book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

book review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

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SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid
★★☆☆☆
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

 

So, first things first: my expectations for this book were all wrong.  Most summaries of this book describe in detail the novel’s first 20 or so pages, in which the protagonist, Emira, a young Black woman, takes the white toddler she’s babysitting to a local supermarket and is accused of kidnapping her.  From this I expected something sort of Celeste Ng-esque, or maybe even comparable to Jodi Picoult’s courtroom thrillers; the reality of this book is much more banal.  Shortly after The Inciting Incident, everything goes back to normal, except for the fact that Alix, the mother of the toddler Emira was babysitting, becomes fixated on making amends, to the point where Emira’s wishes are disregarded entirely in Alix’s attempt to do good by her.

The theme of performative allyship is a topical one, but it’s not navigated with any particular finesse.  I think there’s a good book in here somewhere, buried deep under irritating dialogue and commonplace events unfolding with melodrama; take for example this description of a toddler throwing up at a dinner party – this is the seriousness with which this utterly unremarkable event is written: “And when Emira grabbed what she knew was a very expensive napkin and dove across the table to cover the toddler’s mouth, Jodi was the first to notice and scream.”  The chapter ends there.  At ‘Jodi was the first to notice and scream’ I thought the child was about to have a seizure and be rushed to the hospital, but not even in a way where I felt the tension?  This whole book was melodrama one-step removed.

And as much as I admired Reid’s intentions, I couldn’t help but to feel that the whole thing was just so heavy-handed.  It’s so easy to intuit Emira, Alix, and Kelley’s narrative functions so early on that I could never quite believe any of them as real people or become invested.  I just felt like Reid knew exactly what she wanted to say with this book but not how she wanted to say it; the novel as a whole feels clunky and unfocused, like a quilt that’s stapled together rather than sewn.

Ultimately: a perfectly fine debut and a good book club book (I don’t mean that in a judgmental way! if you want to force your friends or coworkers into having a serious conversation about racism and white allyship, by all means start here!) but as a literary novel this left so much to be desired that its inclusion in the Booker longlist is… baffling to me.

book review: Othello by William Shakespeare

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OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
★★★★☆
first published 1603

 

Othello is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of literature and theatre; it’s a riveting story about the worst parts of human nature that culminates in a satisfyingly tragic conclusion.  And Iago is undeniably a brilliant character; his masterclass in manipulation is mesmerizing to watch.  But it was also a particularly interesting play to read amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as discussions about Black representation in the media are currently in our cultural foreground.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of Othello that makes for unsettling reading: Iago, while ostensibly the villain to Othello’s tragic hero, is also the character that the audience has the strongest connection with through a series of prominent soliloquies (that Othello himself is denied); Iago is also a flagrant racist.  Reconciling these two truths about Iago is a challenge, and no matter which way you look at it, it doesn’t sit comfortably as we circle the ‘is this play racist’ question.

On the one hand it’s easy to argue that because Othello is the hero and Iago is the villain, the play itself has (what we would call in our contemporary terminology) anti-racist intentions.  But I also think that largely discounts the shocking, brutally violent act that Othello commits on stage in (spoiler) killing his white wife Desdemona, the archetype of the waify ingenue.  Even if you know it’s coming, the optics of this scene are shocking and hard to stomach.  In the 1990s British-Ghanaian RSC actor Hugh Quarshie actually argued that Othello is the one Shakespeare role that should never be played by a Black actor; he then surprisingly went on to play Othello in 2015 (incidentally in the first RSC production to cast a Black actor as Iago as well), stating “Only by black actors playing the role can we address some of the racist traditions and assumptions that the play is based on.”

If there are any hard and fast conclusions to be drawn here regarding Othello and representation, they’re certainly not meant to be drawn by me as a white person.  This was just on my mind as I read and I’d find it disingenuous to pretend my overall feelings on the play weren’t at all affected by considering this question and its implications.

However, on an entirely separate note: one thing I don’t love about this play is how utterly ambivalent I am to the characters’ inner lives.  I do think there’s depth to be added to these characters by good actors and good directors, but I also think a lot of that depth is not necessarily present in the text itself.  What’s compelling about this play is the interpersonal dynamics, not the characters individually.  I almost feel like everyone’s character is inextricably tied to the events of the play, in a way that feels almost the antithesis of Hamlet or Lear, where all of the characters’ inner lives and motives are so intricate.

But, as I said, the interpersonal really shines here.  Othello and Iago positioned as mirrors to one another’s jealousy is done expertly.  And Emilia is a fascinating character to me as well as she relates to Iago and Desdemona, with the apparent contradiction in her actions and loyalties.  Anyway to say I have mixed feelings on Othello is an understatement, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it or haven’t enjoyed the time I’ve spent wrestling with it.


NB.  Project Shakespeare, in which a small group of friends and I perform a different Shakespeare play each week over Zoom, is mostly all-white, which is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, and we have collectively made the decision to not perform the plays with non-white characters: Othello, Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and Antony & Cleopatra.  I was planning on making a single blog post about these 4 plays in the vein that I’ve been doing my monthly Project Shakespeare wrap ups.  But this weekend some of us from our group had a mini book club session on Othello and it got my mind racing and I knew if I held off until I read all 4 of these plays I’d have a lot less to say – SO, it looks like you’re getting individual reviews!

book review: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

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UNDERGROUND, MONROE, & THE MAMALOGUES: THREE PLAYS by Lisa B. Thompson
★★★★☆
Northwestern University Press, August 15, 2020

 

This is a brilliant collection of three plays from scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson, each of which navigates issues of racism and trauma as they particularly pertain to the Black middle class.  Each play is distinct both in style and subject, but all thematically cohere into a sharp, savvy collection that makes for fantastic reading, though I imagine seeing any of these come to life on the stage with the right actors would be an even more entrancing experience.

Underground – 5 stars

Originally performed in 2017, Underground is the standout play from this collection, which focuses on the tension between two friends, two middle-aged, middle class Black men who had both been activists for the Black Panther movement, but who have drifted apart in life and in ideologies.  This play is razor-sharp and startlingly prescient; reading it amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was a rather humbling experience, to be reminded so starkly that the movement’s catalysts have been decades, centuries in the making.  This exchange in particular drove home a relevant piece of discourse that’s been in the news a lot lately:

MASON: Wait. This is not just sensational journalism. They are out here bombing shit, man.
KYLE: Things. Not people. Statues of long dead white men can’t die again.

Monroe – 5 stars

Set in 1940s Lousiana, Monroe follows the impact of a lynching on a small-town community, including one young woman, the victim’s sister, who believes herself to be pregnant like the Virgin Mary.  Monroe has a sort of mystical, fable-like quality to it which makes it stand apart from the other two plays in this collection, but it’s all the more resonant for its examination of the timelessness of anti-Black violence in America.

The Mamalogues – 2 stars

This one’s tricky, because here’s the thing; I was never going to like this play.  I don’t like books (and films, and plays, and stories, more broadly) about motherhood and that’s what this is.  Three Black middle class single mothers compare their lived experiences in this sort of vignette-style play.  When you’re already disinterested in motherhood as a theme and there’s no actual narrative to sustain the play, it’s not fun reading.  But that criticism is very much on me so I won’t hold it against this collection too much.  Lisa B. Thompson is a brilliant writer and this is worth the price of admission for the first two plays alone.

Thank you to Netgalley and Northwestern University Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

on rereading If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio
★★★★☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

I do not reread books very frequently; between having a pretty decent memory and being in a constant state of intimidation regarding my TBR I rarely feel compelled to revisit books I’ve already read, especially if they aren’t all-time favorites.  If We Were Villains falls into that category; I first read it as an ARC in 2017 (original review here – from before I was any good at writing reviews, hah) and I really enjoyed it – I found it fun and compelling and moving, but it wasn’t a book that I actually expected to revisit at any point.

Cue the unexpected plot twist where I would spend most of 2020 injecting Shakespeare straight into my veins.  If you do go back and read my not very good original review, you’ll see that I actually talk about my opinions on Shakespeare, which were, at the time, middling – in the sense that I had a couple of Shakespeare plays I loved, and I typically enjoyed the productions I’ve gotten the chance to see, but until this year Shakespeare had never been a very big part of my life.  Now (in case you haven’t been following my recent obsession), a group of friends and I spend every Saturday evening performing a different Shakespeare play over Zoom, and I thought that revisiting If We Were Villains in this context would make for a more exciting reading experience than it was for me in 2017.

And yes, it certainly was.  Despite having more issues with this book the second time around – I’ll get to that in a second – I had so much fun with this.  Obviously an informal production over Zoom is not the same as intensive study at a Shakespearean academy, but still; I felt so much more engaged in the drama surrounding character types since I was able to quickly mentally sort every single person in our group into one of the seven types Rio presented (I’m James, if anyone was wondering).  The constant quoting of Shakespeare too took on a whole new life for me; I’ve only been doing this since March, and still I find myself quoting Shakespeare out of context in my daily life.  Yes, the extent that these characters do it is deliberately heightened to the point of being unrealistic, but they’ve also immersed themselves in intensive Shakespearean study every day for four years so I’ll give them a pass.

The one issue I had that I wanted to talk about in some detail is the rather uninspiring treatment of gender.  First to give some context: there are seven fourth year students, 4 boys and 3 girls.  One girl (Wren) is always cast as the ingenue, another (Meredith) as the temptress, and the third girl (Filippa) is put wherever they need a spare actor, either in a male role or a female one.  Filippa constantly laments that she doesn’t have the opportunity to play more female roles; Wren and Meredith are both content with the roles they get cast in.

Now, here’s the thing.  At the beginning of the novel, they’re doing Julius Caesar, and a very big deal is made of the fact that Richard, playing Caesar, doesn’t have anything to do after act 3 when Caesar is killed.  No mention is made of the fact that Wren and Meredith, playing Portia and Calpurnia respectively, are each only in two scenes, and neither returns after act 2.  Calpurnia only has 27 lines (compare to Caesar’s 151 and Brutus’s 721).  Yet both Wren and Meredith are perfectly content with their roles, which they’re implied to have auditioned for, and Filippa’s only grievance is that she can’t play a woman.

This is what I don’t understand.  This is a college production at an experimental arts academy – why in god’s name would none of these three young women audition for Brutus or Cassius?  Why is Filippa more bothered by the fact that she has a male role than a small role?  What performer on earth – regardless of gender – would rather play Calpurnia than Caesar?  And if Rio wanted to fall back on the excuse that this was the 90s and things were altogether less progressive, fine, or even that women are more accustomed to keeping their mouths shut when they get shafted, I’d get it; what I find disingenuous is that this is never addressed.  A lot is made of the male characters’ discontent with the roles they end up playing, but I found the complacency of the female characters incredibly unrealistic.  And you can’t argue that this is besides the point of the novel when the entire premise is rooted in tension over casting.

This isn’t a criticism that overpowered the rest of my reading experience, but it was in the back of my mind pretty much the whole time that I read. But that said, this is a book I really enjoy engaging with and I can see myself returning to it again and again as my own personal relationship with Shakespeare and performing evolves.

book review: The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

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THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon
★★★☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

Set in the Vermont countryside (in my backyard, essentially), The Invited follows a couple, Helen and Nate, who have just bought property and are building a house from scratch – the only problem being that the land is supposedly haunted. This is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon (the other being The Night Sister) and honestly I feel similarly about both: I have a soft spot for McMahon and her spooky Vermont ghost stories and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick and entertaining read, but they’re not without their significant issues.

The biggest problem with The Invited is that it takes an agonizingly long time to get going. Once it hits its stride it’s juicy enough, but for the first hundred or so pages, you will be inundated with more construction talk than is strictly necessary, and a parallel storyline following 14-year-old Olive failed to come to life for me (mostly because I never really believed Olive’s voice and found her sections a little tonally inconsistent).

What I did thoroughly enjoy though was the central mystery surrounding Helen’s haunted land and the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge. I’d honestly hesitate to classify this as a thriller (there were really only two twists, both of which I found painstakingly obvious), but if you’re in the mood for a compelling enough, unexpectedly subversive ghost story, I’d say this is a pretty safe bet.


You can pick up a copy of The Invited here on Book Depository.

book review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo | BookBrowse

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KIM JIYOUNG, BORN 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated by Jamie Chang
★★★★★
Liveright, April 2020

 

“Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age. She got married three years ago and had a daughter last year. […] Jiyoung’s abnormal behavior was first detected on 8 September.”

So begins Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Cho Nam-Joo’s daring excavation of a young woman crumbling under the strain of unrelenting misogyny, which has sold over a million copies in its native South Korea. Jiyoung (the Korean naming convention places a person’s family name before their given name), an average, unremarkable woman, one day begins to imitate the voices of other women she has known throughout her life—a phenomenon neither she nor her husband can explain, which prompts them to visit a psychiatrist.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and a piece I wrote about feminist movements in South Korea HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 here on Book Depository.

book review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

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TENDER IS THE FLESH by Agustina Bazterrica
translated by Sarah Moses
★★★★★
Scribner, August 4, 2020

 

Effectively an anti-factory farming polemic satirized to its shocking, inevitable conclusion, Tender Is the Flesh is a horrifying and grotesque piece of work.  Translated from the Spanish brilliantly by Sarah Moses, it tells the story of a man named Marcos who recently lost his son to a cot death and is estranged from his wife as a result.  Marcos works at a local processing plant – but instead of cattle, the plant farms and slaughters humans, following a virus which infected all non-human animals, rendering their meat unsafe to eat.  But these people are no longer referred to as humans; so desensitized is everyone to their new dietary reality.

This book made me feel physically ill every time I picked it up, but I found it equally hard to put it down.  I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, primarily in protest against factory farming, so it’s safe to say that this novel’s central conceit resonated strongly enough to compel me to keep reading, but it would be reductive to say that condemning the meat industry is the only thing Bazterrica is doing here.  This book focuses equally on the question of what it means to be human (I can’t get a sort of half-baked Never Let Me Go comparison out of my head, even if the similarities truly do end there – but there’s a reason that’s my favorite book; it’s a theme that I find endlessly fascinating to wrestle with) and the ways in which we allow our personal ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power.

It’s not a flawless book – I think the (air-tight) worldbuilding occasionally overpowers the character-driven part of the novel, which I was honestly fine with until something happened that made me wish the character development hadn’t been quite so withheld from the reader, so I initially rated this 4 stars when I finished, but on second thought, I think this book will be seared into my brain forever, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Bazterrica has achieved here.

This is not an easy book to recommend, and I cannot emphasize just how strong of a stomach you need to make it through this, but, somewhat perversely, it’s not a hard book to love.  I’d say it’s probably the single most disturbing thing I have ever read (A Clockwork Orange has been dethroned at last), but that is in no way a criticism.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of Tender is the Flesh (already published in the UK) here on Book Depository.

book review: Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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HYSTERIA by Jessica Gross
★★★★☆
Unnamed Press, August 18, 2020

 

Hysteria belongs to a Marmite subset of literary fiction that I like to call ‘books about disaster women’.  (Other disaster women books include, for example: The Pisces, My Year of Rest and RelaxationAlmost Love.)  These books tend to feature young women in their 20s-30s who have abrasive personalities and make poor decisions and have a lot of casual sex usually for the wrong reasons.  If you do not enjoy disaster women books, you will not like Hysteria, it’s important to get that out of the way.  This will not be the book to change your mind and embrace this whole subgenre if it’s something you’ve henceforth found uninteresting or repulsive.

But with that said, if you do enjoy disaster women books, it’s a damn good one.  In Hysteria we follow an unnamed narrator living in Brooklyn, who goes into her local bar one day and discovers a new bartender has just started working there; she becomes compelled by him and starts to believe that he is none other than Sigmund Freud.

Hysteria is short, punchy, and shocking.  The way Jessica Gross juxtaposes the narrator’s meditations on sexual desire and meditations on daughterhood are uncomfortable to the extreme – I’m trying to avoid using the word oedipal in this review as I know that isn’t an enticing prospect for most people – but what works is that Gross’s writing never tips into gratuitousness.  It isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative; she actually does have incisive points to make as she simultaneously celebrates and interrogates the narrator’s lasciviousness.  Not a book for everyone but highly recommended to those who it appeals to.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can preorder a copy of Hysteria from the publisher here (not an affiliate link).

book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan
★★★★★
Ecco, June 2, 2020

 

Exciting Times is the most Sally Rooney book to have not been penned by Sally Rooney.  In a way that statement is overly reductive of Naoise Dolan’s fresh and distinctive voice, but still, the fact remains: if you don’t find Sally Rooney to be much to write home about, steer clear of this debut about Irish socialist millennials overanalyzing their messy and self-destructive relationships.  But if you’re like me and that’s sounds like a recipe for perfection, you’ll probably love this.

Shown through the eyes of an Irish expat living in Hong Kong, Exciting Times essentially focuses on a love triangle between narrator Ava and two individuals who in many ways are polar opposites – the rich, tactless English banker Julian and the elegant, clever Hong Kong native Edith.  Each is distinctly compelling, though the love triangle itself isn’t what moves the narrative so much as Ava navigating her own boundaries and ethics and evolving perspective on relationships.  Irish identity is another theme that takes center stage; Ava is an English teacher and finds herself tempering her natural speech patterns so that she teaches ‘correct’ English to her students.  It’s a thoughtful, clever, meditative book from a number of angles.

Dolan’s prose is this novel’s shining jewel; she has such a compact, witty, dry voice – it won’t be for everyone and I can see where others might find that it grows wearisome as the novel chugs along, but I found it consistently charming.  ‘”Anything strange?” said Mam on the phone.  She really said it, “antin strange,” but if Brits spelled Glosster as Gloucester then I supposed Mam deserved similar leeway.’

Exciting Times is definitely this year’s Normal People while also being very much its own thing, and I recommend it very highly.

Thank you to Netgalley and Ecco for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of Exciting Times here on Book Depository.