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Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus Paperback – March 25, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

After several years of work and travel abroad, Feiler (Learning to Bow) decided that joining the circus would be a good way to study America, as well as live a long-deferred childhood dream. He was accepted as a clown and spent the eight-month 1993 season with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, which plays the South and Northeast. With performers from more than a dozen countries, this troupe was truly a melting pot, though most had picked up some of the racism they encountered here. Far from conforming to the image of degenerates, the circus people the author met led rather conventional lives within their restricted world. Feiler admits the humor of clowns is "silly," and few readers are likely to share his admiration for acts like that of a young woman who juggles while hanging by her hair. Generally, however, this warm and affectionate memoir is pleasantly entertaining. Author tour.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Praise for UNDER THE BIG TOP“A stunning collective portrait of an ingrown community with its own history, hierarchy, and traditions.” (The New Yorker)

“Inspirational.” (New York Times)

“Bruce Feiler is a keen and thoughtful observer...he forces circus goers to see the familiar spectacles anew.” (New York Times Book Review)

“A colorful, sometimes unsettling, pageant of circus life.” (Entertainment Weekly)

“As irresistible as cotton candy, as attention-grabbing as the death-defying trapeze act.” (Indianapolis Star)

“A gritty, haunting story.” (People)

“Sure-handed...dark-hued...extraordinary.” (Christian Science Monitor)

“Startling...romantic...seductive.” (Denver Post)

“Spellbinding...captivating...truly touching.” (Princeton Times)

“A mud and sweat-filled, but ultimately loving portrait of the circus.” (New York Post)

“Incredible...exciting...unbelievable...” (Chattanooga Free Press)

“Writing beautifully...Bruce Feiler penetrates the heart and soul of circus life with such stark clarity.” (Douglas Brinkley, author of The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey)

“A three ring triumph...the best book ever written about the circus.” (Jim Foster, editor of The White Tops)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (March 25, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060527021
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060527020
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #715,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I just finished Feiler's "Under the Big Top" and my first thought was "I wish I could contact this guy and compare notes." I joined Ringling Brothers on a lark in '82, and his descriptions of travelling with the circus brought back feelings and memories I hadn't had in a long time. From the descriptions of the social fabric (yes, there is a very real class structure) to the smell of the lot where the animals are kept (not unpleasant) to the dangers, and the thrills of watching the performers every night, he has DONE it. If you want to know what it's really like to join the circus, but aren't feeling quite that romantic, read this book.
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Format: Paperback
Whatever your opinions are of American circuses, whether or not you wince at the spectacle or get angry at the use of animals for entertainment, chances are you have a treasured childhood memory of being there in the stands. Whether it was a kind and jovial clown, a dazzling trapeze act or the courage of a lion tamer, you were probably amazed by the magic and mystery of the big top.
Bruce Feiler, acclaimed author of ABRAHAM and WALKING THE BIBLE, was also fascinated. And, like the old saying goes, "he ran away with the circus." For one season Feiler traveled with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, recording both his experience as a writer and performing as a clown. The result is UNDER THE BIG TOP, an informative and very readable look at circus life, culture and history.
Feiler's status in the circus was unique. All the circus employees knew he was writing a book about them, but he was also allowed to travel as a performer. Thus the perspective of this book is unique, both insider and outsider. As an outsider (which on most levels, he always remains), Feiler explains the historical development of the circus and its acts, divulges the reality behind the seemingly miraculous feats of daring and discusses the circus as a business --- its marketing strategies and day-to- day operations. Here the narrative is interesting and enlightening: who knew how many phrases in American English such as "hold your horses" and "get this show on the road" originated with the circus? This view of the circus reveals the lives and talents of hard-working professionals, generations of performers and those misfits and adventurers who join the circus for various reasons, all working together to put on a grueling and dangerous show several times a day, day after day, for months on end.
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Format: Paperback
I first discovered Bruce Feiler from reading his "Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan" in preparation for the JET Program. Being a longtime fan of the circus, when I saw "Under the Big Top," I couldn't resist. Bruce's humorous writing style (think an overeducated Dave Barry - Feiler has degrees from Yale and Cambridge) chronicles a season spent with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, the largest tented circus in the world. He cleverly works in the fact that most circus novels (he makes thinly veiled references to Angela Carter's "Nights at the Circus" and Katherine Dunn's "Geek Love") deal with the fantastic (half-swan half-woman) and horrific (circus freaks seeking revenge), but not the day-to-day lives of the performers and crew (one notable exception is the excellent "The Circus In Winter" by Cathy Day).

Bruce acts on his lifelong desire to be a clown (he had a previous history of theatre at Yale and of miming), and is tossed into the testosterone-fuelled world of the circus's Clown Alley, where he meets an assortment of lively characters (most with criminal records) and some sexual deviants. He quickly becomes acquainted with his circus "family": the performers (acrobats, lion tamers, human cannonball), and brings the reader along on a fascinating journey into a vanishing world (confrontations with animal rights groups become more and more frequent as the season progresses). The narrative is slightly choppy, due to the present description of action in the ring that dissolves into a past narrative, then back, but "Under the Big Top" is sure to please young-at-heart fans of the circus with its menagerie of unique personalities and talents that would be out of place in the "real world."
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Format: Paperback
I found an old copy of Bruce Feiler's Under the Big Top in a thrift store. At a glance, I knew that this was just the type of book that I love - nonfiction that allows you to travel into a world about which you know very little. Feiler joined the circus as a clown for a year (1993); he then experienced the joys and sorrows of circus life as the circus traveled the east coast from Florida to New Hampshire and back. Under the Big Top is the captivating story of that year.

The most-fascinating aspect of this book is its depiction of circus life away from the bright lights. In some ways, that life is every bit as seedy as one imagines it to be; Feiler notes that, during his year, he encountered "...murder, rape, arson, bigamy, bestiality, group sex, and organized crime. If you find it in America, I found it in the circus" (page 32). In other ways, circus life is more normal than one might imagine; many of the performers raise families, celebrate holidays, and practice religion while on the road.

In addition to providing an overall portrait of carnival life, Feiler also introduces many people that you come to care about. (You learn not to call them carnies; that's the ultimate insult). Among many others, readers meet:
- Khris Allen, the new tiger tamer who is anxious to prove himself,
- Sean Thomas, the absurdly-cocky "human cannonball," and
- Buck Nolan, a 7-foot, 2-inch clown who had been with the circus for decades.
Feiler has a gift for characterization and you feel sad to leave these people behind at the end of the book.

I highly recommend Under the Big Top.
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