beckells’ CBR-III Review #2: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

There are two aspects of literature that have to be acknowledged in rating a novel or piece of writing (and these are extremely technical terms): enthrallability and actual value. They hold entirely different rating systems, as books like the ever-loved “Twilight” may have an interesting concept/story you feel might pan out but is so technically terrible with horrible character development and weak messages that you are ashamed to actually own a copy. Not that I know from personal experience*.

This conflict is one I confront myself with a lot. I absolutely love, with only mild self-scorn, period romance novels. And I’m not talking classy Mr. Darcy-Rebecca-I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn older novels, I’m talking men named Lord Aiden Quinn Allistair in morning coats and half naked ladies with ridiculous artists-rendering cleavage on the covers. (Pseudonyms abound!) So, I don’t normally have any issue with a lack of quality or any sort of lasting value in a fun read.

Except for when it’s ridiculously apparent that the author tried and failed. “Water For Elephants” is like that; the story is amazing, if a little cliched in parts, but for the most part is driving. I want to care about the characters – but none except the main protagonist are given a chance to shine in any way. Snippets of background are fleeting, like the novel was edited down from a much longer, involved manuscript and some major scenes were left on the floor of some underpaid copywriter.

Jacob Jankowski’s story is told as flashback; narration shifts between nursing home present and his trauma-filled past. I think my biggest complaint about the book is that I pretty much adore the old man. He’s crotchety and cranky and unapologetic and everything I hope to be when I’m older and feel forgotten by the world. Aware of his slipping grip on memory and what it means to be himself, he is reminded through the story we are told of his last days as a free wheeling youth. Adore as I might the old coot, the way his past is forced upon the reader – younger Jankowski’s opinions of who characters are and what feels like a lot of “this man ended up this way because of this, single, one-time-only act” or “she is this way because of this one thing” is terribly unfair. No one in the history of the world has been one dimensional; the author gives you so much of Jankowski to draw from it is almost criminal that the rest of the novel’s cast is denied an opportunity. The elephant comes close, but even then is more of a prop than a catalyst.

It is unfortunate; the plot itself was good – I finished the book in a night, and read it one more time at a slower pace. Both times, I appreciated the story but was left unsatisfied by the experience, wanting something more out of it.

Not unlike the time I met a man named actually Aiden Quinn, who despite being ridiculously charming and in possession of a mild Irish accent did not immediately ravish me and steal me away to his huge family estate in the British Isles. Instead I processed his return and sent him on his charming way, to be forever teased by my coworkers about my Irish love.

*this is a lie. a large one.

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Beckells’ CBR-III Review #1: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

7 out of 8 professionals agree: I heart the Krakauer, and it’s obvious.  There is not so much a bias as an admiration for what he’s accomplished through writing and research, despite the controversy he has stirred in the context of both.

The tragedy depicted in “Into Thin Air” is one that is marginally familiar to most people; 1996 was an unfortunate year to be climbing Mount Everest. I had never made it through the entire book, though I’ve owned a copy for about 9 years.  But when “Under the Banner of Heaven” came out a while back, I read it cover to cover in about 2 days, enthralled by the subject matter because of Krakauer’s distinctly abrupt and “Just the facts, ma’am” style.

The same applies to this work, but it comes with the shadow of rumor around it; while non-fiction based around religion or any event that has emotions tied to it will never satisfy all, Krakauer had come under specific accusations from others present on the mountain that year of bad mouthing others and glossing over his own difficulties. And while I don’t think that he delves as deeply into his own personality flaws as much as those around him (the physical is another story), the reader has to remember two things: one, he was present as a reporter giving a first hand account of the experience of climbing Everest and everything that comes with that – judging those around you against your own expectations of what is appropriate and right, as well as what you think they are capable of. Judgemental analysis and personal opinion in an account of an experience are not only unavoidable, they should be expected.

Secondly, this book was written less than 6 months following a harrowing experience during which several people died, and one of whom it is quite obvious Krakauer feels responsible for. He has no qualms in admitting that not only did he make a mistake regarding a fellow climber, he reported a false event before the truth became known to him. That mistake may have cost a man his life, a family a father and husband, and cost Krakauer the respect of people he considered peers in both the climbing and publishing worlds.

The existence of these points of discussion are a credit to Krakauer and his book; the man can tell a story, and wind his facts through without them seeming shoved in by a copywriter in a closet somewhere.  It is a talent a lot of non-fiction can lack. The disputes made against his account and what was reported both in his book and the original magazine article only serve to emphasize discussion and examination, something that a good writer always wants for his story. Attention to the story is attention to the event; whether or not you think he was fair in his descriptions will only provide you with a closer view of the ordeal, and I like to think that while he no longer allows anyone to question him on the disaster, Krakauer would appreciate additional perspectives.

Like I said, 7 out of 8. And I’m pretty sure the 8th was just jealous.

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*cue my entry music*

Where I will read the crap out of 52
books, review them, and complain about insignificant things like
women who wear dark lip liner and clear lip gloss.
Seriously.

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