I’ve been keeping busy here out in the prairies. Work and children and the ever-evolving news cycle, which is so horrific at this point that I’m not even going to make vague references to prove the fact that I am a qualifiably Engaged Person, and you’ll just have to trust me that I’m reading the news and yes it’s destroying my soul in the appropriate proportion.
But I’ve also been reading. More than usual because, well, what can you do?
And I’m missing the library. Let’s clarify something: “browsing” the “shelves” of your library app is not the same thing as browsing real library shelves. And while I am fairly open minded about what constitutes “literature” or even “books” I will never think of an app as having the ability to mimic that magical feeling of coming across a binding that jumps out at you IRL.
I’m not sure we’ve proven the existence of actual human pheromones, but book pheromones I’m totally on board with.
So the “shelves” of the “library” (ie: Libby) is where I spend a lot of my mind-numbing phone time lately, and it has not been a wholly satisfying experience.
I’ve come across some interesting reads, and a lot of “oh, wait, haven’t I heard about her somewhere?” finds, but I have yet to form that kind of love-at-first-pageturn connection that comes with the real library.
Case in point: The Themes Files (Sleeping Gods, Waking Gods, Only Human) by Quebec writer Sylvain Neuvel. These books all centre around a massive robot, which turns out to have been left on Earth, in pieces spread throughout the planet, by an alien species over three thousand years ago. The story follows the characters who assemble her–Themis is a massive lady robot with major potential as a weapon of mass destruction–and learn how she works. However–as one might expect–this discovery sets off a fateful chain of events that leads to, essentially, the end of the world as we know it.
Yes, it was an odd series to read, during “the times”…
The fact that I found a) the storyline and concept both to be strong, b) the project to be fairly well researched as a whole, and c) some of the philosophical questions posed to be compelling, yet d) did not like these books very much, is perhaps an issue of format, more than anything. I wish I had listened to the audio versions, instead of reading the ebooks, because nearly the entirety of all three novels are written as dialogue, with a few journal entries and news articles spread throughout. They would be fabulous as radio plays, and actually reminded me a lot of my beloved Dr. Who radio dramas.
They’re going to make amazing action movies. Maybe by a smaller independent studio who can figure out a way to keep the artistic integrity, and ditch a few of the big alien robot battles in favour of some of the more intimate spaces–labs, bedrooms, robot interiors.
My Francine Prose kick continues with Mister Monkey, which was fantastic. In this quirky novel, told through multiple perspectives, Mister Monkey is the titular character of a children’s book-turned-off-off-off-off-Broadway musical. Each chapter of the book follows someone who is somehow connected to the production–either its actors, director, or audience members. If I had to sum up one general theme of the book, it is the wide gap between who you think people are and who they really are.
NO! scratch that. It’s kind of that, but it’s more that people are exactly the way you think they are, but that they have some very compelling reasons for being this way. And also that they themselves never quite understand how others see them.
So actually–as with A Changed Man–the main theme is really the disconnect between oneself and the world.
Margot, for example, who begins the book, is an aging actress who is feeling really glum about how she went from being an award-winning young actress playing some of
Chekhov’s greatest characters to being a farcically attired attorney for a primate. She has no idea that she is actually kind of beautiful. But she does know that many other people don’t like her. The disconnect is that she thinks they don’t like her for the same reasons she doesn’t like herself, when in fact, they have entirely different reasons, that have more to do with their own insecurities.
Anyway, it’s also an absolutely hilarious book, and never not for one moment boring. The love and care that Prose has for her characters is astounding. She’s the kind of author that you can tell is not just a “keen observer of the human condition” but a fully fledged and passionate participant in humanity.
Which, if I’m being honest, is a refreshing change from all the detachment that is so common in this generation of literary writers. Compare this to, say, a Sally Rooney, (which is my closest-to-hand comparison, since I just read a couple of hers) whose detachment and almost clinical observation of her characters is so striking. It’s the intellectualization of humans vs. the deep understanding that can come with great intellect.
I also listened to Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was super entertaining. Ivy Gamble is contracted to solve a murder that occurred on the campus of the magic school where her sister Tabitha is a well-respected instructor. This assignment brings out all the unresolved tensions of their relationship that mainly revolve around the fact that Tabitha is magic, while Ivy is “normal” and that their mother died when they were teenagers and Ivy bore the brunt of that loss within the family.
The audiobook presented me with the opposite of my Themis Files problem, in that I should have read this as a book. An actual book with pages and such. Despite the narrator being perfectly well cast, my ears could not get on board with the Bogey-influenced Private Investigator voice. The whole “a dame walked into my office as I was guzzling down the last dregs of the bottle” tone worked super well at the beginning of the story, and I was really into the portrayal of a woman PI, which in some ways embraces and in some ways subverts the established “private dick” tropes. But once Ivy reached the grounds of the elite magical high school, and then starts up a relationship with one of the other teachers, it didn’t really fit her anymore.
Oh, this book did make me realize a super cool trick that writers do when they’re following a detective who is solving a case, but they also need said detective–supposedly, a brilliant mind with keen powers of observation–to NOT know something. And it is this: they establish very specific character-driven blind spots so that we, the readers, can know things that the detective cannot. This happens a lot in Sherlock Holmes, and obviously it’s up to Watson to have that second pair of eyes. But in this book, the way it played out was that Ivy kept missing fairly basic things, that the reader would probably be able to figure out, and then later would facepalm and think, “Ohhh, that’s because my issues with my sister and our dead mother. Riiiiiiiiiiiight. Stuuupid.”
Ok, as a little bonus, I gotta include the video of this CRAZYPANTS art installation / stop motion animation that I ran across while researching something totally different. This film is apparently a tale of male friendship, told over many years (I am fascinated by male friendship–how do you dudes even function?) and is so strange and eery. So, voilà, with no comment at all, because I have not processed it or thought about it in the least, Graeme Patterson’s SECRET CITADEL:
But if you, reader, have any thoughts, PLEASE SHARE. Would love to discuss. What’s going on here?