Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shelf Monkey

Shelf Monkey is a novel I hadn't heard of before I found out about Corey Redekop's contest at his blog of the same name, a contest challenging bloggers to read and blog about books they think they might not like. And now it all makes sense, because the novel is about condemning bad books--although never without reading them first to make sure they deserve it! Its protagonist is a flawed but book-loving character, Thomas Friesen, who gets involved with a fanatical community of book lovers/bad book burners and eventually goes right over the edge of sanity with them.

Thomas is not an easy character to like, and the novel's narrative style holds the reader at arm's length for the first few pages. It switches between newspaper articles, the notes of Thomas' psychiatrist, transcripts of a tv show, and emails from Thomas to an author who once said to him (in good modern book-blogger style) that "every author deserves respect....be critical, yes, by all means, but be kind." Thomas disagrees: "Should I admire The Bridges of Madison County simply because Robert James Waller took three years to write it? Should that count, even when the result is a steaming heap of utter crapola?" So even though it's initially hard to like Thomas, eventually a book-lover will find it even harder to resist getting caught up in and enjoying what he says with such malicious and self-indulgent pleasure!

Even as a child, Thomas was a creepy but entertaining little bookworm. When the school librarian had to tell ignorant bullies what books to look in for the answers to their assigned questions, Thomas would
"listen closely from behind the kindergarten section, grimacing as she spelled out the exact title and author and location in the library so these worms could find their books. Then, quickly and quietly, taking such pain to remain invisible, to keep myself vague, I crept to the shelves they were looking for, and took the books away. I like to think that there exist a few Fs and Incompletes on someone's transcript as a result of my mock-heroics. Helps me believe school wasn't a complete waste of my time. Some people may split atoms, cure cancer, or fight terrorism, but me? I got Gord Folbert to repeat the eighth grade. Good times."

As an adult, Thomas' nemesis is a talk-show host called Munroe Purvis who imitates Oprah in recommending books for the Great Unwashed, but goes three steps further: "Do we like to read? Well, duh! Of course we don't! Reading is boring. I mean, who here has actually read anything by William Shakespeare? Hands up if you have. One? I applaud you, Miss, you have far more patience than I. Give her a big round of applause, everyone, she has suffered greatly." Thomas says that "his choices were obscene in their banality. Nora Roberts was too edgy. Movie novelizations were too long....God help him if a novel's content challenged his sense of self...."

Thomas gets a job in a book store called READ and is discouraged by the ignorance and apathy of the customers but buoyed by the friendship of other bibliophiles. He joins them in burning books that "the world is arguably better off without." In fact, one of Thomas' friends compares the kind of books they burn to fast food: "filling, but not very good for you." They call these books Montags, and if you don't know why, then you may not be enough of a bibliophile to enjoy reading Shelf Monkey. The group does require that at least two members must have read any book before it gets burned, and they each take the name of a fictional character for their meetings.

That's my favorite part of having read this novel--imagining standing in a circle of friends, say a book club, and the members start going around the circle naming themselves as fictional characters. Which one would you choose? Quick...before they get around to you! I would choose Blanche. Yes, as in DuBois...because I always want magic. You have until you get to the comments to think about who you will choose... please leave a comment and tell me; I really, really want to know!

My second favorite part of having read this novel is that I can imagine what Thomas would say about "sequels" to novels like Austen's Pride and Prejudice (which has had such a run in the last few years) from what he says about Purvis' plans to expand his book club:
"He has of late begun threatening to reissue novels whose copyrights have long since expired, rewriting them through careful study of the reactions of test audiences so as to appeal to today's less discerning, shorter attention span viewer. Bleak House updated into a less bleak pamphlet! Gulliver's Travels, minus the satire and the Lilliputians, to save time! Moby Dick in one hundred and fifty pages....And the whale loses!"

Much of the pleasure of reading Shelf Monkey is the specificity--this fictional character names names. And yes, he names some of my least favorite authors--I kept waiting to see if he would--and he probably names some of yours, too.


Betty said...

Darn, this is hard.

I suppose I would want to be called Anne (of Green Gables). Her imagination and strong spirit have always inspired me. Her love of learning is only matched by love for family!

Plus....I really want to have red hair. :-)

Harriet said...

This sounds fun. I'l have to check it out.

Ron Griggs said...

Too many choices...

I could be Peter Blood, because burning even bad books is a piratical activity.

I could be Nancy Drew, sleuthing out the worst of the worst.

I could be William of Baskerville for the same reason, though I don't think he would burn any book.

And so on.

Kristen said...

I guess I'd go with Scarlett because she's such a brat and yet she's an enduring brat. ;-)

This sounds like an interesting and fun book. I'll have to check it out further.

Alison said...

I was going to say "Laura" (as in Ingalls), but she's not actually fictional, so I'd probably go with Scout.

Jeanne said...

(frustrated whine) "Harriet...what NAME would you choose?"

Jeanne said...

Alison, I think you could make an interesting case for the Laura of the Little House books being fictional.

FreshHell said...

Jane (Eyre). Also, thanks muchly for the book and the tattoo. I have just put up a post for today and the tattoo story will be a good one to follow it. stay tuned.

Karen said...

Lucy, at first thought.


Tnomerf Ynot!

Harriet said...

Well, I think that should be obvious: Harriet M. Welsch, of course. Off the internet, on occasions where I've had to choose a pseudonym, I've used Harriet occasionally but more often Eleanor. Eleanor's after two non-fictional Eleanors (Roosevelt and of Aquitaine). However, the name became a favorite after reading E. L. Konigsberg's A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver about Eleanor of Aquitaine. So perhaps Eleanor should count as well.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, it WAS so obvious that you already had a literary pseudonym that I wanted to see if you'd own it in this context--and I adore your alternative, for obvious reasons and because it seems to me to fall into the same category as Laura from the Little House books (a fictional character based on a real one).

Scarlett O'Hara, Anne of Green Gables, and Jane Eyre are pretty interesting characters to think of as readers!

Ron's choices are nicely ironic.

Karen, yours are puzzling--I think immediately of Lucy Snow, because I'm listening to Villette right now. And Wormwood? Like in The Screwtape Letters?

Karen said...

Lucy as in Lucy Pevensie
and Tnomerf Ynot is the imaginary alter ego created in her childhood by the character Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwoods, _The Robber Bride_

Is naming myself for the imaginary alter ego of a fictional character a bad thing?

Jeanne said...

Not if you like the movie A Beautiful Mind...

Karen said...

Actually, I couldn't watch the whole of that movie. I found the bathtub bit too haunting/terrifying.

But, speaking (as your post did) of Austen sequels and of rewriting old classics to suit the tastes of modern audiences...have you enjoyed read _Pride and Prejudice and Zombies_? If so....what did you think?

Jeanne said...

Karen, I haven't read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I enjoy hearing about those sequels, but don't have enough time to read everything just now and really it would just be morbid curiosity.

Wanda said...

I held a contest giving away this book that asked the same question. Me, I'd be Morag Gunn.

Loved reading Shelf Monkey; glad to hear you enjoyed it too!