Moonglow by Michael Chabon – Review

Book Cover - Moonglow

“On a clear night in blacked-out countryside, in between bomber runs, when the tracer fire ceased and the searchlights went dark, the stars did not fill the sky so much as coat it like hoarfrost on a windowpane. You looked up and saw The Starry Night, he told me; you realized that Van Gogh was a realist painter.”

When Michael Chabon explores a character, he doesn’t just wander across the surface of their minds: he goes spelunking, exploring nooks and crannies of their psyches that most wouldn’t think to poke inside. The result is a collection of richly drawn people who are unlike anyone you’ve known yet are intimately familiar.

In ‘Moonglow’, Chabon tells the deathbed confessions of his grandfather. Well, sort of. Most of these confessions are fabrications. The opening epigraph clues the reader in, if they are paying attention, that they are being toyed with: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” This is attributed to Wernher Von Braun, the aerospace engineer and Nazi who was instrumental in launching the United States to the moon – it’s actually a Pink Floyd quote.

Stubbornness in the face of horror: spitting in the eye of the world and living in spite of it.

Chabon doesn’t construct his novel’s characters with cold Freudian logic – there isn’t a simple explanation for why Michael’s grandfather is so stubborn, for example, such as truculence stemming from childhood abuse; nor is there an easy answer for why this same grandfather dropped a kitten out of a window as a child. He had an instinct and followed it with disastrous consequences like most of us have at some moment or another. His past has impacted him, but not in the ways that might be intuitive. This is one of the reason’s Mike’s grandmother is the most fascinating character in the book:

She was a vessel built to hold the pain of her history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked out through the crack.

She’s a haunted woman. Something happened to her during World War 2, as she proclaimed Jewish heritage and the numbers tattooed on her skin signify, but we are never sure exactly what. We hear stories, but, as with much of this book, the narrator is deeply unreliable. After all, she’s mad; however, it’s a madness borne of survival, a way to navigate a world which never gave her coherence or stability anyway. As a result, she is an enigma with a grasp on the truth which is fluid; lies must seem a small sin compared to what she saw as a young woman.

While the world’s tragedies sometimes almost cause him to break, he remains fundamentally himself: curious, stoic, and unyielding over what he believes is best. If you met this man on the street he would be a difficult person to appreciate, but Chabon’s gift lies in sifting through the detritus of human minds and finding the pearls – moments of compassion, frustration, joy – which can make you love someone even if they are, to put it politely, imperfect. You may not have made the same decisions as Mike’s grandfather during World War 2, but you damn well understand why he made them.

Chabon’s sentences are a pleasing blend of poetic and straightforward, performing a balancing act that would have toppled many other novels into either pretentiousness or boredom. He uses around nine-hundred metaphors a page (this is an estimate), but this never feels stilted or unnatural as they use grounded concepts often related to engineering. This ties both the writing and the action of the book back to space travel again and again, and instills you with a sense of wonder at the idea of traveling to another world — after all, you’ve been reading about it even when it wasn’t obvious.

At one point, Mike’s grandfather has made a terrible decision that might ruin his life. He was, put simply, reckless, but not unsympathetically so, and thus still has a reader’s sympathy when he begs for forgiveness. The answer he receives, from a hardened military officer who’s quickly figured out his penchant for self-destruction, is blunt:

Mike’s grandfather is a fatalist, yet one that can’t help dream of a better world. He’s given up on this planet and is more aware than most that the moon is a lifeless desert, yet can’t help but romanticize it. He wants somewhere to fly away to.

The novel is heavily influenced by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in terms of subject matter, although it averts the cold nihilism its predecessor often dwelt in. While rocketry was a symbol of whirring death for Pynchon, humanity at its most destructive, Chabon is more preoccupied with technology’s capacity to inspire hope, even when it’s used for horrific purposes. That’s not to say he doesn’t acknowledge and wrestle with the darker motives behind the development of the space age – a significant plot point revolves around America’s space program’s founding on Nazi research, after all – but he wants readers to be able to dream, and remember the joy the stars can inspire.

Moonglows takes you through the lowest lows and the highest highs of a man’s life, which frequently intertwine into some of the most important moments of the twentieth century. Chabon’s grandfather was like a whip-smart, assholish Forrest Gump. It’s the small moments – dying gasps, hopes dashed, friendships sundered, brotherhood betrayed – which make this book feel far larger than the story of just one man, however: it’s a story about hope and despair, and the painful and beautiful consequences of both.

Horns by Joe Hill – Review

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“I guess Satan was the first superhero. In his first adventure, he took the form of a snake to free two prisoners being held naked in a Third World jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time, he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality.”

A young man named Ig is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend; after a year of depression, one morning he wakes up with horns pricking out of his head, forced to hear everyone he meets confess their greatest sins. Snakes like him a lot, and he keeps wanting to wield a pitchfork.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

For a book with such a potentially goofy premise, it’s a relief that an unblinking fascination with the nature of sin fuels Joe Hill’s Horns, an unflinching view of human urges and morals. Its twisted sense of humour makes all of it a fuckload of fun, too.

Demons are often more fascinating than angels, and watching a good man turn very, very bad is deeply absorbing to read about. In our time of entertainment in the mainstream loving muddled-motives and monstrous acts by protagonists (think Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and compare them to classic tv heroes) sympathy for the devil comes easier. I suppose that might have been true for centuries, though, ever since Milton cemented Lucifer as the ultimate anti-hero: a rebel who chose freedom and sin over paradise.

Hill is good at describing the inner workings that push humans along, the strange motivations that make us individuals. He moves the reader into a dirty territory, and makes you both wince and wonder simultaneously. Just how far can a good person be pushed? The line between sin and mistake, and what we can forgive, is presented by Hill as something inherently fluid; understanding the motives of the people around can create both empathy or anger, and which you choose to focus on will determine how clearly you view the world through the tinted lens of personal prejudices.

Put some Rolling Stones on in the background and pick up Horns, and be ready for a blazing-fun LSD-fueled car ride through the gates of hell.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – Review

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The appeal of a memoir is typically one of empathy, of plunging and swimming inside in the life of another, becoming fully submerged in experiences far outside your own. At least, that’s always been the appeal in picking them up for me. It’s strange, then, that most renowned memoirs tend to be about lives whose experiences would devastate readers who try to become immersed; tragedy is seen as something we can learn from, something that can be understood and therefore prepared for, in case such horrendous events ever happen to ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, however, Joan Didion accounts the first year of her life without her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the beginning of 2004, and explains her feelings of numbness and the absurdity of trying to learn something from a black hole called death that’s left you far weaker than you ever would have been had it not appeared.

It’s a harrowing account, detailing the way grief erodes day-to-day experiences like an earthquake tearing apart the mantle of life. ‘I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world,’ Didion laments, and for a woman who values control as she does, this is truly damning.

As the book continues and you see her clinging to the pain like a limpet, as though to let go of it would be a betrayal to the man whose absence caused it. She explains how harrowing it can be to mourn in a society that values letting go, moving on, making the best of things. She didn’t want to make the best of things. She just wanted her husband back. I was reminded of a lyric from Mount Eerie about the passing of his wife, ending the song Death is Real:

It’s dumb
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
This isn’t a rational way of approaching things, I thought, but of course it isn’t; that’s why this book is so valuable: it shines a light on the irrational ways minds approach the world after tragedies, the strange thought-patterns that make sense to no one but yourself. Nothing about grief is rational, after all; it just is.
To those looking for a salve to spread over the wounds caused by the departure of someone beloved, The Year of Magical Thinking may not be what you had in mind. It’s an brutal account of grieving that eschews sentimentality and looks the rawness of death in the face. It isn’t, basically, a comforting read. It is a valuable one, though, and anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the value in seeing the world from the eyes of someone who feels like you do, even if that feeling isn’t positive.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee – Review

“Was it serious? I don’t know. It certainly had serious consequences.”

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee is like a carefully and beautifully composed photo of a rusted car: it draws your attention to a nasty, forgotten thing and makes it fascinating.

David Lurie is a 56-year-old divorcee Professor of English in post-apartheid South Africa, content to dwindle away in his final years with a mediocre career and a penchant for prostitutes. His life is less sad than painfully mediocre, and he doesn’t seem bothered by this; in face, he revels in it, glad that,after a life of failed relationships and dreams he is finally able to accept just existing.

Then, after bumping into a 20-year-old student of his while walking home from class, he invites her to his apartment and begins a disturbing affair that will be disastrous for both parties, and bring everything he spent his life working for tumbling down around his head.

Life in South Africa at this time is not fair for anyone, and Coetzee details how historical injustices pull the strings of modern life even when many would wish to either move on or forget the horrors of the past completely.

After a tragedy when visiting his daughter, Laurie is broken in ways I could never have predicted. Coetzee has a fascination with destruction, the way mistakes can tumble on top of one other and shatter multiple lives in their wake.

Disgrace is a depressing novel, but also a masterfully crafted one,; it’s barely two-hundred pages, but the brief the length was necessary because it’s also a cruel read that still keeps you interested. The subject matter gets sadder, more disgusting and more frustrating as it goes on but things stay compelling. Despite that it’s not a thriller I couldn’t stop flicking through the pages. It’s truly like watching a train-wreck in the best way possible, leaving you unable to look away from something that can only end in tragedy while keeping you empathetic towards everyone involved.

The characters here are deeply, disgustingly flawed, but compelling and believable; none are monsters, and many want to be better people than the world will allow them to be.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – Review

“It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details.”

There’s a game called Trace Italian, and you won’t win.

Like many, I was drawn to Wolf in White Van because of its author John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats. He’s a songwriter with a cynical bent and arresting lyrics, capable of transporting his audience and making them feel a whirlwind of both positive and negative emotions through a single verse. I did wonder if his pithy style would translate to the long-form storytelling of novels, though — talent doesn’t always, after all, cross genre or medium.

Thankfully, this is a novel into which Darnielle put a lot of care. There’s a puzzle-like structure, as chapters are told in fragments from all over the protagonist’s life. Sean Phililps has a horrific head wound and a strange past that he doesn’t want to reveal, and his life is shown in snippets. He’s more than happy to talk about a game he’s created, though, a place where the rules are in your favour as long as you play thoughtfully—put another way, obsessives always have the advantage.

This isn’t a plot heavy story, and it works all the better for this. The style is slick enough that you glide through. The narrator’s musings on how, for example, wallpapers, the universe and pain are all intricately connected like threads in a blanket are fascinating enough on their own.

Darnielle uses poetic language to create unusual connections between situations and themes which my brain would never find without help. It’s gratifying to read, and gives the delightful tingle in your mind of “I got it!” which mystery novels normally provide. It also helps in convincing readers to empathise with a main character who can be more than a little bizarre.

Wolf in White Van shows the beauty in escapism, the desperate need which can build inside people for a world entirely different to our own. Escapism, after all, drives the vast majority of fiction writing, television and music. This novel doesn’t glorify it, though, and we see the dark paths that can open up when longing becomes obsession.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Review

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“The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”

A butler named Stevens is heading across post-World War II England to visit an old friend and offer her a job on his staff; this was supposed to be an uneventful trip. His sheltered worldview is challenged, however, as the stark reality that his country has changed without his consent looms on the horizon. New experiences lead to painful reflections on times past, while shame and confusion thicken like mist as the pages turn. The Remains of the Day uses a simple premise to disguise a journey into heavy themes of memory, regret, and love.

Stevens’ mind is a wandering thing, flitting between topics like a bird between trees; this gives a loose and unmanufactured feeling to the novel’s structure, while snippy, deliciously passive-aggressive dialogue keeps the tone light and makes it easy to breeze through despite heady themes. Serious conversation are undercut in accidentally hilarious ways by proto-typically English repression which characters must overcome just to express themselves.

There’s a truism saying it’s impossible to truly hate something you can empathise with, and this novel makes a good argument for it. Ishiguro makes a very difficult and stuck up character seem naive and lovable through masterful characterisation, showing how easy it is to confuse repression for dignity. Actions which could be viewed as despicable seem merely sad blunders by people no more malicious than the average man.

The certainties most novels offer are muddied through Ishiguro’s subtle deflation of the idea of memory as something that can always be trusted. Our protagonist’s recollections of the seemingly most important moments of his life are revealed to be faulty, a reflection of a time long past which has been muddied by the years in between; we are left wondering how ‘true’ this story really is.

Stevens’ life was spent in duty to a higher purpose as he saw it: serving one of the great gentlemen of England. But can a life be called well lived if it was in service to a man who made disastrous mistakes? Does seeing trust as a virtue excuse us from turning a blind eye to evil when it’s performed by people we feel know better than us? Ishiguro gives no simple answers. Finishing The Remains of the Day made me truly appreciate how tragic life lived without the ability to love selflessly really is, however; dignity seems a hollow reward by comparison.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – Review

Engleby - Wikipedia

“My own diagnosis of my problem is a simpler one. It’s that I share 50% of my genome with a banana and 98% with a chimpanzee. Banana’s don’t do psychological consistency. And the tiny part of us that’s different—the special Homo sapiens bit—is faulty. It doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”

The beginning of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks is deeply irritating. The narrator’s condescension and general disgust with society became boring quickly; this made me mistakenly place the novel into the groan-worthy genre of Embittered Failing Male Tells the World Why It Sucks.

I was, thankfully, wrong. This novel is a satire, one which understands its subject  (namely, self-absorbed young men) so well that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that the qualities which made me dislike the novel were intentionally over-the-top. Faulks had been constructing an arsehole-pinata, which readers get to enjoy watching him beat down over the final 200 pages of this book.

To think you know a character well and then have your perspective flipped is always an exhilarating experience, one of the most fascinating an author can provide. As Engleby went on, I came to realise that I had been attributing mistakes of the protagonist with mistakes of the author—yes, the protagonist was an insufferable, pretentious blowhard, but this was to set up an unusual narrative which is easily worth the novel’s rocky start.

Aside from the strange story-structure and protagonist, the novel has some fantastic details about life in 70s England. Faulks’ portrayal of a “gaslight grey” country still struggling to rise from the ashes of the second World War thirty years on is a convincing one, filled with nice details of dilapidated buildings and soot-smeared skies.

This is, ultimately, a fascinating character study, despite a beginning which may turn off readers who aren’t prepared to grit their teeth. The final chapter makes it all worth it, though.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Review

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology in a bookstore brought back a memory from childhood: I’d been lying on a sofa, around seven years old; the sun was peeking through the curtains, and boy-me was clutching a book of myths I must have received from Christmas, feeling, despite the warm weather, very, very cold. I had been amazed at how much the book was drawing me into its icy world. There was an ornate drawing of some sort on the left page of a man going into a cave, and the text on the right talked about how brave he was for entering somewhere dangerous. That’s all.

I have a poor memory at the best of times, and most of what I read as a boy has vanished as years go on, but I remembered this. I needed to find out which story it was which had stayed lodged within my sieve-like brain after all these years, and so I snatched up both a hard-copy and an audiobook of Gaiman’s retelling so that I could stay completed immersed in these stories over the following days.

Gaiman’s soothing tone works incredibly well with bombastic stories like the Norse myths, rather than the comparatively constrained affair of his novels. His work has always been most interesting when it ventures into the surreal, such as in the Sandman comics, and so I went in optimistic and wasn’t disappointed.

There’s such a sense of fun here that it’s hard not to be tickled at nearly every page by both the delightful tone and raucous interpretations of dialogue. Characters like Thor are just delightful to be around, acting as the comic relief in a book which I expected to take itself extraordinarily seriously.

Eventually, around halfway through the middle, I realised it likely hadn’t been a cave in the story from my childhood, but a mountain-side needing to be cracked open. I realised the man I remembered hadn’t been a man at all, but a God. I realised that it had been Odin, and that the version I was now reading—where Odin tricks, fucks, and abandons a giantess—was likely very different from the one I’d found as a child. It was no less entertaining for all that.

Nostalgia plays a part in why this drew me in so much I don’t doubt, but Gaiman knows just the right way to pace a short story, and so knows just where to tweak old tales to keep things zipping along for modern readers.

I think the reason that this retelling is such an astonishing success is that if there’s one set of myths tailor made to become a comedy, it’s the Norse ones. Its characters are both endearing and frustrating, lovable and appalling; their values are so different to ours that their struggles for glory come across as comical, and Gaiman plays up these differences to tap what could be alienating for amusement.

Laugh-out-loud funny is a term which is overused, but there was a moment here which had me shaking in the middle of a train, trying desperately to look normal and failing miserably:

Gaiman’s interpretation of the tale I had loved so much as I child, in which Odin drinks the mead of poetry, ends with a chase scene. A giant has turned into an eagle, and Odin needs to quickly lose him before entering Valhalla.

The wise, temperamental king of the Gods decides that sharting (yes, sharting) mead into his enemy’s eye is the best way to handle this situation.

I really, really liked this book.