Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

Elizabeth Hess's book is a polemical animal biography in the tradition of Black Beauty. Nim Chimpsky -- his very name a dig at the controversial linguist who held that language belongs solely to humans -- was among the first and most talented of chimpanzees to learn sign language. In the end, the results of "Project Nim" proved inconclusive, and Nim was "retired" from language research, disappearing into a cruel labyrinth of breeding programs and research facilities. Chimps in such conditions frequently died in medical trials; for survivors, euthanasia was not unusual. But here was a "lab animal" who could help cook dinner and wash up afterward. And most poignantly, he could talk. Nim's incarceration devastated him, and Hess charts his transformation from a tumbling toddler into an angry, dangerous adult. Throughout it all, Nim continued to sign, forever seeking the understanding of his mostly uncomprehending handlers. Near the end of his life, when Nim viciously bit another chimpanzee, his keeper squirted a dollop of antibacterial ointment into Nim's hand and told him to apply it to the wound; Nim ambled over and treated his companion with expert care. As historian Erica Fudge points out, the danger of teaching animals to speak is that we might not want to hear what they have to tell.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.

Landline

What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.