Book Reviews: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Foreign Student, Open

Freedom, it does taste so sweet. My aunt and I are now safe and sound back home. The sky has never seemed so blue. The TV has never been more interesting. The floor that I sleep upon (not unusual in Korea) has never felt so comfortable.

My mother is here as well, staying at Aunt #3’s house (my mom came to get knee surgery since operations are a whole lot cheaper in Korea). We all gathered for lunch yesterday, and my mom prepared the shrimp and roast beef that she had smuggled in from the U.S. Yum, yum, indeed.

After getting more than hours of sleep last night, the whole hospital sojourn is already starting to feel like a faraway dream we all had. And now that I’m no longer there, it doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. I did feel very useful, especially with my current unemployed-bum status. And I did get in some quality reading on that tiny green bed next to my aunt’s. So, I present the latest edition of the Tommyland Book Reviews!

** THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY – Thorton Wilder **

Okay, I actually read this book back when I was in California. It was the last book I read before getting on the plane; sorry for the late review. It’s kind of a theological treatise, as a Peruvian friar analyzes the circumstances of a purely random, tragic accident (the collapse of the eponymous bridge and the resulting deaths of five people that happened to be on it) to see if he couldn’t discern a deeper reason that would indicate God’s will at play. The story essentially boils down to the whole free will vs. determinism debate that people have wondered about for ages (personally, I’m not sure, but I tend to think that in this world, it’s pretty much ‘S*it happens,’ but God makes it up to us big-time in the afterlife).

So does the book shed light on this age-old issue? To be honest, I have to say a big, fat “No.” The friar never fully comes to understand why the victims had to die–especially a female assistant and a young boy whose voices are pretty much neglected altogether. So that came as a big letdown. However, the three main stories that make up the book are fascinating once you stop looking for philosophical enlightenment and just look at them as mere stories. Wilder has a way with characterization and describing complex relationships–his depiction of a mother that loves her daughter so much that the daughter ends up hating her is painfully on point. So, to sum up the book: Enlightenment 0, Engrossment 1.

** THE FOREIGN STUDENT – Susan Choi **

A mysterious foreigner with dark secrets from his homeland. A young woman whose flightiness is a front for a penchant for making rash and destructive decisions. They meet on a college campus, and their lives intertwine in a way neither of them ever expected. The set-up sounds pretty awesome, exactly the kind of book that I would be drawn to. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. I like Choi’s writing style, which is a bit eerie almost, lending a lot of scenes a cool, dreamlike quality. But the main character of Chang (aka “Chuck”) never quite fully takes shape. He is supposed to be haunted by his horrific experiences (torture, upheaval, betrayal during the Korean War), but he comes off a timid simpleton too much of the time to grab your interest. The woman and her back story (dysfunctional family, statutory rape) are far more interesting, and the unbalance leaves the two characters’ relationship rather unfulfilling.

** OPEN – Andre Agassi (and one gosh-darn good ghostwriter) **

My mom brought this one from America and gave me to me at the hospital. It’s pretty sizable, but I ended up finishing it in a day. Yes, it is indeed that good. Up to this point, I thought Martina Navratilova’s autobiography, Martina, was the best tennis biography ever, but it’s time to move over, Martina. Shockingly, Andre Agassi–yes, THE Andre famous for crowing “Image is everything”–casts all caution to the wind and lays everything out there for the world to judge.

First, let’s talk about the serious stuff. Andre’s father was, and presumably is, pretty much a psycho who decided before Andre was born that Andre would be a tennis player, don’t question me and do what I tell you, son. Andre, while obviously talented, hated, hated, hated living his life for tennis, and it led him to have all kinds of issues. Fortunately, he went on to find a new father figure in trainer Gil Reyes, and Andre later found his greatest happinesses by becoming a father and building a school for underprivileged children.

It all makes for fascinating stuff, but what makes Open great and not just good is in the surreal, often gossipy details of Andre’s superstar life. I won’t spill too many details, but Andre’s stories of his teenage pranks at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy, reasons why he couldn’t stand rivals Becker, Chang, and Connors, his hairpiece issues, Gil laying the whoop-ass on people who dare smack about Andre, his seemingly pre-destined union with Steffi Graf, and my personal favorite story of what happened when Andre’s dad and Steffi’s equally combative father finally met each other for the first time. Trust me, the pages are practically gonna turn themselves (I should also mention Andre’s ex, Brooke Shields, who comes off a poignant and surprisingly perceptive figure).

I was never a big fan of Andre (he did do and say a lot of bratty-stupid things back in the days he had hair), but I have to say, I did develop a new respect for him. He’s being pretty much slaughtered in the press for his crystal meth use, but I’d urge people to read the whole book before they come to any judgment. It’s definitely a troubling aspect of his journey, but no one could deny that it’s a journey well worth writing (and reading) about.

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