Book Review: Water For Elephants

* “Hey! Don’t crowd, mister! Can’t you see an elephant or do I have to paint her red?”

** Side Note: Think of this as a Doc Jensen column. It might be long. It might take a side trip. But, it’s all worth it in the end.**

When you go into your favorite Borders or Barnes & Noble, where do you find most of your books? Do you go straight to Fiction? Or Non-fiction? How about right to the Self-help section?

Wherever you look, I bet you find yourself scouring the rows and rows of freshly pressed books for that specific piece of literature of which you simply can’t remember the author’s name. So, you stretch and crouch, walk back and forth, until you find it. Your so happy and exhausted from the long search at this point, you dart right to the cashier, club card in hand, cash already on the counter, completely passing the best place to find a new read.

What? What is that you said?

Yes. As soon as you have exhausted yourself looking for that one book and are ready to go pay for it, you pass right by the elite treasure trove for paperback and hardcover delights: The clearance table.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The clearance table? Isn’t that where they have the reject books? The ones that have poorly written story-lines and cheeky callous characters? Nope. It’s not. It used to be. But, it’s not anymore. Today, it’s a wonderful collection of reads that usually score high marks with reviewers. Reading has become . . . hip in the last couple years. So, the book sellers are getting with the times and marking down prices (Maybe only for a short time) of amazing books.

How you ask, does this relate to Water For Elephants? Well it’s more of a caution tale, really. Late last year, I came across a book. This book, at the clearance table. I can’t remember the exact price, or why I wanted to exactly read it. But, I remember it being in my price range and the story sounded interesting. Now this is where the tale comes in. I put the book down. I know! Why? Why would I do that? I wanted to read it. It was cheap. So, why did I put it down? I have no clue. And as the story always goes: I forgot about it, for a long time. Until, that one day, where the memory popped open and I found myself a new book to read.

The point of this long, long story: Don’t pass up the bargain table. It’s really the gateway to wonderful books that you’ll probably love, once you read them. And now, since I lost most of you, let’s review this book!

Water For Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski in two parts. There is Jacob Jankowski the ninety or ninety-three year old man, who lives in an assisted living facility and can’t seem to get any respect from anyone around him. And there’s Jacob Jankowski the twenty-something, a Cornell educated veterinarian who just lost his parents.

The two work seamlessly together to tell a story about one man. About one life. A life that rode the rails. A life that joined the circus after a tragic loss. A life that joined the seedy, questionable Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

The book is a compilation of the circus underbelly; the raw power and corrupt ways of Uncle Al, the shows ringmaster and manager; the people: Walter the clown and his dog Queenie who don’t immediately share in a fondness for Jacob. Camel, the wise old man who drinks too much and is the reason why Jacob gets the job as the shows vet. August, the unpredictable director of the circus menagerie and Jacob’s boss. And Marlena, August’s wife, who brings the crowd in with her amazing equestrian act.

As Jacob’s bizarre journey with the depression era circus continues through hell or high water, he learns that there is more to the circus than just the glamour and glitz. The performers have their own brutal class system, the working men can’t be paid, and as a result of Uncle Al’s sadistic ways, the men are thrown off the train when they aren’t needed anymore.

Then when it seems that the loss of a failing circus is Uncle Al’s gain, he purchases Rosie the elephant, who has a large craving for popcorn and bubble gum and is seemingly unable to follow even the simplest command. This is a large disappointment for the almost bankrupt circus, until Jacob learns the secret to make Rosie perform.

At its core, Water For Elephants is a story about the search for truth and love among the circus. About finding your own voice. About standing up for what’s right. Sara Gruen’s characters are charming with their own individual stories that always leave you wanting more. It’s a classic in terms of circus tales (i.e The Greatest Show on Earth).

It’s an easy read, yet trying to put the book down is an obstacle you’re going to face. I absolutely loved it. The characters are strong, but sometimes I wanted a little more from young Jacob and Marlena. August is the strongest out of the large group of characters and probably my least favorite, which means he’s probably the most well written. The ending comes quick, and it leaves you questioning the years and years that have been skipped. Though, the precise moment and how the story ends is perfect.

Now, I want you to go out and read this first, because if I tell you right now that it’s been made into a movie, you’re less likely to read the actual book and just wait until the movie comes out (You know who you are). So, forget that I said that it’s been made into movie. It hasn’t (It has). Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz is not playing August (He is). And another actor (who I would like to remain nameless because you might have certain assumptions about) is not playing Jacob (He is). Though all this really doesn’t matter because you can look up all this information on imdb. So . . . let’s just say I’m excited for the movie and I really loved this book.

Book Rating: A-

* “We bring you the circus, pied piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages, from six to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter and whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of blaring and daring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars. But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline and motion and speed. A mechanized army on wheels, that rolls over any obstacle in its path, that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling. A place where disaster and tragedy stalk the big top, haunt the backyard, and ride the circus train. Where death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear. A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds. That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the big tops, and of the men and women who fight to make it The Greatest Show on Earth” The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth!

* Quotes from The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

See you tomorrow! – Kim

Have you read Water For Elephants? What did you think? Will you read it? Have you heard about the movie? Tell me in the comments!

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