Best Books I Read in 2015 – Book List

I had an excellent reading year in 2015. I managed to exceed (by two books) my best year (2009) in terms of books read. And I gave out 20 five-star ratings! So I was spoiled for choice when it came to this top 10 list of best books, and there are some powerful, moving, educational, heart-breaking, uplifting titles here.

Reviews

10. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd  cover image
ISBN:
9781579126278
Format:
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published:
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006

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

There’s nothing quite like a good Agatha Christie novel, hmm? I find reading one of her mysteries so comforting. It’s like the perfect intellectual beach read: you know what to expect, yet there are still surprises (even if you manage to guess whodunit, which I seldom do). The Hercule Poirot novels in particular must be among my favourites. Mystery was my first genre love, even way back before I got into science fiction and fantasy, and in mystery, Christie made history. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, sensational and controversial and regarded by so many as her best work, definitely attests to her skill as a writer.

We start, as we often do, in a quaint English country village. This is set sometime after Poirot has retired “to grow the marrows.” But just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in! Poirot finds himself neck-deep in the murder of the eponymous Ackroyd, with a whole household of suspects. In the place of the faithful Captain Hastings we have a Watsonian Dr. Sheppard, who not only narrates the book and assists Poirot but also found the body.

For the first part of the novel, Poirot figures very little. We learn about Sheppard’s practice and life, how he attended to Mrs. Ferrars after she died, and we see him meet with Roger Ackroyd. During this time Christie lays the groundwork, scattering clues—or clews as they are spelt here—that will be significant much later in the story. Poirot is just a batty old “Frenchman” who has taken the cottage next door and who is so opaque that not even Caroline, Sheppard’s sister and the town gossip, can divine his identity.

That all changes, of course. But I love the idea that Poirot wants out of the limelight in his retirement—just as I find it eminently believable that he wouldn’t be able to resist the thrill of the mystery. Although there is a little bit of the, “Oh, poor M. Poirot is past his prime and really should go back to growing marrows,” in general the other characters treat Poirot with a little bit of veneration. He is known, here.

Of course, it’s the identity of the killer that ultimately resulted in this novel receiving so much acclaim (and controversy). Christie was the first to employ “the narrator did it!” I find her use of an unreliable narrator itself enjoyable, regardless of the fact he also happened to be a murderer. I like to think that in any of the books narrated by Hastings, part of the reason I don’t solve the crime is because I’m forced to “wear a Hastings cap” and see everything through his eyes. Here, the narrator isn’t just omitting or garbling information that Poirot readily receives first hand: he is actively deceiving both Poirot and the reader.

I want to take a moment to emphasize what a technical feat this is. Separated from this book by just shy of ninety years, and exposed to countless derivative plot devices since then, it’s tempting for a modern reader to shrug their shoulders and go, “Meh,” when they read those final chapters. Even if you aren’t impressed by Sheppard’s guilt (if, indeed, he is guilty—we have only his word to go on here, and he has already lied to us!), just think about what Christie had to do to write this book.

I like think of murder mysteries as n-dimensional objects. The writer of a mystery necessarily must perceive it from a different perspective than the reader: the writer knows, from the beginning, who did it and why. All the pieces are apparent to them, whereas the reader only discovers this as a function of time. But that’s not all a writer does. She has to rotate this mystery and perceive it from other angles. She has to consider how it looks to the detective—how does Poirot fit all the pieces together to get to the solution? Then she has to consider how the mystery looks to the narrator (and thus, usually, to the reader) at a given point in time.

In other words, writing mysteries be complex, yo.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd stands out because Christie took it a step further, having to consider how the mystery looks to the narrator and then how the narrator makes things look to the reader. That must have required a lot more thought and planning. So my hat off to her.

I’ll also just add that I love how as these novels age they become intricate studies in the attitudes of the day. Christie’s characters have so much unexamined class privilege. I just find it so fascinating that our ideas of class have changed so much with time. Back then, to be considered reasonably well-off, you had to have some servants. Even Sheppard and his sister, who live alone in a little house, have a servant! Servants are a curious fixture in Christie novels, because they tend to be invisible and nameless (think of the Breton-capped woman who waits on Poirot in the Larches) unless they are relevant to the mystery, in which case they are naturally suspect.

So I wonder if we’re reaching a point where Christie’s novels are beginning to go the way of the Regency romances. That is, the writer assumes cultural knowledge the reader no longer has, so that which is left unsaid, or implied, is almost entirely lost on us. Just as modern readers have a hard time really comprehending the world of Jane Austen without some historical grounding first, I suspect that most of us don’t have as full an understanding of the world Christie depicts here either. Unlike Shakespeare, where this problem has a great deal to do with language drift, this is almost entirely a function of cultural assumptions.

While I lack some of the understanding to completely immerse myself in her world, however, I still fully enjoy these novels. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is no exception. It is every bit as clever and charming and compelling as you might be led to believe.

9. Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension

by Matt Parker

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension cover image
ISBN:
9781846147647
Format:
Hardcover, 455 pages
Published:
Particular Books, 2014

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

I first heard about this on Quirks & Quarks from CBC Radio. Then Josie, one of my Canadian friends still teaching in England, was filling me in on how she went to one of Matt Parker’s stand-up events and how awesome it was. When I informed her I had purchased a signed copy of Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension on the Internets, she was suitably envious. Not, however, as envious as I was for her singular stand-up experience—I don’t like stand-up, but I’d probably watch math stand-up.

Here’s my secret when reviewing math books: don’t focus on the math. Because, you know, anyone with a math degree can write about math. Writing about math is not hard. It’s making math accessible that’s hard. Now, that’s not because math is somehow more difficult for the average person to comprehend than any other highly-specialized field. We only have this perception as an unfortunate side-effect of our industrialized education system, which has traditionally insisted that we should learn math through rote memorization of rules.

Matt Parker rightly embraces a much more flexible idea about how we can learn math. Specifically, he champions recreational mathematics. That’s right, people: doing math for fun!

If you’re sceptical, I don’t blame you—see my point above about school systems. It’s really unfortunate we break people and squash their love of math so early like this. If I were better with young children I might consider becoming a primary school teacher to rectify this. As it is, my head stuck up here in the calculus clouds, I can only evangelize recreational math from afar.

See, we mathematicians know what people with a warped idea of math do not: mathematics is a creative discipline. Someone had to find the Fibonacci sequence, and they didn’t do it by looking at nature. Someone had to devise and name different dimensions of shapes. And mathematicians do this by investigating, by looking at what we already know and finding the gaps. Yes, they do this is a systematic way, and they have to do it rigorously before other mathematicians will agree with them. But a lot of mathematical discoveries have literally come about because of mathematicians just playing with numbers and shapes and ideas.

This idea pervades Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, which is organized in such a way to progress from basic ideas about numbers to very abstract ideas about functions, dimensions, and infinity. You’re not going to understand all of it, and that’s OK. Understanding everything is not the goal of reading a popular math or popular science book—getting a glimpse behind the curtain, understanding why it’s important, piquing your interest to learn more; these are the goals. (I’m trying to pump you up and help you be more resilient here, because I won’t lie to you and pretend it’s easy to follow everything, either in this book or in others like it.) Don’t worry though, because the author will always be around to help you out. Parker writes with a sense of humour that’s only to be expected considering his comedic career. (Britain really does seem to have cornered the market on funny mathematicians….)

There are also lots of practical exercises too. And I don’t mean questions you need to calculate and answer. I mean activities, templates for you to cut out and puzzles for you to consider. Parker is very proactive in demonstrating some of the practical ramifications of even the most esoteric ideas, from calculating digital roots to knitting 3D projections of 4D shapes. I could easily see some of this stuff working in a classroom setting if, you know, you’re not the kind of math teacher that thinks we should just memorize it all.

Really, when it gets down to it, this is how we need to be teaching and learning math. Reading a book about math is all well and good—I love doing it. But you need to learn by doing math. You need to try these things yourself, to investigate a problem until you hit upon interesting and sometimes unexpected results. This is one of the greatest things about mathematics: you can, in theory, verify every math result ever discovered by someone else. And you don’t even need specialized equipment: most of the time you just need a ruler, some scissors, and some paper. (And maybe a calculator or a computer for the recent discoveries!) This is DIY math at its finest.

I learned some neat things in the chapters that Parker devotes to higher-dimensional shapes. This is not an area of math I’ve studied in much detail, and conceptualizing higher-dimensional shapes is, of course, very difficult! Yet he explains it clearly. I also appreciate how much he uses computer programs to help him investigate relationships and ideas. As someone who also enjoys writing Python scripts, I’m always happy to see my interest in math and computers come together.

On the flip side, I know a lot about graph theory and enjoyed his section on that. He doesn’t really do anything new when it comes to talking about old chestnuts like the Four Colour Theorem and its infamous proof. Nevertheless, this is one of those areas of math that people never hear about unless they go into university, despite it being so interesting and widely applicable.

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension is a lovely and informative book. It’s a great example of how to write well about doing math for fun. Parker is ever-encouraging, ever-understanding, ready to make fun of math, mathematicians, school, and himself—and yes, my dear reader, you as well. This is a safe book in that sense: you’re not going to be judged for not liking math or not having much luck, so far, with it. But thanks to Matt Parker, you can roll your own math and enjoy doing it. We need more books like this! Until then, read this one.

8. Cracked Up to Be

by Courtney Summers

Cracked Up to Be cover image
ISBN:
9780312383695
Format:
Paperback, 214 pages
Published:
St. Martin's Griffin, 2008

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

Another YA book from my 2009 days that I’ve taken forever to read. Well worth the wait, though: Cracked Up to Be is all it’s cracked up to be, in that it is a ripping good yarn about how high school is a messed up place. Courtney Summers manages to convey some of the issues that some teenagers face without trivializing them or wrapping them up in a neat little bow at the end. In so doing, she crafts YA that’s relevant, authentic, and powerful.

This is the story of Parker Fadley—an awkward name if ever I’ve heard one—who used to be “Perfect” Parker Fadley but is now just “Fadley,” a screw-up verging on not finishing senior year. Once cheerleader captain and most popular girl in school, something happened at the end of last year that caused Parker to slip away. She just wants to become invisible. As the story unfolds from her point of view, we watch her engage with different people—friends, ex-boyfriend, parents and counselors and teachers—trying to push them away like she pushes away the flashbacks that helpfully unpack the fateful night that changed everything forever.

Some of this sounds ominous and vague, and you, with your exposure to Very Special Episodes of nineties’ television, can be forgiven for thinking this seems like the plot of most YA books targeted at teenaged girls. Parker got raped or something, right, and that’s why she maybe-kinda-sorta tried to commit suicide, and now she’s just circling the drain?

Not really.

I’m not going to spoil the final reveal of what changed at the end of junior year. If you’re paying attention you’ll figure it out quickly enough. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. What’s more interesting is the way in which Summers portrays the failure of the very systems we think are helping adolescents mature and deal with the stress of impending adulthood.

Take school counselors, for instance. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have great admiration for counselors. They have tough jobs. But Parker is flippant and dismissive of her counselor, and for good reason. Summers very accurately captures what I suspect is an all-too-common phenomenon in the interactions between “troubled teens” and authority figures, be they counselors or teachers or parents. In our busy lives, we try to make time for these children, try to listen to them, hear their problems, and advise them. But there are so many barriers in the way preventing us from being as helpful as we could be.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that most adults can barely remember what it’s like to be in high school, and that the challenges they faced are different from the challenges teenagers face now. (There is a curious lack of cell phones and bevy of DVD rental stores and payphones in this book, which make me wonder if it’s actually historical fiction set pre-2005ish, because these days kids would be all up in those texts. But Summers doesn’t seem to date anything, unless I missed it.) Grey is ineffectual because she isn’t someone that Parker can trust. Somewhere along the line, we made a mistake that caused Parker and other teenagers like her to feel that they need to clam up instead of open up. And that’s the problem. But because the system dictates that Grey is the one to whom Parker should spill her guts, we arrive at an impasse.

So it’s not just a matter of being “out of touch.” It’s fundamental mismatching and misallocation of resources to shore up what is probably broken from the beginning.

On the social level, Summers also shows us how Parker’s peers react to her changed attitude. I really enjoyed her depiction of the frenemy nature of Parker’s relationship with Becky, as well as the weird kind of wary friendship between Parker and Chris. The way these characters negotiate their lives, both in and out of school, strikes me as fairly realistic (at least, from what little I remember of being a teen at the advanced age of 25). For example:

I didn’t even reread the stupid story and the only memory I have of it isn’T entirely accurate, if I’m to believe Becky, which in this case I do. Still, I’m a fantastic liar in all other aspects of my life, so writing a thousand-word lie should be easy.

I can do it. I can do this.

As a freshman, I found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be—

Fuck it, I’ll just cry.

Yeah, that sounds to me like something some people would do to get out of having to do an essay. I’m sure some of my students turned on the tears to manipulate me (with varying degrees of success) when I was a classroom teacher.

I love that Summers doesn’t belabour these points, though. Everything comes through naturally in Parker’s voice, so Summers doesn’t have to scream, “Teenagers these days are having lots of sex!” It’s all there, in the subtext—but for a young adult reading this book, it’s plain as day. It is their life.

I mean, I suppose I should mention at this point that I lead a pretty charmed life in high school. My reluctance to engage in most social aspects of high school cushioned me from a lot of the issues Parker and her peers face here (sex, dating, alcohol, drugs, etc., just never came up for me). And despite being incredibly nerdy and giving off an intelligence vibe, somehow I was never a target for bullying (or if people did make fun of me, I was just oblivious to it). Hence, I had an extremely privileged time at high school. So I need to recognize that I’m an outlier, and that for most people, the high school experience is sucky to blandly neutral at best.

And there’s a lot of structural problems to the high school experience that contribute to this. These appear in Cracked Up to Be, I’m sure entirely intentionally on Summers’ part, but nonetheless as part of the background—Parker is not exactly a sociology major here, but she is clever enough to understand when the system is trying to play her.

I really enjoyed this flashback:

Chris drags me out to the pool and for the next hour all anyone can talk about is how Perfect Parker Fadley is actually drunk, and then they slap me on the back and they say “way to go” all admiringly, and next thing I know, someone’s pressing a red plastic cup into my hand. And because I start feeling that rush I usually feel when I’ve done something perfectly and everyone knows it, I drink whatever is in the red plastic cup.

And then I get props and another red plastic cup.

I love the idea that Parker falls down this rabbithole because she gets a rush from becoming perfectly drunk. This isn’t just a great example of peer pressure; it’s a stellar description of the stream-of-consciousness sensation of being subjected to peer pressure.

The ending doesn’t offer as much resolution as one might want from a story. But that just seems more realistic: there is no easy answer to any of this, Summers is saying. You can’t slap a bandaid on it and hope it goes away. And because Parker spends the majority of the book hiding the root cause of her self-loathing, she can’t get help until she finally becomes willing to take that step. So while Cracked Up to Be ends on a hopeful note, it’s also a sombre reminder that nothing is certain. There is no guarantee of a happy ending in Parker’s future.

(So maybe we should stop telling girls they can grow up to be princesses and act out a romantic comedy, hmm?)

I probably won’t ever forgive Courtney Summers for sacrificing Bailey on the altar of plot like that. Aside from that, we’re cool, and so is this book, and you should read it, and probably everything else Summers is writing like this. I’ll let you know for sure once I start doing that—hopefully in less than six years.

7. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

by Heather O'Neill

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night cover image
ISBN:
9781443442459
Format:
Paperback, 403 pages
Published:
HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

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

Normally when I love a book, I inhale it, reading it so quickly that it’s gone before I realize how much I should cherish this unique experience of reading it for the first time. It took me a little longer than normal to read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, enough that I started to savour it. Each brief, cleverly-named chapter was a small episode in the life of Nouschka Tremblay. And it was perfect, for I did indeed love this book.

I loved Heather O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals . I read it the summer I first joined Goodreads, and it was my second favourite book of the year. Now The Girl Who Was Saturday Night will be joining it on my favourites shelf, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes an appearance on this year’s best 10 books. Because Heather O’Neill has done it again: she’s bottled lightning twice.

Whereas Baby, the protagonist from Lullabies for Little Criminals, was just on the cusp of adolescence, Nouschka is just on the cusp of adulthood. Nineteen turning twenty, she should be independent or nearly so. But she is anchored to this small, impoverished, impersonal yet intimate Montréal street through her twin brother and her grandfather. Her identity is boxed in by the tabloids and documentarians who recall the days she spent appearing on TV with her chansonnier father, Étienne. Her need to make a connection lands her with the most outrageous husband and a marriage that is properly bizarre for fiction but likely accurate for real life.

It’s this way that O’Neill captures the bizarre layers of our life almost photorealistically that appeals to me. She depicts the struggles that Nouschka faces, but unlike many novelists, she does not glamourize or even dwell on them. There’s a latent current of humour running throughout the book (so many cats, so much Anglo-bashing!), but there are also moments of quiet seriousness. O’Neill neither makes light of Nouschka’s troubles nor exaggerates them; they simply are, and it’s the people and circumstances in her life that are absurd by comparison.

Many of the characters in this book are also studies in how to write a sympathetic but unlikable character. Nouschka herself arguably falls into this category (though I like her!). Raphael is the prime example. He has a tragic quality; I can see why Nouschka was drawn to him. She’s smart enough to realize that she can’t actually fix him, and that she has to leave him at some point—but she’s also enough in love with him to go along with his craziness just slightly more than another person might. Ultimately, O’Neill uses Nouschka to do what most people refuse to do: interact with the person suffering from a serious mental illness instead of trying to interact with their condition.

These issues of identity, and identity politics, suffuse the novel. The story takes place during the second Québec referendum (1995), and Nouschka gives us a very Québécois perspective on something that many Canadians will only be familiar with through the lens of news media. Though The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is “CanLit” that ended up being shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, it certainly feels less like a Canadian novel and more like a Québécois novel (not that I have much experience with those). Despite the novel being in English, it’s implied that the characters speak and think primarily in French. By playing with the language in this twisted way, O’Neill gets to have some fun meditating on the different ways French- and English-speaking Canadians think and act.

O’Neill just depicts everything with such a beautiful sensitivity. She doesn’t sugar-coat things, but she also puts that sympathetic light on people like Nicolas and Nouschka and even Raphael, who might otherwise seem like jerks and assholes for the way they act. You want things to work out for these people. I agreed with Loulou when he tried to stop Nouschka from marrying Raphael, and I knew it wouldn’t work out well—but I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that maybe I would be wrong, maybe something would work out. In the end what happens is what happens so often in real life—something stupid and tragic and irrevocable, but also something you have no choice but to move on from and keep on living afterwards. Unlike a story, life does not always end after tragedy—and it’s that weird, anticlimactic part of life that O’Neill captures here. Whether it’s the day after the province voted “Non” or the day after something else, life goes on … just always different from before.

In the end the story is nothing super special. It’s the consummate storytelling skill that transforms The Girl Who Was Saturday Night into something far more sublime and amazing. I can understand how some could feel that O’Neill overdoes the similes or the asides (but you ain’t seen nothing if you think this is overdone). For me, though, the prose is a perfect alchemical mix of description that leads to introspection. This is a quiet novel, a slow novel, and a wonderful novel. If I didn’t already own it, I’d want to take it home with me and put it on my shelf. Considered altogether, it’s just a lovely package of story and character and craft: the exhilaration of anguish and terrible foreboding of joy.

6. The Lies of Locke Lamora

by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora cover image
ISBN:
9780575079755
Format:
Trade Paperback, 537 pages
Published:
Gollancz, 2006

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

Third review: February 28, 2015

I was a bad boy and only recently purchased Republic of Thieves. Instead of starting it immediately, I decided to delay the pleasure. It feels strange to think that the last time I read The Lies of Locke Lamora was five years ago. As I suspected, I had forgotten almost all of the actual plot details. I’m glad I decided to re-read this, and to read Red Seas Under Red Skies again, before I start the third book. Why read one great book when you can read three?

My appreciation for this novel has only ever increased. You can read my first two reviews below. I don’t have a lot to add to those. The book itself hasn’t changed, but I have. I’ve graduated from university, spent two years teaching in England, and now I’m back here, kinda-sorta teaching. I’ve grown up, might be a little more cynical and definitely more sarcastic than I used to be—so I thought I wouldn’t necessarily like this as much as I used to. I was wrong. The Lies of Locke Lamora took me back to the basics; Scott Lynch reminds me of how much I love stories about con artists and heists. Yet beneath that decoration, it’s more accurate to say that this is a book about friendship and loyalty.

Every major character, no matter where they lie along the spectrum of protagonist or antagonist, in this book acts how they do out of loyalty. The Grey King’s entire modus operandi is to avenge the deaths of his family. Doña Vorchenza is the Duke’s most loyal servant. The Salvaras have a touching marital loyalty going on. And then you’ve got the Gentlemen Bastards. It’s no accident, how all those flashbacks Lynch includes are object lessons in loyalty, perseverance, and trust. I know that in my first review I thought the flashbacks were more of a nuisance than not, but I enjoyed them a lot more this time. They’re an efficient way of building Locke’s character without constraining the story to a boring, linear trajectory.

As for Locke and Jean’s friendship … well, I want to keep this review spoiler-free, so I’ll only say this: “I don't have to beat you. I just have to keep you here ... until Jean comes.”

I mean, damn.

(Plus, if you’ve read Red Seas Under Red Skies, you know what happens. You know what I’m talking about.)

In this reading I was also struck by Lynch’s amazing ability with worldbuilding. He makes the world seem much bigger than what we actually see on the page. Some authors don’t have a very clear conception of what their world is like—there are a lot of blank spaces on their maps. Others have detailed biographies of every minor character—but the trouble is that they feel the need to share all those details with the reader! Lynch is among the elite rank of authors who’ve done the research, done the creation, but don’t drown the reader in extraneous exposition. He has invented months and a way of naming the years after the gods and whatnot, but he doesn’t include appendices explaining these systems, and he certainly doesn’t shoehorn such explanations into the text. We just roll with it. It sounds just familiar enough that it becomes part of the flavour of the novel, just alien enough that it helps build up some character for the setting.

It’s also worth noting that this is a dense novel. The paperback edition I have has normal-sized print, but it has slim margins and eschews any headers or footers besides modest page numbers at the bottom. It’s a long book too. That’s because Lynch packs a lot in it—plots within plots within plots within cons and schemes. And it’s awesome.

Other than that, I think my second review covers most of the bases. The Lies of Locke Lamora is, simply put, delightful. It’s a fantasy book I would recommend to anyone thinking, “I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so where can I start?” Magic exists, but it isn’t too in-your-face. And Lynch manages the whole gamut of emotion, from humour through farce and dialogue to the gutwrenching, stomach-punching tragedy of losing the ones we love.

It’s like a movie that you really like: even when you remember the details and the characters (which I didn’t this time around), you take such pleasure from hanging around them and watching them in their element. (I think this would make a great TV series and could work well as an adaptation—but that’s neither here nor there.) After reading The Lies of Locke Lamora three times, I’m starting to see why I keep re-reading it. And I’ve no doubt I will read it again, and again.

Second review, finished reading on October 9, 2009

In case the following new review doesn't make it absolutely clear, on a second reading, my admiration of The Lies of Locke Lamora has only increased. Even though I knew what would happen and anticipated every twist, I still enjoyed the book. While I don't think "re-readability" is a requirement for a great book, it certainly helps.

I quite enjoyed the story. It starts out as a con game and quickly becomes about intra-city politics, class warfare, and revenge. No one is whom they seem to be. There's just something so satisfying about watching Locke Lamora and his gang of Gentlemen Bastards execute a confidence game. Maybe I'm a sociopath; certainly it's a valid criticism that the protagonist of the book is a thief. As thieves and rogues go, however, Locke and his bunch aren't bad—they're certainly better than the cutthroat brigands who form one of the two antagonist groups. And the other antagonist group, the largely clueless nobility led by the slightly-less-clueless Dona Vorchenza, isn't much better—there's a reason we switched to democracy, right?

Locke Lamora is everything you expect from the brains behind a con game: sneaky, devious, and a smart-ass. He'll talk back to anyone—even the most scary character in the book, the Karthani Bondsmage known only as "the Falconer." When he's not patronizing you, you should be worried, because that means he's playing you, like he plays Capa Barsavi, once the most important criminal in Camorr, and Dona Vorchenza, Duke Nicovante's secret spymaster.

I suppose I should also telegraph my love for Jean Tannen, Locke's sidekick and muscle. Lynch has a nice way of introducing Jean: he beats up young Locke. Yay, I like when the main character gets taken down a notch! Jean's got brains too—he reads books—but prefers to let Locke build the schemes even as he cuts down anyone in the way. Their symbiotic relationship is perfectly summed up in one flashback scene, which is actually foreshadowing for the climax: "I don't have to beat you. I just have to keep you here ... until Jean comes." Awesome.

Camorr comes alive through Lynch's description of the way the city and its inhabitants operate. There's a great deal of exposition in this book, but it seldom interrupts the unity of the story. As a result, we learn all about the culture of Camorr, how other peoples view the Camorri, and what it's like to be a thief in the city. In a way, the city itself is a character.

And it fits perfectly into this novel's tone of badass underdogs versus ruthless villains. Both groups are equally matched when it comes to wits too; Lynch expertly balances the schemes of both the protagonists and antagonists to create a nice element of risk toward the climax. The first time I read this, I certainly didn't know exactly what the Grey King had up his sleeve; every time he stood up and pontificated his "actual" plan, we'd quickly learn it was just the uppermost layer of a Xanatos Gambit! And he's not the only one with a plan. Of course Locke is going to win in the end—at a terrible price—but along the way he suffers many setbacks. He's awesome, but he's flawed and far from invincible, which makes him a believable character.

Instead of learning about the Grey King's actual totally ultimate evil plan from his own mouth, we refreshingly hear it from the mouth of a tortured henchman whom Locke and Jean capture. In fact, although this book has a lot of exposition and flashbacks, it makes up for this by defying expectations when it comes to direct confrontations between two major characters. I cheered aloud when Dona Vorchenza jabbed Locke in the neck with a poisoned knitting needle, proceeded to tell him how he would now surrender, and he punched her in the face and stole the antidote before running away. Finally, a hero who does logical things when at the mercy of an antagonist! My relief is palpable.

Have I extolled The Lies of Locke Lamora enough? Are you crying out, "Enough, already! We get it, Ben; you liked the book!" Hopefully I've given you an idea regarding whether you'd enjoy reading it. This book is fun, while at the same time maintaining suspense and a sense of danger. If so inclined, you can grow attached to some of the characters. That's often difficult with even the best of books, but Lynch's style and way with dialogue make it easy here.

Of course I have some criticism to offer. It's much the same as what I said in my first review, however, so I won't repeat it here. I've included my first (and less well-written) review below.

First review, finished reading on September 10, 2008. Rating: 4 stars

The Lies of Locke Lamora offers entertaining characters who all seem to have schemes of their own, exciting action scenes, and equally excellent exposition. Scott Lynch has created a refreshing fantasy story that revolves not around "the chosen one" but around a thief. While this may not be original, Lynch's Locke Lamora is a charming thief with whom I bonded as he becomes the underdog through successive struggles in the story.

Alliteration aside, I enjoyed this book in a way I haven't for a while (mostly because I spent the summer reading The Sword of Truth series). When I reached the climax, I couldn't wait to turn the next page--unfortunately, I had to go to class. Lynch is a good storyteller; he keeps the reader interested while still managing to convey enough details to create a rich setting. Camorr is Venice, with a pinch of magic sprinkled among pseudo-science. I appreciate how Lynch seamlessly integrates magic into his setting: no endless speeches explaining the rules of the author's pet system of magic. I hate that!

Locke Lamora is an orphan who rises to become the leader of a gang of thieves for whom misdirection is everything. They regularly breach Capa Barsavi's Secret Peace--that the thieves of Camorr, or "Right People" as they call themselves, will steal only from commoners and merchants, not from nobles or the "yellowjacket" city watch. Yet to everyone outside their group, the Gentlemen Bastards seem to be nothing more than mediocre thieves. Unfortunately, Lamora's penchant for disguise catches up to him when he becomes a reluctant pawn in a power struggle for control of Camorr's thieves.

While Lynch does a good job weaving backstory into the book using flashback, some of the backstory seems superfluous, and that broke the unity of the story. I would pause and think, "Oh, that's nice. Can I get back to the plot now?" Some of the scenes could have been cut to tighten up the writing, and I would not have missed them.

The book was rushed toward the end--climaxes tend to lead to an increased pace, of course, but in this case I felt that the need for the climax drove the story toward an artificial resolution rather than the other way around. I can forgive Lynch for this simply because I derived great enjoyment from his characterization of Lamora toward the ending.

This edition includes a sneak peek at the second book in the series, and I must say that I can't wait to read it!

5. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things cover image
ISBN:
9781250077004
Format:
Hardcover, 329 pages
Published:
Flatiron Books, 2015

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

After my pre-ordered copy of Furiously Happy arrived in the mail last week, I went looking for my copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened . I wanted to tweet a photo of the two books together—Jenny Lawson now has a running theme of taxidermied animals on her book covers; I think she should stick with it. The copy of her first book was not on my bookshelf under “L.” I briefly pondered if I had lent it to someone, as I am wont to do with books I love (I keep meaning to start some kind of spreadsheet, but laziness, am I right?). No, I hadn’t lent it to anyone.

Turns out I don’t actually own a copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I have bought it several times over—but as a gift. It’s one of those books I just keep giving (to different people, not the same person, because that would be weird) because I know a lot of people who would appreciate the Bloggess’ humour, even if they don’t realize it themselves. And because that metal chicken will cut you.

Ordering Furiously Happy the moment I learned Lawson had another book on the way was a no-brainer. I actually ordered two, knowing I’d give the second copy to a friend. Whereas her first book is mostly a collection of blog posts and assorted musings, with particular focus, as a memoir might, on Lawson’s childhood and upbrining, Furiously Happy focuses more on living with mental illness. It features both direct and indirect confrontations with this demon—there are many stories about Lawson’s visits to therapists, arguments with her long-suffering husband Victor, and the difficulties that her depression, anxiety, etc., create in her daily life. However, there are also more meandering stories. She talks about her trip to Australia, where she stood next to a koala while dressed as a koala. She talks about her experience as a parent. This is a book about living with mental illness, yes, but it would be just as accurate to say that this is a book about living in general.

Because the truth that we are only now starting to acknowledge is that mental illness is more common than we want to think. Those who have it don’t always want to talk about it, because those who don’t shame them, blame them, or otherwise refuse to offer empathy when a cold shoulder will do. In the work-obsessed American society, mental illness is more synonymous with laziness and malingering than actual disease. Lawson demonstrates the harmfulness of this idea very early in the book (she actually quotes her own blog post that inspired the title of this book):

When cancer sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we laud their bravery. We call them survivors. Because they are.

When depression sufferers fight, recover and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark…ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness…afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t. We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.

She returns to the cancer analogy later when she discusses her complicated relationship with medication:

Lots of concerned friends and family felt that the first medication’s failure was a clear sign that drugs were not the answer; if they were I would have been fixed. Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me. And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then that’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention. I mean, cancer is a serious, often fatal disease we’ve spent billions of dollars studying and treating so obviously a patient would never have to try multiple drugs, surgeries, radiation, etc., to find what will work specifically for them. And once the cancer sufferer is in remission they’re set for life because once they’ve learned how to not have cancer they should be good. And if they let themselves get cancer again they can just do whatever they did last time. Once you find the right cancer medication you’re pretty much immune from that disease forever. And if you get it again it’s probably just a reaction to too much gluten or not praying correctly. Right?

Leaving aside the bizarre and scary fact that many people apply precisely this logic to cancer treatment (Chemo not working? Let’s try homeopathy! And prayer! Ummmm…), I love the way Lawson frames the issue here. I have not yet experienced mental illness in my life. I’m thankful for that. And I like to think I’m generally open and capable of empathy for people who do struggle with mental illness. But because I don’t really know what it’s like, and because I live in a culture that stigmatizes mental illness and those who suffer from it, I have a lot of internalized crap to deal with. It’s much the same as how, not being a woman and living in a sexist culture, I’ve internalized a lot of sexist views even if I consider myself an ally. Because I don’t, all my idiosyncrasies and distaste for certain social niceties aside, exhibit “craziness,” I have privilege. And that blinds me sometimes.

As I read Lawson’s metaphorical explanation of the common attitude towards medicating mental illness, I started to realize this was one of my blind spots. I had fallen into the trap of believing the binary narrative that drugs either work or don’t work, that we just over-medicate because it’s easier and more profitable for pharmaceutical companies. As with most things in life, the issue is just not that simple. It’s true that pharmaceutical companies don’t play fair. And it’s true that drugs alone can’t “fix” someone suffering from mental illness. But Lawson reminds us what we already understand: our brains are our most complicated organ, so the idea that we might treat their ailments in a simplistic way is facile.

So I appreciate the perspective that Furiously Happy offers me. As Lawson points out early in the book, her experience is not every person’s experience with mental illness. I get that. But whereas many of her fans are drawn to her through a kindred feeling of “getting it,” I’m drawn to her for two reasons. Firstly, she is hella funny. She’s a great writer, a great storyteller, and exhibits a keen sense of whimsy. Secondly, she is willing to share her story. Some people aren’t. Wanting to be more understanding of how people deal with mental illness doesn’t give one the freedom to pry into someone’s life—I do have friends who struggle with mental illness, and some are open about it while others aren’t. Wanting to be sympathetic doesn’t mean I can demand raw details from them. So I am grateful for people like Lawson who have the ability and desire to speak out about their struggles.

It’s natural to want to compare Furiously Happy with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and rank them. For the sake of discussion I’ll say that I liked the first book better, in that I laughed out loud more often at more of her stories. I don’t necessarily think that means the first book is a better book, if that makes any sense. If you like either book you’ll like the other one, and you can also read them in either order. As far as I’m concerned, more Bloggess writing in the world is just better.

In the spirit of the Bloggess, here are some blurbs I might offer up about this book. You are welcome to use any of these in future printings, Ms. Lawson!

“Delightful, poignant, brave.”

“Inspirational, memorable, jaw-breakingly funny.”

“It was difficult to read this in public. People kept coming up to me and high-fiving the raccoon on the cover.”

“My lungs exploded with laughter. Literally. I’m typing this in the hospital, where I’m on a ventilator. I’m not letting them pull the plug until I finish the book.”

“Now that Amazon uses drones to deliver orders, does that mean I could bomb ISIS-controlled areas with this book? Because that might be more effective.”

“Worst fanfiction ever. There was hardly any street-racing, and since when was Dominic a raccoon? Zero stars.”

(Some of the blurbs may not be factually accurate.)

Seriously, not even sure why you’re still reading my review. Just read this book instead.

Probably should have put that last paragraph at the start of my review. Oh well, you live and learn.

4. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

by Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America cover image
ISBN:
9780385664226
Format:
Paperback, 336 pages
Published:
Anchor Canada, 2013

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

Just last week, CBC News announced it was closing comments on articles about indigenous peoples, because at the moment, it cannot guarantee sufficient moderation to sustain polite discourse. In addition to the usual trolls, some people were writing hate speech motivated by a misconception of the state of indigenous peoples in Canada. And while this is reprehensible, it probably shouldn’t be surprising. We white people are very good at ignoring indigenous people—until we want their land, that is.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is Thomas King’s attempt to make some kind of sense of the conflicting narratives and myths created about the European occupation of North America. I approached this book as someone who is interested in gaining a deeper awareness of indigenous perspectives on indigenous issues. I’m already sympathetic to these ideas and have a surface-level understanding of some of the challenges Indigenous people face as a result of colonialism. I don’t think this book would work for someone who, say, is not so sympathetic or is actively labouring under the types of misconceptions that I hear all-too-often in Thunder Bay.

Unlike Stephen Harper, I have no trouble admitting that Canada has a history of colonialism. As King demonstrates in the Chapter 7, “Forget About It,” that colonialism is ongoing. It has never stopped. And while I thought I understood this prior to reading The Inconvenient Indian, the implications of this continuum of colonialism only crystallized for me after reading this book.

We don’t learn enough about our history of colonialism in schools. It’s convenient, for instance, for us to subscribe to the fiction that we aren’t responsible for anything that happened before 1867. That was Britain and France, we say—blame those European powers! (Strangely enough, we’re quite happy to claim we “won” the War of 1812 despite not being a country back then, either.) But for all the noise that provincial governments make about curricula, indigenous peoples were largely absent from my education. And while I understand now that the colonization and oppression of indigenous people is ongoing, it took King’s book to help me connect these two ideas—that is to say, our education system leaves us ignorant because colonialism is ongoing. I learned about the slavery and the triangle trade in history class, because these things are done and gone, and we can talk about them as “terrible tragedies” with the required distance of history. (N.B., I know that slavery is still a huge problem in Canada, and similarly, racism against black people is an ongoing issue we need to deal with as a society. But slavery is underground instead of legalized, and while racism against black people is endemic and systemic, it is not codified in our laws the way it is with indigenous people and the Indian Act.) But talking about our history with indigenous nations requires us to look at how things are “better” now … and as King points out, over and over in this book, things aren’t better; we’re just adept at discriminating in new and creative ways.

It’s this cyclical view that was the gamechanger for me here. I knew we had been colonialist in the past, and I knew we were being colonialist now, but King lines everything up and connects the dots in a way that shows how our current attitudes emerged from past ones. And so I can see now that a statement I might have made previously, like, “The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada is still pretty bad, but it has gotten a lot better in recent years” is just woefully inaccurate. Although it’s true that some bands and nations have made great strides in some areas, others have seen setbacks; it’s so difficult to quantify whether things are getting better or worse, because overall our society remains hostile and racist.

Disagree? I refer you to the CBC comments section.

Naturally, being a teacher, I’m all for education. But King has a wet blanket for me, too; he puts it very elegantly in the final chapter:

Ignorance has never been the problem. The problem was and continues to be unexamined confidence in western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity. And arrogance. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present, but it is also necessary.

He does go on to say, “If nothing else, an examination of the past—and of the present, for that matter—can be instructive,” so education is helpful—just not enough on its own. Because when you get right down to it, our governments, past and present, have always known what they were doing. They want “inconvenient Indians” to disappear. They wish that indigenous peoples were relegated to history like they are so often portrayed in Hollywood. And if we truly are a democracy where governments reflect the will of the people—where governments refuse to take a stand about land rights or missing and murdered women or police brutality because it would mean upsetting affluent white voters—then the will of the people sucks, and we should be ashamed.

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic, and it had an article about a national park in Scandinavia. It mentioned the Sami people, indigenous peoples of that area. I did a doubletake. I didn’t know there were people indigenous to that area! (I knew there are plenty of indigenous cultures in various parts of the world, just not there.) Our society is not interested in highlighting the diversity of indigenous cultures anywhere, because it would mean admitting that we need to talk to the members of these cultures, to treat them like human beings, to deal with them fairly. And we can’t do that, because they have land we want. Land we deserve, I guess, because we’re better at exploiting it?

I should note that the above tirade is my own and not King’s. Actually, despite his hefty cynicism, King is fairly conciliatory in tone. He’s not here to accuse or point fingers at white people in general; he’s not saying you are a bad person. But acknowledging our privilege and the way we interact with our racist society is important.

As King mentions, this is all about the land. It’s not just a problem of racism; it’s a problem of capitalism. We live in a world that rewards a certain perspective, one in which property and people are both commodities valued only for what they can produce, not their intrinsic qualities. This is a noxious philosophy, but it has made many people rich, and so they defend it. And, unfortunately, attempts to improve or replace this system have sometimes backfired spectacularly.

The Inconvenient Indian is an account of indigenous peoples in North America rather than a history. King explains this choice in the prologue, and I understand. He’s not here to be a scholar—others have done that. He’s here to make a point. He does so eloquently and exhaustively. Each chapter is full of facts (as much as he maligns them) and anecdotes and impressive lists of dates and events. At every turn, he confronts us with the reality that the Canadian and American governments have never dealt with indigenous peoples in good faith, have broken treaties and promises whenever it suited them, and have alternatively attempted to exterminate or legislate indigenous people out of existence.

It’s a grim story. But it is our story. And King does, to his credit, try to end on a happy note. While he can’t point to things getting better, he highlights two “recent” massive land claims (in Alaska and in the creation of Nunavut) that have set some precedents. And he reminds us that whatever the past and present holds, the future is yet unwritten: indigenous cultures and people can change, just as the rest of society can change.

If we will it.

So educate yourself. Read this book. Get uncomfortable. Talk about racism. Challenge your behaviour and the behaviour of the friends. This won’t go away unless we do something about it.

3. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation

by Bill Nye

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation cover image
ISBN:
9781250007131
Format:
Hardcover, 309 pages
Published:
St. Martin's Press, 2014

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

So let’s say you’re unsure on this whole evolution thing. You’ve got questions. But, for one reason or another, science never stuck with you in school. Maybe your classes (or teachers, sigh) were a bit on the boring side—lots of memorization and dull textbooks, and no explosions, no episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy on VHS on the bulky 27" CRT television wheeled out from the A/V cabinet (ahhh, those were the days). Or maybe you had the misfortune to attend an underfunded public school in the United States—worse still, one in a state where politicians have decided that little things like “facts” don’t belong in curricula. Evolution is “just a theory,” and so you aren’t taught about it, at least not properly.

Let’s say you’re one of those people. Because they exist, and if some people have their way, these people will become more numerous. The scientifically semi-literate, they will have a working knowledge of technology and a basic grasp of science, but they will drift through life forever uncertain and apprehensive of the controversial strides we are making because of science. And this is not their fault. It’s not something inherently wrong with them, a closed-mindedness they were born with or inculcated early at birth. They weren’t raised by a backwater cult. They simply had the misfortune to be educated in a broad swath of the United States.

I’m not one of these people, of course. I was lucky enough to grow up in Ontario, Canada; while our education system is far from perfect, its science curriculum is fact-based at least. Although I don’t have the patience, determination, or fiddly manual dexterity to become a scientist myself (I went the more abstract route of mathematics!), I grew up with a great fascination of and respect for science and scientists. Bill Nye’s educational children’s show was a huge part of that. It is not exaggerating to say that he inspired my generation towards STEM careers.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation is Nye’s attempt to reach out to those who weren’t so lucky to receive that education the first go round. At least, that’s what it seems to me. He wrote this book as a follow-up to his debate with Ken Ham. But here, as there, his goal is not to try to persuade hardcore creationists. And even more so than in the debate, this book is not about evolution versus creationism so much as it is about evolution full stop. I already knew a good deal about evolution, and much of what Nye talks about is not new to me—but I still learned, because his prose is straightforward and his explanations accessible. This is the book about evolution for those who are genuinely curious or confused but don’t know how to find out more information.

Nye brings a huge amount of compassion to the table, something scientists and sceptics (ahem, Dawkins) fail to do. Although he is unfailingly critical of creationism, Nye is not here to harangue or lecture the reader. And his aims are, as they were when he was the star of that beloved TV show, to educate:

Frankly, my concern is not so much for the deniers of evolution as it is for their kids. We cannot address the problems facing humankind today without science—both the body of scientific knowledge and, more important, the process. Science is the way in which we know nature and our place within it.

As a teacher, this is hugely important to me. One of the current—and, sadly, most effective—tactics used by creationist lobbies is the “teach the controversy” model, where science teachers must present creationism (or its gussied-up cousin, intelligent design) as a viable alternative theory alongside evolution, as if there were some debate amongst scientists it. This attempt to legitimize creationism as “creation science” and the use of pseudoscientific lines of reasoning in creationist arguments is pernicious and troubling, because creationism is not science. Nye makes this distinction clear from the beginning: science is open-ended and always changing; creationism is a fixed, closed worldview not amenable to new evidence or theories.

Creationism’s textbook, the Bible, hasn’t changed (aside from translations) in over a millennium. And for a religious text, that is absolutely fine—like Nye (and unlike Dawkins) I have no problem with the idea that religion and science can coexist, and that you can be a scientifically-minded religious person, or a religious scientist. But as a scientific text, that is bonkers. Though The Origin of Species might be the seminal work on evolution, that doesn’t mean it’s a holy text for scientists. Darwin is widely lauded as the “father of evolution,” but his was the spark. Generations of scientists since then have carried the idea farther. Along the way we learned about genes and DNA, and we understand so much more than we did in the 1860s. And that’s wonderful.

I agree wholeheartedly with Nye when he argues that creationism is an inherently useless perspective, because it will never lead to anything new. Creationism attempts to couch its beliefs in scientific language these days, but scratch the surface and you soon arrive at “God did it.” Again, as a religious argument this is fine. But as a scientific argument it is worthless, because we can’t extrapolate from “God did it.” Creationism insists that our world cannot be investigated in a systematic way—that, in fact, for some reason this all-loving creator has gone out of its way to fool us with all these fake fossils and sediments and whatnot. If that is the case, then how could we hope to learn more about how the world works, and in so doing, invent new things and improve our ways of life for everyone?

The mutability of science with evidence is huge, and Nye has demonstrated this. In this very book, chapter 30 is all about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and how he thinks we should “slow down” because there’s something very “unnatural” about putting fish genes in a tomato. I really don’t like this chapter; even though he is apprehension about GMOs is legitimate, it feels like he is falling back on a lot of unscientific and emotional appeals here. He is right that we should be concerned about GMOs and we need to think carefully about how we are creating/using them. Nevertheless, Nye has fulfilled the statement he made at the Ken Ham debate and reiterates in this book: in the face of evidence, he changed his mind about GMOs. Because that’s how science works.

I also share Nye’s bemusement over the fact that evolution is, by and large, singled out among scientific theories as controversial. Few enough people argue about the principles that underline, say, aircraft or computers or phones. Physics is somehow less controversial—maybe because all that math makes it harder for laypeople to debate? (I mean, there are areas of the internet were people seriously talk about relativity as if it is a “liberal conspiracy,” but nowhere near to the extent as the popular debate over evolution). I suppose it’s easy enough to ignore the parts of the Bible that feel dated these days. But we can’t do that with science. As Nye explains in this book, evolution is inextricably linked to the chemical and physical properties of the universe—and is a consequence of those properties. It is illogical and irrational to take the parts and fruits of scientific discovery you feel comfortable with but discard the ones that disagree with your pet worldview.

Nye responds to this exasperation with the same exuberance for science that inspired so many watching his TV show. For Nye, and for myself and so many others, science is just awesome. It’s so amazing to think about the processes that led to me and you. Like A Short History of Nearly Everything , this book’s enthusiasm and love for science and learning rings loudly.

Undeniable is also one of the most accessible popular science books on evolution you’re likely to find. The chapters are short, averaging about 8 pages each, and there are no equations—but hey, Nye does include some sketches he drew himself! Drawing on his decades as a science communicator, Nye is able to use analogies and plain English to explain these complicated processes. And while there are areas I notice he elides, for the most part his accounts are both accurate and accessible, which is not easy to do.

So if you like science but want to know how to talk about evolution in mixed company, this is the book for you. Or if you’re open-minded but genuinely not sure about evolution, this is the book for you. There is no test at the end.

But really, I think the most controversial thing Bill Nye mentions in this book is that he read Fifty Shades of Grey. My entire world is shaken, Bill!

2. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom

by Yeonmi Park

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom cover image
ISBN:
9781594206795
Format:
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published:
Penguin Press, 2015

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

In In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, Yeonmi Park simply and starkly relates her struggle, and the struggles of her family, to just survive under the brutal North Korean regime and in their subsequent escape to China. She does not sugarcoat or elide any part of her suffering—nor does she glorify it, use it as an excuse to discount or erase the suffering of others. Indeed, what strikes me so profoundly about this twenty-two-year-old, who has been through more in her life than I’ll probably ever experience in mine, is the depth of her empathy and her compassion for her fellow humans. Despite growing up in a culturally stagnant and deprived society only to escape into more hardship and oppression, Park has managed not just to survive but to blossom and flourish, to become a symbol for hope and a voice against oppression. And while she shares her ambivalence over this latter turn of events, she shows us how it’s possible—perhaps even necessary—to take on such a role while retaining one’s own goals and personal ambitions.

This is a coming of age story like you’ve never seen, and you better buckle up your seatbelts, because this shit gets real. It’s a very emotional read, and I found myself on the verge of tears every couple of pages; I was crying as I finished it, and not just because of Park’s anguish—but from her incredible resilience as well.

There is so much in this book to talk about, so many things I learned or want to remember. I’ll mention but a few. Let’s break it down.

Life in North Korea
I didn’t learn much about North Korea in school. I knew it as a distinct country from South Korea, communist where the South was democratic, and isolated. I knew there had been a war, one in which Canada was, to some extent, involved. More recently, of course, North Korea has been in the news for its nuclear arms program and its posturing. So most of us know of North Korea as a political entity, and maybe we have a vague notion of what life is like for North Koreans—most live in poverty, have no access to computers or the Internet, and are raised on propaganda where Kim Il Sung and his progeny are all-powerful benefactors.

Park’s simple prose is eye-opening in describing how people in North Korea actually live (or, in some cases, fail to live). Her family, based in a town bordering China far from the more stable capital city, alternates between prosperity and poverty as their father’s criminal enterprises grow and then collapse. Park explains how, for all but the most privileged families, life in North Korea is like something from medieval Europe. Forget about computers and electricity—the former non-existent outside of a few places, the latter so unreliable and unpredictable that when it’s on everyone stops what they’re doing simply to enjoy using it briefly.

This is a country fully committed to realizing the end state of a corrupt communist regime imploding on itself. Park explains how the government once provided everyone with a job, housing, and food—and now it doesn’t. It can’t. The infrastructure of the country is so broken that it can’t transport fertilizer properly, so schoolchildren and adults alike have to save their own poop to use as manure. Park explains this with no trace of humour, and I wanted to laugh at how absurd it seems to us.

At least in other places that experience abject poverty, people know of and aspire to something better. Not so here. Although I was surprised to learn about the burgeoning trade of smuggling bootleg DVDs out of China—Park mentions how she watched South Korean and Chinese movies and soap operas—even this act of rebellion does little to counter the programming North Koreans receive in school and society at large. It’s one thing to know about the use of propaganda and another to hear it described and explained in the words of someone who experienced it from birth. From the way she was taught arithmetic—how many American bastards you’ve killed—to people’s cognitive dissonance regarding their own poverty despite the idea that the Kims are beneficent and omnipotent—Park helps us to understand how life in North Korea continues like this.

Early on, Park gives a brief history of how North Korea came to be after World War II. And of course, it’s another story of a country suffering from the Russian and American superpowers staking out their territory. Let’s just draw a line down the middle: communists in the north, democrats in the south! What could possibly go wrong?

It’s bizarre to think a country like North Korea could continue to exist as it does. And while I’m not one to advocate invading a foreign country to “liberate” its people, I think there are probably more proactive steps that we outsiders could be taking to end the North Korean regime and isolation more quickly—and less violently. But first we need to understand what makes North Korea unique, and why people like Yeonmi Park go through so much to escape.

I recently made the not-entirely-facetious comparison between Soviet gulags of the 1940s with the American prison system of today. But when Park says that North Korea is like one big prison camp, I understand why she is not joking.

Fight and Flight for Freedom
In many ways, Park’s story of her harrowing escape from North Korea and secret migration through China and Mongolia to South Korea is the most conventional, least surprising part of this book. Sadly, it doesn’t shock me that there are people out there who take advantage of desperate refugees and traffic them, selling them as slaves into marriage, to brothels, etc.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the entire process, and by the emotional toll it takes on Park and her mother. She reaches a point where she is determined to die rather than be raped or captured and returned to North Korea … and I believed her. When they decide to run from China and try for South Korea, their conduit is through missionaries who insist they study the Bible and profess Christianity. Park shares her mixed feelings about believing in a higher power that could let North Korea continue the way it does. And she talks about how some of the pastors make her feel so ashamed and “sinful” for working as a cam girl to subsist. It’s heartbreaking that her first exposures to ideas about sex and sexuality came in this way—and then that the very people so generous and kind to help her and her mother escape also condemn what they did to survive.

When relating her life in North Korea, Park is sometimes dismissive of the hardships she and her family experienced. Compared to what other families were going through, she feels that her family was often better off—even when they didn’t have enough food to eat well, or when she and her sister nearly froze to death while her mother was in Pyongyang trying to get their father out of prison. Park displays incredible empathy and compassion even when reliving her own struggles. And she does this with the section on China as well. She does not mince words when describing Hongwei, the human trafficker who purchases Park and her mother and sells the latter while trying to get Park to live as his mistress. Yet she also displays a sympathy for Hongwei’s life and choices. While not apologizing for him, she says she can understand what drove him to this career. She is not obligated to say this; she could, and maybe in all rights should be angry at and disgusted by Hongwei. But even with all her negative experiences, Park is able to show the complex and contradictory nature of humanity.

Learning How to Live Again
If this were fiction, In Order to Live might end with Park and her mother arriving in South Korea, getting a hero’s welcome, and settling down to a new life of freedom, justice, and the South Korean way. Maybe she would meet a shy, unassuming boy.

But the problem with real life is it doesn’t hand us those kind of tidy endings.

Park and her mother finally make it to South Korea. First they face interrogation—to weed out spies, sure, fair enough. But adjusting to life in South Korea proves far more complicated than they expected. Park explains how they had trouble acclimating to living on their own after spending so long in a society where individuality was punished. She makes it clear that while South Korea officially welcomes North Korean refugees, the attitude of its people can sometimes be indifferent or hostile towards individual North Koreans. And the atmosphere of excellence that pushes South Korean students to succeed creates a supercilious view that North Korean defectors can seldom catch up. Park found herself in a new “home” that was wary of her, had no idea what she had been through, and had no confidence in her ability to learn or contribute to society.

Once again, Park details the hard choices she made. She reluctantly agreed to join the cast of an entertainment series starring defectors, because she thought the exposure might help her find her sister. Although the show’s intentions were benign, Park found herself and her mother exaggerating their stories of their lives and saying what they thought would play well with audiences. I can imagine few things worse for an uncertain teenage girl trying to fit into a new society than being forced not only to relive her past but retell it in new, interesting ways for the entertainment of the masses.

I also liked hearing about Park’s trip to the United States and Costa Rica, and her realization that other people in the world suffer as much as people in North Korea. She confesses her own self-centred and very narrow view of the world, reminding us in the process that we all have biases and blinders. And finally, she shares her evolving perspective on her fame and notoriety, and its role in galvanizing her to write this book. I can understand her ambivalence. On one side, she has North Korea denouncing her, targeting her, pressuring her family back in the country to make up lies or face the consequences. On the other side, she has people trying to take advantage of her, twist her message, or insist that she is lying or making things up.

I admit that when I first started reading I felt a twinge of cynicism. What good sceptic wouldn’t? But that also speaks to the low standard in our mass media: so much of what we see is managed, staged, or massaged to present certain perspectives. While In Order to Live certainly evokes pathos for Yeomi Park, it does not strike me as having an agenda. The prose is simple and easy to follow. She talks about the good and the bad times in North Korea, acknowledging the human drive to find the light within the darkness. She shares a journey that is complex and perhaps incredible—because often the truth is stranger than fiction.

Above all else, Park reminds us that refugees are people. Recently there has been much debate about plans to take in thousands of Syrian refugees, and media portrayals and discussions of these refugees often forget that simple fact. Park is a refugee, a defector, a victim, yes—but she is also a survivor, a young woman, a scholar, an advocate, and an activist. She is, like everyone else, so many different things; she defies a single, simple label. It behoves us to recognize this and remember it when considering others who have experienced comparable struggles surviving and escaping from untenable situations.

I remain moved and inspired by In Order to Live. It is without question one of the best books, if not the best book, I have read this year. Yeomi Park teaches us about North Korea, makes us aware of the depths of its wrongness, and at the same time sheds light on the amazing lengths to which people will go to obtain freedom. That’s a word that many people like to use fairly liberally, and it’s worthwhile reflecting on what it actually means to us. Park cautions us that not only do some people lack freedom, but they might not even have a proper understanding of its meaning or its possibility.

1. Fall on Your Knees

by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Fall on Your Knees cover image
ISBN:
9780394281780
Format:
Paperback, 576 pages
Published:
Vintage Canada, 1997

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

Sometimes the best books are the books that are actually more than one story. Fall On Your Knees is a difficult book to summarize, or review, in a way that could do it justice. It is one of those sweeping multi-generational pieces of historical fiction, but at the same time it’s really just a story about four sisters. Against the backdrop of Cape Breton Island and New York City from the turn of the 20th century all the way to the advent of World War II, Ann-Marie MacDonald shows us how the good and bad actions we take in life ripple outward to touch the lives of everyone around us.

MacDonald’s narrative is cyclical and self-referential. We don’t find out who the narrator is until the very end (though you can probably guess after a while). Though mostly linear, there are flashbacks throughout, and a detailled accounting of Kathleen’s time in New York is deferred to the penulimate section for dramatic effect. The story’s power comes from how the setting around the main characters changes, almost like a time-lapse video. When James and Materia marry, their corner of Cape Breton Island is unremarkable and undistinguished. We get to watch a town spring up, miners’ strike, the devastation of war, and the Great Depression. While the characters grow older, go to school, take or change vocations, the story that MacDonald tells never seems to change. It’s always about the tension between the good and evil parts of the soul, that desire to do right by each other and that temptation to be mischievous.

It’s the nature of a character-driven book such as this that it’s hard to identify protagonists and antagonists. Each character takes their turn at both; much as in real life, it’s largely a matter of perspective. Even in cases where the character seems more villainous than not, like James, or more saint than sinner, like Lily, their actions bely that simplified morality.

When James marries Materia over her parents’ disapproval, it seems for about two and a half pages that Fall On Your Knees will be a love story. Rugged Canadian of Irish descent makes good with daughter of Lebanese immigrants, settles down, and becomes a respected piano tuner. MacDonald lets us cling to this vision, as I said, for a few pages, spinning out the fantasy that James and Materia might be happy together. Having manipulated us by presenting it as a love-match between a precocious young woman and a headstrong young man, she pivots, pulls off the blinders, and shows us the other perspective:

But deep down he winced at the thought of showing Materia to anyone. He was grateful they lived in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her any more, he did. It was just that, recently, it had struck him taht other people might think there was something strange. They might think he’d married a child.

So, love story, denied, or rather, aborted. Passion fizzles out to be replaced only by a kind of bewildered regret, which soon kindles resentment. James has such ambition: he orders a crate of books—a crate!—from England with the intention of becoming an educated, well-read, learned man. He wants to move in higher circles than he was born into. And he is frustrated when it becomes clear that Materia will be more hindrance than help in this regard. It’s not her fault; she was raised in a sheltered way, and she is so very young. Yet MacDonald gives her ambition as well: she discovers her love for performing, for playing the piano for vaudeville acts. What might Materia have become if James had believed in and supported her instead of shunned her?

It’s interesting to note what doesn’t happen in Materia and James’ marriage. As far as we know, James never cheats on her (with the one exception, as we learn at the end, but that is … different). He does not beat her regularly—there are moments when he hits her, yes, and MacDonald rightly portrays these as the inexcusable acts they are. He doesn’t leave her (unless you count going to war). I mention these things, because in spite of the evident dissatisfaction on both sides, these two try to muddle through. On Materia’s part, it’s likely that she sees little other choice, especially after Mercedes and Frances are born. On James’ part, it’s that he wants to be seen as a good man. And good men don’t abandon their wives and families, right? I can’t help but feel like some of this subtext is grounded inexorably in the period: in a more contemporary setting, Fall On Your Knees would involve messy affairs, fast cars, divorce, and in the inevitable movie adaptation, a car chase and a running-through-the-airport scene.

Reading this book a second time, of course, means that I have the benefit of what little I remembered about it. I don’t know if I completely comprehended the foreshadowing of James’ demon when I first read this book; this time around, of course, it feels rather heavy-handed. But it seems like that is the point:

The next day, James outsmarts the demon for the second time. He enlists.…

… Materia arrives at Mount Carmel and hurries over to Mary’s grotto. There she prostrates herself as best she can, what with her unborn cargo, and gives thanks to Our Lady for sending The War.

MacDonald keeps the specifics of what happens vague until the end of the book, but she foreshadows early on that James cannot outsmart his demon forever. With this, she declares, “This is a tragedy.” For a book so steeped in Catholic symbolism, there is a strong whiff of Calvinist determinism to this: James is destined to survive the war; Kathleen is destined to seek her fortune in New York; all are destined for tragedy.

MacDonald continues in this tenor with the trio of Mercedes, Frances, and Lily. With the first two, Materia’s influence is more pronounced: Mercedes grows up staunchly Catholic, and she and Frances share with their mother a muddled, fairy-talesque use of Arabic words to communicate and commiserate. These two fill the void of motherhood for Lily, who never gets to know either Materia or Kathleen.

It’s particularly interesting how Mercedes’ life resembles that of her parents. Like James, she ends up making many sacrifices for her family. She takes on jobs she doesn’t necessarily want, puts off her own ambitions, studies by correspondence rather than going to university in person. Mercedes tries to dress these sacrifices in humility, like a good Catholic, and I appreciate the way MacDonald draws out the irony and pride that taints her actions:

Tears fill Mercedes’ eyes. It is not fair that Frances should bask in Daddy’s affection and the approval of sundry shopkeepers for something that ought to have her hiding her face in shame. It is not fair that Sister Saint Eustace managed to make Mercedes feel like the bad one—when everyone knows that she’s the good one. It is not fair that Frances will have a baby, while Mercedes was denied a husband. None of it is fair, but that is not why Mercedes is weeping freely against her pillow…. Everyone seems to think that motherhood is the best thing that could possibly happen to [Frances]. Everyone but Mercedes. For she knows that once Frances has a child, Frances will no longer need a mother.

Mercedes in her hubris is a recognizable stereotype of someone we all know. Her genuine desire to do good through her sacrifices is mixed with the yearning for recognition she feels her martyrdom must bring. And when it doesn’t—or when someone spurns it deliberately, as Lily does by rejecting the Lourdes plan—she can only recover by reframing what happens in light of faith and her own ego. Well, if Lily doesn’t want her leg healed, doesn’t want to be whole, she must be possessed! In this way Mercedes justifies her past sacrifice and reassures herself that neither she nor her interpretation of her faith could be wrong; the world simply hasn’t lived up to its promise.

In both Mercedes and Frances, even more so than in their father, we see how people grow up and change in the unlikeliest of ways. Mercedes is so full of dreams of marrying and settling down with a family, even if it is with the Jewish boy next door. And Frances—wild Frances, showgirl Frances, sex worker Frances … would she ever have thought she would be the mothering type? Though Frances probably undergoes the most dramatic of changes, it is just another manifestation of MacDonald’s theme that our lives—while seemingly driven by destiny—are unpredictable, malleable, and full of surprises.

Lily is interesting in that, for the majority of her time in the story, she is not really a protagonist or antagonist at all, but rather an object on which other characters enact their designs. Mercedes mothers Lily, raises Lily, pities Lily, loves Lily, and harbours the secret hope that Lily might be a saint. Lily being a saint is far more preferable to Mercedes being a saint, of course, because being a saint is a sucky job. You have to suffer—physically, in Lily’s case—and be ever so holy. Being the sister of a saint, the person who first recognized their sainthood, is a much better gig.

Lily is an excuse for Frances to embrace her wilder side. Don’t forget that, originally, the siblings went Kathleen, Mercedes, and then Frances in order of age. Frances was the youngest child, the baby. It’s only after the epoch that Mercedes suddenly becomes the eldest and Frances the middle child. So it’s interesting to see them take up the stereotypical mantles of those titles: Mercedes becomes the responsible one, and Frances can be the wild one, because James can pin his hopes and dreams on Lily once more.

I really can’t do justice to this book in a review of any length. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the themes MacDonald weaves throughout it. I could go on to talk about racism, about the effects of war at home, about the march of history, family, and religion. As for the characters, who indisputably make the book what it is, I have only managed to give the briefest overview of what makes them so complex and well-realized.

So let’s finish off by talking about Lily at the end of the book, by which I really mean, of course, talking about Kathleen in New York.

I remembered James’ demon, but I did not remember the twist that MacDonald introduces during Kathleen’s time in New York. We learn early on that James goes to retrieve her because she has fallen in love, ostensibly with a black man. MacDonald carefully shapes our expectations in such a way that when the details come to light, it’s clever. She plays both on our heteronormative expectations of society in general as well as our expectations of that time period. This is just another facet in the way that MacDonald gently probes the layers of people’s personalities. Like so many other minor characters in this book, Rose takes on a life of her own without stealing the stage. Fall On Your Knees is one of those special novels that manage to contain more of a universe than most: a true microcosm rather than the two-dimensional set that falls apart if you view it from another angle.

Some books capitalize on a single tragedy, one moment of absolute disaster that has consequences for the rest of the characters’ lives. The plot and conflict then comes from watching them pick up the pieces, if they can, and making their peace where they cannot. Other books, though, capture how life is more properly a series of tragedies, some small, some big. Our lives routinely shatter and reassemble, seemingly on the universe’s whim or of their own accord; we don’t pick up the pieces so much as try to reinterpret the map after a geological upheaval. Fall On Your Knees is like this. It’s not just that bad things happen: lots of bad things happen, but good things happen too, and worse still, sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. Sometimes when we think we’re doing good we are actually doing the most harm—and vice versa. In these respects, this book reminds me a lot of that other inexpressibly wonderful story, A Fine Balance . However, Fall On Your Knees feels a little more optimistic in its prognosis for its characters. There is no such thing as “moving on” or “moving past” a tragedy, because in living through it, it changes you. It is just as much a part of you as every good thing that happens. So as MacDonald closes out the book by showing us the time-lapse photographs of the rest of the Pipers’ lives, we get to see the sum over all their histories.

And then Anthony finds Lily, and the story starts over again.

This is a book that sprawls. It is beautifully written, MacDonald’s style being without parallel here. I first read her play Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) in first-year English, and that’s what led me to Fall On Your Knees. Sometime after that I think I also read The Way the Crow Flies, but it never left as much of a lasting impression on me as this book. For nearly eight years I’ve cited this as one of my favourite novels. But the truth is, I barely remembered the details. I remembered only the exhilaration I felt reading it, the sense that this is so good it’s painful.

Yet I put off re-reading it for the longest time. I was scared that if I did, I wouldn’t like it as much. I would discover that my memory is more false than normal, that it just isn’t as good as I thought it was. I didn’t want that to happen.

This is my 1000th review on Goodreads, though. I could lie and say I don’t care, but breaking into four digits does feel pretty special. I put a lot of time and effort into these reviews, so to say that I’ve written so many is something worth celebrating. To do that, I wanted to review a very special book—and what better than the book I didn’t want to re-read?

I was a fool; I should have had more faith. Fall On Your Knees is every bit as good as it was the first time I read it—maybe more. It cannot offer answers or reassurance, but instead only the certainty that life is complex and difficult. This is a book that sprawls, not just because it covers multiple generations and a dynamic network of characters, but because their stories have no clear starting or stopping points. Unlike a classical tragedy, which ends in the clarity of the protagonist’s death, these characters have to go on living.

This is the truth of Fall On Your Knees and the inadequacy of the novel form that it exposes: stories don’t end after the tragedy is dealt with. As much as we might like, we cannot boil down our judgement of a person to “did they do good?” or “were they a good person?” Life is a series of events, good or bad or a mixture as determined by how we react—but every event shatters us, changes us. Life is the act of continuously rebuilding ourselves. The story does not stop, never stops, as long as we are there to shatter and rebuild, over and over.

And so I’m not going to stop.

Here’s to the next thousand.