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The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey Into the Wondrous World of Circus, Past and Present Paperback – November 5, 2013

4.2 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Wall had the great fortune of realizing the archetypal childhood dream of running away to join the circus when he secured a Fulbright fellowship to do just that. After visiting the nouveau cirque as a college student in Paris, Wall was intrigued by the high cultural regard the French held for the circus as performance art. Wall spent a year in the intensive Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque, learning the skills of juggling, tumbling, and clowning. He also researched the origins of the disparate circus arts, from ancient Chinese culture through the Romans until 1798, when a British cavalier pulled together the circus of human and animal feats. The appeal of traditional circus had been on the wane until Cirque du Soleil dropped the animal acts and focused on choreography and human dexterity with spectacle worthy of Las Vegas. Wall chronicles his year of discovery of the history and future of the circus as well as the dramatic personalities and grueling physical training in this behind-the-scenes look at the evolving art of the circus. --Vanessa Bush --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Lovely. . . . There is plenty in The Ordinary Acrobat to set circusphile and circus-skeptic alike to dreaming.”
The Washington Post
 
“Meticulously researched, intensely reported and brightly written. . . . An entertaining, artistic several-hour act that leaves indelible impressions.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“A fascinating, funny, effervescent story told with great affection. The Ordinary Acrobat is an incandescent odyssey—personally and historically—into the captivating transnational world of the circus.”
—Janet M. Davis, author of Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top
 
“Lively and wide-ranging. . . . Wall’s eye for anecdote, in both past and present, is sharp.”
The Seattle Times

“Wall’s technical descriptions of what happens on a trapeze, or even of how a somersault is turned, make you look afresh at what had previously seemed obvious. And that may be the greatest trick of all.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Wall is a charming guide. . . . His appreciation of the circus is deepened by his understanding of its long and distinct history.”
The New Republic

“Blending cultural history with biography, memoir and travelogue, Wall’s carefully balanced book is, in itself, a successful tightrope traverse.”
Kirkus Reviews

“If ever you have the urge to run away and join the circus, you can save yourself the trip and still have the thrill of it all by reading The Ordinary Acrobat. Duncan Wall’s adventures as a novitiate in a Parisian circus school are wonderfully entertaining. A beautifully written account of life past and present under the big top.”
—Eric Lax, author of Woody Allen: A Biography

“Wall [does] an admirable job of pursuing the circus’s road-show mysteries and endlessly winding paths. . . . It isn’t a conventional memoir, but the circus isn’t a conventional subject, either.”
NPR

“An exquisite exposition. . . . Proving himself even more adroit verbally than physically, Wall offers a revelatory love letter to the simultaneously ancient and contemporary art of acrobatics, the circus, and its denizens.”
Library Journal

“In this enchanting memoir sprinkled with historical anecdotes, Wall pulls the reader into the world of circus, past and present. . . . His captivating journey of discovery may lead others to consider running away to join one.”
Publishers Weekly

“Wall is intoxicated and obsessed with the circus. . . . It’s infectious.”
Biographile

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (November 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307472264
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307472267
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,218,401 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kim Karas VINE VOICE on April 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In consideration of other reviews here and my own reading taste I will first tell you what I think is most helpful to a majority of readers, there is a lot of circus history here. We are talking about a lot of facts! Author Duncan Wall who decided to enter a circus training school in Paris essentially on a whim, becomes not only interested in the experience but has a thirst to learn about the history of the circus itself. I personally read a lot of memoirs and also appreciate varied non-fiction in addition to fiction novels. That said, what some consider dry is actually fascinating to me and that is why The Ordinary Acrobat was a true delight for me to read!

We most often think of the circus being comprised of generational participants with fine tuned skills that are practiced from a very young age. It's described as a way of life and a tradition passed down in families. So when it came to The Ordinary Acrobat, I was expecting the unique view of an "outsider" who jumps into this world. I did expect more of that view than the utter volume of facts however, if you take in mind that the author then goes on teach circus history then you will know better what to expect here. Having read the novel "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" which is a bit of historical fiction, I was familiar with some of the facts beforehand. I have read a few other fictional stories of the circus or travelling shows before that give you the feel but without the history lesson. Duncan Wall brings the two together because the information he discovers is told along with his fascination on the subject. We watch his interest in circus history grow and the telling for me was so moving, I could feel how enchanted and fascinated he was to discover more.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I wanted to give this a shot because I recently fell in love with Water for Elephants. The best part of the book is that (eventually) you *can* piece together an impression of what the circus is like today. I've taken off two stars because the other reviewers are correct. While the author's personal experience with the circus is in here, so is the history---a lot of history. Some of it is dry, and because it's woven in, the story of the author's experience frequently seems interrupted by History Breaks. It's like watching a great show that keeps getting interrupted with commercials. Even if they're good ones, it's still an interruption. Here's an example from p. 258:

"You must be here for the tour!"
I looked up. Chantal, a small, pert woman in casual Friday attire, stood on the other side of the turnstiles. Her hands were open in a gesture of generosity.
"Welcome to Cirque!" She was smiling.
I beamed back. "It's great to be here!"
And away we went.

**** So now, reader, you are excited, right? The tour is about to begin. But no. Here is how the book continues instead.

IN THE HOLLYWOOD VERSION of the modern circus story, the birth of Soleil in 1984 is often considered the moment when the circus as an art form rushes headlong into modernity . . .

You'll be less disappointed if you know what you're getting into. The story is still worth picking up. Hope this helped.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Author Duncan Wall has done an impressive job combining both a comprehensive history of various (most?) aspects of the original circuses of European and US history alongside his own memoir of his performing life and skills.

One of those narratives would be impressive enough and to combine them both so well is a strong achievement.

For the right audience - performers, those with an interest in creative performance, or those who have relationships with performers - I think this would easily be a five-star book. I think anyone with a connection to creative, physical performance could appreciate the history first, but even more Wall's accounts of the demands and amazing effort required of the participants. For instance, I'd never looked at 'juggling' with any sort of the fine-tuned attention that Wall gives it here. A performer could point to examples and say, "see, this is what I'm doing. Get it?" or a family member could understand, "wait, this is what he had to learn to do?"

Overall, I liked it - for me, without as direct a 'performer' connection, it sometimes provided too much information for my interest level and my attention to the details tailed off. At parts I was completely engaged, and at other times simply less connected with the subject matter.

That's just me as an audience of one, though, and is no criticism of the amazing amount of research that Wall has provided. I think any fan of history will find something to appreciate - some audiences will simply engage differently than others.

This is an aspect of American (and cultural) history that I think it's fair to say is often overlooked.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I went into this book expecting it to be "one's man journey..." into the circus, but I guess I didn't adequately prepare myself for it to be history mingled with a present day back and forth or history intermingled with first person contemplation on said history. Or maybe I did expect this and "The Ordinary Acrobat" failed to mix these two items with enough rapport between the past and the present for each to exist as a standalone and as complements.

While reading this book, I never really connected with the author's journey and felt like the history wasn't as engaging because of this. I also hoped for more illustrations or photographs.

I will say that this book did provide an interesting account of the modern day circus, and that was probably my favorite part of the volume as I have not read any books or magazine articles focused on the topic in such a detailed way. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite make up for the drier tone in the remainder of the book.
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