Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dude, Where's My Second Novel?

Thanks to a co-worker, I'm reading what may be my favorite book in several years: Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. Almost certainly, it's my favorite "new" book this year. I realize the book has been around since 1995, but it was on my list of books I wanted to read and hadn't (a long list).

Why do I love it? Because it's flat-out funny. Laugh out loud funny. This man leaves me chuckling on the PATH train, wishing I could share with someone. Chabon writes simple sentences that make me look back in awe.

For those who aren't aware of it, the story is told from the perspective of Professor Grady Tripp, an English professor at a college in Pittsburgh. He's been working on his second novel for the past seven years — more than a thousand pages in and the end isn't really in sight. On the weekend when this story begins, he's in the midst of a not-unexpected separation from his third wife, the totally unexpected pregnancy of his lover (who happens to be the married chancellor of the college where he teaches -- married to the chairman of the English department), and the imminent arrival of his editor, who's about to lose his job.

His editor is coming to the campus for a conference (WordFest!), and during Tripp's final class before the event, the work of one of his students is skewered by the class — a verbal disemblowling that Tripp doesn't disrupt much less discourage — leaving the young movie-buff writer contemplating suicide.

Throw in a drag queen, a dead, blind dog, the stolen jacket of Marilyn Monroe, and a roadtrip with the aforementioned student to attend Passover seder at the family home of Tripp's Korean-Jewish wife. Sprinkle in a lot of pot smoking and you have the makings of a comedy classic. But there is so much more to it than the surface story, as is usually the case with Chabon. I'm more than 200 pages in and I don't really want it to end.

Chabon writes like no one else. Do yourself a favor, read this book.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

McCourt's Ashes

After the sad passing of Frank McCourt recently, I decided it was time to reread Angela's Ashes. It must be almost a decade since the first time I read it, and I was amazed at how much I had forgotten. Perhaps the forgetting was a defense mechanism, for his tale is so sad and depressing that forgetting seems like the most appropriate way to deal with it.

But, as McCourt's life of survival and success would suggest, remembering it and talking about it makes all the difference. For Frank McCourt, survival was success. If you're unfamiliar with his story, McCourt was born in the United States to parents who were on the cusp of poverty and quickly fell deep into it as the children arrived with regularity. Two of young Frankie's brothers and his sister died from hunger and ignorant neglect. His father's alcoholism and inability to hold a job hammered nails into his children's coffins.

It is a powerful story, made doubly so because it is true. As a lover of fiction, even I must admit that this memoir stands above many of the greatest works of fiction. It is written from the perspective of young Frankie, and he hides nothing from his audience — not even his frequent masturbation — making him indelibly real in the reader's mind.

I haven't read his other works: Tis or Teacher Man, but he will be best remembered for Angela's Ashes. And I recommend it to all. It is a sad tale, but it is most certainly worth reading.