Once again the unexpected from Michael Chabon! Originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine, this is an adventure story filled with heroic derring-do and lots of swashbuckling swordplay but with Chabon’s signature humor poking its grinning head from every line.
Essentially a buddy story, it’s a Jewish tale and a dynasty saga set in the Khazar Empire in about the year 950. The characters manage to be both broad caricature and all-too-human at the same time. In true magazine-serial style, cliffhanger suspense abounds, keeping the reader as breathless as the characters who leap on and off horses, throw unerring spears and wield mighty swords. But it’s not only the story that makes this experience special; it’s the physical book itself that makes this old-time bibliophile smile. Endpapers with maps of the territory, black and white illustrations with a line of text running below, a list of illustrations following the table of contents, the print font, itself, as well as countless other touches are all reminiscent of the days when a book looked and smelled and felt like a reflection of history. All this somehow magically combines with the story and subtly draws the reader into time and place and mood. This is literature as art! And the author gives us a final gift in the form of a fascinating afterword in which he shares his thoughts about the book and his perspectives on history, adventure, and literature.
Perhaps the best part of the book consists of the chapter titles. Who generally even notices chapter titles? But never, in all my reading years, have I encountered such unique ones. They are priceless pieces of mini-literature all by themselves. This one’s my favorite: “On Anxieties Arising From the Impermissibility, However Unreasonable, of an Elephant’s Rounding Out a Prayer Quorum.” I’m not sure that there’s a better chapter title than that in the history of printing!
Creative, fun and very, very funny, this book will not disappoint the by now high expectations of Chabon readers.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.