This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I wasn't really interested in reading this book. Sure, it's on all these "recommended" lists...bestsellers, etc. I tend to try to enjoy the _other_ books that don't get all this attention...although even reading the 'jacket', it doesn't flow into my typical genre.

But a friend suggested it for book club and I thought I'd give it a try. And even though it didn't turn into a book club choice, this is the type of book I exactly need from book clubs.

Water for Elephants is a wonderful story. Sara Gruen is amazing story-teller. And just to clarify, since I felt like the title was just grammatically poor...and confusing with the story "Water for Chocolate" means exactly what it says: bringing 'water for elephants', at a circus...

And the setting starts during the old era of circus', traveling from town-to-town by train, with their freaks and menagerie of animals. It is vivid and if you have ever seen the amazing HBO series, Carnivale, this eat, lived and breathed the same tones. In fact, most of the characters in the book I related to the characters in the TV show, so I was able to get pretty realistic visuals as I read through this novel.

We're introduced to the main character, Jakob Jankowski, a young man who is fleeing his life of normalcy...after losing his parents...and just before he takes his exams to become a veterinarian. He lands himself within a mediocre circus, shadowed by the Ringling Brothers...and he's welcomed excitedly because they need a vet.

Soon, we meet others: Marlena, Rosie, Camel, August, Queenie...the list goes on. Sara shows the caste system between the workers and the performers...the business of entertaining, which can include keeping less than savory people with the circus, and the abuse of animals.

But it's Jacob that we follow throughout the story...and the morality of dealing with the people he works with...and the woman he falls for.

But if that story wasn't intriguing enough, there's the story of Jacob as a 90-something year old man, 'stuck' in a nursing home. He is recounting his past but also realizing that, well, his body and mental state is getting frail. This strikes at the heart of me, reading the turmoil of the realization that he cannot walk well, no matter how hard he struggles. How his memory fades and yet he can pretend to know things. And how alone he is...he awaits his family -- anyone -- to take him to the circus (which brings back his young memories of the circus)...and no one shows up.

Heartbreaking, as we read the fight to gain his love and freedom to live a good life, with his children, to the end of his life, without a soul near him.

And as sadly profound that sounds, it is still a good book...probably a new classic. I did read that UNC-CH had it as part of the required I felt pretty good about myself for reading it on my own and _liking_ it...had I been told, in college or high school to read it, I would've fought the desire.

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