Book Review: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn


Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth Shakespeare is taking the Bard’s classic stories and updating them for modern readers. I loved Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (The Tempest) and New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Othello). Dunbar is a recent offering, retelling King Lear in light of cutthroat capitalism and private wealth.

Here, the eponymous king takes the form of Henry Dunbar, influential media magnate and wealthy beyond all reason. When Dunbar decides he is tired of the responsibility of his position, he hands the company over to his two eldest (and amoral and psychotic) daughters, Abigail and Megan. The two promptly stick dear old dad in a remote insane asylum and plot to gut the company and squeeze its corpse for cold hard cash. With the help of an alcoholic former comedian and his youngest daughter, Florence (written out of the will for rejecting the Dunbar wealth), Henry Dunbar must struggle back into the “real” world to save his Empire.

This reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy is perfect in this day and age. Henry Dunbar is not someone to admire. He is temperamental, vicious, and (as a comedian whose name I cannot recall once said) “ruin the oceans rich.” Basically, he is someone who has never had to consider the lives and views of others until suddenly everything is taken away from him and he himself is below consideration. By the time we meet him, he is struggling to extricate himself from the hell his daughters have left him in, and he is more a figure of pity, not necessarily because of redemption in his narrative, but in the bringing low of a human being.

This is a tragedy, and if you’re familiar with the original, there will be few surprises in store. Instead, St. Aubyn has concentrated his efforts on bringing us a fable about the hazards of greed, and the value of things which money cannot buy.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben

Welcome to Vermont in the winter of 2017. Donald Trump has been elected president, the winters are more midatlantic mudfest than snowy paradise, and the strange, unique state of Vermont seems more and more in danger of becoming just another bland American state. Enter Vern Barclay, 70 year old radio show host and current leader of a quiet underground movement seeking a free, independent republic of Vermont. Vern comes into his activism more by accident than by malicious intent, but before he knows it, he has become the leader of a movement dedicated to keeping Vermont small, fair, weird, beautiful, and free.

As a University of Vermont alumna and as a former resident of the state, I always enjoy reading stories focused on my former home. McKibben has created a small, odd tale of resistance that mirrors the small, odd state of its setting. Even when I lived in Vermont (which is about a decade ago, now), you could walk into a restaurant and know exactly where the food you were eating came from. Vermont was a localvore haven long before the word was invented. The state is home to way more microbreweries and distilleries than you think you may need. The funky, friendly, live-and-let-live attitude of the majority of the state means that you can have your hippy-dippy Subaru and co-op grocery, and your handguns too. Add to all this the fact that Vermont, being small yet mighty, has made overtures of independence and succession in the past. In fact, one area of the state, called the Northeast Kingdom gets its name from an unsuccessful attempt at sovereignty when the country was young.

What we have in Radio Free Vermont is an uplifting (though very, very white) story of resistance Vermont style, involving calm discussion, reasoned arguments, lots of local beer, minor property damage, cross country skiers, and no violence. This is a resistance with an undercurrent of subtle Yankee humor. This is a resistance of the intimately local, and of neighborly cooperation. It is not loud, or violent, but it is the spark of something beautiful and funny that helps light the darkness of our current times.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: the End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Catastrophic environmental change has brought biblical floods to London. As the city succumbs to the water,  a woman gives birth to a baby boy, who she and her husband name Z. As the flood waters continue to rise, the woman and her husband must flee the city with a days old baby in search of safety and higher ground. As Z grows from baby to toddler, the family is forced to find new refuge again and again.

Okay. This was not my type of book. The writing is excellent, Hunter has a minimalist style that is somewhere between a steam of consciousness narrative and a poem. The cataclysmic destruction of the English landscape fades into background noise against the interaction of the woman and her son. But as someone who is not exactly baby-friendly, there are waaaaaaay too many descriptions of baby bowel movements for my peace of mind. Honestly, the whole “children are the future” thing seems a little overly optimistic when the planet is literally falling apart around you.

But, I’m absolutely willing to admit that most of the problems I had with this book stem from my own anti-baby tendencies. The book is truly beautifully written, and showcases a legitimate debut talent. The steam of consciousness reminds me a bit of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida. While this book was not up my alley, I would be excited to read Hunter’s future works.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

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The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

When we first meet Noa, she is cleaning a German train station in exchange for scraps of bread. Kicked out of her parents’ home at sixteen for becoming pregnant to a Nazi soldier, and later forced to give up her baby in service to the Reich, Noa is cast adrift, keeping herself to the background and speaking with no one. On the fateful night, an odd sound draws her outside the station, and to a boxcar filled with dead and dying infants; Jewish babies whose parents have been sent off to concentration camps, their children left to die of exposure in the German winter.Seeing movement, she snatches a still-living infant from the pile. As the enormity of what she has just done overcomes her, she flees into the winter night.

Astrid is a trapeze artist from an old Jewish circus family. Returning from Berlin after her Nazi-official husband divorces her, she finds her family home abandoned, her parents and siblings vanished. She seeks out Herr Neuhoff, owner of a rival circus for answers, but no one knows what has become of her family. Neuhoff makes her an astonishing offer: to hide her from the Nazis by giving her a new identity as a performer in his circus. Astrid accepts the offer, and, one snowy night, the circus finds a half-frozen teenager and a baby in the woods.

Noa, fearful of retaliation by the Nazis, and desperate to keep safe the Jewish baby she rescued, accepts a similar offer to hide within the circus as a performer. She is placed under Astrid’s tutelage to learn the flying trapeze. Rivals at first, the two women form a bond as everything crumbles down around them.

The Orphan’s Tale is incredibly well written. Both Noa and Astrid are brought sharply to life through the power of their dueling narratives. Each woman is broken but resilient, each vividly wrought and believably fashioned. The horrors brought on by the Nazis are contrasted with the small braveries of those who resist them.What emerges is a tale of love and humanity against one of the bleakest backgrounds imaginable. The story is made all the more amazing once you learn it is based (loosely) on real people and events.

This book is a good fit for those who enjoyed books like The Orphan Mother or The Light Between Oceans. Anyone with a fascination for World War II will also enjoy this book. I would also recommend this book for anyone looking for a reaffirmation of humanity; for the knowledge that even small acts of resistance in the face of fascism can make a difference.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Orphan’s Tale will be available for purchase on February 21st, 2017.