Monday, September 30, 2013

Telegraph Avenue : A Mom & Me Review

This is a novel that sticks with you.

I read Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue in the spring of 2012 and traveled to Oakland that summer, visiting many of the sites that form the backdrop for its plot.  It was a journey I relished, and many vivid scenes from this novel still leap easily to mind.  I reread Telegraph Avenue and enjoyed it perhaps more the second time around.

Mom, on the other hand, read the new paperback copy just this week. 

What's it about?
Essentially, Telegraph Avenue is the story of Archy Stallings, floundering part-owner of Brokeland Records on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA, and all those who contribute to the web of relationships in his life.  It's also the story of his teenage son, Titus, and his partner Nate's son, Julie.  And it's the story of their long-suffering and brilliant wives, Gwen and Aviva, who are partners in a progressive midwifing business.   Archie is black, Nate is white; Gwen is black, Aviva is white.  And, in the end, the issues of race and gender in the United States and how they continue to morph from generation to generation form the central themes of the novel.  Finally, motifs of jazz music, film, pop-culture, and the homogenization of all three weave their way through this story.  Oh, and then there's the nearly unavoidable motif (in any contemporary novel written about the U.S.) of The American Dream and its (lack of?) viability today.

How did our responses stack up? 

And so it goes…Telegraph Avenue, that is. Life after life unfolding before our eyes (and ears, too, if we’re  reading Michael Chabon’s prose). Sentence after sentence explodes across the pages, drawing the reader into a world most likely don’t know or even realize they would like to know. Until one meets Archy and Gwen, Nate and Aviva, their families, friends and acquaintances.  These are lives lived in a gritty world that includes jazz, a small business in a world where change is inexorably moving into the neighborhood, midwifery,  issues of race and gender, family interactions—in all, a microcosm of life.

Michael Chabon has a distinctive way of putting words on paper, making his characters and their worlds “activate” for us. Those lengthy sentences portray a scene in a way that “normal” sentences cannot: it’s an event that unfolds itself into the mind.

There is a scene in which Nat reminisces about his father, Julius the First (Nat’s son is also Julius). Nat describes an event in his Dad’s life: “A high point in a life, lived at sea level, prone to flooding.” Have you ever felt  that your life was “prone to flooding”?

And how is this for description: “engine heat troubling the atmosphere above its hood.” Who of us hasn’t seen heat making the air waver over pavement or some other object? But did we think of it as “troubling the atmosphere”?

And here’s another language delight. Nat is frying eggs, reminding himself of how his stepmother worked in the kitchen, how she kept things clean with her Scotch Brite pad and “wiping down every surface to a laboratory shrine, leaving herself to contend at the end only with the baking sheets, the big cast-iron skillet and the blast radius of spat fat on the stovetop.”  That ‘spat fat’ drew a picture for me.

Finally, I point you to pages 193-195: one continuous sentence that describes the people and place and sets a scene that continues to unfurl as Chabon’s opus weaves its narrative magic for us.

Me:  I enjoyed this novel even more the second time around.
Setting plays a major role, as does pop culture from the '70's through today.  Here Chabon inhabits characters of many backgrounds and gender identifications, all from a pretty close third person perspective, which is quite ambitious for a writer and sometimes problematic to process for readers.  Chabon's flexing his style-muscles here too, so expect a hefty dose of simile and metaphor, plus leaps in narrative timeline within the multi-character third person narration.  Also - and this was a major plus for me - it's funny. Often.

Who would enjoy it?
* A major plus in this novel is Chabon's successful creation of a richly populated fictional world, so if you enjoy immersing yourself entirely in a novel, this one won't disappoint.
* Characterization drives plot, so if that's your cup of tea, this will be too.
* If you enjoy music, and particularly - though not necessarily - jazz, this book will hold particular appeal, as it will if you lived through the '70's and thus connect easily with many of Chabon's period details and pop culture references.
* If  you've pondered questions of race, father-son relationships, the viability of 'living the  dream' in the U.S.A. today, and what - exactly - love is, then this novel will offer you another chance to explore these issues.
* If you enjoy layered comedy, you'll appreciate this novel even more.

Any "cautions" with regard to content and/or style?
Telegraph Avenue requires a mature reader.  I'm not talking about age, but rather experience and sensibility.  Why, what do I mean?  I mean that you have to persist through the first chapter's exposition to get to "the good stuff" when the plot kicks in during chapter two.  You have to endure sometimes oddly incongruous yet interesting metaphors and similes and accept that pondering them will be part of the experience.  You must accept the gamut in terms of language and characters' behaviors, some of which you might not use or engage in yourself.  And if a good laugh is low on your interest barometer, well, maybe you should lighten up a bit and then pick up Telegraph Avenue.*

So, that's two thumbs up from Mom & Me.  We both feel lucky to have found so many worthy books through our feature here; unusually lucky, really.  Neither of us would have predicted that we'd both genuinely appreciate so many of the books we've chosen to review.

Many thanks, as ever, to all at TLC Book Tours and, this time, to Mr. Chabon and his publishers for allowing us both to enjoy his novel in exchange for this honest review.

* Please note that some of my comments are simply revised from an earlier post.  I relied on my
copy from last year for the re-read, and did edit after my current read.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Red Brocade : Poem In Your Post

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking him who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
               - Naomi Shihab Nye

An important reminder for us all, and so beautifully rendered.  
Today I will endeavor to respond to every person I meet as a
beloved stranger.  A useful practice, no?


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Charlotte Bronte in Leeds Point : Poem In Your Post

From her window marshland stretched for miles.
If not for egrets and gulls, it reminded her of the moors
behind the parsonage, how the fog often hovered
and descended as if sheltering some sweet compulsion
the age was not ready to see. On clear days the jagged
skyline of Atlantic City was visible—Atlantic City,
where all compulsions had a home.

"Everything's too easy now," she said to her neighbor,
"nothing resisted, nothing gained." Once, at eighteen,
she dreamed of London's proud salons glowing
with brilliant fires and dazzling chandeliers.
Already her own person—passionate, assertive—
soon she'd create a governess insistent on rights equal
to those above her rank. "The dangerous picture

of a natural heart," one offended critic carped.
She'd failed, he said, to let religion reign
over the passions and, worse, she was a woman.
Now she was amazed at what women had,
doubly amazed at what they didn't.
But she hadn't come back to complain or haunt.
Her house on the bay was modest, adequate.

It need not accommodate brilliant sisters
or dissolute brothers, spirits lost or fallen.
Feminists would pay homage, praise her honesty
and courage. Rarely was she pleased. After all,
she was an artist; to speak of honesty in art,
she knew, was somewhat beside the point.
And she had married, had even learned to respect

the weakness in men, those qualities they called
their strengths. Whatever the struggle, she wanted men
included. Charlotte missed reading chapters to Emily, 
Emily reading chapters to her. As ever, though, she'd try
to convert present into presence, something unsung
sung, some uprush of desire frankly acknowledged,
even in this, her new excuse for a body.

                                           - Stephen Dunn

This poem, so near to prose in its cadences, sparked a wee internet inquiry into 
Charlotte's life history, a subject I'd never even thought to ponder.
If you're in the market for a bird walk, I offer you her fairly fascinating history here
Find more of Pulitzer-winner Dunn's work on these pages: 
  Stephen Dunn Poet,  Stephen Dunn on


p.s.  As you might note, I'm still struggling with Blogger/posting/computer issues.
Thanks for your patience with the formatting above.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Today : Poem In Your Post

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

                      - Mary Oliver

Welcome back to "Poem In Your Post".  After a two week "vacation" (translation: computer meltdown, the start of the new school year, visiting relatives...), we're back.  Expect a new-to-you poem every Saturday morning, with gratitude to the poets and to you for stopping by to breathe their genius.

I almost always offer "The Summer Day" when we return to academic life after a summer apart, and students still refer to it (without prompting) on their very last reflection of the school year.  So I went trolling for another deceptively simple, immediately accessible, and seasonally relevant offering from Oliver for you today.  This one speaks "Saturday in September" to me.

Blessings and gratitude to all who are returning to What She Read today, and welcome to those visiting for the first time.  I hope you will stay.

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