Archive for Michael Chabon

2008 Reading Project

Posted in Reading List with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2017 by jaclemens

I joined Goodreads in April 2008 and began adding titles right away to my to-read shelf. These titles were the books I most wanted to read, foremost on my list, and yet some of them can still be found lingering in to-read limbo today. I realized that if I did not rectify this situation in 2017, I will be lamenting – not celebrating – my 10 year anniversary next spring!

Looking back on that first year, I read 44 books, many of them formative for my development as a book buyer. Three books by Michael Chabon (not my first, but it cemented his place as one of my favorite authors); three by Brandon Sanderson (ibid); The Book Thief; American Gods; Wicked; Reinhold Niebuhr and Isaac Bashevis Singer; and The Stress of Her Regard (one of my top ten favorite books), among other great reads. It was a tremendous year of reading for me, so it’s no slight on the books I didn’t get to in 2008.

Since then I have read plenty of books and added plenty more to my to-read list. From 2009 to 2011, I managed to move 20 more of my 2008 books from to-read to read (past tense), so it isn’t as if I forgot about the books that had earlier caught my eye. However, I have made no progress on that subset of books since re-reading The Stress of Her Regard in 2011. I wouldn’t say that I lost interest after three years – or that more appealing books intervened – but, for one reason or another, those books did not fit into my immediate reading plan.

In 2017, I will be reading 1-2 books each month from my 2008 list in order to finish the remaining 18 that have gone neglected for the last six years. I started my project in February with a pair of timely titles: 1984 by George Orwell and The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. I plan to read a larger amount of new releases combined with other books that haven’t languished as long on my to-read list, but the 2008 books will provide the basis for my reading this year. I don’t anticipate writing a review for every book I read in 2017, but hopefully working through the books I wanted to read back then will help recapture some of the magic of buying and reading books in 2008!


Groove Me

Posted in Fiction, New release, Reading List, Recommendations with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2012 by jaclemens

A friend of mine has been trying to get me to read High Fidelity for awhile now – he loved the book, and he thought it would help me along with one of my writing projects. I slated it for September, figuring it would be a good lead in to Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon’s latest dazzling novel. I loved both of them, but in different ways.

I can sum up High Fidelity in two words: SPOT ON. I had to chastise Ryan for not warning me how strongly it would impact me! I’ve never owned a record shop in London, but working in a bookstore in Salt Lake City I’ve experienced similar highs and lows. Rob has just broken up with Laura, a lawyer. My wife has just passed the bar exam and will soon be sworn in as a lawyer. He’s thirty-five, with a March birthday. Bingo. Now I’m afraid I’ll spend my 36th birthday watching Terminator 2 and snacking on kettle chips! At one point Rob wishes that his life was like a Bruce Springsteen song; I’ve got the edge on him there (“The River”). The parallels are striking, but I haven’t decided if I will follow his lead when it comes to my U2 essays. Hornby nailed it with this book, and trying to emulate him would end in bitterness (particularly as Rob included U2 on his list of groups to assassinate in the musical revolution).

I didn’t go straight to Telegraph Avenue after High Fidelity; I took a breather with one of the books Rob referenced, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. I loved the movie (although it also slams U2) and introduced Ryan to it when we were teenagers. I better buy both movies; I already own both volumes of The Commitments soundtrack. My appreciation of Roddy Doyle came later, so I decided I needed to backtrack and read the novel for a brief but entertaining interlude.

Telegraph Avenue is magnificent, but I didn’t identify with Archy Stallings or Nat Jaffe, co-owners of Brokeland Records, like I did with Rob Fleming. I haven’t lived in Berkeley or Oakland, so I don’t feel the prevailing ties to the community.  I didn’t grow up in the days of blaxploitation films and muscle cars, either (the enhanced edition of the e-excerpt helped). The only midwife I knew growing up was an odd duck. I’ve never been in a bi-racial or bisexual relationship. I have no interest in the particulars of the novel (aside from the underscored buy local theme and the Dream of Cream cake), yet Chabon’s writing is so evocative that his particular passions are laid bare. He’s a writer that I would like to emulate, so that even those individuals who don’t like U2 will still enjoy reading about my passion for their music. I may be a lot like Rob, but I want to be more like Chabon.

Battle Bears

Posted in Children's, Reading List with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2011 by jaclemens

Oddly enough, the last two books I’ve read both featured children riding bearback on the covers: Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I was impressed by Gaiman’s American Gods, so I was curious about how he would handle a more traditional approach to Norse mythology. Odd and the Frost Giants bears little resemblance to American Gods beyond inspiration and authorship, but it was an entertaining afternoon read. After I read it I passed it on to a younger reader, and he also enjoyed it. Any tale that keeps the Northern Lights burning for future generations is admirable!

Northern Lights happens to be the original title of The Golden Compass, which I added to my list after reading “On Daemons & Dust”, an essay in Michael Chabon’s collection Maps and Legends. The appeal is undeniable: shape-shifting daemons which are oh so much more than mere animal familiars, and armored polar bears! As a former Bowdoin College football player I know a thing or two about the battles of armored Polar Bears, although we didn’t actually eat the hearts of our fallen opponents like the panserbjørne (Pullman pulls no punches in His Dark Materials, let young readers be forewarned). What really sealed it for me was finding out that all of the bears are left-handed blacksmiths – the great creatures of the north are all southpaws!

Here’s a Book for Me

Posted in New release, Non Fiction, Recommendations with tags , , , , , , on January 27, 2010 by jaclemens

The pseudo-spinning dial on the cover of Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon is exceptionally fitting.* Choose a subheading along the lines of Experience or Sincerity as a starting point and allow Chabon to elaborate in his distinctive elaborate prose! Even for Chabon enthusiasts such as myself not every essay is required reading, and one certainly need not read them in the order presented.  There is something here for every reader, man or woman, novice or expert.

I skipped ahead when I read Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (see review posted on 8/15/08), and I wish I had given the dial a spin with this book. Consider it an amateur error! “A father is a man who fails every day,” Chabon asserts in the lead off essay “The Losers’ Club.” A reasonable premise, if not an encouraging one. I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits as I read the first few sections, and the repeated messages of failure and nostalgia had a synergistic downer effect. I knew precisely from whence Chabon came, yet the book was not lighting me up intellectually the way Maps and Legends had.

I was well into the fourth section before I encountered an essay which shook my intellectual moorings. Reading “The Ghost of Irene Adler” on the train I almost exclaimed aloud! Chabon’s depiction of Alexis from Texas is tantalizing and his enumeration of the ways “the Woman” gets on a best friend’s nerves is spot on: “and worst of all, most egregious of all, you cannot believe the way she talks to him. No, worst of all: You can’t believe that he puts up with it.” But what caused me to sit up and re-read the essay was his diagnosis: the death of a friendship over a woman can be attributed to a failure of imagination. In essence that is what a person admits when he says “I don’t know what he sees in her” or “I just don’t get why he’s with her,” but I had not considered it from that salient angle. And I have given it due consideration, particularly with regard to C.S. Lewis, his wife Joy Davidman, and his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien. Just as Alexis from Texas presented Chabon with an interpretation of his story that had not occurred to him, he then presented me with a novel interpretation of an age-old dilemma. I had no idea that this topic would be addressed in the book, but this is the profound type of insight I expect from the sage Chabon!

I did not expect an essay about carrying a man purse (“I Feel Good About My Murse”), but then one should always leave luxuriant latitude for the unexpected when reading Michael Chabon! I won’t fault him for it, but I think I will stick with my “reading is sexy” canvas messenger bag. Nor do I see myself collecting cookbooks (“Art of Cake”) or throwing my support behind Jose Canseco (“On Canseco”), but I will not deny a man’s right to do so. Chabon is unstinting with his personal experiences, be it admitting his reformed habit of marijuana use to his kids (“D.A.R.E.”), losing his virginity (“Verging”), the dissolution of his first marriage (“The Hand On My Shoulder”), or the outré recommendation that resulted in his being set up with the woman who is his ideal complement, fellow author Ayelet Waldman (“Looking for Trouble”). His contemplation of his contemporary David Foster Wallace committing suicide (“Getting Out”) called to mind the U2 song “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, written about the suicide of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.

There were a couple of essays that left me cold, a fair amount that sailed by with a comfortable recognition, and a precious few that had me grinning from ear-to-ear (“Surefire Lines” to name only one). There are some that I won’t be inclined to re-read, some that I have already re-read and shared with other like-minded individuals, and some that I will wait to revisit until I (and my children along with me) have aged a few more years. As a thirty-two year old husband, father of three, and aspiring author, this is exactly the type of book for which I have been searching. The insights of a forty-six year old husband, father of four, and accomplished author. It is material I can identify with, presented in inimitable style, by an author whom I admire and respect.

I’m not much of a pool player, but I would relish the opportunity to shoot pool with Chabon after one of his readings like Alexis from Texas. Better yet, to associate as parents of kids in the same social sphere. Would our shared “strangely possessive feelings about mythology” (“Sky and Telescope”) be a bond or a barrier? He would pity me “with the especial harsh pity of the geek” for not having an appreciation of Dr. Who (“An Amateur Family”), but considering my firstborn son gave me a t-shirt with the phrase “I’ve got MAD Bat’leth Skills” on it for Christmas I’d say I’m doing my part to raise the next generation of geeks (or amateurs, as Chabon prefers)! I gave myself Manhood for Amateurs for Christmas; is it manly to send yourself a thank you card?

*Cover design by Will Staehle

Maps and Legends review

Posted in Recommendations, reviews with tags , , , , on August 15, 2008 by jaclemens

Regrettably this book will not join Chabon’s extensive list of best sellers and award winners, but what is the point of garnering all of those accolades except to be able to publish a book like this? Maps and Legends is ostensibly a collection of essays on the dual (and sometimes dueling) arts of reading and writing literature, but the overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts. The whimsical cover (I’ll elaborate no further; find a copy and discover the secret on your own) and quirky acknowledgments page are perfectly suited for this marvelous and marveling book.

Unlike Gentlemen of the Road (reviewed here on 3/17/08), this is not a book that can be read twice in one week; time must be spent savoring each essay before moving on to the next. I must confess that I skipped ahead to “Ragnarok Boy,” but that is in keeping with the spirit of the book: maps present more than just a singular, undeviating linear route to all destinations. Imagine my delight to find that, like C.S. Lewis, Chabon became devoted to Loki at a young age! That was not my own experience, as my introduction to Thor and Loki came in the pages of Marvel Comics rather than the genuine Norse mythology. As I mentioned in my essay “Satellite, Part II,” I read Myths of the Norsemen by H.A. Guerber while recuperating from the surgical repair of my Achilles tendon. As such, when it came to Ragnarok I identified most not with the predictable Thor or the devious Loki but with Vidar, the silent giant who plants his enormous reinforced boot on the lower jaw of the wolf Fenris and tears asunder the horrible beast that felled Odin. Loki the Trickster is a fitting choice for the admiration of an aspiring author, and all too appropriate for the theme of this book. The gods put their trust in him at their own peril, yet they could not resist the company of one so entertaining. I’ve just now recognized the parallels between Thor and Loki and the title characters in my own book, Orlando and Geoffrey. As Chabon states, “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.”

I cannot claim Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or M.R. James, authors discussed by Chabon, among my own influences, but I have added Philip Pullman and Cormac McCarthy to my reading list as a result of his thorough examination of their work. I can also relate to Chabon’s treatment of the genre and sub-genre issue. I’ve dealt with this as an author who never intended to write fantasy adventure and science fiction stories. I’ve also dealt with it as a book buyer; there have been books I have bypassed altogether for the sole reason that I could not fit them tidily into the store’s system of classification. That is a shame we are trying to redress. Even the term “Fiction and Literature” seems double-edged and derogatory. Books ought not to be constrained by classifications, and Maps and Legends will challenge any and all classification systems.

Lost in Books

Posted in Book Buying with tags , , , on April 16, 2008 by jaclemens

This tends to be a busy season for a book buyer – it is for me, at least. We’re in the process of culling our inventory for the books that haven’t been selling as well as combing catalogs for books we think will fare better. Between the stacks of incoming catalogs and cart loads of clearance crammed into my work space, it’s pretty easy to get lost in the books! At home I’m usually reading a book, so my family acts like I’m not there. It’s as if my body is entombed at work and only my ghost makes it home!

There is a character in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (available soon in paperback) known as the boundary maven who ensures that the ultra-orthodox Jews of Sitka, Alaska do not cross any figurative or literal lines on the Sabbath. By creating, mapping, and maintaining a collective of eruvs the boundary maven is able to accurately guide the Verbovers through the world they inhabit. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a book with so many layers I found myself wishing I had a book maven to help me keep it all straight!

I’d really like a book maven to assist me with all of my many catalogs, too. Typically I have an account rep going through the catalog with me, which is great, but what I need is one maven who knows all of the catalogs to keep me from getting lost in world of books I inhabit. Then a realization settled gradually and inexorably on my shoulders: I am my customers’ book maven. This is a significant responsibility, and one I do not take lightly. You’re in my world now!

Gentlemen of the Road Review

Posted in Recommendations, reviews with tags , on March 17, 2008 by jaclemens

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael ChabonInstead of writing a book about a writer of adventure stories, Michael Chabon has eliminated one lens and written the adventure story himself. One might not expect the author who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to offer adventure apologetics, but an afterword included in Gentlemen of the Road (Random House, $21.95) does just that. As a fellow author who has described his own book as “just a little adventure story,” I must acknowledge my sympathies as a reviewer. While Chabon’s latest work is a genre departure from his previous award-winning oeuvre, it is no different in quality.

There is no difference in Chabon’s trademark unusual syntax, either; I had to re-read the first chapter in order to adjust to it. Once I had his adventurous syntax mapped out I was off on a fast-paced, nuanced, and entertaining tale, which I read in its entirety twice in a single week! Gentlemen of the Road relates just one of the many adventures shared by Amram, an axe-wielding Abyssinian, and Zelikman, a Frankish physician who treats as many wounds as he inflicts. As is wont to happen to gentlemen of the road, a chance encounter leaves in their charge Filaq, the sole survivor of a coup in Khazaria. The brash young heir wants to return home to seek vengeance, but Amram and Zelikman want only to deliver Filaq to an uncle’s keep and be on their way. Filaq’s obstinance, a Khazar death squad, and an invading Rus force intervene, altering their course and setting up multiple daring rescues and an armed confrontation with Buljan, the usurper who deprived Filaq of family, title, and more.

Finely illustrated by Gary Gianni and superbly written (including the most artistic, period-authentic anatomical description of my reading experience), Gentlemen of the Road is a can’t-miss adventure. It may not garner the accolades or the sales figures of Chabon’s previous two books, but it is more than mere artistic self-indulgence and certainly needs no apology.