When Tracy asked me if I might write something for this blog, I asked her to give me an assignment—probably so I could pretend I’m Lois Lane or Hildy Johnson and rush around the house in a fabulous hat with a pen in my mouth and a note pad in my matching purse. She said I could write something about The Marriage Proposal (because I just finished it). I said I’d think about it. So, Tracy said write about The Night Circus (because I just started it). I told her I’d make a circus “syllabus.” Then I changed that to a “reading list” and then I decided I would include movies . . . and maybe art . . . My seeming complete lack of ability to follow assignments as such is probably why I’d never make it as a Girl Friday to a big newspaper man. That and I prefer the phrase “seeming complete lack of ability” to the more newspaper-friendly “inability.” But, whatever, here’s a list of circus-related books and such.
The Genesis (of this list at least): The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Hailed as “the book every Neil Gaiman-loving girl with creatively dyed hair and authorial aspirations dreams of writing” [sigh—my hair doesn’t have any pink OR purple in it right now] by Laura Miller on Salon.com, the physical book is Tim Burton-esque in design and the story is an enchantingly lovely piece of writing that every manic pixie dream girl this side of 2011 will have on her nightstand for aesthetic purposes and every smart girl will read because it’s damned good.
You Can’t Handle the Truth: The grittier look at circus life comes from Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. By “geek” Dunn doesn’t mean your loveable nerd in glasses who watches too much Buffy (cough) and owns a graphic novel or fifty (ahem); she means the kid who eats the heads off of live chickens. The book still causes a stir and is one of the only instances where Knopf allowed its dog logo to be altered (I’ll wait while you check—see? That borzoi has five legs). Practically a classic at this point, this woebegone love story gone badly awry is one I’ve recommended to anyone who asked (or didn’t) about books, including many captive audiences of college freshmen. Go and buy a few copies (I have two, at least) so maybe Dunn will publish another novel.
Pick it up at the Airport: The book club staple Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen has much to recommend it despite the questionable film adaptation featuring one sparkly vampire and one too smart for this nonsense Blonde. Frequently billed as an “historical novel” or an “historical romance novel” neither is right; the book contains events that happen in the past and a love story—so do a lot of books (the two above for example) and are not categorized as such so don’t let those labels scare you. Don’t let the book club ladies scare you off either; just don’t read the book in public so you don’t attract their attention. Unless they have wine.
OH-MY-GOD-I-CAN’T-BELIEVE-SHE-WROTE-A-CIRCUS-BOOK, or I vowed to never read another book by Jennifer Egan: Sigh. Apparently Jennifer Egan has a book. The Invisible Circus, that may be vaguely about a circus, or not. And, yes, I’ve read enough Egan to praise the Pulitzer for taking this year off from awarding a fiction prize to think about what they did last year.
Huh, those Old/Dead White Dudes Wrote about the Circus: Apparently John Irving wrote A Son of the Circus, Robert Penn Warren wrote a short story titled “The Circus in the Attic,” and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes (traveling “carnival” technically). I’m intrigued mainly because I can’t think of a circus book I’ve read written by a dude.
Buying it ASAP: Angel Carter’s book Nights at the Circus is going on my to-read bookshelf because who doesn’t want to read about “a woman who is – or so she would have people believe – a Cockney virgin, hatched from an egg laid by unknown parents and ready to develop fully fledged wings” (Wikipedia). I could make a lame joke about a “chick” here but I’m keeping it to myself. You’re welcome.
Watch it Now: Freaks. You can’t talk about circuses unless you’ve seen this 1932 (that’s right, pre-code) film of Tod Browning’s about, you guessed it, sideshow “freaks.” Browning was once in a circus and uses actual “freaks” as the cast so an eerie reality casts a long shadow over the “fiction.” Watch it with Geek Love; they pair nicely. Maybe not with a dinner of chicken though.
Under No Circumstances Should You Watch this Film: La Strada.
Root for the Clown: PBS aired a 6 part mini-series simply called Circus about the Big Apple Circus and its cast of characters. From several “first of May” performers to “troupers” you definitely find yourself caring for these people. It’s not riveting minute-to-minute but it is incredibly heartfelt. And, you can watch all six episodes online.
What the Hipsters Call “Retro”: Circus art has always been bright, fun, and a little sassy. While the originals are notoriously hard to find in good condition (yes, I watch a touch too many episodes of American Pickers) Taschen has helpfully consolidated a lot of super fun circus art into a typically heavy coffee table book, The Circus Book 1870-1950. Seriously, don’t put this on anything made by Ikea.