Best Books I Read in 2014 – Book List

I’m surprised by how few science fiction and fantasy books made my top 10 this year. A majority (albeit a slim one) of the books I read in 2014 were SF & fantasy. But clearly I read a lot of great fiction from other genres. And it has been a very good year for non-fiction—normally I’m more conservative in my non-fiction rating; it takes a lot to move me to give a non-fiction book five stars. But the books highlighted below are all awesome.

I believe this is the first time any author has had two books end up on my best books list in the same year. Alexandre Dumas is just that good. The Three Musketeers is an incredible adventure novel with surprisingly poignant commentary on the politics of seventeenth-century France. The Count of Monte Cristo might be the War and Peace of French literature: lengthy, but everything in it is important. I enjoyed slogging through that book so much, hence why it’s the number two.

Laurie Penny is a fantastic writer. Her New Statesman articles are always articulate and thought-provoking, and I love how she can explain the toxic nature of patriarchy while still maintaining a sense of compassion and empathy for everyone involved. Unspeakable Things: read it.

Reviews

10. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

by Mordecai Richler

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz cover image
ISBN:
9780771099724
Format:
Paperback, 328 pages
Published:
New Canadian Library, 1989

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a kind of bildungsroman for an anti-hero. We first meet Duddy through his Scottish history teacher, the tired and broken Mr. MacPherson, who earns Duddy’s enmity when he insults Duddy’s father and quickly finds out that he has crossed the wrong boy. From the first, Mordecai Richler establishes that Duddy is a bully and prone to holding a grudge. Indeed, Duddy’s long memory figures prominently in a novel that is, as its title implies, his personal journey into adulthood.

One of the best tricks that Richler pulls off is managing to make a short span of time feel like over a decade has passed. The story takes place before Duddy reaches twenty-one (then the age of majority in Quebec), with the bulk of it happening when he is around eighteen or nineteen years old. Owing to the speed with which Duddy wheels and deals, however, it feels like more years pass. The moment Duddy graduates from school and is unleashed upon the unsuspecting Montreal landscape he never rests. Always, his grandfather’s assertion that “a man without land is nothing” nips at him, spurring Duddy onwards in the pursuit of picturesque farmland around Lac Saint-Pierre.

The novel succeeds or fails based on one’s feelings about Duddy. It’s easy to love him: he is relentless, almost a force of nature. When he is good, when he is helpful and kind to those around him, he is like nothing else. He is clever to the point of cunning, and when he’s with his father or even his grandfather, there is a tenderness to him—a fierce desire to make his family proud. Uncle Benjy recognizes this when he later confers upon Duddy the title of “head of the family”. Unlike the other Kravitz men, Duddy is an operator. For all his father’s tall tales about friendship with the enigmatic Boy Wonder, it’s Duddy who gets things done.

It’s easy to hate him: he is relentless to the point of self-destruction. When desperate—and oh, how often he gets desperate—he will lash out and make deals no matter what the cost, breaking them later if he comes to regret or feel chained by them. At times it almost feels like Duddy cares about nobody other than himself—this is untrue, manifestly, because he cares about his family … but he is not someone who gets close to others. The way his mistreats Yvette, his sometime-lover whom he calls his “girl Friday”, is the most egregious example of Duddy’s ability to hurt those close to him.

Yvette enters the story as something less than a girlfriend of Duddy’s. They grow close during his summer at a hotel in St. Agathe, where Yvette hails from. She eventually acts as a secretary and middleman for Duddy’s dealing with a notary through whom he begins to buy up the land around Lac Saint-Pierre. Yvette is older and able to hold title to land, so the land is actually in her name for most of the book. However, Duddy and Yvette’s relationship is anything but straightforward. Duddy routinely pursues other women, and other men seem to enter Yvette’s orbit (but it’s not always clear what her relationship with them is). Virgil later acts as a third body in this problem, his cohabitation with the two of them introducing a new dynamic that eventually results in Yvette’s retreat back to St. Agathe.

The novel follows a rise-then-fall pattern standard for these kinds of coming-of-age stories. Nevertheless, the ending is quite interesting. Duddy is poised between two, seeming mutually exclusive paths. He can choose kindness, goodness, a life with Yvette and a conscience free of guilt … but at the cost of that land. Or he can allow his ruthless pursuit of the land to trump all other concerns … but it means saying goodbye to Yvette forever, and likely making more enemies along the way. Richler pleads with Duddy to take the former course through the voice of Duddy’s departed Uncle Benjy in a letter that laments how the harshness of the world often makes us harsh in turn. And for a short time, it feels like Duddy will actually manage to shake off this obsession with land … for a time.

In the end, Duddy brings his family to see the lake and all the land he now owns. He has burnt a lot of bridges in the process, and the victory is bittersweet. His grandfather, the man whose advice started this all and to whom Duddy promised some land for a farm, is upset by the price of all this. Duddy suddenly finds his triumph now tastes of ashes. But he is not to be beaten so easily, and the end of the novel implies that Duddy is committed to being a “smooth operator” and a big player in the community of Montreal Jewish businessmen. Whether this makes him happy or not is not question Richler answers.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a compact and careful story with a lot to recommend about it. The description on the back of my edition rightly pegs Duddy as “one of the most magnetic anti-heroes in Canadian fiction”. This is the first novel I’ve read from Mordecai Richler, and already I understand why he has received such acclaim. Although the story is deeply connected with the topical concerns of that era—the integration of Jews into a larger, predominantly francophone Montreal; the threat of Communism and the McCarthyism of the United States; the nascent movie production business—it still feels timeless, and it helped me understand how people who grew up in an area like Duddy’s might have felt and struggled back then. You can’t ask for much more than that.

9. How to Build a Girl

by Caitlin Moran

How to Build a Girl cover image
ISBN:
9780091949006
Format:
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published:
Ebury Press (Fiction), 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I’m not and never was an adolescent girl; I can’t understand what growing up as an adolescent girl must be like. But for a brief moment, thanks to Caitlin Moran’s writing, I felt like an adolescent girl. Beyond the humour and zaniness, it’s this raw empathy, such a powerful and important emotion, that made me enjoy How to Build a Girl.

Because we could all do well to feel like an adolescent girl once in a while.

We inhabit a society that is still largely built by and for middle-aged white men. It’s tough being an adolescent, tougher still being an adolescent girl. But for those of whose who didn’t grow up as one, it is very difficult to do more than acknowledge this (and some of us don’t even go that far). It’s one thing to say that impossible beauty standards in media damage teenage girls’ self-esteem and body image and another thing to understand what that actually means for how a girl thinks and feels and acts. There are plenty of books and other resources that help people recognize the former; here, Moran manages, at least sometimes, to communicate the latter.

With regards to beauty, Moran has Johanna confess:

… my biggest secret of all—the one I would rather die than tell, the one I wouldn’t even put in my diary—is that I really, truly, in my heart, want to be beautiful. I want to be beautiful so much—because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.

It’s important to note that, being a first person narrator, Johanna is necessarily unreliable—and there are times when her constant rephrasing and hedging indicates she isn’t so willing to be honest with herself. This isn’t one of those times, though. This is brutal honesty, the divulging of a deadly secret. Johanna has already had fourteen years on this Earth to internalize the stricture that her appearance is her primary concern. (Just think about how we are socialized to compliment young girls on their pretty dresses or their hair, to comment on their colour choices and aesthetic preferences; with boys, on the other hand, we commend them more on actions than fashions.) She has, alas, incontrovertibly become part of that beauty myth … but at the same time, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be “beautiful” (whatever that means). It’s possible to be strong, independent, feminist and be beautiful. But there will always be people who will tell Johanna and other women that this is not the case, that these two things are mutually exclusive: you can be a feminist and ugly, or beautiful and a good girl, but you can’t be a beautiful feminist. They are lying, or sadly mistaken, but that makes their voices no softer or easier to ignore.

Moran equips Johanna with an almost unbelievable talent for acting more grown up than she is. At fifteen she has bluffed her way into a job at the Disc & Music Echo. In the guise of her alter ego, Dolly Wilde, she becomes a carefree drinker, smoker, and Lady Sex Adventurer. At times, the story takes on an almost fairytale quality, because bad things happen, but they are always story-appropriate bad things. There are no massive heroin overdoses, arrests and nights spent in jail. In all her enthusiastic sexual experimentation, despite ending up alone in the flats of several (often drunk) men who could take advantage of her should she change her mind and withdraw her consent, Johanna never seems to have a very negative experience. When she does, as in the case of Al, Moran plays it for laughs. Sometimes How to Build a Girl feels like a sugarcoated story of adolescent rebellion.

Moran partially redeems herself by occasionally reminding us that Johanna is, at her core, still a gawky adolescent. She makes numerous errors and slip-ups that remind us of her inexperience:

And within twenty minutes—and then, for the next twenty years of my life—I knew a very important thing: that all I wanted to do was be near John Kite. That things would now divide, very simply, into two categories: things to do with John Kite, and things not to do with John Kite. And that I would abandon anything in the latter in a heartbeat if the chance of the former was on offer.

Boom. Fallen hard. As Dolly, she quickly gains the respect of her fellow staff for her reviews. Then she meets John Kite, and her teenage girlhood reasserts itself in a big way in the form of a crush. She writes a fangirl review of Kite’s album, and that tanks her reputation for a while.

It’s also hard for me to be critical when Moran describes so well the sensation of being poor. Again, I’ve been lucky enough to live above the poverty line my entire life. It’s useful for us to try to understand, then, that when one loses income—whether it’s a job or benefits—for some families the solution is not as simple as “cutting back.” Extreme poverty brings its own set of challenges, such as not being able to make healthy meals:

It’s not just the television. Everything must be cut. There are no more boxes of fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market now. Dadda buys a 50kg sack of wholemeal flour, and at least one meal a day now consists of chapattis—flour, water and salt mixed into a dough, flattened into plate-sized rounds, by hand, girlled, and then covered in margarine.

This is not good for you. This is not healthy. And since this is in England, the cost of healthcare is a burden to the taxpayers. In the United States, the cost of healthcare would drive the family further into debt, in a vicious cycle.

Moran goes on to describe the sense of living hand-to-mouth:

We become experts at finding sell-by-date bargains…. We live on ketchup and salad cream. Without them, there would truly be a riot. The sum contents of our morale comes in 1kg own-brand condiment bottles.

A gas bill lands, then an electric bill. Mum arranges a second overdraft, to pay them: so now we’re going backwards, twice as fast.

It’s heartwrenching, and it’s a potent challenge to people who succumb to the notion that the majority of those on welfare are somehow gaming the system and living luxuriously on the taxpayer’s dime.

So it’s no wonder, given this situation, that Johanna chooses to handle it in the way she does. She creates an entire alternative life for herself. When she is being Dolly, Slayer of Musicians, Lady Sex Adventuress Extraordinaire, she does not have to face that gnawing fear that her family is going to lose the house—and that it’s her fault. Gradually Johanna gives herself over to this life, allows the character of Dolly to subsume her own. She constructs Dolly as a life preserver, building a girl (hence the title) who can be successful in the society that she perceives.

How to Build a Girl also addresses the related problem, both in its very existence and explicitly in the plot, that there is a dearth of narratives built for girls. Even much of the popular YA fiction targeted at girls, by women authors, tends to reinforce or is co-opted by the patriarchical narratives of our day. In a passage where it feels like Moran is blatantly talking to the audience through Johanna:

In later years, I find this is called ‘physical disconnect’, and is all part and parcel of women having their sexuality mediated through men’s gaze. There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked. I will realise that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn’t really hear my own voice during this sex. I had no idea what my voice was at all.

Yeah, the language is couched as coming from the narrator-Johanna’s older perspective, but it still feels out of place in the book. Nevertheless, it’s still true and so maddening. We’ve made great strides when it comes to acknowledging, embracing, and portraying sexuality in media … but it’s still complicated, this portrayal of women as sexual beings. It’s all wrapped up in thorny issues of autonomy and agency and voice. And Moran explores these from a teenager’s perspective. Dolly is quite sexually active, and she is eager to learn as much about sex as she possibly can:

I feel, urgently, that I want to be knowledgeable about fucking. It’s an attribute I wish to have. I want to be respected and admired for what a legendary piece of ass I am … but the only way of doing that is by going out and having a lot of sex. And that has repercussions.

For in a way that feels quite unfair, the only way I can gain any qualifications at this thing—sex—that is seen as so societally important and desirable, is by being a massive slag—which is not seen as societally important and desirable. This often makes me furious.

I just love these two paragraphs. Moran so succinctly sums up one of the most harmful paradoxes about modern sex education and the way we police women’s sexuality. First, notice how she exclusively frames her sexual experience in terms of the male gaze: “a legendary piece of ass”. She doesn’t necessarily want to become more knowledgeable about sex for her own benefit but so that she can be better-regarded—straight women will want to be her, straight men will want to fuck her. Second, Johanna, through Dolly’s exploration, is quite sex-positive. But she has quickly stumbled onto the sexual double-standard: (1) straight men generally want women to sleep with them, and (2) it’s OK for a man to sleep with lots of women, but (3) if a woman sleeps with a lot of men, somehow that’s bad (even though, in her interactions with other men, there is always a latent expectation that if she is single she must also be sexually available, see (1)). I’m not a woman, and I find this all baffling and infuriating, so I can only imagine how the women who actually have to deal with this shit must feel.

Some otherwise-civilized countries (*cough* America *cough*) are still debating about teaching contraception in sexual education classes. Countries like Canada and the UK have, for the most part, moved beyond this stumbling block, but our sex ed. curriculum is still woefully inadequate to the point of being laughable. Occasionally someone will propose, quietly and calmly, that we reform the curriculum so as to create a safe environment in which young people could, you know, ask questions about sex and get accurate, straightforward answers without a whole lot of moralizing or even intentionally inaccurate information. And then others flip out, because it’s unthinkable that young people could possibly be having sex, and we totally shouldn’t give them that kind of information, because we have to think of the children, don’t you know? (I assume they are referring to the children who are the result of unwanted teenage pregnancy because of improper contraception use?) Because, as a society, we have mistaken the fact that our attitudes towards sex are more permissive than Victorian times as evidence of our own maturity, when in fact when it comes to sex, we are still a bunch of squabbling infants. And so our sex ed. in schools remains a rubber-stamp of anatomical details forgotten the moment students leave the classroom, and teens learn what they need to know from the Internet and each other.

But I digress. I digress because that’s the kind of book How to Build a Girl is: it makes you think about all these latent assumptions we have about our society. For me, a slightly-no-longer-young-adult man, it helps me better empathize with the challenges that women face as they navigate adolescence into adulthood. Moran does this with a kind of zany, occasionally insincere sort of whimsical glee that threatens to make you not want to take the book seriously. But I think this is because, ultimately, she wants the book to be a very positive and not all that harrowing story.

This isn’t the story of Johanna Morrigan, who came from a council estate, fell in with hard people, did drugs and got drunk and had sex and got really fucked up. It’s the story of Johanna Morrigan, teenage girl, who came from a council estate, built herself into someone else, and realized along the way that she needed to start over—to keep some aspects of her new self, and jettison others. That is, essentially, the experience we all go through during adolescence, whether we are as aware of it as Johanna or not. Some of us, though, owing to our economic background, our race, our sexual and gender identities, have an easier time of it than others.

And I’m really glad that Moran has tried to produce such a thoughtful and authentic narrative for girls. It’s not perfect; it’s not amazing. But it is a worthy attempt, and it is notable, and I hope we see more like it. Because I would really rather live in a society where our stories tell girls and women that they are awesome people, that they can grow up and continue to be awesome people. How cool a world would that be? Let’s make it happen.

8. Dreams of Gods and Monsters

by Laini Taylor

Dreams of Gods and Monsters  cover image
ISBN:
9781444722727
Format:
Hardcover, 613 pages
Published:
Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Well, here we are. Dreams of Gods and Monsters, the third book in this delightful trilogy from Laini Taylor, was coincidentally published a few weeks before I discovered the first book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone , courtesy my landlady. Two months later and I’ve read all three books. There’s always something fun about binging on a series in short succession. It definitely creates momentum and allows one to keep the characters and their relationships fresh in one’s mind. I’ve enjoyed these books from the start, but it’s safe to say that this is not just the conclusion of the trilogy; it’s the crowning achievement.

Successive books in a trilogy, or any series, need to follow the same tenets as a successful business enterprise: expand or die. The stakes have to get higher. The characters have to get more complex. The world cannot stay the same. Taylor has excelled at this with the sequels to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, in particular because she creates a fine balance between predictability and ingenuity in her plots. The romance between Karou and Akiva is largely predictable. Revelations about Karou’s chimera past aside, it’s your standard starcrossed lovers type deal. But there’s nothing predictable about the world-shaking twists that Taylor deals into her stories, from the revelation of Eretz itself in the first book to the introduction of Eliza and the revelation of Meliz in the third. Taylor always ups the stakes, and never in safe or predictable ways, and that’s one reason this trilogy is so good.

When last we left our intrepid protagonists, everything teetered on the brink of chaos and disaster. Jael had flown his Dominion through the portal to Earth, poised to reveal himself to humanity and get weapons to take back to Eretz. Karou and Ziri had executed a complicated bait-and-switch the left the latter impersonating Thiago. Akiva, having been framed for the assassination of the Emperor, managed to persuade the Misbegotten to become rebels against the rest of seraphim-kind. Together, Akiva and Karou dare to dream of an alliance between the chimera and the Misbegotten. But it seems like an alliance doomed to fail before it can begin.

The concluding volume to any series really needs to be a culmination of the journey the reader has followed the characters on from book one. Dreams of Gods and Monsters achieves this by being a book about all the characters. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was Karou’s story. Akiva, Zuzana, and Mik were present, but they were the supporting cast. Days of Blood and Starlight was more evenly split between Akiva and Karou, with Zuzana and Mik taking on a larger role, and the introduction of Liraz as a more important character. But this book is definitely no longer any one character’s story. The narrative sprawls larger than any single character can contain it. All of the above characters, as well as Ziri, Razgut, and the newbie, Eliza, get opportunities to shine and carry the plot forward in interesting ways.

Speaking of plot, I was a little concerned by the length of the book. It’s nearly twice as long as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Yet this too is with purpose, a consequence of the wider scope of story that Taylor tells. This is no longer merely the story of Karou discovering her origins and having to decide how to live in two worlds (or whether she can live in two worlds). It’s a fight for survival, rebels against Jael’s Dominion. It’s a fight for the future of chimera and seraphim alike. And if that’s not enough, Taylor drops a bigger bombshell as she introduces an even more pernicious enemy, dangling in front of our eyes the tantalizing hope that follow-up series might one day appear.

This bombshell concerns the origins of the seraphim, as well as more details about the breakaway Stelians and Akiva’s own destiny. It’s very clever of Taylor, because she manages to tie up quite a bit of this story while also organically introducing new ideas and revealing more about Eretz’s past. Only Eliza’s inclusion as a main character might rankle, and I think it’s more surprising than disconcerting, since we expect to start the book with Akiva or Karou only to be introduced to a seemingly random human. A new main character is not necessarily something I expect in the last book of a trilogy, but I’m not opposed to it either, and Taylor manages to make it work.

A large reason why Eliza works, as does the zany tweeness of Mikzana (yeah, I portmanteaued that relationship), is the delightful narrative voice that Taylor has mastered here. The narrator is third person omniscient, but it has a colloquial informality to its tone and diction. It feels like this story is being told around a campfire or at a bedside, How I Met Your Mother-style, to wee little chimera or seraphim who are eager to know what happens next. There aren’t exactly asides to the reader, but there are small editorial flourishes, little comments like, "And it should have been fine. Until it wasn’t." I’m 24, and I kind of live in that interstitial generation between Gen Y and the Millennials, and this kind of narration appeals to me. This book feels like fantasy written for the 21st century, an invocation of the tropes of high fantasy mixed with the tones and moods of more contemporary, urban fantasy.

It doesn’t matter how you judge the strength of a book, whether it’s on story, or plot, or characters, or the width of the margins (just shy of 2.5 cm, or just under one inch for those of you still backward enough to not be down with the metric), or the font (not sure of the name, but it’s sexy and readable). Dreams of Gods and Monsters just works. It works really, really well. It’s really, really good. And if that’s not enough, it happens to be the third and best book in an excellent trilogy, one that should appeal both to the YA group and a more general (older) audience. If you like fantasy and you haven’t gotten into this trilogy yet, you really should. There’s no excuse now that all three books are on offer, and Taylor has such a great story to tell with fascinating, real characters. Don’t miss out.

7. Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 cover image
ISBN:
9780099552185
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 519 pages
Published:
Vintage Random House, 1961

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The cover of this edition boldly proclaims, “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.” This quotation is from fairly early in Catch-22, yet I understand what it was chosen as representative of the book as a whole. The novel’s title has become synonymous with an absurd, recursive paradox—because that’s exactly what Joseph Heller depicts in this satirical World War II story.

When I was younger, Catch-22 defeated me, in that I had to put it aside. I’m not bothered by this; plenty of books defeat me, usually because they are terrible. I refused to think that Catch-22 was terrible, however, given its iconic status. It was always possible that the book simply wasn’t to my tastes, but I don’t think I gave it a fair hearing the first time. So it has lingered on my list for years now, waiting for a second chance.

Probably the defining feature of Catch-22, and what made it so difficult for young!me to enjoy, is the spiralling style of its narrative. Seldom have I encountered a novel so relentlessly character-driven, as demonstrated by the fact that the majority of its chapter titles are character names. Heller prosecutes the action from an oblique angle, jumping back and revisiting events that we have already seen recounted, only to embellish them in further unlikely ways. I can see why some critics call the book repetitive. But this repetition is a deliberate part of the book’s structure. Catch-22 isn’t so much a conventional narrative as it is a winding, looping tour of a squadron camp during the last few months of World War II.

This time the unique structure appealed to me. Though I read it on occasion, war fiction is not my usual cup of tea. So Heller’s unconventional style was refreshing. It allowed me to push away the typical shorthand that seems to settle over most war fiction (especially from World War II) and focus more on the characters and their interaction. Heller helps in this quest by taking the emphasis off the battles and the missions, placing it instead on life back at camp. Yossarian’s shenanigans with Milo, Nately, et al are far more important than the aerial manoeuvres or death-defying stunts that they might pull on their missions; these only intrude when they are relevant to the point Heller is trying to make.

Catch-22 has much in common with Slaughterhouse-Five. Both are novels set in World War II, about war, but not aggressively filled with war per se. Both are modest, self-deprecating stories that rely on subtle (or, in Catch-22’s case, not-so-subtle) absurdism to highlight the folly of war. The eponymous regulation that apparently prevents Yossarian and other pilots from being taken off active duty or shipped home is similar to the non-linear existence that curtails Billy Pilgrim’s free will: it’s hard to imagine Yossarian doing anything other than what he does, because what choice does he have?

Yossarian is an interesting protagonist. We first meet him in a hospital, signing fake names to letters he censors for the military. This sets off a chain reaction of investigations culminating, towards the end of the book, in serious consequences for the poor squadron chaplain. Initially, the Washington Irving scandal seems funny in a wry sort of way—oh, those hilarious, incompetent CID men! Yet it’s actually the first in a frequent series of events that demonstrate how Yossarian’s disregard for the consequences of his own actions gets other people in trouble. Throughout, other characters meet unfortunate ends as a result of Yossarian’s decisions. When he steals through camp at night to move the bomb line on the map above Bologna, he inadvertently sends Major —— de Coverley to his death.

Major —— de Coverley, by the way, is my favourite. He’s a badass of the classical camp, so indefatigable that no one knows his first name or even what he’s supposed to be doing, so he just pitches horseshoes and goes around arranging apartments for the soliders’ leave. I loved him from the first time he shows up, and I was overjoyed when I reached the chapter Heller dedicates to him. When Yossarian’s cowardice results in his death, I soured towards Yossarian considerably.

I loved Catch-22 so much that I’m having trouble doing justice to it. All novels, all good stories, are ultimately about people, and Catch-22 is certainly that. It is entirely about the characters—it has a vast cast, but they are fleshed out, their pasts and presents and futures explored in detail. From the sleazy Colonel Cathcart to the amorally capitalist Milo Minderbinder, Heller conjures up more than his fair share of unforgettable people to populate this incredible tale of wanting to go home.

If you approach this novel with anything remotely resembling sincerity, you’ll be disappointed. Catch-22 is absurd, because this allows Heller to show the irrationality of war. Even the best people in this book suffer, because bad things happen indiscriminately. The regulations that prevent Yossarian from going home also certify that Doc Daneeka is dead, when he isn’t, and that Captain Shipman can be accused of stealing Colonel Cathcart’s tomato. So, you need your tongue firmly in cheek for this one.

I’ve never been in war, and hopefully I never will be. So take this with a grain of salt, but even with all the nonsense and absurdity, I’d still take Heller’s depiction over the real thing. And maybe that’s the point.

6. The Three Musketeers

by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers cover image
ISBN:
9780141028033
Format:
Trade Paperback, 688 pages
Published:
Penguin, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Thrilled by the excellent recent adaptation by the BBC, I decided it was time to finally read The Three Musketeers. I have vague memories of borrowing a book with a yellow hardback cover from the library when I was much, much younger. But at that precocious age I found the nineteenth century language and over-the-top tropes of romance and revenge difficult to enjoy, and I don’t recall if I ever finished it. This time, I did a little research and discovered that Richard Pevear has a relatively new translation out, and that my UK library had a copy! Strangely, the title page promises that this edition is “Translated with an Introduction by Richard Pevear,” but there is no introduction to be found. Huh.

It seems almost silly to give much of a plot summary of The Three Musketeers. Everyone knows the story, right? Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are the eponymous black sheep within the musketeers: the ones who don’t play by the rules but nevertheless still hold to the ancient rites of honour. D’Artagnan is a young Gascon man eager to make his name by joining the musketeers, and he quickly befriends the Three and joins them on many adventures. Together they fight the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu and his minion, the irredeemable Milady de Winter.

Except, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Alexandre Dumas’ story is one that has become so popular, been adapted so many times, that its original narrative has become snarled and twisted and confused in public consciousness. Having now read the book, I can see why: this is a massive novel that plods on and on in a series of interrelated episodic adventures that can be repetitive at times. It’s not difficult to understand why the various writers of adaptations have streamlined and simplified the story for television and movies. In so doing, they have associated the three (or four) musketeers with the ideas of heroism, courage, and bravery. Also, they have a chocolate bar named after them. How many literary characters can say that?

Most of the adaptations manage to portray the heroes with flaws as well as virtues: they capture the carousing, the drinking, the gambling—oh, and the irrepressible urge to duel. But they elide over some of the most memorable moments. For instance, the musketeers’ four respective manservants play crucial roles in the books, almost as important as the musketeers themselves—and, for the most part, the musketeers treat them like shit. Athos doesn’t let his speak, and Dumas goes out of his way to describe how d’Artagnan forbidding his servant to quit his service actually endears his servant to him more…. Meanwhile, a lot of the problems in the book are the result of the musketeers drinking and/or gambling too much. They tend to pick fights where none are necessary. Then they go running to hide behind Captain de Tréville’s skirts, using their special friendship with him to get out of trouble. When they need more money, they chat up bored wives for loans.

So the musketeers aren’t the shining heroes we have made them out to be in popular culture. They are, to Dumas’ credit, much greyer and more morally complex than that. The same can be said for Cardinal Richelieu and Milady. Although it’s easy to mistake this book for a florid romance set two centuries before it was written, it is a far richer story of how personal whims and ambitions and relationships affect the political tapestry of a continent like Europe. For his love of Queen Anne, Buckingham betrays his nation. D’Artagnan finds himself set against Richelieu not necessarily because they are so different but because Richelieu’s methods conflict with d’Artagnan’s sensibilities.

One thing that surprises me in the novel is the very fair treatment that Dumas gives Richelieu. He is not a one-dimensional, transparent villain. It’s clear that Richelieu is acting for what he believes is the good of France. This is a perilous time for the kingdom, which has remained staunchly Catholic in the face of rising Protestantism, and has managed to alienate even the other Catholic countries in Europe—namely, Spain. Richelieu is legitimately worried about alliances between these countries and invasion or rebellion, and his scheming is, ultimately, an attempt to make sure that France is prepared. Peter Capaldi captures a sliver of this side of the character in the BBC adaptation, but his Richelieu is also a more personally self-absorbed character.

I wonder if Dumas was secretly fascinated by seventeenth-century France, so much so that he ached to write a political thriller about the events therein, only he knew that it would sell better if he couched it in the contemporary ideas of the romance. By our standards he is incredibly sexist—women are, to Dumas, the fairer and weaker sex, and indeed, part of Milady’s villainy is her presumption to “rise above” the proper stations of motherhood and companionship as a woman and seek a man’s destiny in life. (He also has this weird obsession with women’s hands.) But for his time, Dumas might have been perceived as fairly liberal, for a male writer, in his depictions of women characters.

That’s not saying much, of course. It’s sufficient that Dumas’ women have more agency than fenceposts. There are basically three important female characters (I’m not counting Kitty): Anne, Constance Bonacieux, and Milady. Although Dumas’ portrayals of them are far from faultless, he nevertheless manages to capture the dangerous and difficult nature of being a woman in seventeenth century France. He shows the empty court life that Queen Anne must lead, the emotional gulf that separates her from her husband and leads her to seek love in an English ambassador. And, oh, did this book make me love Constance even more than I did in the BBC version. In the latter, she is merely d’Artagnan’s landlady rather than the queen’s seamstress. But this additional dimension in the original text makes her character much more interesting. She and Anne are both victims of the oppressive, patriarchal nature of the time. They lack the power to do much about their situations, and they ceaselessly exercise the little power they do have to make their lives better, only for men to swat them down again if it’s inconvenient.

But it’s in the portrayal of Milady de Winter that Dumas truly excels at a nuanced portrait of women’s struggles. As I note above, there are very problematic aspects to Milady’s use of her sexuality to get what she wants, and the ending of the book seems to say that Dumas is punishing her for having the gall to act, essentially, the same as the musketeers do. She is the Cardinal’s agent in the same way that the musketeers are the king’s/queen’s/whatever. In fact, it’s arguable that Milady has a more legitimate claim to being a loyal French agent than the musketeers. Richelieu sends her to assassinate Buckingham—who, let us not forget, is English—because it would prevent the launch of an invasion fleet. That kind of seems like a good thing to do if one is concerned for French sovereignty, no? But the musketeers rush to stop her, and then condemn her for engineering Buckingham’s death, despite the fact that he is clearly an enemy of state and she totally had the Cardinal’s permission. Who is the wrong now, hmm?

Indeed, there is a delightfully subversive edge to this, the major plot of The Three Musketeers. For a long time prior to achieving her goals, Milady is imprisoned in a castle in the English countryside. She laments the fact that, as a woman, she is unable to merely fight her way free and escape through physical feats. Instead she must resort, as always, to her beauty and wiles. And my interpretation of this is not that Dumas is painting Milady as a sociopathic viper but as an unfortunate, psychologically scarred woman who has to do a lot of unsavoury things in order to survive. She is aware of how her gender has affected her life, has made things harder, and she has been forced to hone whatever few weapons she could forge from her disadvantages. So even though there is something fairly unfortunate in how Dumas portrays Milady’s vituperative scheming against d’Artagnan and her consequent fate, I also think that she is a far more complex character than she might seem at first glance.

These layers, then, are what result in the wonderful and transcendent quality of The Three Musketeers. On one level it is a straightforward romance, a tale of swashbuckling heroes against scheming villains. It has swordfights and chase scenes and all the melodrama that anyone could want—and I love it for that reason, far more than I suspected I would. On another level, it depicts the difficult life of musketeers in seventeenth-century France. The four musketeers are complicated and flawed characters who make mistakes and essentially function as vigilantes. Dumas captures the tense political situation in Europe at the time. And onto that additional level, he overlays the ambitions and relationships of individuals—both men and women—depicting how these alter and affect the fates of nations. The Three Musketers is an adventure novel, yes, but it should never be dismissed merely as that. It is nothing short of an amazing and impressive work of literature that deserves its status as a classic.

5. Daniel Deronda

by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda cover image
ISBN:
9781853261763
Format:
Paperback, 707 pages
Published:
Wordsworth Editions, 1996

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Last year around this time, I read Adam Bede, George Eliot’s first novel. It’s fitting that when I was rummaging around my to-read box, I found Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s last novel. I wanted a meaty, socially-conscious novel with a diverse cast of well-realized characters. Eliot does not disappoint, and Daniel Deronda captivated me to the point that I began scribbling some notes in the margins of my lovely used copy.

I love George Eliot so much. Sooooo much. Let me make this clear: George Eliot is a god.

(A friend suggested I should use the word “goddess”, but if we don’t call women actors “actresses” or “murderesses” any more, I’m going to phase “goddess” out as well.)

Eliot’s ability to transport me to her contemporary Europe is nothing short of wizardry. It’s easy to complain that fiction from a hundred years ago is too difficult to read because of changes in style or too difficult to comprehend because of cultural shifts, but Eliot’s command of imagery and characterization transcends all such barriers. In the previous novels of hers that I’ve read, Eliot replicates the atmosphere of rural England as the echoes of the Industrial Revolution reverberated across its emptying fields. Now in her last novel she gives us a glimpse of the emerging middle class.

The book is called Daniel Deronda, so readers are excused if they are confused by the fact that, for the first third of the book, Deronda appears in one chapter before Eliot turns all her attention on Gwendolen Harleth. The story is as much Gwendolen’s as it is Deronda’s, and it is only towards the very end of the book that Deronda’s narrative seems to take precedence. I understand why the back of my Wordsworth Classics edition claims “Eliot breaks new ground for the English novel with the unusual form and content”, for at first it seems like these two protagonists’ narratives are utterly unrelated. Yet each is enhanced by the other, and by the parallels one can draw between them.

Gwendolen is an interesting protagonist because she is unlikable—but sympathetic. She is spoiled (a fact that is not, itself, a spoiler, because the very first book is called “The Spoiled Child”) and sheltered and possibly Eliot’s way of digging at the shallow creations of fellow Regency and Victorian novelists who completely missed the point of Austen and the Brontë sisters. Gwendolen is in fact an excellent case study of how to write an unlikable character, because Eliot’s omniscient narrator explores the events that have shaped her as a young woman. When confronted with her mother and sisters’ penury (money matters and the loss of money being a favourite motif for Eliot), Gwendolen’s initial reaction is hilariously naive: she announces she will pursue a career as a famous actor or singer. Eliot, through the slightly stereotypical figure of Hans Klesmer—suffering German artiste—shuts Gwendolen down and hard! The schadenfreude as Gwendolen’s cognitive dissonance works overtime to process Klesmer’s complete and unrelenting criticism of her proposal is lovely, all the more so because, thanks to earlier scenes and interactions, we see it coming while Gwendolen remains her oblivious, egoistic self.

Ego is, of course, at the core of both of this novel’s stories. Gwendolen is not really used to anyone saying “no” to her. (Deronda is so enigmatic to her in part because he is probably the first person to do this when he aborts her ruinous gambling streak by returning her necklace.) She basically rules her mother through a combination of genuine affection and latent guilt on her mother’s part over her father’s desertion of the family. Gwendolen’s half-sisters are never fleshed out beyond being set pieces, to the point where I don’t remember their names. Eliot portrays her as far more self-possessed and self-determined than the typical young woman of her time. This is evident from her thoughts on marriage, illustrated by this, the first of many quotes I felt the need to underline:

Her observations of matrimony had inclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than was desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.

(From there, Eliot goes on to explain that Gwendolen “desires to lead”, building her up as an ambitious and calculating woman who belies the somewhat foolish girl we see in the first chapter. Gwendolen is inexperienced but intelligent.) Eliot’s own complicated views on love and matrimony are on full display here, but even better is the biting critique of a patriarchal society that infantilizes women. She conjures even more powerful imagery to this effect slightly later in the novel, with Gwendolen’s riposte while verbally fencing with Grandcourt:

We women can’t go in search of adventures—to find out the North-West Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we go, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining.

Wow. You go, girl.

It’s tempting, especially with a cursory knowledge of Eliot’s life, to conclude that the above sentiments are an all-in-all indictment of marriage. Eliot is short-circuiting the Romantic tropes that dictate that marriage is the inevitable destiny of the female lead. However, the critique here is a little more complicated, because Eliot isn’t railing against marriage so much as the more subtle fact that for women in Gwendolen’s position, marriage is essentially the only respectable option. Eliot gives us a look at several women who are content in marriages, like the redoubtable Mrs. Meyrick. What she opposes is the pressure to marry and the social cost to women who do not marry, or who marry the wrong person. Eliot further underscores this double standard through Grandcourt’s illegitimate children with Mrs. Glasher: even those few men, like Sir Hugo, who think he should probably have married Mrs. Glasher do not even bother censuring him. Women don’t have that option, and that makes Eliot furious. (I haven’t even gotten started on the number of times various men and women describe Gwendolen as being a “coquette” or “coquetting”—yeah, they gerunded that shit—during her interactions with Grandcourt. I just … seriously, if you’re at all interested in a feminist look at Victorian England, you need to read George Eliot.)

Gwendolen isn’t the only facet through which Eliot explores the restrictions on women. After cousin Gwendolen spurns him, Rex resolves to move to Canada and “build a hut, and work hard at clearing, and have everything wild about me, and a great wide quiet.” (I love this scene all the more because when Rex mentions Canada, Eliot’s narrator parenthetically remarks, “Rex had not studied the character of our colonial possessions.”) Anyway, what’s interesting is that while Rex is imagining this brave frontier life in Canada, his sister Anna is all gung-ho about joining him as his housekeeper. Initially this just seems like an attempt to show how Anna is devoted to Rex as a sister. However, Gwendolen’s later remark about how women are restricted from having adventures casts Anna’s eagerness in a different light: maybe she secretly yearns for adventures herself, and this is the only way she can think of having them.

Much like the book itself, I’m well into this review before returning to the character of Daniel Deronda. I was just so captivated and moved by Gwendolen’s story, the arc of the tragedy of her compromise with Grandcourt, that I needed to express all of the above. My feelings about Daniel are less complicated, and they tie in with some misgivings about the structure of his plot.

I enjoyed how Eliot provides a sympathetic portrayal of Jews and Jewish culture even while the majority of her Christian characters are thumping bigots. She deftly shows her Jewish characters to belie the stereotypes at every turn: the pawnbroker Ezra Cohen proves to be an upstanding citizen; Ezra Mordecai has a heart far too big for his weakened body. At the same time, otherwise nice and intelligent people like Hans and his mother, or the Mallingers, make the type of offhand comments that exemplify the institutionalized anti-Semitism so endemic to English life.

Deronda takes the revelation that his Jewish surprisingly well. This has something to do with his growing love for Mirah, of course. Perhaps, also, he appreciates that his Jewish identity equips him with a rich heritage and, thanks to Mordecai’s Zionist influences, a sense of purpose and importance. Instead of merely being Sir Hugo’s foster son and protege, Deronda is now a Jew hoping to reclaim his heritage, both figuratively and literally by travelling to Jerusalem.

Towards the end of the novel, Eliot allows the Zionist elements of Deronda’s story to become expansive, devoting page upon page for Mordecai to explain his vision. I think this might be somewhat a case of wanting to show her work (TVTropes) and just getting a little carried away. As a result, Daniel Deronda’s philosophical elements are more overt than they are in some of Eliot’s earlier novels. She has a lot of ideas and differing perspectives that she tries to reconcile, and she isn’t always successful. (I have similar misgivings about the oddly convenient appearance of Deronda’s mother at the end of the book.)

At first, I thought that this meant I should give the book four stars. I did love it, but not nearly as much as Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss . It’s far from perfect. If I reserved five stars for perfect books, however, that would be miserly indeed. Daniel Deronda an impressive work; its flaws are merely the signatures of Eliot’s ambitious scope for storytelling. This novel’s portrayal of late–nineteenth-century England from the perspective of impoverished middle class women and a rich but heritage-less man trying to find a purpose. It is another fine example of Eliot’s talent for creating memorable and amusing characters of varying degrees of depth, and for her truly stunning command of language in encouraging the reader’s empathy.

4. How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life

by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life cover image
ISBN:
9781846146787
Format:
Hardcover, 468 pages
Published:
Penguin, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I math for a living. I mathed, both amateurly and professionally, at school. I math quite a bit. And as a math teacher, I like reading "pop math" books that try to do for math what many science writers have done for science. So picking up How Not to Be Wrong was a no-brainer when I saw it on that bookstore shelf. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Jordan Ellenberg’s columns on Slate and elsewhere (some of them appear or are adapted as chapters of this book). And he doesn’t disappoint.

I should make one thing clear: I mainlined this book like it was the finest heroin. Partly that’s because I just love reading about math, but in this case I was also days away from moving back to Canada from the UK when I started this, and luggage space was at a premium, so I was on a deadline to finish this book. I injected chapters at a time into my veins, revelling in that rush as Ellenberg charismatically and entertainingly explores the math behind a lot of everyday concepts and ideas. Unlike similar attempts, however, Ellenberg doesn’t pull the punches. He’s more than willing to go into the higher-concept ideas behind the math, and when it starts getting too esoteric or academic even for this venue, he’s always ready with a book recommendation for those interested in some further reading.

Early in my reading, I tweeted I had already decided to give this book five stars because Ellenberg alludes to Mean Girls in a footnote. (Specifically, he says, “As Lindsay Lohan would put it, ’the limit does not exist!’”) That’s really all you need to know about Ellenberg’s writing style and sense of humour. Actually, I’m not all that enamoured with the footnotes in general; they interrupted the flow of my reading and the symbols used to mark them were slightly too small, so I kept missing them in the text—but that’s a design issue. The content of the footnotes themselves is often informative or, as in the case above, humorous. Ellenberg might be a university math professor, but he also has a sense of humour and an awareness of pop culture that helps to make his writing accessible.

I’m impressed by the way Ellenberg effortlessly straddles pure and applied mathematics. The child of two statisticians, he clearly has a good grasp and appreciation of the way applied math drives so many areas of society. From economics to gambling, he makes passionate appeals for informed perspectives over simplistic analogies or fallacies. His first chapter criticizes analogies that promote linear thinking about taxation when the very same economists writing these analogies know that taxation probably isn’t linear. He doesn’t argue for or against an increase in taxes, but rather he points out that it’s wrong to oversimplify the concept when trying to sell it to the public. Is a curve really all that much harder to understand than a line?

There’s also some great chapters on odds and the lottery, in which Ellenberg recounts how a group of MIT students set up a legitimate operation to bulk buy lottery tickets from a certain game that actually gave them good odds of winning. They made a profit, because they used math to turn a game of chance into a predictable investment strategy (which is more than we can say for the stock market). So, you know, stay in school kids.

But actually, the parts about the lottery that impressed me were more towards the purer end of the math spectrum. Ellenberg started discussing, for example, how best to pick the numbers on one’s tickets so that one could maximize the chance of winning at each tier of prizes. It turns out that it’s possible to represent the way of picking these numbers geometrically (yes, as in pictures) and that it’s related to the way we create error-correcting codes (which allow us to send instructions to spacecraft, and compress data in JPEGs, MP3s, and on discs). He goes into quite a bit of detail about the more advanced concepts behind these ideas. Later, he points out how correlation on scatter plots corresponds to an ellipse—and we know how to deal with ellipses algebraically, which gives us a good toolset for talking about correlation algebraically too.

So, How Not to Be Wrong makes an effort time and again to belie the impression that we often get in school that math consists of a series of discrete topics: arithmetic, geometry, statistics, and the dreaded algebra. We teach it that way because it’s easier to lay out as a curriculum and focus on the essential skills of each discipline. And also because we are boring. If you’re lucky, like me, then as a student you’ll start to see the connections yourself. Circles and pi start showing up everywhere, to the point where suddenly you feel like you’re being stalked, and no amount of infinite series or integration is going to save you. But really, good teachers start showing these connections as soon as possible. We fail students and leave them behind because, in our rush to equip them with the skills we’ve been told they need, we rob them of the idea that math is a creative process, instead fostering this false impression that math is a sterile, difficult, procedural slog. If it is, then you might be a computer.

Ellenberg never demands a knowledge of integral calculus, of set theory, or of transfinite numbers. What he does demand is an open mind, a willingness to be convinced that not only does math have a useful place in life (it’s pretty obvious to most people that someone needs to know how to math; they just don’t see why it should be them) but that a deeper understanding of the roles and uses of math can enrich anyone’s life. One can be a believer in the power of mathematics without necessarily worshipping at its altar, and it’s this quest for adherents rather than acolytes that makes this popular math book successful. It helps that Ellenberg’s style is witty. It helps that he is passionate without sounding too evangelical. He weaves in enough history, anecdotes, and allusions to demonstrate that mathematicians’ journeys and the development of mathematics as a discipline has been just like everything else in life: alternately dramatic and dull, intense, occasionally acrimonious. We don’t like to admit it, but we mathematicians are people too. And occasionally we’re wrong, very wrong (like those nineteenth-century French eugenicists…). The title here is tongue-in-cheek, and How Not to Be Wrong can’t guarantee your future correctness with great certitude. All it can do is help you think more critically, more logically, but more creatively about the problems and questions that you’ll face in the future. Because mathematics is a tool for helping us to do amazing things. You can be a novice, or you can be a proficient user of this tool, but either way you’ll need to pick it up at some point to do a little handiwork. Don’t fear it: embrace it.

Oh, and read this book.

3. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions cover image
ISBN:
9780544272996
Format:
Hardcover, 303 pages
Published:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I don’t really need to review this, do I?

Randall Munroe is the much-beloved writer and illustrator of the much-beloved webcomic xkcd . He puts his physics and robotics background to good use creating humorous situations based on science, mathematics, and nerd culture. He has since branched out with What If? , a weekly blog in which Munroe answers over-the-top questions by following the facts to whatever consequences they might lead.

This is the book of the blog.

(That’s like the book of the movie, only it’s a blog, not a movie. Savvy?)

So if you’re curious about what this book is like, just go read the blog. You can do that for free. Many of the chapters in the book are reprints from the blog—though some posts have been revised, expanded, or mutated through exposure to gamma radiation. Some of the chapters are new, and just as hilarious.

That’s the defining characteristic of What If? for me: it’s a wonderful demonstration of how asking—and answering—questions is fun, and that really should be the backbone of any science education effort.

Now, much like Republican politicians, I am not a scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I am a mathematician (which is kind of like a scientist, only cooler), and I’m an educator. Math and science share a lot of the bum rap when it comes to which subjects kids enjoy in school, and most of it is bad PR on the part of parents, policy-makers, and teachers. And this makes me angry, because science is wonderful and fascinating and awesome, and I want kids to love it just like I want kids to love math. Even if they don’t particularly want to grow up working in a field that requires a working knowledge of particle physics or a penchant for solving partial differential equations, I want them to dip their toes with joy and abandon into the oceans of inquiry and problem-solving—and not feel pressured or shamed by the fallout from standardized tests that label them with numbers and letters and predictors of success.

Munroe is one of a cadre of Internet peoples who is leading the charge in a glorious vanguard of new science education. He gets it. He has that golden spark of talent that puts him in the sweet spot of both knowing the science behind these issues as well as being able to write about them in a humorous, entertaining way. What If? is like an armchair version of MythBusters and no less amazing for it.

I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying that I enjoyed every single chapter in this book. I laughed out loud frequently. Even the less interesting ones, or the ones I read before on the blog, are nice to revisit. This is a great coffeetable book for geeks: you can dip in and out of it at will.

My favourite chapter has to be “Periodic Wall of Elements,” in which Munroe explains the consequences of trying to construct a periodic table wherein each entry is a sample of the element in question. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well, for you, or your lab, or the city around it.) He just has such a dry style of writing:

Sometimes this kind of panic over scary chemicals is disproportionate; there are trace amounts of natural arsenic in all our food and water, and we handle those fine. This is not one of those times.

And then slightly later, describing the effects of building the sixth row of the periodic table:

The radiation levels would be incredibly high. Given that it takes a few hundred milliseconds to blink, you would literally get a lethal dose of radiation in the blink of an eye.

You would die from what we might call “extremely acute radiation poisoning”—that is, you would be cooked.

The seventh row would be much worse.

This tendency for understatement combines with a keen sense of meta-fictional absurdity that Munroe regularly demonstrates in his webcomic. Indeed, as if his delightful prose is not enough on its own, every answer comes complete with several xkcd-style illustrations that have the same cheeky humour of the comic.

What If? is awesome. Full stop. If you are not convinced of this and want to be convinced, go read the blog and the comic. Then buy the book. Then enjoy the hours of entertainment and education you will receive. Share it with kids, and make them love science. Even if it kills them.*

*Please science responsibly, especially if kids are involved. Do not blow things up unless you are a trained professional and have taken appropriate safety measures. Don’t try anything in this book at home. At worst it is very dangerous and would likely destroy the planet; at best, it is extremely impractical and would cost a fortune in electricity.

2. The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo cover image
ISBN:
9780307271129
Format:
Hardcover, 1179 pages
Published:
Everyman's Library, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I didn’t plan on reading The Count of Monte Cristo so soon after The Three Musketeers . But on my first visit to the Thunder Bay library after my return from the UK, I saw this lovely edition with an introduction by Umberto Eco, one of my favourite authors. The introduction isn’t much to talk about—it’s short, which is actually a point in its favour; and it’s informative but not quite insightful. I gave The Three Musketeers five stars and a glowing review.

The Three Musketeers has nothing on The Count of Monte Cristo. This is indubitably superior to the former work in all respects. It is an amazing tour de force of a text that was well worth the 10 days it took me to read it. Whereas T3M has achieved immortality as a dashing adventure romance, TCMC is the revenge plot done up in the finest of clothing and served with the most sumptuous of (cold) repasts. Alexandre Dumas delivers one of the most detailled and compelling stories I have ever experienced.

Sure, the novel starts slowly, introducing the young Edmond Dantes, so buoyant with hope. He’s about to become captain of a trading vessel and marry a pretty Catalan girl who is madly in love with him. He’ll be able to provide for his old, infirm father. Life is good. Slowly, Dumas arrays the forces of jealousy and envy against him, in the form of the villains Danglars and Fernand. I can easily forgive a reader who finds the first few chapters of TCMC stultifying in their boredom; the plot doesn’t really begin to thicken until Edmond is imprisoned, and the pace doesn’t take off until he escapes and reinvents himself as Monte Cristo.

The beginning is slow, but it provides essential contrast to Edmond’s later conduct as the Count. Young Edmond is almost stupidly naive. Despite some careful warnings from Caderousse and others, he ignores the ill will emanating from Danglars and Fernand. He is cavalier about a trip to Elba during a time when even the whiff of Bonapartism was a good way to get thrown in jail. Dumas goes out of his way to make Edmond as innocent as possible. And just when it seems like Fernand’s scheme will fall through, Edmond falls victim, through no fault of his own, to the intrigue of Villefort. Edmond is an innocent, a good man. He doesn’t deserve what happens to him—unlike the three against whom he exacts his revenge.

But the Count of Monte Cristo? Ah, the Count is not a good man. But he is a great one. The Count of Monte Cristo is basically the Most Interesting Man in the World:

Most Interesting Man in the World saying 'I don’t always exact revenge, but when I do, I use fiendishly complex gambits.'

The Count of Monte Cristo has been everywhere, done everything, seen it all. He is absurdly, fabulously rich—and, more interestingly, very good at spending his riches. He plays Xanatos Speed Chess blindfolded (TVTropes). His servants and entourage are devoted to him. Everyone in Parisian society becomes infatuated with him. The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t badass; he is the badassest.

When he descends upon Paris, two decades have elapsed since the betrayal that led to his imprisonment. No one recognizes him. Danglars, Villefort, and Fernand have risen to important titles in Parisian society. But the Count doesn’t take revenge quickly. Oh no. He totally buys the whole “best served cold” part of the adage. Months pass as the Count integrates himself into Parisian high society, attending operas and throwing lavish dinner parties and generally charming the pants off everyone. He enacts a series of increasingly fiendish and increasingly complex plots to place his enemies in financial or social difficulty. Even when unforeseen circumstances arise to throw off his otherwise intricate planning, the Count rises to the occasion and improvises with aplomb. He seems, in short, unstoppable.

It’s awesome, watching it all unfold. No CGI explosions. No explicit sex scenes. Just one amazing character on a mission of revenge.

I read the unabridged version, because I like to suffer when I read classic literature. I hear there are abridged versions out there (did I mention this book is in the public domain?). I assume they cut out the hundreds of pages of digressions and backstories of secondary characters. In the introduction to this edition, Eco discusses the paradox of Dumas’ terrible writing yet enduring brilliance: TCMC is simultaneously a poorly-written book yet an incredible feat of storytelling. Its wordiness makes Dickens look concise. It took me ten days to read when the similarly-thick The Wise Man’s Fear took less than half that. I enjoyed it all the same … but I’m willing to admit that there are some things that could have been cut. Maybe. So I won’t blame you if you read the abridged version. You really should read this, somehow.

TCMC’s length reminds me of another epic classic, War and Peace . The similarity doesn’t end there, however. Much like Tolstoy’s epic, TCM has oodles and oodles of characters. Wikipedia has chart of the various relationships in the novel. Keep in mind that Dumas serialized this thing, and it really does read like a weird, nineteenth-century French soap opera. There’s something very fulfilling about coming across a character first mentioned hundreds of pages ago and realizing their new importance to the plot. And as with Tolstoy’s story, there is so much more happening here than Edmond’s revenge. Every one of the secondary characters has their own intricate history (which Dumas never fails to recount) accompanied by a complex set of motivations and goals that impact the Count’s plans. Truly, egregious purple prose aside, TCMC is one of the most masterful examples of plotting in literature.

The Count of Monte Cristo is like War and Peace but with a more uplifting ending. The ending is rather inevitable, and it’s where the earlier depiction of early Edmond becomes so important. Having succeeded in getting his revenge, the Count sails off into the sunset in search of further adventure. There’s no other way to end it. He was a character devoted entirely to one goal: once he achieved it, what was he supposed to do? Then again, he is more than a man. He’s a myth, a self-made myth in the style of Jay Gatsby, whose very existence is sustained by the stories and rumours that swirl around him. Edmond’s enemies managed to transform him into something he could never have become on his own—but his quest for revenge is not one that leaves him unscathed. And it’s an open question whether Edmond has managed to break the cycle of revenge or merely extend it for another generation.

This is a novel that doesn’t pull punches. Dumas ruthlessly explores the extent to which obsession and desire can chart the course of someone’s life and alter the lives of all those around him. Yet he manages to do so with wit and persuasive charm. It is no wonder that like T3M, The Count of Monte Cristo has inspired so many adaptations and looser works based on its themes … but there is no substitute for the original.

1. Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

by Laurie Penny

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution cover image
ISBN:
9781408824740
Format:
Paperback, 288 pages
Published:
Bloomsbury, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book made me angry, and definitely a little uncomfortable. However, I’m not angry with the book or with Laurie Penny. I’m angry in the sense that she outlines in chapter 2, “Lost Boys,” when she says, “Anger is an entirely appropriate response to learning that you’re implicated in a system that oppresses women but the solution isn’t to direct that anger back at women.” I’m angry at the abuse and suffering women undergo in our society; I’m angry that as a man I’m expected to act in ways that, directly or indirectly, facilitate such suffering. And I’m uncomfortable because Penny discusses painful and, as the title promises, Unspeakable Things. This book is part-catharsis, part–rallying cry, and it’s entirely polemical and political in a brilliant way.

“This is a feminist book. It is not a cheery instruction manual for how to negotiate modern patriarchy, with a sassy wink and a thumbs-up.” From the very first page of the introduction, Penny lays her cards on the table and is absolutely clear about what to expect from Unspeakable Things. And so, from that first page, I found myself nodding along in agreement. I’ve taken a more active interest in gender issues for years now, so I’m relatively familiar with the concepts, the ideas, the jargon. Hence, I’m not going to claim that the average reader will have the same reaction to page one as I did. But that doesn’t matter, because the point of the book is that it gradually and carefully lays out an argument for why all of us—men, women, and other genders—need to talk about these things. It’s all there in the title: Penny’s concern is that there are people on both sides of these issues of sex and gender who are trying to shut the discussion down. There are certain things too sensitive, too sacred, that we just shouldn’t talk about them. We need to shut them away, maybe so we can “protect the children.” This silencing is implicit, codified in the way we socialize men and women through upbringing and schooling and media, as well as explicit, waged as attacks, physical and verbal, against women and their allies in print and digital media. In many ways, Unspeakable Things isn’t about defining or recapitulating particular notions of feminism so much as it is an exponent of free speech in a feminist way. This is a powerful and, for some people, scary idea. But Penny’s writing is more than equal to the challenge of being accessible while still avoiding the pitfalls of popular non-fiction. As she promises in the introduction, this is not one of those cheeky books written and published under the banner of new feminist success stories, guides and tell-alls about how to “have it all” in the world of work and childrearing. Rather, this is a frank polemic. As I said at the beginning, it is painful and discomfiting, and if it doesn’t stir you to anger, then you’re reading it wrong.

It would be ironic if I tried to describe what every reader, including women readers, would get from this book. I can’t even claim to speak for all men. But let me describe my reaction, as someone whose external appearance and performance of gender means I receive a great deal of privilege in this society. One reason that this book just works so well for me is how Penny seems to have made a conscious effort to address as diverse an audience as possible. In my case, I of course identified with that second chapter, in which she chronicles the detrimental effects of patriarchy on men. Penny systematically dismantles the argument that feminism is something that benefits only women. This is perhaps one of the most pernicious and pervasive myths about feminism that make many people, men and women, balk at discussing it or embracing it. But once again, Penny states it loudly and clearly for all to hear:

Feminism has never just been about liberating women from men, but about freeing every human being from the straitjacket of gender oppression. For the first time, men and boys as a whole are starting to realise how profoundly messed up masculinity is—and to ask how they might make it different.

In particular, Penny argues that patriarchy does not actually benefit many men, just those at the top. The oppression of women is, in part, a sop to men who actually have very little power otherwise—their power over women and children essentially there to compensate their relative powerlessness in other spheres of society. And she highlights the way media often portray men in hyper-masculine ways. It’s not just women who suffer at the hands of commercials, music, film, television. Men too find expectations thrust upon them as a consequence of their gender. Men, just like women, were bound by certain rituals of etiquette and unspoken codes of conduct (the difference being that men, unlike women, experienced more perks under this system) and were punished unduly for deviating. This has started to change recently—but the fact remains that some people seem terrified by the idea that some men don’t want to pursue women, don’t want to view them as objects, don’t want to act in macho and masculine ways. These same people are terrified by the idea that women are more than bodies, that they want autonomy over their lives, that they might want to act more like men—or, indeed, cleave to a very feminine identity without the baggage of the male gaze attached to such expression. This is where my anger enters the picture again: I’m normally an easygoing person, but the concept that some people would seek to circumscribe the rights and privileges of the rest of us in order to satisfy their own fucked up idea of “normality” is more than just messed up. It’s actually sickening, the extent to which people will hurt one another simply because they don’t conform to certain ideas about gender.

So in this way, I can empathise with the first chapter, “Fucked-Up Girls,” as well as the second one. I can’t know exactly what it’s like for women to experience the abuse and oppression, the pressure they endure in the face of countless signals from society about how they should behave around each other and around men. Yet I have some very good reasons for wanting to make the world a more equitable place, one where people of any gender have more equal privileges. There is a small but nonzero probability that one day I will reproduce, and that the child I have will identify as a woman. And though this merely possible future, I’m human enough to feel twinges of anger and sorrow that this child could find her life difficult and painful merely because she doesn’t conform to the allowable parameters of womanhood. On a more immediate note, I have a fair number of women friends. I care for them. So the idea that this is what they experience, whether it’s daily or occasionally or almost never at all, is unconscionable.

You have to be a pretty lousy person to want to perpetuate a system that actively harms half of humanity and subtly oppresses the other half.

So throughout the book, there was this undercurrent of anger mixed with genuine distress as I read. Penny has come much closer than many other feminist writers in helping me understand how some women feminists do call for more radical actions and imagine futures without men. Thanks to the Internet, women have so many ways of expressing this anger and sharing the stories of their oppression. And this anger is legitimate and painful, as it should be, and the proper response is not to shut it down or attempting to speak over it but instead to step back and acknowledge it. However, what makes Unspeakable Things all the more impressive is the way Penny balances this anger with a resilient empathy. As bleak as it might get, she always insists that there is a way forward in which all actors, women as well as allies, can benefit and work together for a better future. Amidst what is otherwise a somewhat stark view of the current state of women online and in the developed world, this hopeful message is a welcome beacon of light.

I’m not going to break this book down chapter-by-chapter, as much as I’d like to—this review is already getting long enough. But I do want to talk about the major themes of the last chapters. In particular, in “Cybersexism” Penny looks at how the Internet is influencing attitudes towards sex and sexuality. I spend a great deal of time online and am very invested in the Internet’s role in our world, so I found this fascinating. And in many ways, our attitudes towards sex and sexuality—and how and when we are permitted to discuss those things—are major artifacts of our gendered society.

Penny reviews how the Internet has been a boon and a bane for women’s self-expression, offering new spaces for speech while also throwing up the potential for anonymous trolls to come along and shame, silence, and threaten. She also mentions porn, and the conflicted and complicated relationship sex work in general has with feminism. Canada is currently in the process of attempting to recodify our criminal laws regarding sex work, and it’s difficult. It’s not something I know enough about to comment on in more detail, but I really enjoyed reading Penny’s thoughts on the subject.

Above all else, these chapters on love in the age of cyberspace showcase Penny’s anticapitalist approach to feminism. The Internet makes it that much easier for corporations to sell certain visions of sex and sexuality to people. They do this not because these visions are natural, normal, or just; they do this because they want to make money. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” became a sensation last year, and like many songs, it’s catchy until you look at the lyrics. So it attracted a fair amount of criticism and no shortage of defenders, male and female. In response to accusations of sexism, these defenders asserted that Thicke’s song actually promotes the “liberation” of women’s sexuality, that he’s encouraging her to express herself in ways that are not necessarily traditional. Alas, this counterargument misses the point. It doesn’t matter that a man is singing a song about women being more proactive in their sexuality. This is still a song about a man telling a woman what type of sexual expression he wants to see from her, what behaviour on her part gratifies him. This is the trap into which we too often fall when discussing sex and media: even so-called “sex positive” campaigns are still pressing upon us a specific model of sexuality that we are expected to follow. We haven’t won as long as media continue to sell us specific versions of permissible sexual expression; we will have won when media acknowledges that any expression is as good as the next, that there is no one true way to act in order to be happy or successful. And of course, this is not compatible with capitalism, which relies on the propagation of uncertainty and materialistic desire in order to create profits.

This thread of anticapitalist sentiment is present throughout the entire book. As with her declaration that Unspeakable Things is a feminist book, Penny makes not apologies for this stance (nor should she). She recognizes, rather, that for feminism to succeed it must be political and radical and that we won’t have gender equity until we dismantle this system. I think feminists who fail to view intersectionality as crucial to their endeavour are shortsighted. Penny acknowledges the importance of race but doesn’t spend too much time speaking about it; from her personal experiences she declares herself more able to discuss the class-based inequities that reinforce gender inequity. And this, in turn, links back to what I said earlier about that resilient empathy. While Penny does not mince words as she chronicles the hurts of sexism and misogyny, she also offers hope. In addition to her call for more frank discussions about these things that we would rather sweep under the carpet, Penny calls for a more permissive society, one in which we are not so constrained in our actions by our sex, gender, race, class, or any other label we are saddled with. This single element, among all the other reasons I like this book, is its best feature.

I won’t hesitate to say that Unspeakable Things is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best feminist books I’ve ever read. I’ve followed Penny on Twitter for a while now and enjoy her New Statesman posts, but it’s good to have a tangible object I can recommend or give as a gift. And I do recommend it. This is a book everyone should read. Hopefully it will make you thoughtful, and if it also makes you a little angry, then that’s a good thing too. Anger can stir one to action, and it’s through action that we can help dismantle the system that oppresses us and build a better world. Or, you know, not. More likely we’ll fail in the process of trying. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Sexism and misogyny might be the way the world is, but it is not the way the world should be.