I consider myself a fairly well-read individual, though perhaps a bit heavy on the classics and speculative fiction and a bit light on more contemporary mainstream/literary authors. I have long lists of books I want to read, as well as authors I know I ought to read. The trouble is, it seems I rarely have the time anymore to read any of the books on the first list, and as for those on the second list, well…I have a sort of native stubbornness which usually prevents me from approaching any of them.
“Ought” is just one of those words that brings out the mule in me. Michael Chabon has long been a resident on the second list. People have told me “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is amazing—you have to read it,” for years. I never have, but maybe I will…someday...or maybe not. There is just something in me that rebels at gushing recommendations from almost any source, and the more I hear about a single book, the less likely I am to read it until long after it becomes uncool.
So Chabon was, it seemed, destined to remain in the dusty Ought-To pile in the back of my cobwebby cranium (just behind the piano I still intend to learn to play and the fly-rod I ought to use more often). That is just how it was until I took a young adult literature class last year, for which I had to choose half a dozen titles as “choice reads.” When I saw Summerland on the library shelf, I knew Chabon’s number had finally come up. Here was the chance to fulfill an assignment and take an author off my “Ought-To-Read” list, all of this while still avoiding reading Kavalier and Clay—I couldn’t lose.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, Chabon is clearly a tad bit enamored with his own voice, but what writer isn’t now and again? What he’s got here is a terrific story, which, frankly, I never expected. Even for someone like me, who couldn’t care less about baseball, Summerland was a joy. A mix of nostalgia, baseball, Norse and Native American mythology, American tall tales, and a coming of age story, it has a little something for everyone. I wish I could sum up the plot in a pithy sentence or two, but every time I try I get something like this: three kids discover that the real world is only one of four worlds connected and supported by a great old tree which is about to be threatened by the mysterious red-headed figure (why are we always the bad guys?) known alternately as Coyote, Trickster, and the Prince of Lies; and so they must take their Volvo dirigible and, with the help of a miniature baseball player, a female sasquatch, an ensorcelled giant the size of an eight year old boy, and a wererat, risk everything to stop Coyote from destroying the world by poisoning the roots of the world tree with black phlegm from a giant catfish’s gut. Whew!
Though the main characters are between nine and eleven, and the story might well appeal to that age group, this book was clearly written to be enjoyed by a somewhat older audience. The writing is a bit dense, and at five hundred pages with adult-fiction sized font, it would make a good doorstop if you could put it down long enough. It took me a whopping two weeks to read, partly because it starts out rather slowly, and partly because there are just a lot of words to deal with. My only real complaint actually, aside from the length, which seemed a tad excessive—a bit of judicious trimming would not likely have hurt the book at all—was the inordinate number of serious typos. Especially toward the end of the book, the errors really began to pile up, often making mincemeat out of whatever sense was intended for a given sentence. I guess when you are Michael Chabon, even the editors are in awe—which unfortunately stopped one of them from doing his or her job. All in all, Summerland is still a good read, so long as you can spare the time. Dare I say, you really ought to check it out?