*****Moonglow: A Novel

Tarot cards

photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

By Michael Chabon – It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.

His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.

The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.

Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.

In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.

For very good reason, Moonglow (affiliate link below) was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

A Child's Christmas in Wales

John Ahlin & Greg Jackson; photo: Jerry Dalia.

Every Christmas Eve our family reads out loud this beautiful Dylan Thomas paean to the season, so I was excited to see the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production (opening night 12/3, through 1/1). Several different stagings of this heartwarming story are now on stage in the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area.

STNJ’s is the early 1980’s musical adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, which the theater has produced three times previously. Under the direction of Joseph Discher and musical director Robert Long, the large cast plays multiple roles, keeps the story flowing, and the music and laughs coming.

Set in Thomas’s home town of Swansea, Wales, in the early 1900s when the author was a young boy, the story is simultaneously a celebration of small town childhood, family, and the season’s simple delights. However, the events of the play are different from those of Thomas’s original. No firefighting with snowballs in Mr. Prothero’s parlor, no caroling with a ghostly ancient, no face-off with a sugarfagged contemporary.

Instead, new scenes are created. When Dylan’s mother incinerates the Christmas turkey in her new gas oven, Auntie Bessie miraculously produces a turkey dinner from the hotel (available because of the timely cancellation of a Christmas party that one suspects was also Auntie Bessie’s doing). Brooks and Mitchell wrote new characters and many new lines to fit their expanded story and occasionally tried to replicate Thomas’s lyricism. I wish they hadn’t. “Thomas lite” is risky.

The aunts—Auntie Bessie (played by Tess Ammerman), Auntie Nelllie (Clemmie Evans), Auntie Hannah (Alison Weller), and Auntie Elieri (Carey Van Driest) are charming, with great singing voices. And Uncle Gwyn (John Ahlin), dour Uncle Tudyr (Patrick Toon), and relentlessly political Uncle Glyn (Andy Paterson) are perfect comic types. Dylan’s mother (Tina Stafford) is harried and musical, and his father (Peter Simon Hilton) delivers some of the poet’s most memorable lines.

Greg Jackson has a difficult challenge, playing both the adult and youthful Dylan. As an adult reminiscing about Christmases past, he’s great, but he rarely seems like a child. Most kids are perpetual motion machines. It doesn’t do to have him stand around, attentively listening while adults talk. He could sit, scratch his elbow, pull up his socks, retie his shoes, look distracted. When he’s with his pals—all also played by adults—Jim (Thomas Daniels), Jack (Julian Blake Gordon), and Tom (Seamus Mulcahy), and they are larking about, he’s perfectly believable. Jackson is a fine actor whom I’ve admired in other STNJ plays, so this casting or direction is somehow off.

That aside, the audience loved this production! While the Brooks/Mitchell play is both more and less than Thomas’s lyrical language and indelible images, you just have to go with it. It isn’t a production for the head, but for the heart, and I found myself smiling and laughing along, and I hope you will too.

For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online. (Free tickets for kids 18 and younger.)

****Made in Detroit

moon

(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

This is a review of two books with the same title and of the same re-readable excellence.

Made in Detroit, the memoir by Paul Clemens, is a tale of growing up in the 1970s in one of the Motor City’s last white neighborhoods. It’s fascinating to see the whole “minority status” issue turned on its head, and he comes out of it with decidedly mixed emotions. It’s a struggle, a worthy one, and following his evolving attitudes and understanding of both whites and blacks around him is a thought-provoking journey for readers, as well.

Clemens’s family is Catholic and he gets a Catholic education as parishes and schools close one by one. Meanwhile, the family’s economic stability is increasingly shaky due to the rapidly declining auto industry. Yet, the Church and his father’s love of cars were two constants in his life. He says his family members weren’t readers. “There was enough serious content, enough transcendence, in cars and Catholicism; it wasn’t necessary for them to concern themselves with ideas buried away in books.”

Made in Detroit, the book of Marge Piercy poetry, covers an enormous swath of emotional and physical territory. She uses the simplest language to express the deepest thoughts and makes it “poetic,” without superfluous lily-gilding. I was first drawn to her work by her poem “In Praise of Joe.” As a dedicated caffeine consumer, we recognized each other across the page. Here are the two lines that snared me forever: “It is you who make me human every dawn. All my books are written with your ink.” And here’s a bit from the title poem:

The night I was born the sky burned red
over Detroit and sirens sharpened their knives.
The elms made tents of solace over grimy
streets and alley cats purred me to sleep.

Clemens’s book takes place some decades after the night Piercy was born, yet the burning skies (steel mills then), sirens, and desolate streets were only more so in his youth. Despite all the city’s frustrations and conundrums that Clemens describes so well, despite a college education that could have taken him anywhere, he returned to the city. “At times, I feel like a failure in several directions simultaneously,” he writes. “That, with my education and reading, I should be more broad-minded than I am; and that, with the education I received from my father and Sal, I should be angrier about what the broad-minded morons have wrought. . . . Detroit, which drives people to extremes, has left me standing in the middle.”

Clemens’s book makes an interesting counterpoint to Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, describing the experience of a closeknit black family in Detroit and Susan Messer’s beautiful Grand River and Joy, about a Jewish businessman’s reluctance to flee to the suburbs around the time of the 1967 riots. Perhaps one family story at a time, it might be possible to assemble a picture sufficient to comprehend this fascinating, catastrophe-ridden American city.

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

***The Turk Who Loved Apples

apples

(photo: shellac)

By Matt Gross – Glowing reviews of this 2013 book by the former “Frugal Traveler” and “Getting Lost” columnist for the New York Times, made me want to read it. As a young man, Gross picked up and moved to Ho Chi Minh City and from there explored more of Southeast Asia, worked for a local Vietnamese newspaper, and eventually got himself various travel writing gigs. In 2006, the Times gave him a budget for a three-month, around-the-world trip, which was to establish his “frugal traveler” identity. This, he says, was the job “everybody called ‘the best job in the world’—and an opportunity ripe for fucking up.” Which he did, at first.

The book is a mix of his travel experiences, which I enjoyed tremendously, and ruminations on the larger meaning of travel, which weren’t as interesting. The requirements for travel have changed for him over the years—from carrying a single bag to traveling with a wife and infant, from the ability to set his own schedule to being part of a family with all its competing needs. Truthfully, staying home has come to have its own satisfactions.

Across his whole travel-writing career, Gross visited “fifty or sixty countries,” ate their food (whole chapter on the resultant digestive laments), learned to cook much of it, and wrote hundreds of articles for the Times and others. He sums up everything he learned about traveling frugally in two pages in the middle of the book, which can be boiled down further to: use the Web to find deals and recommendations on airfare, lodging, and food. Airfare: use local and in-country airlines. Lodging: stay with others where you can, Airbnb, works when you can’t. Food: be adventurous. Social life: find local connections through Facebook friends-of-friends-of-friends.

The book’s full title is The Turk who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, which refers to his early days, as he was learning how to travel, yes, relatively frugally. Through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—a network of farmers who will provide volunteers free food and lodging in exchange for some farmwork—he stayed a few days on a rural apple farm in Turkey. Gross bonded with this farmer, an engineer who’d left his profession to do what he loved, and learned from that encounter that frugality “was not an end unto itself but one of the many traveler’s tools, a means of getting closer to exotic lands and foreign peoples.” And getting closer to people—from fellow expats in Ho Chi Minh City to refugees in Calais to members of his wife’s and even his own family—is what Gross is all about.

*****Elsewhere

mother & son, city street

(photo: Thomas Hawk, creative commons license)

By Richard Russo – This memorable book thoroughly and compassionately deconstructs the complex and intense relationship of a son and his troubled mother in “one of the most honest, moving American memoirs in years,” said Michael Schaub for NPR. Russo’s mother Jean suffered from “nerves” throughout her lifetime. She was a demanding, needy person, not unaware of her own flaws and shortcomings, and intermittently troubled by them. Russo, an only child, was her rock. She was also a pretty, lively woman, who went to extraordinary lengths to maintain the illusion she was living an independent life.

Only after Jean’s death did Russo learn enough about obsessive-compulsive disorder to fit the facts of her behavior to the characteristics of this syndrome, making a post hoc layman’s diagnosis. And only then did he come to the heartbreaking realization that his way of helping her might not have been the help she needed. She may have been a frustrating parent, but she just couldn’t help it.

The writing here is smooth as silk and contains great deal of humor. The well-rounded picture of the complex and loving mother-son relationship that Russo creates makes the reader more keenly feel the guilt Russo has suffered, despite his heroic efforts to respond to her plea, It’s you I need. (Meanwhile, in my opinion, Russo’s wife Barbara is a candidate for sainthood.)

He also gives a vivid picture of his home town of Gloversville, New York—a back-on-its-heels former leather-manufacturing town, whose tanneries poisoned workers and the watershed alike (he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, another post-industrial sad-sack of a town). Russo’s mother Jean couldn’t wait to get out of there, except when she couldn’t wait to get back. This cycle had a depressing regularity that continued for decades.

These are people well worth knowing and a relationship that’s understood far better than I understand what in the world went on with my own parents. Tiny bit jealous of Russo’s ability—the intellectual and emotional honesty and the depth of insight—to pull this one off so well.

What I Learned about Book Reviews (from writing them): Part 2

reading, beach

(photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license)

Component Parts

When I review a novel or memoir, I look for basic elements of character development, plot, and setting. (“Plot” in memoir is achieved by the selection of life events included.) Lack of believability in any of these undermines my confidence in the story as a whole.

It doesn’t matter whether a book is set in 1800, 2015, or 4500, I look for characters who act and speak believably, certain human psychological patterns held constant. A character from pre-Christian Britain will not think like a hipster living in London today. This other-mindedness is what Lauren Davis achieved so well in Against a Darkening Sky. Even people who are alike in many ways—siblings, even—will not all think and react the same way. Characters need to be individuals, growing organically out of their time and place, with yearnings, weaknesses, and strengths unique to themselves.

Since I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, the plot needs to be tight, too, with all major questions answered. I’d rather have a character admit “we may never know,” if something is truly unknowable within the confines of the story, than think the author led me on with certain plot points or clues, then forgot about them.

An interesting setting—place or time period—is always welcome, but even the most unpromising settings can come alive and in some cases can become almost a character in and of themselves—Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Dickens’s 19th c. London, Hogwarts. These stories could not exist anywhere else.

Style

A writer’s style can add enormously to reading pleasure, and an engaging style can sometimes distract the reader from problems in theme, plot, and characterization. In the end, though, style without substance may feel like the literary equivalent of empty calories, or the movie you enjoy but during the closing credits ask yourself, “what was that, anyway?”

I’m drawn to books with a rather straightforward style typical of the thriller/mystery genre (Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos). But I’m a sucker for an apt metaphor (Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood) and enjoy their liberal use. The key is for the style to match the intent of the book. I’ve read Cormac McCarthy books with a spare—almost barren—style about loneliness in the Southwest desert, and the one I’m reading now (Suttree), set in Knoxville, Tennessee, is florid and looping and filled with unsavory bits, like the river the character lives on.

Cutting Slack

Finally, there’s something to be said for reader expectations. If a novel is by an unknown writer, readers may plunge in with few expectations, and I tend to cut debut authors a little slack. Points—and lots of them—for effort. But if the writer is famous, especially super-star famous, readers rightly have expectations. Which is why, though you couldn’t fault him on plot or style (some reviewers did ding him on character), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes was a disappointment. It followed a tried-and-true—or should I say tired-and-true—formula. Expertly. But take me somewhere new, please. You’re capable of it.

A Note on Errors

Self-published books, print-on-demand books, small press books, and even books from the Big Houses these days contain more errors than formerly. There aren’t the eagle-eyed copy editors and proofreaders around any more to catch these things. The author had read the manuscript a hundred times–it’s hard to see them and out of the skill set, perhaps. Plus, new kinds of errors crop up thanks to spellcheck and auto-formatting. Occasional typos, changes of font, homonym confusion, and the like I can live with, but beyond a certain frequency, they distract and detract. In my reading experience, blatant carelessness about these “little things” inevitably spills over into fundamental aspects of the work—illogical plot choices, poor character development, tin-ear dialog, hackneyed description.

A recent book I read, by a highly regarded author, included a kidnapping accomplished with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief. Though an staple of old-fashioned movies and television, this method of knocking someone out actually doesn’t work, as I easily found out when fact-checking my own writing. (Yes, fiction does need to be fact-checked!) I had to come up with another method. This author didn’t check. The problem isn’t so much the error itself, the greater problem, again, is losing the reader’s confidence and exposing the fragility of the created world.

Your Criteria?

I’d be interested to know what aspects of a novel or memoir are most important to you. The uproar over Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited payment method, which pays authors based on the number of pages of their book actually read, shows that Amazon and authors alike recognize readers often don’t finish books. What about them fails to hold your interest?

Further Reading

  • “What’s Wrong with Reading Only Half a Book?” by Lincoln Michel for Electric Lit.
  • “Amazon set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read,” by Alex Hern for The Guardian, 2 July 2015; the comments are enlightening.
  • Yesterday’s post described my 1-5 star system, the primacy of the reader’s perspective, and some thoughts about the “bottom line.”

Woman in Gold

Klimt, Woman in Gold

Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (photo: wikimedia)

In Woman in Gold (trailer), Helen Mirren, chameleon-like, inhabits the body and personality of Maria Altmann, niece and heir of a prominent Jewish family in pre-WWII Vienna. The family’s best-known member today is Maria’s aunt Adele, whose portrait Gustav Klimt painted in 1907.

The painting was appropriated during the Nazi era and for many years hung in the Austrian state’s famous Belvedere Gallery, as “the Mona Lisa of Vienna.”

After her sister’s death, Maria finds correspondence suggesting the painting was perhaps not left to the government of Austria in her aunt’s will, as it claimed, and therefore not rightfully Austrian property. She hires a family friend’s son, Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), a young down-on-his-luck Los Angeles attorney, to look into the matter. Schoenberg, grandson of the composer—another refugee from Nazified Austria—is out of touch with his family’s past and slow to recognize the significance of Maria’s quest.

Initially unwilling to take on the case, he is gradually drawn into it. Their bureaucratic battles with stonewalling Austrian officials soon unite the pair, and they are joined by a crusading Austrian journalist, Hubertus Czernin. Formidable legal and bureaucratic hurdles stand in the way of Maria being reuniting with the painting—“When you look at this painting, you see a work of art,” Marie tells a reunification commission, “I see my aunt.”

The story is another in a long line of mostly not happy stories of stolen art works in World War II, brought to renewed public awareness by movies and books like The Monuments Men and Pictures at an Exhibition. The opportunity to reunite beloved works of art and their owners is rapidly disappearing, yet this beautifully filmed movie, directed by Simon Curtis, shows the importance of continuing these efforts.

Because this film is based on a true story, and I for one remembered how it ends, a certain inevitability about the outcome guides the plot. Perhaps this is what has caused reviewers (not me!) to find it dull, though they find the actors captivating. The movie’s Rotten Tomatoes critics rating is a paltry 49%, but audiences were more in my camp, giving a rating of 88%. As a result of the audience reception, the film’s distributor announced yesterday that it will greatly expand its national distribution. If you like stories that touch on beauty, truth, and justice, you will like it, too!

***Blood, Bones & Butter

Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood Bones & Butter

(photo: author)

By Gabrielle Hamilton – An engaging memoir that chronicles the author’s intense relationship with food, from her upbringing with a French mother and artist/set designer father, her falsifying her age to work in New Jersey kitchens starting at age 14, her drug-riddled stints as a bar waitress and catering kitchen dynamo, to the opening of her own restaurant in the East Village. That restaurant became the mini-phenomenon known as Prune, helped bring home-style cooking into vogue. In 2011, Hamilton received the James Beard award as New York City’s best chef.

The book describes Hamilton’s difficult relations with her mother and husband, but it’s never clear what the source of these difficulties is, why the relationships deteriorated as they did, or, rather, why she let them drift. Her essential alone-ness appears to be the strongest strain in her character.

I enjoyed this book’s lack of typical foodie descriptions, though it is over-the-top in its own way, determined not to, ahem, sugar-coat kitchen proceedings. She’s a compelling writer, with an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and winner of the James Beard book award for writing and literature in 2012. Power on the page gets you past some of the unsavory spots, and it was well received. Legendary chef Anthony Bourdain calls the book “simply the best memoir by a chef ever.”