Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bookworm's progress report #4

I am currently reading what AP-Annex would call a "nosebleed" book, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. This excellently executed biography of the bard is so insightful that I feel like I'm getting to know Will Shakespeare on an intimate level; at the same time it's so entertaining that I feel like I'm reading the life story of a fictional character instead of one of the greatest literary geniuses who ever lived.

Greenblatt's Shakespeare bio is the 2nd to the last book on my New York Times reading list, and once I'm done I only have Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore left, which I plan to bring with me on our upcoming trip to New York in October. In the meantime, here's my take on 2 titles I've already finished reading:

American Pastoral
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, paints a refreshingly, brutally honest portrait of the so-called American Dream and those living under its delusion. Narrator Nathan Zuckerman (who also appeared in the other Philip Roth book I've read, The Human Stain) tells the tale of his childhood hero Seymour "Swede" Levov: star athlete, model soldier, dutiful son, loving husband (to a former beauty queen), and doting father. The Swede's idyllic life quickly unravels when his teenage daughter Merry commits an act too gruesome for her iconic father to accept or comprehend. Set against the tumultuous 60s and 70s, the story doubles as a revealing look at a turbulent time in American history, while showing the slow, sad self-destruction of a man betrayed by the Dream he thought he was living. A more enjoyable read than The Human Stain and clearly superior in form and content, American Pastoral convinced me that Roth deserves his recognition as one of the greatest authors of contemporary American literature.

As a fan of both Shakespeare and alternative fiction writer Gregory Maguire, I found John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius absolutely brilliant. Updike's novel is a prequel of sorts to the tale made famous by Shakespeare's tragedy, and centers on the relationship between Hamlet's mother and uncle. Normally portrayed as the villains to Hamlet's hero, Gertrude and Claudius are given new depth and humanity by Updike, and their affair is depicted as passionate, tender, and true. I admire how Updike managed to make the characters his own, and build such a beautiful, imaginative yet uncontrived story around them. I loved reading every page, every word of this book, far more than I did reading Hamlet (no disrespect meant to old Will), and despite the dreary Toward the End of Time,
Gertrude and Claudius has made me a fan of Updike.

P.S. If you haven't read Hamlet or at least watched one of the many film adaptations of it, you cannot fully appreciate the genius of Updike's book, so I suggest you do as I did and go through Hamlet before taking on Gertrude and Claudius. Afterwards, you will never regard Hamlet-- the character or the play-- the same way again.


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