One of the statewide organizations I’m most happy to be associated with is the Rhode Island Center for the Book at Providence Public Library. Each state in the country has a state center for the book. In Rhode Island, our state center runs a very successful statewide reading program each year called Reading Across Rhode Island (RARI).
The purpose of RARI is to select one book a year and to encourage teenagers and adults to read the book and to discuss it formally in book groups and class rooms, or informally among themselves. For 2008 the RARI selection is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
At Barrington Library Lauri Burke and I will be leading two sets of book groups, a daytime and an evening group. As has been our custom over the past few years when doing book groups centered around RARI, we will include a film and non-fiction book in the discussions, as well as the RARI fictional selection.
I recently read Water for Elephants and think it will make an excellent book for discussion. The setting in time, the Depression; the narrator, a young man forced to make his way in a hostile world; and the intriguing milieu, the circus, all combine to offer a rich, yeasty blend of conflict, emotion, and discovery. One aspect of the book explores the lives of the circus “freaks” and how their treatment by the other performers, the audiences, and the world at large serves as a symbol for life’s casual and callous cruelty. As we explore that theme we will view a very controversial and disturbing film, made in the 1930’s, entitled Freaks which was intended to rock our complacent perception of people who are born “different”.
At the heart of Water for Elephants is an unlikely love story between Jacob, an awkward, down-on-his luck young man and Marlena, a lovely but tormented circus performer, already claimed by August, a jealous and violent man. Although told in retrospect, the story builds in tension and the inevitable conflict between the barely suppressed violence of the circus and the innocent hopes of Jacob makes the story crackle with fearful anticipation. The world of the circus and the “real” world of its audience, who crave the entertainment of the circus and also scorn it, creates a mood of anxiety and suspense as well. So this not a light and easy book to pass a few pleasant hours with; but if it were, we wouldn’t really have much to talk about in our book discussions!
To learn more about RARI and the Rhode Island Center for the Book at Providence Public Library, check out their website at www.ribook.org. And be sure to sign up for our book discussions which will begin in March!