Sunday, January 20, 2013

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Hindenburg and Empire State Building, 1936. (
Michael Chabon has become one of my favorite writers, based largely on The Yiddish Policeman's Union, The Mysteries of Pitsburgh, and numerous essays. I've had The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my list for years, and it's considered to be his masterpiece (thus far). This is the first book I purchased just for my Kindle -- to mark the occasion, so to speak.

The story is immediately engaging, plunging the reader into the world of Prague on the eve of World War II. The Kavalier family is determined to get their oldest son, Josef, out of Prague and to the safety of America as the Nazi presence becomes increasingly hostile to the Jewish community. Josef is a budding "escapist" in the tradition of Houdini, and this becomes his only route out of Czechoslovakia, concealed in a coffin, bound for Lithuania, which contains not only the refugee, but also the famed Golem, a revered object that the Jews of Prague want to save from Nazi depredations.

This fantastic exploit delivers the Golem to a new hiding place, and by a long route, Josef, to his relatives in Brooklyn, the Klaymans. His cousin Samuel, at work for a novelty company, finds that Josef is an accomplished artist, which feeds into his own ambition to get into the new phenomenon of comic books. Together, they create The Escapist and enter the highly competitive world of comics in the Golden Era of the genre -- the late 30s and 40s. I won't belabor the plot points and descriptions of other characters. It is, above all, a wonderful story -- fully developed characters inhabiting a world, rich in detail -- the landscape of New York in the 40s providing the backdrop for Chabon's fertile imagination. I chose the picture of the Empire State Building above because it figures so importantly in the mythology and action of the novel.

The book that I chose as my first ebook download from our local library was Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was a quick read and entertaining. I would recommend it as a vacation-friendly book, nothing too taxing.

I can't imagine giving up my physical library -- there's too much pleasure to be had from the handling of books that you love, especially those from authors that are favorites. And there's also the weird, limbo-land of digital "ownership." Is it really yours? It's pretty hard to loan books to friends and family this way. And if I were not a particularly savvy person who didn't back up my library safely, how much trouble would it be to retrieve the books that I lost even after I legitimately purchased them, not to mention the issue of changing formats, if I decided I like the Nook or some other reader better? But, for books that you want to read but aren't that interested in adding to your library, or for out-of-copyright, freely-available books that you can download -- the Kindle certainly is a convenient and lightweight alternative. It's probably worth it's price just for traveling with an adequate library to hand. I'll just be looking for a nice edition of Chabon's Kavalier and Clay in its antique form to grace my physical bookshelves.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Still with Kindle!

No, I wasn't knocked out by the 900 pages of Parade's End last August; however, I have been very lazy about blogging since then, obviously. Right after PE, I couldn't get away from WWI and read a historical novel by Jeff Shaara. Rather more workmanlike than Ford (Shaara is not the stylist that his father Michael Shaara was, much less FMF), To the Last Man is still very good for its fictionalized take on the outsize characters of Baron Richthofen, Raoul Lufbery, John J. Pershing, Petain, and Clemenceau. It also folds in the evolution of aerial warfare with the Lafayette Escadrille (French air service but with many American volunteers) and the German air aces, of whom the most famous is the Red Baron. It sticks to real people even when it shifts from the high-ranking strategists to the boots on the ground. Trench warfare and the brutal fighting on the Western Front are brought to life through the experience of the young Marine, Roscoe Temple, who fought at Belleau Wood and St. Mihiel.

I followed up with the breezy and charming The Plague by Camus (just kidding). One has to emerge from world war by degrees, so a tense tale of exile, deprivation, and inevitable death bridged the gap to...Angels on Toast. The sharp American writer Dawn Powell was writing about Mad Men way back in the 40s. Traveling businessmen, their wives, mistresses, and general shenanigans are skillfully and wittily satirized by Powell. Needless to say, there's lots and lots of drinking and smoking, lies, and ruination. She's one of those really fine early 20th Century writers who has slipped under the radar for the most part (although canonized in the Library of America series).

Powell was a pretty good segue into another witty woman of the world, Nancy Mitford. One of the famous English Mitford sisters (right, Nancy is second from left), Nancy was brought up in the aristocratic atmosphere of a rambling country house with eccentric parents, and even more eccentric neighbors and relatives, all of whom people her stories. The Pursuit of Love in a Cold Climate is thinly veiled autobiography about the Radlett sisters, who go about finding and marrying and being variously tortured by all the wrong men. If Downton Abbey is the twilight of Empire, the Radletts exist quite a bit further into the gloaming. The Radletts are badly educated, irreverent, and outrageous in their quirks. The father of the clan is an irascible veteran of the Great War, claiming to have whacked several Germans to death with an entrenching tool, which is preserved with  bloodthirsty pride above the family fireplace. Mitford is effortlessly stylish, spinning out hilarious descriptions and dialogue that is shimmeringly droll. If you're suffering from winter blahs, Mitford will lighten your mood. I think I read this one during jury duty!

Okay, wrapping up very quickly here, I finished off jury duty with a good biography about Ada Byron (Benjamin Wooley's Bride of Science). Daughter of Lord Byron, she is considered to be the "mother of computer programming," due to her work with Charles Babbage, who created an early computer, the Difference Engine. Good stuff, for those of a geeky bent. Then, in the winter and toward the holidays, I got pretty lazy and/or distracted and read little -- The Call of the Wild by London and a very creepy occult novel of the late 1890's by Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan. If you're in the mood for rather baroque Satanic weirdness, you can download this gem from Project Gutenberg for free.

I'll break it off there for now, but as I hinted in the title, Santa hubby brought me my very first ebook reader for Christmas. I'm still in the early stages with it, but I have to admit, I kind of like the convenience: lightweight, well-lit, and I never lose my place or have to dig in the crevices of the sofa trying to locate my bookmark. How antique! Not to mention, downloading ebooks from the local library is pretty awesome. I'll tell you about the first book I bought and read on my Kindle next time. It had to be something to mark the occasion. Want to guess?