It’s a genre I didn’t know I’d enjoy so much, but over the past few months I have read two incredible life-spanning fictional memoirs. The first, A Gentleman in Moscow, featuring the loveable Count Rostov, and the second, Enchanted Islands, a book that sneaks up on you in its beauty.
Between discovering this genre and losing my grandfather last year (born the same year as Chabons!), a semi-fictional-memoir-slash-ode-to-a-great-writer’s-grandfather seemed like a no brainer. And to boot, I was seeing it EVERWHERE over the holidays. My only fear with this pick was being too emotional.
As I finished the book though, I realized that I never really felt connected to Chabon’s grandfather, and so luckily and unluckily I never truly felt. I certainly learned, and I certainly wondered, but that feeling inside was missing. (Did anyone else feel this way?)
At this point, I need to apologize – I really wish I were starting the blog on a more inspired note – maybe a review of Gentleman in Moscow or Enchanted Islands would have been better (seriously go read them). But I’m sticking to my guns that the best way to review a book, is it to review it fresh. So stick around and let me explain! And then let me know if you have other recs!
Moonglow is a semi-fictional memoir about author, Michael Chabon’s, grandfather. “Semi-fictional” meaning most of the book is based on truth, told from Chabon’s grandfather to him during his last week of life, but artistic license is admittedly liberally taken. Chabon writes in the Author’s Note,
“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”
Chabon then proceeds to tell his grandfather’s story from love to war to crime and back again.
What I liked:
THE GRANDFATHER AS AN OLD MAN. When the story featured this stage of his life, I often found myself cracking up at this version of the grandfather. One of my favorite lines in the whole book is from the point of view of the Grandfather as he’s living in the retirement community.
“And when some lady’s dead husband’s cat got eaten by an alligator, a man looked into the matter. Even an old man who wore socks with his sandals and needed to see a specialist because something was off in the numbers that told the story of his blood. A man would see what there was to be done.”
Whether this was ever really said will remain a mystery, but quotes like this made you feel like you knew the man.
THE SPACE RACE! I love a good history and I love when an unexpected aspect of history sneaks in to a book. I expected tales of the bunkers in WWI and WWII and what I got was a man obsessed with getting to the moon. I could’ve used more doting on this, but I did light up any time this bit was sprinkled in.
Things I’d Change If Anyone Asked Me:
THE ORDER. The timeframe of this books runs from 1916 to 1989, a timeframe in which a ton of world events occurred. When chapters weren’t stamped with a timeline, I felt confused about what had happened when in relation to each other. Most of the later chapters were timestamped (It was the spring of 1954…), but if I recall correctly the earlier ones were not. I felt some validation to my gripes, when Chabon’s grandfather says in response to hearing that his life is a great story, “After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.” Chabon certainly used his signature metaphors, and made this story mean something, but it was not in proper chronological order. I’m not sure why the timeline threw me so much, but it really did and I think that caused me to have a hard time connecting.
THE CHOICE OF NARRATOR. I know this is tricky to criticize in super a personal narrative, but I just didn’t love the story being told through the eyes of the main characters grandson, and I think this is a main contributor to my lack of emotional connection. The bottom line is that I felt two generations removed from what I was reading about. I believe the choice of narrator was meant to be personal and show the closeness of the story to the author, but somehow for me it felt removed.
And finally I want to leave you with a passage I really loved, maybe just because I’m a forensic engineer, but I think the monologues like this were really strong in this book —
“All he wanted was to find the answer to the question ‘Why did the Challenger explode?’ Right? And that answer was never going to be ‘Because it was all part of God’s plan’ or, I don’t know, ‘Challenger exploded so that some little kid somewhere would get inspired to grow up and become and engineer and invent a safer, more durable propulsion system for spacecraft.’ Or even, like ‘Because humans and the things they make are prone to failure’ or ‘Shit happens.’ The explanation was always going to be something like ‘Because the weather was too cold, so the O-rings became brittle and failed, and fuel leaked from the fuel tank and ignited, which caused the shuttle to accelerate beyond its intended structural tolerance so that it broke apart’. The answer was always going to be dates, and names and numbers. And that was good enough for Feynman, because the point was to find out. The meaning was in the inquiry.”
Title: Moonglow | Author: Michael Chabon | Published Nov. 2016| FLWBlog Rating: 3.5