Monday, May 26, 2008

Barren B*tches Book Brigade: "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen

Time once again for another tour of the Barren B*tches Book Brigade, organized by Melissa at Stirrup Queens & Sperm Palace Jesters. This is an online book club where bloggers sign up, read the book (usually, but not always, related to infertility and pregnancy loss), & submit a question. The questions are distributed among the participants, and we pick at least three to answer in our blog, then visit each other's blogs to comment.

One of the great pleasures of participating in a book club (in real life or in cyberspace) is reading a book that you might not otherwise have picked up, maybe even thought you wouldn't really like, & being happily surprised. "Water for Elephants" was one of those books for me. I saw it every time I went to a bookstore over the past year or so. (At Chapters-Indigo bookstores here in Canada, it's a "Heather's Pick," meaning it's "guaranteed" by CEO Heather Reisman as a great read, & your money back if you don't agree.) I may have read the back cover & paged through it a few times, but for some reason, I never picked it up, until Mel announced it as a future book tour selection. Perhaps because of the sad-faced, lonely-looking clown on the cover (at least, on the cover of the edition being sold here in Canada), I wasn't sure it was a book I'd like.

Well, I'm happy to say I was wrong. I loved this book & gobbled it up over a weekend. It's a vivid portrait of life in a third-rate Depression-era circus. There was a cinematic quality to this book (aided by the great period photos scattered throughout). It played like a movie in my head as I read it. I mulled over who I would cast in the movie version -- Shia LaBouef or maybe Jake Gyllenhall (too old?) as the young Jacob? Verne Troyer or the guy from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies as Walter Kinko? Scarlett Johannson or Reese Witherspoon as the beauteous blond Marlena?

Oh -- and, like Jacob, I totally fell in love with Rosie the elephant. ; )

On to some of the questions:

What is your favorite circus related memory?

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, my parents took my sister & I to the Shrine Circus. I'm not sure why they decided to do this -- they probably wanted to give us the circus experience & figured this was as good as chance as we were going to get, living in small, isolated Prairie towns as we did. Even so, it was a good 2 or 2.5 hour drive to the larger town where it was being held, & then 2-2.5 hours back again, and we did it all in one day. It seems to me we did it on a school night too. I don't remember a lot about it, except that we were very tired, but had a lot of fun & ate a lot of popcorn. It was held in an arena, not under a big tent (are there any circuses like that any more?), & it was probably the biggest gathering of people I'd ever been to thus far in my life (a few thousand people, I would guess). I also remember going to see the Moscow Circus at the old Winnipeg Arena (now torn down) when I was in high school, & marvelling at the exotic acrobatic acts.

The passages in the book about the luscious Barbara & the hoochie tent (!!) made me think of the annual county fair in northwestern Minnesota where my grandparents lived. It was a small town, with just a small midway, but my sister & I loved it. The carny people always seemed rough & dirty & vaguely exotic, & our parents warned us to watch our money when we went off on our own (we had soooo much more freedom than kids today...!). One year (& only one year that I can remember), there was an attraction along the lines of a "hoochie tent." My sister, cousins & I watched open mouthed (along with dozens of men & boys) as some a group of scantily clad & heavily made up "dancers" paraded outside before the next show (which, of course, you had to pay to see, & be of legal age). But I really can't imagine anything too illicit going on in there in this whitebread little town full of the descendants of upstanding Swedish & Norwegian settlers, where there was probably one church for every 100 people. (Then again...!! )

On page 109, old Jacob complains about how his family keeps secrets from him: "And those are just the things I know about. There are a host of others they don't mention because they don't want to upset me. I've caught wind of several, but when I ask questions, they clam right up. Mustn't upset Grandpa, you know... Why? That's what I want to know. I hate this bizarre policy of protective exclusion, because it effectively writes me off the page. If I don't know about what's going on in their lives, how am I supposed to insert myself in the conversation?... I've decided it's not about me at all. It's a protective mechanism for them, a way of buffering themselves against my future death..." Reading this, I could see myself in both Jacob & in his family members, both in respect to our infertility situation and other matters. Whose viewpoint do you relate to most in this passage and why?

Full disclosure: this was the question that I submitted. I was thinking about all the secrecy surrounding infertility in families in particular and a post I wrote in response to Mel's question, "to tell or not to tell?"

All families have secrets, & I can relate to both Jacob & to his children in this passage. There are secrets that I'm keeping right now from my parents. Nothing huge, but I don't tell them everything that happens in my life. Sometimes I don't feel like I have all the information yet & don't want to worry them unnecessarily. At the same time, I know there are some secrets they've kept from me, & sometimes when I find out, it pisses me off that I've been shut out of the loop (especially if my sister knows something that I don't). The fact that we live such a distance away from each other makes it easier to maintain secrecy. As I wrote in a previous post about deciding to tell my parents that I was pregnant immediately after I found out myself, I have a guilty face. One look at me & you know something's up.

Jacob says "it's a protective mechanism." Sometimes you have to wonder just who is protecting whom.

(From the discussion questions at the end of the book) Looking at himself in the mirror, the old Jacob tries "to see beyond the sagging flesh." But he claims, "It's no good....I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?" How would you answer that question for Jacob or for yourself?

This was another passage I had marked in the book. I'm nowhere near as old as Jacob (!)(yet!!), but I've caught myself thinking the same thing sometimes in recent years. I often look at photos of myself as a teenager, at university, when I first met dh. Such fresh-faced innocence. There was a sparkle in my eyes back then that I think is missing from most photos of me these days. I think about how I used to agonize over my weight back then... oh, to be 120 lbs again!! Deep down inside, though, I think I still feel like the same me -- a little sadder & wiser for all the life experiences I've been through since those photos were taken. Loss & infertility have certainly played a role in that, & taken their toll.

It was right about the time that I got pregnant that we hosted our first intern at the office & I realized, with a shock, that there was a yawning gap between myself & the next generation rising up through the ranks. Of course, that gap has only gotten wider over the past 10 years. I've written posts before about aging, & the 20-something singles who seem to dominate my office these days. I'm sure I seem positively ancient to them. I know I'm almost the same age as their parents (I'm just one year younger than one girl's mother!!). And if I feel like this now, when I'm still a few years away from (gulp) 50, what's it going to be like when I'm 60? 70? 80?

My only comfort is the certainty that someday (much as they can't envision it -- just as I once couldn't...!), these pretty young things at my office will also have wrinkles & sunspots & grey hairs & a few too many pounds stretching out those tattoos & pert belly button rings. ; )

Something that struck me about this book in particular was the rich, descriptive way the author handled Jacob as an elderly man. His frustration was so apparent, his physical manifestation so perfectly described, that of all of the elements of this book Jacob the Elderly is what stays with me. You had the sense that Jacob didn't foresee his latter years being the way they were, and his almost "ride off into the sunset" ending perhaps what he had envisaged for his end. Do you think about what's at the end of the road someday? When you think about it, what do you see for yourself?

Of course I think about it. (Although the option of running away with the circus when I'm in my 90s hadn't occurred to me...!) Being childless/free as we are. I HAVE to think about it. I can't count on anyone else being around to take care of me & dh when we get old(er??). I know that having children is absolutely no guarantee that they are going to take care of you -- there are plenty of lonely old people in nursing homes whose children never or rarely visit them. But your odds are certainly better than people with no children at all, aren't they?

Not that I think I'd want to live with one of my children, if I had any. But it's nice to have someone looking in on you & making sure that your needs are being met. Or at least trying, lol. I think of my grandparents, & how my mother spent the last 10 years of their lives running back & forth every week or so to see them. They lived about a 1.5 hour drive away from my parents. As my grandmother slipped into dementia, her housecleaning & hygiene started slipping too. My mother tried to arrange for a homemaker service from the county to come once a week to do the cleaning & laundry, help my grandparents with baths. My grandmother (still showing flashes of independence) refused to let the woman into the apartment. It drove my poor mother to distraction.

Eventually, Grandma also simply stopped cooking (which was a huge pity from a culinary viewpoint, totally aside from the nutritional aspect -- she was a fabulous cook in her time). My mother would come for the weekend & cook up a storm, packaging up leftover roast beef and frozen lasagnas with instruction labels on how to reheat it -- & the next time she'd come, it would still be there in the refrigerator, untouched & growing mould. Thank God for the Meals on Wheels program, which delivered hot lunches several times a week -- I think that's what kept my grandparents going. Eventually, lacking a proper diet, my grandfather became ill, & they had to move into the local nursing home. (My sister said he looked like something out of a POW camp by that point.) It wasn't a bad place, and they lucked into getting a room together, so they didn't have to be separated for the first time in nearly 60 years of marriage. It was full of people (& staffed with people) they'd known all their lives. My mother said she knew they'd be reasonably well treated, because in such a small town, where everybody knew everybody and had for years & years, it would get around if they weren't, lol. Even so, my mother kept their apartment until they were both gone -- subsidized it with her own money, & would come on weekends & bring them "home" and cook for them. (From a practical perspective, in a town with just two rather ancient barebones motels, & only two of mother's cousins left as kin, it also gave us all a place to stay when we went there to visit.)

I hope that our two nephews (dh's brother's sons) will think fondly enough of us to check in on us now & then... but I know I can't count on that. I'm hoping that, unlike my grandmother, I won't be too proud or stubborn to realize when I need some help, and will have enough money saved (since I won't have diapers & college educations to worry about) to afford it. I'm hoping for some sort of assisted living arrangement as opposed to a nursing home, for as long as I can manage. And I'm hoping that I can manage for awhile. (My other grandfather lived, with my deaf-mute uncle, by himself on a farm and cooked his own breakfast porridge every morning until he was felled by a stroke at the age of 96. He didn't get around too well towards the end, but until he had his stroke, his mind & memory were crystal clear.) I'm also hoping that the older baby boomers who retire ahead of me will make enough of a fuss about conditions in the retirement homes that they wind up in (just as they've had an impact on every other institution that they've touched!) that they'll be better places to live by the time I move in.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Empty Picture Frame by Jenna Nadeau (with author participation because she's a blogger!)


  1. My IRL book club read this, and as it followed "Love/Cholera," I think it had big shoes to fill. We all decided it was a good brownie on the chocolate torte shelf of life.

    (We also tried casting it, which made us think it might have been written a little too script-like -- as though she had that at the forefront when she wrote it?)

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses. I didn't get much from the Jacob/old parts, but you've certainly got me thinking about them now.

  2. I also really like the book club for introducing books and authors that I otherwise wouldn't know about. It makes my life richer.

    One of the things that I thought made the book richer was the fact that it was told from the older Jacob's perspective, so in between the plot-heavy circus story, we also met Jacob in his 90s, which led to more thought-provoking questions about about aging gracefully, and reminded me how difficult it is. No one wants to think about being old, but we all have known elderly relatives and at the same time, all hope to reach that old age ourselves.

  3. "these pretty young things at my office will also have wrinkles & sunspots & grey hairs & a few too many pounds stretching out those tattoos & pert belly button rings. ;-)"

    I take perverse satisfaction in this, too.

    Your description of your grandparents makes me realize I am almost as fearful of aging poorly as I am of dying.

  4. I too have wanted to read this book for a long time, and have looked at it on Am.azon and picked it up from the shelves of bookstores many, many times.

    What keeps me from getting it is the mention of animal cruelty. I am not sure that I can take that part of it.

  5. I here from NaComLeavCom

    sounds an interesting book.As does the new suggestion.I iwsh I ahd ore to say but I haven't read the book.

    I am reading the Memory Keeper's Daughter though based on an online recommendation.

    My Little Drummer boys

  6. You've honestly expressed a concern about growing old and hoping someone looks in on you. I think we might be around the same age- needless to say we aren't living in the retirement home now, looking over our shoulders to see if beds are freeing up in those corner rooms with a view.

    If you are right, if enough Baby Boomers start thinking about their own Old Age, then maybe society as a whole will create more inclusive retirement communities for our seniors.

    In my novel Dining with Death I tried to tackle this exact issue. My protaganist Zophia is afraid to die alone, so much so that she forgets to live and that's a shame because she has so much spunk in her still.

    Dining with Death looks at how Canadians put old folk out to pasture and how Old Folk don't go gently into the night. It's a funny story on a sad topic.

    Who was it that said "it takes a village to raise a child"? Nobody thought about the other end of the cycle, and sadly, there is little village support for seniors.

    For 76 year-old Zophia, it's her friends that help her get by. Oh, and the Angel of Death named Dewalt Brody. Oh, and her lover Mohammad Mohammad. And the gay civil servant Harry H. Kerry from Ottawa. And walking around topless. And playing euchure. And snowmoble trips and picnics and buying hats.

    And love.

    Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death

  7. I just read Water for Elephants this weekend. I loved it. I've been on a Jodi Picoult kick as of late. Her books are very well written, but often times dark and sad. It was nice to read something that had a happy ending. And who couldn't fall in love with Rosie or Bobo?

  8. I loved this book too... although I'm not an overly analytical reader. I read it, I enjoyed it, that's enough for me.

  9. You raise some interesting points about those of us who will end up child free. I enjoyed your cirus memories! Thanks for sharing!

  10. I did the same thing with this book - I have seen it time and again on the shelf, picked it up - read the back, thumbed through to an excerpt and always put it back on the shelf. I'm glad that we did this for the book tour - I really did enjoy the book, though I did find some of the vivid portrayal a bit disturbing (violance, abuse of animals and people - which always saddens me).

    I always enjoy reading your comments. You always seem to find many of the same things I find and then take them a few steps further down into a much deeper and richer line of thought. I appreciate that because it allows me to expand my thoughts that much more.