5

Updating Othello

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello (we didn’t cover it in school, never really enjoyed reading plays and I know it’s Shakespeare but here we are) but I will always love Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring SO given the chance to read New Boy

New Boy is part of a project from Hogarth that updates Shakespeare’s plays, giving them modern contexts from acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.

(Honestly, I had no idea this was a thing and just looked at the site and want to immediately read at least 4 of the others)

new boy

In this iteration of Othello, Osei Kokote, or “O” as he lets people call him, is the new boy at a D.C. school in the 1970s. Osei is the son of a diplomat and has gone to four school in six years – he is an expert at being the new boy. He’s also the only Black child. Golden child Dee is given the job of showing Osei around. She’s pretty, popular and White. Osei and Dee strike up a friendship that blooms into a romance within minutes – this is the sixth grade after all.

Ian is used to getting his way and has been ruling the playground for the entire year. He gets the best spot on the playground, picks teams for kickball, demands lunch money or goods and generally bullies those he sees as less-than. When he sees Osei getting along so easily with Dee, he decides that he’s going to make life extremely difficult for the new boy.

I got the rundown of Othello from my mom, one of those instances where your parents surprise you by how much they know (love you, Mom!). And from what I understand, this book is pretty true to the major themes of its source material. Ian manages to trick Osei into thinking that Dee is two-timing him, that she’s bringing strawberries in for another boy, the most popular boy on the playground, a natural partner for the golden girl. Osei thinks that Dee is just like everyone else, that she was interested in the novelty of his brown skin but doesn’t actually see him.

In the end, the supporting players take the brunt of Ian’s malice in the most tragic of ways.

I thought it was brilliant of Chevalier to set the tragedy of Othello on a playground. I felt intense nostalgia for the politics and hierarchies of the playground, how you feel like such a big deal when you’re the oldest kids there. And how the littlest things, someone stealing a pencil case, can ripple out through the entire school.

I appreciated that not all of the action took place on the playground or in the school. Chevalier gives voice to Osei’s experiences at his other schools in New York City, London and Rome, what it’s like in his birth nation of Ghana, what life is like at home with his older sister who is learning to embrace her identity as a Black woman surrounded by so many White ones.

Osei’s anger and distrust builds throughout the novel, encouraged by the antics of Ian, the naiveté of Dee, and the discrimination from some of the teachers until the final horrifying moments of this little book.

New Boy makes Othello accessible for plebs like me. From what I can tell, it honours the spirit of the original while creating a story that has enough to say on its own.

9

Falling off the cliff of my interest

I am a sucker for historical fiction.

Seriously. You tell me a story about some kind of country house or palace, a family grappling with some kind of external force and maybe throw in a war? GIVE ME THAT BOOK.

Write a stellar first book of a promised trilogy and I am yours for life. Especially when you follow that up with equally impressive non-fiction.

But trick me into reading a sub-par effort in said trilogy and I will be SO MAD.

I loved The Storms of War. I couldn’t get enough of Kate Williams’ Ambition and Desire, a biography of Josephine Bonaparte.

But The Edge of the Fall, the follow-up to The Storms of War actively made me rage.

edgefall

When we left the De Witt family, we weren’t at all sure what the fortunes of the war would do to them. The father had been incarcerated in an internment camp as an alien enemy, the younger son had been killed in battle, the older one had run off to Paris, Celia was back from driving ambulances and had her heart broken by Tom who was possibly her brother, and sister Emmeline had married her tutor and was living in London.

The Edge of the Fall literally starts with a young woman falling off the edge of a cliff.

The rest of the book tries to find out what happened to her: did she fall or was she pushed? Told from different viewpoints, jumping around in time, Williams attempts to fit the puzzle pieces together.

Except you already know exactly what happened, it’s not a mystery and it’s not even very interesting. Celia is so boring, she can’t be bothered to DO anything; Emmeline has twins and makes excuses for her socialist husband; big brother Arthur is a monster; and nothing really happens to anyone except this fall at the beginning.

For something billed as historical fiction, it tried really hard to be some sort of mystery. The whole thing was like that season of Downton when Bates is accused of murdering his ex-wife and everyone spends the season trying to figure out if he did or didn’t? Remember how tedious that was? This book is like that storyline.

I was so bored. I was screaming for something to happen, anything. The only interesting part was when Celia goes to visit the German relations, having been unable to see them for the entire duration of the war. Only then does Williams do any credit to the rich historical context of post-WWI Britain and relations with Germany. Shame that Celia was the least interesting, most self-absorbed and yet pathetic character in this book.

One of the most interesting angles of The Storms of War was how this Anglo-German family handled the split loyalties and how they were viewed in their community. None of that is really visited in this book, except when Celia goes to Germany to see firsthand the devastation the war has brought.

When, at the end of this book, Arthur declares that he and Celia should go to America to find their fortunes, it was too late for this reader. There’s no way I’m going to read the last book. I can’t put myself through another 400+ pages of this.

 

6

Option B

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I remember when I heard that Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and author of Lean In, had lost her husband suddenly. I had a visceral reaction to the news, giving voice to my biggest fear.

option B

Two weeks after he passed, she wrote an incredibly moving post on Facebook about him and her loss. If you read it, there’s no way you didn’t cry.

In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sandberg builds on that post as she talks about her grief, how it affects her life, and how she and her children are trying to build a new one. And in what I have come to learn is typical Sheryl Sandberg fashion, she also attempts to understand what’s happening, how grief affects our brains and what we can do to feel some kind of joy again.

The title of the book came from a friend:

Just weeks after losing Dave, I was talking to Phil about a father-child activity. We came up with a plan for someone to fill in for Dave. I cried to Phil, “But I want Dave.” He put his arm around me and said “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the shit out of it.

As was the case with Lean In, I know that there are lots of people who scoff at the efforts she has made. Those who say that since she has loads of money and can afford to pay people to help her with the things that she can’t do, that she doesn’t understand what ‘real’ people go through when they grieve.

But once again, Sandberg is the first person to say that she isn’t the typical person. That she does have access to resources and supports that not everyone else has. It doesn’t mean that this book doesn’t have something for others going through the same, or similar experiences.

I personally found this book moving, honest, unflinching and ultimately helpful. She works with Adam Grant (author of Originals, psychologist and expert in how we find meaning in our lives) to research how we find strength in adversity. Together they tell the stories of different people they know who have gone through a range of experiences: rape survivors, refugees, parents who have lost children to disease, women who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths.

And like Malcolm Gladwell, Sandberg and Grant use these personal stories to illustrate the research that they have done, to show readers how they can benefit from both. With chapters like “Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room”, “The Platinum Rule of Friendship” (treat others as they want to be treated), and “Taking Back Joy”, Sandberg and Grant have created a helpful manual for anyone who is dealing with more than their share of pain and sadness.

Sandberg shares so much of herself in this book – I can’t imagine how draining the process of writing was. Sections of her journal in the months after Dave died are in the book, as well as part of the eulogy she delivered and a letter she wrote to him to say goodbye when she decided to start looking forward instead of back. She shares about falling apart at work, sitting on the floor and screaming, the despair she felt going to recitals and parents’ nights solo, the realities of the year of firsts.

And still, going through all that, losing the love of her life, she wrote this book to help others experiencing the same or similar.

If you or someone you know is going through something, I wouldn’t hesitate in picking up this book.

All proceeds from the book go to OptionB.org, a non-profit initiative to help people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.

19

Into the Water

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

The Girl on the Train was a phenomenon. Paula Hawkins’ follow up novel, Into the Water, was hotly anticipated. Given the chance to get my hands on a copy, I jumped all over it.

But it’s difficult to live up to that kind of hype, for a different book to stand on its own merits when compared to the achievements of its juggernaut of an older sibling.

I could not finish with Into the Water fast enough.

Sadly, I don’t mean that as a compliment. This book fatigued me.

tom tired

Nel Abbot, single mother of a teenage daughter, has been found dead in the water at the bottom of her garden. The river that runs through the little town she lived in has claimed the lives of a number of women for years. Two months earlier, a 15 year old girl had drowned herself in the water. Nel herself had been fascinated by the water, the stories of the “troublesome” women that found their end in its depths, and had been working on a book telling their stories.

What happened is told, piece by painstaking piece by a variety of residents in the small English town including: Nel’s estranged sister, angry at her over something that happened years and years ago; Nel’s daughter, who has been keeping all kinds of secrets from everyone; the school’s headmistress, married to the police chief, who also has secrets from his past; a teacher, who has to hide how much he misses Kate, the girl who drowned herself before Nel died.

It’s a lot.

Hawkins tries to make the point that the world is cruel to women, that historically water had been used to purify those women accused of witchcraft, that perhaps this is something that is still going on. There are any number of sinister characters in the book that could be capable of sending women to watery deaths. Hawkins isn’t content to populate the book with red herrings, or subject readers to so many first person narratives, she also has to weave a mystical element to the game.

Into the Water wasn’t a difficult read, or a long one, and yet the time I spent with it felt like I was treading water fully clothed and I was losing the battle.

I so appreciate the point that Hawkins was trying to make because the world is so obviously cruel, especially to women. But this book and it’s similarity to The Girl on the Train (memory loss, men’s power over women, unlikeable narrators) without the well-paced plot and tense atmosphere just didn’t work for me.

11

Literary Wives: The Awakening

Today is my first review for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening!

Ariel @  One Little Library
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink
TJ @ My Book Strings

The Book

awakening

The Awakening by Kate Chopin was published in 1899 and apparently shocked readers with it’s honest portrayal of female infidelity. Edna Pontellier lives a conventional life: she manages her family’s home, she is married to a man concerned with appearances, and has two small children that she’s not really very interested in. In the summers, the Pontelliers go to Grand Isle, a popular vacation spot for wealthy Creole families like hers. This is where she meets Robert Lebrun and begins a flirtation with him that changes the way she sees herself and her relationship with her husband, Leonce.

Not only does Edna flirt with Lebrun, she kisses him, and later, moves out of her husband’s home when he leaves town where she has a physical relationship with another man!

Ultimately, Edna realizes that she is too changed by her affairs and will never be able to find any kind of satisfaction in the life expected of her. She returns to Grand Isle one last time, finds it too has changed in the off season, and walks into the water one last time.

My Thoughts

Anyone who has visited this blog before knows how I feel about heroines calling their own shots. I was thrilled to read a book from 1899 where a female character was given the autonomy, despite the consequences.

Instinct had prompted her to put away her husband’s bounty in casting off her allegiance. She did not know how it would be when he returned. There would have to be an understanding, an explanation. Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.

Edna understands that what she is doing is different, that it sets her apart, that people will talk about her. But her own happiness, getting to know herself as Edna, not her children’s mother or her husband’s wife matters to her. In 1899, this would have been so radical and I loved it.

In the end, its a completely tragic story but it felt like an important milestone in women-centred literature.

What does the book say about being a wife? 

At the time the book was published, a woman would have been expected to submit herself completely to the desires of her husband. She would have become a mother and would always come last. Edna isn’t content to relinquish herself in service of the needs and desires of her family. She wants to be her own woman, her own person with ideas and thoughts and wants of her own.

The Awakening doesn’t allow a woman to have both herself and her family. Edna must choose. In this way, the book is very much a product of its time.

She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul.

This book shows us that, in order to be happy and satisfied in the role of a wife (and mother in this case), one must have something that is entirely one’s own. That solitude and introspection, a creative outlet and maybe even physical space is necessary to be able to give so much of ourselves in marriage.

18

Library Checkout: May 2017

Are we halfway through the year now? Is that how this works? Mind blowing when you stop and think about it for it a second…

ANYWAY. All that old lady rambling about the speed of time means that it’s time to look at another month’s library reading! Library Checkout is hosted by Charleen @ It’s a Portable Magic.

librarycheckout2

 

I feel like I spent a lot of time at the library and reading library books but I don’t think my actual numbers are that impressive. I know that I only read 10 books in May and I’m definitely used to more robust numbers. It was another gut punch of a month and I’m still working on getting my reading focus back.

Still, 10 books is 10 books!

So let’s look at the library then shall we?

Read
The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel (wow, that’s some kind of book eh??)
Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End of London in the 1950s by Jennifer Worth (love the show, the book was also wonderful)
Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine (this was such good fun – these women were incredible)

Returned Unread
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield (I took this book out a second time, read around 200 pages and realized I did not care about it AT ALL. So I stopped and moved on)
The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (I had to – someone was waiting for it and I couldn’t renew – I will get it out again and actually read it!)

Currently Out
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On Hold
Nothing right now. But I think I’m going to try and get my hands on Anne Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me...

What about you? What did you find at the library? Link up with It’s a Portable Magic!

5

Saints for All Occasions

I have a thing for books about dysfunctional families.

I think that this is a newer discovery of mine – I’ve always been drawn to books about big families with lots of secrets but I didn’t think too much about it until Sarah @ Sarah’s Bookshelves mentioned the same.

The Nest. Dead Letters. The Roanoke Girls. Crazy Rich Asians. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. The Family Fang

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan.

I’d only read one of Sullivan’s books before, The Engagements, and while I liked it, I wouldn’t say it bowled me over. Still, I enjoyed it enough to mean to read her other work (Maine, Commencement). Then, I heard about Saints for All Occasions.

saints

Sisters Nora and Theresa, 21 and 17 respectively, come over on the boat from Ireland to Boston. Nora, to marry Charlie from back home who has moved to Boston for a better life, near others in his family who have made the move; Theresa because Nora couldn’t bear to leave her behind, having been more like a mother to her their whole lives. Nora, serious and hardworking, gets to the business of building a life for her and Charlie in Boston. Theresa falls in love with Boston and everything it has to offer: dances, clothes she’d never dream of having back home, cute young men.

When Theresa gets pregnant, it’s up to Nora to come up with a plan that will have ramifications for both women, and their family, for decades to come. And when there’s an unexpected death in the family, everyone will have to come to terms with what happened all those years ago.

The story is told in chunks of time, from alternating viewpoints. Nora, Theresa, Nora’s children. You find out on the first or second page that it is Patrick who has died, but even in death he is a major character in this book; the motivation for so much. As the family comes to terms with his passing, you can see what an impact he had on all of them: for Nora’s son John, estranged from his brother Patrick for the last 8 months, coming to terms with what he thought he knew about their relationship; daughter Bridget, the only girl, who is planning on having a baby with her girlfriend but who has never officially told the family that she is a lesbian; for Brian, the baby, who worked alongside Patrick every day, at a loose end, not sure what’s next.

Sullivan has weaved a story around this family, threaded with loss and faith and rules of a Church that once had the final word in all. It’s a story about motherhood and love and family ties and what it looks like when your life doesn’t pan out exactly the way you planned it to.

I devoured this book in a day, all 333 pages of it. I loved spending time with the Raffertys, finding out just what had happened all those years ago. Sullivan is skilled at telling you just enough to be satisfied, knowing that is still holding out on you. I almost rated it 5 stars but, while I appreciated the ending, when it came, it felt a bit rushed. I wouldn’t have blinked at another 40 pages of story.

Still, if you’re a fan of Sullivan’s, or enjoy dysfunctional families like I do, this will be a winner for you. I also think that fans of Ann Patchett’s, or Brooklyn by Colm Toibin will find something to appreciate in this book. And, I’d totally endorse it as a beach read!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book.