Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Queen of the Air: A true story of love & tragedy at the circus by Dean Jensen

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  A true life Water for Elephants, Queen of the Air brings the circus world to life through the gorgeously written, true story of renowned trapeze artist and circus performer Leitzel, Queen of the Air, the most famous woman in the world at the turn of the 20th century, and her star-crossed love affair with Alfredo Codona, of the famous Flying Codona Brothers.

Like today's Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher, she was known to her vast public by just one name, Leitzel. There may have been some regions on earth where her name was not a household expression, but if so, they were likely on polar ice caps or in the darkest, deepest jungles.

       Leitzel was born into Dickensian circumstances, and became a princess and then a queen. She was not much bigger than a good size fairy, just four-foot-ten and less than 100 pounds. In the first part of the 20th century, she presided over a sawdust fiefdom of never-ending magic. She was the biggest star ever of the biggest circus ever, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth. 
    In her life, Leitzel had many suitors (and three husbands), but only one man ever fully captured her heart. He was the handsome Alfredo Codona, the greatest trapeze flyer that had ever lived, the only one in his time who, night after night, executed the deadliest of all big-top feats, The Triple--three somersaults in midair while traveling at 60 m.p.h. The Triple, the salto mortale, as the Italians called it, took the lives of more daredevils than any other circus stunt.

And here's what I thought:  The circus, and circus performers, have long held a fascination for me. I was already familiar with who Lillian Leitzel was, so I was thrilled to receive this book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.   I think what makes this particular book an interesting read is the combination of the subject material and the author's writing style.  

It's clear that that the author has a love for his subject, and I enjoyed reading his Acknowledgments section almost as much as the book, itself.   His writing puts the narrator in a position of describing not only the people and places, but also in a position where he is giving the reader someone's innermost thoughts.  He has a vivid, descriptive writing style, so that it's very easy to imagine all of the places, and the people.  At times, the book read more like fiction to me, and at first, I found it a little distracting.   However, once I stopped, and went to the back of the book, and looked at the notes section, it was clear to me that the author had done a lot of research, and had pulled these first-person descriptions from that.  

Reading this book gives you insight into the life of the circus as much as it gives you the story of Leitzel, and it's nice to have some of the background and extra information to help give some perspective.  Leitzel, as talented as she was, had issues, both in her personal and professional life, and as much as the author loves his subject, he doesn't shy away from giving us the less-than-happy details of her life.   I think it's a great read if you know nothing about Leitzel, but it's an extra-special book for someone like me.  

First lines: A soaking rain had fallen much of the day, turning the circus lot into a quagmire.  By sundown, though, the downpour finally had stopped, and now, on this mid-June night in Boston in 1919, a canary-colored moon hung over the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey tents like a blessing.   A show had been under way in the big tent for more than an hour.  It was a little beyond eight o'clock when two women, one of them in a costume of white and spangled chiffon, plodded to the treat tent from the circus's train, idled on a railroad siding a quarter mile away.


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