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Moonglow: A Novel Hardcover – November 22, 2016
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“An exuberant meld of fiction and family history.... It’s the caliber of his writing-evocative sentences and indelible metaphors-that gives the novel its luster…. Moonglow prisms through a single life the desires and despair of the Greatest Generation, whose small steps and giant leaps continue to shape us all.” (Hamilton Cain, O Magazine)
“A wondrous book that celebrates the power of family bonds and the slipperiness of memory….A thoroughly enchanting story about the circuitous path that a life follows, about the accidents that redirect it, and about the secrets that can be felt but never seen, like the dark matter at the center of every family’s cosmos.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post)
“Mix[es] in generous dollops of meaning, a sprinkling of fancy metaphors and an abundance of beautiful sentences so that it becomes a rich and exotic confection. Too strict a recipe would have spoiled the charm of this layer cake of nested memories and family legends.… This book is beautiful.” (A.O. Scott, New York Times Book Review, cover review)
“A flamboyantly imaganitive work of fiction dressed in the sheep’s clothing of autobiography....His most confident and complex performance....Moonglow is a movingly bittersweet novel that balances wonder with lamentation.” (Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal)
“Like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and especially The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this is classic Chabon: an intensely personal story uplifted by the shifting tectonic plates of truth and memory, floating atop his inimitably crafted, sometimes audacious, always original prose.” (Jon Foro, The Amazon Book Review, Spotlight Pick)
“A poignant, engrossing triumph.” (People)
“An often rollicking, ultimately moving read. And like the song, it’s liable to stay with you.” (Heller McAlpin, NPR.org)
“Absolutely brilliant…. Stylistically and emotionally, Moonglow took our breath away over and over.” (iBooks Review)
“His prose is as luminous as ever.” (Entertainment Weekly)
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The writing has a touch of the genius. The story bounces back and forth in time but always in a way that works and isn't jarring. This grandfather was quite the guy--a stellar engineer who stalked Nazis in World War II, a man who spent time in prison for trying to kill his boss, a man who married a woman who already had a daughter and loved both until the day he died, a man who started and lost his own business(es), and a man who spent the last months of his life falling in love again while hunting a python. You just have to read it to really get it. And it's worth your time to read it--bizarre and strange and really odd though it is.
It's hard to summarize this novel, as the plot is not linear but instead darts back and forth across time and topic (despite, it should be said, the grandfather's explicit plea to "put the whole thing in proper chronological order"). At its most basic, it is the description of the last days of Chabon's grandfather's life, wherein he suddenly begins divulging aspects of his history that Chabon had not heard before. The bulk of the memoir concerns three major narrative threads: the grandfather's wartime experiences, where he was tasked with hunting down everything and everyone associated with the German's rocketry program after Hitler's collapse and before the Russians could take custody of the material; the fraught relationship between Chabon's grandparents, especially with respect to dealing with his grandmother's mental illness; and the period shortly before Chabon's grandfather's death, when he finds himself falling in love again.
However, describing the novel in these terms really does not do justice to the narrative layers and complexity of the issues Chabon grapples with. The description of Mittelbau, the concentration camp constructed by the Nazis devoted to building V-2 rockets, will haunt me for a long time, and Chabon's discussion of Werner von Braun's apparently fully cognizant role in this camp culminates in the painful conclusion that America's "ascent to the moon had been made with a ladder of bones."
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the novel was the deep---and completely unwarranted--sense of failure and despair that Chabon's grandfather seems to have carried throughout his life, as expressed in this passage: "All my life, everything I tried, I only got halfway there. You try to take advantage of the time you have... But when you're old, you look back and you see all you did with that time is waste it. All you have is a story of things you never started or couldn't finish." It saddens me to think that he never recognized the strength of his character and all the remarkable things he accomplished, not least of which was loyalty to his wife under circumstances where many would be tempted to give up and walk away.
I think "Moonglow" is one of the best novels I have read in years, and I hope this review does not deter anybody from reading it. My description is admittedly rather bleak, but while the book does delve into serious topics and describes heartbreaking events, it would be a mistake to think that it is relentlessly depressing. Much humor abounds, especially involving the character of Uncle Ray, a man for whom the adjective "rascally" was seemingly invented, who takes custody of Chabon's mother when the grandparents were institutionalized. And even though the subject matter is often disturbing or depressing, the beauty of Chabon's prose makes reading the book immensely worthwhile. I found myself dog-earing numerous passages that resonated deeply with me, such as this one where Chabon notes that during the war, his grandfather "was accustomed by now to feeling grateful that when death settled like a flock of birds around him, it was other men and not him on whom it perched. This gratitude never had anything to do with happiness."
Other reviewers have opined that this novel, while excellent, does not quite live up to some of Chabon's earlier Pulitzer prize-winning novels. I cannot attest to the validity of that opinion, because I must confess that this is the first book by Chabon (but by no means will be the last!) that I have ever read. What I *will* say is that if Chabon has written books that are even better than "Moonglow," he must surely be one of greatest writers of our time.
Mike's Grandfather goes through his life addressing the current crisis instead of using his genius to move forward and build the things of his dreams. The great irony of the novel is that he formulates his greatest success while he is in prison, where there are no crises to address and ample time to think and plan.
This is a brilliant book. it is panoramic in scope. It extends from World War II through the late 1980s. Through its tale telling, it shows the reader how life in America changed. America before the war and after the war are very different places. The challenges facing the family at the center of the novel, reflect the changing nature of the country they lived in.
The most consistent metaphor of this novel is the Grandfather's relationship with the US Space program. As a young man, he fell in love with rocketry. As an intelligence officer in Europe during the War, he tries to capture Wernher Von Braun, the German rocketry pioneer. But when reaches the scene of Von Braun's headquarters, he realizes that the Program has been built by slave labor. He is horrified by what he finds. For the rest of his life, he is in constant turmoil over his love of the idea of space versus the reality that " the descent to the moon had been made on a ladder of bones."
Such conflicts make "Moonglow" an very readable and sadly beautiful novel. I highly recommend it.
Top international reviews
Early on in the book, Chabon’s narrator says: “To claim or represent that I retain an exact or even approximate recollection of what anyone said so long ago would be to commit the memoirist’s great sin.” Is the author toying with us? It would seem so because what we have here, weaving in and out of different timelines, are stories and dialogue that are ‘recalled’ with crystal clarity: the grandfather’s spell in prison, his end-of-wartime exploits as part of an intelligence unit sent to track down the cream of Germany’s rocket scientists and spirit them to the States before the Russians can get their hands on them. (The grandfather - a passionate follower of the space programme and an inspired engineer himself - might even have been a rocket man in another life.) He recounts the story of how he met the narrator’s grandmother, a French refugee with terrible memories leading to profound mental illness. When the narrator, as a young boy, asks why his grandma owns a deck of fortune-telling cards, is it because she is a witch? She replies, “Not anymore.” But she certainly bewitches the grandfather who cares for her deeply. When they first meet, she is already the mother of a young daughter. The grandfather, whose name we never learn, has no blood tie to the narrator at all.
This is a book with tremendous heart: a serenade to family told with Michael Chabon’s customary command and into which he effortlessly injects his own natural warmth and good humour. Despite Chabon’s flagrant flouting of the grandfather’s exhortation to: “Put the whole thing in chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you”, the style reflects an old man’s wandering reminiscences. Moonglow is woven with great tales and dotted with brilliant characters - none more so than the grandfather with whom I ended up quite in love. I would imagine that on book tours this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer must be asked incessantly: “How much of Moonglow is true?” But does it matter? And if this really is a memoir, how I envy the author because the plain fact is that by the time most of us become interested in our family history, it’s too late to get the answers to our questions. Chabon got lucky. So are the readers who love his books.
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me all kinds of tales. Tales from the war, tales about my grandad, tales from his national service, tales about my great grandad.
He was a young farmer’s lad in Bramley during the second world war and his wartime tales were like Ealing comedies, full of bobbies being bribed, Heinkels crashing in Bramley fall woods, the crew being captured by the local toughs and pigs being traded for booze and cigarette rations.
His stories about my great grandad captivated me the most though. In a wheelchair for most of his life, my great grandad had fought in the Crimean war and was present and correct in the charge of the light brigade. His legs were destroyed by a Russian cannon and he spent the rest of his life without legs. I was spellbound.
These stories entered into the canon of our family history and became inextricably linked to my life: they were true. As I grew older I knew my dad had the propensity to embellish as story and I’m sure that I have inherited his skill, as have most of us. We’d roll our eyes and chuckle as a breakdown in the snow would turn into an escapade worthy of John Buchan’s 39 Steps on its umpteenth telling.
So in recent years when I found out, purely by chance, that my great grandad didn’t lose his legs in the Crimea but in an accident falling off a wall in Stanningley, I smiled. I thought about the intricate stories my dad had weaved over the years, and instead of thinking about the truth of his tales, what's real and what's made up, I relaxed and accepted the delicate balance between truth and fiction we all have to achieve to some degree.
It was with this mindset I approached this book. Pitched as kind of memoir initially, I was comfortable from the off to read this as a work of pure fiction with some factual stuff thrown in for good measure.
Moonglow is a wonderful read – engaging and emotional in so many ways. Characters I cared about from the off, delicately woven together and completely believable. The device of broken timelines normally annoys me but was totally acceptable in this instance, piecing together the lives lived and the experiences were vividly portrayed.
The grandfather was superbly complex and utterly convincing -- and his relationship with his wife was tender, real and drew me right in. Every other character in the book orbited around this relationship like the heavenly bodies he worshipped so dearly — in a way they were the centre of their own firmament.
The second world war chapters of the book were entirely absorbing and beautifully told, the premise of hunting Von Braun was a masterstroke and his subsequent journey across Germany was fabulous. Incredibly vivid imagery still linger such as the German boy on the motorcycle.
As if that wasn’t enough, Chabon followed on from WW2 with moon exploration and model making! This book ticked a lot of boxes for me, given my obsession as a child with the second world war, space exploration and model making. He even mentions ‘kit bashing’ – which is very niche model making terminology, referring to how early movie spaceships models were made. Lovely.
And yet the author told the story carefully and patiently, revealing bit by bit the implications of the actions of the grandfather and instead of a source of frustration, the dislocated narrative drew me in, revealing answers to questions, allowing me to piece it all together. Although the grandfather wished for his story to be told in chronological order, the author’s decision to mix it up is the right one.
I loved the grandfather’s quote which went along the lines of ‘all of this is true, at least to the best of my memory’ and this is the reason why this book is so successful. It wears it factuality very lightly and I wasn’t tempted once to check the historical accuracy of the story. At times it reminded me of the way William Boyd effortlessly weaves in real characters from history into his fictional narratives.
I’ll stop now because I could write about this book for a very long time and I’m aware a long written review can be a pain, so I’ll apologise in advance. Moonglow is one of the best books we’ve read in book club, enjoyable in itself (how the hell did we manage that??) and nourishing because it got me thinking about my life, my family and the people in it.
Now that Bellow is dead and Roth retired, Chabon steps up to be the new bard of the Jewish experience in America. Going beyond his previous efforts to capture the zeitgeist, Chabon produces his best work since, well, his last novel, Telegraph Avenue. No one except Franzen writes such accessible, big novels.
This 'biography' of Chabon's 'grandfather' is a stunning piece of whimsy, the tale of a cranky old genius that grips and surprises throughout. It is also a bizarre take on the Jewish belief or non-belief in God, the Holocaust and masculinity. Some critics would prefer Chabon to be more serious and not so flip, but he manages to make telling observations and convey ideas while making the reader flip the page. That he is now the heavyweight champion of quality American Jewish prose seems to me to be beyond dispute, if you count this, Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys, Telegraph Avenue and The Yiddish Policeman's Union into account.
Its a long, hairy novel, full of time switches and strange incidents. The prose is great; sparkling but not as showy as he can write. But I enjoyed it all and can see why it is up for literary prizes.
Whatever. Chabon is a brilliant writer. Whatever he writes, I can't put down once I start reading. Another reviewer describes him as the new American heavyweight novelist and while I see what this is meant to say I feel that Chabon's writing is so light, fluid and immediate that the word heavy ought not to go in the same place with it.
Also, the Grandfather whose story is told (whether he is Chabon's grandfather or a fictional one hardly matters) is a fascinating man who I would love to have met. And he and the Grandmother and the mother and the narrator and all the incidental characters are all people I feel the richer for having met even if only on the page.
Also the history, made personal, of the war against Hitler, the life of Jews in America, the space programme, the atrocities and the memories that came back from that war and that appalling era is yet again made new. The story of how some people tried to make sense of their lives after going through these things is riveting, gripping and harrowing, moving, tender, matter of fact and I could go on but I can't do justice. Just read it.