Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #46: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

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“Take care-there is no force more powerful than that of an unbridled imagination.”

This a long book with a dense, rich story that I simply could not put down. Chabon begins in the 1930s with the escape of a Jewish boy named Josef Kavalier from Prague, and takes us through Joe’s long journey with his cousin Sam to post-World War II New York.
When Joe comes to New York in 1939, his cousin Sammy quickly learns of Joe’s artistic ability and pitches the idea of the two of them writing comic books together. Chabon paints the picture of the Golden Age of comics beautifully — I’ve never been a comic book fan, but I loved his retelling of their beginnings. Joe, who was studying to be a magician in Prague, creates a character called the Escapist. The Escapist lives out Joe’s fantasies of destroying Nazis, at a time when most of America was turning a blind eye to the atrocities in Europe.
Chabon is an excellent writer, and I really loved these two characters. They have quite a few adventures — some good, some that left me trying not to cry. Among it all, Chabon’s descriptions of New York in the 30s and 40s make a wonderful background. Really a great book — I would highly recommend it!

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #54: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This is a tough book to do a review of, as it is Chabon at both his best and his worst. His language, his sense of humor and his character portrayals are priceless, and he has chosen a location to write about which is as colorful as it is historic—San Francisco. At the same time, he has overlaid plot upon plot, to the point that he has created a tapestry more full of color than of story.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are two long-term friends, bandmates and co-owners of Brokeland Records, a small store for used records located somewhere between Oakland and Berkeley which is struggling to survive against the onslaught of digital music. Their wives are midwives and partners. A huge music store is coming to town which virtually guarantees the bankruptcy of Brokeland Records, and triggers a crisis between Archy and Nat. Archy’s wife is expecting her first child, and Archy is a philanderer. Archy gets thrown out of his home for most of the story. Nat and his wife have a teenage son who is struggling with his sexual identity. A home birth goes awry, and the midwife partnership is threatened. Archy’s father, a former martial arts movie star turned cocaine addict, is trying to make a comeback and is using blackmail to get the funding for a film which will never see the light of day. A teenaged son that Archy never knew he had suddenly appears on the scene, and enters into an adolescent affair with Nat’s love-smitten son. Even Barack Obama makes a (gratuitous) appearance!

Throw in at least a dozen or more characters, including an ageless Chinese woman who claims to have trained Bruce Lee and a homeless parrot, and you’ve got as colorful a collection of old-timers as you can imagine. The problem is that there is so much action swirling around that it is hard to know which plot line to follow, which character to root for, and what lessons to draw from all this. Is the book about marriage, home birthing, jazz, political corruption, race politics, or none of the above?  Chabon’s wordiness is part of his brilliant charm, but in this book it can sometimes feel like quicksand.

Telegraph Avenue is highly imaginative, to be sure, but I found it too helter-skelter, too crammed full of confusing plot points and overlong digressions, to have the kind of lasting impact one has come to expect of Chabon.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #12: Summerland

For this review and other thoughts about underwhelming books check out: The Scruffy Rube, my independent website.

I wanted to like Summerland so very desperately. I had enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, I often enjoy young adult literature, I almost always enjoy baseball literature…this was as tailor-made for me as a four hopper to short is tailor-made for a double play.

But sadly, seeing all the separate enjoyable components does not automatically create an enjoyable whole (as anyone who has shared a shrimp, jalapeño pizza with me can attest). Though Chabon is talented, Summerland doesn’t show it. Though young adult literature has exploded into a range of superb genres and subgenres, Summerland doesn’t want to fit in any of them. Though baseball is, perhaps, the greatest thing ever invented (next to hyperbole of course) Summerland doesn’t show it.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the book is that Chabon seems to rely on the natural magic of baseball to carry through, allowing him to flit around the edges of the game with random bits of fairy stories and folklore creatures. Baseball is magic. Few people argue that point as often and vociferously as I do (for more proof of this see my nerdy baseball blog). However, baseball’s magic isn’t as simple as saying the word or alluding to a few bits of play-by-play. The magic of baseball and sports in general (for those who are truly consumed by it) is deeply personal, emotional to its core and needs to be treated with the same depth of description as Hemingway uses for war, or Marquez uses for…well…everything.

Without evoking the personal impact for himself, Chabon seems guilty of that greatest baseball book sin: “using the game to prove a point” (looking at you Bernard Malmud). Baseball is his way into a hyper-magical land of giants, fairies, pixies, sprites, demons and Bigfeet (bigfoots?). That glossing jars hardcore sports/literary nerds like myself. But if he were to take the time and let a lover of the game unfold the sport it might be a better complement to the magical world…or maybe I’m just picky.

Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #33: Wonder Boys by Michael

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Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #33: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

“It was in this man’s class that I first began to wonder if people who wrote fiction were not suffering from some kind of disorder–from what I’ve since come to think of, remembering the wild nocturnal rocking of Albert Vetch, as the midnight disease.”

I read Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year, and became determined to read his other books. I happened to see Wonder Boys at a used bookstore while on vacation and grabbed it immediately. Like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, its combination of comedy and tragedy hooked me at once.
Grady Tripp, author, professor and adulterer, has been working on an enormous novel called Wonder Boys for years. He’s nowhere near finishing it, but that doesn’t keep him from lying to everyone about its status–his wife, his editor, his students and his girlfriend. When his editor comes to town, intent on publishing the damn thing, Tripp introduces him to one of his students, and all hell breaks loose.
This book blends comedy and tragedy in a seriously impressive way. Early on, the student kills Tripp’s girlfriend’s dog, and the whole scene was so surreal that I couldn’t stop laughing. The editor, Crabtree (played by Robert Downey, Jr in the movie, and while I haven’t seen it, that seems spot on) is a disaster, but likable nonetheless. This is only my second Chabon book, but I feel if you’ve enjoyed his other works, you’d like this one for sure.

Valyruh’s CBR#5 Review #37: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

As a fan of Chabon’s most popular books, Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I felt a certain obligation to check out his first novel when I came across it at the library. The same wit and freshness of language that makes Chabon’s writing so compelling kept me going through The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I have to say that the novel itself left me shaking my head in disappointment, until I learned that this was actually Chabon’s MFA thesis in creative writing, and I found I was somewhat able to forgive him for the sophomoric story and its rather stereotyped characters.

Art Bechstein has just graduated college, and is starting a final summer in Pittsburgh before he must face the real world. His mother died six months before his bar mitzvah at age 13, where he learned his father was a top level gangster in a DC-based mob family. By the beginning of the story, Art and his father have a tenuous relationship of occasional meals out at fancy restaurant when his father comes to town to do “business.” Usually, those meals end with Art reduced to tears by his father’s undisguised disappointment in his son’s aimlessness. Soon Art meets, in rapid succession, a girl named Phlox who tries on and discards identities and is enamored of Art, a boy named Arthur Lecomte who is handsome, debonair, dissipated, lives in other people’s homes as a house sitter, and homosexual, and Arthur’s large heterosexual friend Cleveland, a product of wealthy parents who has grown his hair long, spouts poetry, acquired a beer gut and a motorcycle, and is a low-level “collector” in Bechstein, Sr.’s operations.

Art spends the summer like the little ball in a pinball machine, bouncing between his newly-acquired friends, and getting his eyes opened not only to sexual experiences with both Phlox and Arthur, but also to the sordid world underlying his father’s illicit and therefore  somehow glamorous career. Eventually, Art’s affair with Phlox is revealed as more a refuge from the confusing and scary bouts of lust with Arthur than as love with Phlox. Cleveland exercises a different kind of hold on Art, the kind of larger-than-life, try everything, risk everything, fuck everything attitude that Art wishes he could safely dip into, but knows he can’t. Things come to a head when Cleveland demands to meet Art’s dad, who quickly concludes that his son is consorting with the very “low-life” types he had hoped to protect his son from, and decides to take action as the mobster that he is.  Tragedy ensues, and Art ends up fleeing the cops, his father, and the country.

At the novel’s close, a somewhat benumbed Art is sitting somewhere in Europe nostalgically contemplating  his lost summer and the friends he has left behind but feels he carries within himself.  I, on the other hand, was left contemplating what so many ecstatic reviewers have called a brilliant “coming-of-age” tale but which struck me as more a collection of aimless and sad indulgences by a group of very clever, very bored, and very damaged young people. If Art learned anything from his “coming-of-age” experimentation, it wasn’t obvious from his concluding musings at the book’s end.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review 17: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Ugh.

If there’s any character in Michael Chabon’s most recent novel which serves as a stand-in for the author, it would have to be that of Michael “Moby” Oberstein, a white guy whose love of other cultures leads to him making an ass of himself by trying too hard to assimilate.

Telegraph Avenue is a novel about the obsessed people with abiding love for culture, in this instance mostly under-appreciated pop culture like black music and blaxploitation films. Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are best friends and business partners, co-owners of Brokeland Records, a vinyl shop threatened by the prospect of a new megastore opening in the neighborhood. Their wives are also partners, midwives whose practice is threatened by a momentary lapse in judgment, a loss of cool.

That all sounds like fairly standard, possibly even interesting fare for a novel, but in Chabon’s hands the story is choked under a mountain of strained and aggravating prose, burying the reader in unnecessary detail about every last little thing, while allowing the traditional elements of storytelling to fall by the wayside. There is, in this doorstop of a novel, almost no interesting interaction between the four main characters. The reader would be justified in wondering just how in the world this quartet of insufferable people wound up stuck with each other. Their conflicts major and minor seeming to spring from the fact that their friendships and marriages are mere contrivances on the part of the author. There is not a single believable human relationship in the whole damn book.

Worse than the character development is the prose. Chabon is baldly attempting to achieve something with his style here. He is trying to match his prose to the rhythms of the music which Nat and Archy are consumed by. However noble the attempt, Chabon flails at it, coming off like someone desperate to prove how cool he is. It is embarrassing  to watch.

I’d describe the plot in greater detail but I’m worried that I might inadvertently make the book sound much more interesting than it really is. I wouldn’t want anyone else exposed to this nonsense (one whole chapter is written as a single sentence, following the incredibly unlikely flight of an escaped parrot) on my account.