The Ordinary Acrobat
I hated the circus when I was a kid. I went twice, and since my mother made a comment some years ago that she dislikes circuses too, I'm guessing that I was taken due to an idea that going to the circus is some kind of childhood ritual that should be experienced. So the fact that I adored The Ordinary Acrobat might seem a bit strange. Reading The Night Circus, though, made me eager and open to reading anything else that was circus related (my review is here; Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin is also ridiculously entertaining, so you should read that too).
Duncan Wall had a similar prejudice about circuses, until he attended a Parisian circus as a college student and discovered that many European circuses have a different history and sensibility from traditional American circuses. Captivated by the artistry of the French circus, he enrolled at the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque. Wall's description of his arduous classes intertwined with chapters on circus history (both in the States and Europe) are absolutely captivating. The sections on circus history are eye-opening; it was not uncommon for jugglers and clowns (whose acts were often commentaries on social and political matters of the day) to become international celebrities, even until the early days of the 20th century. While the entirety of the book is compelling, his experiences with juggling and interviews with noted jugglers and clowns are extraordinary (he also takes classes on trapeze arts and acrobatics, but the juggling and clowning sections are highlights). If you have any romantic tendencies toward theatricals, you will inhale this book.
Wanting to actually see examples of the performers and acts that Wall interviews and discusses, I headed to Youtube. A juggling star mentions that the European style of juggling is catching on in the States due to the Internet, so I figured that Youtube would have plenty of examples. So much so--and so many awe-inspiring videos-- that I put aside the book for a good half hour or so Youtubing people and troupes mentioned in The Ordinary Acrobat (I had the same "problem" when I read Craig Marks's and Rob Tannenbaum's terrific history of MTV). If you're not familiar with contemporary circus arts acts, you'll be astonished:
For an example of artistic juggling, watch a clip of the Gandini Jugglers. Gandini is a British juggling troupe that combines choreography and juggling:
Jay Gilligan is an American juggler who largely performs in Europe, and is interviewed at length in The Ordinary Acrobat:
Many in the juggling world consider Anthony Gatto to be the greatest juggler in the world (and in juggling history). This clip is from Cirque du Soleil, which is controversial in the circus world (Wall devotes an entire chapter to the Cirque phenomenon, which was an avant-garde troupe of Montrealites until they caused a sensation in Los Angeles in 1984--and the rest is history). Gatto's act is more traditional (and razz-mattazz showbizzy) than Gandini and Gilligan, as he focuses on breathtaking trick after trick rather than interpretation:
Wall's depiction of Les Arts Sauts was so thrilling that I immediately searched for them on Youtube. Many have offered them huge amounts of money to become the next Cirque, but they have so far refused. LAS does full-length trapeze shows/ballets:
Chiche Cabon is one of France's premier contemporary clown troupes (there are many clowns and clown troupes featured in the book, but since many are French, and since many incorporate dialogue into their programs, it was tricky finding something that was largely physical and indicative of artistic clowning):
Circus Baobab is only briefly mentioned in The Ordinary Acrobat as an example of how modern circus arts artists have translated their art to other countries. As Africa does not have a circus tradition, Baobab is the first professional circus on the continent:
This is a clip of Circus Baobab acrobats and contortionists performing for a rural African audience, which is quite a change from this above clip! Very cool:
Quite amazing, isn't it? Even those who have never dreamed of running away to join the circus will become immersed in The Ordinary Acrobat.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Truth: I am nearly halfway through this book. It's an amazing read, so I've no doubt that it will continue to be amazing. I am fascinated with the homefront efforts during World War I and II, especially women's involvement on the homefront. (I'm similarly intrigued by the Works Progress Administration, but that's for another time and place). So when I read about The Girls of Atomic City through Wowbrary (you should subscribe if you're a Fauquier County patron!), I immediately jumped on the waiting list. Many women arriving in Oak Ridge, TN had little clue as to what exactly they would be working on, much less that they were working on the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan was fortunate enough to interview many women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge during the war; women from the rural South and Appalachia, others from the industrial North; some trained in science and math, while others were 19 year old high school graduates. It's a brilliant, moving, infuriating, and inspiring look at a little known story in World War II history.
In my next post, I'll discuss my favorite children's reads for April. Picture books galore.