REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Jacobson’s novel, Sherlock Is My Name, is the retelling of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It’s part of Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare series which features current authors such as Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler , Tracy Chevalier and Jeanette Winterson reimagining some of Shakespeare’s well known works. To refresh my memory I read Merchant of Venice before picking up Shylock. The main characters and dilemmas are all here, but its modern day and we are in the “golden triangle” of Chesire, England. Two Jewish men meet at a cemetery, one grieving his dead wife, one with a semi-living wife, both have troubled relationships with their rebellious teenage daughter. Enter Plurabelle (Portia) a Kardashian style celebrity. Plury uses a semi-famous Christian jock to seduce one of the daughters into her vapid life, eventually a demand of the infamous pound of flesh (albeit this one from a different part of the male anatomy) is made, and the two men spend the novel debating what it means to be a Jew and to what extent the Gentiles should be punished.

The stereotypes of both cultures are purposefully exploited to make the reader think about their own beliefs. Are you really Jewish if you don’t keep Kosher? If you don’t want your offspring to marry someone of a different religion, are you racist? Do you have to be antisemite in order to be Christian? Is Jacobsen trying to inflame the Christian readers to antisemitism? Is he trying to inspire Jewish readers to connect more to their history? Or do you have to be Jewish to understand that it is all sarcasm.

I was enjoying the book, the story line and the modernized characters, but soon found myself offended by the anti-Gentile rantings of Shylock to Strulovitch. I don’t believe I’m antisemitic, but my reaction to a lot of the writing made me wonder. I didn’t like the book at this point. I didn’t want to start wondering why he couldn’t just forgive and move forward. I’m not Jewish and that will never be my place. So the book began to make me angry. Whining of any sort always makes me angry. It has nothing to do with racism or antisemitism. Not to my mind anyway. But do I think people should just get over themselves because I am a product of an upper middle class white Christian American life and have nothing really to get over? Is Jacobson trying to prove to me that what I think is irrelevant? Does it help that I that I feel the same anger at right-wing evangelicals who whine about declining morals or white Americans who whine about their country being invaded by immigrants?

And then I’m back to liking the book. Because this is what literature should do. It should open your mind and make you question why you think the way you think. It should lead you to either confirm your belief or change it. I thought about this book and the soul searching it brought up for me for weeks after I finished it. That’s a good book.

REVIEW: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Sometimes what isn’t said is more important than what is. Sometimes the rests in music are more important than the played notes. Sometime all those unread words and all that unheard music is what stays with us. Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata is a perfect, painful illustration of this. Her writing is exquisite and the story is hauntingly beautiful, but it’s all that she gives her readers space to imagine that truly makes the novel a memorable masterpiece.

In World War II Switzerland, Gustav learns from a very young age that “one must master one’s self” and love is weakness. This is his important lesson on being Swiss, to be stoic and separate at all times.

And yet, he doesn’t. His attempt to pass that lesson on to a young Jewish boy, Anton, when he first meets the sobbing boy results in a lifelong bond. His mother allows the relationship to grow but continuously makes derogatory statements about Anton, his family and his race. And although his mother refers to his father as a hero, her snide comments reveal her residual anger at his moral actions that led to their ruin. She blames him for getting involved, for not being neutral as she thinks a good Swiss should be. Yet it isn’t Gustav’s father who is weak, it’s his mother. Emilie is unable to deal with any reality or hardship of life. She walls out any news or understanding of the world, her husband’s job or politics. She screams and throws hysterical fits, runs home to mother, lays in bed and reads fashion magazines or slumps to the floor and cries for hours on end.

Things are different in Anton’s family. Emotions and love are encouraged to the point of burdensome pressures to live up to unrealistic expectations. Anton’s mother adores him to the point of suffocation in her encouragement of his piano genius and blindness to his shortcomings. His father sees them but adores his wife too much to interfere with her mothering. They turn to Gustav. Anton turns to Gustav. He is the light between them that illuminates what they don’t say, what they don’t hear.

It’s this incredible void that weaves through the three parts of the novel – and through your heart as you absorb what isn’t written. This child, this loving, giving child who takes on the weight of everyone else’s misery all the way to old age. He soothes his mother, he reassures Anton’s parents, he calms Anton, he comforts his father’s lover. This self-denying sense of duty colors every inch of his character. Everything for others. Nothing for himself. Never asking or expecting, always doing and giving. You can’t help but feel sorry for him and his pitiable inability to say no or to ever think of himself first.

“We have to become the people we always should have been,” Anton says to Gustav, and although Gustav believes it to be true, it has the slightest feel of resignation yet again. Gustav will always do what Anton directs and Anton will always use that. There is no judgement of anyone in Tremain’s tragic novel, but if it’s true that you can’t really love someone until you learn to love yourself, Gustav will never know real love.

REVIEW: Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

“Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “But do you really love me?” It’s been said that Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) is the most disliked female character in all of literary history. Maybe. But I found the needy and pathetic Ursula Brangwen of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love more insufferable and her sister Gudren colder and crueler. It got to the point that I would find myself rolling my eyes or scoffing audibly at their dialogue. The women in Women in Love have no redeeming qualities. Can’t imagine wanting to be like them, having friends or family like them, let alone falling in love with them. And that’s what happens in Women in Love. Male characters as damaged as these female characters couple up with them and create further damaged relationships. And yet, Lawrence clearly respects his male characters, giving them more depth and redeeming qualities. They do love each other and the description of the male bonding is written with tenderness and admiration.

I didn’t find the book difficult to read. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like the characters. I didn’t like the dialogue. “After all, who can take the nationalisation of Ireland seriously? Who can take political Ireland really seriously, whatever it does?” Umm, the Irish? People actually involved in the world and what’s going on in it? It was certainly a topical issue in 1916-21 England when the book was written and published. I didn’t find Daisy anywhere near as insufferable as this.

The only beauty I saw in the book was in the passages dealing with, whether narrative or dialogue, Birkin’s love for Gerald. This was beautiful writing. His mourning at the end was palpable, so wrought with real emotion that it brought tears. Why didn’t Lawrence write as beautifully when it pertained to the female characters in the novel? Was it a purposeful decision? Was he trying to further alienate them from the reader? It does add to their despicableness. But it also takes away from the book itself. How much better the work would have been if the writing had been so eloquent throughout and Lawrence had felt less of a need to preach to his reader. 500 plus pages is a lot to read for so little beauty with lengthy spaces of monotony and dislike.

Am I glad I read it? Not so much. I respect the opinion that Lawrence is considered one of the great English writers. As noted above, parts of the book were beautifully written. And I did keep reading until the end so it had something. I’ll try one more Lawrence novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for which he is most known and then decide if I agree with that opinion. Or if I agree with one of my favorite authors, James Joyce, “The man writes really badly.”

REVIEW: A Word for Love by Emily Robbins

A Word for Love is the debut novel of Fulbrighter Emily Robbins. The novel is set in the Middle East in the years just before the Syrian war. Syria isn’t actually named as the country of setting, but Damascus sites and streets are referenced.

A naïve, American exchange student named Bea is living with a Syrian host family while she studies Arabic and attempts to read the famous love story of Qais and Leila – a story in which the Bedouin Qais loves Leila so much that he stops being called Qais, and is instead called Majnoon Laila, meaning Crazy for Laila. Bea becomes a part of their family and develops a deep friendship with their married Indonesian house servant, Nisrine. Nisrine falls in love with a policeman standing guard on a neighboring roof top. Bea watches their love affair develop through hand signals and looks and relates it to Qais and Leila.

The mother of the host family suspects the relationship and begins to distrust the servant and by association, Bea. The father of the host family is an anti-government activist who has already served 10 years in jail and is under current observation by the police. Bea carelessly tells her Arabic tutor that the father is at a known anti-government hangout. The tutor trades the information for his own freedom during a police interrogation and the father is again arrested. Her guilt overcomes her and further cracks the relationship with her host family. With the Syrian family now in real danger of backlash from the dictatorship government, the servant returned shamefully back to her country, Bea escapes back to America with an easy phone call to her parents.

Robbins writes with the beauty of someone who knows the Arabic language well – using soft, flowing, dreamy sentences that paint vivid works of art in the reader’s mind. Her love of the language, the culture and the place are apparent in her writing as she modernizes the romantic style of 1001 Arabian Nights’ storytelling.

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is by all means and American literary masterpiece. The story is set during the Roaring ‘20s and is told by Nick Carraway, a modest young man who happens to move next door to Jay Gatsby. Gatsby seeks Nick out and invites him to parties at his Long Island Sound mansion, to swim in his pool, to dine with him, but most importantly, to bring his cousin Daisy Buchanan by.

Gatsby knew and loved Daisy in another life, before he was rich enough to be considered a genuine prospect by her. He spent the last many years getting wealthy and positioning himself in her social circle to he prove he was worthy of her and could claim her love; to prove to himself that she never loved Tom and only married him because of his wealth, that in reality she had only ever loved Gatsby.

None of the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel are particularly likable, but that’s part of the book’s draw. The idle rich shouldn’t really be likable in literature, they need flaws to provoke such breathtaking sentences – “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and vast carelessness…” What depth would there be in writing about perfect, likable, rich people?

Despite the wealth, the lavish parties, the “right” guests, things, education and manners, he doesn’t succeed in stealing Daisy from Tom. There are whispers of how he got his money, shady characters in his past and a final hit-and-run for which he takes the fall. Despite Gatsby’s defiant, “Can’t repeat the past?  Why of course you can!”, in the end, he painfully knows going back in time to create a future isn’t possible.

Fitzgerald is an eloquent writer whose prose rivals the slow melodic flow to Southern life and the beauty of its enchanting magnolia blooms and moss covered willow trees blowing in soft, warm breezes. To read his words is to feel just how beautiful the English language can be. 

REVIEW: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Did Mary Shelley really write Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus in response to a parlor game to pass the time during inclement weather at Lord Byron’s home? Her gothic romance novel was published to mixed reviews in 1818, a year in which the scientific theory of galvanism was a popular topic of discussion among the elite. It’s plausible that when faced with such a challenge, she did indeed dream about a scientist bringing the dead back to life through the use of electrical currents. If so, she took that topic and that dream and turned it into a most beautifully written tale of tragedy and humanity explored to the brink of insanity. Her story breathes and pulses with every anguish uttered by Frankenstein, by his monster, by Elizabeth. The torment of the characters is so rich and vivid that it brings the reader to the edge of their seat, turning pages faster and holding their breath until the very end. 

In a letter to his sister, Captain Robert Walton recounts the story told him by scientist Victor Frankenstein whom he has rescued during an Arctic exploration. Young Frankenstein grew up in a happy household where he discovered and nurtured a love of philosophy and sciences. It isn’t until he goes off to university that he learns his studies have been old fashioned and is redirected to the modern study of chemistry, physiology and biology – the studies that lead him to create life from death.

His creation terrifies him, its horrific features come to life, with “dull yellow eyes” and no distinguishable words, but rather groans of agony or torture emerging from his “straight black lips”. Frankenstein frantically runs from the laboratory in disgust at “the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life”.

And his creation, locked in himself with no ability to connect, no words or comprehension, so decidedly rejected by his maker, runs away in despair. In starvation, he attempts contact with humans  who react with screaming and terror at his enormity, his ugliness. Again he is violently rejected by the human world and seeks solace in the woods.

Frankenstein suffers a mental breakdown while his creation hides away in the unused pig sty of a poor village family and attempts to learn to speak their language, to understand what it is to be human, to copy their behaviors. Again he attempts to connect with humankind and approaches the family who he has surreptitiously been living with and again, he is repelled with hurtful violence and reactions of disgust and horror at the sight of him.

He himself turns to violence out of desperation to make his creator pay for his wretched life, to force him to take responsibility for bringing him to life, and he kills a small child.The tragic murder of his youngest brother brings Frankenstein home where he slowly reckons with the possibility that is his own creation that is responsible for this murderous act and the ensuing grief of his family.

He entreats his maker to own up to what he has done, to acknowledge the agony of his loneliness and create another so he isn’t cast to this life of despair alone. Frankenstein refuses and the being vows vengeance and destruction. In the wake of it he pursues his creation, determined to destroy him and we find him in the icy tundra where the story began, beyond exhaustion and committed to this path of destruction of them both – creator and creation.

If Shelley told this story that dark, wintry night in Geneva to her fellow poets they too would have been deflated of every possible emotion, left stunned and silent, murmuring under their breath, “oh my God” at its end.  For this is to read Shelley’s Frankenstein, to be pulled into the depths of human  despair, of guilt, of wretchedness, of torment, of yearning, of love and loneliness and forever “lost in the darkness”.

REVIEW: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are one of the literary world’s most famous detective teams. They met in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and readers have the pleasure of following them as they solve their first mystery together. Well, mostly Holmes does the solving.

The book is actually two tales linked together by a man in pursuit of revenge – across oceans and years. We are in London, often at 221B Baker Street or other familiar landmarks with these two bachelors as Sherlock patiently explains  the clues and his deductions to Dr. Watson.  It’s a place and storyline I am familiar with from the long ago black and white TV series and the more current one on BBC.  Though I confess that when about halfway through the audio version of this book I suddenly found myself in Utah with the mormons, my first thought was that someone had hacked into the LibreVox recording to profess the religion of the Latter Day Saints. I picked up my Kindle version to double check that this was indeed part of the book.

Dr. Watson dutifully records the casework and the confession of the nabbed culprit whose story starts with a wagon train journey west that went wrong leaving a man and a young girl the only survivors. The mormons, headed to their promised land, rescue them. The young girl grows up and falls in love with the culprit who promises to marry her, but through the actions of two of the young mormon men, she dies. He vows to kill them and follows them as they flee to Europe and finally we’re back in London.

Doyle is a witty and detailed writer who is a joy to read and his characters are wonderfully dimensional. A Study in Scarlet is a great introduction to him and his detective team.

Case closed.