An Epic Comics Yarn: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

downloadMichael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic novel well worth the 600+ pages that it takes up. I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical of the novel, especially given some of the less-than-stellar prize winning books that I have read this year. However, Chabon’s novel is top-notch stuff that fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize it received after its publication in 2000. Amazingly, there are no illustrations or drawings in a novel that is primarily about comics and their ability to allow their readers to escape their realities. I suppose that I assumed that somewhere along the line an editor or head honcho would have floated the idea. Given that the novel is already more than 600 pages long, I can see why they chose not to. Anyways, that’s just a random thought I had while flying through the book.

Chabon’s narrative centers on Joe Kavalier, a Czech Jew who manages to escape from the country before the Nazis clamped down on the movement of Jewish people leading up to World War II. He moves in with Sammy Clay, his New Yorker cousin, and together they dream up a plan to get rich using comic books as their means. Of courses, the fact that Kavalier trained as an artist for a few years plays a role while Sammy’s own ability to craft narratives quickly and with skill also helps. Together they create the Escapist, a Jewish superhero whose ability to escape any kind of confinement or predicament helps him to defeat the thinly-veiled Nazi enemies he faces. Amazing Adventures then spins outwards, detailing the rise of Kavalier and Clay in the Golden Age of comics along with the decline of the business following the war and Kavalier’s inability to save his own family. The novel throws a number of twists and surprises throughout its labyrinthine narrative. I loved it from the first few pages and I did not stop loving it by the time it ends.

What I think Amazing Adventures also does remarkably well is to tell a story about the Holocaust without becoming either too depressing a read or crafting a completely implausible triumphal narrative a la Schindler`s List. Instead, it takes on the Holocaust through Kavalier who is always haunted by his absent family caught in the Czech Republic as the Nazi party takes power and executes its genocidal plan. *Spoiler alert*  At a few points Chabon hints that Joe may be able to save his younger brother or his family, but he does not do so. Having taken a graduate seminar in Holocaust fiction a few years ago, I had sworn off any literary takes on the Holocaust because good Holocaust fiction is inevitably soul-crushing. Simply put, nothing good can ever come of 6 million plus people being murdered. Any survivors or people who knew those killed are left with a massive historical weight that can easily become a fatal albatross around the neck. Chabon carries this weight in front of him, yet he does manage to craft a narrative of survival. The emotional complexity of Joe`s journey from a poor escapee to a successful cartoonist and beyond is a testament to Chabon`s writing skill and to his ability to tell a story without needing to sugar-coat it. For the first time since that graduate seminar, I found myself enjoying a Holocaust novel (although Amazing Adventures is not just a Holocaust novel, it is a lot more too). Thank you Chabon!

I highly recommend this book to readers of American literature, comic books, Holocaust literature, Jewish literature, and almost anyone else. This is an amazing  book!

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2000. Print.

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Mysticism by the Waters: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

41vzd0Zp9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was quite the journey. I suppose, having read some quite skeptical and suspicious literary critics who don’t take too kindly to Dillard’s kind of writing, I expected something quite different. Instead, I was continually surprised by the poetic lyricism and, dare I say, mysticism of Dillard’s year-long journal of Tinker Creek (the book also won her a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction). She talks not simply of the animals, insects, and plants that reside in the creek outside her door, but also, quite frequently, of the divine, aesthetics, beauty, and human consciousness. I find myself unable to quite describe my own reaction to Pilgrim because it is so far-ranging and well-crafted. Sure, there were moments when my eyes rolled a little at the sometimes frustrating tangents into metaphor laden philosophy, but there were other moments where I had my breath taken away. The entire book could be summarized in a line Dillard gives about halfway into the book: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery” (143).

Pilgrim is not a quick read because it moves so easily across natural history to theological musings and back, hitting history, astronomy, physics, mythology (particularly Inuit), and poetry along the way. I would hesitate to put this book in the same category as a book by Bill Bryson or even nature writing per se. There is too much poetry and mysticism in this book to confine it to that category. Some readers will love it and others will be turned off by it (I think I am somewhere in between if I am honest). Her description and reflections on the eating habits of a giant water bug are startling both for the insect’s horrifying eating habits and for the way that Dillard weaves the seeming cruel brutality of nature back into an unorthodox praise of all things created. This kind of literary skill is worth dipping into Pilgrim for, but I think readers really need to take their time with Dillard’s work. It, like the writing of most mystics, does not divulge its full meaning or depth on the first surface reading. In a way, I could see myself continually coming back to this book to dip into its waters again and again.

This is partly because Dillard works in a non-linear manner. She comes back to several key episodes including the giant water bug and an oak tree that enflamed her imagination, deepening her reflections on these episodes and using them as touchstones to bring her thoughts back in a circular manner. In doing so, Dillard gives us not just a literal or natural historical sense of Tinker Creek but also a spiritual sense of the area. If you are looking for someone to re-enchant landscape for you, then Pilgrim is a great field guide. Tinker Creek is neither wilderness sublime nor controlled nature, but somewhere in between, making it a useful template for most North Americans. We could all use a little more enchantment with the natural world in our lives, and Pilgrim might be able to help us to find it (or you may find yourself turned off by it …).

I am somewhat on the fence with this book. I think it could be a great read for some readers while for others I would hesitate to recommend it. If you like contemplative thought (think Thomas Merton, the Christian Desert Fathers, or most Buddhist writing), then this book will appeal to you. If you like your facts kept high, dry, and safe from “subjective” feelings and emotions, then stay away.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974. Print.

A Difficult Read: The Conservationist

downloadNadine Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist may have won the Booker Prize, but that does not make it an easy read. In fact, I get the sense that it won the award precisely because it is a difficult book. Difficult from both a methodological standpoint and from its themes and motifs. The novel centres on Mehring, a rich South African industrialist, who has purchased a farm out in the country to provide himself a place to seduce his mistress. However, he quickly becomes attached to the place and its beauty and spends more and more time here. The farm is operated by blacks and is near a black settlement, or more properly what the novel calls a “location,” and there is a palpable tension throughout that is bred by apartheid. As Mehring reflects on his life, it becomes more and more clear that his personal life is in shambles, he deludes himself about the very questionable politics of South Africa under apartheid, and remains willfully ignorant of the general humanity of anyone other than himself. Published 20 years before apartheid officially ended, Gordimer’s novel very clearly intends to unsettle any convenient or self-serving notions about justice in South Africa.

From a narrative standpoint, the novel is also quite difficult because Gordimer uses a roving narration that is by turns third-person limited (rotating between a few different characters) and first person (mostly of Mehring’s thoughts). The narrative almost moves fluidly between the present in which Mehring visits his farm and his past where his relationships to his wife, his mistress, his potentially gay son, and the farm’s workers, are explored. It is almost like stream-of-consciousness writing, but not quite that intense. What I think this roving point of view does is continually show us how blind Mehring is not only to his own privileged position as a wealthy white male South African, but it also shows us how others alternatively buy into his self-image and reject it. I’m thinking particularly of his relationship with Jacobus, his black overseer who runs the farm. On the one hand, Jacobus admires Mehring for his Mercedes, his actions, and his lifestyle but, on the other hand, there is also a sense that Jacobus knows Mehring does not possess the land. Mehring’s name may be on the deed, but he has very little claim to the land itself unlike Jacobus and his companions who work in it everyday. When there is a catastrophic flood, Jacobus is unable to get a hold of Mehring and the farm begins to shift subtly as the blacks believe they are on their own again. Of course, Mehring comes back when the roads are fixed, but there is a subtle shift in the relationship as both Jacobus and his fellow workers seem to see through Mehring.

One thing that really intrigued me about the novel was the relationship to land in it. Mehring delights in losing himself in his third pasture, laying amidst the grasses in different seasons. But this seems like a false calm because buried nearby is an anonymous black corpse that mysteriously turned up one day. The landscape seems to allow Mehring to escape the turbulent politics of apartheid, but not quite either as the flood disrupts his sense of pastoral innocence, revealing the partially-decomposed corpse again. This also makes me wonder who the conservationist of the title is: is it Mehring who wants to preserve a nostalgic and romanticized farm? Or is it the blacks who work in the land and can lay claim on it? Is it an ironic sense of conservation whereby Mehring is trying to keep alive a flawed and dying system of justice? I have no answers to these questions, but I find them intriguing nonetheless.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in South Africa, but be forewarned that it is a difficult read.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Conservationist. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.

Heavy with History and Violence: Beloved

downloadToni Morrison’s Beloved is a heavy read. It is thick with the history of slavery in the United States and Morrison does not shy away from the physical, emotional, and psychological damage that it wreaks on those caught up in it. I suppose I expected something lighter like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but that’s probably because it’s been a while since I last read Morrison’s The Bluest EyeBeloved does not revel in violence, like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems to, but it does not shy away from it either. The novel centres on Sethe, a young slave woman who manages to escape slavery in the south by fleeing to her mother-in-law in Ohio along with her three children all while being nine months pregnant. Although Sethe has escaped slavery, it continues to make her life a living hell in the form of ghosts, her absent husband who may or may not have been hung for trying to escape, and, most of all, in the traumatic consequences of the reappearance of her former owners. When the narrative starts, 18 years on from Sethe’s escape, she lives in 124, her mother-in-law’s house, with her daughter Denver as Baby Suggs, the in-law, has died while her two sons have abandoned her to go fight in the Civil War.

One of the things that I begrudgingly liked about Beloved was how it refused a quick reading. I found it very difficult to plow through the text, not just because of the narrative voice which moves across time and space quite fluidly but more so because of the heaviness of the material. It is one thing to recognize slavery as a bad thing in an abstract sense, but it is quite another to realize the depths of depravity and evil that went along with it. On some level, I think the human brain tends to downplay potential evil even if it is confronted with the realization of that potential quite regularly (think Vietnam, Rwanda, and most recently the shootings in Nigeria). Perhaps we all have some ingrained form of optimism about the human race. What makes Beloved a great novel is that Morrison refuses to let us have this naivete yet she does not leave us here but suggests ways out of this painful knowledge.

I am always hesitant to say that novels capture a zeitgeist or help to explain historical events, partly because that can become an onerous burden on the author but also because it tends to refuse fiction its unique ability as fiction. However, Beloved really does shed light on the fractious and divisive racial politics that animate the US. The widespread celebration of Obama’s presidential election victory is, in some ways, an attempt to get beyond the history that Morrison so eloquently narrates. And yet, it is also impossible to escape this history. The novel’s final chapter repeats a refrain of “It was not a story to pass on,” self-reflexively labeling the whole novel as a kind of forbidden story. And yet, it is a necessary story because it lays out in no uncertain terms how destructive racism and slavery were. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize the year after it was published while Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. These accolades are well-deserved and have helped to reassure me that prizes are not always political, that sometimes merit does win out.

I highly recommend Beloved for anyone who reads. It is difficult, heart-breaking, but it is also powerful and deeply insightful.

Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.

My Favorite Atwood Novel: Cat’s Eye

cats-eyeCat’s Eye did not win a Booker prize even though it was short-listed in the 1989 competition. She would then win the 2000 Booker Prize with The Blind Assassin rounding out her plate with a second shortlist in 2003 with Oryx and Crake. So Atwood has some Booker Prize credit. And Cat`s Eye might just be my favorite novel of hers. And that`s saying a lot because I do not have a very high opinion of her work. She tends to evoke a typically Canadian reaction in me where I begrudge her her success and then savage her books as a result. I also think she is a better poet than a novelist, but these are solely my opinions. Atwood is a global author and a phenomenon unto herself. Without her trail-blazing, Canadian Literature would struggle to be on the map (this is a very speculative claim).

Cat’s Eye is a kunstlerroman with Elaine Risley at the centre of the novel. She is the child of a biologist parents and spends her early years in the forests of northern Ontario. She moves with her family to Toronto in the 1930s when her father takes a position in the Zoology department at the University of Toronto. Here she meets other girls for the first time and is initiated into their confusing and cruel ways. Cordelia, named after the King Lear character, comes from a wealthy family and takes great pleasure in leading Carol and Grace in several years’ worth of bullying and intimidation. The problem is Elaine craves their approval and so is caught in a vicious cycle of blaming herself and then feeling guilty for doing so. In the novel’s present, Elaine is now an accomplished painter returning to Toronto from Vancouver for her first retrospective exhibition. From this frame narrative, she travels back to her past and ruminates on her growth from a woodsy girl into an accomplished artist. Cordelia is also at the heart of the narrative as Elaine hopes to find her after many years of no contact while she is in Toronto. Elaine is haunted by her last meeting with Cordelia, who became a close friend in high school after Elaine walked away from her bullying. So the novel is also about time and memory. Atwood frames it this way with quotes from Stephen Hawking on time and opening with a reflection on time as space. This theme comes up again and again throughout to good effect as Elaine is haunted by her past, especially the years of bullying, and cannot come to grips with it. Okay, so that’s a lot of plot summary. Apologies, I think I’m still trying to sort through this complex plot.

What I think Atwood does really well here is evoke Toronto before World War II, back when it was Toronto the Good, and the more sleek and modern Toronto that replaces it. There is a fair bit of nostalgia for this old Toronto even if Elaine clearly sees the fault after many years away. I also think that Atwood has written a convincing and fulsome account of a central character’s life from childhood into adulthood. This is no mean feat and I enjoyed coming to know Elaine’s character even if she is somewhat prickly around the edges. What I think doesn’t work for me is the way that painting becomes a central trope in the novel. The problem with having a protagonist who is a painter, or any artist or poet for that matter, is that the author must describe their work in some way. I found myself uninterested in Elaine’s paintings and I sensed that Atwood herself struggled to describe a painting. This is partly because a painting is a painting, not a paragraph of prose. Something is lost in translation from visual to text, and I did not enjoy this aspect of Cat’s Eye.

So, Cat’s Eye is probably my favorite Atwood novel, even one that I would consider reading again in a few years time. A year or two ago I would not have thought this was possible, but Atwood is growing on me … just a little.

I would recommend this book to fans of Atwood, CanLit, or people who live in and love Toronto.

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1988. Print.

Slave Revolution: The Confessions of Nat Turner

482pre_0d886e79ddd6d80So I have been up in Algonquin Park on a canoe trip for the last few days, but I managed to finish William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. The novel was the centre of a storm of controversy when it was published in 1967 because of its content and the author’s race. The book retells, with plenty of fictional licence, the events of the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. The problem was, for many African-American writers of the time, that Styron was himself white. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin had both publicly expressed their support for the book and its author but that did not stop the backlash. Regardless, Styron won the Pulitzer Prize and I have to say that this is an excellent novel.

In case you didn’t know, Nat Turner, a black slave who learned how to read and was something of a preacher, led a very violent and somewhat successful slave revolt in Southhampton County. Even though the revolt was stopped within a few days, Turner hid out in the swamps for several months before he was caught. While in jail, a lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, interviewed him and wrote down his entire confession which was published as The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Styron’s novel used this book as a source text, but fleshes out Turner’s story to make him an empathetic narrator. The novel begins in prison and ends here as well, but moves back in time through Turner’s early life right through to the events of the rebellion itself. It is a strategy that works quite well although I did find myself flipping back a few times, sorting out whether I had met certain characters before.

One of the most impressive things about Styron’s novel is that it makes Turner, a villain for most Americans up until the late 1960s, into an empathetic character. The novel shows how the institution of slavery turns men and women into absolutely defeated human beings. I am not saying that I support or endorse what Turner did, but Styron makes a very compelling case as to why Turner did what he did. Unfortunately for Turner, the long-term effects of the revolt did not cause widespread uprisings but instead saw a rash of white violence against slaves and a tightening of laws against blacks. Some of these included the banning of teaching reading to slaves and the banning of slave religious gatherings without a licensed white preacher. This is a powerful novel and well worth reading if you want to gain some historical perspective and insight into race-relations in the United States.

I would recommend this book to fans of American literature and to those who enjoyed Laurence Hill`s The Book of Negroes.

Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.

How Did This Win the Booker?: Amsterdam

amsterdam1Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam wants to pull a fast one on you. It looks like a fully-realized drama of two old friends, Clive Linley a British composer commissioned to write a symphony for the millenium, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a struggling newspaper trying to save it from crashing and burning. However, in its final third it turns into  what other reviewers have called a morality fable. Frankly, I found it a waste of the good work of the first two-thirds and a cheap trick to pull on the reader. What seems even more problematic is the close connections between McEwan’s novel and Albert Camus’ The Fall. Where Camus’ novel is a properly philosophical investigation into morality, McEwan’s novel falls apart and fails to come together at the crucial moment.

This might be because McEwan actually hates the characters he is writing. The opening scene is quite brilliant as we are introduced to Linley and Halliday via the funeral of Molly Lane, a former lover of both. We are also introduced to her controlling husband, George Lane who also owns a share in the paper Halliday manages, and Julian Garmony, a rising star in British conservative politics and current Foreign Secretary. All of these characters, including the dead Molly, are important players in what turns into a farcical double murder at novel’s end. And it is a shame because McEwan writes quite brilliantly about Linley’s composing process, managing to get me to like him and even root for him. His writing also clearly expresses the rapid-fire, high-pace life that Halliday lives, although it was less effective in bringing me on to his side as I was not too upset by his fatal decision to publish controversial photos of Garmony in drag (taken by none other than Molly – only in writing this do I begin to realize how unbelievable parts of the plot are). I’d say about halfway into the novel, McEwan’s irony and hatred begins to come through with both characters: Linley in his belief that he might be a British composing genius and Halliday in his inability to see through Frank Dibbin’s politicking and savvy maneuvering.

This all brings me to the end of the novel when * SPOILER* Linley and Halliday independently orchestrate the euthanisation of the other person. The novel closes with George reflecting that he might now get to have a proper funeral for Molly without having to worry about ex-lovers giving each other meaningful glances. Garmony, is exiled to political obscurity by the photos, and George thinks about asking Halliday’s widow to dinner. I was incensed by this callous treatment of character. Perhaps I did not pick up the clues early enough or I was thoroughly gulled by McEwan’s writing. Either way, I hated the ending and found Amsterdam far less than it could have been. Camus’s The Fall works as an exploration of morality because it has a fair amount of depth and heft to it. Amsterdam is shallow and pretentious and I put down with a sour taste in my mouth. Morality was the last thing I had on my mind. I had been meaning to read some McEwan based on favourable reviews from readers I trust. However, I regret putting this on the list. And, let’s not even think about how this book managed to win a Booker prize. Seriously? I’m losing faith in the ability of prize committees to award based on merit …

I would not recommend this book to readers.

McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. London: Random House, 1998. Print.