Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book Club Updates, Water for Elephants Review

As you recall, we read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen last month. It was a well told and well researched book about the early days of the American circus. The book is told both in the present and in 1931 by Jacob Jankowski. We start with him in an old folk's home, where he tells us he's either 90 or 93. He's past caring at this point about pretty much anything. Then one day he sees a bunch of the other patients gathered at one of the windows. He goes over to see what they are all looking at and finds that the circus is in town, and within throwing distance of his geriatric home.

The appearance of the circus brings back memories of his first experience with the circus, which began just as he was finishing his veterinarian degree at Cornell University. He goes through a tragic time and leaves in the middle of his final exams, walking until his legs get tired. Where his legs led him was to the town's railroad tracks. He jumps on the next passing train, although it's late at night and he's not sure what type of train he's just hitched. In the morning he finds that it's a circus train and he's taken on as the circus veterinarian.

The book then goes through his time on the circus, his interactions with the beautiful Marlena and her abusive husband, August. Not only does August treat Marlena badly, but he abuses the animals, especially Rosie, the Polish-speaking elephant taken on by Uncle Al, the circus ringleader.

I know not all people are huge fans of circuses, but if you can stomach it I highly suggest you read this book. It's obvious from her writing that Gruen has a soft spot for the circus and this time period. She wrote about it in a lovely way, without being too easy on the circus operators. She showed the dark side of the circus (beating animals, low pay, difference between working men and performers, etc.) without overdoing it. I never felt like she was trying to harp on about animal abuse or any of the other terrible things that used to happen in circuses. And the archive photos from Ringling and other circuses made the book even that much more fun to read.

THIS MONTH: For April I had a lot of suggestions from members, and I finally decided on The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

I chose this book because I think it will encourage an interesting discussion at our next book club meeting (April 26, 2 p.m. at Cafe Bernardo's on R and 15th Streets in Sacramento), and because I read Infidel, Hirsi Ali's memoirs, last year and learned quite a bit about Islam and the way women are treated within it. It both outraged and inspired me, and I feel this book will do the same.

From Amazon: "Muslims who explore sources of morality other than Islam are threatened with death, and Muslim women who escape the virgins' cage are branded whores. So asserts Ayaan Hirsi Ali's profound meditation on Islam and the role of women, the rights of the individual, the roots of fanaticism, and Western policies toward Islamic countries and immigrant communities. Hard-hitting, outspoken, and controversial, The Caged Virgin is a call to arms for the emancipation of women from a brutal religious and cultural oppression and from an outdated cult of virginity. It is a defiant call for clear thinking and for an Islamic Enlightenment. But it is also the courageous story of how Hirsi Ali herself fought back against everyone who tried to force her to submit to a traditional Muslim woman's life and how she became a voice of reform."

I hope to see more people participate in both the online and live discussion of this book. I'm looking forward to seeing you all in person.

Other blog reviews of Water for Elephants:
Reading Adventures
A Year of Books
My Year of Reading Seriously
Living to Read


Chason said...

I think that Gruen used Jacob as a conduit for her own feelings about animals. In the little biography on the book jacket it says that Gruen has a number of different animals, including a horse. In the book, Jacob sees himself as the caretaker and advocate for the animals. He gives them a voice they otherwise wouldn't have. Uncle Al would just as soon pitch an animal over a trestle if they got sick or lame. He sees them as money machines for him and as soon as they aren't viable vehicles for his ambitions he'd have them taken out and shot (or have their sloats slit like the horses in the book). I was sort of glad that Gruen didn't use the book as a way to be preachy about animal rights because it made the book much more authentic. I'm sure that during the Depression people surely didn't view animals as companions as many people do today. They were property, not living beings with thoughts and feelings.
"The Caged Virgin" sounds interesting. It definitely is not a book I would have chosen for myself to read. It should be a mind-expanding read for me as I have next-to-no knowledge of Islam.

Becca said...

Chasemeister: There's no way Uncle Al would have pitched them over a trestle. He would have them fed to the lions so he wouldn't have to buy meat.

I'm glad you approve of the selection. I hope you like it.

Dewey said...

Your book club sounds so enviable! I wish I could join, but alas, the airfare every month would be a nightmare!

Becca said...

Dewey: Well, you can always participate in the online discussions! I don't have enough distance readers yet to get the comment boards going, so feel free to participate ... that is if you can fit another book in. ;-)

Chason said...

I finished "The Caged Virgin" this morning. Very disturbing. Gives new meaning to the word "enabling" in terms of what Western countries do most of the time for immigrant populations and the traditions they bring with them from their native countries.

Heather Johnson said...

Here's a link to my review of Water for Elephants, and I'm going to link my review to yours. :)

As always, a pleasure to visit The Inside Cover!