What to Read When You Want to Run Away with the Circus

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The great thing about “running away with the circus” is that it’s both a literal possibility and a stand-in for something wild you’ve always wanted to do but never seemed like a thing you could do. Sometimes you’re running away from something in your life; other times you’re running toward something. Sometimes you seek a circus; sometimes you need to exit one. These are books that have inspired me to literally run away with the circus (well, sideshow), that have taken me on an adventure, celebrated the weird, and inspired me to pay more careful attention to the world.

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Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
The classic sideshow novel. Geek Love is the tale of the Binewskis, a traveling sideshow family that breeds their own exhibit of human oddities. Norms, those who appear the most like everyone else, are looked down upon. It’s a book that’s both so specifically within the amazingly bizarre world of the sideshow and also deals with the same family dynamics, power struggles and quests for love that make the world spin round. A cult classic, and for damn good reason.

 

We the Animals by Justin Torres
This is an exceptionally beautiful novel about three brothers, their family, and what makes people stick together. The prose is almost perfect. The brothers’ world is complex and haunting and though as a reader I never wanted to leave the world of their childhood, this is also a book about becoming the kind of person we want to become.

 

Euphoria by Lily King
A novel based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s 1933 field work in New Guinea. There’s a steamy love triangle, but what makes the book so rich is its placement inside questions of anthropological ethics, interpretation, and how we may or may not know another person.

 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
This weird page-turner is a fantastic example that sometimes, if we start paying attention to the world around us, we can get swept up in currents that take us far, far, far from where we began. A book about the world cracking open around a person who, at first, is kind of only good at making spaghetti.

 

Things That Are by Amy Leach
My friend Nate described this book to me as “nature essays on acid,” and I think he’s spot on. This book is dazzlingly surprising and strange, jam-packed with important facts about the natural world that just might enable you to survive out in the wilderness if your version of “running away with the circus” is living among pandas.

 

Jazz by Toni Morrison
Look: we should all read everything the goddess Toni Morrison has ever touched. This is one of my very favorites, a wild, beautiful book that doesn’t get as much attention as the others, but whose prose mirrors musical riffs with digressions, choruses, and different interpretations of the same set of notes.

 

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
The characters in this book charmed the hell out of me. In the wake of their mother’s death, two sisters take action in their lives in very different ways—Elvis by trying to understand the world through facts and Lizzie by breaking the world record on rabbit cakes baked. This is a book that helps us all remember that sometimes running away can also include running in circles back to where we began.

 

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover
Instead of trying to understand the world of the infamous Sing Sing prison from afar, immersive journalist Ted Conover gets a job as a prison guard and works on the inside for a year, blowing open what he, and me as a reader, thought the world of a guard might be like. Through his perceptive and detailed descriptions, we also learn much more about life on the inside for prisoners without the sensationalizing that so often accompanies prison narratives. He’s a writer that made me want to get out and live inside my own story.

 

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
This novel-in-verse is based loosely on the Greek myth of Geryon and plays with a multi-dimensional question of what makes a monster. I love the journey that Geryon takes to separate himself from his family as he tries to make something beautiful out of love and volcanoes. The language is stunning and strange, and Geryon is as lovable and complicated a monster as any I’ve known.

 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
This book reached through the layers of “First Place for Participation” certificates I have collected over the years and shook me awake. Sometimes we can’t have it all, and the myth of believing that we deserve it all, that our lives will be ruined if we don’t have it all, can leave us devastated. This book helped me see that sometimes we’ve got to just get one thing in sight, our most important thing, and focus on that. Now excuse me while I go light a bonfire.

 

And to close out this wonderful list, we must include Tessa’s debut memoir, available May 1, which we’re thrilled to see released into the hands of readers! We’ll be running an exclusive excerpt from the book at The Rumpus that day to celebrate, and you can read some the essays that become The Electric Woman here. – Ed.

The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts by Tessa Fontaine
Tessa Fontaine’s astonishing memoir of pushing past fear, The Electric Woman, follows the author on a life-affirming journey of loss and self-discovery―through her time on the road with the last traveling American sideshow and her relationship with an adventurous, spirited mother. A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, The Electric Woman is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds, especially that ever constant: good old-fashioned unconditional love.


Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts (FSG, May 2018). Her writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere, including Hayden's Ferry Review, where her essay that won the AWP Intro Award was published. She has been teaching in prisons for five years, and founded a Writers in the Schools program in Salt Lake City. Find more: www.TessaFontaine.com. More from this author →