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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Michael Chabon, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY

I started this book about ten years ago and--for some reason--set it aside. After reading Chabon's *Moonglow* last month, I thought, hm, maybe I'll give it another try. I have NO IDEA what I didn't see the first time around. This book is big-hearted, beautifully written, by turns playful (without being writerly "clever") and poignant without being cloying. Six hundred pages of type that is so small I had to use cheaters, but I couldn't put it down. After the second day of reading, I started dreaming about it.

Young Sammy Klayman lives in Brooklyn in the late 1930s; his cousin Josef Kavalier barely escapes from Czechoslovakia as the borders close under the Nazis, and makes his way to Brooklyn. Together the boys become a comic book-writing team, evolve as artists, and survive WWII and heartbreaking loss. But this synopsis doesn't do the book justice. Think magic (Houdini, not Harry Potter), comic books, censorship, friendship, war, love, loss, homosexuality, anti-Semitism, forgiveness, secrets. 

A don't miss.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trevor Noah, BORN A CRIME: STORIES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN CHILDHOOD

I'm so lame about late-night pop culture that I didn't even know Trevor Noah was the replacement for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show until I read the reviews. (I go to sleep too early, apparently.) 

This book is about a boy growing up mixed-race in apartheid South Africa and as the country transitions out of apartheid. Other comments mention that we should listen to this book because Noah has such an engaging voice. It comes across on the page as well; I felt as if I were sitting next to him, and he was telling me his story. And it's a shocking one that both shows the raw particularity of his own experience and (without preaching at all) illuminates Western (US) frames of reference by contrasts. While his mother makes some mistakes in judgment, she is the book's heroine; she loves her son fiercely; she also understands the nature of the place where they live. When she is beaten by her husband Abel (a true villain), she tries to file a report with the police; they refuse, again and again to accept it. (I felt my frustration growing each time.) The police wave her away, expressing sympathy for Abel, agreeing how irritating women can be. When Abel finally attempts to murder her (and nearly succeeds), shooting her with a gun twice, he walks free because he has no priors. Early on, she explains to Trevor, after he was taken to jail for (not) stealing a car: "Everything I have ever done, I've done from a place of love. If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you. If the police get you, the police don't love you. When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you." Another example of a Western frame of reference that doesn't hold up in SA: Noah makes the point that every culture has its villain--the person they'd like to go back in time and erase. For the Congo, it's King Leopold of Belgium whose exploitation of the Congo for ivory and rubber led to the death of 10 million Congolese. For South Africa, it's Cecil Rhodes. Hitler isn't the villain we (in the West) know so well; he is "not the worst thing a black South African can imagine." There's a boy named Hitler who's a fabulous dancer, who accompanies Noah to the parties where Noah DJs with his pirated CDs. Noah makes the point also that because he fit in nowhere (being of mixed race), he had to find ways to fit in everywhere. He does that through (as you'd expect) humor, but also salesmanship, entrepreneurship, and language--because there are nearly a dozen "official" languages of South Africa, and the fact that Noah knows Tsonga from his stepfather may have saved his life in prison. He quotes Nelson Mandela in a passage I liked: 

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, "I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being." 

Another passage I read several times over:

People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." That's the part of the analogy that's missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, "Okay, here's what you need, and here's how it works." Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, "Oh, that's a handout." No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don't stand a chance without it.

The threads of empathy and understanding run through this book. It's a quick, thoroughly enjoyable read; I would say, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Colson Whitehead, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Well worth reading. It's a heartbreaking story of Cora, a slave in the South, who attempts to escape the plantation, following her mother Mabel who (it is said) escaped years before, leaving her young daughter behind. In a way it reminds me of a picaresque, set in episodes, with Cora meeting a huge variety of people along the way. Whitehead's writing is beautiful and deft: "The house had been built fifty years before and the stairs creaked. A whisper in one room carried into the next two." "Ava was wiry and strong, with hands as quick as a cottonmouth." For me, what added to the painfulness of the read was the way he puts the most heartbreaking moments into the plainest, sparest prose, suggesting that all this cruelty and viciousness is all quite ordinary: "Cora started for the stairs but they complained reliably, warning her so often these last few months, that she knew she wouldn't be able to make it. She crawled under Martin's old bed and that's where they found her, snatching her ankles like irons and dragging her out. They tossed her down the stairs. She jammed her shoulder into the banister at the bottom. Her ears rang." The review in the New Yorker made the point that the book skewers the myth (that I heard in my earliest history classes) that the North was a land of tolerance, welcoming escaped slaves and helping them along. Whitehead's version of history shows that betrayals cross gender, age, race, and geography; they take every shape.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Chabon, MOONGLOW

Chabon's writing is always adroit, economical, ambitious, inventive. But this book about his grandfather, drawn from conversations with his grandfather during his last six weeks of life, feels like the book he was always meant to write. Stunning, wide-ranging, poignant. The fact that Chabon and I both have a favorite Salinger short story--"For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--and that we have the SAME version of *Nine Stories* with the colored tiles on the cover made me smile.

There's plenty of praise and commentary on this novel already; so I will just mention just a few of my many favorite lines (even though plucking them out of context doesn't do them justice).

When the time came to leave for the synagogue, the only card my grandfather still held was to make himself disagreeable. Pick a fight and hope to be uninvited.

My grandparents forgave each other with the pragmatism of lovers in a plummeting airplane.

... a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams

"That lighter," [Sally said, about a silver cigarette lighter that had belonged to his grandfather's friend in WWII, and which his grandfather had passed on to Michael].
"There was as a story behind it," [Michael replied].
"I'm sure. All of his stories were stuck behind something."

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Adam Hochschild, KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST

I was utterly impressed and moved by this brilliant book. I was one of those students Hochschild mentions briefly, who read Heart of Darkness in high school, where it was taught as a parable, a cautionary tale akin to Lord of the Flies, about what can happen when one man holds absolute power with no oversight. But Joseph Conrad based his account on several men he had met in Africa--station managers for King Leopold II (of Belgium)'s vicious, brutal extortion of ivory from the Congo. And the forced labor, kidnappings, and brutal treatment of Congolese only grew worse during the subsequent mad scramble for rubber (for tires for bicycles and automobiles). I am appalled and not a little ashamed that until I found this book, I knew next to nothing about any of this. The second half of the book offers a slightly less dismal conclusion to the story--the account of the first great human rights movement of the 20thC, spearheaded by E. D. Morel, Roger Casement and others, that helped put an end to some of the abuses. 

I appreciated how painstaking his research was, and how adroitly the author organized the material into a narrative that was as compelling as a novel. And his afterword, with its cautionary notes about "pretend[ing] to acknowledge something [such as a history of brutality] without really doing so," the need to look at causes, and "the cultural tolerance and even hero-worship" of men such as Mobutu, who, like Leopold II, exploited the Congo to enrich his own coffers, is still a relevant message and points to the need for ongoing dialog about the long shadows that are cast by brutality and the flagrant abuse of power.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Elizabeth McCracken, THE GIANT'S HOUSE: A ROMANCE

I've seen these words in several other reviews of this 1996 novel: strange and lovely. The premise, on the surface, sounds a bit creepy: a spinsterish librarian falling in love with an 11-year-old boy, who happens to be six feet tall already and still growing. But I like an author who takes up a challenge--to make a story like this not just accessible but meaningful and heartbreaking. Some of the sentences gave me serious writer envy; many verge on poetic. Though the trajectory of the book is poignant and even painful, I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins because the narrator's voice (Peggy, the librarian) is by turns wry, self-deprecating, shrewd and honest. McCracken gives her a clever turn of phrase, interesting ways of representing things. On their journey by train to NYC: "Hours later, we hit the tunnel that led to Grand Central. A shame, I thought, that trains couldn't just ride straight into the city, proud and unhidden. Trains had to senak up on Manhattan, underground, in the dark." "New York beckoned ... Not the way Cape Cod is always beckoning, its curled finger saying to the whole rest of the country, come a little closer, till on the Fourth of July weekend the rest of the country is unaccountably standing on a beach in Provincetown, wondering: How did I get here?" Worth the read.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Donna Tartt, THE GOLDFINCH

For the past five days, I've felt a dark shadow around the edge of my thoughts because of this book. I felt for Theo, the 13-year-old whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at the Met. In the aftermath, Theo's life devolves step by wretched step ... with the dysfunctional Park Avenue family that takes him in; his stay in Las Vegas with his addiction-riddled father, who has men coming to the house with baseball bats, and his trashy girlfriend Xandra; his friendship with Boris who seems hell bent on self-destruction. At this point in the book, I had to jump forward fifty pages or so just to make sure Theo gets out of Vegas. But even after Theo's return to New York, to the home of someone trustworthy and kind, he lies and cheats and swindles his way into a position where I wondered, how on EARTH can he dig his way out of this? 

I was struck by how, even with a decent family, a teen is in danger; and without one, he is on the verge of destruction; after Theo's mother dies, all the counselors and teachers are well-meaning but seem unable to empathize authentically and incapable of helping him. The safety net feels very fragile, if it even exists. That's what felt so terrifying and painful; it's like watching the proverbial runaway train. 

And yet the book is so beautifully written, I couldn't stop reading. I did enjoy all the references that were like a series of winks to anyone who ever lived in NYC: the Temple of Dendur, Gristedes, the Paris Theater, the bicycle messengers, Barneys; and more broadly to the cultural referents of our time: to *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe*; "Potter," which is Boris's nickname for Theo; the bus ride from Vegas ("They tried to sell this whole family-friendly package a few years ago, but it didn't wash"), through "Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse"; and "that man who landed the plane in the river a few years back and saved everyone, remember him?" (recently turned into the movie SULLY). It gives this book a feeling of being a story that is, to some extent, about Every(wo)man. In the end, there is some redemption, even a sense of something learned at great cost (deep sigh of relief). And the book feels unforgettable to me.