Marvelous Reading: Erika Swyler’s, The Book of Speculation


Early reviews have compared Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation to The Night Circus and Water for Elephants. While it contains elements of both — magic, marvels, love and mystery — Swyler’s book stands firmly on its own as a remarkable feat of storytelling. Bold in its plot, stunning in its language, The Book of Speculation kept me reading, thoroughly entranced, and hours past my bedtime. This is a book that comes alive, a book that stays, stitched like tattoo ink, enduring.

Simon Watson, the main character, is losing it — his house is tumbling into the Sound, his job is snared in budget cuts, and his days are tangled in the losses of his past. On the surface, he’s a young librarian, a dutiful brother, a quiet friend. But Simon is also a breath-holder, a swimmer who can suspend his breathing underwater for an impossible ten minutes. His mom could do eleven — before she drowned herself when he was young. Before she left him with a father paralyzed by grief and a two-year-old sister, Enola. When their father dies years later, Simon raises Enola on his own, holding his breath in life, as he can underwater, in order to support her. He remains suspended, stuck in time and place, while Enola leaves to join the circus as a tarot reader. A fortune-teller. But, in this family, fortunes are slippery and shadowed. Curses are real. And the future, like their history, is a swelling flood, capable of drowning.

As Simon’s present crumbles, he receives a book that drags him back into the past. Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is part circus-show account book and part diary, interspersed with sketches. It contains both the everyday details of a traveling show and a deepening mystery involving Simon’s family history — and his sister’s future. Simon and Enola come from a long line of breath-holders, mermaids, women who all drowned themselves on July 24th. As that date draws near — and Enola grows more fragile and edgy — Simon realizes that he can no longer save his sister by remaining still. He must solve the riddles of their past and break the curse that binds them.

These twin narratives, past and present, mirror each other with subtle brilliance, through plot, character, and theme. They are linked through family lines and repeating cycles of love, loss and betrayal. Both probe what it means to be present for someone you love, what happens when a love goes wrong, how to carry guilt and put it down, and how to reclaim history. There are many ways to drown, here, many ways to disappear, to curse, to heal, to make — and break — a home. These patterns weave an elegant bridge between reflected worlds. Swyler’s control of storylines is masterful and deft.

Her characters are vivid and enchanting: a lightning boy tattooed with tentacles; a scarred acrobat and thief; a mute boy who can vanish; a grandmother with a steel heart and wooden spoon; a Russian fortune teller on the run from Selkies; a boatswain with deep secrets; and a book dealer with a past that links them all. They are, at once, both magical and deeply human, flawed and striving. There are no easy heroes here, no cookie-cutter figures. Instead, Swyler gives us people strung with magic — some have “half a soul,” and others have too much, but all of them are daring. All of them are vibrant.

Early in the novel, Simon says, “All folktales have a price,” and there are many prices paid here. Swyler knows her history, and her fairytales — not the Disney brand, but older stuff. The witch, the woods, the water that devours. In The Book of Speculation, she chronicles the price, but reminds us to look deeper, to watch the story dazzle, to find something else inside the depths, the drowning: “a hope so bright it blisters.” The best novels show us not just who we are, but who we were and might become. They are mirrors that work to shove us from our skins — to live a different life, to imagine elsewhere. All the maybes. These books become a part of who we are and what we carry, what sustains us. Swyler’s novel works this type of magic. The Book of Speculation is a wonder, both marvelous and true.


“Cutthroat, For the Love of Words” in Hippocampus Magazine

“Book,” by Petr Kratochvil

For the past few months, I’ve been working in mama-bear cave land. I climbed out once or twice. And this is what happened. My latest piece for Hippocampus Magazine is about murderers and dictionaries (the really big ones), Shakespeare, nagging pebbles and shenanigans. I hope you’ll join me there.

Faith in Fairytales / Redirect

"Creepy Woods," by Gustavo Rezende

“Creepy Woods,” by Gustavo Rezende

“What use are magic wands and talking birds in life or serious writing? I’ll admit to an attraction to the whimsical and quirky, but fairytales offer so much more than that. They cut to the essentials — fear and love, despair and longing, rivalry and hope. Ultimately, fairytales are maps. I would not get far without them.”

For the rest of my essay on the power of fairytales  — their deep knowledge, twisting paths, and challenging “what ifs” — please join me at Judy Lee Dunn’s website “for writers who blog and bloggers who write.” Hope to see you there!

Best Books Winner, and the 77 Tag

Pink Christmas Lights by Petr Kratochvil

Pink Christmas Lights by Petr Kratochvil

Thank you to everyone who entered my Best Books Giveaway 2012, in celebration of reading. It was my first time using Punchtab for a giveaway, and sometimes the comments on site did not register as entries. Never fear — I added them to the list and used a random number generator to select the winner. A big congratulations to Marie Myung-Ok Lee. Enjoy the $25 Amazon gift certificate and happy reading!

I was also tagged this week by the marvelous Julia Munroe Martin in a writer’s word-swap game. I’m supposed to go to page 7 or 77 of my current manuscript, count down 7 lines and post the next 7 sentences, whatever they are. Here’s my snip-snap, from page 77 of Grace Blinks.

Albert found the girl beside the lake, speechless and shaking, the owner of an incomparable discovery. For a moment, he stood still inside of knowledge. Then he put his arm around the girl’s shoulders and guided her away.

Others came with more or less bravado, but none of them encountered the woman as the little girl and Albert had done, as a surprise without preamble or warning, a slap, hard, across the bones round the eye. The drowned woman had her own secrets untold, and some of those were born of water. The day before, witnesses had testified that Mary-Martha-Ester had drowned in the Cayuga, and yet here she was on the shores of the Seneca, an impossibility deeper than the lake.

For Matthew, the woman was evidence, a thrill.

I’m supposed to tag 7 other writers, but I think this meme has made the rounds, so how about this? If you’ve not been tagged, or if you’d like to play again, here’s your chance. Post away — and let me know where to find you.

And for those not playing, here’s another game: choose seven words you love for their beauty or their silliness or because they just pop into your head. Put them in the comments, in random order. Sort of like a weird word poem. Here are mine: zigzag tessellation luminescent bauble makeshift hazard elephant (Yeah, I don’t know where that came from. Have fun!)

Best Books Giveaway 2012

Cotoneaster In Winter by Petr Kratochvil

Last January, I decided to follow Nina Badzin in a challenge to read 50 books in 2012. Two weeks later, my head hit the ice and bounced back with a serious concussion.

I couldn’t read for months. Big snafu in the 50 book challenge.

Now, there’s a thin line between persistence and being stubborn. Ask my husband. Unwilling to face recovery without a pocketful of books, I subscribed to, closed my eyes, and reveled in the sound of stories.

I met my goal of 50 books. Each one felt like a little victory, a push-back against blurry vision and my fuzzy brain.

My head is mostly back to normal now, just in time for a season of new ice. This year I have Yaktrax. And it’s time to celebrate.

My favorite books in 2012 were the ones that left an imprint on my muddled mind —  a scene, a voice, an image that endures . . . .The magical realism of Mark Helprin’s New York in Winter’s Tale . . . . A nunnery that trains the daughters of Death to be political assassins in Robin LaFever’s Grave Mercy . . . . The broad imagination and miniature fabulations in Steven Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower and Other Stories . . . . Cheryl Strayed’s fierce determination (I recognize the stubborn in other folks as well) in Wild . . . . Lyric grief and breathless hope, along with a most-memorable dog, in Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel . . . . The living fabric of a drowned community, run parallel to a painter’s quest in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade . . . . Whimsy and remorse, filtered through an almost-fairytale in The Unlikey Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce . . . . Writing tips that galvanized and transformed my revisions, in Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story . . . . A half-breed eiree, a dragon’s spine, and a world suffused with magic, dark and light, in Rabia Gale’s Rainbird.

To celebrate the stories that I read — and the fact that I could read them — I’m giving away a $25 Amazon gift card. Enter below with the PunchTab form. Just sign in through email or Facebook and follow the links. Contest ends 1/15/13 at 11 pm.

Here’s to a new year of solid footing — and stories given wings.

P.S. In 2013, I’ll indulge my new love of Goodreads and keep track of all my reading there. Come see!