52 Books in 2013 – July Update Part 2

Here’s part 2 of the July update for my 52 Books in 2013 challenge!

Book 27: Awaydays by Kevin Sampson

n94969This is actually a fairly short read, which was a good pick-me-up following the torture of the previous book.  Awaydays tells the story of 19 year old Paul Carty, an IRS worker coping with his mother’s death while trying to ingratiate himself with The Pack, a group of Tranmere Rovers fans who travel to football matches to start brawls.  Music, fashion and social unrest paint a clear picture of the working class lives of the young men in this book, and though it’s an over-used phrase, it is also a coming-of-age story that sees Paul start to become tired of the mob-mentality and wonder whether he should go back to college.

Even though the book comes in at under 200 pages, in that space I think Sampson had managed to create a number of really authentic characters in Carty, Elvis, and many of the thugs in The Pack.  I particularly appreciate the subtle language change from when Carty is talking to work friends, family or members of the football gang; slang, violent ideas and crude stories cover most of the parts with the gang members, while acutely sharp insights to co-workers’ lives are written with a great deal more intelligence.  There’s also some sentimental moments with his family, as his sister and father are, like him, still healing from the mother’s death.  Sampson manages to seamlessly flow through the different areas of Paul’s life by writing the book as an incredibly authentic diary; I think that sometimes when books are written in diary form that can be pretty hit and miss, but this one is definitely a hit.  But it’s also very bleak in places, particularly the end – I love books that don’t end that way you want them to, so this one suited me down to the ground.

Book 28: Idiopathy by Sam Byers

imagesI’m terrible with books from award shortlists or suggested reading lists.  When I was 13, my English teacher decided to make a list of books for me to read that were more suited to A-levels students in terms of their language and themes.  I was reluctant to follow this list though, because they were all books that had been given numerous awards and were heralded as modern classics.  Unintentionally being contrary, I shoved the list in a drawer and tottered off to indulge in some horror novels, as you do.  So when I was given this book which was part of the Waterstones Eleven – an annual list that promotes the work of debut authors – I resisted the temptation to put that in the same drawer, and instead gave it a shot.

Honestly, I don’t think this book has really given me anything.  There’s no real story, two out of the three central characters are so annoyingly unlikeable. I would estimate that as much as 75% of the prose is comprised of dialogue in the form of arguments between two of the characters, or one character dissecting their own thoughts and actions in the most neurotic way possible.  It really is tedious at times.

I thought it was funny the first time, to be truthful.  A handful on run-on sentences last almost a page and a half, and made a petty argument seem even more petty because both parties were analysing the other’s actions and words, and they managed to turn something trivial (like recommending a book because it has a good ending) into an argument about “You don’t want people to be happy because you can’t be happy” and “You’re so caught up in people liking you”.  I hated both of the characters who indulged in these kind of self-obsessed, repetitive arguments. Katherine and Daniel, who used to be a dysfunctional couple, find themselves coming together to reconnect with their mutual friend Nathan, who has reappeared after unceremoniously disappearing from their lives to, unbeknownst to them, spend some time in a mental facility after an incident.  Nathan’s inept father tries to make an effort to reconnect with his son and his really, horrendously self-obsessed mother  has turned Nathan’s breakdown into something lucrative, a popular Twitter account and a book deal about how to survive after your child has hurt you (which is misleading), complete with television appearances.  The book cover and the reviews I’ve read seem to suggest that the epidemic striking down cattle plays a significant role in the book, other reviews say it is more of a backdrop.  I consider it to be more of an attempt to add something, anything to this book that might grant the reader a moment’s relief from the narcissistic main characters and their pathetic lives.

I feel like I’m being really negative about the book, and I think it’s necessary to make it clear that I didn’t *hate* the book; I just found the characters unlikeable in so many ways, particularly Katherine – here is a woman who tries to provoke an argument in every conversation, the kind of person who would accuse you of being mainstream just for liking something like a bestseller book, and what I couldn’t understand was why Daniel didn’t just cut off all contact after their breakup.  There are so many reasons to dislike Daniel and Katherine, separately and together, but I’ll leave you to decide which is your favourite reason for yourself.

Book 29: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

born-standing-up-by-steve-martinI love Steve Martin.  I’ll admit it, when I was younger I had a teeny crush on him for a while – I don’t care, he’s hilarious and brilliant.  And kind of unusual looking.  But that’s beside the point; I still love Steve Martin because his brand of comedy – surreal, full of non-sequiturs and bizarre visual gags – never failed to amuse me, and his career-defining performances in films such as The Jerk made me realise from a young age that the greatest sound I could hear from the people around me was laughter.  I wanted to make people laugh, and so I picked up Steve Martin’s biography because I wanted to see what drove him to become a comedian, so that I might find out his motivations and see how he carved out his career.

‘Born Standing Up’ mostly covers a period of 8 years, during which Martin’s career takes off and reaches heights never before seen by comedians, selling out arenas and having best-selling records.  At the start we get some idea of his childhood, and he describes with an artistic eye the  life he had working in Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm as a teenager, while also giving us a glimpse of his family life with a distant father and starry-eyes mother.  It is clear from the start that he understood the meaning of hard work, and he caught the performing bug from a young age after getting involved with magic tricks and local theatres.  One thing I really liked about this book was how he described his writing process; trying out new material on the road and making detailed notes about what parts got the biggest laugh and which bits needed to go.  The way his career progressed was due to a few chance encounters here and there but mostly damned hard work, slogging away on the road doing shows and building up an audience, while also constructing his own unique brand of comedy.  The book includes some of the jokes that he wrote while developing his own voice and they’re just as funny on paper as they would be said out loud.  I also think that just from the writing itself, you can tell that Steve Martin is more than just a clown; even though his act includes many circus and carnival tricks like lassoo rope work, juggling and sight gags as well as musical skits and proficient banjo-playing, his writing is quietly smart and level-headed, unlike the comedians who seem to need us to know that they are more than just a funny man *cough* Russell Brand *cough*.  I loved this book because it was honest and straight-forward, and mixed some humorous observations with his personality history, without being either overly sentimental or coldly factual.  This is how autobiographies should be.

Part 1 of the July update is here

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