Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Water for Elephants

by Sara Gruen

Started: 28 August 2007
Finished: 29 August 2007

It's been a long time since I've read a novel in two days. I must confess it's kind of fun and feels a little decadent. If I did it all the time, it wouldn't be so enjoyable...not that it would even be feasible. In fact, if I didn't have a four day week-end coming up there's no way I could have managed it. But I've been rereading so many books recently, I decided it was time to branch out a bit and try something a little different...a new author...a book I knew nothing about and something which has been written and published recently.

My Bookmaster's Book Club will be reading Water for Elephants the first two weeks of September. Not wanting to take my chances on buying it, I requested it from the library, got it last night and haven't been able to put it down since.

Not that it's great fiction per se--just a fascinating and well-told story. Ms. Gruen has done an exceptional job researching the old train circuses of the early 1930s. The story is told from the perspective of 93 year-old Jacob Jankowski, currently residing--very unhappily I might add--in a senior citizen center. Jacob recalls the events that led him to the circus train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

For the remainder of the book, the plot unfolds, alternating between the two very different time frames and settings: 1931 circus life and present day resident care. Gradually we come to know the economic realities of that long ago era and how the Great Depression and Prohibition affected both people and animals who rode the rails. In particular, we meet an extraordinary elephant named, Rosie, who is supposed to be the salvation of her company, but frequently seems to be their curse and downfall. Jacob's job and future depend on solving the mystery of how to get Rosie to perform, so that she can begin to pay her way before she eats everyone, including herself, into bankruptcy and ruin.

While the action of 1931 was certainly faster, I found the aged Jacob's wisdom and wry observations an ironic and interesting interlude.

A few of his sage observations, some sombre, all poignant, are...

"Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back."

"So what if I'm ninety-three? So what if I'm ancient and cranky and my body's a wreck? If they're willing to accept me and my guilty conscience, why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus?"

"....and open my vanity mirror. I should know better by now, but somehow I still expect to see myself. Instead I find an Appalachian apple doll, withered and spotty, with dewlaps and bags and large floppy ears....It's no good. Even when I look straight into the milky blue eyes, I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?"

"Although there are times I'd give anything to have her* back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. it was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. Being the survivor stinks."

* Jacob remembering his wife.

Overall assessment: interesting and very different; not bad. Loved the knowledge and appreciation of animals and the sensitivity Ms. Gruen demonstrated for her elderly Jacob. Probably won't read this book again. Contains violence, profanity and adult themes, most of which was unnecessary. Story would have been much better without.

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