An Autobiographical Trip through Kavalier and Clay

June 30, 2010 at 10:59 am (Reflection) ()

I have a theory about fiction. It started as a theory about Pixar movies, but I’ve since expanded it to encompass all published fiction in all media. And that theory is this: every piece of fiction is uniquely attuned to certain people, in specific ways that do not apply more broadly.

This isn’t to say that other people can’t enjoy fiction that isn’t attuned to them. Millions of people loved Wall-E. But Wall-E wasn’t specifically attuned to millions of people. It was made for people like my friend Anika, who loves robot romances and environmentalism, and my friend Becky, who loves dystopian post-apocalyptic futures and Hello, Dolly. My friends’ specific and seemingly-random combinations of interests brought them extra joy as they watched Wall-E, even as millions of other moviegoers had a perfectly fine time enjoying the animation and the love story and the socially conscious fable. Wall-E was made for everyone, but it was especially made for Anika and Becky.

So when I say that Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was made for me, I’m not denying its universal appeal. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, after all. Many, many people love it, and deservedly so. But my own unique combination of interests and hobbies and fascinations were so well-represented in the novel that I can’t, at this moment, imagine a piece of fiction more closely attuned to me, specifically.

When I was in elementary school, I discovered stage magic. I don’t know what came first — watching magic specials on television, or seeing a box of tricks in a store. Most likely I first learned about magic from a clown or puppet show at a birthday party or community event. But whatever the impetus, I became absolutely fascinated with stage magic, and decided I would be a magician when I grew up. I bought myself a plastic top hat and wand and a dozen pre-packaged tricks to learn, wore my hand-me-down, poufy-sleeved, black “David Copperfield” blouse, and performed magic for anyone who would stand still long enough. When I attended a week-long Girl Scout summer camp with a talent show theme, I eschewed the singing and dancing and piano-playing of my peers and instead performed my tricks for the audience of parents who gathered for our end-of-camp talent spectacular. By the end of elementary school I’d mostly left magic behind, having realized I lacked most of the things necessary for a stage magician (like grace and speed and charisma and a good poker face), but bits of my fascination remain.

In fourth grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank for a talented and gifted extra-curricular class. It was the first time I’d ever heard about the Holocaust, and I found myself both horrified and fascinated. I became passionate about learning all I could, in the hopes that I could pass on my knowledge to others and promote a more accepting world that wouldn’t forget the weight of our sad history. I read every bit of Holocaust memoir and fiction I could get my hands on, including The Devil in Vienna, an epistolary novel about two best friends (one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi) torn apart by the war, which remains one of my favorite books to this day. My interest in that period of history — indeed, in the entire World War II era, worldwide — never faded, and later experiences (a visit to a concentration camp during a summer trip to Europe, a college course on texts and images of the Holocaust) only deepened my knowledge and fascination.

Fourth grade was also significant as the year I fell in love with New York City. I grew up in central New Jersey, in a commuter town with a view of New York across the bay on clear days, but, since my parents were diehard suburbanites who hated the city, it may as well have been across the country. It took plenty of begging and pleading for me to convince my parents to let me visit the city, and finally, after I sacrificed a tenth birthday party in exchange, my parents drove me into New York to see my first Broadway show, Cats. It was all downhill from there. Over the years I became more and more interested in Broadway, and thus had more and more reason to enter the city; meanwhile, I fell in love with fiction that took place in New York, from the movie Newsies to Broadway’s RENT. Even as repeated visits made New York more and more real to me (to the point where, now, I often do nothing more in the city than sit in diners and Starbucks with friends all day), it remained a magical, magnetic attraction, the site of all my fantasies and the setting of all my most beloved stories.

In seventh grade, I read Hatchet, the classic middle grades novel about one boy’s survival in the wilderness following a plane crash. This is the moment I most clearly remember developing a strong interest in survival stories, the stories of unprepared individuals trying to survive in harsh conditions without modern comforts. But perhaps that interest had always been there, from the Dear America and American Girl books about surviving on the prairie, middle school games of Oregon Trail, and that Baby-Sitters Club Super Special where they got stranded on a desert island off the coast of Connecticut. Either way, I knew at that moment that I would always love survival stories, and I actively sought them out in other fiction.

Toward the end of eighth grade, my friend Nick came out of the closet. Over the next few years, almost all of my male friends (of which I had quite a few) followed suit, as did a number of my female friends. As a result, I found myself very involved in the gay rights movement — or as involved as a teenager can be. I helped my friends organize observances of the Day of Silence, launched a gay-straight alliance (which, sadly, was mostly a failure), and wrote articles for the school newspaper about the importance of gay rights legislation. My activism carried through college, where I was a member of the Pride Alliance, and continues to this day; if someone were to call me a single-issue voter, gay rights would be that issue. And in the course of all this activism, I realized how important it is for fictional worlds to be populated with gay characters, characters my friends might identify with. I began to read tons of gay fiction, actively yearning and campaigning for more gay characters in more mainstream media, while also reading up on the history of the gay rights movement, becoming particularly intrigued by pre-Stonewall gay lives. (In college, I took a much-beloved class on the American 1950s, and my final paper addressed the topic of gay lives in 1950s America, particularly in the suburbs.)

Finally, in the middle of college, I discovered comic books. And what started as a passing interest soon turned into a life-changing, all-consuming obsession. I fell in love with Captain America, and wound up writing my undergrad senior thesis about his cultural impact. I made dozens of new friends, some of whom are among my best friends, and began blogging, becoming a part of the comic book community. And eventually, I realized that studying comics — alongside other media — was something I wanted to make a career out of. I applied to grad school in media and cultural studies, and I’ll be heading there in a little over a month to start a PhD program. Though I don’t have any real desire to make comics myself, I’m fascinated by both the craft and the cultural impact of the books, and I love learning about the history of the medium and talking to creators about their work. Though I’ve only been reading comics for four years now, I’m quite content with my plan to devote much of my life to studying them.

So when I read a book in which the New York setting is almost a character unto itself, featuring as protagonists a magician character threatened by the Holocaust and a gay character threatened by homophobia, who together create comic books during World War II about a superhero similar to Captain America, and who later must survive an Antarctic wilderness and 1950s comformist suburbia, respectively, is it any wonder I would come away from the story thinking “this book, this was written just for me”? With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon has written my Wall-E, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Baby’s First Audiobook Experience

January 22, 2010 at 10:00 am (Review) ()

Last weekend, I visited my very good friend Caroline, a car trip that took 5 1/2 hours each way to complete. In preparation (and because my iPod car adapter had died and I don’t have many unscratched CDs) I decided to try out my very first audiobooks.

In general, I’m not a terribly good aural learner. Part of this is just a lack of exposure to aural information; my parents never listened to talk radio, so I grew up believing that audio devices were for music only. I’m probably the only nerd in America who had never heard of NPR before college. But part of it is just my natural inclinations; I took enough education classes to know that different people learn in different ways, and I’ve always gotten more out of the written word than the spoken one. I have a short attention span, and my mind tends to drift — something that isn’t a problem in a choose-your-own-speed medium like reading, but can be a big problem during a lecture or radio show where I can easily miss important words and sentences.

Within the last few years, though, I’ve begun to listen to a few podcasts, primarily in the comic book field — iFanboy, Word Balloon, War Rocket Ajax — and listening to those podcasts has helped me to refine my listening skills while allowing me to compensate for the times my mind still drifts (the rewind function on an iPod is a wonderful thing). So, knowing how much I’ve come to enjoy podcasts, and how much I enjoy books, I decided it was about time I picked up an audiobook.

My choices were limited to my library’s tiny collection, so I was unable to pick up some of the audiobooks friends had recommended, like David Sedaris’ and Sarah Vowell’s self-read collections. Ultimately, I settled on a fully-dramatized audio of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, a play Caroline has been enjoying of late, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, the newest short story collection from one of my favorite authors. You probably couldn’t find two more disparate books, but I thought that was appropriate, because they allowed me to experience different ends of the audiobook spectrum.

Henry IV was my first listen, and it had both its pros and cons. On the one hand, much like stage and screen productions of Shakespeare, the audiobook helped me to follow the story without stumbling over the language. My experience with the text of Shakespeare’s plays is often a slow and plodding one, as I feel compelled to understand every line, using all available footnotes and glossaries. With the audiobook, the actors’ expressive voices clarified unfamiliar turns of phrase, and if I didn’t understand a section of dialogue I was able to move on without tarrying over it, knowing I’d be able to gather all the necessary information from context clues. I only rewound a few sections of the play, and these were all due to driving distractions, since not veering off the road generally took precedence over listening to Falstaff’s boasts.

Unfortunately, without visually-differentiable actors or helpfully-labeled lines of dialogue, it was sometimes difficult to figure out who was talking at any given time. Most of the voices were distinct, and context helped with others, but there were quite a few scenes — an early exchange between Hal and Poins, for instance, or even the climactic fight-to-the-death between Hal and Hostpur — during which I honestly couldn’t tell whose lines were whose. I’m glad I was able to listen to the play, and follow the basic plot, but I know I’ll have to read it or see a stage production before I truly feel that I’ve grasped its intricacies. I’ll likely listen to more Shakespeare on audio in the future, but I may choose to stick to those plays I’ve already read or seen, to avoid the pitfalls I found here.

Unaccustomed Earth was a different matter entirely. Jhumpa Lahiri’s clean, descriptive prose worked wonderfully in audio, engaging me enough that my mind rarely wandered — though in this case, I usually preferred to rewind after a distraction than plod on through, since her language is so great that it would be a shame to miss a single word. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the audio over the written word was the presence of the readers. Jhumpa Lahiri is Indian-American, and her stories chronicle the experiences of Indian and Indian-American characters with depth and authenticity — which means that Indian names, words, and phrases are all present in her work. Though I can usually muddle through reading these words with my own invented pronunciations, I very much enjoyed hearing them spoken properly by the readers, Ajay Naidu and Sarita Choudhury, a man and a woman of Indian descent who read for male and female points of view, respectively. These readers also used accents when reading the dialogue spoken by first-generation immigrants, allowing me to hear their voices authentically, without American accents that would ring false or fake, stereotypical Indian ones provided by white actors. All of this combined to create an experience much truer to the prose than my own reading could ever have produced, and while I only managed to listen to half of the stories in the collection during my trip, I plan to listen to the rest as well before I buy the paper book.

The one small disadvantage of the audiobook — if you can call it a disadvantage — was the way in which it carried me along with the story in the proper order without allowing me to take a peek at the end. I don’t always spoil myself for novels and stories, but there are times, during tense moments, when I like to check to make sure things work out satisfactorily before I continue. There’s one such moment in the fourth story in the collection, “Only Goodness,” and I found myself itching to read a few pages ahead, just to make sure something awful wasn’t going to happen (it didn’t, thankfully). In that sense, the audiobook is much more like a movie than a paper book is, forcing me along its dictated path and pacing unless I choose to go through the hassle of blind and imprecise fastforwarding and rewinding.

Overall, I can’t imagine myself turning to audiobooks in great numbers — they’re great for driving, but without something to do with my hands and eyes I’m sure I’d be much more easily distracted. I can’t imagine sitting in my room with an audiobook playing when there are perfectly good written words filling my bookshelves. Still, I’m glad I gave audiobooks a chance, and I look forward to using them to pass the time during future journeys.

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Books and Reading Meme

April 20, 2009 at 8:35 am (Meme) ()

I’ve seen this meme floating around (most recently at my good friend Caroline’s new blog), and, in the interest of sharing more about myself with my readers, as well as creating more content for this blog, I figured I’d fill it out myself.

1. What author do you own the most books by?

To get this out of the way, first and foremost: I read a lot of children’s and YA fiction. My favorites from childhood are still some of my favorites to this day. I went to Princeton, I majored in English, I’ve read and enjoyed the grown-up classics. But this list is liable to include literature meant for readers under the age of 15.

So the answer to this first question is K.A. Applegate, author of the Animorphs series. I own every book, and between the regular series and all the specials, that’s over 60.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?

I… don’t buy multiple copies of books? I honestly can’t think of a single book I own multiple copies of, and if I do, it’s not on purpose.

Oh, wait, I own two copies of The Devil in Vienna, because my copy was falling apart and my library was selling its copy. So, that.

3. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Secretly? I pretty openly confess to all of my fictional crushes. I mean, I don’t think there’s a straight woman alive who isn’t in love with Mr. Darcy, right?

4. What book have you read more than any other?

Oh, this is tough. I’m not a big re-reader. Probably The Devil in Vienna, a fictionalized Holocaust memoir for young adults, told in the letters and diary entries of two friends (one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi official) torn apart by the war.

5. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

I really can’t remember. Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger, perhaps? If we go to an even younger age, my favorite book was Mrs. Peloki’s Class Play, a picture book about a 3rd grade class putting on a production of Cinderella.

6. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Worst? I don’t think I’ve read any books that were bad. I’ve read books I didn’t enjoyThe Faerie Queene, for instance — but I’m not calling Edmund Spenser’s hugely influential romantic poem bad.

I did find myself seriously underwhelmed by David Lubar’s Dunk, my students’ summer reading assignment that I read over the summer. It was a YA book about a New Jersey kid’s summer on the boardwalk and desire to be the clown in the dunk tank, which should have been right up my alley, but it was full of cheap characterization shortcuts and the ending was far too neat for the conflicts set up. Plus, I seriously disagreed with its overall belief that making fun of people is in any way empowering or appropriate.

7. What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

That is HARD. I’ll cheat and say that the combination of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies inspired me to start writing a book of interconnected short stories, because those (very different) books showed me just how well such a thing can be done.

That said, I’m in the middle of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay right now, so my answer could change in a few weeks.

8. If you could tell everyone reading this to read one book, what would it be?

I’m not sure I could universally recommend any one book to everyone — there are some people who are bound to hate whatever I choose, based on probability alone.

However, I will say that The Sun Also Rises is worth a shot for pretty much anyone. If you already like Hemingway, you’ll love this, and if you hate Hemingway (as I did before reading this novel), you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. It’s pretty much my favorite book — in the top 5, at least — and I never would have anticipated that.

9. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

I’m not sure I’m a good judge of that. I’m pretty confident I could read any book put before me, and if I struggled it would be due more to disinterest than difficulty. I suppose I had some difficulty with the language in The Faerie Queene, and it was pretty difficult to follow the bizarre structure of Pale Fire, but that’s the closest I can think of.

10. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

I… honestly don’t think I’ve ever read anything by either. I read Brits and Americans almost exclusively, because I find that translated work almost never works for me. No matter how competent the translator is, I feel like something’s missing.

11. Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer?

Shakespeare! I appreciate Milton’s skill, but I can’t honestly say I was engaged by Paradise Lost, and Chaucer is fun in classes but not something I’m going to pick up for pleasure reading. However, I would read the complete works of any of those three before I would ever read another word of Spenser.

12. Austen or Eliot?

I’ve never read Eliot, and I love Austen to death, and this is therefore the easiest question on this whole meme.

13. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I have… some pretty huge gaps for someone with an Ivy League degree in this stuff. Like, poetry, in general, which I’ve never been particularly into. And the aforementioned French and Russians.

14. What is your favorite novel?

I’ve already mentioned both my nostalgic favorite, The Devil in Vienna, and my other favorite, The Sun Also Rises, so I’ll take this opportunity to give love to Great Expectations. I ❤ Dickens.

15. Play?

Oh, that’s tough. Othello is my favorite Shakespeare, probably, though Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing come close. And as far as non-Shakespeare plays go, I recently read and fell in love with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I absolutely adore The Crucible, so… too tough to call, really.

16. Poem?

I really don’t think I have one, since I’m not very interested in poetry. My favorite poetry tends to be of the witty and rhyming sort — limericks and such, Dorothy Parker, etc.

17. Essay?

I must have one. I know I must. But I’ll be damned if I can think of it right now.

18. Short Story?

Ack! Don’t make me choose. Short stories may be my favorite fictional medium. I could literally choose any of the stories in Bad Haircut or Interpreter of Maladies; I could choose all of Poe and O. Henry’s and Francesca Lia Block’s short form work; I could choose any number of fairy tale adaptations. Honestly, nothing stands out as an absolute best, and it would be a slight against all of my other favorites to choose one.

19. Non Fiction

I really don’t tend to read a lot of non-memoir nonfiction for pleasure, and much of what I read for school I had to skim because of time constraints. That said, the bits of Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America During the King Years that I read in a 1950s class were beautifully written and extremely informative about the Civil Rights Movement, and I eventually plan to read the whole thing. I’ve also really liked the bits of Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On that I’ve read.

20. Graphic Novel?

I’m going to take this as “favorite book best known as a graphic novel,” because I read way too many superhero comics to choose between them. So I’ll go with Maus, which was technically my first graphic novel, and is utterly brilliant.

21. Science Fiction?

Can the Animorphs series as a whole count? If it can’t, I’ll say The Andalite Chronicles, by far the best special novel in the series.

22. Who is your favorite writer?

You know, I thought about this for awhile, and though there are authors I love — Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tom Perrotta — the only author whose books I’ve read in a huge quantity that were not part of a series and that never once displeased me… is Roald Dahl. The man could do no wrong when it came to children’s fiction. (Runner up goes to Francesca Lia Block, whose prose shouldn’t work and yet always, always does.)

23. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

If I don’t like (or don’t think I’ll like) an author, I don’t read them, so I’m not really capable of judging what authors might be overrated.

24. What are you reading right now?

As mentioned before, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I’m amazed I haven’t read it before, as it contains pretty much all of my favorite literary topics: comic books, the Holocaust, and homosexuality. I’m about 100 pages in and adoring it so far, so we’ll see how it goes.

25. Best Memoir?

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, and I’m not sure I could choose between them. So I’ll go in a different direction and say Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, a wonderful story about childhood and baseball in the 1950s.

26. Best History?

Let’s just say Parting the Waters again, though if historical fiction counts I could probably come back with a pretty long list, as I spent most of my childhood reading that.

27. Best Mystery or Noir?

Very much not my genre. I… am not sure I could even name, off the top of my head, a mystery or noir story I’ve read, besides Farewell, My Lovely (which I disliked). Sorry!

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