Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Catching up with the Camel Bookmobile and Then We Came To The End
I had the chance recently to read a couple of books that were big last year but I wasn't able to get around to them then. Paperback releases are becoming very similar to DVDs;it gives you another shot at checking out what everyone's buzzing about.
At face value,you might not think that Masha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile and Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To The End have anything in common but it turns out that both titles bookend each other rather nicely.
"Okay,what does a book about bringing books to a remote African village and a novel about disgruntled office workers have in common?" Well,both are stories of small,isolated communities(unofficially recognized ones,but communities nonetheless)dealing with changes to their world that they can't truly control but must find a way to deal with them together.
And Then We Came To The End is not so much about disgruntled office workers as it is about cliques. The group "we" that narrates most of the book is made up of people who spend most of their ad agency work time gossiping and channeling their worries about being laid off by focusing on mundane details like who has whose chair and does the office coordinator really keep track of them via serial numbers or speculating on if one of their former co-workers would really come back to the office and get postal on everyone.
One of the folks in the office who becomes a major bone of contention with the group is Joe Pope,who quietly refuses to conform to the set norm. He doesn't keep knickknacks at his workspace,he doesn't hang out and waste time at the usual spots and occasionally is in a position to put a halt to some of the more previous antics of the group like gawking at Janine,one of their co-workers who is mourning for her lost daughter by going to the play area at the local McDonalds every day at lunchtime. The group we seems to be as mature as the cast of Heathers at times.
Most folks have compared And Then We Came To The End to shows like The Office or the movie Office Space,and while there is a lot of humor here,the story is much more darker and emotionally developed as it goes along. It really puts me in mind of the AMC series,Mad Men,which looks at the lives of ad agency men and the women in their world during the early sixties. Then We Came To The End takes place in the late 1990s,but the fears and insecurities that these ad folk are faced with is not that much different:
Masha Hamilton'sThe Camel Bookmobile is also told thru a number of different characters in this story based upon an actual literacy program to bring books out to those living in far flung regions of Africa via camels as a form of lending library to encourage reading and interest in the outside world.
The novel gives each of the major and minor characters a chapter at a time to tell their part of the story,like Fiona Sweeney,an American woman who wants to not only help the nomadic village of Mididima get the books they need but expand her own horizons in life.
Many of the village elders feel threatened by the growing influence of the Camel library but some,like the grandmother of Kanika,a young woman determined to become a teacher in what is known as the Distant City,are open to the changes,particularly for the young people to seek a chance at a more stable life.
Things come to a head when one of the young men of Mididima,an outsider called Scar Boy,refuses to return the two books he has borrowed,which could revoke the village's library privileges and bring shame to their reputation. This turn of events brings Fiona to stay in Mididima to try and retrieve the missing books as well as cause other brewing beneath the surface tensions to rise up and be forced to be dealt with.
The novel's round robin style is very compelling and each chapter clicks into place perfectly to set the ultimate pattern to it's conclusion,which may feel abrupt but you have to admit that it's realistic. It's also good to know that the power of reading and it's impact upon people's lives is truly universal,no matter where they are:
So,while I didn't grab these two titles when they were first out and about,I am glad that I finally did get to them. Slow and steady wins the race,as they say and even tho,I don't intend to be too far behind with my reading,sometimes it's good to not pressure yourself into following the herd at the moment they charge towards or from something. All the best things to those who wait.
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