Sunday, January 15, 2012

VERTICAL by Rex Pickett (2010) Loose Gravel Press, 403 pages

Irrepressible rapscallions Jack and Miles reunite seven years later in this sequel to SIDEWAYS, Pickett's beloved debut novel that found its way adapted to the screen by Alexander Payne and the recipient of 350 awards.

VERTICAL is a smart, sassy unconventional picaresque romp from California, through Oregon (where Miles has been invited to be the Emcee at a Pinot Noir bacchanal) to Wisconsin. The first-person Russian nesting doll meta-narrative of Martin inside Miles inside Rex makes my litnerd head spin. In a good way.

Lady luck has been kind to Miles in the interim. He has written a novel that was made into a wildly successful movie called SHAMELESS, while Jack is divorced from his socialite wife, has a kid he adores, but is out of work, his paw outstretched for handouts from Miles. And, though women have been hurling themselves and their potty mouths at Miles because of his celebrity on the wine circuit, Miles yearns for a relationship that delves beyond the surface, one grounded in love and respect. Jack, however, has other ideas for both of them.

Enter Phyllis, Miles's mom. She's had a stroke, is wheelchair bound, and is inching a little closer to death in the assisted living facility they jokingly call Las Villas de Muerte, where she poignantly notes, "I don't feel human anymore." Miles is determined to honor his mother's wish to see her siblings, so decides to do just that with the support of Joy--one of her caretakers--and Jack as his co-pilot of the Rampvan, sharing driving duties and drinks along the way.

The unlikely foursome is joined by a fifth, Phyllis's impetuous Yorkshire terrier who has been living with Miles' ex-girlfriend. And, though there are capers a-plenty including a dognapping, al fresco dalliances and a perfectly conceived bathetic moment in a dunk tank--all rife with Miles and Jack's trademark repartee--it is the heart at the centre of the narrative that delivers its humanity straight up. Sometimes the most difficult moments to face are the ones that will change your life for the better.

Find your way to VERTICAL. Sip your way through. Savour it like a glass of perfectly-aged Richebourg. And, discover what true friendship is all over again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

RIN TIN TIN: THE LIFE AND THE LEGEND by Susan Orlean (2011) Simon & Schuster, 317 pages

In a year of beguiling canine appearances on celluloid that include a Buster Keatonish Uggy in THE ARTIST, Skeletor in 50/50 (with those eyes like sucked caramels), and Cosmo as the existentialist Arthur in BEGINNERS, the timing is more than right for the release of Susan Orlean's exhaustive and entrancing biography of perhaps the most legendary dog of all, Rin Tin Tin.

"Rin Tin Tin was born on a battlefield in eastern France in September 1918. The exact date isn't certain, because no one who was present during the birth ever reported on it, but when Lee found the puppies on September 15, 1918, they were blind and bald and still nursing." So begins the narrative that traces the remarkable trajectory of a German shepherd and his devoted master from the Front during the Great War to the height of stardom that Hollywood could muster in the 1920s to a life on the tired circuit of promotion to stave off near bankruptcy.

And, as much as I was beguiled by Rin Tin Tin and Lee Duncan's story--a tale of two orphans--and discovered so much about dogs in service during war time, it was the beauty and strength of Orlean's prose that held me in its thrall.

Consider this, for example:

"What lasts? What lingers? What is snagged by the brambles of time, and what slips through and disappears? What leaves only a little dent in the world, the soft sunken green grave, the scribble on a scrap of paper, the memory that is bleached by time and then vanishes bit by bit each day?"

Isn't it heart-thumpingly gorgeous?

You could turn to any page in RIN TIN TIN:THE LIFE AND THE LEGEND and find passages equally moving. Do just that. Find your way to this fascinating, big-hearted gem.

Monday, January 09, 2012

THEN AGAIN by Diane Keaton (2011) Random House, 256 pages

In a book that is a genuine collaboration between Keaton and her mother Dorothy Hall in both spirit and word, THEN AGAIN will hook you from its opening gambit:

"Mom loved adages, quotes, slogans. There were always little reminders pasted on the kitchen wall. For example, the word THINK. I found THINK thumbtacked on a bulletin board in her darkroom. I saw it Scotch-taped on a pencil box she'd collaged. I even found a pamphlet titled THINK on her bedside table... Mom liked to THINK about life, especially the experience of being a woman. She liked to write about it too."

And, write about it, she did. In 85 journals. Literally thousands of pages, excerpts of which are included here along with photographs of those worn pages and personal collages. Just as Dorothy Hall tried to navigate her way through marriage and motherhood and what it meant to be a woman searching for a satisfying creative outlet, so does her famous actress daughter through frank, funny and fearless examination of her own life and relationships.

Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino play supporting roles in Keaton's narrative, though what remains of Pacino is reduced to a list of fragments. Both Allen and Beatty seem genuine friends. I am certainly envious of the billet-doux she shares where Allen writes,"You remain a flower--too, too delicate for this harsh world... And I remain a weed." Or Beatty's encouragement for her to make her own film: "Stop messing around and do it. You'd do it better than anybody. You know more than anybody. Its rough edges would be fascinating....From someone who admired you at a distance last night. Who would like to get to know you better. "

Of course I delighted in the behind-the-scenes perspective of working on ANNIE HALL, THE GODFATHER and REDS, but what intrigued me most about Keaton's journey was her mindful decision to become a single parent to two children, Dexter and Duke, in her fifties. And, the book finishes with them in an open letter to her Mom about how she wishes she were standing side by side, watching her daughter and son "fly down the water slide, laughing all the way." Then again, maybe she is. They are.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT by Louise Penny (2011) Minotaur Books

Sitting down with a Louise Penny Inspector Gamache novel is as fine as meeting your closest friends at your favourite bistro, hands wrapped around warming bowls of cafe au lait, leaning in to listen to each others' intimacies. It feels right.

For as long as Penny has been writing her mysteries, I have been reading them. All of them. Over and over again. I am as familiar with the inhabitants of sleepy Three Pines (not on any map, except in your imagination) as I am with the people in my life. I fret about Clara and Peter's marriage, cheer Ruth's every expletive, wish Gabri and Olivier were my gay BFFs and Myrna my off-the-clock shrink. All of them are familiar with heartbreak, and its accompanying room for hope. The light that sneaks in through hairline fractures and widening gaps. And, there is also the Surete du Quebec's head of homicide, the beguiling Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who reminds me of Atticus Finch in his fairmindedness and respect for others, especially outsiders.

At the beginning of A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, Clara is about to enter the vernissage for her one-woman show at the Musee in Montreal, but she's worried that her art won't measure up to the critics and has a panic attack. Heureusement, her dear friend Olivier coaxes her, "on your knees or on your feet, you're going through that door." For those familiar with Penny's books, it's a succulent treat to see the new plot threading back through previous narratives, as shown in Clara's painting The Three Graces that she was working on in DEAD COLD. It's the one that reminds me of the Leonard Cohen lyrics "there is a crack, a crack in every thing. That's how the light gets in." Penny uses the piece to navigate through to the chiaroscuro motif that gives the new novel its title.

After schmoozing with gallery owners and agents at the vernissage, Clara hosts a party back home in Three Pines to celebrate her official launch into the art world. The morning after as she impatiently waits for Peter to bring the papers with the critical reviews, something more upsetting turns her world upside down. It seems a stranger has been murdered and dropped in her garden, her bloom a little more than off the rose. Chief Inspector Gamache and his intrepid team including Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste investigate, turning over coins, clumps of earth and fraught pasts in their wake.

I kept changing my mind about the suspect. You will too once you immerse yourself in Louise Penny's beautifully crafted, emotionally satisfying book.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

THE SELECTED WORKS OF T.S. SPIVET by Reif Larsen (2009), Penguin Canada, 375 pages

Larsen's epigraph from Melville's MOBY DICK--"It is not down in any map; true places never are."--is a perfect touchstone for this idiosyncratic and totally engaging bildungsroman about an extraordinary boy.

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a twelve-year-old map-making Midwestern wunderkind who is invited by his mecca, the Smithsonian Institution, to deliver an address about his exceptional work. He instinctively knows that "a map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected." Of course, the man who placed the call is unaware that T.S. is only twelve, or that his journey to Washington, D.C. from Divide, Montana is a risky one, the stuff that dreams are made on.

Nothing escapes T.S.'s need to make sense of his world. Not the watershed, nor the topography of his bedroom with his Lewis and Clarke rug, nor the amplitude of the gunshot that killed his younger brother Layton, whose absence is the ongoing presence in the narrative. Layton hides beneath everything T.S. writes. Even the porch speaks to T.S. Not to mention his dog Verywell, or the Cowboy Winnebago he stows away in to make his train-hopping, hobo-like journey from the West to the East.

As you are beguiled by T.S.'s story, you will want to linger over the marginalia--sophisticated doodles, impeccable maps and wonderous ideas--that helps this memorable protagonist find his way to real belonging.

THE SELECTED WORKS OF T.S. SPIVET is the sort of book that makes your heart sing about the wonder of this life. Do yourself a favour. Read it.