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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ape House by Sara Gruen, 2010, * * *

Sara Gruen's last novel, the enchating circus-set Water for Elephants in 2006, became a bestseller primarily through word of mouth, and I expect that most book clubs in America have read it.  As this book opens, a family of bonobos is happily ensconced at the fictional Great Ape Language Lab at the University of Kansas.  They are adoringly cared for and studied by Dr. Isabel Duncan, who calls them her family.  Gruen delicately and profoundly brings life to that oft-quoted statistic -- Bonobos and humans share 98.7% of their DNA.  In this book, when it comes to the bst human qualities -- empathy, good humor, the ability to adapt, loyalty -- the apes win easily.  Gruen gives each of her apes a distinct personality, and just as with people, it gets to the point where all she has to do is to described a behavior, and we know which member of the pack she is talking about.  She exquisitely depicts their gentleness, humor and curiosity, as well as their tendency to pettiness.  The plot, however, doesn't really matter.  It involves a misguided animal rights group, a nasty explosion, a reality TV show, a journalist and a would-be author. Yet it is truly about the aples, the humans and their interactions and similarities -- sometimes mouth-gapingly shastly, sometimes hold-your-sides hilarious.  Gruen must have picked up a thing or t wo about the circus from Water for Elephants as she navigates the tightrope above the minefield topics of animal rights, evolution, and seriouis vs. tabloid journalism and more.

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