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Moonglow: A Novel Paperback – September 19, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of November 2016: In the days following the publication of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to California to sit by his dying grandfather, a typically taciturn and reserved man. But Dilaudid had loosened his tongue, and out came a torrent of remarkable stories of full of secrets, love, pain, sex, and regret. Chabon’s remarkable new “autobiographical novel” Moonglow is mined from, but not limited by, those conversations; as he states in his author’s note at the head of the book: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrating purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken … the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.” The result is a sprawling, yet intensely personal, paean to his grandparents, their lives together and as individuals. World War II and its atrocities cast long shadows, as does the Space Race and the titular moon, which hangs over the story as a bright dream of escape and a dark reminder of failed aspiration. Like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and especially The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Elegiac and deeply poignant ... Chabon weaves these knotted-together tales together into a tapestry that’s as complicated, beautiful and flawed as an antique carpet.... Chabon is one of contemporary literature’s most gifted prose stylists.... In Moonglow, he writes with both lovely lyricism and highly caffeinated fervor.” (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times)
“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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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.
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.
Inspired by an extended conversation Chabon had with his maternal grandfather over a week or two when the old man was dying in 1989, this is a fictionalized account of his grandfather's extraordinary life. (As other reviewers have noted, he never uses his grandfather's--or grandmother's--name.) Throughout, I couldn't help but wonder which parts were true, which speculative, and unless Chabon enlightens us, I imagine we'll never know.
His grandfather's story begins when he's a boy and follows him through young adulthood, military service during WWII, married life (to a beautiful but mentally ill woman from France), a stint in prison (introduced in the first chapter, so I'm not giving anything away) and through to old age, assisted living and death. Chabon weaves his own story and that of his other family members in and among his grandfather's, and what results a web of secrets. A common thread in his grandfather's story is his love of space travel and rocketry--the old man had been an engineer.
Chabon's characters are complex,flawed and multidimensional, which is what makes the book so interesting. There's not a huge "wow" factor, with lots of dramatic plot twists, though there are compelling events. If you enjoy literary fiction and family sagas, it's a safe bet you'll enjoy Moonglow.
Four and a half stars. A really excellent read.
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