Book discusses ape, human interaction

At the Sun-Gazette, staff members tend to read. A lot. So we thought we would share what we’re reading and let you know how they fare.

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Reader: Tara D. McKinney, correspondent.

What I read: “Ape House” by Sara Gruen

Stats: Published by Spiegel & Grau, April 2011, 336 pages.

What I thought: I chose to read “Ape House,” because I enjoyed “Water for Elephants,” by the same author.

Although both books were centered on animals and their interactions with humans, the two books could not be more different. “Ape House,” was thoroughly absorbing, but also very jarring at times.

Before reading the novel I was completely unaware that bonobos are led by matriarchs as opposed to patriarchs. They are highly sexual animals that use sex as a greeting, a thank you, to establish power and of course to mate.

Another interesting little tidbit is that they, like dolphins, hyenas, penguins and male flour beetles, have intercourse with the same sex as well as the opposite sex within their species fairly indiscriminately.

This aspect of the novel featured heavily and was the source the media’s interest in a reality show in which the bonobos were the unwitting and completely exploited stars. The exploitation aspect of the story reminded me of the movies EdTV and The Truman Show.

But honestly, I don’t know which was worse: reading about the gross neglect of the bonobos in the reality TV show or the description of an animal testing lab and the direct and awful cruelty primates are subjected to in the name of science.

There were a few love stories within the book, but they seemed like add-ons and not really pertinent to the main story.

There were humorous bits, some that made me laugh out loud.

The plot was all over the place. It touched on strippers, a meth lab, the shrinking print industry, politics, animal rights, homosexuality, plastic surgery, trauma, our increasingly frightening fascination with reality television.

Some of the characters were underdeveloped or completely flat and others were completely superfluous.

I did appreciate the way the bonobos relationships with humans and each other were portrayed. Gruen did an excellent job of illustrating the bonobos compassionate nature and most human traits while also staying true to the apes’ animal characteristics. The novel paints the bonobos in a much more positive light than the humans in the story. It was the interactions between the bonobos that kept me reading and not really what was going on with their human friends and exploiters.

Overall, “Ape House” was a pretty decent novel that I liked, but didn’t love. I think most of that had to do with my heightened expectations due to reading “Water for Elephants” first and hoping that this book would be as good.

What I’m reading next: “Arranged” by Catherine McKenzie.