Friday, April 15, 2011

Would "Sara Groan" be too mean?

now finished: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I'm in between presidential biographies - after a very satisfying Millard Fillmore experience, awaiting a two-volume stint with Franklin Pierce - and the time came to read some contemporary novels that have been percolating on the to-read list in my head for a while. I plunged right into Water for Elephants, what with the movie coming out soon and all. And....sigh.

It's never a good sign when the only thing you find yourself telling other people about a book is that you'll read it really fast. (Are you listening, Twihards?) Wanting to know what happens does not mean it is a great book. Does wanting to see a photo of a car accident mean it is necessarily great art? No. Two totally different things going on there.

I don't want to chalk Water for Elephants up to being just another nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd bestseller, but it really isn't the Great American Novel. It has some good ideas, some fun scenes, some good writing, some totally out of place dialogue (more like out of time - sounding decidedly un-1930s), some characters that are flat as a pancake and, bringing it all together, an author who I daresay is getting just a bit too much credit for being an animal rights enthusiast when she apparently has no problem with animals being forced to live in cruel captivity and perform in the circus.

Part of me thinks I shouldn't judge Water for Elephants based on the Sara Gruen interviews I've read, in which she says that extreme animal rights activists are as bad as those abusing animals. The rest of me is puzzled that this woman who is so enamored of the circus and zoos is getting credit for writing an animal rights-themed book.

The main problem with the book has nothing to do with any of this. The main problem is that the two main characters, Jacob and Marlena, who fall in love, are flat flat flat flat flat. In the midst of a circus - a CIRCUS! - a place with the most interesting, crazy, robust, raunchy, drifter, mean, talented, bizarre, drunk, quirky group of characters you've ever seen, this author manages to make the object of our hero's affection have absolutely nothing interesting whatsoever about her. Quite a feat, that. There's also the slight problem that most of these interesting kooky circus freaks and whatnot are men, while the three women characters are the beautiful love interest, the nurse, and the sex worker. Wow, Sara Gruen. Just wow.

I ended up gladly giving it away at our inaugural Andong English teachers book swap and am just a little sad that I spent the money to buy it (and gave Ms Gruen another number to pad her bestseller statistics), and yet I'm not really sorry I read it. This is what makes me miss having ready access to an English library.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Whither the Integrity of Millard Fillmore?

now finished: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback

All in all I am a fan of Millard. Also, this was a more-than-decent bio that got me even more interested in a.)Millard Fillmore b.)New York politics of the early to mid-19th century c.)Buffalo.

Seriously, Buffalo was where it was AT when that there Erie canal was getting built and opening up waterways and the town was becoming an important port city for shipping and trade. And Millard and his wife just kind of strolled in and became important fixtures of the Buffalo social scene.

Millard took a whole lot of flak from newspaper man and would be president-maker Thurlow Weed over the years. I do not know who today is comparable to Thurlow Weed. He's not even like a Bill O'Reilly - his influence seems even more pernicious. I mean, he really got people to do what he wanted and nominate whom he wanted and he was more like a kind of sinister Oprah.

But Millard, apparently, had integrity. Even in his fights with Thurlow, disagreements with Zachary Taylor, and resolve to keep the union from breaking up over the slavery issue, he always acted with integrity. Who doesn't love a little integrity in a president? I mean, not that we've had that a lot in our lifetimes, but who doesn't love the idea of it?

People joke about Millard, apparently, as being the most obscure president, but I have never thought of him that way. (My favorite obscure prez is Rutherford B. Hayes.) Reading a bio of Millard really shows one that he was an important figure and quite a success at many things in his life, not some random who strolled out of nowhere to the national scene.

Of course, another tragedy struck when his wife died right as he was leaving office. And then his daughter died a year or two (I forget) later. I'm getting so overwhelmed by all these presidential tragedies. Presidents dying in office, presidents dying right when they leave office to settle into retirement, presidents' spouses much sadness!

Three cheers for Millard.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Where's Millard When You Need Him?

now reading: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback

So I'm reading this Millard Fillmore biography, and I'm really into him. He is pretty underrated and I daresay misunderstood. It's really problematic to try to make 20/20 hindsight judgments about any of those guys from the early 1800s, because there is such a temptation to say, "If you weren't trying to end slavery, you were nothing." Obviously, those who were working to end slavery were wise, courageous, sensible and a whole host of other morally right qualities, but the problem comes in defining trying to end. We like to look back from our comfortable vantage point and get all "if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us" when there was really quite a lot going on.

Millard Fillmore stated unequivocally that he was against slavery and thought it was reprehensible. As a New York state representative, and later as vice-president and president, he had a problem in that he couldn't figure out a Constitutional way to end it. Basically, my point is that it was really difficult for a lot of politicians during the early 1800s, and we should walk a mile or so in their shoes, or at least read some books about them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before he even got to his presidency he was already an accomplished, well-liked, talented man who got lots of stuff done. Details, numbers, land/bankruptcy/debt law, state comptroller duties, political party unification and other fun tasks were right up his alley. He also read and had fun. And, he was sensible enough to realize religion was unnecessary in a lot of places the evangelical extremists want it shoved into public life. He was also pretty darn magnificent at effecting compromise. Not just the great compromise of 1850, but other compromises that kept parties from splinterting, brought people eye to eye, built alliances, and more. He did not act in vengeance and he rose above some petty crap hurled at him by the likes of Thurlow Weed and his New York political ilk.

In short, we could definitely use a little Millard right now in our own federal government shutdown nonsense.