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.

Fifty Shades Darker

by E. L. James

Fifty Shades Darker CoverOh, E. L. James, you tease. Given what I suspect fans of the first story would expect when sampling the second – you know, basically some degree of kinky sex around every turn – the author held back this time. Oh sure, the tale is basically about two people humping non-stop, but James stepped away from the kinkery, hinting at it multiple times, but abruptly taking it away, to the disappointment of Anastasia Steele and, presumably, most of James’ fan base.

Of course, I can’t say I really find myself within this fan base. If, like me, you read a story hoping to find maybe … a story, then you will find yourself frequently bored senseless with this sequel, as well as the original. The actual plot is paper-thin; assuming no major change of this formula with the third, I suspect all three could have been compressed into one book, much, much smaller than any of them currently stand. (The first three-hundred or so pages of Darker seem to be written in real-time: They get hungry, so they have to go out and order food, then eat it, then tour their new location just so we can really appreciate just how wealthy Grey, in fact, is. Then, I suppose, more sex?)

Assuming tedious padding isn’t a deal-breaker for you, the author has plenty of other tricks up her sleeve to scare you away from this story. James proves, through prose, that you don’t necessarily require difficult words to impede understanding; just construct sentences awkwardly, making me read them several times to actually understand what she’s talking about. If that’s not enough, conversations don’t make who is speaking readily apparent, conversations often so cumbersome that it doesn’t sound like real people talking. And don’t even get me started on the author’s repetition. It’s not just a problem with single words – although, if I hear that Grey is “mercurial” once more, I’ll probably rip out my hair – but “plot” points, if we can be so generous to call them such. (If a character has to say, “I already explained this to you,” after describing something for the umpteenth time, don’t you think you should just omit that passage?)

But, we shouldn’t be reading this expecting accolades from literary types, let alone expecting something to happen, no; we’re here for all the steamy sex. And this book doesn’t disappoint on that front, so long as you’re looking for quantity over quality. The sex scenes are, thankfully, over as soon as they start. I originally thought that Christian should seek therapy for his premature ejaculation, but Ana orgasms on command, so it’s not actually premature, they’re just efficient. That’s wonderful! With such speed, they can accomplish so much in their day, despite all this humping, but, no, because that’s all they ever do, besides argue.

Perhaps, I’m being a bit too hard on the author, because I really think that a lot of the problems can be attributed to lack of experience. The pacing issue that plagues the most intimate moments seems to be present all throughout, with James taking a very short time describing situations and feelings it could have been refreshing to draw out a bit more and wasting words on tedious description or repeated dialogue. But, I do have to give James a little credit for making an honest attempt at channeling her inner F. Scott Fitzgerald in describing the extreme excess of such lavish parties and massive sailboats that Grey’s exceptional wealth brings with him. Where Fitzgerald succeeds, however, James falls flat, perhaps due to a lack of writing experience, or maybe because she’s too far-removed from the people and the culture she’s attempting to describe. Or maybe it’s because Fitzgerald looked upon the culture with derision, while James sees it as a dream come true.

And, perhaps, that’s the source of my major struggle with this book. It’s the strangest case of self-insert power fantasy that I don’t relate to in the slightest and, as such, struggle immensely to comprehend. I suppose being desired by a rich, powerful man – inasmuch as he comes across as what a teen would think a rich, powerful man would be like – is enough to excuse a general lack of plot, atrocious prose, terrible pacing, and laughable dialogue, but it honestly doesn’t make me want to read the third.

The Hobbit

by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit CoverElves in the forest, dwarves mining in the mountains, and Halflings living in their quiet homes under the hills; the hero stepping out of his comfort zone and travelling far and wide to overcome significant challenges. (And magic, of course.) To me, it seems odd that the tropes and races of the “standard fantasy setting” – as well as the phrase itself – can be employed constantly and consistently with such familiarity that the usage can almost be taken for granted. And, yet, there was a time when this wasn’t the case, not exceptionally long ago, a time that started with The Hobbit.

The flaws of The Hobbit are many, mainly in plot – flaws that I may one day delve into in a blog post riddled with spoilers – but nothing ever proved to be a deal-breaker, and why is that? Perhaps, it comes from the rich world the characters find themselves in. Perhaps, it’s the voice the author employs, narration sounding like a legitimate myth or legend being handed down. (Unlike his contemporaries, which can sound more, at times, like an author attempting to emulate Tolkien.) I think the best word to linger on is ‘legitimacy.’ Tolkien’s originality and skill with the language easily stand the test of time, in my humble opinion.

If, like me, you are able to forgive the flaws as you read, it won’t be hard to see how The Hobbit originally caught on and how its legacy continues to this day, a legacy that The Lord of the Rings trilogy proved to cement. Read it and enjoy it, but, please, don’t take it too seriously.

Grow Up

“Growing up is the dumbest thing I have ever done.”

It may not be the exact wording, but this, as of late, has been becoming a quotidian phrase in my life. Whether from friends, family, or my Facebook feed, people seem to be frustrated with adulthood. Given the seemingly ubiquitous nature of such feelings, you, dear reader, may find this a tad surprising: I can’t relate. It may be just because I’m the enormous weirdo that I am, but I am happily aging.

I suppose I have some explaining to do. The first aspect of going into adulthood kicking and screaming – and what I really struggle with understanding – is the complaint that people are unable to act like a child and do things that they previously enjoyed in their youth. Firstly, I would say that there’s really nothing stopping them but themselves, but the concern is probably of the judgment from their peers, who most likely have an idea of how an adult ought to act. Fair enough, I suppose. However, I just find that I really don’t enjoy a good deal of the “childish” things I used to, and that’s perfectly fine by me. (By extension, there’s no doubt in my mind that the youthful Alexander would find electronic music and sport coats quite lame, but, frankly, he has no idea what cool is.)

Ready to CryAnother aspect that I have a better understanding of is the lack of responsibility that comes with childhood. I suppose I can relate a bit more – I do remember my University years fondly, mainly due to the lack of responsibility – but I will argue that this is just a bit of the bad that goes along with the good. Would I trade my current situation for a lack of responsibility? Would I get rid of my knowledge and skills I gained since my childhood just so I can be more carefree? Would I go back to a time that I was much more self-conscious than I am now, just so I can faff about? Heavens no.

Maybe the desire to go back to one’s childhood stems from an innocence. Looking in a present-day mirror, I can see a jaded individual looking back at me, and I don’t think anyone wants to be a bitter old man. Nonetheless, I attribute that to the prudence that comes with experience. Innocence can be charming, but, sadly, naive. And I value the wisdom that comes with growing older more than simply being younger.

Now, I suppose that I could offer a simple summation to my argument, in that I’m maturing, but I do still think that the situation is much more complicated than that. I do admit that I was previously, and continue to be, a gigantic nerd, which is much easier to do in adulthood than in childhood. And, I will concede that my financial situation is fine for an average man of my age, thus I have very little to complain about in my present. So, don’t take this as belittling those who wax nostalgic, but, rather, as a thesis that there is no shame in growing up.