Moonglow: A Novel

by Michael Chabon

Hardcover, 2016

Call number




Harper (2016), Edition: First Edition, 430 pages


A man bears witness to his grandfather's deathbed confessions, which reveal his family's long-buried history and his involvement in a mail-order novelty company, World War II, and the space program.

Media reviews

This is a novel that, despite its chronological lurches, feels entirely sure footed, propulsive, the work of a master at his very best. The brilliance of Moonglow stands as a strident defence of the form itself, a bravura demonstration of the endless mutability and versatility of the novel.
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One can read Chabon’s novel as an exploration of anger—a study of how one man’s innate rage is exacerbated by the horrors of the twentieth century and by their impact on his personal history.
“Moonglow” is another scale model of love and death and catastrophe. It’s another reminder that we live in a broken world. And fiction, Chabon said, “is an attempt to mend it.”
And this book, a love letter to two temperamentally opposite grandparents — one a rational, practical American, the other a dreamy, romantic European — is also an account of their formative influences on the writer their grandson would become. These are not so much explained as felt, woven
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into the very fabric of Chabon’s supple and resourceful prose. He brings the world of his grandparents to life in language that seems to partake of their essences.
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Library's review

Chabon is still one of my favorite authors, even though I didn't think this was one of his best. It is definitely worth the read, though; it just takes a patient and careful one. The historical overlay is dense, and, in parts, it's easy to lose track of the multiple characters. The interlacing
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themes of space exploration (especially travel to the moon), mental illness, WWII and the Holocaust, and family memory (explored through fascinating conversations and reminiscing between a central character, his grandfather, and mother--the interaction with the grandfather as a sort of deathbed confession/exploration of family history) are communicated well in Chabon's emotive and authentic prose. (Brian)
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User reviews

LibraryThing member EBT1002
I loved this novel. It took some getting used to, the lurching narrative pace, the narrator's use of "my grandfather" and "my mother" to denote characters rather than ever establishing them by name, these initially created a disjointed reading experience. But, once the characters took on their full
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three-dimensionality, I was enchanted and engrossed. Mike's grandfather is dying of cancer and Mike manages to persuade him to tell his story, the story of Mike's family history.

Most of the story centers around his grandfather's efforts during WWII to track down the inventor of the V-2, a rocket with a murderous purpose but also one important chapter in the complicated history of rocketry and space exploration. That history serves as a parallel to the history of the family; some might find it distracting but for me it served as the anchor for the grandfather's life. His passion for rocketry feels so real, so imperative to his character. His love for his wife (Mike's grandmother) and his acts of heroism and cowardice in various moments of his young adult life make a good story. But the thread of rocketry and its intersections with those heroic and cowardly and passionate moments is what pulls it all together. That said, this novel is not about rockets or rocketry. It is a family saga and a poignant story of the devastating effect of war. It is the story of mental illness born of deep trauma. It is the story of love and loss, anger and aging. And it's brilliant.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
Indiespensable. This is the first Chabon I've read, and I liked this quite a bit, and ended up racing for the end but not wanting to reach it. My only complaint is the disjointed - time-sequence bit that is becoming ever more popular. It is off-putting to have to realign the narrative in time with
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a new chapter, and rarely necessary. It seems a fad, just tell the story please.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Much has been made in reviews and interviews of the fact that Moonglow is a fictionalized account of Michael Chabon's maternal grandfather's life. I'm less interested in what Chabon is doing to blur the line between fiction and memoir than I am in whether Moonglow worked as a story. And it did.
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Chabon's a talented writer working at his peak and so the writing here is fine and stays out of the way of the story he's telling, which is the story of his own family tree, mainly focusing on his grandfather, and using the framing device of Chabon spending time with his grandfather during his grandfather's final days and the conversations they had.

What emerges is a straight-forward novel about an interesting man with the framing device of their conversations before he dies. The story is mostly chronological, with some jumping back and forth in time, from his childhood as a Jewish boy running around places he wasn't allowed, to his involvement in trying to find German scientists before the Soviets do at the end of WWII, to how he met his wife and their life together, and his life as a widower in Florida. In many ways, he lived an ordinary life, but in others he was extraordinary; in his devotion to the wife who never fully recovered from her life in France during the war, in his feeling of obligation to a German man who is being bullied in prison, to his fascination with the space race.

Chabon writes with an enormous amount of affection about his grandfather, and that sentiment pervades the novel. It's also, at a more basic level, just a good story about an interesting, yet ordinary man, well-told.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Moonglow is a novel that is written to sound as if it were a memoir about the life of the author’s late grandfather. Through the vignettes that the grandfather related over the last two weeks of his life, we learn what happened during his lifetime and how he felt about it. But this book is not
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meant to be entirely truthful; as Chabon writes in an Author’s Note preceding the book:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

Thus, he claims, it is his "“first faux-memoir novel.” He also declared in an interview about the book:

"It is an attempt to explain an enigmatic advertisement I found in a copy of an issue of Esquire magazine in 1958 for Chabon Scientific Company that sold a model rocket. This memoir is the fictional history behind that advertisement to explain it."

In previous books, Michael Chabon has proven to be a master of the meticulously wrought phrase. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for example, his evocation of New York life in the 1930’s was absolutely rhapsodic. I didn't feel that this book rose to that level, although Chabon adroitly captures the subtleties of the grandfather’s life in a panorama that spans World War II, marriage to his wife (presumably Chabon's grandmother), the post-war race for scientific hegemony, the ways in which the grandfather spent his retirement, and finally, his deathbed conversations with his grandson in 1989.

It is both a chronicle of an individual life and of the broader era in which that life was lived.

Evaluation: Some of the themes Chabon has used before reappear in this book, such as of the impotency of men in the face of evil, the appeal of storytelling in reshaping memory, the ways in which imagination can help make reality endurable, and the redemptive power of love.

Yet, although Chabon conjures this grandfather’s life so vividly, the story just did not engage me that much on an emotional level. Nor did the author wow me, as in the past, with his magical flights of prose.

I thought this was a good book, but because this author has written some great books, I found it disappointing.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
The writing in this so-called memoir is amazing! Chabon provides so many details I felt I knew the characters well, and I definitely felt for them. The book had more interest for me because it was based on real characters. However, I did not need as many details regarding the grandfather's wartime
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and space-related experiences.
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LibraryThing member gpangel
Moonglow by Michael Chabon is a 2016 Harper publication.

I must admit, up front, that I’ve never a book by this author. That is not to say I don’t have his books sitting on my shelves or loaded onto my Kindle, because I do. However, I’ve never managed to get around to reading them.

My library
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was really pushing this book, so I placed a hold on it. Shockingly, few people were ahead of me, so I nabbed a copy almost immediately.

Having no idea what to expect, but hoping for something different and maybe a little challenging, I dived into what some have referred to as a ‘novel memoir’ or memoir/novel.

Michael Chabon, in 1989, travels to Oakland, California to visit his dying grandfather. Never having revealed a great deal to his grandson during his life, his grandfather decides to remedy that, by regaling Michael with stories from his colorful and adventurous life.

‘Ninety percent of everything he ever told me about his life, I heard in its final ten days.’

The author never refers to his grandfather by name, but the gentleman lived through many significant phases in history. His tale is not told chronologically, but skips through time in no particular order. While I’m usually pretty good at dealing with flashbacks in novels, this nilly willy time trip, did create some problems for me at times. I also lost interest a time or two, as the topics just didn’t appeal to me in any way.

But, there were poignant moments than more than made up for those dry spells. I may have this all wrong, but I gathered the grandfather was the main focus of the book, and the other characters were meant to be secondary. I didn’t know what to make of his grandfather for a while, but by the end of the book, I realized I had enjoyed getting to know the man and appreciated his humor.

Now, why is the book labeled as a novel memoir?

“In preparing for this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when the facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

How much is absolute truth, how much is embellishment? Is it a real memoir, or a novel disguised as a memoir?

Either way, the novel is unique, with realistic and compelling characterizations, and a sophisticated prose, which is what I liked best about it.

Overall, this one is a little off the beaten path for me. It’s not the type of book I would want to read often, but I am glad I gave it a try, and it has inspired me to move the books I already own by this author moved closer to the top of my TBR pile.

3.5 stars
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LibraryThing member Susan.Macura
This is the fictionalized account of the author’s grandfather’s deathbed stories of his life told when the author visited him at his mother’s home during the last week of his life. It is a beautifully written account of his grandfather’s life including his love affair with his mentally ill
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wife, his love for her daughter that he raised as his own to his passion for all things involving rockets and space. We learn about his experiences in WW II, his time in Walkill prison and his experiences in business. His grandfather was a tough man but one who lived a full life with great experiences. This is a book not to be missed.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
Although Moonglow is labeled a novel, it is based on stories that Michael Chabon's grandfather told him during the weeks before his death. But Chabon adds his own imagination to the stories, resulting in a book that the dust jacket refers to as speculative autobiography. Told in snapshots that do
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not always follow chronological order, the story moves from his time in World War II to his challenging marriage to his fascination with the space program and his life in a Florida retirement village. The events are fascinating, but it is the way that the events fit together to create a portrait of a man who, while far from perfect, was clearly deeply loved. Chabon also has a way with words, and I found myself lingering over his well-worded observations. In all, a very satisfying read.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
The mania for quasi-autobiographical fiction expresses itself differently depending on the author. The flyleaf to Michael Chabon’s Moonglow declares that what lies before us is an account, largely, of the life of Chabon’s grandfather, based, significantly, on his grandfather’s deathbed
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reminiscences. The acknowledgements at the end of the novel are equally declarative that the sources lie elsewhere. But the real source, as ever, is Chabon himself in creating this “speculative autobiography”. I confess I would have preferred that he had set these tricks aside and simply let his story unfold. Inevitably it smacks of a lack of confidence in the strength of the tale in question.

The overarching story here follows the life of the narrator’s grandfather, jumbled for presentational impact, from about the outset of WWII to his death in 1995. The grandfather is an engineer with a fascination for and dream of space travel. That his war work brings him close to the, later, famous (and infamous) lead architect of the US space program, Werner von Braun, is apt. But the real story, perhaps, is that of the narrator’s grandmother who may or may not have been who she claimed. There are enough details of the ordinary life and mundane family history of the narrator for this to have all the appearance of memoir. But the literary archness and subtlety of the writing suggest that it is as much the author’s response to Pynchon and Salinger and others as anything extra-textual.

Chabon is never less than readable. He regularly comes up with the interesting turn of phrase, as well of the mocking of that turn of phrase. And if this novel is not as tight and controlled as, say, his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, its looseness does at least seem deliberate. And of course there are still many incidents in which the near-high adventure of Chabon’s storytelling can’t help but come out.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
This book just got better as you went along. Wonderful character development and beautiful background descriptions. Clearly the presence of the moon was in so many scenes, but what was the significance of the matches on the cover?
LibraryThing member annbury
A wonderful novel Chabon is a great writer and this novel, which involves a grandfather's tale of his time at war and as an engineer, is great. I had no idea until I read the reviews that the story is entirely made up.,
The scenes are wonderful, especially the ones with his grandmother, who is a
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total nutcase. For some reason, Alger Hiss figures here, but he disappears after a first page and then another reference.
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LibraryThing member charl08
I was anxious about reading this, as I loved The Yiddish Policeman's Union and The WonderBoys. This apparent biography of the author's grandfather, told in an unapologetically rambling style, encounters space and Nazis. Chabon takes us from wartime Germany to modern day retirement Florida and
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back,laughing I. The face of an orderly timeline, watching rockets explode and exploring the nature of society's, industry's responsibilities for the horrors perpetuated in the name of scientific advance. A great read, with laugh out loud moments.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
A bit of a slow start, but once I felt I got to know the characters, it became fascinating on several levels. The basis for the story is a dying Jewish grandfather speaking on his death bed (over the course of days/weeks) to his grandson, the author. The book reads as if it is a memoir of the
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grandfather who was a young soldier during WWII. Not told in chronological order, the story goes all over the place from war torn France to a retirement resort in Florida. Along the way, rockets and space play a part as well as a fascinating history and look at Wernher von Braun -- history with the Nazi and his place in the American space program. Grandfather also tells about his relationship with his wife, a French woman suffering from mental illness (the skinless horse), and her daughter who was raised as his own. The background of the wife is different than the one that Grandfather believes.

As with "Kavalier and Clay" there are many characters, real and fictional, who appear throughout the story. It was an interesting and fun read.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Finished Moonglow by Michael Chabon this morning. It was a wonderful read.
He explains in this memoir-like novel that 90 percent of everything he ever knew about his grandfather, he learned while staying with him during the last ten days of his life, while he was dying from cancer and numbing the
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pain with Dilaudid. The drug loosened the tongue of this noble, impulsive, intelligent man who one reviewer notes, might be symbolic of America itself, much like Bellow's Angie March.

Chabon is a gifted writer as evidenced by the number of passages I felt compelled to highlight for posterity. The narrative is not told sequentially but rather delivered the same way the memories might have been told to him by a dying man on his bedside. He didn't even take his grandfather's advice,
"Anyway, it’s a pretty good story,” I said. “You have to admit.” “Yeah?” He crumpled up the Kleenex, having dispatched the solitary tear. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you."

The NYT puts it nicely "Mr. Chabon weaves these knotted-together tales into a tapestry that’s as complicated, beautiful and flawed as an antique carpet."

The scenes range from his grandfather's time in the waning years of WWII, trying to capture German scientists who could be useful in America, to his time in jail for assaulting his boss, to his skill working with NASA creating space stations, and even to his retired years in Florida, snake hunting to prove his gallantry to a new Love.
His grandfather's story also reveals the hardship of his love for his wife, who suffered atrocities during the war that haunt her forever. "From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose."
What's not a challenge is reading these scenes of a finally examined life. It was a pleasure.

Some good lines:

"Like many of the spouses of “the lucky ones,” my grandfather had observed that what got labeled luck was really stubbornness married to a knack for observation, a fluid sense of the truth, a sharp ear for lies, and a deeply suspicious nature."

"Gorman stood for a moment just inside the doorway. He nodded to my grandfather. His close-cropped skull was indented on one side as by the corner of a two-by-four. In the crevice formed by his brow and cheekbones, his eyes glinted like dimes lost between sofa cushions."

"His belly sloshed in the wineskin of a ribbed undershirt. His bare shoulders were ivory-yellow and densely freckled. The freckles, like his hair and eyelashes, were the color of a Nilla wafer."
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Does he ever write a bad book. It was dense with characters, information and issues. Well worth the many pages and complexity.
LibraryThing member Narshkite
So today Kellyanne Conway said that the President and his Press Secretary don't lie, they use "alternative facts." This construct, a moral whitewashing of the concept of lying, is terrifying in the POTUS, but in literature it is charming and challenging and incredibly effective. It lets the writer
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inform the reader about the truth of the people about whom they are writing without having to deal with those inconvenient facts that can cloud the character analysis. Here this works perfectly in Chabon's warts and all love letter to his grandfather (whom I do not recall having a name.) I was left feeling that I knew Chabon's grandfather, grandmother, mother, and perhaps most of all Chabon himself. While the alternative facts of our current POTUS are there to avoid the truth, Chabon's alternative facts are there to get the reader to the most stripped down profound truth. Chabon makes himself incredibly vulnerable here (slightly behind the scrim provided by his grandfather's life, but still visible.) The willingness to take that risk is admirable, and it paid off with this astonishingly great book.

When Chabon is great, no one can touch him, and here he is at his greatest. I never thought he could write a better book than Kavelier & Clay, but I think he did just that. This book is so many things. First, it is a book about family and about how the family that goes all in are the center of the universe. Second, and most obviously it is love letter to his grandfather, a true iconoclast who is a cross between Job, Leo Szilard, and Preston Tucker. Fourth, it is about mental illness and the monumental toll it takes on those in the orbit of the ill person. Fifth, this is a book about the effects of war, the way in which it changes people at a cellular level, impacting every aspect of their own lives and those of their progeny. Sixth, it is about love and hate and class and race and sex and desire, and about how our personal responses to touch and taste and scent are destiny. And finally, it is about how cats always triumph in the end.
ETA its also incredibly laugh.out loud funny. Tragic too, and sometimes a little slow, like life.
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LibraryThing member JReynolds1959
This was a beautifully written volume. The verbiage is so wonderful to read.
What a wonderful way to honor a grandfather. Michael Chabon's grandfather is dying and Michael is listening to the stories that the man is sharing with him about his life, which includes stories about his grandmother,
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mother, etc.
I was so taken by this story, that I was compelled numerous times to Google information about World War II references, rockets references, Jewish references, etc. In doing so, I learned many things that I didn't know about a lot of things.
Great tribute, even if it is considered fiction.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Memoir, fictional novel, exaggerations or just Chabon's musings, whichever way you choose to look at it, just know this book was written with a great deal of love. It shines through in the writing.
As his grandfather laid dying he shared stories of his life with his grandson. Let me tell you this
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man lived many different lives, tried to kill his boss, blow up a bridge, spent time in prison, worked for the space program designing model rockets and loved and married a woman with mental difficulties. The novel goes back and forth, different stages of his grandfathers life, Michael discussing these thongs with his mother, his mother's recollections and his grandmother's forays into mental illness.

I did think the coverage of rockets, which was his grandfather's passion always, was somewhat too lengthy, and I admit to skimming some of these sections. Yet, the other events in his life more than made up for this, it was all so interesting, almost voyeuristic, looking into someone's personal history.

The funny and coincidental thing about this is that the only other book of Chabons that I read, Wonder Boys, featured a snake. A snake was also an important part of this book, occurring in his grandfather's life before he found out he was sick. Rockets and snakes? Well this is Chabon after all.

ARC from publisher.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
I really struggled with this book and the nonlinear, disjointed nature of this novel likely didn't help much. In short, this novel is narrated by a grandson who is remembering what he knows about his grandparents' lives during WWII and the Cold War. Not always told in chronological order, this book
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can be frustrating, but it does provide an original perspective and evokes the tension of the historical era well.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Michael Chabon is a great writer. His prose and creativity are among the best of any author writing today. I have read all of his fiction and would probably read a shopping list if he published one. That being said I found this book a slow tough read. The book is positioned as a memoir about his
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grandfather and whether or not it is fiction or fact is not important. The chronology is all over the map and this made it difficult to get a good flow. This is a death bed narrative between Chabon and his mother's father so the story contains many elements from his grandfather's life. The book is full of real characters from history and deals with World War II, the holocaust, the space race, gangsters, prison etc. There is so much detail that it tends to take away from the books flow. Chabon is so good at prose that he seems to get caught up in his own skill to the detriment of the story. For those who have never read Chabon, I suggest starting with his Pulitzer prize winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I also loved his previous novel "Telegraph Avenue". If you like those then read everything by him.
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LibraryThing member phyllis.shepherd
Michael Chabon pretty clearly tells us in the beginning that this is fiction, probably not even semi-autobiographical, but reviewers are stumbling all over themselves trying to figure out whether this is true, and, if so, why so much personal detail is revealed. It is the mark of a great novelist
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that he doesn't simply demand a willing suspension of disbelief, he bends truth, lies, and history in ways that have his readers tied in knots and loving every minute of it. Remarkable.
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LibraryThing member c.archer
Michael Chabon is a true wordsmith! This book is beautifully written and witty as hell. His characters jump off the page. Highly recommended!
LibraryThing member Vicki_Weisfeld
It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents
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he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.
His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.
The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”
The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.
Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.
In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.
For very good reason, Moonglow was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.
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LibraryThing member J_J_K
Excellent story that features clear prose and a compelling narrative. The nonsequential timing of rhte story is one of my favorite devices.
LibraryThing member nmele
Chabon calls this a memoir but admits to inventing "with abandon"; his publisher calls this a novell. Either way, it is a fabulous story with love, conflict, tragedy and happy outcomes all tangled together. Maybe his best book yet.




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