Book Of The Month

Dying man tells tales

Michael Chabon weaves together strands of family life in Moonglow, a tale that pays tribute to his grandparents

FICTION

MOONGLOW By Michael Chabon

HarperCollins/ Paperback/448 pages/$26.69/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4.5 stars

An old man dying of bone cancer shares his last days - and snatches of his blockbuster life - with his grandson, who turns this deathbed confession in 1989 into Moonglow.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon's eighth novel is a faux-memoir narrated by Mike, a writer whose life and career echoes Chabon's own.

In Moonglow, he weaves together strands of family life, real and imagined, to explore memory, legacy and identity.

The book is a tall tale and a tribute to Chabon's grandparents and their generation, who weathered the Great Depression, fought in World War II and launched humans into outer space.

A not-quite memoir might sound like an unnecessary gimmick, but the twin threads of fact and fiction serve the story well. In Moonglow, not everything is as it seems.

Mike's unnamed grandfather paints himself as a larger-than-life figure: a man whose first sexual encounter was with a bearded lady, and who, faced with a bow-carrying Nazi, grabs an arrow shot at him in mid-flight.

His youth was spent hunting down Nazi scientists (including the very real Wernher von Braun, inventor of the V2 rocket) across war- stricken France and Germany.

His final years in a Florida retirement community are equally dramatic as he sets out to capture a pet-eating python.

In a life filled with adventure and change, two constants are his love for his Holocaust survivor wife and his lifelong passion for spaceflight.

But, over the course of his life, he discovers that there is more to both than meets the eye.

War reveals to him that rockets are not just tools of wonder and discovery. They bring death and destruction too.

And, late in his life, he finds out that his wife, haunted by hallucinations of a skinless horse, has not been entirely honest about herself.

When a psychiatrist offers this tantalising tidbit, Mike's grandfather, however, refuses to find out about his wife's secret past.

The couple's relationship is the tender and thorny heart of the book. His wife first appears as a mysterious French refugee with a young daughter in tow and a Holocaust camp tattoo on her wrist.

Mike's grandfather falls for her immediately, but later suspects she may not have been honest about herself.

They stick through thick and thin, even as the marriage is haunted by mental illness and a miscarriage.

In the acknowledgement, Chabon cheerily confesses Moonglow is a "pack of lies". It is, after all, a study of stories and memories - and how truthful can these really be?

What stories do people choose to tell others and how do people choose to tell them? How do they want to be remembered?

The unnamed grandfather's life is haphazardly unspooled in the book, zipping back and forth between different time periods in what may be a confusing read.

But piece the stories together and Moonglow emerges as a powerful tale of love and legacy, and may well be Chabon's most satisfying work yet.

If you like this, read: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins, 2016, $23.96, Books Kinokuniya), which explores similar themes of memories and legacy. A young woman shares her family secrets with the writer she is having an affair with. This becomes fodder for his next book.


FICTION

THE STORY OF A BRIEF MARRIAGE By Anuk Arudpragasam

Granta Books/Hardback/208 pages/$23.96/ Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

Set during the final days of the brutal Sri Lankan civil war that came to an end in 2009, The Story Of A Brief Marriage is an unflinching look at the delicate bonds that can form between people when all else has been stripped away.

Sri Lankan Arudpragasam, who is now based in New York, unpacks a day and night in the life of Dinesh, a refugee residing in an unnamed civilian camp by himself after he watched his mother die en route to the camp.

Straight off the bat, readers are confronted with a gruesome image of an injured six-year-old boy Dinesh carries to a makeshift clinic: "Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else."

As Dinesh moves from day to day with no family by his side, he is suddenly greeted by an old man. He wants Dinesh to marry his daughter Ganga so that there would be someone to care for and protect her.

Dinesh agrees and, after a hasty, unofficial marriage ceremony, has to learn how to be with a fellow human after being alone for so long.

While the title already foreshadows the length of their relationship, the story delves into the awkward tenderness that results during their brief time together.

The couple attempt to consummate their marriage but fail, as if their bodies reject pleasure when others are suffering: "Dinesh has remembered suddenly that lying at his side was a girl he had just gotten married to, a person who'd suffered far more than he in the recent past, that they were lying in a clearing in the jungle, just northeast of a camp that contained tens of thousands of evacuees, that there was, in short, a world that existed beyond him."

The majority of the 208-page novel, however, focuses on Dinesh and his existentialist thoughts. Not surprising, considering the writer is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University.

The book breaks down the mundanities of Dinesh's everyday life, and the acts that we take for granted, such as eating, communicating and defecating.

Arudpragasam describes each minute detail of Dinesh's plan to defecate before graphically expanding upon the act itself. Excreting bodily waste into the earth is one way for Dinesh to "send out one final offering into the world".

At times, however, the writer spends so much time unnecessarily delving into singular moments that it hampers the flow of the novel.

In hindsight, these lengthy meditations might represent the listless, repetitive limbo the refugees live in, where they have only their thoughts to dwell on. Despite the unnerving topic, Arudpragasam has crafted a story that gives war victims a voice that is to be respected.

If you like this, read: Be Safe, I Love You by Cara Hoffman (Little, Brown Book Group, 2015, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), a novel on the impact of the Iraqi war on a female American soldier.

Gurveen Kaur


FICTION

THE LESSER BOHEMIANS By Eimear McBride

Faber & Faber/Hardcover/ 20 pages/$27.93/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

"Lo lay London Liverpool Street I am getting to on the train."  This is the breezy beginning of "Term One" in Eimear McBride's latest novel, three years after her stunning debut, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

Told from the perspective of 18-year-old drama student Eily in 1990s London, the story charts her turbulent relationship with an actor in his late 30s over the course of an academic year. 

Much of this masterfully written story, at once tender and boldly passionate, consists of erotic encounters between the protagonists as they open up to each other and in ways not merely physical. Eily's lover, for instance, bares all when he tells her about his traumatic past and years of dissipation.

As the novel develops, so does Eily, whose voice evolves from a kind of dithering, girlish vulnerability into something more steady.

McBride writes in an unconventional style approaching what some might call a stream of consciousness.

The text has no speech marks; gobbets of dialogue and internal monologues - some emerging as full sentences, others as mere fragments - are strung together in paragraphs. And at times, it reads more like poetry than prose, spawning playful turns of phrase such as: "enslithered by pints"; "tacking tales to his silhouette".

Some parts of the text also have a quirky layout, with occasional wide gaps between words and words appearing in a smaller font.

This book might be easily dismissed as the sort of thing only literature majors weaned on a diet of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce could possibly enjoy.

But it is precisely McBride's willingness to strip speech and gesture down to their raw, faltering essentials that makes this story such a compelling read. It is not hard to follow, carried along as readers are by the violent waves of emotion that surge through it.

Nor do they spend too much time wallowing in the interiors of the protagonist's mind. There is much dialogue and her observations are full of dashes of local colour - M&S, Camden Road - and quick nods to cultural figures such as Hieronymous Bosch and Shakespeare.

McBride writes well about sex, capturing its raw intensity in a way that is candid and refreshing. Her prose swirls with semen and other body fluids, and strips away most of the "he said" and "she said" of narrative exposition.

At times, The Lesser Bohemians reads like a carefully orchestrated response to McBride's first book.

There are some not-so-subtle allusions: Eily at one point pictures her lover as a "half-destroyed boy"; the protagonists, whose proper names readers learn only in the final pages, wind up high and dry on Primrose Hill - a pitch-perfect counterpoint to the ending of its predecessor. Such structural fitness might have been won at the expense of emotional integrity. The conclusion, for instance, seems a bit too unrealistically hopeful. 

Minor gripes aside, The Lesser Bohemians is nothing short of impressive: intelligent, moving and grippingly human. Not a book to be missed.

If you like this, read: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (Simon And Schuster, 2013, $22.43, Books Kinokuniya), McBride's award- winning debut novel, which offers readers a glimpse into its young female protagonist's mental landscape.

Toh Wen Li


FICTION

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW By Amor Towles

Hutchinson/Hardback/464 pages/$21.35/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

It is 1922, the Bolsheviks are in power. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in one of Moscow's most splendid hotels.

"Make no mistake," his persecutors warn him. "Should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot."

Installed in a cramped attic three floors above his old suite, the aristocrat - now branded a "former person" - has to come to terms with his new life.

This peculiar situation forms the premise for Amor Towles' witty second novel, which spans three decades, but hardly ever leaves the vaulted ceilings and red carpets of the Metropol Hotel.

Despite this, Towles' colourful characters and deft writing ensure that the reader never feels stifled.

There is the glamorous starlet Anna Urbanova, the precocious nine-year-old Nina and, of course, the hotel staff, who, over the years, become friends rather than functionaries.

Whether the novel is a success for the reader, however, hinges on how much he likes its dapper protagonist.

Taken at his best, Count Rostov is charming, considerate and good at making the best of a bad situation.

But Towles' light-hearted tone means that less sympathetic readers may see him as a profligate whose stash of gold insulates him from the harsh realities of post-war Russia.

In one scene, he delicately ponders what ingredients have gone into his evening meal, with Towles writing: "To truly test a chef's ingenuity, one must instead look to a period of want. And what provides better want than war?"

This tongue-in-cheek glibness, at a time when the rest of Russia was dying of famine, comes across as inappropriate.

But for the most part, the character of the Count is endearing and his satirical observations on human nature lend a touch of humour that is badly needed in such bleak surroundings.

Spying on a Bolshevik meeting in the hotel, he observes how the revolutionaries, even though they despise the aristocracy, follow their customs to a T.

"Of course, there is now more canvas than cashmere in the room, more gray than gold," he thinks. "But is the patch on the elbow really that much different from the epaulette on the shoulder?"

There are also melancholic moments, such as when the Count realises how much the streets of Moscow, which he knew so intimately, have changed in his absence.

This is not a book for those expecting a serious examination of the consequences that the Bolshevik revolution had on society.

But for those who enjoy clever writing peppered with humour, irony and a dash of pathos, it is the perfect one.

If you like this, read: Rules Of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles (Penguin, 2012, $28.06, Books Kinokuniya), about a Wall Street secretary unexpectedly catapulted into the glitz and glamour of New York in the late 1930s.

Linette Lai


FICTION 

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT By Maria Semple 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson/ Paperback/ 272 pages/ $44.94/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

Today Will Be Different was meant to be humorous and heart-warming. Maria Semple's new novel is still funny, but also frightening when read in the context of last month's United States presidential elections.

In her stand-out 2012 bestseller, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, the dysfunctional American family depicted was endearing. Even if the mum of the title disappeared, leaving a too-old-for-her-years little daughter in the lurch, the reader knew all would be well. The family was rock-solid and committed to growing together.

Things are scarily different this time around. Again, a loving family is on the verge of crisis, but the divisions slowly revealed leave the reader questioning the longevity of the happy ending.

It is a father's turn to disappear, on a day when illustrator Eleanor Flood hopes to regain her lost zest for life.

Flood is a one-time famous animator, an almost-famous graphic novelist now drifting around in a funk. (A small graphic novel in the book, attributed to Eleanor, comes from the pencils of Eric Chase Anderson.) She is unable to connect meaningfully with husband or friends.

She is years late on a memoir promised to a publisher back when she was somebody. She cannot stop her son Timby from wearing make- up to school - she has no issues with a boy wearing make-up, only that children should not be wearing it to school.

Eleanor is a poster child for the liberal hot mess mum sent up in YouTube sketches.

On a day when she decides to be her best self, a hundred things go wrong. Timby fakes illness to get out of school. Eleanor finds that her husband is not at his office when he should be.

Like her character, Semple renders people and the human condition in delightful, tight sketches. Eleanor is New York-smart, cutting and isolated within her nuclear family. She does not connect with the hipster-rich, nor does she pick up on the woes of those around her feeling the pinch of the slowing economy.

The only disconnect she is aware of is the tie severed with relations who embrace old-fashioned religion, hardcore social etiquette and harp on about ancestry - similar to those who, in real life, gave US President-elect Donald Trump his political edge.

Eleanor knows these relatives are diametrically opposed to her worldview. She does not know how to move on and leave them behind.

Her paralysis is poignantly illustrative of America at this present moment. Two bitterly opposed sides must be reconciled, but doing so will require both parties to surrender pride and part of their identity.

A ray of hope ends the book when Eleanor's son offers to serve as ambassador.

Whether bridges will be rebuilt in real life remains to be seen. Maybe, as Eleanor hopes, today - or tomorrow - will be different.

If you like this, read: Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! by Sebastian Sim (Epigram Books, 2016, $26.64, major bookstores) , another funny, layered look at a life gone wrong. Gimme Lao's travails begin at birth. Though he comes into the world on the night of independence, he is not officially recognised as Singapore's first-born son.

Akshita Nanda


FICTION

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT By Becky Chambers 

Hodder & Stoughton/ Paperback/ 365 pages/ $30.94/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

A Closed And Common Orbit, the sequel to American writer Becky Chambers' debut novel, The Long Journey To A Small, Angry Planet, is much narrower in scope than the inter-galactic romp of her first work, yet no less heart-warming in her portrayal of characters finding their place in the universe.

Chambers is a newly-minted darling in the space opera genre, after her debut novel - which was funded on crowdfunding website Kickstarter - became one of last year's sleeper hits. It picked up a Kitschie nomination for best debut novel and landed on the shortlist of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science-fiction novel.

A Closed And Common Orbit eschews the grand scope of her first novel, which charted the journey of a spaceship and its nine eclectic crew members, in favour of an intimate examination of friendship and personal identity.

It picks up from the end of the first book, where Lovelace, the ship's sentient artificial intelligence, was forced into a system reboot after the ship was badly damaged. She finds herself reactivated not within the familiar hull of the ship, but in a synthetic human body instead - making her an illegal android in Chambers' universe.

Luckily, she is adopted by the engineer Pepper, a minor character who patches up the ship in the first novel, but whose backstory as a child slave readers get to see in this sequel.

The novel alternates between Lovelace and Pepper, detailing how Lovelace learns to behave like a human to fit in and of Pepper's escape from her childhood as a slave.

Both of them rename themselves to start their new lives. Lovelace chooses the human-sounding Sidra, while Pepper was originally named Jane 23, one of the many slave Janes forced to sift through rubbish for scrap. "Names are important," Pepper tells Sidra, "and if you pick your own, it should be something with meaning to you."

And this search for personal meaning, so tied up with personal identity and purpose, is the driving force behind Chambers' exploration of how selfhood is determined in the face of an indifferent universe.

Chambers deftly negotiates these themes in a rich, diverse universe filled with fleshed-out alien cultures and social mores, from the reptilian Aandrisks to the sex- and-colour-changing Aeluons.

The novel reads like sci-fi for the Tumblr generation, where difference is celebrated with mutual respect, while dealing with traditional sci-fi issues of gender politics, identity and racism. For example, when she describes a gender-fluid Aeluon, an alien being who can cyclically change sex, Chambers appropriates gender-neutral pronouns such as xyr and xe.

"Xyr silver skin was heavily dusted with glitter," Chambers writes, "and the pulsing blue in xyr cheeks indicated xe took pride in xyr role that evening."

She does not explain such pronouns, which subtly highlights the fact of her universe that such gender binaries are taken for granted.

While her characters are sometimes prone to slightly dramatic monologues of self-love and acceptance, they nevertheless retain their sense of familiarity and intimacy.

And it is with these flawed characters that Chambers does her best work in the tradition of science fiction in interrogating the differences that bind rather than separate.

If you like this, read: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (The Borough Press, 2015, $21.40, Books Kinokuniya), which charts the relationships of a group of astronauts tasked with ensuring the survival of humanity when Earth faces an extinction event due to the moon exploding and bombarding the planet.

Lester Hio


FICTION 

HEAVEN HAS EYES By Philip Holden 

Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 272 pages/ $20.22/ Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

The title and the cover art of Philip Holden's debut compendium of fictional short stories give away how deep-rootedly Singaporean it is.

The phrase, Heaven Has Eyes, is a riff on the common Chinese saying "tian you yan" - loosely translated to mean the heavens are watching, a phrase often used in Chinese TV melodramas.

The cover art, too, depicts a Housing Board (HDB) block of flats, replete with a man reading a newspaper at a coffee shop in the void deck.

Holden, who relocated to Singapore in 1994 after he got a doctorate in English literature from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, teaches at the National University of Singapore.

This book, which is dedicated "to all Singaporeans, citizens or otherwise", brings the mundanities of the island to life. This is conveyed in speech - the characters occasionally flit between English, Mandarin and dialect at ease, effectively channelling the Singlish patois.

The multi-faceted stories capture the bubbling undercurrents of local life, through psychologically flawed characters that encounter somewhat ludicrous scenarios.

In Penguins On The Perimeter, the Antarctic bird appears in Singapore, while in Gan Rou, Kong Bak, a pig, is kept as a pet in an HDB flat.

But it is through the stories that deal with the everyday that Holden shines. September Ghosts is a moving bittersweet story about a love lost, while Mudskippers examines the ties between a daughter, a naturalised Singaporean, and her father, who lived in Singapore during the colonial era and now lives in England.

Politics is a recurring theme - the titular story shuffles between a cliched yet addictive Channel 8 drama and the build-up to a General Election.

In the serial, a rich family disapproves of their daughter entering a relationship with a successful upstart from a humble background.

Meanwhile, the election is in full swing and the slice-of-life story moves, somewhat haphazardly, between the drama - titled Heaven Has Eyes - and the election, where a candidate uses the phrase during an opposition rally.

Holden also appears to have a fixation with Singapore's late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who appears in several of the stories.

When Pierre Met Harry imagines a chance meeting in 1947 between Mr Lee and the would-be Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, when both were studying at the London School of Economics.

In Forbidden Cities, Holden reimagines a visit by Mr Lee to Vancouver in 1968 through the eyes of a student reporter at the University of British Columbia. The visit, as was the case factually, coincided with a civil protest led by American activist Jerry Rubin, who instigated a student takeover of the faculty lounge where Mr Lee was.

Even as Holden blurs the lines between truth and fiction, he strikes a chord with a particularly uncanny line: "The tragedy is that Americans are choosing a world government, a government for whom no one else in the world can vote."

If you like this, read: It Never Rains On National Day by Jeremy Tiang (Epigram Books, 2015, $20.22, Books Kinokuniya). The wry, witty short story collection traverses the globe in looking at increasingly globally mobile Singaporeans and their relationship with home.

Walter Sim


Correction note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the author of Gimme Lao! The article has been updated to reflect the author's name. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'Dying man tells tales'. Print Edition | Subscribe