Read, dammit.

Books are fun. Read 'em whenever you can.

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Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

I'm a writer, podcaster and skills coach in Vancouver, BC. I have two legs, but often misplace the left one. If you see me operating this blog in an erratic or dangerous manner, please smile, nod and back your way out of the room slowly.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Girlfriend in a Coma - Douglas Coupland

Girlfriend in a Coma
Douglas Coupland

Published: 1997
Read: April 2005

Capsule: Karen McNeil starts as a typical bored high schooler, giggling with girlfriends, exasperating boys, and experimenting with sex. When she tells her high school senior boyfriend that she will go away for a very long time -- just after they lose their virginities to each other -- he thinks it's just some female mindfuck -- the title of the book should tell you that she ends up being right, only she doesn't go away so much as to sleep. She gives birth while in a coma, and the father (and narrator of the story), Richard, allows the baby's grandparents to raise her. For a time, things are pretty bleak, with Richard spiraling into alcoholism and their friends getting pulled into drug abuse, until Karen re-awakens more than ten years later. After that, the story gets, well, weird. That she shows no cerebral signs of damage is the least odd of the remaining plot points, which I won't spoil here.

Trade Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 0006485979
Reagan Books

Strangely enough, this was my first foray into Douglas Coupland's novel-length work. No, I've never read Generation X or Microserfs, both of which aren't merely career-defining; they're era-defining. Along with William Gibson, Coupland has genrified, vocabularised and otherwise help shape the public view of the information age. Like Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Gibson (cyberspace), Coupland has done something few writers can boast: create vocabulary that has become regular usage within his lifetime.

I picked this copy of Girlfriend in a Coma up for $5 at a used book store on Granville Street, and absolutely devoured it. It's really three novels in one, but all three parts are examples of consummate storytelling. The first part, literally: in setting up the story, we meet Richard and Karen, two high school sweethearts who have their first sexual experience in a snowbank while night-skiing on Grouse Mountain. The characters are utterly real (and all-too familiar): the narrator is an awkward, inward teen who in lieu of his myriad emotions, tends to grunt at his bright, talkative girlfriend. He, like most teenaged guys -- hell, like most guys -- is completely mystified as to why a beautiful, vivacious woman like Karen would have anything to do with him.

She tells him that she has had strange dreams of late, and that dark times, they are a-comin'. By graduation, she is both pregnant and -- cue the title -- in a coma. The other two parts of the book are spent taking shots at human nature. Just about everyone in the book squanders their opportunities: whether hand-picked for model shoots around the world or doomed for a life of Joe jobs in North Vancouver, every one of Karen's friends end up hooked on drugs or booze. The parents are self-absorbed and thus clueless, and nobody is saved either by the child Megan or by the awakening of skeletal Karen.

Her return bodes well for Richard personally, but bad for the world; she has come back to witness the end of the world. There are spirits, rains of fire, lootings and death without rhyme or reason. It's a bizarre story, but an enjoyable one -- I'll definitely read more Coupland when the chance permits, and recommend that anyone into contemporary literature give him a gander.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad - Robert Kiyosaki

Rich Dad, Poor Dad
What the Rich Teach Their Kids about Money that the Poor and Middle Class Do Not

Robert Kiyosaki

Published: May 2000
Read: March 2005

Capsule: Robert Kiyosaki uses vague stories from his youth to compare those who own or invest in businesses (his friend's, "rich" dad) and the average working man (his real, "poor" dad). The books in this series are repetitive and preachy, but have nuggets worth exploring. It sounds like a trite website testimonial, but this book was honestly a big part of my financial renaissance.

Trade Paperback: 207 pages
ISBN: 0446677450
Warner Books

Okay, Robert Kiyosaki doesn't need any more advertising. His brainwashed minions are everywhere, promoting the Rich Dad, Poor Dad empire. You could spend the rest of your life playing the Rat Race boardgame, attending seminars and networking with highly motivated people who want you as a part of their personal get rich-slow scheme.

While it looks and sounds suspicious, and certainly has enough holes and flaws for skeptics to skewer, there are grains of truth and inspiration in Mr Kiyosaki's work. The books are repetitive, overly simple and mostly vague inspirational messages that you, too, could be rich if you think outside the box. But therein lies his greatest conceit: those who choose to view his books are repetitive and vague are destined to work for the rest of their lives. Those who look for, and find, the inspiration and motivation in these simple games and tomes have a shot at getting out of the cheque-to-cheque grind.

There is no great conspiracy to keep you down. There are, however, many more mechanisms built to make the rich richer than those built to give ordinary people a shot at early retirement. Books like this, at least, give normal folk like me something they wouldn't have otherwise: a glimpse of possibility.

The Pleasure of My Company - Steve Martin

The Pleasure of My Company
Steve Martin

Published: October 2003
First Read: December 2003
Second Read: March 2005

Capsule: Daniel Pecan Cambridge makes Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets look like an outgoing casanova. Martin's trademark intellectual goofiness is here in spades; also present are hope and a bucket of heartwarming truth.

Hardback: 144 pages
ISBN: 0786869216
Hyperion Books

Steve Martin is quietly producing some of the best fiction of the last twenty years. Where he started with the subtle character study Shopgirl, he continues in The Pleasure of My Company.

Daniel Pecan Cambridge is, to use medical jargon, a nutjob. He's trapped himself in a complex web of idiosyncrasies, combining the best bits from any number of nervous disorders. For example, the wattage of light bulbs on in his apartment must be equal at all times; to turn off a 100W bulb in his bedroom, he needs to strategically seek out ons and offs in other rooms to balance the apartment total. As an excuse to avoid excessive forays out of the apartment, he is deathly afraid of stepping off curbs; he needs coolly discerned plans before exiting his front door, lest he be caught without a driveway or wheelchair ramp to leave the block.

Daniel is old school Martin: on the surface, goofy for the sake of goofiness, but upon inspection so much more. After years of calculating and calibrating his own entrapment, both the love of a girl and his grandmother's death force him to confront his myriad fears. Martin's treatment of Daniel's internal struggle is equal parts mock epic and celebration of the victory of everyman.

Throughout Martin's career, I've gotten the feeling that he hasn't really wanted to be the centre of attention, that he just happened to end up in the spotlight, so he shrugged his shoulders and did what came naturally. Daniel Pecan Cambridge is an inventive incarnation of Steve Martin, the private citizen, who, even in the face of mortality, has nothing to fear but fear itself.

Lullaby - Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

Published: September 2002
First Read: October 2002
Second Read: February 2005

Capsule: The author of Fight Club explores his signature cocktail of grief-driven desperation, this time through modern magick, unchecked apathy and the power of suggestion. It's a fast read, and one of my favourites.

Trade Paperback: 272 pages
ISBN: 0385504470
Doubleday Books

The fourth of Chuck Palahniuk's descents into the darkness of the human condition, this is perhaps his most imaginative book. Where Fight Club simply extrapolates Generation X's lack of direction or purpose, Lullaby uses the mystery of crib death to launch an exploration of loss, guilt, self and magick (the last of which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an action or effort undertaken because of a personal need to effect change, especially as associated with Wicca or Wiccan beliefs").

Reporter Carl Streator finds a wholly unsecular similarity between instances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome that has eluded law enforcement and medical personnel. Every family suffering the SIDS-related loss of a child has inadvertantly used an ancient African culling song printed in a book of children's rhymes; the song, used by long-lost tribes to give painless death to the old and infirm, has been sung for years to countless babies by well-meaning parents, something Streator means to stop.

To test his theory, Streator ends up killing his editor -- every writer's dream, right? -- and soon finds himself able to kill passersby and even annoying radio hosts with a mere thought of the culling song.

He meets a bizarre upwardly mobile real estate agent who repeatedly sells haunted houses to unknowing buyers, her new age assistant and herecoterrorist boyfriend along the way. Palahniuk is nothing if not the master of extremity -- he takes his story so far along its arc that it's in danger of flying off on an uncontrollable tangent.

On second thought, the entirety of Lullaby is a tangent. That, perhaps, is Palahniuk's forte: his texts reek of familiarity, the feeling that despite their fantastic nature, they're utterly real, completely possible. Like that niggling feeling that you have to shake off, that yeah, Elvis could be alive, Palahniuk's books have the feel of the real story that inspires supermarket tabloid excess.

How to Spot a Bastard by his Star Sign - Adele Lang & Susi Rajah

How to Spot a Bastard By His Star Sign

Adele Lang & Susi Rajah

Published: 2002
Read: January 2005

Capsule: Okay, I'll give them this much: all men are bastards. I'm still not convinced our individual styles of bastardness are discernable by plotting our birthdates, however.

Trade Paperback: 144 pages
ISBN: 0-312-28486-1
St Martin's Press

I was loaned this horoscope book by Ray at work -- he just happens to be, like me, a pedantic Aquarian know-it-all grammar geek.

Like most novelty titles, it was chock full of throwaway humour, predictable, unfunny or both. The idea is clever, however, and I'm sure this small publishing house has sold plenty of copies as stocking stuffers, conversation pieces and tongue-in-cheek citations for gender studies majors.

Strange Heaven - Lynn Coady

Strange Heaven

Lynn Coady

Published: 1998
First Read: January 1999
Second Read: January 2005

Capsule: A sad but entertaining first novel from one of Canada's next-generation authors.

Trade Paperback: 198 pages
ISBN: 0864922302
Goose Lane Editions

Lynn Coady has for the last few years been hailed as one of the next generation of great Canadian writers. This was her first novel, published eight years ago now, and in my opinion still her best work. Since this Cape Breton-born east coaster moved out to Vancouver, her work has smacked, ever-so-slightly, of something she actually lamented in an article in This Magazine some time ago: the insincerity of Lotusland; this book, by contrast, displays an uncontrived portraiture that interweaves both 90s irony and ghost town heartbreak.

Bridget is on a "rest cure" in the children's mental hospital after giving up an illegitimate child for adoption. Flashbacks tell the tale of her pregnancy, and the reactions of her friends and family show the utter helplessness we all feel as we hurtle through life without a script. High school superstars are eternally stalled under the weight of their respective teenaged labels, working dead end jobs to pay for weekend drinking binges and endless revolving girlfriends and boyfriends. Bridget only recognises this when one of them turns up dead: "[Jenny] was queen of the prom, on her parents' mantelpiece forever, now." Her epiphany, told over a quickly-read 200 pages, is both tragic and hilarious, and its consistency is what Coady has yet failed to match in her subsequent work.

I've been pleased with Coady's decision to keep her hands wet in journalism. She's a heavyweight essayist, in my opinion, and her work between novels in publications like This Magazine, and more recently The Globe and Mail Review, ensures her voice will be heard for a long time to come.

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones
Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire

George R.R. Martin

Published: 1996
Read: January 2005

Capsule: It's frustrating at first, but this mammoth entry into A Song of Ice and Fire is an enjoyable tome.

Paperback: 864 pages
ISBN: 0553573403
Spectra Publishing

An ex of mine warned against reading this series by George R.R. Martin, saying it was utterly addictive and, therefore, utterly disappointing. You see, due to the sheer number of characters and separate plotlines involved, Martin seems to take a good four or five years between installments of the story. This is the first in the franchise -- the fourth book was released a few weeks before Christmas -- of what promises to be at least seven volumes. Each book in the series is massive, weighing in at around 1000 pages, this last so huge that they've divided it into two volumes; book five, the illegitimate stepchild of book four, is due in the spring sometime.

I tried reading this, the first book a few years back, and got about 100 or so pages in before giving up. I'd never been much of a medieval-style fantasy fan, and this book was no exception. The characters were wooden, the setting contrived, the development and action slooooooooow. I gave the book to Briana and moved on to another book.

Then over Christmas 2004, the cover of Game of Thrones caught my eye at Book Warehouse. My experience with the first attempt was so unimpressive that I didn't remember having tried. I bought Thrones a second time and got to reading. Again.

The first 150 pages were absolutely infuriating. In judging the wooden characters, contrived setting, slow development, non-existent action, I found a maddening familiarity. I couldn't figure out why I felt so close to these badly-written characters; I was so involved with them that I could predict what they'd do next. Anyway, I stuck it out this time, and by the 200 page mark, I was hooked. Things picked up, and the pieces moved around the meticulously developed chess board brilliantly.

The story revolves around the family of Eddard Stark, an upstanding, soldierly nobleman in charge of the northern lands of Winterfell. The world is similar to 14th or 15th Century England, with one huge exception: seasons are of an extreme and indeterminate length -- a good summer will last nine or ten years. The cold seasons, then, bring not months, but years of hardship, toil and trouble. The Starks, as the earnest figureheads of the northern territories: they are the proverbial ants working hard through the summer, forever preparing for times of have-not. This leads to the Stark family motto, bleak but strong: "Winter is coming."

Eddard Stark and his comrade-in-arms, Robert Baratheon, overthrew an evil king years ago, and the latter now rules the Seven Kingdoms. A just but firm ruler in his youth, Baratheon has been fattened and slowed by years of unhealthful kingship and a questionable marriage to a scheming queen. Mysterious murders and heirs to the throne that don't resemble the king one whit are all precursors to kingdom-wide strife to hit as a winter of legendary prophesy falls upon the land.

Martin is an accomplished hobby historian, so the marked similarities between his story and the real-life civil unrest that culminated in the 30-year War of the Roses aren't surprising in their realism. He is decidedly unapologetic in depicting realistic medieval patriarchy: nearly every man of worth has as many bastard children as he does legitimate offspring, and nearly every other man (of worth or not) is willing to rape, pillage and kill wives and children to get ahead.

Most interesting, for me at least, is the Wall. The far northern rim of the kingdom is lined by an ancient, massive wall of ice. Hundreds of metres high and wide enough for several to ride abreast, this border wall is manned by bastards, criminals and miscreants as part of the Night's Watch. There's an odd honour in being part of the Watch; rather than being hanged or jailed for crimes, or begging for the want of a job, these outcasts find a comaraderie and purpose unavailable for them elsewhere.

On the other side of the wall lies a mysterious mix of wildmen, ye olde magic and feared bloodthirsty spirits. Magic isn't at the forefront of A Song of Fire and Ice, a la many fantasy novels, but supplies a (usually) subtle, sinister undercurrent throughout the books.

Frankly, with each book as thick as a contributor to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, it would be unwieldy for me to accurately summarise the story here. Besides, there are so many that have done the job already: The Citadel and The Tower of the Hand: The Encyclopedia of Ice and Fire are definitive sites, as only fantasy geeks and webheads could possible compile.

Bloated and spent after three weeks of this literary Roman orgy, I rolled out the door and bought the second book, A Clash of Kings. At a book exchange party a few weeks later, I asked Bree if she wanted Thrones, and she looked at me with her inimitable "I love you, friend, but you're a perfect idiot" smile.

Whenever I eye up a new paperback, then, I try to remember if I've given it to Bree first.