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"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.
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.
Donna Leon's series has been so highly recommended by so many people for so long that I finally downloaded this book. I found the first half to be very slow-moving, as Leon carefully seeded her plot with clues, red herrings and domestic details. The villains were almost immediately identified, and painted with a very broad brush; the murder "twist" was quickly obvious; the observations on Venetian life only moderately interesting. Then the second half just kind of stumbled to a conclusion. Leon seems very impressed with the decency of her decent characters, which gives the book an odd air of self-satisfaction.
But perhaps it's the narration I found the most off-putting. The narrator is American, so the descriptive bits feel quite transparent to this listener. But, if every single one of your characters is Italian, why adopt an Italian accent in the dialogue? It's not as if we need to distinguish among nationalities (as we did in Neal Stephenson's "Reamde", for instance, or Jess Walter's "Beautiful Ruins"). It puts an unnecessary distance between the listener and the characters, as if they are "colorful characters" rather than people.
Yunior (Diaz's alter ego) is doggiest of dogs: a compulsive womanizer, he nonetheless falls in love with one serious, ambitious woman after another, each of whom eventually leaves him with not a glance back. He suffers greatly -- the last story in the collection features a Job-like catalog of sufferings -- but also energetically, hilariously, floridly. Reading this book reminded me that depression is an intensely active state. Yunior is flailing and drowning in his own misery and chaos, but also in the misery and chaos of his history, that of his fellow Dominicans and of the immigrant experience. And he's also glorying in it, with an acuity of observation and a jazz-like ecstasy of description that is profane, filthy, funny and beautiful. He's a mess, and he's a searching mess. Diaz touches upon many possible sources of Yunior's dysfunction, but is too shrewd and humane to manufacture insight, to tie it up with a bow and present it to Yunior or to the reader. You don't want to do more than touch, lightly, bruises so fresh and deep.
I have been reading laudatory reviews of Mr. Lehane's work for years, and have enjoyed listening to interviews with him on NPR. And I love gangster movies and noir thrillers. But this was just not for me. This book traverses a queasy tightrope between the sentimental and the horrific, with not much in between. When I wasn't annoyed at the tough-guy codes (concealing deep and lardy emotions), I was dreading the next revolting description of physical torture. At about hour two, I decided I just wasn't enjoying it: not the plot, not the characters and not the writing.
This book is so beautifully conceived and beautifully written -- astonishing imagery coupled with shrewd insight -- that I ran out and bought a HARDBOUND copy for my sister! The son of Jim Hawkins and the daughter of Long John Silver set off for treasure, just as their fathers did, and, like their fathers, end up in the land of mature experience, a treasure in itself. If there is a fault, it is that it devolves into mere action adventure at the very end (keeping an eye on a Disney franchise?). But on the way it delivers some very thoughtful entertainment.
Special praise goes to the narrator, David Tennant, for providing excellent characterizations for a large cast -- not too broad, not too dry.
It is always a pleasure, at least for the reader, to revisit Treasure Island. Stevenson billed it as a "boy's book", but it is more than that. The hero, Jim Hawkins, IS a boy, and has all of a boy's heedless impulsiveness, and none of an adult's analysis or judgment. But Stevenson, using Jim as his narrator, manages his characters so shrewdly that the reader can analyze and judge far beyond Jim's ability. It's an interesting feat: Jim is by no means an unreliable narrator, but the adult reader sees much more than Jim does. I enjoy the squire and the doctor much more than I did when I was young, now that I am their age and have many friends with both their failings and their virtues. And Long John Silver retains both his insinuating charm, and terrifying malevolence.
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