Tuesday, November 26, 2013

McEwan captures the abundant joy, beauty and drama of a single day

Saturday, a novel by Ian McEwan
Published in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2005)

Saturday tells the story of a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon who lives and works in London, England. In the opening scene, Henry is standing at his bedroom window at night when he observes an airliner off in the distance, apparently on fire as it flashes across the sky and disappears from view.

The dramatic action in the skies above London foreshadows the drama about to unfold in Henry's life. On this particular Saturday, Henry is looking forward to a day off work: playing squash, shopping for seafood, and a planned family reunion. But an uncharacteristic lapse in judgement while driving his Mercedes-Benz will have unsettling consequences for Henry and his family; and suddenly a carefully calibrated life is tipped off balance.

Henry - a happily married father of two grown children - is a man who is normally in control. Up to this point in his life, there has been a clean, orderliness to his existence. He has been a master of his own fate (in his career and his personal life) through dedication, perseverance, hard work and luck. As McEwan explains, Henry is "too experienced to be touched by the varieties of distress he encounters - his obligation is to be useful."

In McEwan's hands, the plot progresses quick enough to keep readers engaged, but it almost pales in comparison to the surgical precision of his prose. McEwan packs an extraordinary range of detail into his scenes and takes readers on an extensive journey inside the mind and world of Henry Perowne over a 24-hour period, describing his thoughts, fears, biases, aspirations and beliefs. Indeed, McEwan dissects Henry's waking moments as would a surgeon operating on a patient, with unflappable confidence, dexterity and skill.

McEwan suggests that the true miracle of life resides in brief snippets of everyday experience, not in grand events or political movements (the backdrop of Saturday is the lead up to Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq). The moments that define us are brief, accidental and fleeting - and suffused with beauty and meaning.

The pacing of Saturday is slow and deliberate; with each new plot development, McEwan steps back and dissects various undercurrents of thought and actions before proceeding to the next turn of events. For me, that's what makes McEwan's writing so brilliant and memorable: this ability to stop the action in mid-stream and examine its parts from different vantage points using language that sings and alights on the page, without losing the narrative thread. At one point, McEwan spends several pages describing a game of squash between Henry and his colleague, and by the end of it, the reader is caught up in the competitive drama between the two men and Henry's fierce desire to win.

In another scene,  Henry is listening to his son performing at a music rehearsal, and recognizing how music has the capacity to touch the soul: 
"There are rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself."
It is these kinds of meticulous descriptions that characterize McEwan's writing. He creates a vivid fictional world that is realistic on the outside and fantastically complex on the inside. Saturday is a novel that exemplifies why Ian McEwan is considered one of the finest - if not the finest - living novelist working in the English language. 

For those you have never read a McEwan novel, Saturday is a perfect place to jump in.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Treliving's straight-talking memoir contains lessons for life and business

Decisions, Making the Right Ones, Righting the Wrong Ones, 
by Jim Treliving 
Published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. (2013)

Jim Treliving is one of the participants on the CBC's top-rated TV show, Dragons' Den. He has been a regular on the show since it first aired in 2006.

I've been a fan of Dragons' Den since the beginning. I enjoy the spontaneous interactions between self-made millionaires and entrepreneurs who are looking for investment dollars - especially the lightning-fast vetting and evaluations that occur after a presentation had been made. It's reality TV at its best.

In 2012, Treliving published his memoir, entitled Decisions, Making the Right Ones, Righting the Wrong Ones, which documents a life spent mostly as an entrepreneur, following an eight-year stint with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This a straight-talking, no-nonsense book filled with valuable life lessons, entertaining anecdotes and business advice from someone who has built one of the most recognizable restaurant franchises in Canada (Boston Pizza). There is a certain cavalier tone to the book in keeping with Treliving's real-life, on-air personality, but it is also painfully honest and transparent when it needs to be. It's a lively memoir filled with energizing tales and homespun philosophy that held my attention from start to finish.

Treliving started working for the RCMP in 1960. In 1968, feeling unfulfilled in his career in law enforcement, Treliving left the RCMP and purchased a Boston Pizza franchise in Penticton, British Columbia. Prior to the career change, he had spent time hanging around the original Boston Pizza restaurant in Edmonton and he liked the people, the atmosphere and the social aspect of operating a busy restaurant. As Treliving explains it,
If I had left the decision to my head, it would have told me I was crazy to leave steady, pensioned pay for something so irregular and unsteady. But money wasn't the draw. The work, the culture, the possibilities were. For me, the restaurant had all the qualities I loved about police work: camaraderie, spontaneity and even shift work and odd hours. In my heart, I knew I was leaving one calling for another.
In Decisions, Treliving is quite open about his failures, struggles and successes in trying to grow the fledgling Boston Pizza franchise. There were missteps, including ill-timed forays into the Chinese and Ontario markets, both of which served as valuable learning experiences. Watching Treliving play the role of a venture capitalist on TV, it's hard to imagine that early on in his business career, he faced serious financial challenges and made mistakes that could have cost him everything. But Treliving was a fast learner: he surrounded himself with good people and seized opportunities when they came along (Treliving's decision to sign Boston Pizza as a vendor at the 1986 Vancouver Expo was a marketing coup that gave the franchise world-wide recognition). Of course, being a visionary with a strong work ethic and sizable ambitions didn't hurt, either.

As Treliving explains, many good decisions that he has made in business were based on old-fashioned instincts, which have always guided him. As he admits early in Decisions, "I make decisions about work with my heart, about money with my head, and about people with my gut." That advice has served him well over the past four and half decades in the business world.

For anyone starting out as an entrepreneur or looking for inspiration from someone who knows what it takes to build a dynamic and successful company from the ground up, Decisions is an entertaining and substantial read, and I would recommend it.