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Ape House (Large Print) - Large Print Gruen, Sara ( Author ) Sep-07-2010 Paperback
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There is a group of bonobos, Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani and Makena by name, who are living at a university's Great Ape Language Lab. Now, while all apes may be unique these bonobos truly are - not only can they reason and have meaningful relationships but they're also able to communicate by American Sign Language.
Isabel Duncan is a scientist at the Lab working with the bonobos. She is more than content at the Lab as she feels more comfortable with the bonobos than with other human beings. However tranquility is broken when there's an explosion seriously injuring Isabel. Further, the bonobos have vanished only to reappear starring in a reality television program, Ape House.
Prior to the explosion a newspaper reporter, John Thigpen, had been putting together a story about what was happening in the Lab. But the explosion followed by the humiliating exploitation of the bonobos changes everything not only for him but also for Isabel as the two join forces to bring the bonobos home.
A remarkable story.
- Gail Cooke
Commentaires client les plus utiles sur Amazon.com (beta)
From the cover, it should be clear that this is a novel about primate research. If you have ever visited a chimp lab or research center, you know that most of them are not quite as utopian as the Great Ape Language Lab, where Isabel works with the bonobos. When John Thigpen interviews her, he is as enchanted by her as he is by the communicative apes. When a horrific occurrence changes everything, he is her journalistic champion as she seeks to right the wrongs she unwittingly encouraged.
Let's talk about what works.
There is no easy way to deal with material as potentially heartbreaking as the mistreatment of animals, especially intelligent animals. Gruen hands over the story to characters who are determined to do something about the cruelty. The reader suffers over the apes, but knows someone is working on the problem--eventually hundreds of people are working on it, and it gives a glimmer of hope in what could be an unbearably sad story. The animals in Water for Elephants were not so protected; it was a completely different time in America, and the reader will find herself both cursing and cheering the advent of technology as it plays such a role in the story (both bad and good).
Gruen can really write animals. They are characters in her novels. And though they are adorable and hapless, the apes are not quite as heartrending as Rosie, the elephant in the rundown circus, because the apes have language-they can sign and type, and broadcast their desires and distress. Rosie had only her swaying, expressive silence. This is a relief, because once the reader sees where this novel is going, she might be tempted to abandon a story about the abuse of the power we hold over animals.
Which leads me to what didn't work. I had the basic who-was-behind-what aspects of the plot figured out far too early, in fact almost immediately, so most of book was devoid of revelations for me. But my main objection was how squarely placed the book was in a familiar landscape; descriptions of being downsized, economically pinched, the new realities of publishing, these were spelled out in great detail. Well done, but not exactly giving me much of a break from a world I already live in. Water for Elephants offered escape to a different time, the Depression, and a squalid but exotic world of the circus. The Ape House is planted smack in the middle of the here and now.
The humor was much stronger than I expected. As in Water for Elephants, a straight guy intersects with an subculture he didn't really even know existed; but while Jacob was enchanted by the fading glamor and small dignities of the circus, John's intersection (courtesy of a bad motel) with the world of strippers, drugs and porn kings has none of that same dignity, though plenty of humor. Yes, it IS really funny to read, but it's almost slapstick. "Oh, guess what he's going to step in NOW!" A bit too broad. But again, really, really funny in places.
Did I like the book? Yes. Did I love it? Sadly, no. My guess is that most readers of Water for Elephants will still enjoy this book. And I did, I laughed out loud during the funny parts (well, most of them) and I suffered anxiously through the sad parts. But the power of a fairy tale ending is that it comes at the end of a gruesome tale. This story is not all that horrific, considering where it could have gone. This book, like the fate of the primates, almost skates away from what could have been, as if the author loved the apes and their people so much that she couldn't subject them to the kind of realism that would have made the book truly powerful.
Ape House spends the first 100 pages introducing us to two couples. There's Isabel, an ape researcher in Kansas whose spent years of her life studying a group of Bonobos (small chimps). She is engaged to Peter, another researcher, but their relationship is out of balance after Peter sleeps with one of the interns. Peter is very flat in that we only see him when he's either on the phone with Isabel or being kicked out of her apartment. We don't really get to know him as a person, and we are only "told" about his actions.
Then, there's John Thigpen, a newspaper reporter who has just met the apes and interviewed Isabel. He's married to Amanda, who is the most interesting character out of all of them in the beginning of the book. She's a failing novelist whose written one book that didn't do very well. She's gotten over 100 rejections on her second book. She's also hot and turns all the men's heads. Like one of the men who are always checking her out, I was enamored by her story and wondered if the writer plot line was Gruen herself. Notice the apes don't play a very important part until much later.
The ape lab, which is also their comfy home, gets blown up by some extreme animal rights activists. The apes escape and become misplaced, while Isabel is also badly hurt, requiring reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile, John is reassigned to another story, while his arch-nemesis, a female reporter named Cat, steals the ape story out from under him. We discover the apes are sold to a porn producer to be used in a reality TV show called Ape House. Sounds odd? Indeed it is. And only gets worse.
The pace of the novel moves very fast, with our two couples individually moving all over the place. Amanda moves to L.A. to work with another writer on a sitcom. John is wrapped up in his new assignment (not by choice). Isabel is glued to the TV watching the apes, like everyone else in America. And who knows where Peter is! Eventually John relocates to L.A. to be closer to Amanda and takes a job with a tabloid that reassigns him to the ape story, which has since become the center of attention everywhere due to the apes nonstop sexual antics right on television, that while natural to them to touch and mate with each other, is seen as embarrassing (or enticing) by the show's viewers.
With the apes' misplacement and new location being treated as top secret, and Isabel and John's determination to find them, the novel almost has a Dan Brown-esque feel to it as the two race to find the apes or uncover the story. It's too bad one of the apes wasn't harboring some secret that could unlock the mystery of the ages. At the end of the day, they are just apes falling asleep in a house where they are being used for cheap entertainment, and the reader might find themselves falling asleep too.
Gruen obviously has a strong opinion about realty TV, and I have to say I agree with her. Half the stuff we subject ourselves to in our living room is stupid and lacking quality, and yet we remain glued to our seats each week and the ratings soar. What does this say about us? Porn also plays a bit part in the subject matter, which almost makes you feel uncomfortable, but I think that was Gruen's intention, from the apes touching each other right down to a stripper in a hotel that helps John get the story. The best part of the political agenda in all of the various groups of picketers outside the ape house, half of whom really have no concrete reason to be there including the "Eastborough" Baptist Church who are against the apes because they touch each other which makes them bisexual!
There are various other laughs which give the story some flavor - Amanda's mom organizing the couple's sex toys or John's time spent in a cheap hotel while covering the story and "stranger than fiction" stuff happening all around him including a meth lab explosion. Then, there are parts that aren't there but you wish they were. Isabel practically has a new identity after her surgeries, and you wanted her to go undercover while trying to gain information about the apes, and while she does try to conceal her identity, what you really want to happen just never evolves.
I hate to bring up Water for Elephants again, but in that book while there was a love story in the center ring, it always came back to the elephant which we loved and felt compassion for. Here, there's so much going on that it's hard to connect with any one character. And the apes are locked away. Gruen can definitely write animals and make them interesting, the parts about what the apes are doing is fun and humorous, but it's hard to connect with them since they are indeed just characters on a TV show. But there's just a bit too much political agenda here which succeeds at making you uncomfortable, bored, or both. The characters display flavor at times, but it just gets drowned out as the story pushes forward but really isn't going anywhere.
In the notes, Gruen discusses her own meeting with bonobos that she had read about. She says the ASL conversations in the book amongst the apes all really happened. I think like any fascinating animal, Gruen was touched and determined to put them in a book. Why not? Apes are unique and their similarities to us are amazing. But sadly, the apes aren't the center of attention here and the animal-writing is what we want from Gruen in the end. Instead, we are treated to characters who don't do what we want them to, or they are just bland. And the scenes are pieced together with political banter. I still love Sara as an author and as a person. I'll still suggest 'Elephants to everyone I know whose looking for a great read, but Ape House is nothing but a bunch of monkey business.
The only man who isn't a sleazebag is our hero, John Thigpen (and Gruen has a little too much fun with *that* name) who may be her ideal man, but who I found incredibly wussy, as I watched him blubber, tear up, and bawl his way through the book. He's got a lot to cry about since he's married to one of the most annoying female characters in contemporary fiction, his wife Amanda, who jumps from one goofy lifestyle choice to another as if to see just how much John will put up with before he calls it quits. John, however, is the most uber-sensitive man in history, and willingly accepts it all, perhaps for Amanda's eggs benedict, which he romantically recalls in one vomitous scene. And speaking of vomit, that's how Isabel, our heroine, occasionally reacts to bad news. I felt the urge several times myself as I read along.
As for the plot, suffice it to say that it's utterly ridiculous (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, if such an absurd plot can be spoiled). That the villains would run the risk of blowing up a lab to get a university to sell them the apes cheap so that they can then be exploited in a reality TV show is beyond belief. And other supposedly satiric critiques of modern society are ham-handed. The Westboro Baptist Church becomes the "Eastborough Baptist Church," the Weekly World News morphs into the "Weekly Times" -- you get the idea. Gruen makes sure you will. And I didn't even mention the grotesque series of coincidences that help to drive along the plots and subplots (a silly paternity plot and the the thrown-away fact that Isabel has, just by chance, read Amanda's flop of a first novel, when apparently no one else in the country has).
There's the germ of a really good novel here, but it's one that should have been written about realistic and fascinating animals and their interaction with living, breathing people rather than about the most artificial of human characters and their soap opera antics.
What happened here? Well, to start with, the book's titled "Ape House" but we don't get to the apes for 100 pages. Our introduction is to the human characters: of the four, the one least influencing the apes is the most interesting; however, I suspect many writing coaches would consider 'Amanda' a darling that Ms. Gruen probably should have killed in favor of the story.
When we finally get to the apes, we learn that animal rights activists have bombed their research facility. The apes are running free. Unfortunately, they get captured by sold to reality television creators who decide to make a television show about their activities. Doing what's natural to the animals becomes pornography to the prurient-oriented viewers.
The primary quartet of human characters fall short of their potential. Isabel, the ape researcher, is badly damaged by the bomb blast and is forced to undergo extensive plastic surgery. A fascinating storyline about character identity is sacrificed so we can see how Amanda is attractive to men. John, the ape reporter and Amanda's husband, spends his time divided between trying to follow the apes' story and hopefully recover them and staking his territory with his overly-attractive wife. Peter, the man who dumped Isabel is about as unnecessary as Amanda.
The story does pick up as John and Isabel desperately try to find the apes. A lot of fascinating character studies straight from the pages of the papers. But, do we have to have the 'Eastborough' Baptist Church picketing the apes because they are touching each other and thus, potentially bisexual?
In contrast to the humans, the apes come off as the more compassionate and 'evolved' species. Their conversations and plight are amusing and touching. The small interactions with the apes are the portions of the story that had me riveted to the page while the remainder of the story left me hurrying to return to the animals.
Now, in conclusion, I'm going to mention the fictional work that I consider the "Water For Elephants" of the ape world. It's "Captivity" by Debbie Wesselmann. This is the story of a South Carolina ape research institute with strong human and ape characters.
Rebecca Kyle, September 2010