Book Reviews Vol. I, No. 7

 

Circus Smirkus 25 Years of Running Home to the Circus!

by Rob Mermin and Rob Gurwitt, published  2012 by The Circus Barn, Inc., Greensboro, VT.  ISBN 978-0-9854021-0-5 www.smirkus.org

Like Circus Smirkus itself, the book  of the same name and authored by Rob Mermin and Rob Gurwitt is alternately charming, whimsical, amazing, exciting, moving and even inspirational.  It is also revealingly honest, surprising and finally, at time, maddeningly difficult to read.

Written to celebrate the Smirkus’ 25th anniversary, it is subtitled Running Home to the Circus.  It begins  with Mermin, the circus’ founder, and his quest to find himself and the true meaning of circus through a variety of  illuminating and confounding experiences working as a clown in several European circuses, before coming home to found a circus with American kids.   The first four chapters are essentially a personal and institutional history.

The co-authors take turns setting that history down, and therein lies the first of the physical problems with the book (other than its size and shape).  Mermin’s contributions are printed in bold face, while Gurwitt’s are set in a type face so light as to strain the reader’s endurance.  While Mermin’s sections are written in the first person and are, have as a consequence, a greater immediacy and intimacy, Gurwitt usually takes over when others enter the narrative.

But the narrative is never completely lineal.  It is often interrupted by sidebars, asides and insertions that are a variety of fondly held memories, from Mermin, and other principals, including numerous Smirkos alumni.

The book and its shape, I think, are, therefore, a result of the book’s hybrid quality.  It is part memory book, reference and coffee table keepsake suitable for the occasional bit of browsing with unfailingly amusing results.

The revelations, alluded to earlier are mainly found in the section of the book dedicated to the history.  Especially fascinating is the story of how Mermin was able with the help of a Russian ally, Alla Youdina, to forge a critical relationship with the traditions and practices of the Russian circus, which Mermin credits with being the turning point of the entire program.  The challenges Mermin faced including the KGB, and Communist operatives are both hilarious and breathtakingly daring.  We always knew Mermin had gone to Russian, but learning the details of how he pulled it off is a fascinating read.

“This encounter with eastern discipline and western showmanship produced what troupers who were there at the time still think of as a Smirkus ‘golden era,’ a focused cross-cultural community of coaches and experienced troupers who united to fashion the unique Smirkus blend of spirited storytelling, technical ambitions, artistic inventiveness and sunny exuberance.”   Circus Smirkus was to become considerably more than a summer camp to learn circus skills and tour under a big top.

Alla Youdina, turns out to be one of several people who fortuitously come under the spell of Mermin’s  vision, but she disappears from the narrative rather inexplicably, without any explanation as to when, how and under what circumstances.  In fact the miraculous part of the tale is the number of people who turned out to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time, to make the dream come true, not just for the young troupers but the man who had the dream in the first place.

But there is more than mere history here.  It is an immersion course in all things Smirkus, including what it means to be a trouper or Smirko.  We also learn about the other aspects of the Circus Smirkus program, its camps and residencies that contribute to what finally takes shape under the big top.  It is all illustrated handsomely and extensively with many photos, enough to have turned it into a true coffee table book.

In addition to the light type face used in various sections throughout, sometimes the text is printed in a color that clashes or disappears into the color of the page, inducing more squinting.  But that discomfort , I suppose, is a small price to page for a ticket on this extraordinary journey.  The seats under the Smirkus big top aren’t too comfortable either, but one tends not to think about his bottom when his heart and soul are being touched by this remarkable artistic achievement.

 

Without a Net

by Ana Maria Shua,  translated by Steven J. Stewart, published by Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY, ISBN: 978-1-934909-28-7.

Argentine author Ana Maria Shua is known as the Queen of the Microstory.  If you are not entirely familiar with that term, (it was also new to me) a microstory  is a very brief narrative.  There are ninety-eight such stories in this slim volume.  They are organized into five sections, beginning with “It’s All a Circus,” and moving on through sections dealing with performers, freaks, animals and circus history.

It is not simply their brevity that distinguishes these stories.  Each one ends with an ironic twist that has the impact of being whiplashed by the author.  One of the least disturbing is dedicated to Alfredo Codona, and makes reference to his having been called an angel.  The piece ends with the flyer asserting that he thought “ he had been flawless in concealing his wings.”

The perfect clown, the author notes, fails at everything, including entertaining the audience, but at the end of his career “his country will nominate him for the Grock Prize, the Nobel for Clowns.”  Of the ventriloquist’s dummy she writes, “The dummy is also a writer, but his owner erases or destroys all his work.” These are some of the milder and least disturbing ironies.  Of the Chinese acrobats she ends her brief history by observing, “When the emperor personally verified the absolute originality of their acts, each artist was rewarded with 100 ingots of gold and then beheaded.”

Circus purists may be horrified by such twists, but for the author, the circus is merely the jumping off point  for her view of the world as, “dubious, ambiguous, and filled with crossroads,” as one critic put it.