book review: Othello by William Shakespeare

81qz-9gkm7l

 

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!

Project Shakespeare: month #4 wrap up

I know I start all of these wrap ups by going ‘how are we already x months into this’ but HOW ARE WE ALREADY FOUR MONTHS INTO THIS?!  That is absolutely wild.  Well, let’s jump straight in, shall we?  Previous wrap ups here.

917ugcwnfsl

Romeo & Juliet
★★★★★
my role (first show): Chorus, Lady Montague, Servant, Third Musician, Page
my role (second show): Romeo

I wholeheartedly love this play, and it’s fine if you don’t but honestly I’ve never heard a single criticism of it that I don’t find inane (‘it’s just instalove!’ completely disregards the fact that theatre has different storytelling conventions than novels and that you can’t be sat there for eleven hours while a slow-burn romance unfolds before your eyes; not to mention – the fact that they’re rash young teenagers is one of the play’s significant themes; their romance isn’t narratively treated as Rational).  Anyway, to each his own, but Romeo & Juliet is very much my cup of tea – compelling characters, engaging story, beautiful language, and a devastating yet inevitable conclusion that reads like a punch to the gut every time.

This probably sounds silly given that we are not performing these on stage but rather to a group of about 10-15 people (friends) on Zoom, but playing Romeo is literally one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life.  I was petrified.  The thing about Project Shakespeare that makes it so fun and magical is that people actually try; everyone allows themselves to be vulnerable and actually act rather than sitting there and reading the lines with a straight face.  As I’ve talked about before, I’m not an actor, this is all new territory for me.  So the morning of the second performance, I was just hit by the most crushing self-doubt, because… I asked to play Romeo?  Romeo?  I actually asked for thisWho the hell do I think I am?!  So, it was hard, but it was also one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done.  I just adore this character so much and I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I had chickened out of doing this.  Plus I played Romeo opposite my good friend Will (of Books and Bao)’s Juliet (+ the night before we had a female Romeo and female Juliet), so we kind of just gender-fucked the whole play all weekend and that was a fantastic choice.  Just, amazing times all around, this was one of my favorite weekends.

all27s_well_that_ends_well_folger_edition

All’s Well That Ends Well
★★☆☆☆
my role: Widow, First Soldier

In contrast, I… do not love this play!  In fact, it’s solidly my least favorite of all 19 I’ve now read.  I’ve talked about this before, but in general the comedies really do not do it for me; I rarely find them amusing and find that they lack a certain heart, which I feel is the case with All’s Well.  It has some great characters, I’ll give it that, but it really doesn’t come to life for me on the page, and reading it was a pretty massive chore.  Which is why it surprised me that our performance of this ended up being one of my favorites yet – it was just so damn camp and delightful.  Our talented Helena and talented Countess were giving Broadway-worthy performances while the rest of us just acted like complete clowns for a couple of hours, and I just had the best time.  I still don’t love the play and I don’t think I’d even enjoy watching it on stage, but getting to be a part of it (in peak melodrama form as the Widow) was a delight.

cvr9780743273299_9780743273299_hr

Pericles
★★★★★
my roles: Lysimachus, Lychorida, Lord, Escanes

The biggest surprise for me so far as I make my way through the Complete Works – and probably my biggest Unpopular Opinion to date – is that I FUCKING LOVE PERICLES.  This is – and I cannot stress this enough – the stupidest, most absurd play I have ever read.  It starts with a comically unnecessary riddle about incest; it takes place over twenty years in approximately twelve different countries and it feels like it’s trying to be about eight different genres along the way; at one point a major character is about to be killed and right as the murderer draws his knife she’s kidnapped by pirates who then leave the play about two seconds after they deliver her to a brothel… this play is just a hot mess all around.  So, why do I love it?  You know the lack of heart that I was just talking about; I find the opposite of Pericles – I think it has heart in abundance.  The titular character’s journey is really quite devastating, but it culminates in two beautiful reunions and the final scene is one of my favorite things that Shakespeare wrote (there are plenty of authorship questions surrounding Pericles but it’s generally believed that the first two acts were written by George Wilkins and the final three by Shakespeare).  I also just think it’s an unapologetically fun time – I dare anyone to read this and not be entertained.

cvr9780743484909_9780743484909_hr

Measure for Measure
★★★★☆
my role: Escalus

Measure for Measure was also a pretty big surprise though, I must say.  Only a comedy by technicality, this is genuinely… one of the darkest plays I’ve read so far.  I knew nothing about this play going in, but interestingly, though it’s set in Vienna, I could tell within two minutes of reading that the source material it’s based off is Italian (not just the character names – the setting and the themes in particular are undeniably Italian).  I have a (useless!) major in Italian Lit and this brought me back to… literally every novel I ever had to read in college, so there was something sort of comfortably familiar about it that I think endeared me to it.  It’s not my favorite play and I won’t be in a hurry to read it again any time soon, but I also found it rather interesting and unsettling in a way that stuck with me for days.  Performing it was good fun too and it was a rather cathartic choice to do the ultimate ACAB play on the 4th of July.


Up next: King John, which I read for the first time a few weeks ago and which is one of my new favorite plays!  I’m really looking forward to this.

Also, before I go, I just want to briefly comment on the fact that I’ve been rather terrible at blogging lately.  I had a week off work last week and I thought I mind find my blogging motivation then, but that didn’t happen; but upon reflection I actually think I work blogging into my life more easily when my days have more structure.  So, I’m sorry that I haven’t been more active on here – not only on my own blog, but especially everyone else’s – but quarantine has been weird times.  I’m optimistic I’ll soon get back on this horse, but, I’m sorry again – I do miss all of you guys.

Anyway, leave a comment to talk about Shakespeare or anything else!

Project Shakespeare: month #2 wrap up

As you’ve probably noticed, Shakespeare has utterly taken over my life lately, in the form of weekly readings over Zoom.  If you missed my first Project Shakespeare wrap up you can read that here, but now we’re done with month #2, which is a little surreal to think about.  Anyway, let’s talk through these plays:

as-you-like-it-9781982109400_hr

As You Like It
★★★☆☆
my role: Celia

The thing about As You Like It is that it’s… really fucking weird?! The conflict that’s set up in the first act never really materializes into anything (what even happens to Frederick?), character development happens entirely off-stage or without reason (Oliver’s a good guy now! because… Celia needs a husband!), there is an OFF-STAGE LION ATTACK? IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FRENCH FOREST?, there’s a wedding in which two people are married by… an actual god?! What even is this play???!  (Potentially a satire of the pastoral genre, I know; still, regardless of its intentions, it’s weird as hell and it’s hard to totally warm up to.)

But it’s equally hard not to be at least a little charmed by it. The friendship between Rosalind and Celia is one of the most pure and touching female friendships that Shakespeare wrote, and I had a blast playing Celia, who starts out sweet and simple and becomes increasingly more jaded and frustrated by Rosalind’s shenanigans, while still lending her support.  Celia is truly the unsung MVP of this play.  Though, shout-out to Patrick for his minute-long dramatic entrance as Jaques (Jay-kweez).

81pl6zleftl

Hamlet
★★★★★
my role: Laertes

I mean… it’s Hamlet.  This is actually only one of two Shakespeare plays I ever studied in school (the other being Macbeth), so I feel like I have a stronger grasp on it than some others, and I do enjoy it immensely.

As a group, I think we were all a little nervous about Hamlet – it was only the second tragedy we’ve done after Macbeth, and Macbeth is still a ‘fun’ play in a way that Hamlet isn’t.  The prospect of putting on a 3+ hour Zoom production of Hamlet was a little daunting, but those 3+ hours positively flew by.  We divided the role of Hamlet into two (everyone knows that Hamlet is a massive role, but for context, he has twice as many lines as Prospero in The Tempest, which is… already a massive role), jokingly into Ham and Let, and both halves of our Ham/Let duo brought so much heart and passion (and sass) that it was a joy to watch.  The two other clear stars that emerged were our Claudius and Ophelia; two characters I’ve never given much thought to, Claudius being so easy to portray as a mustache-twirling villain and Ophelia being The Generic Tragic Ingenue.  But Abby brought such a pathos and humanity to Claudius that this monologue gave us all chills, and Pamela broke all of our hearts with her tender portrayal of Ophelia.  Really incredible acting all around this week.

82357

Comedy of Errors
★★★★☆
my role: Solinus

Following Hamlet, we opted for the shortest play.  And what an unexpected breath of fresh air this was!  All I knew going into this was that it was one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and that it was about two sets of twins and mistaken identity, and, indeed, that’s pretty much all there is to it.  Heavy on the commedia dell’arte vibes, Comedy of Errors is just an unapologetically stupid romp, and I enjoyed every second of it.  Its short length is absolutely part of its charm, because it smartly does not overstay its welcome (these dumb characters already take far too long to catch on to what’s happening), but by the time it ended I think everyone wanted another hour of it.

12938

King Lear
★★★★★
my role: Edmund

I actually have no words for this experience but I’ll try to come up with something.  King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play – I’m utterly obsessed with the high-stakes drama and scale of tragedy.  It’s also thematically satisfying and narratively ambiguous in a way that REALLY works to my tastes, and I think it has the most devastating ending of any Shakespeare play.  Edmund is my favorite character – he’s the one I’ve always been the most compelled by, and I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more interesting villains.  Because in a lot of ways, he’s set up to be a sort of underdog hero – most of his ‘thou nature art my goddess’ monologue appeals directly to the audience and is actually disturbingly compelling.  Because yes, who among us has not been screwed out of something we deserve; why shouldn’t he fight for what’s been denied to him by unjust social custom?  Of course, that’s up until his line ‘well then, legitimate Edgar’ when the monologue takes a turn for the sinister and you realize that Edmund’s ambitions are naturally at the expense of his own family.  But even after he is set up as the play’s chief antagonist (along with Goneril and Regan), his motives remain clear and cogent and perversely sympathetic – and his dying moments show a flicker of tenderness toward his brother that suggest that power for power’s sake was never the goal so much as being accepted by the family that he betrays – and I am unendingly interested in untangling the knot that is his character.

Anyway, much as I love Edmund, I felt nervous about requesting him.  If you’ve been following the roles I’ve been taking, you will see a very clear pattern: Straight Good Men and ingenues.  Both of which I’ve had a lot of fun with, but neither of which require a whole lot of… acting?  (Or at least, you can get away with less acting; I should put it that way.)  But I decided fuck it, I would never have this opportunity again and I would be kicking myself if I requested Cordelia out of fear (though I do quite like Cordelia).

Everything about this production was magical.  I know it probably sounds hyperbolic to call it a production, but the caliber of everyone involved blew me away.  (You can watch the eye gouging scene here; I truly cannot recommend it highly enough.)  Abby and Rachel choreographed that scene beautifully and Abby, who was a brilliant Gloucester, played the rest of the show with a blindfold onMaggie played Kent’s disguise with an Irish accent; Ashley played Edgar with FOUR ACCENTS.  And Pamela and Chelsea were the absolute heart and soul of this production as Lear and Cordelia respectively; I have chills just thinking about the final act and how much the two of them broke my heart (and has there ever been a more chilling line than ‘Never, never, never, never, never’).  Anyway, it’s hard to evaluate your own performance with any kind of objectivity, but I am proud of having pushed myself out of my comfort zone for this, as playing Edmund was an absolute dream and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Doing a play a week has been brilliant but I’m finding it a little hard to move on from this one!


So that’s that!  Up next: Much Ado About Nothing.  Stay tuned for the next installment in a month.

Shakespeare question of the day and in honor of me memorizing both ‘thou nature art my goddess’ and ‘this is the excellent foppery of the world’ this week – what’s your favorite Shakespeare monologue?  Comment and tell me!

Project Shakespeare: month #1 wrap up

Since Shakespeare has been dominating my reading of late, and because I suck at writing up full-length reviews of classics, I thought I’d take you through the first month of this #ProjectShakespeare experience with me.

Project Shakespeare, if you didn’t see me mention it before, was an idea that my friend Abby came up with, to gather a group of friends and read/perform a different Shakespeare play every Saturday night until we’re out of quarantine.  We’ve done four plays so far, so let’s go through them:

1622

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
★★★★★
my roles: Hippolyta, Snug, Moth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I go way back.  My acting debut (and also… the last time I acted) was in a performance of Midsummer that my fifth grade class put on.  At the time I desperately wanted to play Puck, and given the fact that in fifth grade MY NICKNAME WAS PUCK, not being given the role of Puck felt like a personal attack that I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from.  (I spitefully memorized Puck’s if we shadows have offended monologue, which I can still recite to this day.)

Despite this traumatic event, I have a very strong fondness for Midsummer.  Being eleven at the time this was obviously my first exposure to Shakespeare, and I found it weird and enchanting.  Fairies, mischief, a play within a play… what’s not to love?  What struck me as an adult is how good of an ensemble play this is – is there even a main character?! – it’s no wonder that so many schools and community theatres opt for this one.  It’s also just unabashedly fun in a way that entertains rather than grates.

And shoutout to my friend Patrick for serving us the hammiest portrayal of Bottom that the (virtual) stage has ever seen.

12985

THE TEMPEST
★★★★☆
my role: Miranda

In contrast, The Tempest was new to me!  I knew it was Abby’s favorite play and had been looking for a good excuse to read it for a while now, and I’m glad I did.  Before I read it she predicted ‘you’ll like it but it won’t be your new favorite’ and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment.  Though I suppose it can technically classified as a comedy, it’s decidedly less comedic than Shakespeare’s more carefree plays – there’s a real thematic heft to it that compelled me so much that I think if the ending had culminated in tragedy and bloodshed, it would have been a new favorite after all (sorry, I’m predictable).

Reading the script a few days before requesting a role, I was most drawn to Miranda, so I decided to throw my name in the hat for the play’s only canonical female character, who I did end up playing.  Miranda has been my favorite character to play so far – in some ways she’s the archetype of The Ingenue; innocent, loving, trusting, filled with more compassion than experience.  But her upbringing adds a layer of complexity – she’s never seen the face of another woman, she’s lived a life entirely subservient to her father in the microcosmically patriarchal society that he’s created on this island.  Still she shows an inherent moral goodness which at times is in conflict with her father’s own agenda; in fact, the first time we’re introduced to Miranda it’s in the context of her challenging her father; the play’s hero automatically taken down a peg by his teenaged daughter.  (The scene that results from this argument also reminded me so strongly of the dynamic between Valjean and Cosette in Les Misérables that it tugged at my heartstrings.)

Anyway, The Tempest was a joy to read and perform, and one that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s a little intimidated by Shakespeare and isn’t sure where to start.  The language was some of the most accessible yet beautiful that I’ve read in any Shakespeare play – O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

51ax5adsdxl

TWELFTH NIGHT
★★★☆☆
my roles: First Officer, Curio

Twelfth Night is not my favorite, and not just because my first exposure to it was an incredibly bizarre community production which was entirely period except for the unexplained choice to make Fabian a surfer dude.  (Who is Fabian, anyway?)  The thing about Twelfth Night is that none of the couples are particularly worth rooting for – Viola is great, and naturally we want her happiness, but Orsino is such a dunce it’s hard to be thrilled about that conclusion.  It’s also hard to rejoice in Malvolio’s comeuppance, because what has Malvolio even done that that’s outrageous other than be a bit of a Squidward?!  (High literary analysis you’re getting here.)

Nevertheless, I enjoy it.  It’s gay, it’s chaotic, it’s got some strong characters (I particularly love Viola and Olivia) and great comedic moments.  I just find it curiously cold overall.  Still, another strong week for Project Shakespeare, with people going harder and harder each week both with props and acting choices.

[changed my 4 star rating to 3 stars a few weeks later – I need to be honest with myself, I am not a big Twelfth Night fan.]

8852

MACBETH x2!
★★★★★
my roles (first show): Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman, Angus, Lord, Third Apparition, Soldiers
my role (second show): Malcolm

That’s right – we put on TWO performances of Macbeth.  Since there were so many requests to play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and since it’s everyone’s favorite play (I’m not going to say you’re lying if you say your favorite play isn’t Macbeth, but…), we decided to do our usual Saturday evening show and then put on a Sunday matinee.  I think five or six of us did both shows, with our roles incredibly shuffled up on the two days, but some people just did one or the other.  On Sunday we were joined by my friends Will and Jess who were a most welcome addition – Will played Macbeth and put on a Scottish accent whose authenticity is dubious but which utterly charmed the group of Americans who were watching it.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my college roommate Rachel for getting into her bathtub and slathering herself in fake blood for her role of Lady Macbeth – the commitment bar has been raised so high I’m not sure how we’re ever going to top it.

Anyway, Macbeth, what is there even to say?  Another fun thing about this is that it’s the first time I’ve read the play since becoming utterly obsessed with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an avant-garde Macbeth retelling set in an abandoned hotel in Chelsea (Manhattan).  Hearing lines read aloud by my friends which have been whispered into my ear by performers in the McKittrick was chilling (‘blood will have blood!’)

I also had an excellent time playing Malcolm, a rather uninspiring character for the fact that he’s one of the four characters with the most lines – still, I tried very very hard to breathe some life into him and I had a great time doing it.


I feel like I can’t talk about any of this without talking about the fact that – and I don’t think this comes through very well with my online persona, so I do have to stress this – I am painfully shy.  Something like this even five years ago would have mortified me so much that the thought of participating would have made me physically ill.  I don’t know what it is that inspired me to finally put myself out there and actually try at something for once in my life that I’m not naturally gifted at, but I think the fact that the stakes are so remarkably low has been soothing my anxiety.  Project Shakespeare has also been the one constant in my life that has broken up the monotony of the weeks, so I think I really needed something like this to occupy me as I struggle to concentrate on most other things.

Anyway, that’s all.  Tomorrow night we’re doing As You Like It (I’m Celia) and the week after, Hamlet.  I will report back in another four weeks on how those went.

Tell me two things in the comments: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play, and what’s the silliest, lowest-stakes thing that’s been a comfort to you during quarantine?

And if you have a group of nerdy friends who could join you as you read early modern plays over Zoom, I cannot recommend something like this highly enough.

Stay safe and stay inside if you can.  xx

not a book review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

1622

 

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare
★★★★★
originally published in 1595

 

This is more of a diary entry than a book review which I have never done before, but… times are weird!

One of my friends had a BRILLIANT idea to organize a Shakespeare read-through over Zoom this weekend. (The irony is lost on none of us that we’re essentially reenacting Station Eleven.) A group of us divvied up parts and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, incidentally, is the play in which I made my acting debut as Mustardseed the fairy when I was 11. I was angling for Puck so that casting decision came as quite the blow. It felt redemptive to read as Hippolyta last night, a slightly meatier role.

Anyway, all silliness aside, times are tough right now and I know a lot of us are having difficulties concentrating on our usual sorts of escapism, which for most of us includes reading. This virtual Shakespeare production amongst a group of friends was such a fun distraction that we’re going to make it a weekly thing, proceeding with The Tempest next weekend. If you have a friend group who’d be down for this kind of thing (it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare – you could do any play or movie script), I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s the only 2 hours this week that I’ve felt truly switched off from the constant news stream and existential dread that’s been eating away at me. That’s why I thought I’d share – there’s so much discourse floating around about how you need to Make The Most of this quarantine to clean your house and learn a new language and write the next great American novel, but I think what we really need are lower-stakes, delightfully distracting and unproductive projects like reading Shakespeare with your friends around the globe with a glass of wine.

Hope you all are staying safe and healthy!  Tell me something fun and silly you’ve done to help you through the pandemic?

mini reviews #8: all kinds of fiction

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

36588482

THE RUIN by Dervla McTiernan
★★★★☆
date read: November 25, 2019
Penguin Books, 2018

Every time I read a police procedural I feel obligated to start my review by saying that I don’t particularly like police procedurals; I only ever pick them up if I feel strongly drawn toward other elements of the summary (in this case, Ireland did it for me – shocking, I know). And while this reaffirmed a lot of the reasons why police procedurals are never going to be my favorite subgenre (I frankly didn’t care about any of the inter-departmental drama; Cormac Reilly is an incredibly forgettable Brooding Everyman-Detective of a protagonist) there was a lot here that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing was strong and evocative, the periphery characters were incredibly well-crafted, particularly Aisling, and I felt so compelled by the central mystery. This isn’t the kind of thriller with a big twist that will blow your socks off, but it’s so intricately crafted that it’s hard to put down once you’re drawn in.

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


34563821._sy475_

DISAPPEARING EARTH by Julia Phillips
★★★★★
date read: December 9, 2019
Knopf, 2019

Disappearing Earth is bound to disappoint anyone who picks it up looking for a thriller, especially a fast-paced one. So if that’s what grabs your interest from the summary – a mystery about two kidnapped sisters – I’d urge you to either adjust expectations or avoid altogether. That said, if you do know to expect something slower paced, this is a knock-out of a debut. Set in northeastern Russia, Disappearing Earth is a complex and intricate portrait of a close-knit and dysfunctional community, whose culture is marred by misogyny and racism against the indigenous population. It’s very similar in structure to There There by Tommy Orange – a central event causing a ripple effect that’s told in vignettes through the eyes of seemingly unrelated characters – but I have to say this one hit me harder and felt more technically accomplished. Julia Phillips is an author to watch.

You can pick up a copy of Disappearing Earth here on Book Depository.


kevin-barry-night-boat-to-tangier

NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER by Kevin Barry
★★★☆☆
date read: December 15, 2019
Canongate, 2019

I’m devastated that I didn’t love this, given how much this seemed to be right up my literary alley. I was confident that the criticisms I’d heard – slow, not emotionally engaging enough, too much drug talk – wouldn’t faze me. I mean, I know my tastes; two aging Irish gangsters sitting on a pier discussing their shared history of drug smuggling actually seems like a recipe for perfection. But to say that this left me cold would be an understatement. Barry’s writing is really very good, so that was never the problem. I think my main issue was the alternating past and present chapters; the present held my attention while the past chapters were nothing but tedium. As others have mentioned, it’s very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, but while Barry occasionally nailed Beckett’s madcap humor, this had none of the pathos.

You can pick up a copy of Night Boat to Tangier here on Book Depository.


18660669._sy475_

VAMPIRE ACADEMY by Richelle Mead
★★★★☆
date read: December 15, 2019
Razorbill, 2007

I had to read this for a work assignment, and while it’s not something I ordinarily would have reached for, you know what? I really didn’t hate it. For what it is, I think it succeeds: it’s gripping, has one of the best and most complex female friendships I’ve ever read in YA, has a surprisingly progressive focus on mental health, and is framed in a really unique way (it uses The Chosen One trope but tells the story from the pov of The Chosen One’s friend, who happens to be an infinitely more interesting character). The unrepentant slut-shaming is its most egregious offense, and what dates it the most (I’d find its regressive attitudes toward female sexuality more disturbing had it been published in 2019, but for over a decade ago, it’s less surprising). But all in all, a fun, mostly harmless read; I may even reach for the sequel if I get bored.

You can pick up a copy of Vampire Academy here on Book Depository.


43704206

THE MARQUISE OF O– by Heinrich von Kleist
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 20, 2019
Pushkin Press, January 7, 2020
originally published 1808

[sexual assault tw] It’s a challenge to discuss this book (originally published in 1808) in any kind of measured way in 2019 and not sound like a sociopath. Through a contemporary lens, its premise is unarguably disgusting: a widow finds herself pregnant, having been raped while she’s unconscious, and puts a notice in the paper saying that she’s willing to marry any man who comes forward as the father. If you can’t stomach this on principle (and you would certainly be forgiven), stay far away. I do try my best to engage with classics on their own terms and I must admit this one leaves me somewhat baffled. While I found this to actually be curiously engaging, I’m ultimately unsure of what Kleist was trying to say with it and I must concede that this probably was not the best place to start with this author with only the translator’s brief introduction for context.

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

You can pick up a copy of The Marquise of O– here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

mini reviews #7: audiobooks with long titles & an ARC

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

43689649

A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce
audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell
★★★☆☆
date read: July 2019
Audible, 2019
originally published in 1916

In spite of my whole ‘Irish lit thing’ I have never once felt compelled to pick up Joyce. But then Colin Farrell went and narrated this audiobook, so that was that. And though he does a terrific job, this is, unfortunately, probably a book that I should have read in print – I’m just not an auditory person at all and there is a lot going on in this book. So I’m not going to lie and pretend that I got as much out of this as I arguably should have, and I’m sure I’ll want to revisit it one day. But I ended up surprising myself with how much I did enjoy it – Joyce’s language isn’t as impenetrable as I had feared, and more mesmerizing than I had expected, and Stephen Dedalus’s journey was occasionally, unexpectedly, thrilling. There’s a lot to unpack here about religion and family and nationality, and if I ever reread this I will vow to attempt to unpack it all then.

You can pick up a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man here on Book Depository.

28523705._sy475_

BUT YOU DID NOT COME BACK by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
translated from the French by Sandra Smith
audiobook narrated by Karen Cass
★★★★☆
date read: August 2019
Faber & Faber, 2016

This is a slim, hard-hitting book that doesn’t dwell on the horrors that Loridan-Ivens experienced in Birkenau so much as examine their aftermath. Returning to a family who was spared from the concentration camps while losing the only other family member who was sent to Auschwitz with her, she writes this memoir as an extended letter to her father, whose death overshadows her own survival. Sparse and poignant, But You Did Not Come Back is certainly worth a read even if you feel oversaturated with WWII lit.

You can pick up a copy of But You Did Not Come Back here on Book Depository.

42201850

THE NEED by Helen Phillips
★★☆☆☆
date read: September 2019
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Right book, wrong reader. I don’t have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something unique that I can see working for plenty of readers who are willing to embrace a bit of weirdness. I just don’t like books about motherhood, and at the end of the day, that’s what this book is. The science fiction/speculative element is only there to enhance the main character’s anxieties about juggling motherhood with her career, and if that’s a theme that usually makes you reach for a book, by all means, give this one a try; I unfortunately was just bored senseless.

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

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

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva

47515505._sx318_

 

ISOLDE by Irina Odoevtseva
translated from the Russian by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg
★★★★☆
Pushkin Press, November 5, 2019
originally published in 1929

 

Isolde was my introduction to Irina Odoevtseva – a fascinating woman whose life and work is contextualized brilliantly in the introduction to this Pushkin Press edition, the first ever translation of Isolde into English, almost a century after its 1929 publication. Isolde is a delightful, sparse, and sad book set in early twentieth century France, where fourteen-year-old Liza and her brother Nikolai are essentially left to their own devices by an extremely neglectful mother who insists on pretending in public (and often even in private) that she is their older cousin. On holiday in Biarritz, Liza meets a slightly older boy, Cromwell, who becomes enchanted by her and declares that her new name will be Isolde. The story then follows this trio – Liza, Cromwell, and Nikolai – back to Paris, where they’re abandoned altogether by their mother, with disastrous results.

As explained in the introduction, Odoevtseva herself was Russian and living in exile at the time of writing Isolde, and these circumstances are reflected in her narrative. The absence of Liza and Nikolai’s home country plays heavily on their imaginations – a naive, idealistic image of Russia only grows when abandoned by their mother in Paris. After some head hopping, the focus of the novel ultimately zeroes in on Liza, whose burgeoning sexuality, parental neglect, and nebulous national identity all shape the story which is driven less by a coherent plot and more by snapshots of Liza’s adolescence.

I found this thoroughly enjoyable, at times quite dark, and altogether unexpectedly modern. Not overly modern in language – the translation by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg was excellent – but in terms of content; there’s a focus on Liza’s autonomy over her sexuality, and it rather subverts expectations in more ways than one. (There’s also a rather inconsequential scene where a character is talking about how she’s kissed other girls but she can’t imagine kissing a man.) It’s a really solid gem of a book and I’m looking forward to checking out more by Irina Odoevtseva, as well as more from Pushkin’s modern classics series.

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


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

book review: Troubles by JG Farrell

256279

 

TROUBLES by JG Farrell

NYRB Classics, 2002
originally published in 1970

Troubles is the first novel in the Anglo-Irish writer JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy: three tangentially connected works that highlight different facets of British colonialism. Farrell died young, as he drowned at the age of 44, but this 1970 book got some semi-recent attention when it won the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010, which was established to retroactively honor a book that missed out on being eligible for the Booker due to a rule change that year. So when you pick up Troubles with all that in mind, as I did, it certainly has a big legacy to live up to, especially when you don’t even know what the book itself is about.

It turns out that it’s about an English man called Brendan, who’s referred to in the third person narration as ‘the Major,’ who, after the end of the war in 1919, journeys to Ireland to figure out whether or not he’s actually engaged to a woman who he’s been exchanging romantic letters with, Angela Spencer. Her home is a crumbling mansion of a hotel called the Majestic, where she lives with her Protestant family as well as several eccentric guests. Upon arrival the Major expects to be greeted by Angela herself, but instead he finds himself swept up instantly into her strange family dynamic, with her aggressively Unionist father’s pervasive fear of Sinn Féin (the political party advocating for an Irish republic) hovering in the background throughout the novel.

Troubles is essentially a sardonic odyssey of the mundane – a reverse Nostos of sorts in which our protagonist journeys away from home and navigates a culture that’s plagued with a completely different social climate than his own. It’s also a kind of Gothic subversion, Farrell giving us a Manderley-like setting that’s meant to symbolize the British Empire, the characters willfully in denial about its crumbling roof as well as the rising insurgency that’s taking place in their country.

It drags and overstays its welcome at times (much like the guests in the hotel), but for the most part Troubles is a riotously funny (and occasionally tragic) satire. While there isn’t much of a plot, Farrell leads the reader with measured prose through a dizzyingly bizarre series of encounters that highlight the absurdity of the Spencers’ myopic view of Irish society. It’s a bit of a project to get through, but it’s worth it for the sharp, incisive writing and commentary on colonialism that still feels relevant half a century later.

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

 

book review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

26113439

 

THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, 2015
originally published in 1982

 

Any of the adjectives you could use to describe The Color Purple – gorgeous, moving, heart-wrenching, etc – unfortunately sound rather trite, but this book is the real deal. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that follows the relationship between two sisters who are torn apart early in life, but who nevertheless spend a lifetime trying to communicate with one another. The protagonist Celie is married off to an abusive husband, while her sister Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Celie’s husband, known only as Mr. ____, hides the letters that Nettie writes to Celie, who believes for years that her sister is dead. Robbed of contact with the only person who ever loved her, Celie contents herself by writing a series of letters that she addresses ‘Dear God’.

Celie’s voice is arguably the strongest element of this novel; Walker captures the voice of a poor, uneducated woman living in the American south in the 1900s with a vibrant authenticity. Nettie’s voice is similarly convincing, though distinct; it’s filled with a similar dialect but more polished and educated – this book is a case study in how to strengthen characterization through voice. The relationship between these two sisters is the heart and soul of The Color Purple, though Celie’s relationship with God and its different manifestations over time provides the novel with one of its most salient themes that develops beautifully over time. The novel’s title comes from an exchange where Celie’s lover challenges Celie’s conception of God as a larger-than-life white man; she tells Celie that she doesn’t think of God as a person, but as an invisible force that’s inside all of us, and then remarks “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

So while this book is relentlessly brutal, documenting rape and abuse and pervasive racism, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through it, and it’s ultimately an unexpectedly empowering tale. This book is every bit as beautiful as it is disturbing.

One last note: I don’t want to derail this review too drastically with a lengthy meditation on whether it’s possible to separate art from the artist, but suffice to say that being aware of Alice Walker’s well-documented antisemitism did impact my reading experience somewhat, and I don’t think I’ll be able to call this as all-time favorite. But still, it would be wrong to deny this book of its merits and cultural impact. I can’t judge anyone else for deciding not to pick this up out of a discomfort with Walker’s personal beliefs, but if you’re on the fence, I do think it’s well worth reading.

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