Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I used to work as a BSC. A lot of my job was sitting in the back of classrooms “observing the problematic behavior” of my clients, but that only worked when they were being problematic. This kid was a little demon, but he would shut up during story time, and that’s where I first had a chapter of The One and Only Ivan read aloud to me by a kindly but exasperated secondary educator.

I put it on my to-read list, then forgot about it for a couple years, because it’s a YA book (being generous) and I don’t read YA. I was born old, and crotchety. I started into my father’s Stephen King collection when I was in 2nd grade, and to regress to whatever iteration of Harry Potter knockoff is currently sucking the attention of the near-literate would be detrimental to both mind and dignity.

“Don’t be such a fucker,” you might be saying. “It wouldn’t kill you to read YA once in a while.”

It wouldn’t kill me to eat Gerber Strained Peas for dinner once in a while either, but I wouldn’t hit my macros.

Animorphs was my stepping stone between Goosebumps and terrible, pulpy adult video game novels, like the abysmal Doom novels (in every sense of the word), and the Magic the Gathering novels that shared nothing in common with the card game, except that they both occasionally referred to wizards. I was voracious with the Animorphs series, and listed K.A. Applegate as my favorite author on more than a few grim late 90s/early 2000s internet forums, each undoubtedly devoted to one of the four franchises mentioned earlier in this paragraph.

I just sat down and read this book in one sitting, cover to cover. It took me two hours. I cried, openly and like a bitch, no fewer than three times.

The story’s about a gorilla named either Ivan or Mud, depending. His family is killed by poachers and the infant gorilla is sold off to some sleazy mall manager, who tries to raise him like they did to Caesar in the remake of Planet of the Apes. It works because Ivan is far too traumatized to develop a rebellious streak. Eventually, his owner tucks him away in a glass cubicle in his dead mall and charges people to gawk at him and an elderly elephant with an infected foot that never gets treatment.

The book focuses on Ivan’s understanding of himself, his limited grasp of “civilization”, and his avoidance of remembering the joy of his childhood because of the pain it would inevitably bring. It’s driven by the relationships with the wise, sick old elephant Stella and a feral dog named Bob who plays the role of Diogenes. I’m 90% sure that in the first draft, Bob was a rat, and Applegate changed it in order to sew up a happy ending for everyone. Feral rats are rarely adopted.

The mall owner, Mack, becomes an increasingly jaded alcoholic and flirts with animal abuse, though it never shows up. Children’s book, remember.

It really starts to grind up the ol’ heart meats when Mack buys a baby elephant named Rosie, whom Stella begins to raise as her own, for as long as she could. It’s a book about learned helplessness, about the isolation and gradual dying of the soul that comes with captivity, acceptance, complacency. It’s about the horrific ways humans mistreat animals, but also the kindnesses that we can do, however infrequently.

On the surface, that’s what it’s about. But under that, it’s about freedom and security. Ivan liked laying on his pillows in his cute little pajamas, being hand-fed orange soda and watching cartoons on TV, but late at night, the snatches of dreams he remembered were about the jungle, and the wind in his fur, playing with his sister, picking ripe fruit from the trees and weaving himself a nest to sleep in.

And I think that’s true of all of us.

Five stars. Read the book. Absolutely crushing.



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Athens: Ruined Temples and Nights

November 10, 2017. Athens, Greece.

I headed out to the google-recommended Syntagma square to see what it was. Turns out, it’s a little quasipark in front of a municipal building, which is not the Platonian ideal of “sightseeing”, but there was a decently sized hunger strike going on.

23432909_1129653010504337_681428417_oA local told me that the strikers are Syrian refugees who have become disconnected from their families traveling across Europe, since there are so few countries willing to accept refugees. They want the Greek government to… find them, somehow. Talk to the other European nations, track down, and reunite the refugee families.

Obviously, the Greek government said “That doesn’t even approach being our responsibility dude and also, how?” so they’ve been hunger striking for a week and a half in central Athens.

After telling me this, ironically, she recommended me some excellent local restaurants.

I hustled off to the remaining ruins in central Athens, Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus:

Nice ruins, if you’re into that sort of thing. I also went to the Acropolis museum, which did not permit pictures. I took one anyway but my phone deleted it. Welp.

(imagine a picture of a sculpture from the Acropolis’ relief of the Gigantomachy, where Athena squadded up with a bunch of Nikes and made an afternoon of whooping rebellious giant ass. the picture was of a giant trying to climb back to his feet, li’l giant ding-a-ling fully visible. caption: “dont look so giant to me”)

Angling on down to the recommended restaurant (which was written entirely in deep Greek and I didn’t have a shot in hell of comprehending, let alone pronouncing), I stumbled onto this gem:

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With the lamp and everything! I don’t know about you, but when I think fine dining, my mind goes right to the dude who liked to whack off in the marketplace.

louie

no the other one

I’ve been eating well in Greece, better than in Italy, far better in Madrid, but nothing could’ve prepared me for this.

23546965_1130777737058531_2144672600_o I didn’t even know there WERE that many meats, let alone that you could put them all on sticks. It was incredible. That pile of tomatoes is alleged to be a “Greek salad”, which I suppose I can be on board with. Lettuce is a waste of time. What I could not comprehend was how the tzatziki was spicy.

Despite my racial handicap, I like spicy food a lot, but tzatziki is just cucumbers and yogurt. What did you do? How did you do it? Tell me.

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sorry fam but these meat sticks are fuckin incredible

I toured, I excursed, I fed, and it was almost happy hour at the hostel. I called it a day and headed back to prepare for the night.

On the roof I struck up a conversation with an Aussie lady who was a little older than me and much more sophisticated than the lads I’d met the previous night. She was in town for a pool tournament that I’m pretty sure she won. She had heard of shoeys, but found them disgusting. Right there with ya, mate. Hoodies are jumpas and emo was never big in Australia.

The cast and crew from the previous night puttered out onto the roof, along with the four Australian kids.

“If it isn’t the ghost squad!” I shamed them.

“Right, sorry mate,” they said unconvincingly, “We were ganna go for a walkabout but we just passed roight out.”

C’est la vie. Nine of us around the table passed happy hour comparing cultures and travel stories, then made plans to reconvene on the roof terrace at 10.

“All roight lads,” one of the australian kids said, “Let’s go to the store, get some pay-sta for dinna. We’ll meet you back up here at 10.”

“I’ll hold my breath,” I promised, perhaps a lil peevishly.

The Australian girl did not care for them. The word drongo may have been used. Also, bogan. They’re deeply contextual terms, but they didn’t seem affectionate.

She was fun, but we lost her before our vaguely defined plans to “find a club”. It was four of us now: me, the Austrian artist, a dude from Wisconsin, and a Canadian bro hellbent on crushing beers wherever they may hide.

The bouncer at the club was the first man I’d met in Europe who frightened me. He was discernibly Russian, had killed people recently, and there was no way his name wasn’t Ivan. He was an older guy with a neck like a bull, a shaved head, and bulging, rolling, crazy eyes.

“All right, I have 2 free tickets to get in,” said Wisconsin. “It’s 10 euros admission, so if we all pool up, it’s only 5 each.”

“Drinks are gonna be crazy expensive in there,” Austria said. “They always are in these dance clubs.”

“Yeah, but look at these girls!” Canada said. I did. They looked like almost all the girls I’d seen in Athens, which is to say, slight, dressed in black, purple lipstick, smoking cigarettes. I realized I was the only person wearing grey.

Wisconsin approached Ivan, told him about his free tickets. Ivan considered tearing his head from his shoulders and hurling it to Crete, then said, “Needink girls.”

“What?”

“Men pay unless come with girls,” he said, with finality.

My hustle sense started going crazy.

“All right,” said Canada, “Let’s go across the street, crush some beers, then find some girls to help us get in.”

I surveyed the crowd in line again. It would be possible, for like… two of us. Four rogue foreign dudes trying to skive their way into a trendy club for free, not even speaking the language? I didn’t love our odds.

While beers were crushed, I ordered a currywurst at a skeevy hot dog vendor. They gave me a hot dog sliced into disks with curry ketchup and limp french fries. Any port in a storm. I ate them with fond remembrance of the giant meat-stick platter I had put down six or seven hours before.

The boys asked the girls in the traditional American way: direct, civil, transactional. We looked like beggars. I cranked up the charming smile to 75% wattage and made a cluster of Grecian goth girls giggle, recounting how the terrifying man at the door gave us a provisional No Boys Allowed.

“We are waiting for someones, but they may not come,” they said. “If they do not come we will go with you.”

Well, there were two of them. Mathematically, that could’ve panned out, but it was obvious Ivan had no interest in acknowledging Wisconsin’s free tickets, or anything else beyond arterial spray.

“There are other clubs,” I said. “A block down the street. Let’s try that.”

We approached one that, to the undiscerning eye, looked like a ritzy Japanese restaurant. In the line, there were robots.

I suggested maybe one of the girls could get Daft Punk into the club. Meanwhile, Canada was hard at work ingratiating himself to one of the bartenders who was on his smoke break. He made us an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime offer: If we buy a 150 Euro bottle of liquor, we can get in for free.

“You figure, you’d be going in, and then buying like, what, five beers anyway…” Canada rationalized. It was getting too distasteful for me.

“Gentlemen, listen,” I said. “I think we should just go to a bar.”

“But the girls!”

“There are girls literally everywhere,” I said with an expansive hand gesture. “They’re more than half the population. There are beautiful women in bars, in parks, in the grocery store. This feels like a scam.”

The robot danced and flashed behind me, as if emphasizing my point.

The bartender returned like a particularly skilled fisherman that sensed his catch was about to slip the hook.

“Just tell them my name,” he said. “They will let you through, say I sent you.”

We thanked him and approached the bouncer, said the magic word.

“Who?” the bouncer said. I laughed, but nobody else thought it was funny.

“The bartender. He was just out here on break, he told us you’d let us in.”

The bouncer considered, then waved us through to the roped off front desk, whereupon a beautiful Asian girl leaned over the counter and said, “10 Euros each, please.”

“I’m out, fellas,” I said. “Hate to poop the party, but I was really only looking for one drink anyway. I’ll see y’all back at the hostel.”

I crossed the street to talk to a girl we had spoken to previously in front of the cigarette kiosk, who had originally suggested “Just go find girls! There are girls in every line and there are many clubs.”

“Hey, real quick,” I asked. “You’re working out here every night, right? You know these clubs?”

“Yes.”

“Are we trying to find girls for the opportunity to pay 10 Euros? Like, you find a girl, then you pay 10 Euros anyway?”

“No,” she said, looking puzzled. “You go in free with girls. 10 Euros for boys. But I don’t know this club well, it is new.”

“That’s what I figured. Good night.”

I headed back to the hostel and slept like a rock until the middle aged Asian man in the corner bunk had to scream into his cell phone at 6 AM in the bathroom.

The whole gendered dance club scene strikes me as desperate. If you’re the kind of dude who’s about to pay $30-$50 for the opportunity to look at, not talk to, and maybe hook up with women, cut out the middleman and go to central Madrid.

Welp, that’s enough for one morning. Time to go exploring. Find some souvlaki to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

Love,

The Bastard