Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Club and Water for Elephants

At the end of May when I found myself school-free, I started reading again.  What I mean is that instead of reading scholarly journal articles I began again to delve into books that I picked out personally.  In fact, I began consuming books at an increasingly rapid rate.  Recently, I started wondering if the reading style I picked up during grad school (skim skim skim in order to retain only the most relevant information necessary) had carried over into my reading for pleasure.  During my studies it was important to use this method since I had hundreds of pages to read each week.  Now though, this style is taking away from my enjoyment.  Consequently, I am making a new effort to slow down and make each book last longer.  Two things are aiding me in this endeavor: one being the book club I am part of and the other being this blog.  Now that I am in a book club, it is important for me to savor every snippet of the books I read for the club so that I can wholeheartedly participate in our conversation.  Also, since I've committed myself to posting on this blog about the books I read, I will be forced to slow down a bit and really appreciate the literature I have in front of me.

For me this is a manageable and appealing task!  My love for the pastime of reading rivals my love for all my other hobbies combined.  From very early on in my reading career, I was hopelessly hooked.  I owe much of this love to my mother--where would I be if she hadn't read A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, or Little Women to me and my sister before bed so many nights?  As I have grown older and my mother has started to consider me her "fraughter" (that's daughter + friend), our conversations almost always drift to books: those we have recently read and those we are hoping to read soon.  Almost every time I visit home, I wind up with a Mom-recommended book or two packed away in my bag.  I cherish the relationships I have had with the characters of well-loved books over the years and I am thankful to have this space to share the new books in my life.

In case you are interested in what I've been reading recently, I added a list of books I've read within the past three months to the blog.  Also you should check out Read All Day, the blog of a woman in CT who literally reads a book a day and then reviews them (there was an article about her in the NY Times this weekend also if you are interested). 

Most recently, I finished a book for our club meeting coming up tomorrow.  The book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, is about the circus, but this circus is not the kind you went to as a child.  This is a Depression-era show that travels the country by train and performs under a big top tent.  Despite a strong opening, I was not enamored with this book.  I usually judge books according to how deeply immersed I become in the character's lives and how much the book lingers with me once I finish reading.  Although Water for Elephants was an enjoyable read, it is not a book that will stay with me.

Told through a series of flashbacks, the book's protagonist is a 90 year old man named Jacob who now resides in a convalescent home but who once worked as a vet for a circus. The flashbacks recount the story of why and how Jacob came to work for the circus, the development of his relationship with a performer named Marlena and a disaster that led to the end of the show. The prologue of the novel contains a snippet of the disaster, a stampede of the circus animals during which a murder also happens, and certainly piqued my interest.  However, I thought Gruen ultimately failed to sustain the intensity of the opening and I often felt somewhat bored.

Most interesting to me was reading about the day-to-day experiences the circus workers lived.  The imagery was rich and I give Gruen credit for the extensive research she performed regarding the circuses of that era.  Her detailing the enormous amount of manpower and endurance required of workmen and performers to pull off the show time and time again was fascinating.  The circus entailed the setting up of tents and cookhouse, the feeding of numerous workmen and performers and animals, the task of performing crowd control, the grand attempts at living a normal life on board an overcrowded train and much more.  Notably, the schism Gruen describes between the two types of circus employees (performer and workman) was an engaging theme. 

I also enjoyed many of the minor characters--Camel, a worker who becomes sick; Walter, the dwarf with a tough exterior but caring interior; and of course Rosie, the smart elephant who saves the day in the end.  But I sensed a disconnect between the younger and older Jacobs.  The older Jacob is just so ornery and unpleasant, though I sympathized with his situation--I realize that he was unhappy with where he was living and with his frail, aging body.  I felt that the essence of the younger Jacob was pleasant, caring, and loving.  I just did not see many ways that these essential qualities carried over into the older Jacob.  Also something about Jacob and Marlena's relationship bothered me; perhaps it is in the way Gruen ties up the loose ends of the time between the end of the circus and present day.  The development of the relationship just seemed rushed to me.

All in all, Water for Elephants is an interesting and enjoyable read--just don't expect to be bowled over by it.  Have you read it?  Let me know what you thought.  I've moved on to My Life in France by Julia Child and it's lovely--I can't wait to tell you about it!

1 comment:

  1. After reading Water for Elephants I almost bought a ticket to the Coney Island Ringling Brothers Circus. :) (And part of me still wants to go...)