on July 16, 2004
The structure of this book reminded me of Catch 22. It has short chapters, each told from the point of view of a central character, and the time covers the period from the taking of the hostages to the beginning of the Reagan presidency. Each character is hysterical (and somewhat screwy). And it is not always clear how they will resolve their various hangups. How, for example, will the not-very-good putative lead singer/songwriter of a Zionist rock band ever find a girlfriend? And how will his sister ever manage to have an orgy? And when will the Marxist radical Jill Waserstrom stop blowing off the boy who makes her the most beautiful movies imaginable?
I completely disagree with the negative reviews posted here and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The book is full of dialogue, some quite poignant. There are lots of moments narrated in real time. And I loved the writing -- lively, engaging, and truly funny in a way like nothing I've read since Catch 22.
I couldn't put the book down for two days. I think it's genius.
on July 14, 2004
The setting of CROSSING CALIFORNIA initially peaked my interest. I live fairly close to the Rogers Park neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago and have frequented several of the restaurants, parks and schools sprinkled throughout this book. I have eaten at Wolfy's, attended Roycemore School and daily drive past Mather Park. In essence, I cross California Avenue every day. With all that said, I can attest that Adam Langer knows his stuff well. He successfully captured the essence of Chicago.
Set against the city's and nation's social and political upheavals, CROSSING CALIFORNIA focuses on the lives and turmoil of a myriad of characters, mostly Jewish, who reside either to the east or west of California in Rogers Park. Included are oversexed teenagers who constantly buck the system by smoking pot, shoplifting and projecting their voices loud and clear along with their parents who filled with parental ills of their own. Each character is marvelously flawed in their own respects.
The narrative is told from diverse points of view and each are cleverly connected to the others similar to a spider web. Lastly, this book is hilarious and, despite the cliche, made me laugh out loud many times. I found myself astounded by Langer's social satire that was constantly fresh and never stale or distracting. This is a great debut novel by a talented new writer; I will definitely look forward to more works by Adam Langer in the future. Highly recommended.
on June 30, 2004
There are bad novels, average novels, good novels, great novels, and then once in a while a novel comes along that rattles the cage of what, optimally, this literary form can and should achieve when approached by a fresh pen loaded with new and unique ideas. Adam Langer's "Crossing California" fits into the last category.
Many other reviewers have sung the praises of this work and given a synopsis of its plot and characters. I would like, therefore, to limit myself to ticking off what I think are the work's most innovative aspects.
First of all, this is a text that reminds me of what happens when a jeweler pops off the back of a Swiss pocket watch: you can see all the different gears and levers and wheels that work separately but ultimately coordinate themselves to produce a single mechanical movement. In much the same way, Langer's use of language creates a vast, dense, energetic panorama of people and events, but all of these diverse elements come together to form a clear, linear narrative. "Crossing California" boasts a crowded cast of characters--each of whom is well-drawn and distinct from the others. Even the tertiary personages who pop up only for a few lines add to the text's tone and motion. Simultaneously, each of the main characters has his or her own agenda, and pursues it in the deliciously detailed topography of the Rogers Park section of Chicago.
Langer's sense of humor must be described as a cornucopia. There's subtle humor, make-you-blush humor, laugh-right-away funny stuff, and laugh-the-next-day-when-you-finally-get-it funny stuff. All mixed together. In addition, Langer makes the narrator funny, but also succeeds at making the characters themselves funny independent of the narrator, on their own and when they interact with other characters. (Hopefully that explanation makes sense. If not, just read the book and you'll know what I mean.)
Lastly, this is a really clever and bittersweet salute to the fizzling out of the 1970's and the jolting start of the 1980's. To Langer's credit, I don't think this book could be moved out of the Rogers Park neighborhood or moved ahead or back in time and still keep its integrity: the work is the perfect harmonization of a unique time, a unique place, a unique national and local mood, and a fascinating gaggle of characters.
All in all, a very rewarding read from a dynamic new voice.
on June 23, 2004
There were a few reasons why I was suspicious about this book. 1) The hype. I tend to think that what's supposed to be the Next Big Thing isn't. 2) The comparisons to The Corrections. I thought that seemed like a really good book, but I wasn't able to finish it. 3) I received Crossing Calif. as a gift from my sister and the last gift book she gave me was The Hours, which also seemed really good, and which also I didn't finish.
But once i began this book, my preconceptions completely dissipated. I don't know where to begin or even how to describe the book because the plot's very involved and complicated. But suffice it to say that Adam Langer gets into characters' heads like no other author I've read in a very long time, at least since graduate school. Over 400 pages, you get to know every character in each of these families' hopes, dreams, motivations. Days after finishing, I still have all of them buzzing around in my head. There must be more than two dozen and I feel I know every single one of them. This book captures what growing up in America was like during the 1970's and 1980's with unbelievable precision and accuracy.
The main thing, though, is the humor in this book. Critics use the phrase Laugh Out loud funny, and they're rarely right, but this one truly is. There were points where my fiancee came into my bedroom to ask what I was laughing about.
I've taught writing on the high school level for a little more than a dozen years and, if it weren't for some of the sexual content, I probably would assign it for seniors. But probably I'll just recommend it to them as a book to read after they've graduated. As for anyone else over 18, I would recommend this book without reservation.
on June 18, 2004
"Crossing California" helps define a five-star-worthy novel. Initially, though, it must be said that in writing it, Mr. Langer entered "The Breakfast Club" setting. By that I mean all the adults (but one) are dysfunctional, parenting messes, lacking insight and control -- all the ills of children are caused by the direct faults of the adults; meanwhile, the adolescents and teenagers are sexually precocious, steeped in marijuana and alcohol, and seem to have taken over the adult roles, adult insights, and adult control, yet somehow manage good grades and test scores.
Similarly, adult institutions are nearly complete failures -- schools, synagogues and even radio stations. As to the Rogers Park setting, readers must wonder what in the world happened to the author as he grew up in that area that caused him to paint it in his book with such general disdain.
That being said, however, Mr. Langer made his choices as the writer. He risked a cliched book, but the opposite came true. There is an understated, yet atomic energy to his writing. As a result, even with "Breakfast Club" characters to start with, he brings fascinating change and development to all of them, sometimes for the better, to differing degrees. The humor and irony never flags. Mr. Langer's originality and amazing exchanges among his characters fascinates to the end. Whereas many authors set their novels in particularly well-known neighborhoods in a two-dimensional fashion, Rogers Park in this book lives as an integral character within the story.
Quite frankly, the overall negative tone of Rogers Park is refreshing when compared to a recent spate of retrospectives on the neighborhood that view it through myopic, rose-colored glasses. Likewise, Mr. Langer ingeniously uses events from 1979 to 1981 to enhance the stories within the book, and does so in a skewered, delightful fashion.
"Crossing California" deserves its success. Mr. Langer made his choices in character and theme, and ran with it strongly from beginning to end.
on June 27, 2004
Since I grew up just SW of the book's neighborhood, as I was savoring every episode of these complicated characters, I kept asking myself if the book's delight was primarily in its references to the places I frequented as a teenager ten years before these characters inhabited them. Always and still, the answer is no. The book is wonderfully insightful, poignant and hilarious on its own terms. The writing is delicious, the characters and family dynamics just an edge over the reality line and invoking great interest and compassion, making it critical to get to the next episode to see what happens. The transition to the Reagan presidency and dismantling of the remnants of the Summer of Love and Great Society into the Me Generation underlie it all, into which the omniscient and left-wing reader sees the characters tragically headed. I keep wondering if I missed my chance to meet the author at the Nortown Theatre and make a lifelong friend.
on July 3, 2004
I'll wager many will buy this book thinking it's going to be about California. Not. It's set in Chicago. But I'll also wager that they won't regret their purchase. Adam Langer's book is epic in its sprawl and its sometimes insane attention to detail and the minutiae of his characters' lives, but it spans a period of only 2-3 years (1979 - 1981). Focusing primarily on the members of 3 families who live on one side or another of California Ave, the street that divides a Jewish neighborhood into those of the upper middle class from those of the mostly working class, the book allows us to see all aspects of that important time in America's 20th century through the eyes of a group of teenagers who come together, drift apart, and come together again in a different mix.
Really, really, really, really good.
To me, the mark of a good novel is that when I'm finished reading, I want to pick up the phone, call the author, and say, "Write more about these characters!". And, that's what I'd like to do here.
Langer writes about quirky, interesting, people in a little visited time, the late '70's and early '80's. The book is set on the North Side of Chicago. The ten or so main characters intersect in wonderful and strange ways. Often a supporting name will pop up in a different mix than orginally set. There's very little plot to "Crossing", but that doesn't matter.
So, Mr Langer, pleae write a second novel and let us know what happens!
PS - I'll never quite use the word "which" the same way again, after reading this book!
on July 15, 2004
I've rarely seen such impeccable character creation. It puts me in mind of Philip Roth. In Langer's case, plot is secondary; the motivation of the characters entirely propels the novel. It's a difficult book for me to review because the setting feels very familiar, having been raised in a largely Jewish community during the 70's and 80's (and, yes, I voted for John Anderson in my junior high's 1980 mock election). So, while I admit to overidentifying with the novel, I also greatly admire Langer's literary ease. I'm thrilled to find a new writer whose next work I can happily anticipate.
on July 2, 2004
Crossing California really takes you back to the malaise era of Jimmy Carter and Iranian hostage-taking. Langer's got a gift for capturing the souls of a wide variety of Chicago teens and their parents and teachers in a stylishly written slice of life novel.