Monday, May 26, 2008

Shear Joy (sorry, I couldn't help myself)

Here in Iowa we read books no one else reads. Our amazing local independent bookstore Prairie Lights and its even more amazing bookseller Paul Ingram ensure that we have a lot of quiet little books that end up having legs -- or in this case, many, many legs.

I finally picked up Leonie Swann's sheep murder mystery (baaa!) Three Bags Full last weekend and grazed through it over the past few days while accomplishing a lot of nothing in my first post-graduate school week. This is one of two under-the-radar books that have sold a couple hundred copies locally just by word-of-mouth.

Only one thing speaks against this book finding success in the marketplace. It is a translation from the German. Normally that would be enough to damn it to obscurity, but this one has a lot more going for it, namely:

Who: A flock of sheep, each with its own carefully drawn personality.

Where: A Irish rural town named Glennkill (also the name of the original German novel).

What: A murdered shepherd, his sheep set on solving the mystery. And lots of wooly puns.

How: The shepherd used to read some novels about a women named Pamela to the sheep. Not only do they understand English, they have a bizarre conception of how humans work based on Pamela's melodramatic exploits. Their detective work involves standing around, chewing the cud, and listening to people in the town talking.

Why: This book probably should have had a subtitle that read Three Bags Full: An Existential Comedy, for sheep who dabble in matters of life and death, however stupid they may seem, confront the same existential questions we all face when circumstances lead us astray.

I'll give Ms. Swann some bonus points for capitalizing on the vastly underutilized sense of smell throughout the book. Not since Patrick Sueskind's Das Parfum have so many players in one book been characterized by their scent. Also, I don't know who designed this book at Random House, but there's a flip book in the corner of each page of a sheep running through a pasture. Brilliant.

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