Friday, August 17, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Wonder Show by Hannah Barbary -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

Portia was happy living with her dad Max, Aunt Sophia and the gypsy caravan of relatives. She loved going to the circus even though Max and Aunt Sophia wouldn't let her see the sideshow. Then the dust came, people moved away, and Max lost his money and drifted away from Portia before finally leaving. He promised to return for her one day though and left her in the care of Aunt Sophia. Aunt Sophia found it too difficult to care for the rebellious Portia so she placed Portia at the McGreavy Home for Girls where Mister rules with an iron fist and the girls do chores until turn into colorless nothings. Finally, Portia finds a way to escape - escape Mister and the memories that haunt her. She's determined to find Max and the first place she thinks to look is a traveling circus. Hired on to be the carnival talker on the bally, Portia encounters a colorful cast of sideshow "freaks" plus the very normal Violet and normal and sympathetic Gideon. Being normal among freaks isn't easy but Portia may be tough enough to stick around for awhile while she searches for Max. She ultimately learns to face down her fears and discovers her true family. I was really expecting to like this book about a spunky girl in a circus, but I found it too dark and depressing for my tastes. Much of the book is given over to Portia's beginnings and then when she finds her way to the carnival, nothing really happens. The story becomes very repetitive. The story also alternates between Portia's point of view (first person and third person) and the points of view of several other characters. The unusual point of view leaves little room to develop the secondary characters much or tell a story with a real plot. As a consequence, I was left wondering about the ending and how it came about. There's also a heavy handed moral to the story. This book was labeled Juvenile at my library but I think it's more Young Adult. Some of the events are scary, dark and depressing and some of the themes and topics are too mature for a younger reader to handle. There are not really any lighthearted moment or tongue in cheek lines as in the Series of Unfortunate Events. The historical information on sideshows in the 1930s was interesting and people who would like to know more about that kind of life might want to read this book.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland -- Historical Fiction

In the 1890s most women who had to work for a living worked in factories or as servants to wealthy families, but not Clara Driscoll. She was a Tiffany Girl. Before her marriage she had worked in the art department for Tiffany Studios making stained glass. She was one of six women. Now she's widowed and needs her job back. Mr. Tiffany agrees to place her as head of the newly formed women's department to prepare windows for the World's Fair in Buffalo. She recruits and trains a number of artistic immigrant women to create beautiful works of art in stained glass. She shares her passion with Mr. Tiffany, creating together in a flurry of shared passion and fights the business department who are all about numbers. Clara longs for the recognition she knows she deserves but is up against Mr. Tiffany's ego, as brilliant and large as his stained glass windows, as well as being a part of a patriarchal society which does not value the accomplishments of women. Clara's friends, a set of Bohemian artists, provide cheerful support, particularly George Waldo. There's also Mr. Henry Belknap of the business department at Tiffany who takes Clara out to the opera. None of these men seem suitable to fill the vacant place in Clara's hart. Clara feels some maternal affection for Frank, the deaf mute janitor at Tiffany Studios and assumes that's the closest she'll ever come to being a mother.  Clara not only longs for recognition, she longs for love as well. When she thinks she's finally found love at last, she faces a difficult decision for Mr. Tiffany does not allow married women to work for him. She struggles to find her place in a changing society that doesn't seem to be changing fast enough for her. This book had a lot of promise and I was excited to read it, having adored Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party. I like stories about "New Women" in the early 1900s but I just couldn't love this novel as much as I had hoped. Clara is a vastly unappealing character. She's a feminine version of Mr. Tiffany; both of them seldom seeing anything beyond their passion for nature and art. She's a bit cold and distant and I did not feel that the reader ever really got to know her or feel for her. I did feel sorry for her facing such challenges at that time and even sorrier that women today still face some of the same challenges. I preferred the Bohemian cast of characters over Clara. I had never heard of George Waldo but he was so charming and amusing (an Oscar Wilde character almost) that I will certainly be looking him up. I also had a difficult time telling which character was speaking, with the exception of George they all sounded alike. The details of life in New York City at the turn-of-the-twentieth century are incredible. I especially liked the gritty, realistic depictions of immigrant life. I did not enjoy the technical details about making stained glass as much. They bogged the story down and made the plot pace very very slowly. I would have started the novel at a much earlier time in Clara's life and talked about how she came to be an artist and how she came to Tiffany Studios and culminated with the World's Fair playing with the historical timeline along the way. Actually, I would have made Clara fictional and based her on the real Clara Driscoll. The book could also have benefited from a glossary of terms and pictures of Tiffany glass. Art enthusiasts will probably enjoy this book and I would also recommend it to those interested in women's rights but not to a casual reader looking for a good book.

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