Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

Heard about this because it was one of those books that is always on front shelves at Bongs & Noodles.

I know it is contradictory to say that I enjoyed this and then file it as an unfavorite, but it’s true. I enjoyed it in that I carried on reading it all the way to the end, so I guess something about it must have been interesting and absorbingish. Basically, the story is narrated by an old man who is slipping in and out of the present into his past, when he worked as a circus vet in the Depression. (I don’t like the Depression. I know that everybody didn’t like the Depression, but I just want to go on record as disliking it.) There is an elephant and an crabby midget and a pretty girl and some crazy people. I love circuses (in theory – I have never actually been to one). I really wanted to like this book. I really really did. I’m not just saying that.

It’s just – I didn’t give a shit what happened to anyone. The guy’s two best friends get killed by the crazy circus people, and I just didn’t care at all. I didn’t care if the elephant got killed; I didn’t care if the chick stayed with her crazy-ass husband or ran off with the narrator; I didn’t care about anything that happened to anyone, ever. And you know, that isn’t really the mark of a great novel.

The concept was interesting, a Depression-era train circus and its wild and wacky adventures, but it wasn’t worked out at all well. The transitions between the bits with the old guy in the nursing home and the bits of his past that he remembers are really, really not smooth (mostly), which has led me to believe I can (and will!) do better with such a frame. There was a very unfortunate combination in this bookydook of excitable prose and unbelievable relationships (I don’t know if that’s the right adjective, but my point is that there was nothing the least bit realistic or moving about these relationships), which gave the novel a feeling of fantasy rather than history. In a way that might be a good thing, but because it was a historical novel, it made the history bits sound made-up, and everyone worked together in a painful congruence to make this book seem childish and very unfinished. Which is a shame, because I think there is a fascinating book in there somewhere, and I have no doubt that the truth about Depression-era circuses is most riveting.

Pooh.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Recommended by: http://poodlerat.bellonae.com

I totally love this woman’s name. Her book was sad. All about a controlling abusive Catholic Nigerian (what a string of adjectives) father and his wife and two children; the young girl narrates the story. That’s it, really. I wish I had more to say about this book. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was very very sad. And also melancholy. Ms. Adichie is good at evoking a mood. However, this book was very very sad and never will I ever read it again although I enjoyed it. It’s a fast read – I read it during a short break from Forever Amber when we were camping– so don’t avoid it because you fear hours and hours of misery.

Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Heard about in: Die for Love, by Elizabeth Peters

Apparently this book got edited down to one-fifth of its original length, for which I can only say praise God (though it must be thrilling for Forever Amber scholars to get their hands on the original manuscript, if it still exists). I cannot imagine how she could have gotten four times that much again into the silly book. Amber gets married FOUR TIMES over the course of the book and has lots of silly affairs and moans a lot about how her true love Bruce Carlton thinks she’s too trashy for him which is a bit rich I think considering that he’s sleeping around as much as she is and repeatedly shows himself incapable of resisting her trashy charms. However, I would not marry her either because a) I would not want to catch a nasty disease; and b) she is damn annoying and although he keeps assuring her he will never, never, never marry her, she still keeps bursting into tears and smacking him in the face every time the subject comes up.

In case this all sounds like I didn’t enjoy Forever Amber, let me just assure you, that is completely not the case. I read it on Saturday from start to finish, with a short break in between to read Purple Hibiscus (better quality novel but sad) and frequent pauses to update my family on Amber’s latest doings, and it was most absorbing. My family members kept asking me what she was up to if I didn’t let them know with a promptness, and towards the end Indie Sister and I were sitting on one of the couches reading the last few pages over each other’s shoulders (starting with the naked dress, the details of which I was not explaining to Indie Sister with adequate eloquence, and going on until she sails off at the end).

Just to give you an idea of how this book goes, I was explaining to my cousin and my mother how Amber had run away from her tedious rural life with her true love Bruce Carlton and how she had gotten pregnant and married (not to her true love) and dumped in the debtor’s prison and placed under the protection of Black Jack the Highwayman who made her help with his heists and was never very much use at paying off her debts, and my cousin said, “That can’t all have happened! You’re not even a quarter of the way through the book!”

I was, but it did.

Apparently this was written by an American (or Canadian?) lady during World War II, and apparently it got banned in several states and the Catholic Church had some severe things to say about it; and because it is an old and classic and genre-creating historical romance, and because actually it is not badly written (the descriptions of Amber’s clothes are yummy), I feel justified in assuring myself that I am not in fact a trashy-romance-novel-reader, but an Ardent Lover of the Classics.

P.S. My grandmother remembers when this book came out. She didn’t read it because it was too scandalous and she was a good Catholic girl (having embraced the one true faith).

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

by Janice Galloway

I guess I wasn’t the target audience, but damn, this book just never went anywhere, for God’s sake. It’s about a Scottish woman, if I recall correctly, who sinks into a deep depression after her lover drowns. And that’s basically all I have to say about it. So-so. Nothing ever happens.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

Ah, yes, The Charioteer. By the matchless Mary Renault, my love for whom cannot be expressed in strong enough terms, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, which I read as a kid and have never stopped loving. The Charioteer is one of her earlier novels, set more in modern times (World War II), at an army hospital as it happens.

Basically the main character, Laurie (called Spud because his last name’s Odell, bless him) is wounded at Dunkirk and falls madly in love with a conscientious objector who is an orderly at his army hospital. And their chaste romance continues apace, because Laurie nobly fears that he will ruin everything for innocent Andrew if he tells him about homosexuality. I am not a big fan of Andrew’s, to be honest, because he gets all noble and offended about everything, which makes me tired, and plus it crushes me when Laurie’s all tense and snappy due to unrequited love. So meanwhile he is reunited with this guy he admired when they were in school together, before the guy got expelled for being a big gay, and they get along gorgeously and Ralph is rather sweetly gallant. P.S. I like Ralph better than Andrew, and if I were Laurie, I’d be like, Huh, now with Ralph I have a future that contains good conversations, good sex, and no hiding shit, whereas with Andrew it’s just the good conversations and endless mental torture, and the decision would be easy, but Laurie spends a lot of time agonizing over it.

I can’t explain what makes this book so appealing to me. One thing is that they really do have good conversations. Mary Renault writes these beautiful dialogue sequences that are just impossibly eloquent with the things they’re saying and the things they’re not saying. I go green with envy reading it because I will never, ever be able to pack that much meaning and intensity into a line of dialogue, ever. And overall, it’s just such an understated and melancholy book, and I really do like Ralph an awful lot. He’s such a dear and he loves Laurie so much.

I will add this caveat: There’s a fair bit of unpleasantness with the more effeminate gay characters. They all have idiotic names like Bim and Toto and Bunny, and they are all gossipy bitchy people trying to screw up everyone else’s lives by telling lies and reading diaries and making half-assed manipulative suicide attempts. Not very nice in Mary Renault and not incredibly defensible even though she was writing about people that actually existed in a certain environment to which she had been recently, and to her detriment, exposed.