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Binker

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel [SPOILERS]

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It really is not possible to discuss this book and what makes it so fascinating with spoilers, so I'm just warning everyone that I haven't spoilered some important information.  Also, thanks for Clavain for suggesting this book.  

 

SPOILERS FOLLOW.  DON'T READ IF YOU DON'T WANT THE SPOILERS.

 

The book is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, who is about 40 when she is writing the book.  She starts when she is a 22-year-old student (in 1996), then goes backwards for awhile and, at the very end, forward in time.  It's not as confusing as it sounds.

 

The central issue of her life was the disappearance of her sister Fern 17 years before and then her brother's abrupt departure 6 years later and his flight from the FBI.

 

Very early on, you suspect that there's something a bit "off" about Fern and the story vaguely reminded me of a review I had read.  26% of the way in (can you tell I read it on my tablet?), you learn that Fern was actually a chimpanzee and that she had been part of an experiment in seeing whether chimps could be raised as children in families.  Assuming that the book is based on what really happened (and I think it is), there was quite a little cottage industry in these experiments and they didn't always end well.  Chimps are, after all, wild animals and much, much stronger than human beings.  For reasons that are not clear at all until the end (and maybe even then have been sanitized), she was transferred to a primate study in another state and Rosemary and her brother are fed some pablum that she's gone to live on a farm.  When her brother finds out what really happened to his beloved baby sister, he becomes an animal rights' activist and after a long time, finally tells Rosemary what really happened.

 

The book is fascinating.  Rosemary has been raised by experimental psychologists and she spends a lot of time exploring and discussing issues that she's sort of grown up hearing about.  She expounds in very interesting and natural-sounding ways about the unreliability of memory, the role of character versus circumstances in human actions, the differences between humans and animals, the fact that humans have become comfortable with animal experimentation because it is hidden from them, and how humans are particularly disturbed by appearances and behaviors that are almost, but not quite, human.  Rosemary herself is one of those people who isn't quite right because her twin for the first years of her life was a chimpanzee--so she gets in her friend's personal space and her facial expressions aren't quite right, particularly when she is school-aged.  

 

And yet that's the most fascinating part of the book--she understands chimpanzee behavior better than anyone and she talks about it casually.  For example, she explains that the big-toothed smiles of the chimps that were sent into space aren't smiles at all--they mean the chimps were terrified.  She knew it as soon as she saw it and was shocked that others did not (the correct chimp friendly face has a smile with the lip over the top teeth--we've been practicing that at home ever since I told the family at great length about this book).

 

I do want to say something about Rosemary herself. I just loved her.  The way she talks makes her seem like a real person and her observations are usually very apt and often either very humorous or very touching.  For humorous:  She goes to college at UC-Davis, where it's very hot and says, " 'At least it's a dry heat,' they keep telling me, though once the thermometer tops a hundred I think that's just crazy talk."  I agree and I bet Kerry does, too.  There's too many touching places for me to just show one.

Highly recommend.  One of my top reads so far, but the one I'm reading now is going to give it a run for its money.

 

 

 

 

 

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I agree Binker a book that is almost impossible to talk about without throwing in a spoiler. When I received the book from a colleague, she told me to read it immediately and not read any online reviews. The twist when it came (page 79 I think) was therefore a pleasant shocker :). I urge anyone that's thinking of reading the book to not go looking for information regarding it beforehand..

Can only echo all you have said Binker and loved every page. Lovely book.

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My branch library has two copies, so maybe I'll go pick this up after work! I didn't read the spoilers.

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It really is not possible to discuss this book and what makes it so fascinating with spoilers, so I'm just warning everyone that I haven't spoilered some important information.  Also, thanks for Clavain for suggesting this book.  

Highly recommend.  One of my top reads so far,

 

Can only echo all you have said Binker and loved every page. Lovely book.

 

Thanks for this, guys. I really must try and get hold of it. By the way, do you know of 'Eva' by Peter Dickinson? It goes one huge step further, and from my own experiences with chimpanzees is exceedingly authentic.

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Well, it seems this has been Booker long listed. Alas, I read the spoilers above because I thought there was no way I could be interested in the novel. I suspect this won't be number 1 on my reading list but I probably will now read it.

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Well, it seems this has been Booker long listed. Alas, I read the spoilers above because I thought there was no way I could be interested in the novel. I suspect this won't be number 1 on my reading list but I probably will now read it.

Well it did also win the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction 2014 and Karen Joy Fowler joined luminaries such as Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, E. Annie Proulx and John Updike amongst many others. I feel it deserves a Booker place.

Would love to know the criteria you use to choose which book to read Mr HG. :)

You reviewed The Rosie Project, gave it ***** and called it lovely and urged people to read. Loved the book but I think you would agree not a Booker book or "literary fiction".

I feel this book is better but you almost seem to begrudge reading it.

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I thought The Rosie Project was literary fiction, but it's not a definition I get hung up on.

 

I don't really have criteria for reading books - I go for whatever appeals, perhaps based on previous experience of a writer, perhaps based on an interesting premise, perhaps based on a good cover ( :o). But I do try to read all the Booker longlist - making an exception for books by Hilary Mantel and Howard Jacobson.

 

I came across this book as an Amazon recommendation base on past purchases - looked at the blurb and the reviews - and thought it sounded a bit family orientated. That's not really my thing. But one of the joys of reading the Booker longlist is that you sometimes discover wonderful books and great writers you would not otherwise have tried.

 

I expect I will read this and hope I love it as much as you. I'm just kicking myself for reading the spoilers.

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Well that explains a lot my friend :)  Honestly I think you would enjoy it despite the spoilers and it's certainly not "family orientated"

The Booker 2014 short list surprised me and certainly worth discussion but maybe BGO can do that on another thread. :)

Edited by Clavain

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MrHG, I actually knew very early on what the spoiler information was.  It had been revealed in a review I had read, which I thought made the book sound very odd.  Clavain's comment helped push me over the edge to read the amazon reviews and once I read them, I decided to go ahead and do it and I'm very glad I did.

 

The style is very casual and you may or may not like that aspect.  I enjoyed it a lot.  I ended up with a lot of affection for the main character.  Also, some of her musings on what makes us human, especially memory and our discomfort with that which is almost, but not quite, human were very thought-provoking.

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I agree with everything Binker said. The book is wonderful and is definitely going on my list of favorite reads this year.

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Well, I did read it but was rather underwhelmed, I'm afraid. Here's my Amazon review:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story of an American academic family where the father tries out his wacky theories on the kids.

 

Rosemary Cooke, now an adult, finds herself taking stock of her life as she finds herself taken (briefly) into police custody along with a rather extrovert young woman and then, on release, finds her long lost brother has paid her a visit. Rosie, as she prefers to be known, proceeds to tell a somewhat rambling story of her childhood, her parents and her brother and sister.

 

The timeline is left deliberately opaque – despite numerous signposts that might lead one to expect clarity – and Rosie frequently withholds information for little obvious gain. I’ll play along by not revealing spoilers, though I am at a loss to see why Karen Joy Fowler can’t just tell everyone what the book is about and give us licence to talk about it. It screams of tricksy and Rosie’s attempts to justify her bizarre chronology and coyness over certain points of detail are not convincing.

 

This is a pity because, at its core, there is a reasonable story trying to get out. We have issues of identity, animal rights, how far ends justify means. We also have themes of unfulfilled potential, loneliness, social isolation. But it all feels a bit packaged in a way that says “look at me; I am profound” without quite showing profundity.

 

The novel will come in for a bit of scrutiny as one of the American offerings in the first year of their eligibility for the Booker Prize. I confess, I’m not seeing exactly how it was chosen for the longlist. It is not unusually well written; the story is not amazing; the characterisation is not really that deep. It’s a bit of a bits and pieces novel; quite good all round without shining in any one dimension. Whilst I didn’t hate this novel, there were plenty of better ones published this year that would have been more deserving of a Booker listing.

 

***00

 

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I think we have read different books. :)

 

Well, I did read it but was rather underwhelmed, I'm afraid. Here's my Amazon review:

Rosemary Cooke, now an adult, finds herself taking stock of her life as she finds herself taken (briefly) into police custody along with a rather extrovert young woman and then, on release, finds her long lost brother has paid her a visit. Rosie, as she prefers to be known, proceeds to tell a somewhat rambling story of her childhood, her parents and her brother and sister.    

 

Not how I read the book and took meaning. You have just taken different parts of the book and made a rambling sentence..

 

The timeline is left deliberately opaque – despite numerous signposts that might lead one to expect clarity – and Rosie frequently withholds information for little obvious gain. I’ll play along by not revealing spoilers, though I am at a loss to see why Karen Joy Fowler can’t just tell everyone what the book is about and give us licence to talk about it. It screams of tricksy and Rosie’s attempts to justify her bizarre chronology and coyness over certain points of detail are not convincing.

 

Maybe the book is exploring memory ?

Edited by Clavain

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People react to books differently. I was part of the undertow on Gone Girl and I think Hazel would say I'd read a different book.

 

I tried to think about why the author withheld the information about Fern and I think it's because she wants to emphasize the love she and her brother had for Fern. Fern IS their sister, not like a sister. Anyone knowing right away thar Fern was a chimp would automatically discount the devotion and love. So I think this particular tricksiness had a purpose.

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I agree with Binker and Clavain. I thought the withholding of information until certain points in the story was a large part of what made the book such an interesting read, It certainly seemed to me that one aspect of the book was exploring memory and the ways in which people (e.g., Rosemary) view the past through their own filters. Everything is perception, including whether one likes a book or not!

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Maybe the book is exploring memory ?

 

I know that books exploring memory (and their close cousins - the unreliable narrations) are fashionable at the moment, but I don't think it applies in this case. There is one little foray into memory issues when Rosie seemed unclear about whether she had made up a story about Fern and the kitten, but that's not the tricksy narration I was referring to.

 

For the most part, Rosie seems to be very much in command of her memories and her story telling technique. She even refers to her technique as she goes - which seemed clumsy to me - and said that she was starting in the middle because she felt like it and had intentionally withheld information about Fern. In most cases when a writer wants to withhold information, he or she will simply hold it back and introduce it at the appropriate time. But this can only work when it is not visible. As soon as it becomes obvious, it requires some justification and I don't think Karen Joy Fowler provided sufficient justification.

 

I also find the withholding of information irritating as it stifles discussion of the book's merits.

 

For example, much is made of Harlow's chimp-like qualities - the long arms, the impetuosity, the throwing things around. We are clearly meant to feel that, in some way, Harlow and Fern are equal but treated differently by society because one is a chimp and the other is not. But I don't buy this as a concept. As a human, Harlow has a level of intelligence, language and sophistication that Fern, as a chimp, does not. The suggestion that is made somewhere in the text that the communication difficulties are down to physiological factors alone (i.e. chimps do not have a voicebox) is absurd.

 

I also did not buy the idea that adult versions of Rosie and Lowell would consider Fern to be a sibling and more than I, as an adult, would consider Topsy Cat to have been a sibling. Similarly, our youngest boy considered Ciara Dog to be a full member of the family when he was six but seems to have grown out of that as a concept.

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I resisted reading this until I'd finished the book.  At first I wasn't sure this was going to interest me, but once I got to the reveal about Fern I was much more interested.  It's certainly a st4range construct; starting in the middle of a story, then the beginning and then the end, but it seemed to work for me. 

 

Although, Mr HG, you feel that any adult would expect a child to grow out of the feeling that any household pet was not actually a member of the family once they were adult, I think perhaps in this book we should reconsider that.  Fern was not a pet, she was considered from day one to be a new baby.  Both Lowell and Rosie were brought up to believe that.  Although Lowell was older, he was still very young and Rosie knew nothing other than the fact that Fern was her sister.  That's quite a different set of family relationships than is having a dog introduced into a household as a pet IMO.  I chose to read this novel with that thought in mind and found it much more believable that the whole family reacted very strongly after Fern was sent away.

 

Like some of us, I found the mention of the use of animals for experiments over the years (which appear to be related to true events) very disturbing.  For me this was a good story wrapped up in a message about animal welfare in research that works well on both fronts.  I'm now interested to see how it fares in the Booker Prize.

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I am surprised I hadn't commented on this two years ago. I did think this was a really excellent novel. The moment that got me hooked was the scene in the cafe with "don't spill milk" and from then i was rapt. It was a surprised the spoiler in it to me when it is revealed.

 

Anyway, why I bring this thread back up was this conversation with a friend

 

Friend: I read the girl with the chimp

Me: the girl with the chimp?

Friend: you recommended

Me: *it dawns on me. * ah "we are completely besides ourselves". Girl with the chimp, I was wondering if it was a steig Larson book.

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20 hours ago, iff said:

 

Friend: I read the girl with the chimp

Me: the girl with the chimp?

Friend: you recommended

Me: *it dawns on me. * ah "we are completely besides ourselves". Girl with the chimp, I was wondering if it was a steig Larson book.

Ha!  "Steig Larson" cracked me up.

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