Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon


published 2012, set around 2004


Telegraph Avenue 6

The theoretical espresso machine was a sore subject, the most recent of many arguments between the co-owners of Brokeland having begun over the question of whether, as Archy had been hinting with increasing heavy-handedness for a couple of years, the time had come to offer more at the counter than unlimited supplies of music and bullshit on tap….

Probably if you looked at the matter coolly and rationally, an activity in which neither partner could be said to excel, they were on their last legs…

Every time Archy broached the subject of trying some new angle, branching out, beefing up their website, even, yes, selling coffee drinks and pastries and chai, he ran into heavy resistance from Nat.

“You want a f-ing macchiato?” [Nat] had said a couple of days earlier, throwing a record album at Archy, nothing too valuable, just a copy of Stan Getz and JJ Johnson at the Opera House (Verve 1957), Getz sitting in with Johnson, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Connie Kay. “Here’s your f-ing macchiato!”

Meaning sweet light froth of a white guy on top of a dense dark bottom of black. The shot had gone wide, but damn, a flying record, the thing could have sliced Archy’s head off. Archy found himself annoyed just thinking about it now.

Telegraph Ave 1


observations: Occasionally I struggled slightly with Telegraph Avenue – I had to remind myself that Michael Chabon on a bad day is better than most people on a good. (And I could also remind myself that it was a lot better than Summerland, his children’s book about baseball – though that was the subject matter, and I wouldn’t have dreamt of trying a baseball book by anyone else.)

The story is set on the edges of Berkeley and Oakland, hence Brokeland, which would have been an even better title. Two of the main characters, Nat and Archy, own Brokeland Records – an old-style music store under threat from a new megastore. Their wives, Grace and Aviva, are midwives offering women homebirths, and their partnership is also in trouble, after a bad incident when a just-delivered mother has to be moved to hospital. (Midwives and home births are very different in the UK – the tensions are familiar from Chris Bohjalian’s novel Midwives, and Jessica Mitford’s non-fiction book on the American Way of Birth, but life is very different here.)

Meanwhile – Archy and Grace are about to have their first child, but a long-time-lost son of Archie’s has turned up, and his father, a former Blaxploitation martial arts filmstar, is also causing trouble. There is almost too much plot: the book goes on for 600 pages and is, honestly, quite slow-moving. In a list I would put this way below my favourite Chabon books, Wonder Boys and the Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

 
Telegraph Avenue 2


It is full of energy, it gives an elaborate and authentic-sounding description of every scene it visits. One minor interaction takes place at a collectibles fair, and there is this about a payment:
The money lay there… ten duplicate cards from the highly collectable Dead Presidents series.
This is an OB/GYN facing an emergency:
Throwing up his hands, shaking his head: all the bad acting people tended to engage in when they were most sincere.
So clever, but every detail of every scene is described like this, and it just becomes exhausting.

But, yeah, it is still really good. And there are rich pickings, endless great quotes and some terrific clothes.

There are many, many references and allusions throughout the book, to anything and everything, but particularly films and music. The two main types of music featured are 70s soul and jazz.

So one picture is the cover from a compilation of 70s soul.
The others are from the amazing collection of jazz photos which William P Gottlieb (ie the photographer) donated to the Library of Congress: these show a record shop in New York in the 1940s, and the immense Ella Fitzgerald (love that hat) with a line-up that includes the Ray Brown mentioned above.

The other great record-shop novel is Nick Hornby's High Fidelity - featured on the blog twice
















17 comments:

  1. Moira - I'm not much of a one for a great deal narrative detail. But I do like the music-store context. I remember stores like that; I loved visiting them. Sounds like Chabon has created some interesting characters, too. Throw in jazz and Ella Fitzgerald, and you have my interest. I'll have to think about this for some time when I'm willing to get through the descriptions, etc...

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    1. Yes, there is something so intriguing about those old-fashioned record shops, isn't there - I'm surprised there aren't more novels set in them...

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  2. Another one I can safely leave. I do have something by him, just haven't found it yet, but it definitely isn't this

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    1. I'm betting you'd like him if you tried him - but stick with whatever's in the tubs, its turn will come eventually...

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  3. Yes, love that hat. A friend recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. How do you rate it?
    Sound as if this one needed a good editor.

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    1. Kavalier and Klay is good, but not my favourite of his. I wish I didn't think he needed a good editor - but in this case I think it's the truth...

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  4. Moira, I still haven't read a Michael Chabon. It looks like this book has a lot going for it in spite of the excess plot, the length, and the slow pace. In fact, it sounds rather entertaining in a serious way.

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    1. It is! but quite a commitment to read. You might enjoy Kavalier and Klay better - it's about comics!

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  5. I have yet to read a book by Michael Chabon. I've thought I should read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but a friend discouraged me. Two friends recommend the Kavalier and Klay.
    And I put Wonder Boys on my list ot movies to be seen.
    Yes, midwifery is complicated here, but just got a boost in the New York Times. It's been a hard road for midwives in the last several years. Friends of mine had their babies at midwifery clinics or at hospitals with midwives, but it's harder to do that now with more restrictions.
    But the tide may be turning back.

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    1. Oh good - the trouble is that people get entrenched in their positions, and there is no negotiation. Let's hope for a more relaxed future, and more consideration for mothers.

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  6. I just mentioned to my friend, the retired midwife about midwifery in Britain, and she said it's very different there than from here. I could see that from the "Call the Midwife" PBS/BBC presentations.
    Her book, by the way, is at Amazon UK in Kindle or paperback. It's "Laboring Stories of a New York City Midwife," by Ellen Cohen. It's gritty, down to earth, nothing glossed over, and deals with the real problems mothers and midwives face in our city.

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    1. Thanks Kathy, I'll go and look that up.

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  7. If you read "Laboring," let me know what you think and I'll let the author/retired midwife know. Her book is being read by midwifery students and other students, as well as by experienced midwives to excellent reviews.

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  8. I was maybe almost interested until I saw the length. Maybe someday if I really fall in love with Chabon's writing. I have only read The Yiddish Policeman's Union which I enjoyed.

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    1. This one had me balking at the length, Tracy, and I love him, and don't usually mind long. Try some of his others first...

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