Tuesday, May 25, 2021


I found this an unusual, curious book. Part family story, part animal rights tale, and a finalist for the Man Booker, its theme concerning the relationship of human beings to their natural environment and other species somewhat reminds me of Lab Girl and Overstory and a few of Kingsolver’s books. The “big reveal” happens around page 70; if you don’t want the spoiler, don’t read on.  

[SPOILER ALERT] The story of an odd, academic family (the father is a professor) that adopts and raises a chimpanzee named Fern as one of the three children, it is told from the perspective of the “other” daughter, Rosemary, nearly the same age, so they’re raised as “twins” until Fern and Rosemary are around five years old. When Fern leaves, it wreaks emotional havoc on the entire family, especially the mother, who has a nervous breakdown, and the brother, Lowell, who becomes a fervent animal activist. 

There is a piercing clarity to the language; Fowler has the knack of succinct, brutally frank observation and a delicately allusive style, drawing upon everything from Shakespeare plays to Schrodinger’s cat to convey Rosemary’s lived experience. I found myself underlining as I read, especially at the moments when I winced with sympathy or grinned wryly in understanding. One theme is the problematic nature of memory—what we remember and how that memory is overwritten or effaced. But to me, it seemed the large overarching theme is how rules and conventions govern the ways we communicate—including the inevitable failures and purposeful omissions (due to repressive social norms, say) as well as the misunderstandings that stem from talking too much or simply because words and gestures (for chimpanzees as well as humans) are not fixed in meaning. An early example: “One day, a package of junior-sized tampons was left on my bed along with a pamphlet that looked technical and boring, so I didn’t read it. Nothing was ever said to me about the tampons. It was just blind luck I didn’t smoke them.”

Another: [Father] told [his mother] he was running a Markov chain analysis of avoidance conditioning. He cleared his throat. He was going to tell us more. We moved to close off the opportunity. Wheeled like a school of fish, practiced, synchronized. It was beautiful. It was Pavlovian. It was a goddamn dance of avoidance conditioning. “Pass the turkey, Mother,” my uncle Bob said. 

Another: No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.

The secret purposefully withheld from the reader (that Fern is a chimpanzee) is revealed around page 70; our narrator is very aware of the conventions of storytelling, which is (after all) yet another form of communication. An inveterate talker as a child, Rosemary explains that her father (who has tired of her long recitals) advises her to start a tale in the middle. She also leaves holes in the text: “My father made a crude joke … If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t.”

This was a quick, enjoyable read for book club. It is the first book I’ve read by Fowler, but I will look up her others. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


In 1939, Churchill brought together a group of six men whose job was to fight "dirty," as it became clear that guerrilla warfare and innovative weapons might be the only way to beat Hitler. This group of out-of-the-box thinkers used everything from hard candies that dissolved in ocean water to higher mathematics to design bombs and plots that would foil Hitler's plans. 

Although at times I felt the book gets bogged down in the bureaucracy of it all (I'd start skimming at the details of who hired whom), there are other places where the book reads like a series of daring, bizarre escapades. My favorite account, toward the end, was about a small group of men who parachuted into Norway to destroy a heavy water plant that Hitler would have used to build an atomic bomb. The fact that they landed in a dense blizzard, then (by sheer luck) literally bumped into a solitary hut that sheltered them for four days until the blizzard ended, confounded Nazi resistance, found their resistance counterparts, scaled a huge cliff, on top of which stood the factory, and managed to set off the bombs and escape without significant injury is ... well, it could be a GREAT movie. 

What also fascinated me was that the notion of "(un)gentlemanly warfare" in 1939 was produced discursively, in an argument on the Letters page of the London *Times*. One writer claimed that the sword was the only weapon appropriate for a gentleman, as it gave both fellows a chance and made it a "sporting affair." But--another writer pointed out--did it really matter if one cut the enemy's jugular with a sword or a bayonet? This book spends some time tracing the process by which the English eventually acknowledged that Hitler was no longer playing by rules that governed earlier wars. As I read, I had some compassion for Chamberlain; he didn't want to acknowledge that difference--perhaps because it suggested many other kinds of loss. The very definitions of words such as fairness and justice and decency were changing.

I stole this book from my husband's nightstand after we began watching ATLANTIC CROSSING on PBS. I found this book a good companion to the series, which begins in Norway in 1939 and follows the Crown Princess of Norway to America, where she influences FDR's thoughts and policies on the war. I would recommend to fans of WWII true history and of books such as Eric Larson's THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE.