Like Water for Elephants

book by Sara Gruen

Annotation by Lee Stoops

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants begins with an epigraph from Dr. Suess’s Horton Hatches the Egg about the unfailing faithfulness of elephants. What follows is a fast, colloquially-written prologue that ends in violent murder as remembered by an old man. Needless to say, after three pages, I was hooked.

Of course, the prologue is a flash of something to which the reader will eventually return. Chapter one establishes the pace and mystery of the book. Jacob Jankowski, an elderly man living in an assisted care facility. He’s not sure of his age (he’s either ninety or ninety-three), he has a difficult time remembering the names of those caring for him, and he spends more time reliving his youth in his mind than cogitating in the present. His memories are not flash-backs or recollections. When he’s narrating as twenty-three year-old Jacob, he’s truthfully telling the story as it happens.

““It was something alright. I remember it like yesterday. Hell, I remember it better than yesterday”” (324).

Gruen succeeded in the telling of this story in three ways: 1) the perspective of her narrator (the story is told in first person by Jacob, both at twenty-three and ninety (or ninety-three)) is believable both in the presentation of the prose and the reality of his voice and person; 2) the ease with which dialogue is delivered offers the reader true voices and personalities; 3) the story is engaging, mysterious, and well-paced throughout.

Jacob is twenty-three years old for eighty-five percent of the narrative. The story begins with his parents’ tragic death, his losing everything because of their debt, his failing out of an ivy league veterinary school (days before graduation), and his jumping a traveling circus train. It all happens in depression-era America. Chronicling the traveling circus’s tour, its people, and the violence and darkness that exists within the community, Gruen masterfully dictates it all through Jacob’s eyes. The descriptions of scenes were powerful, but it was the interior exposition of Jacob that was so authentic. His emotional development, his naïve struggle with the ethics, morals, and relationships of the other characters, and his inability to put intention to finding himself and his way brought gritty realism to the pages. An example (Jacob, speaking about August who is the “equestrian director and superintendent of animals:” his boss):

“I hate him. I hate him for being so brutal. I hate that I’m beholden to him. I hate that I’m in love with his wife and something damned close to that with the elephant. And most of all, I hate that I’ve let them both down. I don’t know if the elephant is smart enough to connect me to her punishment and wonder why I didn’t do anything to stop it, but I am and I do” (171).

Of course, the story is really about the elephant, Rosie, and August’s wife, Marlena, and what they mean to Jacob. I see it as a great feat that Gruen was able to, for lack of a better word, nail Jacob’s character.

Dialogue drives stories in a very specific, very powerful way. In a dialogue-heavy story, such as Water for Elephants, the story-teller can’t afford to leave any skill at home. Gruen’s dialogue in the story is present exactly as it needs to be. It’s charming in places, it’s colloquial in most (the language of the 1930’s traveling circus is one-of-a-kind), and it’s natural and flowing. There were places an aspiring writer may have been tempted to keep trying to make the characters speak. Gruen rejected that temptation, leaving just enough said. The story continues to weave seamlessly in and through the passages of conversation.

““Damn,” I say.

“What is it?” says Marlena.

I straighten up and reach for Silver Star’s foot. He leaves it firmly on the ground.

“Come on, boy,” I say, pulling on his hoof.

Eventually, he lifts it. The sole is bulging and dark, with a red line running around the edge. I set it down immediately.

“This horse is foundering,” I say.

“Oh dear God!” says Marlena, clapping a hand to her mouth.

“What?” says August. “He’s what?”

“Foundering,” I say. “It’s when the connective tissues between the hoof and the coffin bone are compromised and the coffin bone rotates toward the sole of the hoof.”

“In English, please. Is it bad?”

I glance at Marlena, who is still covering her mouth. “Yes,” I say.

“Can you fix it?”

“We can bed him up real thick, and try to keep him off his feet. Grass hay only and no grain. And no work.”

“But can you fix it?”

I hesitate, glancing quickly at Marlena. “Probably not.”

August stares at Silver Star and exhales through puffed cheeks” (171).

Not long after this exchange, the horse is put down, and then, because of lack of food or funds to buy any, and to the disgust of many, the dead horse is fed to the big cats. Gruen’s use of tags, vocal control, and character consistency in voicing gives the dialogue throughout the novel strength of form and progression of story. As a writer that loves and relies on dialogue, finding stories that use it so effectively is exciting.

Gruen’s story consists of darkness, mystery, and grittily precise use of sex, violence, and cruelty. But, these elements are only supplements to the overall story. The story is one of love; love in all its forms. It’s truth that Gruen brings to her fiction that drives Water for Elephants.

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White Oleander

book by Janet Fitch

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have always been interested in reading LA writers to get a handle on the literary scene around here, but have been appalingly late to the read on Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. The book is not only a great read and a fascinating study of a narcissistic character (more on that later), it contains  the most beautiful physical descriptions of Los Angeles I’ve ever read. In other books, there have been descriptions of west side life, the life of screenwriters, rife with bougainvillea and jasmine and In n’ Out franchises, or dark noir cityscapes, but Fitch manages to capture the city as a living, breathing organism, with seasons, neighborhoods and moods. LA is so strange to transplants, so familiar to locals, that it frequently gets short shrift as a literary landscape.

Fitch puts us there from the first line, “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw.”

Fitch gives us pre-teen and teenage Astrid as she moves from foster home to foster home, across neighborhoods, demographic lines and environments of Los Angeles. The so often called “urban sprawl” becomes areas of specific neighborhoods and people, from the racist Myrtle (“The air in Van Nuys was thicker than in Sunland-Tujunga. It was a kingdom of strip malls and boulevards a quarter mile across, neighborhoods of ground-hugging tracts dwarfed by full-growth peppers and sweet gums fifty feet high.” 101), to the west side actress Claire(“an old neighborhood of stucco bungalows and full-growth sycamores with chalky white trunks and leaves like hands” 169), to the Tujunga desert-dwelling Starr and Ray (“In November, when the air held blue in the afternoons and the sunlight washed the boulders in gold, I turned fourteen.” 71), to the scrapping Rena and her gang of junk salesgirls (“This is why Rena liked it down here among contractors and bakeries and sheet metal shops…”264). And everywhere Astrid is, she experiences the torrential rains and moody skies of winter and the fires and the hot blowing Santa-Ana winds of summer and autumn. The Santa Anas always blow when Astrid is in a desperate, trapped place, but when she moves foster homes, she is frequently greeted with blue skies and clarity.

I’m working on a novel set in 1930s Hollywood and my knowledge as a 20 year resident of LA has helped in descriptions and weather, but Fitch has inspired me to take it to another level with mood and theme, if nothing else because I owe it to the city where I make my home. New York is a cityscape we know and are given over and over in all of its textures and seasons. LA deserves a fair shake.

Fitch’s language is so carefully wrought, her sentences specific, often lyrical, but never to the extent that they distract from the story itself. Astrid, in her uncertainty and questioning, makes an excellent glass-bottom boat for the city. She has grown up in a bizarre circumstance, the afterthought of a narcissistic mother, a stranger to holidays and school–regular kids stuff. She has the ability to observe each new take on life, from an evangelical church, to a high-class hooker’s home, to a nervous wreck of a marriage and her prism is so skewed that everything is new. Fitch gets us into Astrid’s present life immediately and with such strength and surroundings, that by the time her mother, Ingrid, kills Barry Kolker and changes her child’s life, I wondered where Astrid could possibly go for the remaining 300 pages of the novel.  Being unfamiliar with the overall movement of the story, I was put in the enviable position of being surprised by every twist and turn of Astrid’s wayward childhood and stunned again and again that Fitch could keep the tension going through so many different environments. And each time she moved to a new foster home, I cringed with Astrid, waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know this is not a girl bound for an Orphan Annie ending where she finds her true home at last.

The character of Astrid’s mother, the narcissistic. Notoriety-seeking poet, Ingrid was truly fascinating, as I consider myself a longtime student of the narcissist. I have several people I love in my life who were affected negatively by narcissistic mothers and have toyed with narcissistic characters in the past. Ingrid is a portrait of pure destructive narcissism. Her self-absorption is obvious immediately, and yet Fitch keeps us wondering what she will try next. She is paralyzing for her daughter, but it is only when she becomes incarcerated for murdering her boyfriend that she becomes truly dangerous for Astrid. Astrid just begins to get a handle on life when her mother, having nothing else to do in prison (although one wonders at her life with her inmates) sends her ruinous letters, attempting to manipulate her, hurt her, and possess her; at the same time she has given her daughter up in the most selfish way possible by giving in to murder, knowing full well the possible consequences. With the title, the method of killing the boyfriend (poison) and the poison in the letters, Fitch creates a fascinating and unredeemable villain. And she works just fine. When Astrid finally gets a toehold on life and seems to move on, but we can feel her mother’s poison working again… Ingrid haunts beyond the finish of the book. The villain in my ghost story is narcissistic, destructive and self-absorbed, but feels two dimensional next to Ingrid. I long to take another whack at the pain such a character can inflict on a sensitive protagonist’s life. I’m not certain what form he or she will take, but said villain will definitely owe a nod to Ms. Fitch.

Fitch is a good reminder to keep each new aspect of a story as environmentally alive and vivid as the last. So many authors give us vivid descriptions in some portions of a novel and just sketches of another. The only way Astrid’s constantly changing adventures keep hold of us is through Fitch’s attention to details, objects, colors, and to LA’s weather, apartments and neighborhoods. We feel, smell, touch, hear and taste with Astrid—the food changes with every new home. She lives on Chalet Gourmet appetizers with Claire, on nourishing food she cooks with Starr and Ray, on processed foods with Mavis. Because of these details, as well as Astrid’s constant longing for family, we are moved from one world to another without taking a breath. I, too, fall victim to some thorough description followed by sketching and this book reminds me to pay equal attention to each world I’m putting forth. This is crucial in my present novel, which goes across time and place, frequently bouncing between.

But the most important lesson here is: Angelenos, San Franciscans, Clevelandites, Minneapolans, Milwaukeans Middletonians, exploit the world around you, it is rich in details and you owe it to your city to portray it fully.

The Conservationist

book by Nadine Gordimer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The Conservationist is a South African novel of the early 1970’s before the end of apartheid that lays out in vivid landscape the contradictions and difficulties of that country and its tensions. It is both dense and lyrical as it follows the life of a wealthy white South African protagonist, Mehring. Mehring has a failed marriage, an estranged son, a dead body on the property he bought on a whim as a weekend getaway, and a mistress who must flee the country due to political messes. Gordimer explores the monotony of both farm life, a hobby for Mehring, as well as the monotony of the business world along with themes of death and rebirth.

For the most part, Gordimer does an admirable job of exploring her themes and painting a vivid picture of life on the veld, but it remains one of the coldest books I have ever read. Certainly the protagonist is one reason. Gordimer provides a fine tension between the way Mehring sees himself and the way he appears to others. He believes he has gained his position in the world entirely due to his own hard work, giving no quarter to luck, circumstance and privilege. By the end of the book, it’s clear he is small minded, both bigot and sexual predator. It is not an easy or quick read, requiring concentration and attention to the small details Gordimer includes. The physical descriptions are lyrical: “…it lashed around them, a furry tongue of fiery soft dust spitting stinging chips of stone.”

The main flaws in the book are a smattering of clunky transitions and occasional awkward turns, such as using coincidence to ill effect when Mehring reads about his friend’s death of a friend right after a chance meeting with the man’s daughter. Mehring’s moral equivalence sticks out: “But the children ignore him as he ignores them. What percentage of the world is starving? How long can we go on getting away scot-free? When the aristocrats were caught up in the Terror, did they recognize: it’s come to us. Did the Jews of Germany think: it’s our turn.” While it illustrates his mindset that the Jews controlled money the way the French upper class did, it didn’t feel seamless within the narrative. In fact, the fractured narrative is at times an annoyance.

On the plus side, Gordimer uses Zulu creation myths in her narrative, leaves conclusions to the reader, and her protagonist and the people around him are full of contradictions: he’s not a male chauvinist, yet he will risk his societal position in a high-risk clandestine fondling of a teen girl on a plane; his leftist mistress travels the world on his money and so on.

Mehring’s philosophy is summarized in a conversation/debate he has with his lover about the farm: “A farm is not beautiful unless it is productive. Reasonable productivity prevailed; he had to keep half an eye (all he could spare) on everything, all the time, to achieve even that much, and of course he had made it his business to pick up a working knowledge of husbandry, animal and crop, so that he couldn’t easily be hoodwinked by his people there and could plan farming operations with some authority.”

There were some problems with this particular edition from Penguin. The paperback cost fifteen dollars, seriously overpriced for such a cheap product. The type was difficult to read and there were only a couple of footnotes explaining that Witbooi = white boy, and Swart Gevaar = black danger. Those were the easiest to figure out. There should have been a dozen more footnotes for American readers, including the information that corn is referred to as ‘mealies’ in South Africa and vlei (pronounced ‘flay’) means wetlands. More problematic is that dialogue is set off with dashes and descriptions use the same device. It would have been less confusing if standard quotation marks had been used.

Gordimer’s facility with language and description alone show why she is held in esteem, as co-winner of the Booker Prize for this work and Nobel Prize recipient in 1991. Her lyricism was the most valuable element for my own writing. The Conservationist is also an excellent study for those exploring unsympathetic protagonists, particularly one as isolated as his country was before the end of apartheid.