Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When one of my best friends heard I was traveling to Italy - more specifically, to the Cinque Terre, she enthusiastically recommended Beautiful Ruins, a book that takes place in a sixth, more isolated, village Walters imagines for his story.

Beautiful Ruins opens with a beautiful film actress arriving in Porto Vergogna, Italy in 1962.  She was in the film production of Cleopatra but now she's sick and being sent away to await her lover in this obscure coastal village.  There, blue-eyed Pasquale Tursi is carrying on his father's legacy, imagining his forgotten village and his dead father's hotel will someday attain the tourism fame of the Cinque Terre. 

As Dee Moray settles in at Pasquale's hotel, the oddly named Hotel  Adequate View (yes, there's a story there), I was convinced I would love this book.  Walters paints a beautiful picture of a quiet village still dominated by fishermen and memories of the war.  Pasquale's earnest attempts to cater to his beautiful American visitor and the tenuous friendship the two form are enchanting.  The village and the story has a nice bit of quirk that complements the sweetness of Dee and Pasquale's fumbling relationship, such as it is.

Then along comes Richard Burton and the fictional Michael Deane, erstwhile film producer and all-around self-involved douchebag, accompanied by a jump in time to modern day California and the whole thing came off the rails for me.  Walters departs from his promising beginning to introduce us to Deane and a pack of less than lovable losers including Deane's development assistant, Claire, who came to work looking for the next big film and ended up working on some garbage reality show called Hookbook.  There's Shane, who has a tattoo of a made-up Bible passage that he spent his whole life living by until it failed him catastrophically, until he heads to Hollywood to pitch his terrible movie idea to Michael Deane.  Finally there's Pat Bender, washed-up frontman of a band everybody forgot, a screw-up who lost the good things in his life to drugs and bad decisions.
This is all to say that I loved the flashbacks to 1962 Italy and ensuing hijinks, but grinding through the present day with Walter's over-quirked, generally unpleasant West Coast set who are alternately trying to get ahead and right past wrongs left me cold.  All that said, Walter does manage to bring things full circle in a way that tugged gently at the heartstrings as one character starts to redeem himself and in so doing sets a lot of wrongs right. 

Walter is undoubtedly an excellent writer.  Beautiful Ruins is packed with perfect description that captures Italy's incredible coast and quaint villages.  The dialogue is fast-moving and realistic.  Even the structure of the story itself is admirable, peeling itself off in layers to reveal what Dee and Pasquale and Richard Burton, and even the unlikeable Michael Deane started in 1962.  Walter's biggest problem is his characters.  At times their exaggerated qualities chip away at their humanity and leave caricatures in their places, which makes Beautiful Ruins a little hollow on the inside.

"...but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope.  There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant - sail for Asia and stumble on America - and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along."

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Short Takes: This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

In the interest of clearing off a few more 2016 reads from my desk, where my combined good intentions and lack of blogging have left them marooned, I believe some reviewlettes are in order.  As you may well know, I am wretched at being concise, alas my vague memory of some of these books leaves me unable to truly review them at length, so this is always a fun exercise.  Combining them together in one post always seems to make them too long, so I'm trying a new tack and posting them individually. 

Let's kick it off the endeavor with This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki.  I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but when I happen upon the genre at used book sales, I usually snap them up anyway just because I know they're hard to come by cheaply and everyone else seems to love them so much.  This One Summer pretty much sums up its storyline in its title.  The book captures one summer in the life of Rose and her friend Windy who spend summers together on Awago Beach.  This one summer is the one where the pair start to come of age. 

I wasn't so much in love with the artwork of This One Summer.  Most of the characters, even the youngest, looked old to me, and I was a bit bothered by that.  However, I was captured by the tenderly told coming of age story.

In a place where the two girls spent their entire childhoods, they are suddenly bumping up against adult situations, wondering what the future holds, and speculating about whether next summer they'll have big boobs.  The book does a beautiful job of capturing the essence of lazy childhood summers with a wistful nostalgia while at the same time interrupting that idyll with Rose's anticipation and fear of what growing up brings as she encounters horror movies, parental problems, a boy to crush on, and a girl whose unexpected pregnancy causes her to do something desperate. 

Again, for some reason, I am surprised and impressed by the many layers a story told mostly in pictures can have. I should clearly know better by now since I think this about every graphic novel I chance upon. Anybody who loves *any* kind of coming of age story should definitely give this one a try.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Hidden Gems

It's been an age since I did a Top Ten Tuesday with The Broke and the Bookish, and this week's prompt is near and dear to my heart, since I never seem to be reading the same much-loved books as everyone else, but I still think I read a lot of great books. 

Here are ten of what I think are the most underrated books I've read in the past few years.  I hope you'll give some of these gems a chance!

1. The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory by Stacy Wakefield - This book was my first experience with indie publisher Akashic, and I love it.  I haven't been a crusader/evangelist for any particular book in a while but for this one.  It's about a girl coming to NYC to be apart of the thriving squatting scene.  It's not action packed or anything, but I loved Sid, the un-stereotypical punk rock girl who's a little on the chubby side and looking for a place where she fits.  The book is a totally organic, vivid snippet of her life, and I was so taken with it!    (My Review)

2. Paperboy by Tony Macaulay - It is decidedly rare to find a book that I find both laugh out loud funny and marginally educational.  Macaulay's memoir of growing up in Belfast, Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s wouldn't at first strike you as a belly laughing sort of book, but somehow Macaulay blends his life as a typical kid with the darker moments of the Troubles in a way that is (at times darkly) hilarious.  (My Review)

3. 104 Horses by Mandy Retzlaff - I'm always going on about this memoir of the Retzlaff family's terrifying time in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.  Their idyllic African life is shattered when the movement to restore land and property to Zimbabwe's black population from the white descendants of the former colonizers turns violent.  As Mandy, her husband, and children flee the country, they find they can't do so without their beloved horses and, as it happens, many others' horses that were in danger from the violence.  A heartwarming, heartbreaking memoir that reads like a letter from a friend.  (My Review)

4. The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue - I have so many regrets of not reviewing The Mapmaker's War when it was fresh in my mind, such that I feel like I need to re-read it.  What I do know is this is high fantasy written entirely in the second person and it made me long for all the high fantasy that I'd been missing in my life. 

5. In a World Just Right by Jen Brooks - I'm so sad that this book didn't get more attention.  It's got all the good YA stuff that makes for good YA.  Jonathan Aubrey was the only survivor in his family of a horrific plane crash that left him alone with his uncle with only the magical worlds he can conjure to protect him from cruel realities, that is, until his fantasy world where's he's got the girl of his dreams collides with the real world in a kiss.  Then, strange occurrences and questions start piling up in Jonathan's life until the truth comes out - packing an impressive emotional wallop.  (My Review)

6. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - This may be the slowest paced book I have ever loved with a passion. An unnamed female playwright narrates her lazy, introspective day at her friend Molly's house in Dublin.  It's the Summer Solstice (also Molly's birthday, of course), and the narrator has a long, beautiful summer's day to herself and spends it reflecting on her past, on art, and on friends and lovers who might have been.  I thought it was profound and also a glowing portrait of a perfect, languorous summer day to boot.  (My Review)

7. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones - Here's a book that definitely should have gotten more attention.  First of all, it's a perfect amalgamation of horror story with a more literary coming of age bent.  Second of all, the narrator who's coming of age might be a werewolf....or not.  Finally, his aunt and uncle who are raising him are werewolves, but not the werewolves of fantasy, more the werewolves of gritty reality who are normal folks trying to eke out a living that end up perpetually on the run to avoid the suspicion of their true natures.  Jones' imagining of real, modern life with werewolves is perfectly explained and achingly realistic. (My Review)

8. The Marauders by Tom Cooper - This is a book that got disturbingly little attention in the book blogosphere, and honestly it was a book I didn't expect to like much less love.  I did love it, though.  The Marauders is populated with would-be unlikeable down on their luck misfits and miscreants that call the Louisiana bayou town of Jeannette home in the wake of hurricanes and oil spills and various misfortunes.  Usually a crop of deeply unlikeable characters can sour a book, but somehow Cooper manages to tell a rollicking good story with wild twists and humorous wrong place wrong time encounters that also reaches beneath the surface to illuminate a whole way of life and engender our sympathies and appreciation for a community that keeps pulling itself up by its bootstraps, whatever life throws their way.  (My Review)

9. Dreamland by Kevin Baker - Kevin Baker doesn't get much blogger attention either, but I fell in love with this epic tale of the immigrants, gangsters, factory workers, crooked politicians, and well-meaning socialites who populated early twentieth century New York.  New York, even when riddled with crime and poverty always seems to have a unique glow of possibility.  I love this era of history, and Brown captures it wonderfully, capturing the contrasts of a city when both overcrowded tenements and Coney Island amusement parks were in their heyday.  (My Review)

10. Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert - I never got around to reviewing this one, but I was enthralled and touched by Rotert's debut which features a 1960s jazz club singer who escaped her small town seeking both the acceptance and the adoration she could never hope for at home.  Her childhood and journey are set alongside her ten-year-old daughter's perspective on life and her larger than life mother.   The pair's relationship is fraught with all the many things each needs and the other can't provide.  The family they create for themselves is full of unique and lovable characters, and when the flashback backstory meets up with the present, this story attains a startling clarity that leaves you caring for these characters more than ever. 

What are some of your favorite underrated books?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I don't keep books after reading them, as a rule, unless they are books that I love so much that I want to lend them to everyone.  However, I do hold on to them until I've reviewed them.  Now, you may have noticed that in 2016 I didn't review a whole of heck of a lot of books.  Good news!  (Er, nope) That's in part because I didn't read a heck of a lot of books! 

That said, the ones I did read are still on my desk, and it's time to take action.  We'll start, in no particular order, with the one that comes most immediately to hand, and that is....Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.  Unaccustomed Earth was, as most books that aren't expressly sent me for review, was chosen from my shelves at random.  It has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the first whole book of short stories by a single author I have read in my entire life.

If this isn't your first time at my blog, you probably know that short story collections are something that I desperately want to like, but the sad reality of the matter is that I all too often find them uneven and unsatisfying.  I am happy to report that Unaccustomed Earth broke the mold.  Despite my being at the peak of distraction with a tizzy of unwilling workaholism and frantic international vacation planning at the time of my reading, I found each and every one of Lahiri's stories compelling, populated with characters split between cultures, the children of Bengali parents who carve out their identities in places that aren't exactly foreign and aren't exactly home - Seattle or New England or Rome.

Just picking up the book again reminds me of Ruma welcoming her father to stay at her new house in Seattle, for the first time without her mother, and agonizing over whether she should invite him to live out his days with her and her family.  There's Sang who daily fields phone calls from Bengali suitors wishing to marry her but who is in love with a philandering Egyptian professor.  Usha is captivated by a friend of her parents' who became like family when he sought out his Bengali roots in Boston but who broke her mother's heart when he married an American girl and embraced a new culture.  Finally, the collection finishes with a few interlinked stories of Hema and Kaushik, whose parents' friendship brings them into each other's orbits only occasionally during their childhoods in Massachusetts and who are surprised to find a home in each other as adults in Rome, a place that is hardly home to either. 

In Unaccustomed Earth, while the characters themselves may still be striving to carve out a place for themselves between generations, readers are treated to fully realized people whose lives and struggles are distilled into only a few powerful pages that leave a lasting impact. 

I think I might be able to get into this whole short story thing after all.