Monday, October 29, 2012

Conversation with Chris Cleave RE: "Gold"

Before the London Olympics, I did not know the Spandau Ballet song "Gold." Almost every night of the Games, the BBC played this tune during their medal count segment. Catchy.

The title "Gold" also caught my attention when NPR aired a pre-Games segment introducing Chris Cleave, the award winning British author of "Incendiary" and "Little Bee." Cleave and his publisher's P.R. team were debuting the author's auric text about British cycling at the Olympics in Athens, Beijing and London.

Intrigued by the radio review of the book and Cleave's down to earth interview, I requested a publicity copy and started reading "Gold" on the July flight to London. I finished it (via audiobook) on a late summer drive to Oklahoma, now overdue for a blog review. You could say the review's been circling in my mind like wheels in a velodrome.

Then I learned of Cleave's two Oct. 6 Atlanta book signings and seized the opportunity to interview him and gain clarity on some solid "Gold" questions. Before delving into Cleave's answers, here's my quick take, er, book report.

In his third book "Gold," Chris Cleave takes readers on a dizzying and high-speed ride into the world of Olympic track cycling.

The story opens with two of the five main characters, Team GB's Zoe and Tom; respectively, she is a first-time Olympian about to enter the Athens Olympic velodrome as hell on wheels, and he is an elder Aussie Olympian-turned-coach who missed bronze by an agonizing one-hundredth of a second -- a fourth-place one moment in time he's regrettably relived daily, hourly or worse since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Also competing in Athens: Jack, the rising men's track cycling star for Britain. His young wife Kate is stateside watching the cycling drama unfold on the BBC's live broadcast from Greece. Kate and Zoe are teammates and best mates, and readers soon learn the former opted out of the 2004 Games to care for her newborn daughter, Sophie. We later discover that Zoe, Kate and Jack met young, and their mutually ultra-competitive natures led to a five-ringed love triangle in their early 20's.

Following the Athens opener, more pages are filled with detail of Sophie's struggles with pediatric leukemia.

Before proceeding, let me write here that one critic at The New York Times nailed it when he wrote that "Gold" is like "Beaches" on bikes. I love that, though I don't foresee Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey portraying Olympic cyclists when "Gold" hits the big screen, which I believe it will, just in time for Rio 2016.

My only complaint about "Gold" is that at times, too many times, the would-be-tearjerk detail about Sophie's illness and treatment is over the top, more of a cringe-jerk for this blogger.

Reading the book en route to London, I winced again and again at the medical jargon and play by play of young Sophie vomiting into her toys, which happen to be a collection of "Star Wars" vehicles (the girl is a big fan of the George Lucas series).

Listening to the audiobook, too often my hands moved to cover my ears while I hummed to drown out the treatment-speak with "La-la-la-la-la." When young Sophie suffers a seizure mid-text, I could not hit fast-forward quickly enough.

On the flip side, Cleave's play by play about track cycling, elite training and all that Olympic bike champions are made of -- that was all, how do they say in England (???) -- it was all brilliant!

Reading "Gold," I could not get enough of Cleave's detailed descriptions from within the helmets and heads of its fictional Olympians. He unknowingly wrote "Chariots of Fire" on bikes. And for the record, I think "Chariots of Fire" director Hugh Hudson should also direct "Gold" for the silver screen.

During my conversation with Cleave, the author revealed extensive research went into each of his books. For "Gold," the research included several months of training with national level cyclists and coaches, which led to Cleave's excellent second by second descriptions of Olympic velodrome racing (as it turned out, Cleave also researched pediatric leukemia in as much detail).

As readers of this blog post will find in the videos of Cleave's comments, the London Games brought to Great Britain as much elation and positive energy in 2005 as in the summer of 2012. Though Cleave never attended the Olympics prior to writing "Gold," it's clear his experiences with the book and as a London 2012 spectator may lead him to attend Rio 2016 as he predicted. Will he write another five-ringed story? Probably not. Will Cleave write again about individual pursuits? Likely yes, as he hinted his next work may delve into the world of a person struggling with a long-term recovery.

But the focus of "Gold" comes down to one thing, in Cleave's words.

"I wanted to write about a rivalry," said Cleave. In the pages of "Gold" he said, "Zoe and Kate live their lives, their rivalry in very different ways."

In his remarks at one of the book signing events of Atlanta, Cleave described Zoe's path as a trail of descruction, and that through his own cycling training the author learned the "savage joy" of winning against his training partners. He touches a bit on another result of this training in the video for this post (hint: hospital).

Another off-camera conversation briefly tied back to "Star Wars" trivia. Cleave shared that his birthday is May 14, the same day as Jedi creator George Lucas, Talking Heads front man (and cyclist) David Byrne, and the author of one Olympic blogger who aspires to the same level of creativity as these fellow Tauruses (Cleave was born only hours before I was on that May morning of 1973).

In the weeks since meeting Cleave in Atlanta, his other books made it only my library reserve list. If you enjoyed his prior works, you will likely embrace "Gold" as well. And if you are new to Cleave's style, "Gold" is a good entry point to his works. Happy reading!

Photos and videos by Nicholas Wolaver

P.S. Driving away from the Cleave interview, my route took me past a pawn shop for which a man donned signs advertising "We Buy Gold!" With a straight face I rolled down the window and offered him an autographed copy of Cleave's book. Pregnant pause ... then the sign guy laughed as loud as anyone I've heard in a long time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Big Bird And Binders

Watching the debates prompted me to dust off my copy of Mitt Romney's book "Turnaround" and his work with the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic organizing committee. I met Romney in December 2001 when the Salt Lake Olympic Torch Relay began in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park. This book is a good read no matter one's political persuasion.

More on both the book and that brief meeting will follow on a later post. But for today, I just wanted to post a brief thought on last night's debate. See the photo I uploaded with this post -- in a word, "binder" was the blunder of the discussion (among many remarks I suspect Romney wishes he could do over).

I liked most President Obama's closing remarks. Sort of a K.O. Until the next debate ...

Image includes photo via PBS

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Running Across Russia

Just the other day, organizers unveiled the massive route for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay. It's impressive. By the numbers:
  • Begins Oct. 7, 2013
  • On the road 123 days
  • Visiting 2,900 communities
  • 14,000 torchbearers
  • 65,000 km
  • Within a one-hour drive of 130 million potential spectators (90 percent of Russian residents)
  • 30,000 volunteers
  • Three partners: Coca-Cola, Ingosstrakh Insurance Company and JSC Russian Railways Co.
  • This is Coke's ninth Olympic torch relay as presenting sponsor
  • According to published reports north of the border, the international space station is one stop on the 2014 Olympic torch relay route.
No word yet on the selection criteria to carry the Olympic torch, but I anticipate nomination process details will be unveiled very soon. Where will you be watching the 2014 Olympic flame?

Photo via Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein's "Girl With Ball" Bounces to ATL with 163 Other Works at High Museum of Art

During the summer of 2012, the Chicago Art Institute debuted the outstanding "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective" exhibition set to open at the National Gallery of Art next week.

I'm guessing the curators of that exhibition were slightly miffed the Museum of Modern Art's iconic Lichtenstein canvas "Girl With Ball" was already booked for its High Museum of Art premiere in Midtown Atlanta.

Through some freelance P.R. work at the High these last few days, it was a privilege to experience "Girl With Ball" in the museum's new exhibition "Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913>>2013" through a media preview event held this week. What a treat!

Curated by Michael Rooks with co-curators Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman of MoMA, "Fast Forward" features 164 works by 105 artists including some of my all-time favorites: Salvador Dali, Lichtenstein, Jenny Holzer among them. And there are some works easily recognized from past treks to MoMA, such as "Chief" by Franz Kline. The works including painting, sculpture, photography, film and other media appear centered around key historic dates of the last 100 years.

But what's to love most about "Fast Forward" are the surprises around several corners of the exhibition space. Upon exiting the museum elevators, the first right turn reveals "Unique Forms In Continuity," a gorgeous three-foot bronze statue of a figure in motion evocative of the lyrics to "Against The Wind" by Bob Seger. I love this Umberto Boccioni sculpture, and it's only made better positioned racing toward about a dozen Soviet propaganda posters that make it seem "the walls have eyes" (be sure to view the feature film from 1929 projected among these framed U.S.S.R. works).

Dali's miniature canvas "Illumined Pleasures" -- complete with a self-portrait of the artist's decapitated head, tiny insects and even tinier cyclists -- is displayed just steps from where Dali's "Persistence Of Memory" dazzled High visitors two years ago (also on loan from MoMA), and facing the currently displayed work is a beautiful canvas by Gerald Murphy showcasing an enormous wasp and sliced pear.

The next corner reveals the large and bug-like Kline work inspired by the artist's childhood memories of a locomotive. Moving fast forward another decade, the next corner brings the "Girl With Ball" into view flanked by an Andy Warhol canvas.

With stops in key years of the last century, wall texts describe how then-current events may have influenced the artists and their contemporaries. Another decade-to-decade action -- the evolution of transportation -- is subtly revealed as more vehicles, including a crushed car, take the stage. A three-dimensional untitled work by Lee Bentecou jumps out of the wall as though a fighter jet engine is backing into the museum. "The Chariot" by Alberto Giacometti is a must-see vehicular piece. Shapshots taken from within cars of the mid-century reveal modern moments of days gone by.

I loved locating two matching Jenny Holzer pieces (rubbings from her carved marble benches?) as "Fast Forward" rolled into the 1980s.

And this was the first time my eyes met a Jeff Koons work, a life-sized porcelain of a topless blond woman embracing the Pink Panther. Interesting.

Then the cavalcade of modern moments moves again, one last time to 2012-13 with an immersive floor-to-ceiling, half-room-sized new commission by artist Sarah Sze that must be seen to be believed (sort of a twist on Damien Hirst's creations featuring hundreds or thousands of the similar items on display in a single work). If you're into seek-and-find, try to locate Sze's plane ticket to Atlanta as part of this space-specific creation.

"Fast Forward" is on display at the High now through January 2013, by which time we will all fast forward to the highly anticipated exhibition "Frida & Diego" bringing together the Mexico artists/spouses Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Until, then, "Fast Forward" is an excellent option for an afternoon of art exploration in Midtown Atlanta.

Photos via the High, MoMA and select exhibition photos by Nicholas Wolaver

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