The book: The Book on Fire, by Keith Miller
The edition: Immanion Press softcover, 247 pages, with notes on literary sources
The story: a book thief arrives in Alexandria and his greatest desire is to enter the mythical, inaccessible library, defended by an order of monastic librarians. This is the story of his adventures, his comrades in the outside world, his voyage through the intestines of the city and into the library, and his love for one of the librarians.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had read great reviews about this one. It seemed to be one great love song for books, the ideal read for a bookworm. And of course, how can one resist a book where one of the characters is the daughter of a book?
That much I loved: a fantastic world where everything revolves around books. This is great potential, this could be a great book. But that’s just about all the good I can find in it.
Then there’s the bad: everything also revolves around sex. This can appeal to many, but to me it’s a major drawback, especially so when sex references started popping up from nowhere.
And there’s a lot I don’t get (but I guess the author was just playing with ideas, not conveying a clear position of his): some parody of Christian rites, all the fuss about book burning (I thought it was The Book on Fire as in: “about fire”, but it also was “on fire” as in “burning”, and very much so), the meaning of ghosts and three-times dead.
The part with spoilers: a religious war and a great fire, two cathartic events to end a story: isn’t that a bit over the edge?
Also, for the whole time I thought that Zeinab and Shireen would turn out to be the same person, in some convoluted way. I was deflated when I discovered that Zeinab was “just” a ghost.
What I liked: the magical imaginary world of Alexandria, where everyone only cares about books.
What I didn’t like: all the sex innuendos, references and perversions, and all the fuss about book burning.
Language & writing: in a word: lush. Beautiful language, very rich and evocative. Too bad I didn’t jot down all those beautiful, new and dreamy words!
In the author’s own words: (I apologize for some of the words I’ll quote)
The part I like, a book-drawn world:
This is a city of books, where children are admonished if they don’t bring a book to the breakfast table, where they’re ordered by their mothers to drop their books and go play on the street, where bedtime tales sometimes continue, chapter after chapter, till well after midnight, parents pinching their children to keep them awake. This is a city where men beat their wives with books, the women shielding their heads with books. A city of book-whores, who fuck for books, and their bibliogigolos. A city of book-beggars, who spit on your money, gesturing with their stumps to the paperback in your hand.
The part I loathe, with sex references taking the reader by surprise:
As your boat slips with a flutter and a groan alongside the other hulls and masts, the first scents surface after the day of brine. Cardamom and wet cunt, randy goat and roasted garlic, putrid fish heads, steaming horseshit, frying aubergine, ylang-ylang.
And the other part that bothers me, about burning books:
“The books you take are gone forever.”
“I watched you burn it.”
“Have you ever burned a book?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Links to better understand this book:
Random thought: I love the cover… but if it was up to me I would design a completely different one!
Read this if: if you like magical realism, but remember you are in for a booklust-full ride!