Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Camel Bookmobile"

Masha Hamilton’s first novel, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, was a Booksense pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her second novel, The Distance Between Us, was named one of the best books of 2004 by Library Journal.

Her latest novel, The Camel Bookmobile, will be published by HarperCollins in 2007.

I invited Masha to put the new book to "page 69 test;" here is what she reported:
The page 69 test – what an intriguing idea. Like some of your previous authors, I opened a bit nervously to page 69 in my galley of The Camel Bookmobile. And much to my surprise, the McLuhan theory seemed to hold.

The Camel Bookmobile is my third novel, coming out in April from HarperCollins, and based on an actual bookmobile that delivers books on the backs of dromedaries to semi-nomadic settlements in the African bush of Kenya near the border with Somalia. Earlier this year, I visited the region to make some runs with the bookmobile, and was very moved to see how the books were received in these isolated communities where, traditionally, the illiteracy rate has stood at about 85 percent. You can see the pics and a video on my website.

The novel is about Fi Sweeney, an American librarian who goes to Kenya to kick-start the program and runs headlong into cultural differences that muddy waters whenever Americans charge into other countries to “help,” even with something as well-intentioned as combating illiteracy. This is from the back cover of the novel’s U.K. edition:

Once a fortnight, the settlement of Mididima set deep in the dusty Kenyan desert awaits the arrival of three camels laden down with panniers of books. This is the Camel Bookmobile, a scheme set up to bring books to scattered nomadic tribes so tiny and far-flung they have almost become invisible.

Into their world comes an unexpected wealth of literature - from the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Homer to vegetarian cookbooks and true stories of grizzly bear attacks. Kanika, a young girl who lives with her grandmother, devours every book she can lay her hands on. Her best friend is Scar Boy, a child who was mauled at the age of three by a hyena and is considered an outcast by the rest of the tribe. They are joined by Matani the village teacher, his alluring wife Jwahir and the drummaker Abayomi, as well as Mr Abasi, the camel driver, who is convinced that one of the camels is possessed by the spirit of his dead mother.

The only condition of The Camel Bookmobile is that every book must be returned each week or else the visits will cease. Then one day a book is stolen...

Page 69 begins just when Fi Sweeney learns two books are missing.

Oh, the arrogance in the boy’s tone. It was clear now, and not only Matani could hear it. Mr. Abasi glared. “You don’t know where they are. Isn’t that the definition of lost?”

Matani cleared his throat, then spoke. “The boy means that his brother knows where they are – he must, of course he does – but he is not well today.”

“Not well enough to speak?” Mr. Abasi asked. “Unusual. But if so, then what about yesterday? It is a surprise that we have come to you today, the very same day twice a month that we make this jarring, endless trip?”

The chatter under the acacia tree, Matani noticed, had evaporated. The others all paused, their attention drawn to the knot of Badru, the librarian from Garissa, the teacher – and now the foreign woman, who was approaching with her clipboard.

“Matani?” Miss Sweeney said. “Is something wrong?”

“A young man has failed to return two books,” Mr. Abasi said.

Among the people of Mididima, whispers moved like wind swirling through the bush. Matani made out two words, and he was sure Badru heard them also. “Scar boy.”

Mr. Abasi’s voice floated above all their heads. “We will pack up our load now,” he said. “No one will be allowed to keep any books. If you find the missing volumes, send word. In that case, we will come back to you again – unless, of course, your day is already filled by another tribe wishing to be visited by this library.”

The murmuring undertone was replaced by the subtle sound of grips tightening around book covers, and then a sharp-edged belligerent silence. One young boy bent down and snatched up a volume at his feet.
Many thanks to Masha for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Camel Bookmobile, and here to read a brief essay on the story behind the book.

Among the advance praise for the novel:
“Masha Hamilton’s magical new novel transported me across the globe, teaching me about faith, ambition, and the surprise of love. Fi is a character to fall for and cheer for. Her interactions with the people of Mididima are spellbinding and broke my heart.”
--Amanda Eyre Ward, author of Sleep Toward Heaven and How to be Lost

“I’ve always known that books can change lives. Masha Hamilton has opened my eyes to how books can also change entire communities, and not always in the ways one might expect. The Bookmobile is a brave and astonishing novel; it transported me to a world I hadn’t known, and my life is all the richer for it.”
-–Gayle Brandeis, author of Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds

“In this vivid, absorbing novel Masha Hamilton transports her readers, even more surely than the camels do books, to the village of Mididima and the struggle between traditional values and western education. Richly peopled, full of conflicts and surprises, The Camel Bookmobile made me think and feel in all the best ways. My only regret was that the book had to end.”
--Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona, Homework and other books
Visit Masha's website for more useful links--including excerpts from all of her books, photos and a video for The Camel Bookmobile, interviews, reading group information, and some interesting bits about her pre-novelist biography.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue