Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Girlfriend in a Coma – Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland was first recommended to me about five years ago, but it's taken me a while to get around to finally reading some of his books. I bought Hey Nostradamus! on a whim a few months ago and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Even so, I still wasn't entirely convinced; I'd been tempted by Girlfriend in a Coma for a while, the title always stood out to me in book shops because of it's reference to The Smiths, but I found that off-putting as well as appealing. I think that mix of feelings is pretty much how I felt when I finished reading the novel.

Girlfriend in Coma opens on a group of six friends, Karen, Richard, Wendy, Linus, Pamela and Hamilton, who are introduced to us by their classmate Jared who has recently died from leukaemia. Hours after losing her virginity to Richard, Karen slips in a coma at a house party. Already hit with Jared's death the group struggles to cope; they are rejected at school with rumours of bad luck and blame and don't know where to turn. But the hardest thing for them to come to terms with is that in a letter to Richard, written before her death, Karen appears to predict her own retreat from the world as well predicting the decline of the world into a dark and broken state over the coming years.

Over the following seventeen years Karen remains deep in her coma and the group split off, throwing themselves into their lives in attempts to distract themselves and find meaning. Ultimately, though many of them find this solace in drugs, alcohol and extreme lifestyle choices. So, when we re-join the group seventeen years they are feeling unfulfilled and lost. But, then something they had lost hope in occurs; Karen wakes up from her coma, and although physically she is a shadow of her former self, mentally she is intact, feeling as though she was still seventeen.

I don't really want to explain the plot much more than this, don't want to ruin the twists and turns that are to come, but the plot does take a very unusual turn on more than one occasion. The reason I had mixed feelings about this novel was due to the final twist of the story; not knowing what is coming next can make a novel great, but I felt that Coupland ended this novel in such an unexpected way that I felt somewhat cheated out of a real ending. There came a point when I didn't know where he could take the story, and I guess that is when endings do become more likely to be unsatisfying. I was also surprised by the strong moral leaning the ending included as this wasn't particularly present earlier on. Even so, I did enjoy this book, even if I enjoyed the journey more than the destination and my disappointment hasn't put me off reading more of Coupland's books or recommending this one if you are in the mood for something a bit different.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Guest Review: Dark Banquet by Bill Schutt

Forget those imaginary sparkly poseurs who use fangs and the red stuff as a fashion statement. There are real vampires among us--and yes, they suck blood. Really.

Bill Schutt is a Cornell researcher who studies vampire bats. In the first third of his book Dark Banquet (which is all about blood suckers in the animal kingdom), Schutt dispels the myths surrounding these animals of which there are three species living in the New World. He also takes the reader through capturing vampire bats in a creepy abandoned military base in the middle of the Trinidad rain forest to feeding techniques used to maintain the vampire bat colony back in Cornell. The second section is a history of blood science, particularly in the art of bloodletting from ancient to modern times with emphasis on medicinal leeches. For the final section, the blood sucking animal highlighted is something far closer to home--the bed bug. Schutt visits an entomologist who studies bed bugs and feeds them himself! and discusses why it is so difficult to get rid of the critters. Needless to say, it might not be such a good idea to read this part in bed.

Schutt's writing style is very readable with a sense of humor about the bloody subject. For example, in the explanation for the circumstances that led to the evolutionary diversification of vampire bats from the rest of the bat family, one of the three vampire species, Diaemus youngi, is described as a "winged teddy bear" that behaves like a chick in order to trick the chicken into giving up the liquid goods. Leeches were not only depicted as some dark menace plaguing Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen but also as whimsical Tempest Prognosticators in a nineteenth century weather instrument that never really caught on to the public. And the footnotes are not to be missed. In one particularly hilarious one, Norwegian researchers got some leeches drunk and tortured them with garlic. At least in that instance, the folklorish notion that garlic keeps away the vampires is true!

While I understand that going into depth about all sanguivores would be foolhardy--or at the least require several more volumes--I would have liked to see more about some of the animals that were only briefly mentioned. Schutt does go into the fact that mites and ticks are known carriers of disease, but I found that section dissatisfyingly brief. I would have liked more explanation on how these insects metabolized their blood meals, how the microbes that cause disease survive in such a host, and the resulting consequences on the carrier insect's physiology. Much of the anecdotes and sensationalism about people freaking out about bed bugs could have possibly been cut out in favor of adding more science. Then again, this may be my own biases coming into play. I get frustrated when something I'm interested in is mentioned--such as the gut microflora of the vampire bats--but is never followed up.

But despite these shortcomings, I really enjoyed Dark Banquet. Schutt is funny and informative without being condescending. And it is obvious, especially with the first section of the book, that the author has a real love of the subject. As a microbiology student, much of my studies concentrate on the disease and the physiology of the bacteria or viruses that cause the disease. I've been taught that the vectors for those diseases were nothing more than something pesky to be eradicated. But I think this book has given me a new appreciation for the complex biology of the organisms that serve as these vectors--even if not everything was explained to my satisfaction.

I also have to give kudos to whoever designed the book. The red divider pages gave the book real structure and organization. And the inclusion of the illustrations by Patricia Wynne was genius. Wynne's Gorey-esque drawing style beautifully meshed with Schutt's narrative resulting in a truly pleasing reading experience.

Contributed by Sya, who can be found here.