For me, autumn is associated with circuses and carnivals, maybe because Halloween is approaching and I think of country fairs, masks, costumes, etc. Thus, I am presenting ten books, in no particular order and both fiction and non-fiction, that revolve around circuses or carnivals.
I. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Nightmare Alley is a fast-paced pulp noir that tells a journey of ambitious and street-smart Stanton Carlisle, working as a mentalist, through all the dark sides of one second-rate carnival show. The structure of this book is dictated by a Tarot deck, and the novel has now been adapted twice – as a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and as a 2021 film directed by Guillermo del Toro.
II. The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy by Stewart O’Nan
This book is about the 6 July 1944 circus fire disaster that occurred in Hartford, Connecticut, when a big top of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire in the middle of a performance with some 7000 people inside. At least 167 people died and another 700 were injured, and this book, filled with maps and photographs, painstakingly sets down all the circumstances leading up to the tragedy, including previous fires and circus arrangements, before talking about acts of heroism on the day and the aftermath, when the injured had to deal with PTSD.
This month I intensified my piano-learning (I have finally finished all the piano method books I once started and jumped on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and listened to a lot of piano music (Godowsky’s Java Suite ), so I have also decided to share a couple of piano-related books I have been reading recently: Lang Lang’s memoir and a book on Van Cliburn.
Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story  by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2
Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now – an immensely popular classical pianist.
This short novella was a heart-breaking read, and probably goes well with the film of the same name by Max Ophüls. It is as much a story of hidden and forbidden passion as it is a tale about coming to terms with life disappointments and acknowledging people affected by one’s spur-of-the-moment whims and short-lived desires.
An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth [1929/48] by Mohandas K. Gandhi – ★★★★★
In this frank, unputdownable autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi talks about his life, from his upbringing in India (including child marriage) and travel to the UK (to study law) to actions in India, and thoughts on everything, from his relationship with his wife, to the WWI, religion and racism. I particularly appreciated the book passages on his vegetarianism and Gandhi’s comments on introversion. Rather than the latter being a weakness or some “fault”, it helped him to establish that “quiet power” to conquer hearts and minds, and try to lead people to a better life. The book is a philosophical and deeply honest one, with important life lessons.
Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.
Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.
I spotted this tag on Clemi’s Bookish World, and though I am not a Taylor Swift fan (or maybe I am and just don’t know it yet), I decided to post the tag because the questions are interesting. My answers somehow ended up to be more French than intended, and I omitted the category: “Peace: A book character you’d die for because you love them so much” because I could not decide on just one. I am tagging everyone who is interested in doing this fun tag.
– The Tenant(Le Locataire chimérique) by Roland Topor – After finishing this psychological, existential book, I really did not know what to make of the ending – but it is definitely thought-provoking. The book astutely explores alienation and the search for identity in a big city as the main character begins to realise that his neighbours may have nefarious designs upon him. The film of 1976 is equally good.
The Woman with a Worm in Her Head is a topical non-fiction book since it talks about those infectious diseases which present a real puzzle for medical staff. Referring to her experience of working as an infectious disease doctor, Nagami talks about real patients with such seemingly surreal diseases as cocci or valley fever, leishmaniasis, chickenpox and falciparum malaria, and, of course, with live worms loose in their bodies which cause havoc and distress. Nagami’s book is definitely not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, but those who are interested in mysterious diagnoses or in unusual and rare medical illnesses will find much to appreciate in this book.Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Woman with a Worm in Her Head by Pamela Nagami “→
“Those who experienced evil may forget it, but those who committed it – never” (A. Mare).
This is a true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army Officer and ex-Prisoner-of-War (POW) during the World War II, who was tortured and held in confinement while he and his fellow comrades were forced to work on the Siam-Burma railway line. Years after the WWII, he came face-to-face with one of his captors – Japanese interpreter Takashi Nagase, a meeting that finally led to a reconciliation. This is Lomax’s incredible true story, which is an inspirational and moving read.
Since it is Non-Fiction November, I thought I would make a list of non-fiction book recommendations on some of my favourite subjects to explore – the human mind, mental illness and psychiatry. Even though some of the books below border academic and are dated, they still reman very insightful. Some of them were also initially seminal works that opened a new way of thinking about the topic. This list is in no particular order.
I. Asylums  by Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) is considered to be “the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century”. His work Asylums is a compelling study on mental institutions, in particular, which he terms “total institutions” since, in his view, they insist on certain patterns of behaviour making people inside to conform to certain roles, such as “guards” or “captors”. This is a thought-provoking book which gave way to the whole new theory behind the confinement of mentally ill.
II. History of Melancholy [2009/2011] by Karin Johannisson
History of Melancholy talks about melancholic feelings throughout history – how people viewed melancholy and what forms it took through the ages. It has always been my favourite book on the subject, because it dips into history, literature, psychology and modern psychiatry. It also talks about fugue states, amnesia, anxiety, loneliness and fatigue, emphasising how people were diagnosed with that or this illness depending which one of them was also “in vogue” at that time. I read this book translated (from Swedish) to Russian, and I am not sure whether it is available in the English translation. Continue reading “7 Fascinating Books on Human Mind & Mental Illness”→
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – ★★★★1/2
“Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I’d say “the feeling that our choices don’t matter” [Vance, 2016: 177].
Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a man J. D. Vance, who talks about his childhood (being raised by his single, troubled mother with two children), adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in one of the poorest regions in America. This deeply personal, eye-opening book, which is also both sad and inspirational, provides a glimpse into the Appalachian culture and various (historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural) circumstances that shape its people. It is about the state of one part of America some would not like to acknowledge fully or whose issues some misunderstand. J. D. sheds away some of the stereotypes surrounding his people, while, at the same time, fairly and bravely acknowledges (people’s) personal and societal responsibilities for many disastrous societal and economic circumstances. This memoir on how class and family affect the poor, as seen through the eyes of one boy raised in one disadvantaged family, is a book hard to forget.Continue reading “Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance”→