Wednesday, 14 June 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon


           Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has written what he officially describes as a memoir of his childhood and youth with the three most important people in it:  his mother and her parents, each vastly different in outlook and personality, but each equally beloved despite the life-changing mistakes and missteps made throughout their lives together and the misfortune that strikes when they are not looking (and even when they are!).  In fact, there is so much travail in their lives that they wonder why God can’t leave these particular Jews alone for a change and go off to bother someone else?  As if.
              Mr Chabon mysteriously never names his mother and her family, but does mention his grandfather’s brother by name – uncle Reynard, a character who could carry the story by himself, initially the darling of his family and showing brilliant religious promise by becoming a dashing and eligible young Rabbi at the local Synagogue – until he experiences a huge crisis of faith (he says) and pursues the alternate life of a pool shark and all-round shady character.  What a transformation!  But he is instrumental in arranging the meeting at a social night in the Synagogue between his reluctant brother, just back from the war traumatised and unemployed, and a beautiful and exotic refugee with a French accent, a little daughter (Mr Chabon’s future mother),  yet to be revealed mental problems, and a set of numbers tattooed on her left arm.
            Married life is difficult from the start:  the new bride is constantly beset by terrible war-induced fears and hallucinations requiring costly hospital treatment and necessitating in the author’s mother living a gypsy existence among relatives (she even stays with Uncle Ray!) as her stepfather tries to keep working and provide a home for her;  those days are grim indeed, but recounted with wondrous skill, humour and verve.  There are random flashbacks to the Grandfather’s war in Germany ‘cleaning up’ with the Army Engineers and experiencing the true horrors of Nazi brutality as the American troops reach Nordhausen and its huge slave factories, birthplace of the V2 rockets, those exquisitely designed missiles which should have been aiming at the stars, instead turned into weapons of death by their inventor, Wernher von Braun.
            It is of lasting shame to the grandfather that he could not pursue and ‘remove’ Von Braun before the scientist decided which of his enemies to surrender to, eventually giving himself up to the USA, a much better choice than Russia: it is an enemy that allowed him to exercise his genius on the American Space Program, creating the Saturn V rocket and the means by which Old Glory was proudly raised on the moon – propelled there by ‘a ladder of bones’, for Von Braun’s Nazi past is mysteriously forgotten, expunged completely from the record as America celebrated Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on Earth’s nearest neighbour.  And, when the world was watching the TV coverage with bated breath, Michael Chabon’s grandfather left the room:  he could not watch this unbelievable milestone in human achievement knowing that it was engineered by an unrepentant Nazi who climbed ‘the ladder of bones’.
            Mr Chabon states that memories, places, names, motivations, interrelationships of family members and dates have all been ‘taken with due abandon’, which throws the reader:  are we reading a wonderful collection of memories or a novel, or both?  Who cares?  This is a loving family tribute, a grand homage paid to a patriarch worthy of the name, and Mr Chabon’s hero, as he should be to all who read this beautiful book.  SIX STARS!!!

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore

          This is not a recent novel;  it was published in 2013, but it is new to our library – and all I can say is:  BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!
            This little story could be called a heart-warmer, but that hoary old cliche doesn’t do it sufficient justice, for the characters and events are portrayed so lovingly and well that they don’t deserve to be consigned to a genre, for the Supremes and their friends and family are a force of nature, bowling over the unsuspecting reader with the sheer gusto of their zest for life.
            First, we have Big Earl, owner of the All-You-Can-Eat Diner and his wife Miss Thelma, two mighty pillars of black society in the small Indiana town of Plainsview.  Their rock-solid and silent support has helped many a needy person on the path to future stability:  those that can’t or won’t be helped still know that Big Earl and Miss Thelma will never give up on them regardless, which in itself is an enormous source of comfort.
            The Supremes are next, called that because the trio have been together since Grade School;  now they are in their fifties and two of them are grandmothers.  They have endured heartbreak, infidelity and despair but their friendship, their sisterhood is as strong as ever.  Odette, the most fearless of the three (and the fattest;  she loves the All-You-Can-Eat for obvious reasons) has had reason lately to worry:  she has not been feeling great and puts it down to The Change, but more concerning are the conversations she has been having with her sassy and irreverent old mama lately, who has taken to visiting any old time of the day and offering up her five cents worth whether Odette wants it or not.  The big problem with these visitations is that that’s what they are:  visitations.  Odette’s mama has been dead for six years.
            Supreme # Two Clarice showed great promise as a classical pianist when she was a girl, but love in the form of the local football hero got in the way;  marriage and children followed – not that Clarice minded exchanging her musical dreams for family and becoming the local piano teacher instead,  but she minds very much being wed to a serial cheater.  Something will have to give, and it won’t be her!
            Barbara Jean is the beauty of the three, also the most disadvantaged by having an alcoholic mother who died at a very young age.  Fortunately, after a series of horrible experiences, Barbara Jean is taken in by Big Earl and Miss Thelma:  stability at last!  Until she meets another of Big Earl’s waifs and strays, Ray Carlson, a young white boy who has been beaten and brutalised by his racist brother, his only relative.  He works as a busboy for Earl and lives in the storage shed. Everyone is intrigued (but not surprised) that Earl has given him shelter, for that is what Big Earl does.  The Supremes – like all his customers – are fascinated by Ray, not least because he is so handsome and it doesn’t take them long to come up with the right name for him:  The King of the Pretty White Boys.  And Barbara Jean and The King of the Pretty White Boys eventually fall in love, setting the scene for heartbreak, for Indiana in the 60’s is not the place for interracial love.  
            How the Supremes and  their friends and family (not to mention the ghosts!) deal with the thunderbolts that God, ‘that Great Comedian’ sends them during their lives is beautifully recounted by Mr Morgan;  throughout his lovely story the twisted thread of racism, subtle or overt is always present but never triumphs - and the very best thing?  Mr Morgan has written a sequel, ‘The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues’.  Lead me to it!  FIVE STARS.
           
    
           
             
                
             

  

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