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I Sailed with Magellan: Stories Paperback – September 9, 2004
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“Spellbinding stories that are, by turns, hilarious, stunning and tragic, but always deeply moving, genuine and compassionate.” ―Chicago Tribune
“Dream and memory, humor and pathos, song and silence: At his best Dybek combines these disparate elements in a shimmering web.” ―Newsday
“All are gems; each glistens with Dybek's spare poetry; combined, they form a vibrant mosaic about a boy's coming of age.... By Magellan's end, you'll never want to leave... [An] A.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“Vivid...With I Sailed With Magellan Dybek solidifies his reputation as the rightful heir to Farrell's gritty realism.” ―The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Stuart Dybek is the author of two collections of short fiction, The Coast of Chicago and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, as well as a volume of poetry, Brass Knuckles. A professor of English at Western Michigan University, he lives in Kalamazoo.
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No doubt much of it is based on the personal experiences of author Stuart Dybek, who was born in 1942 and grew up in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. Indeed, much of the book may well be personal memoir draped with but the thinnest of fictional garb. Still, it reads more like a novel (or a collection of inter-related stories) than like a memoir.
Those who are from Chicago and are now between the ages of 55 and 75 might treasure the book just a tad more than the rest of us, inasmuch as it features such places as Twelfth Street Beach, Sportsman's Park, the Rocks, Meigs Field, Douglas Park, the outdoor market on Maxwell Street, the Sanitary Canal, and the Baha'i Temple. (I certainly would treasure any novel half as good about Philadelphia - my hometown - during the same years.) But one need not be from Chicago to find the book special. What it has to say about memory, childhood and youth, and the human condition should speak to most, and especially to males who grew up in an urban, working-class setting.
The book abounds with lovable characters and with sparkling anecdotes. Among the former are Perry's father (whom he and his brother call "Sir" because one night while watching "Leave It to Beaver" he had said how nice it was that Wally and Beaver called their father "Sir"), his uncle Lefty who played the sax and the horses, his best friend Stosh, and his erstwhile girlfriend Laurel Elaine Levanto who left Perry stranded in the Fire Truck Graveyard after the high school prom. Among the anecdotes is this one about Denny "the Fish" Mihala: when the fourth-grade teacher Sister Philomena asked the class, "If birds come in flocks, and fish in schools, what other kinds of groupings can you name?", Denny eagerly answered, "A dozen donuts!"
The motif that struck home with me the most had to do with memory and nostalgia. Here is one such excerpt: "Who knows why certain humble objects - a bike, a sweater, a sled - are salvaged by memory or dream to become emblems of childhood? Childhood, an alternative universe expanding into forgetfulness, where memory rather than matter is the stuff of creation."
I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN is also noteworthy for its writing and craftsmanship. The stories are skillfully interwoven, and there are moments when Dybek's writing is brilliant, such as when he refers to a character gazing up at the nighttime sky, "aware that he was just another speck adrift in stardust on the absolute zero breath of God."
I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN (the title comes from a song Perry's brother Mick sang when they were kids) was published in 2004, which to my way of thinking still makes it contemporary fiction. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction. Maybe I should make a point of reading more, because I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN is first-rate literature. It easily is one of the ten best books I read in 2012.
"I Sailed with Magellan" is a fun, satisfying, often poignant and sometimes hilarious depiction of a lower middle class largely Polish immigrant community in Chicago in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The stories, mix of cultures and voices come across as authentic, engaging and relatable. While I'm just a bit younger than this era I found the family vignettes, angst and conflicts of growing up and the shared friendships and aspirations all rang true.
There is one particularly hysterical story about a high school marching band playing while being lead into what is clearly the wrong neighborhood: Warning not to read that in a library. The Prom date is very funny and the "we didn't do it" not love scene is simply brilliant. Collectively it all portrays Perry Katzik's life and neighborhood which I am assuming is highly autobiographical.
I'd give it 5 stars if the stories came together a bit more. Others may not see that as a weakness. I liked the writing. There are nice jumps in time that work, there are a few overly boyish dialogues that I could have done without but that are nonetheless true to life. I was particularly impressed by Stuart Dybek's story of a talented young female writer where he needs to write in her voice and show her talent while still speaking from Perry's perspective and voice. It worked for me. There was good contrast that left me wondering how do you do that?
Hope others enjoy it!