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Michael Chabon's Summerland: A Half Review

Why a half review? Because I've only read about half the book. And I'm not going to read anymore.

I can't fathom what possessed Chabon - author of the fabulous Kavalier and Clay - to write Summerland.

Oh, wait. Yes I can. Money. I imagine one day his publisher came to him and said, "Hey, Michael, why don't you write a children's book so we can cash in on the Harry Potter-fueled children's fantasy book craze?"
And Michael said "What a fabulous idea. Except I never really wrote for children before."
To which the publisher said "Oh, that doesn't matter, make it up as you go along!"

Which may work well for some people - after all, Rowling had never written a children's book before she wrote Harry Potter - but it does not work for Chabon. In fact, by the third or fourth chapter of Summerland it becomes painfully obvious that Chabon is in way over his head.

Chabon takes the tried and true formula of putting an ordinary kid in an extraordinary situation and mutilates it. He 'borrowed' liberally from Lewis, Rowland, Eager and L'Engle, taking their ideas and themes and mashing them all together in what amounts to a big mess of a story with no direction and no coherence.

The idea of taking all the things that made other children's fantasy books work and putting them into one story may seem like a genius idea at the start, but imagine it this way: taking all of your favorite desserts and sticking them in a food processor to make one uber dessert would not turn out well. Not only would you not be able to tell the peanut butter from the chocolate, but it would taste like ass.

In Summerland, Chabon goes by a formula that's worked for kid's movies for ages (and don't for a minute think that Chabon wasn't penning a screenplay so much as a novel when he wrote it): a misfit kid, his misfit, skeptical best friend, a mean adult, an adult who manage to see the magic that kids see, an absent (in this case, dead) parent and the idea that human beings are shit. In what can be called a misplaced stroke of genius, Chabon decided to make his story different than all the others by giving it an underlying theme of baseball. What could be better than marrying magic and baseball? Too bad the baseball theme gets tiring and burdensome about 60 pages in.

Summerland could have been good. No, it could have been great. Fabulous. Stupendous. A giant leap in the realm of children's fantasy. But Chabon can't tell the story, which is surprising. While he knows how to string words together to make a beautiful sentence, he can't string the constantly changing plot lines together. Story lines come out of nowhere, leaving the reader disjointed and confused. Too often, things don't make sense and the baseball metaphor appears forced, throwing the story into further disarray.

I'll probably give in and read the rest of the book, just to see how he wraps up the myriad story lines and closes the gaping holes. I had high expectations for this book and for Chabon. Summerland was touted as the greatest thing since Harry, but it's the children's fantasy version of Goosebumps.

Comments

Oh, wow!

While not as good as Kavalier & Clay, Summerland was a very nice book!

I didn't think it was a fantasy book for children: it's a fantasy book for adults. The plot lines are very interwoven, but enjoyable all the while.

I've read lots of children's fantasy--being a parent and also having been a child--and never considered this book to be aimed at the market. I found it more along the line of King's Hearts in Atlantis, though without the tie-ins to other King work.

I guess that's why they make different kinds of literature.

Actually, Summerland was, indeed, marketed as a children's book.

..debut novel for young readers....

you still looking for interesting fiction? Try anything by Tad Williams. He wrote two series, Otherland and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn that were damn good, and a couple of stand alone ones that were interesting.

And the Thomas Covenant books, if you havent already read those.

Michele, I really liked this book. It combines Norse, Native American, Baseball and European Mythologies into one Ur-tale. I really enjoyed it...

Finish it up and see how it goes. It really deserves it.

Well, they may have marketed it as a kids book, but they still do that with the Alice books. CS Lewis is gaudied up for kids, but he isn't for kids. Same with Jules Verne... the English translations sometimes miss up to 80% of what he wrote.

I sure don't see Summerland as a kids book... it'd be wasted on them.

I started Summerland but then got busy with something else and left it after a couple of chapters. I've been meaning to get back to it for a while. Maybe I'll write a half review of my own in a little while.

Meanwhile, allow me to strongly recommend an author than you may not be familiar with. Joseph Kanon's Los Alamos is a terrific murder mystery set in Los Alamos during the height of the Manhattan Project. It was his first published book. His other books (The Good German; The Prodigal Spy) are also outstanding (but Los Alamos remains my favorite).

I tried to read Summerland to my son, who found the whole thing to be too far beyond everything he's ever found interesting. He likes Vikings, baseball, and little magical creatures who live in forests, but I had a hell of a time trying to tell him how these things could fit together. Chabon had an even harder time. Your blender metaphor is quite accurate. Nevertheless, I was and still am interested in reading the whole thing. Maybe. Someday.

Some children's literature just doesn't coincide with the needs and expectations of children and parents. I find the old stuff to be the best for reading to my children: Beatrix Potter, Elsa Beskow, Tolkien's Farmer Giles and The Hobbit, and even Edward Gorey and Richard Scarry wrote some wonderful stuff. Most of the new stuff generally lacks the critical elements of magic and respect of and for the children it's obstensively written for.

I was disappointed when I saw Chabon on the History Channel special on comics. He commented that originally Superman fought for truth and justice and that "the American Way" was only added later, during the Cold War (implying that it was jingoistic and fascistic). In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1946, the Superman radio series got "relevant" with a lot of anti-racist, anti-bigotry stories (one adventure was called "The Clan of the Fiery Cross"). Superman explained "the American Way" several times, saying that it meant that we were all of us, whether white, yellow, black or brown, Americans and that we should stand together. This may be why Norman Lear called his group "People for the American Way"; does Chabon consider Lear to be jingoistic?

Maybe the radio Superman lived on Earth Two. I bet Chabon, being a comic book guy, had more access to the comic version on his own Earth One.

And if that isn't the crappiest excuse for someone goofing up history....