For starters, this book does not fit into the description of this reading list. It's not sci fi, fantasy, or horror. It's simply a history of two men working in the comics business between 1939 and 1954. But the fact that it doesn't fit in doesn't matter. It is a great story, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.
The book follows Joe Kavalier, a Jewish immigrant from Prague who moves to America as a young man to escape the Nazis, and his cousin Sammy Clay, whom he comes to live with in New York City. Sammy sees that Joe has a talent for drawing and gets him a job drawing comics, which Sammy has a knack for writing. The story follows the two of them through the next 15 years as Joe struggles with his rage against Hitler, and Sammy struggles with his feelings of inadequacy about his job and his life. Much like any year-spanning story, the characters lives have their ups and downs, filled with victories and tragedies.
This would be a fine story by itself. I've enjoyed many movies like this - narratives that take in a lengthy span of time to demonstrate the shared experiences of human life and the nature of change. But the story is much more than that, and all because of comics.
The story takes place during the Golden Age of comics, when superheroes were created, and the books enjoyed tremendous popularity. This is a time period highly prized by fans of superheroes and collectors who covet original first editions. It is also a time period I don't relate to easily. I'm not a big fan of superhero comics, and usually only read the ones that stand out in some unique way, like Frank Miller's Batman books. As such, it's even more difficult for me to take interest in the Golden Age stories. Having read American Splendor, Fables, Kabuki, Maus, Sandman, Sin City, Watchmen, it's hard to be satisfied with the simpler stories of that age. I recognize that like all art, those comics represent some fundamental things about that age, but I simply find more modern stories more satisfying.
However, perhaps the best way to experience something you don't relate to is through a story of people who do, who care for it so deeply and emotionally that it transforms their lives, which is what makes Kavalier and Clay so beautiful. Chabon's writing describes this affection poetically, without straying into cheesy nostalgia: "Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.
"Having lost (a lot, ok? No spoilers) - the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf."
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Read it if you love comics, or ever have. Read it if you've never gotten the whole comic book thing, or if like me you prefer your superheroes in summer movies.
I'm starting Pyramids by Terry Pratchett next, mostly because I need something simple while costuming. This continues the Discworld series with a story about Teppic, an adolescent who is yanked from Ankh-Morpork's assassins' school when his father dies, so that he may become the next pharaoh.