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Book Nook - 26-01-2015

Monday, January 26, 2015
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Memory of Elephants
Sara Gruen’s Like Water For Elephants gets top of the mind recall when it comes to books about the pachyderm. Jodi Picoult has thrown her hat into the ring with her bestseller, Leaving Time, which has a story of family, respect for life and an unbroken mother-daughter bond, woven around the world of elephants, which is closer to that of humans than we might imagine, especially when it comes to maternal love and grief.

Since two of the lead characters in the book are elephant researchers, it has an impressive amount of information on elephants, which is not in the least boring.

Thirteen-year-old Jenna Metcalfe, lives with her grandmother, and is haunted by vague memories of the night when her mother disappeared, and her father ended up in catatonic state in a mental hospital. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New England, for circus or zoo animals nobody could care for. As can be expected, funds were tight and expenses immense. One night, there is a tragedy at the sanctuary and the little girl is left with just a haze of grief and a heap of her mother’s journals.

A decade later, now a precocious teen, Jenna wants to find out what happened; even if her mother died, she needs to know and get closure.

She hires Serenity Jones, a once-famous psychic at the end of her powers, and a grumpy, alcoholic private detective, VirgilStanhope, who was the cop on duty when the incident took place.

Picoult’s characters speak in their own voices and all have their own torments to bear. Jenna, is the perky teen. “Let’s talk for just a second about the fact that my grandmother is going to ground me until I’m, oh, sixty. I left her a note, but I’ve purposely turned off my phone because I don’t really want to hear her reaction when she finds it,” he says when she stows her way across to another distant town in pursuit of a lead. She is a little too smart for her own good, but utterly lovable.

The introduction of Serenity is an obvious indicator of some supernatural ingredient being stirred into the pot, and the end is a complete shocker, though not so much to those who have seen a certain famous Bruce Willis film. Any more, and it will be a major spoiler. A really enjoyable read, this one.

Leaving Time
By Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine
Pages: 405

Excerpt from Leaving Time
Why do elephants have trunks? Because they’d look funny with glove compartments.

When we got to the zoo, I raced along the paths until I found myself standing in front of Morganetta the elephant.

Who looked nothing like what I had imagined.

This was not the majestic animal featured on my Time Life card, or in the books I had studied. For one thing, she was chained to a giant concrete block in the center of her enclosure, so that she couldn’t walk very far in any direction. There were sores on her hind legs from the shackles. She was missing one eye, and she wouldn’t look at me with the other. I was just another person who had come to stare at her, in her prison.

My mother was stunned by her condition, too. She flagged down a zookeeper, who said that Morganetta had once been in local parades, and had done stunts like competing against undergrads in a tug-o’-war at a nearby school, but that she had gotten unpredictable and violent in her old age. She’d lashed out at visitors with her trunk if they came too close to her cage. She had broken a caregiver’s wrist.

I started to cry.

My mother bundled me back to the car for the four-hour drive home, although we had only been at the zoo for ten minutes.

“Can’t we help her?” I asked.

This is how, at age nine, I became an elephant advocate. After a trip to the library, I sat down at my kitchen table, and I wrote to the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, asking him to give Morganetta more space, and more freedom.

He didn’t just write me back. He sent his response to The Boston Globe, which published it, and then a reporter called to do a story on the nine-year-old who had convinced the mayor to move Morganetta into the much larger buffalo enclosure at the zoo. I was given a special Concerned Citizen award at my elementary school assembly. I was invited back to the zoo for the grand opening to cut the red ribbon with the mayor. Flashbulbs went off in my face, blinding me, as Morganetta roamed behind us. This time, she looked at me with her good eye. And I knew, I just knew, she was still miserable. The things that had happened to her—the chains and the shackles, the cage and the beatings, maybe even the memory of the moment she was taken out of Africa—all that was still with her in that buffalo enclosure, and it took up all the extra space.

For the record, Mayor Dimauro did continue to try to make life better for Morganetta. In 1979, after the demise of Forest Park’s resident polar bear, the facility closed and Morganetta was moved to the Los Angeles Zoo. Her home there was much bigger. It had a pool, and toys, and two older elephants.

If I knew back then what I know now, I could have told the mayor that just sticking elephants in proximity with others does not mean they will form friendships. Elephants are as unique in their personali- ties as humans are, and just as you would not assume that two random humans would become close friends, you should not assume that two elephants will bond simply because they are both elephants. Morganetta continued to spiral deeper into depression, losing weight and deteriorating. Approximately one year after she arrived in L.A., she was found dead in the bottom of the enclosure’s pool.

The moral of this story is that sometimes, you can attempt to make all the difference in the world, and it still is like trying to stem the tide with a sieve.
The moral of this story is that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we want it . . . some stories just don’t have a happy ending.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became such a publishing sensation—and deservedly so—that one of her earlier books, Dark Placeshas pushed into the bestseller lists again.

Like the calculative protagonist of Gone Girl, the main character in this book too has plenty to be angry about. When Libby Day was 7, her 15-year-old brother, Ben, killed their mother and two older sisters; she remained “the lone survivor of the Prairie Massacre” – a tabloid darling.

The Days’ home life was far from ideal and the wretchedness seeped into her soul. “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.. I was raised feral, and I mostly stayed that way.”

The charity hand-outs that kept her going all these years are running out, so she takes up an invitation to appear at the Kill Club, an underground cult that follows true crime cases, only to discover that these crazies believe Ben to be innocent and want her to help them prove it, when it was her testimony that sent him to prison. There’s money to be had, but also, 24 years later, Libby wants to dig to the truth. Flynn’s characters are so twisted, you are relieved that they live within the pages of her books. Dark Places is as bleak and macabre as can be.

Dark Places
By Gillian Flynn
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 349

Excerpt from Dark Places
He left me with three pieces of mail and a grin that was supposed to be optimistic. Three pieces, all looking like junk. Jim Jeffreys used to hand me bulging shoe boxes full of mail, most of them letters with checks inside. I'd sign the check over to him, and then the donor would receive a form letter in my blocky handwriting. "Thank you for your donation. It is people like you who let me look forward to a brighter future. Your truly, Libby Day." It really did say "your" truly, a misspelling that Jim Jeffreys thought people would find poignant.

But the shoe boxes of donations were gone, and I was left with a mere three letters and the rest of the night to kill. I headed back home, several cars blinking their headlights at me until I realized I was driving dark. Kansas City's skyline glimmered to the east, a modest, mid-rise Monopoly scatter, radio towers spiking here and there. I tried to picture things I could do for money. Things that grown-ups did. I imagined myself in a nurse's cap, holding a thermometer; then in a snug blue cop's uniform, escorting a child across the street; then wearing pearls and a floral apron, getting dinner ready for my hubby. That's how screwed up you are, I thought. Your idea of adulthood still comes from picturebooks. And even as I was thinking it, I saw myself writing ABCs on a chalkboard in front of bright-eyed first graders.

I tried to come up with realistic occupations-something with computers. Data entry, wasn't that some sort of job? Customer service, maybe? I'd seen a movie once where a woman walked dogs for a living, dressed in overalls and sweater sets and always holding flowers, the dogs slobbery and loving. I didn't like dogs, though, they scared me. I finally thought, of course, about farming. Our family had been farmers for a century, right down to my mom, until Ben killed her off. Then the farm got sold.

I wouldn't know how to farm anyway. I have memories of the place: Ben mucking through the cold spring mud, swatting calves out of his way; my mom's rough hands digging into the cherry-colored pellets that would blossom into milo; the squeals of Michelle and Debby jumping on haybales in the barn. "It itches!" Debby would always complain, and then jump in again. I can never dwell in these thoughts. I've labeled the memories as if they were a particularly dangerous region: Darkplace. Linger too long in an image of my mom trying to jury-rig the blasted coffeemaker again or of Michelle dancing around in her jersey nightgown, tube socks pulled up to her knees, and my mind would jerk into Darkplace. Maniacal smears of bright red sound in the night. That inevitable, rhythmic axe, moving as mechanically as if it were chopping wood. Shotgun blasts in a small hallway. The panicked, jaybird cries of my mother, still trying to save her kids with half her head gone.

What does an administrative assistant do? I wondered.

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