‘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.

‘A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBrideEimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a modern-day Joycean expedition into the disjointed thoughts of a haunted, unnamed girl. Following this unnamed narrator from birth until twenty years old, McBride’s novel takes on a prosody which mirrors the alacrity of events that take place. Told as a stream of consciousness, the narrator takes us through the horrors of her child and young adulthood all along addressing “you,” her brother, as if he were the recipient of her tale.

Within pages of the novel, we find that the narrator’s brother was born with a brain tumor and his sight, hearing, equilibrium and brain development have been severely affected by this past illness. The narrator’s mother is an abusive single parent whose love of religion and the ideas bound up in religiosity far outweigh her actual participation and investment in the ideals of the church. We meet other significant characters in the narrator’s life, all of whom negatively impact her and lead her further down a road toward corruption and dissociation with herself and her body.

A major theme in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the disparate ideas of purity that surround the narrator. What purity means to those within the Christian faith, what it means to the narrator, to her mother, and to the world at large severely shadow the events of the novel. The narrator, though she seems to denounce Christianity, cannot help but feel the pull of its ideals that have been instilled in her since childhood. Constantly obsessing over purification and baptism, the narrator simultaneously seeks out disdainful actions and repels them at the same time, though she hardly ever escapes a negative situation with success.

Coupled with this idea of purity is the role of the body and the question of whether purity of body or mind is more important. There is constantly a disassociation of the self from the body, as the narrator begins to use sex and physical abuse as a form of consolation for her troubles. Echoed by the slow death of her brother’s body, the narrator too becomes more and more detached from the body which she subjects to abuse, often commenting on the emptiness inside of her that she seeks to fill.

The novel moves at a pace that often cascades so quickly, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly what’s happening as you get caught up in the often fragmented, sometimes half-formed, language that fills each page. The rapid cadence of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing proves to propel the novel forward with a dire momentum that positions the reader constantly on an edge: just as the narrator is.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a terrifyingly beautiful look into the formation of a young girl and all that can and will go wrong in her life. The dual simplicity and complexity of McBride’s language mirrors the themes and ideas of the novel that, though they are often blatant, are deeply profound and driven by an emotionality that the reader can’t help but be absorbed by.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing was published by Hogarth in June of 2015.

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 Shore’ by Sara Taylor

The Shore by Sara TaylorThe Shore is a place of beauty and nightmare, of magic and perversity, of both horror and insight. In this collection of interconnected short stories, author Sara Taylor takes readers on a journey of genealogy that explores themes of family, the cyclical nature of violence, the importance of self-preservation and perseverance, as well as the complexity of what it means to love and be loved by others and by oneself.

Female characters are at the center of most of the stories, and the strength and vulnerability of the female condition is explored in depth. One of the most valuable aspects of the novel though is Taylor’s ability to shift her perspective from male to female, from past to present, from first to third person and back again. We hear from the raped and the rapist, from the abused and the abuser, from mother and child and from friends, lovers and cousins all to culminate in the telling of not only the individual stories, but the larger, over-arching themes that span the entirety of the novel.

In narrating The Shore in such a way, Taylor creates an air of empathy that would otherwise be vacant space. Because of the multiple perspectives offered, though, the reader is better able to gain access into the minds and spirits of characters whose connections to one another only ensure the reader’s own attachment to that character. Though this by no means absolves any of the characters of their often malevolent personas, and in some cases the reader is made to hate the already detestable characters even more so.

The Shore is unarguably a work of literary fiction; however, Taylor is still able to weave elements of magical realism, dystopian narrative and thriller inspired mystery into a number of her stories. Though Taylor is often successful in seamlessly shaping these deeper stories despite their more plot-driven impetus, the reader can at times get distracted from the value and significance of the story as she is drawn into the what rather than the who of the narrative.

Nonetheless, The Shore is an emotionally charged read that forces you to contemplate larger questions of violence, love and hatred while encouraging the growth, development and perseverance of the individual despite hardship, failure and horror.

Published by Hogarth, Sara Taylor’s The Shore was realeased May 26, 2015.

Pick up a copy 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.

‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

The book of Strange New ThingsWhat makes us human: love, compassion, faith? What happens when we are stripped of human contact with the people we love most, when we are encouraged to flout compassion in favor of rationality, when faith is all that is left for us and we aren’t sure we even want or can muster an ounce of pure belief? These are only a few of the questions Michel Faber addresses in his latest novel The Book of Strange New Things. A literary adventure into the speculative world of aliens, religion, and relationships, Faber paints a reality peopled with the unexpected, the unsavory, and the utterly flawed.

Peter Leigh is a pastor recruited by the USIC, a government corporation that has recently taken over NASA as well as other large corporations and sectors, to act as a missionary on a newly colonized planet Oasis. Peter is forced to leave behind his wife, Bea, who the USIC will not allow to accompany him on the undertaking even though all of their missionary work has been done as a team in the past. In leaving Bea, Peter feels that he’s not only left the better part of himself behind, but that he is failing in his pastoral duties without Bea’s scrutiny and levelheadedness.

Upon entering the Oasan atmosphere, Peter befriends the USIC staff as well as the native Oasan people the latter of who hunger for his knowledge of Christianity. Apart from Peter’s day-to-day action, we are also privy to a series of letters, epistles as Peter calls them, between himself and Bea. At first they are affectionate and filled with the mundane conversation of everyday life that the couple were used to having prior to their separation. As the gap of time between their last moments together widens though, the physical gap of the distance between them becomes more palpable, and the metaphysical connection that they once thought so strong is deeply shaken. Peter becomes more distanced and distracted by his mission as Bea becomes wrapped up in the world around her which she describes to Peter as being in a steep decline.

Peter becomes a frustrating character that despite or perhaps in light of his understanding and calmness shifts into an almost vapid husband. Though he claims to love his wife, his letters to her lack the emotion he wishes to portray, and the words that come out on paper betray his idealistic notions of love amidst a world so far away from Bea’s problems. Similarly, it is hard for the reader to sympathize with Bea, since all we have of her in terms of contact are her letters to Peter. We know she is suffering, that things are going badly on Earth, and that she is not getting the emotional support that she needs from Peter, but we also see her lack of understanding for her husband’s issues on a planet that she can’t even conceive of. Both lovers are caught in their own worlds, unable to understand, sympathize or support one another in the way that they used to, and they are forced to question if their love can survive despite these obstacles.

Throughout the arc of Peter and Bea’s relationship, we see the strains and constraints that love is capable of, and perhaps the limits of its power. Peter’s fidelity to his wife comes into question as he begins to fantasize about other women in a St. Augustine-esque fashion, feeling immediate guilt for what he sees as the inherently male reactions to a woman’s body and sexuality.

A book that explores all angles of humanity in a way that forces you to question your own ethics, morals and understanding of the natural ways of the world, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is an adventure into the depths of the human soul.

Released by Hogarth, you can find The Book of Strange New Things 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.

“The Room” by Jonas Karlson

The Room by Jonas KarlssonA gut bursting novella that reads like a tragicomic production, The Room by Jonas Karlsson is smart, hilarious and such a quick read that you’ll want to start it over again as soon as you hit the last sentence. The 186 page, 8 ½  x 6 ½ inch novelette is packed with irony and hilarity in its apt portrayal of the mundane and inane nature of office life as well as the many formulaic characters that reside there.

Björn has recently acquired a job working for the Authority, an organization with phantoms for leaders referred to only by their initials. These “leaders” send down numbered (never named) reports to the lowly office workers who in turn have no idea what those reports are about. Björn is hired as a sort of administrative assistant, and he takes his job extremely seriously. However, he is determined to move to the top, mostly at other people’s expense. His office mates are awkward, sometimes cruel and entirely suspicious of Björn, and he treats them no differently, though he often tries to say that he does. The unreliability of the narrator here is stark, though we can never be sure what the truth is behind Björn’s or his office mates’ distorted perceptions of reality, we can be sure that something is amiss.

To illuminate this point, Karlsson brings into the story “the room:” a small space in the office, right beside the bathroom where Björn gets most of his work done, but that those around him doubt the very veracity of. Björn must assert his rights to the room by proving that it aids him in his work, but even this does not keep his coworkers from thinking he is crazy.

Among the many themes Karlsson addresses, the idea of conformity and the erasure of individuality are paramount. Amidst all of Björn’s ridiculous antics and highbrow, self-serving thoughts and actions, there is the desire, the human need, to be a self and not just a member of the herd which is admirable in his character. Björn as well as his coworkers tend more to the side of despicable and annoying, yet each character holds a certain quality that is recognizable and relatable either within oneself or within another. These qualities might not be what we want to see in ourselves and others, but they are truths that are unavoidable.

At times highly frustrating and at other times laugh out loud funny, Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a hilarious and light yet profound read that will keep you on your toes and make you think deeply about the state of human affairs in contemporary urban life.

The Room by Jonas Karlsson will be released by Hogarth on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Preorder a copy from 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.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia BondRuby by Cynthia Bond is a novel of love, liberty, and the maintaining of dignity in the face of hardship, exploitation and layers of distrust.

The story takes place in Liberty, Texas, a town blanketed in despair and shrouded in an evil that is perpetuated and reinvigorated with each new generation.  At the beginning of the novel, Ruby Bell has returned from New York where she went in search of the mother who abandoned her as a child. She has come back to Liberty to find the same dank, horror-filled must that she left behind; only now the tenebrous spirit of Liberty has ensnared her with new vigor.

Though the residents of Liberty reject Ruby and think of here as merely crazy, Ephram Jennings still remembers Ruby as the young, innocent child from his own past, and he takes it upon himself to show kindness and unconditional love to the now broken woman. In the midst of this process, Ephram undergoes his own transformation toward self-assertion, self-love and self-healing.

A novel about breaking free from bondage and finding liberty in love, each of the character’s stories are a haunting reminder of just how cruel the world can be. When we first meet Ruby and Ephram we know that something is off in the way that each of them acts and interacts within their world, but we aren’t given immediate access to the why of their situations. Why is Ruby lying naked in the forest? Why does Ephram, a middle-aged man, live with his sister Celia and call her mother? As the narrative unfolds, unimaginable horrors are revealed as well as character intersections and relationships that are entirely unforeseen.

There is a highly spiritual element to the novel both at the level of institutionalized religion as well as more nature based spirituality. Evoking Roman myths like that of Daphne and Apollo as well as spirit imbued animals, tarrens (ghost children) and the Judeo-Christian God, Bond weaves together these spiritual elements to create a world fraught with contradiction, terror, and oddly enough, inspiration.

Further, questions of sanity pervade the pages of the book. What does it mean to be sane? Who has the right to deem another person insane? To what lengths can a person be physically and emotionally driven before teetering over the edge of what is typically thought of as sane? These physical and emotional experiences are what serve to propel the novel backward and forward through time as the past horrors of Ruby, Ephram, Celia and nearly every other inhabitant of Liberty are revealed throughout the course of the novel. Ruby forces the refiguring and conceptualizing of what trauma, of what sanity and of what dignity really means.

Though at times Ruby is so graphic that it is difficult to want to turn the page and find out what happens next, Bond’s prose is so poetic and fluid that the rhythmic experience of words envelopes the reader in a mystical telling of the very real and imperfect world that we all live in.

Published by Hogarth Press in February 2015, Ruby is already a New York Times Bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection.

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

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.