Capsule Review Roundup — January 2022
Hey folks, it's been a bit. Welcome to the Capsule Review Roundup, where I compile my capsule reviews for a certain period of time. Today, I'll be posting my reviews of Grasuark: Love Behind a Throne and Water for Elephants.
Read from 01/04/2022 - 01/11/2022
Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne by George Barr McCutcheon
I was pleasantly surprised to find that all these years later, Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne's is a fun, albeit obviously antiquated, read.
Structurally, Grustark's greatest strength is the same of its greatest weakness — the pacing. The story proceeds at a breakneck speed; this along with the small wordcount makes for a breezy read despite the antiquated diction. There's an infectious quality to reading, with McCutcheon knowing the perfect way to end chapters to make you go "reading one more can't hurt." It's the type of story where even if you know what's going to happen a mile away, you still want to see how it's going to happen (that said, McCutcheon does throw a few genuine curveballs). But with this comes the weakness, as the how isn't very compelling. The breakneck pacing means that the story seldom moves at the pace necessary to appreciate things. Small moments are in short supply here and even the big moments tend to be robbed of any weight since, more often than not, they're gone in a flash.
Beyond that, minor annoyances pepper the book: the biggest one perhaps being the main character who is obnoxiously loud and rambunctious, barely going a few chapters without threatening to shoot someone. While I would attribute this to parody, every Graustarkian nigh-immediately falls in love with him and we constantly hear about how brave and noble Americans are, which feels datedly jingoistic to this reader. There's also a thinly-veiled horrifyingly racist accent or two.
The story is, in a word: simple. Everyone hates the bad guys, everyone rallies behind the heroes, nothing truly bad befalls our heroes, and coincidences drive the plot forward. Whether or not you like Graustark hinges on how much you enjoy romantic fairy tales. Graustark is cute, but little more than that. It'll leave a sweet taste in your mouth but it won't even begin to fill you. Maybe it will after you've chewed through the entire series, but that's a review for another day.
Read from 01/12/2022 - 01/19/2022
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
I didn't expect Water for Elephants to be as exciting, gripping, romantic, or heartfelt as it was.
Sara Gruen paints a setting so vivid that you stop seeing the brush strokes of the page and simply see the painting as a whole. You get a pretty good sense of what life was like at the circus during the 1930s, but in a way that doesn't draw attention to the painstaking research she doubtlessly undertook.
She knows how to tell a story that will leave you on the edge of your seat as you go through pages and pages of prose as if it was nothing. The "one-more-chapter" phenomenon is in full effect once you pick up Water for Elephants.
Main character Jacob Jankowski's thoughts are detailed, though never overly so, ensuring that even when we're in his head, we're never too far from the action at hand. Throughout the story, we don't ever trade interiority for action, making for a very balanced read. Speaking of balance, while the chapters set during the present day can feel like pace-breakers at first, they do a good job of contextualizing the action. I also found Gruen's abundant use of sexuality to be pretty tasteful even if, well, abundant.
I think my biggest takeaway from the book is that it shows that you can still have an effective work of art that's not grim. Water for Elephants can be a dark book — brutally so, at times. Yet it never feels oppressively so. It's dark, but not dour. What people write off as cliche, I describe as hopeful.
This isn't to say the book is perfect — the final decisions of the book, both in the 1930s and the present day leave me scratching my head, and I can't really argue against accusations that the romance is underbaked. That said, Water for Elephants’ faults are more than made up by how much fun it is to read. It's a lot more engrossing than the vast majority of other "literary fiction" books I've read.