Thursday, November 02, 2006

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

What a wonderful story. This is a truly engrossing page-turner that hits almost all the right notes and meticulously paints a picture of a time when the world was much larger. Just as he’s about to graduate from college and take his final exams to become a veterinarian, Jacob Jankowski loses his parents in a tragic car accident. Finding they had mortgaged absolutely everything to put him through school, he despondently hops a freight only to find it’s a circus train. The Greatest Show on Earth it ain’t. The Benzini Bros. Circus is as third rate as it comes but Jacob finds work as a much-needed vet. Gruen did a ton of research and it shows–her evocation of this Depression-era circus, the language of the time and how a circus functions, day to day and town to town, is remarkable. The characters that people the circus are memorable and she manages to humanize the minor characters--the roustabouts, dwarves and cooch dancers--as well as the main characters like Uncle Al, the sadistic ringmaster and boss; August, the psychotic head animal trainer and his wife, the circus’ star, Marlena, whom Jacob falls for immediately; even Rosie the elephant. The only disappointment was the ending, part of which I could see coming a mile away. Still I cried like the fool I am for stories like this. This is a must-read.

Not Enough Indians by Harry Shearer

Yes, that Harry Shearer, of The Simpsons and Spinal Tap fame. Set in Gammage (rhymes with damage, I’m guessing), NY, Shearer’s debut novel begins when an idea is hatched by the local politicos to reinvigorate the financially depressed town by opening an Indian casino. The rub is that there are no Indians so they call in an “expert” who makes a specious claim that most of the residents are 1/16 Filaquonsett, a tribe that used to live in the area but were relocated to reservations by the US government a generation or two before. From here, Shearer lets his zany & madcap cast of characters run the show all the while trying to comment on greed, big business, and political correctness. It only works occasionally. The peculiarities and peccadilloes of the townsfolk are forced, the commentaries on modern day America are thin and the ending falls flat. Still, Shearer can turn a phrase and does dash off some clever lines that caused me to laugh out loud a few times. Not what I had hoped for but not as terrible as it could have been. I can only hope he has another, better novel in him but it seems, after reading some of his non-fiction works that also weren’t as funny as we all know Harry Shearer is, perhaps he’s better off reading and acting out the writings of others.