Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bookworm's progress report #2, 2008

I've been a very bad bookworm this year. Since my 1st progress report of the year, I've only managed to cross out 4 titles from my reading list. I'd blame it on the usual culprits, TV and DVDs, but I don't want to make excuses. I will strive to improve my reading rate for the remainder of the year, and hopefully my work and social calendars will allow it.

For now, the negligent bookworm humbly submits these 4 reviews:
  • The Gun Seller - For me the best writers have a very distinct "voice" which resounds throughout their work, as if I can hear the author narrating the story to me. Turns out, multi-talented actor Hugh Laurie is a pretty good writer. Fans of his TV show House will recognize his "voice" in his debut novel, a mock spy thriller that is at once irreverent, intelligent, and entertaining. Laurie's writing style bears traces of the acerbic wit of his TV alter ego, but it is not House we "hear" telling the tale of reluctant hero Thomas Lang. It is Lang himself who comes to life as the beleaguered bodyguard-slash-mercenary who gets entangled in a twist-and-turn plot involving the CIA, the British Ministry of Defense, ruthless arms dealers and terrorists. Lang is wry and self-deprecating, and makes for an engaging first POV. He is cool under fire, and has no delusions about being James Bond... and it's precisely his un-Bond-like flaws that makes him sympathetic and endearing. Judging from The Gun Seller, it's apparent that Laurie is not just a terrific Brit actor who can pull off an impeccable American accent, he's also quite the skilled storyteller. His is one "voice" I'd gladly listen to again, so here's looking forward to his next literary endeavor.
  • The Plot Against America - Reading this Philip Roth novel during the height of the frenzy surrounding the US primaries, I was struck even more by the passions that permeate their electoral process, as well as America's strong sense of democracy and patriotism. Nowadays we vilify the US as a global bully (thanks to Dubya), but The Plot Against America takes a refreshing, unique look into the heart and soul of American politics, not within the walls of the White House or up on Capitol Hill, but in the Jewish neighborhoods of New Jersey. This is a fictional autobiographical account of a nine-year-old Roth in 1940's America under the administration of an anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler Charles Lindbergh (yes, President Lindbergh). Set against the tumult and tension of World War II, Roth's Jewish family goes through years of anxiety, sorrow and fear as life in the land of the free becomes dangerous for Jews, and the horrors of the Holocaust happening a continent away seem to be forming in the home of the brave. Yet the Roths refuse to leave the country they love and call their own, demonstrating a fierce steadfastness to the principles and ideals that America is supposed to stand for.

    The details are so vivid, the narrative so natural and straightforward, the emotions so real that it's easy to forget it's all a stretch of the author's imagination. And perhaps that is what adds to the power of this novel: the idea that it's all so frighteningly plausible. It's a chilling thought, and Roth expertly delivers it through this compelling alternate reality. By telling the story of one family, he reminds us that America is not so much about the suits in Washington DC calling the shots, but about the people who comprise America, no matter what ethnicity or social class. Somehow, in this book, Roth manages to depict America as both evil and good, and the contrast makes for an all the more interesting read, especially in light of the ongoing war in Iraq and other hot topics of the day. I enjoyed this as much as (if not more than) I did Roth's American Pastoral, and based on those 2 novels alone I can tell this is one author who truly loves his country, sins of the past and present notwithstanding.
  • Then We Came to the End - Anyone who's ever worked in a cubicle can relate to this quirky account of life in a contemporary advertising firm: the office romances, the ugly politics, the all-too-efficient grapevine, the juvenile pranks, the various neuroses, the complicated social dynamics, and the constant search for an excuse to slack off. This debut novel from Joshua Ferris is like the TV show The Office without Steve Carrell's signature deadpan delivery, but with the plot elements that white-collar employees everywhere can identify with. Ferris' own real-life experience in advertising is evident not only in the specifics of his characters' work habits, creative processes and industry knowledge, but in his snappy writing style, which is fresh and fast and funny. The whole novel is told in the first person, using the corporate "we", which is a smart and effective little gimmick, save for one chapter in the middle that shifts the focus from the motley crew of employees to their boss, who has more problems to deal with than anyone actually realizes. Although I felt no real empathy with any of the characters, I was amused by them, and some reminded me of people I used to work with back when I was still stuck in a cubicle. This book may be lacking in depth, but for light reading it's more than satisfactory.
  • The Witches of Eastwick - I remember having watched the film adaptation of this novel years back. The movie starred Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher as the titular witches, and Jack Nicholson as their enigmatic and devilish new neighbor Darryl Van Horne. I know I enjoyed the movie, so when I found out that the book had been written by John Updike, I immediately put it on my reading list. I've come to appreciate Updike since Gertrude and Claudius, and though it turns out his original Witches is very different from the screenplay he helped write, it did not disappoint. The book is more sinister, more sensual and more substantial. Updike's 3 witches Alexandra, Jane and Sukie are given very distinct and full personalities, and the changes in those personalities upon the arrival of Darryl in the sleepy town of Eastwick are deftly unspooled by the author. Though the overall tone of the book is dark, there is a certain beauty in that darkness that kept me turning the pages. Perhaps that's Updike's own brand of black magic.


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