Simply Beautiful: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

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     On the rugged, Mediterranean coast of Italy, a land of five towns clings stunningly to the edge of the cliffs;  accessible only by boat, offering fresh seafood pulled daily from the Ligurian sea by men whose families have done the same for centuries and a hiding place from the modern world, the Cinque Terre seems just the place for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to have sought refuge during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome.  In Jess Walter’s sumptuous novel Beautiful Ruins, they do just this.  And the tale of the IT couple’s visit to Porto Vergogna, a lonely innkeeper, a starlet, star-crossed lovers, a wannabe screenwriter (whose big concept is “Donner!,” a movie about the Donner party,) a nauseating Hollywood producer and fifty years of frustrated confusion make the novel one of my top five reads.

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    According to Jess Walter’s website (jesswalter.com), Beautiful Ruins has been recognized by just about everyone as one of the novels of the year 2012:

*Esquire’s Best book of 2012
*NPR-Fresh Air best Novel of 2012
*Audible and Salon best audio book of 2012
*New York Times Notable Book of the Year
*Washington Post Notable Book of the Year
*In UK, Guardian, Times and Sunday Times Best Books of the Year
*Best books of the year: Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, St. Louis Today, Kansas City Star, Goodreads, Hudsons, Barnes and Noble, Amazon

Read the NYT review here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/books/review/beautiful-ruins-a-novel-by-jess-walter.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

   From the first sentence, the reader is immersed in the world of the book.

     The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cover, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pit.  She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head.  All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

     Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream.  Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite:  a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.

     How Pasquale Tursi (proprietor of the ingeniously-named “Hotel Adequate View”) winds up in the office of Hollywood producer Michael Deane some fifty years later must be left to the reader’s own enjoyment.  I won’t spoil a second of it.  I just want to feature one more passage from the book, which I read and re-read and it still makes me snort with laughter.

     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.BeautifulRuins_small-330-exp

     Suffice it to say that, upon meeting Michael for the first time, many people stare open-mouthed, unable to look away from his glistening, vaguely lifeline face.  Sometimes they cock their head to get a better angle, and Michael mistakes their morbid fascination for attraction, or respect or surprise that someone his age could look this good, and it is this basic misunderstanding that causes him to be even more aggressive in fighting the aging process.

     The novel is now available in paperback and I urge you to read it.  Right now.  Read it yourself.  Add it to your book club’s reading list (for next month), recommend it to everyone you know.  It’s just that good.

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My book club read this book in December and in order to tie the holidays and the book together, I presented the Italian Christmas Feast of the Seven Fishes.  You may want to go a bit simpler, but this is what I did, all accompanied by some beautiful Italian wines, of course.

1.  Bruschetta with anchovies (lots of these recipes on foodnetwork.com)

2.  Fried calamari (I ordered this)

3.  Artichoke and shrimp dip

4.  Potatoes topped with caviar and sour creme

5.  Cioppino

6.  Linguine with white clam sauce (I use the recipe on the can of clams!)

7.  Smoked salmon on toast points with cream cheese, capers, diced onions

Artichoke & Shrimp Dip:  1 cup of mayonnaise, 1 cup of parmesan cheese, 1 can of artichoke hearts and 1 cup of baby shrimp.  Put all in mixing bowl, mix until well blended.  Place dip in appropriate size baking dish and bake at 350 for 20 minutes or so, until hot and bubbly.

Potatoes:  Boil small potatoes until tender.  Scoop out top, leaving skin on.  Top with sour cream and a spoonful of caviar.

Cioppino:  Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a large stockpot.  Add 2 chopped medium potatoes, 2 carrots, peeled and chopped, 1 onion chopped and 2 garlic cloves, chopped.  Season with salt and cook on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender.  Then turn the heat to high, add 3/4 cup dry dry Italian Pinot Grigio and deglaze pan, leaving brown bits in.  Cook until most of liquid evaporates.  Add 1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.  Reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cook and cover until the vegetables are tender.  After about 20 minutes, add 1 1/2 pounds of skinless white fish such as halibut, cod or char, cut into 3/4 inch chunks.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through.  Season the stew with salt to taste then drizzle with olive oil and serve.  (Adapted from Giada at Home cookbook by Giada de Laurentiis)

MUSIC

There’s a Cleopatra soundtrack from the 1963 movie with Taylor and Burton available on iTunes that would be really fun.  https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/cleopatra-original-motion/id62874833

If you are doing the book with the Seven Fishes at Christmas, you could also do a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra Christmas album.

MOVIE

A movie is in the works and casting has actually begun.  http://variety.com/2013/film/news/imogen-poots-todd-field-beautiful-ruins-1200821017/  Imogene Poots will play Dee, the American ingenue.  But apparently the rest of the cast hasn’t been announced, or at least I couldn’t find it.

May I suggest:

Claire Silver:  Emily Blunt

Shane Wheeler:  Garrett Hedlund

Pasquale:  I hereby volunteer to go to Italy and conduct the casting search.

Michael Deane:  OH MY this is too fun.  Who to cast in this role?  You know, Tom Cruise did such a great job with this type of character in Tropic Thunder, it would be fun to see him in this type of role.  You absolutely couldn’t cast someone in their seventies — I don’t think.  Michael Douglas?  Bruce Willis?  I would have to go though with Danny DeVito I think.

   In conclusion, oh dear friends, DO READ this book.  You will adore it.

Cheers!

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

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   When I was very young, my mother had a collection of 45s and an old phonograph.   When my sisters and I grew bored with tormenting each other or the guinea pig that tried to hide under the playhouse to get away from us, we would haul out the little record box and turntable and fight over which song to listen to.  One of my favorites was a fabulous song by Ritchie Valens called “Donna.”

I had a girl, Donna was her name.

Since she left me, I’ve never been the same.

But I love that girl.  Donna, where can she be?

(You’re probably singing the refrain to yourself right now:  where can she be?)  Even the boys on the baseball teams that played Babe Ruth at Tates Creek High School’s field would sing “Oh, Donna,” serenading the girl who kept their stats — Donna L.  I don’t know if it changed any of their batting averages for the better, but Donna would blush and seemed to enjoy the song.  Need to hear the whole song for that ear worm to take full effect?  Here you go:

But however much statistician Donna enjoyed the baseball players’ serenades, it was probably not as much as I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch.  Oh Donna indeed.  It is a masterpiece of Dickensian proportions.  In fact, it may very well be Dickensian in plot, character, mood, even setting . . . but I loved it.  Loved it loved it loved it.  With the passion of a thousand white hot suns.  From the moment Theo Decker begins the retrospective tale of his life and how he ended up in Amsterdam at Christmas; cold, alone, bored and ill, I was hooked.  It’s one of those can’t-put-it-down, don’t-want-to-sleep-til-I-finish-reading books.  But at 771 pages, you must, unless you speed-read and miss the gorgeous prose, or can stay up for days on end without sleep (as Theo occasionally manages to do with the help of some not-quite-legal techniques).

The goldfinch of the title is a Carel Fabritius painting and is the last experience Theo shares with the mother he adores.

“It was a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition, and the simplest:  a yellow finch, against a plain, pale background, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle. . . . Something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself — its brightness, its alert watchful expression — made me think of my mother when she was small:  a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.”

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  I am not a Dickens scholar, but I’ve read enough to recognize Donna Tartt’s use of Dickens’ types.  Theo as Oliver Twist; Boris the Artful Dodger; Larry Decker, Theo’s Fagin-like father; Pippa with whom Theo falls madly in love at the age of 13, even her name a nod to Pip’s love Estella in Great Expectations; and Hobie, the genteel, gentle and good likeness of Fezziwig and the like.

The novel ranges from New York’s Park Avenue, to a desolate desert community on the outskirts of Las Vegas, to Amsterdam.  It was recognized on most best of 2013 lists and my commendation is merely added to those.

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Hobie is quite a cook and revels in making tea with jam and toast on occasion.  Theo himself says:  “dinner was the time of day I looked forward to most.  . . . I’d never gotten used to the sadness of having to scrabble around to feed myself at night, sitting on the side of my bed with a bag of potato chips or maybe a dried-up container of rice left over from my dad’s carry out.  By happy contrast, Hobie’s whole day revolved around dinner.  Where shall we eat?  Who’s coming over?  What shall I cook?  Do you like pot-au-feu?  No?  Never had it?  Lemon rice or saffron?  Fig preserves or apricot?”

I’m afraid the time constraints of making a perfect, French pot-au-feu (not to mention the intimidation factor) are a bit beyond my capacity for a book club meeting.  But if you are in the mood, here’s a lovely Springtime Pot-Au-Feu recipe from Chocolate & Zucchini blog:  http://chocolateandzucchini.com/recipes/meat-charcuterie/springtime-pot-au-feu-beef-stew-recipe/

For my book club, I would go with the hand-to-mouth existence of Theo and Boris in Las Vegas but ramp it up a notch.

Potato Chips and Dip — I mix yogurt and cottage cheese with powdered ranch dip

Individual Pizzas — buy the pre-made pizza crusts and then put out an assortment of toppings:  artichoke hearts, goat cheese, turkey pepperoni, arugula, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, diced chicken, roasted red peppers, onions.

The boys drank constantly so anything you want to serve would probably be found in the book.  But I found a recipe for a cocktail called a Goldfinch and I would definitely serve those first.  Here’s the recipe (YUMMY!)

What you need
Image1 1/2 Measures Golden Rum (British/Caribbean Rum)
2 Measures Fresh Pineapple Juice
1/2 Measure Galliano Liqueur
1 Dash Fresh Lime Juice
Champagne
Ice

Mixing
Add all of the ingredients except the champagne to a shaker and shake vigorously for approximately 10-12 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice and add the Champagne. Garnish with pineapple spears and a small pineapple wedge, stir and serve.

This cocktail works equally well with fresh orange juice and/or Prosecco instead of Champagne.

MUSIC

Definitely the Rat Pack.  Vegas baby.  There’s an album recorded in 1963 called Live at the Sands that features Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. and some of their favorite, classic songs.

MOVIE CASTING

This is tough because the movie sweeps through years and Theo, Boris and Pippa grow from 13 year olds to 30 year olds.  As for Larry Decker my pick would be Ryan Gosling, for the washed up actor/gambling failure.  Hobie, wouldn’t it be fun to see Russell Crowe play this, totally against type?  Xandra, Larry’s Vegas girlfriend, Christina Hendrickson with a blonde wig would be perfection.

Enjoy!