Rocking the Boat

Snap 2014-03-23 at 17.30.16You can’t judge a book by its cover, or can you? Would you? Do you? This month, Snotty Literati talks The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert. We picked it up, frankly, because the cover is so pretty. Look how nice it looks on this web page! Set against the fictional 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, ventriloquist and sometimes petty thief Ferret Skerritt courts the evanescent Cecily, a lovely actress. There are a plethora of carnivalesque images—a Chamber of Horrors, burlesque dancers, trapeze artists, and of course, the the Swan Gondola. The book also serves up a sweet romance. So here’s the question: Did the pretty cover match what’s within?

Lara: First things first… thanks for recommending a book for us to read that I really liked. I was smitten kitten pretty early on with this book, tweeting adoration for the writing and interacting with author Timothy Schaffert in the twitterverse. I am going to say that the writing matches the beauty of the cover and if you pick it up for that reason, you’ll find yourself with a highly satisfying read.

Jennifer: You need to tell us about those tweets, lest we think you stalked Timothy Schaffert—especially since we know that both of us are quite capable of stalking. Actually, if I might publicly confess (and I think I will), I’m feeling a little ethically conflicted here. I wanted to read this book because of its cover. I knew nothing else. Then, when I got it, I saw Unbridled Books mentioned in the acknowledgments. Unbridled is the publisher of my book, Love Slave. It turns out we share a publisher for his previous books (not this one). So now, I’m like, how do I review this book? Like, I’m in a book bind. Ha! I freakin’ loved this book!

Lara: You’d better not turn this review into something political! I was tweeting so much about the book that I had to tell Mr. Schaffert that I wasn’t stalking him. He said he was okay with the UNBRIDLED book love. See, two can play this game, Spiegel.

Jennifer: For the record, Riverhead Books published The Swan Gondola.

Lara: Thank goodness we resolved that conflict of interest. Let’s talk about what we liked about this book. To begin with, the writing is lovely. When Ferret is watching Cecily:

“I saw her sitting on the street in front of an opera house, propping herself up on an elbow, eating marshmallow cake, listening to the songs the singers couldn’t keep inside.”

In a letter Ferret writes to Cecily:

“We should be born old and age younger. Our baptism should be a ritual of our funeral. We should die as infants, content in our mothers’ arms, having lost all our learning and all sense of disappointment. If only we could die, as she says, not knowing we’d ever grieved.”

Mean Ms. Margaret (and creepy circus automaton) to Ferret:

“From the hole between your mama’s legs to the hole they shovel for you, you gotta be kicking and screaming every goddamn minute of it.”

I love the book’s descriptiveness and tone, as well as the characters.

Jennifer: That is the major draw. Schaffert’s writing is beautiful—each sentence, a poem:

“I tamed my hair with a messy pomade August had concocted in his kitchen, a perfumed slop mixed from wax, mutton lard, and orange flowers.”

In this, I adore his verbiage. I love the big, clunky, colorful, concrete words. And this is the opening of the novel:

“Emmaline and Hester, known in the county as the Old Sisters Egan, took their coffee cowboy-style, the grounds fried-up in a pan to a bitter sludge, then stirred into china teacups of hot water.”

Schaffert is an artist. When I began reading it, I wanted to be his friend. Here’s my hesitation: while so lovely, I felt a little removed from the love story. I wasn’t entirely vested. I believed in Ferret. He was real. Cecily felt a little distant.

Lara: Oh, those passages are rich, like a decadent dessert. Ferret was totally real and I think Cecily was supposed to feel a bit out of reach and untouchable. She had trust issues. She was torn between Ferret and Billy. And she was ultimately a mother to Doxie. A mother who suffered a horrible fate. I was okay with the distance.

Jennifer:  Well, hmm. I am too, but with some reservations. Both of us would pick up another Schaffert book; that’s almost a given. But why? For me, it’s the aesthetics, the art of it. I think I read this book right after we did Catching Fire, which was a little outside of our usual snotty fare. Turning to this was like being Sandra Bullock in Gravity when Sandra finally makes it into the space station, rips off her astronaut helmet, and takes a deep breath of oxygen. That’s what reading Schaffert was like for me, taking in a big gasp of oxygen. Thank God for real prose! I’ve read a couple interesting comments about his writing—that it’s Victorian, that it’s not quite “purple prose” (over-the-top flowery writing), and my favorite, from the Washington Post: that “one can occasionally smell the coffee on Schaffert’s breath as he deals out his wealth of research . . .” I’d agree with all of those. I think I loved the tone: the carnival, the magic, the Wizard of Oz influence.

Lara: I just liked that it felt like it was literary without being stuffy. And since everyone likes comparisons, it was very reminiscent to me of Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants. There was enough carnival quirkiness without it being all out-and-out creepy freak show.

Jennifer: Oh, okay. If you must make that comparison. I didn’t love that book. It fell off my snotty literati scale and landed a little off the charts in the genre of uncharted book territory—but that’s okay. You’re right, though: quirky carnival without creepy freak show. I prefer the Wizard of Oz comparisons. In an author’s note, Schaffert writes, “I grew up in Nebraska and was curious about the wizard’s humble origins as a ventriloquist’s apprentice (as briefly described in L. Frank Baum’s original novel of 1900). Though The Swan Gondola is not a retelling of the Oz myth, I did consult Baum’s novel frequently . . . Throughout The Swan Gondola are many allusions to Baum’s novel and to the novel’s illustrations by W.W. Denslow.” I happily felt this Baum influence. If I were to cite a major literary influence from my childhood, it would certainly be Baum—all of his Oz books. And Schaffert’s World’s Fair is a sweet tribute to that original magic. There is none of the lurid creepiness of other carnival narratives: it’s Oz-like, indeed. (I like some of the other creepy narratives, by the way. I liked—but didn’t love—Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.)

Lara: I also know that endings are super important and I think he wraps up everything pretty well. Not sure that it’s really a surprise ending but satisfying nonetheless. And thank goodness for that. My book club is reading this for May and we have a couple of readers who demand closure. If there’s no closure, it doesn’t work for them. For you book babes and other readers who need closure, The Swan Gondola brings it.

Jennifer:  We’re gonna tell you to read this one. For my part, you should read it to keep your faith in aesthetics and you should read it out of your deep respect for the literary heritage of L. Frank Baum because Schaffert pays his respect well.

Lara: And I am going to say that you should read it for the quirky characters and lovely storytelling. This book is a gift, wrapped in a perfect bow of a dust jacket. The Swan Gondola is a book that ereading enthusiasts will want to purchase in hardcover because it’s just so darn pretty.


Next month, Snotty Literati tackles humorous fare with B.J. Novak’s insta-bestseller One More Thing. Don’t know B.J.? He’s Ryan from The Office and he also wrote for the show. He also used to date “It Girl” Mindy Kaling, and frankly, should still be dating her. He’s kind of a big deal and that’s why we are checking out his first foray into publishing. 


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