Sunday, May 25, 2008

My stop on the Barren Bitches "Water for Elephants" book tour

This is my first time participating in a blogger book discussion. Mel(issa), of Stirrup Queens and Sperm Court Palace Jesters has organized 11 of these prior to this one. Thanks for letting me join in.

The book, obviously, is Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. I hope my first attempt is a worthy one, although I've already flopped in one important obligation of participants: I failed to come up with any questions. The way this works is that after reading each of the readers sends a list of questions about the book to Mel. She then compiles them and gives this compilation back to the participants to choose 3 to answer in their blog.

I belong to a reading group in real life. We choose our books over a marathon weekend at the beach once a year. At that time we also divide up our obligations for hosting and facilitating (I'm facilitating Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss next month). The discussions are usually pretty free-form, and I'm not used to the study questions that you can sometimes find at the end of books. I'm also one of those people who can walk around with a head full of ideas that instantly disappear when someone asks me a question about them.

With these lame qualifiers I'll launch:

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?

Children mentioned--

The future is hazy and shrouded in mystery. Step by step the mystery is revealed. We humans deal with the same themes with infinite variation: childhood, coming-of-age, marriage, children (perhaps), loss of our parents, our own deaths. The open question of how something will be can make me anxious; I particularly wondered what the conclusions of chapters called "Adding-a-New-Baby-to-the-Family", "Toilet Training", "Starting School" would look like. Suspense is not necessarily a comfortable state for me
(Heck, I just want to know if the outcomes will validate my choices in the end.), but the alternative is 'Just Shoot Me and Get It Over With', so I live with the suspense. In terms of The (My) Last Chapter I wonder if I'll face my end with peace, grace, and dignity. The optimal will be that there's a good match with my own personal readiness to surrender rather than a life dragging on after I'm ripe to depart, or having it ripped away before my children are self-sufficient. I'd like to have a few people who will miss my company around to see me off and celebrate a life that's hopefully been well-lived. This actually segues into the next question, except I want to comment on how easily I seem to take for granted the possibility of a peaceful death. I wonder if circumstances to hope realistically for a peaceful death will continue in the part of the world I live in...there are so many in the world who would dearly love to take that for granted and cannot.

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?

I want to take a slightly different path than this question asks, and it relates to the one above about The End. To me there seems to be an inconsistency between Jacob's life as a young man, his passionate love for Marlena and Rosie
, and his final days with his family dutifully 'doing the right thing' by him, but with little emotional connection. Somehow a man who led the life we've been shown with such a deep bond with his wife seems like someone who would not feel so isolated within his family. It seems that love would have been a unifying force in the family with him as the nucleus in old age. I suppose what might account for this was that he was never free to tell the story of Rosie with authentic detail--so perhaps this is a cautionary tale that withholding the truth isolates a person from the comforts of emotional intimacy. To the point where he would be so impoverished in his family that he would choose to run away and join the circus at age 90.

Originally forced to share quarters, Kinko (Walter) seems to have an intense dislike for Jacob. One day, Jacob helps Kinko's dog Queenie and Kinko becomes his friend because of this small act of kindness. Has someone performed a simple act of kindness that changed your feelings toward them? How did this small act affect you? Can just a small and simple thing have a profound effect?


Pregnancy loss mentioned:

I miscarried my first pregnancy in 1996, when I was 39. It was a terrible shock, and I was devastated. I had told everybody about the pregnancy, and for a while it was exceedingly painful because I kept running into people I then had to tell about the loss. The unexpected gift I received was the kindness of the many women who I'd known for years and never knew that they too had had miscarriages. My loss was a reminder of their own pain, and they braved it to offer comfort and the wisdom of their experience to me. We cried together, and the offering of their pain to ease mine is an experience I'll always be grateful for.


I'd like to also say a few of my impressions of how I responded to this book. It was an engaging enough story.
However there are some stories that inspire me to look inside of myself, or to look more thoughtfully at people and events around me...this story did not seem to open those doors. Hence my inability to come up with any questions. There were places where I had to force myself to continue; I had trouble with the brutality of the times. I dreaded reading passages of cruelty to Rosie and the other animals. Would I recommend the book? I think I'd tell someone who asked that it was a decent read with some nice moments, but there was some compelling note underneath that I look for to feel fully satisfied with a story, and I just didn't find it here.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. 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!)

10 comments:

Samantha said...

I enjoyed the book, perhaps more than you did, but I was also disturbed about the end, and thinking about it more has increased how it bothers me. I think the author was going for literary effect, bringing the story full circle by having Jacob return to the circus, but I am left wondering more about his children. Was their relationship really so poor? How did they feel being left behind? It seemed a shame that he and his family become so separated.

That's wonderful about how women came out to support you after your miscarriage.

Lori said...

Your 2nd answer is very thought-provoking. It makes me think that maybe Jacob and Marlena had a Ron-and-Nancy Reagan type of marriage, where their love for each other eclipsed their love for their children. And when Marlena was gone, there was nothing left that was strong enough for the kids to orbit.

Complete speculation on my part.

I also love what you said about withholding truth.

I really liked your answer to the 3rd question. Those women may never know just how big their small acts of kindness were to you.

So glad you were on this tour!

loribeth said...

These are great, thoughtful answers, & I really appreciated your perspective! Thanks for joining in!

excavator said...

Loribeth, I'm really impressed by the question you authored (and I tried to answer in my post). There were probably lots of opportunities for such thoughtful questions, but for some reason I was blinded to them. I think there was a certain, acoustical deadness, to the story...for example I just wasn't convinced by Jacob's remorse for having not intervened the first time August punished Rosie--and a person who was supposed to be as decent as he should have been devastated by the fact that he had taken Walter's knife the night Walter was redlighted, thus leaving him defenseless. It was small gaps like that that sounded an off note to me; and it seemed there must have been a big part of the story missed to account for the emotional isolation from his family. For the oldest son, who was born in a circus to fail to show up on circus day and "not be able to get out of" whatever commitment he'd made, let alone to not even get on the phone with Jacob--that was just weird. Call me picky, but these little details need to be answered for me to allow suspension of my disbelief. That speaks to the questions that Samantha asks too.

Of course, Lori's theory does make an accounting for Jacob's kids'/grandkids' distance from him. Somehow you got the idea that they were supposed to have a bit bigger of a love though, yes?

I appreciate having been so welcomed on this tour. I don't think I'll do the next one--I'm caught in a backlog of books, but perhaps in the future.

Gabrielle said...

Welcome! I am glad you joined! I truly appreciate the honesty in your answers. I, too, could think of no questions for this particular book for the very reasons you cite. It was a fine enough read, but I wasn't drawn to it. The circus setting in itself can so easily lean towards cliche and I was left wanting by the ending. There did feel to be some inconsistencies between Jacob and young man and Jacob in his current state.

Thank you!

excavator said...

Hi, Gabrielle,

I appreciate your welcome. It was fun to participate with this nice group of women (haven't seen any man-pies so far on this tour).

You have a terrific blog...I wish that it had been around when I was facing 2ndary infertility 7-8 years ago. At that time I was just posting on the bulletin boards, like inciid. Those were very helpful too, but the blogs are a major upgrade.

Thanks again for the link to Mrs. Spit--her husband's blog is a marvel too. Now I need to go back to your site because there were a few other links you had posted that looked very rich.

Mrs. Spit said...

thanks for your blog comments - I really appreciated it.

I was interested in your experience of women who shared your miscarriage. I had the same sort of experience with Gabriel's death. I was so thankful for women who were willing to share, not just their experiences of baby loss, but of loss in general. Particularly, I appreciated my older friends, who could give me perspective on loss, 20 years later. It doesn't erase the pain of now, but it does provide hope for the future.

It did make me wonder, though. Why don't we talk about this all the time.

excavator said...

Hi, Mrs. Spit! How nice to have you come over!

I appreciated your question: "Why don't we talk about these things all the time?"

I'd hazard a guess that your post on 'abiding' holds the key: It's Holy Ground; a priori sacred. You're not down on your knees because you want to be, but because they have buckled involuntarily and thrown you to the ground. It's the presence of something Terrible. I think it must inspire such terror that people don't talk about it because they're too uneasy. People who haven't stood on this Ground instinctively know that words are inadequate and don't like the helpless feeling it gives them. I think there might be a sense of superstition too that if we don't think about it too much maybe the cause for grief will pass us by.

Perhaps the Internet is one way we CAN talk about it all the time. I'm continually amazed that someone's mind from far away can reach out to another through this abstraction of typed symbols, and the effect is direct and tangible. Your post on abiding had that kind of effect on me.

I want to say your son's name: Gabriel. Such a beautiful name.

Douglas W said...

Hi Deb... I haven't been ignoring you on this one, but not knowing the book I felt unqualified to comment. However, it's great that you have attracted such a response to your thoughts about it.

JuliaS said...

I found your idea on how withholding the truth can isolate us very interesting.

I had a similar experience with my second miscarriage. We had passed the time I lost the first baby and I felt more confident this time around and told people. Then I had to UNtell everyone. People I hardly knew from church and in the neighborhood - always women with a similar past - came by the house after my d&c. I was so touched and very grateful - and became more so in time when women I knew suffered losses and finding myself on the other side - the one with the past pain trying to offer comfort and hope to the one with the present pain. What you say about braving the reminders is very true. I would find myself hurting for them and sometimes it was hard to face their tears. I find now I recognize the "look of loss" in other people's eyes because I saw it so many times reflected back at me in my own.

Great thoughts - thanks for sharing them.