Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an ambitious, original and exciting read. Chabon does not shy away from trying to cover a vast terrain in his novel. The story details the effect of the holocaust on one man, Josef Kavalier, who escapes Prague just in time to avoid the horrors of World War II. We then follow his subsequent attempts to secure a safe passage out of Eastern Europe for the relatives he has left behind. Most of the action takes place in New York but the story moves from pre-war Prague to as far afield as Antarctica. Imaginatively, the novel covers even more ground. Central to the narrative is the successful comic-strip that Josef creates with his American cousin Sam Clay. The comic strip is called The Escapist and it's about a Nazi-fighting superhero who excels at the art of escapism. The story spans a significant period of time both before and after WWII and details the relationship between the two cousins as well as their relationships with others. The scale of this novel is ambitious and admirable. Even more admirable is the fact that Chabon carries it off.

If I have one reservation about The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it is that it didn't engage me emotionally as much as I would have expected. The holocaust is of course a powerful subject, but somehow I didn't quite feel as moved as I should have been during some key scenes in the novel. This might have been me, my mood at the time, but I can't help feeling that I should have been in tears at times when I felt relatively unscathed. On the plus side, this means that Chabon doesn't go for cheap sentimentality and that he finds humour and joy in what could have been a very bleak story.

I was particularly fascinated by the recurring imagery of golems. One of Josef's first tasks before he escapes to New York is to smuggle a golem out of Prague to safety and this idea of creating life is echoed in the character he creates for his comic strip. This is neatly linked in this passage to the more obvious imagery to do with escapistry that also occurs throughout the novel:
In literature and folklore, the significance and fascination of golems- from Rabbi Loew's to Victor von Frankenstein's- lay in their soullessness, in their tireless inhuman strength, in their metaphorical association with overweening human ambition, and in the frightening ease with which they passed beyond the control of their horrified and admiring creators. But it seemed to Joe that none of these- Faustian hubris, least of all- were among the true reasons that impelled men, time after time, to hazard the making of golems. The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something- one poor, dumb, powerful thing- exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a dense, rollicking, slightly crazed, fascinating novel and on the basis of it I will be reading some more of Chabon's writing as soon as I can.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan. I've read the series at a leisurely pace and I'm not the type of fan who lines up to get a copy on the first day the books are out. But I have to admit that I once I got into it this weekend, I really couldn't put Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows down. (Since we also had visitors this weekend that meant I read much of the book after everyone else had gone to bed, meaning I'm writing this post fairly seriously sleep-deprived.)

I think this last book in the series is my favourite. It is more grown up but without being as teenage-angsty as the previous two books. It was the first in the series to make me really, properly cry. I won't give away why (for the sake of the two or three people left in world who haven't read it yet) but I certainly was surprised by the event that brought me to tears. It was about half way through and involved a death. This scene was some of the best writing that Rowling has produced in the series.

I was happy with the plot which rollicked along, although sometimes I couldn't quite ignore the really obvious rip-offs from other fantasy novels, particularly Lord of the Rings. One horcrux in particular behaves amazingly like the ring in Tolkien's work. But it's a forgivable offence, particularly as lots of fantasy seems to draw on common elements.

Rowling tends towards the obvious in her writing style and characterisations and there is not a much in the way of interesting descriptions or illuminating insights into emotions and reactions of characters. She does, however, have a great knack for creating a convincing and complex world and she uses this novel to tie up many of the loose ends from the previous novels.

While I've had a great time reading the Harry Potter series I won't mourn its passing too heavily. Partly this is because I can't help but wonder why this book took off so spectacularly when I think there are so many better books for young readers out there. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is so much more original and exciting and it never makes the mistake of patronising young readers by simplifying ideas or resorting to the predictable. I can't help but think that part of Rowling's success is due to her inoffensiveness. She includes some nice messages about self-sacrifice and the corrupting effects of power but she really isn't going to offend or challenge anyone here, and maybe that is what we want in children's fiction. On the other hand, a big part of me says that fiction is where children should learn about life's big ideas and questions and that maybe we shouldn't give in to the triumph of the bland.

Now I find myself having written a more negative review than I intended. What I really wanted to say was that I loved reading this book and this series but I suspect they wont stay with me. Harry Potter is brilliant entertainment, but when it comes to life-changing literature I hope young readers explore beyond the the world of JK Rowling.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What Book Am I?

Well, everybody is doing it so why not? Still, I'm not sure this is me...

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!

by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire
faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest
this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking
moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Have been doing lots of interesting reading lately but unfortunately no blogging, since computer access at home has been fairly sporadic. Luckily a new computer is on the horizon so I'll hopefully be posting and reading blogs again before the month is out. Looking forward to catching up with what everyone in the blogosphere has been reading...