What to Read on Memorial Day Weekend: T. C. Boyle’s “Talk to Me”

The smoke from Alberta wafted over the midwest, and now we’re breathing backyard barbecue again. As for reading on Memorial Day weekdend, so far I have inhaled T. C. Boyle’s Talk to Me in a day.

It is a novel about animal rights.  It begins when Aimee Villard, a student who has trouble communicating , watches an episode of a  game show, “To Tell the Truth.” The celebrity judges must decide which of three contestants is the real Professor Guy Schermerhorn, an animal behaviorist who has trained Sam, a young chimp, to speak in sign language.  

Aimee recognizes Guy immediately by his professorial manner and intelligence:  she also thinks she has seen him around, because her university in California is doing this research. And she is charmed when she sees the chimp Sam, in a polo shirt and diapers, run across the stage and jump into Guy’s arms.

Aimee gets a job working at the lab – actually a very nice house – and immediately becomes Sam’s favorite person. She has a mother-son  relationship with Sam:  they play hide and seek when he signs, PLAY ME HIDE SEEK; she names the objects in magazine pictures and Sam signs the words; and she even sleeps with Sam at night, because he has separation anxiety.  When a news reporter asks Sam what his favorite thing is, first he signs PIZZA, then he changes his mind and signs AIMEE.

Boyle’s writing is taut and  intelligent, and he sketches the believable inter-species family dynamics.   Guy and Aimee become lovers, mainly because they are always together, and they share a common interest, Sam.  Guy is the distracted father, worrying about money, marketing, and publishing his research, while Aimee is Sam’s loving mother, improving Sam’s life with her care and unwavering attention. 

Naturally, any idyll has its drawbacks. Sam is very much like human beings, but he has the potential to be violent, simply because he is so strong.  On Aimee’s first day, Sam has bitten one of the assistants on the cheek:  the woman will have to have surgery, and there is talk of lawsuits. (Sam signs, SORRY, but it is not enough.) 

Everything calms down with Aimee at the house – she takes over the role of Guy’s ex-, Melanie, who used to be Sam’s main caregiver. But then there is a tragedy, due to the greed and calculation of the cold, money-obsessed researcher who owns Sam and has let Guy “borrow” him..

Boyle captures the angst of the separation of Aimee and Sam when Moncrief, a one-eyed professor in Davenport, Iowa, says that the grant money is running out and he must take Sam back to Iowa, where  he may sell all his chimps to medical researchers. Like any adoring mother, Aimee is heartbroken.  She follows Sam to Iowa, where he and other chimps are tortured and never leave their cages.  Aimee eventually frees him, and she and Sam go on the lam. 

But it isn’t as easy for Aimee and Sam as it was for Bonnie and Clyde, she realizes wryly.  Can an animal rights activist – really a mother – save her chimp son?

Talk to Me is brilliant, fascinating, and heartbreaking.  A great read!

Recommended Reading: “Blue Skies,” “Thus Was Adonis Murdered,” “The Real Charlotte,” and “The Essential Peter S. Beagle”

I love Edward Gorey’s cover art (Dell edition)

“What should a woman read in May?” I asked myself, sitting cross-legged in bed and gazing at a pile of books.

This is a tough question, since I have so many books on the TBR, but I’ve been reading widely and wildly lately, so here are four quick recommendations.

First up, there’s T. C. Boyle’s comical, sad, satiric novel, Blue Skies,  which centers on a family dealing with climate change on both coasts.   Cat, a hard-drinking young woman whose fiancé constantly travels for his job,  lives a lonely life in a rickety beach house in Florida, where the sea is rising and the streets are usually flooded.  Her parents and brother live in idyllic California, which is not idyllic anymore:  it is on fire all the time.  Boyle has a flamboyant imagination but this novel is disturbingly realistic, and what has not  happened seems likely to happen soon.  This is a fast read – one for the dystopian novel collection.

And then there is Sarah Caudwell’s witty, smart mystery, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, first published in 1994 and recently reissued by Bantam.   Caudwell was famous for never revealing  the sex of the narrator, Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don and amateur sleuth who applies scholarly methods to solving crime.  

In this comic novel, the scatterbrained Julia Larwood,  a London barrister who shares an office with Hilary’s friends, has gone to Venice on an Art Lovers’ tour, hoping to meet an attractive man.  She writes very funny letters about her dream man to her friend Selena, which Hilary and the others chortle over at lunch.  But then there is a disaster:  Julia is accused of murdering the man.  Her friends know that clutzy, disorganized Julia could never have committed a murder, but proving it is problematic. 

Have you heard of the 19th-century writers,  E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross?  These two Anglo-Irish women co-wrote novels under the above  pseudonym. I recently read The Real Charlotte, a disturbing novel about the dangers of jealousy.  Charlotte Mullen,  a clever, unkind, middle-aged, well-to-do spinster,  is extremely  jealous of her much younger second cousin, Francie Fitzgerald, who has come to live with her. The lively Francie attracts every man in sight, including Mr. Lambert, an estate manager on whom Charlotte has a crush.  What horrors Charlotte manages to accomplish are almost beyond imagination.  

I am thoroughly enjoying The Essential Peter S. Beagle, a  two-volume collection of the award-winning author’s short stories.  As a child I loved his novel, The Last Unicorn, and am delighted to find the same feats of imagination in his short stories.  In “Lila and the Werewolf,” a young man, Farrell, is distraught to learn that his new girlfriend, Lila, is a werewolf. Farrell’s gift is for acceptance, but the problems of lycanthropy multiply speedily.   In a sweet, comical story, “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros,” a rhinoceros follows the professor home from the zoo.  The animal insists he is a unicorn, which the professor tells him is impossible.  The two live together for  years and argue constantly about philosophy. Is the rhinoceros/unicorn real?  Yes, I believe !   More on the stories when I get to the second volume.

And what are you reading?  Anything I should add to the TBR?

T. C. Boyle’s “Blue Skies”: Influencers and Snakes

In T. C. Boyle’s intriguing new novel, Blue Skies, one of the characters, Cat, a bored young woman living in Florida, wants to become an influencer.  Cat is lonely because her fiancé travels for his job, she drinks too much at bars, wishes she were back in California, and yearns to build a following on social media.   

And then one day she stops at Herps, a shop that sells snakes, and buys a Burmie, i.e., a python, thinking she can wear it like an accessory.  And.  yes, when she posts photos of herself with the snake, she gets hundreds of likes, which makes her feel good about herself. She would love to be discovered and given a chance to sell other things.  But the one thing doesn’t seem to follow the other.  Snakes are apparently her thing.

I am halfway through this fascinating novel,  and I’m worried about Cat, who is not the most responsible person.  I’m scared to death of this snake.  So should Cat be. But we readers have some information about that snake – and I am praying it doesn’t get loose.

This funny, sad, satiric novel, set in the age of climate change, revolves around Cat and her family, who are dealing with climate disasters on both coasts. Cat’s family is in California, where her brother, Cooper,  an entomologist, is bitten by a tick while doing field research.  His arm gets infected and must be amputated.  Their charming mother, Ottilie, who is worried sick about Cooper, took on many eco-projects Cooper assigned her even before he got sick, largely to boost his ego:  there was a cricket farm and then he brought  her  a hive of bees.  Ottilie used to be the administer of her doctor husband’s office, but now she is retired, and Frank works harder than he used to because his new administrative assistant is still learning the system.

Before I leave I want to say a few words about influencers.  First, what are they?  Since I do not watch Kim Kardashian, who I understand is an influencer, I do not understand the concept. 

In the much smaller world of bookish social media, I do recognize a few influencers. For instance, Miranda Mills, a vlogger on Youtube, talks about middlebrow women’s fiction, vintage books, bookstores, and baking cakes and muffins; and Jen Campbell, a poet and book vlogger who does a lot of “book hauls,” is also very popular.  Both vloggers recently touted a special reading lamp, which we can get a discount on with a special code.  I was startled to see both women doing informal commercials in the body of their vlogs. But then I seldom watch vlogs, so this is probably the status quo.

And yet being an influencer must be walking a slippery slope.  I’ve bought many books recommended by vloggers, and though I did not actually need a Penguin hardcover edition of Sanditon, I have no regrets.  But if I have to start resisting special reading lamps as well as books, where will it all end?

I must go leave a bunch of “likes” to show my appreciation for their bookish content!

%d bloggers like this: