Carnies, dancing horses, forbidden love, protective pachiderms- Sara Gruen's debut novel Water for Elephants ($10) has it all. The book is narrated by its hero, Jacob Jaknowski. He is in his eighties, alone and lonely in a nursing home prison of taupe walls and salisbury steak. He escapes into the vivid excitement of his past, in so many ways more real than his present. After the death of his parents 23-year-old Jaknowski left Cornell veterinary school and found a job tending the menagerie of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jaknowski finds a home among the geeks, roustabouts, midgets, and creatures of the circus. He also finds love, with the lovely equestrian Marlena - one of the show's biggest stars. Unfortunately she is married to August, an animal trainer as cruel as he is crazy with penchant for beating the animals and his wife. Gruen did extensive research into Depression-era circus culture, and the book is far richer for it. The jargon of circus life, the glitz and feathers of performing, the rich and flithy world outside the bigtop - Gruen is ringmaster of it all.
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