Friday, August 14, 2015

The Book of Strange New Things (A Rambling Rant)

Alternately titled "I read a book by Michel Faber and all I got was this long list of questions and feelings of regret, so I wrote this overly long, incoherent post in one sitting."

Alright guys. Let me just say right now that this isn't going to be like one of my regular book reviews. I couldn't even bring myself to allow it in my Tales from the Bookshelf series, because my writing's just all over the place and it's just bad. Like the alternate title implies, I have more to say about what didn't happen, or things that shouldn't have happened in this book than what did happen. Like, I'm pretty sure I've never experienced a story with more disappointing plot holes, and I watched all 121 episodes of Lost (Waaaaallllltttttttt!) The worst part about it all is that the more I think about it, the more annoyed I get, and the less I'm able to calmly write my views and feelings about it. I finished the book two weeks ago, so I've been thinking about this for awhile. I guess this is why I'll never be a professional book blogger. So let's get started with a general synopsis of the book to get you caught up. We have a long post ahead of us!

P.S. All the spoilers ahead!

"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. 

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us." - Penguin Random House

Sounds like it could be interesting, right? So every time something weird happened I just figured I'd keep going because I wanted to know how the story ended. Things are weird from the get-go, bringing us to my first question.

1. So Peter's going on this trip to space to teach the natives (aliens, who are called Oasans in this book) about Christianity. He's hired and sent there by a corporation called USIC. Except Peter knows nothing about USIC. He doesn't know their main purpose, why they're in space, or even what USIC stands for. He DOES know that it's "urgent" for him to start right away. Can you think of a single adult that would think this was ok and still go?! This doesn't sound the least bit sketchy? Leading right into question two...

2. What is USIC doing?! We never found out, not exactly. Unless I missed it. Let me know if you have any theories.


What often made this book hard to read it that Peter is kind of an asshole. In chapter 4 we learn how much Peter likes to judge people based on their appearance, and how he really thinks he's better than everyone. First it's with some of the men in the spacecraft thing as it's arriving to the USIC base. He describes their behavior and appearances as crude (he compares them to construction workers) and is constantly surprised whenever they say something intellectual. Apparently there's a very specific look to being smart, and if you don't have it then you must be dumb. In Peter's younger days before he became a pastor, he was an alcoholic and drug addict. Then through Bea he finds God and turns his life around. So you'd think he'd be a little less judgmental.

This attitude of his is even worse regarding women. More times than I can count, Peter meets various women working for USIC and describes her appearance. If she's conventionally good looking he'll describe her as attractive. If she's not attractive then she's described as butch. Because if you weren't born with supermodel genes or if you don't feel like getting dolled up everyday then you're a butch lesbian! Although there's a nurse up there that's lucky enough to not be in either category, because more than once she's compared to an ape instead! Example: "Nurse Flores spoke up again, her simian face unexpectedly illuminated with sharp intelligence." He also references her "simian fingers" and "monkey face." This makes my head hurt.

The woman we hear about the most, aside from his wife Bea, is Hermione Grainger. Grainger is assigned to help Peter learn the ins and outs of USIC and to transport him to and from the native camp. At almost every encounter with Grainger, Peter has something new to say about her appearance. In the beginning she falls into the butch category. Later on as he gets to know her, she magically becomes more attractive. In fact Peter starts to find her SO attractive that you have to be like, hey, calm down bro. But before that happens Peter says this: (as they are talking about how he's lost weight and you can see his cheekbones)..."As a reflex, he appraised Grainger's facial features. Her cheekbones were not particularly good. She had the sort of face that was beautiful only if she watched her diet and didn't get much older than she was now.  As soon as age or over-indulgence filled out her cheeks and thickened her neck, even a little, she would cross a line from elfin allure into mannish homeliness. He felt sad for her, sad about the ease with which her physical destiny could be read by anyone who cared to cast a glance over her, sad about the matter-of-factness with which her genes stated the limits of what they were willing to do for her in the years to come, sad in the knowledge that she was at her peak now and still not fulfilled."

Or how about this one, where he feels the need to criticize her appearance WHILE SHE'S CRYING:"A glance confirmed that the weeping hadn't done her any good -- her face was blotched, puffy and unfeminine, and she knew it. He looked gallantly askance while she dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve, pecked at her hair with her fingers, and generally tried to compose herself."

So gallant. Taking me to question three...

3. Is Michel Faber the stupid asshole, or is Peter? I haven't read any other books by Mitchel Faber, so I can't compare this to his past stuff. I don't feel like Peter was supposed to be a particularly unlikable character, but maybe he was? I don't know.

Peter eventually learns that before his arrival to USIC there was another pastor recruited to teach the natives, named Kurtzberg. Kurtzberg "went native," which is their way of saying he disappeared and they have no idea what happened. Throughout most of the book there's the overhanging mystery of "what happened to Kurtzberg?" as Peter tries to get more information from both USIC workers and the Oasans. The USIC people literally have no idea, and the aliens just say "he left us" with no further explanation. Bringing us to another question...

4. WHAT HAPPENED TO KURTZBERG?! After all the buildup, we never find out. We do learn that he's dead, but we don't know why he left in the first place, or how he died. It's barely talked about, but there's one more person from USIC who also went native - a translator named Tartaglione. So when the book's almost over and Peter's traipsing (AKA getting lost) across the space desert, he finds an abandoned Oasan settlement and finds Tartaglione hiding there! But why?! Why does Mitchel Faber decide to (kind of) reveal what happened to Tartaglione, who I had literally forgotten about until that moment, rather than Kurtzberg? NO ONE CARES ABOUT TARTAGLIONE. Are you trolling me right now?

I jumped ahead a bit there, sorry. Let's back up. One of the most important parts of the book is Peter's communication with his wife, who's back on earth because she did not pass the USIC interview to go with him. The messages start out nice enough, but as time goes on Bea starts telling Peter that things aren't going great on earth. Every week a new disaster is happening. Towards the end of the book it sounds like an episode of The Walking Dead is going on down there, and it's all quite sad and I feel bad for her. Although, again, we're not given too much information on what exactly is happening there. Part of this is because, again, Peter's an asshole. With Peter being so far away he has trouble caring about whatever's happening on earth, and he writes to Bea less and less. At one point he actually says he doesn't want to hear about it anymore, so she stops telling him. This makes Peter beat himself up over not writing to her more (he had originally promised to write every day) and his brooding gets really annoying. Then it just gets worse! Bea can clearly sense his disinterest in the fact that her house is literally falling apart, there are no resources as shops are all closing, their cat dies, everyone in town is leaving, or when she discovers that she's PREGNANT! She calls him out on his bullshit and then Peter feels even worse. He finally makes an attempt to write more, but by then it's too late and he says all the wrong things. "Darling I know you're mad at me right now but let's just put faith in God and everything will be ok!!!" Ugh, men. That's not a direct quote, by the way. But you get the idea. So question five and six...

5. Why didn't he just write to Bea more often? Most of the times he didn't write to her it sounded like he just didn't feel like dealing with her drama. But if you're going to keep brooding about it then just write to her. I'm not married, but I'm pretty sure that in any serious relationship good communication's important and you just have to suck it up and do it. Especially if you're in space. Be a good husband and write to your wife, Peter! This whole book might have had a different ending if Peter just wrote to his wife more.

6. What's causing all this ruckus on Earth? Is USIC responsible? Or even if they're not, do they know what's going on, and why? During Peter's unfortunate encounter with Tartaglione, he tells Peter that USIC's agenda is to start a new world, because they know that Earth is ending. Except Tartaglione is super drunk and stir-crazy, so it's hard to know if we should believe him. However, when Peter explains this encounter in a letter to Bea, his mail is not approved to be sent out, and we learn from Grainger that his revealing USIC information (whether it's true or not) is why. Hmmm...

Now, since the reason Peter's in space is about God and teaching the Oasans about God, let's talk about that. I found Peter's ideas about Christianity and the bible unbearable. I later found out that Michel Faber is atheist, so maybe he just doesn't know a lot about it and that's why I often felt like he was making fun of religion without even meaning to. It doesn't bother me if people are atheist or whatever else they want to be, but if you're going to talk about these things then you need to know what you're talking about. Every time Peter has a problem, he prays about it. Which is fine, except that's ALL he does to try and fix the problem. He doesn't put in any more effort than that, because he expects God to just take care of things. "Hi God, my wife's really mad at me because I haven't acknowledged the fact that she's having my child and I don't want to hear about earth crumbling to pieces, but I don't feel like writing to her right now, so just make things better, ok?" That's also not an actual quote from the book, but it gets my point across.

Aliens! Ok, the Oasans are kind of interesting. Peter knows literally NOTHING about the Oasans before going to meet them (another red flag that I probably should have mentioned in question 1, I mean what if they were cannibals? You never know.). When he first meets the Oasans he describes their faces as two fetuses squished together. This isn't offensive, but like...really, Michel Faber? Fetuses? Out of all the things you could have chosen, and you picked fetuses. Fine. The Oasans are skinny, average height, sort of genderless (I don't think we ever figured that out, either) and each wear a hooded robe of a different color. Aside from the robe colors, Peter finds that most of them to look identical. For the most part they are able to speak English (also weird), and they really, really want to learn about God. Bringing me to question six...

7. How did the Oasans know about religion and God? They didn't pick it up from USIC, because they don't really converse with them unless they have to. They like their privacy. Kurtzberg probably taught them about the bible, but Kurtzberg was only there in the first place because the Oasans told USIC to find them a pastor.

Instead of their actual names, they tell Peter to Call them Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, and on and on. It sounds hokey but I also found it a little endearing somehow. He gets along pretty well with them. They all work together and build a church and Peter teaches them about the bible and things. Oh, and the Oasans call the bible "The Book of Strange New Things." So there's where the book title comes from. They actually get along so well that it got a little boring. Peter becomes especially close to Jesus Lover Five. Towards the end of the book Peter is hanging out at USIC and learns that Jesus Lover Five is injured and asks to be taken to USIC for medical assistance. Like I mentioned before, the Oasans try to keep away from USIC, so the fact the she asked for their help is surprising. Since Oasans don't heal the same way humans do, they're all pretty sure she's going to die. It's sad.

Around the same time (either before or after, honestly I'm getting the ending a little jumbled up), Peter finally decides to be a good husband and go back to Earth for his wife. He says goodbye to Jesus Lover Five, still in the USIC hospital. He says goodbye to the rest of the Oasans, who are pretty upset about it but decide to forgive him anyway.

Unfortunately, his actions are again, too late. When he writes to Bea to tell her he's coming home, she tells him to stay there. She says that by the time he gets back to earth she won't be in their home anymore, and that this is the last night she'll be able to stay in their house. This is the last time she'll be able to write to him, because she's leaving and will be traveling with a group of strangers to who knows where (and again, we don't know why). Things on Earth just got that bad, so that's what it came down to. Of course, Peter decides to go back to Earth anyway.

That's pretty much how the book ends.

On one hand I'm incredibly curious about what happens when Peter gets back to earth. On the other hand, even if a second book were to come out, I don't think I could bring myself to read it. That's what reading spoilers is good for ;)

I received a paperback of The Book of Strange New Things courtesy of Blogging for Books. All thoughts and opinions are unfortunately my own.

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