Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Boy Detective Fails—Joe Memo

In our town - our town of shadows, our town of mystery - it seems our buildings have, without reason, begun to disappear completely. Still full of their loyal inhabitants, the buildings and the people all disintegrate soundlessly. The air has been hard to breathe, full of regret and the glassy voices of the unsurprised dead. (35)

I found this book in a lovely new and used bookstore in Berkeley. As with almost all books, I judged it by it's cover, and found myself intrigued. A disembodied arm being examined by a small, tie-clad boy? Sign me up.

The book follows the life of Billy Argo, a once-lauded boy detective. He used to solve crimes with the assistance of his younger sister Caroline and their neighbor Fenton. Following his high school graduation, Billy leaves home to study Criminology at university. His life is shattered when he hears of the suicide of his younger sister. As it turns out, she had attempted suicide once before but his parents neglected to mention it him. Crippled by her death, and feeling left with nothing but questions in that regard, Billy attempts suicide in the same way as Caroline. His life is saved, but he is committed to a local mental hospital. After ten years, state budget cuts lead to the realization that Billy isn't actually in need of that support and medication any longer. He is transitioned to a sort of halfway house. As he attempts to re-enter the world, the long-dormant questions regarding his sister's death surface, and he once again takes up his magnifying glass and notebook in order to find some answers.

While mostly a quick read, there are moments of touching poignancy as Billy journeys back to something resembling contentedness and sanity. Along the way, there are also special messages and codes for the intrepid reader who cares to decipher them. A quite enjoyable, fairly light-hearted read which allows a brief reminiscence of old school detective stories with a facelift.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Telegraph Avenue—Michael Chabon

From the time he went verbal - two, three years old - Julie had made it a point to appear before the bench with his arguments scrubbed and tidied. Business plan all formatted and punctuated. Scheming, deep scheming, but letting you see that he was scheming, that your consciousness of his machination was a part, maybe the key element of his scheme. (118)

Michael Chabon has been one of my favourite authors ever since I first read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when I was a sophomore in high school. I recently re-read it in anticipation of sending it along to a friend, and I have to say, it is still one of my favourites, and probably my favourite Chabon.

I recently relocated to the Bay Area, and in preparation for that move, investigated publishing companies that might have openings. As a bibliophile, I have this (admittedly idealized) dream of working in a publishing company, just reading books all day. What could be better? It was through this investigation that I was reminded: Chabon resides in the Bay Area. I rediscovered this information when studying the McSweeney's website. McSweeney's, which publishes a fairly well-known quarterly, has several other projects, one of which is printing nonfiction works with some of their contributors, including Chabon.

Almost accidentally, I had the opportunity to attend a Michael Chabon lecture-interview. Just a few days prior, my new roommate Jessica and I had been discussing our mutual admiration for Chabon. As she found out, he was going to be appearing on the day of his new book release for a conversation with Adam Savage, co-host of Mythbusters, as part of San Francisco's City Arts lectures, and in support of 826 Valencia. I took the BART into the city, and walked leisurely to the Herbst Theatre, newly purchased, hot-off-the-presses, brand new Chabon book in my bag. Sitting outside the theatre, reading my new acquisition, I received several inquiries from fellow Chabon lovers, also attending the event. "Is that the new one?" as though an object above the need of a more descriptive noun. The conversation was interesting, inspiring. It made me want to go home and write. (Not given to Chabon's gift with prose and impressive language, however, I refrained.) Jessica, having recently completed writing her own novel, informed me she now felt a part of the brotherhood of authors; even though there is still much to be done, she could relate to the feeling of elation, the urge toward the end of writing to just be done with your characters, the realization that you didn't really know what you were writing about until you finished.

I managed to read about ten pages of Telegraph Avenue before I entered the theatre for the event that night. I knew that it was going to be a good one when I laughed out loud before the end of the second page. Even before that, I fell in love with the cover, which is a record (the book is about a music store), on both the front and back. The "tracks" of the record indicate sections of the book on the front, and on the back, praise for the book. It's set within the confines of the Oakland-Temescal-Berkeley area, or "Brokeland." As a resident of the area, Chabon related at the lecture, he indulged himself in waxing poetic on his most loved locations and happenings in the area. It's hard to begrudge him the indulgence with such beautiful exposition. This book, as with Kavalier & Clay, was much more exposition than conversation. In this way, Chabon personifies the ideal author for me, utilizing words to paint pictures, rather than lazily having his characters do the work with their dialogue. For me, his books (although modern in their subjects) are a throwback to the Romantic authors. Like Victor Hugo, who wrote pages describing Paris before beginning the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The book, while on the surface about a record store in the Brokeland area, at the heart is about relationships. We follow Archy and Nat, and their families, as they try to deal with the new mega-music store which will soon be moving to town and ostensibly put their already struggling record store out of business. Their wives are also partners, in a midwifery business. Typical Chabon, there is also a young man who is struggling with his sexuality, although he struggles less and less as the book goes along. Telegraph Avenue also introduced me more to the new area in which I live. (I actually read Telegraph Avenue as I traveled on a bus down Telegraph Avenue, headed into Berkeley.) Telegraph Avenue is typical, brilliant Chabon.