Thursday, April 24, 2008


A rather wistful tone pervades Michael Chabon's Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, team up to create a comic book superhero, The Escapist, against the backdrop of World War II. Joe has made a harrowing escape from Czechoslovakia, leaving behind his Jewish family, including his young brother Thomas. Joe is crushed by survivor's guilt and endeavors endlessly to gain passage for his family to the U.S. Woven into the tale is Joe's prior training as an illusionist and as a Houdini-like escape artist. The writing is superb and full of nifty metaphors. For example, Joe's girlfriend Rosa envisions his weight gain as the arrival of his body piece by piece in this country. The book also has some light moments. The scene where Tracy Bacon, who voices The Escapist on radio, meets Sammy's mom is totally hilarious, with Sammy offering snide remarks as Tracy tries to help out in the kitchen. Symbols abound--the golden key, moths, golems (life-size clay figures that can be brought to life)—as the comic book writers create characters who reflect their own aspirations and experiences. Sammy acknowledges his homosexuality by giving each character a sidekick; Rosa writes of love lost and regained; Joe is the perennial escapist. The book's biggest drawback, however, is its length. It's almost like two books in one. About two thirds of the way through, the unthinkable happens, and the real adventures begin.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

ONE MISSISSIPPI by Mark Childress

Mark Childress's One Mississippi is a wild ride, and I loved it, except for the finish. It's the tragicomic story of a teenage boy, Daniel, in culture shock when his family moves from Indiana to Mississippi in the 1970's. His newly integrated high school elects a black prom queen, and that's only the beginning. There is action galore, including a wrecked moving van, a house explosion, a car explosion—you name it. Teen angst, peer pressure, guilty consciences, toxic friendships, and identity issues abound, especially with regard to sexual orientation and race. Amidst all this emotional churning are many scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, unless you're too young to have seen Sonny and Cher on TV. Childress seems to enjoy taking shots at the religious fanatics, painting them as hypocrites and bigots. The denouement is just like Empire Falls, and I didn't like it in that book either. Did the author plan this finale from the start, or did he paint himself into a corner and have to blast his way out? You decide.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is an allegory about following your bliss. I think that Eat, Pray, Love, or even Under the Tuscan Sun, does a much better job with this topic as a memoir. Still, this is a hugely popular book for reasons I cannot fathom. It's about a boy, Santiago, who gives up his life as a shepherd in Spain to act on a dream of finding a treasure at the Pyramids. I felt like I was rereading The Celestine Prophecy or something by Richard Bach, and that's not intended as a compliment. At least it was a fast read, and Coelho is very equal-opportunity where religion is concerned. I have to admit that I found interesting his suggestion that your loved ones should support you in your quest rather than feel neglected. I agree, up to a point, but relationships need nurturing, too. I also enjoyed the convenient New Age philosophy that the world "conspires" to help you achieve your goal, if you want it and strive for it with your whole heart. Does this mean that if I fail in my quest that I just didn't go after it hard enough? What if I was just ill-suited to that particular dream? I haven't read The Secret, but I wonder if it preaches the same gospel. Also, why is the ultimate pursuit called a "Personal Legend"? I can't help wondering if this is a translation problem. Doesn't a legend usually imply something that happened in the past? Anyway, read at your own risk.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A GESTURE LIFE by Chang-rae Lee

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee is a rich and poignant story about a Japanese man of Korean descent who emigrates to the U.S. Franklin Hata leads a quiet life as a model citizen and retired medical supply store owner in an upscale town. Most of his story is told in flashback, and there are two main threads in his past. One is his stint as a medic during World War II, and the other is his more recent past, particularly the evolution of his relationship with his adopted daughter Sunny, also Korean. Both stories are heartbreaking in their own way. During WWII the Japanese conscripted Korean women into service to provide sex to the soldiers. His friendship with one of the "comfort" women has a tragic consequence that in some ways parallels a critical event in Sunny's life. After WWII, Franklin manages to avoid true intimacy, even with Sunny. By the end, however, he has changed, partly by Sunny's reentry into his life with a young son in tow, and partly by events that have caused him to connect with his neighbors and acquaintances. The words "gesture" and "fa├žade" are repeated throughout the novel and are surely metaphors that apply to Franklin, as his calm demeanor belies a traumatic past. The rhythm of the prose in this gem of a novel is very yoga-like, even as the story becomes progressively more intense.