Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter

why-are-u-so-sadI can’t remember why I thought I wanted to read Why Are You So Sad? The title and concept make it sound a wee bit depressing, but it’s not. In fact, Jason Porter takes us on a rather fun filled journey into the the malaise that seems to pervade North American culture at times.

Raymond, our protagonist, is slipping. Not only is he falling into a depression, he is convinced that all of humanity is and it will lead to our extinction. To explore this theme further he comes up with the mad capped idea to write a survey and had it out to his fellow employees at an IKEA like furniture behemoth. Part of the fun of the novel is seeing how his co-workers react to and fill in the slightly odd survey.

My favorite part of Why Are You So Sad? is that Porter leaves us with two alternate endings. I was a firm fan of the first ending. Is that because I read it first? At any rate, it gave the book a Choose Your Own Adventure feel.

Who would like this book? This book is certainly not for everyone (mom, if you’ve read this far I mean you). Porter is a very contemporary American voice that has been compared to George Saunders and David Sedaris. I would also add Canadian Douglas Coupland to this list. The book is a quick read with some provocative ideas, but is unlikely to go down as a work of great literature. I enjoyed it and consumed it in almost one sitting. In a way it can be compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette? but for a younger, pre-family generation. Both are funny and deal with mental health in contemporary American culture.

See what other bloggers have thought. And let me know if you’d like your review to be included here.

Fourth Street Review

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I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

My father-in-law recently borrowed Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland from me, without me knowing. Let’s just say I was horrified. I’m fine with him borrowing my books, in fact I welcome it, but this book? No way. Not his cup of tea. Let’s just say it is about a truly reprehensible individual who takes swearing, sexual innuendo and political incorrectness to a new level. This is not a book I want my father-in-law reading, nor is it the kind of book that I want him thinking I enjoy.

Worst.Person.Ever. is a far fetched tale about a British cameraman who is dispatched to an unknown Pacific Island to tape a reality show. He hires a local homeless man to be his assistant, wrangles with his ex-wife, falls in love, witnesses a nuclear explosion and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything that comes out of our protagonist’s mouth is offensive to someone. Is he a provocateur? Or is he insensitive?

Stylistically, the novel hearkens back to the success Coupland had with Generation X. He once again makes use of catchy definitions and explanatory notes. Unlike Generation X, Worst. Person. Ever. does not do a whole lot towards providing insightful commentary on contemporary culture. Instead it just derides everything.

By the end of the novel I found it a little tiresome and was plagued with the question as to what was Coupland’s motivation in writing it. I found it difficult to separate the opinions put forth in the book from Coupland himself. Is this actually what he thinks? Is this type of thing running through his head all the time? These are not the kind of things I want to associate with Coupland, who I (used to) see as a very creative individual.

Who would like this book? I’m not quite sure. I’d be very hesitant to recommend this book to anyone. It is offensive most of the time. However, I did enjoy parts of it. As a fan of certain reality TV shows and travel, I could relate to some of what he was saying. But take as a whole, I would guess that the book would offend most people and maybe that’s the point? Bottom line: if you want to read Coupland go for Generation X, Microserfs or Player One or some of his non fiction. I’d give this one a pass. 

The Hive by Gill Hornby

the-hiveWelcome to a humorous and not entirely accurate take on my life: The Hive by Gill Hornby. This novel is about moms on the school yard, moms picking up and dropping off their kids and moms being, at times, rather nasty to one another. It has made me look at my life in an entirely different way. It has also highlighted the differences between the Canadian school culture, from which I came, and the British school system that I am now fully inhabiting.

The Hive is a subtly brilliant novel. Hornby finds drama in the seemingly banal happenings around a school. At the core of her story are four women at varying degrees of popularity on the school yard. Heather is striving, constantly striving to get in with the cool kids, er moms, especially Bea, the Queen Bee. Rachel has found herself suddenly dropped from the cool moms. Georgie is there to provide a dose of reality and Bubba is the new mom on the block.

Each chapter is framed over the course of a school day – from drop off to pick up and the story is set over the period of a school year. When I saw Hornby at the Edinburgh Book Fest she commented that the school year makes for a perfect three part drama. In autumn term everything is fresh and new. The parents and students are glad of another year beginning. The middle term is when all the disasters happen: kids come home with nits and lice, the roof starts to leak and bullying rears its ugly head. With the spring term comes a bit of redemption. As one of the characters reflects, “This was her favorite term: white ankle socks, gingham frocks, grass, rounders … She took a deep breath of gleeful anticipation. Ah. She just couldn’t wait.”

Who would like this book? Given the title of the novel and all the bee imagery, it is no surprise that Hornby was significantly influenced by Rosalind Wiseman‘s book about teenage cliques, Queen Bees and Wannabes and her follow up study Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads. Tina Fey was similarly inspired when she wrote the screenplay for Mean Girls. I would also pair it up with Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (my review). Both offer humorous, though rather different, takes on school societies. In either case, I would say that if you are a parent with school age children and you are constantly doing that school run, then this book is for you. If that does not sound like the story of your life, then you are still probably familiar with the horror of cliques, and this book will surely make you laugh about them.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

crazy-rich-asiansThere has been a lot in the media about Kevin Kwan‘s first novel Crazy Rich Asians. I started hearing about it months before it was published. Sometimes media hype is a good thing, and sometimes a bad thing as it unreasonably builds up my expectations. In this case I would say the media hype has been dead on. Crazy Rich Asians is a delightful read that is both humorous and insightful. Without a doubt it is is a great summer read.

Kwan’s novel is set among the super rich of Singapore’s Chinese community. This set is closely knit, perhaps a bit xenophobic and extremely elitist. It is not just who you know, but also how much money you have that counts. Into this pool of sharks Nick brings his American Born Chinese girlfriend who has not been informed of Nick’s moneyed background. Needless to say the elite do not want to let this insider in and let one their prime bachelors go to a nobody. Private jets and exclusive resorts, as well as Asia’s biggest wedding of the year, are complicit in making Rachel feel as though she does not belong.

Crazy Rich Asians is the perfect title for Kwan’s novel, because that is precisely what these people are. They exist in a world that the rest of us get fleeting glimpses of, but do not properly inhabit (unless of course, you are crazy, rich and Asian). Many of the characters are mere stereotypes but because of Kwan’s biting humor and insight this is alright. Sometimes for satire to be effective you need the stereotypes. My one complaint might be that there were too many characters to keep straight, but in the end the details of the individual did not matter so much as what they represented.

Who would like this book? This novel is meant for those who enjoy a humorous commentary on a sector of society that I previously had little exposure to. These are the new rich and the jet set. There are a number of different story lines, but I was invested in the outcome of each one. I stayed up far too late on more than one occasion in an attempt to find out what would happen. In addition to being a commentary on the super rich, Kwan’s novel also delves into what people will do when there is a perceived threat from outsiders. Overall, i recommend: read it and enjoy it.

Dark Diversions by John Ralston Saul

dark-diversionsI am almost ashamed to admit that I have never read anything by John Ralston Saul before. Not his early novels, not his philosophical trilogy, nothing. So when I saw Dark Diversions at the library, I had to pick it up. I don’t really know what I was expecting from Saul, but this was not it. Dark Diversions is billed as a novel, but in essence is really more a set of loosely linked stories. It is unlikely that this would prove an issue for anyone other than me, but I have an unexplainable dislike of short stories. I think I was also expecting something a little denser and philosophical from Saul.

At its heart Dark Diversions is about the rich people of the world. I don’t mean well off or middle class people, but the truly rich. In each story or chapter our unnamed narrator happens to be visiting rich friends and acquaintances in far flung corners of the world. That some of these include dictators, political elites and fading aristocrats, as well as the new rich intrigued me. I thought we were going to get a taste of some of what Saul saw as the husband of the erstwhile Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson. I thought we were going to get something that was more overtly political.

Instead, the arc of the novel is more about how our narrator increasingly inserts himself into narrative. He starts out the novel being rather objective and hands off in his recounting of the facts. By the end of the novel his is thoroughly embroiled in the lives of those he is visiting. This gentle progression is pierced midway through the novel with a moment of self exploration or realization on the part of the narrator. He questions whether or not the writer is in fact the same person as the narrator. How are we to know either way?

Frankly, being stuck where I am, between the writer and you, is unpleasant and uncomfortable. I didn’t ask for the job. It’s not as we were soulmates, the author and I. For one thing, he is tall and thin. He eats like a pig and never gains a pound. I’m medium and have to watch my weight… I’ll tell you this much – I write better than him and faster.

Who would like this book? I am at a bit of a loss to say definitively who would like this book. It really did not leave much of an impression on me either way. It was just there. The writing, of course, is supreme, but we expect that from Saul. Obviously, any die hard fan of Saul’s other writings will be interested in reading Dark Diversions, but beyond that who is this novel meant for? It is not especially, or even remotely, ‘Canadian’ and I thought it might be. It does not court controversy and I thought it might.

Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen

sussexdriveSussex Drive by Linda Svendsen is one fun novel. As the name indicates, it is a political satire set in the hallowed halls of Ottawa’s elite.The story is set in 2008 and melds together aspects of recent history that we recognize (ie. the election of Obama, the proroguing of Parliment and the rise of the right in Canada) with a perhaps less plausible alternative history (GG reports to King Charles). In its telling the story focuses primarily on two female power brokers – Becky, the brash and pushy wife of the PM, and Lise, the somewhat controversial immigrant GG. Perhaps because of this point of view the reader also gets a peak at how the personal lives of these VIPs and their children are manipulated by the political machine.

Two things that i really appreciated about the novel were the use of language and the prominence of women. As is befitting the bilingual environment of Ottawa and the parliamentary millieu, the characters switch back and forth between English and French as they speak. This is done effortlessly by some and with a little bit more struggling by others. As a reader, however, I think it is clear what is being said without knowledge of French. Secondly, the women in Sussex Drive are very complex characters juggling the concerns of public and private life. The men, on the other hand, are somewhat one dimensional. The GG, who is modeled on Michaelle Jean, is a sensitive arbiter of power put in a number of very awkward situations by the conservative First Family. Becky, the PM’s wife, is a manipulative behind the scenes force, who ultimately steers the direction of the government. By drawing on these two characters Svendsen gives the reader a different view of Ottawa from the one we are used to.

Overall Svendsen has written a very interesting and intriguing look at politics in Canada. It is not the most staggeringly beautiful piece of Canadian literature, but it is a fun, humorous page turner.

Who would like this book? Anyone interested in (Canadian) political satire. Sussex Drive exists in the same vein as Terry Fallis‘ Ottawa based satires. Politically speaking, I think it would appeal to left leaning readers, but it is hard for me to judge for sure. The political right might like it too if they are willing to laugh at themselves. There seems to be a trend towards buying political books for one’s dad, but this one would definitely appeal to a mother as well.