on May 27, 2006
What a terrific read! Water for Elephants has been lauded as a "great pick for summer", but this book is so much more. It has a depth and a substance to it that you don't usually find in your typical "beach read". It's obvious that the author did her research into the time period (post-Depression America), and the subject matter (traveling circuses). According to the author's note at the end of the book, many of the compelling anecdotes in the story were based upon real events, culled from the diaries and personal histories of old-time circus performers. As a result, Water for Elephants is a novel that boasts the rare combination of being both entertaining and informative.
The main character is a cantankerous, still-sharp 93-year-old man, and his frustration at being trapped in an old man's body is palpable. The story of his incredible life and adventures with the Benzini Brothers circus unfolds in a way that is emotionally wrenching, and yet flashes of good humor pervade throughout. The characters are richly drawn, and even the animals are given complex personalities that make them a pivotal part of the story. There is something in the novel for everyone: it is equal parts adventure, mystery, fictional memoir, love story, and historical account.
I highly recommend this book!
Stripped of everything after his parents' untimely death, twenty-three-year old Jacob Jankowski has failed to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell, left with no home and no future, the country struggling through the Great Depression, bartering in goods instead of money. Hopping a train that by chance belongs to The Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, Jacob hires on to care for the menagerie, his training an entre into this bizarre world; but as the novel begins, Jacob is an old man, restricted to an assisted living home, his memories sparked by a nearby visiting circus and a creeping helplessness that assaults his ageing body: "Age is a terrible thief. Just when you think you're getting the hang of it, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back."
The story is related in the somber tones of the Depression, the hardscrabble and often unscrupulous business of a traveling circus and the heartless despots who make their fortunes on the backs of men who must do anything to survive. Star performer Marlena, an equestrian, is sensitive to the needs of her horses, although her mercurial husband, August, the trainer, is obsessively jealous and given to unspeakable cruelties. Uncle Al, Benzini Brothers circus owner-by-default, is a ruthless businessman who cares little for man or beast, engaged in a quest for fame to rival the great Ringling Brothers. With his advanced training in veterinary medicine, Jacob does his best to protect the animals from their harsh existence, especially Rosie, an elephant purchased to replace Marlena's lead horse. Jacob and Rosie share an affinity for one another, the huge creature at times almost human. Because of his growing affection for Marlena, Jacob suffers August's increasing affronts, caught in a cycle of inevitable violence, certain of a reckoning.
In chapters that move flawlessly back and forth in time, from the rowdy circus atmosphere to the antiseptic corridors of the assisted living home, the world is viewed through Jacob's perspective, as he rages helplessly against the decrepitude of old age and the secrets of the past. In prose both poignant and infinitely tender, Jacob dwells in both worlds, revealing the wounds of the past and the sorrows of the present. In one touching scene, Jacob awaits a family member to escort him to the circus, yearning for the Big Top with every fiber of his being, craving the familiar sights and smells of that pivotal summer of `31, the roustabouts, the kinkers, the rubes, the animals. The denouement is devastating, as inescapable as the indifferent world that turns a blind eye to the vagrants of the 30's. Yet Jacob's spirit retains the essence of his kind nature and a respect for others, a man who will not be broken by circumstances. All is redeemed in a coup d'grace that will leave the reader strangely satisfied and richer for having met this raggedy tribe of miscreants and lost souls. Luan Gaines/ 2006.
Although it is only April, I predict that Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen will be one of the best books I read this year. Gruen has proven to be an amazing storyteller.
Water for Elephants is told in the first person but from two different perspectives--Jacob Jankowski at 23 years of age and again, at 93 years old. Gruen seamlessly weaves the chapters between past and present. Jacob at 23 is finishing up his last semester at Cornell Veterinary School when a family tragedy causes him to flee. He finds himself on a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931. Needing a vet, the circus hires young Jacob to tend to their menagerie. Jacob at 93 resides in a nursing home where he laments the curses of old age, the passing of his wife, and the waning affection of his family. The arrival of a visiting circus triggers a flashback to his youthful circus experiences.
1931 is a hard time for almost all Americans, and the circus workers are as hard hit as any. Most are one step away from being homeless and jobless. Conditions on the circus train are harsh for most. Many workers go weeks without being paid, and they tend to disappear during the night when times are tough (management has them thrown off the train). The menagerie is often times treated better than the workers. But the circus does provide three meals a day and a place to sleep--even it if might mean a horse blanket on a train bed floor. Jacob discovers very quickly that he's just about the only advocate the animals have and he must battle a ruthless owner (Uncle Al) and a crazy animal trainer (August).
Any circus has more than their fair share of interesting characters, and Gruen's circus is no exception. In addition to Uncle Al and August, there is Walter (the midget clown), Marlena (an equestrian with whom Jacob falls in love), and Grady and Camel (workers). One of the most sympathetic characters in Water for Elephants is Rosie, the elephant--who shares more "human" characteristics and feelings than some of the circus bosses. The tender-hearted Jacob quickly grows to manhood as he is forced to protect both animals and coworkers from abuse and worse.
Water for Elephants is a delightful, moving book, and the ending was a very pleasant surprise. Also, if you want a special treat, listen to it on audiobook. The two readers, David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones, did a wonderful job of bringing both Jacobs (young and old) to life.
Water for Elephants is told by and about Jacob Jankowski, a cranky but likable 90 year old (or perhaps 93) man who resides in an assisted living center. The story maintains its momentum by alternating between the past and the present as Jacob recalls the circumstances under which he found himself traveling with the Benzini Brothers Circus.
Through Jacob, the author Sara Gruen, presents us with a fascinating history of the American circus as well as a painful look at the time known as "The Great Depression". Gruens storytelling technique is enhanced by the period circus photos (circa 1920-30) that appear at the beginning of each chapter.
The eccentricities of the characters as well as the alarming treatment of both animals and performers propels the story and mezmerizes the reader. The complicated interpersonal relationships of the circus "family" is deftly interwoven with that of the rest home "family".
I was truly seduced by this book. Reading it was an unexpected and astonishing adventure that continued to resonate long after I had read the last page and closed the book.
I found this book interesting because of the research Ms. Gruen obviously did on train circuses and depression-era life. I also thought her passages detailing the life of Jake as an old man were the best written things in the book. Since Ms. Gruen is a woman who appears (from her author's photo) to be barely middle-aged, I have to assume that some research went into finding out about the lives of elderly men as well, because she writes these passages with a clear and utterly believable voice that truly resonates.
Unfortunately nothing else in the book resonates nearly as much, and there's a lot lacking here. The young version of Jake never takes off as a character, nor does his entirely manufactured love story with a circus bareback rider. We know from the moment he sees Marlena that she'll obviously be his love interest, but their relationship never actually develops before they're suddenly declaring love for one another and hitting the sack.
Ms. Gruen also fails in her execution of believable villains. Her two main villains are August, a brutal horse trainer who abuses or neglects all of the animals, and "Uncle Al", the cruel circus boss, but their villainy never really jumps off the page. For some reason, she chose to make her main antagonist (August) Jewish. I still don't understand the reasoning behind that, nor do I understand her choice to call him a paranoid schizophrenic as well. Oh and for good measure, he's also a wife beater. He's simply too many things rolled into one. Perhaps if she'd concentrated on one aspect of his brutality, she could have made him more believable. And unfortunately, since his religion really has nothing else to do with him as a character, it's hard not to simply label Ms. Gruen as anti-semitic. Perhaps if she'd actually used the "show, don't tell" philosophy and let us SEE what Uncle Al was doing instead of just hearing about everything second hand from other characters, he wouldn't have seemed so two-dimensional. As it is, I never bought these guys as the towering pillars of pure evil they were obviously supposed to be.
I also never bought Jake, at least not as a young man. One minute he's making a vow to himself that he'll stay with the animals so they won't be hurt, because that's what his dead father would want him to do. Yet, he stands by not once but TWICE and allows August to savagely beat an elephant with a hook. It's hard to respect a character like that. Jake rarely takes any real action; he mostly just stands by while things happen TO him or happen *around* him.
I also felt the book could have benefited from a diagram. In books that take place on ships, there's usually a sketch in the front of the book with all the parts labeled for readers to refer back to so they can understand the action. I had a lot of trouble visualizing the train where a good 40% of the crucial action takes place in this book, and that was a major barrier to getting into the story. Had there been a sketch of it up front with all the sections labeled, those sections of the story would have been much easier to understand.
Overall, I am giving this book three stars because of the research, the informative author's note at the end, and the sections with Jake as an old man. I also really got a kick out of the ending. But on the whole, I would recommend this as a library book or a used book store book -- definitely NOT one you pay full price for.
on November 5, 2006
In recent years, publishers have put out a number of collections of early twentieth century circus photographs. The photographs are intensely interesting, revealing the grime, brutality and absurdity underneath the surface glamour of the traveling circuses of that era.
Gruen was inspired by the photographs to write this novel. Gruen thoroughly researched her subject matter, collecting scores of anecdotes that revealed the brutality and desperation of that world. She weaved the anecdotes together with a love story worthy of a three-hanky weepie from the 1930s. The combination of grit and sweetness works only to a point, but the inherently interesting nature of the subject matter managed to hold my interest to the end.
To me, however, Gruen never managed to transcend her source material. The primary problem was the narrator's voice. Although the book was sprinkled with circus-specific vocabularly of that era, Gruen utterly fails to capture the rhythm or syntax of the time or milieu. Gruen's language felt inappropriately contemporary, which undermined the overall credibility of the story. The subject matter cried out for a writer with an ear for the street; I kept thinking about what Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner could have done with this material.
The other major problem was that Gruen over-anthropomophized and over-romanticized the animals in the story. Gruen could have honored the animals' intelligence -- and decried the brutality of their treatment -- without veering into fantasy.
In the end, while I wasn't sorry I read the book, I would have preferred to read a non-fiction account of life in the Depression-era circus from a first hand source rather than this watered down trifle.
on November 28, 2007
This book was recommended by Amazon as I was buying another, it looked interesting from the cover, so I bought it. I actually was surprised to find that the main character was a vet from Cornell--since I am a vet from Cornell, it really spiked my interest. That was the high point of the read, a brief moment of pleasant expectation. The book is not awful or unreadable, it's just shallow and facile. An interview with the author explains that she became fascinated by old photos of the traveling circuses of the 1930, and wanted to write a book about them. The setting seems authentic and compelling. However, the characters are implausible and their interior lives are culturally anachronistic. No one in this book seems remotely believable for the period--hasn't she read any Steinbeck? The plot is like one of those traveling carny roller-coasters, where you hear each gear clunk loudly and laboriously into place. The movie is likely to be ten times better than the book, because you won't have time to consider how unlikely the story development is.
I think it is rather shoddy that Ms Gruen limited her careful research to only the subject that interested her--the circus. How hard would it have been to consult an equine vet and come up with a plausible scenario for the equine illness that brings the main character on board the train? How hard would it have been to learn the correct location to euthanize a horse with a gun? How hard would it have been to figure out that Ithaca was an end of the line station, and a through circus train would not be "passing by". Couldn't she have gotten her character on the road without having him lose the family home to "his Ivy League tuition"--even the most cursory research would have revealed that Cornell Vet College was and is a state institution, highly subsidized in every respect. Authenticity in all these details would not have detracted from the book.
Most of the criticism of the book I've seen on line has been focused on what is perceived by some as gritty detail and others as gratuitous cruelty to animals. I am a horse vet, and have devoted my life to horses. I have no problem with feeding horse meat to the big cats. But the total implausibility of having the inept assistant slaughter horses by slitting their throats is so ridiculous--the first poke with his dull knife, and even a horse drooping at death's door will be three fields away. The average adult horse has 50 liters of blood--can you imagine how long it takes to pour out 50 soda bottles? This is why people euthanize horses with bullets! Why oh why couldn't she make it believable--there was certainly no shortage of true cruelty to animals to chronicle?
I can only imagine that people love, love, love this book because it is easy to read (clear, straightforward writing, not challenging in the least) and puts 21st century TV movie sensibility into an interesting historical setting with a sappy happy ending.
on May 25, 2007
There are good stories and then there are good stories that are well-written. This novel is the former. It delves into uncharted territory by putting a story to what it means to "run away with the circus." It's an interesting and creative topic. Like a lot of mass-market "trade" paperbacks these days, the book is high on emotion and light on character development. It also exhibits a modern-day trend of reading more like a screenplay than a novel. Events occur seemingly scene-by-scene (it's helpful the train moves from town to town) and the story is narrated by the older version of the main character, offering up a voice-over to fill in where the dialogue is thinly written. The characters are also thin. The main character is one of the few whose past is somewhat explained (cliche alert: he experiences a tragedy then just happens to jump on a circus train speeding down the tracks). There is very little to go on about why choices are made. For example, we are told how the characters are feeling through adjectives at the end of dialogue rather than the dialogue itself revealing what's going on in a character. She said hesitantly, knowing some people who read these reviews tend to click the negative button if anything critical is said. But, she said happily, anyone who loves character transformation projected onto animals will find this a winner. And everyone else should find it a good weekend escape. After all, the good people (and critters) live happily ever after.
This wonderful book shot through the family like water through an elephant's trunk, as my father, my wife and I all read it in the space of two weeks. Gruen writes the most enjoyable kind of historical fiction, focused on a fascinating time and setting that the reader probably knew next to nothing about before starting the book. In this case, the scene is the American traveling circus of the early 1930's, just after the start of the Depression. The protagonist operates in two time periods, as a nonagenarian in a current day "assisted living facility" and flashing back to his days as a young veterinary student who due to circumstances beyond his control ends up serving as the vet for a traveling circus. Gruen intended to imagine various vignettes for the book, but in her research and interviews with circus veterans discovered stories from real life that were even better--a real-life case of truth being stranger than fiction. The assisted living facility is inevitably less interesting than the world of freaks and geeks in a circus, but Gruen handles the voice of the aged just as deftly as that of the young vet. The book is enhanced by actual pictures from various circus archives. Not an especially profound book, "Water For Elephants" still gets a five-star rating for all readers for readability and Gruen's ability to evoke an interesting place and time so well, along with a surprising and touching, albeit a little far-fetched, ending.
on June 11, 2008
As a devoted historical fiction reader, I thought this book would interest me. It did not. Water for Elephants reads like a children's novel, save for excessive and serious profanity, graphic and frequent sex scenes, and violence so vivid I was moved to nausea. If you are able to ignore those sorts of things, you will not find yourself feeling any kind of sympathy for the one-dimensional characters. The characters do not develop over the course of the story, and seem only concerned with dabbling in vice. As a result, I was unable to identify with them.
A portion of the story is written from the point of view of the main character in his old age. This writing is exceptional, and managed to keep me interested during the course of the book. Still, these marvelous little glimpses of author Sara Gruen's potential do not permit me to recommend this book to anybody. Avoid it.