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home : art & life : art & life July 23, 2017

3/8/2017 4:16:00 PM
By Sue Brooke

 “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon is a novel based on the life of the author’s grandfather, a complicated man with an intriguing life story.

In the prologue, Mr. Chabon writes that in a visit with his terminally ill grandfather in Oakland in 1989, the dying man told stories, some of which Mr. Chabon had never heard before. He knew that his grandfather had been in World War II and that his French grandmother had been a refugee from some concentration camp.

What Mr. Chabon did not know was what his grandfather did in the war, or that his grandmother had been mentally unstable, or that, even though his grandfather was known for and even proud of being a “bad ass,” he was also the guy who desperately wanted to protect the underdog and try to make things right.

The novel starts off with a wallop: The grandfather has just been fired from a routine job where he was biding his time and getting his paycheck. Maybe it was a job he did not even want, but the dismissal raised his hackles. He loses his cool and nearly strangles the president, who had decided to replace him with Alger Hiss.

The over-reaction – if that is what it was – lands him in jail, but Mr. Chabon lets the reader know that he doubts his grandfather would have acted differently even had he known the result would be jail time.

With this introduction we are pulled into the grandfather’s life.  He came from the Jewish slums of South Philly to revel in the heyday of the American Space Program. He hated yet admired Wernher Braun, whom his Army intelligence unit spent time hunting during the war.

He loved his wife, who was broken. He tells her psychiatrist, “Doc, I’m an engineer. …  Engineers spend a lot of time on what’s called failure analysis.  You want to figure out what’s wrong, so you can fix it.”  And that was how he approached life. 

The novel is woven of memories and imagination. In the Nov. 23, 2016, segment of NPR’s Fresh Air, Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University said, “[T]his is why you read Michael Chabon – for the self-deprecation and insight and brio all packed tight into sentences, fantastic stories and wild novels that you may think are a world away from where you live but always turn out to hit home.”

Among other distinctions, “Moonglow” was selected as a  New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, an NPR Best Book of the Year, a Slate Best Book of the Year, a Christian Science Monitor Top 15 Fiction Book of the Year , and a New York Magazine Best Book of the Year.

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