Monday, January 7, 2013

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

One of My Favorite Books

Who doesn’t love a circus?  It conjures up memories of childhood, of popcorn, candy, exotic animals, clowns, ladies in dazzling sequined outfits, and amazing high-wire acts. When I think of a circus, I think of two things:  the wonderful book Water for Elephants and the time I took my two-year-old son to the circus.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is one of my all-time favorite books!  The story is told by an old man looking back on his life in the circus during the Great Depression.  As a young man he joins the circus after his parents died in a car accident. There he discovers a whole new and strange world in the small traveling community.   He learns the hard work involved in the back scenes of a circus, as well as the harsh and sometimes tragic lives of the workers. It isn’t long before he falls in love with the beautiful Marlena, one of the star performers.  Things are complicated though.  She’s already married to the controlling and cruel head animal trainer.   

Get ready to cheer for the hero, boo the villain and ooh and ahhh at the story that draws you into a bygone time and place.  It’s a memorable book that will stay in your heart a long, long time.


Taking my son to the circus when he was two years old is also memorable but for different reasons. That day, it wasn’t just the circus act that drew attention. 

It was a beautiful June day in 1997 when we took our seats in the covered grandstands to watch the show.  Soon the ringmaster welcomed everyone and sent out the clowns.  Little did we know that we had our own little clown in the shape of a blond haired, blue eyed two-year-old. 

We were all captivated as “The Great Zambino” had the tigers perform “the most amazing acts ever witnessed.” They jumped from one platform to the next.  Oooh! Ahhhh! Applause!  My six-year-old daughter and even my son liked the tigers. But that was the limit of his tiny attention span.

After that he quickly became bored and hungry.  “Popcorn! Drink!” he shouted. So my husband tracked down “The Great Constantine” who had finished his act, changed clothes, and was now peddling popcorn, sodas, cotton candy, and nachos. He bought the kids some snacks, which gave us about five minutes of peace before our little clown started shouting again.  “Want candy! More popcorn!” 

That was it! We put our foot down. We told him he was not getting any more food.  He needed to be still and sit there like a good boy, which he did—for about three minutes. That’s when he decided to take matters in his own hands.  If we weren’t going to supply him food, he was going to get his own. He started foraging on the ground for dirty, stepped on popcorn, all the while dragging his little lamby stuffed animal with him.  Next he stole popcorn from the man in front of us.  Then he was suddenly two rows ahead of us drinking some woman’s Pepsi. We ran after him and apologized of course, but he was a slippery little bugger. He did not want to sit still and kept bopping from one bleacher to the next. He wore us out and we broke down.  What’s the harm in getting him red licorice if it would shut him up and keep him seated for a few minutes?  It was a two-foot long licorice string.  That ought to buy us some time.

But then intermission came and my husband took my daughter down to the elephant, which were now being led into the arena. She actually got to ride on this majestic animal like Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in Around the World in Eighty Days. Meanwhile, my son had to stay with
me and, well, that just made him mad.  Even the licorice and cotton candy didn’t appease him.  To punish me, he stomped on his beloved lamby.  That would teach me, he thought.  When he didn’t get the reaction he was looking for, he threw his little yellow metal car a few rows ahead of us. It was only by pure luck someone didn’t get a chunk of metal to the head.  Boy, was I fuming now!  He got a good spanking.

Since he was fueled with soda and candy, though, his behavior did not get any better.  Now he was not only wild and unruly, he was also loud.  When ChoCho the Clown came back with his buddies, my son squawked out loud, fake laughs, which made people turn look at him. “Ha!  Aha! Ha, Ha Ha!” he screamed. 

The ringmaster then announced that “The Great Antonio” would now jump rope on top of a chair which was precariously balanced on the high-wire.  He asked for complete silence to allow Antonio to concentrate on this dangerous feat.  I gotta tell you, I started to sweat.  I was
pretty sure if I made a point to tell my son to be quiet now, he would yell out “What!?” in his exaggerated loud mode.  I knew if I slapped my hand on his mouth to shush him, he would squirm and scream even louder.  So, I did nothing but sit there in terror and say a little prayer for my son to be quiet and for Antonio’s survival.  And miraculously, my son did not say a word! We all breathed a sigh of relief and “The Great Antonio” completed his act.

My son, on the other hand, continued his act until it was finally time to go home.  He was still scrounging for food on the floor and by the time we left, he and his beloved lamby looked like they had been through war.  They were filthy from having rolled around the bleacher trenches. They had red licorice blood stains and Pepsi bruises. 

My daughter left the circus with a smile and a blowup dog, which she bought with her own money.  My son left with an attitude, and my husband and I left exhausted. Thank God it didn’t take long for our little clown to fall asleep in the car, and at last we had peace and quiet.  Sometimes it’s easier to tame a lion than a two-year-old. 

That was the last time I was at the circus. Learn from me, NEVER take a two-year-old the circus. Read Water for Elephants instead.  It’s much, much more satisfying.

Don't miss another good book about the circus:  The Night Circus by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

What about you?  What’s your all-time favorite book?  Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

Happy Reading,

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:


  1. This is my FAVORITE BOOK of all times!!! This book will always stay with me!!! A MUST READ!!

  2. I loved the book, especially the ending. Iam sure glad it was not me tackeling a 2 year old, I had to tackle his mother when she was little.

  3. This one is my FAVORITE BOOK! I must say I have not read 1/1000 the books you have but this is #1 for me!!! I LOVE this book.

  4. Water for Elephants is absolutely brilliant, creative, sensitive and inspiring. I really appreciate the tenderness and respect the author portrays the aging of humanity, and our own individual histories. There was a true respect for both human and animal in this novel as they both were heroes which I loved. I enjoyed this story very much, can you tell!
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