Monthly Archives: May 2017

NEW HOGARTH SHAKESPEARE! (Among other things)

Let me begin with three quick reviews, and then I’ll gush about Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, which I literally just finished.

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier — INCREDIBLE.  Read on the recommendation of a friend who loves this book, and I totally understand.  It’s piracy and English society and just delightful.  Plus, the ending isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s perfection.  This is a book I know I will go back and read again, simply for the joy of joining Dona on her adventures with a French pirate.
  2. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan — Short, interesting book about the last night a Red Lobster is open and the lengths to which the staff (especially the long-suffering manager) go to trying to keep the place open during a nightmare snowstorm.  It’s quick, pretty fun, full of quirky observations about people and how we do the jobs we have.
  3. The Gunslinger by Stephen King — Only picked this up because the trailer dropped for the movie starring Idris Elba and I figured I’d give it a shot.  It’s fine.  It’s also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read, so I think I was just expecting a little more.  Concept of an old-west-style gunslinger going around trying to save the world from the Man in Black is pretty cool, but I expected a little more craft in the writing.  And maybe it’s because I read an early paperback (apparently there were changes made as the series progressed, so I might have a different experience if I read the revised one), but I just wanted… more.  I’m still interested in the movie, but I won’t be reading the rest of the 8-book series.

But let me tell you about New Boy.

9780553447637

$25.00 in hardcover

So I’m a sucker for most British fiction (I wrote a Master’s thesis on the masculine relationships in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester novels, for heaven’s sake), but Jane Austen and William Shakespeare are two of my real weak spots.  The Jane Austen Project, which I have discussed previously, has apparently hit a roadblock of some kind because there’s been no update.  But the Hogarth Shakespeare series is still going.  I’m a little frustrated by the amount of time between releases (Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth was supposed to be last year, but has now been pushed to 2018 and Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet is currently at an estimated 2021 release), but there’s a new one said to be coming this October, though that might have been pushed back (Edward St. Aubyn’s King Lear retelling said to be titled Dunbar) and there’s New Boy that just fell onto shelves today.

And I think I’m going to put it in second place of my favorites of the series thus far.

Chevalier takes on the tragedy Othello, which is one of my least-favorite plays.  I have a hard time believing the drama of the play, but I can understand that, if the actors are chosen well and have real chemistry, it can be an amazing show.  So how do you retell Othello in 200 pages after setting it in 1970s Washington, D.C.?

The trick of New Boy is in its employment of Aristotelean unities: action, time, and place. The unity of action is a little muddled in this one, simply because capturing the Shakespearean scope requires subplots, details of the lives of the characters that are going to influence the main relationship (Osei and Dee).  Unity of time is perfectly used, limiting the action itself to a single school day and breaking up chapters by which recess it is.  Flashbacks allow character development and fill in the gaps of the time period — the racial tension is especially handled here as Osei thinks about his sister and her understanding of her African-ness after their repeated moves with their diplomat-father.  Unity of place is also neatly utilized, keeping to the schoolyard that so many readers will remember.  The girls jumprope, the boys play kickball, and all of the students in the 6th grade class wonder about next year when they go to a new school.

With the unities, the story’s tensions ramp up quickly and effectively.  Sure, there’s some difficulty believing that the playground antics of troublemaker Ian would move this quickly, and obviously there’s some tragic conclusion (because it’s not like you can just make Othello end happily every after), but this is a Shakespearean drama.  It’s not unexpected improbability.

For me, the strength of the novel was Osei’s insights into being not only the new boy, but the new black boy at a school made up entirely of white students and teachers.  From the beginning, Osei is surrounded by speculation — is he from Guinea, Nigeria?  “Africa, anyway,” the teachers say.  (He’s actually from Ghana.)  But Osei has also moved several times and recognizes the similarities in being the new kid on the playground.  He tries to fit in, tries to prove himself while not upsetting the already established social structure.  He recognizes that it’s hard to be African in America, let alone African American, remembers his experience in New York where he got beaten up at school and where his sister started exploring the politics of being black in America.

It’s powerful to have the insight into a young character who has so much on his mind.  He wants to make friends, wants to be accepted, wants to not be the odd-man out anymore.  (And it doesn’t help that he moves schools with only a few months left in the year.)  Knowing how the story must end, not necessarily with death, but at least with tragedy, it’s heartbreaking to watch Osei trying so hard when you know that Ian is going to destroy it all.

That’s why I have to give this second place, right after Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (Taming of the Shrew), and it’s only second because I like the play of Shrew more than Othello.  But it’s a tight race with these two.  Out of the five books in the series out so far, I think Chevalier has done the best job of capturing the play and retelling it with her own twist.  Vinegar Girl was fun and pretty cute and just enough of Shrew to make me happy.  Otherwise, Hag-Seed (Margaret Atwood’s Tempest) was kind of weird but great at the end, and Shylock Is My Name (Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice) and The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson’s Winter’s Tale) were both a little beyond my literary enjoyment.  This isn’t to say that they aren’t good books — all of the writers so far have been very talented, and their work is crafted well.  I just think there’s more spirit captured in Vinegar Girl and New Boy.  But especially in New Boy.

This book gives me hope for St. Aubyn’s addition to the series — I LOVE King Lear (I’m the youngest of three daughters and I love Shakespeare’s take on history and politics, so that might have something to do with it) — because it makes me think maybe some of these retellings will keep to the parts of the plays that I love.  Chevalier has convinced me to keep waiting for the next installment, and I definitely recommend this one.

New Boy is available now from your local indie!

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One for Now, One for Later

And boy, they couldn’t be more different.


One for Now: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

31451186This one is… it’s more sci-fi than I’m used to, let me start with that.  I’m okay about sci-fi, but I’m picky.  Borne was another book that was getting rave reviews at the NCIBA Spring Workshop and the concept is bizarre enough that I decided to give it a shot.

Basically, dystopian society in which our narrator (woman named Rachel) describes a world that was once ruled by the Company and is now actually ruled by Mord, a gigantic bear and one-time project of the Company.  Yep, you read that right.  Bear.  As in big furry mammal.  Rachel and cave-mate Wick (who are also occasionally lovers) hang out in Balcony Cliffs together until one day, while out scavenging, Rachel finds a little pod thing and names is Borne.  She carries it home, and eventually Borne begins to grow.  Rachel takes on an almost maternal role with Borne, and debates arise as to whether or not Borne is a person, what happens after death, and the usual existential crisis sorts of topics.  There’s also a woman named the Magician who pops up occasionally, and the Mord wannabes who try to kill people.

I’ll give you a moment to unpack what I just wrote.

There you go.

Not being a gung-ho sci-fi gal myself, I found it to be almost a little too far-fetched, largely because of how matter-of-factly people dealt with a gigantic flying bear.

Oh, I didn’t mention Mord flies?  Yeah.  Giant flying bear.

VanderMeer, author of the widely acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance), is a great writer.  The construction of the novel, told through a first-person narration with occasional disconnected thoughts or oddly broken sentence, works beautifully.  And the end did surprise me.  Not all of it, but enough that I sat there and actually said, “What?”  So that was a pleasant change.

My issues with the book are strictly personal preference — while I would love to say I enjoyed this wholeheartedly and would read it again, I can’t.  I can say that I’m very curious about VanderMeer’s trilogy and might just give that a shot.  As far as Borne goes, there’s a lot of good here, and if you had any interest in it at all, you should read it.  Even if you don’t love it, I think you can easily find something to appreciate about the work itself.

And on a completely shallow note, the cover of the book (U.S. edition) is really cool.


One for Later: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

41q0PArw2hL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I’m firmly of the opinion that Sherman Alexie is one of the greatest American writers ever.  Like, I’d put him right up beside my boy Fitzgerald.  Easily.  He doesn’t dwell on easy topics or obviously funny things, and he doesn’t make everything out to be pitiable or dark.  Instead, he blends light and dark, tragedy and comedy so beautifully together that everything he does is a work of art.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a tough book.  After his mother died at 78, Alexie wrote 78 essays and 78 poems about their relationship, and it’s not an easy one.  But Alexie doesn’t shy away from the difficult, scary, horrible parts of life — abuse of all kinds, broken promises, health issues — but tackles everything with his truth.

And I purposefully say “his truth” because some of my favorite moments in the work come when he remembers something one way and is informed he’s mistaken.  The imperfection of memories, especially about those with whom you share an intimate collection, is faced as the best writer should: head-on and with a sense of humor about the bits that might not be completely accurate according to the rest of the world.

I think I keep emphasizing the humor in this book, but I wonder if humor is the right word.  There are a lot of moments in this where I laugh out loud, and there are a lot of moments where I think I’m a horrible person for laughing.  But that’s what I consider Alexie’s greatest strength to be in all his writing that I’ve had the pleasure to read.  Being a writer who only writes “serious” books or a writer who only writes “funny” books usually doesn’t amount to being much of a writer that I appreciate.  A writer who can make me smile in the midst of something terrible, or who can shock me with a funny story — that’s a writer who has a real gift.

I don’t mean to make this an ode to Sherman Alexie, but he deserves it.  Hell, he deserves a whole book of odes about how great he is.  But here’s what I’ll say about his new book: read it.  If you like him at all, read it.  If you’re interested at all, read it.  If you happen to be walking by a shelf in a library/bookstore/grocery store/Target/friend’s house/place on Earth and you see it sitting there, take it.  And read it.

Although I recommend checking it out/paying for it/asking politely if you may borrow it first, just because it seems most of society finds that more appropriate than just straight up taking a book.  But still.  Take it and read it.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is out June 13th.


Other notables before I sign off:

  • Rainbow Rowell’s delightful book Carry On comes out in paperback TUESDAY and the cover is gorgeous.  The book is also a complete delight and is probably one of my favorites of all time, so it just gets better and better.
  • I’m working on my first Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek, at the suggestion of a friend and I’m loving it.  Swashbuckling and romance and Cornwall.  Can’t get much better.
  • Still staring at Washington: A Life as it takes up space on my to-read pile.  I WILL FINISH THAT BOOK.
  • I just realized that these two books both have a sort of mother-son relationship in them.  Needed a present for Mother’s Day?  You’re welcome.
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