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'Firmin' is the second fiction book from American author Sam Savage. Firmin is a rat - a highly educated, extremely cultured rat, who recounts his life growing up with his siblings and mother Flo in a run-down old bookshop in Boston, USA.
Being the runt of his litter he's normally trampled on at meal times and so resorts to nibbling on books for sustenance. Strangely, the more books he eats, the more intelligent he becomes, and when his family eventually leaves the bookshop, he begins to read instead of chew. We learn of Firmin's unrequited love for shop owner Norman Shine, his unlikely friendship with struggling author Jerry Magoon, and his fascination with 'adult' movies.
This is a very strange story, but I enjoyed it all the same. Firmin himself is a very comical character, a bit like an eccentric, well-read old man, trapped in a rat's body. A particular highlight for me was his desperate attempt to learn sign language; frustrated at not being able to speak, he rehearses the signs for 'good-bye zipper' and terrifies a woman and her child after a fruitless attempt to communicate with them.
However I found the humour was always tinged with sadness as our peculiar rat so desperately wishes to be human; especially poignant is when he imagines himself in top hat and tails as Fred Astaire or Cole Porter, while playing on a toy piano.
'Firmin' was an enjoyable read, not too taxing, and I easily finished it off in just a few sittings. Despite its cute little illustrations and perhaps child-like idea, it's not suitable for children as it includes quite a bit of strong language. If you enjoy reading books about books, you might enjoy this as the author describes how reading can enrich your life, and cleverly integrates various book titles into the story.
The book is available with a few differently designed covers, and a particularly special version has several chewed up pages (still readable of course) which would look great on anyone's bookshelf.
Before I begin I must first make two confessions about this book;
1)I was attracted to this book first and foremost by the binding and cover illustration. Anyone that is not charmed by a rat chewed hardback won't love this as much as I did. Being an illustrator I do tend to go for unusual covers
2)Having read the back of the book I discovered that within its pages were held three things I love; books, burlesque, and rats. Mostly rats.
Firmin, a a rat and a runt at that, is the lowest of the low straight from birth. Raised in a tumbledown bookshop known as Pembroke Books, in a decaying and soon to be demolished neighbourhood of Boston, he learns quickly that it is a dog eat dog world, or perhaps a rat eat
Firstly nibbling on the bedding his mother provides from a large book, Firmin soon discovers a love of all books; not just for eating them, but for reading them too.
When his family leaves the bookshop on being abandoned by Flo, the fumbling mother, Firmin stays behind, where he makes his home amongst the many books, nooks and crannies. He also becomes distantly acquainted with Norman Shine, the owner of the shop.
As the days and weeks begin to pass, Firmin develops an insatiable and certainly out of the ordinary hunger for literature; he dabbles in everything he can and soon is very much aware of the world around him, and, sadly, what life really means for a lowly creature such as a rat. He describes himself as 'bourgeois', and fantasizes about what life would be like as one of the many characters he reads about.
Venturing out into the world, Firmin discovers the 'lovelies' at the local burlesque theatre, and also learns about film and even more characters he dreams of becoming.
As more businesses close and leave town, Firmin is aware the the neighbourhood's days are numbered. Empty shops, bars and other establishments face demolition, and the slow realisation that life as he knows and dreams about will not be around forever.
I cant say much more about the plot without giving bits away. I confess it took three attempts to read this but I'm glad I persevered. It is a bit heavy going to begin with; Sam Savage describes almost everything in minute detail and as this story is told by a rat, that includes the smells and subtle sounds a human character might miss. Certainly, you wouldn't expect any of your average cuddly rat characters to express themselves with the language Firmin does, but perhaps this is because they are not so well read!
For me, this book is full of charm, and well worth a try. I will admit it made me incredibly sad, exploring the idea of having your home and everything you know destroyed, but also the insignificance a rat faces every day. Not to mention I once kept a pet rat and this endearing little character brought back a lot of fond memories; for me it made the story more believable.
Even so, to identify with Firmin, who is, in his infinite wisdom and humility so very human, you don't have to have necessarily known a rat to understand one.
One last thing; if the story doesn't make you smile, the addition of dozens of little rats printed on every other page certainly will!
Written by Sam Savage, 'Firmin - Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife', is the touching story of an intelligent individual who had the misfortune of being born a rat.
Raised in the basement of an old bookshop, Firmin is the runt of the litter, and is shunned by his mother and bullied by his many brothers and sisters who don't understand him ( ...after all, they are rats!). With feeding difficult, due to too many siblings, Firmin seeks alternative nourishment, and starts by eating the nest his mother made from torn-up book pages. With his taste for books growing at an alarming rate, Firmin seeks out new literary treats in other parts of the shop, and whilst chewing his way through the classics, our furry protagonist miraculously gains the ability to read! This new found talent leads to Firmin enjoying books as a decent read rather than as a decent meal!
Firmin spends most of his time (when he's not in a dream world) watching the comings and goings of the bookshop from his various spy holes. During this time he builds a strong (but sadly, entirely fictional) relationship with the shop owner 'Norman', whom he sees as a kindred spirit. Unfortunately, Firmin soon discovers that Norman could never live up to the imaginary vision of him that he has created in his head.
Firmin's other great love is to escape to the local movie theatre where he falls in love with human women (or 'Lovelies' as he calls them) like Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers and various other women in the porn films which the cinema shows late at night.
Life is often hard for our book reading-rodent, as food becomes scarce and the people move away from the neighbourhood during its regeneration. As a result, Firmin retreats more frequently into his imagination as the story goes on and the buildings around him disappear. Many readers will encounter (as I did) genuinely heartbreaking moments during the book, for example, when Firmin describes the pain he feels at looking at his own reflection, only to see a rat, and also the frustration he feels at not being able to communicate with the world he so desperately loves.
Although I've made it sound like a fairly depressing read, the book is not all doom and gloom - Fermin does find a friend in the lovely 'Jerry', an author and fellow dreamer, and Sam Savage does use a bit of humour throughout the story. One example of this is when Firmin describes eating lettuce for first time and compares it to a Jane Austin novel.
I read this novel for my book group and some of the members said they were disappointed. I think they were expecting something a little more fun, perhaps along the lines of Disney's 'Ratatouille' - but I was glad that it wasn't like that, as it was much more interesting and compelling (and less gross) than a rat cooking! I grew to love this little guy and was at a bit of a loss when I finished reading the book. Firmin is a character I can relate to as I'm a bit of a daydreamer myself, always imagining I'm someone else, off having amazing adventures.
All in all, Firmin is a heart warming and somewhat tragic tale of escapism and unrequited love, written with a tenderness and sincerity that will have you looking at rodents in a completely different way.
The paperback version of the book can be purchased from amazon.co.uk for £4.65.
*I've also published this review under my own name on Waterstones.com*
I was looking forward to reading this book, because I love rats. I kept pet rats for many years and they are intelligent creatures with great personality. I get increasingly fed up with reading books where rats are portrayed as evil carriers of disease who are dirty and dangerous. I was hoping ''Firmin'' would be something different - and it is.
Firmin is a male rat and the book is his life story. He is rather a unique rat. After discovering that books taste rather nice, he begins to love them, eventually discovering they are even better to read than they are to eat! Living above a bookshop means he has plenty of chances to explore and soon, his interests widen and he becomes knowledgeable on a variety of subjects, as he reads more and more of the books there.
Growing away from his dysfunctional family, he prefers a human world, first spending hours observing Norman, the owner of the bookshop. Later on, he lives with Jerry Magoon and sees a close-up view of life with a human. He reads the local newspaper and becomes concerned with the state of the city too, as things seem to be falling apart.
But while being a unique kind of rat living in a human world, he retains his rat-like characteristics. He doesn't talk to humans (Well, he does, but they only hear squeaks.) or wear clothes. He scurries round foraging for food, moves like a rat, tries to avoid traffic and enjoys watching Ginger Rogers films at the local cinema. Well, okay, the last one's a bit different.
Firmin is a great character and very easy to like. He isn't perfect, of course, but his faults are pretty cute too. As the story is told from his point of view, you get inside his mind very quickly and see the world from his perspective - often high up, from a small space.
The book has a cute picture of Firmin on the cover and has a few black and white illustrations dotted in the pages, as well as regular appearances of tiny rats drawn throughout. At first glance, you would expect this to be a book for kids - but it isn't. I wouldn't give this to kids aged under fifteen or so. It contains swearing, sex and adult themes and the tone is often rather dark and depressing.
In some ways, this lack of obvious market may make this novel less successful than it deserves to me. I'm not sure many adults would be happy to be seen reading what looks like a kids' book - yet it isn't suitable for children because of the content. I think both men and women would enjoy this book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves rats or books. It is peppered with literary references and I enjoyed these.
The writing is often extremely clever. At times, it is very funny and it is also depressing in equal measure, but well worth a read. I did find it hard to get into at first, as the author Sam Savage has quite a stylised way of writing, but once you get into it, it is easy to read and enjoyable.
The book is only 181 pages long, so can be read in a few days. I hope there will be other similar books written by Savage, as I would like to read more of his work. Firmin is a great character and one which I will remember. Like a good friend, I felt a pang of sadness shutting the book for the last time and bidding farewell to my new little rat friend.