Thursday, May 01, 2008

Water For Elephants

Contrary to what a commenter who described me as closed-minded and not wanting to “live in the real world” thinks, I love a good story – one that is genuine, substantial, gritty, with all sorts of obstacles to overcome and all sorts of real life situations to endure. I want to read stories where the protagonist is believable, struggling with some fear or hindrance, but in the end finding something worthy about an unknown inner strength. I don’t equate quality to Christian literature, clean virtue or perky storylines. I deem a story worthwhile for its excellent writing, its wonderful character definitions and its ability to make me think, believe, hope, ponder. However, I would hope that a writer can present such a story without the vulgarity of explicit sex, crude situations or terrible language.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have to have fairy tale endings. Often my favorite books leave me crying over the impending peril or pain that a favored character endured or eventually must suffer. More often than not I have the connection with the characters because they have been written so well that they seem genuine, alive, soulful. I make no apologies for becoming so wrapped up in a story that I emote for a fictional character. It’s the way I work. I am entitled to berate stupidity, to applaud conquests and to weep for a loss. To be honest, I always pictured the emotions and deep connection with a story/character as being the highest compliment a reader could give to an author.

What I resent most of the commenter is that she took one review where I stated my opinion about the atrociousness of a book and labeled me as living out of the real world. She immediately (and incorrectly) assumed that I, not liking what was portrayed nor the poor writing, cannot have a real grasp on life and all its ugliness or all its beauty. Too bad she took no time to read any of my other reviews. She would be sorely embarrassed for her quick judgment and lack of grace.

I just needed to get that off my chest. Now I feel better. Thanks for bearing through the first part to get to the review.

Remembering that I just deemed a story worthwhile and beautiful based on it being “genuine, substantial, gritty, with all sorts of obstacles to overcome and all sorts of real life situations to endure,” I can only whole-heartedly recommend Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen as a Must Read book.

Meet Joseph Jankowski. He’s a spry, personable, cantankerous person trapped in the body of a 93 year old man. "I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” So begins the story of a man with a gloriously colorful, story-filled past which no one is hears because he has been shut away in a nursing home, which he hates with the utmost passion. He wasn’t always a prisoner of age. He at one time fulfilled most peoples’ dreams of running away to join a circus… literally.

As the pages move flawlessly back and forth from present-day mind of Jankowski to past life of him in 1931 during the middle of the Depression - from the raucous, worldly circus environment to the bland corridors of the assisted-living institution - the world is seen through Jacob's viewpoint, as he battles powerlessly against the decay of old age and the secrets of his life in the Big Top.

The characters are rich and true, uttering lines that will make the reader laugh out loud and weep with despair. Even the animals, who are complex, personable and lively, are a crucial part of the story. After all, no circus is complete without the menagerie. Gruen’s research into the lives of circus entertainers/workers and the animals performing in the 1930s was a thorough, not to mention fascinating. She spared no details to include all the right vocabulary: grifters, roustabouts, workers, cooch tent, rubes, First of May, what the band plays when there's trouble, Jamaican ginger paralysis, life on a circus train, set-up and take-down, being run out of town by the "revenooers" or the cops, and losing all your hooch.

There is something in the novel for everyone: it is equal parts adventure, mystery, fictional memoir, love story, and historical account. It is a well-written, convincing narrative that is full of characters with flaws, uncomfortable situations and a yarn that make the reader want to keep turning the pages until the book is finished.

Try Water For Elephants… I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

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