Daily Archives: July 7, 2011

Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Title: Ape House
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, Hachette
ISBN: 978-1444715996
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 320 pages
Price: $15.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This book inspired me to do something I haven’t done in a long (long) time. I stayed awake! Until 3 in the morning! I can’t remember the last time I did this, it’s been a while since a book has grabbed me like Ape House. In fact, I think the last one may have been Sara Gruen’s much applauded Water for Elephants. This woman just has a way of pulling me into a book that makes me never want to let go.

Anyway, the blurb would have you know that this “is an absorbing, heart-warming and ultimately uplifting tale of how six bonobo apes change the lives of three humans”. Isabel Duncan works as a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, a scientific research facility which examines language acquistion in primates. She clearly has a better rapport with the bonobos than with humans and she is devastated when the facility is blown up, allegedly by animal liberationists and her beloved animals end up being used in a particularly sick reality tv show named Ape House. John Thigpen is a down at heel journalist who finds the bonobo story fascinating. His fiancee, Amanda, is trying to carve a career as an author but she’s not handling the rejection letters very well. Throw in a briefly appearing green haired vegan, a pink haired animal rights supporter named Celia who becomes Isabel’s ally, some lapdancers, a salivating pit bull terrier named Booger and you have a extremely quirky backdrop. What ensues is a madcap race to save the bonobos with many plot twists and turns along the way.

Ape House is simply an amazing novel! It tells the story not so much of a group of individuals, but the story of a family who manage to influence everyone around them. These apes are awesome and I loved that Gruen let the bonobos be the center of everything, even while we were worrying over John’s crumbling world and Isabel’s injuries. The apes were there to give everyone something to love and to save. Actually, they gave the book its entire purpose! (Obviously…moving on…) I thought it was great that we got to see into their (the apes) lives and were even treated to glimpses of the strange human world from behind their eyes. I loved how much I learnt from this book! Gruen did a fantastic amount of research and I could definitely feel that coming through in the stories, the actions and the descriptions of the apes.

Alongside the apes we have Isabel and John. Now that I’ve had some time to think about their characters, I actually don’t think I actually liked either of them very much. They were nice, but they were just… a bit boring to be totally honest. Luckily, Gruen placed an eccentric and fun cast of supporting characters alongside these slightly bland protagonists. First, we have Isabel’s vivacious intern/research assistant Celia, who added some needed oomph to Isabel’s chapters and who I adored! She even comes armed with a group of nerd minions who were very entertaining. Then we have my favorite random character, John’s upstairs neighbour, Ivanka the Russain stripper who watches the opera singing meth lab dog while John was off doing some reporting… you’re intrigued now, aren’t ya?!

Final thoughts: Ape House kept me turning the pages into the early morning with a gripping and unique plot that my sleep muddled brain didn’t manage to work out until practically the last chapter! It’s one of those books that had me flipping the pages, desperate to find out how it would all end, and then made me mourn the loss of the characters for days. Can I go meet some signing apes now, pretty please? Overall, another great book from Sara Gruen and I would recommend it to everyone.

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Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury, Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1408818596
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 368 pages
Price: Rs. 1000
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I found this review quite difficult to write, much as I found parts of the book hard to read. The strange thing is that I’m not sure why I struggled so much with the beginning of this book.

I have read Ann Patchett’s famous ‘Bel Canto’, which I thoroughly enjoyed although I was a little frustrated by the ending. Yet State of Wonder was exactly the opposite. I have seen so many glowing reviews of it over the last few weeks, many of which were by readers whose advice I almost always take. Everyone, it seems, loves this book. So when I picked it up I had high expectations and was looking forward to getting sucked into the world of the Brazilian jungle. Fifty pages later I was getting frustrated, and it felt as though the book was still going nowhere fast.

Although it took me a few days, I persevered, simply because of all the good things I had heard about it. Then, about halfway through, something just clicked into place, and I found myself reading faster and faster as I became engrossed in the story at last. I think part of the problem is that so much of the beginning of the book is taken up by waiting. You know that Marina (the main character) is going to go to Brazil in the end, and that she is eventually going to reach the jungle. The problem is that it takes so long, and while she is bored and irritated, it is all too easy for the reader to echo her feelings. In a way this is testament to Patchett’s talent at drawing you into the world of the book, but it does slow the story down.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointing opening, I am so glad that I carried on and finished State of Wonder. Why? Because the second half of the book more than makes up for the first. There is real emotion in the writing, and the characters are well-drawn and more than a little real. The interaction between scientists and members of the local tribes is fascinating, and Easter, a young deaf boy, is my favourite character by far. The story revolves partly around the science and discoveries that Marina is sent to check up on, and partly around the death of her predecessor Anders Eckman, who was her friend and colleague. She has promised his wife that she will find out exactly what happened to him, and the emotion of this storyline was what made the book all the more special.

Soon after his wife hears of his death at the beginning of the story, a letter arrives that he wrote a long time ago in the jungle, and these letters, which it becomes clear he wrote with increasing desperation as he became more ill, keep surfacing due to the slow and unreliable post. These letters from a dying man to his wife and young sons at home are so poignant that it is impressive that the scientific side of the story managed to be equally compelling.

Knowing that I hadn’t really liked the ending of her previous book ‘Bel Canto’, I was wary of how this one would end. But in fact I thought it was as close to perfect as it could possibly have been. The last quarter of this book in particular was a masterpiece, so my advice is to read this as soon as you get the chance. If you find the opening as tough as I did then please hang in there – the pace picks up later on, and it’s well worth your while to continue to the end. I’m just glad that I had read all the positive reviews and had the courage of my convictions to stick at it all the way through!

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State of Wonder