Monday, December 5, 2016

Moonglow by Michael Chabon: A review

Michael Chabon just gets better and better as a writer. While I can't claim to have read everything that he's written, each book of his that I have read has been better than the last. Moonglow is the best one yet and it's hard to see how he can improve with the next one.

This book takes the form of a family memoir and it seems to have been at least loosely based on Chabon's own family, although he assures us that it is, in fact, entirely fictional. But the third person narrator of the book is named Mike Chabon and the stories that he tells us were told to him by his grandfather as he lay dying.

In 1989, Mike traveled to his mother's house in Oakland to be with his terminally ill grandfather. Over ten days at the very end of his life, the grandfather told his grandson stories of his eventful life. This was a unique experience in a family known for its silences. Mike said that 90% of what he knew about his grandfather was learned in those ten days.

The grandfather's story begins before World War II when, as a Drexel Tech graduate, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. He relates his wartime experiences chasing rocket technology and Wernher von Braun; his experience with the liberation of a concentration camp and the rescue of slave laborers; and after the war, his attempt to find meaning in all of those experiences and to search for a purpose in his life. 

His purpose might have been found when he met and fell in love with a beautiful woman, herself a victim of the war and the mother of a small daughter. The woman's own experiences had left her wracked by mental illness and, throughout their life together, she and Mike's grandfather struggled in fits and starts for stability and mental equilibrium for her.  

The grandfather's tale is a story of financial success and disaster, of companies founded and lost, of violence and the consequences of violence. At one point, the grandfather had spent fourteen months in prison because he had tried to garrote his boss who had just fired him. But through it all, he was always a man who could fix things and it was his joy as an engineer to find solutions to problems. That was one of the things that first drew him to the woman who was to become his wife.
From the first that was part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended, and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose.
After the grandfather's death, Mike's mother asks him if he thinks her parents were happy in spite of all the problems and challenges they faced - the failures and the repeated mental health breakdowns, the disillusionment with men thought to be heroes who were found to have feet of clay, and all the silences and lies that had failed to acknowledge the truth of their family's lives. Mike replied that he thought they were happy. 

She asks him when he thinks they were happy. "In the cracks," he replies.

That answer washed over me like a tidal wave of enlightenment, for aren't we all happy "in the cracks"? The cracks that exist between the failures and disappointments of our lives. Happiness is never a constant thing. We are always beset by sadnesses and setbacks, but thank goodness for those "cracks" that always come to give us hope that things can be better.

Michael Chabon makes me laugh sometimes with his writing, but he also makes me cry, and I felt tears on my cheeks as this book ended. It was the poignancy of the story, but also the shock of recognition that this family's story made me feel about my own family. And, too, I was just sad to see this marvelous book end.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Poetry Sunday: The late year

While searching for a poem to feature this week, I came across this one from 2006 by Marge Piercy and I was so struck by its imagery that I felt I had to share it with you.

I loved the idea of the black silhouettes of migrating birds perching on wires and reciting liturgical prayers. And I can certainly relate to studying the granite pitted and pocked rockface of my life as it emerges from the veil of greenery "to be mapped, to be examined, to be judged. "

For this season of holidays is also a time of reflection and repentance as we count our days and look forward - perhaps - to a fresh start in the new year.

The late year

by Marge Piercy

I like Rosh Hashonah late,
when the leaves are half burnt
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.

I like Rosh Hashonah late
when all living are counting
their days toward death
or sleep or the putting by
of what will sustain them -
when the cold whose tendrils
translucent as a jellyfish

and with a hidden sting
just brush our faces
at twilight. The threat
of frost, a premonition
a warning, a whisper
whose words we cannot
yet decipher but will.

I repent better in the waning
season when the blood
runs swiftly and all creatures
look keenly about them
for quickening danger.
Then I study the rockface
of my life, its granite pitted

and pocked and pickaxed
eroded, discolored by sun
and wind and rain -
my rock emerging
from the veil of greenery
to be mapped, to be
examined, to be judged.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

This week in birds - #234

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Brown Pelican resting beside Galveston Bay.


The firestorm that hit Gatlinburg, Tennessee this week was the largest fire in more than 100 years in that state. Once a spark was lit, the bone-dry hillsides filled with ready fuel combined with hurricane force gusts of wind did the rest. The Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountain fires were aided by freakish fall warmth and drought.


The consequences of climate change are being felt all over the world but the effects are greater in some areas than in others. A 2015 study identified these "hotspots" around the planet. Climate and development policy should pay particular attention to these areas. 


The annual Christmas Bird Count will be beginning soon. You can find a count circle in your area by visiting the Audubon website. Participation is free and any level of expertise (or even lack thereof) is welcomed. 


The recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake in New Zealand caused considerable destruction to human structures, but it is feared that it also devastated a breeding colony of Hutton's Shearwaters. It is the nesting season of the birds in New Zealand and these seabirds nest in burrows. It is unknown how many of them may have been trapped in their burrows by the quake and killed.


Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency made critical changes at the 11th hour in a five year study of the effect of hydraulic fracturing on the nation's drinking water. The changes, which have been criticized by scientists as lacking evidence, played down the risks that fracking poses to sources of drinking water.


Did you know there is a spider that lives its life underwater? It is aptly called the diving bell spider and it is a truly weird creature.


Traffic noise in urban areas can drown out the warning calls of songbirds, potentially making them more vulnerable to predators.


The Ivory Gull is an already threatened seabird that depends on thick sea ice for breeding. As the Arctic sea ice continues to thin out, the bird's chance for long-term survival is decreased.


A Western Tanager, usually not seen east of Colorado, has been visiting Manhattan this fall. It is the first of its species seen in the area since 2008 and it fits the pattern of western birds straying into the East during migration. 


Global climate change is not an isolated problem. It affects many areas of concern including national security. Already some places in the world have experienced conflicts and wars because of the effects of climate change. This could well be a glimpse of our future, as our nation continues to refuse to take effective action to address the problem. 


Secret pools lined with concrete established in the Oregon desert half a century ago are magnets for all kinds of thirsty wildlife and they are helping to keep birds and other wildlife alive.


Scientists have discovered fossils of the first known ground beetle to have inhabited Antarctica. It is believed that the insect once inhabited the tundra area which existed on the continent. The insect fauna on Antarctica today consists of only three flightless midges.


The Connecticut Audubon Society's State of the Birds report warns that Saltmarsh Sparrows are threatened by extinction due to sea level rises caused by global warming. Other birds that live in the same habitat are threatened also. 


The woodpeckers called sapsuckers seem to have an innate ability to determine which plants will yield the most sap


The Gulf Coast mostly lucked out once again during this hurricane season, but the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season featured the largest number of hurricanes observed since 2012 and the first category 5 hurricane since 2007.

Friday, December 2, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: A review

Elizabeth Strout once again explores the mother/daughter relationship in My Name is Lucy Barton. As a daughter of a mother and a mother of daughters, I find the subject irresistible, and I can't really think of any writer who does it better than Strout. 

The eponymous title character has plenty of time to meditate on the intricacies and complications of such relationships as she lies in a hospital bed for nine long weeks. She had entered the hospital for an appendectomy in which everything proceeded routinely, except that then she was struck down by a bacterial infection which threatened her life. 

At the time of her illness, Lucy Barton was married to a man with a demanding job and was the mother of two small daughters. She was a budding writer. When her hospital stay stretched into weeks, her husband was not able to spend much time with her and she didn't really have any friends to take up the slack. And, of course, hospital regulations for the most part kept her daughters away. It was a very lonely time for her.

Lucy's husband tried to mend the situation by calling her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, and asking her to come to New York and be with her sick daughter. He paid for her airplane ticket from Illinois. She had never been on a plane, but she came and sat by her daughter's bedside for several days, refusing the cot offered by the staff and catnapping on her chair. And she talked to Lucy.

She talked about people back in her hometown of Amgash, Illinois. She talked about people from Lucy's childhood. It was a gentle gossip which seemed to help reconnect the two long-estranged people. But it was all surface stuff - idle chit-chat. She never went any deeper to the tensions that existed in their troubled family, the poverty and humiliation that were so much a part of the Barton family's life when Lucy was growing up, or to the reasons that Lucy had sought to escape and fulfill her desire to be a writer.

And yet, Lucy loved the sound of her mother's voice and it was a comfort to her during her time of need. As her mind wandered off into tangents from the sound of that voice, we are privy to her thoughts and we learn about traumatic events of childhood and what has made Lucy the person that she is. We learn, too, about her present-day relationships with her own daughters and with her husband, relationships that her mother, strangely, never asks about.

Much of Lucy's reminiscences of her childhood are painfully sad, full of grinding poverty and occasional abuse. It is the portrait of a joyless, dysfunctional family. We learn that in her relationships with her own daughters, Lucy tries to overcompensate, to ensure that she is ever attentive to all their needs. It's a familiar theme of a parent trying to avoid the mistakes of one's own upbringing and making new mistakes, which her children will someday try to avoid.

Even when discussing difficult memories from the past, there always seems to be a tenderness and gentleness in the telling of the story. It is part of the genius of Elizabeth Strout's writing, I think, to convey a certain empathy and understanding for her characters' actions, even when those characters are not necessarily likable people. I found this to be true in her wonderful Olive Kitteridge and it is a quality that is present here once again. The perceptions of the human condition which she conveys to us are both meaningful and wise and they give us hope that our species may, in fact, have some redeeming qualities.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien: A review

A challenging book to read but worth the effort.

Madeleine Thien's highly acclaimed novel encompassing the history of China since the Communist Revolution of the 1940s up to the present day as seen through the experiences of two families is a harrowing tale in so many ways. It details the unraveling of a society through the government's implementation of various ill-considered social experiments and we watch in horror as that society rips itself apart during the Cultural Revolution and then recoil again as students protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As the government reacted violently to those protests, it seemed that China might indeed be torn asunder.

We see all of this through the eyes of two families who are intertwined by their experiences at the Shanghai Conservatory. These are families for whom music is the breath of life and musical notation, as well as specific musical works, play a large part in the telling of the story. Bach's Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould, for example, is a continuing theme throughout the book.

During the course of the novel, we meet three generations of the character Sparrow's family - his parents, himself and his siblings and his wife, and finally his daughter, Ai-Ming, who is central to the story. Sparrow was at the Shanghai Conservatory and he was a talented composer who could have had a successful career in music, but then the Cultural Revolution hit. He was denounced as a "rightist" and sent to work in a factory. He was forbidden to compose.

Sparrow's good friend and perhaps lover was Kai, a virtuoso pianist at the Conservatory. He was on a trajectory to become an acclaimed and famous performer when the Cultural Revolution changed everything. He survived by becoming a Red Guard and denouncing friends and instructors at the Conservatory. Eventually, he was allowed to emigrate and he ended up in Canada, in Vancouver. He married and he and his wife had a daughter, Li-Ling, aka Marie. Through all of his experiences, he never forgot his friend Sparrow and managed to keep a tenuous connection to him. 

We meet Marie and her mother when Marie is ten years old and her father has just committed suicide by jumping from a great height. (This seems to be a favorite method of suicide throughout the book, although some of the "suicides" may actually have been murder.) Her view of the world is changed when a Chinese refugee comes to live with them after the Tiananmen protests. It is Ai-Ming, Sparrow's daughter. She becomes like an older sister to the ten-year-old Marie.

As she learns more about the relationship between the two families, Marie becomes ever more curious about their history. Through a series of events, she eventually becomes the keeper of a volume called the "Book of Records" which has maintained a multi-generational record of details of the history of Sparrow's family. As she pieces together the familial connections, she becomes the storyteller who takes us into all the dark and light corners of this collective and universal chronicle of families.

The enormity of what Thien is attempting in the telling of this story is daunting to consider and yet she has managed to succeed in most cases, I think. The fact that I, a relative ignoramus about modern Chinese history, was able to follow along with her narrative without getting lost is proof of that. The hugeness of China tends to overwhelm us and make us tired, but by centering on the effects of events on two families, and particularly on two vulnerable men, the writer has made the almost inexpressible understandable.

Thien's book was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and although it did not ultimately win, it was most assuredly a worthy candidate. Indeed, many critics were appalled that it did not win.

Looking at the history of a nation struggling between revolt and control is both mesmerizing and horrifying. It is a reminder of the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is something that we would do well to remember, else we imagine that we are somehow exempt from the rules of history.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars