Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “A Selfie As Big As The Ritz” by Lara Williams

A Selfie As Big As The Ritz by Lara Williams

This collection of (very) short stories tells of life in Williams’ Manchester (just released in the US this fall). The stories are about relationships and mostly break ups, unhappiness, sadness, depression, death, and many other unpleasantries. Altogether, it is G-R-I-M, grim.

Williams style is intentionally compressed, squeezing a lot of personal history into f few pages. It is rather lossy compression, and the stories are ambiguous and sketchy, leaving much to the inference of the reader. In many cases, I didn’t really know what had happened or was happening, or whether the events were past, present, or fantasy.

The stories are about relationships, especially in the life a young woman with a Masters in writing living in Manchester. “Write what you know”, I guess.

Any one of her stories is a little puzzle to work out. But taken together as a collection, it’s really awful to read dozens of permutations of unhappy, lonely people.

The stories are mostly about breakups and disappointments. When there are happy moments or relationships, they are rapidly ended, sometimes before they can even start.

I couldn’t really understand the protagonists, let alone identify with them. It’s not that they can’t find happiness, they seem to want to be unhappy. They push away good things, sometimes for no reason I can discern.

If this is a slice or life or, heaven help her, autobiographical, it’s outside my own experience. If these are metaphors or messages, I haven’t a clue what she is trying to tell me. If this is supposed to be theraputic or to help people, please tell me how it is supposed to do any good.

Williams writes reasonably well, but these stories (especially collected in a mass) are unpleasant to read. I’m left wonder why anyone would be writing such depressing stories.

  1. Lara Williams, A Selfie As Big As The Ritz, London, Penguin, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Righteous” by Joe Ide

Righteous by Joe Ide

Yay! I’ve been waiting to hear more from Joe Ide about this young latter-day Holmes, IQ, who is one of my favorite new characters from 2016.

Righteous picks up where IQ left off. IQ is still serving his ‘hood as a low-cost private investigator in the hood, helping folks and righting wrongs. He very smart, but has not really recovered from the loss of his brother. In his twenties, he hasn’t really grown up, has few friends and fewer plans.

In this story, IQ is called upon to help a friend’s sister who is in serious trouble in Las Vegas. This leads into deep and dangerous trouble, confronting Chinese human trafficking gangs and home-grown loan sharks.

At the same time, IQ becomes convinced that the hit and run that killed his brother was murder rather than accident. If so, who did it, and why? Unraveling this mystery puts him in yet more dangerous conflict with local criminals and gangs.

And, if this weren’t enough, IQ is growing up, working through friendship with Dodson and the possibility of romance.

We’re worried about you, kid. You’re smart and good-hearted, but so, so young for the responsibilities you take on.

This is a great novel, with real life settings, but also some larger than life characters. And, like all good stories, it’s deeply human and humane. These are beautiful people, trying to be good and do good.

Who can read this without wanting to emulate IQ?

It is clear that we’ve not heard the last of IQ. I, for one, am ready for the next installment of this remarkable guy.

  1. Joe Ide, Righteous, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Shylock is My Name” by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Let’s finish going back to read the first of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Shylock is My Name (obviously based on The Merchant of Venice).

Jacobson gives us a very confusing story, centering on Simon Strulovitch, a contemporary wealthy widower with a troublesome daughter. He is plagued by his neighbors, and by his own Jewishness.

Unlike the original play, the latter day man is visited and disputes at length with Shylock himself from the original play. I had a lot of trouble parsing this relationship—fictional Shylock apparently participating in the parallel life of Strulovitch. Please don’t ask me to explain, I don’t really get it.

The characters struggle with Jewish identity, tradition, family, and love. Shylock is supposed to help these confusions, but, as he says, the original story ends where it ends. We can’t really understand Shylock, and he cannot really guide us today.

Jacobson honors the original’s meditations on Jewish psychology, suggesting how it is still pertinent today.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an interesting topic for me, so the book tended to drag and wander.

Of course, I can say the same about the original play, too.

(The next Hogarth Shakespeare is scheduled for spring 2018. It’s supposed to be “on MacBeth”. We’ll have to see what can be made of that.)

  1. Howard Jacobson, Shylock is My Name: The Merchant of Venice Retold. Hogarth Shakespeare, New York, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Gap of Time” by Jeanette Winterson

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Having liked several of the recent Hogarth Shakespeare books, I went back to read the first two (from 2015) which I hadn’t before.

The Gap of Time (2015) is a riff on A Winter’s Tale, one of the more obscure and fantastical of the plays. And one that I don’t really know.

The original play takes place in imaginary places, and the action is a weird horror story, except at the end when time somehow resets and everything is magically OK. How can you make a modern story out of this?

Winterson spins a story about a rich and powerful man gone mad, (Where Shakespeare writes of kings,  modern authors substitute tycoons.  The parallels are straightforward.) The latter day strongman abuses underlings, women, and children (believable, to say the least), and destroys is own love and family because of his crazy jealousy.

As in the original, he sends away his daughter, Perdita, at birth. She is adopted by good, simple people in a far land. She grows to be a lovey child who knows nothing of her origin.

Winterson takes Willie’s timeless themes that power and money can’t buy love or family. She also follows the improbable coincidence that leads the children to fall in love and somehow reconnect with their damaged parents. Love prevails.

While the events are preposterous, the play shines through with the power of forgiveness, which heals the forgiver as much as the forgiven. Very Shakespeare, and I liked.. So sue me..

The original work is a late play, and like most of us, growing old found Will hoping more for forgiveness than justice.  In Winterson, we see a golden hope here that our children will save us, will make a better world, and if we are very lucky, they forgive us.

This hope may be a faint, faint gleam, but it is pure and clean and neither the evil in the world nor our own foolishness have destroyed it yet.

This is very much worthy of Shakespeare.

  1. Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time, New York, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015.


Sunday Book Reviews


Book Review: “Border Child” by Michel Stone

Border Child by Michel Stone

Stone’s second novel is a real tear-jerker.

Set in Mexico, a young family struggles with the loss of their first child. Separated in a tragic series of events, they don’t know if she is alive or dead, or where she might be. After several years, hints arise, and Héctor is off to try to find his daughter.

The tension is high throughout, as we ache with Lilia and Héctor, hoping that they may find their Alejandra, and fearing what they may learn. We also share their love and fears for their son and unborn daughter.

Héctor and Lilia were devastated by the earlier accident, and their hopes for life and their children’s lives have been beaten down by those events. But when hope resurfaces, they rise to the occasion, no matter how daunting the odds.

Héctor’s resolve to do anything to find his daughter is frightening. Such desperate need makes him take risks that may end in catastrophe.

As the title suggests, the US-Mexico border, la linea, plays a huge role in the lives and the psychology of this family. El norte is both an attraction for hopes and dreams, and the scene of danger, tragedy, and crushing loss.

Despite the hardships and incomprehensible pain of a lost child, Héctor and Lilia do find gratitude for the good things they have. There is beauty, if not peace, to be found in their village and everywhere in Mexico, and even in El Norte. And there are good people to be found, though it can be hard to see who is good, or trust each other.

This is a beautiful story, though I think the story isn’t finished.

  1. Michel Stone, Border Child, New York, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Dunbar” by Edward St. Aubyn

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

The Hogarth Shakespeare series  is producing a set of new novels, written by selected contemporary authors, riffing on plays by Willie Boy. It’s a gimmick, but to date, the results have been quite successful. (Vinegar Girl, New Boy, Hag-Seed)

Edward St. Alybyn’s entry in this game is Dunbar, based on King Lear. He has done a nice job, keeping in the spirit of the original, updating it, but not trying to compete with the Bard.

I’m not especially well up on my Lear, but I do recall that it is a study in the psychology and psychopathology of power and family. So fasten your seat belts, this isn’t going to be pretty.

The original olay is about a nasty King and his nasty family, and the vicious and violent struggle for succession to the throne. St. Albyns updates this story to be about a nasty media tycoon and his nasty family, and the vicious and violent struggle for succession to his conglomerate.

This update works pretty well.

The original play is a tragedy, with few good guys, no one unscathed, treachery everywhere, and a lot of roaring rhetoric. Good people are harmed, bad people thrive, and the king goes mad and loses everything.

The modern story has no poetry, but the old man has three daughters, two wicked daughters he trusted and one estranged good daughter. Treachery abounds, and almost everyone is fighting over his media kingdom.

As in the original, the old man has lived an arrogant and ambitious life, dedicated to the pursuit of power. In the tragic events of the story, he dances at the edge of madness, and ultimately comes to treasure a fe real friends and his youngest daughter above all, though he loses everything in the process.

Like the original play, Dunbar is pretty awful stuff, and we find ourself aching for justice, peace, and sanity. But peace will not be found here, though there is a glimmer of hope that even the worst of us may be redeemed by love.

  1. Edward St. Aubyn, Dunbar, New York, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I haven’t read very much by Tyler, though she has been writing longer than I’ve been able to read (which is a long time, now.). That says as much about me and my own reading tastes as about her writing.

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) is about a family and a house in mid-twentieth century Baltimore. The family is like every other family, filled with loyalty, affection, conflict, and history. This family also has secrets and mysteries. I wouldn’t say these are deep secrets or mysteries (this isn’t a Da Vinci Code or anything like that). Mostly they matter only to the family itself.

The plot centers on the end of the lives of the “middle” generation, and circle back to the previous generation (in the 1940s and 50s), and we glance at the beginnings of the next generation of children and grand children.

There is a spool of blue thread appears in the story, though I didn’t really grok the exact metaphor. At least partly, the thread is an unexplained connection between generations. The family is bound together in ways that they don’t really understand.

(Maybe I got it after all.)

There isn’t a lot of action, most of the story is a slow uncovering of the past and how it has come out in the present. As the novel unfolds, we come to discover some unexpected hidden depths in some of the people and their relationships. It is fair to say that they both understand and misunderstand each other.

It is notable that at the end, there remain mysteries about the current generation, as well as uncertainty about the future. How will this generation turn out? Will they remain close, or scatter? What, after all, makes them tick?

We don’t know, and Tyler seems to suggest that we never will know.

  1. Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, New York, Ballantine Books, 2015.


Sunday Book Reviews