Archive for December, 2011

The Night Circus

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

By Erin Morgenstern

The Short Take:

This is one of the most beautifully magical books I have ever read. It makes the Harry Potter series seem as dry as law text books (and I loved Harry, et al). Of course, this is another type of story entirely: Two magicians each train an apprentice who will compete to prove who has the best skill. But, love gets in the way.

Why?

If you don’t like fantasy or magic, forget it. This book is drenched in the fantastical, and it has never been addressed so beautifully. The descriptions of places, people, and even clothes are absolutely magical — which is appropriate, since this book is all about magic. Not tricks or illusions, but the “real” stuff.

Leave your disbelief at the cover and dive into a throughly enchanting tale of two young apprentices in a crucial contest that slowly evolves into a desperate love story. To be honest, the plot gets a little hinkey towards the very end, but the journey is so visually rich and entertaining, you just don’t care.

I could see The Night Circus in my mind so clearly; it’s obvious Morgenstern is an artist. The mental pictures she creates are fabulous. I loved every minute I spent in her world.

A Little Plot:

Two rival magicians have different theories about magic: how to learn it and how to use it. To test who has the better approach, they train young apprentices who later compete. There are no real rules to the competition, and the competitors don’t even know who their rival is — but this competition is deadly serious.

A remarkable circus is the arena for the competition. It arrives unannounced, opens only a night, has only black and white (and silver) coloring, and features some of the most amazing performances ever seen — much of it courtesy of the two young apprentices.

Of course, one is a woman and the other a man. You know what that means.

Morgenstern has created a visual feast for the mind. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. For more about her, click here.

Columbus: The Four Voyages

Monday, December 19th, 2011

By Laurence Bergreen

The Short Take:

It’s fascinating to read about Christopher Columbus’ other voyages and his exploits in the New World. But I kept wanting a better sense of “being there.” Still, this book was certainly worth exploring.

Why?

Every school child knows Columbus discovered America in 1492. Only he didn’t have a clue where he was and actually didn’t set foot on either North or South America on that first voyage. For that matter, he wasn’t even the first European to come to the New World. There were even whole settlements of Europeans well before his venture.

So why does Columbus matter? His four voyages marked the beginning of an exchange of food and culture between the Old and New Worlds. While others tread lightly on these lands and did not bring home things that were unique to the New World, Columbus and others like him did.

Potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, maize (corn), and squash are just a few New World edibles that Europe had never seen before. On the other hand, horses, chickens, bananas, and sugarcane made their way from the Old to the New. This Columbus Exchange made huge changes everywhere. And, it all started with that first voyage.

Bergreen recounts Columbus’ four voyages in detail, as well as what went before and after. He quotes from Columbus’ own journals and multiple other contemporary sources. The research seems impeccable. Despite this, I often found myself wanting more information: What was life like on one of Columbus’ ships? What are the actual names of those native American animals described in European terms? Where did the Pinta go when its captain just took off? But that might just be my innate curiosity.

The author did seem to present a balanced picture of Columbus, a man who has been both deified and reviled. Columbus’ courage cannot be denied, and his skills as a seaman are exceptional. However, he is also very much a product of his time and place — seeing his discoveries only as a means to wealth for himself and Spain. In his own writings he contradicts himself constantly, first praising the indigenous peoples and then suggesting they would make excellent slaves.

It’s interesting to note that the people he encountered on his voyages were largely welcoming, freely giving everything from gold to parrots to countless meals. You have to wonder what would have happened if these friendly people had been the ones “discovering” Europe instead of the other way around.

A Little Plot:

Christopher Columbus wanted to reach the Orient by crossing the Atlantic. He finally convinced the rulers of Spain to finance this endeavor. You know what happened next.

But you might not know about his other three voyages, the various betrayals and court intrigues he faced, the time he was shipwrecked for a year on Jamaica, and the daring expedition that finally led to his rescue.¬†Add to that his attempts to establish and administer settlements in the New World — something at which he did not excel, his religious fevor, and constant ailments.

Christopher Columbus overcame phenomenal odds yet never accomplished his goal. He was a man of contradictions, a Genoan sailing for Spain; traveling far away while those at court plotted against him. His is a remarkable life and well worth reading about.

For more about the author and his works, click here.

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