Vacation reading

So we were on vacation last week, and rainy weather plus a sick kid meant I had plenty of time on my hands for reading. Glorious reading! I got through three books, each very different and each very rewarding…

Galore by Michael Crummey is the best book I’ve read in a looooooong time. This amazing novel is the definition — the PLATONIC IDEAL — of rollicking yarns and prose poetry. It is EXACTLY the type of book I most love. It has all my favorite elements. Big sweeping epic third person omniscient narration. Vivid setting & history (Newfoundland) that is an important part of the plot. Multiple generations, multiple perspectives. Myth & folklore. Doctors & priests. A bit of magical realism. Strong female characters. Biblical imagery. Luscious language. Bittersweet humor. And it is strikingly original. And totally engrossing.

Galore reminded me quite a bit of Midnight’s Children. Michael Crummey just might be Canada’s answer to Salman Rushdie. This book was nothing short of awesome. I hope it wins a zillion awards.

I chose Ursula Hegi’s Sacred Time from the library at random, having never heard of the book or the author. It was quite a change after the wild romp that was Galore, and I’m not sure I would have checked it out if I had known more about it. In a nutshell: Sacred Time belongs to the “Ripple Effects Of A Child’s Death” genre. If that’s not your cup of tea you might want to skip this one.

That said… this book is very well executed. Yes it is about the death of a child, and the reverberations of that death through the family and through the years, but it completely avoids the three Ms of melodrama, maudlinity (maudlin-ness?) and manipulation. The characters are complex, three-dimensional and (for the most part) likable. The book is set mostly in the Bronx, with the three sections of the book taking place in three decades, the 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s. There is lots of period detail and cultural references which gave the book some fun moments, despite the grim subject matter.

Zombie, Ohio. Yes, it is a zombie story. If you are into zombies I highly recommend this one. I’m not a huge fan of zombies — for one thing, there are too many internal inconsistencies, like do they digest their food and if not, how can they keep eating all those brains — but I do like post-apocalyptic fiction and therefore I read the occasional zombie story.

This one is unusual in that it is told from the zombie’s perspective, and furthermore the zombie, in life, was a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college, tee hee. Like all zombie stories, it is really gross, but it is also funny. E.g. the scene where the newly-minted zombie has to figure out how to actually open a skull so that he can get at the brain, giggle giggle.


Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road

I created a new genre category for this book: Rollicking Yarn. I’m also including this in the Prose Poetry genre because every sentence made me squirm with joy. In fact, if rollicking yarns aren’t your thing you might want to get yourself a copy of this book anyway, and just read the chapter titles. (Examples: Chapter One, On Discord Arising From the Excessive Love of a Hat; Chapter Nine, On Anxieties Arising From the Impermissibility, However Unreasonable, of an Elephant’s Rounding Out a Prayer Quorum.)

In the afterword, Michael Chabon reveals that his working title for this novel was “Jews with Swords.” Which makes me laugh (and Chabon also talks about why the idea of sword-wielding Jews strikes us as funny despite the existence of such well-known Jewish sword wielders as Judah Maccabee), but in fact this book is about Jews with swords.

The two main characters, Amram and Zelikman, fit the typical buddy story profile — Amram is the big, brawny (though not stupid) extravert and Zelikman is the small, clever introvert. Together they travel through the Caucasus, circa AD 950, having one adventure after another. They are Jewish, sort of, and they carry swords, sort of. (Actually Amram carries a battleaxe named Mother-Defiler and Zelikman carries a pointy thing called Lancet.) And, as they travel through the Caucasus having adventures, Michael Chabon, who has such a way with words, describes it all with delicious wit and precision. Example:

The moon rose, and in her faint, cool light Amram watched Zelikman creep along. In his long and skinny shanks there was none of the grace but all the intensity of a cat going about its fatal mousing, the patience, the grim reserve of a predator. He rose up behind the nearer picket, covered the man’s face with his leather-gloved hand and embraced him with the other arm.  A moment later he eased the man to the earth. When, rarely, Zelikman recalled his mother to Amram, it was often a bedside memory of her seeing him through fevers and nightmares, or singing to him in the soft Latin dialect of her grandmothers, and the shade of that unknown Jewess always seemed to appear in Zelikman when he anesthetized a guard or watchman and laid him tenderly on the ground.

I’m going to end this post with Chabon’s definition of adventure, from the afterword:

Adventures are a logical and reliable result — and have been since at least the time of Odysseus — of the fatal act of leaving one’s home, or trying to return to it again. All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one’s home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbors are not to be had: then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels, and regret.

“That damned and magical space,” oh yes!

Raymond Chandler: The High Window

Hard-boiled detective novels practically BEG to be parodied, don’t they? More than any other genre, perhaps. And once you’ve seen a parody it’s almost impossible to take the real thing seriously any more.

Raymond Chandler, however, is worth the effort of taking seriously. You have to try to read with fresh eyes though. Don’t think about Tracer Bullet or any of the other parodies you’ve seen. Imagine you’ve never read, or even heard of, anything like it before. If you can get yourself into that mindset Chandler will blow you away. The Big Sleep, which I read earlier this year, was amazing. And The High Window, which I read earlier this week, was even more so.

It’s not the plot. I’m not really a plot person. Inconsistencies and holes have to be GIGANTIC for me to notice them, or care. Yes, the stories were a bit confusing, especially The Big Sleep. Supposedly even Raymond Chandler himself didn’t know who killed one of the characters. However, it doesn’t really matter. Because the writing is fabulous. Example:

The expression of [her] face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus.

Most all of the female characters I have encountered thus far are objectified in some way, and it would definitely feel sexist, except that the male characters are treated the same. Raymond Chandler seems like a man who was disgusted with the human race, not women in particular. However, not irredeemably disgusted. There are a few “good” characters sprinkled in among the baddies. Marlowe himself is fundamentally decent and has a well-developed sense of honor. Perhaps that’s why sentences like “Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby” feel poignant rather than goofy.

Raymond Chandler’s universe is not a place I would want to live. But it is wonderful to visit, and I definitely plan to come again.