Book Review: All Families Are Psychotic

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All families are psychotic. Everybody has basically the same family – it’s just reconfigured slightly different from one to the next.

All Families Are Psychotic, by Douglas Coupland

Since I’ve started writing this blog, it’s become easier for me to refer back to books I’ve already read. I generally pride myself on having a keen memory, but now the books I’ve read and my thoughts around them are gathered in one convenient location, for me as well as for readers. It’s become easier to track my own tastes and note any trends and changes.

All Families Are Psychotic revolves around the eclectic Drummond clan, who gather in Florida to watch the launch of Sarah, their only “normal” member (a one-handed astronaut)’s shuttle launch. Sarah appears to be the only somewhat normal character (although that could simply be because we spend less time with her than with the other Drummonds) in a family that includes someone called Shw. Yeah, Shw.

While I enjoyed the book’s sometimes snarky sense of humor and its rollicking, nonsensical plot twists and pop culture references, I found that I had to force myself to finish it. I simply wasn’t engaged enough and didn’t care enough about the characters. There are some characters the reader is obviously meant to sympathize with, despite their faults, namely Janet, the forlorn former matriarch, and Wade, the aimless but charming and well-meaning son. Despite this, I found my attention simply divided between too many characters. There was too much going on, with deus ex machina often employed to propel the plot forward. While I know it’s not meant to be hyper-realistic, I found this approach tiresome by the time I was halfway through the book.

Reflecting back on the books I’ve read since I started this blog, I realized that this book is part of a larger trend of a genre I tend to dislike: the dysfunctional family. When done well, this motif provides a source of entertainment and a point for readers to relate to. But most of the time…it just overcrowds the narrative with irritating, selfish characters and an artificial plot, usually revolving around some event that brings these characters together, usually a wedding, funeral, or, in this case, a space shuttle launch. The large cast of characters also makes it difficult to develop the characters fully, usually resulting in one character with depth (in this case, Janet and maybe Wade) surrounded by half-fledged, annoyingly quirky kin. I felt the same way about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, despite enjoying the authors’ other works that I’d read.

YES OR NO?: NO. Despite the promising premise, I found myself bored by the book and I wouldn’t pick it up again. As a Vancouverite, it was refreshing seeing insider references to my city, but my dislike of the characters and plot outweighed the few positive impressions I had.

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A Love Note to the Library

Looking back on my childhood, I realized my dad began training me, early on, to be the type of person he wanted me to be, which was suspiciously close to the person he already was. We had weekly room inspections where I was awarded my allowance if my room was neatly organized with everything in its place, and I carefully recorded said allowance and any of my expenses in a tiny notepad he’d given me for that purpose. Although I somewhat begrudgingly accepted these rules as a child, I recognize that my dad was successful. There’s a saying in Korean that habits you form at three follow you until you’re eighty, and to this day I find comfort in spending ten minutes organizing my room before bed, and I still obsessively track my spending and find joy in my own frugality.

One of our other, less restrictive rituals was going to the public library on Saturday mornings. One of my earliest memories of the library is my mother, in her limited English, earnestly asking a librarian to find me a copy of A Christmas Carol. My mom always encouraged me to read classics.

As I grew older, I found myself seeking out the library less and less. It became a place to study with friends, to browse my laptop, or to pop in if I was in the area, but it was no longer somewhere to simply spend time. I still found time to read regularly, but I usually bought crisp new editions from the chain bookstore at the mall. And with the advent of my beloved Kindle, I stopped interacting with physical books, preferring the convenience and simplicity of my Kindle.

But recently, I’ve returned to my old friend, the library. Dishearteningly, I found that the majority of library patrons (at least at my local branch) were there to browse the Internet (endlessly scrolling Facebook from the looks of it), silently contemplate their smartphones, or browse magazines beneath protective plastic covers. While there’s nothing wrong with this, to me the library has always been a place inherently, by definition, for books, and a place I’ve recently begun to properly appreciate again.

My reading habits have changed as I’ve begun to visit the library again. For one thing, I’m more likely to pick up an unfamiliar book simply by being attracted to its cover. As convenient as it is to download e-books off Amazon, there’s a smaller likelihood of me discovering something new. The organic feeling of pulling something new off a bookshelf out of curiosity is gone. On Amazon or at the bookstore, investing in a book comes with a loss of money, and I am always acutely aware of other ways to spend my time. When I’m online, I tend to open other tabs, reply messages, and play music, and bookstores nowadays are filled with plenty of distractions: journals, candles, headphones, desk toys, and other miscellaneous crap.

But at the library, time stands still. Libraries generally look the same to me now than they did then. And, in some ways, I prefer libraries that haven’t been renovated recently and have speckled fuzzy carpets, books with yellowed pages, and uncomfortable plastic chairs. Because while the outdated decor is unattractive, it reminds me that libraries have been a constant throughout my life, and the yellowed pages show me that a book has been read and loved. And for some reason, I find it much more easier to focus on a book for long periods of time in one of those plastic chairs than somewhere else. There’s something sacred to me about a place dedicated specifically to reading.

 

Book Review: Child 44

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Trust but check. Check on those we trust.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

As much as I love writing out wishlists, the best gifts I’ve received are often ones I’d never have thought to purchase for myself. And nothing makes me happier than when a thoughtful friend decides to feed my reading habit. It was my birthday a couple months ago, and a friend decided to give me Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 as a gift. I wasn’t aware of this book, and I probably wouldn’t have sought it out, since I tend to gravitate towards classics and also have a 200+ long TBR list to get through, but it’s always nice when someone introduces you to something new.

Child 44 tells the story of Leo Demidov, a security officer in Stalinist Russia, who unfailingly excels at following orders (no matter how cruel), until the orders turn on him. He then begins investigating a series of strangely brutal murders, along with his wife, Raisa. Since the book’s engrossing plot is its main characteristic, I don’t believe I can say more than that without giving too much away. I enjoyed all the twists and turns of the plot and found most of them plausible, although somewhat melodramatic at times.

Although the book is plot-driven, I didn’t find it deficient in other aspects. The characters, while at first seeming to be fairly stereotypical (stoic Russian security officers, meek wives), are fleshed out and real. Each character has their own motivations and morality, which is clearly expressed despite the focus on plot. The prose, while not poetic, does its job, and is succinct while also conveying the urgency or violence of the plot as necessary. I have a fairly weak stomach when it comes to violence, and while parts of the book are necessarily gruesome, I didn’t find it gratuitously so.

After I finished reading, I scoured some Goodreads reviews to seek out other readers’ opinions on the book. I have very limited knowledge on Russian history, and I was curious to what extent the book was accurate in its depiction of life under Stalin. I found reviews that praised the book as accurate, and others that criticized it for promoting a cliche view of Russia and Russians. As with all fiction, I took the book with a grain of salt and simply enjoyed the setting for the questions it posed around Big Brother, privacy, and so on. Still, I wondered – does a work of fiction have a responsibility to readers to be historically accurate? Or otherwise inform readers of any discrepancies? I’m not sure – what would be the point of fiction if it couldn’t instill a sense of doubt in its readers?

YES OR NO?: YESChild 44 is entertaining, well-written, and still thought-provoking. I enjoyed the book far more than I thought I would and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.