Reviews of books (fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels) that I’ve read, and the occasional review of odd things like podcasts or lecture series too.

Re-reading Douglas Coupland: Miss Wyoming, Generation X, Microserfs & Girlfriend in a Coma

Douglas Coupland was my favourite author around the turn of the century – from when I randomly stumbled upon Microserfs in the library twenty years ago when I was 17 … to I don’t know, 2002-ish? when I started a new phase of my life.

These four were by far my favourite books of his and I re-read them regularly until about ten years ago – this is my first read-through since then. I’m reviewing them in chronological order, because it makes sense to plot Coupland’s (and my own) trajectory etc, but I read them in the order in the title (not that it really matters – or maybe it does).

Jump down to:

Generation X

Lacking a strong driving story arc or indepth character analysis, it’s hard to review this book in a conventional way. It’s part parable-stuffed framed narrative, part hipster-code-word dictionary. Even the sections of traditional narrative – when Andy goes home to visit his family or his drive to Mexico – are so beautifully poetically indulgent and dreamlike that they feel allegorical: the incidents are not as extreme as those that happen in later Coupland novels but they’re not realistic either. It’s a postmodern art piece more than a novel really – and like nearly all art, it does not exist within its own vacuum but it is shaped by its relationship with the viewer.

All of these books are in that special category for me – of media I first encountered when I was years, a decade or more even, younger than the characters but now I’m the same age or older than them. Generation X is interesting to me though because from the age of 17 until now, the age of 37, I feel like I’ve constantly identified with the characters as peers – not on the surface (born in the very last cohort of GenX, I had missed many of the cultural touchstones they reference or experience, like Vietnam or the overriding threat of nuclear war) but on an emotional level. (I believe) Coupland wrote the book to be about a group of people at a specific age (that Generation X) in a specific time (the end of history) but a lot of the characters’ experiences have persisted since then. Because of that and a few dated references aside, there is a new timelessness to the book: the ‘poverty jet set’, the people shut out/afraid of homeownership, those having a ‘mid-20s crisis’, the McJobs, and people feeling that they are living in a period where (almost simultaneously) too much and too little is happening — all of those things have been taken up and turned into a million Buzzfeed articles for Millenials to devour. (I also think Dag’s “cuddly nuclear bombs” theory has come true but it’s too long to go into here.)

gen-x-quotesThough it is a slight book, I think ‘Generation X’ has benefited from re-reads over the years. Each time I come back to it, I bring something new to it – where I am in life, how I feel, what I’ve discovered about myself and others – and I get something new out the stories that the characters share or find a fresh resonance in the little out-of-context text blocks scattered throughout.

I can also point to different parts and remember how I felt when different points of it leapt out at me – re-reading it is like re-experiencing my life. I also note with a nod that early reads planted seeds within me which I later ran with, most notably the proto-‘beautiful thing‘ memory recounting episode:

“After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of earth? What one moment for you defines what it’s like to be alive on this planet. What’s your takeaway? Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don’t count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you’re really alive.”

It is an essential book in my collection but I don’t think I can recommend the book to others any more. I’ve tried a few times and it’s not been very warmly received – probably because it’s a bit odd. I’m glad I found it when I did, and I look forward to it ageing and evolving with me.

Choice quotes:

“I broke out into a sweat and the words of Rilke, the poet, entered my brain — his notion that we are all of us born with a letter inside us, and that only if we are true to ourselves, may we be allowed to read it before we die.”

“There. I always wanted to do that.”

“Oh Andy … do you know what this is like? It’s like the dream everyone gets sometimes – the one where you’re in your house and suddenly discover that a new room that you never knew was there. But once you’ve seen the room you say to yourself ‘Oh how obvious – of course that room is there. It always has been.'”

“You give me and my friends a bum rap but I’d give all of this up in a flash if someone had a remotely plausible alternative. … I just get so sick of being jealous of everything … And it scares me that I don’t see a future. And I don’t understand this reflex of mine to be a smartass about everything. It really scares me. I may not look like I’m paying attention to anything, Andy, but I am. But I can’t allow myself to show it. And I don’t know why.”

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Review: ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

When I was a kid – what would be called a tween now, my brother and I watched Red Dwarf on almost constant repeat. I haven’t watched it in nearly two decades now but it, specifically the episode ‘Backwards’, was for obvious reasons the first thing that came to mind when I first started reading ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis.

In ‘Time’s Arrow’ as in the ‘Backwards’ world, Christmas sees people callously taking beloved toys from children, the Second World War sees millions of people being brought back to live and going to the toilet is – if you’re conventionally minded – deeply disturbing.

The novel starts with the death of the main character – or rather the moments fractionally before death as he is dragged into life by an assortment of medical personnel – and works forward, in jumps and starts, to his eventual birth. As an old man, he regurgitates food, scraps grease from his head to sell to the local pharmacy and slowly destroys his beautiful garden. As he grows younger, he acts callously towards those around him at first, then he grows kinder until after a final fizz of excitement, they calmly forever exit his life and his thoughts. And he becomes a doctor – a cruel man who makes relatively well people’s illnesses and injuries steadily worse before kicking them to the curb too. But all the while, he is plagued by mystery – a recurring girlfriend who says she knows his secret, peculiar postcards and dreams of horrors yet to come – and as he repeatedly flees his life, changing his name and travelling east (to New York, then to and across Europe), we realise where he’s going (or coming from) – that he was involved with those millions of people being brought back to life en masse in camps across Poland. After (before) that, the time goes incredibly quickly – his wife becomes steadily more frigid and distant until she disappears from his life, his mother turns up to replace her, and his dreams calm to colours and noises – and then just before the end, he – or perhaps rather the narrator – sees something unexpected: an arrow flying, point first.

It’s a strange book.

The narrator is both the main character and not him at the same time. The narrator exists inside the protagonist’s head and experiences everything he does, but is also separate from him, allowing commentary – and critically to start with, clarification. The narrator performs as our stand-in – aware that time is progressing backwards from “normal” and thus explaining things (like going to the toilet) that would be commonplace to the actual character – but this also distances us from the story: the narrator isn’t privy to the character’s innermost workings and doesn’t know what is to come any more than we do. Through the use of the narrator, we are saved from excess “spoilers” (just those hints and dreams) and we are prevented from identifying too strongly with, or feeling sympathy towards, the character who will in time do/has done horrendous things. Like with Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt in theatre, by being held at a distance, we consider the character and his actions intellectually rather than emotionally.

And there is a fair amount that is worth reacting to emotionally. Before the journey back to Europe and the big reveal, we see him objectifying women and treating them with utter disdain, and towards the end of the novel, we see he is barely kinder to his wife and he reacts coldly to the death of their daughter. But it is, of course, his actions during the war which are the most challenging. That it is happening in reverse – that he is bringing people to life rather than killing them – doesn’t make the events any less horrifying: torture is still torture whether it’s going forwards or backwards. The violence and terror of the final solution remains because it wasn’t just one big act at the end but a series of heinous, dehumanising acts played out over years: that the indignities drop away rather than build over time doesn’t mean the journey is not still atrocious. It is the reverse timeline here more so than the narrator that distances us from the action, and in doing so we are forced to reflect in a new manner on the events with which we are familiar.

What impacted me the most was a notion not explicitly discussed by the narrator in the text – that a universe where time flows backwards is one of ultimate predestination, where cause and effect are utterly devoid of our understanding of them. As Rimmer says in another episode of ‘Red Dwarf’:

It will be happened; it shall be going to be happening; it will be was an event that will have been taken place in the future.

The character in ‘Time’s Arrow‘ has no ability to change his life any more than Lister could change what he had for breakfast yesterday: he is plagued by nightmares for years but can’t change his actions to prevent the source of them. He has, in essence, no free will. This both intrigued me on an intellectual level but also affected me on a more fundamental one – after reading for longer than usual, I felt disorientated on my return to reality, as if my actions didn’t matter: whatever was going to happen would happen however I acted. A very strange feeling indeed!

(It’s a coincidence that I read this book shortly after reading ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August‘ – another book about time (or at least the character’s sense of time) working abnormally. I had planned to read ‘Life After Life‘ next but I think I might go for a book where time progresses in a straight line in a forward direction instead, just for the novelty of it ;))

Review: ‘The Worrier’s Guide To Life’ (and the ‘Doodling for…’ books) by Gemma Correll

A few weeks ago, this image – a play on the ‘Warrior’ yoga pose – popped up on my Twitter timeline and it made me first nod and laugh, then almost instantly follow the illustrator Gemma Correll and buy her books.

The Worrier Pose picture is a perfect example of the majority of the content of “The Worrier’s Guide to Life” – cute, funny illustrations about what it’s like to be a person prone to worrying about EVERYTHING. (The fact I’d seen it before I bought the book is also a perfect example of my main problem with the book – looking at Gemma’s Twitter feed had “spoiled” a good third of the illustrations for me. Still, her online work amuses me so I’m happy to support her.)

Like Soppy which I reviewed a few weeks ago, it’s a collection of vaguely themed illustrations rather than a narrative – I am being very generous to myself including it in my graphic novel count really ;) Correll makes lovely use of colour (or perhaps I should rephrase that to “use of lovely colours”) and her style has the perfect “voice” for the ‘worrier’ – cute but they feel alive and based in reality, not overproduced to the point of sterility — and that’s what inspired me to buy her “Doodling for…” books as well: “Doodling for Cat People” & “Doodling for Dog People” (for I am both).

The books follow the same structure, built around a core of step-by-step doodling cats/dogs in various poses and states of fluffiness. I love step-by-step drawing tutorials – I think they’re a perfect confidence builder for hesitant doodlers like myself – and Correll’s designs are simple yet full of potential for customisation. Aside from the full body poses, there are sections focusing on facial expressions and accessories (cats in hats!) for adding further character — I was surprised how quickly I could whip up cartoons of our three goofballs with enough differences to distinguish them and their character quirks.

(I have, for obvious sad reasons, focused mainly on the cat book so far. I did though flick through the Dog book and was a little disappointed to find there wasn’t a step-by-step for a spaniel – when they are OBJECTIVELY the best type of dog. She does include examples of lots of different breeds at the start of the book, and a cocker is in there.)

Since they’re designed to be a “drawn in here directly” workbook, there is a lot of empty space in the books and there is some filler too (including some pages directly duplicated between the two books). They’re pretty expensive really for the amount of content.

I’d say all these books are designed to be gifts – not exactly great value for money but fun, intelligently produced (nice designs and the spines fold flat as they should do for the drawing ones) and in the case of the latter two, pleasantly interactive & inspiring. I’d recommend them as gifts but think the “Step-by-Step Drawing Animals” (which I bought for our 9 year old niece) is better value for money if you’re buying it yourself to work on your doodles.

Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I can’t remember how I heard about “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North but I do remember being seized with an urge to read it posthaste.

So I read it. It was …. ok. It reminded me of the books I used to read when I worked at the university – when I had my commute and lunchtimes to pass buried in words, and I’d go through three or four books a week. I read more fiction then, picking up anything that sounded vaguely interesting and by and large, those books, like this one, held my attention, enjoyably passed the time but ultimately didn’t wow me.

I love the premise: that’s what grabbed me to begin with. As the title suggests, our protagonist Harry August is a little different to the rest of us – he consciously lives his life over and over again, knowing how to do things different each time around. It’s not an unprecedented idea – the do-over concept is a common trope in fiction (to pick three recent well-known examples, ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘All You Need Is Kill’/‘Edge of Tomorrow’, and ‘Life After Life’) but it still intrigues us because I think we’ve all imagined ourselves in that position: personally, I often wonder what I would do different if an adult-me found herself going through her younger tribulations, how I’d make a quick buck and how I’d have to contrive event to ensure I end up with my favourite things from this life in my strange new reality.

One thing that sets ‘Harry August’ apart from the other examples I’ve given – and my own daydreaming – is that Harry isn’t the only one with this power: it’s not a universal condition but there are enough ‘kalachakra’ to form the Chronos Club, an international organisation for mutual financial, physical and mental support across the centuries of their existence. Harry finds out about the Club towards the end of his fourth life and it quickly becomes a central part of the story, allowing Harry to make valuable friends – and enemies. I thought this club was a captivating idea – and loved how its members helped “extract” each other from the tedium of childhood, could pass messages back and forth across centuries, and played hide-and-seek games with each other to pass the time. The people Harry meets through the Club fill out the world – the only constants across his lives except for the family he flees from early on – and we get glimpses of how other people deal with the experience of extended existence.

So it had an appealing premise and a solid backbone – but it was not the book I wanted to read. About halfway in, it becomes a thriller: the bookish doctor/theologian/physicist becomes a spy, an action hero, a criminal mastermind, and ultimately, the man who saves the world, growing increasingly omnipotent and violent along the way. I didn’t want that. I’m not a fan of thrillers generally – I like my fiction to be about people not action – and that’s what I wanted here. I wanted to hear more about how it felt to interact with “linears” (as the kalachakra call them) – his family, his partners: I wanted to hear whether it felt like they had one life, or many, because he saw them in all of his; I wanted to know if he pulled back from them because it was too hard to lose them, or whether he enjoyed their fleeting existence; and I wanted to discover how he felt towards them (us) generally, if he looked down on them (on their stupidity in comparison to his wealth of experience & knowledge, their concern with what he could see were trivialities in the long run, their inability to truly have any impact on the world & time) or whether he was envious of the simplicity of their single lives. We had fleeting hints at these sort of things – a wife in an early life who reappeared later for example – but I wanted more. Similarly, he makes friends with other kalachakra but with most, we only see surface level relationships: they’re typically tools rather than developed characters in their own right.

(I can’t talk about his main relationship, with another kalachakra, without spoiling everything but it felt one sided to me: that the other person had a genuine connection with Harry, seeking him out when logically he shouldn’t have, while Harry was only there for carefully calculated reasons. This, strangely, made me feel the other character was more sympathetic than Harry.)

I also wanted to know more about the effect of centuries of experience has on his mind. He is unusual even for a kalachakra because he remembers everything that has ever happened to him in every lifetime (most only remember the broadstrokes) – which I imagine would have its disadvantages as well as plus points. We know a few very extreme incidents play on his mind (for example, Phearson, in his fourth life) but don’t hear if centuries of little things builds up too. (I’ve only got a pretty good memory and have built up an almost unwieldly amount of day to day nonsense in just 36 years.) Towards the end of the book, he talks of being increasingly “dead inside” as he commits heinous acts in order to save the world – but it doesn’t feel like we really knew him as being “alive inside” first. Even after spending centuries with him, I felt like we didn’t know him – the real him – much at all.

His exceptional memory becomes his main superpower: he can learn all sorts of skills (languages, sciences and moneymaking schemes) and this turns him into a bit of a Superman – and like with Superman, it quickly becomes a bit boring. He needs perfect Russian language skills down to regional accent? Done. He needs ace fighting skills and groups of mercenaries available in every country? Done. He (and the other main character) need to understand the impossibly advanced quantum physics/engineering/chemistry? Snooze. He is even so awesome that he survives “the Forgetting”, a full brain wipe, not once but twice. Erasing their past lives is a form of death for the kalachakra and we see the impact that it has on the individual and, if carried out en masse, on the whole structure of kalachakra society – but Mr Invincible is fine. That became my main issue with the second half of the book: once the action got underway, I didn’t fear for him or doubt that he would win in the end, but because we lost many of his compatriots, it became flatter, increasingly single player – just Harry versus the antagonist. I kept waiting for a twist – to learn that Harry wasn’t as indomitable as he thought would have cut through this Marty Sue falseness – but it, disappointingly, never came.

Even with its surface nature and a plot as straightforward as possible in a non-linear, multiple-lifetime recount, the book felt rather cluttered. It was overly wordy/overly written in parts and detail/theory dumping in others. (This was particularly problematic for me early on, with the glut of information about his extended biological family – I almost wanted to put the book down at the point.) With the iterative nature of his existence, I happily accepted some repetition but a few parts felt like they were treading water: for example, though I understand the necessary building, his second innings as the “Secretary of State” hit many of the notes of the first which slowed the pace at a key point.

Finally, at the very beginning and very end of the book, it is framed as a deathbed confession to the antagonist, but in the middle, it seems to forget that device: we’re told background that the antagonist would blatantly know or would not care about in the slightest – not the type of stuff that someone in agony would bother spending time on typing out. I also spotted a couple typos and a few small inconsistencies (things I thought would be part of a twist but which didn’t go anywhere, so that they just stood out as odd instead): nothing major but final confirmation of a growing feeling that the book could have been much improved by a good editor.

Despite writing a thousand pretty negative words here, I’m not saying it’s a bad book. It kept me gripped and it didn’t languish on my bedside table, forlorn and increasingly dusty, because I would rather read Twitter than it at bedtime. I just wanted it to be smaller, and it went big. For people that like more action packed books, I imagine they’ll love it. I told John the premise and he’s intrigued too – he’s not particularly one for thrillers, but he jokes that his ideal novel is a bullet point list of facts so maybe he won’t mind the superficial characters. Meanwhile, I’ve bought ‘Life After Life‘ and added that to my reading pile – perhaps that will sate my urge for a more inward facing telling.

Review: Soppy by Philippa Rice

Soppy by Philippa Rice is a small collection of illustrations rather than a graphic novel – but boy, I have never known a comic to so accurate be summed up in its title! (This isn’t a bad thing.)

The (biographic) story is really basic – our two characters meet, date, and move in together – and we see cute set pieces from along that path. We see a few of their hobbies/interests, but we’re told very little about their actual characters – and we don’t know why there was a need to buy milkshakes near the end – which makes the scenes both specific and generic enough that every happy couple will see themselves in the figures. (I pointed out the Carcassonne page and the most appropriate set of sleeping positions to John and we were soppy ourselves.)

The artwork is cute – there is no better word for it. Rice makes good use of her three colour (black, white and red) palette and I wasn’t surprised to see that she has an interest in fibre arts because there is such lovely, simple attention to detail on the textiles throughout, which contrasts with the clean, stylised flatness elsewhere. I also liked that she chose to make her avatar a little podgy – zaftig – rather than svelte.

It doesn’t really try to be more than it is – a modern, less-naked ‘Love Is…’ comic. I imagine it’ll be bought a lot this week (given it’s Valentine’s Day on Sunday) and I think it’ll be largely well received. It is soppy but you know, that’s alright once in a while: read it when you’re in the right mood and you’ll find it lovely; read it on a cynical day and you might want to vomit.

It reminded me of “Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed?“, Liz Prince’s comic collection about her then-current relationship: they come from a very different aesthetic position but the charming content is similar. Both will remain on my bookshelf for when I want a drop of sweetness in my life.

Review: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut by Giulia Enders is an excellent, readable book, shedding light on one of the most underrated parts of our body.

The book is divided into three broad sections: first, the physiology from the mouth to the bum (though it actually starts at the bum, since that’s the bit that gets our juvenile attention, then doubles back to the other end); next, anomalies in the system and how it interacts with other bits of us; and finally, the micro-organisms that live with(in) us, where they come from and how we should treat them.

For obvious, self-obsessed reasons, I found the section on the interactions between the gut and the brain (and thus mental health) particularly interesting but wished the section on vomiting had included a section on people who don’t/can’t vomit. I also enjoyed the section of helicobacter pylori – why it’s not all bad – and was inspired to be generally a bit nicer to my microbiome in the future. Over the years, for one reason or another, I’ve picked up a fair bit of the information covered in the book but it was still useful to read it all as a single, integrated narrative.

The style of the book is as noteworthy as the content: it’s written in a friendly, fun manner with cute little pen drawings to illustrate the action of villi or how microbacteria can be caught in the air using iodine crystals. As well as the actual illustrations, Enders illuminates everything with analogies – my favourite perhaps being the parallel between the reason why it’s hard to poo when sat up straight and getting grounded for squirting a sibling in the face with a garden hose. Very occasionally – two or three times at most – these get in the way (they’re either cumbersome or actually confuse the issue) but mostly they serve a useful purpose.

An almost overly confident tone is used throughout, treating everything that isn’t explicitly qualified as solid fact. A few times, I felt that this tone was exploited to present debatable theories as gospel — especially in the chattier bits, she would allude to/reference the common prevailing opinion on the subject for the sake of a joke or neat closing line, when the new research on the subject presents a muddier or contrary position. There is a lengthy reference list at the back of the book but nothing is cited/footnoted directly — and this made it feel like a lighter, less substantiated book than it really is. (I realise this is a common problem with pop science books.)

Overall though, it’s a great book – interesting, informative and a genuine pleasure to read. I’d recommend it to anyone with a gut or the desire to relay the specific texture of their poo.