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Monday, April 27, 2015


We are all completely beside ourselves is a novel of profound empathy. The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, a woman who begins her story in the middle. Any reader who has glanced at the book jacket or browsed a review on Amazon will know that this is a story of a chimp and a human raised as siblings but Rosemary spends 76 delightful pages dancing around the simian identity of her sister. This is not an annoying literary stunt, it's a completely honest way to tell the tale. If you were to meet Rosemary in real life the first thing out of her mouth would not be the words "my sister is a chimpanzee."

Rosemary begins her story when she's in college in California. She's tried and somewhat succeeded in leaving her family and many of her memories back in Indiana when she meets Harlow Fielding, a young woman who literally crashes into the story swearing and smashing dishes. She has her reasons. Forty minutes later Rosemary and Harlow are tucked into the back of a Yolo County police car, headed for jail. Harlow introduces herself, "So glad you decided to come with. I'm Harlow Fielding. Drama department." Indeed.

Rosemary's voice is a compelling one and her story, which grows to reveal her father, mother, brother and yes, her sister who is a chimpanzee, is as fascinating and true as life itself. Which is to say that it is funny and sad and foolish and wise, often at the same time.

Karen Joy Fowler writes with great empathy. Minor characters prove to be less minor than they appeared at first glance. Fowler's characters, be they human, simian, family, friend or foe, are complex. Rosemary remembers, but doubts her memories.

This is a story of a loving family and ways that love can go awry and ways that broken things may in time be mended. It's a story of how a quest for knowledge can lead us to places we don't expect and how our past choices make us what we are today. It is the story of what we think we have to lock away and what we ultimately have to free.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

ANTHILL: A Novel by E. O. Wilson

ANTHILL is a remarkable novel. Harvard professor E. O. Wilson has spent his life in science, devoting much of his work to the study of ants, but being a good scientist doesn't necessarily make a person a good novelist or storyteller. But in ANTHILL Wilson tells a warm, detailed, compelling story, proving conclusively that a scientist's eye and a poet's voice can coexist in a single body. Wilson's scientific attention to detail informs this story, giving it unexpected depth and wisdom but it is character and conflict that keep the reader eagerly turning pages.

The story is that of a boy, Raff Cody, who grows to be a man. Raff's parents are from two slightly different worlds, his mother comes from an old-money, rich-historied southern family, while Raff's dad is a good old southern boy whose dreams are satisfied with a good truck and beer money for Friday nights. Raff finds a refuge from the tensions in his small town Alabama home in the woods of Nokobee County a place he grows to love.

ANTHILL is broad in scope. Time brings changes to the Nokobee woods. Raff grows from an inquisitive kid, to a student of nature, to a mature defender of nature. Raff's struggles and growth are fascinating to follow and contemplate, particularly how his ultimate approach to conflict is informed by his studies of the ants.

And make no mistake, Wilson packs a wealth of nature knowledge into this novel. The reader can't help but learn and be charmed by small details of small creatures but it's the larger echoes, the way all lives, big and small, intersect that makes Raff Cody's story come to life.

E. O. Wilson's novel uses the lives of ants and men to help us make sense of the rich and fragile world we both inhabit. He reveals a world worth fighting for and creatures, both human and insect, whose lives are in the balance. I learned a lot about ants from this book, but more importantly, I learned about people, conflict and myself. And I got to read a terrific story along the way.