as possibly unstable, leading me to wonder if she committed suicide.  Of the island, Mama said, “This is a terrible, terrible place, Minou.”  No one, Mama believed, “can live on this island and stay sane.”

In the end, what really happened to Mama and what happened to the dead boy are unsolved mysteries.  I was disappointed.

While the setting is strongly rendered in The Vanishing Act, Jakobsen’s characters need more fleshing out.  For example, Minou’s mother’s past was mysterious, too mysterious really.  Her arrival on the island with a peacock in tow and the “war” both Mama and Papa lived through were too vague.  Was it World War II?  Why did Papa spend the “entire war hiding amongst onions and carrots in a small root cellar the size of a cupboard”? Then again, since the story is told from the perspective of Minou, the reader only knows what Minou knows.  Other characters, particularly the Boxman, could have been expounded on.

Jakobsen does a fine job tackling such themes as philosophy and fantasy.  Papa urges Minou to see the big picture and to search for absolute truth; her mother always pressed her daughter to use her imagination, advising Minou “don’t think so much.”  The entire story is really a dance with reason and truth and fantasy and imagination dueling.  At times, the dance can be beautiful, but this reviewer was left wanting more.

This novel feels much shorter than its 224 pages.  I was able to finish the book in one sitting.  It actually feels more like a short story than a full-length novel, though.  In fact, I believe it would have made for a great short story.  As a novel, I have to say it falls short, despite its stylish qualities and its lyricism.

 

 

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Book Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday; 352 pages; $24.95).

 

            Magic and superstition govern some places like gravity presides over the universe.  Without one, the other would not exist.  Take the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, for example.  Many scholars view it as an ancient burial ground, yet myths and Druidic folklore surround the spot, alluding to Stonehenge as a calendar or site of ancestor worship.  Take the house where Lord Voldemort murdered Harry Potter’s parents and tried to do the same thing to Harry.  This might be a fictional example, but it is significant.  The house, even years after the incident, was marked by what it had witnessed.  That is some strong gris-gris.

 

The same is true for a wooded area in central England in Graham Joyce’s novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale.  Locals are wary of the place they call the “Outwoods.”  “All I’m saying is that you wouldn’t get me to walk up there.  No.  Wouldn’t go near the place,” one says.  “There are powers.”  “That place lies on a fault,” they say.

 

Twenty years ago, a teenage girl disappeared in the “enchanted” woods.  Local authorities never solved the case and cast blame on the girl’s boyfriend, who staunchly maintained his innocence.

 

Then, out of the blue, Tara, the missing girl, shows up on her parents’ doorstep.  Her brother, Peter, is summoned.  The news throws him for a loop.  He, more than anyone else, is determined to solve the mystery: Where has Tara been and what happened to her?

 

It will not be easy.  The main problem is Tara herself.  She is supposed to be 36 years old but could pass for a young woman of 20.  Light hurts her eyes so she constantly wears dark glasses.  She smells of patchouli oil and wears hippie-type clothing.  When asked where she has been all this time, Tara initially tells her family that she has traveled all around the world.  That explanation does not sit well with any of them.  Finally, Tara tells Peter the truth, or at least her version of it.

 

She met a man, a fairy, in the “Outwoods,” who took her to his home.  Hiero (pronounced “Yarrow”) beguiled and bedeviled her.  She spent six months with him and came home as soon as she could.  However, six months in his world was actually twenty years in the real world.  Is Tara crazy?  Where has she been really?  What is truth and what is fantasy?

 

Tara insists on the veracity of her story.  “There is a veil to this world, thin as smoke, and it draws back occasionally and when it does we can see incredible things,” she confesses.  Her old boyfriend, Richie, asks the question we would ask her if we could: “Are you doped?  Are you damaged?  Are you just playing?”

 

Peter and his wife urge Tara to see a doctor.  Her sessions with Dr. Vivian Underwood are among Joyce’s best and most compelling passages.  He uncovers holes in Tara’s story and offers an alternative explanation for her disappearance and what has happened to her.  His take on Tara is fascinating.

 

Joyce reveals that Tara is not the only person in her small town to supposedly have been stolen away by fairies.  A similar thing happened to Peter’s neighbor, Mrs. Larwood.  In the 1950s, when she told people her story, everyone thought she was insane.  Her doctor gave her electric shock treatments.  Her account is eerily similar to Tara’s.  Are they both lying?

 

In a brilliant subplot, Peter’s son, Jack, mistakenly kills Mrs. Larwood’s cat.  A guilty Jack sets out to put flyers around the neighborhood to assuage his culpability.  An idea forms in his head.  He will dig up the dead cat he buried, take the cat’s collar, and then find a substitute cat from a local shelter.  He will merely replace the dead cat with one that resembles Mrs. Larwood’s deceased pet.  Her eyesight is bad, Jack thinks, so maybe she will not notice.

 

In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the line between fantasy and reality is very thin.  If you have read any of Joyce’s previous work, then you know this is his forte.  The Silent Land is still my favorite of his novels.  In the book, a husband and wife get caught in an avalanche in the Alps.  Upon their return to their hotel, they find not a soul there.  In fact, the whole town is deserted, and they cannot make it past a certain point.  It is if an invisible barrier holds them back.  It is as if they are the only two people left in the world.  Joyce is well-known for producing psychological thrillers.  He knows how to keep readers guessing and how to keep them reading.

 

Joyce also knows the impact that shifting perspectives have on the reader.  He alternates between third and first person in telling the story.  This technique is especially powerful when Tara tells us herself of her experience.  Speaking in the first-person, Tara describes her ordeal and we listen, rapt, as she gives us an intimate account.  Joyce also does this with Richie to show his inner-most feeling and how he is coping with Tara’s return.  Her re-appearance brings big changes, some welcome but some unwelcome to Richie’s life.

 

Unlike The Silent Land, Joyce grounds Some Kind of Fairy Tale in history and folklore.  In Great Britain and in Ireland, many people believe in “changelings.”  A changeling is a spirit or fairy who is substituted for a loved one; the changeling takes the place of the real person.  Joyce prefaces his chapters with quotes, rhymes, and poems about fairies.  Bridget Cleary’s story, though, affects me the most.

In 1895, Bridget and Michael Clearly lived in Tipperary, Ireland.  Bridget, a seamstress, fell ill.  Michael, a cooper, did not believe the sick woman in his bed was his wife.  Close friends concurred with Michael.  They believed a changeling had taken the place of Bridget and they had to somehow force the spirit to leave Bridget’s body.  Michael and the others set Bridget on fire and threw urine on her.  She died.  The killers were put on trial and served only a small amount of time in jail.  The murder inspired a children’s rhyme:

 

“Are you a witch?

Are you a fairy?

Are you the wife

Of Michael Cleary?”

—Children’s rhyme from Southern Tipperary, Ireland

 

Bridget’s story and other quotes Joyce uses in the book illuminate how superstitious some people really are, despite the fact we live in 2012.  Tara may be kooky.  But if she’s simply crazy, why does such stigma surround the Outwoods?  And who is the mysterious man who keeps beating Richie up?  Do his painful migraines have anything to do with Tara’s return?  And just who is the man Peter finds talking to his teenage daughter?  The man who high-steps it once he sees Peter?

 

Joyce answers many of these questions in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, but others remain a mystery.  Some Kind of Fairy Tale might be too fanciful for some.  The same goes for those who like their stories to end neatly and decisively.  But if you long for a good yarn, Joyce’s tale will surely enchant you and make you wonder about the hold some places have over us all.

 

 

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The Author Who Lost Her Way

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny (Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99)

 

Life in sixteenth-century Venetia is becoming tenuous, at least for women doctors, in Regina O’Melveny’s uneven historical novel The Book of Madness and Cures.  There are very few of them, and many look at them with contempt.  Perhaps those who most scorn these physicians are male doctors.  The true reason behind their disdain is the simple fact that they feel threatened by these women.

Such is the case for Dr. Gabriella Mondini.  The medical guild has expelled her from their membership.  You see, a female doctor must have a male mentor to vouch for her, restrain her, and stay those womanly impulses (can you feel my sarcasm?)  Gabriella treats female patients who are more comfortable being looked at by a woman.  She is very good at what she does.  She learned medicine from her father.

Dr. E.B. Mondini, though, is AWOL.  He left Venetia ten years before the story begins to work on his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases.  Gabriella’s father has roamed around Europe all this time.  He writes home infrequently.  His letters are undated and grow increasingly stranger and stranger over time.  It seems very unlikely that Gabriella’s father will ever return.

His long absence becomes problematic for Gabriella only when it affects her professionally.  His weird letters do not raise red flags for Gabriella for ten years.  But one day, the guild comes to her and says she is no longer allowed to practice.  This is a crushing blow to her.

The edict is especially hard because Gabriella loves treating patients and is quite a student of medicine.  She never stops learning and is always eager to hear of illnesses and cures.  Gabriella, though, is unmarried, a fact her mother laments often: “Bear children.  Why not marry a good doctor?  Why must you be one?”  (Yes, I laughed when I read it, too.) Medicine is Gabriella’s spouse ever since the love of her life died from plague several years ago.  Medicine has been a salve for her broken heart.

Now medicine is lost to her.  She zeroes in only then on her father.  If she can find him and bring him home, she will be readmitted to the Guild.  Gabriella is only interested in what he can do for her.  Her anger over his disappearance is palpable, and it has been two years since his last letter.

Her life in Venetia “is a prison.”  This stunning revelation is all the impetus she needs.  “I can no longer practice medicine there, and my father’s last letter proved a fine gadfly, stinging me to change things as they are,” Gabriella reveals.  So she decides to go look for her father.  Accompanied by two trustworthy servants, she will travel to the places from which her father posted his letters and will stay with his colleagues in those towns and villages.  She then sets off on a quest to find him, but her journey is nothing Joseph Campbell would appreciate.  However, I do not fault Gabriella.

The real fault lies with O’Melveny.  There is so much early promise in The Book of Madness and Cures.  Gabriella is a character who defies convention.  O’Melveny’s character development of Gabriella is initially strong but falters in the middle and then eventually weakens in the end.  I do not buy that such an original, unconventional woman would have a baby and marry in the end.  O’Melveny must be championing Gabriella as an early pioneer of the feminist movement when she gives her choices.  Yet, in all actuality, women during this time did not have the choices Gabriella’s character has.

The real problem with this novel is the plot.  Obstacles delay Gabriella’s journey at every turn.  I do not buy this.  O’Melveny seeks to draw out the story, but her tactic is tiresome.  I understand that she must stall or she would have no book.  However, O’Melveny forgets the premise for the tale: to find Dr. Mondini.  Instead, Gabriella and her servants gallivant around Europe.  Their meanderings give O’Melveny the opportunity to tell you every single thing she can find about whichever place her characters are at the time.  Her writing is distracted and awkward in these instances.

History is good, especially since this is historical fiction.  I love two things O’Melveny does in her novel, and both involve history.  The first is illuminating how dangerous travel for a woman was in some European countries in the sixteenth century.  A village through which Gabriella and her servants travel has no women.  A man explains the church rounded all of the women up on suspicion of witchcraft.  This was a common charge against women during this era and a nice addition to the story.  Gabriella fears for her life, she is a woman and a doctor after all, so she cuts her hair and dresses like a man.  I told you she defies convention.  Too bad O’Melveny does not stick with this.

The second thing O’Melveny does that I love is she portrays how much of sixteenth-century Europe was a place in between eras.  Many people, peasants in particular, still believed in the old medieval superstitions.  Magic and potions ruled the day.  The great Italian cities might be enjoying a Renaissance in art, music, architecture, and politics, but the common people knew little of this.  They were still stuck in the past.  The Age of Reason and the science of medicine were just beginning.  O’Melveny shines in these passages.  For example, merchants and businessmen were becoming part of the middle class but many lacked proper manners.  O’Melveny shows how some used their forks as weapons while dining.  Tongues wagged over “who forked whom.”  Passages which highlighted the above are brilliant but, sadly, few.

Indeed, the sad and frustrated reader will want more.  Especially where it concerns the missing Dr. Mondini.  O’Melveny alludes to an illness, the “family madness,” that he may or may not have.  She suggests he is a lunatic and that the phases of the moon affect him.  At times, I worry he will howl at the moon or something.  His malady is just too vague.  When Gabriella finds her father’s glasses and shoes that he left behind, the mystery only deepens.  More explanation is needed.  The same is true for the murder of Wilhelm Lochner, a man who Gabriella meets on her journey.  These are threads O’Melveny leaves hanging.

I cannot recommend The Book of Madness and Cures.  O’Melveny loses her way in this novel and the plot suffers.  The characters suffer.  However, there is no reason for you, dear reader, to endure this painful read.  If this time period interests you, try Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.

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Erin Morgenstern the Amazing Enchantress

The Night Circus has been called the book of the fall, even the debut novel of the year. Critics compare the author, Erin Morgenstern, to J.K. Rowling and proclaim the book the Harry Potter for adults. Since its release on September 13, The Night Circus has certainly taken the book world by storm. Amazon chose it as one of its Best Books of the Month for September and it is currently ranked number 29 in sales there.

I am a member of four signed first editions clubs and each one picked The Night Circus for its September book. One of those clubs is Book Passage with locations in San Francisco and Corte Madera, California. Mary Benham oversees Book Passage’s Signed First Editions Club, where the emphasis is on emerging authors. As Benham explained in an email, “There are 4 or 5 of us who weigh in on the choices. We read lots of advance galleys, and the publisher sales reps bring a lot of good debut fiction to our attention as potential choices. I also look at the upcoming events calendar to find potential candidates, as well as checking Publishers Weekly and other publications. It’s an inexact science and always challenging; the book we choose just has to “feel” right. We have close to 300 members in the club, and I get very few complaints, so we must be doing something right.”

Book Passage had its eye on The Night Circus long before all the buzz around the book started. “We don’t always choose our selections so far in advance,” Benham revealed, “but our buying director read it in manuscript form several months ago and passed it along. We realized that this was something special.” Special indeed.

Morgenstern visited Book Passage’s Corte Madera location on September 18 to sign copies of The Night Circus and to read from her novel. Benham said the event was well-attended. Morgenstern’s reading was followed by a question and answer session. Benham wrote, “Some of us wore red and black, but we chose not to go overboard with the circusy theme, choosing instead to let Erin’s abundant literary and artistic gifts speak for themselves.”

Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, also chose The Night Circus as its September First Editions Club pick. Zita White manages the First Editions Club there.  Lisa Newman is one of several Lemuria employees who weigh in on the monthly selections and wrote via email that the book “certainly is the biggest book of the fall.” Newman went on to say that The Night Circus “has the most buzz and Random House has supported this book from the get-go. I read the book in April–so you can see one of the ways they were very proactive in getting the word out about this book. Through our strong relationship with Random House, we were able to see The Night Circus long before the buzz hit even most booksellers. It certainly is not everyday that a debut book gets this much coverage. It is a wonderful book with wide appeal with outstanding support from the publisher–this is a winning combination.  Our children’s room manager, Emily, also believes that The Night Circus has a teen market.”

When asked why Lemuria singled out The Night Circus, Newman revealed it “may be the pinnacle of a surge in a genre that seems to bridge traditional adult fiction to fantasy fiction. We are always on the hunt to get the debut book for an up-and-coming author. In the past we picked Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. If we choose well, our First Editions Club customers have very collectible books on their shelves at home.”

I attended Morgenstern’s signing at Lemuria on Monday, October 3, where I got to meet the author. Lemuria employees were decked out in variations of Morgenstern’s monochromatic color theme of black, white, and red. Fans of the book sported top hats, tights, scarves, and even masks. It was a lively and colorful event. Morgenstern took time to chat with readers, sign copies, and answer questions. She could even be seen perusing Lemuria shelves looking for some good fiction! After the signing, Morgenstern read from her novel at the Lemuria Dot Com Building, which was decorated in a circus theme. Then, for about an hour, she chatted with fans and answered their questions.

I was lucky enough to chat by phone with Morgenstern on October 2. She was in Oxford where she was signing and reading at Square Books later that day. Morgenstern answered my questions while sitting in a porch swing and even surrounded by a few cats. It was her first visit to Mississippi.

When asked what gave her the idea for this unique and beautiful story, Morgenstern said she was writing an entirely different novel at the time. Like many of us attempting to write a book, she just got bored. “It wasn’t going anywhere,” she confided. “So I decided to take my characters to the circus.” Morgenstern was not a fan of going to the circus as a child. But she is a fan of magic and loves the Harry Potter franchise.

If I wrote a novel, I would have to thicken my skin to read negative reviews. But not Morgenstern. She’s glad that some negative reviews are trickling in now. The fact that not everyone loves The Night Circus is a good thing. “It’s not a book for everyone.”

Morgenstern did not set out to be an author. In fact, she studied theater at Smith College. Reading old blog entries on her web site, I was struck by all the rejection letters from publishers she received and all the re-writes her novel went through before it ultimately got the green light. I asked her how hard it was to stick with the novel. Morgenstern replied that it was very difficult, but she took author Neil Gaiman’s advice: keep writing. “I didn’t want to give it up,” she maintained.

My favorite characters in The Night Circus are Celia, Poppet, and Bailey, but Morgenstern really does not have a favorite character. Celia, she mused, “is most like me.” Celia is emotional, and Morgenstern said she is, as well.

An author’s writing process always fascinates me, and several questions touched on that subject. Morgenstern does not like to write in silence; she wants some background noise. Often, the sounds she most likes to hear are music. She’s a fan of Iron & Wine and Florence Welch. Typically, she writes at home, at her desk. Much of this novel was written in Salem, Massachusetts. Morgenstern sometimes writes ideas or scenes on paper, but she usually writes on her computer. While she wrote The Night Circus in the third person, giving readers the perspectives of various characters in the story, her new story is in first person. I was most interested in all the re-writes she painstakingly muddled through. I wondered what the first draft looked like. “Celia was not in the story,” Morgenstern said, in an explosive revelation (I cannot imagine The Night Circus without Celia). Poppet and Widget were there, though. But the circus itself “was more the main character.”

Morgenstern is a huge fan of Mississippi’s own Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History (1992) and born in Greenwood. She affirmed that Tartt’s novel is one of her all-time favorite books, so much so that she took a side trip while in Mississippi to visit Greenwood. While there, she ate a breakfast named after the book. She also loves Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, whose novel 1Q84, she most recently read. I asked her: “So many people want you to sign their books but whose autograph would you most like to have?” Without hesitation, “[Haruki] Murakami,” she answered, raving about the advanced copy she read. Mr. Murakami, if you read this, please send Morgenstern a signed and hopefully inscribed copy.

The conversation then turned to other topics. If you know Morgenstern, then you know she loves her cats, Bucket and Tessa. I asked how they were doing. “They are spending six weeks in my parents’ basement,” she replied. Morgenstern misses them, and I am sure they miss her. Morgenstern, like myself, is a huge fan of Lost. “What are you watching now?” I wondered. “I just downloaded the first season of True Blood on my computer,” she answered and hoped to watch it during flights.

To anyone working on a first novel, Morgenstern urges you to stay with it. “Don’t give up.” Morgenstern is at work on a new novel that is sort of “noir Alice in Wonderland.” Her fans will eagerly await her next book. In the meantime, I suggested an illustrated edition of The Night Circus. She agreed that would be nice. From my lips to the publishing God’s ears.

I would like to thank Mary Benham, Lisa Newman, Kathryn Santora, Alison Rich, and especially Erin Morgenstern.

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