Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nick Hornby and Water for Elephants

5. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen. Fiction, 1-17, p. 331

Like the proverbial cavalry, Nick Hornby’s unexpected arrival has saved the day.

Hornby is, of course, the writer of eminently readable novels that generate eminently watchable films (High Fidelity, About A Boy).

He is also the author of a regularly appearing column in Believer magazine about the books he’s bought and the books he’s reading. I’m not especially a fan of Believer. With the exception of Hornby’s work, the content has not caught my fancy. Hornby's column is of great interest because, perversely, I love to read about reading. A year or two ago, Hornby’s Believer columns were collected into a book, The Polysyllabic Spree. It was delightful. Now there’s a second collection, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. It’s equally delightful.

And this is where Hornby’s timely arrival has saved the day. In his introduction to Housekeeping vs. The Dirt Hornby argues that reading should be fun. “One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work, they’re not doing us any good.”

Not so, argues Hornby, who knows – as all devoted readers do – that we read for many reasons and one of those reasons is for pleasure. Reading brings enjoyment. Which means that if you’re reading The Da Vinci Code or Don Quixote, the newest Justice Society of America comic or a history of the Lincoln Administration, it doesn’t matter just so you're entertained. But if it’s a slog why read it? “Please, please,” writes Hornby, “put it down . . . Start something else.”

Which is brings me to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Jacob Jankowski is about to graduate from Cornell’s veterinary school when his parents are killed in an auto accident. In his grief, Jacob flees Cornell only to finds himself part of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, where he is enlisted to care for the animals.

Water for Elephants is, of course, a love story. Jacob falls for a lovely young entertainer, who happens to be married to Jacob’s psychotic boss. But there’s more here than love between boy and girl. There’s also love between boy and elephant, and girl and elephant too.

Let’s return to Hornby’s thesis. Water for Elephant is fun. It’s a hugely enjoyable read. Gruen satisfies my two primary requirements for any book – to inform and to entertain. In the author’s notes, Gruen said she developed the idea for her novel after reading a Chicago Tribune article on a photographer who followed circuses around in the 1920s and 1930s. She immediately immersed her self in researching traveling circuses of the Depression era.

As a result, we learn a great deal about how traveling circuses operated, the training of elephants and much more. Gruen, in effect, pulls back the canvas of the tent to reveal the workings behind the circus mystique. And let me be clear nothing here is didactic, tedious or slow. Nothing interferes with the story Gruen tells.

I read a review of Water for Elephant in the New York Times. The reviewer got a little snarky, especially about the quality of Gruen’s prose. I don’t see it. Instead, I think it goes to Hornby’s point that we think books need to be hard to be good for us. Water for Elephant is not a hard read. It is an easy read. An enjoyable read. A good read.

After putting down Water for Elephant I picked up Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons. I am able to complete Peter D. Kramer’s biography of Sigmund Freud. I’ve also got just a few pages to go in Hornby’s Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and I am also almost finished with the most recent The New Yorker.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you think that Water For Elephants was a good read; I just checked it out today. Along with that, I like books that do the simple job of entertaining! Do you know any books like it that I may be interested in?