I discovered One Book, One Chicago in the fall of 2012 when every single person I saw on public transit had their head buried in The Book Thief. I knew it couldn’t be coincidence that the whole city seemed to read the same book at the same time, but I was too new to know the secret. Luckily, a billboard popped up near my office with the One Book, One Chicago logo and The Book Thief cover art. A quick google search later, and I had a favorite Chicago Public Library program. One Book, One Chicago aims to engage the city’s readers in a public discourse on a single book supported by events, blog posts, and small group discussions to help build a culture of reading.
This year, One Book, One Chicago asked us to read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The epic novel revolves around Josef Kavalier, an older brother and trained magician sent by his family to America at the onset of Nazi occupation. Joe lives with his cousin Sammy and together, they develop a series of successful comic books. Joe uses comics as a passive-aggressive medium for fighting Nazis and to accumulate enough wealth to help his family escape Europe. Even as the comics fly from the shelves, Joe and Sammy battle personal frustrations. Joe enlists while Sammy faces the reality of his sexuality in the early twentieth century. The story spans years and multiple settings with Joe’s training in magic and Sammy’s career in comics as narrative through-lines.
The pace and style of the book make it a digestible 650-page read. Chabon packs movement into short chapters and segments the book into six sections. The most common description of the book I find is “page-tuner,” and I think that’s apt. This briskness helped me overlook some of the Forrest-Gumpian elements of the story. Joe and Sam casually encounter a number of 1930 celebrities. One such scene – less than two pages devoted to Eleanor Roosevelt pulling political favors to help Joe for some reason – irritated me to the point of a few-day break. Your mileage my vary on the interplay of fantasy and reality, but it does give the feel of a comic book-like story told in the pages of a novel.
Thematically, Chabon explores so much in this effort. Heroism, loyalty, family, and self-sacrifice dominate, but discussions of nationalism, vengeance, and art surface frequently, even if they fade for 50-75 pages in between. One Book, One Chicago has focused on heroism as its central theme. 2015 OBOC programming includes Chicago’s Heroic Architecture and Anti-Heroes in Film. For me, Chabon succeeds blending comic book hero origin stories into the narrative in a way he does not in name-dropping real-life historic figures. These short intermissions wake up the story and demonstrate Chabon’s true love of comics as an art form. They also skillfully illustrate some of Sammy and Joe’s struggles in subtle ways.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is not a novel I would find or read on my own, but I very much enjoyed the experience. Chabon’s ambitious work impressed me, and discussing the book with readers from across the city always invigorates my love for a good novel. You can pick up a copy on Amazon, or, better yet, at the Chicago Public Library. Learn more about One Book, One Chicago here and join the discussion on twitter and facebook.