Customer Reviews: Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
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on April 1, 2008
I know a lot of these essays from other sources and have lived with them a while. They're good pieces, and the PW critic *did* phone it in with such a soft-boiled review.

Chabon's defense of genre isn't confined to comics. His right concern is that most genre writers are marginalized to some degree, regardless of their talents and achievements. It takes a Patrick O'Brian or JRR Tolkien longer to garner critical praise simply because they're "merely" writing sea novels or fantasy epics, and however good a sci-fi or western writer might be, chances are his or her book is stuck in a corner at the bookstore. In 1984 and Hound of the Baskervilles and Frankenstein appeared for the first time this year, they might get lost in the genre aisle, and would almost certainly confront dismissive criticism. All of which Chabon elucidates far better than I.

Genre aside, Chabon's essays about his own career are terrific and entertaining. If PW wants to imagine this book's audience, it's people who enjoy reading or writing fiction--literary *or* genre--and those who like Chabon and his books. That's a big readership.
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on April 18, 2011
Chabon (or his editors) cobbled together loose bits of writing previously found in magazines and Chabon's website in a more convenient package. I have no reservations about that, I ache for authors (and other artists) to cater to their fans that would call themselves completists. This collection is certainly for fans of Chabon who have previously read his major works. A few of the essays reveal stories behind writing his first three novels, all that is very interesting to the fan. I'm not sure how someone new to Chabon would appreciate this work (since I am not new). Chabon's writing and storytelling is always engaging and the insights into his work are great but it does feel like director's commentary, but most director's commentaries are pretty narcissistic and boring. This would be a top notch director's commentary.

Chabon's essays on Will Eisner, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials saga, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road are interesting critiques. I had read Eisner and The Road but not His Dark Materials and so felt a little left out. You might want to skip those essays until you've read the texts beforehand.

The largest theme in the work is Chabon's love for genre fiction and his desire to see it respected in literary circles. Chabon is a much better genre apologist than genre writer. Genre fans love our genre apologists and Chabon is certainly one of the best. However, I've always found his genre work sluggish and unenjoyable.

If one were to pick between this and his other essay collection, Manhood for Amateurs, I would definitely pick the latter. Maps and Legends is always interesting but never particularly essential the way Manhood felt.

My review would probably be more glowing but I wanted those new to Chabon to get a feel for the reservations they should have about reading this first before his major works. To anyone who already enjoys Michael Chabon their enjoyment of this would be a near guarantee.
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on July 4, 2008
A friend presented me with this gorgeous book as a gift, and I found myself drawn in by the artwork, the layout, the traditional book binding. I've only read one Chabon novel, and, although I enjoyed the style of writing immensely, I wasn't a big fan of the story itself. Here, Chabon gives us an entirely different thing: essays into the nature of art, literary criticism, genres, and the places from which writers draw inspiration.

"Maps and Legends" can hardly be considered mainstream nonfiction. It's appeal may be to his fans and to those who pine for the days of short stories and comics and highly-regarded genre fiction. There is no doubting the man's skill and passion, though. Publishers Weekly seems to have an ax of their own to grind by slamming this collection as a bitter diatribe from a Pulitzer-winning author. I felt very little of that "bitterness"; instead, I found a lot of nostalgic ruminations and words of wisdom. Some of it is cautionary, some humorous, and much of it autobiographical.

I have to thank Chabon for writing about something dear to his heart, despite the perceptions of jaded critics. I may not always agree with the man's ideas, or buy into his stories, but I cannot help but admire his chutzpah--even if he'd rather I just called it "courage."
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on April 23, 2008
I agree in spirit with with comments chastising PW for the review, but overall I appreciate it more than I disapprove. Attempting to disprove Chabon's stance -- genre fiction deserves a good, strong defense -- the PW reviewer's snide effort complete with shells lobbed out of some book beau monde, the whole works merely bolsters his position. The subject isn't a job Chabon puts up for the purpose of building a empty argument: In the past, when I set out to write weighty material and still wound up framing it in genre, I was near mortified. I've gotten over that, but sometimes I still feel skittish browsing the science fiction aisle. I take responsibility for my own foolishness, but something happened along the way; in my youth I unselfconsciously inspected the fantastical spines of at least every third book on those shelves.

Since we are now so fond of the likes of Lost through Transformers -- our culture has indeed always loved these sorts of things -- while certain literary connoisseurs lament an apparently lame-brained passion for these genre entertainments, at the same time mourning the demise of wholesale American literacy, what's the plan for bringing people back to good books? Stomping out the fun stuff?

So, yes, I'd say we could use a bold defense of genre fiction, comic books and -- gasp! -- entertaining authors. A fiery "tirade" may well suit. And, my stars, please don't confuse "emphatic" or "adamant" with "bitter". Otherwise published in this volume, Chabon's short-form memoirs collected are a welcome addition to his catalog.
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on September 29, 2008
This is the first book that collects novelist Michael Chabon's essays originally written for a variety of publications and audiences across a decade or longer. It is a product of the Dave Eggers/McSweeney's publishing venture and like some of the other McSweeney products, proceeds go to benefit the 826 National project that funds tutoring, writing and reading programs for kids. How and why it came into being aside, it is strongly conceived and progresses lucidly through what emerges as a profound reflection on one writer's influences and inspirations. It's as if Chabon had set out to write a book like Stephen King's "On Writing," Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings," or even Sartre's "The Words."

The titular essay, "Maps and Legends," harks back to Chabon's childhood in the then newly minted city of Columbia, Maryland, before his parents divorced. He introduces the theme of landscape in the imagination, and the role of maps and legends--"legends" meaning "keys" to the maps but also presaging what he reveals about his early reading passions. "Maps and Legends" is the second essay in the chronological order; the first is Chabon's complaint that literary fiction has come down to plotless, moment-of-truth fiction while science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, ghost stories, comics and other forms are automatically denigrated as "genre" and waved off the bus. Accordingly, all of the essays taken altogether make a serious case for the art of entertainment and the empowerment of imagination. They also offer up a look at how Chabon came to write his own stories, especially under the influence of legends ranging from the Norse gods to golems.

A word of praise is due the cover artist. The hardcover dust jacket is shortened, textless, and has a hole in the middle of the front. The jacket itself is all illustration filled with the creatures that haunt myths and legends. Chabon's name is embossed on the area not covered by the jacket, rising over this imaginary landscape, and the title appears through the hole. Take a look at the "acknowledgments" page, too, for an original non-verbal rendering.
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on June 7, 2008
I eagerly awaited Michael Chabon's first book of essays. Many of these had been published before, but I had never read any. This is a collection of essays defending the writing of genre fiction. In Chabon's view, a serious writer who embarks on writing science fiction, comic books, or ghost stories is doomed to scorn and ridicule. Presumably the scorners are academics and professional reviewers.

In some quarters, this book has been dismissed as bitter ranting. Certainly, there is some bitterness (although with Chabon's success, I am not sure why he seems to take the bigotry personally) but I think there is also too much wisdom here to dismiss so easily. In the end, I think Chabon makes his point effectively.

There are also some wonderful insights into how Chabon came to write many of his popular novels. Also, I loved his perspective on golems, which figured so prominently in Kavalier and Clay.

I believe this book will have great appeal to most Michael Chabon fans. Those not familiar with his major works may be a bit lost as to what the hubbub is about. Even then, the essays have a good deal of appeal, because I think most readers will realize the discrimination Chabon claims is true.
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on April 26, 2009
The world of fiction is sometimes depicted as two warring territories. The land of literary fiction is a serious country, emphasizing art over readability, with a seriousness that borders on pretentiousness. The land of genre fiction is filled with mere entertainments such as mysteries, science fiction and horror. It is the nation of fluff, not worthy of serious discussion. To the high-brow literary critic, it is the difference between the ivory tower and the slums or a fine meal and fast food. On the other side, the genre fan finds literary fiction to be tedious and laden with intellectual snobbery.

The reality is that these two territories actually overlap quite a bit. In these borderlands, Michael Chabon has provided some guidance in Maps and Legends, a collection of essays about various pieces of fiction. Chabon may be regarded by many as a literary writer, but his heart is clearly with genre fiction as well. His latest novels clearly show this: The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a cross between mystery and science fiction; Gentlemen of the Road is adventure fiction in the style of Robert E. Howard.

Among the topics of discussion are Sherlock Holmes, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and comic books. Chabon's affection for genre material is evident most notably in the first essay, "Trickster in a Suit of Light", which laments the decline of the genre short story.

What is the purpose of fiction? As with non-fiction, the purpose will vary with the person, and even with the person, it will vary based on time and mood. All writing can educate, provoke or entertain (solely or in combination). Chabon does all three with Maps and Legends and shows that he can write essays as well as he can write stories.
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on January 9, 2009
Let me start by saying that this is the coolest cover and dust jacket ever. There are actually three overlapping jackets, each with its own setting, and when you peel them back you'll find knights, zombies, and fairies hidden behind rocks and trees. Physically, this is now the most beautiful book I own.

Michael Chabon's known for his fiction, but Maps and Legends, his new essay collection, is unbridled genre apologism, and a breath of fresh air for a speculative writer (and reader) like myself. Chabon argues for the right to be entertained as a reader, as he finds much of "contemporary fiction" a bit dry. How many first-person autobiographical accounts of family drama and mental illness do we need? What happened to plots?! He champions writers who brave the "Borderlands" between mainstream and "genre fiction" (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, etc.), individuals like Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Cormac MacCarthy, and John Fowles, who are often unfortunately lumped with the most banal sci-fi in your local bookstore.

Publisher's Weekly recently ripped into Maps and Legends, labeling Chabon "bitter and defensive" and harshly predicting that "only his fellow comic-book lovers will be interested in his tirade." Which is a strange criticism, considering how few of the essays in Maps and Legends actually deal with comics.

Topics and authors covered include Sherlock Holmes, Norse mythology, Pullman's His Dark Materials, golems, MacCarthy's The Road, and the life and death of Will Eisner. Chabon's voice is playful throughout; you can feel his enthusiasm and passion. It's easy to get infected by his childlike delight in stories of adventure and imagination. Later essays get more personal, as Chabon explains how comics, science-fiction, mystery, and fantasy influenced his own work as a writer.

If you've never read any speculative fiction, Publisher's Weekly may be right: you won't find much of interest here. But if you have, you'll likely be as delighted as me to hear a respected, Pulitzer-winning author defend the reputation of genre fiction. At the end of this collection, I was both inspired to keep writing speculative fiction, and hopeful about its future in mainstream publishing.
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on July 14, 2008
In my opinion, Michael Chabon is one of the elite writers of our time. I buy his books as soon as they come out, and usually I get very sad as I near the end, because he writes so well that I just want the story to go on forever. Maps and Legends is a collection of mostly previously published nonfiction that covers a whole range of ideas and topics. And it serves as a reminder of what good prose can do, no matter the genre.

The initial piece is likely the most famous, the strident defense of genre fiction that first appeared in issue 10 of McSweeney's. While I agree with much of Chabon's assertions about genre fiction, both in this essay and others, I think what seems to be missing is the obvious: good writing will/should trump genre conventions. While the writing of China Mieville may not be quite mainstream, it has a chance to break through because he writes so well. The reason that a lot of the pulp fiction of which Chabon is so fond gets no respect is because it honestly isn't all that good. However, his appeal that divisions in genre be eradicated and all fiction in the bookstore be shelved together makes some sense to me, and it is welcome to read.

Insightful essays on Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, M.R. James, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have stuck with me, and I will have to read more by these authors in the near future. His review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road does so much more than review the book; it offers a perspective on apocalyptic fiction, and its place within literary fiction as opposed to science fiction.

In `Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner,' Chabon shies away from listing accomplishments and hagiography, and instead focuses on the more overlooked aspect of Eisner's work: his savvy as a businessman. And his personal history with his first novel and his unfinished second novel make for compelling reads. In each case, his sharp and melodious prose make these essays seem like stories, yet one never gets the sense that Chabon's actual voice is lost to the voice of Chabon the narrator.

The book itself is beautifully produced as well. The cover contains a large gold `X' with the title printed across it, and Chabon's name sits at the top with the `O' a moon. Three dust jackets, each with a different magical scene are layered, creating a provocative scene individually and collectively. And the pages are acid free and quite thick, as most of the books published by McSweeney's are.

Though one may not always agree with the stances Chabon makes in these essays, Maps and Legends is required reading for any fan of genre fiction. Though he just published two novels last year, I can hardly wait for the next. If you haven't sampled his fiction, please do yourself a favor and pick up Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or Kavalier & Clay the next time you are at a bookstore. You won't be disappointed.
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Although I read quite a lot, I've never been that interested in reading about writers or writing. I usually don't care too much about the person behind the words, and the more I learn about the process of getting those words into my hands, the less power the writing tends to have over me. That said, Michael Chabon could write the phonebook and I'd probably check it out -- his command of prose and genre are such that he could probably craft a pretty intriguing story out of the yellow pages. So, when I saw the stunningly beautiful cover of this collection of essays, I picked it up and brought it home, completely unconcerned with the contents. The essays (many of which appeared previously in such publications as the New York Review Of Books,McSweeney's, Civilization, and Architectural Digest) fall into a few broad and sometimes overlapping categories: reviews/appreciations, in defense of genre, and influences his own work. In the first category are eloquent pieces on Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy trilogy, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Ben Katchor's graphic novel Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, Howard Chaykin's comic American Flagg!, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, M.R. James' ghost stories, D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, and comics legend Will Eisner. Actually, that list gives one a pretty good sense of just why Chabon has been so gung-ho about championing genre literature, as he does in several essays here. I've always agreed with his belief that genre writers tend to be critically marginalized, so none of his arguments were particularly fresh to me. However, for someone who's never really thought about it, they're probably the most articulate defense of genre available. Some may find his tone on this subject a little strident for their taste, but it never really rubbed me the wrong way (although, again, I agree with him). Finally, the essays about the genesis of his own books are excellent -- although probably better appreciated once you've read the books themselves. On the whole, the book is best for existing fans of Chabon, although most avid readers will discover individual essays that appeal to them.
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