Detours: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I took a detour with Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I had initially planned to read Paradise by Toni Morrison, an author I’ve been fascinated with since grade school for reasons I cannot remember.

I was at Aliya’s Bookshop a while back when I saw a used copy of Water for Elephants and without hesitation I grabbed it. I don’t even remember how I first heard about it but I think it was after I saw the movie trailer. Decided to read the book first. You can guess that I haven’t watched the movie yet.

Jacob Jankowski takes a detour from the comfortable path his parents helped him pave after a family tragedy. Our protagonist finds himself on the Benzini Brother’s circus train filled with performers, animals, and workers.  It’s interesting, through Jacob’s eyes, readers find themselves mystified by the performers like the circus’ audience. Only to be  horrified by the harshness of life outside The Big Top a few pages later. It seems this duality is strongly associated with any form of entertainment. Not to far fetched from the modern day revelations, such as the Weinstein allegations, that have gained light.

Speaking of duality, the plot shifts between young Jacob and old Jacob in the retirement home. I guess the function of this is to confirm his survival after the accident and the outcome of his affair with Marlena.

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Jacob takes a detour. The leading lady, Marlena, took a detour with August through elopement. Even how Rosie the elephant ends up with them is due to a detour.

The story is quite simple and straightforward so if you are the type that likes to dig a little deeper, sadly I think you’ll quickly hit that pipe. The pace of the story reminds me of the movement of an old train, steady, with the occasional jolt. I pretty much mellowed out during the middle of the book. The dialogue became predictable and soon after the story. It’s never a good sign when my stubbornness is the main force pulling me through. But then, to keep the same analogy, the pace of the book sped up towards the end when you figure out what “red-lighted” means, as Jacob plays hero to save Marlena from August, Uncle Al’s demise, and much more.

Our main character is an impulsive sweetheart with a good sense of humor and I feel that compensates for the slowness of the book. Personally, I grew to love the characters, appreciate Jacob’s and Walter’s friendship, and the parts set in menagerie are my favorite. Marlene is your typical damsel in distress – the only moment that stuck with me was when she went to give food to a starving worker. Considering her predicament and elopement, she got guts.


While reading this book, I discovered that circus performers trained in the same building I was interning at. Not long after, I attended my friends’ private graduation ceremony where a professor mentioned that studying English Literature was like taking a detour from the path your parents paved for you. Looks like it was fate to read this instead of Paradise.

And so by the end of Water for Elephants, I thought about my friends’ detours, Jacob’s detour, and wondered if I had taken one without even realizing.

I loved the ending.

I closed the book with a smile on my face and thought of detours while scrambling for clothes. Work was in 20 minutes.

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The Appeal of Reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green

By the third John Green novel during August of 2013, my motivation to read another faded. Simply because I was exhausted from the angsty teenage theme he exhausted in his YA novels.

Fast-forward to 2017 in the middle of summer and I stumble upon the fourth one I had skipped. I had just finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and so the anticipated lightness of the plot appealed to me. Plus I figured before I gave it away, I should at least read it once.

At the end of the day, it’s still a typical John Green Book but man –

He has a sense of humor!

(credit to co-author David Levithan as well)

And I think that’s why I found myself struggling to put down the novel. John Green has a sense of humor that is relatable and cheesy, which is my kind of humor.

Anyways, focusing on the book, the plot is relatively simple and it revolves around the destined encounter of our protagonists who really only have their name in common. Readers see how both of them try to tackle their understanding of themselves and their feelings for others whilst the making of Tiny Cooper’s musical. All in all, I was really sympathetic to single-parent Will Grayson and related to the hurt Tiny Cooper’s best-friend was feeling when it seemed to him that he was being replaced.

Maura makes it to my list of annoying characters. What she did to Will was unacceptable  despite totally predicting that. Towards the end of the novel, you kind of understand her motives but it isn’t enough for redemption. However, it did lead to a conversation between Will and his mother that I greatly appreciate:

“mom: my point is that there are times when you just have to let it all out. All the anger

Tiny Cooper is loud, large, and portrayed as your typical sassy gay teenage boy that you can’t miss. He has excellent rhyming game and apparently can sing like an angel but frankly most of his lyrics made me cringe. I think it’s because I was trying to sing them in my head but I only had the lyrics to work with. However, I got bored with the constant reference to his largeness throughout the entire novel. I’m not exaggerating.

In my opinion, the grandness and sexual orientation of Tiny were more focused on than the relatability of the character. Unlike the other two Will Grayson(s), Tiny’s parents are mentioned once or twice, you learn nothing of his background, and nuances that would really bring Tiny Cooper’s character together – almost none. If you can list any other characteristics other than Tiny being large, gay, sassy, and in love with musicals, let me know.

Regarding writing mechanics, the narration switches back and forth between the two Grayson(s) and I find it interesting that the writing mechanics used to distinguish the two is that the chapters designated for Single-Parent Will Grayson has no capital letters. At all. Bothersome at first but I later got used to it.

Overall, a humorous book that makes you think back to your angsty and awkward teenage years in the midst of a booming digital age and the onset of self-discovery. It also served as a distraction from the inevitable good-byes this summer had in stored for me. The more I think about it, the more I realize my teenage angsty years were really just an awkward period of learning several truths. Being 21 now doesn’t mean I’ve learned everything  but I’m more accepting of my awkward nature.

-MS-

 

 

We All Need a “Midori”, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Kobayashi Midori is a prominent character in the novel, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Well-known for his fantastical stories, the simplicity of this novel may surprise you at first but then you ease into it, only to finish it needing time to process what you’ve just read.

Luckily for me my friend, Carla, had recently finished reading the book and so I sent her a message on Facebook. Below are selected parts of the conversation because I’m trying to avoid spoilers.

Carla’s responses are in purple:

…the ending got me rolling. like Watanabe being disoriented but it gave a limbo impression. Like he just died and hadn’t realized it

“Midori was the BEST. Every book needs a Midori I knowwww that ending!!!!”

“EVERYONE NEEDS A MIDORI”

“I’m choosing to interpret it as momentary confusion because the alternative is too sad hahah it’s so true though!”

“yeah momentary confusion – i understand – BUT what would inflict that?”

“I kind of don’t want to know”

I DO! I’m a curious little shit


However, despite it being illogical for Toru to have died or be in limbo, the word choice for that sentence still leaves an unshakeable inference to limbo. Also, talking to Carla made me realize that Toru being alive was more profound considering the “curse” (I borrow the word “curse” from Carla) that seem to cling to his best friends, Kizuki and Naoko. It’s as if him being alive broke the cycle and I believe Midori helped him.

The novel begins with the protagonist, Watanabe Toru recalling his youth, stirred from listening to the Beatles song, Norwegian Wood. A bulk of the story takes place in the past, narrated by Toru, as he pursues a degree in Drama, encountering (as Carla puts it beautifully), “fantastical characters” who are complementary with the simplicity of the plot. I being 20, naively thought I would be able to relate but it was more of me being a spectator as events unfolded.

Focusing on the two leading female characters, the contrast between Midori and Naoko is like a black slate next to a white one, with a bit of gray in the middle. Naoko is kind, reserved, and  beautiful, but the way she is presented puts me off because she seems to be more of an idealization. Especially considering what happens from pages 173 – 174. I didn’t understand what I was reading so I wrote a question mark on a post-it just so I could come back to it. Re-reading those pages again, it’s as if Naoko is elevated to the level of divinity-

After googling moon goddesses, I read about Selene, the Greek moon goddess, and her relationship with Endymion for the first time. I think the myth might have inspired this scene considering both include the moon as a dominant element, Toru is in this dream-like state and is in complete awe of Naoko’s seemingly flawless body. So we’ve got the moon, sleep/dreams, and the interaction between a mortal and a seemingly divine being in common. I feel I might be on the right track but I’m not going to settle for this reference. What other myths or interpretations could there be? What’s the function of this? Maybe a subtle way of foreshadowing that they were never going to be together since Toru may be awake in contrast to Endymion who is asleep…

Our faces were no more than ten inches apart, but she was light years away from me (p.172)

Midori, on the other hand, is weird, loud, and has no shame. When I’d read her rants, I’d feel so drawn to her, laugh, and would think how I would love to meet a person like her. You come upon her opinions, criticisms, kinks, humor, and grow to appreciate the development of her friendship with Toru. The following is one of my favorites and presents their friendship nicely:

Midori laughed out loud. “You’re so weird! Nobody talks about Euripides with a dying  person they’ve just met!”

“Well, nobody, sits in front of her father’s memorial portrait with her legs spread, either!” (p.303)

Where is the shame with this one?

Shamelessly entertained by Midori’s rants whilst wanting to hug her for acting strong despite the amount of loss she endures, Carla helped me realize that Midori serves a higher purpose than entertainment and tugging on heartstrings. Our discussion developed into the possibility of her helping Toru readjust to reality and staying alive.

Reiko is another interesting character. I love how she is described in the book, especially the details of her wrinkles. Growing up in a society that seemingly rejects the aging process, the portrayal of her wrinkles as a form of beauty puts me in awe. Despite Reiko seemingly taking on the parent role to Toru, talented, caring, and an amazing support system to Naoko, what happens with the 13 year old and later with Toru leaves me conflicted.

However minimal, the comic relief offered by Storm Trooper and Midori is highlighted because this is such a melancholic book filled with death and pain from unrequited love. One more thing I’d like to point out is that there appears to be various transitions that take place. The most relatable one was Toru’s transition from Ami Hostel back to the city, where all the noise and vulgarity returns. From the unnatural quietness of Ami Hostel to the noisy urban space, I felt that spaces like Toru’s dorm room and Midori’s home offered a delicate inbetweeness. Something you come to appreciate if you regularly migrate between a noise fest and a place too quiet for comfort.


I actually bought this book a couple of years ago and finally got a chance to read it. I’m not sure what drew younger me to it but I’m glad I bought it. I’m super glad I read it now because I don’t think I would have appreciated it had I read it earlier.

Presently, I’m reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.

-MS-