Best Books I Read in 2012 – Book List

Every year I rank the top 10 best and worst books I have read. Some years, there are clear winners and losers. Although I only ended up with 14 5-star books, which is a little more than 10 per cent of all the books I read this year, I’d still call 2012 a good year for reading. Some of these 5-star books are amazing and well deserve their spot on this list.


9. Chicks Dig Comics: A Celebration of Comic Books by the Women Who Love Them

by Lynne M. Thomas

Chicks Dig Comics: A Celebration of Comic Books by the Women Who Love Them cover image
Paperback, 208 pages
Norwegian Press, 2012

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

I don’t read comic books that much.

Given my reading habits, and how quickly I read, I find it difficult to go out and get every issue of a serial. I’ve read some collected works, like Sandman, and enjoyed them—storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s in words or art on a page. Digital editions might help, once we finally give up on that DRM nonsense. However, even with that hurdle cleared, I’ll admit I’m not a very visual person. Pictures, whether they are paintings or prints or ink drawings, do not communicate with me the same way words on a page do—they don’t, as I explained to a friend while we saw Picasso at the AGO, convey as much semantic information to me. This is why, above any other literary form, I am so drawn to the novel: it’s a word-dense method of storytelling, and that appeals to me.

Nevertheless, I think I “dig” comics. I appreciate them, perhaps not as fervently as other fans, but with an eye towards their cultural and artistic significance nonetheless. Even if that weren’t the case, after Lynne M. Thomas’ excellent Chicks Dig Time Lords , pre-ordering this from Amazon was a no-brainer. Besides, we nerd genres need to stick together!

At first, I was a little disappointed with Chicks Dig Comics. It might be that I’m less excited about comics than I am about Doctor Who, so perhaps that dampened my enthusiasm for the subjects of these essays. However, I was expecting more of the focused critique of the medium that I saw in Chicks Dig Time Lords. Many of the essays therein were personal, yes, but they always referred back to the show, its production, and its delivery. It was an edification for me, as a fan who came to the series through its 2005 regeneration, to read those accounts. Chicks Dig Comics definitely has a more personal feel to it; almost every essay is about a female fan’s involvement with comic books and how this has enhanced or intersected with her other identities and roles in life.

In that sense, this book doesn’t disappoint—it just wasn’t quite what I expected at first. The essays and interviews are thoughtful, well-written, and above all, insightful. As I continued through the book, my initial disappointment evaporated and then condensed into approval. Because as I kept reading, I started to realize that Chicks Dig Comics isn’t actually “a celebration of comic books” like its subtitle claims. It’s a celebration—and a confession—of the experiences women have with comic books, their relationship to comic books over time. Hence, while the discussions of how most comic books seem aimed and young men are certainly there, they aren’t the focus here.

The value of Chicks Dig Comics comes from the fact it provides space for minorities to speak up about what comics mean to them. The value comes from a reader getting to hear about an experience and say, “Yes, I understand what you mean completely—I’ve had a similar one.” It’s that instant connection to the authors, that sense that you are not alone. It’s putting into words what other fans have felt but could not express. It’s a celebration of women who love comics by women who love comics—and that’s awesome.

The moment this clicked didn’t come until all the way on page 129, during the interview with Greg Rucka. In response to writing so many series with women as the leads, he says this:

But, I think, in all honesty? In all sincerity? I female-identify. I like writing about female characters. I can even go back through my writing—and here I’m talking about the stuff I wrote when I was in my teens … and those stories almost universally have female leads.

And then, to the follow-up question regarding his conscious choice to portray genderqueer characters:

Also, inasmuch as I have always been aware of feminism and interested in feminist politics, I’ve been very aware of sexual politics and issues of sexuality. And, not to be glib about it, but if I female-identify and I’m in a heterosexual relationship, what does that make me? I’ve always been comfortable in my own body, enough that I’m pretty content being biologically male. But certainly intellectually, and emotionally, I’d say that I’ve always identified far more as female than male.

This resonates with me quite a bit. I very carefully reached up to the top left corner of the page and deliberately folded it down into a neat triangle. I don’t dog-ear pages! I annotate; I underline, but to crease the page? I did it anyway.

My exploration of feminism and involvement in feminist discourse has been as much about exploring my own gender identity, and the way I perform gender, as it has been about critiquing gender roles in wider society. A lot of what Rucka says above applies to me—and I’ve said it in various bits and pieces to people at one time or another, but I don’t know if I’ve ever put it all together so succinctly. I too am straight and pretty comfortable in my body (my teeth could be better). But I tend to form stronger friendships with women than I do men. Like Rucka, my stories often involve women protagonists or at least very important women main characters. And I’m intensely interested in what it’s like to be a woman. (I’m not sure whether the relationship between these last two things is cause-and-effect or effect-and-cause.) It is a perspective I cannot, owing to my biology and socialization, realize myself; I have to seek it vicariously through literature and discussions with female friends. For me, personally, my involvement with feminism has been a quest for empathy.

The bottom line here, though, is that this is a book about women and comics, about women who love comics, and all the awesomeness that results. It crosses generations and occupations—there are essays and interviews here from fans, from authors, from editors, from artists. Rather than presenting a prescriptive, monolithic definition of what it means to be a female fan, Chicks Digs Comics embraces a diversity of perspectives. There are differing opinions on what makes a female character empowered, for instance, or the nature of Barbara Gordon’s transition from able-bodied Batgirl to the disabled Oracle. As with so many things viewed through the lens of feminism, I think it can be tempting to simply condemn comics for being bastions of the male gaze or otherwise demeaning to women—and some of the contributors note the surprised reactions they receive when other women learn of their self-professed feminist fandom. Chicks Digs Comics belies this approach to feminism by exposing the nuance that makes comics worthwhile.

I don’t always read comics. But I do occasionally read books about comics! Because sometimes, things about comics aren’t just about comics, in the same way that comics aren’t just about spandex and onomatopoeia. There’s something good here, something human and true. It’s academic, and meaningful, and personal. So if you like comics, even if you don’t read them all that often, read this. And if you don’t like comics? Maybe this will lift the cloud of confusion over why so many women do.

8. Angelmaker

by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker cover image
Hardcover, 482 pages
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012

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

It would be tempting to say that Joe Spork lived a quiet, unremarkable life until he was pulled into an attempt to stop a mad South Asian dictator from unleashing a 1950s clockwork doomsday device by a retired octogenarian super-spy named Edie Banister. Tempting, but not quite accurate, since Joe is the son of the infamous Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork, who kept fashionable crime and the honourable lifestyle of the gangster alive long after it should have faded into obscurity. Joe has turned his back on his father’s life of crime and taken up his grandfather’s trade—watchmaking—but it’s not enough to keep him from becoming involved in much larger, more bizarre affairs.

Angelmaker is a chimera of a novel. The core of the story is a spy thriller, with homages to the golden era of James Bond and daring international espionage on behalf of queen and country. It’s a race against time to prevent a megalomaniacal supervillain from destroying not just the world but life everywhere in the universe! Yet rather than playing it straight, Nick Harkaway injects that sort of dry, very British humour that isn’t afraid to verge upon—and venture into—the absurd. It’s why I loved The Gone-Away World, and it’s why I love Angelmaker. Harkaway rights with a voice that makes me laugh out loud, whether it’s at his descriptions, dialogue, or characterization.

Despite its careful callbacks to the 1920s gangster lifestyle and the 1950s Cold War spy genre, Angelmaker is very much a post-9/11 novel. The heightened response to domestic terrorism is a counterpoint to those more removed and romanticized elements. Various levels of civil service decide (and quite accurately, alas) that Joe Spork had something to do with the activation of this doomsday machine, and they aren’t afraid to subcontract someone to do a little enhanced interrogation. In this climate, Joe no longer has the right to remain silent—he has very few rights at all. It’s significant that Joe’s first encounter with an antagonist is not the dreaded Shem Shem Tsien but with Rodney Titwhistle and Arvin Cummerbund, who are not afraid to do whatever’s necessary to safeguard their country. This tension between Joe and certain representatives of government authority is what ultimately catapults the novel towards its climax and Joe’s transformation into a man of action.

See, the first part of Angelmaker is enjoyable, but in a slow and very reflective way. We meet Joe, learn about his connections to the London underworld, hear a good yarn about what it’s like to be initiated as an undertaker, and then we meet Edie. As rumblings of a doomsday scenario gather on the horizon, Joe sort of stumbles from scene to scene without too much of a plan in mind. Aside from his unwitting involvement in activating the doomsday device, he is more of a spectator in the consequences than a participant—that is, until the government decides to turn him into a wanted man.

Joe’s status as a fugitive forces him to confront a crisis of identity foreshadowed since the beginning of the book. He has spent the past decades of his adult life actively trying not to turn out like his father and avoiding, as much as possible, associations with the criminal element. His status as “the Crown Prince of the Night Market” nips at his heels like an unwanted insurance salesman, but Joe is determined to survive on the straight and narrow. Except it increasingly seems that, if Joe wants to get out of this alive—not to mention save the day and get the girl—he will have to step up and become not Joe Spork, the grandson of Daniel Spork, but Joe Spork, son of Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork. This inevitable transformation is almost an apotheosis of its own, albeit not in quite as grand a way as Shem Shem Tsien would like for himself. From there, the novel switches gears and becomes a wild ride from “crazy” to “insane” as Joe and his allies concoct a crazy plan to save the world.

And the girl? Her name is Polly, or maybe Mary Angelica, a onetime childhood friend and sister to Joe’s lawyer, Mercer. (The firm Noblewhite & Cradle, with its suspiciously ultra-competent staff, is another highlight of this book. They can, in Mercer’s own words, “sue anything”.) Polly is awesome, because despite being a love interest in a book with a male protagonist, she’s her own woman. When Joe has the audacity to treat her like a sidekick, she sticks an oyster knife under his eye and retorts, “Can we be very clear … that I am not your booby sidekick or your Bond girl? That I am an independent supervillain in my own right?” Later, after Joe has been kidnapped by the aforementioned team of Titwhistle & Cummerbund, Polly pays the latter a visit and clarifies her feelings about Joe:

I do not know, at this point, whether Joshua Joseph Spork is the man of my life. He could be. I have given it considerable thought. The jury is still out. The issue between you and me is that you wish to deprive me of the opportunity to find out. Joe Spork is not yours to give or to withhold from me, Mr. Cummerbund. He is mine, until I decide otherwise. You have caused him grief, sullied his name, and you have hurt him. If anyone is going to make him weep, or lie about him, or even do bad things to him, it is me.

From this and other comments and actions Polly makes, you get the sense that she might be a little bit mad. (Then again, maybe everyone in this book is.) Psychology aside, this is one woman I want on my side.

Finally, I can’t continue praising this book without talking about Edie, the common denominator throughout the rest of this plot. She knew Joe’s grandfather and grandmother. She is, in a sense, the last surviving member of a cabal who created this doomsday machine, which did not start out its life as a doomsday machine but, like all good inventions of mad scientists, has the capacity for mayhem as well as miracles. The Edie of the 1950s is a cocky, over-confident spy whose hubris almost gets her and others killed. The Edie of 2012 is … a cocky, over-confident retired spy whose hubris almost gets her and others killed. At over eighty years old, Edie deals with assassins sent to kill her by calling them amateurs and shooting two of them with a gun concealed in her underwear drawer. (She chastises the third one in her best old woman voice and then sends him packing to his mum in Doncaster.) Like Joe, Edie is this perfect combination of heroic awesomeness and flawed humanity. So even though Angelmaker has characters and events who are larger than life, we can still identify with the protagonists, because for all their skill they are still kind of just muddling through the whole mess.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most original and unique books I’ve read in a long time. Lots of authors can ride the tides of traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, or science fiction and create vivid, imaginative stories. Harkaway, however, goes beyond that to create a story that really is different from anything else on offer right now. To label this as steampunk simply because of its clockwork components would be grossly mistaken. To call this a spy thriller simply because of its subplots of espionage and intrigue would be a massive oversight. And while, thanks to Harkaway’s style, this book is definitely comedic and entertaining, it also has an edge and a sense of constant, present danger—not to mention very real and permanent sacrifices from some.

In short, Angelmaker hits a sweet spot for me. Every moment spent reading was a moment I could bask in Harkaway’s sprawling scenery and characterization. The story is just scene after scene of slow but constant development toward total mayhem, with a diversity of characters along for the read. Many books are entertaining and many are moving; Angelmaker is both of these things, and it is also a supremely satisfying read.

7. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

by Dava Sobel

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time cover image
Paperback, 198 pages
Walker & Company, 2007

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

I take GPS for granted. I don’t use it that much personally, because I don’t tend to go anywhere, but I’m sure all this technology I love to use makes use of GPS. Thanks to GPS, we can forget that calculating longitude without the help of a network of satellites is difficult and requires great mathematical and engineering expertise. GPS might not be great at giving directions, but that doesn’t mean you’re lost.

In the days—centuries—prior to GPS, you could get lost. Really lost. I’m not sure how to describe how lost you could be, out there on the ocean, no longer in sight of shore. Latitude was relatively easy—well, easy enough once you dealt with the pitching deck, the storms, and the scurvy. Latitude corresponds both to the sun’s altitude in the sky (at noon) and to the altitude of certain stars (if you are in the Northern Hemisphere, Polaris is a good choice) at night. So you could figure out how far away from the equator or the poles. But how far away were you from the nearest charted island? And were you to the east of it, or the west?

Longitude, or rather the “starting point” for lines of longitude, is entirely arbitrary. The only way to calculate longitude is to measure the difference in time between two points: the reference point (e.g., 0° longitude) and your current location. That sounds easy enough: just take a watch with you that’s set to London time, and at noon at your current location, check what time the watch reports.

Much like our skill at flinging sophisticated pieces of technology into orbit has advanced, so too has our ability to construct watches. For the longest time, the solution to calculating longitude eluded mariners because no one could construct a clock that was both accurate enough and durable enough. The constant changes in pressure, humidity, and temperature played havoc with the fine mechanisms that allowed clocks to keep time. Without accuracy, a watch is useless as a method to calculate longitude.

This problem consumed great minds for centuries. It eventually came to a head in 1714, when the English Parliament authorized the creation of a Board of Longitude to disperse prizes for new ways of accurately calculating longitude. The grand prize was £20,000—or $12 million in today’s currency. Longitude was a big deal.

I knew the gist of the John Harrison story prior to reading Longitude, but Dava Sobel goes beyond the accomplishments of this single man and charts the course of the problem, and all its proposed solutions. She sets up a context against which the true scope and power of Harrison’s achievement might be measured. As I explained above, the general solution to calculating longitude was long in evidence, but no one could think of a way to effect it. Galileo had some good ideas related to his observations of Jupiter’s moon, but they were hardly practical for marine navigation. Later, Newton and other English scientists were convinced that astronomy held the key to calculating longitude—and the king agreed with them, establishing the Royal Observatory for the purpose of cataloguing the stars. More than a simple puzzle that made academics scratch their heads, the problem of longitude affected society and the economy. It drove scientific inquiry and technological innovation. Watching this unfold through Sobel’s storytelling is breathtaking and inspiring.

Harrison’s origins read like something out of a fairy tale or a superhero book. His father was a carpenter, and he was trained as a carpenter, not as a watchmaker. Yet this craft fascinated him, so he trained himself to build clocks. In fact, he built a clock entirely out of wood, a clock that required no lubrication owing to the way he had constructed it and the type of wood he had used. John Harrison was not just a tinker or dabbler; he was a creative genius. So he decided to solve the longitude problem. And he did. But when he went to London for his reward, he was met with scepticism, animosity, and belligerence. Thanks to the politics of London, the Board of Longitude was populated by representatives from the astronomy camp, and they were none too keen on Harrison’s mechanical marvel. For the rest of his life, Harrison would improve upon his prototype and receive stipends from the Board, but that recognition and prize money lay beyond his reach.

I personally think we tend to put too much stock in the “great individual” approach to history. I can see why it is appealing for stories, and for works of popular history: our ability to turn history into a biography boils away our dislike of dates and dry facts and lets us focus on the relationships and motivations of the characters. The central conflict of Longitude is not the need to calculate longitude but the antagonistic relationship between the Harrisons and the Reverend Maskelyne. Maskelyne championed the “lunar distance” method of calculating longitude. It just so happened, too, that later on in his life he became the Astronomer Royal, and therefore a member of the Board of Longitude. That didn’t go over well for Harrison’s chances at being awarded that prize.

Indeed, echoes of the great rivalries across the ages surface in Longitude, reminding us that science is never as simple nor as objective as we like to think. Invention is partly innovation, partly inspiration, and part imitation. Sobel is careful to stress that Maskelyne was not the villain in this piece, merely the antagonist—like the feud between Newton and Hooke, the feud between Harrison and Maskelyne was a dispute between two men who knew their stuff. But where ego is concerned and establishing primacy is often necessary for the money and prestige that follows a discovery, tempers will flare and harsh words will be exchanged.

So with this centuries-old problem juxtaposed against a feud between a rural carpenter-turned-watchmaker and the Astronomer Royal, Sobel turns Longitude from a history book into an exciting story. The trick to making any historical account interesting lies in exposing the details and connections that a casual reader, like myself, wouldn’t necessarily know. Sobel does this by charting the connections between Harrison and luminary contemporaries, including Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, and Christopher Wren. She does this even with the considerable handicap of lacking much evidence about Harrison’s early life.

Sobel also goes into the intricate inner workings of Harrison’s successive marine chronometers. The genesis and evolution of the marine chronometer, particularly once it had spread to other watchmakers, gave us not only an accurate way to calculate longitude but other useful horological innovations! As Sobel describes the clever devices he designed to solve the limitations of sea clocks, all I could think was, “I have no idea what she is trying to say. This book could use pictures.” Lo and behold, as I reached the middle of the volume, I stumbled into the glossy inset that includes diagrams of a grasshopper escapement and photos of Harrison’s portrait and the chronometers H–1 through H–4. It’s amazing that these timekeepers (with the exception of H–4) continue to run today.

I wish Longitude were longer, but at the same time I love the size of the book as it is. My edition is a nice little paperback copy with a beautiful, high-quality cover. It is compact and deceptively slim for such an interesting history. Yet it is also definitely just a survey. I’m not sure, given the lack of details, how much longer Sobel could have spun it out. But the episodic nature of the chapters, and the abbreviated way she communicates the stories of the testing of H–3, H–4, etc., by Captain Cook and others, seems to indicate that there is more here to tell. Or is that another story?

Oh well. I really liked Longitude. It has the perfect mix of narrative, character, and scientific explanation to make it a fascinating work of history of science. Dava Sobel weaves a fascinating tale set against a problem centuries in the solving, one that vexed astronomers, clockmakers, and mariners alike but whose solution led to advances in all three fields. I, personally, rely on my GPS devices to find my longitude. But it’s good to know that if the GPS network ever goes down, there is at least one museum I can rob for some high-quality longitude calculation devices.

Now excuse me while I draw up some blueprints….

6. Bel Canto

by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto cover image
Paperback, 318 pages
Harper, 2005

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

One of my favourite shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I could get into why, but then we’d be here all day). One of the villains in the second season is a vampire named Spike. He’s a cold and ruthless antagonist, but then in season four he gets metaphorically declawed. With a chip in his head that causes him intense pain if he harms humans, Spike is neutralized as a threat. He spends a good deal of that season tied up in Xander’s basement. It becomes a running joke, in fact, how harmless he is, and gradually Spike transforms from villain to non-entity to ally. It’s one of the many subtle, long-term arcs that contribute to Buffy’s greatness.

The hostage situation in Bel Canto reminds me of this subtle transformation. It lasts a matter of months, but in those months Ann Patchett manages to make one care about a dizzying array of characters, hostages and terrorists alike. This is a beautiful book. The prose is lyrical without feeling like it’s overdone. At first the emphasis on description over dialogue annoyed me, but I gradually allowed myself to become seduced by the way Patchett would dip in and out of each character’s thoughts, sharing along the way some of their background story.

The multiplicity of these stories is key to Bel Canto and its ensemble cast. Although Patchett focuses on a small core of characters, even her most minor characters have a detailed, comprehensive backstory that provides their motivation. None of Patchett’s characters are stock, because she can always justify who they are. Normally this would be overwhelming, but the timeless, ambling quality of the narrative allow Patchett this type of freedom in her characterization.

See, Bel Canto exists in that fringe space of absurd that straddles reality and fiction. On the one hand, it seems so implausible that a group of terrorists this incompetent could show up at a party to kidnap a president who isn’t there and wind up babysitting hostages for four months. On the other hand, situations this long have happened before. In this case, however, the combination of the terrorists’ abject failure to get what they want and the duration of the standoff contributes to a kind of mutual Stockholm syndrome. While the distinction between terrorist and hostage never disappears, the barriers to civility do, and gradually the Vice President’s house becomes a kind of community of unhappy circumstance.

It’s a bit like a lab experiment. Patchett puts these people under the microscope in a controlled environment and watches them react. Because all of the characters have different ways of coping with their isolation, with the separation from their loved ones, with the sense of dread accompanying the knowledge that this can’t go on forever. Indeed, like many once-in-a-lifetime events, the standoff is a cathartic and life-changing experience for those involved. Mr. Hosokawa enters the house as a lover of opera—it is his passion to the exclusion of almost all other pleasures, including those of his family, who perplex and bewilder him more than they do provide warmth and companionship. Gen enters as an employee of Mr. Hosokawa, nothing more, but he gradually discovers within himself a capacity and ambition he had not recognized before. Vice President Iglesias undergoes perhaps one of the more interesting transformations, for he decides his role as host continues and begins obsessively tidying the house and cleaning up after people. In a situation where he is powerless to change their circumstances, he seizes upon what little power he has to make things better.

Strangely enough, however, Patchett captures the nature of this transformation best when describing a fairly minor character. Tetsuya Kato is one of Mr. Hosokowa’s corporate vice presidents and accompanied him to the party. When Roxanne Coss decides she must begin practising again, we learn that Kato can play the piano—he can, in fact, play it beautifully. At first this revelation is a convenient plot point and emphasizes one of the book’s themes, which is that people are full of surprises and have all these hidden talents we don’t know about because we don’t necessarily ask. But there’s something deeper going on here, and I’ll quote from the only paragraph I bothered sticky-noting in this book:

They spoke to one another by handing leaves of music back and forth. While their relationship was by no means a democracy, Kato, who read the music the priest’s friend had sent while lying on the pile of coats he slept on at night, would sometimes pick out pieces he wanted to hear or pieces that he felt would be well suited to Roxanne’s voice. He made what he felt to be wild presumptions in handing over his suggestions, but what did it matter? He was a vice president in a giant corporation, a numbers man, suddenly elevated to be the accompanist. He was not himself. He was no one he had ever imagined.

That last line really resonates with me. Hosokawa, Gen, Iglesias, Kato … the hostage situation prompts a profound crisis of identity in these people, and they find themselves not just stepping from their comfort zone but leaving it behind entirely. But Patchett makes it happen so fluidly and so beautifully that it feels natural.

I’m not a fan of opera. It’s not that I dislike opera; I just haven’t listened to it that much. I have enough trouble deciphering song lyrics I know are in English…. Anyway. I know for some people, Patchett’s decision to use opera as a metaphorical way to unify the story detracted from their enjoyment of it. Fair enough. However, Patchett is doing more than talking about opera. That’s how it starts, but pretty soon the metaphor extends into music in general. Patchett reifies the spiritual reverence we as humans accord to the experience of music. When Roxanne sings, she literally stops the terrorists in their tracks, momentarily making them hostages to her voice. I may not have listened to much opera, but I understand the power of the human voice. It’s in the orator whose speech sways the crowds not just because of the words but the way they’re spoken. I love just sitting in my reading chair late at night, a cup of tea by my side, with the haunting vocals of someone like Florence + The Machine as company. In a medium with no sound, Patchett harnesses something primal about our sense of hearing and asks one to listen.

In case it’s not clear, I’ve fallen for Bel Canto. It’s beautiful as a work of literature. It’s beautiful as a reading experience. I’ve fallen for it so hard that it’s difficult for me to evaluate it critically, because honestly, I just want to close my eyes and bask in Patchett’s luxurious narration of everyone’s thoughts and desires.

And then there’s the ending.

It’s not a stretch to say I felt betrayed by the ending, at least in the first few seconds of seeing the scene play out on the page. To be fair, Patchett foreshadows the hell out of this thing, reminding us that despite what some of the characters might hope, nothing can last forever. Except that, thanks to the way Patchett writes, this situation seems like it could defy such a truism. The story has a quality of timelessness to it. Yet something, as they say, has to give. I understand that, but I was so invested in these characters that I wanted them to get out alive. Not all of them, mind you—I didn’t care what happened to the Generals, not even Benjamin. But to see Hosokawa and Carmen brutally cut down like that … that hurt. I wanted a happy ending for Carmen and Gen so badly.

I don’t feel cheated though. As I said, the ending makes sense given the story Patchett has written. The characters who survive are changed, their paths in life altered, even warped unrecognizably by their experience. They have a new perspective on what it means to live. Fortunately, I don’t have to endure four months of being hostage for such transformation, or even a few weeks in Xander’s basement … I just have to read books like Bel Canto.

4. Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

Bleak House cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 881 pages
Signet Classics, 1964

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

My physical pile of to-read books has a surfeit of non-fiction at the moment. So prior to setting off to a charity quiz night with my dad, I grabbed this book and Tess of the d'Urbervilles from the pile and told my dad to choose. (In fact, my massive market paperback version of Bleak House properly is my dad’s, but it’s mine now because I rescued it from almost-certain water damage in the dormer closet.)

Bleak House is confusing at first, because neither the house nor the book is all that bleak. I kept waiting for something bad to happen to Esther, but it doesn’t get heavy until around page 400. Also it took me five days to read this behemoth, which is a lot for me. I was enjoying the book, but Dickens’ plot and prose are just so damn convoluted that every time I picked up the heavy, small-print-infested edition I read, I wanted to put it back down and read something more comprehensible, like War and Peace. (Yeah, I went there.) Dickens is probably a poet at heart and can’t describe anything so banal as a doorknob without going into detail about the life of the servant who polishes it every Saturday, and there are times when it’s beautiful and times when it turns the book into a laborious slog. I totally understand why some people can’t finish this book, and that’s OK. I’m going to say some very favourable things about Bleak House, and I certainly feel better for having read it. But if you feel like you’re putting yourself through a particularly English form of literary torture trying to consume this, then it’s not going to be worth your while.

Wikipedia has a robust plot summary available, but I will try my best to highlight the elements that were important to me. Bleak House is not just long but sprawling. The central character, and at times the narrator, is Esther Summerson. She’s an orphan of mysterious heritage who finds a benefactor in Mr. John Jarndyce of Bleak House. He brings her to live with him and his two wards, cousins Ada and Richard. They get along famously and everything goes well for them, except that Richard can’t decide on a profession and instead becomes obsessed with Jarndynce v. Jarndyce. This Chancery case, a dispute over wills, is a metaphor for all that is wrong with the English legal system. It is so tangled that none of the lawyers involved—and there are many—understand it in the smallest part; it has dragged on for years and seems bound to drag on for many more. So of course Richard decides he will put it aright and then live off the income. Yeah. Great plan, right?

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce grabs all the attention from critics, and I know it’s kind of the core of Bleak House, but it’s more of a background element (and its resolution is painfully obvious from the beginning to anyone remotely familiar with law and lawyers). What matters about this book are the many and sundry characters who make its pages come to life. There are the lawyers, like Mr. Tulkinghorn (whom I kind of liked despite his being a manipulative bastard) and Mr. Vholes (whom I didn’t like nearly so well). There are the nobility and the gentility: the Dedlocks, Sir Leicester and his wife, the mysterious Lady Dedlock; and the Jellybys and Turveydrops and Woodcourts, companions and foils for Esther, Ada, and Richard. There are the working men and women, the professionals, the soldiers, and the criminals: the Snagsbys, Sergeant George, the Bagnets, Mr. Bucket, the Smallweeds, etc. If I were to go back and read this differently, it would be with a notepad by my side so I could keep track of every character and his or her relationship with the other characters. They all seem extraneous at times, and then suddenly they become indispensable. Seriously, if Dickens hadn’t been busy churning out impressive novels, then I’m convinced he would have become a Moriarty-like criminal mastermind. The plot structure of Bleak House is a metafictional Xanataos Gambit (TVTropes).

The scary and wonderful thing is, all these characters feel very real. Dickens creates more lifelike personalities in Bleak House than some authors create in their entire careers. Not all of them are incredibly three-dimensional—some, like Mrs. Snagsby, are rather wretched excuses for plot devices, if that. But they all have their unique attributes and pasts and desires: Dickens is an expert and characterization through exposition. Aside from the chapters Esther narrates, however, Dickens hands the reins over to a third-person narrator, who chronicles the schemes and escapades of the Smallweeds and the Dedlocks, of George and Mr. Bucket. There’s such a diverse range of people in Bleak House. Mr. Smallweed is about as crafty and crooked as they come, aiming to cheat, swindle, and extort whenever possible. George is an honourable trooper who has fallen on hard times and finds himself in a bit of a bind. Poor Jo, a street-sweeper who “knows nothink”, finds himself shuffled from house to house, hand to hand, caught up as a bit player in a larger mystery. This mystery concerns, naturally, the identity of Esther’s parents.

Bleak House is as wonderful as it is long, and I have struggled with deciding whether to give it four or five stars. If there is one impediment to a perfect score, it is Esther Summerson, Mary Sue Extraordinaire (TVTropes). She is friendlly, stalwart, honest, loyal … I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Worse still, everyone is constantly commenting on all of her virtues, either to her face or to other characters. Esther isn’t just some saint toiling in obscurity; she is practically worshipped by everyone she meets. Caddy Jellyby considers her a best friend after a single afternoon together. Esther seems to have no actual skills other than cleaning and being nice to people, but somehow that’s enough to get by.

Of course, as the protagonist in a novel as fiendishly complex as Bleak House, Esther is far from that simple. I confess I kind of liked her. I hate Dickens for doing this, because I don’t want to like a Mary Sue, but Esther is a good person. She stands up for Richard and Ada and wants what’s best for them. Like the reader, she anticipates that Richard’s obsession with Jarndyce v. Jarndyce can come to no good and tries, in vain, to divert his course. That she is ultimately unsuccessful subverts, in part, her Mary Suedom—but the rest of the plot more than makes up for that.

For you see, when the identity of Esther’s mother becomes clear to her (Dickens does not exactly conceal it from the reader for quite so long), there are no recriminations. Esther goes for what seems like an innocuous walk with her mom, and her mom is all, “By the way, I’m your mom. I had you out of wedlock, so my sister told me you died and then raised you secretly. Sorry.” And Esther is all, “Oh, what is this sudden blooming of joy upon my breast, that I should finally know my mother?” And then her mom says, “Oh, but never speak of this again. Or talk to me. Or come near me. Because if anyone finds out, it could ruin my family’s reputation.” And Esther’s cool with that.

I’m being slightly disingenuous here, of course. Dickens is trying to make a point about the absurdity of nineteenth-century English mores, particularly when it comes to marriage and childbirth. Esther’s mother is ashamed of Esther’s existence and what it implies about her morals and her conduct. This shame is powerful enough to compel her to flee rather than face her husband when she learns that Mr. Tulkinghorn knows her secret. On the level of social commentary, these plot points work fine. Unfortunately, they do very little for Esther’s characterization. I find it hard to believe that anyone could react as calmly or joyously to the news Esther receives. These types of reveals don’t go well no matter how you slice them, because it essentially involves tearing down someone’s worldview (TVTropes). It’s not something one takes in stride—unless one is Esther Summerson, who also nonchalantly acts this way when it comes to proposals of marriage, notifications of courtship, or the need to buy a dress.

This reveal happens towards the middle of the book, and the remainder of Bleak House follows the consequences of various characters learning the secret and trying to use it for their own gain. This gets one of the characters murdered, and then the novel metamorphoses into a detective story, with Mr. Bucket taking centre stage and explaining his various methods of deducing the identity of the murderer. My interest was starting to wane prior to this twist, because I was wondering where Dickens was going with all of this. I should have known someone would end up dead!

This is probably Bleak House’s most redeeming quality: it is changeable. Despite its length, it changes its mood so many times that it doesn’t feel like one story so much as a package of many inseparable stories. I quite enjoyed the chapters that followed Mr. Bucket on the case and went all the way up to his dramatic trap laid for the killer—and unlike the other “mysteries” in this book, Dickens successfully diverted me from the true identity of the killer, much to my delight. This change of gears reinvigorated my interest in the book for the last two hundred pages. After this mystery is solved, Dickens quickly wraps everything up, marrying Esther off and resolving Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and telling us what happened to the rest of the characters in a matter of twenty or thirty pages. This denouement is very rushed and practically brief compared to the rest of the book!

I am not quite willing to call Bleak House “the finest literary work of the nineteenth century produced in England”, the bold assertion with which George Tillotson opens his afterword to this edition. He reveals himself as a Dickens fangirl by continuing, “If that claim can be questioned, it can only be on behalf of one of the other big novels of Dickens…. For Dickens was the supreme literary genius of his time….” I’m all for the Dickens praise, but I could do without the hyperbole of, “OMG. BEST. 19th CENTURY. BOOK. EVER.” There are plenty of reasons people aren’t going to like this book, not the least of which is because it is so very long. And that’s fine.

That being said, Bleak House is an excellent book. I didn’t think so when I started reading it, but along the way Dickens managed to captivate me with his characters and the lives they lead. Much like Middlemarch, another nineteenth-century novel I adore, Bleak House provides a microcosm of nineteenth-century England, complete with the social stratification, scheming, and family drama that we expect and love. Tillotson is correct in one respect: Dickens is, if not the supreme literary genius of his time, a literary genius of his time. And if Bleak House belabours his poetic style, it also demonstrates his mastery of plot and subtext that make the novel rise above the idiosyncrasies of style. Best nineteenth-century English novel? Up to you. Awesome nineteenth-century English novel? Most definitely.

3. Good Omens

by Terry Pratchett

Good Omens cover image
Paperback, 382 pages
Corgi, 1991

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

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are kickass, A-list, all-star authors in their own right. Both have an enormous command over their craft: they write with purpose. Gaiman creates so many fantastic worlds filled with a diverse range of characters, from the all-too-human to the incredibly bizarre. Pratchett, most famous for Discworld, is great at playing with (and playing off of) the most beloved tropes of fantasy. Both of them have a grasp of that circuitous, somewhat too-clever style of British wit reminiscient of Douglas Adams. Put them together, and you get Good Omens, quite possibly one of my favourite books of all time.

The premise of Good Omens is simple: the Antichrist is an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t particularly want Armageddon to happen. An angel and a demon, each softened from millennia of living among humans, are of similar minds and also working to avert the End. Caught in the vortex of these supernatural beings are human characters are all types, including a descendent of seventeenth century witch Agnes Nutter, whose nice and accurate prophecies are coming in handy.

If you like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, if you like Douglas Adams or absurd British humour, you will like this book. You’ll think it’s offbeat and clever and even laugh-out-loud funny at points, and you’ll see the rich humanistic subtext exposed for what it is and appreciate that this book is more than just entertainment. If you don’t like these things, then you won’t like this book. You’ll think it’s too corny or too quirky or tries too hard, and you won’t appreciate its sense of humour at all. (And that’s fine.) But it’s that simple.

Still not convinced? Here’s some examples taken, I have it on good authority, from Good Omens:

Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours—he was incredibly good at it.

All tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.

Along with the standard computer warranty agreement which said that if the machine 1) didn't work, 2) didn't do what the expensive advertisements said, 3) electrocuted the immediate neighborhood, 4) and in fact failed entirely to be inside the expensive box when you opened it, this was expressly, absolutely, implicitly and in no event the fault or responsibility of the manufacturer, that the purchaser should consider himself lucky to be allowed to give his money to the manufacturer, and that any attempt to treat what had just been paid for as the purchaser's own property would result in the attentions of serious men with menacing briefcases and very thin watches. Crowley had been extremely impressed with the warranties offered by the computer industry, and had in fact sent a bundle Below to the department that drew up the Immortal Soul agreements, with a yellow memo form attached just saying: ‘Learn, guys...’

I try not to lob a large chunk of quotations into my reviews too often. In this case, however, I feel that it’s the most appropriate way to give you a sense of the novel’s warm, almost cozy voice and tone. Good Omens doesn’t so much present the apocalypse as mull over the apocalypse and its attendant phenomena (including Atlantis, UFOs bearing messages of peace and cosmic harmony, and confused Tibetan monks tunneling into Lower Tadfield).

If I were to stop my praise at “it’s funny”, though, I would be doing this book a disservice. Many books are funny—it’s not particularly difficult. What makes Good Omens so great, what earns it a place among my favourites, is what Gaiman and Pratchett do with regards to Armageddon. Re-envisioning Armageddon is certainly not an original concept in literature. Rather than treating Armageddon as Judgement Day, as the punctuation-full-stop at the end of humanity’s worldly existence, Gaiman and Pratchett take a moment to pause and consider what Armageddon really is, in the context of this whole Heaven-and-Hell thing. And where humans fit into the mix.

The whole plot of Good Omens is possible because Crowley screws up. He doesn’t supervise the switching of the baby Antichrist with another, innocent baby. As a result, the Antichrist grows up in the wrong household, completely free of angelic or demonic influence and intervention. Adam Young grows up, as Crowley later notes, human. So when the clouds gather and the storm comes, Adam has to make a decision about the fate of the world, and he does so as a human boy with human experiences rather than some kind of supernatural entity.

The theme here is that humans aren’t good, and we aren’t evil either. We’re a mixed bag—good and evil, often in surprising and bewildering combinations. We are the ineffable part of God’s ineffable plan, because of that whole free will thing. Angels will act as Heaven’s agents, demons as Hell’s. Neither considers whether Armageddon is actually a good idea; they just act. But as Adam points out, the entire notion of some kind of apocalyptic battle in which millions (if not billions) die is wasteful and stupid. Armageddon as written definitely makes for a dramatic climax to the Bible, but it’s far from a good end-of-life plan for humanity.

The battle between fate and free will is a potent motif in Good Omens. Crowley constantly says he doesn’t have free will, yet he manages to subvert the will of his hellish superiors quite effortlessly. (He later jokes that this is because he learned free will, which I think is so cool.) Humans, on the other hand, supposedly have free will—but Anathema and Newton are trapped in the mousewheel of referring to Agnes’ prophecies, which are as nice and accurate as she promises. And, to be fair, they actually come in handy. Without spoiling the ending, however, I think Gaiman and Pratchett come down in favour of free will, at least in the case of those two.

And Adam Young? He is, to paraphrase a psychologist in a book far, far away, just this boy, you know? A boy and his dog. Because it always comes back to that, doesn’t it: a boy and his dog, standing against injustice. And it doesn’t have to be a boy and his dog; these are merely symbols. It’s that unity of childhood innocence and empathy for life. By innocence, I don’t mean that children are ignorant of ills—Adam and his friends know all about nuclear disasters and whale hunting, even if they aren’t clear on the Spanish Inquisition. Rather, I mean that they haven’t yet grown into that practised cynicism of adulthood, that apathetic, “that’s the way there is” about the world. They haven’t learned to say, “it can’t be done” yet. That innocence, and that empathy, make great things possible.

Good Omens is one of the most optimistic, upbeat books I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious, in my opinion, and it’s also about the end of the world. I don’t know how else to commend or recommend it.

2. Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir

by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir cover image
Hardcover, 336 pages
Amy Einhorn: Putnam, 2012

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

One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is funny, at least to my own humour schema. I’m aware that some people will not find this book funny, and that their reactions will vary from a grumpy, “Hmph” to wide-eyed sense of shock to “I’m grabbing my torch and pitchfork to burn this”. I’m the one writing this review, though, and unlike DVD commentary, the views and opinions expressed herein entirely reflect my views.

I first started following the Bloggess on Twitter last year, after someone linked to her post about Beyoncé the Metal Chicken. (That post is a chapter in the book, so congratulations on the free sample. Seriously though, read that post and some of her blog; it will give you a good idea whether this book is for you.) Anyone who asks Wil Wheaton for a picture of him collating papers is someone whose writing I need to read. The Bloggess is a constant source of humour, whimsy, and improbable anecdotes. So when I heard she had a “mostly true memoir” coming out, I knew I would need to buy at least one copy.

I ended up buying two, because in my infinite wisdom I knew this book would be my Mother’s Day gift this year.

Normally I can read somewhat inconspicuously in a crowd or in a social situation where people don’t normally read, such as at lunch or a small party. This was difficult to do with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, because I laughed out loud at almost every single page. I have a very loud, distinctive laugh. I inhale when I laugh instead of exhale, so I sound like a hyperventilating howler monkey. Or a very upset dog. My laughter usually results in other people laughing (with me and at me), so I think that’s a good thing. But in this case it meant I stopped reading after page 4 on Wednesday evening because I didn’t want to wake my dad. I had to restrain myself as much as I could on Thursday while reading this during my dinner break at work, for the walls between the kitchen and the front desk are not that thick.

In fact, I was so taken by this book that I did something I almost never do and inflicted it on groups of my friends on two separate occasions. Because, honestly, who doesn’t want to hear a man read aloud, deadpan, sentences like, “If someone asked me to pick out my own vagina’s mug shot out of a lineup of vaginas, I’d be helpless. And probably concerned about what exactly my vagina had been doing that constituted a need for its own mug shot”? I’m not just endorsing this book; I’m evangelizing it. This is a book my friends need to read, and I am more than happy to read it to them.

Being funny is difficult. I know this because people have told me, on occasion, I am funny, and it’s usually in response to something I said spontaneously rather than something I said with the intention of being witty. There is a fine line between sounding witty and sounding stupid, just as there is a fine line between genius and madness. Nothing is worse than reading a “humourous” book that is trying too hard. For every Let’s Pretend This Never Happened there are hundreds of memoirs that try to be funny and just aren’t. (But this review is not about them.)

I don’t know why Let’s Pretend This Never Happened escapes that fate. If I did, then I suspect I would use this knowledge to make a lot of money. As it stands, I think there’s just something that feels natural about the way Lawson writes. Although, as the subtitle notes, some of these accounts are fictionalized or adjusted for truthiness, they are ultimately drawn from the best source of inspiration for absurdity: real life. While I do not envy Lawson’s circumstances or experiences, some of which sound pretty inconvenient rather than enviable, I do admire the unadulterated joy, the uncut enthusiasm for living, that suffuses her accounts of those experiences. If you get your arm stuck up a cow’s vagina in high school, then you will be traumatized for life, but at least you can turn it into a funny story.

That’s probably why this book speaks to me. I try my best to be whimsical. That is to say, I try to do random or absurd things that we tend to be trained out of doing as we enter adulthood. It’s part of my essential philosophy of being who I want to be instead of who others think I should be; there’s nothing wrong with being responsible, safe, and mature … but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Decorum be damned, I have snowball fights in the winter and wear socks and sandals in the summer! And I will keep doing these things, at least until global warming causes snow to go extinct here.

So it’s heartening to encounter someone else who follows such a philosophy, albeit to an even more public and more spectacular degree. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened inspires, variously, feelings of elation, apprehension, terror, relief, and incredulity. Lawson grew up confronted by a menagerie of animals bobcats, “jumbo quail” (actually turkeys), and raccoons. Those are just the living ones and don’t include the taxidermied creations of her father, such as Stanley the Magical Squirrel. From this … charmed … childhood to her fifteen years in human resources to her fifteen years of marriage (poor Victor), Lawson has an abundance of incredible episodes to share. As she notes throughout the book, some of the stories that sound the least believable are the most factual (TVTropes). (The book has photos to prove it.) Humour books can sometimes feel like too much dessert. This book, however, is a full meal: interspersed with her humour, Lawson includes some fairly serious and significant events in her life. Sharing these stories takes courage too. The Internet can be a harsh, judgemental environment.

The overwhelming emotion I’m feeling, though, is joy. Joy mixed with a helping of satisfaction. It’s as simple as that: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is just really fun to read. My laughter is testament enough to that fact. If you like the sound of the Bloggess’ humour, do yourself a favour and read this book. Or I just might put a giant metal chicken on your doorstep.

1. Tess of the D'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles cover image
Paperback, 508 pages
Penguin Classics, 1891

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

Thomas Hardy knows where it’s at. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but one of the best books I’ve ever read. My previous outings with Hardy convinced me of his skill as a writer; this book cements him as truly deserving classic status. Hardy is one of those writers whose pointed social commentary dovetails precisely with his plot and characterization. He doesn’t have to sacrifice story for subtext, and it shows: Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a stunning novel, easy to read and follow but also emotionally moving; at the same time, it’s a sharp critique of late nineteenth-century English society, from the decline of rural life to the treatment of women.

I liked Bleak House , and in general, it’s obvious why Charles Dickens is a perenially popular, time-honoured writer. He has a keen wit and an uncanny knack for characterization. But he’s just so long-winded! Hardy, by contrast, has a clear and concise style. I don’t mean to hold up these two authors for comparison and declare Hardy superior—they both have their merits—but the act of reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles certainly felt smoother than Bleak House. (I’m not sure what it says about me that I found this book “easy to read” despite the numerous and almost unrelenting tragedies that befall Tess. I’m choosing to believe it’s because Hardy’s writing is just so good; it’s like watching a TV show that you don’t want to pause because you need to find out what’s happening next!)

If Dickens was the master of commenting on the urban side of the Industrial Revolution, then Hardy is his rural counterpart. In his fictional Wessex, life is hard for the common folk. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is rife with imagery and symbolism that depicts a society in decline, particularly the fact that the eponymous family, once noble, has now become diluted to the common Durbeyfields. Though the role of technology is quite different from the factories of London, its presence is nevertheless just as keenly felt: Hardy speaks of the effect new farming technology has on labour and employment. Whereas factories created jobs in the cities, farming equipment took jobs away. There’s a definite feeling of nostalgia here, with Hardy playing the role of the observer of the end of an era.

So it’s hard times, and when Tess’ father discovers their family hails from a proud Norman lineage, he tries to make the best of it. John Durbeyfield is an interesting patriarch: he strikes me as a man who lacks guile. As soon as he learns of his bloodline, he goes off to the pub and talks about it to everyone. He demands honours and respect as if it his due—there is no subtlety to John Durbeyfield. His wife Joan (oh, the names in this book) is quite the opposite: she schemes, albeit very openly, to use this information, however accurate, to their advantage. She sends Tess off to a distant relative who claims the name d’Urberville, hoping that rekindling an association will bring the Durbeyfields some good fortune for a change. But all it gets Tess is a baby and bad memories.

I really like this “Penguin Popular Classics” edition that I bought used for $3.95. It has a beautiful cover (not the one, at the time of this writing, associated with this book). And it has no introductions, forewords, afterwords, or “critical” interpretations or examinations of the text. While these can be useful—sometimes—I also find them distracting and often boring, because they tend to be an opportunity for some academic to wax about their favourite aspects of a classic. And I can see why they were useful a few decades ago when looking up critical essays required a trip to the library and a battle with the card catalogue. Now, however, I just have to Google “Thomas Hardy critical essay”, and I can have my pick of literary criticism.

So I like this edition, except there is one interesting detail that bears mention. The back of my book describes the story as “a simple but beautiful country girl’s seduction by another man…”. Only, I’m pretty sure Alec doesn’t seduce Tess; he rapes her. There is a vast difference. This choice of words in the book’s description irks me, and I wonder why the publisher chose to do it—did the marketing team genuinely decide it’s ambiguous, or was someone not a fan of the word “rape” showing up on the cover? The situation does not seem ambiguous to me. Hardy’s allusion to “Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors” dealing “the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time” seems to make it clear that Alec is taking advantage of Tess’ situation—both her status and the fact that they are alone, at night, in a place unfamiliar to her. Furthermore, at no point in this book does Tess ever so much as hint that she feels anything other than repulsion and loathing for Alec. She sees through his transparent attempts to seduce her from the beginning, and she spurns his advances at every turn.

Tess laments that her mother should have warned her of what unscrupulous rogues men could be. And, yes, Joan did kind of throw her daughter into the wider world without much of a tutorial. This particularly smarts in light of the fact that Joan, rather than acting as a supportive ally, blames Tess for getting raped and then not even getting a marriage out of the deal. She is the one who initiates the scheme to ingratiate Tess with the other d’Urbervilles. But when Alec rapes Tess, Joan’s reaction is, “And you didn’t marry him? Disappoint!” She goes as far as to claim Tess would have learned to love him with time. It’s the ultimate in victim-blaming, and it’s coming from the one person one would expect to give Tess the support she needs. Joan continues to play the role of oft-times antagonist to Tess, throwing up obstacles to the possibility of happiness with Angel.

But, no, the only person who gives Tess the support she needs is Tess. She has the baby and falls in love with it, caring for it until its untimely death, and worrying about its immortal soul. (Tess maintains a somewhat ambivalent and unsophisticated relationship with religion throughout the book.) She works tirelessly, and even after the baby’s death, continues to look for work. I took a stroll through the 1-star reviews on Goodreads to see why some people hate this book. (It is amusing to see how many confused Hardy’s critique of Victorian morality for an endorsement of it.) Many cited Tess’ lack of agency or action as the reason. Fair enough—it’s OK not to like the book—but I don’t see it. Tess keeps going despite everything Hardy throws at her. Tess is a survivor and a strong character.

Most of Hardy’s characters are round and well-defined, and that’s what prevents Tess of the d’Urbervilles from being a flat and dull message novel. Not only does Tess change considerably, going from “innocent” maiden to unhappy wife to murderer, but Angel, Alec, and other minor characters change as well.

Angel is an interesting mirror to Tess: like her, he begins as a rather naïve individual. He has preconceptions about farming and colonial life that turn out to be far from the case; he has illusions about Tess and marriage that he finds difficult to reconcile once he has both. His initial reaction upon learning of Tess’ previous “relationship” is every bit as harsh and condemning as we would expect for dramatic purposes. But as their separation nears its first anniversary, Angel sees that he was wrong.

This change in his thinking is helped by some urging from two minor characters, Izz and Marian. Dairy maids at the farm where Tess meets Angel, they are head-over-heels for him as well—but they also recognize he has eyes only for Tess. The high school version of this novel would require them to form a pact to take Tess down and then fight to the death for Angel; instead, Hardy makes them more interesting. They all wish they could marry Angel, and his departure with Tess is hard on them … but at the same time, they find themselves unable to hate her. They consider her good, pure, and altogether quite a match for Angel. When Angel is on the cusp of bringing Izz to life with him in Brazil rather than his own wife, it’s what Izz says about Tess that makes him change his mind. Without these two characters, I wonder if Angel would have had the motivation to reconsider his judgement against Tess so thoroughly.

I find Alec’s characterization a little more problematic. His abrupt regression from converted preacher to rogue is fine, but afterwards he seems to act intermittently chastened and nonplussed by Tess’ rebuffs. I guess these changeable moods of his are supposed to show how beneath his more playful persona a darker, abusive personality lurks. Compared to Angel and Tess, however, Alec’s characterization is slightly more of the moustache-twirling bad guy variety. If there is anywhere the seams of Hardy’s careful plotting and narrative sleight-of-hand shows through, it’s here.

I don’t care, though. From a stylistic perspective, this is one of the best nineteenth-century novels I’ve read. The tension in the last half of the novel, when Tess throws her lot in with Alec just as Angel returns, leads up to an amazing and unforgettable climax. We knew (thanks to the back cover) that all these tragedies were leading up to a murder. I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that, as I was reading, I found myself thinking, “If only there were a way she could get away with it.” But she can’t, of course—Hardy won’t let her, because of that damned d’Urberville coach, and so she goes off to the gallows, and Angel marries ’Liza-Lu.

Then the curtain descends, the house lights come on, and the cast takes a bow. It’s time to process our feelings. There were two other common objections I noticed about Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The first is that it’s just too depressing, and so while it may have literary merit, it doesn’t deserve praise. I’ve already talked at length why, when done right, depressing is good. The second objection is that the book—particularly the way Tess doesn’t “stand up for herself” (to Angel, I assume?) is frustrating. And my response to that is: well, good.

The major sentiment I get from Hardy from reading this book is one of intense frustration, so if you’re frustrated with Tess or with Tess, then he’s doing something right. Hardy is frustrated. He’s frustrated by the decline he observes throughout the country heralded by the age of steam. He’s frustrated by the venal, self-serving motivations of manipulators like Joan and hedonistic heirs like Alec. He’s frustrated by the double standards that apply to women and sexuality, but more than that, he’s frustrated because people who otherwise proclaim themselves open-minded, progressive, and sceptical fallback on such attitudes without a second thought. My favourite passage from the entire book demonstrates this:

This night the woman of his belittling deprecations was thinking how great and good her husband was. But over them both there hung a deeper shade than the shade which Angel Clare perceived, namely, the shade of his own limitations. With all his attempted independence of judgment this advanced and well-meaning young man, a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings.

And so, as Hardy states in his preface to the fifth edition, “the novel was intended to be neither didactic nor aggressive” but instead “to be oftener charged with impressions than convictions”. Hardy is brave enough not to write something of his time, that conforms or emulates the standards of his age, but instead to write something timeless by challenging those standards. It’s not polemical but provocative, an attempt to shake those of us who consider ourselves open-minded out of the complacent blank of culture in which we always wrap ourselves.

So for me, Tess of the d’Urbervilles excels in two respects. Firstly, as I have noted persistently, it’s just an excellent novel. Its characters are great; its plot is captivating; its pathos is without peer. I didn’t just love this book; I loved reading it, which is an entirely different thing. Secondly, it is truly timeless, not just for attitudes that it conveys—as these may change—but for the sceptical sentiment towards social norms of thought and morality that it encourages. Those norms have definitely changed since Hardy’s time, but the fact remains: we still have a lot of work to do. Hardy reminds us that people often don’t deserve the inequity society heaps upon them.