Monday, March 03, 2008

Bookworm's progress report #1, 2008

It's been quite a while since my last progress report, and while admittedly I've been making slow work of my growing-longer-by-the-bookstore-visit reading list (thanks to Ugly Betty, Boston Legal and Heroes), I have managed to read several books since November of last year, to wit:
  • Sense and Sensibility - No one can write genteel romance novels like Jane Austen. She makes even the most chaste storyline seem hot-- underneath all that refinement and propriety simmers a contained yet perceptible passion, in both her straight-laced characters and her courtly language. While Pride and Prejudice remains my favorite Austen book, Sense and Sensibility comes a close second. Sisters Elinor and Marianne are a wonderful study in contrasts in how they deal with love and heartbreak, and their leading men Edward, Willoughby and Col. Brandon are portrayed not as perfect Prince Charmings, but flawed (and thereby more "real") individuals who complement the Dashwood sisters' personalities. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sense and Sensibility, and I'll definitely be putting more Austen titles on my shelf.
  • Adverbs - I'm hard-pressed to find the words to describe this novel. "Surreal" comes to mind. So do "bizarre", "disorienting", and "crazy". "Witty", "complex", and "deep" also apply. But it's called Adverbs, not Adjectives, and the title refers to the many different ways people love, or the many different ways love manifests itself between or among people. And Daniel Handler describes these many different ways creatively, profoundly, subtly, humorously, eloquently, strangely. I found Adverbs an interesting read, but not a compelling one, and certainly not as entertaining as Handler's earlier work. I still prefer him as Lemony Snicket.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - My brother hails this as "the best book ever!", but I beg to differ. Certainly it's a very well-written, very engaging novel, and an outstanding debut novel at that, but it just didn't blow me away. Susanna Clarke's fantasy story is set in 19th century England about 2 rival magicians (no, it's not The Prestige) trying to revive the popularity of "practical" (as opposed to "theoretical") magic. Peopled with memorable protagonists and antagonists (some culled from historical figures), the book was easy to read despite its length, but it still took me a considerably long time to finish, as I found myself bogged down by the slow turn of events. What I did appreciate most was the author's style and use of language (patterned after the manner of Jane Austen) and her wry, sometimes cheeky sense of humor (the inclusion of Lord Byron as a colorful supporting character was priceless). The fictional footnotes were also a hoot, although several consecutive pages of immaterial citations could get tedious at times. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a good enough read, but I've seen far better stuff from Neil Gaiman.
  • Amsterdam - This masterfully crafted story of 2 selfish, self-absorbed men-- a newspaper editor and a famous composer-- starts at the funeral of their former lover and ends with a sick, if tad unrealistic, twist that reveals how ambition, pride and revenge can poison the purity of friendship. In this relatively short novel, McEwan exposes the ugly underbellies of politics and media, and the cold depravity humans are capable of, in a manner which belies his novel's dark theme. The author's words are simple but beautifully arranged, particularly his music metaphors describing Clive the composer's point of view, so much so that his language becomes almost lyrical at times. I enjoyed this Man Booker Prize winner far more than I did Atonement, and I now have a better appreciation of Ian McEwan's literary fame. I look forward to reading more of his work.
  • Saturday - Saturday started out too slow for me, and only picked up speed when protagonist Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon with a picture-perfect family, has a spirited discussion with his daughter about the impending US invasion of Iraq. Perowne was only engaging with regard to his relationships: the pride in his musician son, the tenderness towards his poet daughter, the love for his lawyer wife, the detachment from his famous father-in-law. So when an external threat in the person of a thug named Baxter endangers his family, Perowne came off as a sympathetic hero. But prior to that, when he first encounters Baxter in a car accident, Perowne was barely interesting. And since the whole story takes place in the span of one Saturday in Perowne's life, I had difficulty getting past the many bits of self-indulgent introspection about everything from terrorism to war to surgery to poetry to his senile mother to the seafood he's buying to make dinner. What is consistent throughout this novel is the author's impeccable command of language. Ian McEwan is truly an excellent writer, with a gift for descriptive narration, especially when it comes to describing music. Perowne's son's jazz comes alive in several wonderfully woven, astonishingly vivid paragraphs that more than make up for the dragging parts of the book. Having now read 3 McEwan novels, I'm a certified fan for life.
Right now I'm reading The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie (yes, THAT Hugh Laurie), and I aim to finish it before Holy Week rolls around, so that I can bring a thinner volume with me on our trip to Kuala Lumpur... perhaps Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers, or Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

Until my next progress report.


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