Book choice for January 2011

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife [suggested by Laura Smith]

front cover

"I had always imagined that my life story...would have a great first line: something like Nabokov's 'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins;' or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy's 'All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'... When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the first line of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard.'"

So begins the remarkable tale of Firmin the rat. Born in a bookstore in a blighted 1960's Boston neighborhood, Firmin miraculously learns how to read by digesting his nest of books. Alienated from his family and unable to communicate with the humans he loves, Firmin quickly realizes that a literate rat is a lonely rat.

Following a harrowing misunderstanding with his hero, the bookseller, Firmin begins to risk the dangers of Scollay Square, finding solace in the Lovelies of the burlesque cinema. Finally adopted by a down-on-his-luck science fiction writer, the tide begins to turn, but soon they both face homelessness when the wrecking ball of urban renewal arrives.

In a series of misadventures, Firmin is ultimately led deep into his own imaginative soul - a place where Ginger Rogers can hold him tight and tattered books, storied neighborhoods, and down-and-out rats can find people who adore them. [taken from]

About the Author

Sam Savage grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the '40s and '50s. Then he went north, first to Boston and New York, and later to France and Germany. He studied at the University of Heidelberg and at Yale, eventually acquiring a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. He taught there, briefly and unhappily. It was a period when many had become convinced that there are no genuine philosophic problems, only genuine linguistic puzzles. This discovery did not leave any "career options" for Savage, since the only puzzle that interested him at that time was himself. In 1980 he went back south, to McClellanville, South Carolina (pop. 400), where he spent the next twenty-three years. He worked as a carpenter, a commercial fisherman, and a letterpress printer. He lived, however, mainly on a diminishing pile of inherited money and the labors of his wife, while he attempted to write, pretended to write, and often really did write. Most of the things he wrote have not survived. In 2003, he moved north again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin, where he now lives.

Savage has proved to be the most persistant and annoying of the Old Rat's fictions.

The above biography, taken from barnes&, is credited to the author's official web site (, which unfortunately now seems to be permanently unavailable. There is, however, a Wikipedia entry.


Shortlisted for this month

Book selectors can bring one, two or three books for selection, although it's usual to bring three. This month, Laura's other suggestions were:

Handling The Undead

Handling The Undead

The acclaim that greeted John Avide Lindqvist's earlier book, Let the Right One In, was quite unprecedented. Over the years, there had been many attempts to revivify (no pun intended) the vampire novel, with varying degrees of success. But Lindqvist's fascinating take on the genre took the books world by storm, and his innovations were consolidated by a highly successful movie. The fusion of different elements (including pre-teen protagonist and the customary sexual undercurrents of the genre) was handled with absolute authority, and it's refreshing to report that Lindqvist's latest novel, Handling the Undead, builds on the success of the earlier novel - and adds a whole new strata [sic] of interest. Inevitably, there is not the sense of innovation of Let the Right One In - how could there be? - but there is much here that is new.

Stockholm is in the grip of strange and unsettling events; a heatwave has the population sweltering - and a strange phenomena [sic] seems to be making it impossible for people to switch their lights and electrical appliances on and off. But - most disturbing of all - in the city morgue, the recently deceased are once again becoming ambulatory. And the walking dead want one thing: to come home.

As the above suggests, this is a very different kettle of fish from Let the Right One In, and what makes it particularly intriguing is the elegiac tone to be found alongside the bizarre supernatural happenings. Handling the Undead is unlikely to enjoy the level of success of the earlier book (even when the inevitable movie appears), but it is a highly commendable follow-up. [Barry Forshaw, writing on Amazon]

There's a Wikipedia page, as well as another review on

About the Author

John Ajvide Lindqvist was born in 1968 and raised in Blackeberg, where his first novel, Let the Right One In (2004) takes place. After a career as a magician and standup comedian, he was finally horror writer. He has also including written scripts for television series Reuter & Skoog, Commission, and the film version of Let the Right One In. John Ajvide Lindqvist assigned GP's Literature and Selma Lagerlof Literature Prize for his writing. His books are published in 30 countries, including Australia, China, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Russia, UK and USA.

The above is taken from Lindqvist's website (for which you either need to be able to read Swedish, or squirt it through Google Chrome's translator - hence the rather broken English given here) and naturally he also has a Wikipedia entry.



(First selected in January 2010)

For a novel whose title has entered the language, it's no surprise there's a Wikipedia page, from which comes this:
Catch-22 is a satirical, historical novel by the American author Joseph Heller, first published in 1961. The novel, set during the later stages of World War II from 1943 onwards, is frequently cited as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century. It has a distinctive non-chronological style where events are described from different characters' points of view and out of sequence so that the time line develops along with the plot.

The novel follows Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier, and a number of other characters. Most events occur while the airmen of the fictional Fighting 256th (or "two to the fighting eighth power") Squadron are based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy.

'There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. 'Orr' was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.'

There are also 257 reviews of the work on Amazon, if you're interested.

About the Author

Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 - December 12, 1999) was an American satirical novelist, short story writer and playwright. He wrote the influential novel Catch-22 about American servicemen during World War II. The title of this work entered the English lexicon to refer to absurd, no-win choices, particularly in situations in which the desired outcome of the choice is an impossibility, and regardless of choice, the same negative outcome is a certainty.

Heller is widely regarded as one of the best post-World War II satirists. Although he is remembered primarily for Catch-22, his other works center on the lives of various members of the middle class and remain exemplars of modern satire.

The above taken from the author's Wikipedia entry. Heller doesn't seem to inspire the kind of fan-boy dedication to the upkeep of his online presence that some authors enjoy. For instance this page doesn't even acknowledge that he's dead, despite it being almost ten years ago.


Previous Months' Book Choices

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