Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
By Michael Chabon

When 17 year old, Sammy Klayman, later Clay, meets his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier, for the first time in 1939 Long Island, it's a match made in comic book heaven. Recently escaped from Prague during the Nazi oppression, Josef finds an immediate friend in Sammy as the two share mutual interests in common such as a love of magic and escape artists like Harry Houdini and an interest in drawing. The love of drawing turns into a career in the comic books industry as Sammy talks his way into getting the two a job in a novelty products-turned-comic book company.

The boys ultimately revitalize the comics industry with their characters The Escapist, a mysterious individual who with his group, The Sacred Golden Key conspire to help people escape from Nazi Germany and Luna Moth, a female librarian turned superhero. The two reach success but not without the usual problems and difficulties.

Josef falls in love with Rosa Saks a bohemian artist (and the inspiration for Luna Moth), while trying to help get his family out of Prague. Sammy meanwhile is struggling through the ashes of a failed literary career and discovers his own sexuality after falling in love with radio actor, Tracy Bacon.

This story is a superb work of historical fiction combining a history of the Golden Age of Comics with the harsh difficulties of WWII- Europe and America, and the comfortable ennui of post-War suburbia in the later chapters. Of particular notice in the book is the history of the Comic Books industry. All of the high points are there including the 1938 creation of Superman which was followed by various other superheroes many of whom like Supes are still around to this day to the 1954 Kefauver Senate Hearings in which comic books and graphic novels were cited as reasons for
juvenile delinquincy. Any comic book fan would delight in the references and cameos by some of the Golden Age greats as Jerry Siegal, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Stan Lee and many others. Joe and Sammy are themselves possible stand-ins for Superman's creators, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Like Joe and Sammy they too were young Jewish teenagers when they created a character that had instant success and just like their fictional counterparts, they were swindled into selling the rights to their characters and being deprived of its residuals and royalties.

Joe and Sammy are wonderful characters throughout the book and their many struggles which make The Escapist's fights against Fascism seem minor by comparison. Joe is driven by his hatred of the Nazis and his motivation to rescue his family. The chapter when he discovers his little brother's fate and the chapters that follow are moving as they show a man who has reached his breaking point and teeters on the edge of sanity as he withdraws further into his fantasy world of magic and daring escapes.

Sammy too comes across as a strong character, particularly in his romantic scenes with Tracy Bacon. He is alternately flirtatious and charming with his lover and fearful of the consequences of being a homosexual, as in a striking scene when Sammy is a witness to an FBI raid at a gay club. This incident leads to years of self-denial and bitterness as he attempts to build a typical suburban life with Rosa leading only to frustration and despair.

Kavalier and Clay is the type of book that describes both a world of fantasy and a world of reality and describes them both very well.

 Further Links For Discussion and Activity Suggestions

The Hero Factory- Have you ever wanted to create a superhero of your own? What would it look like? What would be its special powers? Its strengths and weaknesses? Here's your chance. Create a superhero then share some ideas about their adventures, in a comic strip, or a video, or a story detailing their daring adventures. Have fun and be creative.

Digital Comics Museum-This website shows the real-life Escapists and Luna Moths, characters and comics that were created during the Golden Age of Comic Books. Most are in the public domain and can be downloaded. Look through various graphic novels and comic books. Who are some of your favorite characters? Who do they fight? What do you like about them? Do you have a particular favorite story or version of them, perhaps the film version? Why do people like these characters so much? What do they say about us? Share some of your insights about the world of comics.

Literary Discussion Questions

1. The most prominent theme in this book is the desire to escape. What do Joe and Sammy want to escape from? How does the Escapist help them escape their difficulties? Do they succeed in escaping or are they still trying? Why do people turn to escapist literature such as fantasy, romance, or science fiction? Have you ever escaped into a world of fiction? Why were you drawn to it?

2. What kind of heroes are The Escapist and Luna Moth? What are their abilities, their strengths, and weaknesses? How are they magnified in the characters of Joe, Sammy, and Rosa? Some people believe that when people write fiction, they are putting parts of themselves into the characters. Do you think this is true of Sammy and Joe, why or why not? How do the characters go through various changes through the years, what inspirations led to these changes?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sarum By Edward Rutherford

Sarum cover,


By Edward Rutherfurd

One of my favorite genres to read is historical fiction and in terms of historical fiction Edward Rutherfurd's novels could be considered the King (or technically the Prince since James Michener  is one of the originators of this
idea of big sprawling epics starring multi-generations).  While Philippa Gregory, Margaret George and others (all fine authors) are known for humanizing public figures such as royals, Rutherford takes the approach
of putting "regular people" in the center of epic events and how the average citizen was affected
by the changing times.

Rutherfurd's Sarum was the first in a long line of books detailing history through the eyes of several
generations. First published in 1987, the novel shows the history of England, particularly the history
of Sarum later known as Salisbury the home of Stonehenge through the eyes of several families from the Ice Age all the way up to 1985 during a ceremony honoring Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge.
Five families in particular share the spotlight:

The Wilsons-The first family first  mentioned during the Ice Age. Often described as fisher folk with very distinct long toes (Rutherfurd often gives families certain genetic traits that carry over the generations). They later have many relatives who scheme and bicker against other characters in attempts to climb higher in status, particularly during the Middle Ages when most of the Wilsons are seen as charismatic but manipulative figures.  Ultimately separating into two families, The Forests, wealthy titled landowners and the Wilsons, poorer seafaring relatives. They are present in nearly every chapter.

The Masons-A mostly working class family of skilled tradesmen. Making their debut in the Neolithic era, the Masons took part in building both Stonehenge and the Cathedral. They are also a very religious family having strident Protestants during the Tudor era, Methodists in the Victorian era, and Puritans during the English Civil War. From chapter two on, they are present in every chapter but some more than others.

The Porteus/Porters- Beginning during the Roman era, the Porteus are mostly well-off educated members who seek government administrative or Ecclesiastical positions in the Church. Very strident
law abiding members, they are very prominent in many of the chapters depicting the Roman era and the Middle Ages but begin to disappear towards the 17th century taking only minor roles in the final chapters.

The Shockleys-A mostly farming and business minded family that makes their debut during the Saxon invasion against the Vikings. Very ambitious, strong-willed souls they engage in centuries of rivalries with the Wilsons. They are also known for having members particularly the females who question society's rules and become involved in non-conformist ideals. From their debut on, they are prominent in nearly every chapter.

The Godfreys-A family that began during the Norman Conquest. Originally seen as the archetypal knights with strict moral codes, pilgrimages, and chivalric values, the generations fall further and further into poverty and disgrace until in one of the most heartbreaking scenes a young member in the Victorian era has to sell himself as a human scarecrow before being deported to Australia. More prominent in the Medieval and Renaissance-era chapters, they disappear after their member is transported.

In Rutherfurd's work, we see the world through the characters' eyes and what memorable events do the eyes see. Rutherfurd's talent for historic research is present throughout as he portrays these events which much accuracy and dedicated description. He also is good at portraying the little events of the era such as what happens when a young boy gets accused of killing a lord's deer when a yeoman is watching or the measures that many residents took to avoid catching the Bubonic Plague, which of course in many cases proved just as harmful as the plague itself.

Rutherfurd's details are well executed and his characters are good somewhat. They are memorable people facing these events and are affected by them. Some of the best scenes are these little moments with these ordinary people such as when a Shockley member is the lone survivor in his family of 20 after the Black Death. These are such moments that show the readers how these epic events affected even the most ordinary people better than any history text book ever could.

Sometimes the epic scope runs away with Rutherfurd and characters start to repeat themselves in almost comic ways. How many Wilsons or Forests are described as spider-like or how many Shockley women are referred to as tomboys and share a similar love of horseback riding? In Rutherfurd's later novels such as London and the Dublin Saga, he does a better job of capturing the various characters and making them stand out more on their own terms.  Still, it was an impressive debut on such a expansive epic subject that took a lot of research, a lot of dedication, and a lot of living history.


Links for Further Discussion And Activity Suggestions Family Tree - Who were some of your ancestors? How far back can you identify the previous generations? This activity could be the start of an ongoing treasure hunt in learning about your relatives and where you came from.

Time Capsules- Have you ever seen a time capsule being opened? They are often great ways people have marked important events for future generations to discover. What important events would you want people to know about fifty years from now? Any world events? What about important things in your local area? This link provides eight steps on how to create a time capsule. What would you put in yours?

Questions For Further Discussion

1. Sarum details historic events through they eyes of "common people," tradesmen, farmers, merchants, and religious figures, people who sometimes get overlooked in history accounts. How does this affect your reading? Do you think it's odd that familiar figures such as Kings and Queens or real-life historic figures such as Walter Raleigh, Wat Tyler, and the Duke of Wellington are only talked about but barely shown? How does this affect your perception of history? What important events do you remember happening in your lifetime? How would you describe them to future generations?

2. Sarum carries several themes of inescapable family ties throughout his works and this book is no exception. What characteristics or traits continue throughout the generations? How do the families change with the times or stay the same? Because these traits pop up in various generations, does that mean that the members are fated to carry the same cycles? Do they have choices in what they do or are they ruled by their ancestors' decisions? The last line in the book is "If he thought about the matter at all, he supposed at this place where the five rivers meet, life would go on as it had always done before." How do these words fit the tone and theme of the whole novel?