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Friday, April 12, 2013

The Julius Romeros Extravaganza--Liminal Identity at the Circus

Those who read this blog know that I like to talk about liminal characters.  Liminality is an anthropological term for people who exist outside the bounds of society.  Few characters can be more liminal than circus sideshow performers in the suppressive atmosphere of the Victorian period. This is the theme of The Julius Romeros Extravaganza.

I received The Julius Romeros Extravaganza Part 1: The Bearded Girl for review from author Hayley Lawson-Smith whose publisher ASJ Publishing generously provided the free copy in Kindle format.  I am always happy to help indie writers of quality find their audience.  This is a special pleasure when the book is unusual. 


When I started the book I wondered what I was doing reading a book with characters that have ridiculous names like Hiffletrimp.  Oh piffle!  Was this a children's novel?  I know that children often enjoy names of that sort.  After a while, I understood that the author's purpose was satiric.  Characters have ridiculous names when they are being held up for ridicule.  I began to appreciate it more when I saw a parallel to a Gilbert and Sullivan story line.   I must have imbibed a love of  G&S with my mother's milk because as a three year old I played The Child's Gilbert and Sullivan album so often that the visiting nurse assisting with the care of my baby brother declared that she would quit if she heard "We sail the ocean blue" one more time. So a number of decades later I found myself singing another song from that album at a certain point in the plot of Hayley Lawson-Smith's book.  No, it's not exactly the same situation, but many parents would think that it's an equally outrageous one. Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Julius Romeros Extravaganza pokes fun at conventional attitudes through reductio ad absurdum which means reducing them to absurdity.

I really began to enjoy The Julius Romeros Extravaganza when Abigail, the bearded protagonist, finally arrived where she was meant to be.   I have read a great deal of circus fiction, and not all of it has been positive in its portrayal of the circus experience.   Circus employees have not always been well-treated by their employers in fiction. Historically, real children were often exploited and abused as they were in many other child labor situations outside of the circus.  So I would say that Abigail was remarkably fortunate.

 This circus is radically different.  One of  the reasons why it's different is because of Julius Romeros, the owner of the circus.  He is an extraordinary man.  I was particularly impressed with his policy of having the sideshow performers master a skill.  This makes them the equals of big top performers.  Big top acts are skill based, but the sideshow is based on the display of individuals whose appearance is outside conventional norms.  People come to gawk at them.  This means that they are objects to the viewers, not human beings.  When the sideshow performers have skills to exhibit, it makes the sideshow more entertaining.  It also gives the performers some dignity, and a sense of accomplishment from being able to do something well.  This increase in the quality of life for the sideshow performers made the circus a true refuge for these liminal human beings.  This book demonstrates how a circus which travels from place to place can be a home for those like Abigail who suffer intolerance in the outside world.

Although the setting of this novel isn't specified, I learned that "spruiker", the term used for what American circuses and carnivals call a "barker", is an Australian one.  It sounded Dutch to me.  Wiktionary also thinks this is likely. In any case, "barkers" or "spruikers" are used for sideshow acts.  They promote the act, so that audiences will be drawn to view it.  So I'd say that this book probably takes place in Victorian Australia.

Wherever the Julius Romeros Extravaganza might have been located, I would dearly love to have seen a circus where all the acts are as unique as this one was likely to have been.  I am hoping to see more tales about the performers at this spectacular venue from Hayley Lawson-Smith in the near future.



Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad Science: Roseanne Montillo's Thoughts on Frankenstein and Mary Shelley

I won The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo from Booktrib , a website that was originally  solely devoted to book giveaways, but now also has chats with authors and reviews. I've won a number of books from Booktrib, but this is the first book I won from that source since I started this blog.

 I've always had a fascination with the contest among  Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr. Polidori  whose most enduring literary result was Frankenstein.  So I was delighted that I won it.  My review is below.


The background of Frankenstein is scientific as well as literary. I am largely familiar with the literary aspects.  I learned from this book that Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had a tremendous interest in the theory that electricity could resurrect the dead, and so did Byron's physician, John William Polidori. This was Victor Frankenstein's goal in Mary Shelley's novel.

 I recently finished reading The Shadow Conspiracy , an anthology of alternate universe steampunk stories that partly dealt with Byron and Polidori  pursuing a Frankenstein type of immortality by various means. Would Byron have aspired to that goal?  Although Montillo believes that Byron played no role in inspiring Frankenstein, a Lecture on Byron, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein by Professor Charles E. Robinson  from 2000 quotes from Byron's work showing his interest in Frankenstein's themes. Montillo's argument derives from Polidori's journal which shows that Mary Shelley didn't really spend time with Byron.  Yet she had definitely read Byron's work, and it might easily have influenced her.

What stood out for me in Montillo's extensive discussion of the science behind Frankenstein was Giovanni Aldini's belief that electricity could benefit depressed mental patients.   In 1801 his experiment on the severely depressed Luigi Lanzarini  was successful.  Lanzarini recovered completely.  This means that Aldini was actually the first to utilize electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) otherwise known as shock treatment.  I found no mention of either Aldini or Lanzarini  in histories of ECT on the internet.  Although I did find an Article on Luigi Aldini  by neurobiologist AndrĂ© Parent which appeared in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Science in 2004.  Parent's article does credit Aldini with being the first to use a precursor of ECT.  I admit that I have not been a fan of the practice.  The side effect of memory loss has caused me to wonder if the main reason why ECT  is successful is because people subjected to it have forgotten what made them feel depressed.  I viewed medical historian Sherwin Nuland's TED Talk dealing with his own experience with ECT as part of my research for this review.  Nuland is very persuasive, but I asked myself whether he's had permanent memory loss and what he might have forgotten.  He didn't mention Aldini or Lanzarini in his discussion of the history of ECT either, but Nuland did refer to ECT as a kind of resurrection.  This ties ECT in with Victor Frankenstein's dream.  Dr. Polidori was actually depressed.  He committed suicide in 1821 which was five years after he helped to inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.  I don't know if Giovanni Aldini could have cured him with electricity.

My primary interest in this book was the science, but I  made a discovery on the internet concerning the literary connections side of this book.  I learned that  Ianthe,  Percy Bysshe Shelley's daughter by his first wife Harriet Westbrook, kept a book of Shelley's unpublished early poems that was handed down to her descendants called  The Esdaile Notebook

Readers who know less than I about Percy Bysshe Shelley (not a son of a Bysshe, but actually the grandson of a Bysshe), Byron, Polidori and Mary Shelley's antecedents may find revelation after revelation in this book.   So I would recommend The Lady and Her Monsters as an introduction to the milieu that precipitated Frankenstein. Anyone who wants to know more can find plenty of material whether your interests are literary or scientific.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Golden Lynx: Scarlet Pimpernel in 16th Century Russia?

 I very much enjoyed The Golden Lynx by C. P. Lesley.  It takes place in 16th century Russia.  Its protagonist is very unique.  Nasan  is an Islamic Tatar among the Christians of Russia.  Yet she refuses to confine herself to the expected women's role in either society. She is a liminal figure--caught betwixt and between.  This is my favorite type of hero.  Yet I have a basic disagreement with the author which is the main subject of this review.


I am very particular about swashbuckling heroes with or without masks.  C.P. Lesley promotes this book as a novel about a female Scarlet Pimpernel.  To me, Scarlet Pimpernel means something rather specific.  The Scarlet Pimpernel was created by Baroness Orczy.  He was an English aristocrat who rescued French aristocrats from the clutches of the Jacobin rulers of revolutionary France who were executing aristocrats as counter-revolutionaries even if they have done nothing that was at all counter-revolutionary. The Scarlet Pimpernel spirited them out of France so that they could take refuge in England.   I feel that if I want to broaden the definition of Scarlet Pimpernel to include a context outside of revolutionary France, there needs to be some elements in common with the original.  I have established such commonalities  in discussion of  The Black Knave  by Patricia Potter.  This is a historical romance taking place in 18th century Scotland after the Battle of Culloden.  There is a character called The Black Knave who rescues Jacobites from the English and gets them out of the country. Although  Jacobins and Jacobites sound similar, they should be considered on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  The Jacobins ostensibly believed in democratic rule though they enforced their beliefs in a very dictatorial fashion. They had overthrown the King of France. They are the antagonists of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  The Jacobites were monarchists who wanted to restore the House of Stuart to the English throne.  The Battle of Culloden was the final defeat of the Jacobites. (See my March post "Playing Red Rover with William Wallace" for further discussion of Jacobites.) They are the people who The Black Knave was protecting.  There are very clear parallels between The Black Knave and The Scarlet Pimpernel.   They were both rescuing the supporters of a defeated cause and sending them to safety. So I am perfectly comfortable with referring to The Black Knave as a Scottish Scarlet Pimpernel.

One of the reasons why I loved Isabel Allende's version of Zorro is because he became briefly involved with a secret organization called La Justicia which smuggled those accused of heresy by the Inquisition out of Spain.  That's the sort of thing that the Scarlet Pimpernel did.  Allende gave Zorro a Scarlet Pimpernel aspect.  

The central character of The Golden Lynx leads a double life like The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Black Knave.  No one knows the true identity of The Golden Lynx. Does this make The Golden Lynx a Scarlet Pimpernel?  No, I don't think so. There are many heroic characters who lead a double life.  One might as well compare The Golden Lynx to Wonder Woman, and possibly find more common ground.  I believe that it is the activities of The Scarlet Pimpernel that define him. The Golden Lynx rescues people, but they are not in the same category as those that The Scarlet Pimpernel rescues.

 The Golden Lynx could not be called a Robin Hood figure either.  For one thing, she isn't a thief.  A Robin Hood is a thief, but not just any thief.  He is as specific as the Scarlet Pimpernel.  He is a thief who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  If someone calls a thief who robs for his own benefit a Robin Hood, I become  irate.  Why get upset?  Robin Hood is a mythic figure who has been tremendously meaningful to a great many people over the centuries.  I hate to see the Robin Hood myth tarnished.  He is a hero who stands for an important principle.  What principle do Robin Hood, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Golden Lynx represent?  They are all concerned with justice.  Yet this doesn't make them all the same.

I am interested in what made Nasan different from  other historical heroes I've encountered. She is not purely Islamic.  She retains a faith in the protection of "the Grandmothers" from her pre-Islamic Tatar heritage.   One of her idols was the Princess Chichek.  When I did a search on her, I discovered that Chichek was a Khazar princess.  I am aware that the Khazar kingdom converted to Judaism.  So the fact that Chichek belonged to a religion different from her own didn't stop Nasan from admiring her.  I liked her respect for religious diversity which isn't a typical perspective in the historical fiction that I've read taking place in 16th century Europe.  I'm impressed with her even though I don't consider her a Scarlet Pimpernel figure.