Boozy Books: The Night Circus

Hi all! It’s Friday, and you know what that means! College football! I mean… Boozy Books! (Sorry… Where C is into the NFL, I tend to follow my alma mater very closely during football season.)

Anyway, yes, Boozy Books. Right. Well, I finished reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus this afternoon, and seeing as I’d actually paired it during my reading this ought to be a quick one. 

The Night Circus is one of those books that can absolutely captivate and transport you if you are willing to let it. The storytelling is often nonlinear, exploring different styles and points of view, and jumping back and forth through time, so at the outset it’s sometimes difficult to settle into the story. Of course, the pieces fall into place and the story is, ultimately, a simply delightful fairytale.

The main thread of the story follows Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair – a magically gifted pair locked in a “challenge” that they neither understand nor want to participate in. Bound into the competition at a young age, each player must use their abilities to outdo the other in a venue that tests their stamina, technique, and wits – the venue: Le Cirque des Reves.

The circus is the main stage of much of the story – a strange, beautiful, enchanting place that is almost the opposite of any circus the reader could imagine. The imagery here is particularly wonderful, transporting the reader into a world of (to borrow Willy Wonka’s phrase) pure imagination. The characters in the circus and the tents that comprise it are just as alive as any of the central characters.

My recommendation for this book is brandy. Sip it slowly, letting its warmth cover like a snuggly blanket. Oh yeah, and snuggle up in a blanket. This book isn’t super deep nor is it difficult to read – it’s a perfect book to settle in with on a rainy day and just enjoy.

See you on Sunday!

A

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Monday Muse: Recognizing the “Single Story”

G’day, Cacti friends! Happiest of Mondays to you. I know it’s not the best day of the week, but the good news is: it’s almost over. 

Today, I’m going to use the Muse to discuss a wonderful Ted Talk I recently watched, entitled: “The Danger of a Single Story“. The speaker is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author whose wit and eloquence is just mesmerizing.* She uses her time at the podium to educate her audience about the “single story”: a problematic viewpoint that leads people all over the world to limit their knowledge of a thing, or a place, or a person based on the few stories that come to define it. 

What I found so fascinating about this talk was that Adichie goes beyond the idea of a simple stereotype. According to her observations we are all susceptible to believing the single story presented in popular media or literature. It is not a phenomenon limited to affecting one culture or religion or region. We are all – most likely – in the same boat as Adichie when she describes her trip to Mexico and the realization that she too had bought into the single story of the people she met there. 

Stories in literature tend to follow trends, expectations, and popular culture, but Adichie’s narrative also points to an imbalance of power. And it’s true… If every voice of every country and every traditionally downtrodden culture had popular literature and media that represented their strengths and joys to the same degree that superpowers like America do, we would have too many stories to choose from and be unable to form such narrow views of our neighbors.

So write stories for everyone and consider every point of view before you stick with what you assume people expect to read. Ups and downs, joys and sorrows exist everywhere, and it’s dangerous to confine certain parts of the world within the darkest parts of their own narratives. 

I hope you take the time to watch Adichie’s talk: it’s enlightening as well as sweet and funny and wise. It’s well worth the watch.

See you on Friday for Boozy Books!

A

*The combination of her public speaking skills, personality, and worldview led me to purchase one of her novels shortly after watching. I can’t wait to read and pair it!

Shakespeare Saturday: Post-IrStratMaFord

Helloooooo Nerd Cactus community! Welcome back! After a long absence, – fueled by post-vacation haze, pre-hurricane prep, and post-hurricane power outages – it is time, at long last, for Shakespeare Saturday. Please, hold your applause to the end of the post. 

During my three days sans electricity I had the pleasure of reading several backlogs of The New Yorker – of which I am a loyal subscriber, though I rarely succeed in reading the entire issue before the next arrives. Anyway, flipping through an issue from late July, I came across an article by Stephen Greenblatt that tackled both xenophobia and the persistent question of why Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice the way he did (i.e. with inescapable, though often undercut, tones of anti-Semitism).

C and I have discussed this at length, taking particular interest in Shylock as a misunderstood character whom Shakespeare was essentially obligated to write as the villain given the time he lived in, and the church in power, et cetera, et cetera… Because Shakespeare’s writing does not come off as inherently racist – there’s complexity and truth in Shylock, and he is given some of the most powerful dialogue in the piece besides. It is these elements that propel Greenblatt’s writing, his assertion that Shakespeare’s play was the beginning of compromise, the beginning of a worldview that humans are humans regardless of religious affiliation or country of origin. 

What I so loved about this article was the statement that historical context and inherited xenophobia would have dictated Shakespeare’s creation and exploration of Jewish characters. And yet, Shakespeare defied the expectations of Elizabethan bigotry and breathed life, humanity, and complex emotions into the “villain” that is Shylock. Greenblatt calls to our attention some of Shylock’s best lines, loaded with pain, grief, even love. With these examples presented in sharp relief, Shylock is truly impressive in his refusal to meet the expected stereotypes of the time – an alien endowed with the essence of humanity, an equal in the laws of his city, a potentially tragic figure. 

Whether Shakespeare wrote Shylock as a representation of his own (possible) experience with religious conversion, or purposely approached writing a Jewish character with the intent of infusing more truth than the caricatures created by his contemporaries, we may never know. What does seem fairly clear is Shakespeare’s conscious choice to break from the anti-Semitic standards of the period. He participates – as Greenblatt puts it – in an “attempt to negotiate with a xenophobic inheritance”. Shakespeare imbues the merchant with words and thoughts and feelings that provide far more dimension and depth than anything Antonio has to say over the course of five acts. 

Of course, we don’t think that Shakespeare’s comedy would have changed the minds of its audience, – it is still written with an ambiguity and structure that demands Shylock be despised – but it “[began] an unsettling from within”. The unsettling Greenblatt refers to is still present, a strange composition of conflicting ideologies that we can still learn from to inform the way we see ourselves and others. It’s also the reason why this “comedy” has become one of the most thoroughly studied works in the Shakespearean canon.

Greenblatt concludes his exploration of The Merchant of Venice with this: 

Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.”

And that, my friends, is a perfect, beautiful, and true statement.

Thanks for tuning in! I’ll be back on Monday with something to Muse about.

A

Boozy Books: Strange Practice

Hey, guys! Welcome to the first Boozy Books after Stratford and Irma! Phew. It’s good to get going again!

So, as I said last Friday, I originally planned on starting up last week, but the book I was reading ended up not being something I wanted to pair. It was… OK, but not enjoyable by my standards. The language didn’t feel like it had a lot of depth, and the sentences had a tendency to be short and choppy. In essence, it suffered from not-as-good-as-Hemingway syndrome. Which is a problem I’m running into more and more, and why I keep returning to Middlemarch and Austen over and over. Hemingway is fine because he says so much with his sparse language; it’s evocative in his simplicity.

This wasn’t. Not only that, it forced a lot of humor for the sake of humor. Except it wasn’t funny. I don’t like that. If you’re trying to be witty, maybe actually work on your wit. In this case, it just felt like that humor was meant to stand in for character, but it didn’t.

The book I read this past week was better. Good enough that I’m willing to pair it, and even read the sequel that is coming out soon.

It helps that the concept of this book is something irresistible to me: literary characters, namely vampires, are real. As are ghouls, mummies, demons, angels, etc. I love it when folklore and mythology are real. Like, it always gives a book a boost in my estimation. And combined with the concept–the main character is a human doctor who treats these supernatural creatures–I was able to overlook a few issues to just enjoy the whole thing.

Plus, this is literally the only other book I’ve ever come across where Samael is the Devil and not Lucifer. Which gives it a bump.

Oh yeah, the book is called Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw. Should probably have mentioned that. Basically, Greta Helsing is a doctor to the supernatural world, one of very few. And she gets called to the house of Lord Ruthven because Varney the vampyre has been attacked and almost killed by a strange cult of religious freaks. This is tied to a series of murders around London that involve stuffing plastic rosaries in the mouths of the dead (which is actually the weakest portion of the story, really). The group, including an ex-demon named Fass and a wholly human museum curator, have to band together to stop the bad guys from unleashing chaos and destruction. To be perfectly frank, the plot isn’t that great and the big action-y bits are… OK. What is great are the characters and all the quiet moments at the kitchen table researching and becoming friends. I missed Lord Ruthven the second I closed the book, which is a sign I really liked him as a character. A vampire who learned latte art and became a mechanic to fight boredom is my kind of vampire.

Now, what to drink? Well… tea. Lots of tea. Or, if you really do want some booze, let’s get that brandy out. You might want to skip the blood that gets added to it so often… unless you’re a vampire, of course. But you probably aren’t, so stick with the brandy. Or put some in the tea! YES! Score.

OK. I’ll be back on Sunday. I should probably remind A that we’re back.

C

Monday Muse: Getting Your Writing Groove Back

Hey, guys! Welcome back to Nerd Cactus land! I know we’ve been a little wonky since the Stratford trip (which was amazing–you should go read the blogs we wrote if you haven’t already) and the whole hurricane debacle, but it’s officially time to get started again, so… here we go.

I am not one of those writers who can write every day. I just can’t do it. Writing–well, the drafting part–is very draining for me. It’s like driving a car; it uses up the tank, whether that be gas or electric or both. I know there are a lot of people out there who gain energy from writing, for whom the act of writing is like filling the tank, but I am not one of those people. I actually get more energy from editing than drafting, which I suppose must make me some sort of alien creature, but there it is.

I get the most energy from worldbuilding and research.

But, whatever the case may be, I cannot write if I am not in the right frame of mind. Maybe that’s laziness talking or lack of discipline or whatever, but it’s just how I am. I have a very compartmentalized brain, and if I want to do anything, I have to shut out all the noise from all the competing compartments. Unfortunately, the writing compartment–the Writing Zone, if you will–is not one of the louder, more aggressive parts of my brain.

That would be the scholarly portion, aka the Hysterical Historian (which is the name of my future blog, which I should probably set up eventually), who wants to Hulk Smash ignorance and replace it with intellectualism. Or at least critical thinking, because I’ve been around some intellectuals who are completely useless at anything else. They don’t just live in the Ivory Tower, they’ve bricked themselves in like an Anchorite and plan to die in there.

But that’s a very loud portion. Another loud portion is the part that needs constant entertainment. I drain very easily. Emotionally, physically, spiritually… life takes it out of me. (YAY for anxiety issues, amirite?) So there’s a very loud portion of my brain that needs to be refilled, that’s constantly screaming that it’s bored. And when I get bored, the depression comes creeping in. I don’t need much, really. Usually a change of scenery or something beautiful, tasty, life-affirming, etc. It’s why I feel so healthy up in Stratford; it is a week, no matter how much walking up-hill I have to do (Floridians do not do hills), that exists purely to appease this portion of my brain.

Then I got home and a hurricane. Which, admittedly, worked out OK for me. The storm ended up hitting the opposite coast, leaving us with tropical storm force winds in an apartment I’m convinced is made of Captain America’s shield. But that chaos took every ounce of revitalization, happiness, and creative spirit I possessed and drained it out. I couldn’t have a creative thought if my life depended on it. There was just nothing there. The well had run dry, and I couldn’t figure out what to do.

So I entered a contest. A daily contest that forced me to think about my world. OK, so I entered before I went to Stratford and the hurricane completely messed up my ability to enter on time every day, but whatever. My friend was running the contest, it was just a couple of us involved, and it isn’t for anything remotely resembling a prize (bragging rights and a virtual ribbon), so it ended up being OK that my internet got patchy, my brain couldn’t squeeze out words, and all I wanted to do was to pull an IT Crowd.

 

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I did end up getting everything in before the deadline, but some of the early entries are crap. Complete and utter crap I couldn’t even begin to show the world. By the end of the thing, though (as in… half an hour ago), I was churning out whole scenes I didn’t even hate, coming up with new details for Esmeihiri I didn’t already know, and writing entries over 1000 words! And while I’m not sure I’m back yet entirely, I can feel those wheels beginning to turn. I even had an idea for a play, though I’m not sure how to structure the idea to fit a play. As I understand it, ideas that work for a novel won’t work for a play, and my brain automatically goes to novel.

But, still. I think it might be coming back. If I include this blog, I’m over 4000 words for the day, which is nothing to shake a stick at.

So… there’s my advice for how to get your writing groove back. Enter a contest with very low stakes and daily prompts. Wanting to meet the deadline should get you writing again, and eventually, you’ll find a prompt that unlocks something.

Mine was having a blind man who’d never encountered a horse before learning what a horse was.

It was cute.

I’ll be back on Friday with a Boozy Books. I like the book I’m reading now enough to pair it, or I can pair Daniel Deronda if I can get over how complicated it is enough to write a succinct summary…

C

Update on Posting

Hey! This is C, giving everyone an update on how the blog is going.

I had every intention of doing a Boozy Books today, but the book I spent the week reading ended up not really being worth pairing (it was entertaining but shallow), so I’ll have to try again next week with the book I’m reading now (which I like a lot better). So, just to let you know, we’ll definitely be back next week. I’ll figure out something to post for the Muse, too.

Nothing like a hurricane and subsequent heat to rob you of all that great writing juju you built up on your theater vacation, am I right?

C

Post-Hurricane Update

Hello, fine and wonderful readers of Nerd Cactus! As you may have noticed, there have been no updates since the last Stratford review. This is because both A and I were dealing with a certain kitchen girl (aka Irma), who decided to come and mess up our week. Well, now Irma has passed, A and I are OK (I even have power and internet!), and we’ll be gearing up to get the ball rolling in the next few days.

But not today. Today we’re still picking up the pieces and getting everything back to normal.

I just wanted to let y’all know we’re OK and neither of us was hurt or suffered any serious damage. Irma took pity on both of us.

She did not, however, take pity on the Keys or the Carribean. And, of course, Harvey recovery is still ongoing. And the west is on fire. So, even if we’re OK, let’s not forget that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t. Please find an organization you feel comfortable donating to (I know a lot of people are sour on the Red Cross, for example) and do anything you can. If you don’t have the means, please donate time. Whatever you can do.

There are a lot of people out there who need help.

C