Thursday, December 29, 2011

Spoiling the Water and the Elephants

I have a confession to make. I committed the cardinal sin of any bibliophile and I'm ashamed. Of course, I will perform my penance as necessary (recite 5 Shakespearean sonnets from memory? Stay out of bookstores for a month?) but the first step is admitting what I've done, right? So here it is...I watched the movie Water for Elephants before I read the book. Phew...I feel better already just owning up to it. Of course I regretted it the minute the credits rolled, but you know how it goes. It's the holidays, someone brings a movie over to watch and it seems innocent enough. Then there's the peer pressure, because everyone is watching it. A stronger woman would have resisted, but I caved!

After watching the movie with us, my friend Brittany handed me her copy of the book and sent me on my way to enjoy it. And I did enjoy it. However, I would have been much more invested in the plot and the novel would have held more suspense had I avoided the movie. The prologue of the novel details a murder committed at the circus but leads you in the vague assumption of which character committed the murder. As the plot progresses the details of the circus, the characters, and a possible motive for murder are filled in until the reader is positive who killed whom. That's one of the great draws of the novel: the reader is propelled forward by a desire to solve the mystery. Of course, I already knew the answers and I feel as though I missed out on the fervent page turning and the joy inherent in discovering plot twists.

With that said, reading the book was still very much enjoyable. The movie provides the bare bones of the plot and some shallow character development but nothing beats a novel in providing the entire picture. I enjoyed learning the motivations of certain characters and how their relationships fit together. The information I gained about a traveling circus in the early 20th century was fascinating and at times devastating (in regards to animal treatment). I can easily see why this book was a New York Times Bestseller and I will have no problem recommending it to friends and fellow book lovers. It was a lovely distraction for a few days and an enjoyable read.

My only point of contention regards the chapters that explored Jacob's current life in the nursing home. The novel is told from the point of view of the main character Jacob Jankowski who is reflecting back on his early circus experiences as an old man. Every time a new chapter abandoned the flashback and settled on "current time" I groaned a little. I was honestly a little bored by the retirement home scenes. I'm not sure if that was a by-product of having seen the movie already, but I found myself speed reading those few chapters in an effort to get back to the main plot. The view point of an older Jacob added layers to character and to the story, but it slowed the pace considerably for me. Perhaps the book would be severely lacking without that flashback/flash-forward structure...but we'll never know. The good news is that it didn't at all ruin the book for me.

"Why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus?"
~Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Monday, December 19, 2011

Here We Come A-Caroling...

If you are going to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, you read it in December. No other time of year really makes sense. And, of course, you should read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at some point in your life. It's so pervasive in popular culture and so exceedingly referenced that it only makes sense to visit the original work at some point. At least that way you'll have some frame of reference as an anchor for your opinion of the numerous adaptations (I'm talking muppets to stage performances to Bill Murray's Scrooged) you are bound to see in your lifetime. The good news: the original is worth all of that hype.

I have to admit that the novel held very few surprises for me. Because of all of the adapted versions I've seen in my short 24 years, I knew what to expect. Scrooge is a money hoarding jerk, 4 ghosts mess with him one long Christmas Eve night, redemption is attainable, blah, blah, blah. Yep, that was all in there. What makes it worthwhile is the opportunity to lose yourself in Dickens' language. The images are enough to make you fall in love with Christmas all over again...the food, the carols, the spirits (alcohol, ghosts, and cheer alike). You may have your own image of each ghost in the story, but are you familiar with Dickens' descriptions of them?

Even the well known characters were fresh for me under Dickens' diction. I actually found myself enjoying Scrooge's sense of humor. That's right, this guy:

His reactions to each ghost and the lessons that he learned are taken in good humor and he really is rather quick to recognize the change he will need to make in his life. The very word "Scrooge" has come to symoblize a miserly manner and Christmas hating countenance but it's clear in the character those actions and attitudes are a mere facade. Scrooge is hiding a pain that many people can relate to. Pain over the past and the patterns that have become his life in the present. He is quick to change because a love of mankind and of Christmas are already inherent in him, just buried by things that we all get bogged down in (focus on money much? I know I do).

So, here's the nitty gritty of it...the book is only about 100 pages, Dickens is a genious, and the theme of redemption is never a tired one. Read it! If not this holiday season, make it a goal for next year. Heck, read it every year! Read it to your children, volunteer to read it aloud in a nursing home, listen to an audio version in your car as you holiday shop. Then rent your favorite movie version or see a local stage production and see how your view of the story has changed. Let this classic teach you to "honor Christmas in your heart, and try to keep it all the year."

"It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that, while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor." ~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol