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Reviews of the Newest Releases in Paperback

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By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

NIM CHIMPSKY The Chimp Who Would Be Human By Elizabeth Hess | Bantam. 369 pp. $13

For a while, anyway, the chimpanzee known as Nim Chimpsky had it good. Born in 1973, he spent his early days in a townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side in the care of a researcher who raised him alongside her own children. He had his way with the place, turning the living room into something that resembled "a Haight-Ashbury crash pad," and was so close to his adoptive mother that he even attended her weekly psychotherapy sessions, where he "slept quietly on her chest as she lay on the couch," Elizabeth Hess writes in "Nim Chimpsky," an account of the animal's complicated life.

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All of this came at a price, however: Far from his natural habitat, Nim was a research subject in an experiment to find out if a "humanized" chimp could learn to use American Sign Language. (His name was a jibe at Noam Chomsky, who argued that "language is inherent only in humans.") To Hess, the experiment (which garnered mixed and controversial results) was less important than Nim, whose real story, she contends, "has been swept under the rug." Her effort to correct the record, unfortunately, gets bogged down in the stories of Nim's human caretakers and the squabbling over the project's direction. Nim -- who spent his final years in a cage at a Texas ranch, where his activities included flipping through a book about himself -- remains elusive.

A BLUE HAND The Tragicomic, Mind-Altering Odyssey of Allen Ginsberg, a Holy Fool, a Rebel Muse, a Dharma Bum, and His Prickly Bride in India By Deborah Baker | Penguin. 244 pp. $15

"A Blue Hand," Deborah Baker's biography of Allen Ginsberg, reflects the nomadic spirit of its subject. Centering on Ginsberg's early 1960s pilgrimage to India, the book has the feel of a group biography of the Beats, with cameos by Lucien Carr, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky and, most interestingly, "a young woman from South Carolina with the improbable name of Hope Savage," who was a girlfriend of poet Gregory Corso's and a friend of Ginsberg's. Her fate, after receiving expulsion papers from the Indian government for "immoral" behavior, is a key mystery of the book.

Baker, whose 1993 biography of the poet Laura Riding, "In Extremis," was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, successfully mines Ginsberg's letters and journals for details, but she also displays a novelist's artistry for atmospherics. "In December 1962," she writes of Ginsberg's stay in the city of Benares, along the Ganges, "the river was everywhere. It was in the air, mixed with the smoke of the dung fires, funeral pyres, fried noodle stalls, and bidis. It was in the shapeless black woolen sweater that Ginsberg wore to keep warm. It was in the thin red towels that would never dry out, and, most stubbornly, the river was in his lungs, which no cough, no matter how long or how deeply he hacked, would ever clear out." "A Blue Hand" is vivid and impressionistic, but as a biography it can be a frustrating patchwork of moments and observations.

From Our Previous Reviews:

-- The main character in British novelist Hari Kunzru's "My Revolutions" (Plume, $15) plumbs his past as a '60s radical in a tale that raises questions about "politics and violence [that] continue to burn today," wrote Tyler Knox.

-- Ron Charles described Roger Rosenblatt's novel "Beet" (Harper Perennial, $13.99) as "an academic satire greased by the humor and rage that could come only from enduring a thousand stultifying faculty meetings."

-- Alan Pell Crawford takes an unflinching look at Thomas Jefferson's post-presidential years in "Twilight at Monticello" (Random House, $15), portraying our third president as "an irresponsible, impractical, self-serving and self-deluded man who rarely lived up to his ideals," wrote Michael Grunwald.

-- "By turns horrific, sad and funny," "One Soldier's War" (Grove, $15), wrote Thomas de Waal, "fills a big gap by providing us with the first-person experiences of an articulate Russian soldier" who fought in his country's battles against Chechnya.

-- Allen Barra called "Major" (Three Rivers, $13.95), by Todd Balf, "the definitive biography" of the turn-of-the-20th-century black cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor, who was also a poet and memoirist.

Nora Krug is Book World's monthly paperback columnist.


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