Last month’s National Book Award winner for fiction provoked as much surprise in the American literary world as Joanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize win for The Sentimentalists. Like Skibsrud’s novel, Gordon’s was published by a small press originally planning a tiny print run. Scant few had actually read the book, published just days before the Awards. But the prize win for Lord of Misrule, a multi-viewpoint narrative of low-level horse racing, was not just well deserved, but a welcome validation of literary fiction’s greatest ambitions.
Gordon’s setting is Indian Mound Downs, a West Virginia racetrack that’s gone to seed in the already grim and economically depressed 1970s. Broken-down, aging horses are raced for scant winnings by jockeys and trainers looking for a quick score rather than for glory and riches. In a more commercially minded writer’s hands, the motivations of characters like horseman Tommy Hansel, groomsman Medicine Ed and menacing trainer Joe Dale Bigg would be mere props for race outcomes and suspense over whether criminal enterprise will pay off or trigger senseless violence.
All of these events happen, more or less, though Gordon seems to wink at standard storytelling conventions. “I can’t be playing around with gangsters,” says Maggie, a horseman’s girlfriend and the novel’s emotional centre. “I keep thinking I’m in a movie and then I realize I could get killed.” Instead, Lord of Misrule makes poetry out of low life through passages of gorgeous, idiosyncratic prose. A female jockey is described as “not ugly but like something born between mud and river water, like something out of a creek swamp.” Faces are “draggyfied” and featherbeds have “sweat-damp canyons.”
“Horse racing is not no science . . . ma’fact it’s more like religion,” says Medicine Ed in pungent country dialect, and as Gordon masterfully renders this world in Lord of Misrule, a prosaic sport becomes a higher power to believe in.
– SARAH WEINMAN
If, as rumoured, Angelina Jolie has snagged the central role in the movie adaptation of Stacy Schiff’s myth-shattering depiction of Egypt’s final pharaoh, audiences should know one thing: whoever cast the actress utterly missed the point of the compelling biography. Schiff’s Cleopatra is no glam seductress, nor is she an Elizabeth Taylor-esque (or Angelina Jolie-esque) femme fatale. Rather, the monarch born in 69 BCE, who ruled an empire for nearly 22 years, captivated and governed not with beauty but wit, intellect and flair for image-making spectacle. An educated, multi-lingual queen, she built a fleet, controlled a currency, suppressed insurrections and averted famine. A canny strategist, her dalliances with Julius Caesar, with whom she had one child, and Mark Anthony, with whom she had three, were empire-preserving alliances. Even her death, which ushered in the rise of the Roman Empire, is recast: she used poison rather than the more symbolically freighted asp to do herself in.
Only a biographer as accomplished as Schiff would dare to reclaim history from the victors. No papyri from the period survive; nothing of ancient Alexandria exists above ground. Relying on hieroglyphics, coinage, and multiple historical texts, Schiff retells a story that until now she points out has been the “joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.” The resulting narrative is far less lurid—and far more scholarly—though there’s still plenty of drama, including Cleopatra smuggling herself in a sack to meet Caesar.
Far more engaging is Schiff’s vivid depiction of Alexandria as the “Paris of the ancient world,” a luxurious cultural hub that put then-provincial Rome to shame. Women were educated and possessed autonomy and power unequalled in the West until the 20th century. The Roman custom of “horse trading” women would not have occurred among the Ptolemies, Schiff writes. Given such attitudes, it’s unsurprising that Cleopatra’s power was reduced to her beauty and sexual wiles. As Schiff writes, the great ruler “unsettles more as a sage than a seductress.” If casting choices offer any indication, she still does.
– ANNE KINGSTON
The title is not the only funny part of this highly engaging book, and in the manner of all good teachers, Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech, manages to make the humour as instructive as the science. And whether he’s attempting to plot a graph, in the weeks before his daughter’s birth, of pre-due-date arrivals versus post-due-date deliveries, or dealing with the hostile emotional reaction to the logical decision to demote Pluto from the ranks of the planets, Brown also portrays the puzzlement of the scientifically minded in an irrational age. He never does get over his astonishment that birthing professionals have no idea, and less interest in, how many deliveries fall to either side of due dates, but he has come to terms with the degree of attachment so many people have to poor little Pluto. He even accepts a new mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) in our newly cramped solar system: Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature.
Paradoxically, Brown pulled off his planet-cide by finding a 10th world in 2005, bigger than Pluto, and now called Eris. (Tenth, that is, only if Pluto remained No. 9.) That forced astronomers to rethink that slippery word “planet.” The ancients counted seven, including the sun and moon but not the Earth; the mid-19th century, by adding some of the larger asteroids, often reached a count of 12. But the total stood at eight when Pluto was found in 1930. (The Disney dog, named in honour thereof, appeared the same year.) Being all alone, as it seemed at the time, Pluto was shoehorned into the classification, becoming the ninth planet despite numerous anomalies, including its tiny size. When faster computer searches turned up more small objects at the edge of the solar system, Pluto began to more resemble them than anything the size of Neptune. The discovery of larger Eris was the murder weapon, dooming the planetary status of the dog planet, no matter how its devotees howled.
– BRIAN BETHUNE
You wonder sometimes, looking at the Y2K edition of Keith Richards—that living fossil with skin like an old purse, hair braided with bits of twine, smiling like he just schtupped someone’s wife—how this enduring little ferret/rock star came to be. Life offers up several tantalizing possibilities: was it because he was a child of wartime depression and postwar austerity that he subconsciously searched out wretched excess? Was it an only child’s eternal love of the spotlight? Was it because he was beaten to a pulp physically by bullies and mentally by his professors? Or, maybe, was he visited by a demon, just like Robert Johnson, and became a slave to the music in his blood? There’s no one answer here, just an often-bemused, remarkably clear-headed narrative of every last inch of his 67 years.
Naturally, it is crammed with tales of drugs and carnal treachery—he’s the man who gave birth to a million clichés, after all. Yet it is his delivery that is so addictive. Richards’s whole life is set out in his stumpy little half-sentences, where he talks of Britain’s social strata (“She lived in a detached house, out of my league”) and the state of Mick Jagger’s junk (“Anyway, she had no fun with the tiny todger”) with spooky ease. Much like his guitar playing, in a way.
Yes, Richards shivs Jagger repeatedly in the book, particularly when the latter took off on a tour for his Primitive Cool solo record. (Karma’s a bitch, Mick.) You wonder how the two are ever going to share the same 747 on the next tour. Yet it is Richards’s penchant to defer to his forebears like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Otis Redding, and not his tendency to dish, that makes Life such a great read. “Ian Stewart,” he writes at one point of the long-time Rolling Stones manager and keyboardist who died in 1985. “I’m still working for him. To me, the Rolling Stones is his band. Without the knowledge and organization, without the leap he made from where he was coming from, to take a chance on playing with a bunch of kids, we’d be nowhere.”
– MARTIN PATRIQUIN
In her biography of Alcott, Susan Cheever makes a great deal out of one of the writer’s early rejections: in 1854, publisher James Fields told the then 22-year-old to stick to teaching. “You can’t write.” But Alcott could, and 14 years later, at 36, she finished Little Women—a story for young girls that the author had no real interest in completing, but which she nevertheless pounded out in a couple of months with an eye to paying the family’s ever-present debt.
Cheever’s book, set against a backdrop of one of the most exciting intellectual periods in America’s history and some of its most painful moments—through secession and the Civil War to Reconstruction—provides plenty of particulars for history buffs and diehard fans of fictional heroine Jo March alike.
Alcott’s life was never easy: her experience as a Civil War nurse in Washington helped shape her burgeoning sensibility, but her subsequent near-death encounters with both mercury poisoning and typhoid fever left her struggling with debilitating pain and illnesses for the rest of her life.
Like many biographers, Cheever is prone to making questionable suppositions, like pinpointing the exact moment Alcott finds the “voice” of Jo March (it was on a train bound for London, England, she says). And some might shrug off Cheever’s claim that Alcott pioneered a revolutionary way of writing with Little Women’s simple, unaffected English, but critics will relate to Alcott’s universal revenge fantasy come true: eight years after that encounter with Fields, and three years after Little Women had taken the world by storm, she wrote the publisher, who also happened to have loaned her $40 to help open up a kindergarten. “Once upon a time you lent me forty dollars, kindly saying that I might return them when I had made ‘a pot of gold,’ ” she said. “As the miracle has been unexpectedly wrought I wish to fulfill my part of the bargain and herewith repay my debt with many thanks.”
Amen to that, sister.
– JESSICA ALLEN
Where have all the ski bums gone, those fun-loving partiers from the sixties and seventies who skied like crazy and lived like paupers at the foot of the mountain? To tell his tale, sportswriter Jeremy Evans quit his job in traffic-clogged Portland and headed for the hills, snowboard in hand. From Lake Tahoe to Telluride to Jackson Hole, Evans seeks out old-school ski bums, guys like “Johnny” who stayed warm in winters by wrapping his house in plastic, in Crested Butte, Colo. Ski bums are getting “squeezed out of the equation,” Johnny tells Evans.
Today, a ski bum can’t afford property in a ski town. “Ski towns are so expensive that they have become resort regions,” Evans quotes Myles Rademan from Park City, Utah. “What these resort regions do is they hollow out your town . . . nobody lives here anymore.” In Lake Tahoe, for instance, 70 per cent of the homes are owned by wealthy second-home owners who visit only occasionally.
Jobs for ski bums are disappearing, too, writes Evans. Ski resorts now hire “international employees.” Table-busing jobs that used to be perfect for the night-shift-seeking ski bum are now going to Hispanics, writes Evans. As Mammoth Mountain’s CEO tells Evans, “Hispanic families are here, not to have fun and ski, but to work hard and carve out a life for themselves.” Translation: they don’t call in sick on powder days.
As for today’s generation of snow lovers, the “bum” part is missing, writes Evans. Now they want sponsorship deals. They want to be professional. When Evans tries to interview a top young snowboarder, he gets stood up all week. “In eight years of working as a reporter, I’ve been snubbed by two people. How is it possible that I’ve been able to get quotes from the best receiver in NFL history, and I get turned down by a pot-smoking skier from Montana?”
– JULIA MCKINNELL