Monday, July 30, 2012

GOLD by Chris Cleave (2012) Bond Street Books, 321 pages

Random House of Canada's Scott Richardson (a novelist himself who writes as C.S. Richardson--read his THE END OF THE ALPHABET, for starters) designed this gorgeous cover for Chris Cleave's extraordinary novel about competition, compassion, love and loss.

With the London 2012 Games having begun on the weekend (with that hilarious parody during the Opening Ceremony of James Bond, starring Daniel Craig and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her corgis), my timing to read GOLD couldn't have been more perfect. In it two British women cyclists, Kate Argall and Zoe Castle, are training for their places on Great Britain's cycling team for these very games.

Kate and Zoe met when they both made the cut for the national cycling team when they were just nineteen years old. There, one of their teammates, Jack--handsome, swaggering Jack--falls for each of them, one a passion in passing, the other lifelong. Twelve years later, Zoe is the face of Perrier and living a wild single life, while Jack and Kate, now married, are focused on their daughter Sophie, who is a tomboyish eight, obsessed with Star Wars, and has leukaemia--a reality the little family has been dealing with for a couple of years.

All three adults are in the top condition of their sporting lives, each hoping for a seat on the GB cycling team for London 2012.

There are conflicts aplenty and secrets kept then shared that risk everything. And, it's clear that Cleave understands what it must feel like to train so obsessively, through ongoing physical and emotional pain. He knows, as he shows through Tom, the aging coach and former Olympian, that our bodies are bound to betray us: through illness, through injury, over time.

Cleave is a stunning prose stylist. I found myself turning down the corners of pages to return to contemplate the beauty of the thought and the weight of the sentence. Consider this passage where Kate is watching a televised race where she should have been competing: "Her leg muscles twitched and her awareness sharpened, dilating every second. Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race like this, hopelessly, the way a widow's exhausted heart must still leap at a photo of her dead lover." Or this one where Zoe contemplates a life other than the one she's living: "Just beyond your sight, life might be moving in ways that were moments away from being revealed to you. It was a mistake to take disappointments at face value. You were only a tap at the door and a dozen fresh-cut blooms away from happy."

And, the denouement is perfect. What a read. What a ride.

I cannot wait to give a copy of GOLD to my friend Helen, a former GB Olympian who competed in '72 & '76 Summer Games in Munich and Montreal as a diver, who is currently a physician at a children's hospital here in Toronto. She will certainly feel as if Cleave's story were written especially for her.

GOLD is not only model Sports Lit, but also a story that will feed your heart and mind. Treat yourself to a copy. Soon.

Follow @chriscleave on Twitter, or drop by his website to see if he's doing an event near you

Friday, July 27, 2012

CANADA by Richard Ford (2012) Harper Collins Canada, 418 pages

Two years ago when I co-chaired the PEN Canada event that opened Toronto's International Festival of Authors I had the surreal pleasure of speaking with Richard Ford directly. In addition to his well-known Southern charm, what left an indelible mark was his comment: "Literature made me believe in a better place."

Every sentence in CANADA is written with care. The title, itself, he admits "makes a commotion in my chest when I say it." He's a writer who respects the sound and rhythm of words. Part of his process includes reading the manuscript aloud, a step that essentially contributes to the final copy in your hands.

Although Del Parsons, the narrator, did not resonate with me the way Ford's Frank Bascombe continues to, his thoughts made me consider Ford not only one of the finest social satirists writing today, but also someone verging on philosopher king. Consider these two passages, both of which are so exquisitely expressed that reading them in isolation would be enough to lure me to read the book:

"Loneliness, I've read, is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front where it's promised something good will happen. Only the line never moves, and other people are always coming in ahead of you, and the front, the place where you want to be, is always farther and farther away, until you no longer believe it has anything to offer you."

"What I know is, you have a better chance in life--of surviving it--if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep in proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try. All of us. We try."

Literature makes me believe in a better place. It does. It will.

(Richard Ford, Eleanor Wachtel, and Mark Kingwell in Fleck Dance Theatre green room, October 2010, before PEN Canada's benefit, THE LAY OF THE LAND, opening night IFOA)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter (2012) HarperCollins Canada, 338 pages

In a recent interview (which I encourage you to listen to at Other People: ) Jess Walter said, "I think all of my books are about a wistful longing for connection." And, if "reading fiction is immersive, then writing fiction is even moreso." He knows.

An epigraph to the novel, attributed to Louis Menand's "Talk Story" in The New Yorker, explains "Cavett's four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980.... Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing." Trust Menand. And watch for yourself. Burton was all that and more--about to embark on a revival tour of Camelot, playing King Arthur, opposite Christine Ebersole's Guinevere, a performance I happened to see at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre, where he'd previously christened the house with Julie Andrews in 1960.

A sleepy Italian fishing village circa 1962, smart satire of contemporary Hollywood, a drug-addicted musician, and the charismatic Richard Burton on and off the set of Cleopatra are the defining elements of Walter's beguiling novel that for me will remain THE read of Summer 2012.

Consider the entrancing opening paragraph set in April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy:

"The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly--in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat's stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on flickering  waves."

Gorgeous, right?

Walter masterfully moves from that 1960s microcosm where the lives of local Pasquale Tursi, visiting American actress Dee Moray, hopeful novelist Alvis Bender and the inimitable Richard Burton temporarily intertwine to the studio lots and pitch rooms of contemporary Hollywood which he brilliantly satirizes through Claire Silver and her producer boss Michael Deane. Deane, author of the "memoir/self-help classic, The Deane's Way" makes outrageous statements like, "Ideas are sphincters. Every asshole has one. Your take is what counts. I could walk into Fox today and sell a movie about a restaurant that serves baked monkey balls, if I had the right take." Deane's cynicism may be worthy of your scorn, but it also feels right on the money.

There are sentences in this novel that made me catch my breath as well as moments so perfectly imagined that I knew I was in the care of a master craftsman who knows how it feels to be human and fallible. Here's one, early on, where past and present collide during a visit Pasquale makes as an old man to California, following up on an offer made fifty years before:

"Claire feels a tug in her chest, some deeper shift, a cracking of her hard-earned cynicism, of this anxious tension she's been fighting. The actress's name means nothing to her, but the old guy seems utterly changed by saying it aloud, as if he hasn't said the name in years. Something about the name affects her, too--a crush of romantic recognition, those words, moment and forever--as if she can feel fifty years of longing in that one name, fifty years of an ache that lies dormant in her, too, maybe lies dormant in everyone until it's cracked open like this--and so weighted is this moment she has to look at the ground or else feel the tears burn her own eyes...the name hanging in the air...and then floating to the floor like a falling leaf, the Italian watching it settle..."

Over and over again, I felt connected to Walter's characters in a visceral way. And, he is a sophisticated storyteller who layers narrative upon narrative--from the omniscient third person narrator to Bender's stab at his post-war novel to Deane's rejected draft of his memoir to a pitch for a cannibal film to a scene from another character's play.

Immerse yourself in this world of BEAUTIFUL RUINS. You will be richly rewarded.

Monday, July 23, 2012

THE LOLA QUARTET by Emily St. John Mandel (2012) Unbridled Books, 279 pages

It pleases me perversely that I'm posting this review of THE LOLA QUARTET on Raymond Chandler's birthday. (Born July 23, 1888) 

In a noir style reminiscent of Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE, Mandel unfurls her engrossing tale of journalist Gavin Sasaki with adept skill and a keen reverence for the genre in which she places her protagonist, who, clad in a trench coat and a fedora, doesn't "want to work at a newspaper per se," as his NYC copy editor chides but rather "to work in 1925." Gavin, whose favourite films are "all older than he was" and has seen Polanski's CHINATOWN "a dozen times," does not disagree. He'd like to be Philip Marlowe, sleuthing his way through other people's problems. Well, who wouldn't? Soon enough Gavin gets his wish. Sort of.

Set during the recent economic collapse when companies in all sectors had to downsize, Gavin loses his job, because he gets caught fabricating attributions for his articles. When asked about his choice, he readily admits, "Yeah, I lied. I made up people who gave me quotes because real people are so goddamned disappointing...they're pitiful." Fate takes control and Gavin ends up moving back home to Florida to live with his sister Eilo whose real estate foreclosure business is burgeoning. There, a chance encounter with a familiar-looking child leads to some complicated truths in Gavin's life.

Moving masterfully back and forth in time between the halcyon final days of high school, when Gavin played in a jazz quartet with his friends Daniel, Jack and Sasha named "after a German film they'd all liked with Lola in the title," and the present of 2009, Mandel is unafraid to plumb each time's darkness and attendant vulnerability for each of the players.

Toss in an unintended connection to the drug trade that requires payment in full, the threat of Burmese pythons in the Florida swamps, "seven-foot-long two-hundred-pound Nile monitors with eerily intelligent eyes...perfectly capable of eating a small dog," an ex-girlfriend on the lam, a gambling addict, and a guitar player as fine as Django Reinhardt, and you've got layer upon narrative layer that will keep your head spinning and your heart pumping right on through to the story's resolution.

Like Chandler-- perhaps the acknowledged master of the genre before her-- Mandel knows as her protagonist Gavin reveals as he heads "toward the north star and morning" that, "to say goodbye is to die a little." 

Monday, July 16, 2012

THE RED POLE OF MACAU by Ian Hamilton (from the ARC, forthcoming Sept 2012) House of Anansi Press, 304 pages

Ian Hamilton's Ava Lee novel series is fast becoming a favourite of mine in the crime fiction genre. Ava Lee is a contemporary heroine. She's a forensic accountant who happens to be trained in bak mei, a sophisticated, violent martial art, typically taught one-on-one, a mentor passing on its secrets to his student. She is also a private school-educated, stunning lesbian, as comfortable in her bespoke blouses, pencil skirts, stilettos, chic chignon and Chanel lipstick as she is in her running gear.

Although you can read any of these books in isolation, Hamilton threads the series together by referring back to the previous one in the opening pages of the newest one. So, you will know that Ava has recently (only a few days ago) completed a job with her Hong Kong business partner Uncle for the "most powerful business team in Wuhan City," Changxing and May Ling Wong. The deal involved pursuing "people who had foisted more than a dozen forged Fauvist paintings on them, paintings with a value of close to $80 million." How Ava managed to find the perpetrators and persuade them to return the money they had stolen is the heart of The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. And, although the fee Ava and Uncle receive is a generous 30% of what they recover, she seems unaffected by her burgeoning bank account.

In The Red Pole of Macau, the stakes are raised for Ava when her half brother Michael calls her and pleads for her help. It seems he and his Millennium Food partner Simon To have gotten themselves in a real fix with corrupt investors at Ma Shing Realty Corporation, and their bank has come calling, threatening to destroy everything they have worked so diligently to build. Soon, it becomes clear to Ava that negotiating with members of a triad is going to be more difficult than she had expected. So, she enlists Uncle's help as well as her steadfast muscle support in Sonny, Carlo and Andy, clever men she can trust with her life. May Ling Wong in her selfish need to broker a personal Taoist peace with Ava also becomes involved and her connections prove essential.

In addition to being a smart, entertaining, fast-paced read, each book is also part travelogue of an intimate section of south-east Asia. Go along for the ride. Cheer for feisty, fabulous, ass-kicking Ava Lee as she unloads perfectly timed bak mei on the bad guys. You'll be glad you did.

Follow Ian Hamilton on Twitter @avaleebooks. And, check out his website for upcoming appearances and forthcoming novels:  The fifth in the series will be out in February 2013. Watch for Ava Lee in The Scottish Banker of Surabaya then. I know I will.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FAMOUS BUILDER by Paul Lisicky (2002) Graywolf Press, 274 pages

With a clean, clear prose style that evokes both Mary Karr's unflinching memoir THE LIAR'S CLUB and August Kleinzahler's encomium to his elusive gangster brother CUTTY, ONE ROCK, Paul Lisicky's series of personal essays collected in FAMOUS BUILDER made me catch my breath in wonder and envy.

Like Karr, Lisicky is direct and unselfconscious in his portrayal of his relatives and himself. Consider this haunting description of his father from "New World":

My father is a storm. His presence charges the air with abstract particles: guilt, duty, fear of failure, fear of death. If he were a painting, he'd be a Jackson Pollock, all splash and squiggle, no open spaces, no room to breathe. If he were a piece of music, he'd be a Shoshtakovich symphony, brash, shot through with bursts of timpani and horns.

Great, right?

What about this matter-of-fact exchange between young Paul and his unflappable mother from "Luck Be A Lady:"

"What's a whooore?" I say later. I stand with my mother in the tiny kitchen, high on my tiptoes, and stir chicken Rice-A-Roni while she empties a brick of frozen peas into a saucepan.
"Whore," my mother says, correcting me.
"A woman who sells dances," she says without missing a beat.
I cock my head. Selling dances: I cannot think of anything more delightful.

Later, as a young man, making his way in Provincetown, Lisicky contemplates the idea of a loving relationship in "Same Situation:"

I wake up in the morning, groggy, a bar of sunlight blinding my eyes. I feel hope--what will happen today?--before the melancholy settles: dust beaten from a mop. If only someone's face were on the pillow next to mine. If only to watch another man sleeping, his mouth twitching as he dreams.

Who hasn't thought those very thoughts?

I gulped Lisicky's personal essays down in a day and plan to seek out his other work, too: LAWNBOY, THE BURNING HOUSE and UNBUILT PROJECTS. Follow him on Twitter @paul_lisicky.