Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I. Dream of Cream (Telegraph Avenue Read Along)

Some Things You Should Know

1. I'm reading as a I write. I'm writing as a read. In other words - I'm sticking to the schedule and I'm not reading ahead. This will cause me to make many assumptions on theme and plot that I reserve the right to change as the read along progresses. I figure it'll be more fun that way. I'll still post my usual review at the end of all this. 

2. There will most likely be spoilers. Though I'll try (as I almost always do) to keep it at essential spoilers - i.e. nothing that would ruin any major surprises or plot twists... anything that would make you feel like, well - now I don't have to read this. Because I do want you to read this. 

Summary (via HarperCollins)

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there, longtime friends, bandmates, and coregents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the sketchy yet freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland, on the quintessential East Bay avenue that gives the book its title. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of semilegendary midwives who have welcomed, between them, more than a thousand newly minted little citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart, half tavern, half temple, stands Brokeland Records. Archy and Gwen are expecting their first baby; Nat and Aviva have a teenage son, Julius. Cranky, flawed, and loving each other with all the fierceness we've come to expect of Chabon characters, they have worked to construct lives and livelihoods that have a groove, looking to connect across barriers of race and class, and clinging to a sense of order and security through their stubbornly old-school ways. 

When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in the United States announces plans to go forward with the construction of his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby neglected stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. What they don't know is that Goode's announcement marks the climax of a decades-old secret history, encompassing a forgotten crime of the Black Panther era, the tragedy of Archy's own deadbeat father... and the perpetual shining failure of American optimism about race. 

I. Dream of Cream
A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. 
That first line pretty much says it all. I mean, most glaringly - the white boy and the black boy let you know that you're most likely in for a story centered on and structured by race relations. But that image invokes more than that - youth, optimism, connection. A fairly simple image of the dream - be it the American Dream, King's Dream or the Dream of Cream.

What struck me right away was the rhythm of the language. Chabon describes Nat Jaffe: "Nat bulled in with his head down, humming low to himself; humming the interesting chord changes to an otherwise lame contemporary pop song; humming an angry letter... humming the first fragments of a new theory... humming when he wasn't making a sound, even when he was asleep, some wire deep in the bones of Nathaniel Jaffe always resounding." And that's what the novel does. It's got a funky, jazzy sort of beat.

Then, after that, the second chord struck (pun intended) was the depth of Chabon's writing. The layers! We've already established that there's the element of race. So we move on next to the American Dream - the story is set in 2004, against the rise of a big box store referred to as the Thang. Which, I was trying to remember - is that around the time when the big boxes really started to hit it big? I think it was around then, 2000, when Target and Barnes & Noble came to my hometown, so it's a pretty significant period of time for Chabon to have chosen - the symbolic decline of the dream, the decline of the ability to pave your own way on these proverbial streets of gold. I mean, Dream of Cream turns out to be this highly coveted desert sold at a neighborhood bakery that will soon be closing its doors. A slice of cake that's moving quickly toward the obsolete.

There are three generations distinctly represented in the novel, each carrying its own parental/lost boy sort of baggage. Early on in this section, Archy contemplates his impending fatherhood against that of his own father - "... Luther Stallings still came around, paid his child support on time, took Archy to A's games... there was something further required of old Luther that never materialized, some part of him that never showed up, even when he was standing right beside Archy. Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars." Both men - Archy and Nat (though both had vastly different relationships with their fathers) - struggle to break free of the cycle themselves, while also dealing with a new, mysterious and hopeful generation.

Oh! And, like Joseph Kavalier and Sammy Clay, the original Chabon lost boys, I love how Julius Jaffe, a misunderstood homosexual teenager, reveres comic book heroes. Nice touch!

Jump around to the other blogs in the read along here.

A Treat for my Read Along Bloggers: Telegraph Avenue Pandora Station! (That I made, sitting here like a dork, scanning the pages for artists mentioned, while the boy sits on the couch attempting to read A Dance with Dragons... "What are you DOING?" he asks.)

Intrigued? Pre-order your copy here.


  1. I am totally humbled by your approach to this book. I tend to be pretty informal in my bookish talk, but you've made me realize that I've been holding the book at arm's length, and not really getting inside of it.

    I love the part you quoted about fatherhood. When I first read that line in the book, it broke my heart a little, I have to say.

  2. When I was reading the book, the fatherhood quote made me stop and read it like three times. So I'm glad you plucked it out. ;)

    Um, and YES, totally listening to that Pandora station. I love that kind of crap. Good on you for doing it.

    Also, I looked up the Dream of Cream cake and I WANT IT and it is unavailable and this makes me so very sad.

    1. I'm glad you like the station! It was kind of cool to read with it on. I wouldn't know those artists at all without the book.

  3. I am so impressed with your Pandora station!
    I am doing the same thing and reading one section each week. I am hopeful it will keep things fresh in my mind when I sit down to write.

  4. I love the Pandora! It really put me in the "mood" of the book. Thank you for your analysis of the book. There is a ton of insight that I think I simply missed. It is fun to "see" the way other people read the book.

  5. Love the pandora station!

    I really love your highlighting the American Dream aspect of this story, which is an arc I hadn't considered. Certainly the small store vs big store battle is something I picked up on, but I hadn't taken it further to explore as decline of small town or development of small town. I'm reminded a bit of a local neighborhood that is funky and grungy and decaying a bit, battling big box retailers. I'm going to have to chew on that some as I keep reading.

    I appreciate your highlighting the father/fatherhood aspects as it's one I've glossed over since I'm not a father or son -- I'm more keen on the midwives, for example, as the angle for parenthood, but there is something significant for Chabon (as seen by his nonfiction) about parenting, that identity, the implication, etc. I'm loving this readalong as it's pulling me out of my myopic reading and seeing the themes I'm missing!

    1. I think I picked out the American Dream aspect because I've been railing on the big-box lately. Yet, even so - I'm an Amazon affiliate. I noticed that a bunch of you are affiliates of a store in Portland. Can anyone do that? I wonder if there are more indie stores that allow the same. I'd prefer to support indie than Amazon.

  6. No way! Good on ya for creating a Telegraph Avenue station. In fact - as I write this comment now - I am listening to Pandora "Jazz Masters" station because I wanted a sense of the atmosphere of the novel. Book-geeky minds...? My nerdiness also manifested in this morning's cruise of Netflix to find as many of the films on the "Kill Bill" list as possible and queue them up. About half were available and I'm starting with Pam Greer in "Coffy".

    Love your analysis of the opening lines. To be completely honest, most of my analysis centered around what were, for me, off-putting elements of Chabon's style, and I felt as though I shouldn't critique, so I didn't include my analysis in my post. I'm glad that you found so much to praise, and I do agree with your responses. I suppose that a book of this depth is vast and can contain multitudes, both to revere and to reproach, no?

    Loving the second section, so I'm glad I reserved judgment! Off to change my Pandora channel to Telegraph Avenue.

  7. Like everyone else, I'm totally digging the Pandora station. I also looked up a few of the albums on Spotify and it helped me get a sense of the vibe that Chabon is going for.

    I like that you picked up on the "funky, jazzy sort of beat" in the writing. I think I commented on another blog that I feel like Telegraph Avenue is one of those books that would really benefit from a re-read, much like jazz records almost require repeat listens. I re-read some of the first section of the book and it was amazing what a different reading experience I had when I wasn't busy trying to sort out who all the characters were.

    I'm looking forward to reading what you think about part two. I just started today!


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