The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Back in 2017, I reviewed an incredible book titled Under the Skin by Dutch-born author Michel Faber. As you can see from that particular post, I fell completely in love with this genre-bending horror novel that wasn’t really horror at all. You may also have noticed, following all my praising of the work, that I planned on picking up another novel by Faber by the end of that year. Well, five years, a pandemic, and numerous catastrophes later, and I’ve finally returned to him. One could draw the conclusion that I’m quite the fickle book lover, one that will probably never achieve title of completist on one author. The world of books is too vast, and yes, I freely confess to Mr. Faber my sins of falling in love with many other authors. The Book of Strange New Things, much like my prior reading experience, appeared as one thing but ended up becoming something completely different. It’s a science fiction novel that turns out to not be a science fiction novel at all. Instead, this novel is an examination on the positive aspects of faith, but also the dangers of blind devotion.

The Book of Strange New Things (2014) by Michel Faber, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

I was raised as a Christian. As a child, some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading to me at bedtime from my illustrated children’s edition of The Bible. While we were never a church-going family, my mom worked extremely hard at instilling the virtues of Christianity into my developing brain. Like for many others, my personal spiritual journey has had its share of highs and lows. Currently, I’m at a crossroads regarding where I stand on my Christian faith. What does this have to do with my return to Michel Faber? Let’s talk about the novel for a moment.

Despite its journey into the new frontier of an alien planet, The Book of Strange New Things is a quiet, meditative novel that weaves familiar science fiction tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion. The story opens with Peter Leigh’s last night on Earth. A former drug addict, Peter has now turned his life over as a man of God, dedicated to preaching the teachings of The Bible from his small church in England. Peter is married to Beatrice, a nurse who helped him turn his life around for the better. The opening of the novel not only gives us insight into their faith but also into them as a couple. Their relationship is about to change, however, as Peter has been selected from thousands of applicants to serve as “Minister (Christian) to the Indigenous Population” of a planet named Oasis. A few years before the events of this novel, humans have started a colonization project on this world and have formed a sort of working relationship with the natives involving exchanging food and medical supplies. In order to keep this amicable arrangement going, the Oasans, as they’re known to the humans, have requested a minister to teach them from what they call “The Book of Strange New Things.” While Peter is excited to be able to spread Christ’s teachings on another planet, this will mean an extended amount of time away from his wife. However, Peter firmly believes that their relationship can handle the distance and time, providing they stay strong in their beliefs.

Faber keeps the technical aspects of science fiction fairly simple. In fact, everything from the spaceship, inanimate suspension, even to the native inhabitants of the planet themselves, are essentially a “greatest hits” collection of ideas that have appeared in numerous books and media of the past. The world-building of this planet and the indigenous population are successful because so much is left to imagination and conjecture. NASA is now obsolete, and the organization responsible for this mission is USIC–a shadowy multinational corporation whose intentions may not be fully the most noble. However, Peter has no interest in the political underpinnings of USIC, firm in his belief that “God will guide me.”

Once the good pastor arrives to this new world, Faber manages to make the planet appear believable through any lack of real detail. Oasis mostly appears lifeless, marked by searing temperatures, brutal humidity, and the occasional rainstorm. The base that has been setup quite a distance from the inhabitants’ village is mysterious within itself. The personnel treat Peter with respect but have no desire to have any type of understanding of the Oasans. Peter is allowed to exchange e-mails with his wife through a heavily monitored system. As Bea describes Earth, as well as her personal life, falling into an apocalypse, he responds sporadically with replies that just tell Bea to continue to put trust in God. Along with being a poignant demonstration of why long-distance relationships don’t work, their correspondence supports the dark side of Peter’s absolute and unwavering beliefs. No matter what calamities are occurring back home (trust me, it’s bad), Peter is too focused on getting to be the vessel that teaches these alien creatures about the wonders of Christianity.

“Not for the first time, Peter thought about how much of our lives we spend sequestered inside small patches of electric brightness, blind to everything beyond the reach of those fragile bulbs.”

Understand that this is not a novel about first contact, as Peter’s colleagues have been on Oasis for years, exchanging food and medicine. Peter isn’t even the first minister to these people, as his predecessor vanished under mysterious circumstances. Despite so many questions, Peter turns a blind eye as he throws himself into the role as a savior to the Oasans. The genius of this novel is the way Faber takes all of these different plotlines: religion, faith, love, colonization, and never truly expresses which is right. As I was 400 pages into this 500-page novel, I truly had no idea where this story was heading. Despite all of these questions, though, the novel remains focused on Peter’s sweet interaction with the beings of Oasis. They’re a delicate, private race, mostly humanoid, except for their faces, which are described as resembling human fetuses. These beings are kept mysterious, as we learn nothing about their past history and gain only fleeting glimpses into their culture. In fact, the one certainty about this race is that they hold absolute and complete belief in the words of “The Book of Strange New Things.” What more could a minister want than to be embraced by such a devoted community?

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but compare their complete and utter devotion to children who follow without question. While we don’t learn a lot about their history, Faber does well in developing an unearthly culture with a language that resembles an Eastern language. As they’ve developed some rudimentary English, their physiology does not allow the pronunciations of certain consonants. Peter takes it upon himself to develop his own translation of certain books of The Bible to help accommodate the Oasans.

Michel Faber in 2015 taking a self-photo with his cat

While some science fiction keeps us on guard (maybe the aliens are evil or they eat humans), Faber has something more philosophical and mournful in mind. Taking his time to develop the bizarre setting and all the elements of this space opera, at its foundation is a novel about spiritual intimacy. Peter is someone that truly believes, which at times can seem far more alien than aliens with a fetus as a face. Often, I was torn, as sometimes I recognized him for the truly good person he is trying to be, but also frustrated at how self-centered he could be in his faith. The hardest passages to read are from his wife Bea, as she is faced with one struggle after another and just wants her husband to return home. Faber keeps the entire novel on Peter’s point-of-view, so we only see his wife’s experiences through his reading her emails. Her descriptions of the tragedies that occur, both personal and worldwide, are heartbreaking and traumatic. Faber brings this novel to a resolution, but it’s one that leaves you wondering what the future holds for this couple.

As I write these words, I am facing a personal tragedy of my own. A great loss is approaching, and I already find myself grieving. While I must reconcile my questions on faith and rediscover my own spirituality, I find it interesting that certain books enter my life at a times when they are needed. Faber wrote this novel in the middle of his own personal struggles with grief and loss, and the result is a complex treatment into the meanings of religion and faith. If Michel Faber ever happens to stumble onto this little review of mine, then I hope he will accept my gratitude. What I thought would be a fascinating work of science fiction became an experience that will not be forgotten. Peace and love my friends.

“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that’s always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Classics Club Spin: September 2022 (Updated)

That’s right, it’s time for another spin from The Classics Club!

On Sunday September 18th, a random number will be drawn. Match the number to the book on your list, then read and review said book before October 30th. I had so much fun with my last spin book, The Moonstone, so I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Here is my list:

  1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  2. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  3. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  4. Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne
  5. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  7. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  10. Jayne Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  12. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
  13. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  14. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  15. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  16. The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins
  17. Washington Square by Henry James
  18. Possession by A.S. Byatt
  19. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  20. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

For those that are curious, here is my complete Classics Club list. Good luck everyone and happy reading!

Update 9/18/2022: Number 2 means I will be reading Gulliver’s Travels. This will be a reread for me, but it’s been ages, so I’m very excited for the return to an old favorite!

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me (a line taken from a Richard Wright poem) by Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic work The Fire Next Time, which was written in epistolary form to his nephew. In this book, Coates writes directly to his teenage son, Samori, about the struggles of being black in America. Filled with insights into his own struggles as a black man, Coates leaves nothing behind in his sharing of their people’s hardships, trials, and hopes.

Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

This book is extremely multi-layered, serving not only as an autobiography but also as a cultural and political commentary, as Coates studies the roots of American racism and how it is still prevalent today. Appearing as a wound that refuses to heal, the author explores how the concept of racism preceded this idea of race, rather than vice-versa. Coates is brutal in exploring the atrocities that befell innocent black men, highlighting in detail the brutal murders of black individuals by police officers. He writes that, “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” The book examines the events leading to this generalization that people of color in America are doomed to carry the burden of being denied the privileges of, as what Coates refer to as, “The Dream” despite it being built “built on the backs of African Americans for years”.

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

For Coates, this concept of “The Dream” refers to this American ideal of “perfect houses with nice lawns.” Rather than as a physical truth, he discusses the people who “believe they are white” as the Dreamers. These people seek the luxurious life but remain ignorant of the sacrifices his people made that helped guide the course of American history, leading to a gap between African Americans and the Dreamers. The horrific past has been forgotten, lest the beautiful Dream be shattered and the illusion erased.

Coates has such an impassioned and eloquent writing style that it kept me reading, even though I was fearful of writing about it as a middle-class white man. Typically, I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, so I find it so ironic that I read two nonfiction works in a row. While this book works as such a powerful examination of the ideas of race and equality in this country, it is also a deeply personal letter of a loving father to his son. Throughout these pages, one can not only feel the love, but also the fear of a father for his child. The author included his life on being on guard in ghettos, the discrimination he personally experienced, and one moment of terror as he was pulled over in an area where the police at that time were known to assault and take the lives of blacks. Throughout the book, there’s always the deep physical and psychological fear that still haunts Coates that he wants to keep away from his son.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz

This book won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, and was named one the best books of the year by a number of prestigious periodicals, including The New York Times. The highest praise that can be offered was the voice of Toni Morrison, who was quoted as saying that Coates fills “the intellectual void” left by James Baldwin and that this book is “required reading.” Who am I to argue with the great Toni Morrison? The writing of Between the World and Me is so powerful and evocative. The author sends a message that will force you to stop every few sentences and think. While upsetting and pessimistic at times, it’s a necessary read.

This book proves that, sadly, racism is alive and well, no matter your belief, nationality, and skin color. We have to acknowledge its existence if we ever hope to grow into a world where everyone is respected and loved. So take the time to read this. It’s only 150 pages, and you’ll be a wiser human for it.

“You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

August 2022 Wrap-up

Books Read:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Love and Freindship by Jane Austen

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Jane Austen by Carol Shields

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Currently Reading:

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

2022 Goals:

Books Read: 30/75 (6 in August)

Books Reviewed: 29/50 (7 in August)

TBR Challenge: 7/12

Back to the Classics Challenge: 3/12

Translated Works: 6/10

Thoughts: August was a fantastic month for me, both in reading and blogging. Austen in August was so much fun, and I even won a prize of a gift card for Northanger Soapworks…Double Score!!!! I also added to my translated books total with a couple of fun mysteries from Japan. I shall give a special shout-out to my bestie for introducing me to the works of Keigo Higashino, as Devotion of Suspect X was one of my birthday presents!!! I also got an awesome shirt that has my cats’ faces on it…another Double Score!!!! I also want to give a shout-out to my wonderful wife for getting me a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. I’m quite excited to read it once the temperatures here finally start feeling fall-like.

What’s Next:

Lots more of this!

I’m currently in the middle of The Book of Strange New Things, which I feel is going to end up being quite brilliant. This is the second book by Michel Faber I’ve ever read, and I’m shocked it took me this long to pick him up again, having read the fantastic Under the Skin so long ago. I’ll continue to indulge in my love affair with Japan, but other than that, no real plans for September. Let’s see where the reading road takes me.

Tell me about books you read in August. What are your reading plans for September? Let me know with a comment below!

Jane Austen by Carol Shields

For the past month, I’ve been participating in the Austen in August festivities hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I’ve been loving every moment of it, and even won an awesome gift card to Northanger Soapworks (thank you Rachel). For a work of fiction, I read some of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, which I quite enjoyed. I also wanted to read a work of nonfiction, so I selected Jane Austen, a 2001 biography by the great Carol Shields. While this work provided some interesting insight into one of my favorite authors, it also left me feeling sad. Shields suggests in her book that Jane Austen led an extremely lonely life and became a rather sheltered and embittered woman.

Jane Austen (2001) by Carol Shields, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

I can imagine that it would be a difficult endeavor to construct a perfect representation of Jane Austen’s life. While certain facts are known, much is left to conjecture, formed largely by surviving letters to her sister Cassandra. Born in England in 1775 to the rector George Austen and his wife, she was part of a large family in a rural community. Shields explores these family dynamics, in particular a strained relationship between Austen and her mother. Her relationship with her father, however, was extremely close as he inspired the future author in her reading and writing endeavors. She wrote stories at a young age for the entertainment of herself and her family. Shields spends a significant amount of time on these formative years, as these early stories demonstrate the development of Austen’s wit and comedic timing. Shields also notes the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter, noting that close mother/daughter relationships were uncommon in her fiction.

There is marked decrease in Austen’s productivity upon her father retiring and moving to Bath. An unmarried adult woman would have no control over her life. While Shields explores a couple of possible suitors, she suggests that Austen lived a rather desolate life, never having known love or intimacy. Perhaps, the novels themselves served as the highest form of escapism into a better world. The death of her father would result in a further obstruction to Austen’s writing, having abandoned a work in progress. The family’s move to Chawton Cottage in rural Hampshire would result in a renewal of Austen’s writing powers, revising both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication. Four more extraordinary works would follow: Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Sadly, Austen would pass away at the age of 41, leaving behind the unfinished novel of Sanditon.

While my favorite parts of this book were the explorations into the six main novels that we have all grown to love, I was frustrated that they felt like passing glances and that there was so much more to say. Shields clearly expresses her opinion that Emma is her favorite, while the complex Mansfield Park had issues. I was left wanting a more in-depth study to each of these novels and felt like we barely scratched the surface.

Jane Austen lives forever in her novels

The true sadness in reading this book emerged for the restriction and unhappiness to which Shields suggests Austen must have endured. This biography speculates that Austen was lonely and bitter for most of her adult life due to never getting married and the suppression of her family. While this was certainly plausible based upon the evidence presented, it just left me feeling empty. It is difficult for me to equate this vision of Austen with the woman that is famous for her humor and happy endings. I imagine Austen as a writer who experienced joys and sorrows like everyone else. Shields portrayal just seemed to lean more on a depressing note and felt rather unbalanced to me.

In the end, I feel that our best representation of Jane Austen lies in the worlds and characters she created. While we may never know the exact circumstances of her personal life, one point we can all agree on is that she is immortalized in the words she put on paper. In that regard, Jane Austen holds a lasting legacy.

“Austen’s short life may have been lived in relative privacy, but her novels show her to be a citizen, and certainly a spectator, of a far wider world”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.