Book Club: time to Water some Elephants

Discussion in 'Chit Chat' started by kholmes, May 30, 2007.

  1. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    I liked this book. In fact, I liked it better than John Irving, who writes in a similar style, about love, family, relationships, memory, death, and circus animals. The love triangle plot was intriguing, and I learned a lot about what the travelling circus must have been like in the 1930s. I loved the idea of Rosie, the elephant, understanding Polish. The ending put a huge smile on my face.

    There were some interesting "extras" in the novel. The picture on page 142 threw me: there's quite a juxtaposition between the woman's prim and proper face and the rest of her body! The story of Topsy, the elephant, in the "Author's Note" at the end, was very sad. Topsy was the elephant who killed her trainer and then was electrocuted by Thomas Edison. I've seen Edison's film clip of this, and it's hard to believe people could do such a thing.

    A number of questions come to mind for discussion:

    What did you think of this book?
    What, ultimately, was wrong with August?
    Did people really use the "F word" in the early 1930s?(maybe a good question for Rockgor)
    Have you been to a circus? What was your most vivid memory?
    What attracts you or people in general to the circus?
    Is the circus obsolete?

    (Note there are some questions there for those of you who weren't able to get a copy of the book!)


    [This Message was Edited on 05/30/2007]
  2. rockgor

    rockgor Well-Known Member

    I was number 18 on the list to get the book. Don't even know the current status as my computer and the library computer are no longer speaking.

    During the last few months I read 4 or 5 books about the circus. A couple writers thought the circus was on its last legs. There aren't many tent circuses left.

    One of the big problems is insurance. One circus was paying $200,000 for liability insurance a few years ago. And the cost of fuel and food (for people and animals) and everything keeps going up. And there is more competition in the entertainment world.

    And then people can see the circus on tv. So the future doesn't look bright.

    I've been to a few circuses including Ringling Bros. The one I enjoyed most was set up in the parking lot of a shopping mall about 30 years ago. Took my little boy who about 5.

    Everybody wore multiple hats. There was a girl, maybe 20, who did 5 different acts. Juggled, a slack wire act, trained dogs, etc. And a teen age boy had some straw hats from South America that acted like boomerangs. He threw them like a frisbee. They sailed over the heads of the crowd and came back to him. Amazing!

    We saw the show in the afternoon. Later, in the early evening, we walked by as the second show was starting. We were urged to come on in. I said we'd already been, so we were invited in free. My son was thrilled!

    I took my mother to her first circus when she was in her 70s. We rode on an elephant during intermission. She was thrilled too.

    RE: the f word, it has been in use for hundreds of years. Shows up in Civil War novels, for example. And it was in Lady Chatterly's Lover which is pre l930s. An all purpose word: verb, noun, adjective, etc.

    [This Message was Edited on 05/30/2007]
  3. morningsonshine

    morningsonshine New Member

    I picked the book up yesterday and started it, by the time i got to chapter 4 i was done.

    There are plenty of good books and good reading out there that don't continually abuse the name of my Lord.

    The "F" word isn't the problem it's the abuse of God's name. A person can be very talented and creative, without these two swear words, it's very insulting to me.

    How can i justify reading Gods word in the morning, and reading his name being taking in vain later in the day.

    To me it dosen't feel right, i'm sure it's a good story, but not for me.

    Sorry for bailing, wish writers and movie makers would not feel the need to do this.

    I wonder what kinda trouble we would get into with the politically corret, or the tolerance police if the name of allah was used in this same manner??? Hummmmmmmmm

    [This Message was Edited on 05/30/2007]
  4. mollystwin

    mollystwin New Member

    I understand what you are saying. It makes me flinch when I read those words as well. I try to skim over them and think of it as part of the story, but it is difficult to read those words.

    my copy didn't have the picture! I think I missed out on something here! Darn!

    I really liked Jankowski. Both as an adult and the younger man. Such a tragic past. To lose his parents that way and be left with nothing at all. But that let him to the circus and to the love of his life Marlena.

    I think Molly is right in that August had a personality disorder. Bipolar or something. He scared me.

    I read somewhere that there was a twist at the end and I thought it was that Marlena killed August and not Rosie. But then the old man got the circus job and that was very cool!!! What a way to end a lifetime!

    I've been to the circus twice that I remember. Once as a child and I loved it! Then again when Molly's daughter and my oldest son were small. Quite a different experience. As an adult it seemed so different. Not so magical and quite smelly with all the animals. The kids loved it though, so that was good.

    I wonder if the circus is obsolete. I think my grand daughter would like it, but my younger son might not. He would be worried about the animals I think. He's an animal lover.


    [This Message was Edited on 05/31/2007]
  5. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    Rock: Your mother went to her first circus and rode on an elephant when she was in her 70s? That's wonderful.
    I had forgotten about the "f" bomb in Lady Chatterly's Lover.

    Molly: I liked your thoughts about the book, especially about Jankowski's guilt, which I found touching and funny at the same time. He sure drank a lot throughout the book! I also liked your point about how we love to hate August. There is a pleasure in hating despicable characters, isn't there? And what poetic justice to have Rosie kill him!

    Morning: I suppose Sara Gruen, the writer, was striving for realism. Life on the circus was probably pretty rough during the Depression, but I can see why the language, especially the casual oaths, offended you. That bothers me, too, especially in movies.

    Dar: I thought it was Rosie that killed August! Jankowski was very likeable, wasn't he? Despite his all-too-human mistakes. You did miss out on the picture. it's very funny. Isn't it interesting how as adults, we experience some things as being more magical, and some things, as much less? More, unfortunately, seems to be less magical than we were kids.

    [This Message was Edited on 05/30/2007]
  6. Marta608

    Marta608 Member

    I'm still waiting for the book but I'll can take a shot at some of the questions.

    Yes, people used the F word in the 30's and long before that. Social drinking (do people still drink "highballs"?)and smoking as social mores were more prevelant back then. Interestingly enough, my parents both smoked and drank their highballs every evening but I never ever heard my father swear. Mother yes...

    I've been to the circus several times and was enchanted as a child with the amazing high wire acts, music and excitment. Since then I've ridden an elephant and didn't find it much fun at all. You can't find a rhythm with an elephant as you can with a horse; they just ramble and there's no saddle to hang onto.

    Now I dislike the idea of cirsuses because I prefer animals to be in their natural settings. A lot of cruelty was done to circus animals in the past. I avoid them.

    I'm reading no more. Don't want to spoil the book.

  7. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    I'm not even sure what a Highball is. Do people drink them anymore? Sounds very Noel Coward. One would probably kill me.

    Interesting that you can't get into a rhythm while riding an elephant. Good thing elephants aren't our standard mode of transportation.

    I've always wanted to ride a camel. Did you know that in the 1850s, the US military tried to introduce camels to the American southwest? They imported them from the Middle East, and actually used them on a pack trip from New Mexico to California. The camels did quite well in the American desert, but then the Civil War and railroads came, and they never caught on. Offspring of the original camels lived wild in the California desert until the 1930s, though.

    [This Message was Edited on 05/31/2007]
  8. Rosiebud

    Rosiebud New Member

    I really enjoyed this book, well written, great characters.

    One thing I found strange was why August's Jewishness was made apparent - I'm sure circuses were full of different races and religions yet I didnt notice anyone elses being mentioned or did I miss it.

    I was disturbed by the story of poor Topsy, her trainer fed her lit cigarettes and she was the one who fried.

    An elephant worker was killed in Vietnam by an elephant last week because he forced her to work without feeding her. I digress.

    I never liked circuses because I always felt sorry for the animals and with good reason it seems.

    August had a huge personality disorder, schizophrenic, not qualified to say but he was a nasty so and so who loved controlling and manipulating everyone.

    I'm sure people used the F word in the 50s, they certainly did when I was small and I was born in 49, it wasnt a NEW word. The F word doesnt bother me, people say it, its now a common part of our language.

    I think the circus with animals is obsolete but not with acrobats etc. I watched a docu the other night about kids training for a circus in China - my goodness, those poor kids, it was awful but wow, what shows they put on.

    Enough from me. Great book, thoroughly enjoyed it.


  9. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    Glad you enjoyed it, too. Hadn't heard about the elephant killing the worker in Vietnam last week. I think it's very dangerous not to feed animals properly.

    I hadn't noticed that about August's being Jewish. I didn't suspect any anti-semitism going on, but you raise an interesting point.

    I think you're right about the tradition of acrobots being alive and well. I've seen Chinese acrobats perform, and they are amazing. But I wonder what kind of a life it is for young kids trained to do this. I suppose it's no worse than being groomed to be an Olympic athlete.
    [This Message was Edited on 05/31/2007]
  10. mollystwin

    mollystwin New Member

    I wrote that backwards. I was assuming Marlena killed August, when it turned out to be Rosie!!! I fixed it!
  11. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    That's okay. I had to read the passage twice before I understood what happened. Matter of fact, I have to read a lot of passages twice.

    Same thing happened when I tried to figure out what happened to Uncle Al.
  12. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    What did you think of the minor characters in the book:

    Camel, Kinko/Walter, Blackie, Barbara, Uncle Al, ...?

    I like how Kinko was depicted as ultimately dignified and a loyal friend of Jacob's.

  13. Rosiebud

    Rosiebud New Member

    Walter was my favourite, seems he put up a barrier because of all the discrimination he went through because of his height, very sad ending for him and Camel though. The practice of red lightning was horrendous, throwing workers off the train with no pay and nowhere to go.

    Jacob was a very sweet character, his care for his friends was really outstanding, especially Camel, an old alcoholic that most people would have turned their backs on.

    I liked how Gruen wrote about the animals, giving them their own characters which, we animal lovers, recognise instead of being 'dumb animals'.


    I also
  14. pat460

    pat460 New Member

    I wish that I could join in your discussion but alas, I was never able to obtain the book. It sounds like I missed a good read. Maybe June's selection will be more obtainable for me.

  15. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    Sorry you missed the book, too, but you know, you are still welcome to jump in on questions that aren't about the book per se (i.e Have you ever been to the circus? Has the circus become obsolete? What is the appeal of the circus?, etc...)
  16. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    Redlighting was a horrible practice, wasn't it? How sad that they threw Walter and Camel off the train so brutally. When they were no longer useful to Uncle Al in terms of profits, why not throw them off a railroad bridge? Sounds like corporate downsizing these days, except in their case, it was fatal.

    Kinko/Walter was an interesting character. If it's hard these days to be a midget or "short person," I can't imagine how hard it was in the 1930s.

    There's a film from the 1930s called Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, the man who made the famous 1930s Dracula. It's all about people that are considered odd and how they are viewed by society.

    [This Message was Edited on 06/01/2007]
  17. Rosiebud

    Rosiebud New Member

    Saw that film, Ken.

    Black and White, of course it was, I remember vividly the guy who used his hands to walk on as he had no legs.

    They were really into 'freak' shows in the victorian age, I suppose that was their 'circus'.

    When small I always thought the circus a fun place to live in but in reality it wasnt like that at all.

  18. kholmes

    kholmes New Member

    You saw FREAKS? You're right; it was in black and white. Just read on that it was made in 1932. I remember it being interesting because it didn't exploit the circus sideshow performers like the midgets, but it didn't romanticize their lives either.

    Also just read that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a contract writer with MGM when the movie was being made. He never felt quite at home with the stars and the moguls, so he often ate in the studio commissary at the same table with the FREAKS actors during his lunch hour. I'd give anything to have sat at that table with them.

    [This Message was Edited on 06/01/2007]
  19. Marta608

    Marta608 Member

    .... are very F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, etc.

    They're just a small mixed drink, usually on ice. You surely have seen "highball glasses" (not for vision but for use in drinking).

  20. mollystwin

    mollystwin New Member

    Before I was born my parents owned and operated a bar. When I was little everyone was always drinking a highball at our house. I thought it was just a whiskey and whatever else you wanted to add to it.

    Molly and I used to pretend to drink highballs all the time. Just like the grownups!
    [This Message was Edited on 06/01/2007]