Summer Reading – Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

First of all, I didn’t read the one with this cover. Because I think it’s a bit too distracting. I think my motivation for reading it is a bit obvious. Though I was too late to see the movie in theatre and per my last google search far too early to see it on DVD. However, there’s a reason that the circus idea appealed to me.

I went to the circus for the first time that I really remember when I was about 14 (the things that I’m fuzzy on recollection-wise get punted into this year for some reason). Camille and I went to the circus at the Ice Palace with some friends of the family that at the time had two small girls. Camille left with one of those collapsible light-saber type toys that had a tiger head on the handle. I’m sure I got something, but I have no idea what it was. I remember thinking it smelled sort of funny and I wasn’t terribly impressed. It could have been my brief sulky teenager phase. I don’t know. But there’s something about the circus, huh?

Dumbo as far as I can remember was one of my least favourite Disney movies. I just remember it being loud. (I was not a fan of cacophonous children’s programming. The best shows in my opinion were “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Reading Rainbow“.) And I believe I don’t need to spend any time talking about how creepy clowns are to children. There have been whole sociological studies done about why they are so creepy (I read one once anyway, I’ll try to find a link). But there’s something about the circus, eh?

Another contributor to this twisted fascination with the circus has something to do with the fact that for most of my life I’ve lived between 5 and 30 minutes away from Gibsonton. Gibsonton is where all the Carnie workers retire. For realz.

For me it is difficult to separate what I perceive as themes in my life. All of these small facts I have shared with you bring me to this: beyond wanting to see the movie, I am certain I picked up this book so that I could begin to understand why everyone is so fascinated by the circus despite its innumerable infamous qualities (vagrants and animal cruelty and the like).

For the main character it was an intense physical attraction that morphed into a sort of protective love. (So, not the healthiest love story, but an upgrade from the love interest’s first husband). I kept thinking of Water for Elephants‘s similarities with The Notebook. It is told as a sort of present retrospective. The narrator suffers from dementia that makes it difficult for him to recognize the passing of time. He can’t quite remember what year it is or how old he is and argues that after 80 it doesn’t make much difference. He is rather entertaining in his own curmudgeon-y way. I loved reading his interactions with the other retirees and nurses in his assisted living facility.

As for the circus and the characters of the circus I loved the gritty authenticity portrayed by the author. It was outlandishly normal. The reality of traveling with many animals and people from place to place via railway as well as the cash flow problems faced by the owner were well spun and descriptive.

As for the plot I’m struck now by the sort of genius way it was presented. To use circus lingo you are presented with one plot-line that you assume is the center ring attraction. The sideshow plot-line seems a bit annoying as the action in the main ring develops. And then BAM! they up and switch on you. It’s quite exciting.

It reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury’s circus themed short stories. As well as a short story in the 2010 Edition of The Best American Short Stories called “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” by Brendan Mathews. You should check those out if you enjoy good short stories and are interested in the circus as a setting.

Wednesday I’ll talk some more about the actual elements of Gruen’s style that I learned from and appreciated. Tomorrow’s my first review of a standalone short story… so we’ll see how that goes.

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