Tag Archives: Water for Elephants

The Best Books of 2011

The last couple of years I hadn’t been reading very much.  Here and there I’d start a new book, but it would take me forever to read it and I usually just watched movies instead.  For 2011 I was determined to read more.  I vowed to read 2 books a month, and I ended up reading 28.  I enjoyed all of them, but here are the creme de la creme of books I read this past year.

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Based on the historical legend that a woman disguised herself as a man and became one of the most influential popes of the Vatican’s history.  Pope Joan is both a historical drama, suspense novel, and romance.  As a young girl, Joan learned to read and write, an education forbidden to women in 800 AD.  The author definitely did her research finding the few facts we know about Pope Joan.  Of course, the Vatican denies her existence, but because of this, the story of Pope Joan is all the more intriguing.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This book was a complete surprise for how raw and open the author was in this memoir of growing up.  The book begins with her in a cab watching her own mother pick through a dumpster.  Now that’s a scene that will evoke emotion in a reader.  The Glass Castle is really about a family, their ups and downs, the realities and the truest form of magic that exists in Walls’ phenomenal storytelling.  A must read for any author considering writing a memoir.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

This might have been my favorite book of 2011.  I am both immensely impressed with the amount of research this author did on early circuses and her story in general.  She was haled by critics for her ability to write an elderly character’s voice and her characters created for the traveling circus were priceless.  Water for Elephants is a romance and a tale of finding oneself.  It sets you in a world of mystery and hard work.  It inspired a road trip to the Circus World Museum, a place where Gruen began some of her research!  This was a book I could not put down!

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

I read this book in my book club and we had such a fun time discussing the themes of spirits, witches, and magic.  The synopsis of this book, which was inspired by the author’s doctorate research, is a graduate student who discovers an ancestor’s physick book, or medicine book, or book of magic.  As Connie uncovers more about her own family, she’ll learn more than she wants to about the powers within it, but she has to do so before her professor takes matters into his own hands.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I guess I like books with stories behind the stories.  I love looking into how the author’s do their research, and for Stockett, she began this book after September 11th.  She needed to hear a voice that was comforting again, and the voice she thought of was the maid that raised her when she was young.  Thinking about what life must have been like for her is the premise for the story of The Help.  Set early in the civil rights movement, The Help takes on a variety of voices, from the soft spoken and ethical Aibileen, to the no holds barred Minny, and the idealistic, coming of age Skeeter.  Everyone I know who’s read this book has loved it.  If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Um.  Ok, The Hunger Games.  They ruled.  What more do you want me to say?  The movie comes out in March and I’ll be there.  I’m Team Gale.  I do not condone the growing trend of naming your kids Bella or Katniss.  But I Love These Books.

The Doctor’s Lady by Jody Hedlund

I had read Jody’s blog before, but not her books.  I won this title in a contest and I couldn’t put it down!  I would’ve never pegged myself as a christian historical romance reader, but I was swooning by page three over Eli Ernest, the rough rider doctor who sets foot towards the new west crossing the Oregon Trail.  And Priscilla White is no weakling, prairie marm.  She may have lots to learn, but she will prove herself to be a tough and strong-willed companion.  I can’t wait to read to Jody’s first book, The Preacher’s Bride this year!

There you have it!  My favorite reads from 2011.  What books were your favorite?  What’s next on your “to read” list?

By the way, the winner of my Life List Club blog post and receiver of an I-Tunes Gift Card and chance to guest post or interview here is Marcy Kennedy!   Congratulations, Marcy, be contacting you soon!

Jess Takes on Circus World

Experience the Thrill That Never Grows Old

Preface:  I recently finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and learned that she did some of her research at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  So this Memorial Day Weekend, my best friend and I, took a two hour road trip TO THE CIRCUS!!!

History:  Set on the grounds alongside the Baraboo River, the Circus Museum is where the Ringling Brothers grew up and also where they rested and repaired their acts during the winter.  The museum is set up in a series of buildings as well as the circus grounds themselves.  Eight out of ten of the original winter quarter buildings are part of the museum.  Originally begun by the Ringling Brothers attorney, John M. Kelley, and then signed over to the state of Wisconsin, the museum has been open since 1959 and is now operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Gruen’s setting of the traveling circus set during the depression is a very realistic depiction.  The time between 1880 and 1930 is considered to be the golden age of the American Circus.  When the Depression hit, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey show was the main circus to survive.  Commissioned by the army for WWII recovery, they had tents made by the canvas department.  The army also studied the circus for its efficiency in packing the train cars, everything always going into the same car in the same sequence so everything was accounted for.  Circuses kept up morale, so the RBBB show was excluded from the wartime restrictions on rail travel.

Circus Posters:  The first room you enter in the museum is the history of the circus poster.  Examples of original wood cut and lithography are shown.  What surprised me the most about the posters is the strange images and shows they advertised.  I had no idea how exotic some of the first shows were.  There are posters depicting Burmese Long Neck Women and animal charmers from the African forests.  No wonder shows like RBBB had crowds of 10,000 people and three rings entertaining simultaneously.  Where else would you be able to see such things?

Spectacular, Spectacular:  The second half of the room gives you the history of the Ringling Brothers and their top performers.  Lillian Leitzel is considered to be the Queen of the Circus, performing trapeze acts never accomplished again.  She was only 4’9″ and 95 pounds which makes me love her all the more.  She tragically died during a performance in Copenhagen.

If you’re traveling with kids, you won’t be disappointed by the Spectacular room.  There are costumes!!!  I so would have been in one, but we got there with a massive group and everything was swiped.  Kids of all ages will have fun checking out the parade wagons and glitzy costumes on display here.  And one whole wall is a recreation miniature circus.  You can see the whole overview of the three rings, animal tent, sideshow tents, rail cars, etc.  Really cool to visualize what the whole set up looked like.

Meet Tiny:  Next up, my friend and I crossed the bridge that led to the circus grounds.  First stop, go meet the elephant!

Tiny, a female elephant, was rescued when she was about six months old.  Her parents were poached for the ivory in their tusks, and she was left behind.  She lives most of her days at an animal reservation in Florida with her human family.  She used to be allowed in the house when she was little, and now she taps her trunk on the upstairs windows and pokes her head inside for treats and toys.  Her owner grew up in the circus and his family does the act with Tiny in the Hippodrome.  Tiny is such a part of the family that she doesn’t need to be chained up.  She roams the paddock and is funny and gentle in the home she’s come to know.

Having a moment with Tiny.

I Jess, I Strong Man

Look, the Benzini Brothers! Just like in the book!

Wagons:  Two of the buildings at Circus World are for wagons.  One room houses a vast collection of over 200 circus wagons, the largest and most significant collection in the world.  The second allows you to view the wagon restoration process and see inside what a personal rail car would look like.

Sideshow:  There’s also a history of the sideshow.  One tent houses replicas of the most famous freaks of the RBBB show.

The Fire Eater, the Snake Charmer, the Tattooed Lady

Major Mishap:  Ladies and Gentlemen, next up at Circus World witness Jess take on the Animal Cage in a fearless stupor of enthusiasm!

Yep, that’s right, I had a little accident at Circus World.  The museum is full of wonderful photo opportunities, funny cut outs, animal rides, rich historic wagons, costumes, and memorabilia.  One of the attractions included an open animal wagon you could go inside.  I should tell you, the whole day I had been running around the house crying “I’m going to Circus World, I’m going to Circus World, Freaky and Fabulous can be found at Circus World!”  At this point in my friend’s and my trek, we had fed and pet an elephant, and learned all kinds of cool things about the history of the circus and what a big role our state played in one of the greatest shows on earth!

So, we’ve got this animal cage, right?  You walk up the steps, go into the cage, grab the bars, growl or smile for a picture and walk out.  Simple?  Should be…but if one has the anticipation and excitement of kid let loose in a world of sequins, big animals, onion rings, cotton candy, and an upcoming circus performance, it’s not that easy.  All I ask, dear reader, is that you show a little sympathy, but I understand if you laugh at my injury induced enthusiasm.

You’re familiar with the expression “Walk, don’t run?”  Mmm, should’ve listened more.  I RAN up the metal stairs into the metal wagon whereupon I HIT with a thunderous bang my FACE on the doorframe.  Families walking down the path cried out, “Are you ok?”  *Shake it off, don’t make a scene*

The following is a re-enactment of the dialogue between my friend and I:

“Are you ok?”

“Yah, I’m fine.  Take my picture!”

“No.”

“What’s wrong, am I bleeding?”

“Yes.”

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I hit my face so hard, not only did I have a gash, and I mean gash, on my nose dripping blood, I also had a gusher of a bloody nose, and one bad headache.  My friend ran off to get paper towel, unbeknownst to me couldn’t find a bathroom and the one volunteer she ran into was the girl’s first day and she hadn’t a clue.  So, if we’re taking notes here, that would leave me BLEEDING IN A CAGE IN THE MIDDLE OF CIRCUS WORLD, FRIGHTENING LOTS OF CHILDREN!

“Here’s some paper towel.  Let’s clean you up.”

“Is it bad?”

“Um a little bit.  But look at you, not a drop on your clothes!”

“My arms are covered in blood!”

“Can you make it to the bathroom?”

“Do I look like Carrie?”

“Let’s use my water bottle first.”

You know you’ve got a true friend when they help you clean blood off your face.  Despite the baseball size lump on my forehead and the 3/4 inch chunk of skin missing from my nose that bled all day and forced me to make period stops in the restroom to clean my face up, I demanded with the same enthusiasm that we STAY AT THE CIRCUS!  I put my sunglasses on and some tissue in my purse, and we headed for the hippodrome.

Circus Performance:

Instantly excited because she looks like an extra in Strictly Ballroom. "Who's Tina Sparkle?"

Yes, yes that is a great dane driving a wagon full of pekingese and a baboon holding a shot gun. I'd have got a better picture but I was in shock from a blow to the head/believing what I was seeing.

These two were my favorite, Slava and Kristina. They did balancing acts, juggling, hoolahoops, and were just really FUN to watch!

Tiny makes her stage showcase!

So, one road trip, and one ER visit/tetanus shot later, I’m a bit puffy, there’s an unattractive cut on my nose, and I’ve now earned a black eye, but I highly recommend you all HEAD TO THE CIRCUS!  I had a freaky, fantastic time!

What story should I tell everyone at work tomorrow?

Leave your suggestions in the comments!  I’ll need all the help I can get.  😉

Why Water for Elephants is One Bold Book

I like books that surprise me.  Especially when that surprise comes from the author through her ability to do research and turn it into a story you wish would never end.  Sara Gruen has done this.  The author of Water for Elephants spent about 6 months doing research at several circus museums, including Sarasota, Florida’s Ringling Museum and the Circus Museum right here in Baraboo, Wisconsin (I’m planning a visit!).  She went to the Kansas City Zoo and walked up to an animal handler and said, “Hi I’m writing a book about elephants, can I meet yours?”  She worked up the guts to get inside the secret lives of circus performers and took many of their best anecdotes for her novel.

What Gruen has produced is the life story of one polish boy becoming a man while working on a traveling circus.  The author’s note alone makes this book a great read.  Setting the story during the Great Depression, she gives the reader perspective that makes the hardships of the characters real.  Through her research, she brought in lesser known bits of history like the disease “jake leg,” a paralysis caused by drinking a toxic, cheap alcohol.  She also changed the definition of a “hobo” from the Depression era.  Rather than an old, dirty man, most of the people left in train ditches and town outskirts were young boys, orphans with no parents or available work.

So we have this book, rich in history and research, but that’s not even the part that surprised me!  Call me naive, but when I see a book that’s on the New York Times Bestseller list for so long, and all my co-workers have read the book and rave about it, I simply wasn’t expecting just how BOLD Ms. Gruen was going to be in her subject matter!  No more than halfway through the book and we’re introduced to the Lovely Lucinda in the cooch tent, a masturbating dwarf, a chemically preserved hippopotamus, a virgin who can’t hold his load, extreme animal violence, and forbidden love!  I’m so excited I could pee myself, which would probably make me fit in with this ragtag train of circus folk!

I am overjoyed and in love with this book.  Here’s why:  This is an example of where an author made bold writing choices that were supported by her research and they combined forces to make millions of readers love her and her book.  I am thrilled that this author could put some pretty risque subject matter in her book and have society like it.  You can guess I am never one to join in with a book ban; I believe people should be able to read what they want to.  And Gruen’s novel is great writing, great writing with some edgy subject matter that for once DIDN’T put the public off, but instead GOT THEM TO LIKE READING!  Thank you, Sara Gruen!  P.S., check out this photo of Sara with the film version’s elephant on her site, pretty funny!

A week ago, I went to see the film version of Water for Elephants and I really liked it!  Of course, the book is better, which is why you’ll hear me always say watch the movie first!  I mean it.  I stand by this absurd sounding trait of mine.  I watch the film first.  Seriously, if you watch the movie, you’re enjoying it as it unfolds and not spending your time going where’s that character, why did they do that, that’s not how it is in the book!  I know, I used to live like that.  Never again!  The book is always better, we know that.  So, watch the movie first, enjoy it, and then read the book.  When I follow this rule, I’m delighted by new characters that are in the book and not the film, I like the subtle, sometimes drastic plot changes, they are surprising and fun to debate which one worked better.

In this case, I do feel the book was better.  But I was very surprised at how close to the book the film version stayed.  Christoph Waltz is amazing as August, the equestrian ringleader.  He is handsome, charming, and menacing beyond belief.  Great antagonist.  But reading the book gives you a better understanding of how Gruen webbed together two antagonists to play off of each other, August and Uncle Al, the show’s leader.  Neither man synchs up with the other which creates multiple points of conflict all worthwhile!

If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it!  It’s an enjoyable, exciting read.  For those that like to research the topic you’re reading about, you won’t be disappointed.  If you like to dissect characters and are looking for some teeth sinking, juicy ones for your next book club, this title has plenty!   And for those of you, like me, with book lists a mile long to get to, you can watch the movie first, because it will make you want to read the book!  🙂

Where Do Books Come From?

      Last night I was reading more of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  Instead of picking up on the chapter I left off, I flipped to the back and started reading the acknowledgments Gruen wrote.

Psst.  I also have a secret habit of reading the last sentence of a book before I get there.  I know, I shouldn’t, but then when I really do get to the end and re-read that last sentence, it’s like coming home.  I refuse to stop, don’t try to make me.  

In Gruen’s acknowledgments, she first related how she came up with the idea for the story.  She read an article in the newspaper about Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who traveled along with circuses in America during the 1920’s and 30’s.  She became so transfixed with a photo in the paper, she immediately went out and bought two circus photography books.  From there, the passion took over.  She spent around 4-6 months researching everything circus, including visiting the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which isn’t that far from where I live, so my honey and I are going to plan a weekend getaway to check it out!  She spent a few weeks in Sarasota, Florida at the Ringling Museum and time at the Kansas City Zoo getting to study elephant body language and behavior.  Want to start your own circus project?  I kind of do.  I’m fascinated with the book so far, and was intrigued that a whole story began after viewing one photograph in the newspaper.

Doesn't just a little part of you want to trade places with this performer for a day? To say you rode an elephant in a circus!

I’m sure most of you heard the genesis about how Twilight series author, Stephanie Meyer began her books.  She had a dream that was used in the meadow scene with Edward and Bella.  She also spent time in Forks, Washington, the book’s setting, and now the community has more tourists than ever coming to see the houses and school Bella “went” to.

I'd write a book too if I was dreaming of Robert Pattinson!

One of my all time favorite books is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  I’ll actually be re-reading it this month for a book club.  Skloot spent 10 years doing research for this book and it all started with a science class.  She remembers her teacher wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board, and after that day no one knew a thing about her.  She spoke with ethics advisers, lab technicians, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and eventually family members to piece together a story so crucial to the medical industry and never told to the woman’s own family.  Just a name on a blackboard launched an investigation into a multi-million dollar industry and one well-kept secret.

Her research went on to conduct interviews, review medical records, visit the hometown of Henrietta, and eventually make contact and earn trust of the Lacks family, thereby viewing journal entries of Henrietta’s daughter and family footage and photos.  I am just floored by the amount of devotion Skloot put forward to make a difference in the lives of the Lacks family and to tell a story that helped shape every medical advancement you can think of.  You really MUST read this book!

What I’m wondering is what was the moment that hooked you into your writing project?  Did you read something in the paper, have a dream, see a name on the blackboard?  Every writer is inspired differently, what inspired you?  And what was the next step that took that captivating idea into a work in progress/published book?

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