Bestsellers Tell What Possesses Us – Telegraph Avenue

This past fall and early winter there was a perfect storm of top authors publishing new books. I wanted to read a handful of them to see what possesses some of our best creative minds and our popular culture. I wanted to break out of old habits and venture to new places I wouldn’t normally find on my own.

I didn’t get to as many books as I’d planned, but I did read:

  • Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle
  • This Is How You Lose Her; and a previously published book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
  • Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Most difficult of all was acclimating to the world of Telegraph Avenue. I almost gave up on it. I couldn’t keep Chabon’s characters straight, I was clueless about the endless blaxploitation and 1970s cultural allusions, even though that was my coming-of-age time, and I sometimes struggled with the rich, complex (and masterful) prose. The great librarian Nancy Pearl has a Rule of 50: Stop reading after 50 pages if you don’t like the book, and if you’re over 50 you can subtract your age from 100 and stop there. So I was well within my rights to stop before 50 pages, but I kept going with Telegraph Avenue, and it was worth it.

Telegraph Avenue book coverTo me, Telegraph Avenue and Junot Diaz’s books are similar in that I entered completely unfamiliar hearts, minds, and worlds. I’m unlikely to stop by a used record store in Oakland, California any time soon, or meet the kinds of characters (and I mean that in more than one sense of the word) who might hang out there.  In Telegraph Avenue, Archy (who is black) and Nat (who is white) are best friends, vinyl record shop business partners, and musicians struggling to make a living in a neighborhood that’s seen better days.

For one reason or another – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, changing times – the characters in Telegraph Avenue are outsiders or has-beens or both: former blaxploitation and martial arts stars, connoiseurs of soul and jazz and long-forgotten record albums, fine musicians in their own right. Many are regulars at Archy and Nat’s Brokeland Records, which reminded me of the bar in the TV show “Cheers.” I grew to like and care about these characters in large part because of their passion for music and devotion to their art. My godfather was a jazz pianist, and I dated a jazz musician. I remember how both lived and breathed jazz, in the same way Archy, Nat, and others do in Telegraph Avenue. Music shaped their lives, and when they were playing a gig, they had an aura of dignity and charisma others envied.

Yet, both my godfather and the musician I dated played the kind of jazz that was seen by many as antiquated in the 1960s and 70s when music was reinventing itself. There is the same sense of this passing away of art forms in Telegraph Avenue, and of people being rushed headlong into the future while trying to preserve what shouldn’t be lost.

If you’ve read Telegraph Avenue, what did you think? Please comment!

I’d like to give equal time to new, lesser known, and independent authors, so I plan in the coming months to read a sampling of fiction by some of these writers. If you have a book to suggest please do in the comments.

Agatha Christie – few heroes, but justice prevails

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self, and then there were nine.

Growing up, I knew few real-life heroes. Therefore, I wanted the books I read to have heroes, and I wanted escape and redemptive endings, as well.  Agatha Christie’s mesmerizing stories and blazing honesty about human nature would have fascinated me but, ultimately, I wanted to be comforted and given hope that people can change for the better.

Not so my friend from high school, Doug, whose take on reading was braver and more mature. I admire it. We didn’t discuss books back then, but now I wish we had. My reading life would have been all the richer.

I didn’t know what Doug was reading, but I did know he could take command of a stage like no one I’d ever met. I always thought there was something rock-solid real about Doug, and that carried through in the roles he played in our high school productions. Whatever “character” he portrayed came so naturally to him, with such depth and nuance, the rest of the actors seemed mere shadows. That sprang from Doug’s talent and hard work, of course, but I can’t help but think that, as a discerning reader, he started off with a close and perceptive reading of the script.

Of the many hundreds (thousands?) of books Doug has read, he had this to say about one in particular:

And then there were none book coverRecently, I discovered that the thriller I loved as a child, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, is in sixth place among the best-selling novels of all time.

Ten people, mostly strangers to each other, are mysteriously invited to an isolated island.  On the island, a disguised, recorded voice accuses each of having gotten away with a murder. One by one, in circumstances resembling the children’s rhyme, “Ten Little Indians,” they are punished for their crimes.

If you read the original 1940 novel after seeing the stage version (“Ten Little Indians”) or a subsequent film adaptation, you may be jarred by the absence of anything like a redemptive ending. On stage and film, two romantically linked characters (Vera and Lombard) among the ten doomed to destruction manage to outwit their persecutor. Coincidentally, these two are revealed as innocent of the murders for which they were condemned.

Christie’s novel offers no such hogwash; the wolfish hero and the fast-shooting heroine are both guilty as sin, and they pay dearly for it.

Thoroughly bored by “children’s literature” as a 10-year-old, I savored Christie’s descriptions and plotting. Three matters fascinated me: the structure of effective stories, the accountability of adults who are hypocrites, and the assurance that justice will somehow be done.

As to structure, Christie is marvelous. The book wastes little space on peripheral matters: the characters are introduced, the problem presented, and each succeeding crisis fluidly developed.

On the accountability side, I was thrilled as a child that each adult was truly guilty behind all the posturing. Agatha Christie wrote a story without heroes; to me, that was heroic honesty.  I knew enough about school teachers who practiced petty cruelty, clerics who were status-driven, and older family role models who considered the law something to break when getting caught was unlikely. I had a child’s faith in the abstractions of good and evil described in the Bible, but I was sharply aware that no one was completely one or the other.

Conversely, the inevitability of justice satisfied me. For all my contempt for two-faced authority, I still relished the idea of wrongdoers punished by divine oversight.  My sense of my own weakness as a child needed that reassurance. (When Vera discovers a waiting noose, I was convinced supernatural justice was at hand, a conclusion with which the character herself concurs.)  To me, Christie’s revealing the true killer in a post script seemed logically necessary, but somehow anticlimactic.

Today, I reread Christie mysteries and still admire her superb craftsmanship, though I wince at the stilted dialogue and wooden characters. But it was Agatha Christie who showed me when I was a child just how enthralling a well-plotted book can be.

Without And Then There Were None, there might not have been copies of Crime and Punishment or The Sea, The Sea sitting on my bookshelf.

One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

Doug Hoehn’s to-read list isn’t too ambitious, just all the great works of philosophy and the most critically recognized novels of every nation on earth, while he rereads mysteries, westerns and science fiction – as he says, the snack between meals. I hope to entice Doug back some time for a guest post on his international reading.

Doug has starred in countless amateur theater productions, including the title role in “Macbeth,” the role of Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and a one-man show of readings by Edgar Allen Poe.  His favorite playwrights are Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.  Doug is a job coach for Toward Maximum Independence, an agency that supports people with developmental disabilities in the workplace.  He lives in El Cajon, California with his life partner.

Visit the official Agatha Christie information and community website.

Quotes from And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2011.

Book cover from Wikipedia.