Wednesday, August 29, 2012

MORTALITY by Christopher Hitchens (2012) McClelland & Stewart, 104 pages

This new collection of Hitchens's personal essays from his year of "living dyingly" is a perfect wee tome, rife with his legendary candour and fierce intelligence. It was on my doorstep when I arrived home from work yesterday and I sat down immediately to thumb through it and couldn't stop.

Several of the pieces were familiar to me as previously published in Vanity Fair where he was a contributing columnist for years. Its managing editor Graydon Carter provides the foreword in which he notes, "Christopher was one of life's singular characters--a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites--for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man."

Mortality includes seven full essays, an eighth instalment of a selection of final scribblings and an incredibly moving afterword by Hitchens's widow Carol Blue, the directness of which had me weeping for her great lost love. What an extraordinary love theirs was. It puts me in mind of Chandler's remarkable affection for his wife Cissy Pascal, who "for thirty years, ten months and four days," he claimed, "was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at."

Read Hitchens again in his own voice. It is good and true and as familiar as the rhythm of your own heart.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF RAYMOND CHANDLER, Edited by Frank MacShane (1981) Columbia University Press, 483 pages

Reading these Chandler letters has been one of the great delights of my Lit Nerd life. His correspondence is candid, revealing, witty and beautiful in equal measure. Even as he was writing them, he was aware that that particular insomniac's coping strategy--carrying on a conversation in his head with the "other"--was already outdated, replaced then by the telephone. Albeit, for him, those missives were essential.

The correspondence ranges between 1937 and the year of his death 1959 and he writes to friends, agents, editors, fellow novelists, publishers and Hollywood moguls with passion and aplomb. Because I am teaching his noir masterpiece THE LONG GOODBYE this semester, I was especially interested in the letters referring to its evolution and Chandler's writing process. How he struggled with that book. Rewrote and rewrote until he got it right. And, boy, did he get it right.

What moved me most was his gorgeous affection for his wife Cissy Pascal and how devastated he was by her death:

"She was the beat of my heart for thirty years. She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound. It was my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her. I planned it. I thought of it, but I never wrote it....Saying goodbye to your loved one in your mind is not the same thing as closing her eyes and knowing they will never open again....For thirty years, ten months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at....All us tough guys are sentimentalists at heart."

To have lived a love like theirs must have been something.

When I turned the final page in the collection I found myself wishing I'd been lucky enough to have known Chandler and to have been engaged in an ongoing, stimulating, life-affirming correspondence with him. He was a generous spirit.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green (2012) Dutton Books, 303 pages

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." ~Shakespeare, JULIUS CAESAR

Spending my workdays talking about literature in the exclusive company of teenaged boys, I am always looking for new titles that will engage even the most reluctant adolescent reader and woo them with beguiling characters and narrative drive. That THE FAULT IN OUR STARS has both and also opens the opportunity to rattle on about Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and the book that changed your life makes it an undeniable fit for my @TeenBoyLitCrit classroom.

Rife with sarcasm and dark humour that is essential to the way teens communicate with each other, Green's novel reminds me of David Mitchell's brilliant coming of age story BLACK SWAN GREEN, a similar tale involving believable dialogue and totally engrossing characters.

All I will tell you about what happens in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is that Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters meet in a Cancer Support Group in "the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church" where they "all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross...where the heart of Jesus would have been" and their leader Patrick tells them over and over again how "cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life." Each week all of the current cancer survivors follow his testimony with what 17-year-old Hazel calls "the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning." At his inaugural meeting August tells Hazel that she looks just like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta and if that isn't an open sesame for a nod to Mae West's come up and see me some time, I don't know what is.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is mordantly funny, tender and true. Pick it up. Go along for the journey that will leave you feeling moved and lucky to spend your reading hours in the company of such real characters.

Today I'm giving a copy to friends whose own fiery-spirited daughter Cassie died from cancer in her teens. They will see so much of her in Hazel Grace and Augustus. John Green has such a gift.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

TRUST YOUR EYES by Linwood Barclay, forthcoming September 2012 from Doubleday Canada, 498 pages

I've been a longtime fan of Linwood Barclay's thrillers including THE ACCIDENT, NEVER LOOK AWAY, FEAR THE WORST, TOO CLOSE TO HOME and NO TIME FOR GOODBYE. In each he creates characters that seem so real and situations that are terrifying yet plausible that you believe what befalls his fictional folk could very well happen to you or to people you know just down the street or only a block away.

In his forthcoming novel TRUST YOUR EYES, Barclay is a storyteller at the height of his powers. The set up feels like a heady cross between RAIN MAN and Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW. The Kilbride brothers--men in their mid-thirties--have just lost their father to a sudden accident. One of them, Thomas, is a schizophrenic who seems to also be an agoraphobic, rarely leaving the security of his bedroom in the home in which he was raised. He's got important work, as he sees it: memorizing the maps of the world, city by city, street by street, so that one day when the CIA needs him because the online world implodes, those patterns will have been imprinted in his remarkable brain. And, he will be their essential resource. Thomas spends his days and nights on a website, Whirl360 (Google maps, anyone?), where he witnesses what he thinks might be a murder of a woman in a New York City apartment. Hitch is nobody believes him. Not even his brother Ray, an illustrator, and his caretaker. It takes a woman from their shared past, a local journalist who has always treated Thomas kindly, to help convince Ray that there is definitely something rotten that has been accidentally captured and posted online for the entire world to see.

Ray's journey leads him not only to the scene of the crime but also unwittingly among political spin masters who will stop at nothing to protect their candidate.

Barclay had my heart thumping with suspense and gasping with unexpected tenderness. If you haven't yet found your way to his books, TRUST YOUR EYES is a heady place to begin.