Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

by Michael Chabon

I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but I really didn't care for Chabon's latest book Telegraph Avenue. I feel embarrassed because I know I'm part of a very small minority with my opinion and I feel like the problem must somehow lie with me.

First let me say that Chabon is an excellent writer. I've enjoyed the other half a dozen or so books by him I've read, especially The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier & Clay which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which won numerous awards, including the Hugo and Nebula awards. So it's not that I don''t like his writing, which I'll admit, with Chabon's monstrous vocabulary, and seemingly intentional efforts to entertain himself by seeing how far he can stretch his readers' acceptance of what should be allowed with the written word (in this one he wrote a sentence that was 12 pages long) isn't for everyone.

Maybe it was his characters in this one and their lack of appeal to me that would explain my ambivalence with the book. Whatever the case is, to those who really liked the book and who believe Chabon can do no wrong, I apologize, I just didn't get this one. To those who haven't read the book, but who plan to, good luck. I wish you well.

The story takes place in the Berkeley/Oakland area in 2004. The livelihoods of two friends and used record store owners, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are threatened with the announcement of a huge mega-music store owned by an ex-NFL star that is planning to open down the street along Telegraph Avenue. Archy's very life is at risk as well when his pregnant wife Gwenn discovers his recent infidelities. Gwen and Nat's wife Aviva, who work together as midwives, likewise face a threat to their careers when a problematic delivery leads to a heated confrontation with a racist doctor at a nearby hospital and a moment of poor judgement for Gwen.

To further complicate the lives of Archy and Gwen, Archy's illegitimate 14-year old son Titus, whom Archy has never informed Gwen of his existence, shows up and wants to live with them--and falls madly in love with Nat's gay son Julius. I'll admit I enjoyed the parts of the story that focused on Archy's own father, a retired blaxploitation kung fu movie star who plans to make a comeback now that he's clean and sober. The rest of the book . . . not so much.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bowl of Heaven

by Larry Niven & Gregory Benford

Bowl of Heaven is the first book by either Larry Niven or Gregory Benford that I've ever read. They've both been well-regarded science fictin authors for many years, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to get a taste of what both of them have to offer.
The premise is great--a group of astronauts leaves earth on a voyage, many centuries long, to a newly-discovered planet called Glory. On their way there though, they discover something that even the most advanced minds on earth could never have imagined. While most of the time the crew is kept in a state of deep sleep, in order to survive the voyage, some are periodically awoken in order to get them to Glory. When Cliff, a biologist, is woken up, he initially believes it's because they've finally reached their destination,k but he soon finds that that's not the case. Two things have occurred that have prompted the skeletal crew to begin waking other key members of the crew early--after only 80 years.
The first is that they've discovered the ship is inexplicably losing velocity, and if the problem can't be fixed, they'll run out of supplies well short of Glory. The second is that they've discovered something relatively nearby. It's manufactured, it's moving, and it's the size of the entire solar system they left behind. It's a bowl-shaped starship, its surface area is millions of times that of earth's, and it's harnessed the power of an entire star for its means of propulsion.
The ship's commander has no choice but to land inside the bowl.He neds to determine what's behind their loss of velocity, and hopefully replenish their supplies. What they find as they arrive on the inners surface of the bowl continues to defy their perceptions of what could ever be created.
Unfortunately for Niven and Benford (and me) their idea, is great, but their story isn't. Their characters are flat, the alien races they encounter are disappointingly uninteresting, and while they intentionally end the book with many unanswered questions in order to build anticipation for the next book, they didn't pique my interest enough to make sure I'll be reading it.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆