Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The 50 Book Challenge: #1: Water For Elephants

I got this book, by Sarah Gruen, for Christmas from dear friends. It was the perfect vacation read: lots of action, intrigue, and a fast-paced, well-written narrative. In other words, a fun read.

I've actually never been to a circus. Growing up poor and under puritan Asian parents, fun and diversions of any kind were not encouraged, not even "artistic" diversions: no movies, shows, nothin'. Not even art museums. This was the state of things up till college pretty much, and even through some years of college. Nothing at all beyond school and homework, although if I finished all of my homework and my extra math homework (my one weak area), then I was permitted to read novels and buy classical music CDs from the bargain bins at The Wherehouse. PBS sometimes showed good movies and documentaries. I also pretended to eat lunch but instead shoved my lunch money towards books and CDs, or bought bags of books indiscriminately from library sales for $1--this is why I am a voracious reader and buyer, and act like one who is famished: I am only beginning to understand the concept shelfworthiness and limited shelf space, as a starving person who is suddenly before a buffet can barely understand the concept of gluttony. But books are my way into the world. I have always lived vicariously through books (and film and music): I have traveled the world through my eyes and ears, my feet planted firmly on the ground and my butt planted deeply in some chair.

Things are changing now that I'm an adult and actually experiencing the world, but I still have never been to a circus. Or zoo. Or anywhere outside of the U.S. This is slightly related to my admissions that I don't know how to bike, ski, or swim very well. All in due time. I'm still reading, at least.

I am happy to report that for one who has never in her life seen an elephant, a clown, or any circus-y thing, this book fully realizes that world and makes it very rich and encompassing. The sights and smells, the jargon and characters--they actually all feel real, even when they are absurd. This is a good thing. The story is interesting enough, and stuff does actually happen--a plot climax that is hinted at from the very beginning is not surprising, but nevertheless extraordinary. Basically, a guy had bad stuff happen to him right before graduating from Cornell with a veterinary degree, and this being The Great Depression, he runs off and joins the circus. A two-bit, second-rate, on-the-verge-of-broke circus, inhabited by crazy characters with grandiose plans but limited prospects. Crazy adventures ensue: there is a great love story, a murder, and a big elephant. They are all related stories. The elephant is actually the heroine of the story. The narrator is sympathetic without being annoying, and I didn't mind the time-shifting from narrator-old-man-in-present-time to narratory-as-young man in past-as-present recalled in vivid detail. It didn't come off as weird or unrealistic. And despite the glut of "death-with-dignity" or "old-age-with-grace" books and movies (cough Bucket List cough), this one wasn't cloying or cliche.

It was sensitive but real: an old man reflects on his rich life, and in recounting the story, which is at many turns terrible, realizes how much he's lived and how wonderful it was really living, even when the living was difficult. Because now he is very ambivalent about the point of living, when he is alone in an assisted living center, unable to recall much, worried about losing his memory and mind, and waiting to die. This ambivalence rings true. I am not a fan of maudlin, saccharine narratives that suggest things are always awesome. This is why I hate uncritical pro-pregnancy/pro-baby movies. I am also not a fan of "old people rock" narratives when clearly, aging carries much deleterious change, resulting in ambivalence towards the continuation of life when the conditions for life change so markedly. My own parents are aged and suffering from pain, which is why I am the one doing so much child care (and why you don't have blog posts to read). Growing old can of course be dignified and meaningful. But this doesn't mean it's a picnic. The book ends on a more hopeful note than I would have expected/liked, but it was deserved. I am okay with the idea that new adventures can occur even after one life has already been lived.

I have in the space of a week talked about my ambivalence towards pregnancy, child-rearing, and aging, and have thus offended people I tend to like: women, parents and old people. I'll stop now, but say that this book is a fun read if you like escapist yarns set in a weird new world, told by a sympathetic narrator.


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