Thursday, March 5, 2009

Book Ends

1. Water for Eelephants, by Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants is told in the first person but from two different perspectives--Jacob Jankowski at 23 years of age and again, at 93 years old. Gruen seamlessly weaves the chapters between past and present. Jacob at 23 is finishing up his last semester at Cornell Veterinary School when a family tragedy causes him to flee. He finds himself on a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931. Needing a vet, the circus hires young Jacob to tend to their menagerie. Jacob at 93 resides in a nursing home where he laments the curses of old age, the passing of his wife, and the waning affection of his family. The arrival of a visiting circus triggers a flashback to his youthful circus experiences.
1931 is a hard time for almost all Americans, and the circus workers are as hard hit as any. Most are one step away from being homeless and jobless. Conditions on the circus train are harsh for most. Many workers go weeks without being paid, and they tend to disappear during the night when times are tough (management has them thrown off the train). The menagerie is often times treated better than the workers. But the circus does provide three meals a day and a place to sleep--even it if might mean a horse blanket on a train bed floor. Jacob discovers very quickly that he's just about the only advocate the animals have and he must battle a ruthless owner (Uncle Al) and a crazy animal trainer (August). Any circus has more than their fair share of interesting characters, and Gruen's circus is no exception. In addition to Uncle Al and August, there is Walter (the midget clown), Marlena (an equestrian with whom Jacob falls in love), and Grady and Camel (workers). One of the most sympathetic characters in Water for Elephants is Rosie, the elephant--who shares more "human" characteristics and feelings than some of the circus bosses. The tender-hearted Jacob quickly grows to manhood as he is forced to protect both animals and coworkers from abuse and worse. Water for Elephants is a delightful, moving book, and the ending was a very pleasant surprise.

2. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant - Skillfully interweaving biblical tales with events and characters of her own invention, Diamant's (Living a Jewish Life, HarperCollins, 1991) sweeping first novel re-creates the life of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, from her birth and happy childhood in Mesopotamia through her years in Canaan and death in Egypt. When Dinah reaches puberty and enters the Red Tent (the place women visit to give birth or have their monthly periods), her mother and Jacob's three other wives initiate her into the religious and sexual practices of the tribe. Diamant sympathetically describes Dinah's doomed relationship with Shalem, son of a ruler of Shechem, and his brutal death at the hands of her brothers. Following the events in Canaan, a pregnant Dinah travels to Egypt, where she becomes a noted midwife. Diamant has written a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating portrait of a fascinating woman and the life she might have lived. . I believe a must read especially for women.

3. In this Mountain, by Jan Karon - Opening the cover of this book felt like arriving at a family reunion. By this volume, the seventh in the series, I was eagerly awaiting word of who's doing what about town. The busy villagers bustle in and out, eliciting smiles and chuckles. News of deaths and births, local gossip, disasters, and miracles fills the pages. There are some new faces but mostly old friends, many of whom any of us wouldn't mind calling kin. Father Timothy Kavanagh, although older than when I first met him in volume one, continues to make his rounds in tiny Mitford, population 1,033. .Retirement for Father Tim started out with quiet days, and he found himself at loose ends too often. Filling the time steamrolls, however, and he soon discovers his calendar booked up as much as ever. Along with recuperating from a nasty accident, his days become packed with guest preaching, hospital visits, a small crisis here, and a large disaster there. There's never a dull moment in Mitford.There are dark sides, however which you will find out for yourself by reading this delightful series. Father Tim finds himself challenged time and again. His diabetes flares when he falls victim to temptation, landing him in the hospital. But his problem involves more than a sugar high and he faces some difficult healing, both in body and soul. Recovery takes a fair piece of time.This is the ultimate feel good book as is all the books in the series. The world would be a happier place if everyone read a Mitford Years novel once in a while. I once again found I couldn't put the book down. When I did I was smiling because I had volume 8 on my night table to read next.

4. Shepherd's Abiding, by Jan Karon - Miford lovers know as I do that the plot of the books is not the point; rather, it's the enjoyable escape into the daily exploits of the Mitford characters that keeps the pages turning. This latest volume is no exception. The narrative revolves around Father Tim's restoration of an old, battered nativity set, which he hopes to complete for his wife Cynthia as a surprise for Christmas. As he painstakingly sands the plaster figures, uncovering their natural beauty, he also uncovers a surprising talent for working creatively with his hands. When a nativity piece must be discarded because it is damaged beyond repair, Father Tim also discards some of his fondest dreams for the future --- and creates some new ones. The restoration of the figures becomes symbolic of Father Tim's personal restoration as he enjoys his retirement. "He felt a happy contentment flowing up in him, as a spring from a hidden source," Karen writes. Meanwhile, Cynthia is busy with her own Christmas surprise, which will offer Father Tim some consolation after a desolating accident.There's something especially endearing about the late-in-life love between Father Tim and Cynthia, who are aging well, yet aging nonetheless. With poignancy, Father Tim discovers that one of the gifts of growing old is recapturing lost memories. A solid underpinning of hope anchors all of the Mitford novels, and the hope this book offers seems to be that the last part of life is to be anticipated. But this is no serious Christmas tale. As with all of the Mitford novels, there's plenty of gentle humor. And indeed, in some ways, life hasn't changed much in Mitford, although the characters are older and their circumstances are a little different. However, there is a sense that the series is winding down, and the Mitford years are drawing toward a gentle close.

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