Cochon et Compagnie*

c27763f17c4f554597373686967444341587343Pot Bouille (Pot Luck) by Émile Zola ★★★★⅓
Series: Les Rougon-Macquart (10 of 20)
Edition: Librairie Générale Française (1974), Mass Market Paperback, 510 pages
Original publication date: 1882

I was rather amused to find that in the introduction to this cheap, badly printed paperback, Mr. D’Armand Lanoux, a writer who had received the Prix Goncourt, in very typical French fashion, rather than telling the reader what delights are in store for him or her, went about explaining everything that was wrong with this novel, and how this work was the ‘dark’ counterpoint to Zola’s next novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise). It seems Pot Bouille was not included in the original master plan for the Rougon-Macquart series which Zola had given his publisher from the outset, but was inserted once it was completed. According to this plan, Au Bonheur des Dames was to be an optimistic novel. However, Zola was feeling anything but when came the time to write it, over a decade after the first novel of the series, The Fortune of the Rougons (click for review), had been launched in 1871. Lanoux explains that Pot Bouille was written when Zola was into his 40s and generally unhappy with life, somewhat retired from society and raging and fulminating about everything, though by then a successful author. With this novel, Zola was at the apogee of Naturalism: “Émile Zola’s works had a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth. As a result, naturalistic writers were frequently criticized for focusing too much on human vice and misery.” (Wikipedia). There is plenty of all that to be found here, and Zola’s original readers were no doubt shocked by his approach. Zola spelled out his agenda for this novel in a personal note: “talking about the bourgeoisie is to formulate the most violent accusation one can direct toward French society” (my translation). According to Lanoux, Zola did this much too successfully indeed, and he leaves us as his final words that the bourgeoisie in Pot Bouille was no more representational of that hated social class than L’Assommoir (click for review) was of the working classes of the faubourgs.

True enough, it’s impossible to read this novel without getting a clear sense that Zola thought the middle-classes of business owners and their wives and children were nothing but hypocrites of the worst kind, touting the virtues of religion and fidelity while living completely depraved lives in private; keeping lovers on the side, even installing their mistresses in comfortable secondary households, and all the while harshly speaking and acting against anyone who’s immoral activities were revealed, especially those of the lower classes. This novel is about the inhabitants of a posh Parisian building, with a grandiose staircase with false marble walls, where a wealthy shopkeeper and his married children live in different apartments. On one of the upper levels, lives Madame Josserand and her two unmarried daughters, Berthe and Hortense, whom she’s been dragging around Paris from one sitting room to another, desperate to find them husbands. Her alcoholic and rich business owner brother has promised to provide a handsome dowry for the girls, but has never actually given them the money, and the Josserands are struggling, barely being able to afford to feed themselves and their undernourished maid Adèle, never mind having a decent dowry to offer potential husbands, so the prospects are few. But Madame Josserand is willing to make any sacrifice to keep up appearances, and she doesn’t miss an occasion to berate her overworked husband, who, because of his too honest temperament, has never managed to advance much in his career, and is now forced to bring home piecemeal work at night to pay for the women’s luxurious necessities. Into this building, Octave Mouret arrives from the provinces. He has great plans and intends to take Paris by storm. He’s an attractive young man and intends to arrive to his ends by becoming the lover of the woman who is likeliest to advance his cause, though there is a bit of trial and error involved before he finds the right one, and a major scandal erupts in the process. What follows is a wonderful upstairs/downstairs spectacle (only in this case, the maids all live on the topmost level of the building in minuscule hovels) with the bourgeois apartment dwellers misbehaving in the most conspicuous ways, while the servants berate and abuse them behind their backs, with daily meetings at the windows of the inner courtyard, where all the master’s dirty laundry and plenty of personal insults fly from one floor to the next.

The ‘realities’ exposed here are sordid enough, but to me it seemed like a logical progression from the world or prostitution and high-class mistresses described in Nana (click for review). Zola’s powers as a fabulous writer of fictional drama are undiminished here, and to me this novel read as a great entertainment. In Madame Josserand, he creates a truly villainous woman, vociferously berating her husband at every turn in her rage about her lack of material comforts; in fact, she continues berating him until he is literally on his death-bed. I found myself thinking about Jane Austen’s novels, since Madame Josserand’s avowed main concern is to see her daughters well married, which is of course one of the main themes in Austen’s stories, though in her defence, there were little to no other options for well-bred girls in Jane Austen’s day. Zola makes it clear here that this transaction among the bourgeoisie differed little from outright prostitution, and as I read, I felt like I was possibly getting an insight into what Jane Austen’s personal notes might have been (had it been possible for her to keep any), on how her characters truly acted, had she allowed herself, or indeed been able, to give all the details of how crassly humanity can behave in its quest for the comforts of home sweet home.

* Taken from a quote from the novel, where a cook describes the employers in the building by saying « c’est cochon et compagnie » (“they’re like a pig and his companions”).

Speaking of the Man


080419257X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan ★★★★½
Edition: Books on Tape (2013), OverDrive MP3 Audiobook; 8h08
Original publication date: 2013

I don’t celebrate Easter, but rarely does Easter go by without me thinking of Jesus, even though I’m not and never was a Christian. And I guess it wasn’t such a great coincidence that I decided to finally pick up this book—which had been around the top of my reading list since it was released—toward the beginning of this month. And then of course I couldn’t resist the temptation of posting the following comments on Easter Sunday. I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk about this book and why it’s now among my favourites so far this year without giving a short history of my family’s religious backgrounds and how that came to shape my views on the man who came to be known as Jesus Christ, so this is more of a personal account than an actual review.

My paternal grandmother’s father was what is known by the Hebrew word, as a shochet, and though in the original language this is a designation for any kind of butcher, the English interpretation rightly describes what my great-grandfather was; a religious Jew duly licensed and trained to slaughter mammals and birds for food according to kosher standards. I’ll always remember granny Sonia as a voracious reader, with piles of books by the bedside, and how she always had several open at once. This in itself was not an unfamiliar sight to me, since my own mother has always equally been surrounded with mounds of books as far back as I can remember. But my grandmother Sonia’s reading abilities amazed me because like many East European Jews of her generation, she spoke several tongues and read books in three languages (German, Polish and Russian, though she could also read Hebrew and Yiddish). She read great works of philosophy and literature, but though she grew up in a devout Jewish household, she abandoned religion in her teens, when she became part of the Jewish Socialist movement. Needless to say that had she passed on religious traditions to my father, who got his dose of religion from weekly readings of the Torah in school (much as I did, years later while living in Israel for a few years), needless to say I wouldn’t have gotten any teachings about Jesus the man or the Christ from that quarter. Though interestingly enough, Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus the Man taught me more about some of the traditions of that branch of my lineage than I had ever been able to assimilate so far.

My mother on the other hand was raised in a devout Catholic household and spent most of her childhood and teens as a boarder in Catholic convents, being taught and supervised by nuns 24 hours a day, which was a standard form of education in Quebec in the 1950s. Like most children of that generation, she was loyal to the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and took weekly confessions very seriously, even making up sins when no real offences had been committed, just so she’d have something to tell the priest. But again, none of that religious education trickled down to me, or at least not as any code of conduct of belief system, because as soon as she was able to get her hands on forbidden books in her teens, she read voraciously and as widely as she could about all the banned subjects, and this probably contributed to dispel any belief in the Immaculate Conception, one of the core Catholic doctrines, among other things. But since I went to French school in Montreal at a time when the Catholic School Board was still going strong, there came a time when I very much wished to have my first confession so I could wear a tiny white wedding dress with matching white shoes and socks and be wedded to Christ. What finally convinced me to put that idea out of my head was my mother’s patiently and repeated explanations that in order to go through that ceremony, I would have to first be baptized and receive comprehensive religious teachings. This did not appeal as strongly as the notion of the white dress and the gift watch, so I let it go. A few years later, apparently influenced by a friend from Chile whose family held a veritable cult of Christ, I got bitten with that passion too, put up pictures of him holding his bleeding heart on my walls and prayed to him before going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning. This phase probably didn’t last long, and I remember it amusing and bemusing my mother, understandably enough I guess.

But growing into adulthood, matters of faith mostly remained in the periphery of daily life, if at all, and I think I figured out quite early on that no matter what my personal belief system may be, I could not become a willing participant in any form of organized religion, because I’ve always been resistant to doctrinal notions. All the same, the figure of Jesus, celebrated as he is in the Christian world at least twice a year come Christmas and Easter, has always held a certain amount of fascination for me. Who was this man? How and why did he come to have such devoted disciples and followers? Why did both Jews and Romans have it in for him? How and why did his crucifixion become such a powerful symbol? What are the Gospels and the New Testament?

Perhaps I’m moved by the same motivation which led Reza Aslan to preface his main subject by summarizing his own religious evolution and relationship with Jesus before tackling the meat of his book. I suppose this makes sense when you are about to discuss at some length one of the most powerful religious icons, while more or less stripping him of the trappings of his saintly image, to present him simply as Jesus the Man, conceived and born in the conventional way, and like any human being, filled with complex and sometimes contradictory motivations. That is: present him as a historical figure first and foremost and explain how and why he came to be a religious icon, an approach which could understandably upset certain groups of people. What I read about his approach is precisely what attracted me to this book when it was released, because Aslan’s work promised to provide answers to things which had long excited my curiosity. The man who was Jesus has always been a fascinating figure to me, more than the one who was considered as the Son of God, since the latter would have required for me to either have a religious background I do not possess, or to have made a conversion of faith which isn’t within my scope.

My expectations were well rewarded. Basing himself on two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement, Aslan delivers a narrative about the man and his time which is so exciting, so filled with momentous events, realistic details and a sense of immediacy, of being plunged into the Palestine of 2000 years ago, that it became an unputdownable book from the first page of the introduction:

“The First century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the unofficial Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (the land would not be officially called Palestine until after 135 C. E. [i.e. current era]). Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers.”

What Aslan does brilliantly here, is explain the sociopolitical context of the times Jesus of Nazareth was born into, of the conflicts between the Jews and the Roman rulers, in what became an ongoing war, when the Jews zealously fought to retain their distinct religion (Aslan calls Judaism a cult throughout) at a time when polytheism was the most commonly accepted belief system throughout the Roman empire. Believing in only one vengeful God, who could only be approached through the intercession of the powerful and rich priestly class with expensive sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem; with background information given about how the Jewish priests came into their position and made a living, what the sacrifices entailed in terms of cost and details of how they were practiced, and of how the Temple was rigidly organized, we can understand why Jesus made a scene there; although, the Jesus of Nazareth he describes was very much steeped in Judaism, was devoutly religious and sought to follow the teachings of the Torah and of Moses above all else, never thinking of creating a new religion. I suppose these are the kinds of details most Christians would be familiar with, but I learned as much in this book about Jesus’s faith and the state of the Jewish religion and practices of those days as about how the cult of Christianity was born. I also learned much about what kind of place Israel was (then, as always it seems, a locus or roiling political and religious tensions) and I was finally able to put together many dispersed bits of knowledge I’d acquired about the Israel of 2000+ years ago, when I lived there as a child and repeatedly visited Masada, various Roman ruins and Old Jerusalem and it’s environs, and was taught about historical events that until now were disconnected in my mind.

As logically follows, Aslan then patiently demonstrates how far from the real man the early Christians—and particularly Saul of Tarsus, known as Paul the Apostle—deliberately reinvented the image of Jesus Christ, to distance Jesus from the Jewish ‘cult’. Since to most Jews, Jesus of Nazareth was simply another zealous messianic figure among many others (who were rather ubiquitous at the time, as he makes clear in his introduction) and also very much a political animal who sought to incite the Jews to free themselves of Roman domination, there was little hope then of converting many Jews to the new creed. He also needed to be  reinvented as a supernatural being who required only belief, without the trappings of a temple or priests or costly sacrifices, and certainly with <i>no</i> political intentions to make him accessible to gentiles and that much larger pool of potential converts to the new religion. Yet Aslan convincingly argues that in this time of turbulent conflict, Jesus could not have been a meek, peace-seeking and all-forgiving saintly figure, though interestingly enough, he also doesn’t attempt to rationalize the miracles he performs, and instead brings us to understand that the zeitgeist was so completely different from the world view we understand today, that miracles might in fact have been possible. And he does all this by quoting from the scriptures and by describing many historical details and events of the times, based on an extended bibliography. Most importantly, he confirmed to me the impression I’ve long held, that while each person can choose to believe or not in Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth certainly was a fascinating human being, and made me understand how such a person came to have such a powerful cult built around him, as perfectly expressed in the closing paragraph of the book:

(obviously, this is a spoiler of sorts, if there is such a thing as a spoiler in a work on non-fiction…)

 “Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers to make. Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

This is a book I’ll definitely want to revisit.

(Quotes transcribed from the eBook edition.)

The Quick: A Masterful Tour de Force

This new system, or I should say lack of system of letting myself write book reviews out of reading order is really working for me and has certainly got me writing a whole lot more than I would otherwise. I completed my 64th book of the year yesterday, so it looks like I’ll probably hit 75 in May (being part of a group called 75 Books in 2014 providing adequate motivation). I used to write reviews for every single book I read and then fell out of that practice last year because it was just too much work, and now allowing myself to write about books according to passing inspiration seems more feasible, especially considering I often set out to write just a word or two and then get caught up writing something that requires more thinking and editing, so I can now set it aside till inspiration strikes again. The following review has been in the works since I finished this book earlier this month (it was my 53rd). I hope to get it right, because I think this ARC definitely deserves to get great coverage!


5aba17f2478594f5975552b6941444341587343The Quick by Lauren Owen (ARC) ★★★★★
Read for: NetGalley ARC
Edition: McClelland & Stewart (2014), Kindle Edition, 544 pages
Publication date: June 2014

“There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy. The room was papered in a pattern of winding branches, amongst which great green parent owls perched in identical courting couples. Beneath each pair, a trio of green owlets huddled, their sharp beaks slightly ajar. They sat between big, whistling green flowers with tiny white blossoms which made James think of mother-of-pearl buttons, the kind on Charlotte’s Sunday dress. When he was alone in the nursery, James thought he could hear the owls chatter together softly, like monkeys, scratching and scratching their claws against the endless green branches. But when Charlotte was there, they were quiet, because she had told them that if they did not behave, she would get her box of watercolours and paint out their eyes.”

Yorkshire, England, late 19th century. James Norbury and his beloved older sister Charlotte have spent their early years mostly left to their own devices at Aiskew Hall. Their father had left them shortly after their mother’s death and is constantly away on business, and they have been left vaguely under the care of Mrs Rowley the housekeeper; various governesses have come and gone, never staying for long, and it is left to Charlotte to teach James his letters. She is a very good teacher, and soon, by the age of six, James has taken to writing short stories and rhymes, which aren’t very good, though Charlotte encourages him by telling him he might write a whole book when he is grown up and living in a house in London. Then one day their father finally does comes home, but he is gravely ill and hidden away from them in his room under the care of a doctor, only to die a day or two following his arrival, after a brief interview with Charlotte, though he is too weakened to speak by that point. During that incident, James is hidden away in a secret cupboard, which Charlotte hasn’t been able to release him from on time so both could attend to their father, as they were interrupted in a game which they must keep the adults from knowing about, involving special “ordeals” to prove their bravery to one another. On their father’s death, the children are left in the care of their old aunt Mrs Chickering, with Charlotte attending to the old lady and James going off to school Years later, when he is about to finish his studies at Oxford, James decides he must live in London: “Thanks to a small legacy received some years ago, James had enough to live in relative comfort, without the need of pursuing a profession. Charlotte was sufficiently provided for. So he might still write, if he wanted. And he could live in London, where a writer ought to live and where things would happen. He would be a flâneur, wandering the streets, seeing everything, observed by none. That evening he wrote in his memorandum book, Life with a capital must be lived in the Capital, and was pleased with the sentiment.”

But he soon finds that his relatively modest means can’t afford him a decent living space, so that when an old school friend puts him in touch of another Oxford acquaintance, a young aristocrat named Christopher Paige, who is looking for someone to share rooms with in an elegantly appointed house, James jumps on the chance. The house is of the most genteel sort, near the National History Museum and belonging to a Mrs Morris, a lady of ‘reduced circumstances’. James has apprehensions about the handsome Paige, whom he knows to be a dissipated young man, always out on the town getting spectacularly drunk with his friends and bedding all the pretty women he can get his hands on. Nonetheless, they rent the rooms together and make a sort of odd couple, with James a hermit who stays in his rooms to work away at his epic romantic poetry, while Paige gets up to no good on a nightly basis. And then something happens between the two young men, a relationship James had certainly never envisaged, but which quickly consumes him. Christopher’s older brother figures out things are amiss and warns James off, and the pair plans to get away together overseas, only a violent attack changes everything, and James will never be the same again.

There is a very ancient private club called The Aegolius (denoting a species of small owls), which we find out about from the very first page of the book, in what appears to be a newspaper clipping titled “From Clubs of London, by Major Samuel Hobbs (London, 1890)” which I paraphrase from; this club reportedly bears the dubious distinction of being the most mysterious club of London, with the Aegolius’s character and affairs kept a profound secret, known only to its initiates. There are records of the club dating from 1705, though it is likely the club had been active many years previously. Unlike most clubs, there is no gambling or consumption of alcohol allowed on the premises, and it is not known for any political, literary or artistic activities or affiliations. Furthermore, there can only be up to fifty-two members at any one time, and becoming a member is exceedingly expensive and difficult (the Prince of Wales was notoriously turned down in 1785), and needless to say, no visitors are allowed. This club and a number of its members are at the heart of the narrative. What the connection with James can be is only revealed further on in the story, when James’s sister Charlotte, fearing something is amiss when she sends him telegrams that go unanswered, makes her way from Yorkshire to London to find James, and falls in with a pair of vigilantes composed of a middle-aged lapsed priest and a former rope walker; a beautiful young woman who often wears men’s garb, smokes like a chimney and can fight like a fiend. These skills, it seems, are necessary to perform their daily activities.

The novel is steeped in the macabre gothic horror tradition, which isn’t too surprising when we find out that Lauren Owen’s first attempts at writing as a teenager were Harry Potter fan-fiction, that she is a graduate of St Hilda’s, Oxford with an MA in Victorian Literature, and completing a PhD on Gothic writing and fan culture. She’s obviously done the right sort of reading and mental processing, because what she delivers here is a tour de force which is almost unbelievable for a first novel: a highly satisfying read, which borrows from some of the best literary influences of the Victorian age, weaving in intimations of famous crimes of the day, such as the unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper, and including a cameo of Oscar Wilde, who certainly has his place among the many influences at play in the story. All this in a complex, multi-layered narrative which nonetheless reads like the best sort of unputdownable mystery fiction, in a world of Dickensian proportions and characters, yet with a modern approach which, unlike the sort of fiction it borrows from, doesn’t shy away from describing the violence and horror in full, while at the same time clearly keeping in line with works of great literary merit. A must read? Like Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Tana French, and many others, I must say I certainly think so. I’ll also be eager to read what Lauren Owen comes up with next.

The Unsolved Mystery of Lord Lucan

0385720904.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ★★★⅓
Edition: Anchor (2002), Paperback, 176 pages
Original publication date: 2000

I’ve grown very fond of the Muriel Spark who wrote (among many others) Loitering with Intent, Memento Mori and A Far Cry from Kensington, which are among my favourite novels, and while I was expecting to be highly diverted by Aiding and Abetting, it was another of those instances where high expectations are probably to blame for my relative lack of appreciation. The story is based on a true crime committed by “Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (born 18 December 1934), popularly known as Lord Lucan, a British peer and suspected murderer, disappeared without trace early on 8 November 1974”. Now that I’m reading the wikipedia entry about the man, it occurs to me I might have enjoyed Spark’s novel more had I had the full details as revealed there, along with that photo of a beautiful man—who indeed would have been a very good James Bond candidate—in mind. Lucan was a gambler, and his marriage to his gorgeous wife Veronica Duncan collapsed in 1972; a bitter custody battle over their three children ensued, and it seems Lucan developed an obsession over his ex-wife and somehow determined that doing away with her would be the solution to all his problems, financial and otherwise. The attempted murder was horribly botched. While reportedly waiting for his wife to come down the darkened basement stairs of their former mutual home, the inquest revealed that he probably mistook their nanny Sandra Rivett for Veronica, bludgeoned her to death, and then realizing his mistake, viciously attacked his wife when she showed up thereafter; Duncan was treated in hospital for serious head injuries and survived the ordeal, but Lucan disappeared and was never apprehended for his crimes. Lucan’s fate has remained a high-profile mystery for the British public. Many reports of sightings of Lucan in various countries around the world have been made, though none were substantiated, and despite an ongoing police investigation and continued press coverage, Lucan has continued to evade discovery.

To make the story her own, Spark bases her theories on the fact that many friends and family members of Lucan came to his defence during the investigation, no doubt largely owing to his position in society as a British peer (i.e. member of British nobility). The story is a contemporary one, in which Lucan and another man who also claims to be Lucan, but calls himself Mr Walker, both become patients of a famous psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, at her Paris office. What we are led to understand is that a now elderly Lucan has evaded the authorities by having facial reconstruction and thanks to his supporters, has been traveling around the world with the aid of funds provided by his wealthy friends. But now Lucan and Walker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the former, are believed to be working together, and having come on hard times, are bent on blackmailing Dr Wolf, having discovered a secret past and identity she also needs to keep hidden.

Lord Lucan with wife Veronica Duncan, 1963

Lord Lucan with wife Veronica Duncan, 1963

The premise is certainly fascinating, and this should have worked for me, but somehow it failed to do so. I didn’t find the bitter humour I so enjoyed in the Spark novels I’ve listed above, and I failed to feel any real interest for any of the protagonists or their fates. But then again, I knew little to nothing about the affair or the real human beings behind the story until I read the book. The real-life story seemed far-fetched enough to make for perfectly good fiction, so it seemed to me all the additional intrigue was unnecessary. That being said, far be it from me to want to discourage anyone from deciding for themselves whether this is a novel worthy of attention or not. I may reread it someday, along with other Muriel Spark works I want to revisit, and then again, I may not. But if anything, Lucan’s story is an intriguing one and is certainly worthy of speculation.

eta: Here’s a related article from the Mirror I just found: The truth must finally be told: Why Lord Lucan’s son is finally speaking out after 38 years

The One and Only?

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The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate ★★★★½
Edition: HarperCollins (2012), eBook, OverDrive READ, 320 pages
Highlights: ALA Notable Children’s Book (2013), Newbery Medal (2013)
Original publication date: 2012


I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.


People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan,
Mighty Silverback.

Humans waste words. The toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.

Everyone knows the peels are the best part.

I suppose you think gorillas can’t understand you. Of course, you probably also think
we can’t walk upright.

Try knuckle walking for an hour. Tell me, which way is more fun?


I’ve learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human
speech is not the same as understanding humans.

Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise
even when they have nothing to say.

It took me some time to recognize all those sounds, to weave words into things.
But I was patient.

Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.

Gorillas are as patient as stones, humans, not so much.”

So begins Ivan the ape’s tale. Ivan is a silverback and has been living in a glass cage at the Exit 8 Video Arcade and Big Top Mall for the last 30 years. He used to be a star attraction. He delighted visitors with his feats of eating (around to 45 pounds of fruit and leaves and rotten wood and yogourt-covered raisins a day), watching tv, and with his crayon drawings; his pictures are sold for $25 each at the gift shop (framed) and people keep buying them. But now that Ivan is older and not so cute, and visibly not very happy in his glass enclosure (one wall of which is painted with scenery of a rainfall in the jungle), people don’t visit the circus so much anymore, and his owner Mack, who adopted Ivan when he arrived in a crate as a baby straight from the jungle after his parents had been murdered, is desperate to find ways to make ends meet. As it is, he has to cut back on food and might have to stop the heating the mall in the winter at night. Ivan grew up with Mack, being treated like a small child, taken to McDonald’s and the fun fair and wearing kid’s clothes and sleeping in the same bed as Mac in his house. When he became bigger and unruly, he was put in this glass cage at the Big Top Mall, and there’s a large billboard he can see from his spot advertising the circus and its daily shows at two, four and seven, 365 days a year, with The One and Only Ivan as the star attraction. Unlike his portrait on the billboard though, Ivan is far from being fierce, and like most gorillas, is actually a gentle soul.

Ivan enjoys his fame, but he’d be even more lonely and bored if it wasn’t for his friends, including Stella, an old elephant which Mack bought from a circus when she became lame after a badly healed accident while performing a trick. Her foot is constantly infected, and Mack can’t afford to call in a vet ‘every time she sneezes’, as he says. Ivan also has a good friend in Bob, who showed up as a tiny puppy through a hole in a bottom corner of Ivan’s glass enclosure and fell asleep on his tummy at night, which is where Ivan discovered him when he woke up in the morning. Bob was abandoned on the freeway and he doesn’t trust humans, is proud in fact of being free to roam as he likes. He’s always remained a tiny little thing, and always sleeps on Ivan’s tummy at night, which is comforting to both. Ivan, Stella and Bob can all understand each other, and though they use few words, they converse every day and keep each other company that way, making each other feel loved and appreciated. They do have one human friend: Julia, who is the daughter of George the janitor who comes in to clean every night. Julia always accompanies her father to spend time with the animals, and though she’s supposed to do her homework, she’d rather spend time drawing and painting the animals, and frequently slips Ivan art supplies through his hole. Then one day, Mack brings in a new arrival: Ruby is a baby elephant, just purchased cheap from a bankrupt circus who kept her for just a month and tried to “break” her to perform tricks by keeping her four feet tied down 23 hours a day. Stella takes her under her wing and encourages Ruby to do what she must to survive in this new environment. But then Stella becomes very very sick from the unhealed foot infection, and thinking she will breathe her last soon, makes Ivan promise he will save Ruby from the same fate of spending her whole life in wretched conditions such as these.

From the first lines of the book, which are delivered in short spurts in a series of “chapters” under headings like those shown above, we learn about Ivan’s way of looking at the world and eventually about his ingenious plan to save Ruby. Though he’s survived—unlike his twin sister who died when they were originally put in a shipping crate when they were captured—by intentionally forgetting his past, deliberately putting out of his mind the time when he was a baby gorilla, roaming free in the jungle surrounded by those of his kind in his close-knit family unit, Ruby keeps demanding stories to keep away the daily boredom, and Ivan, who isn’t very good at storytelling (unlike Stella, who remembered everything she’d ever seen and heard), forces himself to revisit his past to have a story to tell, and learns to rely on resources he never knew he had until they became necessary for him to keep his promise to his friend.

This look at animals in captivity under the worst kind of conditions is absolutely heart-wrenching, and if like me you believe that animals have their own form of intelligence and real feelings and souls too, you can’t help but be deeply affected by this tale. But beyond the story about cruelty and animal rights, is also a tale about the loneliness and alienation we all feel from time to time, and about the resources we can all reach for inside ourselves, with a little prompting and a nudge from caring friends. I think this is a story that will remain with me for a long, long time.

I wasn’t surprised to find out in the end that Applegate was inspired by the real-life story of a gorilla in Tacoma, Wash., named Ivan. “After being kept alone in a cage at a mall for 27 years, he became a celebrity after being placed with a large group of gorillas in the Atlanta zoo, where he made paintings and signed them with a thumbprint.” (NYT blog). The real-life Ivan had lived under similar conditions as those described in the book, until National Geographic aired a featured called The Urban Gorilla, which fuelled protests by animals right’s activists (also see link to NYT article below). The book certainly more than deserved the Newbery Medal it received last year, and the only reason I didn’t give it the full 5 stars is because of how wretchedly sad it made me feel, though there is a message of hope and a happy resolution in the end.

The real life Ivan died on August 20, 2012, at the age of 50 at Zoo Atlanta. 
Here are some related links :
A Gorilla Sulks in a Mall as His Future Is Debated (NYT)
The Urban Gorilla on YouTube (National Geographic )

True Crime, Great Yarn

2b1f3d71ed2ad15596e54356951444341587343Frog Music by Emma Donoghue ★★★★⅓
Edition: Hachette Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 12h47
Original publication date: March 2014

I found out after finishing this book, as I listened to a short NPR interview with Emma Donoghue, that she’d based her latest story on a true crime that took place in California in 1876: “On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed”, she told the interviewer. Basing herself on numerous court transcripts and newspaper articles, she found material which was too good to make up; the city was in the middle of a major heatwave and a devastating smallpox epidemic; the victim Jenny Bonnet was a professional frog-catcher who sold her goods to local restaurants and wore men’s clothes, which was a punishable offence in the city of San Francisco and landed her in jail numerous times. The other woman, Blanche Beunon was a French immigrant who made her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute. These two women, along with the city of San Francisco itself, a ramshackle place quickly thrown together by “miners, restaurateurs and prostitutes” are Donoghue’s main characters, from which she fleshed out her story, creating plausible lives for the two women and imagining how the two might have crossed paths and come to be in that room together on the fatal night.

The main character is Blanche, who at first is content with her life, making men drool and throw money at her feet with her naughty stage acts and ‘michetons’, the rich customers she charges healthy fees for sexual favours. But when Jenny Bonnet literally slams into her with her outlandish machine, in the form of a large front-wheel bicycle, and the two unconventional women start developing a friendship, questions raised by Jenny force Blanche to look at her life from a new perspective. Donoghue, while not condoning nor condemning prostitution, raises question about how it affects women’s lives in the larger picture. In this case, Blanche has had a baby by her French boyfriend, who abhors the ‘Bourgeois’ but has no qualms comfortably living off her earnings, and who had arranged for the newborn to be farmed out to “Angel Makers”, a form of childcare for desperate parents known as such because the children are likely to die from neglect. Up until her encounter with Jenny, Blanche had conveniently put the whole matter out of her mind and never visited the place where her child was kept, imagining, as she was led to believe, that the child lived in the fresh air of a country farm, away from city pollution and dirt. But from the sudden shocking awareness of what Petit’s living conditions have actually been for the first year of his life, a mother’s love will force her to make difficult choices which will have repercussions on many lives.

I read Donoghue’s Slammerkin many years ago, and must say I haven’t had the courage to broach Room yet, but in this new novel, she returns in good form to one of my favourite genres and delivers a historical fiction novel that crackles with life and realistic details and characters, and makes for a really great yarn from beginning to end, for what is a basically an unputdownable read.

I’ve listened to Khristine Hvam narrate other books before and while she is a good narrator, my beef with her is that she seems to have just one cookie-cutter foreign accent which I’ve heard her use for both Czech and French accents most unconvincingly. Of course, in my case, being a fluent French speaker, a bad French accent is bound to grate on the ears, and in this case, since the main protagonist is French, there is a lot of grating to be endured, but to Hvam’s credit, the delivery was good enough for this to be a minor quibble and didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of this audiobook. Definitely recommended.