‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler

vinegar-girl-anne-tylerShakespeare never gets old, but when someone makes him new again (and in the most engaging, hilarious, and Shakespearean way), it is somehow exhilarating. That is exactly what Anne Tyler does with her latest novel Vinegar Girl. Rewriting The Taming of the Shrew in a contemporary context, Tyler takes what is one of Shakespeare’s most sexists plays and turns it into a dialogue about feminism and equality.

Kate Battista is a twenty-nine-year-old house-daughter who packs her scientist father’s lunch, makes dinner for the family, and keeps on eye on her younger sister Bunny. This very classical female role does not mean that Kate is an obedient or boring character; rather, she is an acerbic, assertive woman who speaks her mind no matter the occasion. She was even kicked out of college for pointing out an error in a science teacher’s lecture. Now she works at a preschool, not that she likes kids or anything.

Kate’s humdrum life is thrown off kilter when her father, Louis, suggests one day that she marry his lab assistant Pyotr. He doesn’t propose the idea because he thinks Kate and Pyotr will be great together, or because they are even dating, but because Pyotr’s Visa is about to expire. Pyotr has no other way to stay in the country and help Louis Battista with his twenty-year-long experiment. At first Kate is appalled by the idea of being married off to someone, especially someone that she finds as repulsive as Pyotr. But finally, Kate relents, and a courting game ensues with a level of caustic hilarity that mounts as the novel continues.

In the same vein of Shakespearean humor, language is a main means by which Tyler brings comedy into Vinegar Girl. Her characters use words with wit, stupidity, and ferocity. Tyler has a unique way of playing with language in the most simplistic of ways. Nothing is too fancy, and yet everything is calculated and perfectly arranged so that the text reads smoothly and the subtleties of the characters’ often nuanced words are not lost.

Vinegar Girl ends in a much more optimistic place than Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Instead of ending in submission and a hierarchical understanding of marriage, Vinegar Girl ends with a firm understanding of equality. Kate is not tamed; instead she comes to a place of understanding about her own position in her father’s household, as well as an understanding about what it means to be accepted and loved. Kate transforms into an empathetic character without losing any of her quirk or pizazz.

A fun, funny, and fast-paced love story, Vinegar Girl is a great read whether you are a Shakespeare fan or not. Released by Hogarth Publishing in June of 2016, you can find Vinegar Girl at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Chronicle of a Last Summer’

chronicle-of-a-last-summer-rashidiYasmine El Rashidi’s first novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer, tells a story of power, loss, and survival in Egypt during times of deep political unrest. The main character, an unnamed narrator, speaks to the reader from three different summers of her life: 1984, 1998, and 2014.

Chronicle of a Last Summer begins when the narrator is a young girl. The reader can sense this not only because of her more naïve thought processes, but also because of her short, terse sentences, and overall ignorance of larger issues going on around her. There is mention of divisiveness among Egypt and Israel, as well as a pervasive feeling that the government is not the most positive entity. However, these ideas never quite become fully teased out. We know that her activist father, Baba, has recently disappeared, and the narrator is left with her depressed and dejected mother who spends the majority of her time on the phone or in front of the television.

We come back into the narrator’s life while she is a film major at a local university. In 1998 the narrator begins to explore ideas around what it is to be human, what happiness means, and the activism rampant in Egypt at the time. There is significant maturity that happens over the first fourteen-year gap in the narrator’s life. Her thoughts become more fully developed, and Rashidi’s sentences go from being short, poetic bursts of thought to longer, more lyrical strands of philosophical musing.

During the narrator’s last summer, unexpected events pull the reader into a whirlwind of action previously missing from the novel. Though still a very intellectual and philosophical section, the last portion of Chronicle of a Last Summer is where we see the bulk of action take place. This section is also filled with the greatest sense of hopelessness and despair. Though these feelings pervade the story in the earlier sections, they are offset by the narrator’s youthful and, at least somewhat more, optimistic outlook which becomes diluted with time and experience.

Activism and politics play a large role in Chronicle of a Last Summer: particularly the idea of observation rather than direct participation in relation to activism. The narrator brings up this idea multiple times, questioning whether mere observation should be equated with complicity. Hand in hand with the political upheaval that sets the background of Rashidi’s novel comes the censorship, discrimination, and criminalization of activists standing for a just cause. Throughout all of the hardship though, comes the pervasive sense of place that ties the narrator, her family, and the activists of Egypt to their homeland.

Chronicle of a Last Summer is a beautiful and interrogative book that delves into the deeper subjects surrounding politics, activism, and a person’s roles and duties in society. A masterfully composed and artfully vetted novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer is one of the most relevant books of our time, not only for Egypt, but for every person wrapped up in their own country’s politics.

Published by Tim Duggan Books in June of 2016, Chronicle of a Last Summer is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between-the-world-and-meBlack lives do matter because black lives are human lives. All humans are simply that: human. No matter the color of their skin, their sexual preference, or the amount of money they make in a year, we are all human. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates says just this and so much more in a 152-page letter to his fifteen-year-old son.

He starts out the book by acknowledging the commonly held belief that “race [is] a defined, indubitable, feature of the natural world,” but he quickly denounces this as myth and probes at a newer (perhaps for some more radical) idea. The idea that “race is the child of racism” and only out of racism and the defining of what physical features are desirable, what actions are ascribed as typical to a particular sub set of people, do we come out with the idea of race.

In the book, Coates points out that it was once easy to pick out a racist, and to some extent, overt racism is still around and easy to identify. The KKK has not disappeared and lynching still happens, yes. Coates, though, challenges that subtler racism is where the bigger, more widespread problem is. Ideas of what a person is capable of based on appearance, value judgments based on a person’s physical features, fear, aggression, and violence toward a person because of the color of their skin: that’s the racism of today that endangers the rights of so many human beings who don’t look like the majority.

Coates goes on to address the years of oppression, segregation, and racism that the black community has experienced since the rape of Africa happened. The idea that America, Egypt, and all “great” countries were founded on the backs of slaves, is not something that should be so easily cast aside, forgiven, and forgotten. Perhaps most importantly so because the racism built into the culture of the United States has not by any means been eradicated since slavery was abolished. Coates has no qualms in proclaiming the strides that have been made in regards to civil rights, but he also has no issue saying we have a lot further to go before we reach equality.

Between the World and Me is filled with a sense of hopelessness that is pervasive throughout its pages. Nowhere does Coates offer a solution, remedy, or even hopeful message as to what the future could hold. While it is easy to see the pain and despair that has seeded American culture in regards to issues of racism, Coates leaves readers wondering: what can I do? How do we make reparations for the damage done? Will things ever change? Perhaps Coates doesn’t know? Perhaps Coates doesn’t have the answer? Perhaps the answer is simply his book: an opening up of conversation. Perhaps right now, all that can be done is to talk about it, to make more people aware of the issues still present in the world that they don’t experience, that they don’t live with, but that are that much more important because of the clandestine and nonchalant air around them.

An emotionally charged and moving epistle, Between the World and Me gets at many of the issues ingrained in the deep set racism of American culture, and that the public has been privy to lately in the news. Though Between You and Me can often feel like a rant, why shouldn’t it? Why shouldn’t people whose lives are shown not to matter to the greater community speak out, be angry, make at least a verbal attempt to show that they do matter, that they too are human?

Between the World and Me was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015 and has won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, ALA Alex Award, PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

Between the World and Me is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

 

‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson

the-gap-of-time-wintersonShakespeare is arguably one of the greatest literary figures of all time. In saying this, who could ever retell his stories with, at the very least, an equal caliber? Jeanette Winterson does just this in her latest novel The Gap of Time.

Based on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, The Gap of Time picks up all of the characters in the play and sets them down in the modern day to explore both the themes presented in the original and more. Winterson takes the gap of time that occurs in the original play of some sixteen years, and extrapolates on the significance, terror, and beauty of time and its passage.

The story is one of an abandoned child lost and found. It is a story of a power-hungry and jealous father who must come to terms with the limits of his ego in order to find happiness. It is a story of two children grown to adolescence: young lovers connected in a way that they could never dream of. It is a story of old and new love, of the importance of understanding your own self-worth and fighting for the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. Most of all, it is a story of redemption, forgiveness, and renewal.

The poetical appeal of Shakespeare’s language is retained and modernized in The Gap of Time, and most especially through Winterson’s lush descriptions of time itself. Time is something that “holds the world still” that follows “you like a shadow,” and sometimes “[t]his is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.” What is perhaps the most magical and insightful aspect of The Gap of Time is Winterson’s treatment of time as a dynamic and fluid player in all our lives. Instead of viewing time from a single perspective, Winterson drives at it from all possible vantage points, and forces the reader to inquire into the many significances that time brings to life.

Though nearly all of the characters in The Gap of Time are much more accessible than Shakespeare’s in The Winter’s Tale, Winterson stays trues to the motivation behind most while also intermixing even more threads of love, lust, gender, sexuality, and humanity.

The Gap of Time is an absolute must read whether you are familiar with The Winter’s Tale or not. While coming to the novel with The Winter’s Tale as a background proves for a more thorough and insightful read, Winterson gives a full recap of the play in the book’s beginning, and the novel itself can stand alone just as strongly.

Published by Hogarth in June of 2016, The Gap of Time is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘I Take You’ by Eliza Kennedy

i-take-you-kennedyWhat does it mean to be an adult? What does it take to be a parent, a husband, a wife? Where is the line between being flawed and being a bad person? Above all of the questions, though, hovers the central tension in author Eliza Kennedy’s debut novel I Take You: what is the value of marriage and monogamy?

I Take You is a novel about a woman in her twenties, Lily Wilder, who is about to marry Will, a man she has known for six months and who proposed to Lily after only weeks of knowing her. Not only that, but Lily is a pathological liar, cheater, drug abuser, and borderline alcoholic – none of which her fiancé Will knows about.

Throughout I Take You, Lily is at constant war with herself as to whether she should marry Will or not. Should she quit her gallivanting and devote herself to a single man? Is that what she wants? Is she even capable of being faithful?

Surrounded by a hoard of divorced mothers and a libertine father, Lily has a hard time discerning what is right and wrong in the world of love and marriage. How much can you ever know a person before marrying them anyway? How can you ever truly know it’s the “right” person or that the relationship will last forever? What if that person is the right person for that moment in time, but you change and evolve in different ways that make you incompatible later?

While these are valid questions to raise, they become slightly less valuable in the face of Will and Lily’s rather overzealous engagement: there’s no way they can know each other by the point of their marriage. Nonetheless, they are important questions to be asked, because in the end, what does it mean to be in love? How does love then become qualified for marriage? Is a strong feeling the same as love; is it just passion, or something else entirely?

In Lily’s particular case, she is chronically unfaithful to her fiancé, and the reader wonders what this has to say about Lily. She is fully aware of her actions, of the pain she’s sure her actions will cause, and yet she doesn’t change. Is she incapable of change? Does she simply choose not to change, and does this selfishness make her a bad person?

The book spirals into wild developments that change the entire nature of the arguments presented and delve into deeper, harder, and more terrifying questions about love, marriage, and monogamy. Kennedy does a great job of tying up her ends without a total “happily ever after” or doomsday ending.

I Take You, is a book about so many different things, but when it comes down to it, it’s really about being human, about experiencing the human condition of loving and being loved, and about both living in the present moment and being aware that a future exists where your present actions will have an impact.

Published by Broadway Books in 016, I Take You is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

 

‘Ruler of Hearts’ by Jason Kerzinski

ruler of hearts-kerzinskiRuler of Hearts by Jason Kerzinski is a poetically driven collection of works that glimpses the lives of those in the French Quarter of New Orleans with a searing depth.

Kerzinski divides his collection into four different sections: Ruler of Hearts, Little Abyss, In Bloom, and Exceedingly Beautiful. Each section features a host of mini character sketches focusing on a different aspect of life for those characters. From the effect that New Orleans has on in its people, to ideas of both spiritual and physical death, Ruler of Hearts captures the most intimate moments of life in mere pages.

The long form poems range from one paragraph to a few pages, but the poignancy with which Kerzinski is able to grasp and dissect the lives of his characters is what propels the collection forward. Each piece focuses on a different person who the reader has never met before, and yet by the end of that piece the reader feels as if she knows this character in an intimate way, as if she’s been reading about him for 150 pages already.

Rather than flowery language, Kerzinski utilizes short terse descriptions to feed the narratives, and he does so in the most compelling way. Though he might be simply telling the reader exactly what’s happening, the images that he procures are visceral and moving in a way that transports the reader directly to the scene. Kerzinski also includes illustrations throughout Ruler of Hearts: black and white sketches that symbolize some aspect of a particular poem or section.  The illustrations are uniquely oblique, and some of them are utterly terrifying; yet, all of them throw you into the piece with greater fervor, wonder, and dread.

Ruler of Hearts is a beautifully crafted work that gets at the heart of life in the French Quarter in the most direct and concise manner. Kerzinski is a master of descriptive poetics, and his first published collection is a testament to this claim.

Published by Obzene Press in 2016, Ruler of Hearts is available for purchase online at Obzene Press.

Read more book reviews of small press published work at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Phone Rang’ by Mary Reid Gaudio


the-phone-rang-gaudio-1The Phone Rang
by Mary Reid Gaudio is the story of three sisters as they stand together to fight the battle against their sister Ann’s Leukemia. Autobiographical, historical and full of moral insight, The Phone Rang touches on multiple aspects of both the sisters’ lives and Leukemia as a destructive disease.

Gaudio shares the narrator’s seat with her sister Chee while also periodically slipping into Ann’s perspective. Ann often falls into telling the reader, or presumably Mary, about her journey through life up until the point of her diagnosis. Gaudio also intersperses her own backstory with the story of Ann and her disease. Chee on the other hand focuses specifically on Ann.

The structure of the novel can at times become distracting because of the large, unbroken paragraphs and the changes in font from italics to bold to standard. It seems that the same emotional impressions could be made with cleaner construction and more thorough copy editing. Though the novel’s structure fits Gaudio’s attempt at stream of consciousness narration, this mode of telling can also at times sidetrack the reader from the deeper emotional aspects. While character building and backstory are intensely important to establish in order for the reader to feel for Mary, Ann, and Chee, there are often points where the story falls into a mode of “telling,” and the reader can easily get lost in the vast amount of information being thrown at her.

All in all, Gaudio effectively taps into the emotional rollercoaster that ensues with such a life threatening diagnosis as leukemia, while also focusing on the humanity of her and her sisters. In the end, Ann reminds her sisters and the readers to live life fully, to act in the now, and to fight for survival.

The Phone Rang was published by Book Venture in 2015 and is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Shylock Is My Name’ by Howard Jacobson

shylock-is-my-name-jacobsonA modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice finds the perfect balance of traditional and contemporary in Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name.

Jacobson’s novel follows Simon Strulovich, a character in the image of Shakespeare’s Shylock himself: a man who feels he is on the verge of losing everything, including his daughter, his respect, and his wealth. Mirrored by Shylock, a fellow man of Jewish descent that Strulovich meets in a cemetery, the two characters stroll through the pages of Jacobson’s novel sometimes almost as a single unit, sometimes as the perfect antagonist to one another.

After Strulovich and Shylock meet in the cemetery, they proceed to spend the rest of the novel mostly discussing the very similar situations in which they find themselves. Both feel abandoned by daughters who have chosen Christian men as lovers, both have wives who are not fully present, both feel the weight of anti-Semitism that surrounds them, and both struggle to fit themselves into a world they understand as specifically anti-Jewish when they themselves don’t always align with Jewish heritage, culture or religion.

The irony, facetiousness, and comedy bound up in many of the very serious topics at hand, imbues Jacobson’s novel with an air of Shakespearean wit. While exploring themes of materialism, collective culture, the irony of malice and revenge, as well as the importance of relationships both familial and plutonic, Jacobson is able to move with a grace and ease that make the topics, though heavy, somehow more digestible. The prose itself is near poetic, and any Shakespeare fan will not only be thrilled by meeting numerous Shakespearean characters, but also by the many borrowed lines and plot points as well.

Despite all of the Shakespearean references, allusions, and outright proclamations, Shylock Is My Name is a book that could be enjoyable to any population. The themes explored, the power of the prose, and the depth of the characters make for a deeply moving, hilarious, and frustration inducing novel.

Published by Hogarth Press in 2016, Shylock Is My Name is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Surreptitiously Yours’ by Kristen Fouquet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Where are the bounds of privacy, and what does it mean to respect privacy in the face of art making? A young film student asks just this question in Kristen Fouquet’s novella Surreptitiously Yours.  In a book where noir meets literary, meets poetry, Surreptitiously Yours also delves into deeper themes of truth, love and the limits of art.

Claudette’s thesis for her film degree revolves around the idea of surreptitiously filming people in public so that they are in their most authentic state of being. Her argument is that her subjects are a greater representation of truth because they don’t know that they are being filmed and are thereby not moved to act, speak, or behave in any one certain way. Claudette’s thesis, already controversial in itself, spirals to encompass a whirlwind of murder, subjugation, and the absolute perversion of privacy. But is it all in the name of truth?

At what point does the very validity of truth come into question because of the means by which it was obtained? In tandem, at what point does truth become subverted and manipulated by the person filming because of his or her own biases, beliefs, or desires? Claudette is forced to ask herself these questions about her own work once she becomes the victim of a classmate’s perverse film project herself based on a twisted version of her own idea.

Fouquet does an amazing job of keeping her readers on the edge of their seats as she winds through scene after scene of action while also developing her characters into rich, believable people in just under 125 pages. Every time the reader thinks she knows what is coming next, Fouquet flips the story on its head and sends it reeling in another direction.

A book so artfully composed and beautifully constructed, Surreptitiously Yours is as vivid as any film could ever hope to be.

Surreptitiously Yours was published in March of 2016 by Le Salon Press and can be purchased from Fouquet’s website. Watch the trailer for Surreptitiously Yours if you want to catch a glimpse of what is in store for you as a reader.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

the-little-paris-bookshop-georgeThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is an enchanting tale of love, loss and living through them both. Much more than just a sappy love story though, The Little Paris Bookshop looks into the very soul beneath human action and into the internal passions that drive us all.

Set in Paris and in the south of France, The Little Paris Bookshop follows the story of Monsieur Perdu, a just past middle aged bookshop owner who is still pining for his unrequited love twenty one years after the dissolution of their relationship. M. Perdu spends his days prescribing books to people from his Literary Apothecary which is housed aboard a boat named Lulu, and his nights alone and mourning the absence of his lover.

Perdu’s self-contained world, though, is shattered when a new tenant moves into 27 Rue Montagnard and finds the unopened letter that Perdu’s lover wrote to him twenty one years ago when she left. Finally, moved to open the letter Perdu embarks on a journey to unravel the mysteries concerning both his lover and himself.

Along the way, Perdu encounters many characters who do for him what he has done for countless others with his Literary Apothecary: they prescribe to him just the right action for leaving sorrow, embracing grief, finding joy and releasing himself. From tango dancing to eating succulent foods, Perdu slowly begins to loosen the hold he has on himself, his past, and his willingness to love again.

A magically charged tale of enchanting depth and beautiful coincidence (or fate), The Little Paris Bookshop delves into themes that touch every human being. George explores what it means to live fully, to love fully, and to be fully human all while telling a story that will make readers tear up at the turn of every other page. A brilliant, funny, terrifying, and inspiring novel, The Little Paris Bookshop is an absolute must read.

Published by Broadway Books in 2016 and translated from the original German into English, you can purchase The Little Paris Bookshop at your local bookstore today.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.