Sunday, June 28, 2009

Two Books, Two Reviews

Not that anyone was asking. Then again, nobody was asking about anything on this blurg and this is post number 232. Scheez. My thoughts on two books I finished in the recent past:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants is a book I successfully judged by its cover one day at Borders when I was feeling a little high on book smell. Sequins! Unlike many of my previous book/cover judges, this one turned out to be pretty good.

The book is structured as a frame story, which means that the main story is told through another related, yet different plot line--like the movie Titanic--a story within a story. The book follows an elderly man in a nursing home, remembering his life as a young man who, after some tragic circumstances, inadvertently runs away with the circus. As you can imagine, the circus was filled with some colorful characters--and I mean that in every sense of the word. His flashbacks show a man struggling to grow up, deal with his own losses, and fit quickly in to the bizarre world of the Depression-era circus.

The author researched the circuses of the era extensively, and my favorite parts of the story are those that have their basis in true circus lore (there was an author's note at the end of the novel). It was honestly also interesting just to see how that all worked--the circus trains and freak shows of yesteryear, peppered with lively characters and occasional bawdiness. The novel also includes an elephant who plays a major role in the plot--in fact, she was one of my favorite characters, though her communication was limited to eyes, ears, and body language. I also found the scenes in the nursing home to be poignant and sweet; the main character Jacob, lamenting his aging body, the gentle interaction of an understanding nurse (reminded me in a way, of the nurse in HBO's Wit) and the lonely, bland life that some people end up living in those places in their last years.

It wasn't sad though--don't get me wrong--the story was compelling, a bit racy, funny, and it left me with a smile. Without giving anything away or trying to get too technical on you, I will say that my one complaint about it was that it seemed to employ deus ex machina, which means that there was an all-too-quick resolution to one of the main conflicts in the novel, a love triangle, at the end. This generally bothers me because it seems like an author leads me down a path, only to resolve the issue quickly and with little effort. I felt like I could have kept reading, that she didn't need to wrap it up so quickly. But that's my only complaint. It held my attention and it was light enough fare for summer.

My recommendation: Check it out from the library. I don't think it's one you'll want to treasure forever, but it's definitely worth a read, and you'll most likely enjoy reading it.


Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy

The second book I bought purely because of its beautiful cover that day was Light a Penny Candle. I actually finished this one first, and it's quite longer. I enjoyed this book as well, yet it was completely different.

Penny Candle had a different quality to it--it's more of a grand, sweeping historical novel. Like Gone With the Wind, it follows its main characters through their coming of age, wars, marriages, births, and losses. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's on par with GWTW, but I enjoyed reading something like this that I could stick with for a while. The novel chronicles the lives of two young girls who ended up meeting because one was sent to live with the other in Ireland during the bombings of London in World War II. They remain bonded even after Elizabeth moves back to London, and they maintain a connection through letters to each other.

This novel draws on the epistolary genre, which means a novel that is written in letters. The girls, and eventually--women, write to each other to keep in contact. Through these letters you learn alternately more about their true feelings and less. The book does a good job capturing the struggle we all face with the split between how we represent ourselves to others and the true nature of our most private battles. The book deals with regret, choices, illness of family members--both physical and mental, romance, inner strength, and to a degree, Fate with a capital F. One thing that I personally connected with was the novel's focus on how and why we get married. The two main characters, Elizabeth and Aisling, each marry for different reasons and with different results. Through their happiness and their failures, we're able to see how expectation doesn't always meet reality.

Again, i enjoyed the window this book gave into the time period. Generally, that's not enough to capture my attention, and this book had a plot that kept me interested as well. The contrast between life in "civilized" England during the war and its shabby neighbor, Ireland, was well-described. Light a Penny Candle was a satisfying read: long enough to feel like the full depth of each character's life could be explored. Many of the characters in this novel were secondary to the story, and kind of one-dimensional, however, the connection of the two friends was enough to hold my interest and also more than enough to move the story along. I enjoyed reading this one as well.

My recommendation: Again, check it out from a library or buy it used. Good book. Worth a read. Not necessarily one you need to make space for on the library shelf.


  1. You are a great book analyzer...the circus plot and Gone with the Wind plot seem compelling, but I understand your small complaints. Glad you are getting lots of reading in! I must do the same. I am going to try and tackle The Scarlett Letter...

  2. LOL--I'm an English teacher, so... I guess that's a great compliment. :) Ugh... I HATE the Scarlet Letter... but more power to ya. It's tough. I haven't read it since 11th grade when I had to. :)

  3. Hi Heather, thanks for visiting my blog. It was a scary thought to right about 'my heart' so I was overwhelmed with the nice comments. Speaking of... I will be back to visit you... and to read this post properly.. I am off to work now .. monday morning... arrgghh. Thanks again and if you like, feel free to tag yourself to write a 'my heart' .. I have 2 opening available.. hehe Julie