6.23.2016

Shylock is My Name

The Hogarth Shakespeare project was launched by Penguin Random House in October 2015 to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare; the project publishes retellings of Shakespeare's works by today's bestselling novelists. As of now, there are three published - Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time (The Winter's Tale), and the subject of this post, Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice). And there are more coming - Margaret Atwood's The Hag Seed (The Tempest) will be out this fall and untitled works by Gillain Flynn and Jo Nesbo will take on Hamlet and Othello, respectively. I have written on this before (see my "retelling" label), but I completely adore a good retelling of a classic. Re-interpretation of a well-known story in a modern context... sign me up. So when I saw this version of The Merchant of Venice, a play I read last summer in my "History of the Jews: The Modern Period" class, I knew I would enjoy it. Maybe my expectations were high going in, and I finished reading glad I read it, but I was a bit confused by the set-up of the story. Shylock - the protagonist (anti-hero?) of Shakespeare's Merchant - appears in this tale alongside Jacobson's modern-day Shylock, Simon Strulovitch. (For those not too familiar with their Shakespeare: Shylock is considered the most "influential Jewish character in English literature") I could not decide if Shylock was meant to represent his conscience, a ghost... but I eventually gave up trying to understand the mechanics of why he was juxtaposed against Strulovitch and just went with the story. There are two layers to the story: the conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock, and the modern-day tale of Merchant (Antonio be comes D'Anton, etc.) Jacobson offers a fresh take on a play, as the Washington post writes, "long experienced by many as a racial tragedy," and thoughts on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Anglo-Jewish relations. The NYT Book Review (ever my reference) calls Jacobson's novel an "ebullient riff on Shakespeare," a story that blends "purposeful déjà vu and Jewish fatalism." What I liked about Jacobson's story is the modern contextualization of The Merchant of Venice: what does it mean to be Jewish? The title of the story comes from the courtroom scene:
PORTIA: Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?
DUKE: Antonio and old Shylock, both stand forth.
PORTIA: Is your name Shylock?
SHYLOCK: Shylock is my name.
However much I enjoyed reading this, I honestly do not know if I would recommend this to you if you are not familiar with the original Shakespeare - without understanding the references, the nuance of the retold tale is lost. It is not quite a story without understanding the source material. I think Jacobson was well-suited to the task of re-imagining The Merchant of Venice, and I look forward to reading more of his work this sumer (The Finkler Question and J) and other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Rating: ★★★(★)

6.18.2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking

Four stories (one novella and three short stories), Colum McCann's latest work deals with assault. While these are not explicitly what the collection is marketed as -- the lingering unease around physical and sexual assault weaves throughout the four stories. The eponymous story, "Thirteen Ways of Looking," tells the tale of the murder of an elderly man, a retired New York judge. The other three stories take you from Afghanistan to Ireland to an unnamed Latin American country. McCann's writing makes you feel instantly transported to these locations, and I wish I could've spend more time in that first one. That, really, was my biggest frustration with this beautifully written collection: I wanted more. I wanted that novella that started off the book to take it up entirely; the way it weaves into the character's mind and into the detectives and into the landscape of New York enveloped in a blizzard. But I also wanted to read more of "Sh'khol," the story of a mother whose son disappears.  Having read Let the Great World Spin, I expected all the stories to be interconnected, which probably made me focus on trying to connect them instead of just reading them. I now know they're not, just tied together by the theme of assault. And what adds another interesting dimension to the whole collection is that McCann is writing from his personal experience. He writes on his website: "On the 27th of June, 2014, I was assaulted in New Haven, Connecticut, punched and knocked unconscious after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted along a busy city street. I was hospitalised and spent much of that summer in and out of doctors’ waiting rooms from various physical problems that arose directly from the assault. Some of the stories in “Thirteen Ways of Looking” were written before the assault and some of them were written afterwards." (Go read the whole statement if you have read this book). And it's clear that the impact of this assault has come into his writing. Here's one phrase I loved so much I wrote down (unrelated to this whole review, but a glimpse into his wondrous phrasing): "the years don't so much arrive, they gate crash..." Rating: ★★★★(★)
P.S.Thanks to my Grandmother for recommending this & my mom for reading it during her book club so she had a copy I could borrow.

6.11.2016

All My Friends Are Superheroes

On superheroes, Andrew Kaufman writes in his charming All My Friends are Superheroes:
Okay, there's this thing you can do, a thing you can do like no other person on this planet. That makes you special, but being special really doesn't mean anything. You still have to get dressed in the morning. Your shoelaces still break. Your lover will still leave you if you don't treat her right...
Interspersed with short biographies of the 249 superheroes in Toronto, his superheroes are real. They could be you or me, and they are a delight to read about. The core of the novella (or novel, I can't decide) tells the tale of Tom (not a superhero) and the Perfectionist (a superhero; in Kaufman's world, they all go by the summation of their powers i.e."The Battery" or "The Dancer"). On their wedding day, the Perfectionist was hypnotized to believe Tom was invisible; six months later, she has boarded a plane to Vancouver. Tom has the plane ride to convince her that he's hasn't abandoned her. The story, therefore, takes place over the course of this plane ride. I won't spoil anything. You will enjoy it, it is romantic, and it is delightfully grounded in the real world. Here is a snippet of a description  of a "superhero," to give you a sense of the universe within which Kaufman is writing: "The Couch Surfer: empowered with the ability to sustain life and limb without a job, steady companion or permanent place of residence..." The tenth anniversary edition was released in 2013 ("with new superheroes!" the back cover proclaims) and it is definitely a charming and enchanting read. It also makes you wonder what your superhero "power" would be Kaufman writes, in an aside:
It’s true most superheroes have funny names. But they have to come up with these names by themselves. Think about how hard it is. Try it, right now; boil down your personality and abilities to a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already.
Rating: ★★★★★

6.09.2016

Hystopia

"We reach out to stories and can't help but make them our own."
I don't know if I've quite made the story of Vietnam my own, but I have definitely been drawn to the era after studying it all year. I added this book to my Amazon wish list (which is quite long at the moment, gearing up for summer reading!!) because of Vulture.com's 8 Books You Need to Read this April. Well, I'm only 2 months late, but David Means' Hystopia was an enrapturing alternate history story within-a-story, and a book I definitely needed to read. I found Means very in the tradition of Phillip K. Dick's The Man in High Castle. The core of Hystopia is presented as a novel written by a Vietnam veteran, Eugene Allen, before he committed suicide. But Hystopia is not just Allen's narration. Means also adds surrounding notes and interviews with people who knew Allen, causing you to distrust Allen's narrative but also search for the Truth of the story within the narrative of an unreliable narrator. Means imagines a world in the early 1970s where President John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war continues, and Kennedy created something called the "Psych Corps" (deliberately playing on Kennedy's dedication to the Peace Corps). The Psych Corps are employed to maintain the mental health of the nation. The gist of it is that they develop a drug called Tripizoid that "enfolds" PTSD-suffering vets (basically, suppresses the memories of Vietnam in veterans, the idea of "therapeutic amnesia" (term thanks to this review) that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro also addressed). The effectiveness of this is debated -- is not remembering anything better than remembering something? I won't get into it too much, but Means creates a vivid (really, the best word to describe his novel) alternate history of a destabilized America that is violent and wild because of continued involvement in Vietnam and the "enfolded" vets. The violence was a bit unnerving, to me, at times, and felt a bit gratuitous... But as Vulture wrote, which made me want to read the book to begin with, Means "brings rigorous interiority to the characters enmeshed in a violent, careening plot." It was hard to get into at first, locating oneself within an alternate reality (history, whatever you would like to call it) is always challenging, especially in Means' "dark acid trip of a novel." Here's a  review that does a much better job of summarizing the complex premise, and I will shamelessly quote it for you:
It’s a meditation on war (not just Vietnam, Mr. Means suggests, but the continuum of combat that links veterans throughout history) and the toll it takes on soldiers and families and loved ones. It’s also a portrait of a troubled America in the late 1960s and early ’70s — an America reeling from unemployment and lost dreams, and seething with anger, and uncannily familiar, in many ways, to America today. Perhaps most insistently, it’s an exploration of how storytelling — the causal narratives we manufacture in our heads — shapes our identities and provides a hedge against the chaos of real life.
As Eugene Allen's protagonist says, and the quote I started this review with, "We reach out to stories and can't help but make them our own." Once the plot gets going, you definitely cannot help but place yourself in Means' wild world. Rating: ★★★★

6.04.2016

Hamilton: the Revolution

Have you seen, listened to, read about or have heard of Hamilton?! If no, I don't know where you have been for the last year???? If yes, continue on with this review! In April, the show's creator (who currently plays the titular role on Broadway), Lin-Manuel Miranda, released an annotated libretto (the text of the show) with Jeremy McCarter, who wrote essays to accompany nearly every song and profiled the people who helped make Hamilton. They wrote the chapter titles in the style of 18th-century pamphlet titles, so the full title of the book reads:


HAMILTON
the
REVOLUTION
being the complete libretto
of the 
Broadway Musical
with a true account of
Its Creation,
and concise remarks on
Hip-Hop, The Power of Stories, and the New America

There is SO much embedded within the book: one, the profiles of all the main players who went into the creation of Hamilton (the director, choreographer, stylist, main actors and actresses, the historian Ron Chernow (who wrote the book Alexander Hamilton that Hamilton is based on, read my thoughts on that here)). Two, thoughts on its emergence and impact. Three, beautiful HQ photographs. And importantly, Lin's annotations of the lyrics. I admit I got swept away and read it all this morning; but its a mix of an essay collection, profiles, a coffee table book, and genius.com style lyrics (website that provides annotations on everything, unpacking references, meanings and influences etc.) There's so much I loved about this, and I know there is so much I missed and I will be re-reading it numerous times. Some things I caught on my initial read: One fun annotation (on Hercules' Mulligans verse in Aaron Burr, Sir) "listen, Mulligan didn't grow up to a be a statesman like Lafayette or Hamilton. But his name is just the best rapper moniker I have ever heard in my life. So he gets the most fun punchlines," and one excerpt from the profile on Daveed Diggs, the rapper who plays Lafayette & Jefferson:
Daveed thinks that seeing a black man play Jefferson or Madison or Washington when he was a kid in Oakland might have changed his life. "A whole lot of things I just never thought were for me would have seemed possible," he says. Even know, the show is changing him, making him feel more American. "I always felt at odds with this country," he says. "You can only get pulled over by the police for no reason so many times before you say 'Fuck this.'" 
Wonderful read, from the casual fan of Hamilton to those who are obsessed. Rating: ★★★★★ (c'mon, it's Hamilton, what do you expect). Some photos of what the book looks like after the break. (And here's a link to a higher-quality peak into the book that isn't me taking photos on my iphone)

6.01.2016

milk and honey

Taking a quick break from studying for finals to write this blog post about a fantastic poetry collection I read last night: rupi kaur's milk and honey. A touching, wonderful compilation of poems and sketches about love, abuse, loss, femininity, womanhood and family. Divided into four sections ("the hurting" "the loving" "the breaking" "the healing"), the reader goes through kaur's relationships and healing with her. On her blog, kaur writes that the collection "takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look." One of my favorite poems:
i want to apologize to all the women
i have called pretty
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of when your spirit has crushed mountains
from now on i will say things like, you are resilient
or, you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that
Some of the poems were just a few words, others were more stream-of-consciousness. If you don't end up reading milk and honey, I encourage you to follow her on instagram, where she posts her poems occasionally (see an example after the break). In an interview with Huffington post, she says that she hopes readers will get out of her poetry "Comfort and peace. I want it to be something they always refer back to. Something they read when they need a hug or some understanding and no one is around to understand them. Something they can carry around with them. I want the book to be what I needed around me when I was growing up." Thanks to my roommate for bringing this book back with her from her visit home this weekend. Ok, now I should go back to studying. Rating: ★★★★★

5.16.2016

The Moor's Account

Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account is the fictional memoirs of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori (renamed Estebanico when sold into slavery), a Moroccan slave on the Navarez expedition. On the surface, this is an interesting point of view: a slave part of a conquering force, and his relationships and attitudes towards the Native Americans. 
He is believed to be the first black explorer of America, but Mustafa's testimony was left out of the official record (with the exeception one line in Cabeza de Vaca's chronicle: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.") so Lalami re-crafts his story, filling a missing gap in the historical narrative. As Mustafa's mother tells him at one point in the story, "Everything has already been lived and everything has already been told. If only we listened to the stories..." On a deeper level, The Moor's Account is a look into the power of storytelling and its spiritual qualities. It is split into two time frames that merge in the middle - one starting from Mustafa's birth and one from his landing in New Florida. The chapters are all stories - the Story of La Florida, the Story of the Sale, the Story of México-Tenochtitlán, etc. - and could almost serve as stand alone bits. Lalami received many accolades for this book (including a Pulitzer Prize finalist). I found all the Spanish characters a bit confusing, and I wish there was more description of his life growing up in Morocco and more nuanced female characters. But what I did love was the narrative itself: it flowed wonderfully, was told in the style of a 16th century travelogue, and fully absorbed the reader. As one reviewer wrote, "Behind everything he shows us - survival tactics, wars with the Indians, living with the Indians and the eye-opening encounters with the New World landscape so deadly and so beautiful - stands his own quest to regain his freedom. The world was not what I wished it to be, he says, but I was alive. I was alive. So he is, so he is." A remarkable tale, and Lalami gives an authentic voice to a lost history. Rating: ★★★★

4.28.2016

Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay writes in the introduction to her 2014 collection of essays: "I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be." And she spends the rest of the collection proving that she is not in fact a "bad" feminist. Rather, she makes the point that feminism is not perfect. And it contains multitudes. And contradictions. And it demands intersectionality. I wish I was more educated on feminist theories and feminist writings, but there's no good time to just tackle everything. So I downloaded Bad Feminist onto my kindle and read it in between studying for my midterms (eventually, I got to a point where I was so absorbed in the essays that they stopped becoming my "study breaks" and just became my night). Gay has a strong internet presence; even if you don't end up reading this collection of essays, she has a lot published online and is very active on twitter. If you just want to read one of her pieces, I recommend How America Profiled Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (on media and terrorism and representation). And if you want to read another, on a totally different topic, Not Here to Make Friends is a fantastic look at likability and the importance of unlikable female protagonists (think Amy in Gone Girl). Even though you could probably read most of the essays online in isolation, the collection worked together very cohesively. The essays are divided into five groups: "Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me." Some essays are responses to specific cultural things (like "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help") or some essays are more address more general things (like "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence"). She covers a lot of ground, and I really appreciated the breadth of topics. A tighter focus may have made the collection a smidgen better, but I understand the importance of touching on a wide variety of topics. Rating: ★★★★

4.05.2016

3 Historical Fictions

Some mini (ish) reviews for you as I start spring term... here are some thoughts on three fantastic (and very different) historical fiction books (spanning geographies and centuries) that I've recently read:

1. Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín
The novel focuses on the tale of Eilis, a young Irish immigrant who moves to (surprise) Brooklyn. She finds love, but must return home to Ireland because of a death in the family. Once back in her homeland, she cannot decide whether or not she should return to Brooklyn. Basic premise, a little predictable, but wonderfully told (and beautifully adapted into a movie) (even if you're not going to watch the movie, listen to this cover of  "Casadh an Tsúgáin" by Iarla Ó Lionáird). Tóbín explains “I could not have written the novel – I would not have bothered – had the emotions surrounding exile and loss not been close to me at that time.” Exile, loss, longing.... these emotions color the novel so strongly I finished reading it wanting to find out everything there is to know about my great-grandparents' journeys through Ellis Island. While the narrative of Eilis, her story is so universal that there's a magic in reading it.
Era: 1950s Where: America & Ireland Rating: ★★★★

2. The Book of Night Women - Marlon James
I read this Marlon James novel after reading his man booker prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings (another wonderful work of historical fiction, read my thoughts about it here). It was a harrowing read; The Book of Night Women tells the tale of Lilith, born a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation. The Night Women are a clandestine slave sisterhood plaining a slave revolt, and Lilith is indoctrinated into their cohort. The story is told from Lilith's perspective, capturing her voice (think Beloved by Toni Morrison). The story starts: "People think blood red, but blood don't got colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red..." As the NYT book review deftly points out, "James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable-- even the unthinkable." It was really difficult to read at points; the brutal, dehumanizing violence of slavery characterized the story to such an extent that I had to pause reading at times. But ultimately, worthwhile read; because slavery is a part of the history of the Americas that cannot be sanitized or forgotten.
Era: late 1700s/early 1800s Where: Jamaica Rating: ★★★★

3. The Secret Chord - Geraldine Brooks
The life of King David, the second king of the united kingdom of Israel, is told through the prophet Natan (Nathan)'s eyes in Brooks' deeply engrossing tale. I initially picked up the book from my library due to my faith in Brooks' narrative prowess (The People of the Book and Nine Parts of Desire) but I was a bit dubious, thinking that the only interesting part of the story was David & Golialth. And oh was I wrong!! Brooks tells NPR in an interview that one of the things that inspired her to write retell the story of David was "the well-drawn women in it." The women shine through in the narrative (here is my plug for Geraldine Brooks to write a sequel just focusing on Batsheba!!!). It morphs into a tale of power, love, faith, and family. The story of David does not really matter; while he does form the backbone from which Brooks writes, she focuses more on the peripheral characters of his narrative (his wives and sons and advisors) and imbues them with passions and politics and backstories. It doesn't matter if you're familiar with his biblical story or not - I promise that you will be sucked into the emotions of the tale.
Era: Biblical Where: Ancient Israel Rating: ★★★★★

3.26.2016

American Reckoning

The blurb on the back of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity asks "how did the Vietnam war change the way we think of ourselves as a people and a nation?" And Christian G. Appy does an apt job addressing this question. I spent this past winter and summer working for an oral history project called the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, dedicated to recording the stories of members of the Dartmouth community who served in Vietnam or who were active in the anti-war movement on campus. I was fortunate to interview very different people - from a marine to a military chaplain to a conscientious objector to a draft dodger - and it sparked my interest in learning more about the Vietnam War Era. So, on the recommendation of my Dad, I read this. And I loved it. That isn't to say you have to spend half your year studying Vietnam to love Appy's American Reckoning (but I guess it didn't hurt). There were two main things I enjoyed about the book: one, the way it didn't just focus on the years America was involved in Vietnam, but the before and the after. Appy split the narrative into three parts -- (1) Why Are We in Vietnam, (2) America at War, and (3) What Have We Become? He went all the way up through the Obama administration. The scope of how he traces the roots of American exceptionalism is marvelous. Two, I particularly enjoyed his interweaving of pop culture. Appy starts off with a discussion of a book by Tom Dooley, Deliver Us from Evil, and touches on everything from the Ed Sullivan Show to Bruce Springsteen to Rambo. Analyzing American national identity is a hard task; but Appy is undeniably up for the challenge. The only drawback of the book for me was that it took me until chapter 3 to really want to read the whole thing; maybe because the beginning didn't feel like new material. But I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book, from the very end:
The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America's persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we were not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own. 
Rating: ★★★★