Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ape House is NOT the Jersey Shore of the animal world

Ape House
Sara Gruen

I was unsure about Gruen's follow-up to Water For Elephants, which made my Top Ten List of 2009. I am often wildly disappointed by an author's work directly following the one that left me with the rare literary glow (please see: Her Fearful Symmetry). However, while The Ape House is not the literary genius of Water for Elephants, it is a unique and touching novel that proves Gruen is not one-hit wonder.

The Great Ape Language Lab of the University of Kansas houses six amazing apes, bonobos to be exact - these six primates are able to communicate extensively with their human keepers through both American Sign Language and English, exhibiting a sophisticated manner that involves full conversations, rationale, and cognitive reasoning. When John Thigpen covers the GALL for a newspaper piece he is instantly enamored of the lovable apes and impressed by their primary caregiver, Dr. Isabel Duncan. However, an act of violence at the lab sends the bonobos on an unlikely journey that catapults them into the public eye - as the stars of a reality TV show, The Ape House.

At first, the premise of this book had me turning up my nose: Really? A reality TV show involving apes that centers on the casual manner in which they regard sex? Umm, don't we have that? It's called Jersey Shore! I had no interest in reading about apes prepping for sex with GTL or expressing their excitement by fist pumping. However, this book had mystery, love, and intrigue.

Gruen did an amazing job of basing the Great Ape Language Lab on actual research that is currently being done in Iowa; in fact, the first interaction that John has with the apes is drawn directly from her first interaction. By mixing fact with her wonderful fiction, she leaves no doubt that bonobos deserve to be treated as sentient beings that are capable of complex feelings, emotions, and understanding - they are humans closest relatives. I absolutely fell in love with the apes and connected with them possibly more than any other character in the book.

Aside from the fury stars of The Ape House, I truly enjoyed John. There was no classic love story involved, John was already married at the opening, but I greatly enjoyed the relationship of he and his wife - it wasn't perfect, they both were struggling to pursue their dreams while maintaining a marriage, but they absolutely loved each other and that showed. It was a refreshing change from reading about 1) perfect relationships and 2) relationships doomed to failure. The other characters were also pretty well-written but I felt that Isabel had multiple layers that were set-up but never explored.

Overall, a wonderfully engaging book that had me resisting closing it for even a second. If you were a fan of Water for Elephants but still debating about The Ape House, definitely give it a whirl!

Adding illustrations to Poe does not make it a children's book

Tales of Mystery and Madness
Edgar Allan Poe (illustrated by Gris Grimley)

Do not be fooled by the childlike cover of this brief collection of illustrated short stories, the contents are disturbing! Of course, I would expect nothing less of Poe...

The Black Cat: a loving and innocent house cat drives his owner to ghastly acts of violence.
The Masque of the Red Death: a grim-reaper-esque vistor brings a plague of violent death to a village.
Hop-Frog: a cruelly treated court jester extracts his revenge on the tortuous king.
The Fall of the House of Usher: a hypochondriac man is visited by a childhood friend when his adored sister falls seriously ill.

All of the stories were filled with classic Poe horror and accompanied by gothic drawings to further illustrate the atrocities of the plots. I like Poe - he is sick and twisted and seems to write about the most basal evil that can be found in each of us but we never admit too. Kind of makes you wonder what kind of childhood he had....without really wanting to be told!

The illustrations were well done but I find that I am not a fan of making Poe appealing to juveniles, there is just something poetic about reading Poe in dark black type on the stark white pages. The subject matter is too dark for the drawings that attract pre-teen readers and the drawings would probably prevent an older teenager from picking the book up.

However, as an adult not impeded by the stigma of middle- and high-school societies, the book was a quick and easy read!

Middlesex is the blending of family saga and personal discovery

Jeffrey Eugenides

I pushed this book aside for many years because I wasn't sure I wanted to read a book about a hermaphrodite; I don't know that much about hermaphrodite-ism (is that a word?) and have to honestly admit that I was being judgmental and discriminatory in my original view. Huh, funny how ignorance of a topic brings those qualities out. After so many glowing reviews, I finally decided it was time to read it. Even though this book was a work of fiction, it was extremely eye-opening for me.

The story of Caliope - who changes gender identity to Cal in his teenage years - is a first person narrative that starts with his grandparents in Greece, chronicles their life together as they move to America, switches to narrative about Cal's parents, and finally about Cal himself. More accurately, it chronicles the journey of two recessive versions of 5-Alpha-Reductase on chromosome 5 through three generations of Cal's family until they, unfortunately, come together in his body, making him a male pseudo-hermaphrodite.

What I reflected on most while reading this book was that it could have been a story about anyone, hermaphrodite or not. At it's core, it was a story about an individual who was trying to survive his teenage years, struggling with gender identity and sexuality, and just trying to blend in with the crowd - all themes with which each of us can identify. A theme that was woven throughout the book was that a person's biological sex does not necessarily determine their gender identity, which is an idea I have often discussed, but never thought of in this context.

I also had no idea the many types of hermaphrodite-ism! It is not simply the case of having a vagina and a penis simultaneously, but is a complex (im)balance of hormones and the timing of when those hormones are (or are not) triggered in your body. Which quickly led me to the final lesson I learned from this book: do not simply google "hermaphrodite" in hopes of getting scientific information on the subject. Or, if you do, you should definitely not do it from work! I got a plethora of information, most of it unwanted, that led me to close my browser in record-breaking time! I them carefully navigated to a medicinal science website before conduction that search again!

Overall, a great book and amazing story that gets that extra bump up to 5 stars by changing my view of the world and making me more open to people who are different than me. Ah, I love books that have that effect.