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The Ordinary Acrobat
by Duncan Wall

While studying in Paris, one of the professors sent Duncan Wall and his classmates to a modern circus. Wall was blown away – the show was nothing like the downtrodden, tired circus he remembered from his childhood. Acrobats sang Simon and Garfunkel. A juggler tossed oranges in the air while reciting Proust. There were no animals or freaks, just talented performers. Wall was hooked. He became obsessed, so eager to learn more about the circus that he studied at the Ecole Nationale du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois as a Fulbright scholar, and learned how to backflip, soar through the air on a trapeze, and juggle. In The Ordinary Acrobat he mixes memories of his experience with the history of the circus. He looks at the past and the origins of many of the circus arts, the heyday of the circus in the 19th and early 20th century, its current state in American and Europe, and the impact organizations like Cirque du Soleil will have on its future.

The sum total of what I know about the circus comes from the movies like Disney’s Dumbo and books like The Night Circus and Like Water for Elephants. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve also been to a couple of circus performances over the years, but most of those experiences were early enough in my childhood that I remember them only vaguely. Anyway. My entire point of mentioning this is just to make it obvious that I am in no way an expert or even all that informed about the circus. But I’ve got a little soft spot in my heart for the romance of the circus, so when I spotted this book I thought it sounded really interesting.

And it was fascinating. Wall breaks down the chapters by discipline, so in one chapter you’ll learn all about jugglers, in the next about clowns, and so on. I really liked this format. Wall takes a very meandering journey through his topic, though – a paragraph about his classes at the Ecole Nationale du Cirque slips into a biography of one of the stars of a particular discipline before jumping back in time a few centuries to explore the history of the practice. There’s no chronological rhyme or reason to it – in fact, there is something fluid and dream-like about time here as it slips back and forth like something wriggling and alive. This refusal by Wall to tell his story chronologically works because there’s a timeless quality to the circus, and if the narrative at times seems chaotic, well – it is no more so than life under the big top tent, where a different performance plays simultaneously in multiple rings. I think this non-linear storytelling also helped meld Wall’s own experiences with the greater history of the circus, casting him as one of its players.

So yes, I really enjoyed this book. There are some things that I wish Wall could have addressed in more depth. His examination of each discipline is relatively brief and shallow, but considering he could have written a full-length book for each one I think he strikes a good balance between a survey of the arts and providing details. There are subjects I wish he would have addressed, like the Wild West shows of men like Buffalo Bill and modern day rodeos – how do they fit in with the circus? Are they brothers, cousins or completely different animals? Or I wish that he had spent a chapter or two on the circus in pop culture – even just an index of tv shows, films and books set in the circus, with brief descriptions of each one, would have been great. But The Ordinary Acrobat is wonderfully entertaining without that stuff, and I’d highly recommend it to those who can’t help but feel nostalgic about the circus.

4.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Ordinary Acrobat, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus…
2011: Dreadfully Ever After by Steve Hockensmith
2010: Erotica gives book publishers surprising boost…
2009: Book Trailer: Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran


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