The Houston Central Market Book Club met last Monday, June 8, 2009 to discuss WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. The novel is a circus story and all of the seventeen attendees of our discussion agreed that the best part was the vivid description of circus life and the supporting characters that exemplified circus life during lean times, in this case the depression era. Most of us also agreed that the part we liked the least was the author's inability to provide main characters that had "meat on their bones" (my phraseology, not the group's), main characters who had very little complexity and could be described either as "bad" or "good" with not much gray area.
Our discussion began with a question from the leader, Mia who asked about the prologue where the author gives us an advance excerpt (supposedly) and describes the animals let loose in the circus with Marlena being involved in the killing of some person or some animal, it isn't exactly clear. This technique seemed to be effective in enticing the reader to move quickly into the story hoping to find out what happens in the case of such a disaster.
One attendee mentioned the connection with the biblical story of Jacob which was interesting but not something we talked about at length. The same attendee had worked at a zoo and was knowledgeable about exotic animals and though we normally don't like to talk at length about outside books or experiences that the rest of us have no knowledge of, in this case, she was brief but was able to confirm that the details about the animals in the book were very realistic in her experience. We talked a bit about elephants since one of the more endearing parts of the story focused on Rosie, a very smart elephant but who responded only to commands in Polish, which conveniently was a language that Jacob, the main protagonist, understood because of his family background.
I criticized Jacob who was a young man recently in veterinary school (though not graduated yet) at Cornell. He seemed to rarely demonstrate any behaviour except that which was above reproach. He seemed so one-dimensional. One of the guys in the group commented that he thought the author was not good at describing men especially since the author was female. Others commented that they didn't think the author did a good job of the female either, though most of us thought the "old timers" of the circus were characterized much better. For example, the characters of Camel (the old guy who was an alcoholic) and Walter, the dwarf with his beloved dog, Queenie were described particularly well.
Also discussed was what many thought was a contrived ending with many parts of the story disposed of in a manner that seemed way too convenient for several of us. I won't discuss details to avoid being a spoiler.
We hadn't gone too far into the discussion when Mia asked what else we wanted to talk about. Normally the moderator doesn't run out of questions so quickly nor do the attendees run out of things to talk about. I took this opportunity to begin a discussion about my opinion that the book was "light fiction" and not the type of book we normally read, hence the reason that finding questions for discussion was somewhat difficult, at least questions that were related to issues with any depth. Most of our discussions cover books that are in many cases even tedious to read but the discussions make the work worthwhile. I wanted the opinion of others about how disappointed they were in the book.
Surprisingly, many of the attendees, at least the ones that were vocal said that they weren't sorry they had read the book even though they agreed it wasn't very typical of the type of books we discuss. I was relieved to feel that the others didn't blame me (at least too much) for wasting their time. We did a lot of talking about how we felt about reading classics or more serious fiction. Several in the group indicated that they had a background in English Literature and that the last thing they wanted to do was to read boring literature since they had had to do too much of that while going to school.
After the discussion, we continued to talk about the subject over glasses of wine downstairs in the cafe at Central Market. There were at least nine of us and I concluded both from our discussion earlier as well as from the discussion later that most are very interested in reading good literature but we don't want to read literature that is the kind you count every page. We also talked about how we might split up some of the great works such as WAR AND PEACE by Tolstoy and BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens in order to keep the amount of pages needing to be read every month to a moderate amount.
In the case of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, I didn't follow the usual criteria in determining whether to include it on the ballot. It has won no major book award nor is it a classic. I did read a promising review in the New York Times as well as have a good impression of Mia and her prior contributions to our group so I decided to include it on the ballot. I definitely do not blame Mia. I myself have suggested titles before that turned out to be ones I regretted. This can happen unfortunately no matter how dilligent we are in picking our titles.
It has taught me that if I relax the criteria, I risk wasting the time of the readers of this group though most were very polite and not complaining. We all agree that just because a book is an award winner or written by a classic author, this doesn't mean it will be a Great Book but at least it improves the odds. I think that is all I can ask for at this time.
I plan to talk about the criteria in our discussion (at the beginning and end) in the future so others will know more about what we want on our reading list. Currently, my criteria is that it must meet one of the following:
- A classic (GREAT GATSBY, MRS. DALLOWAY>, etc.)
- A book written by a classic author
- Be the winner of one of the following major literature awards,
- National Book Awards
- Independent Publisher's Book Awards
- Pen/Faulkner Award
- written by an author who has won a Pulitzer, Booker or won the Nobel Prize.
- Be on the lists of "great literature" as can be found on the web such as:
- Times Magazine list of best 100 book written since 1923.
- Time Magazine list of best 100 books of all time
- Modern Library List of best 100 books
- Random House list of best 100 books
- Penguin classics
- Chicago Great Books list as reflected in their anthologies or on their web site at http://www.greatbooks.org.
- International award winning books - this will have to remain somewhat nebulous since it is not always easy to get information about the literary awards of foreign countries but using Wikipedia.org, I have found it to be easier in recent history. Anyone wanting a foreign book by a not so well known author needs to submit the title to me and I will research.