Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mondays on the Margins: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The other day I visited the Ottawa Public Library's website, as I do every few days, to see what I needed to renew and return. I had to look at my list a couple of times to confirm that, for the first time ever, I only had ebooks out. Nothing to return. Just a bunch of stuff that would go *poof* when its due date arrived and vanish into the ether.

I've had a succession of books come available that I'd been waiting for eagerly. Well, sort of eagerly. They were all books that sounded really cool and different and exciting when I read about them. As we all know, there are two ways this can go (that's total bullshit, there are a veritable multitude of ways this can go, but I'm bad at math and my husband is in Korea and there aren't enough iterations of me to effectively drive everywhere and cook everything and walk everything that needs to be driven and cooked and walked right now so I'm choosing to call it two, DO YOU WANT TO MAKE SOMETHING OF IT???); either the book lives up to its hype and you are transported and transformed for a few days and it stands in beautiful book memory as a memorable period, or it doesn't and you feel deceived, betrayed, cruelly mocked and desperate to throat-punch, nipple-twist and hair-pull the reviewer who set you off on this fool's errand. Or maybe that's just me.

One of the books that came up in this queue was The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: "It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter." 

Aliens! Galaxies! An enigmatic corporation (those almost always turn out to be evil). Dangerous illness! Typhoons, earthquakes, crumbling governments! Sounds earth-moving, does it not?

And... it's not that it was bad. It wasn't bad. It just was very.... earth-standing-still. What I said in my review was that it was very realistic, and some people like that. I'm forever coming out of movie theatres and hearing people complain that what we just saw "wasn't believable". Believability isn't really a relevant criterion in my book - it's fine if that's your thing, but if it's original and imaginative and funny or frightening or so sad you want to sit down and weep until you lose consciousness, put it up there, I WILL BELIEVE IT. This was almost too believable. It read like a documentary of these events if they'd actually taken place, which would be all I could reasonably expect if they HAD actually taken place, but since this was fiction, I would have appreciated more of a creative spark. What I got was this happened, and this happened, and this happened, and the aliens are weird and inscrutable, which is not that surprising really, being as they're aliens, and more stuff happened, much of it depressing and unpleasant, the end. 

Then there was Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, not to be confused with The Book of Speculation which was in the list at the same time and has just come available, and I have no idea what THAT's about, but THIS was about a marriage, an affair, a woman who reminded me uncomfortably of myself ("Was she a good wife?" "Well, no.") a child, and a lot of ordinary stuff involved in all of those - "common catastrophes", "the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love", etc. It's written in a listy, aphorismy, stripped-of-all-extraneous material kind of style, and while reading I wondered if it was maybe easier to write a book this way, just concentrating on the pithy, sharp points of dialogue and exposition without the tedious connecting bits like describing what people look like or getting them from the kitchen to the living room. I don't know if it is easier, but in this case it worked brilliantly for me - I had to restrain myself from highlighting the entire thing. It was like she was admitting that things can get absolutely horribly bad in a marriage and a life, but if you keep your mind open to the strangeness and comedy and humanity of it all, it's - well, it's still horribly bad but you get a great book out of it. 

Which brings me to The Library at Mount Char. But now it's Tuesday, and I still can't find my keys, and my husband is still in Korea, and I haven't blogged for two weeks, and I almost got into the wrong car in a parking lot earlier, and I have to go cook something or order something or something. So hey, look, another book post where I don't actually review the book. That makes me charmingly quirky, right? I'll do it tomorrow. I promise. ("Was she a reliable blogger?" "Well, no.") 


3 comments:

Steph Lovelady said...

Hey you put it in the title. That's enough, right?

I am reading four books at once now (not counting books I'm reading with the kids), which is two too many for me. If I have more than two going at once I start to despair of ever making any progress in any of them. I wish I read as fast as you do.

Alison said...

Now I'm kind of afraid to recommend a book to you. ;-)

I feel the exact same way about believability. I'll believe it if it's awesome. Otherwise, you're exactly right--why write fiction about it?

I have Dept. of Speculation on my TBR list, and now I'l probably put it on hold at the library.

Nicole said...

I once tried to get into my van in the parking lot, and the door would not open. The key was in my bag. I tried clicking it, everything, and OMG THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE VAN WE ARE LOCKED OUT. Then Mark said "That doesn't look like our tire rims." He was right. It was the wrong van. My 11 year old noticed that the TIRES were different.