Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Posted by Simcha 5:24 PM, under | 8 comments

Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Natzi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin, Sammy Clay, is looking for partner to create heroes, stories and art for the latest novelty to hit America- the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create teh Escapist, the Monitor and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men, With exhilarating style adn grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

Until last month I had never heard of the
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer winning book. While I was familiar with some of Chabon’s other works, this one, which was published back in 2000, somehow slipped under my radar. But suddenly everywhere I look Kavalier & Clay is being mentioned or reviewed. It was even chosen for Books on the Nightstand's January book discussion. And so when I stopped off at the second-hand bookstore a couple of weeks ago, to see if they had gotten in anything new and there was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay- I knew it was A Sign.

If I was the kind of reader who took at face-value each raving comment included on a book’s cover, my expectations for
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay would have been astronomically high. With quotes from Time Magazine, The New York Times, News Day and CNN (to name a few) heaping praise on Kavalier & Clay it’s clear that this book has made an impression. But I always take these quotes with a grain of salt and was prepared to make my own judgments about the book.

Since I’ve always had a fascination with Houdini, a reference to the magician in the very first paragraph of the book quickly pulled me into the story, and from that point on I was solidly hooked.

We meet Sammy Klayman (later Clay) and Joseph Kavalier at the same moment that they first meet each other, in Sammy’s boyhood bedroom in 1939. Joseph has just arrived in his aunt’s house in Brooklyn after escaping from Nazi Germany by a trick involving a coffin and the famous Golem of Prague. At first Sammy is not sure what to make of his hollowed-cheeked cousin, but once he discoveres Joseph’s artistic talents his enterprising mind quickly grasps that this is the chance he has been waiting for. Sammy has always dreamed of creating his own comic books and with his cousin’s skill at drawing Sammy now has the chance to make his dreams come true.

Together, Sam and Joe create a whole new cast of masked superheroes with stories focused on fighting real-life villains. For Joe, drawing stories in which Hitler gets defeated again and again by his invincible heroes is his way of taking action against the Germans; a way of keeping him from feeling completely helpless. Plus, with the money set aside from the comics Joe is able to save a little each month for the day when his family will be able to join him in America.

As Joe begins to settle into his new life in America he finds himself in a constant struggle between his desire to lead a normal life and his overwhelming guilt for enjoying himself while his family suffers in Germany. And while Sam delights in watching his comics grow in popularity he slowly discovers unexpected truths about himself which he is unsure about how to handle.

When I first read the synopsis of
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I was a bit hesitant about reading it since I don’t anything about comic books, which seemed to be the main theme of the story. But I needn’t have worried because Kavalier & Clay is about so much more than just comics. It’s a coming-of age story about two boys and the struggles they deal with while growing up during WWII. I think I experienced every kind of emotion while reading this book, which was both exhausting and exhilarating. There were moments of happiness and tragedy, poignancy and humor, love and death, all balanced out in a way that never made the book feel too emotionally overwhelming for me to get through.

And while I didn’t have any particular interest in comic books before reading Kavalier & Clay I ended up really enjoying gaining a new perspective about them and learning to appreciate the art that goes into them. I had also never given much thought to the early creators of comic book heroes, many of whom were Jewish, and who used this art form to express their own fears and struggles during this difficult time in history. After finishing
Kavalier & Clay I felt some regret that the characters I had just read about were not actually real, though I quickly resolved to find some books about the people who were the inspiration for them.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an excellent book that had me throughly engrossed for days. Despite my enjoyment of it, though, I wouldn’t say that I’m as enamored with it as so many other readers and reviewers seem to be. Why this is, I'm not really sure, but I do know of many other people who I'm sure will love the book and I plan on making sure that each and every one of them reads it.


I debated picking this one up over my winter break, but it's so big! So I decided to maybe wait until the summer, when I should have a little more time :-)

My friend loved loved this book, and made me read it, 2 years or so. I did enjoy it, well-done and something cool about it. But did not love it as much as she did

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite books. I love that it's one of those books that what it's about (comics), isn't what it's about at all. I remember when I read it I couldn't put it down.

I didn't love it as much as Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I still could not resist the shear poetry of Chabon's prose.

Simcha - I've been debating what to pick for my book club next month (my turn) and reading your post just cinched it. I'm going to finally tackle this one.

I read this on a flight back from England and was unimpressed with it. But so many of my favorite bloggers have read it that I'm thinking now I need to give it another chance.

Aarti: That was my approach before reading the Passage, which did end up taking me a while to read, but this book went by very quickly and didn't feel long at all.

Blodeuedd: That's pretty much my reaction to the book. I enjoyed it a lot but wasn't as passionate about it as so many other people seem to be.

redhead: I enjoyed the parts about the comics a lot more than I had expected to and was actually disappointed with the focus of the story shifted away.

rhapsodyinbooks: The title of the Yiddush Policeman just turned me off and so I never read it, even when I had a copy. But I now that I have some experience with Chabon's writing I think I'll give it a try.

Stephanie: This would be a great book club book. I need to get some of my friends to read it so I can have someone to discuss it with.

Jenny: I's be interested in hearing if your thoughts about the book chance after a second reading of it. While I enjoyed it I'm not sure if this is a book that I would reread.

I've never even heard of this book, thanks for sharing the review, I'll have to pick it up. I just finished a book last night that I have to recommend, it's a book by Leonid Korogodski called Pink Noise: A Posthuman Tale and it is one of the most compelling stories I've read in a while. The story deals with posthumans, mind battles, and beautifully described sci-fi scenes.

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