Archive for February, 2010

Sara Gruen’s, Water for Elephants

This book was a little too gritty for me, but I recognize that I’m far more sensitive about public display of sexuality than most. I understand that sensuality was a huge part of circus life. The story needed to acknowledge that part of the circus world, but I would have appreciated being spared so many of the ugly details.

In spite of this I had to keep reading. The originality of the setting, plot, and characters kept egging me on. I don’t believe I have ever encountered a story about circus performers in the 1930’s, set mostly on and just off the train. I was absolutely absorbed in that world.

I loved the parallel story lines involving old Jacob and young Jacob. It wasn’t just an older person reflecting on his former years; old Jacob had problems and struggles to overcome as well. I loved watching him in both situations growing and evolving. Just as Dave Weich says in his interview with Sara Gruen (transcript at the back of the book), juxtaposing the old Jacob with the new Jacob, “grounds some of the crazier stuff going on in his past.” It softens his wild days and endears him to the reader.

The ending was great. Gruen is not afraid of a little falling action, which I deeply appreciate. All the ends wrap up nicely, but there’s plenty of hints for Jacob’s future. I probably won’t read this book again, because of the many detailed sexual encounters, but it was well-written, well-rounded and very satisfying.

Markus Zusak, the Book Thief

Holy cow. I love this book!

The narrator is a compassionate and over-worked Death, minus the scythe, who takes mental mini-vacations by observing the varieties of colors in the sky. While working he always tries to avoid looking at grieving survivors, but his eye is caught by the face of a girl he keeps bumping into: the Book Thief.

I loved hearing about the power of words. The evil words of one man sway millions to do insane things, and the hope-filled words of one girl lift a Jewish soul from his metaphorical grave, comfort her terrified friends and family, and strengthen her own resolve to rise above her surroundings.

Without comparing it to the unspeakable suffering of Jewish people during WWII, Zusak does a brilliant job of showing how difficult life was for regular German citizens. He shows that very few of them were the intolerant madmen they’re sometimes made out to be. Most of them were just scared, hungry, and looking for a way out of their problems. Many Germans believed that minorities were being targeted unfairly, but felt powerless to meddle with that.

**Spoiler Alert** If you haven’t read this book yet, stop reading now!

I am not necessarily a lover of sad books and sad endings. It’s unbearable that Liesel looses her home and so many loved-ones. However I believe the story would have felt untrue or contrived without some great and terrible ordeal to overcome. For heaven’s sake, Death is the narrator, what else can be expected?

The great thing is the depth of Liesel’s sacrifice directly reflects the height of her victory by moving on once the dust has settled.

I wish we could have seen more of her post-war life, but it speaks well that Death didn’t come near her again until it was her time to go. The more I think about that, the more fitting and perfect it is to end the story that way.

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This book proves that Henry James is a master at fleshing-out characters and weaving relationships. Each individual was so well-developed they felt more like my dear friends rather than strangers I eaves-dropped on. In fact, the slow moments in the book were due mostly to character and setting development nearly to the point of overkill.

This story contains little action, which in my view, can easily be sacrificed to the great characters and relationships, so that wasn’t a problem for me.

The big flaw of this piece was the sudden drop at the end. I know I’ve complained about this more than once lately, but this ending was by far, the most frustrating! After several hundred pages of build-up, with one beloved character in terrible trouble, and immediately after a life-altering event takes place between two other main characters, we are notified that our main character has figured out what to do, and there the book stops.

There is no hint about how any of these situations resolve (or don’t). The reader is left to drown in a puddle of their own assumptions. Worse still, there is no hope of Henry James (who died in 1916) producing a sequel to tie up the loose ends!

I have stewed for days, wondering about my dear friends who simply ceased to exist. Even though the ending of this book fully invites the reader to do so, I feel I have no right to draw my own conclusions as these people are entirely fictional, and I did not invent them.

*Grrrr* Unless you’ve no problem exercising your imagination upon the work of others, you may want to skip this one.