The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America – the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is probably one of the most underrated books I’ve ever read! I rarely hear it discussed anywhere, and think I only discovered it via NPR’s Book Concierge, which is an amazing tool and everyone should check it out (it’s also a lot of fun). The scope is enormous – from Joe’s origins in Nazi Europe to joining his cousin Sammy in New York City to create popular comic books, to their involvement in World War II, and finally ending with them as adults with families.

Most of the book centers on their creative years as comic book writers, following them from complete newbies in the comic world who got paid pennies at a time, to seasoned pros who dreamed up some of the best-selling superheroes of their day. Sammy and Joe are like day and night – Sammy is a goofy-looking quick talker with endless ideas for content (would be a great influencer in this day and age 😆), while Joe is shy and tall, a talented magician and artist both. I can’t say good enough things about both characters because they were so wonderfully developed. I liked spending time with each of them and learning their dreams and secrets and heartaches, and the sense of boyish bravado and optimism really shines through. Even the secondary characters were satisfyingly fleshed out too. It’s a pretty long book so there’s a couple of slow sections, but Chabon is such a brilliant, zany writer that I chugged through those anyway. I just had a feeling that he wouldn’t let me down with the ending, and he definitely pulled through.

If you think it’s not the book for you because you’re not into comics, don’t worry! I’m not either, and almost let that stop me from picking it up, but I’m really glad I gave it a chance. It was worth the long haul, and I wish there were more writers like Chabon.

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this book. Even though I’d call myself only a casual runner at best (and that’s when I’m actively running at all), Born to Run really ignited an excitement in me to not only run more, but also to simply enjoy it.

The main story about the eventual race between the Americans and the legendary Tarahumara was really interesting to read, but the two most fascinating parts for me were: 1) learning the evolutionary history of how humans became uniquely designed to run, and 2) as mentioned above, that you can sheerly love the act of running itself and have fun doing it. The bushmen’s hunt near the end was also extremely vivid – the storytelling made it seem like running your prey to exhaustion was the most natural thing to do in the world, and genuinely like running at an easy lope for hours on end was what we were born to do.

McDougall alternates the science/history sections and anecdotal sections so you get a good balance between entertainment and knowledge, and his pacing is even and gradual, making his ideas easy to follow and digest. This book also popularized those dreadful-looking toe shoes (Vibrams being the biggest brand) under the idea that they allowed you to run more naturally – the closest sensation to running barefoot while still wearing something protecting you from the ground. Even though that theory has since been disproven, the other premises in its pages were still fascinating and more than made up for that misplaced endorsement.

I can definitely see myself coming back to this book throughout my life. 

Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating fine details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Invisible Cities is one of the strangest, most haunting books I’ve ever read. There’s no particular plot; every page is just a short, lyrical description of an imaginary city Marco Polo passes on his travels. Some of these cities are more realistic than others – marble palaces, frangipane trees, bustling markets. Others are completely impossibly and theoretical – a city delicately and entirely strung up between two cliff walls that knows one day it will fall into the abyss; a city that breathes earth instead of air; a city that is so crowded that people blot out the place and even the sky.

One of my favorite cities is Beersheba, whose residents believe in a heavenly, celestial city above made of gold and silver and glittering diamond, and a hell-like city underground made of waste and tar and trash. They strive every day to worship the city above and abhor the city below; but what they don’t know is that their greed and superficiality has blinded them, and that the city below is actually the one made of gold, while the city above is made of trash.

Intent on piling up its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet aflutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

Invisible Cities

Even though it’s short (only 160 pages or so), it isn’t the type of book you read in one sitting. I found that I could only digest a few cities at a time, in order to think about them more closely and visualize them in my mind. Maybe that’s how it was meant to be read – slowly, savoring every city individually and appreciating all the beauties or horrors of each one.

P.S. Artist Colleen Corradi Brannigan painted each city. The works are chaotic and stunning.

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wow, I intensely loved this book. When I finished, my first thought was that it reminded me of Yanagihara’s A Little Life in its scope of following a few individuals over the course of their lives – but that’s where the similarities end. Whereas A Little Life is glorified misery porn (and I say this as someone who loved that book too), Pachinko is quietly hopeful and uplifting. Whereas A Little Life left me bawling on my bed for a solid half hour after finishing, Pachinko made me feel introspective and ancient and wise, having experienced the gamut of human emotion within its pages.

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