Thursday, May 12, 2011

Let's Do...A Book Review: Water for Elephants

Hello, dear readers,

I recently promised you more regular posts, but I neglected to tell you what they would be about. I'll let you in on a little secret: I had no idea what to write about! I think the problem is that recently I've been struggling with personal issues that have made me feel less than beautiful, therefore avoiding the camera and mention of all things cosmetic within the world wide web. This doesn't mean I won't be returning to fun beauty and/or fashion related posts at all, but it does mean there probably won't be pictures of me or much of an explanation until I feel ready. Now, on to the book review:

As you may have read in this post here, I'm very much looking forward to getting some good leisure reading in this summer. I think it would be fun to review the books I read, as I love to read and I love to talk about books.

Strictly speaking, I started Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, on the ride back to university after spring break. I finished it on the ride home from my mini vacation, which you may have read about in my last post here. You may also have heard about the book because it was made into a movie starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz. I'll be very interested in seeing the movie now.

If you're even still reading, you'd probably like me to get to the review, yes? Ok, ok, I'll stop rambling. Here's what the back of the book says, which you can also read at Sara Gruen's website:

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie.
It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
Rather than repeat the summary, I'd like to say that this is about a young man learning how to grow up rather quickly when he decides he can't sit his exams for veterinary school, for reasons I'd rather not spoil for you, and joins a circus. This is not just a love story, as is projected by the giant and rather moody movie posters. It gets into the gritty details of Depression era circus politics, which sounds ridiculous but is quite fascinating.
It draws you in with Jacob Jankowski's compelling story of loss and rash decision-making, and sweeps you right along with him through the hierarchy of the circus, where workers, performers, and roustabouts must sit at separate tables for meals. The circus owner may withhold several weeks' pay on a whim, or blackmail someone into getting what he wants. The circus owner, Uncle Al, is deathly jealous of Ringling Brothers Circus, and is constantly trying to keep up with it, through a combination of blackmail, deceit, selfishness, and dirty dealing. 
There are also issues of race and religion, which I haven't yet discovered in the movie, as I've yet to see it. Conflicts between Jews and Poles and Americans play a subtle but very important role in this book. The evil August has a severe personality disorder, which makes him more complicated than your average sociopathic villain. At times, it's even possible to sympathize with him, at least for a short time.
This book is also told in hindsight, as Jacob is now around ninety and in a nursing home, remembering the past in daydreams and semi-conscious conversations. It opens with a scene from near the end of the book, which makes me even more anxious to read all the way through. Once I got to the end, I was flipping back and forth between the prologue and that scene to see if all the words matched up. [They don't, by the way, so as to keep you in suspense].
One hint for me that this is a fantastic book is that I didn't automatically flip to the end once I read about thirty pages. I often do this with girly books because they are so predictable, and I often get tired of the relationship clich├ęs that go on before the girl gets the guy. This book is gripping enough that I actually wanted to muck through all the dark times in the middle before getting to the ending. I wanted to savor the emotions running through Jacob's head.
The ending of the story, and I mean ninety-something year-old Jacob's story, not twentyish Jacob's story, comes as a bit of a shock, or at least it did to me. It's compelling until the very last sentence. 
In all, if you're still reading my never ending post, and I find that I do apologize for long posts quite often [and my written apology probably takes up even more of your precious time, so maybe I should stop that!], then I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in historical fiction and won't be devastated by a book that has true love in it, but isn't focused on it. It's about a man finding his purpose in life and learning how to go from merely surviving to truly living.
Have a good read if you decide to pick it up! Let me know what you think!
To bright weather and great reads.

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