Friday, September 30, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: Impressions

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon has been on my to-read list for several years, and despite its length, I'm glad it was chosen for September's book club selection. As a disclaimer: I read the last 400 pages of this book in under 24 hours, during the work week. That is, those 24 hours included some amount of sleep overnight and a full day's work. So, I may have missed some things. 

I actually went into this knowing very, very little about the plot. I started reading and thought, ugh, this is about comic books and the holocaust? And it is about both those things, but they mostly provide the context within which the two main characters move and develop as people.  The story follows two Jewish cousins, Sam 'Clay,' who grew up in Brooklyn, and 'Joe' Kavalier, who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe at the last possible second and has come to America to live with his cousin's family and to try like hell to rescue his younger brother and his parents. The two immediately devise a scheme for the next best comic book - The Escapist - and pitch it successfully to Sam's then boss, and believe they will now make loads and loads of money and all their problems will be solved (if only!). From there, we weave in and out of their lives over the course of the next 15 years or so, from about 1939 to about 1954. 

The novel definitely deals with some intense subject matter, but Chabon peppers the story with enough humor that the text doesn't feel heavy. While on a deadline for producing the next-best superhero - one to match the best-selling Superman, Chabon describes the boys' sense of urgency: "In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time." 

Chabon also exposes us, or those of us unfamiliar, to the weird experience it is to be Jewish in America through all sorts of characters in the book. Not just being Jewish, but also feeling isolated, as a result of any sort of difference. Both characters suffer identity crises, and both are forced to repress certain aspects of themselves for a time. In a bit of foreshadowing in the beginning, Joe is described as
one of those unfortunate boys who became escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons. Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains--walled in, sewn up in layers of batting. For them, the final feat of autoliberation was all too foreseeable. 
This passage encapsulates the main theme and underlying mood of the book, although each section has a distinctly different mood from any of the others.  I can easily see why this won the Pulitzer Prize. I'd recommend this to almost anyone - it's got something for everyone: comedy, tragedy, adventure, magic tricks, golems, mysteries, romance, superheros, and familial bonds. How often can you find all of that in one novel?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Top Twelve (Oops) Books I Want to Reread

Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.
  1. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy - Luckily, we've chosen this book for the next round of book club, so I'll be rereading this in the next couple weeks. I loved the language and the style. It was one of my absolute favorites when I read it a decade ago, we'll see if I still feel the same. 
  2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami  - I really loved this when I read it several years ago. It'd be nice to read it again with a regained critical eye. Perhaps I'd get more out of it. 
  3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - so, I may be alone in this, but I loved this book when I was required to read it in high school. I had every intention of hating it, and yet, somehow, I was riveted. I wonder if I'll still like it a lifetime later. Also, with the much anticipated When She Woke now out, I kind of want to revisit it. 
  4. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather - because it's been so long I barely remember. 
  5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin - same deal.
  6. Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle and Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut - I've gone far too long without some Vonnegut in my reading diet. 
  7. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - I read this 10-12 years ago and can't remember much of it. And that's a travesty because Bradbury's fantastic.
  8. 1984 by George Orwell - Or, well, maybe it would just depress me too much. But it's another one I read half a life ago. 
  9. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger - another book I'm curious to experience as an adult instead of a teenager. 
  10. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri - I adored this short story collection when it came out, especially the first piece. I would love to revisit it. 
  11. The Blind Assassin  by Margaret Atwood - I didn't enjoy this one as much as some of her others. I think I need to reread to pick up on what I may have glossed over at the time
  12. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion Jane Austen - I adore her witty dialogue and dry observations about the trivialities of daily life that women were pretty much relegated to at the time. 
Book I can tell I'm going to need to reread to fully enjoy:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - Can you ever tell while reading a book for the first time that you'll enjoy it immensely more the second time around? That's how this one feels. But this first run has been a little slow-going. Really, I needed to read it while actually on vacation, with much time to fully devote to it. That's not how it's gone, at all. 

Committing to a reread is actually very hard with all the unread material I want to cover. Really, I just need to be paid a comfortable salary to read and then write about what I read. Any sponsors out there? Ha. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

RIP VI challenge

Thanks to Brenna and Beth, I have discovered this little ghoulish challenge. I mean, really, how can I pass up a challenge whose picture-theme is based on one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who? As always, I'm fashionably late to this party, and my reading plate is rather full (God of Small Things - a favorite from a decade ago that needs a reread - for book club, Middlesex, which I've meant to read for ages, for Reading Buddies, Infinite Jest, to be finished before the nuptials, and various other things I've wanted to read for quite a while). But I hope to rearrange some things, and at the very least get a copy of The Lantern (the audio version is waiting for me at the local library) and join in the October group read. I also have these goodies on my shelf that are all fair game for this challenge:

Agatha Christie is always a good, fast read & short stories may be the way to go as well. So... I should get reading, then, huh. Hope you're all having a lovely weekend.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reading Habits

At book club last week, during which we discussed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (review forthcoming), a member mentioned a woman she knew that so completely engrossed herself in her reading material that she'd have an atlas & the decade-ago equivalent of Wikipedia at hand at all times. If she wasn't quite sure where something was, she'd look it up. If the novel mentioned a city, she'd find it in an atlas and then research its history. If it mentioned a an obscure scientist or artist with whom she was not familiar, she would immediately familiarize herself. You get the picture.

A book like Kavalier and Clay, which spans a few decades, would probably take her several months to read that way.  To me, it seemed like a completely overwhelming and, well, hyperimmersive way to read a book. How does she get through anything? Is reading a novel such a chore that she rarely bothers, or is it a great joy for her to use novels as her guides to learning about people and places and history?

I will occasionally stop to research something if I've always meant to learn more about it, or look things up on a map if I have absolutely no general idea of where a place is in relation to other places, but never have I gone to the above extreme. It must be a completely different reading experience. But would it also take something away from the flow of the story, from the general pleasure of reading itself? I tend to think it probably would, at least for me. I also like to trust that the author is giving me enough information to follow and enjoy and fall into the story without having to stop, look something up, start again, stop again, etc. If the author is any good, that is.

Anyone else read like the woman above, or even anything close to it?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Top Ten Books it seems just about everyone has read but me

Hosted every week by the The Broke and The Bookish, participated in haphazardly by me.

  1. All things Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom, etc.) - I feel as though I should delve into one of these one of these days, especially since he grew up in Webster Groves, a township of STL, and especially since one of his novels is set in St. Louis (so few are). But, I haven't yet. Some day. 
  2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - Seriously everyone has read this book. It was the first book for book club, but I didn't have enough notice to acquire and read a copy. I have since found a used copy and will probably read it someday. It's not high on my priority list though. (Should it be?)
  3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown - Another that absolutely everyone read and talked about. My mom gave me Angels and Demons which I tried to read, and while the plot was interesting enough, I just could not get past the atrocious writing. So, this will remain in the Never Gonna Read pile.
  4. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer - This never appealed to me for some reason. Readers I trust have read and loved and recommended it, but... I don't know. Not so into it. I may get around to it one day.
  5. White Teeth by Zadie Smith - I tried to read this several years ago but couldn't get into it. I feel like I should read it try again but it's not at the top of my list. 
  6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - Every woman I know has read this, most likely when they were younger. I have not. I need to get around to it. 
  7. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov - The language, I hear, is outstanding. The subject matter keeps me at bay. One day. 
  8. All of the Harry Potter books - I read 1-3 when 4 was only out in hardcover, and I was not about to lug that giant, awkward book around the city and on the subway. So I stopped after 3. I do want to read the rest though. Everyone says I must. 
  9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer - This will never happen. The general theme appalls me (and I don't mean the vampires), and I hear the writing is hard to stomach. I think I'll survive without ever reading this. 
  10. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and all things Judy Blume - Sooo I never read Judy Blume as a child! And now I feel too old for it, until there are children for whom books must be screened and age-appropriately recommended. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Impressions

A friend of mine leant me By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham a couple months ago, saying I should read it if I liked The Hours. While I didn't enjoy it as much as his most well-known novel, it was still an engaging, fast read with the occasional delightful little insight.

By Nightfall is told in the third person, but solely from the perspective of Peter Harris, an early 40-something, mildly successful art dealer that lives in Soho. As a reader, you spend a lot of time (too much, really) inside Peter's head, subject to all his self-musings, self-consciousness, self-criticism & self-admonishings (noticing a pattern?) over worrying about his own problems when there are people far worse off than he. (Those come across as a little disingenuous, more of, I think I'm supposed to be worried about other people but I'm really just not and I feel bad about it - does that make me a bad person? I don't want to be a bad person and I don't like feeling bad about others' downtroddenness so I wish their lives could at least appear to be comfortable enough so that I didn't feel I should feel bad about being much better off than them and still having Problems of my own, which are bothering me. Oh, woe is me.)

It takes place in the very recent past, after the market crash of 2008 and the economic downturn, a time when rich people didn't want to appear too flamboyant about their richness because it would seem, well, tacky. And rich people are all about appearances, the poor souls. The novel is set over the course of a week of Peter's life, during which time his wife Rebecca's wanderlust and, well, lost, much-younger-brother (Mizzy) comes to town, for whom Peter finds he has ambiguous feelings, which causes a mid-life crisis of sorts.  It seems Mizzy is rendered an aimless, beautiful drug-addict because he must live in the shadow of his older sisters' various successes, poor lad. He had to go hang out in Japan for a while, at some monasteries, but that doesn't give him a sense of purpose, either, and now he's globe-trotting again. I know, it's all very tragic. So now he's setting up temporary camp in his older sister's swank loft apartment in Soho. Oh, the tragedy. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. Very wealthy, privileged people are people too, after all, and still can experience tragedy, although, I don't find purposelessness tragic, merely self-indulgent, at least, in this case, despite the fact that he's young. Although, I suppose, when your nickname, Mizzy, is short for The Mistake... what can you expect?

One of the most unbelievable accounts in the novel comes when Peter mistakes Mizzy for his wife... while he's in the shower. Really? Come on. With clothes involved, it could be remotely believable, but not without. Rebecca, Peter's wife, is painted as an icy stranger, overly concerned about Mizzy's well-being. Peter describes Rebecca as thus, as they lie in bed together on a Sunday morning with the New York Times:
They do not lie close to each other. Rebecca is absorbed in the book review. Here she is, grown from a tough, wise girl to a savvy and rather cool-hearted woman, weary of reassuring Peter about, well, almost everything: grown to be a severe if affectionate critic. Here is her no-nonsense girlhood transmogrified into a womanly capacity for icy, calmly delivered judgments. 
"Womanly capacity"? Obviously, I'm going to take issue with that. Men have the same capacity for piercing the heart with statements calculated to do just that. And this is how he views his wife? Judgmental because she's tired of reassuring him? How low is this man's self-esteem that his wife's to blame for not boosting him up enough?

It appears I didn't enjoy this book at all, and though it's true I read many passages with eyes rolling, that's not the whole story. Cunningham has a knack for capturing - with uncomfortable accuracy - those intimate interactions we have with people whom we've known for years, with whom we've established a comfortable rapport that can turn into assumptions about another that then turns us into strangers interacting with our own out-dated projections of the other person instead of continuing to work (it can be work) to stay in tune with each others' ever-changing subtle natures. These two are clearly out of sync with each other, and a strong, judgmental resentment has been built around their own misconceptions of whom their spouse is which doesn't at all match with whom they want their spouse to be.  That is the danger we face in long-term intimate partnerships, such as marriage, and it is what we have to work to avoid to make such relationships survive. The dialogue is normally wry and witty banter, usually enjoyable to read, and though Peter's self-conscious pretensions are trying, the novel does capture, with some accuracy, the weird self-critical back-and-forth that can go on in one's head in times of life-crises, the ones that occasionally lead to a little self-insight:
Beauty--the beauty Peter craves--is this, then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope. Mizzy must have hope, he must, he wouldn't shine like this if he were in true despair, and of course he's young, who in this world despairs more exquisitely than the young, that's something the old tend to forget.  
I'd say you should read this if you're curious, but be ready to take the self-delusional pretensions with a grain of salt. It was unique in its ever-second-guessing-of-oneself nature, told in the third person, and I'm guessing most of us would be lying if we said we've never gone through such times, even if we haven't reached mid-life crises yet. Greg over at New Dork Review of Books warned me about its pretentiousness when I started reading, and I wonder if that colored my experience. Hard to say. Despite my criticism, I think I enjoyed it a wee bit more than he did.

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