BENJAMIN FRANKLIN; An American Life
by Walter Isaacson, ©2003
Published by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks; 493pp
This reviewer is far from impartial when it comes to Benjamin Franklin. Many years ago, I devoured every book I could find about him, and slogged through all 20 plus volumes of his papers in the Yale Library, in order to write a one-man play about him. That said, I am pleased to report that Walter Isaacson has produced a biography that ranks, in my eyes, at the very top of the long list of books about Dr. Franklin.
Livelier than many recent books, Isaacson’s scrupulous research has brought forth a fascinating picture of the remarkable man who is all too often portrayed either as a chuckling old lecher or the “dim, snuff-colored little man” D.H. Lawrence found him to be. Franklin, in Isaacson’s book, appears in all his complexity, brilliance and wit.
Until this book, my favorites on the subject had been Carl Van Doren’s 1938 Benjamin Franklin, which managed to capture the essential Franklin despite the fact that Van Doren had to patch together his research from scattered sources, and Catharine Drinker Bowen’s The Most Dangerous Man In America. The latter follows Franklin only through the Albany Congress of 1754 (Bowen died before she could write the sequel), but for sheer evocation of the times of his youth and young adulthood, it’s a delight.
Now Benjamin Franklin — An American Life has found its way into a place of honor on my long shelf of Frankliniana. I hope it will find its way into the hands of any American interested in our country’s beginnings, or for that matter into the hands of anyone interested in good historical writing.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
by Sara Gruen, © 2006
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 331 pp
If you are looking for the perfect book for that end-of-summer week at the beach or the trip home on the plane, this novel will fill the bill. It manages to be engaging, touching, scary, and just plain fun to read, all at once.
The framework for the story is a rambling reminiscence by Jacob Janowski, a 90-year-old man who lives in a nursing home. Gruen gets the ambiance of the “assisted living” set just right, and Janowski touches the heart and tickles the funny bone as he insists on hanging on to his independent spirit and frets over his wobbling brain function.
The story he tells is set in the early years of the Great Depression, when his parents were killed in a car wreck just days before his graduation from Cornell’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Their deaths, coupled with the fact that his father’s veterinary practice and their house were heavily mortgaged to pay for his education, mean that not only is he left alone in the world, but left without a dime. He is so traumatized by the events that when he goes back to school for his final examinations, he panics, and walks out without writing anything down.
Wandering, he hops a freight train in the dark of night. There are men already in the box car, one of whom nearly throws Jacob off the train, but his mates talk him out if it. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has jumped onto a circus train, and one of the men riding in the box car offers to take him to the Boss, to see if he can get a job with the circus. He is hired, and for the first week, he works in the “cooch tent,” a riotous introduction to the seamy side shows and grit of the circus world. When the owner finds out that Jake is almost a veterinary doctor, he is put to work with the animals.
The circus, that world unto itself, has never been better described. Its glitz and raunchiness, its harshness and intricately entwined human lives, provide a swift and at times miserable coming-of-age for Jacob, who is hard-put to reconcile his sheltered upbringing with life under the big top and on the road.
The author gives us some truly unforgettable, lively characters, both human and animal – the latter including a chimp named Bobo, an ancient lion named Rex, and an elephant named Rosie, who speaks only Polish. Jacob’s boss, a charming and dangerous man named August, is married to Marlena, a young woman who does a dazzling act with twelve horses, and later with Rosie the elephant. August’s violent temper keeps everyone around him on tenterhooks, and Jacob and Marlena find themselves drawn to each other for support. As their relationship deepens into love, August’s suspicions and jealousy bring about a crisis that veers into catastrophe.
It would be no service to the reader for me to describe the resolution of the story. Suffice it to say that there is a positively rollicking ending, one well worth the pleasurable read leading up to it.
Sara Gruen has written two earlier books: Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. Having so enjoyed Water for Elephants, I can’t wait to go back and read them.