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Immerse yourself in Chabon’s ‘Moonglow’ |

Immerse yourself in Chabon’s ‘Moonglow’

Jay Dantry during the Gestures art exhibit at the Mattress Factory Extension.
JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
Jay Dantry, owner of Jay's Book Stall on Fifth Avenue in Oakland, leans on the counter where he preserves photographs taken of himself with famous authors and actors.
Jay Dantry
Jay Dantry, Elsie Hillman and Dr. Thomas Starzl during Dantry's retirement party on June 12, 2008.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jay Dantry, owner of the Jay's Book Stall, at the counter on the last day of customer business in the Oakland book store on Thursday, June 12, 2008.
Harry Schwalb (left) and Jay Dantry
Benjamin Tice Smith
Michael Chabon
'Moonglow' by Michael Chabon
Ulf Andersen | Getty Images
Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s new novel is more than just a series of stories relayed from a grandfather’s death bed to his grandson. The range of “Moonglow” (Harper, $28.99) zigzags from model rockets to the exploits of Wernher von Braun; from a Jewish family in Philadelphia in the early decades of the 20th century to Nordhausen, Germany, where the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed in heartbreaking photographs taken by U.S. soldiers.

Chabon, who appears Dec. 9 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of the University of Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, absorbs and immerses himself in relevant materials. There’s research before and during the actual writing. There are “chance discoveries” that necessitate more research before he is ready to write.

“There are moments when I just completely, fully dig in as deep as I can,” Chabon says, “and sort of vacuum it all up and hold it in my mind. Then I’ll sit down and write a passage. At least for the time I’m doing that first draft of whatever section it is, I’m the world’s leading expert on that subject for the next three hours or three days or three weeks or three months; whatever it is, I know everything. And typically, whenever I’m done, especially now when the book is done, it’s like cramming for an exam. I don’t forget all of it, but a lot of it over time.”

“Moonglow” — the title comes from the Glenn Miller song popular with Allied troops during World War II — was sparked by Chabon’s great uncle, Stanley Werbow, who was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II. Werbow, who died in 2005, had taped some of his memories at the urging of his daughters.

When Chabon heard Werbow’s stories about growing up Jewish in Philadelphia and the war, his path to “Moonglow” was clear.

“When that happens, it’s the greatest thing in the world,” Chabon says. But he quickly adds that he believes in Louis Pasteur’s maxim, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

“You make discoveries that seem like chance discoveries, you’re in the right place at the right time,” Chabon says. “But you’re also the right person because you’re prepared, … because you’ve been thinking, noticing circumstance in whatever it is you’re engaged in. When you are in the right place at the right time, you are the person who will see what nobody else might see. Or as Branch Rickey said ‘Luck is the residue of design.’ You have to be ready so when the chance occurs, you notice it.”

Chabon adds that, “You also have to be noticing, have your eyes up from your screen or your phone. You kind of have to be looking around you at all times so you notice the world around you.”

The structure of “Moonglow” is similar to memoir-like novels such as “David Copperfield” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” The narrator, Mike, spins Scheherazade-like tales ranging from the sublime to the fantastic. The grandfather, unnamed in the book, chases a boa constrictor in Florida and Wernher von Braun in Germany. There are stories about the narrator’s grandmother, who spent World War II in a French convent, and his mother, who becomes a typically rebellious teenager in the ’50s.

One of the things Chabon explores is how little is known about the lives of our grandparents. That until we get beyond seeing them as “stock characters” — “grandpa always drives 35 mph in the right-hand lane, or grandma calling you because she saw on the Weather Channel there’s a hurricane 500 miles from where you live,” he says — we really don’t know them.

“We tend to reduce our grandparents to their most striking characteristics, whatever those might be,” Chabon says. “By the time we get to an age where you can actually say my grandmother was a woman and my grandfather was a man and they struggled with all the things I struggle with, they had doubts and failures and setbacks and fears and sex lives and all of the things I’m concerned with, it’s our early-to-late 20s, typically. And that’s always around the time they’re dying or starting to die, and it’s always too late for most people.

“I’m not saying people don’t have close relationships with their grandparents long before that, but when you get to that age when you can see them as full, complete, flawed humans, it’s often too late to do anything about it. It’s too late to talk to them, too late to ask them about more comprehensive details of their adult lives. So in a way, this book is in part a kind of imaginative response to my having failed to get the story from actual grandparents while there was time.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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