Category Archives: Comedy

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

iconicon“Sometimes when people ask you for a full explanation, you know damn well that’s the last thing they want. Really, they want you to give them a paragraph that confirms what they already think they know. They want something that will fit neatly into a box on a police statement form. And that can never be a full explanation.”

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

 

Alex Woods is odd, no doubt about it. We first meet him aged 17, where he is being arrested at Dover customs having scandalized the British media by returning to the country with an urn full of human ashes and 113g of marijuana. This is his second brush with celebrity, the first occurring when, at the age of ten the universe decides to mark him out as one of its more improbable inhabitants by sending a fragment of meteor through his bathroom ceiling which hits him on the head, leaving him with a permanent scar and epilepsy. But these incidents are not the story, or at least, they are only a part of it, in a tale of unlikely friendship, integrity and difficult choices.

I bought The Universe versus Alex Woods for my brother for Christmas when it first published in 2013 and it’s taken me this long to read it because other family members have kept swooping in like the book vultures they are before me. Nevertheless, it certainly merits the word of mouth hype that it’s received, both in my family and the wider world.

In Alex, Gavin Extence has created a character who is suitably naïve to form an unlikely friendship with an aged Vietnam veteran, but one who is precocious, irritating and stubborn enough to make it a friendship of equals. Likewise, Mr Peterson is grizzled and grizzly enough to the eyes of the young Alex, but with enough wry charm for the reader to appreciate and feel amusement at his burgeoning friendship with the bizarre child the universe has seemingly thrust upon him. Like any story about a socially awkward young boy with a big heart and an unusal friend, this is a book which could easily have become mawkish, but Gavin Extence has created a character sufficiently remote from the socially awkward stereotype to sweep aside the sugar-coating and tell this important and improbable story with warmth and good humour.

Definitely one to add to the reading list if you haven’t already.

The Good, The Bad and The Furry by Tom Cox

20140305_201828

Buttons thinks it might be a horror story…

I’m not a cat person. I come from a family of dog people and was always taught that cats were the enemy. Even if we weren’t dog people, we had rabbits, guinea pigs, frogs and birds in the garden and cats have a really unfortunate tendency to kill things.

Despite my views on cats as a collective, I’m a big fan of @MYSADCAT on twitter. Maybe because the Bear looks like he’s doing penance for the sins of cat kind. Having grown tired of being shown every picture the sad cat account tweets, my boyfriend got me Tom Cox’s The Good, The Bad and The Furry for Christmas thinking it was a happy fusion of things I like. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the twitter account, I even like his Guardian articles, but can you really string out a series of what are ultimately in-jokes about your pet cats into a book that’s worth reading?

It turns out you can and he has. And it’s a really fun read. While there was a lot of material that stuck close to the theme of the blog with cute pictures and funny captions, the book was so much more than that, talking about Tom Cox’s life, relationships, family, hopes and fears… just with his cats as a way in. There are actually some really sad and moving moments in the book, even for a non-cat lover, fortunately there were a lot that had me laughing so hard that I was worried that my ribs were going to break. I think the worst of these was when he was describing his friend who, burying her recently deceased cat, accidentally dug up it’s dead brother and was stood with a dead cat in one hand and a skeleton cat in the other crying her eyes out. I know that shouldn’t be funny, I know that it makes me a very sick person, but seriously, it’s the way he tells it. The only real problem with Tom’s writing in the book is that it makes me feel Shipley deserves his own twitter account to vent at the world and I don’t think he has one.

Check out Tom’s writing in this article about the pros and cons of adopting stray ginger cats and add this to your gift list for cat lovers.

Addition- Toni Jordan


Grace is thirty-five years old, single and unemployed following an unfortunate incident when teaching. She is also an obsessive compulsive who must count everything, to quantify the limits of her world. Because if she can’t quantify it, who knows what might happen? From the hairs on her toothbrush to the poppy seeds on her orange cake, everything must be measured. Then she meets Seamus who is thirty-eight, single and working in the cinema. All of a sudden allowing the numbers to rule her life doesn’t seem so much fun…

I’m not sure whether Addition made much of an impact when it was published in 2008. This may be attributable to really bad marketing. It was listed as a Richard and Judy summer read, but let’s face it, you’d be hard pressed to find a book that hasn’t been. When I picked up the book I thought that it must be a bad romp about dieters (the Quiche and graph paper on the cover were responsible for this). Then I thought it must be a teen romance as the characters were described as Grace (19) and Seamus (19). I don’t mind a bit of teen fiction, so I picked it up in expectation of this. I’m pretty sure that some parents somewhere will have done the same and given it to their thirteen year old, only to be horrified by some of the reasonably explicit erotic scenes later in the novel. So yeah, if I was this author I would have sacked my design team and copywriter. A few people failed to do their jobs properly on that one.

However, this is a blog which revels in going beyond a cover judgement and fully exposing the crimes of poor marketing. And this marketing was a crime, because the book inside is actually a decent read.

Toni Jordan tells the story of an obsessive compulsive with refreshing originality. Instead of being depressed at living on the outside of normal society, Grace lives in it, scorning the ants who wander through their existence waiting for life to happen, not realising that life is what is happening around them while they fail to realise, because they are unable to count and therefore measure the wonder of the universe. She has her flat and a picture of her ideal man, Nikola Tesla, by her bed. Though things have been different in the past, which is occasionally hinted at with some degree of subtlety, she is quite happy and has no intention of changing. The drama and dilemma in the story comes when Seamus, meaning well, encourages her to get treatment for her “disorder”.

I felt that this was an interesting exploration into the nature of obsession and our attitudes towards it. The author forces us to question the extent to which we as society view difference as a condition to be treated, drawing a distinction between people who are largely functional, like Grace, and people who are harmed by their obsessions, like the Germaphobics in the book. This book is a slow, sarcastic round of applause at all the psychiatrists and therapists who try to cure aspects of personality- how far do you go?

Make no mistake, obsessive compulsive disorder is a debilitating condition for many people, and the author acknowledges this. But in an age where many functional, yet admittedly quirky people are labelled with a spectrum of disorders (I saw this all the time in teaching. Shy, rude or uncommunicative? Must be low on the Autistic spectrum. Chatty? Must be ADHD. Bad tempered? Behaviour Emotional Social Disorder…) I think it is healthy to challenge the wisdom which suggests that everybody who is not completely normal, whatever that means, must have something wrong with them.

This is a light-hearted read, but an enjoyable one. It combines some sexy flirtation with scientific thought and philosophical musing on society. If anyone has ever irritated you by questioning your lifestyle choices (You don’t watch Big Brother; you actually enjoy being single, you like children but couldn’t eat a whole one and actually you don’t fancy theirs much) then this is an amusing two finger salute to those who want to turn us all into pop culture clones.

You could eat this with a banana, bought in a bunch of ten and cut into ten equal pieces. Or with whatever you please. You are an individual and fairly unique, after all.