BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy ChevalierTitle: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #5
Published by Hogarth
Published: May 11th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 204
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat's son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he's lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can't stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players - teachers and pupils alike - will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970's suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

 You are not my brother, O thought. He hated it when white people used that word, trying to take on some of the coolness of black culture without wearing the skin and paying the dues.

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is the latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I think it’s one of my favorites of the series. Having studied and taught Othello, I felt as if I were able to deconstruct the novella as I was reading it and delight in the correlations of the novella to the play.

Osei, or O, is a Ghanian diplomat’s son, and he is attending a new school in the 1970s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. when a series of dramatic events unfold on school grounds from first bell to the final bell. It’s evident from the beginning that O is one of the only black students to attend this school, and that sets him apart immediately. Racial tensions are high, and everyone from the students to the instructors harbors some kind of prejudice toward O either through their own ignorance or through something that happens during the span of the day.

I thought Chevalier’s transposition of the dramatics of Othello to a schoolyard playground with all of its hormone-fueled rage, jealousies, and love was spectacularly done. Somehow the age of the major characters seemed to elevate the drama to something at once so believable and frightening. The final scene in the novella is heart-stopping and ends abruptly. I only wish there was more, a few pages of the aftermath, but as in the play, the reader is left with a quick cut to a black screen without that neat resolution.

In such a small book, Chevalier weaves a depth in each of her major characters, and her talent really shines in her development of O’s struggles at home, with himself and his place in the world, and how those struggles clash with the reality he faces at his new school. You feel his awkwardness, his intelligence, his anger, his love, and his wrath in a mere two hundred pages, and you’re left wanting to know more about this young man by the time the book ends.

New Boy is a masterful retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most racially charged plays, and it had me hooked from page one.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni FaganTitle: The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
Published by Hogarth
Published: July 19th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

The stunning new novel from the highly-acclaimed author of The Panopticon
It's November of 2020, and the world is freezing over. Each day colder than the last. There's snow in Israel, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to drift just off the coast of Scotland. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south. But not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother's and grandmother's ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived. 
Hundreds of miles away, twelve-year-old Estella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. Living out of a caravan, they spend their days digging through landfills, searching for anything with restorative and trading value. When Dylan arrives in their caravan park in the middle of the night, life changes course for Estella and Constance. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they'll all be ready. 
Written in incandescent, dazzling prose, The Sunlight Pilgrims is a visionary story of courage and resilience in the midst of nature's most violent hour; by turns an homage to the portentous beauty of our natural world, and to just how strong we can be, if the will and the hope is there, to survive its worst.

 You can drink light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, when there is a total absence of it, you will glow and glow and glow.

It’s 2020 in Scotland, and the world’s freezing over. Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims is an end-of-the-world novel, but it’s not a loud one. There are no explosions, no aliens taking over the planet, no rampant diseases. Just ice and snow and a chill that never seems to go away. It’s a quiet exploration of family, death, life, and identity when the world as we all know it is ending.

The Sunlight Pilgrims will make you think about your family, and maybe other families too, and hopefully make you realize and every family has its problems. It will make you think about death a little bit and maybe the end of the world and what comes after. But mostly, this book will make you think of some event that led to your “coming of age.” The event that made you cross that line from child to tiny adult, from tiny adult to actual adult. At the heart of it all, The Sunlight Pilgrims is a coming-of-age novel, and sometimes, some of us have several of those coming-of-age moments..

What I liked most about it is Stella. In the midst of the chaotic climate change, she is figuring out her identity and figuring out how to share it with the world without being constantly humiliated. Each of the characters are fully formed with an interesting backstory that links them all together, but I was really curious to see Stella’s story developed, and Fagan raises key points about gender identity that I thought poignant and timely.

I read this in a day, mostly in a single sitting. I don’t often get the chance to do that, and I don’t often become so engrossed in a book that I want to do that. The Sunlight Pilgrims is a haunting, lyrical exploration of a family at the brink of change, for themselves and for the world.

Thank you to Blogging for Books for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

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BOOK REVIEW: The Vegetarian, by Han KangTitle: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Deborah Smith
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 2nd 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 188
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Goodreads

Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.   A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a slim novel that is packed with things and ideas that leave the reader thinking long after the book is closed. While I found the characters and the varying points of view interesting, I found that something was missing. Something that feels lost in translation. I think it’s incredibly impressive that Deborah Smith studied Korean for seven years and then translated this book, but I think that her limits definitely showed in her translation. Some parts of it felt clunky, and some parts of it felt skimmed over. What I felt was lacking was a cultural significance as to why the members of Yeong-hye’s family found her vegetarianism so fundamentally shocking.

But most of all, I liked the different insights from other people in Yeong-hye’s life. I thought it showcased the difficulties one woman faced in the midst of a very personal decision. Her decision was never taken seriously, no matter what her reasons were for making it. Yeong-hye lost everything because of her fastidious decision to become a vegetarian, and her decision affected her entire family, essentially cracking the family’s foundation.

It’s a short novel, and it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoy reading prize-winners, international/translated fiction, and fiction about the lives of women in the aftermath of the choices they make.

BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

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BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard JacobsonTitle: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #2
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 9th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson brings his singular brilliance to this modern re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters: Shylock
Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice's “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter's rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”

A daughter doesn’t have to have an education to be taught how to hate her father. She can learn rebellion through an open window. It’s in the nature of a daughter.

Shylock Is My Name is Howard Jacobson’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I felt it to be such a let down after reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. I read Jacobson’s J last year and was disappointed in it in similar ways as I am disappointed in this one. While he can write, Jacobson is very disjointed in his writing, as if he is showing off to us plebs how smart, how intelligent, how verbose, how white, how upper class, and (in this case) how Jewish he is and therefore how much better he is than the rest of us. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those books that are written for men, about men, and by men that us helpless females are too different fundamentally to understand what it’s all about.

In this case, this is Jacobson’s rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I have vague recollections of reading this play and finding Shylock interesting, but this novel didn’t seem to capture the Shakespeare “essence” as I felt Winterson’s retelling did.

What I disliked about this novel is the consistent and sexually charged current of a father obsessed with what enters his daughter’s vagina. Yes. Literally. I don’t recall that interpretation made of Shakespeare’s play, so it caught me off guard.

In chapter eight, Strulovitch comments on his daughter, Beatrice:

It had been going on a long time. She was thirteen when it started. Thirteen in fact, twenty-three in appearance. Luscious. A Levantine princess. A pomegranate. She was luscious to herself, too. He had caught her looking at her reflection in the mirror once, pouting her lips and laughing at her own fullness, smoothing her thighs, pushing out her breasts, amused by the too-muchness but overwhelmed by it at the same time. As though it imposed a responsibility on her. Was this really her? Was this really hers to do with as she chose? […] Of course she had to deploy herself. Of course she had to feel her beauty had a purpose beyond her own gaze and, yes – because she knew he tailed her, knew he followed her into her own bedroom even – beyond his.

It continues throughout the novel with Strulovitch thinking about whether or not he should find his daughter attractive. He also, through the entire length of the novel, considers the utmost importance of his existence was to make sure that the penis that enters her vagina is circumcised and importantly Jewish so that Beatrice is not banished from her family. Strulovitch is incredibly abusive in all ways to his young daughter in the way that many fanatic religious believers are. As her father, he believes he controls her entirely, from her day-to-day life to her private, sexual life. When she doesn’t listen to him, he goes off and throws a tantrum, demanding that pivotal pound of flesh.

In all, I think because I am not both “male” and Jewish, I miss the point of this self-reflexive novel. It brings to the forefront questions of Jewish morality in the modern age and whether or not the honest Jew should bend to the modern ways or be rigid as tradition dictates. And where The Merchant of Venice is argue as anti-semitic, I wonder if Jacobson’s novel is meant to be a mirror to it of sorts as it is constantly questioning the role of Jewishness in society where Merchant did not.

And where the play is unsympathetic toward Jewish people, this novel is unsympathetic toward women. It’s incredibly misogynistic in a way that’s uncomfortable and anger-inducing. Men do not own women and should absolutely never control the expression of a woman’s sexuality, no matter what age or relation. But alas. I don’t think Jacobson works for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything of his in the future.

This book was provided to me for my honest review by Blogging for Books.

A Lyrical Reimagining; Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time

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A Lyrical Reimagining; Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of TimeTitle: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #1
Published by Hogarth
Published: October 6th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 273
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is a modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. None of the names or situations in Winterson’s novel reflect those from Shakespeare’s play, but thematically it felt very Shakespeare. I remember reading A Winter’s Tale forever ago in my Shakespeare course in undergrad. What I remember  from that reading of the play are themes of family and jealousy, and those themes are heavily prevalent in Winterson’s reimagining.

While at times I thought the story felt a little too contrived, I recalled that Shakespeare’s plays feel the same way sometimes too. They’re constructed to explore a certain aspect of humanity, and that construction must be tight enough for a staged production with a wide audience. Some suspension of belief must be used. Everything in Shakespeare’s plays happen for a reason, and I think Winterson worked with that well. It’s also incredibly poetic and felt like I was reading an amazing dream.

I read this in a single day. Something about it was so engaging that I literally could not put it down. I like that; Shakespeare’s plays can be read in one sitting.

Hogarth, a division of Penguin Random House, is publishing a series of books (The Hogarth Shakespeare) written by critically acclaimed authors reimagining and reinventing Shakespeare’s famous plays. Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first. Coming in 2016 are Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew, and Margaret Atwood’s The Tempest. I am so looking forward to Margaret Atwood’s! You can read more about the series and the other authors participating at Vintage’s website!

This book was provided to me by Blogging for Books for review. All opinions are my own.