Friday, April 11, 2014

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012)

My truly excellent DAFFODILS book club picked Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012) as our latest read. Interestingly, this is the second Chabon book we've read for this book club -- we read The Yiddish Policemen's Union back in 2008 (!!!) when it was also just a year old.

One thing I like about Michael Chabon is that he is always willing to try things, even if they don't always work out. Here he made the two main characters of his novel (Archy and Gwen, a married couple, and Titus, Archy's recently discovered teenage son) African-Americans in north Oakland. Giving voice to a racial group and an urban cultural experience that is not his own was a bit of a risk. I'm not sure it paid off entirely (and sometimes feels a little problematic), but I can say that the black characters were a lot more interesting and fully drawn than the main white characters, Aviva and Natt, and their teenage son Julie.

Archy and Natt are business partners and best friends. They run Brokeland Records, a stereotypical cool guy record store (oh the record store stereotypes, and the never ending record geek talk, they are heavy here). It has never done that well, and with the advent of a new mega-store down the block, run by ex-fooball star and neighborhood success story, Gibson Goode, Brokeland looks like it will go broke for good pretty soon. On the lady side of things, Gwen and Aviva are midwives and partners who butt heads with the hospital system and, sometimes, each other. Gwen is also extremely pregnant with she and Archy's first child. To add in some more stress, Archy's teenage son from a brief youthful fling, Titus, is back in the picture after a childhood in Texas, Archy is cheating on Gwen, Julie is in love with Titus, and Archy's extremely estranged father (and former blaxplotation / kung fu star), Luther, is sticking his nose in where Archy doesn't want it stuck.

Whew. With so much happening, it is easy to see why this is a compelling read. What is hard to see (or explain) is why it is sometimes a pretty slow one. It doesn't seem to be tied to a character or section or plot point, but sometimes I just lost my momentum on this thing. Other times, though, I was really into it. I'm glad I read this one -- the good parts made up for the sloggy bits, and the parts that didn't work made the parts that do work even more interesting. I'm interested in seeing what my fellow DAFFODILS think of this one and if we can collectively figure out what on earth it's deal is.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden (2006)

About a year ago, I read a copy of Bernice McFadden's book Gathering of Waters (reviewed here) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and really loved it. Lo and behold, another McFadden book has come my way from the same source: Nowhere is a Place (2006).

The framing story here is a road trip with Sherry and her mother, Dumpling, from Dumpling's home in California to a family reunion in Georgia. Sherry is in her late-30s, secretly pregnant, coming out of a bad long-term relationship with a white man that her mother never liked, and living in Mexico after years of searching and globetrotting.

Sherry and Dumpling aren't that close, but at the start of the road trip, Sherry tells her mother that she wants to write a novel about their family history and the heart of the book are the words that Sherry writes each night after hearing her mother retell the family stories and that Dumpling reads and reacts to the next day.

The family story is rich, deep, and tragic. Starting from the massacre of an Indian village and the kidnapping and selling of the children into slavery, moving through rape, brutality, love, marriage, and heart break, heading north and cutting loose, and eventually ending right back in the car with Sherry and Dumpling. Much like Gathering of Waters, a simple plot description doesn't do this story justice. McFadden has a perfect sense of timing and description, and the hard-earned bursts of violence and revenge hit the reader just right.

This is a re-issue of a novel from several years ago, and it shares the same delicate balance between poetry and a harsh narrative that I found in the more recently published Gathering of Waters. While the framing narrative is a little clunky at first and the book took a bit to really click for me, the payoff is worth a little patience at the beginning. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for more of McFadden's novels.