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review 2017-05-10 17:56
A Beautiful Truth / Colin McAdam
A Beautiful Truth - Colin McAdam

Told simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth at times brutal, at others deeply moving is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.

 

I have always maintained that the best way to understand office politics is to spend some time studying chimpanzees or other apes. You will see all of the same drives and personalities, but you will see them without the veneer of civilization. Wherever you get 3 people or 3 chimps in one place, you will have politics.

This book reminded me of human hubris—the belief that we are somehow separate and different from the rest of the animal kingdom, that we are superior to other apes.

In a strange way, this book made me think of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild or White Fang. All the ways in which wild animals can or can’t be tamed and how tame animals (including humans) can become wild. It is a cautionary tale about keeping wild animals in private homes, but it is about trust—trusting those animals, trusting our friends, trusting our spouses. It is about the dangers of assigning human motivations to other species and the peril of deliberately ignoring the drives that we obviously share. Also the risk of assuming that our friends and acquaintances think about things the same way that we do. Who is worthy of our trust and why do we trust them?

ABT is also an interesting meditation on the study of our nearest kin, the chimpanzee. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, while trying to understand the evolution of speech among humans, people started to raise chimpanzee babies in their homes, hoping to encourage speech in the apes. Chimps like Gua (the experiment was terminated when her human “sibling” began to get much more chimpanzee-like than she got human-like) and Vicki (who eventually produced 4 very simple words with extreme effort). Then came Washoe, who was exposed to American Sign Language, with limited success (as were Nim Chimpsky and Koko the Gorilla), the reasoning being that apes might be unable to speak, but might still be able to grasp language. ASL should be easier for them as it uses hand gestures rather than vocal apparatus. They do seem to be able to acquire vocabulary, but show much less grasp of grammar or the significance of word order. Unsurprisingly, they possess the first stirrings towards spoken language, but humans are the only ape species to have developed it significantly. I would be more surprised if no other primates showed any aptitude for vocal communication.

Some aspects of the Girdish Institute in the book are likely based on the Yerkes Institute in real life. The Yerkes Institute developed a keyboard of lexigrams (as alluded to in ABT) which became known as Yerkish. There has been a certain amount of success using this method, including one super-star bonobo, Kanzi (born at Yerkes, but moved to the Language Research Centre at Georgia State). He communicates via keyboard and has picked up a bit of ASL as well.

All of the apes mentioned above learned to understand some human-spoken language and to respond appropriately to it (when they were in the mood). Part of the problem with these experiments is that they do not interest the apes as much as they do the humans. Interestingly, dogs seem to naturally understand human hand gestures, like pointing, more easily than chimps do. Dogs look where the hand is pointing, while apes look at the hand. Our thousands of years co-evolving with canines is showing through.

I’m impressed by how many details of human-chimp history are represented in this fictional account. I recognized many of them from non-fiction books that I’ve read over the years. If you are interested in more details on chimpanzees (and bonobos), I would recommend Frans de Waal’s excellent book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. I also highly recommend de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

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review 2017-04-25 18:09
AB Negative
AB Negative - Kevin P Thornton,Robert Bose,Shona Jayne Barnard,R. Overwater,Al Onia,S.G. Wong,Brent Nichols,Axel Howerton,Axel Howerton,Susan Calder,Therese Greenwood,Randy McCharles,Sharon Wildwind,Dwayne E. Clayden,Janice Macdonald

A solid little collection of short stories in the mystery and noir genres.  I have the pleasure of being familiar with several of the authors because of a writers & readers conference that I attend here in Calgary each August. 

 

With short stories, I often find myself wishing that they were longer and more detailed—several of these stories would, in my opinion, have been better suited to novel-length works, or at least novellas.  As with most short story collections, some appealed to me more than others.

 

It was refreshing to read stories set in my home province and, in some cases, in my own city.  I also give kudos for the very clever title of the volume (AB is the abbreviation for Alberta, dovetailing nicely with the blood group).

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review 2017-03-06 20:13
The Conjoined / Jen Sookfong Lee
The Conjoined: A Novel - Jen Sookfong Lee

How well do we know our parents? Social worker Jessica Campbell thought, like the rest of us, that she knew her mother pretty well. Then, as she and her father clean out the family home after her mother’s death, they find a body in the bottom of a chest freezer. They call the police, who find a second body in another freezer. Leaving Jessica to wonder what is going on?

This is very readable and things are revealed by various players in the story it progresses. But it is more about the interactions between people, the hidden secrets in everyone’s lives, and the need to live your own life in your own way than it is about the who-dunnit.

If you require a clean ending with all the bits tied up in a neat knot, this may not be a good book for you. If you can enjoy the humanness of the characters in and of themselves, you will find it a better fit.

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review 2016-12-14 20:00
Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood
Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed is a re-visiting of Shakespeare’s play of magic and illusion, The Tempest, and will be the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion -- starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

 

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing and her sense of humour. I also really enjoy Shakespeare’s works—in fact, I’m working on a project of seeing all 37 of his plays performed. So this modern retelling of The Tempest was right up my alley.

Felix (Atwood’s Propero) is reduced from the avant-garde theatre director of the Makeshiweg Festival to an older guy living in a hovel in the countryside. Maybe not quite as dramatic as being a deposed Duke, but these changes never feel good. Felix takes a number of years to come to terms with the loss of the job that he had derived most of his identity from, tacked on to earlier tragedies which deprived him of his wife and daughter, Miranda. Eventually, we see him take his talents to a correctional facility to teach literacy and theatre arts to prisoners. [Atwood seems to be using some of her research from The Heart Goes Last and using a prison setting again]. Felix is surprised to find that he enjoys the work and that the inmates seem to benefit from it too.

And then the opportunity for revenge presents itself! As I knew it had to, to mirror the original work. I also was aware that The Tempest isn’t the most logical or sensible of plot lines—there’s a lot of magic and mayhem. The revenge plot in Atwood’s version is also highly unlikely—that’s the main reason for my deduction of half a star from my rating, but I’m dithering about whether that’s even fair, given the unlikelihood of the events in the original. But somehow, Atwood makes it work quite well, getting everyone appropriately punished, restored, and/or married, just as Shakespeare did.

Bonus points for Felix only allowing his students to swear in Shakespearean form—they must scour the play for the swear words and use only those while in the class space! [I notice that Atwood lists a Shakespearean insult generator as a source in her bibliography]. And for all the ways that Felix makes The Tempest more palatable to the men with useful reinterpretations.

For those who are interested in seeing the prison system from the inside, I would recommend Stephen Reid’s brutally beautiful memoir A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, which was also in Atwood’s bibliography.

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review 2016-10-05 18:16
A Cast of Falcons / Steve Burrows
A Cast of Falcons: A Birder Murder Mystery - Steve Burrows

The threat from above is an ever-present danger.  A man falls to his death from a high cliff face in northern Scotland. From a distance, another man watches. He approaches the body, tucks a book into the man’s pocket, and leaves.  When the Scottish police show Inspector Domenic Jejeune the book, a bird guide bearing his name, he can truthfully say he that he has no idea how it came to be in the dead man’s pocket. What he does not tell them is that he recognizes the book instantly. So, while puzzled, he is not entirely surprised when his brother Damian emerges from his fugitive existence to reveal that the dead man is a notorious “taker” — a poacher of live wild falcons.

The case gets personal in a way Jejeune has never experienced before. He is acutely aware that with each passing day, rare birds are being illegally taken from the wild. And hovering over his every move is the threat that if he gets this one wrong, no one in the North Norfolk Constabulary will escape the wrath of the nation’s highest-placed officials.

 

If you are a birder and you like murder mysteries, you are already predisposed to like the Birder Murder Mysteries by Steve Burrows. This third installment of the series returns the reader to the Norfolk area of England, to see what Inspector Domenic Jejeune is involved in now—obviously from the title, falcons feature as an important part of the action.

Developments include Jejeune’s relationships with his partner Lindy, his sergeant Danny Maik, and his superior officer Colleen Shepard, among others. Plus we finally get a peek into the family backstory that has been alluded to in the previous two books.

Burrows uses his life experience as a birder and as a Brit transplanted to Canada to craft an engaging main character (Jejeune is a Canadian ex-pat in Norfolk).

The plot gets a bit messier, just like real life, and the entanglements get more difficult to sort out. Justice proves a little more difficult to achieve. A satisfying story—but I can see the possibilities for the next book A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, which I will be on the look-out for next year.

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