Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen (Algonquin; $14.95; 448 pages)
Following a tragic accident, where Jacob Jankowski finds that not only has he lost both of his parents, but everything he owns, he is forced to immediately recreate his life. Jacob walks out of his Ivy League veterinary medical exams and while wandering aimlessly decides to hop a train, a decision that alters his future. The train, it turns out, belongs to the Benzini Brothers, a second-rate traveling circus act. At the ripe young age of twenty-one, Jacob becomes the circus vet, an undesirable position working for a relentless boss.
To make matters worse, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a star performer and the wife of an abusive paranoid schizophrenic, who is in charge of training the animals that Jacob cares for.
Told from the perspective of a ninety-something Jacob, now living in a nursing home, Gruen spares no details as she depicts the story of life with the circus. Through descriptions of the grimy, disgusting living conditions, the filthy abused animals that eat unspeakable food, and the corrupt coworkers, we wait with bated breath to read what dangerous, life-threatening situation Jacob will be privy to next.
Sara Gruen has done her research and truly brings each circus act alive as you, the audience, watch Jacob’s life in the circus unfold. The ending is surreal but quite lovely. I look forward to seeing the film, which will be released this month.
This book was purchased by the reviewer.
Did Not Survive: A Zoo Mystery by Ann Littlewood (Poisoned Pen Press; $14.95; 250 pages)
This second novel from former zookeeper Ann Littlewood, pits human nature against the honesty of zoo animals for a compelling read. A fictitious zoo in the Pacific Northwest provides the location for a unique spin on an age-old tale of a heroine in peril. The main character is Iris Oakley who is not only a recently widowed zoo employee, but also pregnant with her deceased husband’s baby.
In this story there are actually two heroines in peril, Iris Oakley and an aged elephant named Damrey. Damrey has been a favorite of local families who visit her at the zoo. Author Littlewood makes a case for the depth of knowledge required of zoo personnel. It’s not just sweeping up after the animals and making sure they have their favorite foods. Behavior, instincts and training are well documented for a wide range of the zoo’s inhabitants. There are births and deaths that tear at the hearts of the staff.
Littlewood opens the mystery with the death of the zoo superintendent, a fellow who was good at his job but not well liked. He’s discovered in Damrey’s enclosure being menaced by the very agitated elephant. Iris is the first on the scene and it falls to her to assist in determining who is responsible for the super’s death.
Along the way we get to know the elephants. They have not been part of her job until the discovery of the body in their enclosure. Her regular charges are the big cats; however, pregnant women must not empty cat pans, big or small. Iris is a remarkable character who captured this reviewer’s sympathies.
Well recommended. Let’s hope Ms. Littlewood keeps writing about what she knows so well as she provides entertainment bundled with fascinating learning.
This review was written by Ruta Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher.