Michael Chabon’s Moonglow: A Novel Shines From Within

Michael Chabon, of course, needs no introduction. But you may wonder whether his latest book, Moonglow: A Novel, is  actually a novel or a memoir. He calls this work a novel in the title itself and so it is, but he also refers to it as a memoir and so it often seems. He cautions you in the beginning with the following sentence (from his Author’s Note): “. . . . I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Clear enough?

But trust me, once you start reading, you’ll think, “Who cares?”

This terrific, sprightly book is about building a model of a Jewish colony on the moon. Well, not really. Mostly, it’s about his grandfather (the model-builder), reimagined in detail that’s as close-fitting as a grand prix champion’s driving gloves. Much of the book depends heavily on information apparently gathered by limning his grandfather’s thoughts as he lay dying. Some of it is written in first person as Michael Chabon, while the bulk is written in close third person following the character of said grandfather, including harrowing moments of his journey in World War II, written so vividly you could swear you were there, watching as a decapitated German officer perches atop his motorcycle at a muddy crossroads. (Incidentally–though not so incidental to the story–he was crossing Germany as fast as he could in the twilight of the war, in pursuit of Werner von Braun.)

Those same lively details rivet your attention in scenes within a mental institution or while on a snake-hunt in Florida. You’ll also see the inside of a prison, and wonder at what the man was able to get away with in defiance of both guards and common sense, as well as the rather extraordinary, and resourceful, compassion shown to a fellow inmate. Truly, the grandfather is an amazing, novel-sized character: fiercely intelligent, a wizard at model-building, sometimes an engineer, sometimes an entrepreneur or a salesman or pool hustler, at once immensely practical and highly impractical, stubborn, irascible, foolhardy, and as loyal to his periodically schizophrenic wife as is humanly possible.

That grandmother is a novel-sized character as well, her own story managing to be heart-warming, horrifying, and sexy in equal parts. The scene where those two meet has a twist you’ll never see coming. In short, this “memoir” is a big, sprawling, beautifully constructed hodgepodge of a novel, and really quite wonderful.

I’m not sure how much “memoir-istic license” was taken in developing the eventual, quite serendipitous meeting between the grandfather and Werner von Braun, a man whom he was missioned to dispose of (yes!) in that long-ago, muddy chase across Germany in World War Two, but never mind. It makes a great story.

Moonglow is pure Chabon magic, no matter what you call it.


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“Maud’s Line”: A Terrifying, Heart-Tugging Tale of A Hard-Scrabble Life

Mauds"s Line Pbk CoverEastern Oklahoma in the 1920s, in an area inhabited mostly by Cherokees. This is the setting for Margaret Verble’s remarkable, heart-breaking yet ultimately life-affirming first novel, Maud’s Line.

Why did this book’s title grab me so sharply? First, because I was born in a town called Maud, Oklahoma. My interest was piqued further when I learned that Verble, like me, was also born in Oklahoma, and that she, like me–and, more importantly, like her major character–has Cherokee blood in her veins. Her book’s title, however, does not refer to a town, but to her compelling principal character, eighteen year old Maud Vail, and to the small allotment of land that ultimately falls to her.

Though the territorial reach of the novel is measured in square miles, it still feels sprawling, though the sprawl is a much of family as it is of place. Counting all the relatives, it’s a big family. While Maud is a Cherokee, she has Choctaw as well as Creek family sprinkled throughout “the bottoms,” as it’s called.  Clearly, it’s a land where family loyalty counts.

Wherever you go in this bottom-land, you get there by walking, or on horseback, or on mule back, or by wagon. Only the rich have motorcars.

Fortunately, most of Maud’s relatives live within walking distance of the house where she and her father, Mustard, and her brother, Lovely, live. (If you’re a really good walker, that is.) Mustard, the father, is hard-drinking, roughhousing, and a rogue. Lovely, though four years older than Maud, is a sensitive man-boy who seems barely half-there. Bad things happen to Lovely. There’s also Uncle Blue and Uncle Early. Aunt Viola. Aunt Lucy. Auntie Nan.

But mostly, endearingly, enduringly, there’s Maud, a highly strung, intelligent, capable, gun-toting eighteen-year old with an on-the-brink sexuality who loves to read. She’s pretty, and sought-after by the local boys, but when an educated peddler (an ex-teacher) in a blue covered wagon enters the territory, with books among his items for sale, and a willingness to discuss and recommend them, Maud falls hard. Still, life on the Line is more than swooning over a white peddler. There’s lots going on. First there’s the cow whose spine is hideously slashed in two by evil-minded neighbors, the Mounts. There’s the dead, bloody dog the Mounts leave on the kitchen table when no one is at the house. There’s the discovery of a horrible scene of carnage at the Mounts’ cabin, and Maud’s anxiety over who in her family might be responsible. How does her fascination with this handsome stranger, not to mention the requirements of developing a serious relationship, compete with the onslaught of near-catastrophic events in her family? So she wrestles fretfully with how much she can tell him–the man she has come to love so compellingly. And all the while this feuding and mystery is treated by her relatives–however deeply they mark Maud–as more or less just the way things are “in the bottoms.” The bottom-land is full of characters and full of character, and the book is remarkable both for its description of the geographical and emotional landscape as it is for its rendering of these people’s terse, vernacular dialogue. Verble has a great ear.

So: loyalty is important; family is everything. How does a romance compete with this? When, toward the end of the book, her father decides to “take to the hills” in hopes of hooking up with the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd (after his suspected role in the murder of those evil and troublesome neighbors), Maud seems the only one among all the relatives who is deeply bothered.

There’s an old-fashioned feel to Verble’s book–the emphasis on family, perhaps, and the insistence on a meticulous painting of the landscape–which caused one reviewer to evoke Willa Cather. I confess this wealth of description put me off at first, but I eventually came to appreciate it because it made me feel embedded. I was there. There on Maud’s walks into “the wild,” always carrying her rifle, in case of snakes. There when she lavished care on her brother, Lovely, brought low by a rabid dog bite or a descent into madness. There when, hungering after the truth, she parted the bushes to spy on the Mounts, those malicious neighbors, and encountered a scene of horror. There wherever she walked, and walked, and walked, through a sometimes parched and sometimes flooded land. Verble paints the land in such detail that the reader walks through it with her.

But more there’s more. Despite the fact that I’m both male and many years older than Verble’s character, I identified strongly with this young woman, including the internal workings of her body as she becomes pregnant. I’ll never forget Maud Vail.

Verble’s book was published last year, and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

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“Exceptional, original, deftly crafted from beginning to end, “Problems of Translation: or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness” is an inherently fascinating, unique, funny, and compelling read that is very highly recommended, especially for community and academic library Literary Fiction collections.”

I’m on Cloud Nine!

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What a spectacular yarn!

A doting father with a crime-riddled past whose claims on him are not yet expired (and whose failures are recorded on nearly every inch of his body). A devoted daughter who tends to act (or react) first and ask questions later. A soured, irascible in-law/grandmother with an indomitable protective instinct. A closetful—one might say a houseful—of guns of every caliber and description. A quiet coastal fishing community with buried secrets simmering underneath the sand. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, my favorite character was not Loo (the daughter) or Samuel (the father) or even the grandmother (Mable Ridge), but Lily (the wife and mother) who is larger than life in almost every way, although dead through much of the book. (How many people do you meet, even in novels, who will shoot their partner out of—mostly—love?)

Excursions, explosions, and eruptions abound in Hannah Tinti‘s wonderfully picaresque novel (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley), a book whose pages all but turn themselves. Though it’s a thriller to the last leaf, it’s also a story about love and indifference, loyalty and loss, friendship and the ineradicable demands of one’s own past. Besides enjoying this extraordinary family drama, you’ll be fascinated, as I was, to learn myriad details about clamming and fishing, sailing (including plotting your course by the stars), the age, range, and caliber of multiple firearms, and grand larceny on a spectacularly competitive scale.

And did I mention the book is plotted along the grid of classical mythology? Why, it’s as if Heracles woke up in bed with Elmore Leonard. Enjoy the ride!



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Colum McCann’s Wonderful Recent Collection

[I wrote this back in October. But after I mentioned it today to a fairly regular reader of this blog, and noticed the puzzled look on her face, I checked back and found that I’d actually never published it. So here it is now. Enjoy!]

The opening stanzas of “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” Colum McCann’s first story from his collection of the same name, will charm the bejeezus out of you. The first of the thirteen stanzas (I choose the word because there is something musical about the way he spins his yarn–including the  three lines of poetry about blackbirds that head each segment) features the view from a video camera. The descriptions of the apartment house bedroom it sees are simple, exact, and very beautiful.

Several of the succeeding twelve parts of the story feature video-camera views as well: from the elevators, from the lobby, outside the major character’s Upper East Side building, on the corner of the street where he proceeds to lunch, on the opposite corner, and even immediately outside the restaurant where he eats.

So what’s charming about the view from a video camera? you may ask. Well, the charm comes not from that particular device but from the beautifully thought-out strokes by which McCann makes his major character endearing and memorable. The occupant of the apartment that the camera is focused on is a New York City judge, retired and of very advanced age, who requires considerable help from his live-in nurse and housekeeper, Sally, to get up, get dressed, get about, and simply make it through the day. Is that depressing? Not really! We first meet the judge lying in bed, musing about his long life, and the way Mr. McCann has chosen to reveal the soul of this aging attorney will, if you’re like me, impart an almost irresistible upward tug to the corners of your mouth.

But—surprise!—what McCann has constructed here, in this stunning first story, is a murder mystery, in which the judge is the victim. Those camera videotapes become the tools of law enforcement, perused repeatedly and doggedly by detectives, in an effort to solve the crime. As it turns out, the tapes do open the means to solving the murder. Meanwhile, however, the story shimmers with other details which describe, in ways that etch themselves into your mind, a life that is, like most lives, both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. There are the random carnal thoughts and the conversations that show respect and fellow-feeling—of a caregiver, of a waitress, of a restaurant owner. There are revelations about how much the judge misses his left-y daughter, the continuing reminiscences about his wife, and the conflict forged from a painful yet unbridgeable gulf between the judge and his wealthy turd of a son. And all the while, the suspense, false directions, and uncertainty appropriate to a murder mystery. Meanwhile, along the way, the author has some beautiful things to say about writing, particularly poetry. Taken altogether, this story is a tour de force that no one who loves fiction should miss.

But wait! That’s not all! There are three more terrific stories—all more traditional narratives—included here. And one, “Treaty,” which anchors the collection, ranks among the best of the short stories in my particular memory bank. An altogether stellar collection.

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Guess What! Cover of Publishers Weekly!

Hey, guys! Sorry to toot my own horn, but I’m on the cover of Publishers Weekly!

Well, not me, exactly, but my book, Problems of Translation. I feel quite thrilled to see that image of my book staring up at me from the cover of this April 18, 2017 issue, devoted to independently published books. It’s one of only two works of literary fiction that are depicted, and very prominently placed, I might add!

In case you’re unaware, Publisher’s Weekly is the bible of the publishing industry, read by publishers, editors, agents, librarians and everyone else in the biz.

One can only hope that this adds to the sale of the book (or helps attract a wider readership, which is what I’m primarily interested in). After all, I wrote it to be read!

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Okay, here’s the big news!

Once again, we’ve decided to do a promotion for my comic adventure novel Problems of Translation, or Charlie’s Comic, Romantic, Terrifying, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness! Starting today and for the next 3 days–March 9, 10, & 11th–you can download the kindle version of the book for free!

This may be the last time we can offer the kindle edition for free! So, if you don’t have a copy, please take advantage of the offer, and tell your friends! Actually, you can gift it to a friend! And if you like my book, PLEASE PUT A REVIEW ON AMAZON (it doesn’t have to be a long one), and ask your friends to do so, too, because reviews do matter.

Meanwhile, I’m at work on a short story tentatively titled, “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Later on, I may tell you how this particular story began….

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I can feel the excitement begin to build! Another  reading is coming up at the Cornelia Street Café, and I can hardly wait. I’ll be reading on Wednesday, January 25th (less than two weeks away!) with Laura Spence-Ash, and if you’re free that evening for an hour  or so, come on by to this all-fiction post-inauguration-weekend respite. You will need a respite, won’t you? And bring some friends, if you’d like. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it!

I first became acquainted with Laura through her very fine work in One Story magazine a couple of years ago. Then, after meeting her at a gathering, I learned that she had also been to Sirenland, that magical writing workshop in Positano, Italy that I attended in 2011. She is indeed a talent, and I am happy to be sharing the stage with her very soon.

I’ll be reading short pieces from three works, first from Problems of Translation, the novel I published in April of 2015, which is becoming a hit in certain circles. (Among the 100 notable books of that year by one measure, its full title is Problems of Translation, or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness.) Plus, there’ll be a piece from the not-yet-published novel I just completed, called The Condor’s Shadow. But wait, there’s more! As a bonus treat, there’ll be the first couple of pages of a short story I began only very recently–yielding a shocking glimpse, perhaps, into one writer’s mind, and how it (sometimes) works!

Some of my excitement stems from what Laura will be reading, which will be a surprise to me, and I’m eager to hear it. In addition to the wonderful short story mentioned above, Laura is currently working on a novel (unnamed as yet) and a collection of linked stories (ditto; she keeps her cards close to her vest). Besides that, she writes for the very well-known and respected journal Ploughshares a blog called “Fiction Responding to Fiction,” where she reveals insights into important writers’ literary relationships, two at a time. Amy Hempel and Grace Paley, for example. Or John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Or Flannery O’Conner and Alice Munro. Exciting stuff, so Laura Spence-Ash is herself a writer to watch.

So please come if you can to the Cornelia Street Café on Wednesday, January 25, from 6-7:30 pm to enjoy our program of good reading and listening. It’s at 29 Cornelia Street in the Village (between Bleecker & West 4th), and the Café’s cover is only $10 (cheap enough when you consider you get a free drink along with the reading)! Further details are available at corneliastreetcafe.com. Dress warm, but with any luck, you won’t even need snowshoes!

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THANK YOU! THANK YOU! to all those who downloaded the kindle version of my novel, Problems of Translation over the 24-hour giveaway period yesterday. Six hundred eleven people took advantage of this zero dollars sale, from all over the world! Folks from the US, Canada, UK, Japan, India, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere were all savvy enough to take advantage of this opportunity and I’m very grateful that they did.

How do I make any money from making my book available for free? Well, I don’t. But what I want is readers and, hopefully, a good percentage of those who downloaded the book for free will actually read it and enjoy it, which is what I’m interested in. And, of course, there’s the multiplier effect; if some of those who read it and enjoy it also write reviews so that others become interested . . . well, so much the better! So whether you, dear readers, write a review on Amazon or in a local newspaper (in Yokahama, perhaps or Sao Paulo or Dubuque), or in a blog, on Facebook, or wherever, you are helping to spread the word.  And that makes my redoubtable hero, Charlie (Charles Abel Baker, formally) feel that it wasn’t for nothing that he traveled the world getting his short story translated into ten different languages then back into English. He is grateful, first of all,  that he lived to tell the tale (he had some hairy escapes!), but he’s even more pleased when people read about his “comic, terrifying, romantic, loopy round-the-world-journey in search of linguistic happiness.”

So thanks again, folks, and enjoy! Maybe we’ll run another such sale one of these fine days, but, meanwhile, if you can’t wait, it’s still only $5.99!

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Free Today Only – My Novel, Problems of Translation (ebook edition)

FREE. FREE, FREE! Today only! The ebook of my novel Problems of Translation is free today, December 23, for one day only.

Adventure, travel, a love story, and a wild ride — it’s a great holiday read and gift! “One part midlife crisis, one part old-timey spy film, and one part romance” (Portland Review, 4 stars), “An insanely amusing adventure” (Gary Shteyngart), a Shelf Unbound Notable Book, and 4 1/2 stars on Amazon.

What’s it about? Well, Charles Abel Baker, its hero, sets off around the world on a quest to see Problems of Translation - Front Coverone of his stories translated into ten different languages and back again into English. Who knew what literary translation could lead to? The hint is in the book’s full title:
Problems of Translation, or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness.

Find out more and download it at Amazon — and please share this with your friends!
(Returns to $5.99 on Dec. 24th.)

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