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August 15, 2022

Review in Haiku: The Geographer's Library

By Katrina Stonoff

Old hist'ry prof dies.
When antiquities vanish,
It is newsworthy.

The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman, is one of the most original novels in print.

The basic concept is fascinating: a slacker reporter on a country weekly is assigned the routine task of writing the obituary for an elderly history professor found dead at home. But the more he learns, the more puzzling the professor becomes.

Woven into the current story is an interesting backstory that follows the fates of several objects from the library of Muhammad al-Idrisi, a 12th-century Arab cartographer, geographer and traveler. Al-Idrisi is said to be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad and the man who made the maps Christopher Columbus used.

Some of the most interesting aspects of The Geographer's Library are the descriptions of the objects themselves: a flute made of gold, for instance, and filled with powdered sulfur so that it's virtually impossible to play.

I picked it up prepared to be mesmerized, but the truth is: the book read very slowly. It took me three weeks to finish. By comparison, the book I picked up next -- three days ago, I will finish tonight (see The Madonnas of Leningrad).

And I simply couldn't turn off my internal editor. Oh, I know, that's an occupational hazard for a novelist. we get into this job because we love books, and after awhile (ironically), we cannot sit down and just read them.

Except that I was 75 percent through The Madonnas of Leningrad before I realized I hadn't, not once, thought to myself, "Oops! Passive statement" or "Show, don't tell" or "ah, he's head-hopping again."

So, while it's true I do have a tendency to edit, I only do it when the books need editing. And this one could have used a good editor, or a good critique group.

For instance, the first chapter opens with a passive description of a day in the life of a weekly reporter (Fasman even picked the dullest day). Then he meanders into Paul's history, describing how Paul fell into newspapering because he really didn't have the get-up-and-go to get a different job.

That sort of beginning may well have worked for Jane Austen, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader raised on 30-second USA Today blurbs doesn't want to wade through 2,000 words of backstory before discovering the dead body.

Then there are some real questions: things my journalism professors would have called "errors in fact," each of which would have earned me an "automatic E." For instance, on a weekly newspaper with two reporters and a columnist, there is no way one of the reporters is only working on one story. It's even less likely the editor won't push him when he doesn't have it finished for the next issue -- or the one after that. Disclaimer: the timeline was hard to follow in spots; I'm not entirely certain the events here took two weeks.

And why the heck doesn't Paul contact the new coroner? The original one was killed in a hit and run before he finished the autopsy. His death looks suspicious, and he made comments before he died that the body wasn't quite as he expected, but Paul never bothers to call the coroner's office once he's dead.

And despite all this (and the fact that he never wanted to be a journalist anyway), we're supposed to believe he's shortlisted for a Boston daily.

Nope. Doesn't cut it.

Killer potential here, and still worth reading, even buying. But be prepared for a bit of a slog.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-03-19
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