Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: Maps and Legends

I've never read anything by Michael Chabon, and yet I'm familiar with the author's name. A few blogging friends have mentioned his books, I've read references to him in other writing books, and he received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001, so he must be doing something right. Thus, I decided to pick up this collection of essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. The Amazon cover, shown here, is not nearly as interesting or delightful as the three-part, intersecting cover on the library copy (although I was still unable to enjoy it quite as much as intended because it was covered in protective plastic).

Each chapter is an essay focused on either reading or writing. I noted that one of the initial chapters addresses fan fiction and since I'm not that fond of fan fiction, I thought it might be wise to read what he had to say. It was interesting to learn that he had his start in attempting to copy the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. To be specific, he wanted his voice to mimic the voice of Watson. The historical bits about Doyle were fascinating. I will have to think long and hard about his advice to find a good writer and attempt to mimic their strengths. This may change my opinion about fan fiction.

In another section, he devoted an essay to Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass series. While I haven't read Pullman's books, I found their exposition quite interesting. Indeed, I feel more compelled to read that series after reading Chabon's take, despite the fact that it is billed by some to be anti-Christian (this is perhaps mostly because he disparaged C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series, however, not having read The Golden Compass, I can't be sure - after all, many Christians despise Harry Potter as being anti-Christian because it involves witches and wizards, yet I don't feel the Potter series poses any threat to my sons' religious beliefs).

I preferred the second half of the book, when he began to talk more about his own personal experiences with writing. At one point, he talks about the "bathyspheric pressures that weigh on a second novel, particularly where the first has met with any kind of success." Although the word "bathyspheric" was new to me, I could certainly relate to this observation. After all, I've chided plenty of authors whose latter works haven't lived up to their first offerings.

Another observation I could relate to: "The hardest part of writing a novel is the contemplation of the distance to the end." I remember feeling exactly the weight of so much still to come while I was knee-deep in writing my most recent YA novel. I had traversed so far and yet, had so far still to go.

Finally, I chuckled when he clarified toward the end of the book that some of what he had written within its pages was, indeed, fanciful because a writer tells a lie in order to tell the truth. I appreciated his discussion about the risks a writer takes when putting themselves out there because readers can assume bits are autobiographical when they aren't really autobiographical and even things that are true emotions and feelings about subjects of personal interest (as in an article he wrote about Yiddish) can certainly offend readers.

All in all, even when I had no experience with the literature he referred to (Pullman's series, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and the constant references to comic books), I thought Chabon's descriptions and interactions were worth reading. This is obviously a book with appeal for anyone who desires to be a writer. And even those who simply like to read Chabon's books, will be interested in hearing what he has to say.

Given Chabon's message about fiction being a blur of lies presented to express deeper truth, it should come as no surprise that his most recent work is a novel presented as a fictional memoir by an author sharing his name. It is called Moonglow and has received quite a buzz of publicity. I may have to seek it out, as well.


Amy Sorensen said...

This book is in my pile...I bought it when it first came out but still haven't gotten around to reading it yet! :) Your post made me want to finally read it! Especially for the discussion about Phillip Pullman's work. In a sense, it is anti-Christian, in that everyone in the book who believes religion and God are good things are the antagonists. Which I found to be a little bit (way too much) black & white, clear-cut. It's not that simple.

I decided to just look up the review I wrote about it, lol, in case you're interested!

Wendy said...

Thanks for sharing your review of the Pullman books. I read it and agree with everything you so clearly articulated. Sorry I didn't get to this comment sooner, as I was gone at music camp and then off to a family wedding.