Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. New York: Picador, 2000. ISBN-10: 0312282990; ISBN-13: 978-0312282998. 656 p.

Plot Summary
Joe Kavalier, a Jewish art and practitioner of Houdini-esque escape, has just managed to escape Nazi-occupied Prague and moved to New York City. His cousin Sammy Clay, a Brooklyn-based comic book writer, chooses Kavalier as his partner in the development and production of this new novelty art form. Together, they create such characters as The Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth (inspired by Rosa Saks, a woman who will influence both men throughout their lives). As they navigate life during World War II, they attain amazing professional success, but have more difficulty with their personal lives.

Critical Evaluation
From the first pages of this ambitious noel, it's clear the reader is in the hands of a master. CNN.com describes it as a "grand novel about dreamers selling dreams, reminding us that part of the thrill of dreaming is not the dream itself, but the realization that we can dream" (link). New York magazine's review admits, "I'm not sure what the exact definition of a 'great American novel' is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one." At turns melancholy, joyful, and nostalgic for the Golden Age of comics, Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a gem.

Reader’s Annotation
Jo Kavalier and Sammy Clay are comic book artists living in 1940s New York. As they help build comic books as an art form, they grow up and deal with emotions of love, jealousy, and hatred as they work together.

Author Information

Michael Chabon was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the suburbs of Columbia, Maryland. He deeply loved comic books as a boy--his grandfather had been a typographer at a plant where comic books were printed, and would bring home bags of free comics for Chabon's father. His dad thought it was normal that his son should also grow up reading comic books (source). While working on a masters' program at UC Irvine, his thesis was the manuscript for Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Chabon didn't know it, but his thesis advisor submitted it to several publishing houses, and it was accepted for an advance of $155,000 (a colossal sum for a first novel by an unknown author). Chabon is married to the author Ayelet Waldman, and they and their four children live in Berkeley, CA.

In an interview with Powell's Books, Chabon said, of Kavalier and Clay, that "I definitely had a desire to try something bigger, but I've had that desire for a while. I'd tried once before to do this kind of a book. After I wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I worked on a novel called Fountain City for more than five years. Like this book, it had multiple points of view and took place over a fairly long period of time; it changed locales from one continent to another, all those kinds of things. And I failed. I had to abandon it....I wanted to do something more ambitious. Jonathan Yardley's review of Wonder Boys in The Washington Post was very kind and generous - he liked the book - but he closed the review with a paragraph where he sort of clapped his hand on my shoulder and said, "You've done well, but you haven't really tried much. Now's the time to set your sights higher." I took that to heart. It chimed with my own thoughts. I had bigger ambitions" (source). The critical reception of this novel, and the Pulitzer Prize he won, prove that his larger ambitions were brilliantly realized.

Historical fiction.
Adult crossover.

Curriculum Ties
History: 1940s New York City. Comic book history.

Booktalking Ideas
-Connect popular comics/superheroes (Batman, Spider-man, Superman) to this era of comic development. A lot of real artists are interspersed with fictional characters in the book.

Reading Level/Interest Age
Grades 10+

Challenge Issues
Sexual situations, including homosexuality. Some language.

I included this book because it's one of my favorites, and though it's an adult novel, I feel that many teens will also enjoy it. With the recent popularity of comic books (and especially movie adaptations of favorite comic characters), I feel that it will interest readers who like such movies.


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