Thursday, March 04, 2010

February: Reading But Not Loving

In the case of these two reads, I felt love quite often, but it was like the love in tennis. Zero.

The Foreign Student - Susan Choi. The story takes place in 1955 in a small southern university town. The title character, Chuck (Chang) Ahn, has just come from Korea to be a university student. Determined to succeed, he is also afflicted with dark memories of the recent war in his country. He is also inexplicably drawn to Katherine who is dealing with her own past.

Choi's explanation of how the Korean Conflict began is as lucid as any I've read in fiction or even nonfiction. Her research was thorough and well-done. One of the characters, Charles Addison, could have justly been presented as an unsympathetic monster, but he emerges as human, sometimes kind and even has a likable, slightly rakish charm. There's another minor character -- Chang's best friend who becomes a Communist -- that is written interestingly, but he disappears from the novel fairly quickly. There's also a chapter in which Chuck is employed at a book bindery in Chicago that is grimly funny. A batty old woman who works with Chuck always tells him to be on the lookout for money hidden in books. When he fails to find any, she accuses him of quietly pocketing his findings, so he has to plant a few bills here and there himself to keep from falling under suspicion.

Okay, that's everything I liked about the book. Now here comes the loathing:

  • The dramatic story of Chang Ahn's experiences during the war are told in chunked-up flashbacks that are buried under an Anne Rivers Siddons-like present-day story. The effect is muffled and annoying. It's like some of those later Elvis Presley recordings in which they bury The King's vocals way down in the mix underneath the cheap blare of instrumental brass and shrill background singers.
  • The situation between Charles Addison and Katherine is more icky than dramatic.
  • Katherine and Chuck don't seem to have any chemistry at all. Their scenes together feel like sausage being forced through the grinder and into the casing that constitutes the plot and setting.
  • Katherine and Chuck are too much in their own heads for too long at a stretch to make for interesting reading.
  • Glee, Katherine's southern belle mother starts out as a giddy Amanda Wingfield type, then after she falls ill, she drops the dizzy act and morphs into something straight out of Steel Magnolias. I'd already built up a huge cache of contempt for her because of the way she treated the younger Katherine, so when she showed up in the novel again after a long interval, I was resistant to her new, slightly more sympathetic personality.
  • There's no feeling of being in a foreign country during the scenes when Chang is in Korea. The author never mixes in Korean words. This would have come in handy at one point when she's bumbling all over herself trying to describe hanbok, the traditional Korean costume. I'm pretty sure that most Koreans wouldn't describe this garment as "loose pajama-like trousers".
  • I don't know if Choi was trying to be profound or cute or what, but both of the men that Katherine loves (Charles Addison, Chuck/Chang Ahn) have the same initials. I half-dreaded all the way through the book that one of the characters would notice this and lapse into deep philosophical thought, but mercifully, Choi just let it lay there.
  • Finally, (this isn't the author's fault) the cover for this copy isn't captivating at all. It's pretty in a prim, middle-aged sort of way. It made me think of Jan Karon and I don't want to.

    Wicked - Gregory Maguire. A parallel novel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz about the life of Elphaba, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West. There is also a great deal of political and social commentary about the state of things in Oz. In addition, there are numerous discussions about what constitutes good and evil.

    I would like very much to see the musical of the same name based on this book. I believe that I would enjoy it in that form immensely. I would rather watch this musical every day of the week than have to read the book ever again -- except for the first 150 pages. During that part of the novel which describes Elphaba's early life, I was entertained. After that, the fun packed its bags and my reading experience began to resemble wading through partially dried concrete.


  • For reasons that no one in the story could fathom, Elphaba was born with green skin. In case you forgot that detail, Maguire reminds the reader on almost every page. Guess what? She's green! Her skin is green. She's green-skinned. Emerald. Celadon. Jade. Kiwi. By the way...she's GREEN!!! I have an idea for a drinking game...Wicked is available on audiobook, isn't it?

  • I hope I'm not scarred for life after reading that one uh, romantic scene between Elphaba and her Winkie paramour, Fiyero, but if I am, I guess it's a good thing that I'm at midlife. Arrgh. Ewww. Bad visuals. I need to go scrub my brain.
  • There are too many long and boring philosophical and political discussions among the characters. Zzzzzzzz. Worse yet, Maguire simply pressed "repeat". This is one of the reasons I believe the musical would be superior to the book.
  • I find it difficult to reconcile the Witch with which we're all familiar with the one presented in the novel. It feels like pieces from two different puzzles in the same box, but Maguire seems to think that if he keeps valiantly bashing away he's going to create a full, cohesive picture.
  • Maguire has that tin ear for dialogue that I noticed with James Cameron's script while watching Titanic. For example, the latter part of this novel is set in the first years of the 20th century. One minute, the characters are speaking in a stiff, mannered style. In the next minute, someone uses a phrase from a later time. I'm only complaining a little, though. The rest of the narrative and dialogue was so boring that the anachronisms gave me something to help me regain focus -- even if only for a second -- before I began nodding and drooling again.
  • Except for Elphaba, it's difficult to distinguish which character is speaking. They're all pretty full of hot wind -- more than enough to get Dorothy and Toto back to Kansas.


Anonymous said...

I remember thinking the last comment when I was reading this book as well: I could never tell who was speaking, which added to the confusion and boredom. The hot wind visual is hilarious.

Jeane said...

I liked Wicked, but it was a struggle. I almost didn't continue at one point. I was able to see how the witch Elphaba became matched with the one usually portrayed in the Wizard of Oz, but not until the very end.

Kristen said...

Praise the Lord and pass the potatoes! Someone else who didn't love Wicked. I actively disliked it but always come off sounding like a spoilsport when I say that I not only don't think it was all that and a bag of chips but that it was repetitive and dull. Thanks for making me feel not quite so alone.

Heather J. said...

I agree completely about WICKED. For me it was a huge waste of time. But I've heard the musical is really good, even for people who didn't like the book. I'm not a fan of the original Oz movie though, so I think I'm the wrong audience for either the book or the show ...

ambearo said...

Wow, I'm finding it hard to find someone who actually liked Wicked now that I came out with my hate! Great reviews, as usual!

Stacey said...

LOL -- about the Elvis recording comparison. *Almost* makes me want to read the book so I could truly appreciate the commentary!

I agree with your analysis of Wicked -- I'd've dumped it if it hadn't been assigned reading (book club).

Bybee said...

Yeah, it would've helped a lot if he'd varied up the voices a little. Guess an audiobook version could sort that out...but I pity the fool that's got to perform that dialogue!

He was more successful matching up Glinda. I guess I could've acknowledged that.

Pass the potato chips and high five!

Heather J.
You don't like the 1939 Wizard of Oz? Gasp! Is it because it's ludicrous that Dorothy wants to go back to an unrelievedly dull place where she was constantly being told she was underfoot and a neighbor was menacing her dog?

I had been hoping that we just had divergent tastes in this case, but no...we don't.

There's so many and much better books out there waiting for you.

jenclair said...

I read one of Maguire's books (can't remember the title, but it wasn't one of the better known ones) and wasn't impressed. Kept thinking I'd read Wicked to give him another chance, but now I'm glad I never bothered.

Lesley said...

Oh dear, you really didn't have any love for Wicked, did you? I read it several years ago and enjoyed it, but I've yet to read anything else by him that I felt measured up. I saw the musical last year and liked it as well, although it is very different from the book - so you may enjoy it after all!

Sue F. said...

I read more than half of Wicked, then finally gave up...I just didn't care for it. We have a rule in our book have to at least read the number of pages as your age and then you can give up on a book if you don't like it!
Having said that, I did just that on the book Dune that we were reading, and then ended up being the only one who didn't finish it and feeling like an idiot!

Susan said...

I couldn't get past page 3! and everyone still raves about this book, and I just didn't like it enough to keep reading. I keep thinking it was my fault so I still own it and will one day try again, but your post gives me hope that it wasn't me at all! lol