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—New York Times Book Review
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.
The rest of the midway—so recently writhing with people—was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn’t be dis appointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.
The other townsfolk—rubes, as Uncle Al called them—had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heart—at this very moment, the tail end of the Grand Spectacle was exiting and Lottie, the aerialist, was ascending her rigging in the center ring.
I stared at Grady, trying to process what he was saying. He glanced around and leaned in closer.
“Besides,” he said, locking eyes with me, “it seems to me you’ve got a lot to lose right now.” He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. My heart skipped a beat.
Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosie’s head.
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “Sit,” said Grady. “Eat. If you’re thinking of clearing out, it may be a while before you see food again.”
That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion—trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our heads and into oblivion. Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide. I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle—all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.
“What is it? What’s going on?” I said.
“Shh,” Grady hissed.
The band started up again, playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“Oh Christ. Oh shit!” Grady tossed his food onto the table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.
“What? What is it?” I yelled, because he was already running away from me.
“The Disaster March!” he screamed over his shoulder.
I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his apron. “What the hell’s he talking about?”
“The Disaster March,” he said, wrestling the apron over his head. “Means something’s gone bad — real bad.”
“ Could be anything—fire in the big top, stampede, whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably don’t even know it yet.” He ducked under the hinged door and took off.
Chaos—candy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen staggering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.
Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full gallop.
“ Jacob—it’s the menagerie,” he screamed. “The animals are loose. Go, go, go!”
He didn’t need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that tent. A rumble coursed through me as I approached, and it scared the hell out of me because it was on a register lower than noise. The ground was vibrating.
I staggered inside and met a wall of yak—a great expanse of curlyhaired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning eyes. It galloped past so close I leapt backward on tiptoe, flush with the canvas to avoid being impaled on one of its crooked horns. A terrified hyena clung to its shoulders.
The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes—of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat—boom. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.
My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big top—it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn’t know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did—one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don’t let them try to come through here.
I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ’s sake?
When I caught sight of her pink sequins, I nearly cried out in relief—maybe I did. I don’t remember.
She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.
That son of a bitch was standing with his back to her, red-faced and bellowing, flapping his arms and swinging his silver-tipped cane. His high-topped silk hat lay on the straw beside him. She reached for something.
A giraffe passed between us—its long neck bobbing gracefully even in panic—and when it was gone I saw that she’d picked up an iron stake. She held it loosely, resting its end on the hard dirt. She looked at me again, bemused. Then her gaze shifted to the back of his bare head.
“Oh Jesus,” I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
She lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down, splitting his head like a watermelon. His pate opened, his eyes grew wide, and his mouth froze into an O. He fell to his knees and then toppled forward into the straw.
I was too stunned to move, even as a young orangutan flung its elastic arms around my legs.
So long ago. So long. But still it haunts me.
I don’t talk much about those days. Never did. I don’t know why—I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn’t fodder for conversation, I don’t know what is.
Actually I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid I’d let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did — for the rest of her life, and then beyond.
In seventy years, I’ve never told a blessed soul.
In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski is invited to join Marlena and August for dinner in their railway car. We thought you might enjoy cooking a variation on this meal and possibly serving it to your book club sometime, so we have come up with a menu that is slightly less elaborate, and perhaps less filling than the one described in the novel (page 93), but hopefully one that you'll find faithful to the spirit of the evening in which Jacob truly fell in love with Marlena.
As Jacob remembers the meal, it began with oyster bisque, followed by prime rib, boiled potatoes, and asparagus in cream. Then came lobster salad. For dessert, there was English plum pudding with brandy sauce. The entire meal was washed down by champagne, purchased in Canada—remember, this was during Prohibition—and smuggled into the country hidden in the camel stalls.
We'd recommend the Oyster Bisque (see recipe c/o Sara Gruen below), but would suggest substituting London Broil. And for the side dishes, parsleyed boiled potatoes seem like a good idea if you want a starch, and we'd definitely suggest the fresh asparagus, although perhaps served with lemon and olive oil rather than cream. And while lobster salad sounds excellent, it also sounds like maybe too much trouble (and too expensive these days), so we'd suggest instead just going straight to something sweet. For dessert, we'd have you substitute an authentic Depression version of Applesauce Cake that we think you'll find delicious (although if you want to attempt the plum pudding, then go for it).
Finally, we'd suggest sticking with "champagne," although the two varieties we are recommending—both excellent and very affordable—are, strictly speaking, sparkling wines. They are Gruet Sparkling Wine Brut, from the Gruet Winery in Albuquerque, NM, believe it or not, and Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut, a product of the Catalonia region of Spain.
Grilled Marinated London Broil
1930s Apple Sauce Cake
Oyster Brie Soup (The Grove Park Inn's recipe)
Sara Gruen shared this recipe for Oyster Brie Soup and her thoughts on the role of food in Water for Elephants. The below is from the fabulous anthology Table of Contents, a unique cookbook featuring recipes drawn from the works of today's bestselling authors. We heartily encourage you to pick up a copy–it's chock-full of amazing recipes.
Food plays an important role in Water for Elephants because much of the story is set during the Depression, a time when many Americans did not have enough to eat. Uncle Al, the owner of the Benzini Bros. Most Spectacular Show on Earth, may have mistreated his workers—and more often than not didn't pay them—but he never skimped on food, and that was enough to keep them loyal.
Although the food served to the working men was hearty and plentiful, the train had professional chefs on board to cater to the needs of the stars and bosses. The first night Jacob had dinner in August and Marlena's stateroom, the four course meal they enjoyed was nothing short of decadent: the first course was oyster bisque, followed by prime rib with boiled potatoes, and asparagus in cream. Then came lobster salad, and to finish off, English plum pudding with brandy sauce.
The following is for the oyster bisque that used to be served at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Whenever I find myself there, I still ask for it, hoping they've put it back on the menu. Perhaps some day they will, but in the meantime, I talked them into giving me the recipe. It is unbelievably good.
For the soup:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 pound Brie cheese, cut into small wedges, no skin
6 cups cold water
2 cups heavy cream
36 shucked small oysters, with liquor, plus additional oysters for garnish (optional)
1/2 cup champagne
1/4 cup dry sherry
For the oyster garnish (optional)
Oil for deep frying
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1. To make the soup: In a large soup pot, melt one stick of butter. Add the celery, onions, and white and cayenne peppers. Stir and cook over low heat until vegetables begin to soften.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the second stick of butter. Make a roux as a base for thickening the soup by combining the melted butter and the flour. Cook at least 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the roux and the cheese to the soup pot. Add the water, cream, oysters and their liquor. Simmer the soup until the oysters begin to curl. Add the champagne and sherry and heat through.
3. To be extra fancy, garnish each bowl with a single deep-fried breaded oyster. To make the deep-fried oysters: Place 2-3 inches of oil in a deep fryer or large pot and heat to 375°F. Combine flour, salt and pepper. Dredge oysters in flour mixture, dip in egg and roll in bread crumbs.
4. Place oysters gently into hot oil. Cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes (if less oil, turn until golden brown on one side with tongs and fry until both sides are golden brown). Drain briefly on paper towels before garnishing soup.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
The story moves cleverly between the world of 90, or possibly, 93 year old, Jacob, in a nursing home, as he tells the story of his life, the Depression era and the circus world. He was twenty-three and almost ready to take his final exam, when he receives word that both of his parents were in a car accident and did not survive. There was no money as he sat to take his final exam to become a veterinarian. Feeling desperate Jacob jumps on a moving train instead. Having no idea he has jumped on a circus train, he decides he has nothing left and starts working with the circus. He meets a beautiful woman, Marlena, but finds out quickly she is married to a mad-man. However, she returns the attraction and a great love story begins. Water for Elephants is a compelling story that tells us all about growing old, corrupt management, animal cruelty, wonderful animals, kindness and loyalty between people and between people and animals in a world where indifference and cruelty are common. The author's obvious extensive research of history and circus life added so much interest to the background of a wonderful meaningful, love story. This is such a wonderful read and well worth your time!
72 out of 83 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2006
I was looking forward to reading this book. Parts of it were good & a few touching. The animal abuse was very disturbing & too graphic. The author has a twisted male organ fixation that was not relavent to the story line.
56 out of 138 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 24, 2009
Very good story that is well written. Great transitions from the old Jacob to his younger self. Who knew a story about circus trains could be such a great book. Due to some graphic language or truth of treatment to some animals, I would recommend this book, but with that caution to anyone who may be too young and possibly some adults who are very sensitive to that kind of thing. It is hard to read at times about the cruelty, but it is real.
33 out of 36 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2008
You might like this unbelievable novel. There wasn't a funny line in it. It was filled with more drama than I cared to read about. Between the killings of both humans and animals in bizarre and pathetic ways, the mistreatment of circus help and performers, and just the every day life of living a circus way of life was just morbid. If I want to be depressed, I can always go to a funeral. I felt like I needed an anti depression med after I read the book.
26 out of 69 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2009
From the begining this story grabbed my attention and kept it through out the entire book. Not only did I learn quite a bit about the curcus and this time period, but I guenuinely felt for the characters in the story including the animals. <BR/><BR/>I have lent this book to several of my friends, who found it just as delightful as I did. It was a great change from my usual readings. I will definitly be watching for more books by Sara Gruen.
23 out of 25 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 30, 2008
I propose a new and simple test for good vs bad writing. Does the author, be it a television screen writer, a mystery writer or a novelist, use schizophrenia as an all purpose safety net when he/she loses the logical thread of the story or lacks motivation for a character? If the answer is 'yes' then I call lazy if not out-and-out bad writing. The character, August, is drawn as a violent man with terrible mood swings. Fine. Why not leave it at that or show some motivation from his past? Instead he is called paranoid schizophrenic by the circus owner as an explanation for his behavior. Yet the character exhibited none of the symptoms of this disease! Where were the voices? Where were the fantastic delusions the disorgainzed thinking or the inability to separate reality from illusion? People with schizophrenia are rarely violent and actually have less incident of arrest than people with alcohol problems. Yet the public perception of schizophrenics as violent has doubled in recent years and here is a clear example of why the stigma has increased. The rest of the book alternated between boring and overly explicit as though lack of character development and story line could be compensated for with lurid details and horrible tragic cruelty to animals. What an awful and obvious way to extract emotion from the reader.
23 out of 62 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 22, 2009
I didn't connect with this book... it was action packed and definitely a page turner, but it almost felt like there were too many elements that were included in the story for shock value only, instead of contributing to character or story development. A few random acts of cruelty, disgust, lust, etc, would have adequately added to the illustration of harsh circus life, but incident after incident was thrown at you until you were pretty much emotionless about everything else that happened in the story. Also, why was the title of the book never fully explained? We got a clue in an early chapter that carrying "water for elephants" was such a significant thing for the main character, then it was never followed up with again. Finally, I thought the main character's ending was completely absurd.
21 out of 39 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 15, 2009
I Also Recommend:
I wouldn't have read this on my own. It was a gift and what a gift it turned out to be! I loved it! One of my all time favs! I felt a kinship for the main character right a way . Everyone should read this book! you won't regret it.
20 out of 23 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 2, 2010
I was so sad when I finished this book! The story wrapped up beautifully and made me misty eyed. I hated to put it down every night so I could sleep but I knew that if I kept reading, it would be over soon. There was some adult content in parts but the story was wonderful.
19 out of 22 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I can hardly describe the meaningfulness, pure beauty, and originality of this historically fictional novel in any review; no words can do it justice. And so all there is to say about this story of life, love, and betrayal is that it will surely move you in ways I thought were impossible. Jacob and his times with the Benzini Brothers circus are chronicled here, as he remembers the lessons he learned in the most unconventional of places. A winning tribute to everyone who has worked for what he or she loved with every ounce of passion. Read it or dare to miss out!
15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 26, 2011
Posted April 20, 2009
What a read! The characters are all so real, and the true emotions they share (and hide) make this one of the best books I have ever read. I recommend this book to everyone I know, and I have bought this book as a gift for many, many of my friends and family. True, it is a bit graphic in the telling of some of the men on the circus train, but then again, this is real life among the lonely and desperate members of the small circus. The ending was the most satisfying (read "happy" and "warming") I can remember in a long time, and it left me cheering (out loud!) for the main character. Hooray for "Water for Elephants"!!!!!
11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 31, 2008
This book was selected for my book group and I could not put it down. It is more than deserving of all the praise. Highly recommended.
11 out of 13 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 9, 2009
This book was chosen for my book club. I didn't think that I would like it because it was about the circus. I was completely wrong. The characters were beautifully described and I felt like I was there with them. It was a quick book to read and I didn't want to put it down. I bought the book before I finished it because I knew I would want this in my home library.
10 out of 12 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 15, 2011
I found this to be a good read, EXCEPT for the Sexual descriptions. WHY, WHY, Why, ruin a good story with SMUT. The characters were well developed, the story was gripping, you could understand some of the terrible conditions of the Depression Era and how difficult it was to live through all that. But I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone that I know because of about 3 pages that were just totally unnecessary.
9 out of 22 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 14, 2009
Posted September 25, 2007
I think this book made it in the wrong category. This is definitely an adult rated book but not everyone enjoys reading this type of content. I think this book should have a an age appropriateness rating. I was very disappointed in this book because of all the inappropriate scenes. When I chose this book for a book club I thought it would be a clean well written book, but what I got instead and want to warn other people about is pornography and filthy language. I began ripping pages out of the book because I didn't want to pass this along to the thrift store. I give this book no stars!
9 out of 31 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 14, 2011
This novel is poorly crafted around the re-telling of several true vignettes of the circus, clumsily woven in among anachronistic, stilted dialogue, caricatured relationships, and gratuitous sex and violence. It was a very frustrating read in that the writing is juvenile and the storyline both incoherent or cliched. Had some major issues with the villain being described as a paranoid schizophrenic (inappropriate for the time and as a description of the character's behavior) and Jewish (why is the only Jew in this story the bad guy?). Ms. Gruen has a lot of work to do and a long way to go if her writing is ever to deserve the laurels she surprisingly received for this novel.
8 out of 19 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 13, 2010
This story was so well-told and absorbing, I cannot praise it enough. It is told through the eyes of Jacob Janks, now an old man in a nursing home, he recounts his life in the Benzini Brothers circus during the Great Depression. Ms. Gruen's very unique talent for writing quickly draws the reader into this tale. The reader feels as if he/she is sitting on a sofa across from Janks as he tells his unique story. The characters are weird, funny, freakish and lovable. Of course, there is an elephant, Rosie, a kindhearted bull who only understands Polish. At first, people think she is stupid, but quite by accident, they discover she only responds to Polish commands and then they realize she is actually quite smart. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and could not put it down once I had started it. It is obvious that Ms. Gruen did quite a bit of research on the traveling circuses of the 1930's. She also includes actual pictures. It all comes together in a very entertaining read and an especially good ending. I loved it!
8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.