Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

I had not yet read a book by Sara Gruen when I picked up Ape House. Water for Elephants is perhaps her better known work, thanks to the Hollywood movie that is now based on it. I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the movie but it is certainly on my to-do list. The author seems intrigued by stories of animals, certainly I appreciate her investigation into the way in which animals transform us, how we and they have the capacity to enter into mutually transformative relationships that brings us humans back to a sense of who we really are, at the core. Its just that there was less of that revelation in this novel and more filler and forgotten threads that I just couldn’t invest compassion in.

I finished Ape House a week or two ago and I let it all sink in before sitting down to write. I find my reading has slowed lately, due mostly to the fatigue of parenting two wee ones each day and then managing my progressing pregnancy. Simply put I grow more and more tired. Reading when tired is hard – instead of lingering over the words I find myself bouncing over them and re-reading those passages that I accidentally skipped. I can’t tell you how many nights I have fallen asleep book in hand too tired to turn the light off.

In this case, allowing time to lapse before writing, enabled me to let the words percolate. I found an interesting thing occurred in not being able, or wishing to, sit down and write my thoughts on the novel immediately upon finishing that last sentence. I found as distance came between me and the story I liked it less and less.

Overall, this is a good, strong, interesting read with a lively, albeit sad, storyline and characters that were engaging. In a nut shell: apes are stolen from a research lab and placed in a confined space where they are then “put on display” in an ethically suspect manner relevant to today’s techno-media saturated world.

In time, however, I think I began to spot the disappointing aspects of the narrative rather than drawing upon the more interesting or enlightening ones. There are threads laid down, hinted at, but never followed up on. The outcome was perhaps (spoiler alert!) too conventional, cute and neat. I also, full disclosure, wasn’t in the mood for the sadder parts of the novel, the ones that expose cruelty to animals that while talked about in a fictional setting your mind can’t help but translate details to an imagined real life.

In the end, it was an average read but not one that will top my list. It carried me all the way to the last page at least, even if, in time, I was more and more disappointed with the outcomes. I sought more depth, more intrigue, less of the sadder details.

It is a good time to confess that two books on my summer read list have now been removed: I started Sing You Home, abandoned it as not that interesting, and Every Last One broke my heart too much to finish, to struggle through.

There is, in committing myself to time alone to meditate, reflect, imagine, create and refuel from my days a desire to find activities that maximize those precious seconds. I can’t manage boredom (wasteful!) and sadness, well I need a happy place right now. It is not an unwillingness to confront the truths of the world, just an imposed, temporary blindness except where it touches or transforms me necessarily.

I am now reading The Birth House by Ami McKay.

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Musings: Books I Want!

I have a hankering to make a book order and dive into some new reads this summer. Along with my fiction picks posted here I am interested in gathering and enjoying the following titles:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Or Anne Lamott’s other great book, a memoir on parenthood: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

Speaking of parenthood memoirs, the following two titles also caught my eye,

Life’s Work by Lisa Belkin

and

Love Works Like This: Moving from One Kind of Life to Another by Lauren Slater (author of Prozac Diary)

and because I am in the mood for some poetry right now …

Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (if only to read Phenomenal Woman over and over again).

Musings: Animal Love

I have never really paused to think about how he influences our daily and cumulative lives. I grumble when he is loud and unruly, when he does not listen or add up to my pre-established expectations. I resent his presence in those moments of disgust and frustration. I harken back in nostalgia to the days when all of him was an integral aspect of our family love and when I know I did right by him. Not now when I can’t find the time to be close to him, to nurture or respond to even his simplest requests. He was pushed down the rungs of priority once “they” arrived. His friends, his competition and yet he is too proud, loving and loyal to see it the latter way.

They call him “man’s best friend” and he is unfailingly loyal to each of us. Gentle around the children, loving in those quiet dark moments when I can be found finally relaxing, even hanging my head in some kind of sadness. When I was pregnant for the first time, he trailed me like a shadow, loving every proximity to me, standing guard when I was still. Once when I cried racking sobs of frustration over something small that occurred, he put his hind legs on the couch to be near me and rested his chin in my lap. Recalling this moment even now, almost 5 years later, I am astounded by his perception. Our family dog.

I am reading Sara Gruen’s Ape House a story about (wo)man’s interaction with our closest ancestors, apes. It has me contemplating this connection between human and other animal and what animals, domestic or wild, mean to us in our everyday lives. Admittedly, I hate to take my children to zoos and aquariums. I recognize the educational value of exposing them to different species of animal they otherwise would not encounter, and yet my heart drops when I see those animals enclosed living a life that is so unnatural to them.

Ape House is an intriguing book about this (wo)man-ape connection and the heartwrenching choices “civilization” makes that exploit and harm animals. There is so much material here that can lead us to contemplate the ethics of our lives – from the food we choose to eat, the products we buy (that may or may not have been in contact with questionable scientific research) the way we treat our domesticated animals and the choices we make for how to teach our children about wild animals. There are no easy solutions or answers here – when human advancement has sometimes been predicated on this subjugation – and maybe this book simplifies the discussion a little too much. We can only do our best in contemplating ethical choices.

For now, for my part, I will make sure my best friend (who is a bit under the weather as I write this) remains happy and content. I will try (harder) to squeeze in that evening walk. I will continue to ask myself important questions about living, ethically.

Review: The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

I was enthralled by the hype and drawn to this book because it gained great attention as the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner. I love the Cinderella story: though an accomplished poet, this is Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel.

The Sentimentalists is a story narrated by an unnamed “I”, a daughter who, in one sharp revelation, decides to leave her life behind and move to a small Ontario town to live with her father, Napoleon, and an elderly man named Henry. This is a story of familial love, war and the pain of long-buried truths as the narrator comes to learn more about her father, to see him perhaps for the first time as a whole person, and to finally hear about his experiences in the Vietnam war. Henry, the reader comes to discover, is the father of Napoleon’s fallen war buddy and it is perhaps this link that the daughter is most curious to unravel.

I began this story with the expectation that it would be spectacular but not necessarily thoroughly engaging. Could a story with such bare bones plot structure (really a premise) deliver with ongoing entertainment? Yes. I was hooked and devoured this novel in only a few sittings.

This is a beautifully written novel, obviously the work of a poet. It is perhaps the way the words construct such a riveting and vivid portrait of the narrator and her interactions with her father that held the most engagement for me. Skibsrud’s words constructed vivid images out of astounding metaphors and lovely word play. But this lyricism is absolutely backed with a story structure. There are knots to unravel and new ties to form, questions that linger after certain passages like, why is Napoleon elusive about his war experience? What happened in Vietnam? Why is Napoleon drawn to Henry? What bond unites these two men who share the loss of Owen, Henry’s son, Napoleon’s comrade? In what is likely a weak effort to emulate the book’s stunning imagery, I will write: reading this book was like sinking into a deep bath of warm water; a delight for the senses.

This book had a profound effect on me; as I wrote about here. There was something transformative in the story of the narrator who left her life behind, on a whim one day, and moved in with her father and Henry. A deeper bond, that would lend more meaning to life, was sought. It is the kind of meaning I myself am searching for; possibly that we all search for. Something to substantiate the everyday experiences that need to add up to more than just “living”. “I” found in exploring her roots, the revelations of her father’s final storytelling, a greater sense of who she was, a greater sense of what she wanted, or so I believe.

I love the word “haunted” which opens the novel’s description, found on the book jacket. Napoleon was haunted by his memories. Perhaps the narrator was haunted by the lack of fulfillment she intuitively detected in her life. I think we are all haunted by something. But The Sentimentalists raises many questions, the story does not necessarily resolve itself fully. What it does is open a door to the way in which truth and memory is constructed and the profound implications lived experience has on the future of our own course and those whose lives we share.