Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summer Reading for Teens: Part Eight of Eight!

The Whole Truth
Kit Pearson
HarperCollins
Aug 8 2011
256 pages
Hardcover, $19.99

On May 31, Kit Pearson won the Canadian Library Association Book-of-the-Year-for-Children Award for the Whole Truth.
The Whole Truth also won the 2012 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award.

Mystery and family loyalty are front and centre in this novel set in 1932 story. Ten-year-old Polly and her older sister Maud are harboring a secret they have sworn never to tell a soul. When Maud goes to boarding school and Polly stays on Victoria Island, a visitor arrives, and threatens to unravel the whole works.

While Kit Pearson writes for predominantly girls, ages nine to 13, she thinks Polly’s transformation over four years and the underlying mystery will appeal to boys as well.

“I think a lot of kids choose the book by the first sentence,” Pearson said from Victoria. “And the first sentence is ‘After it happened, they were sent away.’ And you don’t find out for quite a while what happened so, hopefully, they’ll keep reading.”

Pearson also penned a sequel, And Nothing but the Truth, released in August  2012.

Summer Reading for Teens Part Seven of Eight: Ivan E. Coyote's One in Every Crowd

One in Every Crowd
Ivan E. Coyote
Arsenal Pulp Press
March 1, 2012
238 pages
Paperback, $17.95

In One in Every Crowd, Ivan E. Coyote, Vancouver resident and former columnist for Xtra West: Vancouver’s gay & lesbian news for 11 years, drew on strong material—her own. Coyote included about half previously published articles and  half new content about going to into schools and talking about growing up as a gay kid. Crowd also includes the interactions Coyote has had with students and teachers, as well as letters from students.

“For years, librarians and radical English teachers and Drama teachers have been saying 'Can you please put out a book that we can keep in the library?',” Coyote said, referring to her more adult-oriented editorials.

“Then I started working more in high schools and realizing there’s not a lot of stuff out there, especially in that YA market—not just for queer kids, for marginalized kids. “

“It’s about bringing everything out into the sunshine so people can look at what it’s like to be queer in high school still, or different.” Coyote said. 

Summer Reading for Teens, Part Six of Eight: Kelley Armstrong's The Calling

The Calling
Kelley Armstrong
HarperCollins
April 10, 2012
336 pages
Hardcover, $17.99

Maya and her friends, after escaping a fire, are kidnapped and then stranded in the Vancouver Island wilderness. The 16-year-old also has a paw-pint birthmark, which means she can perform extraordinary physical feats and, someday, may transform into something more beastly than a teenaged girl. This second installment of the Darkness Rising trilogy boasts a lot of action. The first novel in the series, The Gathering, appeared in April 2011. The third, Rising, came out in April 2013.

Bestselling author, Kelley Armstrong, also known for her Otherworld novels aimed an adult female audience, wrote Calling for kids. “Here was a chance to really do that kind of survival story,” Armstrong said from Toronto. “If you are plunked out there not knowing where you are, you’ve got a little ways to go to find help and if you’ve got people chasing you, that’s even worse.”

“My ideal reader is usually pretty close to my protagonist, so girls 16 or so. If they say ‘I like paranormal, I like action and adventure’, this book has that. The romance is fairly light. I tend to be someone who prefers the action/adventure part.”

 

Summer Reading for Teens, Part Five of Eight: Leah Bobet's Above

Above
Leah Bobet
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
March 1, 2012
368 pages
Hardcover, $19.99

In Above, Toronto YA novelist Leah Bobet's first urban fantasy novel,  kids develop physical mutations. Becoming outsiders forces them to leave Above and head underground—literally—to the city of Safe. Matthew and Ariel, residents of Safe, must escape to Above when an old enemy attacks Safe with an army of shadows. Along the way, the two kids realize they must also change Safe in order to survive. And Matthew might want to be more than just friends with Ariel.

“I didn’t write it as a Young Adult,” Bobet said. “There was no sense of an ideal reader. It was really more I had a story in my head and it was chasing around the corners, and so out you go. My agent was 'Like, look, it would work as a YA novel – it’s got a coming-of age arc, it’s got a young protagonist and also . . . it’s quite a dark book.'”

Bobet seems to have had Marvel Comics' Uncanny X-Men in mind when she penned the tale.

“It’s the whole trope of secret societies and mutants or outcasts living underground—that ‘s not how it would really happen,” Bobet said. “This is not the kind of thing where you’d have these marble floors. If you wanted to go up into the ‘regular world’ and pass as a straight, you’d need more than a cool, floppy cape."

 

Back to School with the Latest Teen Fiction Part Four of Eight: Jeff Ross' Dawn Patrol

The following is the fourth part of a series about books for teenagers to read. However, I am admittedly remiss in posting this series regularly (The series was originally meant run in a daily Canadian paper in summer 2012.) In that respect, I really ought to rename the series. A more appropriate name would be Summer Reading for Teens Part 4. In this part, I go local and talk to Ottawa 's Jeff Ross about his latest YA novel from Orca Books.

Dawn Patrol
Jeff Ross
Orca Book Publishers
May 1, 2012
160 pages
Paperback, $9.95

Jeff Ross launched Dawn Patrol on May 28, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Ottawa.

Best friends Esme and Luca hunt for their friend Kevin, who has left only a cryptic note behind -“I’ll come back, but if I don’t, know that I love you both.”  The friends face not only monster waves in Panama, but the mystery surrounding Kevin’s disappearance and a surfer who has in it for them.

Ottawa author Jeff Ross knows his audience. “Kids that are looking for books that speak to something they’re interested in—snowboarding, skating, surfing—doing those kinds of activities —anyone who wants to stand on a board sideways," Ross said. A lot of those kids that are skateboarders and snowboarders are intelligent and do read already, but there’s not books that are about what they love.”

Ross' family Christmas vacation in in Panama inspired the setting for Dawn Patrol. “The house had two of the best breaks in Panama,” Ross recalls. “While I was waiting for another wave, I thought ‘What could I write about this?’”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Did I say "Don't Kiss Me, Batman?" I Meant "Don't Kill Me!" A Postmodern Review of The Dark Knight Returns (Comic Book and Animated Film)

Image from the original 1986 graphic novel
Disclaimer: My postmodern take on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is chock-full of spoilers.

Frank Miller messed with the Batman mythos in The Dark Knight Returns, particularly with queer characters and iconography. I fully realized this while recently viewing parts one and two of the animated film based on the seminal 1986 comic book. The graphic novel extended an olive branch to adult readers and was part of a wider trend at the time that legitimatized the medium for mature readers, opened the floodgates to them, and permanently altered the comic-book industry.

As for the animated film, I am not concerned with the more obvious elements of storytelling. This is mainly because the movie is gritty, well-characterized, well-acted (Peter Weller voices Batman!), entertaining storytelling that is extremely faithful to the book. What I am concerned with, though, is going deeper than a teen perception of the work. I was a teenager when I last read The Dark Knight Returns. Miller's choice of characters, both re-invented and invented, are of particular interest to me this time around.

Frank Miller's Joker in the animated film.
As for gay characters in TDKR, Miller wanted to mix things up, and did so with glee. He clearly depicts the Joker as a gay villain. He is enamored with wearing lipstick, talks with a lisp and flirts openly with other male characters, including the hero, albeit with a psychotically violent sort of tenderness. 

The incumbent commissioner, Ellen Yindel, is a tough-talking, butch broad whose resemblance to Commissioner Gordon includes her stylish spectacles and a trench coat that highlights her incredibly broad shoulders. Not only is she a right winger; worse, she’s also an uncompromising woman. Instead of working with Batman, she wants to arrest him.

Miller's predilection for villains on the psychotic side sometimes included the wearing of provocative icons. In this case,  there's the gang leader, Bruno. She cuts  a steroid-enhanced physique, totes guns, and is a bare-breasted figure who sports swastika tattoos on her breasts. Batman, of course, the symbol for faded male virility, defies all odds, gets his 55-year-old behind in gear, and either kills, evades, outwits or beats all of the above characters in one way or another.

This brings me to my post-modern take on The Dark Knight Returns. The story is ostensibly about a gritty reminting of a flagship character emerging from retirement to fight in a very corrupt and messed up modern setting. From a more broad perspective, The Dark Knight Returns is actually about an old man rediscovering his virility and talent for violence, thus defying any blocks or authority figures that hamper his rediscovered maleness. 

Commissioner Ellen Yindel, also in the animated film.
Batman confronts the Joker's overtures with the resigned gruffness of someone in a long-suffering relationship, defies the lesbian commissioner, takes down the Nazi lesbian villain, and other threats such as a steroid-enhanced Mutant gang leader who threatens to "un-man" him.  The hero succeeds through the prism of classic-turned darker Batman action codes, which can be read as male assertions in a more Jungian landscape with Gotham City being an entire playground laden with subconscious symbols. Most threats transform into threats of emasculation. Some examples include the Joker stabbing him, the new commissioner threatening to rob him of his status of returning hero or the Mutant leader humiliating him, man-to-man, in front of the Mutant gang, and Bruno, a powerful woman, posing a clear threat to a powerful man. In the last case, defeat at the hands of a woman, even a confident, capable one, might overshadow the threat of physical damage or even, perhaps, death.
Laugh if you will, Joker-style, but let's consider how the antagonists fare.

No matter what they do, no other character can keep Batman “down” for long, even the lisping Joker, who stabs him not once but four times in the stomach. His murderous act is perhaps a symbolic sexual action of violence and penetration. Leading up to this altercation, Batman progressively loses his demeanor. The Joker derides the hero for his loss of control. Of course, the Joker also dispatches innocent bystanders at random in a blood spree, while keeping a coquettish running commentary. 

The commissioner simply won't let Batman play anymore and her SWAT team readily wounds him to the point of near-death. In the end, the new lesbian commissioner realizes, to her resigned astonishment, that Batman, whom she attempts to kill multiple times, “is just too big” (Size matter, anyone?). In short, a powerful lesbian character comes to terms with the fact that the hyper-masculine man is right.

Bruno, one of the villains depicted in the film.
Bruno, however, seems to only represent a mere physical threat, but this is deceiving. There is great shock value in revealing that the mysterious "Bruno" is, in fact, a woman. Both readers and viewers assume, before her appearance, that Bruno is a man. Miller attempts to elicit humor with this shock and surprise. Batman subdues her with Superman's help (unwillingly). Interestingly enough, Batman is, in fact, disguised as a on old bag lady living on the street. In this respect, Batman can  take down a butch female villain even if he is in the guise of an overweight, elderly woman, beating her on his own cross-dressing terms. That is, he can pretend to be an elderly, homeless (read: inferior) woman and still manage to prevail against a powerful woman.

The Mutant gang leader's assault on Batman is a mono-e-mono match used to rob Batman of his newly-rediscovered power in front of the legion of his new enemies. It's pure brains-versus-brawn confrontation with a far larger and (presumably) physically superior male specimen. Simply put, Batman must prove that his is the bigger (i.e.: smarter, better) man. In the first half of this intense confrontation, the Dark Knight also uses a heavy arsenal that involves much shooting and blasting. Once could make a case for the depiction of phallus and male virility, but this would be too easy a target, as there is much of this fare in the story. This reviewer will take a different road and declare that the police, despite all their training and marksmanship, either can't shoot accurately, or even use their rifles because the hero disables said weaponry, and leave it at that (adolescent fixation, perhaps).
With the character of Robin, Miller again messes with Batman fans and iconography. Miller’s new version of Robin, thirteen-year-old Carrie Kelley, a rather miraculously agile teenage girl lacking in any formal training, becomes the new protégé. Frederic Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent, once implied that Robin was Bruce Wayne’s young gay lover. Ever since, everyone and their dog with even a mild disdain or distance from the Batman character has suggested Batman and Robin are an item. Look at Robin’s colourful costume, they say. Look at the singular wealthy bachelor who is Bruce Wayne.
Miller alters the Batman mythos by having the first and notably only female Robin. He adds complexity to Bruce Wayne’s characterization by having Wayne trying to compensate for the death of one of the previous Robins. His attempt at redemption thus defuses any pedophiliac sexual tension between he, a man in his fifties, and an undeniably attractive young woman.
In one scene, Batman grabs Robin’s hand, preventing her from plummeting to her death from an airborne helicopter. She then wraps her legs around him. He repeats “Good soldier, good soldier” as a mantra as he hugs her in return. It’s an odd portrait of intimacy with an implicit sexual connotation. She is wrapping her legs around his waist, after all. I did not conjure up this last theory about their embrace. A colleague did, who is not at all a huge Batman fan.  We shall dub him the Menace of Barbosa.

In this way, Miller messed with these DC Comics icons and mixes in gay characters whose roles are charged and somewhat questionable. Why must such antagonists, for all intents and purposes, be gay characters? And if you're messing around with icons anyway, why not include some protagonists who are queer? Whether Frank Miller meant for an old man to rediscover his gusto and become a symbol for the unstoppable male id, throwing itself up against the challenges to his hyper masculine identity is, of course, debatable.
 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Today is the solstice

Happy solstice.




Film Review: Jen Soska's and Sylvia Soska's American Mary

American Mary, the first big-budget film from Canadian co-directors and sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska’s Twisted Twin Productions, is itself a twisted, crooked amble down a rocky path of body horror and suspense. The 2012 film, Mary, not only successfully objectifies its heroine, Mary Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle; it also makes the viewer complicit in this objectification, a dipping of the toe in the sexual art of cutting, and illicit body modification surgery.

Medical student Mary can’t make the basic payment for her student loan. She attends her classes distracted, heckled by her unusually profane surgery professor, Dr. Grant, portrayed by David Lovgren. To make money, she turns to the world of adult dancing, which in turns opens up the doorway to helping the strip club boss, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) enforce local underworld rules by either torturing parties of interest, or ensuring they live through the night. Isabelle is curvaceous, reluctant, but smart, and transforms into something else entirely. Meanwhile, Barker, a male authority figure, inverts. He becomes a sad sack of lasciviousness and desperation, pining after Mary after he has had too many drinks.
The body horror inherent in this bent little number is a clear tribute to Eli Roth. Bar owner Billy actually bears a striking resemblance to Roth, albeit a progressively dishevelled Roth. In one instance, the mutilation directly salutes Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series, particularly the methods with which the demonic Cenobites exact pain and pleasure from their victims. But unlike other horror fare such as Hostel and Saw, nearly all of the bodily mutilation occurs off-screen. As a result, viewers squirm and twist in their own imaginings. In some places, ironically, this less-is-more technique disappoints. For insance, when two twin sisters (creepily portrayed by the Soska sisters, adopting German accents) request an operation to bring them closer together, the viewer is denied seeing the final result. Instead, they only get a brief glimpse of the design drawn on a piece of paper.


Mary, Mary, why you bugging? See the film - and the obvious reference to I Spit On Your Grave - and find out.
As an aside, Mary is whole different monster when compared with the first Soska sisters’ effort. The riotous, uneven, but amusing 2009 movie, Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Made for $2,500, Hooker proves the old axiom that you get what you pay for-ludicrous violence, exploitation, mediocre acting and all. Watch it (preferably as a three-beer viewing) and witness watch a woman protagonist kick some butt, while accepting the feature's lunatic sense of humour and lack of verisimilitude. There's latent talent in Hooker, as evidenced by the end credits, which reveal that just  most things in the film, including make-up, lighting, and design, were done by the same half-dozen people.

Katherine Isabelle as Mary, the driving force in this bigger, badder and arguably better feature, was also fabulous as the coming-of-age heroine in the Ginger Snaps series trilogy. Disclaimer: This reviewer, admittedly, only viewed the first Ginger, dismayed, as he was by descriptions of time-travel in one of the two sequels. Her Mary is smart, detached, and tough. She diminishes most of the male cast simply by merely being present and powerful, even as she appears often gloriously stylish and sensual and, alternately, coldly modified herself. Mary’s bad; the film Mary is very good
In the end, the film is about the transformation of a character into the Other, and how people want to look, no matter the cost, physically or financially. It’s also partially a study in body modification subculture, featuring what appear to be actual modified people with a variety of  body mods – forked tongues, altered limbs, and reconfigured faces. In this sense, Mary is a modernised version of Freaks, displaying genuine subjects matter-of-factly. A group of rogue surgeons is particularly quirky to the point of appearing obviously sociopathic. The Soskas' use of depth-of-field is a merging of Orson Welles’ directorial eye and Roman Polanski’s. The viewer has to discern the out-of-focus background details that are creeping into their consciousness. This a gratifying exercise for the audience, along with the remainder of unsettling film. The only caveat to Mary being so-bad-she’s-good and Mary being good is the finale. The abrupt ending leaves the viewer scratching their head over why the story wraps up within minutes.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Jeffrey Round wins Lambda Literary Award

I now have proof positive that I bet on winning horses - that is, I tend to interview or write about authors whose work speaks to me, inspires me, entertains me, or provokes me.

In this case, I have interviewed one Mr. Jeffrey Round on more than one occasion. On June 3, 2013, Mr. Round accepted the Lambda Literary Award for his novel, Lake On the Mountain (Dundurn Press, 2012).

Photo of the award winner himself, author Jeffrey Round.
Round is a Toronto writer whose charm is exceeded only by his prolific output of novels, both mystery and literary, and his mix of humor, literary acumen, and memorable characters. Lake On the Mountain was no exception, and won me over, as many of his works have. Lake features Dan Sharpe, a detective struggling with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and relating to his very few loved ones. Simultaneously, he tries to solve a mystery about a missing person, set in and around Toronto, no less. I most recently wrote about Round in mthe April 26, 2012 issue of Xtra: Canada's gay & lesbian news.

Round has two other rather underrated literary novels. The first is The Honey Locust (Cormorant Books, 2009), which portrays a dysfunctional family and heroine who escapes her stifling family life by becoming a wartime photographer. A Cage of Bones is the other. Rounder Publications thankfully released a second edition in 2008. Bones concerns a young, gay male model leaving safe Toronto for the precarious world of professional modeling and self-realization. In both instances, Round hits his literary notes out of the ballpark, showing us where he lives, as they used to say in little league baseball. Both novels are worthy discoveries for any discerning reader.

Quill and Quire ran the award story on their website on June 5, 2013.





David W. McFadden wins Griffin Poetry Prize

I also want to add that poet and novelist David W. McFadden landed this year's Griffin Poetry Prize. Here's an example of a wordsmith who has been at his craft for five decades and running and more than deserves this recognition.

My congratulations go out to him. Congratulations, Uncle Dave, as one good friend fondly calls him - or simply, Dave, as I call him.

You can read more about his travel books and poetry at the Tree Reading Series site.

Photo of Mr. David W. McFadden, from the Tree Reading Series website.

 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Globe and Mail article attacks the Griffin Prize

Jared Bland, of The Globe and Mail, has decided to attack the idea of the Griffin Prize in his June 13 article, The Griffin Prize: A Canadian category has no rhyme or reason. The Griffin Prize, for the unitiated, is a rather useful recompense for Canadian poets struggling to both write and maintain a living, as well as to celebrate our writers as they deserve to be celebrated. This is a risible editorial in a time when Canada should be proudly supporting its artists when it can at. At the very least, Canada should be recognizing them.
 
The Griffin Prize recognizes the best single volume of work published by a Canadian and the best single volume of work (in English) from around the world.
The annual award is $65,000, a figure that Bland implies is an outrageous amount. Bland employs fragmentary sentences. To describe. How poets get $65,000. Each. And, yes. He does come off. Sounding very much. Like William Shatner. In prose.
In his article, Bland suggests that the former competition should be expanded to include poets from around the world, the goal being to class up the competition and force Canadian scribes to compete on the worldwide stage. This argument is misguided and misses the idea of the Griffin. Bland does not seem to grasp the concept that the Griffin is designed not only to foster the reading and appreciation of poetry among the general public, but to support Canadian poets who have had a long history of being underpaid. Bland is also unkind to such poets in his article, not even deigning to name the finalists. As well, he derides the unnamed finalists' works for being “characterized by a kind of inoffensive geniality”.
As for workaday authors in Canada, being a writer has never been an easy row to hoe. These current times are no exception. Many of Canada's most notable authors, established and obscure, both poets and prose writers, have endured hellishly long draughts of poverty and trying to survive while living under the poverty line.

At a time when a Canadian professional hockey player can start at a rooky salary of $575,000 (before bonuses, at least in the 2011-2012 season), I consider it reprehensible that anyone would want to take away a prize that gives $65,000 - the equivalent of a starting-to-mid-level salary in the Canadian public service -  to a new Canadian poet each year.

 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Note - No, a Review, Really - about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a brilliant novel bursting with the wunderkind energy of being a quasi-fictionalized retelling of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creating Superman. But to limit the work to a simple retelling is misleading, as the Last Son of Krypton and other characters are often referenced in the story. Chabon channels Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin. These are some of the comic-book luminaries who, in a sense, are the clay with which Chabon molds his protagonists much like a Golem. A Golem, in fact, also features in the outlandish prologue and a character’s attempt to flee Nazi-occupied Prague.
 

Kavalier and Clay is a story of two young artists breaking into the burgeoning comic-book industry of the late 1930’s. Brooklyn writer Sam Clay and Czech artist Joe Kavalier enter the rough-and-ready world of these early comics, a time when everyone wanted to mint another Superman and, later in the story, Batman. Clay, a brilliant concept man à la Stan Lee and Kavalier, a gifted artist à la Jack Kirby, try to earn their patch in this zeitgeist. They go through adventures and life changes and swim the rocky waters of a turbulent time that propels both kids through their quests for love, and the hammer-to-iron creation of comics, in all-nighter-weekends of coffee, cigarettes and take-out food. Much of their passion arises from the mad scramble to create comics that  readers will find impossible not to snap off the newsstands. The influences of the big houses is omnipresent in Kavalier, both Marvel Comics and DC comics, or their early incarnations, Marvel Mystery Comics and National Allied Publications.
In short, Chabon’s prose sizzle, pop, and sing through this yarn as Clay and Joe throw themselves into their work and lives in the Big City. Rarely has a book so delighted this reader. It’s the kind of novel you finish, put down, and think about. Then, a few years pass and you're still thinking about it. Thinking about it so much, in fact, that you may reread it. If I have one qualm it is that the ending seems a little curt in comparison to the vast and engrossing remaining 95 per cent of the novel.
Now, because Kavalier and Clay was so brilliant, one can find it harder to read Telegraph Avenue, Chabon’s new 2012 novel. While Telegraph is a good read, Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, an immersing, dynamic, surprise-filled tale of two young rogues scribbling and pencilling their way through a quick adolescence and early adulthood, is utterly phenomenal. In many instances, Chabon’s descriptions, of Kavalier pulling off an escape feat, or of Clay imagining a new story or hero, are breathtaking.

I have admittedly not read Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which he published at 25, or Wonder Boys, whose cinematic version I have viewed many times. I suspect that each of these works also warrants a read.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Notes on Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue




American novelist Michael Chabon, begging, borrowing and mining his own material, has crafted an epic timepiece with Telegraph Avenue. The 465-page book, set in Oakland, California, is a stew of Chabon's recognizable themes, almost unbearably imperfect characters, shot through with comic-book and other pop-culture references. The plot centers on Archy Luther and Nat Jaffe, the proprietors of Brokeland Music, a community hub for customers who daily loiter at the counter. Archy, a black character, and Nat, a Caucasian one, are best friends. They are the centre of the wheel whose spokes include Gwen Shanks, Archy’s imminently pregnant wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, Nat’s wife, and midwife partner of Gwen, as well as Julius Jaffe, their 14-year-old son, emerging into his own teen identity.

What drives the plot forward, despite Chabon’s seemingly best efforts at delay, are baron-of-industry Gibson Goode’s plans to install a massive Dogpile megamall. Dogpile could foster black community spirit through jobs, but also grind the flagging Brokeland Music into bankruptcy.  


The locals view the larger-than-life personality of ex-pro football athlete, Gibson Goode and his plans to install his extremely successful business in Oakland, as untrustworthy at best and menacing at worst. His enterprising villainy acts as a foil, bringing out the worst and best in Archy and Nat. Goode also flies around in a zeppelin displaying the Dogpile logo. The name is both a crude reference to a white male inferiority complex regarding black male virility, and a metaphor for the menace Goode represents to Brokeland Records and, thus, its owners. The zeppelin, as absurd a visual device as it is (i.e.: Look what’s looming overhead! The uncertain future!), does add an Ahab-and-Moby-Dick allegory that shadows Archy and Nat.

Chabon mixes in rich references to not only music (characters’ reviews of jazz, funk, soul, blues), but also pop culture,  particularly Marvel Comics and DC Comics characters, and sci-fi film staples such as Star Wars and Star Trek. These topics are so hot and heavy that the reader often wonders if Chabon was on a Quentin Tarantino and comic book bender when he wrote the novel. Characters also repeatedly discuss the director, and his films.

Telegraph Avenue’s first half lurches more than moves forward, with character establishment aplenty. Gwen and Aviva endure professional trials as midwives. Archy and Nat grapple over whether to fight the Dogpile move, or to join Gibson Goode. Julius develops a friendship with an estranged black  boy named Titus Joyner.


About halfway through this rich narrative, anyone who has read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or has seen or watched Chabon’s Wonder Boys will note several familiar elements, here. The latter novel was also a 2000 feature film starring Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, and Katie Holmes (arguably Holmes' last good role). The film is stellar and odd at once, and worth repeated viewings.

Without revealing more of the plot, there are long-lost relatives, massive works-in-progress, gifted young artists, dope, and chronic indecision in Telegraph, all of which Chabon has used before.

There is a long-lost father and a long-lost son in Telegraph, as there were in Kavalier. There’s a character coming out of the closet, as in both previous books. Telegraph also features an unfinished opus, a common trait in Wonder and Kavalier. Archy’s deadbeat, drug addict dad, Luther, a washed-up kung-fu action hero, has for years been planning a third installment of his ubiquitous Strutter series, much like Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder has been writing a never-ending novel and much like a character in Kavalier chips away at a novel over the course of many years.

Chabon also adores a prodigy. Titus, Julius' chum in Telegraph, has written three screenplays, showing signs of a young ingénue. The James Leer character in Wonder is an English Lit major with a novel under his belt, a work that might be brilliant.

Marijuana features in Wonder and Telegraph; while Archy is alright with indulging, in moments of deep self pity, of smoking pot in Telegraph,Professor Tripp in Wonder is a pothead, hence his endless prose. 

Archy is also yet another chronically indecisive person, as Tripp was in Wonder. Tripp’s problem was that he smoked too much dope, wouldn’t finish his novel, and wouldn’t commit to his girlfriend and leave his wife. Thus, the currents of life washed Tripp about at their whimsy. Likewise, Telegraph’s Archy navigates the eddies and flows of a furious wife, a courting Gibson Goode, an irascibly cranky best friend, an absentee father who asks for a handout, and other challenges that he is simply ill-equipped to handle.

As a reader, the weight of these above comparisons detracted from my initial enjoyment of Telegraph.

Luckily for me, and, moreover, for Chabon, he rises above his rather familiar literary playground. He increases the pace of the prose after half-time. Chabon also displays characters enduring the human condition. He places readers in their shoes, miserable or no, and immerses the reader in their lives and mindsets.

What also won this reviewer over was not knowing exactly how Chabon would conclude his tale. At one moment, readers might expect a kung-fu rally from Luther Stallings, or perhaps a cheaper plot turn, a bad fate for the aforementioned zeppelin. But to speculate further would ruin many surprises. As it stands, I was uncertain what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised by the ending, where (A lesser reviewer would insert a spoiler here, assuming everyone would want to know everything before reading the book.).

With many of Chabon's names, one also sees a tongue-in-cheek humour coming through. After all, in a story drenched in comic-book tribute, it cannot be coincidence that the shifty  father figure who abandoned Archy is named Luther (as in Lex Luthor) Stallings (as in his career did not take off after his heyday of blaxploitation/kung-fu flicks). Gideon Goode is also a good handle. Gideon means “Warrior” or “Feller”, taken from Judges 6 to 8 in the Hebrew Bible. The surname Goode, admittedly, is a cleverly ironic surname for an antagonist.

And Goode does antagonize Brokeland’s proprietors, quickening both plot and interest for readers and making ordeals unbearably uncomfortable. Will Luther, a hapless former action star, make his movie, through blackmail and subterfuge? Will Archy join Goode or fight for Brokeland Records? Will Gwen continue being a midwife and tolerate indignities foisted upon her by medical professionals? What will become of Julius, struggling to realize who he is? Chabon’s characters are flawed—hotheaded or lazy or uneasy or simply trying to find their way. They stumble through a dense murk of pop culture fixations, as well as wild and dangerous circumstances far beyond their control, perhaps toward salvation, perhaps towards further indignities, accompanied by the soundtrack of their lives, and their continuing passion for music they love.

On that note (pun intended), Chabon takes the long way around, blowing notes and solos and getting into flights of fancy about the music obsessing his characters and, presumably, himself. He blows prose like musical notes through a trombone or trumpet or saxaphone, perhaps with a dash of Jack Kerouac melody in there. One rather amazing chapter features a parrot’s point-of-view of all of the major players dealing with their lives, as the bird coasts above Oakland, adrift on the whims of an unexpected fate. Likewise, Archy and Nat, for all their foibles, feel cast adrift together. They represent an era where vinyl records sold well, customers loitered in the store for hours, and listeners cared about unearthing amazing music.