Sunday, August 28, 2011

LONG GONE by Alafair Burke (2011) Harper Collins, 349 pages

I found my way to Alafair Burke's books a couple of summers' ago when my friend Jeff saw me reading THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN by James Lee Burke (which Ian Rankin claimed was one of his favourite novels that season) and told me his daughter also wrote fabulous crime fiction. So, first I read the Samantha Kincaid series and then the Ellie Hatcher series. Devoured them, really. Of course I was delighted to discover Burke's first stand alone novel, LONG GONE, published this Spring. I am a devoted and loyal fan of her smart and topical writing.

Set in New York City, ostensibly today, when long-serving neighborhood establishments seem to disappear overnight thanks to the fickle economy, LONG GONE grounds itself in the reality of losing your job without notice. Not because you did it poorly, but because the market no longer exists or because your boss is corrupt and feckless.

Months after a layoff from the development office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art--a plum post for any art history grad--Alice Humphrey finds herself in the remarkable position of being offered a job managing a new little gallery in Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District. There is a catch, of course, according to Drew Campbell, the corporate rep who hires her: the first show must be by the untalented paramour of the gallery's eccentric, anonymous owner. Even with this caveat, Alice seizes the opportunity to carve a professional path for herself out from underneath the shadow of her famous father, a controversial actor.

In spite of the bizarre and controversial subject matter of the first show, work is going swimmingly for Alice, until the day she arrives at the gallery to find the walls stripped bare and Drew Campbell's corpse on the floor. And, when the police show her a photograph of what seems to be her and Drew in a clinch, kissing, Alice realizes that her world is about to unravel.

With twists and turns and compassion doled out in equal measure, LONG GONE had me flipping pages well into the early morning hours. Like Alice, I became increasingly alarmed by the long-hidden secrets that are gradually revealed. Those secrets involving Alice's family, it seems, might end up costing her her life.

A more discerning reader than me might have figured out the clues that Burke buries throughout the narrative. And, for her ability to make me feel almost up to the challenge of solving the enigmatic backstory, I give Alafair Burke full credit for producing such a compelling tale, so cleverly told.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

ONE DAY by David Nicholls (2009) Random House, 435 pages

Having just seen the film featuring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway as Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morely, I was curious to read Nicholls’ novel to see what made the screenplay and what, out of respect for the visual form, decidedly did not. So, when my neighbour Jennifer proffered her copy, I happily accepted and then read the book over two evenings. As Nick Hornby (one of my favourite contemporary voices of fiction: ABOUT A BOY, HIGH FIDELITY, JULIET, NAKED) kvelled on his blog, ONE DAY is “big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.”

That the protagonists’ journeys mirror a timeline similar to my own (having graduated university in the late 80s) made the story feel all-the-more relatable as Dexter and Emma find their way both independently and then together over two decades, both professionally and personally. Shakespeare was right: “the course of true love never did run smooth.”

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that the narrative is built on the conceit that we peer into the lives of Dexter and Emma on July 15th over the course of 20 years from when they graduate from the University of Edinburgh in 1988 to where they are in 2008.

What I especially enjoyed in the novel were the breezy missives that the two pen to each other because of the intimacies they reveal and the epigraphs for each section where Nicholls relies on beloved work by Philip Larkin, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy to set the tone. I am, after all, essentially a literary nerd.

If you’ve ever wanted someone you couldn’t have (and, honestly, who hasn’t?), then ONE DAY just might be the zeitgeist story for you.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE CAT'S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje (2011) McClelland & Stewart, 265 pages

Perhaps I should have cottoned on to the fact that this might be Ondaatje’s most personal novel to date with the epigraph from Joseph Conrad’s YOUTH:
And this is how I see the East…I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.” For, it is a cannibalized part of Ondaatje’s own youth that we read about between the pages of this unexpectedly intimate narrative that reads oftentimes like memoir.

It’s the early 1950s and an eleven-year-old boy named Michael boards a ship in Colombo, bound for England. It is “not the magic or the scale of the journey” that concerns him, but “that detail of how [his] mother could know when exactly [he] would arrive in that other country. And if she would be there.”

He is assigned Table 76 for all of his meals: “the cat’s table…the least privileged place,” far across the dining room from the desired Captain’s Table. There he meets two other boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, as well as an eclectic group of eccentric and fascinating adults who help him to pass the time as the ship sails across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and finally to the coast of England where a new journey awaits him.

Michael discovers a cousin on board, the beautiful and elusive Emily who becomes his confidant, as well as the mysterious night walks of a shackled prisoner that he witnesses with Rahmadhin and Cassius while they are hiding in the darkness near one of the lifeboats and one evening “it was as if he was conscious of us there, that he had picked up our scent…He gave a loud growl and turned away.” Breaking curfew, the boys smoke piece by piece a cane chair on a forbidden deck, slide into the swimming pool, float on their backs and feel as though they are “swimming in the sea, rather than a walled-in pool in the middle of the ocean.”

One morning Michael is persuaded by a man known to him as Baron C. to help with a project. That project involves being greased in black oil and slithering through little barred windows of other passengers’ cabins in order to open the door for Baron C. to pillage valuables. It is during one of these excursions that Michael catches sight of himself in a mirror: “the first reflection or portrait that I remember…the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years—someone startled, half formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet.” In the blink-of-an-eye I can conjure a similar moment for myself as I’m sure you can as well. It is paragraphs such as this one that reminded me of Coetzee’s little novel YOUTH. You wouldn’t be amiss in comparing the two men of letters there.

One of the great charms of this story is the interspersed and seemingly random snippets of overheard conversation that Michael dutifully records in school examination booklets he carries with him:

“I thought she was a blue-stocking, at first.”
“Pickpockets come out during a storm.”
“I told your husband when he offered me a three-day-old oyster that it was more dangerous to me than having a sexual act when I was seventeen.”
“Trust me—you can swallow strychnine as long as you don’t chew it.

Though, I did wonder how an eleven-year-old could puzzle out the correct spelling for strychnine.

Those who are already committed Ondaatje fans will delight in THE CAT’S TABLE and those who are new to this Booker-Prize winning author and accomplished poet will find eleven-year-old Michael’s voyage between the two worlds of his youth an enchanting one.

YEAR OF THE KING: AN ACTOR'S DIARY AND SKETCHBOOK by Antony Sher (1985) The Hogarth Press, 249 pages

My friend James suggested I read Sher's memoir about the year leading up to his performance in the titular role of RICHARD III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, because he insisted it "read like butter." Well, James was right about that.

Sher's prose is smooth and I quickly lost myself in his narrative that begins in the summer of 1983, the year after he played the Fool to Michael Gambon's Lear in Stratford during which he ruptured his Achilles tendon, "up the back of [his] leg like a venetian blind." That injury led to 6 months of recovery that included physiotherapy sessions at the Remedial Dance Clinic and the luxury of hours at his easel working on paintings and sketches that he just simply hadn't had time for until this forced rest. Indeed, one of the delights of Sher's book is the inclusion of many pen and ink renderings of his colleagues and his evolving vision for his Richard-the-humpback. There is an ease of line in these sketches and a passion for each subject.

YEAR OF THE KING is an unabashedly honest behind-the-scenes look at how one actor builds a character from the inside out. At one point as he is struggling to find Richard's voice, Sher notes, "it does help me to think of Richard's verbal style throughout as that of a tabloid journalist, that brand of salivating prurience." Of course, Sher is not alone on this journey. He's accompanied by his director, a physiotherapist, a voice coach, a dresser, the costume department, his partner Jim, his fellow actors, all of whom believe they will help him build a unique version of "the shit" that will rival Olivier's watermark performance.

One of my favourite moments occurs when Sher goes to Chris Tucker's home to have a cast made of his back in order that Tucker be able to design a custom-made, lifelike hump. Tucker's masterpiece was John Hurt's head for THE ELEPHANT MAN, which he has displayed "on a little plinth in gruesome three-dimensional technicolour...The bony bits are hard, the pendulous sponges of skin soft and clammy." Next to it stands Gregory Peck's head from BOYS FROM BRAZIL, "with dog bites in the neck" that "looked much better when it was bleeding, of course." Of course.

You will feel Sher's nerves alongside him and feel compelled to applaud with the rest of the audience in Stratford as they regularly call the players back, standing and cheering "for a third time." He's a little star-struck himself when celebrities start flying in to see the show: "Michael Caine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter Brook, Donald Sutherland, Charlton Heston...Charlton Heston? I was making plasticine models of him when he was in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and I was in nappies."

YEAR OF THE KING: AN ACTOR'S DIARY AND SKETCHBOOK is written with such intimacy that you will feel as if you know Sher, almost as well as he has come to know his Richard III.

Monday, August 08, 2011

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern (from the ARC, due September 2011) Doubleday, 387 pages

Even the cover art/text on the ARC is entrancing:"THIS ADVANCE READER'S EDITION ENTITLES THE HOLDER TO UNLIMITED ADMISSION/ NOT FOR SALE/ VIOLATORS WILL BE EXSANGUINATED." You might think that the threat is an idle one, but you would be wrong about that.

When you peer between the covers of THE NIGHT CIRCUS, prepare to leave your assumptions about magic beyond the pale and have your imagination take heady flight above the narrative that Erin Morgenstern has spun into filaments of the finest gold.

Set at the end of the 19th Century and moving across two decades, the story begins in early 1873 when Prospero the Enchanter receives an envelope addressed to him at the New York theatre where he is performing. It "contains a suicide note, and is... carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl," his daughter Celia, to whom he snarks, "she should have named you Miranda." Later that same year, Prospero (aka Hector Bowen) takes his daughter to the UK to meet another magician who calls himself Alexander and it is there that the gauntlet is thrown down for an ongoing duel between Celia and another young magician where the winner will take all, including, perhaps the other's life.

In his desire to prepare Celia for this life-long competition, Hector treats her brutally, almost sadistically, as she learns the power she has to repair inanimate objects and to heal her living, breathing self.

So much mysterious happens under the striped tents at Le Cirque des RĂªves and you will find yourself breathless with each new discovery as you trail memorable characters like outsider Bailey and his delightful true friends the twins Widget and Poppet who are born into that night circus dream life.

As the competition escalates between Celia and Marco, and you believe in each of their remarkable imaginative powers, you will wish alongside them that they may find a way out of this battle that is rooted in their instructors' egos.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS will entrance you. Just be prepared to pay its heady emotional price of admission.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER by Simon Van Booy (2011) Harper Perennial, 396 pages

There are rare books that conspire to make you part of their narrative, to not only draw you alongside the characters, but also to draw you in as if you are a character yourself. I felt that tug from Simon Van Booy from the opening pages of EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER, a novel that is irresistibly enchanting.

Our reliable, omniscient narrator insists: "For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel like home. Places where lonely people can live in exile of their own lives--far from anything that was ever imagined for them."

Beautiful, haunted Rebecca moves to Athens to develop her skills as a painter after years of flying "around the world serving meals and drinks to people who found her beauty soothing." In Greece she plans to "live in exile with her she imagined them on canvas, like faint patches of starlight; hopeful, but so far away" Van Booy's prose already has you in its thrall, doesn't it?

Not long after settling into her small corner of Athens Rebecca meets George, an American from the South "who looked the sort of man who had read all of Marcel Proust in bed" and whose grandfather was a character in GONE WITH THE WIND (which Rebecca read in French), a minor one in the background, "riding by on a lazy horse." The two become friends and Rebecca kisses George on the cheek "again and again, until her kisses, like empty words, carried only the weight of consolation." Soon Rebecca meets Henry, an archaeologist, at work on a dig, and a man whose allure she cannot resist. As they walk along the Panathenaic Way, Rebecca is drawn to him as "Henry described the statues as though they were part of his family."

Through a series of chance meetings (or, the heavy hand of fate), all three are thrown together and fall headlong into a summer that will forever define them. An unexpected event changes the trajectory of all of their lives, and, as mute witness, you will find yourself entirely caught up in their separate loneliness, which Rebecca explains "is like being the only person left alive in the universe, except that everyone else is still here."

In a narrative that shifts between omniscient third person, limited second person and first person correspondence (charmingly printed as if typed on an old standard typewriter in courier font), Van Booy will startle you with his deft grace and insight.

Do not miss being completely immersed in EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving (1989) Lester & Orpen Dennys, 543 pages

I read A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY annually as a way of maintaining a continuing bond with my brother David who died in 1994. I gave him this copy for his birthday in May of 1992 and it is one of the novels that he enjoyed, set as it is in a boys' boarding school, a milieu in which he was himself immersed from ages 14-18.

The novel opens in the present of the late 1980s when Ronald Reagan is the President of the United States and embroiled in the Iran/Contra scandal and our narrator, John Wheelwright, is teaching English Literature to teenaged girls at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

When I first read this novel, I was also teaching literature to 16-18 year old girls at another private school in Toronto, some of the very titles that Wheelwright teaches (including WUTHERING HEIGHTS, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and THE GREAT GATSBY) and I was living in a flat that was walking distance from Winston Churchill Park, so that familiarity hooked me even more.

What is the greatest appeal of this story is its Dickensian narrative approach (and I know from interviews with John Irving that he admires Dickens tremendously), whereby character is revealed layer upon layer by what they say, what they do and what is said about them. It is impossible not to fall and to fall hard for Owen Meany, Harriet Wheelwright and Hester-the-Molester, so fully realized as they are throughout the tale.

Structurally the book owes a great deal to Robertson Davies’ iconic novel FIFTH BUSINESS. And, while its narrative is driven by a stone hidden inside a snowball (the great prime mover in Davies’ tale), here it is a baseball that deals the hand of fate. A baseball that Owen Meany remarkably hits.

From the opening paragraph Irving has you onside as Wheelwright confesses, “ I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Don’t you want to hear that wrecked voice? Understand how the smallest person he ever knew became the instrument of his mother’s death?

Irving is a master of his craft. Not only are the voices distinct, but each symbol and image woven into the tapestry of the tale--from a taxidermy armadillo, to a dressmaker's dummy, to Owen's obsession with amputation and nuns that give him "the shivers"--is intentional and rife with meaning. From a literary perspective, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is worthy of close textual analysis. And, from a personal perspective, I cannot think of another book that makes me feel so viscerally a continuing connection with my little brother, when we too enjoyed the easy and devoted camaraderie that Owen and John demonstrate throughout Irving's incredible novel.