“Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin A. Abbott

Books

Flatland

And what a romance! A geometric, algorithmic, multi-spacial romance. In fact, I was so moonstruck by this novella’s trigonometric charms that I read it a second and a third time, repeatedly entranced by its cacophonous journeys through terrains of dimensional discord.

Flatland is a two-dimensional world inhabited by a legion of polygonal shapes (except for the women, who are straight lines), whose angles and proportionality determine their position within the social echelon. Isosceles triangles make up the microcosm’s soldiers and workmen, circles comprise the priestly cast, and squares and pentagons, including the story’s narrator, A. Square, are the “gentlemen” class, and hold professions such as doctor and lawyer.

Socially, Flatland is a very rigid and uncompromising place, with countless customs and affectations that result from its dimensional limitations, such as “The Art of Feeling”, which is used to identify other forms.

In the 2D world of Flatland, shapes appear as straight lines, the same as a coin appears as a straight line when viewed from its side in the three dimensional sphere where you and I live.

Flatland_(first_edition)_page_23b

Flatland is replete with hand-drawn diagrams that illustrate the perspective of its inhabitants, like the ones above which show how polygonal forms appear as only sides and angles, depending on their relative position.

Women, being mere line segments, have the unique ability to appear as near-invisible points depending on their approach, the same as a sewing needle appears as a single point when viewed head-on in our comely, three-dimensional sphere. Women are portrayed as dangerous, irrational beings, prone to manic fits and limited intelligence, a misogynistic and hilarious nod to the Victorian-era civilization the novel parodies.

Flatland places a great deal of emphasis on the mathematical tangibility of its settings, with countless diagrams, equations, and blueprints punctuating its pages.

But this is not a story about shapes or geometry or arithmetical beings. Flatland is a story about dissonance, perception, and existential discovery, particularly that of the novel’s protagonist, A. Square.

One night, A. Square has a dream in which he visits the one-dimensional world of Lineland where his failed attempt to describe the realities of the second dimension to the region’s monarch proves infuriating and ultimately futile.

A. Square is then visited by a sphere from Spaceland, who experiences similar obstacles when explaining the spatial realities of his three dimensional home. A. Square cannot conceptualize the multidimensional world of Spaceland until seeing it with his own eye, which then forces him to reconcile the veracity of the third dimension with his own narrow, self-contained cosmology.

A. Square is transformed, his mind awakened to third dimension, now prepossessed by the theoretical possibility of a fourth, fifth, or sixth dimension.

Flatland‘s protagonist experiences what is colloquially known as having one’s mind blown. It reminded me of when I switched from streaming to Netflix or tasted real maple syrup for the first time: I was reborn, a transposed version of my former self, confounded by the heedless ignorance of my entire life up until that point.

The same is true for A. Square, a formerly content and self-assured being, who is quickly romanced by his newly acquired spatial realism. This forces at least a little angst on the reader, who must examine the dimensional limitations of her own world. Fun!

Flatland is a strange but charming little novel that spans a variety of genres including science fiction, non-fiction, and social satire, and can be read here in its entirety.

I really, really liked Flatland. It is a fun, amorous tale of contention and perception, and does a remarkably good job at explaining different dimensions while also functioning as a satire of Victorian society.

Flatland is a perplexing, bizarre, mathematical tale, and one that I was truly enamoured by. I can’t wait to read this romance-filled badboy yet again.

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“Blindness” by José Saramago

Books

Blindness

A veil of milky blindness leaves an unnamed man in an unnamed city without sight. One minute he sits in his car waiting for the traffic light to change, the next his world is dissolved in brilliant pearly whiteness.

As the amaurosis spreads, hundreds of the recently blind are placed in quarantine, herded into an abandoned asylum surrounded by guards who have been instructed to shoot any potential escapees who risk spreading the white blindness to the outside. So begins José Saramago’s lurid portrayal of captive humanity, a novel replete with hulking paragraphs, sparse punctuation, and ambiguously written dialogue.

But this is a good thing! At least in the case of Blindness. Saramago wields a very distinctive writing style, one that perfectly mirrors the characters’ blinded plight. I love when writers do that!

Saramago’s writes page-long paragraphs that subject readers to the same forboding and stifling claustrophobia as the novel’s victims, and walls of unpunctuated dialogue keep readers ignorant of which internee is speaking and to whom.

In fact, none of the characters in Blindness are even named, instead descriptively referred to as “the first blind man,” “the doctor’s wife,” or “the boy with the squint”. As one of the characters states, “Blind people need no names.”

Much of Blindness takes place in the horrific asylum where basic needs such as food, clean water, and medicine are lacking and where the sightless microcosm succumbs to violence, filth, and societal breakdown. The reader, too, is confined to the crooked sanctum, blind to the endemic devastation that is spreading outside the asylum’s walls.

There’s really nothing better than an expertly crafted story about a debilitating epidemic that pushes its characters to the brink of humanity, am I right? Blindness is much like Albert Camus’ The Plague, but without the excruciating monotony, and much like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, but without the carnivorous foliage.

I’m not saying Blindness couldn’t have used a little murderous greenery, but it definitely was one of the best books I’ve read all year, if not the best book I’ve read all year. (We’re in July now, so that’s a lot of books.)

I really, really want to give a vigorously detailed account of everything that happens in Blindness because it’s all so delightfully harrowing, but I will resist so as not to deter any of my faithful readers from exploring the unholy depths of its pages themselves.

Blindness is the first novel I’ve read by the Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago, who, as it turns out, was an absolute cutie:

Jose Saramago

Just look at those baby blues! I realize I’m making massive generalizations based on a single photo, but I bet he was the super-sweet quintessential grandpa type. He couldn’t not be with a face like that.

Regardless, Blindness is a fantastically bleak tale of tragedy and despair, and a deeply sociological portrayal of human desperation written with the command and sagacity of a true (and bloody adorable) master.

“Shades of Grey” by Jasper Fforde

Books

Shades of Grey

Part fantasy, part dystopian, part satire, part sci-fi, part thriller, part romance, Shades of Grey is the first in a genre-defying series by Jasper Fforde, where one’s place in the social hierarchy is determined by his or her limited colour perception.

Jasper Fford is the author of the acclaimed Thursday Next series, but was completely unknown to me when I picked Shades of Grey up off the shelves of my favourite book shop, Circus Books and Music.

If you’re a book-loving Torontonian like myself, you need to pay Circus Books and Music an immediate visit. The store is owned by a super friendly bookmonger called Ron who always has a fun story or anecdote to share when I’m checking out. And he almost always has what I’m looking for in stock. I don’t know how he does it! I’ve left Circus Books and Music with a massive stack of paperbacks in my arms on numerous occasions.

On this particular day, Ron sold me a copy of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, a biography on Mao Zedong, and Fforde’s Shades of Grey. My plan was as follows: read the first page of each book and start with whichever best caught my interest.

I picked up Shades of Grey, began reading the first page, and didn’t put it down again for the next two hours.

Shades of Grey immediately drew me into its peculiar, colour-coded world of Chromatacia, where ‘Yellows’ make up the elite, ‘Greys’ (those with no colour perception at all) comprise society’s lowest rung, doctors called “swatchmen” show swatches of colour to patients to rid what ails them, and certain shades, such as Lincoln green, are outlawed due to their narcotic properties. Shades of Grey is weird in all the right ways.

The story follows Eddie Russett, a 'Red' with excellent colour perception, who gets sent to East Carmine to conduct a chair census. There he meets Jane, an ill-tempered and unruly 'Grey', and together they seek to uncover the false evangelism that keeps their world intact.

This was easily the most visual and imaginative book I’ve read in a very long time. It’s Terry Pratchet’s Discworld meets George Orwell’s 1984 meets Terry Gilliams’s Brazil. It’s full of bizarre details, fortuitous plot turns, and inventive wordplay.

And that’s not all! In addition to being the literary equivalent of a thermonuclear detonation, Shades of Grey is a very clever work of satire. Citizens of Chromatacia live in a world of planned economies and repressive bureaucracy. They are coerced into following strange, arbitrary rules such as rule 1.1.19.02.006, which states that team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports, or rule 3.6.23.12.028, which dictates that Ovaltine may not be drunk at any time other than before bed, and prestige is awarded to those who possess arbitrary characteristics (i.e., colour perception) that are outside their realm of control.

Shades of Grey is an incredibly amusing and whimsical novel, and one that doesn’t hold the reader’s hand as she progresses through it. In fact, that was my favourite part about the novel: it felt like I was exploring the world of Chromatacia myself, experiencing the same confusion and thrills as its inhabitants.

I tend to get caught up reading books that are very serious and reflective; Shades of Grey reminded me just how fun reading can be.

Jasper Fford’s followup, Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers, will purportedly be available later this year, with two more novels scheduled to be released shortly after. Colour me very excited.

“No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy

Books

No Country for Old Men

Anton Chigurh, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul. Your chassis is a beastly monolith, and your mind a labyrinth of synaptic magnetism. Just kidding, Anton Chigurh is a certified freak.

“Freak” might not be the appropriate term here. Freak implies a certain level of discernible humanity, of which Chigurh is void. I remember writing an essay on No Country for Old Men for a film studies class I took in university where I argued that Anton Chigurh isn’t a human being at all, but evil incarnate, and after reading the novel I am inclined to agree with myself.

No Country for Old Men is Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel, published in 2005, and arguabley his most accessible work. And by accessible, I mean readable.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Cormac McCarthy novels. I toured the outskirts of Mexico with John Grady and Billy Parham in the Border Trilogy, I endured the apocalyptic terrain of The Road, I suffered the butchery and despair of Blood Meridian, I followed the loathsome Lester Ballard through the caves of Sevier County, Tennessee in Child of God. But McCarthy uses a writing style that creates some serious distance between the story and its reader.

Cormac McCarthy’s writing is incredibly terse; every word is precise and deliberate, and every paragraph expertly devised. For me, this creates some of the most satisfying writing I’ve ever read. But I totally get when someone gives up on on of his novels halfway and says “I just couldn’t do it”.

No Country for Old Men is an exception to what I will henceforth refer to as the McCarthy Phenomenon™ whereby readers either a) are engrossed in and obsessed with his books, eternally desperate for his next work, a haiku, a leaked grocery list, anything or b) can’t stand his dry, unpunctuated drivel.

This is McCarthy’s most plot-driven work, featuring blood-drenched shootouts and one of the most foul, nefarious characters ever written: Anton Chigurh.

Oh, Anton. You’re so misunderstood! All you want is for fate to unfold as it should. So what if that means lynching a few vagrants with a cattle gun? Your use of the good old fashioned coin toss to determine the fate of your unsuspecting victims is just, in a way, right?

Ok, ok. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Anton Chigurh is a psychopath. He is a horrifying, odious creature, who kills almost everyone he encounters.

Throughout No Country for Old Men Chigurh is portrayed as remorseless and void of compassion, appearing to be the archetypal unstoppable evil. However, he conducts his life according to a very rigid moral code, one that ensures every man is held accountable for his doings; Chigurh does not kill without purpose.

The scene that takes place between Chigurh and Carla Jean at the end is undoubtedly my favourite. To me, it gives us the truest glimpse at Chigurh’s twisted morality:

“When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.”

Chilling! And somewhat comforting to know there’s a method to his madness.

Another character in No Country for Old Men I’d like to discuss is the sheriff. When I first saw the movie I wasn’t particularly compelled by the sheriff (possibly due to my Tommy Lee Jones aversion), but the literary version of Sherriff Bell was a sweety! (Note that I do not use that word lightly). Traditional, uxorious, reasonable, a true proponent of morality.

Bell hunts Chigurh throughout the story. Luckily for him, he and Chigurh never cross paths. (Even a chance encounter would have resulted in a cattle bolt being lodged somewhere in his frontal lobe.)

Though he doesn’t realize it, Chigurh defeats Bell in the end. Throughout the story Bell struggles to reconcile his traditional ways with the modern world, and finally decides to renounce the title of Sheriff; for him, Chigurh is an emblem of the times, and a sign that modern criminality is unfit for oldtimers like himself (hence the title of the book).

No Country for Old Men was an excellent read. It wasn’t my favourite McCarthy novel, as much as I loved it, but it’s an absolute must-read for McCarthy fans and, in my opinion, the best starting point for McCarthy first timers. Or if you’re just a sucker for books featuring a serious bad boy.

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Books

TheGoldfinch

The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel, and one that allegedly took her a decade to write. That seems like an awfully long time, but given level of meticulous detail Tartt uses to construct her characters and settings (and the sheer length of the book!), I can understand why fans had to wait so long for this mesmerizing coming-of-age tale.

My mother ordered me a copy of The Goldfinch off Amazon after falling in love with the story, and I agreed to read it only half-heatedly, having never before heard of Tartt or The Goldfinch, and feeling a little dismayed that I had to disrupt my carefully planned reading queue.

But boy am I a sucker for a good coming-of-age tale.

Taking place in present-day America, the novel features 13-year-old Theodore Decker who, after losing his mother to a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, faces a maelstorm of uncertainty and displacement. The novel follows Theo throughout his youth as he struggles to make sense of his mother’s death, an event that sends him on a trajectory of drug use, theft, and self-realization.

The Goldfinch is special because it boasts excellent plot and character development; I find authors often sacrifice one for the other. Tartt is a master of crafting scenes with palpable detail and characters too uniquely flawed to exist only on paper.

This is the kind of story that co-opts your thoughts as you go about your day and leaves you with a book hangover once it’s finished. I carried this 800-page, hard-covered monstrosity everywhere with me: to work, to my diving class, on public transport, just in case some reading time presented itself to me.

One thing I would like to discuss with someone who has read this book is the ending. Endings can be difficult for readers. For me, the ending of The Goldfinch was difficult to reconcile. After spending a decade churning this novel out, I suppose the author is entitled to end her story however she pleases, and I absolutely see the reasoning behind the ending, but I found it just a pinch unsatisfying.

That said, The Goldfinch is excellent, and Donna Tartt is very much on my radar now.