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Favorite Book of 2012: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I read a number of outstanding books in 2012. Among these were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers, Defending Jacob by William Landay, and Canada by Richard Ford. However, my favorite book of 2012 was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

This is a highly subjective judgment, but, for me, a great book not only must have great characters and tell a compelling story, but it must say something important about the human condition. Chabon’s book does all of these things and more. It holds a mirror up to the times in which we live. The 2012 national election was proof yet again that we live in a divided nation, with 51 percent of voters supporting President Obama and 49 percent voting for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, political analysts noted a subtle, but permanent change in the electorate in 2012. No longer will elections be decided by older white males. The demographics of the country are changing. As I write this, Congressional leaders are deadlocked over a fix to the fiscal cliff, further evidence of what divides us.

Chabon acknowledges this diversity in Telegraph Avenue, but his message is one of hope. Telegraph Avenue is the fault line between a hardscrabble neighborhood of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley campus. Chabon mines the rich diversity of this area as the setting serves to underscore the themes of racial, gender and political divisions, but he is not just interested in what divides us, but what brings us together.

The story centers on business partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a barely surviving used record store called Brokeland Records. The store is threatened when superstar athlete-turned-business-tycoon Gibson Goode,  proposes a mega entertainment complex for the neighborhood, including a used record store that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

One of the major aspects of this novel is music, specifically the soul music of the 1970s. At one point, Goode laments the changes he has witnessed in music. “The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me,” says Goode. “You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms I love it…But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music nowadays. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying.”

Goode is talking about soul music, but he could just as easily be discussing politics, civility, or the state of our nation as a whole.

Later in the story, Nat Jaffe reflects on the unlikely business partnerships that he and his white wife, Aviva, have struck with Archy Stallings and his wife, Gwen Shanks. The breakup of their partnerships, he concluded, had more to do with class than race. “The differences in class and education among the four of them canceled out without regard for stereotype or cultural expectation: Aviva and Archy both had been raised by blue-collar aunts who worked hard to send them to lower-tier colleges. The white guy was the high school dropout , the black woman upper middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up the world.”

In the end Stallings has an epiphany of sorts and the reader is left with a feeling that things will be okay, that this volatile cast of characters will figure out a way to get along.

What was your favorite book of 2012?

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Book Review: “Canada,” by Richard Ford

Readers who pick up Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, expecting a Frank Bascombe character are in for a surprise. Canada is far removed from the Frank Bascombe trilogy in tone, setting, characters, and subject matter.

At its heart, Canada is about crossing borders—not the physical one that separates the two nations. The border theme is at work on many levels. The main character, Dell, crosses the border between a child’s innocence and the sober realities of life. Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, cross the border between normalcy and desperation, as evidenced by the shocking bank robbery they pull off that leads to their demise and destroys their family. Berner, Dell’s twin sister, crosses a border of her own, leaving the house after her parents’ arrest for the independence she craves.

The book’s dramatic opening line sets the stage: “First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Bev Parsons has just retired from the Air Force after twenty years, but he is ill-prepared for civilian life in Great Falls, Montana. After failing as a car salesman, he gets involved in a scheme with a group of Native Americans to sell stolen beef. When a deal goes awry, the Native Americans come after Bev for the money, which leads to the ill-fated decision to enlist his wife’s aid to rob a bank in North Dakota. When his parents are arrested, Dell is taken by a friend of his mother’s to a desolate outpost in Saskatchewan to escape a bleak fate as a ward of the state. Life on the harsh prairie is not much better. Dell works at a hotel for the mysterious Arthur Remlinger, who is on the run from his own past.

Dell is forced to grow up quickly, as he sees and experiences things no 15-year-old should. He learns to adapt, to cope with what seems an impossible life. After the bank robbery that destroyed his family, Dell reflects, “It’s best to see our life and the activities that ended it, as two sides of one thing that have to be held in mind simultaneously to properly understand—the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous–one so close to the other. Any different way of looking at our life threatens to disparage the crucial , rational, commonplace part we lived, the part in which everything makes sense to those on the inside—and without which none of this is worth hearing about.”

His parents’ disastrous choices leave Dell in a conundrum. “For reasons of our parents’ disastrous choices, I believe I’m both distrustful of normal life and in equal parts desperate for it.”

As she drives Dell across the border into Canada, Mildred Remlinger tells him, “Your life’s going to be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present. Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing.”

For most of the people he meets, Dell discovers crossing the border into Canada didn’t change their lives, a fact Arthur Remlinger acknowledges. “You might as well go back. I would if I were you. Everybody should enjoy a second chance.”

What he finally discovers is that life is about crossing borders. “My conceit is always “crossing a border;” from a way of living that doesn’t work toward one that does. It can also be about crossing a line and never being able to come back.”

Ford chooses to tell the tale from the perspective of Dell as a 66-year-old retired teacher living in Canada. This perspective lends a maturity and a depth to the character. We see Dell develop as he must endure harrowing circumstances, as seen from a sober, mature lens.

This is a novel the reader must read slowly and savor. Dell’s remarkable journey is its strength. His survival gives him the gift of wisdom. As he looks back on his life, Dell states, “What I know is, you have a better chance in life—of surviving it—if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find.”

Canada showcases Ford at his best. I highly recommend it.

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