Tuesday, July 18, 2006

BOOKS: Don't Underestimate the Power of a Good Title

The books have been piling up on my bedside table, so I figured I'd cover them all in one mondo recap. Two things I've noticed: I seem to be on a Canadian fiction mini-bender, and don't underestimate the power of a novel's title.

by Douglas Coupland (#23)
A while back, after I'd read
Hey Nostradamus! and before I'd read JPod, I told DoppelSis that I think Douglas Coupland has at least one great novel waiting inside him. I don't mean a really good novel. I'm talking about a truly great novel, one that's destined to become a classic of Canadian literature. JPod is not that novel.

That doesn't mean I didn't devour
JPod faster than a music pirate downloading tunes the eve before Napster was shut down. I did. But ultimately the story felt flat to me, particularly after my experience with Hey Nostradamus!

JPod is not a sequel to Coupland's 1996 novel Microserfs. Where Microserfs was all about the idealism and big thinking of the early days of the internet, JPod is a satirical follow-up that mocks the cynicism of the technology-saturated second rising of the tech bubble. While Microserfs followed a group of twentysomething programmers with a dream of re-imagining the world through Lego, JPod follows another group of twentysomething programmers with a dream of creating a videogame that embodies pure carnage through a subverted Ronald McDonald character. And whereas Microserfs is a moving, generous-hearted story, JPod sadly is not. Oh, it's funny and clever, ridiculously clever, and that cleverness fuels you through much of the book (and probably warrants it as a read despite my petty criticisms). But at around the halfway point, when I realized that the story wasn't going to offer me anything other than amusing send-ups of west-coast stereotypes (the main character's dad is a movie extra, his mom runs a grow-op, his brother's business partner brings illegal Asian immigrants to Vancouver in shipping containers, his former boss becomes a heroin addict), I wondered what the point of this novel is. I'm still wondering.

I haven't lost faith in Coupland. I still think he has that great novel in him. And lord knows, after writing
Hey Nostradamus!, he can't be faulted for wanting to dab in goofier fare.

Blue Shoes and Happiness
by Alexander McCall Smith (#24)
After finishing
JPod, I felt in need of a story with some soul to it, so despite the fact that I know I really should be pacing myself with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, I seem to have developed a quiet addiction to them. And since I had Blue Shoes just sitting on my shelf... well...

I don't really have anything new to say about these books. I've said it all here and here. I'll just mention that these books are getting better and better as McCall Smith develops the character of Precious Ramotswe -- her dignity, her generosity, her compassion, her humour, her innate sense of justice. There were a couple of points while reading this novel that I found myself moved almost to tears, something I would never have anticipated when I found myself slightly underwhelmed by the first novel in the series a couple of years ago.

If you haven't read any of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books yet, don't feel like you need to read all of them in a row, or even start at the beginning. They stand well alone, or read out of sequence. This is good news for me, because I think I've missed one, and now I've got to go back, figure out which one it is, get my hands on it, then manage not to read it right away. Pace yourself, Doppelganger. Pace yourself.

Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast
by Bill Richardson (#25)
I'm pretty pleased with myself. At the beginning of 2006, I told myself that I'd try to read as many new books as possible and cut down on the re-reads. I made an exception for The Rachel Papers, which I was happy to do because it's a really good novel, and I was equally happy to make an exception for
The Bachelor Brothers, because it's a truly charming novel that deserves numerous visits.

Having known me all our lives and all, DoppelSis recommended this book to me years and years ago with the one hundred percent conviction that I'd love it. She was right. Told from the alternating perspectives of twin brothers Homer Hector and Virgil (bachelors, as you might guess) who run a bed and breakfast (as you might also surmise), not much actually happens in this novel. It's pretty much the
Seinfeld of fiction. Book-lovers themselves, the brothers run their establishment, hidden in a valley on one of British Columbia's Gulf Islands, almost solely as a retreat for other bibliophiles, who occasionally write guest entries.

The book's chapters read a lot like blog entries, actually, as the brothers tell their shared history as well as talk about current goings-on in the valley. One of my favourite aspects of this book are (surprise!) the lists of recommended books that are interspersed between chapters, including "Virgil's List of Books for When You're Feeling Low" and "Hector's List of Favourite Authors for the Bath" and "The Top Ten Authors Over Ten Years at the Bachelor Brothers' B&B." Over the years, I've gleaned a number of recommendations from this novel -- everyone from
A.S. Byatt to M.F.K. Fischer to Mavis Gallant.

There have been sequels --
Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book and Bachelor Brothers' Bedside Companion (now out of print) -- and while I've read them both, they veer into twee territory a little too much for my taste. Unlike the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the first book in this series remains the best.

If you managed to read this entire post and not question my lucidity while writing it, I have only the blog gods to thank. My neighbours have been operating heavy machinery right outside my window as they remove the stucco from their house. I feel like there's a tiny jackhammer in my brain that's being operated by small talking
Flintstones animals. This has been going on for days. Help me.


Anonymous said...


This is his site for the series, I was looking to see if I could find the exact list of the entire #1 Ladies Detective Series set.

I'm hitting the used book store again to stock up. :)

Marg said...

I read Blue Shoes and Happiness not too long ago. Like you I think the series is getting better and better, and will be eager to get the next book whenever it comes up. Funnily enough his other series aren't as attractive to me for some reason.

Tammy said...

I'm with you, Marg. I want to like his other series, too, but they just don't do it as well for me. Ah well, at least he's prolific.

And thank you, Jenn! The Full Cupboard of Life is the one I've missed. I will correct this error forthwith!

Mata Hari said...

Dougie C better pull out the great one soon 'cause he is rapidly falling off my radar. The best thing he has done of late is the two-headed goose...


I paid for Hey Nostradamus!, (in hardcover) but it is still just sittin' there on my shelf, unread, staring at me through a fog of unfulfilled potential. It wears me out just looking at it. I can't even pick it up, never mind open it.

Kailana said...

I read "Hey Nostradamus!" as well. It was last month, and I thought it was his best book. I did enjoy "All Families are Psychotic" too, but I think that was more from a comical aspect. I haven't read Microserfs yet, so I am holding off on JPod. I actually went to the bookstore the other day to get Microserfs, and they didn't have it. :(

Anyways, if anyone is interested, this is what I had to say about "Hey! Nostradamus":


Anonymous said...

I love Coupland, and I think I always will, for his early books. The dialogue was so sharp and I loved the way he used internal monologues at the ends of conversation, to enforce the characters' personalities without bogging down their interactions.

His last few have sort of diverted from that, and the dialogue is losing its polish, which is a little disappointing. They're still very readable, but just a little less relatable. Although, I will say that 'Eleanor Rigby' really got to me, but mostly because it hit me right in my 'I'm going to die alone' center. I still think 'Microserfs' was his best.

A couple of years ago, Coupland did a one-man play, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, called 'September 10, 2001'. By some odd twist of luck, he ran preview showings in Calgary shortly before he took it to England. I caught it on the last night, which was actually September 11, 2004. It was brilliance, I couldn't stop talking about it for days. All the clever dialogue that made Generation X, with the honest humanity that made Microserfs. I think it further solidified my status as his eternal fangirl. Which is why my post is so long. *ahem*

Tammy said...

Taylorx2, you would suggest I could what that? It seems you've made some kind of typographical error in your post. But I don't see how that could be, when errors of any kind in one's writing are a disgrace.

For the record, do you really not see how one could get Hector and Homer mixed up in a context in which one of them is paired with Virgil? You know, Virgil's Aeneid? Homer's Odyssey? Ringing any bells?

You don't want or need my advice, I'm sure, but if you were to ask, I'd suggest you take the judge-y pants off. Life's more fun without them.