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the bookshelf:
smartie-pants pageturners
by Yee-Fan Sun
| 1 2
continued from page 1

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
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Cal Stephanides was born two times. On the day of the first birth, the aging doctor found himself distracted by a pretty nurse, and failed to notice that what at first glance appeared to be a normal baby girl was in fact a fair bit more complicated to categorize. His unsuspecting parents named the baby Calliope. Fourteen years later and it's begun to be clear to everyone that Callie's a little different. After a round of testing, another doctor pronounces that Callie is actually a boy, if we're talking chromosomes at least, and recommends a sex-change operation. Callie runs away, and transforms herself into Cal. But the story of why Cal/Callie isn't like other little girls goes back farther than the day of his birth. Middlesex takes us through Cal's complicated family history. In a tiny little Greek village, we meet Cal's grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona. As it turns out Lefty and Desdemona are brother and sister, and in their incestuous union, Cal's genetic destiny takes root. Lefty and Desdemona flee the disapproval of their small village and start a new life for themselves in Michigan, as husband and wife. As we follow the ups and downs of the lives of three generations of Stephanides, we witness the changing face of Detroit from the 20s to the late 60s, then follow the clan out to the posh suburb of Grosse Pointe.

When Middlesex came out, it got a lot of publicity as "that novel about the hermaphrodite." But focusing on that somewhat outré aspect is really selling the book way, way short. Ultimately, Middlesex isn't so much a book about hermaphroditism as a fascinating look at the way in which genetics, family, history and personal choices all combine to shape each of us as individuals. The Stephanides clan is one of the more memorable functionally dysfunctional families in literary history, and Cal's story makes for a riveting read from start to finish.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
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After young Joe Kavalier escapes from his Nazi-invaded home in Prague, he finds himself sharing a room in Brooklyn with his cousin, Sammy Clay. Sammy's been looking for someone to help him bring his comic book stories to life, and cousin Joe, it turns out, is a supremely gifted artist. The timing's just right, too, as comic books are on the verge of making that transition from cheesy kiddie schlock to real art. Working as partners, the team of Kavalier and Clay channel the fears, frustrations and dreams from their own lives into a new comic book hero, the Escapist. When the Escapist becomes a big success, perpetual underdog Sammy finds his big dreams coming true at last. Meanwhile, Joe finds the comic is the perfect way to fight his own personal war against Hitler and the Nazis, as he uses his art to attack the enemy that has driven him away from his home and family. Joe eventually meets the sexy, sassy Rosa Saks, herself an artist. Rosa inspires the creation of another Kavalier and Clay superhero, Luna Moth, and in the years that follow, finds her life inextricably bound to both men.

Whether the medium's movies, television, or books, the fiction I love best is the sort where the characters feel as real to me as family and friends. Chabon's epic really is amazing, with a plot that could rival the excitement of any comic book, plus enough love, betrayal, revenge and drama to impress the most die-hard soap-opera devotee. But the reason I've now read this book three times in the three years that I've owned it is simple: I adore these characters, and revisiting them feels like catching up with some of my favorite folks.

check out these related articles: 
summer reading 2003 | on the road (travelogues) | kiddie lit for quasi-adults | reads like teen spirit

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