12.31.2009

THE GUM THIEF - Douglas Coupland


"Just because you’ve been born and made it through high school doesn’t mean society can’t still abort you. Wake up."

Anyone who has ever read Douglas Coupland’s work is familiar with his uncanny ability to take the everyday world around him and turn it into a vehicle for insight into the human condition. His new novel, The Gum Thief, is no exception to this. Set against the background of an office supply store in Vancouver, and written in the form of a selection of letters, journal entries and creative writing exercises, Coupland’s characters seem incredibly familiar, in some cases as familiar as looking into a mirror.

Bethany is a 24-year-old goth girl who still lives with her mother, wears black lipstick, and works at a local Staples. One of the world’s most boring jobs is made more interesting when, on her break, she discovers a co-worker’s journal in the communal break room. Roger, a middle aged, divorced alcoholic whose job consists mainly of stocking bond paper (a job he endures because he can do it drunk), has been writing a journal in which he is pretending to be Bethany. Even weirder, he’s got a lot of it right. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between the two social outcasts.

One might think it would be difficult to cover the topics of life, death and pretty much everything in between against the backdrop of an office supply superstore, but Coupland manages to do just that. His story captures the small moments that retail salespeople come to look forward to that break the monotony, like the insane customer who draws the attention of the entire store with his high volume rants. The book is a painfully accurate portrayal of the zombie-like quality of working to pay the rent, yet with a sense of introspection that makes retail hell seem simultaneously like a living death and more interesting than you ever would have thought, if only you could learn to look at the world like Coupland does.

This book will appeal to both long-time Coupland fans and anyone who is looking for an enjoyable and amusing read, filled with witty narrative and compelling characters. Like a Bridget Jones’ diary for cynics and skeptics, the format of the book allows an intimate glimpse into the minds of the characters as they struggle to face their lives and learn that they might not be quite as alone as they once thought. Coupland’s use of his hometown as a background will be a relief to Vancouverites who are sick of seeing their city transformed into every American metropolis from L.A. to Seattle in movies and on television. The book is a finely drawn exploration of the delicacy of our relationships with one another and ourselves.

11.24.2009

POPULAR FAVOURITES

There are a bunch of books on my shelves that I don't quite know what to do with. Every time I peruse the shelves looking for a book to write about, one that I loved or that meant something to me, I pause when I reach them but feel a sense of futility when I seriously consider writing about them. This isn't because they aren't worth writing about - quite the opposite. They are so popular or so well known that I just don't know if I have anything new to add to the discussion. So I have decided to make an on-going list of these as they occur to me. Take this list as a recommendation without specifics. They are classics for a reason.

In no particular order:
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling
6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
7. The complete works of Jane Austen
8. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
9. The Twilight Saga (I'm not saying that it's a classic, just enjoyable...but over-hyped and I have nothing else to say on the subject.)

11.22.2009

BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SEX AND SCIENCE - Mary Roach

If you’ve ever been curious about the postal service’s contribution to treating erectile dysfunction, what exactly went on in Alfred Kinsey’s attic, and what, if any, is the benefit of sex machines, this is the book for you. Mary Roach, who is best known for her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, the best-selling book about corpses (a book I stumbled across after its cameo appearance on the TV show Six Feet Under) takes on a whole new area of study in her newest book, Bonk: The Curious Pairing of Sex and Science. As the name implies, her newest book tackles the topic of the historical scientific study of human sexuality (or, in some cases, the lack thereof). This book once again proves her ability to take what could be dry research and infuse it with vitality.

Ever the intrepid researcher, Roach follows her research topic into strange (and sometimes terrifying) places. In the name of research she braves the ripe stench that is a barn full of sows in heat and offers herself (and a somewhat reticent husband) as subjects to find out how ultrasounds of human copulation work. Those with weak stomachs would be well advised to skip the beginning of chapter six, where she describes in detail the work of Dr. Hsu, one of the world’s leading urologists. Trust me, it’s graphic.

Reading the book I was impressed by Roach’s talents not just as a writer, but as a researcher. The book is written with thoughtful detail and Roach demonstrates her extraordinary ability to cherry pick the juiciest and most interesting bits of information, making what could be tedious and long-winded research from a far-gone era not only relevant but, in many cases, hilarious. Her writing style is quick, witty, and with just the right balance of authority and humour. Even the footnotes were worth reading, in some cases making me laugh out loud.

I would recommend this book as required reading for any self-appointed sexologist or sexpert. This book knocks other surveys of sex study off the shelf. Covering every significant theory, study and persona in the area of sex research and sexology from Alfred Kinsey and his Report on Female Sexuality to Johnson and Masters to Carole Queen, she slogged through the dry, the boring and the just plain weird so that you don’t have to.

11.21.2009

THE PROJECT



For the last year and a half, I have been writing reviews of new books for an arts and entertainment website. This is great for several reasons. One of the main reasons being, of course, that I get free books. As any bibliophile knows, this is a dream come true. Since I was old enough to read, I have been saving money to spend on books. I have so many books that the shelves are double stacked and bursting, and I have boxes of them in storage. I recently learned to let go and exchange books I'm never going to read again... but it hurts every time I pass one across the counter, even knowing I am sending it out into the world for somebody else to read and that I will get new books in exchange.

The other day I was sitting reading one of my old favourites, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins, and it suddenly occurred to me: as much as I love writing reviews of brand new books, I feel as if there are so many wonderful worlds I can't open up to people because they're not "new." A plan began to form. Just because I can't write reviews of the books I have been carrying from home to home with me since high school for the website doesn't mean I can't write about them.

Aside from wanting to put down (metaphorically) on paper what I love about these books, aside from hoping someone out there will read one of these reviews and pick up a copy of a book that is near and dear to my heart, it is also an interesting experience re-reading a book as an adult that once changed one's adolescent or childhood view of the world. Sometimes they are disappointing to re-read, other times we understand things that previously flew over our heads. But regardless, it is always enriching and, I believe, an important endeavour. Other books I read more recently and am so enamored by them as to want to write about them out of sheer enthusiasm. And so here I am, embarking on a new project to explore some of my old favourites and, hopefully, find some new ones.

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