Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Title:  Water for Elephants

Author:  Sara Gruen

Paperback:  335 pages

ISBN:  9781565125605

…[Camel] comes to a stop in front of a stock car.  “Joe!  Hey, Joe!”

A head appears in the doorway.

“I got a First of May here.  Fresh from the crate.  Think you can use him?”

The figure steps forward onto the ramp.  He pushes up the brim of a battered hat with a hand missing three of its fingers.  He scrutinizes me, shoots an oyster of dark brown tobacco juice out the side of his mouth, and goes back inside.

Camel pats my arm in a congratulatory fashion.  “You’re in, kid.”

“I am?”

“Yep.  Now go shovel some shit.  I’ll catch up with you later.”

-Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, page 33

Jacob Jankowski was one week and his final exams away from being a vet.  Then tragedy hits, claiming the lives of his parents, and revealing that they’d mortgaged everything to keep their only child enrolled in Cornell University.  The weight and guilt of this bears down on young Jacob, and he just walks off from school… and keeps on walking.  When he finally stops for the night, he decides to jump aboard a passing train, only to find he’s just joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. 

Vividly imaginitive and well-researched, Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruenis a compelling, character-driven tale with the feel of magic and wonder we feel as children going to the circus for the first time.  It has a gritty realism to it and exposes the behind-the-scenes working and stratification of classes of the travelling circus.  Bosses, freaks, an exotic menagerie, performers, clowns and dwarfs, working men and roustabouts… in that order.  Everyone has a history, and a pervasive loneliness binds them all together.

I was enrapt by both the writing and the story in Water for Elephants.  Gruen, a female writer, captures the male perspective amazingly well.  The story takes place in two timelines:  Young Jacob at 23 and joining the circus, and the elderly Jacob, who is either 91 or 93 (he can’t remember anymore), in an assisted living facility, dealing with the emotions of being left behind -by his kids and his deceased wife- in a place where there’s baby food to eat, your neighbor poops his pants, and your desires and opinions are discounted and ignored.  I was carried along through the story, and it was over before I even knew it.

I loved Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruen and give it 5 out of 5 stars :-)

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Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages!  Presenting a video clip of Ringling Brothers Greatest Show on Earth!

:-)

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Title:  Haunted

Author:  Chuck Palahniuk

Paperback:  412 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Vintage

ISBN:  9780099497172

Looking back, it was Mr. Whittier’s stand that we’re always right.

“It’s not a matter of right and wrong,” Mr. Whittier would say.

Really, there is no wrong.  Not in our own minds.  Our own Reality.

…In your own mind, you are always right.  Every action you take – what you do or say or how you choose to appear – is automatically right the moment you act.

…We’re all condemned to be right.  About everything we can consider.

In this shifting, liquid world where everyone is right and any idea is right the moment you act on it, Mr. Whitier would say, the only sure thing is what you promise.

“Three months, you promised,” Mr. Whittier says through the steam of his coffe.

It’s then something happens, but not much.

In that next look, you feel your asshole get tight.  Your fingers fly to cover your mouth.

Miss America is holding a knife in one hand.  With her other hand, she grips the knot of Mr. Whittier’s necktie, pulling his face up toward her own.  Mr. Whittier’s coffee, dropped, spilled steaming-hot on the floor.  His hands hang, shaking, swirling the dusty air at ech side.

Saint Gut-Free’s silver bag of instant crepe Suzette drops, spilled out on the cornflower-blue carpet, the sticky red cherries and reconstituted whipped cream.

And the cat runs over for a taste.

Her eyes almost touching Mr. Whittier’s, Miss America says, “So I’m right if I kill you?”

-Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, pages 60-61

Hauntedby Chuck Palahniuk is the stories and poems within a bigger story that is the shadow of the truth.  It is the camera behind the camera behind the camera, as is often said in the book.  It’s the story of a collection of strangers who have all answered an ad about a writer’s retreat, but find it’s a lot more than they bargained for.  Mr. Whittier, the operator of the “retreat” tells them that they’ve promised to write and, for the  next three months, he intends to hold them to that promise.  However, there is an unfortunate hiccup in the plan when Whittier dies from a busted gut after eating the equivalent of 10 freeze-dried turkey dinners.  Now the strangers are on their own, locked in an abandoned hotel/theater, each with their own guilt and story to haunt them.

From a psychological/sociological point of view, this book is fascinating.  It’s  a bit like Lord of the Fliesin that it is the witness of the de-evolution of society.  How depraved can people get?  How little humanity will be left at the end of the three month period?  When food runs out (because they’ve all sabotaged the supplies) what will they eat?  That they are all there as writers and artists, what will they do with this time they are given?

It is a dark look into the human soul.  The Missing Link states that it is how we treat the animals around us that shows our humanity… the cat disappears shortly after he says this.  Director Denial makes a statement again and again that people turn each other into objects, then turn objects into people.  Points are made that humans have  a low threshhold of tolerance to boredom, that we seek out a villain to blame all our troubles on, and that we thrive on chaos, drama and disaster.  There’s no joy like the joy found in another’s suffering.  That all this drama and difficulty is to prepare us for our final act, our own death.

While these are the concepts that drew me to this book, I found the book itself a bit on the boring side.  I kept falling asleep… though, that may have been because I couldn’t nibble while reading due to the nauseatingly disgusting content.  Haunted has more canabalism in it that the Donner Party was ever accused of.  The graphic descriptions of the toilets backing up, the cooking of a baby, and decomposition were enough to make me gag. 

This is only my second Palahniuk book, Rant being my first, and I’m aware he can be a bit disgusting and warped.  One review I read said that Hauntedwas for the true Palahniuk fans.  I’ve got a few more of his books on Mt. TBR, but I think I’m going to wait for a while before reading another by him… let my stomach settle.  It’s definitely NOT for the faint of heart.

Even though it was gut-churningly gross, the intellectual appeal was enough to keep me reading on.  I give Hauntedby Chuck Palahniuk 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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One of my favorite parts of my Border’s newsletters is the shortlist.  When Palahniuk’s book Snuff came out, the following video was his shortlist offering.  I think it was this vid that made me want to read more Palahniuk (as well as pick up Clown Girl)

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

Title: The Lace Reader

Author: Brunonia Barry

Hardback: 391 pages

Publish Date: 2006

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 9780061624766

My name is Towner Whitney.  No, that’s not exactly true.  My real first name is Sophya.  Never believe me.  I lie all the time.

I am a crazy woman… That last part is true.

My little brother, Beezer, who is kinder than I, says the craziness is genetic.  We’re from five generations of crazy, he says, as if it were a badge he’s proud to wear, though he admits that I may have taken it to a new level.

…My mother, May, for example, is a walking contradiction in terms.  A dedicated recluse who (with the exception of her arrests) hasn’t left her home on Yellow Dog Island for the better part of twenty years, May has nevertheless managed to revive a ling-defunct lace-making industry and to make herself famous in the process.  She has gained considerable notoriety for rescuing abused women and children and turning their lives around, giving the women a place in her lace-making business and home-educating their children.  All this from a raging agoraphobic who gave one of her own children to her barren half sister, Emma, in a fit of generosity because, as she said at the time, there was a need, and besides, she had been blessed with a matching set.

-The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, pages 3-4

In Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, Towner Whitney lets the reader know from the start that she is an untrustworthy narrator.  Hospitalized after having suffered from depression and hallucinations at the age of 17, she has memory gaps caused from the shock-therapy she’d received as part of treatment.  She tells of her family’s gift of fortunetelling by reading lace, of her mother’s “generosity” in giving her twin sister to her Aunt Emma when they were born, and of the subsequent abuse her sister received from her adoptive father, Cal Boynton.

After being gone from Salem, Mass. for over a decade, Towner finds herself back in her Great Aunt Eva’s house, after Eva has gone missing.  Visions of past happenings, as well as psychic dreams and visits from Eva’s ghost, fill Towner’s present.  She struggles with second-guessing herself as to whether she is going crazy again or if she is really experiencing the surreal events.  The disappearance of Angela Rickey, the girlfriend of Towner’s ex-Uncle, now the Reverend Cal, sets final events into motion that bring everything to a head with some surprising twists that will keep you guessing until the very end.

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To be honest, I have mixed feelings about The Lace Reader.  For the most part, my issues aren’t really with the book itself, but with how it’s affected me after reading it.  Some of the things in the story hits very close to home, and, combined with the bad sinus and chest cold I have, has caused me to have a few nightmares. 

I really enjoyed and appreciated how Barry presented the way reading taught, how having this particular talent affects a person’s everyday life and the way they interact with people, and the way it is talked (or not talked) about within the family.  I’ve never heard of lace reading, though the principal is easy enough to understand.  I prefer tarot cards, but I’ve also read tea leaves, and all these are is a focal point to allow the vision to present itself.  I grew up in a family of “gifted” people, and I myself struggled with the question of sanity.  On page 320, Barry describes this perfectly:

You walk that line… between the real world and the world of the possible.

Towner says that this isn’t a line, but a crack into which she fell long ago.

The Lace Readerby Brunonia Barry is definitely a book meant to be read at an easy pace.  If you rush through it, you will miss a lot of the nuances.  I think I would have to say I liked it;  it is a haunting story.  I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

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