Monday, January 10, 2011

Water for Elephants

I love elephants! Perhaps it’s my jealousy at their ability to consume copious amounts of liquids while maintaining a descent cuddly elephant body or it could be they just always look happy. Something about the symmetry of the huge trunk shooting water and the delicious folded back ears spells smiley jubilant enthusiasm to me. They just seem like vast loads of fun.

I want a pet elephant, although obviously an elephant doesn’t even fit in my cloistered fourth floor box apartment, so it would have to be a baby elephant—an unrealistic pint-sized scale runt of the litter would be best. How fun would it be to have a baby elephant the size of a kitten? Can you picture the little elephant noise it would make?

With that in mind, when a friend recommended I read Water for Elephants I couldn’t resist my affinity for the loveable jolly beast. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Turns out it’s an epic tale about the “land before law” circus much like a couple of my favorite books The Jungle (about the meat packing industry before the FDA) and Oil! (the greed of the oil rush in California loosely depicted in There Will Be Blood).

No matter how good or bad a read is, if you walk away with something from it—the time spent was a success. I don’t think Water for Elephants is anywhere near one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. But, the book properly took me on a journey through the early days of a grassroots circus with all the proper trimmings of an epic tale that will surely make a good movie; love, action, blood, thirst, etc.

I really made the connection that I’m obsessed with the era of this country before lawyers and law protected people from themselves. It seems to me before the shield of law and overpowering government rule integrity was upheld by the common man. And I believe that always makes for an entertaining story. How sets of circumstances take common people with seemingly common skills and are then forced to overcome the situation.

Western society forced people to be more grizzled and stick up for others when they notice they’re being wronged. In today’s day one can actually get in trouble more for being a “good Samaritan” than sitting back and watching society shred itself raw. Unless it’s the last episode of Seinfeld, in most cases people are better off watching injustice than getting involved with something that doesn’t concern them. In the westerns the Man vs. Man action seems to uphold more integrity, because people had to look out for each other as a whole in the face of society.

The more something is broken, the more people will band together.

Author Sara Gruen does a great job (extra points for her mastery of the em-dash prose style) setting up this scene of absolute terror and mistrust in the misguided circus society, before there was law. It’s amazing to me that people were able to live through such conditions. It makes me think about how easy things are for me. Like the difference between playing sports and playing sports on ice. If you can’t skate ice hockey seems impossible! Society has done a nice job removing our need to skate, but there is a reason ice hockey is the most fun sport to watch live.

In The Jerk (file this movie as the Ryan C. Zerfas bible), the circus is depicted as a last ditch effort for Steve Martin to “find his special purpose” while exploring what the world has to offer. The main character in Water for Elephants is going through a similar situation. Having suffered a dramatic family situation Jacob Jankowski needs to take time to find himself and stumbles upon the opportunity to travel the nation by train and be a part of “the greatest show on Earth.” When thinking about society as it was then, the circus was probably not a bad place to be, allowing the circus to be a grandiose testament to growing America rather than fodder for carnie folklore.

I doubt I am the target audience for this book, but I read with reckless abandon just the same. Once the elephant is introduced, I found myself wanting more and more elephant in the story. Gruen did a nice job making the elephant a desired spectacle much like the sound of an ice cream truck in the summer when you were a kid. You don’t know when it’s coming, but as you’re playing in the streets every now and again you get distracted and hunger for that loud over-amplified cheap carnival sound to drive by. And when it does…it’s glorious…and tops the day with a bountiful reward.

Although none of the other characters were extremely captivating to me, the setting and unfolding action was enough to keep me entertained between musings of the elephant. I think this movie will be amazing. I saw the preview when going to True Grit and the character Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards) is going to play (August) should be nothing short of spectacular. After Inglorious Bastards I believe him to be the next Tommy Lee Jones or Gene Hackman of our generation—playing supporting roles in many films, often stealing the show with outrageous verisimilitude.

Lastly, this book was clearly well researched. Much like Upton Sinclair, Gruen intertwined real bits of circus history into the fictional tale to give the story an authentic trumpeted texture. It’s really worth reading the post story notes, which is something I usually avoid, but in this case it depicts the time, research and unruly writing process necessary to make the story come to life.

So whether you like elephants like I do (actually, please let me know if you do…) or you like epic books that will soon be epic movies—I believe this to be a worthwhile, but not life changing read.

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