Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #1, 2009

Only 2 books in 2 months. Must pick up the slack if I'm to make good on my resolution to improve on the quantity and quality of my reading output this year.

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The Post-birthday World tells not one, but two stories of the same woman, children's book illustrator Irina McGovern, and the lateral paths her life takes after choosing between two men. The chapters alternate from one to the other parallel universe: Irina stays faithful to her partner of 15 years, intelligent but emotionally distant political analyst Lawrence Trainer, or she leaves him for dashing but tempestuous snooker player Ramsey Acton.

Author Lionel Shriver's cute gimmick is amusing for about the first half of the book, but it gets a bit old past the midway mark, and there were points when I wished I could just skip every other chapter to complete one story already. Nevertheless, the concept serves its purpose in highlighting how
love is a choice, and whom we choose to love shapes our destiny. I liked how this theme is conveyed through Irina's dilemma, turning a seemingly superficial love triangle into a philosophical what-if scenario. Moreover, I could relate to how Irina is torn between Lawrence and Ramsey, who each appeal to very different aspects of her nature: the pragmatic intellectual, on the one hand, and the sensual romantic, on the other. It's the classic battle of practicality vs passion, familiarity vs excitement, domestic comfort vs carnal desire, warmth vs sizzle, and Shriver lays it out side by side for a better view of the resulting casualties.

The only other thing that I did not like about The Post-birthday World is Shriver's tendency to write in a stilted, strangely un-American English, like a Yank trying to sound British but just winding up sounding pretentious and ridiculous. Both Irina and Lawrence are American expats based in London, but the way Shriver narrates, the reader can easily forget this fact, which is actually a minor yet relevant plot point much later in the book. Between content and form, The Post-birthday World gets higher marks for the former, but to an extent it is still a well-crafted and engaging novel, either way it ends.

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Hailed as "the most celebrated graphic novel" of all time, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen is a fascinating foray into the psyches of men and women who fight crime in costume. It would be grossly inaccurate to call this a comic book about superheroes; in Watchmen, there are no real heroes, only humans who try to be, but fail in one way or another. Written and set in 1985, it is also an eerily prescient depiction of the political and moral decline the world is currently in, and I can't help but marvel (pun not intended) at the sophistication and substance of the subjects dealt with in the novel.

In the alternate reality of Watchmen's 1985 America, Nixon is still president, Russia is invading Afghanistan, and all costumed vigilante crime-fighters have been outlawed by the Keene Act, save for 3: Dr. Jonathan Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan, the lone superhero on the planet with real superpowers acquired from a freak lab accident, and who works for the US government as both guardian and weapon;
superhero-turned-government mercenary Edward Blake, a.k.a. The Comedian; and Walter Kovacs, a.k.a. Rorschach, who's just a wee bit crazy and doesn't give a shit about the Keene Act. When The Comedian is murdered, Rorschach investigates and begins to suspect that someone out there is on a superhero killing spree. His investigation leads him to old nemeses and allies, and triggers reminiscing and reflection among the latter, before things come to a head and the costumes have to come out of storage again.

Watchmen is told in a series of 12 issues, and in between each "chapter" is inserted a piece of text that serves as a backgrounder or profile, presented in the form of biography excerpts, newspaper clippings, and various correspondence, which lend a realism as well as a grim sobriety. Flashbacks also provide revelations about each character's history, and a better understanding of their individual reasons and motives for donning their masks and costumes. Watchmen is surprisingly philosophical and psychological, plumbing into the dark recesses of its characters' minds and souls, so much so that it makes Batman's angst seem sunshiny in comparison.
I admit I wasn't blown away by the art, though I don't exactly have an expert eye for this kind of thing. But the writing is even better than that of most "real" novels I've read. Goes to show that graphic novels can indeed be excellent literature, and shouldn't be dismissed as mere "comics".

Postscript: I really hope the film adaptation (to be released very soon in early March) does justice to Moore and Gibbons' visionary work, and that it doesn't turn into just another CGI-heavy action flick. With such rich material to work with, director Zack Snyder (of 300 fame) is practically duty-bound to deliver.


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