Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's not about the elephants

Surprisingly "Water for Elephants" wasn't about elephants at all. In fact, there was only one elephant in the entire book and she didn't show up until about halfway through. But that didn't disappoint me at all, and really, I don't think I could have read a whole book based solely upon elephants, as intriguing and fascinating the pachyderms may be, a whole book about them would have been too much for me.

Jacob Jankowski is 90, or 93, he can't really remember. He lives in a nursing home and is coming to terms with his failing body and failing mind. We get a full color, no-holds barred glimpse into his amazing memories, memories of himself as a young man who became an orphan during the Great Depression, dropped out of veterinary school during finals and jumped a rickety train transporting the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The glimpses of Jacob's past are given to us a few chapters at time and nestled between the chapters chronicling his current memory lapses and frustrations with his failing body. One of the most poignant "old man" scenes is when Jacob is looking at his hands, his veiny, thin, hands and realizing how very weak he has become. He hates to look at his own hands, his face, his body, because it doesn't look like himself, it looks like an old man. He comes across as a very cranky old man who is is irritated by the senile old people in wheelchairs surrounding him. If we never learned his past through his memories, he would seem to be a very bitter, very angry old dude. Having the information about his past gives readers a whole new understanding to his crankiness.

Did I mention I had a really, really hard time putting this book down every time I picked it up? Yup, I did. It's not very often I become so engrossed in a book that I want to skip out of real life for awhile, but Sara Gruen's writing made me actually feel like I was there beside Jacob working on the show, smelling the popcorn and the cotton candy and the menagerie animals and falling in love with the circus star, Marlena.

It is obvious that Gruen spent years researching Depression-era circuses and her research paid off in spades. It feels real, not contrived, not just someone's fantasy world. The whole book feels real, like you could just close your eyes, sink into the pages and be right there on the train making the jump from one spot to the next.

I didn't want to leave the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and being there in my mind brought back some very vivid memories of my own and of running off to join the circus, or, in my case, the carnival.

What? You didn't know that? You didn't know I once ran away to join the carnival? Maybe I'll share that story one day. But not today.

Anyway, read this book if you enjoy a good, believable story told through tremendous writing, real characters displayed with all their flaws and humanity and topped off with incredible research. After you read it, read it again then borrow it to someone else. Share the wealth, share the experience.

I will definitely be heading back for another trip with Jacob, Marlena, August and the Benzini Brothers. They are characters that live in my memory and they are so finely written they almost seem to be real people I once knew. Now that's the mark of excellent writing.


goat roper said...

Thanks for the book reviews, I have a new list going of books to read. Still working my way through the 'must read' novel list. What is your favorite? (How can anyone have one favorite?)

Jenn said...

You're welcome, Goat Roper! I've managed to find a cache of fantastic books lately, with very few duds and I enjoy sharing the wealth when I find a good one.

I would have to say out of all the books I've read most recently, "Water for Elephants" would have to be my favorite.

It's hard to choose an all-time favorite book...but I would have to say George Orwell's "1984," Wilson Rawls' "Where the Red Fern Grows" and M.K. Rawling's "The Yearling," are high on the list of ones I've read a few times and will read again.