Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

Paperback: 350 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (April 9, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1565125606
ISBN-13: 978-1565125605

If there is a theme to my reading in 2011, it is a rush to read books that have been on my list for ages, before they are ruined by Hollywood. I am a book-to-film skeptic. I understand that they are two different art forms and I must expect changes during a conversion. I get that. I have just never found a film adaptation that was better – or even as good as – the book it is based on. I’m sure the same can be said in the opposite direction too, though books based on films are far less common.

Regardless, that has almost nothing to do with the following review, except that I first bought Water for Elephants as a gift for my sister-in-law for Christmas 2009. It looked fantastic. I figured I’d probably end up borrowing her copy when she finished, or buying myself another copy, and I’d have it read by spring. Didn’t happen. I was in school and working and reading other stuff for book club. I have a very long to-be-read list. This was just one more.

Then I cringed upon hearing the film was being made and learning who was cast. I hate reading a book when I know what actor has been cast for each role, because I cannot put it out of my head and thus can’t decide for myself what that character looks like, which really is half the fun of reading.

So I rushed out to buy myself a copy and read the book as quickly as I could before anything else was ruined.

The good news: nothing could ruin this book. It was fantastic. Well researched. Well written. Well developed characters. Well, well, well.

Quick synopsis: Jacob is studying to be a vet at Cornell. He is suddenly orphaned, left destitute, and does not sit his final exams. Then he accidentally runs away with the circus. Then he meets Marlena. Cue some glitz, glamour, sex, violence, murder and mayhem under the Big Top. And a Polish speaking elephant. Many years later, 90 (or 93) year old Jacob tells his story from a nursing home.

The bulk of the plot occurs in 1931, through flashbacks or dream sequences. Jacob and Marlena fall in love. They train Rosie (the elephant) to be a star. They protect her from August’s cruelty. They make other friends along the way. And then the whole circus falls apart in a dramatic ending.Yet, the pieces of the narrative that really stick with me are the scenes with Jacob as an old man, frustrated with the limitations of his body, and with the world’s assumption that his mind must be similarly limited as well. Here we see a different, empathetic side of the stereotypical cranky old man. And he is extremely endearing.

Pattinson and Witherspoon in Water for Elephants.

Most of us will never join a circus. But most of us will grow old. It is this side of Jacob that makes him such a great character: an old man, sad for what he has lost, but reflecting with joy and pride on all that he did and accomplished, and the people he loved.

Highly recommended.

Also: Saw the film yesterday. All things considered, a pretty good adaptation. The idea of pairing Reese Witherspoon with Robert Pattinson seemed ridiculous, but it worked. He makes a much better vet than vampire. Not as good as the book of course, but I would never expect that.


Jane Eyre: book & film review

Author: Charlotte Brontë

Genre: Gothic Horror

Publisher: Smith, Elder & Co., Cornhill

Publication Date: October 1847

What can be said about Jane Eyre that has not already been said by someone far more clever and better read than myself? I feel foolish even trying to review this classic, but that’s what this space is for, and that is why you are here reading, so here I go.

Jayne Eyre was written by Charlotte Brontë, originally published in 1847 as a five-part serial under the name Currier Bell, because of course, ladies just were not published in those days. (Notably, her sisters also published famous books that year: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë/Ellis Bell, and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë/Acton Bell – see the pattern here?)

The Brontë’s do dark and brooding better than any author I have read. Honestly, Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester make Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy look like a ray of sunshine. But back to the story:

Jane Eyre is an orphan. The story opens with her being “cared for” by her aunt, who considers her a burden and whose family never accept her. After a chilling scene where Jane is locked in an upper bedroom and nearly frightened to death, her aunt ships her off to Lowood, a boarding school run by a minister who believes the best way to raise proper Christian girls is a combination of a starvation diet and public humiliation. Jane makes her first ever friend, who later dies in her arms (typhus? consumption? I don’t remember).

Things improve somewhat at Lowood over the years as staff changes, and after she finishes schooling, Jane stays on as a teacher before accepting a position as governess at Thornfield. Enter Mr. Rochester: brooding, mysterious, and burdened with secrets. Rochester is accustomed to people being intimidated by his dark moods and outbursts, and is intrigued by Jane who has no fear of him. This being a Victorian novel, they of course fall in love, and plan to marry – but fate and the secrets of Rochester’s past intervene. Rather than stay at Thornfield  to be Rochester’s mistress, Jane leaves, penniless and alone, nearly starves to death but is eventually saved by the Rivers family, who take her in, feed her, and set her up with a job. In a “twist” typical of novels of the period, the Rivers’ turn out to be her cousins, and they all share in an inheritance when a long-lost uncle dies. The stage seems set for a not-unhappy ending, but the tale of Mr. Rochester is not yet over…

Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourite heroine’s. Often, my favourite books involve people I can’t like (Wuthering Heights, anyone?) but Jane is a character you cannot help but root for. She suffers, yet remains strong. Falls in love, but will not debase herself. She is honest and true to herself always.

This past Saturday, after a long day of packing and cleaning the house, I headed to the Oxford theatre to watch the latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre (starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds)  and directed by Cary Fukunaga). I was skeptical, as always with a book adapted to film, but must say I enjoyed the film and will probably purchase it to watch again (and again). The novel is split into three parts. Almost like acts in a play: her early life, her time at Thornfield , and her time with the Rivers family. The storyline at Thornfield  is by far the most interesting and best written section of the book, and it is naturally what the film focuses on, treating the other aspects of the narrative as mere introductions and conclusions to what is otherwise a love story. (There were many years between my first reading of the story and rereading it last year. I honestly had forgotten all about her aunt and the Rivers family – remembering only a sad childhood, a school, Thornfield  and Rochester… and something that happened after she ran away from Thornfield .)

Jane did not lie. She would not have told this man he was not handsome.

The film captures the dark, gothic aspects of the novel very well. I went to the theatre alone – on a whim, needing a break from work – and sitting in the dark balcony of the Oxford as unknown creatures prowled the halls of Thornfield , I found myself wishing I had brought a friend. Rochester and Jane were well cast – though Rochester was a bit too handsome to be believable. He was not supposed to be a handsome character, but that would just not be acceptable on film. And of course, Dame Judi Dench is splendid as Mrs. Fairfax, the widowed housekeeper at Thornfield  – though almost wasted in such a small role.

If I can say one more thing about Jane Eyre it is this: unlike many novels of its time, it is far more than a romance. It’s classified by Wikipedia as “Gothic Horror” which I love, but I think describing it as horror is a stretch. Thriller, maybe. While the title character may be female, it is not a book written for women as is so often presumed. My husband got a few odd looks while reading it on a military base in the middle of the Balkans a few years back, but he thoroughly enjoyed it, and he’s a harsher book critic than I will ever be (if only because in his mind, nothing will ever be as good as The Lord of the Rings).


Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Publisher: Faber and Faber (Mar 3 2005)
Pages: 272
ISBN-10: 0571224113
ISBN-13: 978-0571224111

Never Let Me Go is set in England in the late 1990s and is narrated by Kathy. Kathy has been working as a carer for more than 11 years, an unusually long time, but her term will be ending soon.

Kathy looks after organ donors, and her patients do exceptionally well, for repeat donors. Yes, repeat donors. The first clue that there is something odd about the book comes early on, when you realize Kathy’s patients are only allowed to stop donating when they ‘complete,’ which the reader soon begins to realize means ‘die.’

Because of her success as a carer, Kathy has been allowed to choose some of the patients she cares for and has chosen to work with old friends Tommy and Ruth. This leads to stories from her days at Hailsham. Hailsham at first appears a prestigious boarding school, but again it becomes apparent things aren’t normal here either. None of the students seem to have parents. Teachers are referred to as ‘guardians.’ Students know almost nothing about the outside world.

As Kathy reminisces about her days as a student and deals with the present, it becomes chillingly clear what status she, Tommy and Ruth hold in society and exactly what kind of school Hailsham was.

I had heard this book was a bit slow, but I was gripped from the first few paragraphs. I do have a but of a love affair with dystopian fiction, so it was perhaps a given that I would enjoy the book, but I didn’t expect to love it the way I did. A fantastic story. Well told. If I gave stars, this would get five of them.

When I finished the novel I rushed out to rent the new film, staring Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightly and Andrew Garfield. Also very good, but lacks a lot of the back story. Read the novel first.


Barney’s Version: the film

Date night last night. D and I went to the movies, and though it wasn’t his first choice, he graciously agreed to watch Barney’s Version with me. The fact that it is playing at The Oxford (best theatre ever) helped a lot.

I really enjoyed the film. I mean, I have a long list of things I can’t believe they did to such a fabulous book, but long story short: it was a good but not excellent film, Paul Giamatti was fantastic–the perfect Barney, Minnie Driver was hilariously over the top, and Dustin Hoffman was hilarious as his Dad (I didn’t expect to like that choice). I recommend you go see it. I also recommend you bring tissue. I’m not usually a crier when it comes to movies, though a sad book kills me. Maybe because I’d just finished reading it? Or maybe I’m getting softer with age.

Just bear in mind: He lived in Paris in his 20’s, not Rome. Everything the film says happened in New York should have happened in Toronto. And Solange (the actress who is reduced to a sad stereotype) was a much deeper character and a great friend to Barney.