Monday, June 1, 2009

May in Review: Yet Another New Feature

What can I say, I like blog features. I know I have a lot that I never utilize (LIttle Sister Syndrome comes to mind, I think I did a grand total of one). But I'm going to try to do these around the beginning of each moth, about my last month's reading.

In May, I finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Plain Heathen Mischief, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Thirteenth Tale, and The Bearded Lady. I gave up on Human Voices halfway through. Of the ones I finished, I'd rate two of them (Snow Falling on Cedars and The Thirteenth Tale) as excellent, must-reads. Edgar didn't do much of anything for me, nor did The Bearded Lady. Plain Heathen Mischief seemed to have a sort of train-wreck fascination for me, looking back, with a genuinely likeable main character who made nothing but bad choices that brought misery on his head.

I visited the library once and still have two books to read from that trip. (Thank God for the renew feature). I also realized that I failed to blog about meeting Tony Horwitz. I'll have to rectify that soon. Overall, a good month for books, averaging better than one per week, and managing to get in two that I really, really enjoyed. I bogged down in Human Voices and also in The Bearded Lady but did OK otherwise.

The X Factor

The most difficult books for me to blog about are the ones that don't do much for me. It's easy to write about something I disliked, also easy to write about something I loved. But what about the books that aren't bad enough to put down, but don't really move me either? The 300-pagers that take a week and a half to finish because I'm not super-motivated to learn what happens next or spend time with the characters? The Bearded Lady, by Sharlee Dieguez, was one such book.

Set around the turn of the twentieth centruy, the book has a pair of teenaged sisters as its focal point. Jessie and Tweets (whose name I absolutely hated, it sounded like a fart to me) are orphaned at the start of the book. When their alcoholic father dies and they're taken in by their aunt as free labor for her boarding house, things go from bad to worse. She kicks them out eventually, and they're taken in by one of the impoverished, barely better than enslaved black servants. They know they can't remain in their friend's crowded, dirt-floored cabin for long and grasp at the first straw that comes their way: a traveling circus.

Many people want to run away and join the circus. In an era where the plight of Jessie and Tweets was not unusual, I'd imagine even more people wanted to run away and join the circus. Jessie and Tweets were enabled to actually do so through the assistance of bareback rider Marion des Cartes, who sort of adopted them. Jessie soon become the right-hand woman of the circus owner, helping to track invoices, sort mail, and write letters.

But Jessie has a secret, the nature of which is plain in the title. When it starts to come out, she makes the bold and difficult decision to take on an additional assignment in the circus sideshow. In what I feel is a bit of a tired cliche, she's also a gifted writer and writes newspaper articles about the circus and her own life, first under the name of one of the paper's established writers, and then under her own name.

That's not all Jessie has going on in her life. She had long nursed feelings for the established writer, even before her father died, that intensified when she had the opportunity to meet him and spend a day with him. But other feelings are starting to blossom, feelings of a forbidden nature -- for Marion, who has many, many secrets of her own.

It sounds like a good book, doesn't it? So I don't know why it failed to add up to much. Maybe because the reader always felt one step ahead of the action. You know from the title of the book that Tweets and Jessie will find an escape from their initial plight. You can also guess that Jessie will decide to grow out her beard and exhibit herself. Yet, when the rest of the secrets are revealed, they all felt like foregone conclusions to me.

Maybe there was just too much in the book. I think it would have been better off without Tweets, who never quite emerged as a strong character in her own right. There was also the shadow of a medical subplot with Jessie, which never quite came out. Marion was an intriguing character, but we saw only the merest glimpses of her. Many of the interesting characters in the book -- the ill-tempered manipulative circus owner Rebel Pierce, the Chinese concubine Mei Ling with the three-inch feet, Fat Frannie, the guy with half a conjoined twin -- never amounted to much more than a backstory and a whisp of a mannerism.

So overall, it wasn't poorly written. Maybe just poorly realized. I can't really recommend or not recommend this one either way. It didn't do anything for me, but I can see how other people would enjoy it.