“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

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“Born Weird” by Andrew Kaufman (2013)

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Some are born weird; some have weirdness thrust upon them.

Some are born weird; some have weirdness thrust upon them.

“The Weirds acquired their surname through a series of events that some would call coincidence and others would call fate.”

Andrew Kaufman is up there with Agatha Christie, Jasper Fforde and Douglas Coupland as one of my favourite writers of all time. Although he’s only penned four books, and none of them are very long – two are barely one hundred pages each – he manages to weave such beauty into his prose that his skill can’t really be brought into question. The man has immense talent, and once again he’s proved himself to be a master storyteller.

This is the story of the Weird family, five siblings who have, without their knowledge, been cursed. When each was born, their grandmother Annie Weird, known to them as The Shark, bestowed upon them a special power. The eldest, Richard, would always stay safe; Abba would never lose hope; Lucy would never get lost; Kent would be physically stronger than anyone he fought; and Angie would always forgive everybody, instantly.

But the children are now adults and haven’t spoken in years. Angie finds herself meeting her grandmother again, who informs her that she is not far off dying. She has realised now that the blessings she gave her grandchildren have become curses. If Angie can get all five Weird siblings into her hospital room before she dies in thirteen days, she will remove their gifts before she dies, leaving them free again. Angie at first refuses, but her grandmother soon proves that she is more than capable of bending the universe to make life hell, so with no other option, Angie sets about tracking down her siblings.

Kaufman has a rare gift in that he can make the magical seem mundane and the mundane seem magical. Angie and her siblings are not particularly thrown by the notion of the curses (or “blursings” as they become known, a portmanteau of “blessing” and “curse”), as if that sort of thing just happens. He also throws in other fun asides, such as the fact that both Annie and Angie have hearts twice the average size, that as kids the five built a city in their attic called Rainytown, and that Abba just now happens to be the queen of a country called Upliffta. No time is wasted dwelling on these points, they just are what they are.

While sweet and magical, it’s also tragically heartbreaking. The kids are almost alone in the world after their father disappears one night and, mad with grief, their mother forgets who they are and becomes convinced that the family home is a hotel she’s staying at. The characters are all well-realised and believable, despite their blursings. Angie has become a pushover, Richard is three-times divorced because whenever things stop feeling safe, he backs away, and Lucy never has to ask for directions, either in the physical world or in life generally. This is a book that shows you why our flaws aren’t flaws – they’re what round us out.

I’ve yet to read a Kaufman I didn’t like, and I have a feeling I probably never will. Read this book now, because it’s just quite simply beautiful.

“The Gum Thief” by Douglas Coupland (2007)

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the-gum-thief“A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives.”

My Coupland journey continues into 2015, but there are just three more to go, the last of which isn’t even a re-read, but rather his most recent novel that I’ve been saving until I finished all the others. His books have always been somewhat raw, yet funny; but this one is probably the bleakest one so far.

Roger Thorpe is in his forties, divorced, drunk and working at a branch of Staples. To pass the time, he writes in his diary, either his own thoughts, chapters of his first novel, or entries pretending to be his colleague Bethany. Bethany herself is an overweight goth who mostly ignores Roger, until he accidentally leaves his diary out and she is shocked and creeped out to find that he’s been pretending to be her. She is even more shocked and creeped out by the fact that he’s getting it right.

The two begin to swap letters with one another, although never actually talk on the shop floor, and between their strange blossoming friendship, they learn more about one another and Roger gets feedback on his novel, Glove Pond, in which Steve and Gloria (a drunken writer and his actress wife) attempt to hold it together in front of an up-and-coming new novelist who threatens Steve’s ego.

Like all Coupland books, it’s about not knowing who you are and why that’s OK when you’re young. Most of his books deal with that element of being young – Generation X, Microserfs and Shampoo Planet particularly – but as Coupland as aged, so have his characters, and the feeling of loss and confusion is no less prominent. Roger had a pretty good life, but threw it away after one drunken mistake and now he’s all alone, wondering what the purpose of anything is anymore. Once Bethany realises that he’s not such a creep, she begins to feel sorry for him, as she’s already seen what loneliness and confusion can do to people, with her mother DeeDee being a prime example. The novel is told through the letters of Roger, Bethany, DeeDee, Roger’s ex-wife Joan and a few others, with chapters of Glove Pond throughout. And even inside Glove Pond, we see the novel one of the characters there is writing, a novel which seems to mimic the outermost layer of this onion-like tale.

This is a somewhat bleak book, but there is a sense of hope. Coupland’s characters are aware that they need to change if they want the world to be a better place, but this is so much easier said than done. While dealing with hopelessness and our interior struggles, it also touches on the absurdity of consumerism, Hallowe’en costumes, corvid intelligence, aging, and holds up as a shining example of how life is never quite what we want it to be, no matter how hard we try.

It isn’t my favourite of his books, but I still like it. It’s full of all the wonderful observations that make Coupland what he is, but there’s definitely a lot more sadness here than has appeared before in his work. As Coupland ages, so do his characters, and so do the messages, although the one message that never changes is simply that: nothing really changes unless you make it change.

If you want to read more of my writing, my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus is available to download from Amazon, iTunes and all other ebook retailers.

“Just A Little Disco On An Open-Top Bus” by Candy Guard (2006)

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just a little“I had noticed that all I did was do things and then immediately regret them.”

I first read this book many years ago. Given the date it came out, I must have been eighteen or nineteen, perhaps. Over the following years, it remained on my shelf and if I ever caught sight of it, I smiled and remembered something funny from it. It was a cute, good book. Time passed and more and more scenes slipped from my memory, until earlier this year when my psychologist friend, who had reached a point where her usual crime novels had saturated her brain so much that she couldn’t close her eyes without seeing some dismembered cadaver, asked if I could recommend a book in which no one was disembowelled and was overall a bit lighter. This book immediately came to mind.

Trouble was, by this point, I couldn’t remember anything about it, just that I had enjoyed it. Trusting my own distant judgment, she borrowed it and then reported back that she had loved it too. So, when I started feeling blue recently, as discussed in my previous post, I figured that despite the long list of books waiting to be read for the first time, I would go back and see if a second read would perk me up.

It did.

This is the story of Edie Dudman, 21-year-old anxious mess who keeps trying to do so many different things that she ends up doing nothing at all. Armed with a part-time job in a bakery, a recently engaged flatmate, a boyfriend who doesn’t seem interested anymore and an elderly neighbour with bad body odour, she is ready to take on the world, attend some evening classes and finally do something with her life. Once she’s watched one more episode of Knots Landing.

Edie is one of nature’s worriers, fretting about absolutely everything and getting ahead of herself in all aspects of her life. She eventually manages to sign up to a photography evening class and there she meets Ralph, eccentric artist who wants to live in a water tank and might just be the right kind of man for her. But she clings to the notion that Steve, her current sort-of-boyfriend, will want to rekindle the magic, although it’s not looking promising as he’s just bought her a sandwich maker for her 21st birthday.

Despite her worries and constant habit of making mountains out of molehills (she rehearses conversations in her head and makes them appear bigger issues than they really are), she is fundamentally a good heart. Slightly lost and lonely, confused and not knowing what she wants in her life, she struggles on regardless. Her pains are familiar to many of us, who reach our early twenties and find that adulthood isn’t what we thought it was going to be, but there aren’t any refunds. It’s a funny book, but with serious, painful moments too – again, just like life, really.

The novel is made all the more adorable by constant doodles of the characters and events; particularly funny are the ones of Edie herself, who always seems to have a blank, shocked look on her face. The secondary characters are also brilliant, including Edie’s television addict mother, Lucille, the flatmate who has it all together, and Buster, Edie’s ex-boyfriend who still hangs around hoping that maybe something will happen again.

It’s a beautiful story of hope, awkwardness, love, growing up (sometimes against our will), bad birthdays and how life never goes the way you think it will. There are some wonderful comments about the difficulty with loving someone you don’t necessarily like, and it also stands out as being one of the few books I’ve read with a bisexual character who isn’t immediately shuttled into a gay or straight label, which is refreshing.

If you’ve ever felt lost or confused, then Edie Dudman is here to show you that you are most definitely not alone.

“Generation X” by Douglas Coupland (1991)

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gen x

The book that defined a generation

“Back in the late 1970s, when I was fifteen years old, I spent every penny I then had in the bank to fly across the continent in a 747 jet to Brandon, Manitoba, deep in the Canadian prairies, to witness a total eclipse of the sun.”

My list of books I still have to read – even those already on my shelves – is huge. As such, I do my very best to not re-read things if I can help it. However, last week a friend of mine – the psychologist – requested a new book to read and asked if she could borrow something off me, my choice. As I trawled the shelves for something really worth sharing, I came to the conclusion that I loved practically every book I own, but for many of them I can’t remember why.

Reading a lot is great, but unfortunately I lose a lot of the minutia after a certain amount of time. I remember loving a book, or crying at it maybe, or even just being haunted by it, but I seldom remember the exact details of what caused that. It was when I was staring at my bay of Douglas Coupland novels that the feeling became particularly pronounced. Coupland, I will always say when asked, is one of my favourite authors, but as I looked at the thirteen books of his on my shelf, I realised that I hadn’t read one since 2011 and that the exact reason for my love of him had vanished. That had to change.

As such, I intend to now read a Coupland novel once a month or so until I’ve re-read his back catalogue. And I’ll be reviewing them again, because reading this has reminded me why I love him and how much I love him, and I want to be able to share that with you, and maybe encourage you to explore his work.

So, this is Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, his first novel, the one that made his name and helped define an entire generation. The titular generation are those people born between the early 1960s and early 1980s – in short, the offspring of the baby boomers. Coupland didn’t invent the term, but he sure as hell made it popular. This is the story of three friends who have dropped out of the real world and are living in the Californian desert, slumming it in dead end jobs and avoiding the horror of responsibilities and yuppies. They are Andy (the narrator, with two dogs and six siblings), Dag (obsessed with nuclear annihilation and prone to damaging cars for fun) and Claire (wanting to live like Andy and Dag, but still pining for her sometimes-lover Tobias), and they live a relatively simple life. They enjoy telling each other stories, and it is these stories that make up the novel.

We meet other friends of theirs, Tobias the yuppie and Elvissa the mystery, who also have their own stories to tell. The stories are usually slightly fantastical in nature, or somehow involve the end of the world. In fairness, not a huge amount happens, but it is a wonderful patchwork quilt of interior monologues, apocalyptic scenarios and the power and joy of storytelling.

The book, like all of Coupland’s work, is phenomenally quoteable. For example:

“I wonder that all things seem to be from hell these days: dates, jobs, parties, weather …. Could the situation be that we no long believe in that particular place? Or maybe we were all promised heaven in our lifetimes, and what we ended up with can’t help but suffer in comparasion.”

The book discusses the difficulties of growing up in a world that has been pissed on by the previous generation. I’m not one of Generation X, I’m from Generation Y, but a lot of the themes are similar to things that I’ve experienced. It’s one of those books that creeps inside your brain and lodges somewhere uncomfortable just behind your hippocampus and makes you occasionally think a little bit too deeply about what you’re doing with your life and where it’s going. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it is just what Coupland has the power to do. He builds a complete scene, not only always using the perfect metaphor or similie, but by populating the scenes with food, products and names from the era that mean it can only be set in that one place.

The book also includes quaint little cartoons and slogans, and definitions for new terms that sum up experiences that most of us have from now on. Probably the most famous one of all, which is now in fairly common usage, is “McJob”, defined as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” Some of my other favourites are below.

Survivulousness – the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth.

Black Holes – an X generation subgroup best known for their possession of almost entirely black wardrobes.

Mental Ground Zero – the location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall.

Douglas Coupland is so in touch with the zeitgeist that he’s all but clairvoyant (not my line, stolen from another review of his later book Generation A), and his books are a beacon of genuinely great literature. Sure, the general theme seems a little depressing, and the characters are lovely but seem to have little of any real value going for them, but there is an underlying current of hope throughout, a sense that everything will be OK in the end, and that to really enjoy life we need to stop worrying about money and success and just seek solace in the little moments, like watching egrets and lighting candles. The book harks back for a simpler time, but knows that it’s never coming.

Coupland’s position as one of my favourite authors is reaffirmed. I can’t wait to re-read the rest.