Best Books I Read in 2013 – Book List

January is upon us once again. This year I managed 143 books, just managing to achieve my goal of 140. Of those books, 12 received five stars from me. That made choosing my best books of 2013 somewhat easy, although ranking them was a different manner entirely. And in fact, I’ll be honest: I’ve included a four-star book, The Great Gatsby, in favour of two other five-star books that, ostensibly, the ratings say I preferred. I chose to include The Great Gatsby for a few reasons. Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation came out in 2013—which is why I re-read the book this year—and, oddly enough, the movie made me appreciate the book better. The book itself is far from perfect, but it still has a gravitas and significance that has earned it a place in the canon of twentieth-century classics. So I do recommend it.

Otherwise, 2013 has been a good year for reading. So good, in fact, that I’m not doing a worst books list for 2013—I only gave out four one-star ratings this year. And looking at my low-rated books, few of them were the type of book that deserves a place on a “worst” list. For the most part, they weren’t bad so much as boring or uninteresting to me. Here’s hoping that 2014 furnishes me with a few truly terrible tomes for me to write passionate reviews about how awful they are!


10. The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby cover image
Paperback, 213 pages
Alma Books, 2012

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

Not going to lie: I totally re-read this just because the movie is coming out soon. The trailer, with its stylized images and Florence + The Machine song, has me a little excited for it. But this is a review of The Great Gatsby the book. I read it when I was high school (just to read it, not because we had to study it) and didn’t like it too much. Now, I feel more charitable towards it. I don’t know if it’s just that my appreciation of quality literature has grown and changed as I’ve grown older, or whether my circumstances have made me able to appreciate Nick and Gatsby’s conflicts in a way I couldn’t when I was younger. In any event, I’m now happy to praise The Great Gatsby, not bury it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s choice of narrator, Nick Carraway, is interesting. At the beginning of the book, he is an outsider to the society where most of the action takes place. This allows him to criticize it with the outsider’s cynical but sometimes gullible eye. Though the book is ostensibly about Gatsby and Gatsby’s doomed love for Daisy, it needs Nick to build up Gatsby as this near-ineffable, mysterious figure. It would be a very different novel if Fitzgerald had decided to narrate it from Gatsby’s point of view or had just opted for a third-person narrator. Instead, we get Nick’s very personal—and not wholly objective, considering that Daisy is his cousin—take on who Gatsby might be and whether his actions are justified.

I love the character of Gatsby. I have a thing for books about confidence games, and hence for characters who are largely con artists, and you don’t get much bigger than Gatsby. The surface persona is so incredible, so larger-than-life, that you just want to believe it is true. The combination of his easygoing, cool manner with his opulence and extravagance make Gatsby a very attractive person, the kind of person who could actually pull off a flawless military career, big game hunting expeditions, and numerous other exploits. Gatsby uses his considerable charisma to leverage the various heroic figures of the 1920s in order to feed the fire of his own quiet celebrity, all in the name of pursuing Daisy.

And Fitzgerald’s presentation of Myth!Gatsby is an impressive feat of characterization. He provides a great example of how a reader’s impression of a character comes from three sources: what the character says, what the character does, and what other people say about that character. Myth!Gatsby throws impressive, over-the-top parties and then says very little, hinting instead at his past exploits. What’s more important is how other people perpetuate the myth of Gatsby. When Nick first attends a Gatsby party, he spends the first part of the evening wandering aimlessly through the house, searching for the host—at this point, he hasn’t even met the man and has no idea what Gatsby looks like. No one else seems to know where Gatsby is either, but everyone is certainly willing to gossip about him. Through these little rumours (“I hear he was an Oxford man!”), as well as his own efforts, Gatsby becomes a 1920s version of the most interesting man in the world.

The man behind the myth has his own impressive story, though. James Gatz’s origin is more humble, although like all great liars, he has based most of his lies on the truth. Fitzgerald portrays Gatz as an extreme version of the American Dream ideal of a man: he pulls himself up by his bootstraps and transforms himself into this rich playboy. And he’s doing it all to get the girl he couldn’t get as Gatz.

The Great Gatsby is captivating because of the conflict between its fantastic, Roaring Twenties atmosphere and its sinister tone. By every outward appearance, this is supposed to be a time of peace and repose. The parties and dinners that Nick attends, with or without Gatsby, are sophisticated affairs that just drip with supercilious and haughty boredom. Tom Buchanan and his ilk are the bland product of an upper-class society that is so exhausted after its brief foray into the Great War that it has thrown itself headlong into a bacchanalian celebration of life, lust, and the pursuit of happiness. Beneath this exterior of ecstasy lies the sinister realm of racism, misogyny, and violence that Nick slowly exposes in his narration.

There isn’t really a villain in this book, which I perceive as one of its strengths. There are certainly villainous acts, but one of the themes is that everyone has within them that capacity for both good and evil. Take Tom, for instance: he is abusive, adulterous, and generally boorish in his attitudes towards women. He’s happily racist and imperialist as well—essentially, he’s a one-stop shop for all the stereotypical failings of Old Money. Nevertheless, I would argue he genuinely loves Daisy, despite his infidelity. His attitudes and actions are largely a result of upbringing and influence—and this doesn’t excuse them, but it places them in a context where he is not so much a villain as a victim of those times.

Daisy suffers similarly. She is a sympathetic character who, like most of us, has trouble discerning what she wants. Gatsby’s renewal of his pursuit of her is very interesting, because it offers an option that was previously unavailable. By this I mean, if Gatsby hadn’t shown up, Daisy would still have to deal with Tom’s affair one way or another. She could have continued to ignore it, confronted him about it and possibly left him, or perhaps tried to have an affair of her own. Gatsby’s reappearance complicates matters but also gives her an additional choice. Unfortunately for Daisy, Gatsby might be nicer and more stalwart than Tom, but he builds his memories of her into a myth that she can’t fulfil. His disappointment when confronted with the real package is palpable and doesn’t help matters.

Gatsby himself, with his long con, is somewhat of a rogue as well. He establishes Myth!Gatsby and arrives in West Egg solely to be across the bay from Daisy and get her attention. That is creepy-stalker level of planning right there. It’s not too extreme to call Gatsby obsessed with Daisy, and if events hadn’t played out like they did, I wonder if he and Tom would have come to some form of more direct confrontation eventually. As it is, I love the awesome tension in the scene at the Plaza Hotel; the way it deflates and ends with a whimper, as everyone just “goes home”, speaks to the veneer of civility that characterizes Tom and Daisy’s society.

The combination of all these emotional elements creates a decidedly dark tone for the story. It’s a lovely, skilled journey in which Nick is seduced by Myth!Gatsby only to find himself caught in the middle between Gatsby and Daisy—one is a friend, the other his cousin, and while the two might be happy together, neither understands who the other really is. And it’s possible that the true plot of The Great Gatsby isn’t so much Gatsby pursuing Daisy as it is Nick trying to unravel the truth about Gatsby and decide how deep down that rabbit hole he really wants to go. He seems to make some progress in this respect, until Gatsby’s life is tragically cut short, and the whole charade falls down in shambles.

The United States of America of the 1920s is a period of history I’m not too familiar with (though, unlike the latter half of the twentieth century, at least we did study it in school). It’s fascinating to read a contemporary novel of that time. Fitzgerald creates a seductive portrait of a sickly society. He also creates complex characters whose decisions and deceptions drive the plot from its simple inception to its final derailment. I comprehend why so many laud The Great Gatsby as one of the great American novels and why its quality, combined with its length, make it a favourite on high school reading lists. I’m not going to call it the Great American Novel (my experience with classic American literature is too impoverished to really make such determinations anyway). But there is so much to see in this otherwise thin volume, and it truly is a masterpiece.

9. Homage to Catalonia

by George Orwell

Homage to Catalonia cover image
Paperback, 267 pages
Penguin, 1938

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

It’s not very often that I commend a blurb. I prefer to mock them, especially for their brevity or generic flavour—fantasy and science fiction are particularly guilty of this. For Homage to Catalonia I can make an exception: my edition has a blurb on the back cover from Antony Beevor, who calls this “an unrivalled picture of the rumours, suspicions and treachery of civil war.” This describes the book perfectly.

A couple of burdens of ignorance to confess before we begin here. Firstly, I had no idea there was a Spanish Civil War until I picked up this book. If any of the various books related to the early twentieth century or to World War II that I have cracked open since the days of Grade 10 history class mentioned a Spanish Civil War, such passing allusions have long fled my mind. I’m somewhat ashamed to have such a massive gap in my historical knowledge, but there you have it. At least I’ve filled it in with a firsthand account from one of England’s great twentieth-century writers!

Secondly, I didn’t realize this was non-fiction until I started reading the introduction. See, I didn’t set out to read this book. George Orwell is one of those authors whose oeuvre, at least these days, is overshadowed by one or two masterpieces—Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in his case. For the vast majority of anyone who reads Orwell, one or both of those works are their introduction, and usually the totality of their Orwellian experience. His other works lurk on the fringes of popular perception. Some, like his essay, “Politics and the English Language” are more prominent than others. Suffice it to say: I had never heard of Homage to Catalonia until a colleague at school offered me a copy—she had accidentally ordered two. I don’t turn down free books, let alone books by George Orwell.

While my ignorance regarding history shames me, it also gave me an opportunity to approach Orwell’s account without many preconceptions. Unlike a student of history reading this for a course, or someone who is more familiar with the period, I had no idea what Orwell was prattling on about when he talked about Franco, the POUM or PSUC, etc. I understand the differences between the Marxist, Stalinist, and Trotskyist flavours of Communism, and I knew the names of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. As far as the political situation in Spain went, however, I was tabula rasa. This allowed me simply to embrace and go with Orwell’s explanation and opinions instead of fighting against any contradictions or additional confusion created by my prior knowledge. So, in some cases, ignorance can be a useful tool for reading comprehension.

Homage to Catalonia definitely improved my awareness of the complex political climate in Europe prior to World War II. I was about to say it “clarified my understanding” until I realized how silly a statement that would be. The dense, almost inscrutable explanations of the political situation in Spain during the Civil War in this book bely any claims that the politics are a simple matter of Left versus Right, Communist versus Fascist. Orwell himself was so frustrated by attempting to explain the matter that, in his errata for later editions of the book, he instructed editors to remove it from the main body and place those chapters into appendices, which is how they appear in this edition. This was a great choice, because I can’t imagine someone less interested in the politics trying to slog through this chapters and still finish the book. Tucked away as appendices, they are less intimidating but just as informative. (You really don’t need that information, however, just to enjoy Orwell’s personal account of his experiences in Spain.)

At its most basic, this is a personal account of an English journalist of socialist tendencies who went to Spain, enlisted in the militia, and fought in the trenches against Fascists. Orwell captures the vagaries of living in the trenches, particularly those engendered by a combination of poorly equipped, poorly trained soldiers and a lack of sound strategic leadership. He recounts the periods of endless waiting, the lines that were comically far apart—too far for their obsolete rifles to be effective—and the occasional thrill of real danger. Throughout those months, Orwell’s sense of idealistic enthusiasm for the Socialist/Communist movement fades palpably. And what’s left diminishes even further after he is wounded and returns to Barcelona, only to experience the street fighting and suppression of the POUM.

(I confess I enjoyed reading Orwell’s description of the sensations of being shot—in the throat!—and recovering afterwards. One can write about many experiences authentically without ever having to undergo them oneself, and that might include the experience of being shot. But there is a depth to Orwell’s account that comes out of that moment of certainty that one’s life is over. It is harrowing yet reassuring.)

Although the descriptions of trench life and criticism of the militia’s unprepared, unprofessional attitude are all well and go, I started to get invested in the second half of the book. Once Orwell returns from the front to recover from his wound, things get very interesting. Still technically a soldier fighting against Fascism, he quickly finds himself aligned with a party that has fallen out of favour. The other elements of the Communist aparatus begin to suppress and move against the POUM. Orwell goes from being a recovering soldier to an innocent observer to a “Trotyskist betrayer” who is wanted for arrest. Eventually, he and his wife end up fleeing from the very government and people he had so idealistically sought to defend when he first came to Spain.

Orwell’s political explanations are invaluable, and this is where his appendices prove most useful. Obviously, for someone unfamiliar with this event, it has provided me with a wealth of information. I can now comfortably ride out a mention to the Spanish Civil War in casual conversation—no longer must I feel the beginnings of a dry sweat in my palms and on my forehead as someone throws out a passing reference to Franco, fascism, or the PSUC! Yet Homage to Catalonia provides an education more general and even more important than mere familiarity with the events and political players of the day: Orwell’s deft political commentary is also a scathing indictment of propaganda and interventionist imperialism. Its message is still relevant in today’s political climate, where both Left and Right scream at us for attention, for exclusive allegiance, for polarized patriotism.

Consider, for example, how Orwell deconstructs the portryal of events in foreign newspapers. He criticizes British and other foreign newspapers for only showing one side of the story. He also criticizes journalists who went to Spain but just reprinted the official, accepted version of events instead of digging deeper for the truth. Within Spain, stories were murkier and more complicated—censorship was rife, and in the hands of the Communists and the PSUC, but there were still conflicting voices. Outside Spain, however, the Communist apparatus spearheaded by the USSR managed to spin events to their benefit. And it’s interesting that this spin was anti-revolutionary.

After all, the first thing one learns about communism as a political philosophy is that it is the result of a worker revolution against the wealthy bourgeoise. Orwell illuminates how Communism—that is, the movement as it was expressed in Russia—had already become compromised and corrupted by that need for any form of government to perpetuate its own existence and interests. It was in Russia’s interest to have a Franco government, albeit a capitalist one. It was in Britain’s interests to have a Franco, capitalist government. These titanic powers of the European stage intervened (or, equivalently, chose not to intervene) and spun the story to ensure the outcome that was favourable to their interests, regardless of the effect this would have on the Spanish population. It’s the same old story, and it still happens today. Observe the recent revolution in Libya, which garnered American support despite the United States’ previous close ties to Gaddafi. As political winds shift, so too do attitudes towards intervention. And Orwell makes clear his disgust for this.

Orwell’s conclusions will be familiar for anyone who has read Nineteen Eighty-Four: don’t trust what you read in the papers. Bias is everywhere. The only innoculation is to read more than one perspective, to piece together something that might be closer to the truth through a synthesis of conflicting accounts, and to be aware of the possible biases of the writers. (This is why the single voice of the state in Orwellian England is so pernicious.) He also provides a healthy reminder that neither the Left nor the Right have the monopoly on propaganda or bias. As a liberal, I’m making a mistake if I assume that only the “right wing” sources of news are the ones presenting a biased view of events and that leftist or centrist news sources are somehow more reliable.

Furthermore, it would be overly naive and optimistic to assume that the Internet somehow alleviates this problem. While it’s true that the Web has provided some unique opportunities for peer-to-peer, uncensored communication—Google and Twitter’s assistance to the Egyptian revolution is one example—the problem remains that the Internet is not fundamentally democratic. I do believe it can be a powerful tool for democracy—that is to say, it’s no more anti-democratic by nature than it is democratic. But, as Evgeny Morozov has repeatedly argued, it is not a magic bullet.

Orwell’s obvious disillusionment with Communism as a movement in this book provides key insights into his later novels. Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not exactly subtle in their messages. Nevertheless, Homage to Catalonia sharpens those messages, providing a historical context that makes it more evident why Orwell was motivated to write those two books. He was clearly reacting strongly against what he perceived as a betrayal of the very principles he supported, and he wanted to convey the danger of that betrayal to everyone.

I’m very glad Homage to Catalonia found me. It educated me about an important event in recent European history. It gave me insight into the personal life of a great author of the twentieth century. It emphasized the dangers of propaganda and the necessity of questioning the motives of external actors in larger world events. And it sharpened my understanding—and appreciation—of the power and importance of Orwell’s two major novels. Both compelling on its own and as a companion piece, Homage to Catalonia is a gem.

8. Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity cover image
Paperback, 447 pages
Egmont Press, 2012

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

My Carnegie-nominated reads continue with Code Name Verity. This book cut me up. I thought it unlikely that any of the nominees could best Wonder ’s worthiness for the award; I was wrong. I’m going to festoon this review with spoilers like they are going out of style, because I want to talk about what happens in this book and why that makes it so good.

Code Name Verity excels on multiple levels. It’s a great story: entertaining, thrilling even, packed with emotional moments that can occasionally feel like a punch to the gut. It has two capable but distinctive heroines whose exploits highlight both the danger inherent in the war, even for civilians. Most importantly, this book is an amazing example of kickass storytelling: characters and plot aside, the intricate way in which this tale is crafted has blown me away.

I kind of want to discuss the storytelling hand-in-hand with the story, so let’s talk about the characters first. Wein seizes upon the presence of women civilian pilots in the latter days of the war (though, for dramatic purposes, she sets the story a bit earlier). Julie Beaufort-Stuart is Scottish and of noble birth. Thanks to her schooling in Switzerland and a brief semester at Oxford, Julie’s German and her impeccable acting skills land her a job interrogating German prisoners. Her best friend is Maddie Brodatt, a middle-class girl whose mechanical skills and insatiable love for flying help her get a job in the Air Transport Auxiliary, and later, flying people like Julie on secret missions within England.

I love the distinctive characterization of these two heroines. Julie is just so Scottish—her indignation whenever someone refers to her as English is a running gag throughout the book. She also has a very strong sense of honour and duty, even if the perspective she provides us attempts to make it seem otherwise. It’s not until very close to the end of the book, after Maddie fills in the blanks in our knowledge, that we understand just how collected and careful Julie was throughout her weeks of imprisonment.

In contrast, Maddie is a less confident, more humble person who realizes quickly just how out of her depth she is. Like Julie, she excels in her chosen field, and her loyalty to her friends (and country) is second to none. Maddie bites off much more than she can chew in order to save Julie, and in the end I think Maddie has to pay a much higher price than Julie. In this way, Wein manages to create two protagonists who are both capable people with strengths and weaknesses uniquely their own.

By providing us with both characters’ perspectives, Wein creates a story greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, Wein works creatively with the idea of unreliable narrators. Wein has Julie narrate the first half of Code Name Verity through a confession, of sorts, in which Julie is supposed to divulge as much as she knows about British airplanes, airfields, etc., to the German Gestapo officer holding her prisoner. Julie, a student of literature, elects to spin out this confession into a story. Along the way, we get a great sense of her character and temperament from the asides and outbursts she records on the page.

This narrative structure allows Wein and Julie to get away with a lot of neat tricks. Julie starts her story by introducing Maddie, not herself. Later, Julie introduces a character named “Queenie”, a wireless operator who meets Maddie by chance and becomes good friends with her. The woman translating Julie’s story into German expresses exasperation and impatience at the way Julie is divulging information. The Gestapo officer, von Linden, is more forgiving, congratulating Julie on her use of suspense and foreshadowing. In this way, Julie’s narrative is a very self-aware story with its seams bare for all to see, and it becomes a nice little game for the reader to look more deeply at how is she telling the story.

Much of the significance is necessarily lost to even the keenest-eyed reader until Maddie’s portion of the story begins. Just as Julie’s time runs out, Wein switches to Maddie’s perspective, written as a kind of report/journal that Maddie keeps while she is hiding out in the French countryside. Whereas Wein begins the story with Julie already incarcerated and, ostensibly, broken, she forces us to live vicariously through Maddie as the latter learns all about Julie’s capture and imprisonment. Maddie is struck by a feeling of ironic powerlessness: here she is, actually in France, practically operational as one might say in the lingo of the day … yet she might as well be sitting back in England, for all the good it does Julie.

Maddie’s perspective is most valuable for allowing us to step outside the confines of Julie’s unreliable narration and realize what a liar she has been. Again, Julie and Wein foreshadow this throughout Julie’s story, particularly in the scene between Julie and the French girl. But the depth to which Julie’s story is a subversion instead of a confession—the seemingly-random underlining that obviously had a meaning, the conversation with Georgia Penn—is impressive. It provides the reader with an entirely new side of Julie’s personality.

Additionally, it raised my appreciation for Wein’s writing even higher. I was already having fun (not to mention completely torn up by Julie’s plight). And now, these revelations made me go back and re-read certain sections of the book, hindsight allowing me to understand nuances to conversations or descriptions that I wasn’t previously aware of. The amount of planning and calculation that went into creating this story must have been considerable; this is what I mean when I say that Code Name Verity is well-crafted.

And then there is the ending. I avoided crying for most of the book. I even avoided crying when Maddie shot Julie. But the letter from Julie’s mother was the last straw. Julie sacrificed everything for king and country … but Maddie sacrificed her best friend, at her own hands. And now she has to live with that for the rest of her life. Thanks to the way Wein has developed their friendship, through both pairs of eyes, Julie’s death is meaningful and moving. Maddie’s involvement pushes the pathos to its maximum, and the letter from Julie’s mother ties everything up—and pushed me over the edge.

This edition has a blurb on the front cover from The Daily Mail: “A remarkable book, which had me horrified and totally gripped at the same time.” Normally, I like to make fun of cover blurbs, especially those that have been boiled down to three or more seemingly-unconnected adjectives. I can’t do that here, because this blurb is entirely accurate: it summarizes exactly how I felt as I read Code Name Verity. At the back of this edition, there are fourteen more blurbs in praise of this book. Every single one of them is accurate and deserved.

My effusive appreciation for Code Name Verity raises just one question: would young adults really find this book as fulfilling? The Carnegie award showcases books for children/young adults, and this book definitely pushes towards the far end of that spectrum. It works best when one can appreciate the depth of Julie and Maddie’s friendship, not to mention the hardships they each experience during their time in France. Nevertheless, while its appeal would be more restricted to older children, I do think it would appeal. It’s an interesting way to get older children to begin thinking about World War II on a personal level, as well as highlight the role of women in World War II.

I’m not a huge fan of fiction set in World War II. But I try not to let that prejudice me when I do elect to read a book in that era, and I’m glad, because Code Name Verity is an exception. It’s just so good.

7. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews

by Samuel R. Delany

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews cover image
Paperback, 420 pages
Wesleyan University Press, 2006

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

I’m teaching part of an AS Level English Literature class this year, including the creative writing component. As I finally got around to reading this, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why didn’t I read this at the beginning of the school year? I could teach practically the whole class using this.” As it is, I ended up photocopying three of the essays for my students to mull over. About Writing, despite its embrace of the traditionally generic title, stands above many other “how to write” books. Samuel R. Delany brings the same skill he has for fiction writing to his non-fiction, making for passionate and intelligent discourse on the art of writing.

And I mean discourse. The letters and interviews portions of the book are Delany responding directly to someone—whether it’s a single person, or the questions posed by an interviewer or panel. Most of his essays, too, are framed as some kind of response. Delany brings to bear his considerable experience not just as a writer but as a critic and a professor of literature. As a result, he delivers advice at a very high level, using concepts and syntax that would definitely daunt the beginning writer (or reader). This is not a book for a beginning writer! For writers looking to deepen their writing, however, and for readers who would like to think more explicitly about what makes writing good, Delany has produced in this a book a valuable voice in that discussion.

I love how authentic Delany sounds. He never professes to have the one true word on what makes writing good; he never says, “These are the rules.” Instead, he leads the reader on a didactic journey in which he models different types of writing—good and bad—and analyzes for us why some writing works and other writing does it. He emphasizes that it all comes down to the effect the writer tries to achieve. Perhaps more importantly, he reminds the writer that it’s the reader doing most of the work—and the reader isn’t always going to assemble the same vision for a story that the writer has in their mind.

This model of the writer–reader interaction is a valuable component to About Writing. Delany takes a very psychological approach to storytelling. It’s not sufficient to put interesting words on a page; the writer needs to anticipate how a reader will react to those words. There is no way to force a certain reaction, no guarantee that the reader is going to see a character or a scene the same way that the writer does. Instead, the best a writer can do is hint and manipulate with all the tools at their disposal.

Delany extends the idea of the model to encompass different methods of constructing novels. This is consistent with that acceptance of a multiplicity of ways of writing. There is no one perfect structure. Rather, what matters most is that the writer acknowledges such structures exist and internalizes those structures by reading them. Then one can recreate the structure one wants to use, or create new variations. And though it’s fine to experiment, Delany emphasizes time and again that the writer needs to anticipate the reader’s reaction—and readers like structures that they can figure out.

Delany’s discussion of the story process, the literary marketplace, and the importance of such entities as the “canon” all take place at a very high level, verging at times upon the academic. This is not a beach read. It’s not even something I would recommend reading all the way through in a few consecutive sittings. Its very nature—seven essays, four letters, five interviews—makes it very easy to read over a few weeks, maybe a month. I didn’t do that, of course, because I am an incorrigible, impatient bibliophile who swallows books whole and burps out the bindings. But you should know better….

About Writing also provides insight into Delany himself, of course. I find this valuable because his fiction is so interesting but also often challenging. Now that he has made explicit some of the choices he made while writing it, I feel like I might understand it more if I go back and re-read it (or tackle another one of his works). Moreover, now I can see that his work is even more intertextual than is initially apparent—and though I am quite well read, I am far behind Delany in that regard, and I have a lot of work ahead of me if I ever want to get most—let alone all—of the allusions and symbolism latent in his text.

Indeed, this is an excellent book for writers who want some guidance on how to think about their craft. (Notice I didn’t say, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”. I wish I read this book before teaching creative writing, and I’m sharing some of the essays, but I would never just toss it in the hands of a new writer and say, “Read it.”) Yet About Writing is more than a book for writers: it has a lot of value for active readers as well. Readers who are interested in the aesthetics of the craft, who want to think about how and why writers make the choices they do, will learn a lot from this book.

Highly recommended for writers and readers alike, About Writing is one of my favourite works of Delany’s that I’ve read to date. And now I feel more prepared to read some more.

6. The Lowland

by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland cover image
Hardcover, 340 pages
Bloomsbury, 2013

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

I saved this book for a weekend. I knew this was not something I wanted to read in bits and pieces of time snatched, sneaked, and cobbled together during the commute to and from work or the hour before bed. My previous experiences with Jhumpa Lahiri’s sumptuous prose meant I would need a certain type of stillness in order to appreciate this book. I needed the luxury to linger over each page and absorb the words, rather than skim and skip as I might do with a different type of novel. So, the weekend before last, I sat down to enjoy this, not entirely sure what to expect in terms of story. Lahiri does not disappoint, though. The Lowland is magnificent in its breadth and depth.

The book spans most of the twentieth century and stretches tentatively into the twenty-first. It doesn’t concern itself with charting or documenting India’s tumultuous decades following Independence so much as it uses those events as a cultural backdrop. Only the Naxalite movement itself figures prominently in the story, whereas other significant events, such as the Emergency, are only mentioned. Much of the book takes place in the United States; again, however, major historical events are mere signposts, ways of keeping track of time, than elements of plot. The Lowland is relentlessly character driven in its story, much more so than almost any book I’ve read.

As such, the story defies easy summary. The term plot becomes quite basic—that which happens. And that which happens is, for the most part, the ordinary give-and-take of daily life, punctuated by those momentous events that shape and define our existence. Subhash returns to India following his brother’s death at the hands of overzealous, anti-communist police. He finds his parents mistreating Udayan’s widow, Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan’s child. So he marries Gauri and takes her back with him to the United States, where they intend to raise the child as his own. It is a marriage of convenience, not of love, never of love so long as the spectre of Udayan hangs between them.

Through Subhash’s experiences in the United States, first as a bachelor and then as a husband, Lahiri creates an effective and poignant juxtaposition of two cultures. She presents much of Subhash’s experiences as decisions, moments where he must choose between the American way and the Indian way. For example, when his friendship with an American woman becomes something more, he feels that he has turned his back on his parents’ plans for a traditional, arranged marriage. Even after this romance flickers and fades away, there is a sense that Subhash has irrevocably changed. His decision to marry Gauri, certainly against the wishes of his parents, only confirms this transformation. No longer the calm and deferential son he was in youth, Subhash has become a more independent individual. Yet for all his adoption of certain American habits and perspectives, he still has deep roots in India. In this way, Lahiri subtly emphasizes the complexity of life as an immigrant, immersed and steeped in more than one culture.

She builds on this picture through Gauri’s own adaptation to living in the United States. At stake for Gauri is more than cultural confusion: hers is a crisis of identity. In India, she had been Udayan’s wife and then his widow. Until recently, her role had been clear: she would be a mother and a companion, and she wanted both of these things. Udayan’s death changed that, and she certainly wasn’t happy any more, but she still had a clarity of purpose. Moving to the United States dispels that clarity, and Gauri has the difficult task of reforming her identity as the wife of the brother of the father of her child. When this doesn’t work for her, she starts branching out and becoming her own person again, rediscovering her interest in study, in philosophy.

Gauri struggles to reconcile her desire for independence with motherhood. She finds living with Subhash uncomfortable, awkward, and the baby’s birth only intensifies this feeling. Ultimately, she is unable to truly embrace being Bela’s mother, and the consequences are heartbreaking. There is one significant series of events when Bela is a child, playing on the living room floor. Gauri finds they are out of milk. Telling Bela she is popping out to check the mail, Gauri goes out to the convenience store, returning as quickly as possible. She is nervous the entire time she does this and relieved when she finds Bela safe and unaltered—yet the thrill, the sense of satisfaction, soon motivates her to leave Bela alone again and again, often much longer than that. I can still remember feeling so shocked that she would do this. And then when Subhash discovers that Gauri is doing this….

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy says, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Put simply, The Lowland is about an unhappy family. Gauri is a mother who resents the burdens of motherhood. Subhash loves Bela but is always reminded that he is not really her father—for though he raises her, she develops an independent and mercurial restlessness that is more like Udayan than anyone else. The tensions and disagreements eventually drive all three apart, Gauri leaving and Bela striking out on her own, with Subhash the one, true to his character, remaining at rest.

The Lowland eschews quotation marks or any other delimiter of dialogue, even an em-dash. Instead, dialogue must be inferred. Ordinarily this is a dealbreaker for me; I like the explicit, conventional signals and punctuation marks that have arisen to help the reader of the novel understand what’s going on. There is an exception to every rule, though, and in this case, the lack of delimited dialogue works. It helps that there is very little dialogue—more and maybe I would have had a harder time. This book is mostly description and narration; characters and people speak infrequently, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere of the story.

There’s a certain element of voyeurism to fiction, and particularly fiction like The Lowland. Readers are observing the lives of characters, people who are unaware of our presence or interest. But with this observation comes the ability to sympathize with and understand situations that we would never otherwise experience. I’ll never know what it feels like to nurse a child from my body or the complex interplay of emotions and hormones that accompany it. If I’m lucky, I’ll never experience the type of unrest and repression that Udayan fights unsuccessfully. Yet thanks to Lahiri’s skilful portrayal, I can see how these things change people and why they are driven to do things that they later regret—or celebrate.

Subhash and Gauri’s drama is not larger than life, not fantastical or incredible. Yet Lahiri unfolds it with a complexity and richness of detail that allows us to examine it from multiple angles, to sympathize with all those involved and lament that, sometimes, being human means not everything can have a happy ending. But we can’t stop reading, can’t tear ourselves away. We have to find out how it ends—though, true to real life, there is no proper, neat ending to The Lowland. Loose ends dangle. Here, as in reality, the story is never finished; only chapters come to close. No matter how bad it gets, how incredible it seems that a series of innocent choices has led to a state of abject unhappiness, there is always a reason to hope.

5. A Prayer For Owen Meany

by John Irving

A Prayer For Owen Meany cover image
Paperback, 637 pages
Bloomsbury, 2007

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

John Irving is a master of the messed-up. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a careful, tightly-managed piece of stage magic wrapped up into a book. The eponymous character in this book has a distinctive, almost shrill pre-pubescent voice, even into adulthood. It’s impossible to convey that on the page, but Irving tries by rendering Owen’s dialogue in ALL CAPS—during Owen’s few speeches, these can run to paragraphs or a page. I don’t visualize things when I read (I can’t picture Owen’s creepy child proportions, no matter how hard I try), but I can imagine his voice. I imagine the voice of Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas, slightly higher-pitched and perhaps louder.

Why is Owen’s voice different? There is a reason according to the plot. Thematically, however, Owen’s voice is the most striking signal of his otherness. Owen’s appearance can be described, but such descriptions are transitory—they come and go throughout the text, and it is easy to forget them (or, as in my case, fail to reify them properly). Voice, though … voice sticks. Even if one is not reading aloud, or being read to, one can imagine a voice as one reads silently. And those blatant capital letters scattered across the pages do a brilliant job reminding one that Owen Meany is Different. We don’t find out how different until the very last pages, when everything Irving has left simmering for six hundred pages finally comes to a sharp boil.

There’s a payoff to reading this book. From the beginning, the narrator—John Wheelwright—hints that there is an element of fate to the story. We know that Owen isn’t going to make it out of this alive, and gradually we learn that in the process he will also make himself a hero. What’s creepy is that Owen is aware of this, and as the story progresses, it becomes clearer that Owen is manipulating events to bring his vision of the future to come to pass. From his admission into the army to his practising of “the shot”, Owen devotes his entire life to preparing for his single, shining moment of sacrifice.

It takes a long time to get there. Irving doesn’t let us take any shortcuts. Instead, he provides a slow biography of Owen and John, with an emphasis on their eternal friendship despite Owen’s involvement in the death of John’s mother. Along the way, Irving lays the foundation for what comes at the end of the book. More than that, however, Irving is building a case for Owen’s type of faith. Owen belives—in God, in himself, in the future—and works tirelessly, shrewdly, uncompromisingly in support of that faith. He first scoffs at doubt, then confronts it, then embraces it and emerges from it with a stronger conviction.

I think, at its core, A Prayer for Owen Meany might be a ghost story. Ghosts make appearances in various, symbolic forms—the ghosts in Dan’s annual performance of A Christmas Carol, the voice of Owen Meany that haunts the secret corridor at 80 Front Street, just to name a few. Owen’s glimpse of the future it itself a kind of ghost, echoing into the past. When John finally meets his father, it’s like a ghost coming back from the dead—and to punish his father for revealing himself, John scares him with a fake ghost of his mother.

I’m tempted to single out John as the weak link in this book. As far as a character goes, he’s rather lacklustre. The older John of the Toronto, 1987 scenes is about as interesting as dishwater, and the younger John isn’t much better. I’m not sure this criticism is particularly apt, however; Irving does go out of his way to provide John with plenty of backstory and plot of his own, including the matter of his parentage, the death of his mother, and his own ambivalent feelings towards Vietnam and America. My dissatisfaction with John is more likely because Owen just overshadows him at every turn. But I suppose this book demands a first-person narrator; it needs that closeness and element of fallible human speculation that a limited omniscient narrator just can’t provide.

Another difficult aspect of the book would be its tendency to switch frequently—and without warning—among different times. It jumps from the main narrative to John in 1987 to moments in between with fearsome alacrity. One paragraph it’s 1964, then it’s 1967, and then we are back to 1964. This can be frustrating and bewildering at times, but it indicates the amount of planning and preparation Irving must have done to have everything coalesce in the proper manner. Instead of telling a completely linear tale, Irving somehow knows which moments need to be adjacent to strike the right mood and sense of character.

For all of those reasons above, I’m just gobsmacked by the literary quality of A Prayer for Owen Meany. As a reader and a writer, I just find the execution of this book impressive. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed the story (which I did), I would still have to rate this highly for the inordinate skill it displays. And, of course, my enjoyment is partly a result of that same skill’s ability to manipulate my emotions. There are parts of this book that made me gasp, made me groan, or made me cry.

Owen’s “gift” to Johnny late in the book was perhaps the most emotionally-heavy moment, for me, of the entire story. Irving foreshadows the hell out of the ending, so while it is tragic it wasn’t necessarily shocking. Owen’s “gift” shocked me (and while I have read this before, I had no recollection of that moment). It was a twist that Irving kept carefully concealed, but it made a lot of sense—and it’s so an idea that Owen Meany would conceive. But that’s not even why I’m so moved. It’s those last few paragraphs, when Owen tries to comfort John, to tell John he loves him and that everything will be OK … that, juxtaposed with what he does, is the epitome of pathos and tragedy. I had to stop reading, briefly, not because I was crying or upset but because I was just … floored … by the act and the emotions behind it.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a complex but well-crafted novel. It has a slow-paced, meditative story that reflects the tension and conflicting emotions in the American zeitgeist during the Vietnam War. Irving touches on life and loss, fear and faith—all the good stuff you need for a truly deep, memorable experience. This is one of my favourite Irving novels and an amazing book in general. It is an impressive and intense performance disguised as a novel.

4. Skallagrigg

by William Horwood

Skallagrigg cover image
Paperback, 728 pages
Penguin, 1988

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

Roommates lending books they love can be a dicey proposition. It wasn’t that I was worried I would dislike Skallagrigg; I just worried I wouldn’t like it enough. This feeling stayed with me for the first part of the book, because it didn’t seem very straightforward at first. There was cryptic foreshadowing that would make sense towards the end. Thankfully, after the first few chapters, the book changes tack and becomes much easier to like. William Horwood deftly balances the excitement of the vista of 1980s computing with the challenges that being physically disabled presents (in any era). Skallagrigg is a canvas of hope and disappointment and all the states of being in between.

Esther Marquand has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. At first, her father, Richard, is unsure what to do with her. She is a reminder of losing his wife, and like most able-bodied people, he isn’t sure how to interact with her. For a while, he remains distant—but he can never bring himself to abandon her completely. That’s all she needs. Gradually, Richard takes a more active interest in Esther’s life and development, eventually purchasing a more suitable home and moving her out of the place that is caring for her. As they learn how to communicate, Richard and Esther’s relationship becomes more like that of any father and daughter, complete with the occasional conflict over Richard’s affections, Esther’s future, and grandparents. Horwood is very skilled at creating characters who are sympathetic because they are three-dimensional. Richard is nice; he loves Esther and has her best interest in heart. But he’s not perfect, and sometimes he doesn’t understand Esther’s choices. Similarly, Esther spends quite a bit of time being rude to Richard’s girlfriend, despite her grace and courtesy. It’s a typical rejection of someone she feels is usurping the affection that should be hers. While Horwood carefully depicts the challenges Esther faces, being dependent on others for the most basic necessities, he also makes it clear that, mentally and emotionally, she undergoes the same developments and changes that we all do.

Esther becomes interested in stories told by other people with CP. They describe a boy with CP, Arthur, and his experiences in a hospital. Over the years, a mythical character named the Skallagrigg repeatedly saves the day. Arthur and his friends never seem to meet the Skallagrigg directly, but they also credit him with the save. Esther becomes convinced that the Skallagrigg and Arthur are real people who might still be alive. She begins collecting the stories, searching for clues as to Arthur’s whereabouts. Her research takes her along a dark path into the history of Britain’s treatment of people with disabilities. It is not pretty. In this way, Skalligrigg exposes the inadequacies of Britain’s treatment of and education of people with disabilities. As I learnt, through Esther, how bad it really is, I felt a growing conviction that we have to do better; we have no excuse for not doing better. The idea that people with physical disabilities are mistakenly diagnosed with mental disabilities simply because we haven’t found a way of communicating with them is not just frustrating; it’s gobsmackingly negligent. It’s an indictment without being pedantic, because it all happens in service to this wonderful story.

Skallagrigg also captures the excitement present in 1980s computing, when having a personal computer meant one had to do a lot more programming than one does today. Richard owns a computing company that recognizes the importance of computing to businesses. He brings home a computer for Esther and her friend to try, and they become captivated by its possibilities. Esther finds the patterns and logic behind programming comforting; as a mathematician and programmer myself, I can relate. She also discovers, thanks to the help of a creative engineer, a way to communicate using a specialized keyboard that allows her to express herself like never before. Never underestimate the power of having voice.

Horwood uses gaming as a way for Esther to express the emotional impact of her research. She begins work on a game called Skallagrigg, which is a maze/puzzle adventure that asks its player difficult, non-obvious questions along the way. It’s this game that the narrator has played, in which he finds clues Esther scattered to bring him to this story. As someone who loves computers and understands their appeal in a way Esther does, I really enjoyed this part of the book. Even if you don’t, however, it remains a powerful metaphor: Esther is creating, she is taking control in a computer-based world because she has so little control in this world. It’s exciting and amazing, but at the same time one has to think about why she is making the game and what she puts into it. She doesn’t just pour in her wonder and appreciation for the Skallagrigg; she puts in her frustration with her disability, her disappointment in the system and its history, her depression and worry that her destiny is not in her own hands.

I blubbered quite a bit reading this book, never outright crying but definitely verging on tears. There were a few awkward train rides where I had to stop reading for a while until I could pull myself together. I think it’s fair to say that some of the scenes in Skallagrigg are sappy—but that works here. Horwood is able to tug the heartstrings because he creates something that is mostly believable. Esther is smart and capable but at a big disadvantage, physically. She is lucky in that she has a father who both cares about her and has the resources to help her, in stark contrast to Arthur, whose mother had no such recourse. Life isn’t fair, but it still seems like the tribulations Esther undergoes are more unfair than many people have to suffer. And this is all with an awareness that Esther is actually quite privileged. If countries like Britain can barely care for disabled people properly, imagine how less well-off countries fare.

I’ve chosen to label this book as science fiction, because it is. Firstly, as some of the footnotes reveal, it is set in the future (well, relative to when it was written)—2019 or later. Secondly, Horwood’s use of gaming and the Skallagrigg game itself are science-fiction set pieces. Science fiction doesn’t have to be set in the future, and it doesn’t have to involve any technology more advanced than what we already have. It just needs to take the technology we already have and look at it through a slightly different lens. Horwood does that here; he asks how a very carefully-created, complex text-adventure game might be used to communicate across generations and speech impediments. He is somewhat ahead of his time in recognizing how monumental video games will be as ways of transmitting stories and memes. For these reasons, Skallagrigg is science fiction—more along the lines of Atwood than Asimov, though, and therefore such a label is no reason to avoid it.

No, the only reason one might want to avoid this book is to avoid the tears that might be spilt over its pages. I can promise, though, that some of those tears will be of joy. It’s not a depressing book, just a starkly realistic one. Horwood doesn’t pull punches, but at the same time he rewards the reader for sticking through it. Like all great literature, Skallagrigg simultaneously tells a story while also making the reader think, and think not just about the issues the book raises but about their own beliefs and convictions. Because it’s one thing to read books, and it’s another to have the courage to let books change you.

3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane cover image
Hardcover, 248 pages
Headline Review, 2013

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

I admit there was a bit of a high-pitched shriek on Twitter the day I found out Neil Gaiman had a new novel coming out. Mind you, this is about on schedule for him—he seems to have one steeped and ready every four or five years. Gaiman is a prolific author but has never confined himself to any one genre or form. Indeed, as I glanced over his bibliography page on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see that he has written much more in the way of juvenile fiction than adult novels. I guess, since I became more aware of Gaiman as an adult, I’ve always thought of him as a writer of adult novels that happen to also have an audience in children. The Ocean at the End of the Lane carries on in this tradition, though there are some additional nuances to this idea that I’d like to explore later on.

My original plan had been to buy this book right away (because I couldn’t wait) but save it for my flight home at the end of July—I like to take a book I’m confident of enjoying and savouring, and this seemed like just the thing. I severely underestimated my willpower. I rationalize my decision after the fact by pointing out that at this edition’s 248 pages, it would not last very long on my eight-hour flight. In any event, I dug into The Ocean at the End of the Lane over the weekend and enjoyed almost every minute of it.

The narrator is a middle-aged man who “makes art” and has returned to the village of his childhood for a funeral. This awakens memories probably best left forgotten, memories of a time when he was seven years old. A misadventure with Lettie Hempstock, an ostensible 11-year-old living with her mother and ancient grandmother at the end of the lane, results in them letting something loose into the world, something that isn’t meant to be here. The narrator (whose name we never learn) is the door; he is integral to getting the creature to return from where it came, and the creature doesn’t want to go back.

I just love how Gaiman explains things in the seven-year-old’s voice:

I wished I had never let go of Lettie’s hand. Ursula Monkton was my fault, I was certain of it, and I would not be able to get rid of her by flushing her down a plughole, or putting frogs in her bed.

Having gone on an adventure, the children fail to follow the golden rule—whether it’s to stay on the path, or not to look back, or not to let go—and this results in something very bad happening indeed. In this case, as is often the case it isn’t really the narrator’s fault; he’s just a scared little kid who is too far out of his depth. Sometimes, these problems are inevitable.

The creature takes on the form of Ursula Monkton and insinuates herself into the narrator’s household as a housekeeper, ingratiating herself with everyone else except the narrator. He sees through her thin disguise right away, which causes the creature to panic and think up new and inventive ways to make his life miserable. They engage in the classical arena between monster and child: a battle of wits and will. No one except the child recognizes the monster for what it is, and the monster promises that nothing can ever save the child. Ursula slowly twists the child’s family members, turning them away from him. The mother is out all the time, working a second job or raising money for a charity; the sister loves Ursula and is all-too-ready to side with her against her brother; the father becomes smitten with Ursula, and we get to watch that progress through a child’s eyes.

Gaiman refers to this as “a novel about survival” (the back cover of this edition gives him space for a brief statement), and I can see why. This is not a typical childhood adventure; there is no quest or journey here. It’s a raw, primal fight against an external force that amplifies the mundane concerns of childhood: the loss of attention/affection from one’s parents, the loss of hope against seemingly impossible odds, the vague sense that actually attaining the future seems to be more difficult with each passing year. Children, as the Maurice Sendak epigraph reminds us at the beginning of the book, experience some impressive nadirs of fear and uncertainty that adults, in our quest to idealize the supposed innocence of the past, are so eager to forget or marginalize. Gaiman takes these experiences and puts them front and centre.

The sense of dread builds palpably during Ursula’s reign of terror. The fact that the narrator obviously survives into adulthood doesn’t undercut the tension; we don’t know how, or what price he pays. We don’t know if he vanquishes Ursula or if he has merely run away, only to have to face her now, as an adult. Gaiman demonstrates the power that flashback has to frame and provide context for a story, even while it keeps the ultimate resolution ambiguous right until the end. It’s a very well-plotted, exquisitely crafted endeavour.

I think it would be a mistake to call this a children’s novel, or a young adult novel, just because of the age of the narrator. It’s no such thing. It is, perhaps, a novel that could appeal to a certain age and attitude of young adult. Simply put, though, The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t about childhood; it’s about the relationship we, as adults, have with our childhoods. That’s why the story is told as a flashback, bookended by the narrator’s contemporary presence at the Hempstocks’ farm. That’s why the emphasis is on memory. The complex, ever-changing solution to the unbalanced equation of identity, of what it means to be “a child” or “an adult”, is at the centre of this book.

It’s there in the very first sentence. The adult narrator describes his presence at the funeral: “I wore a black suite and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.” Despite being grown and having kids of his own, he still feels like wearing such adult clothing marks him as an imposter. This theme, that we never really “grow up”, continues throughout the book. It’s the reason the narrator can’t seek help from any adults (aside from the Hempstocks, who are exempt):

Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

The idea that you “grow up” and somehow life gets easier is a lie. Childhood has its pitfalls, and I quite like being able to eat as much candy as I want and stay up as late as I want. But getting older doesn’t mean I’m any more sure of what I’m doing than I was when I was seven. If anything, I’m even less sure: the awesome reality of the obstacles in my way is now a solid, dense wall instead of the diaphanous, hardly remarkable fence that it was back in the day. We all have dreams, but those dreams are far less tangible—and therefore much easier to entertain—when you haven’t paid for years of schooling to make them happen. When the narrator says, at one point, that “Adults follow paths. Children explore”, he means more than just walking. There is a sense of playfulness that most of us have as children, and that playfulness tends to atrophy as we get older. I think some of the happiest, most well-adjusted adults are those who manage to hold on to that playfulness even as they nurture the maturity and self-control that age hopefully conveys.

So, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly an adult novel about childhood. Gaiman plays with the conceits of having a child narrator. His prose, although always packed with interesting turns of phrase and dazzling description, has the spare, lean quality of someone recounting a fuzzy, faded memory. It meanders slightly and is sparse in some areas. I really enjoyed the act of reading this book for these reasons—a lot of books about childhood have an intrusive, adult narrator who tends to inject so much of their own hindsight into proceedings.

And then there’s the Hempstocks: Old Mrs., Ginnie, and Lettie, in order of generations. It’s significant that the Hempstocks are named while the narrator and his parents are not. They are that important, not just to the story but to this entire world. They seem to be, at least as far as we know, unique entities—not quite gods, but something more than human. Hence the clipped references to world-walking and reality-shaping, the all-too-on-the-nose “wormholes” and, of course, Lettie’s deceptive, eponymous ocean. Lettie appears to be a child but is also implied to be very old, once again emphasizing the notion that childhood and adulthood are more closely related and far less binary notions than we might believe.

If Ursula is the Big Bad Monster of the story, then the Hempstocks are definitely the Forces for Good. They are just comforting in the way that only a knowledgeable grandmother like Old Mrs. Hempstock can be. When the narrator finally makes it to them for help, you just want to run into their embrace with him, relieved in the knowledge that you are, at least for the moment, safe. They bear much resemblance to many of Gaiman’s similar supernatural creations, such as certain gods from American Gods, or some of the beings who populate the world of the Sandman series. (For all we know, the Hempstocks are somewhere, out there, and have run into the Endless once or twice.)

I don’t want to get too far into spoiler territory discussing the climax of the book. I am very intrigued by the relative responsibility that the narrator and Lettie have for the narrator’s survival. In this battle, the narrator is hopelessly outmatched: he has none of the knowledge, none of the power that the Hempstocks can bring to bear against these other beings. The only thing he can trade on is himself—his life, his soul. And perhaps the willingness to sacrifice that is the proof that he is worthy of being saved….

Anyway, I suppose you should take all this with a grain of salt, since I can’t deny being an avid fan of Neil Gaiman’s work. I love all of his books and stories that I’ve read, even those I didn’t feel that I could give five stars to. In this case, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worth those five stars. I should mention, I suppose, that the short length doesn’t bother me. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I found out it wasn’t four- or five-hundred pages. But it’s just the right length for the story that Gaiman tells, and with any book, such serendipity of writing and editing is a gift.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane fulfils all my expectations, but in utterly surprising ways. Gaiman fills a comfortable niche in the intersection between modern-day fantasy and literary fiction, providing a story that is enchanting and deep but also very familiar. The fantastic, here, is simply a dimension to our lives that is particularly prominent in childhood. Exposing it in effect exposes the changes that we undergo during that tenuous transition into the adult world. Uncovering it helps uncover those memories we have lost, or chosen to forget, simply because it’s easier. The best thing that a book can do for me is make me think. The Ocean at the End of the Lane has given me a lot to think about when it comes to childhood, memories, and our own uncertain past.

2. The Woodlanders

by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders cover image
Paperback, 463 pages
Penguin, 1887

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

My mad love affair with the work of Thomas Hardy deepens and continues with The Woodlanders, the latest of his novels to grace my shelves. I found this well-preserved Penguin Classics paperback in a used book shop in Edinburgh for £2. I bought it (and a few other books) more so I could say I bought some books from a used bookstore in Scotland than for any other reason. But Hardy is one of those authors whose entire oeuvre I intend to consume, book by book. Though The Woodlanders is a relatively slim volume compared to some of his other works, and though I had the entire week off work thanks to the half-term, it took me an entire week to read it (compare this to the three days over which I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles). Sometimes, when it takes me that long to read a book, I lose patience with the plot, and my enjoyment suffers no matter how great the book is. This was not the case with The Woodlanders. I’m aware I come across as an insufferable fanboy, but I want to be honest from the start of this review: with each Hardy novel I read, my appreciation of him as an author grows more than I ever expected. Words alone cannot express the intense enjoyment that devouring Hardy’s words provides.

In many ways, the plot doesn’t start simmering until Grace and Fitzpiers tie the knot and those inevitable dominoes of marital woes begin to fall. However, I love the chapters that lead up to their marriage precisely because Hardy does such a good job of showing the reader why this marriage will be a rocky one, while at the same time keeping us interested. Hardy could have started the book just prior to their marriage and forced a bitter pill of an unwieldy prologue down our throats, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Thanks to my familiarity with Marty South, Giles Winterbourne, the Melburys, and Fitzpiers, Grace and Fitzpiers’ marriage had a lot more significance when it finally happened. I tweeted, “Grace just married that scoundrel Fitzpiers. This will all end in tears.” (Actually, I’m pleasantly surprised by the ending, but we’ll get to that.)

I’m not sure what it is about Hardy that gives me the urge to tweet as I read; I did it quite often for Tess, and I did it a few times for this book as well. I think it’s the operatic nature of the plot, the fact that the narrative deviates well into melodrama at several points. From the dashing but somewhat dastardly Fitzpiers to confused, uncertain Grace Melbury, Hardy’s characters are a complex mixture of conflicting and contradictory desires and deeds. There is plenty of interpersonal conflict in this book, but almost all of it originates not in malice but simpler, more sympathetic misunderstandings owing to differences in class, education, temperament, and opinion. As a result, bad things happen—quite a bit—but the question of whether any of them happen to bad people is more complicated.

This is the chief reason I fell so hard for The Woodlanders. Coming off the juggernaut of Tess, I was sceptical that this more obscure work would have anywhere near the same impact. I had calibrated myself for enjoyment more of the Two on a Tower or perhaps Jude the Obscure level. (I have to revisit the latter now, because so many people comment on how it is a maturation of the themes Hardy explores in this book. So if I loved The Woodlanders, maybe there is hope for Jude yet.) While this book might lack the central, defining incident of Tess, it shares Hardy’s incredible grasp of the subtle shades of human character.

Even the people in this book who serve as antagonists, such as Fitzpiers with his philandering, are sympathetic. Through judicious use of the limited third person narrator, Hardy allows the reader to understand why each character makes the choices that they do. So yes, Fitzpiers is a cad, and it’s easy for us to see what will happen to their marriage before Grace does … but he’s not a cad of the irredeemable, moustache-twirling variety. He’s a complex person trapped by his upbringing, his prejudices, and his flaws. Similarly, Grace—who, by her very name, is supposed to be the sympathetic heroine of this story—is trapped by her own naivety, as well as her father’s confused ideas about what will be the best for his little girl.

Mr Melbury’s designs on Grace’s future tugged at my heartstrings. He loves his daughter deeply and, having the means at his disposal, invested in her future by sending her away to an expensive school. As a result, she is more educated and more refined than the other inhabitants of Little Hintock. Melbury has promised himself that he will marry Grace to Giles Winterbourne, as a kind of apology for marrying the woman Giles’ father wanted to marry. Yet he worries that Grace is now too good for Giles, that having her settle for him will doom her to a simpler life than she deserves. Melbury vacillates throughout the entire first part of the book, debating whether to go ahead with his cockamamie attempt at karmic balance or to encourage Grace to follow her heart. This essential indecision in his character returns later, after he debates how to advise Grace during her estrangement with Fitzpiers.

I can sympathize with the class conflicts Hardy presents in these events. Little Hintock is a very isolated place, something I think Hardy tries to emphasize from the beginning, with the slow, rambling cart ride that takes us into the town and ultimately to the house of Marty South. Melbury, as a wood merchant, is one of the most successful and powerful men in the village, and he wants to give his daughter the best. If that best means escaping life in the village—as the companion of the young widow, Mrs Charmond, or the wife of the village’s new, up-and-coming doctor—then so be it. Of course, it doesn’t quite cross Melbury’s mind to ask Grace what she wants.

It is tempting to read The Woodlanders and interpret it as a criticism of the institution of marriage. Indeed, in his study here, Hardy shows how it can be found wanting—for both sexes. Yet there is more to it than that, for Hardy portrays all different manners of relationships. In Grace and Fitzpiers we have the unhappy marriage. Felice Charmond provides the perspective of a widow, as well as Fitzpiers’ latest and most enduring object of infatuation. And Marty South wants nothing more than to be married to Giles, who wanted to be married to Grace! In this complex daisy chain of relationships, Hardy demonstrates that happiness is not as simple as being or not being married. It depends on subtler, more elusive alchemy than that.

Will Grace and Fitzpiers eventually be happy? Hardy, unlike Dickens, does not provide a neat little epilogue with any definite conclusions. If Grace’s father is correct, Fitzpiers’ infidelity will continue in time, and it remains to be seen whether Grace can cope with that. But it’s notable that Hardy ends the book not with Grace and Melbury but where he started it, with Marty South. He ends the book with Marty at Giles’ grave, alone because Grace is no longer there to accompany her:

“Now, my own, own love,” she wispered, “you are mine, and only mine; for she has forgot ’ee at last, although for her you died! But I—whenever I get up I’ll think of ’ee, and whenever I lie down Ill think of ’ee again…. But no, no, my love, I never can forget ’ee; for you was a good man, and did good things!”

This choice to end reflecting upon Giles’ role in events seems to hint that Grace’s time with him, and particularly his death, has altered her forever. Grace “forgets” Giles because his death, and Fitzpiers’ subsequent absolution of her role in it, is a catalyst that allows her to reconsider her estrangement from her husband. Here, Hardy reminds us that even if Fitzpiers remains unchanged, Grace has been through much, and that will be a factor in whatever lies ahead for them.

The ending, then, is not a happy one. Marty’s unfulfilled love for Giles notwithstanding, it is not a tragic one either. It seems that, with The Woodlanders, Hardy strikes the balance of the human condition: real life seldom admits purely happy or tragic endings, but rather tends towards a solemn compromise of the mediocre. Grace and Marty’s respective choices result in their respective outcomes, neither of which are very dramatic but are simply … life.

And so, in an isolated village in one part of his Wessex, Thomas Hardy manages yet again to impress and astound. The Woodlanders is powerful because it is simple on the surface but profound in its subtext. With a small but complex cast of characters and straightforward but compelling plot, this book reaffirms my admiration for one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. As I wrote in one of my comments below, Thomas Hardy is off the fucking chain. In my opening, I referred to “devouring Hardy’s words”, and that’s precisely the type of verb necessary to describe the intense pleasure of reading his work. Some books are meant to be read; others are meant to be inhaled and consumed. The Woodlanders is certainly one of the latter.

1. War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace cover image
Paperback, 1440 pages
Penguin Classics, 2007

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

There are a few different types of people who read War and Peace. I am some of them. I am a rigorously-educated, uber-literate intellectual who lives high enough up the ivory tower to get nose bleeds but not so high that I need an oxygen mask. I am intensely but not indiscriminately interested in history—not just the particulars of history, mind you, but the ways in which history happens. I take perverse enjoyment from carrying 600 g (actual mass of this book) novels from place to place and figuring out new and inventive ways of juggling the book and a cup of tea while simultaneously trying to turn a page without snapping the book’s spine (or mine, for that matter). And, finally, I am interested in war, and I am interested in peace. So this book is kind of a no-brainer for me.

I realize that a few people in this world do not share the entirety of my life experience and world view, however, and as such might not fully appreciate the majesty of this novel. Indeed, some might downright loathe and despise it to its very core—others might just feel a kind of contemptuous indifference, similar to how I feel about cooked fruit on pizza. And I get that. Marketing and tradition have cast War and Peace into the form of a novel, and so people read it with the expectations we have for novels (and especially modern novels). It is nothing of the sort, which disappoints most people.

I don’t think that War and Peace is difficult to read, but I’d agree that it is difficult to enjoy. Reading it, like a lot of so-called “great literature” can be an undertaking. War and Peace is more of an intricate collection of connected plots and philosophical treatises bound within the scope of a span of years at the start of the nineteenth century. It’s Tolstoy’s attempt to interrogate both a specific period of Russian history as well as the philosophy behind history itself. To do this, he fictionalizes some characters—most notably, Napoleon and Alexander I—and creates a vast cast of new ones to tell the stories he thinks will help him explore these topics. And while this book is neither as confusing nor as dull as its ponderous weight and aggressively small print might signal, it has a certain authentic convolutedness about it that doesn’t help the uninterested reader.

What I’m trying to say is that War and Peace might end up defeating you, and there is nothing wrong with that. The same could be said for Lord of the Rings (and I personally am completely unable to muster any enthusiasm for Catch-22). I am not going to try to convert anyone here, but I am going to rhapsodize about why I have enjoyed War and Peace so much. Though not one to jump aboard the hyperbolic bandwagon proclaiming it “the greatest novel in any language” (as my Penguin Classics edition does, adding that “few would dispute” this), I’d go as far as declaring this a damn good book.

Another reason that War and Peace can be difficult to joy is its chimeric makeup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, parts of this book deal with war and parts with peace. Some parts are devoted almost exclusively to the intrigues and relationships among Russian aristocrats—who is courting whom, who needs to borrow money from whom, etc. Other parts follow the exploits of some of these aristocrats on the battlefield, engaging the French (or decidedly not engaging, as the case may be). Tolstoy shifts settings and timbres so effortlessly that this, along with his amazing characterization, demonstrates why so many regard him as a great writer in, to borrow from that awful Penguin quotation above, “any language”. It also means, though, that every few chapters the book suddenly decides, “Hey, I’m going to change topics now!” and anyone not very interested in the other topics is left out in the cold.

I’ll confess that the “war” parts of War and Peace didn’t interest me as much as their “peace” counterparts. I think this had a lot to do with the way Tolstoy would drone on for pages at a time, particularly during the introduction of a new part, about various philosophies of history and warfare and military strategy. I imagine the effect is similar to having a somewhat bearded Russian professor in the same room as me for several hours a time (along with a kindly British woman translating idiomatically). The epilogue is the most egregious example of this: Part One is a depressing glance at our surviving main characters, eight year on (more on that in a moment); Part Two could very well live on its own as an essay on the philosophy of history. It is connected to the book only insofar as it is about war and peace.

I did enjoy Tolstoy’s portrayal of the different attitudes towards war through different characters. As Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, and Boris Drubetskoy march off to war, their experiences differ wildly. Moreover, each of their attitudes change drastically over the course of their brush with war. Andrei starts off naively idealistic about his potential for heroism, but a brush with death causes him to retreat from the world of war and peace for quite some time. Nikolai is disdainful of war, for the most part, but not interested in becoming a diplomat. He’s in it for the political distinction it will bring, and yearns for a chance to get noticed by the Tsar. Boris lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He has ambitions (somewhat foisted upon him by his overbearing mother) to rise high in whatever fashion possible. In fact, Tolstoy’s treatment of Boris is rather dismissive: he marries well and then disappears.

I’m most intrigued by Andrei’s character arc. His personality has been heavily influenced by his reclusive and incorrigible father, who withdrew from court life after being snubbed by the previous emperor. Andrei has high ideals and a tight code of honour; he also seems to genuinely love his wife. He hates that he has to abandon her when he rides off to war, but he is thrilled by the prospect of leading men into a heroic, triumphant battle. Tolstoy constantly describes how Andrei has his eyes open, ready to seize the day at any moment. Then his time finally comes—and though he is every bit the hero he wants to be, he very nearly dies. Andrei mellows out, returns home, and swears to live his life in contemplation. Yet Tolstoy has other plans, and later Andrei finds himself in the military again. In many ways, Andrei’s arc is a synecdoche of imperial Russia’s experience with the Napoleonic Wars: at first the military and aristocracy are eager to fight Napoleon, who seems like a worthy foe; then they are tired, weary, and ready for peace; when he breaks that peace, they rise reluctantly only to find their old fire has never left them.

It’s important to remember that this is truly a work of historical fiction, that Tolstoy is writing some fifty years after the events in this book. He possesses the benefit of hindsight, of other resources and research that provide perspectives on the various “great men” involved in the wars. Yet he doesn’t glamourize the Russian army or gloss over the division within the military. He frankly depicts the political in-fighting among supporters of various generals and the massacres, routs, and various other defeats that resulted from the poor and half-baked plans this in-fighting produced. There are some, but very few, actual battle scenes. His is a war full of maps and marches. And this seems appropriate for a period of hostility that dragged on, vacillating between peace and war more than once, and ending only after Napoleon’s miscalculations and the Russian army’s good luck at miscommunication.

Meanwhile, the “peace” part of War and Peace offers fascinating insights into the life of Russian aristocracy at the time. Though Tolstoy does not give his women characters quite as much page time as some of the men, they are three-dimensional in their own right. Natasha Rostov, who begins the book enamoured of Boris and certain she will marry him, changes quite a bit. As she grows up, she has to deal with her attractiveness and the type of men who orbit her in society. She becomes engaged, breaks the engagement, pines for her lover, grieves for her once-betrothed, and so on. With each episode, Tolstoy explores different stages of the Russian socialite’s life. His characters seldom, if ever, get what they initially want. Often, however, they end up changing and, in the process, develop new desires that they can fulfil.

I’m less happy about that epilogue. Just as the Harry Potter series ends with a look at all the main characters 19 years later, War and Peace jumps forward by 8 years to show what has happened to the characters who still live, focusing mainly on two couples (neither of whom originally planned to marry). It’s a depressing way to end the book. The characters are past their primes—that’s why this is an epilogue, not the main part of the story—and though they might be “happy”, they do not have the same vivacity that made them so interesting. (I particularly mourn the Natasha of old.) Chiefly, the epilogue just doesn’t signify in the way the rest of the book does. I don’t particularly care about how Pierre is getting on in Petersburg, because I know that the story is over and it will have very little importance. I would be just as happy to end the story at the end of Book Four.

This doorstop of a literary experience endures. It is a masterpiece of characterization. Tolstoy depicts men and women as they grow and change against the backdrop of the Napoleonic War. It is a careful, deliberate prosecution of a specific idea of what history is and how it actually happens—but Tolstoy is clever enough to couch his rhetoric in a story, even if he does get a little carried away and forgets that at times. Finally, it is a fascinating story in its own right, with a diverse cast. However, the book itself changes character and flavour periodically, which I expect will disappoint anyone anticipating a linear, unvarying read. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that War and Peace deserves its status as a literary classic. It might not be “the greatest novel in any language”, but it is a great novel. And since it has many elements that interest and entertain me, it is one of my personal greats.