Dolphin Dreams

by Lyle Nicholson

Dolphin Dreams CoverWhen I first read Dolphin Dreams, I didn’t get it. If you take everything at face-value, things are a tad predictable and underdeveloped, alongside editorial missteps that could easily be a deal breaker in the hands of an unskilled author, but, once you dig below the surface, the story appears to be about so much more. (In order to explain myself a bit, which will be a necessity, given the nature of other reviews I’ve seen, I think I should throw up a bit of a **SPOILER WARNING**)

I really think the reason this went unnoticed on my first read-through was that it was pretty straightforward of a plot: A recently divorced man heads to a conference in Cancun, only to find himself having spectacular “dreams” about dolphins and working with locals to free the captive dolphins at the resort. However, there are unexplained inconsistencies that do come up over the course of the tale, and it appears that Nicholson crafted a deep character in Niklas, the protagonist. Most of the novel comes across as Niklas’ waking dream, from a man who feels powerless after the divorce of his wife, turning (I suspect) to drink after arriving at the resort, which brings his previously disguised mental issues to the forefront of his life. He creates a power fantasy, in which he’s the “chosen one” which has the power to commune with the dolphins, and, as such, is the one to free them from their captivity. He gains the approval of locals, who are likely in similar frames of mind, such as a self-proclaimed “patron of Cancun” – the act of naming oneself as such appears to be more delusional behaviour I would attribute to a stereotypical homeless man, a man who is described as having a lot of money, yet somehow can’t use it to buy the dolphins’ freedom – but winds up in the drunk tank. Nonetheless, Niklas’ fantasy continues, culminating with the love of his perfect woman, who cares about him precisely because of his affinity with the dolphins, and I can assume to be a figment of his imagination. We aren’t told what really happens to Niklas, but it doesn’t matter; even if he became homeless and destitute, he emerges the victor in his mind.

Nicholson’s biography on the back of Dolphin Dreams modestly declares that he is a storyteller, rather than a literary writer, and he would never claim to be such a writer; given his tremendous skill that comes with crafting a complex tale of this calibre, I can’t wait to read Polar Bear Dawn, in the hopes that another deep plot emerges, this time with more experience and editorial prowess.

Trainspotting

by Irving Welsh

Trainspotting coverTrainspotting is something of an oddity. Not so much a traditional story per se as a collection of many collected shorts being told from many different viewpoints, each loosely connected through the characters’ uncontrollable vices. Flipping between points-of-view proved to be jarring from the get-go, at least until I got some familiarity with the characters; after that, it was interesting for each unique voice to witness things from different perspectives. Much in the same vein, the prose – written not how words were spelled, but, rather, how they sound in a thick, Scottish accent – was at first difficult to understand. Once you familiarized yourself with the slang, however, the dialogue truly came alive.

Elicitation of emotions tends to be something that elevates the stories I read, and Trainspotting is very capable of doing such a thing. Hilarious and chilling, raunchy and heartfelt, as much as I enjoyed specific moments in time, it very much felt like a jumbled mishmash throughout. Don’t get me wrong, Welsh has some astute insights into humanity throughout, but shallow passages that come across as shocking for the sake of shocking readers take away from the novel. I can’t help but feeling that a stronger focus could have turned Trainspotting into one of my favourites.

All this being said, I still enjoyed Trainspotting a great deal and extend a recommendation to anyone who can soldier past the dialogue that can be hard to understand. However, don’t be surprised if it can at times feel like a tangled, hollow, mess, much like most of the characters.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time CoverWhen I first read the title The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it immediately struck me as completely pretentious, or at least hugely pompous, and, surprisingly, the story itself proves to be neither. The plot is fairly simple and straightforward, but the main gimmick is that very adult situations and emotions are explored through childish eyes.

The narration is probably the book’s biggest strength and largest failing. The story is told by Christopher, an autistic teen – or, at least a teen suffering from a disorder in the autism spectrum – who is writing a book exploring the events surrounding the death of a dog. I need to hand it to Haddon, as Christopher possesses a very authentic voice. However, the lengths the author goes through to employ a sense of realism, such as spending entire chapters explaining the Monty Hall Problem or the plot and all the moments of note in The Hound of the Baskervilles, hurt the novel’s readability, in that they are tedious necessities. Had the author chosen to pepper the plot with Christopher’s explanations and quirks, rather than dropping everything and giving us a lecture, I probably would have enjoyed The Curious Incident immensely.

But, once the story got moving – about one-hundred pages in – I did enjoy it, nonetheless. The final chapter made me a bit sick and a bit sad. It’s highly possible that the tiresome parts were needed to elicit such emotions, but that, unfortunately, didn’t make them any less tedious. (And, having to go through one-hundred pages before interesting things occur isn’t typically the measure of a good story.)

Cat’s Cradle

by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle CoverI think this has to be some kind of record for me. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five kept me so enthralled that it took me merely two days to get through, while Cat’s Cradle was easily finished in one. Yes, yes, both are short and funny, which makes the reading easy, but, beneath that, they both have a juicy interior. This time, Vonnegut maturely and subtly explores the ludicrous nature and human necessity of religion, as well as the seemingly symbiotic relationship between human progress and self-destruction.

Vonnegut has no respect for a traditional mystery. Cat’s Cradle, much like other Vonnegut stories I’ve read, contains a significant plot point that would constitute a major twist in what we’ll call a normal story, one which Vonnegut casually gives away early on in the novel. Seemingly counterintuitive, what the author sacrifices in surprise he makes up immensely in tension; the reader learns early on what will happen, but the tortuous route the author takes in getting there notches up the suspense in ways that a traditional story wouldn’t have access to, at least on a first read-through. In this way, Vonnegut proves that the how and the why are much more interesting than the what, and I really believe that this remarkable storytelling method greatly adds to the richness of his tale.

Depressingly hilarious and inspirationally cynical, Cat’s Cradle was a joy to behold, and the icy finale caused my jaw to drop to the floor, much to the apparent laughter of some nearby pre-teens, bless their little hearts.

A Troublesome Inheritance

by Nicholas Wade

A Troublesome Inheritance CoverI’m very torn with this book.

On the one hand, I felt it was a thoughtful exploration as to how genetics affects different ethnicities and culture. On the other, most of what is discussed at length is merely speculation – luckily, acknowledged by the author. Wade takes the time to explain the historical basis of discussion and research pertaining to race, along with the obvious cans of worms that open up as a result. Of course, this comes as the explanation for the dearth of information surrounding this topic; as any investigation toward differences in races comes attached with potential of ranking humans and making sweeping assumptions based on things that can’t be changed by individuals, a racist accusation usually follows. Thus, despite – according to the author – a clear biological basis for such research, most academics distance themselves from such things, which leaves this area of genetics far behind other areas of study.

So it comes as no surprise that Wade speaks at length in order to defend himself from potential racist accusations. It really is a bit of a shame; while I can’t blame the author for such precautions (especially after quickly glancing at other reviews), the book improved immensely when Wade was able to move beyond such discussion and get to the juicy bits of his theories. It’s a shame that the inconvenient politics associated with the topic are not able to be separated from the science. I hope that this book is a step in the right direction, but I’m afraid the reception proves this to be untrue, or at least only a negligible step.

I found A Troublesome Inheritance quite enjoyable while I read. If anyone can manage to read about genetics as it may have affected the success and failure of different civilizations – inasmuch as affecting behaviour, IQ, and the relationship with humans on career paths and institutions developed in various areas of the world – without dwelling on misplaced cries of racism, they may enjoy it just as much. I believe that, in finishing Wade’s book, I have cemented my interest topics such as this.

Despair

by Vladimir Nabokov

Despair CoverNabokov really is a cruel man. Twice now, with both Despair and Lolita, has the author successfully crafted an entirely likeable protagonist and proceeded to make him truly despicable. Of course, while this doesn’t necessarily leave me satisfied in the end, it really is a testimony to the author’s skilful pen.

The likeable and loathsome man du jour is Hermann. I think his pompous, snarky observations really endeared him to me, whether regarding his simpleton wife, her mooching cousin, or anyone else he looked down upon, including his look-alike, around whom the majority of the plot surrounds. That being said, the most interesting aspect of having Hermann as a narrator was established early, with the admission that he was an obsessive liar, letting you know that not everything you’re hearing is actually what happened. This comes to a head later in the story when events repeat themselves with wildly different outcomes. This style can be oftentimes confusing, but Nabokov wrapped things up nicely when the mystery is eventually resolved.

At the end of it all, I don’t really know how I feel about Despair. It was no doubt beautifully written in a way that only Nabokov can write, and I can honestly say that the plot twisted in ways that definitely surprised me, but it ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth by the end. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the story; I just have a hard time recommending it.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

by Niall Ferguson

The Great Degeneration CoverIt feels like a long while since I’ve read a good non-fiction, so The Great Degeneration catching my eye really couldn’t have been more timely. And colour me impressed: Ferguson offers a brilliant insight into the decay of Western civilization. It comes with smug satisfaction that I now not only have a literary basis for many concepts in which I thoroughly believe, but also because I have been exposed to further theories to bolster those bleak beliefs.

Overall, Ferguson paints a very pessimistic view of the landscape we now find ourselves within, mainly from an economic perspective. Very clear issues of stagnating growth, ballooning debt, the degeneration of law, and needless complexity added to our institutions are all presented with little talk of solutions. However, The Great Degeneration is not bereft of optimism. The author does touch on historical similarities, in which recovery was possible. As well, Ferguson has somehow succeeded in convincing me to volunteer more of my time to better myself and my community.

Short, succinct, hugely informative, and highly enjoyable, I can’t recommend The Great Degeneration highly enough. The clearest thing I can say regarding this book is that my interest has definitely been sparked, and, due to many recommendations in the introduction and throughout the book, I now find myself with a much larger stack of reading to add to the pile.

The Effect of Pooping on Mood and Depression

Have you ever noticed how crabby people tend to get when they can’t seem to produce a satisfying poo? I have. Working as a pharmacist, I’m exposed to this situation on a frequent basis. It really is amazing how much work a simple laxative can do, changing a surly individual – or one who is thoroughly depressed – to one who’s all sunshine and daisies. Thus, I really am a staunch believer of the effect of bowel movements on mood.

Out of curiosity more than anything, I conducted a basic literature search to see if this is a common belief. It appears to be a surprisingly understudied area. (And that’s “surprisingly” read with a thick, sarcastic tone over the “-risingly,” by the by.) I was only able to locate one study connecting bowel movements with mood, although it did things in reverse, suggesting that mood is an indicator of bowel movements, with depression being linked to constipation and anxiety being associated with loose bowel movements. (For those interested, it was a 1996 article from Gut entitled “Intestinal transit in anxiety and depression.”)

I want to poop SO BADI won’t linger on the subject of diarrhea overly long. From my perspective, sudden diarrhea or that which persists for some time brings worries of more serious illness that a failure to poo does not. Thus, I simply don’t feel that loose stools going hand-in-hand with anxiety should be surprising, which brings us to the juicy topic of constipation.

 Now, why on earth would evacuating your bowels make you feel so much better? Perhaps, it has to do with the discomfort that fullness of the colon brings with it, carrying that with you all day doing quite a number on your mood. Or maybe it has more to do with a build-up of waste products in the body. No matter the mechanism, an interesting epiphany I came across is that many strategies touted for improving the mood also affect bowel movements for the better, leading me to believe that there may be some merit to my theory. Proper diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, hearty fibre, and fluid intake is said to be good for mood and also happens to be good for the bowels. Regular exercise is another method of feeling better and keeping regular, as is keeping a proper sleep schedule. 

So, if there a link between bowel movements and mood, what does it mean? I don’t believe that treating depression and improving mood in general can be simplified to dealing with a single cause. However, I do think that the simple act of keeping regular can be a bigger help than most people would imagine.