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Reading Kingsolver and Chabon

Some books create worlds so complex and multifaceted that it’s difficult to write cogently about them, much less reduce them to three or four or five stars. Sometimes my reactions are complicated too, and take time to sort out. I’m glad I’m not a book reviewer by profession; as a fiction writer, I read novels for enjoyment of course, but also to learn - to deconstruct a compelling voice, make mental notes about an unusual perspective or dissect a clever pacing device.

Recently, I’ve read advance copies (thank you, HarperCollins) of two admirable and complex novels: FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver and TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon. I’m still chewing on the varied delights offered by both of them, and still second-guessing my criticisms.
Both Kingsolver and Chabon are talented and smart. I imagine them each having mental closets filled with cardboard boxes jammed full of knowledge – of science and ecology, of jazz and film and kung-fu, of local history and culture – that enriches a story and invites readers to dive in.

I’m a long-time fan of Kingsolver’s fiction; I’ve read all her novels, several of them multiple times. In fact, there’s a quote from ANIMAL DREAMS that has been thumb-tacked on the bulletin board over my writing desk since I first read that book in about 1990: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” But I was apprehensive starting FLIGHT BEHAVIOR. Although I love Kingsolver’s prose and greatly admire her courage in writing fiction that tackles urgent political subjects, I sometimes feel “preached at.” I’m probably more sensitive than most readers to this authorial intrusion; I am aware of that risk in my own writing and work hard to banish the lecturing voice.

The opening paragraphs of FLIGHT BEHAVIOR captivated me. A bored young wife and mother is en route up the mountain to “throw away her life” through adultery when she sees a Tennessee mountain version of a burning bush, and reconsiders. Dellarobia is a compelling character; smart and self-aware, she is deeply entrenched in community and her culture but thoughtful and critical of it. Her response to what she sees on the mountain trigger a cascade of events that bring national attention to her Appalachian world and change her life. Once again, Kingsolver uses her scientific training and considerable descriptive abilities to engage the reader with a critical socio-political issue.

My worries, however, were also valid. Kingsolver lectures the reader though her characters in large and small ways. Most of the time, I could let these bits pass with just a sigh, but occasionally they jarred me from the novel with its otherwise perfect pacing, nuanced characters, and beautifully articulated yearnings.

I am familiar with and very fond of the border areas of Berkeley and Oakland that form the setting for TELEGRAPH AVENUE. I love the novel’s complicated and intertwined families – Archy and Gwen with the imminent birth of one son and the unexpected appearance of another; Nat and Aviva and their teenage son Julie’s infatuation with Archy’s prodigal offspring; Gwen and Aviva’s threatened midwifery business; Archy and Nat’s failing record store and dysfunctional friendship. I admire the undertones and rhythms of racial politics woven throughout these stories, wished for emphasis on these. I love the history and geography of the setting. I like the backstories and the sidestories, which generally added tone and color to the book.

This book is sometimes messy, and the staggering amount of detail from those mental cardboard boxes, and the sheer wordiness of Chabon’s prose – which is indeed gorgeous, stunning, dazzling – occasionally got in the way of my enjoyment, sabotaging my attention. I wanted more story from this talented storyteller, more character, and less literary pyrotechnics. (For example, I could have totally done without the 12-page, one-paragraph, one-sentence chapter from the point of view (sort of) of a liberated African grey parrot.)

Even when they are a bit preachy or messy, these are two amazing books that successfully tackle big themes and serious subject matter. Both are compelling, important, and ultimately satisfying books.
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