We’ve been on hiatus for a while, but I’ve had a couple of requests to bring the book club back for Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, and since I want to read it myself, I think it’s worth doing. Let’s do Part I for next Friday.
Stories tagged with “Book Club”
We’ll start on Friday, February 10. Let’s read Chapters 1 and 2 and get ready to discuss.
This post contains spoilers through section 7 of A Visit From the Goon Squad. For next week, let’s finish the novel.
Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this at the Television Critics Association press tour, but A Visit From the Goon Squad feels more like a television show than almost any novel I’ve ever read. Normally, that comparison goes in the opposite direction to compliment and elevate a television show, but in this case, it shouldn’t feel like a demotion. Do you remember that opening tracking shot that begins the Battlestar Galactica miniseries that kicked the whole shebang off? Where you skip from one character to the next, and in a couple of minutes, you learn an enormous amount about who’s going to matter and get an initial sense of who they are? A Visit From the Goon Squad feels like that. And much like Battlestar Galactica, this is a novel about climactic moments, both when everything changes for everyone, and little things when people get set slightly off kilter in ways they can only recognize with hindsight.
First, the big thing. This is a New York novel without being heavy-handed about it, and because of that, it’s a September 11 novel in a way that I suspect that terrible day will figure in many events in the future. The references to it will be glancing, not all events will be organized around it, and yet, September 11 will be recognized as a moment that sent almost all of us off in different directions, however slight the course correction. Sasha “hated the neighborhood at night without the World Trade Center, whose blazing freeways of light had always filled her with hope.” For Jules, September 11 is a way of expressing his profound dislocation from the world after his release from prison. He tells Stephanie “I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down. Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone’s office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re e-mailing people the whole time they’re talking to you. Tom and Nicole are with different people.…And now my rock-and-roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans. What the fuck!” And Stephanie finds a conversation about al Qaeda in New York a symptom of the awfulness of her new life in the suburbs with Bennie, proof of the blinkered nature of the people around her.
That same deftness shows up in the revelations the characters have that aren’t connected to major world-historical events, that might, in fact, be inexplicable to anyone else. There’s Sasha’s realization about why she steals:
It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.
I’m sorry for dropping the ball yesterday on starting our A Visit from the Goon Squad Book Club: in between traveling and the first day of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, I got totally caught up. We’ll start next Friday. Same reading assignment.
We’ll do All the King’s Men, which came in a close second, after that, and then revisit the question of Old Man’s War and The City and The City. In the mean time, let’s start A Vist From the Goon Squad on January 6, reading through section 7 for discussion.
Voting closes at noon EST on Friday. So get clicking!
We’ll start up again in January. Let’s have this as an open thread for nominations that will run until noon on Monday. I’ll post a poll and we can figure out what we’re reading next just in time for Christmas for those of you who celebrate it.
This post contains spoilers through the first 12 chapters of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Next week, I’m off for Thanksgiving, but for the Friday after that, let’s read through Chapter 25.
One of the things that’s fascinating about alternate histories is which events and impulses the authors think would stay the same. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the United States went to war with Cuba, but the conflict produced a rash of heroin addictions, much as the Vietnam War did. The Israel Lobby may be dedicated to an Alaskan homeland, run by a Jewish COINTELPRO agent who “diverted up to half his operating budget to corrupt the people who had authorized it. He bought senators, baited congressional honeypots, and above all romanced rich American Jews whose influence he saw as critical to his plan,” but it still exists. Six decades in Sitka haven’t undone the Jewish fear of annihilation — as Landsman’s colleague tells him of the tunnel under his hotel “When the greeners got here after the war. The ones who had been in the ghetto at Warsaw. At Bialystock. The ex-partisans. I guess some of them didn’t trust the Americans very much. So they dug tunnels. Just in case they had to fight again. That’s the real reason it’s called the Untershtat.” Hasidic Jews are still ridiculously well-organized, even if they’re turning their talents to crime in Sitka. Sectarian differences still matter. Landsman knows, when he and Berko go visiting, that “He is on their turf. He goes clean-shaven and does not tremble before God. He is not a Verbover Jew and therefore is not really a Jew at all. And if he is not a Jew, then he is nothing.” And while Jews may have swapped Palestinians for American Indians, the specter of violent conflict still looms, whether in a synagogue bombing, or in Berko Shmets’ hammer.
Since I delayed The Yiddish Policeman’s Union for us to do Reamde, let’s get on track and start it next week. Read through Chapter 12; that runs to a little over 100 pages in most of the editions I’ve seen. And I’m excited to discuss this one with y’all.
This post contains spoilers through “Day 4″ of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. Feel free to spoil beyond that in comments, but please label your posts as such. For next week, let’s read through “Day 7″.
So. Abdallah Jones. I tend to think that Stephenson is doing a nice, if slightly exaggerated, job of discussing masculinity, femininity, desirability, and the Midwest. But how I feel about this book is, I suspect, going to depend on how well Stephenson walks the line in telling a somewhat silly, exaggerated story about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, an issue that’s serious not because it has a nasty tendency to kill people, but because of how the existence of it affects other people’s behavior and decision-making.
What we learn about Jones in these chapters is this. He’s competent enough to escape Ivanov, Sokolov, and their gang, which even if it was Sokolov alone would be no mean feat. We know he has a sense of humor, however dark its direction. Telling Zula that “I would suggest an end to pluck, or spunk, or whatever label you like to attach to the sort of behavior you were showing back on that pier, and a decisive turn toward Islam: which means submission. Just a thought,” is scary and evidence of a midset distinctly unlike our own, but undeniably funny. Ditto for their exchange: “What’s the only thing more attention getting, on the streets of Xiamen, than two niggers handcuffed together?” “I give up.” “Two niggers handcuffed together with a Kalashnikov.” We know he’s a creative, improvisational thinker: thus the deal with the pilots. And we have his basic biography, which is sort of a combination of George Jackson and Osama bin Laden:
..The Welsh terrorist Abdallah Jones, who was of particular interest to Olivia because he had once blown up Olivia’s great-aunt’s bridge partner on a bus in Cardiff. He was (as she learned) of West Indian ancestry, that is, the descendant of slaves brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar cane plantations. He had grown up in a Cardiff slum where he had acquired an addiction to heroin. He had kicked that addiction with the assistance of a local mullah who had converted him to Islam. Chemically unshackled, he had taken an undergraduate degree in earth sciences at Aberystwyth and followed that up with graduate instruction at the Colorado School of Mines, where he seemed to have learned a hell of a lot about explosives. Returning to Wales, he had fallen in with a radical cell of Islamists and cut his teeth blowing up buses in Wales and the Midlands before migrating to London and graduating to tube stations. When those activities had rendered him the object of intense police curiosity, he had moved to Northern Africa, then Somalia, then Pakistan (the site of his largest single exploit, killing 111 people in a hotel blast), then Indonesia, the southern Philippines, Manila, Taiwan, and now—strange to relate—Xiamen. All those steps had made perfect sense except for the last two. To say, as people frequently did, that Abdallah Jones was to MI6 what Osama bin Laden had been to the CIA was to miss a few important points, as far as Olivia was concerned. It was true that Jones was MI6’s highest-priority target. So to that point, the comparison served. Beyond that, as Olivia took every opportunity to point out, comparing Jones to bin Laden was dangerous in that it minimized the danger posed by Jones. Bin Laden’s best days had been over on September 12. One of the most famous men in history, he’d spent the rest of his life huddled in various hiding places, watching himself on TV. Jones, on the other hand, was little known outside of the United Kingdom, and even though he had blown up 163 people in eight separate incidents before his thirtieth birthday, there was little doubt that he would kill many more than that in the future.