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.



View all my reviews

Vermont: A Travelogue Prologue

Thursday, April 15, 2021. Clarendon, Vermont.
Soundtrack: The Sword – Tres Brujas

I’d been chewing holes in the walls since quarantine was first announced, and by the second year of the two-week curve flattening, my increasingly feral mindstate had only marginally improved. The plague still sweeps through our land, slipping through cracks and into our homes in the dead of night, blighting our crops and killing our fats and olds, both of which are cornerstones of this great nation. Bill Gates is filling our blood with liquid 5G, offering a stay of execution and increasing our personal bandwidth so long as we upload our RNA straight into the Bing Matrix.

For a year I’ve been crouched in the blasted ruins of The City of Brotherly Crackheads Screaming at 3 AM, shooting arrows in the basement and slowly trading away all my worldly possessions for mid-range guitars and houseplants.

This is no way for a bastard to live.

Luckily, a witch offered me reprieve from the monotony of the broken glass pile that is Philadelphia.

“I’ve got to go to Vermont,” she said. “Come with?”

I’ve had many, many what you would call encounters with witches over the years, and they often end in hexing. That’s just the dice you throw. When the only tool you have is True Polymorph, everything looks like a newt.

You can imagine my leeriness, especially having waited out the statute of limitations on curses so many times before. There was even one who would convince her thralls (we call these simps now) to do “blood pacts”, and cut their hands, then reopen the same wound in her finger to blend their blood.

Imagine playing it that fast and loose with your essence. That’s unrepentant necromancy. She never got my blood. To this day, I won’t even touch a goddamned crystal.

But this witch, the witch offering me an out of the city, she maintains that she is of a different stripe. She says she’s a green witch. I’m a simple man, and a melee build, so I don’t know all the subclassifications, but I imagine they all have access to the same skill tree. But I am eco-friendly, and I did miss silence.

“Let’s go,” says I.

And so I loaded the same pack that got me across Yurp with the same essentials – a few changes of clothes and a glowing rectangle with a library in it – then clambered up into her broom-drawn carriage. We were joined by my attorney, Beefton Duke.

He’s very good.

It barely occured to me to ask why Vermont, bit-champing as I was to get free of the 215. The 5-hour haul allowed plenty of time to correct that.

“Why Vermont?”

“Matters to attend to,” she said cryptically. “Business.”

Components, I reckoned. Bones and rocks and herbs and whatnot. Something big brewing. Big and allegedly green. That’s okay. I would be looking down the right side of the barrel this time.

We screeched past a collection of cop cars, all with their flashers on, but only flashing in blue.

“Looks like trouble,” Beefton whispered to me.

“I know you can’t tell, but it’s all just one color,” I told him.

“What?” the witch asked.

“The flashers. They’re only one color.”

“I can tell!” she said.

“Maybe it’s not a stop, then,” I suggested. “Maybe it’s a sale. Blue Light Special.”

“What the hell is blue?” Beefton asked. “Ridiculous. You can’t afford the heat right now.”

“I don’t think we have to be worried about it.”

“As your legal counsel,” he continued, “here’s my suggestion. Pull off up ahead in this next plaza with all the wooden sasquatch lawn ornaments. Go into that grocery store. Buy a whole big bag of pepperoni.”

“I’ll take it under advisement.”

“The big bag. Economy pack. None of that 2 oz shit.”

And so began the Dream-Quest of Unknown Clarendon, into the most desolate reaches of New England.

Love,

BT

Vienna: Empires, Ashes, and the Mysterious Wiener Grant

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

The Chinese food had only mildly poisoned me. It’s unbelievable that I needed to experience it to give this advice, but listen: Don’t eat the Chinese food in Austria. I was down, but not out, and I decided that only a coward would let some mild food-poisoning interrupt a travel, especially a Bastard one. I hit the gloomy, perpetually moist streets of Vienna.

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when did herbie come thru

 

India from the Metro had been backpacking on the fly. He tailed me to the hostel and booked a room there, then asked if I wanted to head into town together. I was leery. I travel alone. There are more opportunities that way, I don’t have to be double-checking if my co-pilot wants to do this thing, or if they’re comfortable hopping a fence, or if they’re too soft-spoken and respectable to blithely ask the locals dumb questions in lazy American English. But, he came along for part of the morning, and he was utterly transfixed by the palaces.

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Europe is filthy with palaces. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and each is ostentatious in its own way. The Austrian baroque style is big into imposing white rock, ostentatious statuary, and just enough gold that you have to do a double-take and say, “shit, is that gold?”

For my own part, I’d had my fill of palaces. I’d been too long away, I was tuning into the old gutter frequency again. I wanted to get lost somewhere seedy and low-profile. Instead, we peeped a couple unpronounceable palaces.

 

He found another palace that I didn’t think warranted photography. It had been repurposed into the brick-and-mortar arm of a QVC jewelry magazine. It was plenty opulent, if you’re into that sort of thing. All my belongings are made of wood, leather, and stone, so…

 

We were trying to get into the city center by way of Albertinaplatz. It was a snarl of foot traffic and odd monument sculptures.

For those of you whose German is even worse than mine, Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus means “monument against war and fascism”. This chunk of the city is a way of apologizing for Hitler without having to mention Hitler. More on him later.

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this hideous bronze dog is an absolute steal at $3000

I found the Hungarian house, where Countess Elizabeth Báthory harvested her victims in . The story runs deeper than the factoids we got in grade school. Lizzie split her time between her husband’s Hungarian house and Cachtice castle. Eventually she had to flee to the latter full-time after arousing too much suspicion. Everyone knows she bathed in and drank the blood of these virgin girls, but that was the endgame.

She’d send her servant Ficzkó into the market to collect likely peasant maids for employment at the Hungarian house and the castle. Being as they were hired servants, it wasn’t that unusual that she flogged so many of them and left them naked in the snow. It started getting a little more unusual when the servants were walking around with fingers torn off and flesh bitten from their faces. You could hear the screaming echo through the Hungarian quarter at night, but nobody dared question the countess. Government, am I right? The estimated head count was 600 virgins, but there’s obviously no documentation.

From History Today:

“She believed that drinking the blood of young girls would preserve her youthfulness and her looks. Witnesses told of her stabbing victims or biting their breasts, hands, faces and arms, cutting them with scissors, sticking needles into their lips or burning them with red-hot irons, coins or keys. Some were beaten to death and some were starved.”

A Lutheran minister told Hungarian authorities, and by December of 1610 the countess was “arrested”. She wasn’t tried, of course, because she was a countess, but she was locked in a single room of her castle until she died four years later. She dropped off real quick after she stopped getting her blood baths. Maybe she was onto something.

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Unbelievably, they’re still using it as apartments. For Hungarians, I assume. It’s a closed house, no tours or anything, so the best I could do was take a picture of the unassuming door and soak up as much of the aura of 400-year-old evil as I could. It’s a pretty busy street, though. Not terribly conducive to reflection on Renaissance atrocities. Probably why she chose it.

Then I stumbled upon the Kaisergruft, the Austrian Imperial crypt. My travelling companion dipped out at this point. We had both expressed how tired we were of museums, but our definitions of “museum” appeared to differ.

I’ll say this about the Austrians: they knew how to die.

 

 

 

 

 

Even at Sedlec, you didn’t see death glorified like this. Death was incidental there, a sort of means to an end dedicated specifically to the art and then, as an afterthought, Jesus. These crypts were a full embrace of death, a momentous momento mori emblazoned with crowned skulls and gargoyle heads and every kind of Imperial seal, crest, or design you could imagine. I couldn’t help but be awed. All this time, money, and labor, for a suitcase full of bones.

Brings to mind a Marcus Aurelius quote.
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

Well, Imperial Austria was, and continues to be, grinning like Schwarzenegger.

I made my way out of the crypt and, after the only affordable breakfast I could find in Vienna, I crossed the street and discovered this burrito place.

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Wiener Grant! What the fuck could that mean? Is it that guy? Why is he so mad? Why is his tattoo so incredible? I needed to know more.

I barged into the burrito store without a moment’s hesitation and asked the poor, unsuspecting counter girl.

“Who, or what, is Wiener Grant?”

She looked at her hipster coworker then said, “Was?”

I wasn’t fooled. She spoke English. 75% of the Austrian population speaks English, and it’s a damn certainty that a Viennese girl in her twenties will.

“Outside, on the sign. Over that painting of the dude in his shorty-shorts, it says ‘A burrito a day keeps Wiener Grant away’.” What is Wiener Grant? Is there any other way to avoid him?”

“It is… hard to explain,” she said. Well, yeah, I knew that already.

“It is like…” the hipster said, gesturing. “Vienna is… grumpy?”

“Viennese are cranky people,” the girl said, making a demonstrative face. “Wiener Grant is when you feel blahhhh. Cranky, because you are Viennese.”

“So it’s not a guy.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Thank you.”

There’s more to this chronicle, but I have to catch a bus soon. I’ll have another post later today.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

 

Istanbul: Grand Bizarre

November 18, 2017. Istanbul, Turkey.

After being turned away from the Blue Mosque by a man who desperately needed me to buy a rug, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar. It was a city in itself, labyrinthine and squirming with humans like maggots on trash can chicken. I didn’t want anything (minimalism has its perks), so I just drifted around and took it all in.

The main hallway was El Dorado. Every store sold diamonds and gold, and every step brought a dizzying kaleidoscope of lens flares into your eye, no matter where you looked. Men in exquisite Armani suits stood at every doorway, posing like Lucky Luciano, occasionally leering and strongly encouraging you to come in because “special price”.

The meandering side hallways were labeled in Turkish, which didn’t help orient me. To the right was the leather bazaar. To the left, antiques. The antiques section had all the beautiful junk you can conceive of: old bronze helmets, gramophone pieces, magic rocks on strings, rusty spears, decorative horns, more fancy glass lamps than I believed possible, and of course, the rugs. Millions of rugs. A city of rugs. In between were ATMs, cash changing kiosks, designer clothing shops, and the unavoidable tourist trap gift and t-shirt shops.

Eventually, the siren song of rampant capitalism became too much for me to resist, and I splurged on a $4 mincemeat peynirli creatively entitled “Turkish bazaar” and a cup of Turkish tea. Turns out, tastes a lot like other tea.

It occurred to me that I was low on clothes. My dirty laundry had been stolen at the last hostel for some reason, and I was out 3 pairs of socks and both my Barcelona t-shirts. I bought two Istanbul shirts from two separate vendors for 20 Lira each. They both started the haggling at 40, but let’s be real, dude. This is the Grand Bazaar. No one’s gonna pay $10 per t-shirt and we all know it.

Outside the Bazaar were where the real deals happened, and I bought 3 pairs of socks for 5 Lira each (totaling about $3.75). I turned the corner and found a tasteful 6-pack of men’s argyle socks for 15 Lira total. Bastards.

I dipped out of Consumerism and made my way to the square with all the obelisks, where I was accosted once again by “My friend! I remember you! You are American, you were too busy to see my shop before!”

I tried unsuccessfully to discontinue the conversation with him while I snapped these pictures. The Serpentine Column came from the Oracle of Delphi. The Constantine, or Walled, Obelisk was apparently built in the square but nobody knows when. The Obelisk of Theodosius was hauled in by, surprise, Theodosius from Egypt in the 4th century AD.

When I finished, he was still buzzing around me like a tall, foul-smelling mosquito, and I actually caught him staring at the bulge of my wallet in my pants.

“Okay, gotta go though, meeting a friend,” I said, squeezing onto a bench next to a Turkish college student in headphones. The grifter made an effort to sit between us, realized there wasn’t enough room, and shuffled off to find a new mark.

“Thanks,” I said to the guy.

He nodded, then murmured, “You have to be careful around those fuckers, man.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m a tourist, but not that much of a tourist.”

I made my way back to the hostel where I was destined to be social. My roommates and I swapped travel stories and piecemeal philosophy in the room, then proceeded up to the rooftop bar to look at the Hagia Sophia and drink cheap local beer.

As it happened, there was a pub crawl that night, and since I’d been a slackass re: nightlife since I’d arrived in Turkey, I tagged along. This was a mistake for a number of reasons, the foremost being I am absolutely terrible at structured fun.

Fun happens spontaneously. You can’t arrange for it. The best you can do is put all the ingredients together, shake them up, and hope fun occurs. I avoid guided tours and anything “all-inclusive” for the same reason. Don’t tell me what to do.

The first surprise was that the pub crawl cost 45 Lira. I was leery, but I converted more than I needed and it’s not like I can take it out of Turkey. They also promised me 3 free shots. This would be half right.

The second surprise was, none of the friends I’d made on the rooftop bar were going to the pub crawl. Uh-oh. Gotta make new friends, fast.

The third surprise was the shuttle van parked in front of the hostel. That’s not so much a pub crawl as a pub… delivery. A pub exodus. We packed fifteen people into the van and took off for Taksim square two miles away which is, tragically, right next to where my previous night’s hostel was located.

The fourth surprise was that none of the pubs were pubs! It was a club crawl.

And surprise number five: There was no return shuttle. We make our own way back.

We were brought to another rooftop bar, this one in a weird cage where they were blasting Eminem’s greatest hits from the early 2000s. As to the crowd, Flight of the Conchords summarized it far better than I ever could.

The place was so packed you couldn’t move. I’ve seen people trampled at roomier metal shows. I breaststroked through a sea of Turkish men to the bar. No one would (or could) get far enough away from it to allow the hostel free-drinkers in, so they lit the bar on fire.

That did the trick. We took our shots and danced, in the same way that you can describe sardines as dancing when tut shake the can.

I danced in the vicinity of a girl and in so doing besmirched someone’s honor. A stout bald man who looked like Turkish Pitbull gave me a gentle three-finger shove on the shoulder. Confused as to why this 45-year-old man was even at this club, let alone interacting with me, I leaned down to ask him, “What’s up?”

He responded in Turkish. Not surprise number six.

“I don’t speak Turkish,” I told him. He nodded and walked away. I drifted around the dance floor drinking my beer and got polished to a fine sheen by the bodily friction around me, a lot like a rock tumbler. Around half an hour later, somebody tapped my shoulder again.

I turned and looked down on a scrawny hipster with a Macklemore haircut (disgraceful) and a Tormund Giantsbane beard (kind of cool). His eyes were bulging and wild. He looked terribly upset. He was yelling something at me.

“What?” I asked.

He repeated himself, but still in a language I didn’t understand. I shrugged and said, “Sorry, man. No Turkish.”

This made him even angrier. He adopted a highly curious posture.

Take your right hand and raise it next to your head, palm out, sort of like you’re going for a high-five. Then, angle it 45 degrees to your left. Now adopt a bug-eyed, furious expression.

I could tell it was a threat, but it was just such a dissonant, ridiculous threat. Was he going to slap me? On the forehead? Did he have the reach? I laughed out loud, he moved forward, and then we were all being jostled around by security.

The girl I’d danced with reached around a bouncer’s arm and grabbed me by the face, pulling my head to hers.

“You did nothing! Don’t worry,” she yelled, “He is just crazy! He is just crazy!”

Ah, mystery solved.

“I really wasn’t,” I assured her, then couldn’t stop myself from winking.

The girl from hostel reception appeared at my side. “What happened?”

“Something pretty silly,” I told her.

“If that little man bothers you again, I will beat him!”

She was maybe 90 lbs soaking wet, but I’d give her even odds. I grinned at her as Daft Punk climbed onto the bar.

While that was going on, they sprayed us with what felt like foam, but smelled like feta cheese.

The next two clubs were better, but admittedly less interesting. The dude from our hostel was trying to wrangle all us drunken foreigners through the narrow streets of Istanbul. It was like herding cats, which he accidentally did because there are so many cats in Istanbul.

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At the third club, shots were distributed from a tray. I did one with the toast, then I was handed another, which I downed immediately. Then we were going to toast again, so I did a third. Sort of a buy-one-get-one on the pub crawl cost.

By the time they had started playing Johnny B. Goode, it was 4 AM and I was getting bored. I ghosted back toward the hostel. Not a bad walk, I’ve done it every day since I arrived in Istanbul. Two miles. More challenging when you’re tired and staggering a little, but, eh.

Then it rained, of course. On the way I joined up with a pair of local teenagers heading in the same direction. The English they spoke was obviously just what they had picked up in a high school class. I remember knowing the same general phrases in 10th grade Spanish. Still, they were delighted by the opportunity to talk to a real, live American, presumably because of that recent visa embargo the U.S. and Turkey had (and I’d just barely dodged). We crossed the bridge and parted ways, and I stumbled into my hostel where the water was broken, for some reason. Okay. No shower or toothbrushing. That’s fine, there’s a water cooler. I drank three consecutive bottles of water and passed out for five hours, then stumbled blearily into the kitchen for the free breakfast.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, feta cheese, and hardboiled eggs.

Bless.

I ate 4 eggs, a half lb of cheese, and enough assorted vegetables to feel okay about the half lb of cheese, then slept until 3 PM. I was fully recovered when I returned to the common room of the hostel, but it was clear I was the only one.

I leave you with an image of my co-author for this piece, my best friend, Zaman.

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He sat by my side the entire time I wrote this, offering sage counsel. The pink on his forehead is lipstick. My dude was patrollin hard last night.

Love,

The Bastard

Philly International: The Sights, the Smells

October 23, 2017. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This is an interactive post. Using the wonders of modern technology, you can experience the magic of Bastard Travel in real time! All you need to do to feel like you’re really here, with me, at PHL, is hover your face roughly a foot above a broken urinal and give a good, deep, Vicks Vapo-rub inhale.

Truly, though, even that doesn’t do it justice. Somehow the Philadelphia airport smells more like piss than piss does. The Platonian form of urine. If you can’t find a broken urinal, just break one yourself, I’ll be here when you get back.

Now that we’ve weathered that together, on with the story. I was throwing the dice on airport Chinese food because I have a 3 consecutive win streak with it and McDonnellzz squicks me out. I sit down and start into my 9 A.M. bourbon chicken and brown rice when what do my wondering eyes do appear but

incredibledog

This phenomenal boy.

(Note: As a dog scholar I am aware that it’s poor form to photograph a Safety Dog since they have a very important job to do and if you distract them from it their owner might die in the interim. To avoid interfering with the possibility that this incredible dog may need to administer the Heimlich, or extinguish its burning owner should he somehow catch fire, I was way shady about taking this picture.)

It’s impolite to bother a dog at work, no matter how well behaved and impeccably groomed he is. I ate my chicken in contemplative silence while he stared at me, emanating an aura of Lawful Good and licking his chops.

Were it not for the laws of this land, we would be sharing this airport Chinese food, as blood brothers.

The backpacking trip through Europe begins as soon as my flight stops getting delayed. Tentatively, I’ll be landing in Dublin at 5 AM on October 24th. I’m hoping they have a 24 hour breakfast situation nearby where I can get some of those breakfast beans I hear so much about, and the sausage made of blood. That could be pretty metal.

I’ll keep you posted.

Love,
The eponymous Bastard