Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #2, 2009

So much for picking up the slack. It's been almost 2 months since my first progress report of the year, and I have only finished 2 books, which brings my running total for 2009 to a pathetic 4 books, or a book a month. Not good.

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Maybe it's because I'm not American, but I don't quite "get" Bret Easton Ellis. His characters tend to be reflections of the decadence of American culture, twentysomethings leading lifestyles of wanton privilege, nonchalant promiscuity, and reckless substance abuse. The Rules of Attraction circles around 3 college kids-- Lauren Hynde, Paul Denton, and Sean Bateman (brother to American Psycho's Patrick Bateman), who attend parties more often than they attend class, and in a drunken/stoned whirlwind of events, end up in a bizarre love triangle (yes, I just used the phrase "bizarre love triangle"). I think there's supposed to be satiric humor in it all, but I didn't quite get the joke. I also was not amused by any of the dozens of supporting characters, whose names I couldn't even keep straight, as they went in and out of the 3 protagonists' bedrooms and/or lives.

I may not have liked the content so much, but I must give Bret Easton Ellis credit for having a very singular writing style. He has a knack for taking the reader right into the drug- and booze-addled heads of his characters, regardless of how sympathetic they are. Not as demented or disturbing as American Psycho, but just as heady a trip, The Rules of Attraction is as close as I'll ever get to know what it feels like to snort coke. And I just don't think I'm cut out to be a cokehead.

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I couldn't have chosen a more stark contrast to The Rules of Attraction for my next read. Set in 1870s New York, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is a refined tale of romance restrained by the pressure to conform to norms set by a straight-laced, high-brow society. Young lawyer Newland Archer is engaged to lovely, sweet-natured May Welland, a match that brings together 2 of New York's most prominent families. Then May's scandalous cousin, the independent and strong-willed Countess Ellen Olenska, returns from Europe, and Newland's world-- and all of upper-crust New York-- is turned topsy-turvy. With his emotions waging battle against his ingrained sense of moral obligation, Newland finds himself both observer and subject, critic and victim of the wagging tongues and hypocrisy of the elite circles he runs in.

The Age of Innocence is as much social commentary as it is a love story: one gets the impression that the author is mildly critical of the overly prim and proper New York standards depicted in her book. However, that criticism is tempered with a familiarity with, if not fondness for, the very customs and courtesies she seems to be panning. This novel
reminds me of a delicate glass vase, with painstaking details exquisitely etched by Wharton... details barely concealing the thorny stems of the roses within the vessel.

I don't quite get why this particular work won Wharton the Pulitzer when it doesn't strike me as being substantial enough, but I suppose there is beauty in all that is left unsaid in the story, and in that the true depth of the characters lies in what is not spoken. It is perhaps this subtlely, and how it masks so much more, that lend The Age of Innocence its magic. Beneath the veneer of sophistication, gentility and manners simmer passion, intrigue, and conspiracy, and as I reached the last few pages of the book, I was glad Wharton never fully strips off that veneer. She doesn't have to.


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