Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: A Review

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful, crazy story. Set alternately in 1962 Italy, current-day Hollywood, Idaho and Edinburgh, and following the lives of an Italian inn keeper, an American actress, a Hollywood producer, an aspiring screenwriter, and a has-been (maybe a never-was) musician, Beautiful Ruins is just that...the story of gorgeous ruined lives.

In 1962, Pasquale Tursi is twenty-two, having returned to his village to run his father's hotel. While he dreams of enticing American tourists to this remote cove, the tiny village is in reality the destination of no one. Until one day when Dee Moray, a beautiful American actress arrives. She is in Italy filming "Cleopatra" with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, but has fallen ill.

What unfolds from this opening chapter is an intricate study of choice and fate, and of how desire informs both. "This is a love story...But really what isn't?" The characters Walter has created are hungry, desirous, wanting creatures (as are we all). And this book languishes in this human yearning.

I was absolutely captivated by these intertwined stories which lead, ultimately, to one of the most beautiful, lyrical final chapters I have ever read.

It is reminiscent of nothing...entirely original. A new favorite. Read this book. Read this book!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: A Review

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3 1/2 - 4 stars.

Nick's wife, Amy, goes missing. Nick looks very, very suspicious. Beyond that, I'm not going to say a word about the plot for fear of giving anything away.

I should say though that I was frustrated for the first half of this novel. I griped about it on Facebook and to anyone who'd listen. I didn't like Nick or Amy. I actually didn't care that she'd disappeared, and figured he'd probably get exactly what he deserved. I also thought I had everything figured out. But boy, was I wrong. Thank God. After the 200 page mark or so, it gets really good. It's twisty and turny and surprising and fun. (I did suspect the twist...but not enough for it to feel anti-climactic. Vague enough??)

A light, fun summer beach read. I can see its broad appeal.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012


For the past two years I have participated in the Steele Canyon High School's annual job fair. My friend is the college guidance counselor there, and she makes terrific efforts to see that a variety of occupations are represented. And I must admit, it tickles me to see the folding table set up with the WRITER sign affixed to the front. (I usually sit next to another mutual friend of ours who is an ARTIST.)

When the bell rings, the kids all flock to the various tables (especially the ones with the flashy displays -- MEDICINE, MARKETING, MILITARY). It's hard not to feel insecure sitting with my little stack of books and xeroxed handout with helpful links to writer's websites and MFA programs. My ARTIST friend usually entices the kids with some sort of collaborative art project to participate in at her table. Plus, she has an easel, and art!

I am always pleasantly surprised by how many students come to me -- especially when they could be learning about the rewards of being a DENTIST! A PARALEGAL! A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL! But the ones who arrive with their clipboards and questions are earnest and enthusiastic as they read from their notes:

1. How did you become a writer?

The first one is easy. Though this is where I usually lose a lot of kids. "I went to college, studied English, went to graduate school for two years, went to graduate school again. Yes, four years of graduate school." Is that required? "No. Actually many writers don't go to school at all." (And I must admit this wins some of them back.) "I wrote books. I got lots of rejections. I got an agent. I got my first book published." And so on.

2. What do you like most about being a writer?

The second question is also easy. "I get to wear pajamas to work every day. I'm home with my children. I love what I do. I get paid to make stuff up." Which, inevitably leads to:

3. Can you actually make a living as a writer?

Hmmm. Must tread lightly here. I look at their eager faces. I know exactly what they're thinking. Because I was one of them once. They are thinking E.L. James, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King. Imagining world tours, signing books before adoring masses.  A country home with a writing studio in some elaborate garden filled with impossible flora and fauna. Money, travel. Money.

And so I say, "It takes a while." The truth.

A few duck away, head to FINANCE, I imagine. But the remaining cluster and nod knowingly.

"It's hard, I say. "You have to be prepared to do a lot of odd jobs to support your writing." I list the jobs I've had:

Retail (high end and low end)
Ticket Sales
School of Fisheries Archivist
Temp (Real Estate, Air Conditioning, Bio-tech)
Secretary for a Tyrannical Architect
Admin Assistant (for a software developer, for an IT firm)
Free-lance child's muralist
Teacher (of grown-ups, of undergrads)

Their eyes widen in disbelief.

"You have to be brave," I say. And I suddenly envision myself not as WRITER but as WARRIOR. "You don't get health insurance. You don't even get a regular paycheck."

A few more silently slip away. Those who remain, the quiet girl with the glasses, the shy kid with acne and a beaming smile, look at me both intrigued and terrified.  

But now? they ask, hopeful.

"Now I write. Full-time. And I wouldn't trade any of those jobs, those struggling years, the uncertainty and fear, for anything." Because I am a WRITER. And there aren't that many of us who can say that and mean it.

A few months ago, I submitted a proposal to my publisher for a new novel. As a WRITER, you never know from one contract to the next what will happen next.  If this might be the end. It's both awful and thrilling, but mostly awful. As I waited, I counted my marketable skills -- which I really only need a couple of fingers to count. It's times like these that I have to remind myself (the pajamas! being home with my kids! making stuff up! doing what I love!) Because it's all precarious.

And then, finally, I heard back. An offer for three more books. And so now, joy of joys, I have the promise of three more years of writing, three more books made with beautiful paper and gorgeous covers. Three more years where I can work in my jammies, volunteer at my girls' school (and be here when they get home), to set up shop in the land of make believe, and do what I love to do. And I can breathe again, counting not marketable skills but lucky stars that I get to do what I do for a living. For my life.

And I hope that's enough to keep at least a few of those high school kids from wandering off toward INVESTMENT BANKING or, God forbid, POLITICS.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan: A Review

The Good WifeThe Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love Stewart O'Nan's work. He is the master of the quotidian, the champion of the ordinary, though this was not my favorite of his novels.

This is, quite simply, the story of Patty, a woman whose husband makes a stupid decision and winds up in prison for twenty five years. Pregnant at the time of his arrest, she spends the next two decades waiting for him, and we follow her through the appeals and prison visits, financial strife and dashed hopes as she waits for him to come home.

I have found that listening to a novel on CD creates a unique intimacy between reader and text. And I found myself slipping easily into Patty's life, as though I were there with here through the twenty-five years she waits for her husband to get out of prison.

Perhaps it was because I am familiar with O'Nan's work (Wish You Were Here, for example), but I did not expect the riveting plot line that some readers missed. My complaints were rather with Patty and how little I understood her dedication to her husband (feeling that her allegiance to him came simply out of pride and resignation rather than something more potent and meaningful). I was also troubled by her relationship with her son. I was confounded by her lack of sympathy and compassion for him as he grows up in these troubled circumstances.

However, I did feel like O'Nan, once again, authentically and beautifully paints the portrait of a working class family.

Monday, July 09, 2012

This Bright River by Patrick Somerville: A Review

This Bright River: A NovelThis Bright River: A Novel by Patrick Somerville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a wild weird ride this book is.

This Bright River tells the respective stories of Ben (a sort of hapless guy who has returned home to Wisconsin after a brief stint in prison) and Lauren (a haunted woman who is also returning to her home town) as well as what happens when they come together. It's all prefaced by a prologue (which you may have heard about here -- though don't read this unless you've finished the book) which hooked me initially and then plagued me throughout (thank God it all comes together at the end).

More than anything I loved the structure of the novel. It, like the river of its title, is meandering, at times still and contemplative, and other times violent.

I was happily confused for much of the novel...content to just keep moving. And, again, the end clarifies almost every question I had. The others I may just have to email Ben about :)

P.S. Here is an amazing trailer for the novel.
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