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Bibliosmia: Two Boring Old Men, Dying on the Page

By Fureyous

It’s true: it was the oxymoronicishness of the title that made me pick up Thomas Keneally’s book, The Book of Science and Antiquities, A Novel”. I imagined something like The Golden Compass (see holiday recommendations below), but I was disappointed. I was not surprised to learn that in Australia, where the book was written and published, it sold under the title Two Old Men Dying. I mean who would buys a book with that name? Seriously?! But Mr. Keneally is a well-known author, with about a gajillion books in his oeuvre. His most famous, Schindler’s List, is emblematic of the first documentary made by the main character in this book, which, by winning an Academy Award, allows him a life time pass to anything he wants to make a film about.

And that is the crux of the problem with this book. I can’t decide whether it’s a beautiful mess, or just a mess. We go to Viet Nam, Eritrea during the revolution, the bottom of the deep sea in a submersible, and to the Bering Sea for a seal meat barbeque. It’s like Keneally had a bunch of notes on books he wanted to write, thought he was out of time, and threw them all together in this one.

The second old man in the Australian title, is Learned Man, a skeletal remain based on Mongo Man. Mongo Man was recovered in a dry lake bed near Sydney. 42,000 years old, he was presumed to be ancestral to the aboriginal people of Australia. (It’s an interesting story; a link is provided below). Shade, as the character is called, is an elder in his tribe, called upon to maintain the order prescribed the Heroes, celestial beings who advise him. 

Those of us who studied literature know the truth of the main character’s (Shelby Apple by name) observation about Shade that “He was a man who lived on the lunette of a lake a little like a householder, and who traveled for same reasons we do: romance, and education, pilgrimage and trade”.  The same problems beset humans throughout history and we feel compelled to keep a record of them.

Unfortunately, whether he did research or not, Mr. Keneally never really brings either character to life. Both men are fascinated by their women’s breasts, which both describe as “gourds”. Shade worries that his wife is cheating on him; Shelby cheats on his.

Despite the very real problems with this book, not the least of which is the candy coating of the life of struggle faced by aboriginal peoples, something kept me reading. I like Shade, I did not like Shelby. I tried to see the parallels in their lives, but it just wasn’t there. Shade’s protectiveness of his people seemed natural for folks who lived a pre-industrial life; Shelby’s controlling nature toward his adult daughter seemed chauvinistic and pandering.

The book raised a lot of questions for me: did someone really think that the Eritreans were a leap forward in human development; did the Learned Man, as he’s called in the book, really die in the manner he dies in the book; and does regalia really define the authenticity of native rituals?  I did research the Mongo Man, but the others will have to wait for another day.

This is a book you might read when you’re out of other stuff to read, but I probably wouldn’t rush out to find it.

The Book of Science and Antiquities, A Novel, Thomas Keneally, Atria Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, 2019.

It’s that time of year:

I am often asked for book recommendations for holiday gifts. My recommendations are oldies but goodies.

Infant-2 Pat the Bunny is a great way to create interest in books. Pop up books are good, too.

2-6 I love the Robert Munsch books created from stories he told in schools as a storyteller. My favorite is Pigs, about a very naughty girl that lets the family pigs out.  Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones books are another favorite, along with Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedlia books. My kid loved all of these, and the main thing you want at this age is to keep kids fascinated.

6-8 This is probably the hardest age to buy for, and you have to gauge your own child’s development. I heard a rumor that the old Bobbsey Twins novels are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. I loved those as a child. Same with Nancy Drew, although, to this day I remember having to ask my Dad why the one kid having to go to a “state college” was seen as a bad thing. Island of the Blue Dolphin is a great book for more accomplished readers of this age.

8-12 Personally, I think 8-years-old is plenty old enough to start the Harry Potter series. Sure, they’re huge books that take forever to get through, but what a blessing if a kid gets immersed in a long book for a while! The singularly best children’s book ever written, in my opinion, is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet is a fully developed character whose flaws catch up with her, just as happens in real life. Although this book is regularly marketed to girls, I think boys would enjoy this book about competitiveness, loneliness, and revenge as much as any girl does.

12 and up: I have nerd tastes in books for this age:  The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, Dune by Frank Herbert. For the older kids, I recommend anything by Louise Erdrich, starting with her collection: Love Medicine. Ms. Erdrich books are steeped in her Native background, and combine the best of Native mythology with modern culture. She, like Sherman Alexie, does not skirt around the problems on reservations: alcohol, drug abuse, family hierarchy, but she treats it all with a gentle hand.

AS ALWAYS: before giving your child a book to read, read it yourself. Not only do you keep an eye on their exposures, but you create a fertile ground for conversation in the moments when you think you have nothing to talk with them about!

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About the Author

Fureyous loves a great book and does not pull the punches when a novel doesn't make the grade.

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