21 April 2011

Book Review: The Ape House by Sara Gruen

Brief summary: Isabel Duncan works closely with a family of bonobos at the Great Ape Language Lab, teaching them American Sign Language and how to communicate with humans;  John Thigpen is the intrepid journalist who exposes the insidious plotting behind the bombing of said lab.  A media mogul purchases the now-homeless bonobos and exploits them on a reality tv show, leaving Isabel, John, and their few allies to devise a way to resume legal custody of the apes.

Yesterday I finished listening to the unabridged audio of this book, which I picked up two weekends ago while traveling, and for the life of me I cannot figure out if this book was any good or not.  The audio, read by Paul Boehmer, while not awful, was not particularly good, either, which is why it's so difficult for me to figure out.  You would think that a book that features bonobos, animal activists, shady reporters, skanky scientists, Russian pole dancers with hearts of gold,a meth-lab pit bull, multiple explosions, a porn-obsessed media mogul, underage sex, a nauseating animal research facility, computer hackers, and a tabloid editor might make for some pretty interesting story telling.  You would only be intermittently right, sadly. 

All of the humans, even the likable ones, seem two dimensional.  The women, at least read by Boehmer, are smart  but whiny, more inclined to mope than to take action in their lives, with the exception of young Celia, who mostly comes across as a bright but immature bonehead.  The men do not fare much better in terms of character development, but at least Boehmer reads the male voices better. 

The bonobos, on the other hand, are wonderfully fun and emotive, and it was always a pleasure to witness their interactions and read/hear their signed dialogue to each other and to the humans.  I was moved to tears more than once when listening to the bonobo portions, particularly during a reunion scene.  And of course the brief detours behind the scenes of an animal research facility were utterly heartbreaking.

I'm not entirely sure of my own complicated feelings about the use of animals for medical research.  I guess I believe on some level that *some* of it can be justified, as cruelly necessary if we hope to eliminate human suffering.  But I do not think that most people realize the moral costs to such practices;  If we did, the animal testing that is done would be conducted in very different ways.  (Did you know that some animals are not even considered animals by the US Constitution, in order to gain exemption from federal animal welfare statutes for animal testing? This book tells you more about that and other appalling laws affecting animals in the US. More of the book is devoted to the welfare of animals in the food industry, such as chickens, pigs, and cows, but it also delves a bit into the animal testing industry.)

But the very thought of animal testing in situations that do not involve the betterment of the human condition?  I have no idea how any person with any empathy at all can possibly sanction that kind of animal testing.  Cosmetics? Shampoo? Moisturizing lotion? Cleaning supplies?  If you want to see some appalling facts on animal testing, check this website out.  Seriously--do we want tens of thousands of animals to suffer in order to find out which mascara or lipstick has better lasting power?  I know I don't.  If you're currently using any of the drugstore brand cosmetics, or lotions or other unguents, I urge you to reconsider.  The money you save by purchasing lower-priced cosmetics from those companies cannot possibly offset the moral cost that rests on our entire society for the torture of animals in the name of beauty.  The European Union has already outlawed animal testing for cosmetic purposes and I hope the US (and the rest of the world) will soon follow suit. 

Back to the actual book review...there were moments in Gruen's novel when I wanted to remain in my car to hear more of the book, but it didn't happen often until the last one and a half discs, when the plot really starts to pick up and the reader (listener) realizes that there's no move too heinous for two power playing men (to say their names here would give away too much), but otherwise I was content to listen in the 30-minute segments that mark my daily commute each way.  But the few moments that were powerful were VERY powerful, and that's why I cannot decide whether this was a good book, or simply a mediocre book with a driving conclusion.  In the end, all that really matters (to me, at least) is that I have to think that all of The Ape House's readers will come away with a newfound (or newly reinforced) abhorrence of animal testing and the wanton cruelty carried out in the name of research.  And if the readers (or listeners) change their buying habits because of it, then Gruen's work is worthwhile. 

There are tons of websites (and good, old-fashioned books) out there with more information.  Here's another one that I found helpful. And if you want to know what companies out there do not use animal testing for their cosmetics and other items, check out this website.  You know, my feelings are chances are good that if a company has to use animals to test its cosmetics, it's probably using ingredients that I don't want on my face anyway!

Okay, end of soapbox for now.  Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. I'm fine with your soapbox!
    Thanks for this candid review: I had been considering this one because I've held a lifelong curiosity about the great apes and tend to try any fiction or non-fiction when they're a focus. And I've worked as an humane educator, so for many years I've also pondered the questions about animal research that you pose above. Thanks for your thoughts on these issues as well.
    So many other potentially satisfying reads await me that for now I'll steer clear of The Ape House.


Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)