Thursday, September 27, 2018

Final Installment, Summer of Chabon: Moonglow

I chose Moonglow as the final novel for my summer of reading only books by Michael Chabon. Dutiful readers of this blog will recall that I took a break to cleanse my palette with some short stories somewhere in late August, but mostly, these four Chabon novels were the only fiction I’ve ingested for the past several months: Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue, and Moonglow.
To start. It’s amazing to me how different each of these books were, and how varied my reactions could be to writing by the same author. I suppose experiencing an author’s oeuvre, in broad view, is much like looking at a person’s life: a series of changing influences and expressions, many years divided into sections, one person seemingly many different people at different times.
So. How would you begin to tell the story of a life? What if that life was inextricably tied to yours, while you were growing and changing and becoming new versions of yourself all the time? What if you love the person, and that colors your perspective? What if you’re a writer of fiction by birth, and your world is further colored and texturized by your impulse to create and find meaning? What if the person whose story you want to tell is leaving you, and you must face the abyss that will follow your telling?
This seems to be the task Michael Chabon set for himself with Moonglow, after he spent a week with his dying grandfather, who, in his last days, told many anecdotes from his life. Spending these final moments with his grandfather became the spark for this novel, which reads in many ways like a memoir and which has inspired endless debate as to its genre. People want to know: Which parts are true? Why didn’t he just tell the story from his grandfather’s point of view? How could he possibly know or remember some of those details?
My book club was no different; they had questions. I chose this for our September read and we discussed it last night. Being a writer, I think I have more patience than perhaps others do for matters of genre. I’m usually content to let a book be whatever it is. I don’t really care what a book might be called, and while I was reading Moonglow, I didn’t really care what was true and what wasn’t. I was happy to follow along with whatever Chabon intended. It was full of tender, relatable moments and vivid details that resonated and in the end, it struck me as a work of incredible love, of conscientious reverence, of grudging and precocious creativity. And what memoir is entirely true anyway? We tell our own stories from the limits of our singular viewpoint, perspective and memory, and telling the story of someone else introduces more levels, more gaps, more subjective interpretation.
As for plot, Moonglow unfolds as a narrator, “Mike,” spends time with his grandfather near the end of the old man’s life. The grandfather tells about his time in the war and brushes with the law, his intellectual obsessions, and the complicated marriage he shared with the narrator’s grandmother. If anything, it’s an exercise of speculation, as the narrator expands the stories into realms he cannot have witnessed. The story has a timeline of sorts, but it jumps around in time and place. With this, the book club also took issue. Perhaps in this regard, the novel could be considered a bit messy. But again, I have more patience with that, I think. Life strikes me as a very messy business, not always lining up in an orderly queue of experiences. Even in this occasional haphazardness, I felt the deep chord of truth. What can I say? I got the feels from Moonglow and I found myself thinking about my relatives who have passed and the stories they told, and the pictures and memorabilia that remain, and the deep, deep grooves they left in the road of my life, my story. If I were to try to tell the story of any of them—of my recently-passed mother, say—I think it would be much like this: things she said, things I remember, things I make up in my head. It seems to me all fiction may fall into this very category, one universal genre, and I’ll be thinking about Michael Chabon’s contribution to it for a good, long while.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The More Things Change

Going through our mother’s papers, my sister recently found a copy of this essay, which I wrote in my early twenties, about the experience of meeting my birth family for the first time. Tomorrow is the thirty-year anniversary of the day I called my birth mom and suggested that possibly, she was the young woman who had given me up for adoption at the Holy Family agency in Los Angeles two decades before.
I’ve been blessed in my life with the guidance and support of many admirable women: my grandmothers, each unique in her own way but both strong, loyal and loving, and several wonderful mothers—birth, step, in-law—and above all, my beloved, forever mom, who passed this year and left a gaping hole in my heart.
I tried to shush the editor in me as I retyped this essay (Paragraph breaks! Punctuation! So many long dashes!), but occasionally, I made a small change. But mostly, this is how I wrote it, many years ago. It certainly brings back the feelings of the time and reflects the self-gazing, emotional, young woman/writer I was then. And because this essay was written for a class by a professor who became an important mentor to me, it also brings back that early vulnerability of expressing something personal for others to read and judge. Lastly, it feels true and familiar to the relationship I have now with my own self-gazing, emotional, teenaged daughter. Life circles around, again and again, and once in a while, something reminds us of who we were, who we are, and who we can be.

The More Things Change
I look out the window and know I will always remember Wisconsin in two colors—green and gray. The endless, rolling green hills as we drove, and me wondering how anyone ever got anywhere. The flat, straight freeways of California make more sense—so direct, so fast. This particular day is a collage of gray: the glistening pavement of the runway, the small, metallic airport, the gray, turbulent sky spilling a downpour of cleansing rain. How different this water felt on my face today than the tears from two weeks ago, my last airplane ride. Those were tears heavy with guilt and fear, diluted with sleepiness. My brother drove me to the airport that morning, and he had his important-situation face on, and I felt very grown-up and close to him. It was still dark we drove. I’ve always felt cowardly starting a trip before sunrise; it feels like something sneaky. My mom was up to say goodbye. When she kissed me, then released me from her embrace, I felt pain—from where her collarbone pressed into my chest, and in my heart, where her anxieties passed into me, transformed into guilt.
Although my actual departure from Los Angeles was uneventful (my brother said something about being careful and gave me my second hug of the day—a quick, awkward one that was his trademark), I found myself sobbing in my window seat. I was twenty years old and going to meet the woman who had given birth to me. The thought of it was overwhelming. It was only a couple of weeks before that when I had first heard her voice. It was all so sudden, yet something I had dreamt of for so long. One time, I had a dream I went to Hawaii to find my mother, only to find she had been buried the year before at the base of a volcano. I read a book once about a young woman who was dating an older man who turned out to be her father via sperm donation. That one really had me going for a while. Whenever people tell me I look familiar, my heart leaps with possibility.
I’ve always known I was adopted. I remember feeling special because of it, but also remember wanting so desperately to be like the woman who raised me—read a lot like her, have glasses like hers, wear her clothes. Despite my efforts, resembling my mom turned out to be an unattainable goal. I stand a full five inches taller than her, have medium-0dark skin that tans easily, while she is light-skinned and petite. We look like distant strangers, at best. I always thought how great it would be to have someone who looked like me. That was part of the reason I always wanted to find my birthparents, and as I reached adolescence (those difficult, teen years), the widening gap in the lines of communication between my mom and myself created a new reason. I would just find my “real” mom, and she would understand me.
These past two weeks were a whirlwind, meeting people who met me with curious glances but open arms. As the airplane lifts into the sky to take me back home, my mine, too, is weightless, at last at peace. I know that my birth mom and her husband are still peering into the gray sky, watching me go as suddenly as I exploded into their lives. She turned out to be everything I could have hoped for, my birth mom, and when I hugged her the first time, it was like hugging myself—same height! It turns out most of my features are from my dad, though—I still felt a little incomplete until I met him. My birth mom helped me track him down once I got there. They hadn’t seen each other for, well, over twenty years.
As I met relatives (many, many new relatives), looked into faces that had my eyes, or my nose, and heard stories about how I came about, I felt fully together, whole for the first time in my life. And yet the gnawing guilt for my own joy continued—for I knew my mom at home was anxious about this trip, wondering what place she would have upon my return.
I started to realize that mixed with the guilt was homesickness, and instead of regretting what never was, my soul was leaping with happiness for the course my life had taken. How very lucky I am to have been cared for by this wonderful woman, my “real” mom. It was she who helped me and supported me to find my birthparents, driving down to meetings one Saturday a month, probably in an effort to get closer to me. So now, on this, my flight back home, I think of all those fights we’ve had—all wasted time. These new relatives I’ve met will always be a part of my life, but never a replacement. These feelings and thoughts rush around inside me and as the plane descends into Los Angeles—bright, sunny, yellow and blue California—I can hardly keep in my seat for the gladness. Things will be different with mom and me—we share so much history, she introduced me to life. We come to a stop and I stand in the aisle, flexing my leg muscles. The people are moving so slowly. “Out of my way!” I feel like shouting, “My family’s out there!” Peering over the heads in the boarding tunnel. I look for her. There are things I can’t explain, like how quickly I picked up the Midwestern accent from my birth mom, even in that first telephone conversation, as if my mouth was formed specifically for it, or how we use the same hand and facial expressions when speaking. But I can explain why I know what I know—because my mom made sure I was educated—and where I got my ideals and morals, from her.
Finally I see her, looking nervous and tired. I hug her, quickly, then complain about the hot weather.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Summer of Chabon Update: Two Books in One Post

I’d like to begin this post by reminding readers how much I LOVED The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This is an incredible novel! Buy it! Read it! Also, I enjoyed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh very much and if you recall from my most recent post, Wonder Boys fulfilled every hope I had for a summer of immersive novels.
So. I didn’t like the The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Reading it was arduous for me, an exercise in will but not the free kind. Every moment felt like I was in a very loud restaurant, trying desperately to hear what the waiter was saying. The prose was like a thick stew spanning a creek; I couldn’t see the water. And I read this book on vacation! We were at the beach one day, and several young men were playing soccer on the sand before us. One of them was a bit older, blonde curly hair and slight paunch, and he had taken to the role of coach, barking out plays and in a slightly condescending way, encouraging effort from the members of the recently-formed teams. My daughter looked at him and said to me “He’s a try hard.” And I got what she meant, and I looked down at this book.
Listen, I feel badly about it, but Michael Chabon doesn’t need my support for this novel; it did quite well. So I moved on to Telegraph Avenue. And I have to tell you, the first several chapters had me worried. But maybe thirty pages in, the novel started to open up for me and I enjoyed most of the rest. Sure, at times I had to come up for air and resolutely dive back into the stew with rededicated focus, but in the final analysis, the characters kept me coming back. If you’re interested in such things, on a five-star scale, I’d give Telegraph Avenue a 3.5. I'm not doing a plot-based review of either of these, because you can find tons online for both books.
And now I’m feeling the pull back to short stories, so I’ll be taking a break to read a collection everyone’s been talking about (Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man and I’m sorry! I have to! I miss stories!!), then I’ll be back to Chabon action with the final book of my summer challenge, Moonglow. In the meantime, if you’re riding the Chabon train with me and might be interested in the author’s favorite reads (spoiler: lots of classics by men), here you go: Michael Chabon's Top Ten List.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Wonder Boys

You know, when I decided on this Summer of Chabon thing, I neglected to mention one sort of intangible reason that pushed me onto this path. As I mentioned in my last post, I absolutely loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and one of the main things I remember about that book is the absolute immersive experience it provided. And so, after a particularly trying start to the year, I wanted to plunge myself into the drawn-out reading of novels, for sure; in addition, I was hoping for the type of complete and utter escape the best novels offer.
For me, my first Chabon summer read did not disappoint. Wonder Boys was published back in 1995, so this will come as no surprise to many of you: it’s a great read. Chabon’s luckless protagonist, Grady Tripp, is a writer struggling to complete a never-ending second novel and for its tragicomic look at the writing life and its pretensions, goals, and tortures, the novel is enough. For its range of vivid and fascinating characters, the novel is enough. And it was exactly what I was hoping for in terms of engagement. Wonder Boys is not only entirely immersive at the story level, an imaginative farce that makes for easy page-turning, but it’s also absorbing at the sentence level, a joy for anyone who lives intimately with and loves the possibilities of language. Honestly, this novel does everything you could ever ask a novel to do. Perhaps it did not move me to tears (and I do love a good cry), but it was touching and intellectually stimulating and very, very funny.
A brief note: When I finished reading last night, I was so high on Wonder Boys that I decided to watch the film version (2000, Michael Douglas et al.). At first look, I thought the casting was really good. And, well, I watched about forty minutes and that was enough. It was fine. As is most often the case, the film couldn’t live up to the vast and vivid world of the novel. Or maybe it was too soon. I guess I’d rather stay immersed a little while longer.
Next up, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, probably the book people bring up most often when Chabon is mentioned. At least to me. Looking forward to it very much. If anyone would like to join along on the Chabonpalooza, or share your thoughts on these novels as I move through them, please do!

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Summer of Chabon

Every summer, I seem to find more reading time, which means I finish a disproportionate amount of books over these balmy, relaxed months. Also, I like to have some sort of summer reading project. Maybe I choose a large tome that seemed overwhelming the rest of the year; perhaps I embark on a series. I spent one summer with Hilary Mantel, another with David McCullough (and, indirectly, John Adams et al.). Last summer, I went with classics: a collection of Chekhov stories and The Golden Bowl by Henry James (Ugh. An endlessly tough and torturous read. Wish I could remember which online friend named it as a favorite, thanks so much!).
This year, I’m woefully behind my usual rate of reading. It’s been a tough start to 2018 and for a couple of months, I didn’t read much at all. But now I’m raring to go, ready to dive in and although I love me some short stories, I’m feeling especially ready to dive into novels. Preferably long, immersive novels. So I took a look at my shelves and decided to christen the summer of 2018 as The Summer of Chabon.
My reasons? They’re not particularly complicated or particularly contemplated. First, I already had two of these books on my shelf. Second, I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, one of the novels I've probably recommended most frequently over the years. I don't recommend books very often but when I do, this one seems to crop up for various reasons, for various people. I also liked The Mysteries of Pittsburgh very much. Third, a very astute friend loves Michael Chabon (looking at you, Genelle) and, in fact, gave me one of these books.
So I’m embarking on reading these 1672 pages of Chabon fiction, although we are already almost at the end of June. Which leaves me two months, basically, so one novel every two weeks. Yes, I know there are other Chabon books (novels, stories, essays, etc.); these are the ones I picked. I’ll probably proceed in chronological order, beginning with Wonder Boys. And I may even delight you with my assessments and progress as I go along. Without further ado, thus begins The Summer of Chabon!
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka