When I tell people I’m a librarian a lot of the time they ask me what my favorite book is. Sometimes, like in bars and family dinners, that question is thrown out like a challenge; in order to prove my library cred, I have to have the right book as a favorite. When that happens I throw that challenge right back in their crap-lousy face and tell them that asking a librarian to name their favorite book is fucking ridiculous.
With a world of books at your fingertips, it is nigh well impossible to pick one single favorite. Sometimes these clowns try to force the issue, like “I know you have a favorite book! Spill!” I guess they’re looking to trip me up or something. So in order to get them off my back, I tell them my favorite book is “G is for Gumshoe” by Sue Grafton because I love the way it makes me feel about me.
The truth is I do have a favorite book and, up until now, I’ve been reluctant to tell people what it is. Nobody has ever heard of the book much less read it. Why should I bother to explain what it’s all about and why it’s amazing when all I’ll get in return is a people saying, “What? Circuses? Print is dead!” That will only set off a whole other argument that I’m generally too drunk to make.
Sharing your favorite things, like books and movies and TV shows, with other people sometimes kinda sucks. I’m not talking about trifling entertainment you enjoy to pass the time. I mean seriously, this book is a changed-my-life kind of favorite. That’s fucking personal. You want people to treat that thing whatever it is with the same enthusiasm, but they never really do.
When they don’t it’s like they’ve rejected a part of you. Then, if you’re me, you hate them just a little bit because they obviously don’t recognize perfection. Why would I court that kind of scorn? Never mind the off chance that those people aren’t snob-bitches who judge others on their reading preferences. I make it through life assuming people think as I do. I find that makes it so much easier to justify my actions.
However, the day has come when I can no longer hide my love away. My favorite book is one I’ve loved for a long time. I’ve lost number to the times that I’ve read it and, when I do pick it up to read every six months to a year, I almost don’t want to read to because if I do, then it will be over. But the moment I read the first line I am done and gone. Look for me and I will be reading. Call on me for action and I would rather be reading. Don’t bother me because I have a book to read. Feed yourself, child. Mommy’s busy. But, to paraphrase the sexually tinged words of Anais Nin, the day has come when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.
My favorite book is “The Catch Trap” by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
In 1992 my sister went on a trip to Chicago and found “The Catch Trap” in a bookstore that had a whole section of queer books. This was kind of a new thing and completely unheard of in Oklahoma. When she told me about discovering such a collection it was like she had seen a giraffe for the first time. I could barely comprehend such wonder.
Together we read “The Catch Trap” and promptly went circus loco. I liberated my high school library of all the 791.3s they had. I wrote some spicy fan-fic. My sister and I dragged our younger brother to as many seedy dog and pony shows as we could find. One time, after the performance, we shelled out for an elephant ride for our brother just so we could flirt with the aerialists. After taking li’l brother home we seriously, SERIOUSLY, considered going back to the State Fair Arena to see if we could make a little time with the performers.
The only thing that prevented us from following through on our plan was “The Catch Trap” itself. In it there’s a scene where two Oklahoma sisters show up after the show, sniffing around for a good time. They are clearly trash with messy hair and dirty collars. We didn’t want to be those girls.
Spanning the years 1955-1963 (AKA my favorite period in American history) “The Catch Trap” is about a kid named Tommy Zane. A true son of the circus, Tommy’s dad is a cat man, or ‘lion tamer’ to rubes in the audience; but Tommy’s dreams sit firmly atop the flying rig. One of those dreams is a fiery Italian named Mario Santelli, and let me tell you, he is a stone fox.
(WARNING! If you find yourself purchasing a copy of “The Catch Trap”, which I believe is out of print, beware of the edition with the circus poster cover. It’s an illustration of Tommy and Mario holding hands triumphantly and it is hideous in an indescribable way. Do not look directly at it or your mental pictures of the guys will be forever warped, seriously impacting the book’s hotness. I had an artist friend create the jacket pictured above because simply putting a sticker over their faces wasn’t enough.)
Mario is one part of the famous Flying Santellis. Along with his grandfather, Papa Tony, and his uncle Angelo, Mario is keeping the tradition alive after a tragic accident broke the family apart. He’s not only the future of the Santellis but the future of flying as well. For you see, Mario is one of the few men alive who can perform a triple backward somersault into his catcher’s waiting hands.
It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but, and I’m not jacking around here, this is the truth: during the 1930s and 40s the triple somersault was known as ‘salto mortale” or “the leap of death.” Traveling at 65 mph the flyer turned three backward somersaults within seven feet, which caused them to blackout for a second. When they came to they were right on top of the catcher, who was hanging upside down. They weren’t fucking around and Marion Zimmer Bradley makes that perfectly clear. In fact, Mario’s triple is almost a character in and of itself. They talk about it constantly, whether he’s got it, can he hold it, and will it kill him.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, better known for her book about Arthurian three-ways, “The Mists of Avalon”, did extensive research on circuses, their history, and culture. She puts her findings into the story, but not in an irritating “Look! I did sooo much homework on this!” sort of way, like some other crap circus books. (I’m looking at you “Water for Elephants.”) There’s a note at the beginning of the book where Bradley explains how she took the historical facts and, with some stylistic changes, credited them to fictional characters. By doing that she allowed herself more freedom within the story.
Due in no small part to her fantasy novels, Bradley took her research and shaped it into an all-encompassing universe. Anyone who has read fantasy fiction knows that a story lives or dies with the believability of the world it inhabits, no matter how insane that world may be. If done correctly those worlds become real; thus making it possible for the reader to fully integrate themselves into the society. If not, it’s Sunday afternoon at the ren faire all the way.
While the world of the circus isn’t exactly Middle Earth, it’s foreign enough to the vast majority of us. With its own rules and language, it might as well be imaginary. Bradley creates such a vivid place that, I swear to god, after reading this book you will feel like thene plus ultra of circus scholars; just like reading “Gone with the Wind” makes you an expert on the Civil War.
There are very few perfect things in this world. The song “November Rain,” the video for “November Rain,” and Elton John as the Pinball Wizard are but a few. I’m sure you all have your own, something that cannot possibly be improved because it defies improvement. For my husband, it’s the movie “Robocop.” To me, it is “The Catch Trap.”
This book combines pretty much every one of my favorite things into one pristine package. Sexy homo-romance with a happy ending? Check. Circuses? Check. Mid-century America? Check. A huge cast of characters all with their own unique and interesting backstories? Check. The Hollywood studio system? Check. Queers within the Hollywood studio system? Check. I would read a book on any one of those subjects, but to have them all between two covers? Fucking amazing! It’s like the Traveling Wilburys of books.
There are several themes that run through “The Catch Trap,” the strongest perhaps being the importance of keeping your lovesick fistfights with your self-loathing boyfriend off the platform, not allowing them to interfere with your trapeze work. While I have been able to translate that lesson into my own life on more than one occasion, the theme that strikes closer to home is the idea that the circus, home, is the true reality; it’s the people in the audience that aren’t real. Tommy often talks about how he only feels alive when he’s on the trapeze. Everything outside of that, outside of Mario, the family, and the circus is meaningless.
It took me a long time to learn that lesson and even longer to get comfortable enough to tell people about it. Thanks to a combination of aging and alcohol tolerance I got past all that. Now I’m not even going to wait for people to ask me what my favorite book is. I’m going to lead with that knowledge. “Hello, I’m Erin Lady Byrne and my favorite book is ‘The Catch Trap’ by Marion Zimmer Bradley.” If anyone gives me the side-eye I will tell them about it in excruciating detail. I guarantee that by the time I finish they’ll be begging to read it.
You can email Erin Lady Byrne (firstname.lastname@example.org) or find her on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne where she is currently rereading “The Catch Trap.”