SEATTLE, WA, United States | Member Since 2014
"Beautiful Ruins" is set in Italy, in Hollywood, in Edinburgh, Portland, Idaho and Seattle, but mostly it is set in summer -- even the darker passages are warm and lit by humor. A nimble series of interlocking plots is set in motion during the filming of "Cleopatra" in Rome, which plays out into the present. Since there are so many colliding (or colluding) stories, it is a pleasure to note that there are no stock characters, no CGI extras on hand: even minor characters assert their individuality. In particular, Richard Burton has an extended cameo that is both hilarious and irresistible -- the reader gets a real sense of the actor's intense charisma, as well as a cool assessment of the damage left in a narcissist's wake. Of the major characters, my very favorite is the wily, amoral puppet-master Michael Deane: he is so entirely shameless, so entirely and unconflictedly himself, that all is bulldozed before him. He makes the mess that starts the story, and more or less cleans it up eventually.
This is a satire, but one with warmth and humor as well as anger.
The narration, by Edoardo Ballerini, deserves special praise, for his fluent reading of Italian as well as for his subtle acting.
If you've ever longed to live in a literary scene, or wanted a do-over on your twenties, this book will pull your head right around. Nate is sees himself as a thoughtful intellectual; he wants to exert broad cultural influence through his writing. But he is baffled by his difficulties in relationship. What is blindingly obvious to the reader is that however well-educated or intelligent he is, he is immature to the point of infantilism in his relations with women. He makes tiny incremental steps forward in this story, but at the end he has only managed to find a woman who enforces decent behavior from him by dint of tears and curses. Why should this jerk be granted whatever cultural influence he has attained? (And the author seems to agree -- the essays he writes sound like deadly piffle). This was a well-written book, but you may wonder why this guy gets a book-length apologia.
I loved Joshua Ferris' first book, "Then We Came to the End", because it was funny, it described a world I knew and because the writing itself was so playful. But "To Rise at a Decent Hour" is much much better. It sounds utterly deadly: a dentist has an existential crisis. But this story reminds us that depression is a highly active, intense state of being, and in this case it is nothing less than Jacob wrestling with the angel. Only with really funny jokes, a great running gag, and characters we really like.
The premise is promising enough, but the execution is abysmal, and could be used as an example of why genre fiction has a bad name. ALL of the characters are stereotypes, behaving in utterly predictable ways. Worse, characters and events are introduced solely to advance plot points: when it becomes inconvenient for Maisie's father to remain in London as a costermonger, a job in the country opens as a groom for Maisie's patroness; though this patroness has a son whose condition provides urgency to the plot, we see him only in flashbacks, though he is living on the premises and he and Maisie are presumedly familiar. For a long while I thought perhaps this book was YA fiction -- the strongest epithet anyone uses is "bloody", or sometimes "golly", and Maisie's romance is so chaste you could read it aloud at Sunday school. This is a book set during a time of extraordinary upheaval and suffering, and there is much affecting literature already written about it. I would compare it to one of the weaker Nancy Drew mysteries (there's even a red roadster!), but lacking the narrative drive or complex character development. This is a mystery without one single twist or surprise in it anywhere: every plot development is telegraphed chapters in advance.
It's fairly astonishing that no one has stumbled onto this story before: it is narrative gold. Brown is not the most elegant writer, but he is a diligent researcher, and skillfully moves between the personal and particular, and the grander themes of the Depression and WWII. And, of course, the story is inherently thrilling, full of vivid characters and the vast machinery of history. Yes, we know how the story ends -- but the reader is nonetheless on the edge of his seat throughout.
One cavil with the otherwise excellent narration: many of the place names in the Northwest are hideously mispronounced. I will grant that "Puyallup" is a challenge (it's "pew-AL-up", not "pile-up") but Alki??? It's "ALK-EYE" not "al-kee", as if an entire neighborhood were deemed a drunk.
Edward Snowden has shown us where all the information in our information age is going; David Shafer works out the implications in a clever, fast read that channels the zeitgeist. The set-up (which may seem familiar): a ravenous addiction to digital connectivity has seduced us into handing over vast amounts of personal information to ... who, exactly?... which has provoked an equally frenzied panic about the loss of privacy. A serious topic, surely, but Shafer has made of it a shapely comedy/thriller. The three characters he has chosen to save the world are truly unimpressive: a serious-minded NGO worker, a mentally unstable trustafarian and a deeply hypocritical, self-loathing self-help guru (whose tribulations are especially, hilariously awful). This is a very entertaining read with a serious premise and a solid heart.
An NPR reviewer compared this book to Neal Stephenson's work, but the resemblance is only superficial. Stephenson is an idea man, with a dazzling gift for multi-level narrative and a tough, comprehensive and witty view of technology and its history. Shafer is also witty and inventive, but his concerns are essentially moral. He is less interested in the technologies that have led us to this sorry state of affairs than in what we will make of them.
This book got an unqualified rave in the New York Times Book Review. I was led to expect a wry, tough-minded, light-hearted, clear-eyed look at the plight of a single, sixty-year-old artist and her world.
Not so! Stuffed with clunky stereotypes, improbable coincidences and dubious epiphanies, this book gives "chick lit" its reputation for triviality. Our heroine, Rebecca, is tall and effortlessly slender, like any romance novel heroine, except much more tastefully dressed -- black everything, straight un-dyed hair and no makeup, which I suppose is meant to signal her stature as a serious artist. (This is the first wrong note: If Nora Ephron taught us anything, it's that sixty for women is nothing if not relentless grooming). It has been twenty years since her divorce, but she chews over this old failure endlessly, with no apparent insight: her ex-husband is portrayed in terms so exclusively negative I half-expected him to start twirling a pair of mustachios. The village in which she finds herself has an equally manichean populace: one is either good and simple (the baker) or cruel and incompetent (the baker's husband). Our heroine's love interest is a rough-hewn, straight-talking man's man, who spends an awful lot of time setting a good example and threatening the folks who won't follow it. Lest you excuse him as just the male counterpart of Rebecca, acquiring the habit of warning kids off his lawn, he's much much younger than she. And an environmentalist. And, true to the romance genre, he has a Secret Sorrow, which provides the pivot on which this creaky tale balances. So careless is the plot that at one point I thought perhaps Rebecca was going to be revealed, thrillingly, as not an artist, but a dimwit: she writes a crucial letter to her love, but never sends it, because she does not know his address. Though she HAS been to his house, which is just down the road. And he's been faithfully plowing her drive all winter.
The author has some good descriptions of the domestic woes of a young mother, and has a sharp eye for the customs and citizens of high culture: I found myself wishing Rebecca would stay in this world and fight for her work. It would have been a truer, and harder-won, victory. But instead, I think we can confidently expect a middling Hollywood movie, starring Diane Lane or Julianna Margulies, with whoever is taking over Viggo Mortensen's roles as the younger hunk.
I now picture the NYT reviewer: well-educated, well-connected, in head-to-toe Eileen Fisher, who would never be caught with anything like Fabio on the cover of a book she reads, but who nonetheless yearns for Romance. The cover is completely respectable -- you can carry it without shame on the subway -- but the goods within are shoddy indeed.
No one loved Jack Reacher more than I did, at least for the first 6 or 7 installments. The plots were taut and unexpected, our hero intriguing and the wit as dry as the Mojave. But these wonderful books have devolved into self-parody. This novel has a ridiculous plot -- with such risible features as an inflight brawl in an airplane restroom. As if two small people could fit in one of those, much less the Frigidaire-sized Reacher and his opponent! Also, Reacher has theories about himself that involve campfires and howling wolves and he's happy to share them. The mystery of Reacher's stunning fitness (the man eats pancakes and cheeseburgers exclusively, logs countless hours riding around in cars and never so much as skims a gym contract) is explained, basically, as "born this way". I am very very sorry to be unable to recommend this book.
Saunders is a formalist who loves to play with form. He is also funny, also witty. His characters are put through excruciating trials. They are often not bright. They are very earnest. Their relatives and bosses are often not bright, and are often also earnest. Everyone in these stories is suspended somewhere below the middle of a brutal pecking order.
But unlike other sardonic cool guys who are better and smarter than their characters (I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte), Saunders is not cruel. In fact, these stories are suffused with empathy and tenderness. Even while admiring some amazing feat of form or concept, I often found myself, halted on my morning walk, in tears for these characters.
I've only read Saunders in the occasional story he publishes in the The New Yorker, and have always relished their strange richness. A whole book of these stories is quite a bit more rich, and strange, so I listened to just one or two at a time. Not just because there's a lot to think about, but because there's also a lot to feel about.
My husband and I are big fans of this series, and enjoy listening to these books on long car rides, partly because every Jack Reacher novel involves a lot of time on the road, a lot of coffee and a lot of cheeseburgers. This book, however, is practically a parody of a Jack Reacher novel. Child reports every event, no matter how trivial, in three different ways in three successive sentences (including three entire sentences describing a shirt button) -- it becomes a strangely Dr. Seuss-like tic. And, had I bought this book the year it came out, I would immediately have nominated it for the Worst Sex Scene of the year: it goes on and on in hilariously flat-footed, repetitive and charmless detail. We listened to it for what seemed like 15 minutes, feeling more and more as if this whole scene is just none of our business, when my husband said chirpily, "Well, more coffee, anyone?!?" and we just fast-forwarded through it.
And I might as well bring up the Great Mystery of Jack Reacher. Reacher is described as being built along the lines of an upright freezer, with fists of granite, the reaction time of a cobra and the speed of a gazelle. But all he does is drive around, eat cheeseburgers and drink coffee. I've read several hundred of these now, and the guy has not so much as taken a jog around the block or lifted a pink 2 lb. barbell. How does he maintain his boyish figure?
If you have ever wondered what the British term "Jack the Lad" means (as in, "I was very much Jack-the-lad in my twenties"), this book provides an extended definition. It means behaving like Rod Stewart, who has managed to maintain the stance for nigh unto seventy years. Rod (or his ghostwriter) has shaped an amusing, self-deprecating, lively narrative, long on anecdote and short on self-reflection, that rolls merrily along and does not overstay its welcome. Nor does it peer too closely into the darker corners of rock stardom, or the prolonged adolescence of its hero. Why should it? Rod the Mod is, he reminds us, an entertainer first and foremost. Looking round at his generational cohort, and their success at re-packaging their lives as beacons of boomers' youth (Pete Townshend, Keith Richards and Neil Young are a few who have had successful memoirs lately), he may well have decided to cash in. It's not even irritating when he fetches up at the end with an earnest tease for ... a new album, coming out this spring. Exasperating, but part of the bad-boy charm.
One of the (perhaps) unintentional running gags in this memoir is Mr. Stewart's persistent habit of marrying/having children by a tall, blonde underwear model. I use the singular because I googled Britt Ekland, Alana Stewart, Kelly Emberg, Rachel Hunter and Penny Lancaster and they all look exactly alike. One hopes all those kids take after their mothers.
The narrator, Simon Vance, deserves a special shout-out for conveying exactly the right tone without being intrusive. I am most used to listening to Mr. Vance as I make my way through Anthony Trollope's vast oeuvre, so to find him here amid amps and microphones was both funny and reassuring.
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