Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bookworm's progress report #3, 2008

Yes, I realize it's been a long, long while since I posted one of these. But hey, at least I managed to finish reading something, even if I've been making little headway in crossing off titles on my reading list.

So these are what I have read since June (yes, it's been 4 months):

Love in the Time of Cholera

What is it about Latinos that makes them so sexy? Even a love story about septuagenarians becomes sexy when penned by celebrated author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera's protagonist Florentino Ariza falls head over heels for proud beauty Fermina Daza, who breaks his heart and marries wealthy Dr. Juvenal Urbino instead. Decades and many affairs later, an old but still impassioned Florentino Ariza shows up at Urbino's wake to profess his love for the doctor's widow, in the hopes of finally being with the woman of his dreams. This touching tale of devotion-bordering-on-obsession shows the gravity of the side effects of that overpowering disease called love, as well as reveals some oft-overlooked truths about love, romance and marriage. The non-linear narration is effective as it shows the contrasts between the impetuous emotions of the young and the pragmatic sensibilities of the old, as well as the changes seen in the characters as they age. The marked shifts in Fermina Daza's personality are most notable, as she is transformed from headstrong, haughty girl to proper, devoted wife and later, dignified widow. The effects of love on her may not be as drastic or dramatic as Florentino Ariza's cholera-like symptoms, but they are just as evident, and more realistic besides. I liked all the central characters, including the benevolent Dr. Urbino, and I found the story engaging despite its simplicity-- it was the masterful execution that made the difference. I was expecting a dreary read, since I've always perceived Garcia Marquez to be a "heavy" writer. Now I feel less daunted to give his A Hundred Years of Solitude a try. After all, after Solitude can't be as bad as Cholera, could it?

The Puttermesser Papers

In all my years of being a bookworm, I have only read 2 books that make use of a golem as a key plot point: Daniel Handler's Watch Your Mouth, and Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers. While I found the former too bizarre for my tastes, the latter was all right... except for the chapter with the golem. I just can't bring myself to swallow the idea of creating an animate creature from clay. It also seemed an odd fit in a novel about a highly intelligent and intellectual female lawyer living in New York. I could relate to the central protagonist Ruth Puttermesser on many levels: she's a voracious reader who's a bit of a misantrophe, with a mother nagging her to get married. But as soon as the golem enters the picture, I lost my empathy for Ruth, and my interest in the story, even if the golem did help her become mayor of New York City, which was a novel plot development. Mercifully, The Puttermesser Papers is quite short (in fact, each chapter is a short story Ozick wrote for some magazines), and I was more than a little relieved to reach the final page.

On Chesil Beach

I've figured it out. What makes Ian McEwan a great writer is not so much his way with words, it's his way of using those words to narrate even the simplest story and turning it into a vivid screenplay for a movie that plays through the reader's mind. In Saturday, a seemingly perfect family is forever changed in a single afternoon of terror. In Amsterdam, a funeral for a common former lover reunites two friends who end up destroying each other. In Atonement, (which was adapted into an actual movie)
two lovers are torn apart by a child's spiteful lie. In On Chesil Beach, McEwan's latest novel, a young couple's first night together as husband and wife becomes an unexpected turning point in their relationship. The chapters alternate between the present (the night of the honeymoon) and the past (reflecting on the pair's individual and shared histories), gradually revealing more of the stark contrasts in their personalities and differing concepts of love. It's a commonplace premise but McEwan manages to convey so much feeling through his 2 characters that one can't help but be engaged (pun not intended). I also noticed that once more the author shows his penchant for music (the female protagonist is a cellist), and his skill at making it come alive through his text. I have yet to come across another writer who can top McEwan in that regard.

McEwan repeatedly proves that not all epic tales have to be overly complicated and drawn-out. In his works and through his words, even the most mundane human experiences have many layers of emotion, thoughts, and pathos. On Chesil Beach is no exception.

Being Dead

I immediately liked the smart title of Jim Crace's award-winning novel
(it notched the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction), but I didn't like the book itself as much. I thought it dwelled too much on the physical decomposition of the bodies of the murdered protagonists, an old married couple mugged while frolicking on a beach along the ficitonal Baritone Bay. I realize that was part of the author's point, to underscore that a significant part of being dead is the rotting of human flesh, but he could have eased up on the long, graphic descriptions, in my opinion. Crace did a better job in painting a portrait of the couple when they were still alive, through a series of flashbacks: how they met as college students, how they hooked up, how Botany Bay is significant to them and how they changed through almost 30 years of marriage. Similarly, Crace succeeded in depicting the deceased's rebellious daughter and the coping mechanisms she employs as well as the emotions she battles with after learning of her parents' disappearance, then later, of their death.

I suppose I expected more based on the critical acclaim Being Dead has received, including a New York Times nod for "Best Books of 1999". But I did appreciate Crace's unsentimental treatment of his subject, as most authors tend to glamorize, sugarcoat, or vilify death. This novel had none of the maudlin melodrama one comes to associate with death; instead, it conveys that being dead is simply no longer being alive, and what matters is what takes place in life, both before and after we kick the bucket.


At Wednesday, December 10, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ms. Lim! I would not suggest Mcewan's "On Chesil Beach" it is not as good as everyone says :) How about reading something by Filipino authors? Nick Joaquin's "The Woman who had 2 Navels" is great
-Sheree C.

At Wednesday, December 10, 2008, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I've already read Joaquin's The Woman Who Had Two Navels (I think it's required reading for most Ateneo freshman English classes). Among our local authors, I personally prefer NVM Gonzales to Nick Joaquin. :)

I liked On Chesil Beach though. McEwan's fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers. :)


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