All My Friends Are Superheroes @

Everybody loves the Canadians, right?  Mounties, UN Peacekeepers, Mike Meyers and Kids In the Hall  – all of which goes a long way towards making up for Celine Dion.  Add Alan Kaufman’s name to the “plus” column.  After reading and reviewing The Waterproof Bible I received an offer from to listen to the audio version of his first novel, All My Friends Are Superheroes.  I jumped at the chance.   And enjoyed every moment of the entire 2 hours, 7 minutes and 11 seconds I spent riveted to my iPod.

All Tom’s friends really are superheroes (OK, I know that line is straight from the book jacket – but I can’t top it) including his new wife, The Perfectionist.  Tom, himself, is normal.  But when everyone around you has a super power not having one makes you special by default.

Our hero’s trouble begins on his wedding day.  His new wife’s x-boyfriend hypnotized her into believing that Tom is invisible.  And now, months later, Tom has the space of a plane flight to convince The Perfectionist that he is still there.  That he, in fact, never left her.  But he needs to be quick.  Because once The Perfectionist lands in Vancouver and makes it her new home, she’ll make it perfect… without him.

Andrew Kaufman’s superheroes are snarky and hip and bear a striking resemblance to people you’d meet on the dating circuit of any major city.  The Stress Bunny – who absorbs the stress  of everyone around her like a sponge (and subsequently throws the best parties).  Hypno – who hypnotizes women into believing they’ll have the best sex of their life with him, and then tries to convince them that just because he hypnotized them into believing it was the best sex they ever had, doesn’t mean it’s not true.  There’s some guy whose superpower is to make every morning Sunday morning – which amounts to a lot of time spent in bed and the deterioration of personal hygiene rituals.  The Ear, The Amphibian, T.V. Girl, The Sitcom Kid and dozens more make cameo appearances  – at a party Tom yells out the name “The” as a joke and everyone turns to look.

The descriptions of these unorthodox superheroes are the most entertaining segments, and make up about 1/3, of the novel.  They add a kind of twisted humor to what could have otherwise easily become a sappy love story.  Kaufman’s novel reminds me of a game I played with friends in college:  What would your superpower be?  And we’re not talking about x-ray vision or being able to fly.  My one friend had fingers of ice.  A girl I knew apparently had a sharp pointy bump in the back of her head that could inflict pain if she leaned her head in just so.  One guy could beat the crane machine at the arcade (you know, the one where you try to pick up stuffed animals with a 3-pronged claw).   Fortunately for the reader, Andrew Kaufman is a lot better at this game than we were.

As for format:  I enjoyed reading The Waterproof Bible and  I’m sure I would have enjoyed reading All My Friends Are Superheroes.  But I’m ultimately glad that I listened to the audiobook version.  Gordan Mackenzie’s narration is fabulous! No exaggeration.  He reads as if this novel was written just for him – with all the quirkiness of characterization and dry humor that it deserves.  So if you’re a comic book geek or a fan of Wes Anderson films, or just in need of a light, entertaining read to relax with over the holidays; I highly recommend you check this one out.

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The WaterProof Bible by Andrew Kaufman (ARC)

Andrew Kaufman writes strange and wonderful books.  His first novel, All My Friends Are Superheroes, features an invisible hero.  To save his marriage he must convince his super-heroine wife that he is still there, sitting next to her on a flight to Vancouver.  And he has to do it before the plane lands.  That book has become something of a cult hit, and this latest novel is equally inventive.  The Waterproof Bible is another charming love story that manages to be funny, amusing and touching in all the right places.  What the plot might lack in suspense and action, it more than makes up for with a group of characters who shine.

Rebecca projects her emotions.  Her feelings are an open book to those around her, and the stronger they are the farther they travel.  At a young age she discovered that she can contain these emotions within everyday objects.  The result is E-Z Self Storage Unit #207, where her entire emotional life is organized inside of hundreds of clearly labeled cardboard boxes.

Lewis is Rebecca’s brother-in-law.  His wife Lisa (Rebecca’s sister) has just died.  Wrapped in grief he impulsively decides not to attend Lisa’s funeral, hops on a plane and checks into a hotel in Winnepeg, Canada.  There he meets a strange, and strangely horrible, woman who claims to be God.  And he sorta’ believes her.

Aby lives under water.  She’s green, has gills, and belongs to an amphibious species closely related to humans.  She can breath both on land and underwater, but as a devout Aquatic she has never left the ocean.  Until now.  Her mother chose an “unwatered” life when Aby was a small child.  But to die with air in your lungs is a sin in the Aquatic faith – and so Aby is breathing air, has stolen a white Honda Civic and is headed for Morris, Manitoba in order to save her mother from herself.

Stewart is Rebecca’s ex.  He’s building a boat in the middle of the Canadian prairie.  He doesn’t really know why.  Neither do we.

All these individual journeys are interconnected, steadily moving towards one huge moment of redemption and clarity.

There is a quality to The Waterproof Bible that reminds me of fairy tales I read when I was younger.  Like the stories in Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, the plot is whimsical without being cloying. Entertaining while barely raising the reader’s heart rate (a talent Kaufman shares with the author Alexander McCall Smith).  Add to the mix the fact that there is no overt lesson or “meaning” to bog things down, and you’re left with a book I believe most readers will quietly enjoy, then pass along to a friend.

Note:  There is a catch, of course.  There’s always a catch.  If you’re in the U.S. and want a copy of The Waterproof Bible then you’ll have to work a bit harder for it.  Telegram publishes the book in the UK and Random House has it in Canada. But, hard as I searched, I couldn’t find a publisher in the states.  If someone knows of one that I missed, please let me know.

Publisher: Telegram, London (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 84659 086 3

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Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Phineas William Walsh is on a mission.  He’s going to save the world one endangered species at a time – and he’s depending on the Green Channel to help him do it.  That is until things go terribly, horribly wrong… as they only can in the life of a fourth grader.

Carla Gunn’s first novel, Amphibian, is both entertaining and engaging.  Written in the first person, it’s greatest strength may be it’s  narrator –  who owes a significant debt to Holden Caulfield (the hero and narrator of Catcher in the Rye).  And I mean that in the best possible way.  Because there’s more going on in Phin’s life than meets the eye – and he has a lot on his mind other than the planet.   His grandfather just passed away and his grandmother is sad.  His parents are separated and his Mom is dating a guy Phin doesn’t like. Not that he likes the idea of her dating. Period.  His father is out of the country 80% of the time and doesn’t know what’s going on.  He’s also the class bully’s favorite target.

And then (if that wasn’t enough!) there is the issue of the Gorachs from the planet Reull.  They’re destroying the planet and the other creatures of Reull need to figure out what to do before it is too late:

When my mom went to do some work in her study, I went upstairs and wrote about Reull and drew some pictures of them.  I drew the Jingleworm, who is red and white and has a part on the end of its body that jingles like a bell wherever it goes.  The Jingleworm’s predator is the Three-clawed Wren and it jingles so much that the Wren doesn’t have any problem finding it to eat.

But then the Jingleworms started to hide in the coat of the Green-tailed Squirrel, which didn’t mind because the loud jingling noise of the Jingleworm scared away its predator, the Electric Cat.  The Electric Cat’s ears are very sensitive to the jingling noise.  To it the Jingleworm sounds like somebody scraping their nails on a chalkboard sounds to us.  Sot the Jingleworm and the Green-tailed Squirrel have a symbiotic relationship.

The problem again is the Gorachs.  They are starting to collect Jingleworm tails for jingly bracelets, which they give to their Gorach children.  The Gorachs are parasites, so many of the animals are working on making more symbiotic relationships.  The Gorachs are in for a surprise.

Sure, it has become a cliché to compare novels narrated by juveniles to Catcher in the Rye, but in the case of Amphibian it works.  I’ve always believed that readers tend to miss the whole point of what Salinger was trying to do, – not surprising since his novel has mainly been defined by controversy.  The focus has always been on Salinger’s creation of a smart ass kid doing scandalous things, at least by 1950’s standards.  (You can just imagine what the reaction would have been to Gossip Girl)!

Subsequently, the story Salinger was trying  to tell is too often overlooked.  It is about a young boy, whose even younger brother has just died of leukemia.  Catcher in the Rye, at its heart, is about Holden attempting to deal with his grief.  And doing so in the absence of (I’d even go so far as to say his abandonment by) the adults who should be comforting him.  All the rest, the celebrated language and famous scene with the prostitute, is just so much white noise put up by Holden between himself and his emotions.

I do not want to misrepresent Amphibian as being a heavy novel, though it does touch on some surprisingly heavy material.  Phin is dealing with kinds of grief (and accompanying feelings of helplessness) that he’s too young to put a name to.  Or, like Holden, to even recognize.  But to Gunn’s credit, she chose to tell her story through the eyes of a 9-year old boy – which gives it a very different flavor than if it had been told by, let’s say, that boy’s mother or teacher.  Gunn reveals what’s going on with Phin in a way that perfectly captures a young child’s lack of perspective.   Divorce, bully, species extinction and permission to watch the Green Channel all carry equal weight and importance in Phin’s world.  Because everything is the end of the world – nothing is.  And Phin is a really funny kid.  His humor moves the book along quickly and, thankfully, saves it from becoming the angst-fest it might have been.

This morning I woke up to an awful sound – it was like a wolf trying to howl after swallowing one of those birthday-party noisemakers.  And it was standing over me.

I was a little worried about what I might see – maybe a pack of wolves having a birthday party and the cake just happened to be me – but I took a chance and opened my eyes.  My mother was standing there and that awful noise was coming from her.  She was smiling so I figured she wasn’t choking or something, so I asked her what the heck she was doing.

“I’m yodeling, Phin,” she said.

“But you’re not on a mountain,” I said.  “You’re standing over me making that awful sound.  I thought you were a wolf with something caught in its throat.  If you were a wolf, you’d have to be the alpha because if you were a submissive, the others would attack you for making a sound like that.”

Overall, Amphibian tells a good story about an average child working his way through a world where very little is under his control.  Carla Gunn allows us to smile at his tribulations knowing, even if he doesn’t, that Phin is one of the lucky ones.  Unlike Holden he has grown-ups around who love him and have his best interests at heart.  In the end, that makes all the difference.

Note:  Amphibian is Carla Gunn’s first novel.  While I’ve no knowledge of it being marketed as a YA, it is definitely  straddling the line between categories.  It does not rank high on the BookSexy scale, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Think of it as enviro-lit made more palatable by added sugar.

The book, itself, is more attractive than your average paperback  – with bright glossy covers.  The front end paper is a full page bleed b&w photo of a South America Red-eyed frog (the same little guy who made the cover).  The pages are nice and thick with a slightly corrugated texture.  The publisher is Coach House Books, out of Canada.

The 2009 Man Booker Prize Winner… & My Apologies to Canada

So Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize…   I don’t think that came as a big surprise to anyone who has been reading the press for her novel Wolf Hall.  Or kept an eye on the Bookies.  I’m just thrilled because it means I can put aside The Children’s Book without guilt (or with less guilt) and admit defeat… at least for now.

And I almost forgot about the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist which was announced today…

  • The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
  • The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
  • Fall by Colin McAdam
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
  • The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of these books and I’m not familiar with any of the authors.  But my review of Amphibian goes up tomorrow… so perhaps my support of another Canadian author will make up for my neglect.