Carlson serves up a nice commentary on the entertainment racket, and with carefully crafted prose that too often goes on...



Talky historical novel about the business of the freak show business.

It never amounts to a tour de force, but Carlson’s debut does a creditable job of bringing 1840s New York to life—the language is right, the clothing correct, the mundane details of ordinary encounters just so. Trouble is, much of the novel concerns encounters very far out of the ordinary, with required lashings of willingly suspended disbelief that venture into the realm of magical realism, always a difficult genre for an American to pull off. The setup is promising: A staff taxidermist at a New York natural history museum, Emile Guillaudeu, is required to remake his collections to suit new owner P.T. Barnum, who has little use for the stuffed owls of old and is intent on crafting the cabinet of curiosities that would make his name. The transformation is not easy, and not eagerly awaited by every member of the public, either; says one protestor against the scheme, “Barnum’s Congress is an abomination! It must be stopped!” Alas for Guillaudeu, the rubes require constant entertainment, and so his glass cases are out in the hallway and strange bits of living creation are in. Enter Ana Swift, a giantess, who would rather be anywhere else but playing her part in the freak show to earn her keep. Ana is self-aware, smart, concerned for the well-being of her fellows as they’re jostled by crowds and robbed by management—a case in point being the so-called Aztec Children, who, as their keeper puts it, were “malnourished and frightened” but were kind enough to lead him “into the jungle to the site of their former glory,” revealing urns of gold so abundant “that Cortés himself would have been jealous.” Both Guillaudeu and Swift, then, are on a collision course with the elusive Barnum, the Godot of the piece—and when the crash comes, it does so, of course, tragically.

Carlson serves up a nice commentary on the entertainment racket, and with carefully crafted prose that too often goes on just a beat too long. Still, a refreshing take on an aspect of and time in American history that are too little known.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-58642-184-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Steerforth

Review Posted Online: July 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2011

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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