Thursday, July 4, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When I read something like "A literary miracle" on the front cover of a book, I'm both intrigued and wary.  Like, what does that even mean?  Literary miracle.  Well, after having read Beautiful Ruins, I understand.

It seems something of a miracle that the Jess Walter was able to create such depth in his stories and his characters in a single book and even in single chapters.  The book starts in a tiny village in Italy in 1962, from the perspective of a young hotelier who inherited the hotel when his father passed away.  Pasquale, the young hotelier, is excited when his friend Orenzio brings a beautiful young American actress, Dee Moray, to his hotel, for whom Pasquale quickly falls.  It was well written and believable.

However, after reading the chapter, I was worried that I was not going to really enjoy this one because I was not really in the mood to read another foreign literary masterpiece that is dry and boring and too dense to really care.  Not that the first chapter was those things -- I was just concerned that it was going to be given the high praise and where the book started.

After another day or two, I picked up the book again and started reading the second chapter.  The second chapter is in Hollywood, "recently" (say, around 2010), from the perspective of a young girl (late-20s) who is disillusioned about life, hollywood, and her future.  It was fresh and modern and believable.  It was not dry, boring, or too dense to really care.  Claire is trying to find herself in Hollywood, after landing her dream job as assistnat to the legendary but somewhat washed up Michael Deane, and after landing her dream boyfriend - the gorgeous but stripper-obsessed idiot in her bed, she's realized that the glitter and the glamour are not all they're cracked up to be.  With a new job prospect from a small new museum, Clair is considering whether it's time to throw in the towel on film production and cut her losses.  When the new museum happens to be primarily funded by the church of scientology, it gives Clair just enough pause to give herself an ultimatum:  Either she finds the one film she's been dreaming she would make on Wild Pitch Friday (where the pitches are unlikely to be for glorious masterpieces), or she quits both her job and her boyfriend and takes up the job building the new museum.

And then I lost track of the chapters and time as I tore through the rest of the book.
The various chapters are told interchangeably from the perspectives of Claire, Pasquale, Michael Deane (even through the memoir his agent told him they could never publish, but which Deane gives to Claire to read), Dee Moray and her son Pat Bender.  Each perspective is believable -- the view from a 1962 Italian Pasquale's eyes is just as convincing as the view from a 2010-ish Hollywood Claire's eyes, is just as convincing as the memoir written from Michael Deane explaining the whole "mess."  Walter even incorporates famous people and movies -- Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatria -- to add to the realism of the tale, without ever crossing lines into the impossibility (i.e., he did not change any known facts, he just added in details into the pockets and unknowns that could be... who knows... feasible).

The perspectives are all over the place, the times are all over the place, the stories are all over the place, -- front to back and back to front, and yet it is a cohesive, believable, perfectly timed story.  A miracle.  Even more.... he managed to actually tie together all of the characters from the 1940s to 2010, from all over the world, without it being "too convenient."  I was so impressed with Walter.  It felt like just a series of life events that ultimately brought all of the characters together within one story.  But it did not feel forced or contrived.  It just felt... natural.  Like yeah, that's what happened.

And then you find yourself nearing the end of the book.  But, oh no, there are too many strings to tie up!!  He's going to leave me hanging, I just know it.... ahhh, i hope he at least wraps up ____, and ____.  And ___.  But how can he!  Too few pages....  You keep reading.

And he does it.  and it feels a little bit like a miracle.  Not everything is neat and bowtied, but it's all done just enough to leave the reader at peace.  With all of the stories, and all of the different lines, and all of the different characters, resolved just enough to close the book and go to sleep.  All is well.

A literary miracle.  Now I understand...

(this and other reviews at
(see also book group review at Desert Girls Blog)

Modern Grimmoire: A Contemporary Anthology of Fairy Tales, Fables & Folklore from 36 authors and artists

Review based on ARC.

I love Grimm and I was very excited to win a copy of Modern Grimmoire.  Not really sure what to expect -- would these be new takes on old stories? new stories?  It was a combination.  A very dark, very angry combination of, as the subtitle states, fairy tales, fables and folklore.

Overall, I was very happy with the anthology.  It was a quick read, and each story very comfortably stands on its own.  I would recommend to anyone who has a penchant for all things Grimm, for people who are interested in dark fairy tales, folklore, and fables, and for those with a stomach for the, well, grim.  In other words, if the title is appealing to you, go ahead and pick it up.  The book does the title and the cover justice.

Again, overall, FOUR of five stars.

The anthology is comprised of mostly stories, a few poems, and a handful of pictures, each of the stories I review below (reviews, not synopses.. they are short so summarizing practically retells the story, which is unfair and unnecessary):

- The Ex-Court Painter, Goya, and the Princess was one of the highlights of the anthology.  It tells teh story of an ex-royal painter, who is called into court to do a particularly sensitive and confidential job for the King.  The painter is shuffled down to the basement, and is locked in a room to do his work.  I will not spoil what the painting is of or how the story progresses, but the story had the flavor of classic Grimm, with its own dark twists.  The characters were well portrayed, even in the few pages, and the story was intriguing and complete.

- Night People, in Summer.  I think this was my favorite.  I loved the magical realism aspect of this one, and I thought the tone was just right for a slightly creepy, slightly nostalgic Grimm.  The author took the ordinary life and added not only magic and supernatural intrigue, but also a light element of danger. I wouldn't mind seeing this "ghost" story in longer form some day.

 - The Black Widow.  This one was incredibly creepy, very well written, very creepy.  Did I say creepy twice?  I talked about this one to everyone who would listen while I was reading it.  It stayed with me while I was hiking a beautiful trail in Taos NM.  It was very well written, and completely brought the reader into the folds (or, should I say, web?) of the story effortlessly.

- Isle in Man: This was interesting and, again, really well done.  This is the kind of story that could be blossomed into a novel or even a movie.  It's kind of super-hero'y and kind of X-Men'y, with a lot of heart.  It leaves the reader with a lot of questions, and with a desire to know what happend NEXT? and BEFORE?  The title didn't really do the tale justice... not that I can think of a better one, I just didn't like it as a match to the story.

- Something Gold: Oh this was very well done.  I love how the author started each new phase with the same phrase.  I love how the tale was unsettling and squirmy.  I love the quick but not choppy progression from one phase to the next.  I didn't love the end as much, but I appreciated that there WAS an end... some sense of closure (without actual closure... just the prediction of one).

- Gourmaundeth:  I am not sure why the typefont was formatted the way it was.  This was almost more poem than it was story.  I think the formatting was to show the disjointed, choppy thinking of the narrator.  Which worked.  It gave the story a lack of direction and a confusion that worked for the ultimate story.  While I didn't love this one, it definitely did fit in the anthology and did not detract from the mood.

- The Mirror Child: this is another story with great ambiance and tone.  I loved the fairy tale'ness of this story.  It had a classic feel to it, while adding the new twist.  Although I felt that the ending was a little convenient, I also appreciated it.  Overall, a great story with a neat little "package" epilogue at the end.

- The Music Box:  Fun.  This one was a fun tale - I loved the light heartedness aspect, the modern-day relatability to dating. and the cute twist at the end.

- Fish: This was an interesting concept -- take the marriage of a mermaid to a human, and tell it from the mermaid's perspective.  I thought it was just heartbreaking enough, and just hopeful enough.  Another one that I would enjoy seeing developed into a novella or even a novel.

- Bury me in Faerie:  This story was a sad story, but, again, had a hopeful air to it.  Throughout the story and even at the end, there is the air of possibility.  And although the characters are grieving and their lives seem difficult and sad, there is hope.  It was a nice little story.  Not my favorite, but sweet.

- Arowana: I felt that this was a story with a lot of promise, a lot of interesting and intriguing concepts, and I just did not love the direction it ultimately took.  This one probably falls more squarely under "Fable" than the others, so the path makes sense. It just fell a little for me, turning from a story with great promise, to a lesson, perhaps well learned.

- Starlight!:  This story was flippant and had an undertone of cruel to it.  The characters are almost completely non-endearing, but intentionally so.  The perspective is almost that of making the exalted humdrum.  I guess I did not love this one because I felt that perhaps it went just a little too humdrum.  No point to the story other than to say, hey, maybe these kings and queens, they're just like us.  Interesting concept, but I would like liked even a little bit of a plot.

Detours: A Suburban Fairy Tale:  I really enjoyed this one.  It had questions that were raised throughout.  Some of the questions were kind of answered, but the mystery of the characters was kept and relished.  I really enjoyed how this one "ended" - I am impressed with an author who can end a short story well, and this one accomplished it.

Catspaw:  I enjoyed this tale and the overall story that was told.  It is another that felt more classic in tone.  I was a little annoyed while reading it, even though I both appreciated the possible alternative paths and even though I completely understood what the author was doing and why.  I just like reading stories.  Ultimately, after I had read the whole story, however, it WAS complete, a story well told, and an ending that I could appreciate.

- The Wolfman's New Gig:  Cute.  At first I was confused about what was happening, which was intentional and well done.  The progression of the story, the very modern and very real elements of marriage and relationship that were interjected, and the conclusion that took it right back to Grimm were all very well coordinated.  The building up of the characters was expertly done, with every new action taken both a complete surprise and completely expected.  This is another one of the standouts in the anthology.

- Persuasion:  very disturbing.  Definitely a modern, dark twist on the classic tale.  It was well done, but I did not love it.

- Henry's Tale:  I liked this slightly feminist twist on the classic Hansel & Gretel.  It was almost like reading a "this is what REALLY happened" of the story, which seemed to explain the motivations, actions, and perspectives of the original tale even better.  I really liked his Gerta.

- The Storyteller's Jig:  This felt like an intro to a story.  A very interesting story, but just an intro.  At the end of the tale, I was just left wanting to know something, ANYTHING, about what supposedly happened next.  Is the man safe? is he human? is the story good? do kids die? does anything happen???? I felt like there were TOO many questions left unanswered -- to the extent that it just wasn't a story.  As I said, just an intro.  But the writing style was good... otherwise, I wouldn't have any questions, would I...

- Through the Diamond Blues:  This story was a very innocent simple tale.  The "villain" is sweet and innocent, the protagonists are sweet and innocent, and even the "villains" "henchmen" are kind of sweet and innocent.  The complications are easily resolved, and the lessons are easily learned.  I felt that the ending was just a little *too* convenient (can ONE wish include the word "and" in it?), but it was sweet and fine.

- Bring It, Bernadette: Loved it.  At just over a page, this story packed a lot of punch and a lot of twisted psyche in.

- The Library:  Ooh, yes, I also loved this one.  This was another good ambiant, creepy story with lots of questions and few answers.  Although the tale is left incomplete, it is done so at the right time and in the right way so as to leave the reader still thinking about the story, but satisfied.  It was confusing, and weird, and just perfectly intriguing.

- Misery and Blue: eh. This was definitely a modern take on the origin of words.  But it felt a little juvenile.  When I was in elementary school, I was assigned a project to write a fable, and I wrote one that explained the origin of the oceans of the earth, which included crying... This felt a lot like that.  The story was more mature of course, particularly since it involved infidelity and abuse, but I expected something a little more unique.  It was cute, it was fine, just did not really impress.

With regard to the pictures, they were fine - lending some ambiance to the stories.  My favorite by a lot was They Say Once the Trees Begin to Tremble It Is Too Late by Steven Ehret, on page 180.

With regard to the poems, they were also fine - lending some ambiance to the stories.  They were little views into the life of a Grimm character, or a brief explanation, or a slight twist on perspective.  I will add that I particularly liked the snark in Colleen Michaels' The Pea Defends His Position.  I will also add that the Four Grimm Tales, Revisited, by Erin Virgil, was a well-done, interesting twist on the four tales.  Enough said in these four little mini-poems to twist the original stories completely around.