Saturday, July 12, 2014

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

 I had just returned from a cruise where I spent time along coast of Italy--the exact town pictured, if I'm correct--when I first spotted this book in an airport. So I have to be honest, this selection was definitely a judge a book by its cover scenario. How could a book, embracing the most beautiful place I have ever been, be bad?

Not bad is so far from the description of this book that it's almost a shame that I initially thought that way. This book is beautiful: the language, the characters, the stories. What I loved was how accessible and easy to read it was, while still being a book of substance. Old hollywood, new hollywood, war history, romance - so many elements that combine to create one fluid story and work together instead of feeling forced. Each piece feeds into the next for a narrative that has an ending {spoilers ahead!} that's both realistic and heartwarming. It's not perfectly tied up with a bow and given to you. The young guy with a shitty past doesn't get the young girl with a shitty boyfriend. She actually keeps the shitty boyfriend who seems to get a bit better. No one beats cancer. No one really comes out on top. But most of the main characters end up making the best of their lives in a way that leaves a positivity to the ending. There's a lot they had to go through before the end, but in the end, the end feels right. And that's my favorite kind of book.

I basically devoured the book and didn't read it as closely with sticky notes in hand, but I did have to flag a couple pages.

He had never really mastered English, but he'd studied enough to have a healthy fear of its random severity, the senseless brutality of its conjugations; it was unpredictable, like a cross-bred dog. (9)
I can remember a French teacher trying to relay how complicated the English language is for a learner, and this seemed to nail it.

"Life, he thought, is a blatant ant act of imagination." (13)
Delightful! What is life if you aren't trying to create your dreams?

Alvis Blender, scrittore fallito ma ubriacone di successo--failed writer but successful drunk. (59)
Nothing new - a drunkard with a writing problem - but improved with the addition of Italian?

"We debated such questions when we encountered these meat puzzles: Who took the head of the partisan sentry? Why was the dead infant buried upside down in the grain bin?" (78)
I'm not usually one for war stories or imagery, but this idea is so tangible. Meat puzzles. Parts and pieces of people blown apart, or strewn about, inciting queries as to what happened and creating an unsolvable puzzle.

"The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl." (93)
Over the top! At first it felt like too much--wouldn't a couple of those examples have been enough?--but it fits just right. The description grasps the nature of the man, you learn. And you can't at all really imagine this person - except perhaps as Joan Collins?--until the final clarifier.

"But this was Pat, and he proudly confessed his elaborate plans like a cornered Bond villain." (202)
Well, duh, I'll flag any Bond reference. And this is a pretty appropriate one.

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