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!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Opening Channels

Have you ever purchased a new car and suddenly, out on the road, you see many others of the same make and model? They were always there; you didn't notice before. What about when you look up the definition of a word you’ve never been quite sure of (or a completely new word); soon, you’re seeing that word everywhere, wondering how many times you lazily passed it by, missing out on a nuance, a broader understanding.
The universe is like that. What I mean is, the universe is full of infinite information, endless frequencies. And being open to the channels the universe offers can be a matter of free will, of choice. It’s what spiritual leaders talk about when they talk about presence (“It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.” --Eckhart Tolle); it’s what Christians might mean when they say "Let go, let God." You may have heard someone talk about “putting a problem out into the universe,” or about positive and negative energy. So which is it: energy? God? Space? The power of our own minds? Why can’t it be all of those, or something else altogether, if it means something to you?
It’s been a surreal time for me, for a variety of reasons. A matter of getting through day by day, week by week. The main event: I lost my mother, the rock of our family. My rock. I woke up the other morning with a problem, having slept too little, and my desire to talk to her was so strong, it took my breath away. I have felt grief in the weeks since she’s been gone, but this was primal, adrenaline-filled, intense. It was like wanting water, food, safety.
To me, the universe is atoms and molecules, carbon and nitrogen, the air we breathe, everything that goes in and out of our bodies, humanity and every other living and non-living thing. No new matter is being created; we’re all in the same stew and have been from the very beginning. To me, the universe is God and His essence, love: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)” To me, the universe (and particularly, our individual, immediate orbit) is the energy we give and receive, and there’s choice in that too. And now, to me, the universe is also my mother, her physical form distilled around me in the air I breathe, the thoughts I choose to think. She is present now, everywhere. Her strength. Her advice, which is still there if I become still and listen.
We can open our channels by choosing to absorb what’s around us with our senses, with our minds. Watch, listen, smell, taste. Notice and make associations. I believe the universe operates on some basic principles of balance, so if you make the effort, the universe will show up for you. Every time. And so I put my problem out there, let go, opened up. I heard my mom telling me to breathe, to give myself time, to consider calmly, as she did. I had my tea. I calmed down. The day continued. A passage in a book struck chords. Something arrived in the mail, like a signal. A friend called. I remembered something I had forgotten, useful information. I went out for a run and noticed everything: the jacaranda leaving purple pathways, the strong muscles in my legs, holding me up and propelling me forward. My iPod knew exactly which songs I needed to hear. When I reached my street, I noticed a man sitting in his car, praying with his hands folded against his chest, like a child.
Your universe is your own business. Call it what you will. But never doubt the power of a calm, focused mind, the resonance of a wise loved one, the charge you can get from positivity, from love. My universe is telling me all sorts of things these days, when I choose to notice, if I’m smart enough to tune in.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

In Remembrance of My Mother

My mother passed away on April 12, almost a month ago now. At some point, I may be ready to write much more about her (in fact, I feel she'll be a part of everything I write moving forward), but for now I'll make a memorial space for me to visit her here. This is the eulogy I wrote for her services but which was so touchingly delivered by my big brother, as we sisters stood behind him, holding each other up.

It means a lot to our family that all of you are here today to pay tribute to our mother, Carol Jean Vensel. As families often do when they lose a loved one, we’ve been getting together and talking about her, and remembering all of the attributes that made her unique in the world, and extraordinarily special to us. Someone once said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. And over these last, difficult days, one of the things we come back to, time and again, is that our mom was someone who just showed up.  She was someone you went to for advice, for help, for information. She knew something about just about everything: childcare, home repair, common illnesses and injuries, legal matters, banking, church rules, of course--automobiles, and so much more. She could tell you all about cooking and cleaning, even though neither was a favorite activity of hers.

When we were younger adults, sometimes we may have found it annoying that she thought she knew so much; as we became older adults, we became annoyed when we realized she was almost always correct. She had an amazing memory for details, both from her childhood and throughout her life. In the last few years, we may have felt that she might, finally, be getting some of it wrong, but now we’re getting older too, so we’ll never know for sure.

Carol Jean Bowen was born on December 29, 1938, in Morgantown, West Virginia. She was an only child for several years, and spent four years in the care of her grandmother while her mother served in the Army during World War II. Recently, while discussing this period, she recalled the exact date her mother returned from Texas. Yet she always talked about this experience in a matter-of-fact way, seeming to understand that her mother needed to show up for her service. This formative time was the first example of our mother’s grace under personal sacrifice.

When she was nine years old, her status as an only child ended with the birth of one--then soon after--a second little brother. Our grandmother ran a tight ship, and Jean was a quiet and obedient daughter. She took her role as big sister very seriously, and became a great help to her mother. She always liked to read, and she always enjoyed clothing. She and her cousin once had a contest to see who could last the longest without wearing the exact same outfit twice. Later, when our dad built an addition to our house, the only thing she asked for was a closet that ran the length of the room, one entire side just to hang clothes.

In the middle of high school, her family moved to La Canada for a short time, then settled in Lancaster. She would often talk about how difficult this transition was, but I imagine she handled it with her usual diligence and lack of complaint. She graduated from Antelope Valley High School in 1956. She attended college in Duluth, Minnesota, at St. Scholastica, partly because her cousin Anne was enrolled there already, and partly because her mother liked that it was an all-girls’ school. She chose a major in Medical Records, and it was during her years at this Catholic university that she decided to convert to Catholicism. She fell in love with the rituals of the Mass, she said, and felt at home.
Her Catholic faith was a cornerstone of her life, and it became a formative part of our lives as well. Our parents were married at this church in 1960. There were baptisms here, First Communions, Confirmations, celebrations of our grandparents’ lives. We all attended grade school right here at Sacred Heart, and through this church community, our mom met many of her wonderful, lifelong friends.

After college, she worked for a time at Antelope Valley Hospital, where she met our father, then she stayed home for several years taking care of us. Some of you may know her from the many years our parents owned and operated A.V. Auto Electric. Her favorite times at that job were when some disgruntled customer would ask to see the owner, and she’d show up, five-foot-four and definitely not a man. She loved the looks on their faces when she told them what was wrong with their cars, and of course, she was always right.
 Later, she was the parish administrator at Saint Junipero Serra Church, where she enjoyed being near the children at the church’s preschool and working closely with Father Ernest for many years. Recently, she served as a Eucharistic Minister, right back here at Sacred Heart. She enjoyed meeting with her Bible study group and other social occasions with friends. She liked to travel. Still a voracious reader, she went through 3 to 5 books a week. Above all else, she cherished time with all of us.

What can I say? She was the anchor of our family, and we find ourselves adrift without her. She was a wonderful mother who made all of us feel we could do anything we set our minds to, if we worked hard. She was a dedicated daughter, taking care of her parents and always finding time to visit them, no matter where they lived. We will always remember our summer trips to their house in West Virginia, and the way she kept us close to them despite the great distance. She was a dedicated sister and aunt, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. I think any one of us in her immediate or extended family felt she was someone who would show up, any time you needed something, without question.

When she was turning 60, my mom complained that nobody had made her a grandmother yet. So we started having kids, one or more just about every year, until she asked us to stop. Nothing made her face light up like her grandchildren, and each one was lucky enough to have a close relationship with her because--you guessed it--she showed up for them, too. She watched countless music and dance recitals, school events, baseball, soccer and football games, and she took time to just hang out with them too.

As we contemplate moving forward without her, we are strengthened by her strength, comforted by her love, and hopeful that we can honor the example she set and continue to show up for our loved ones, not just today but always.

"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