The Outlaw Life

running, reading, blogging, loving

[19] Beautiful Ruins

beautiful ruins

Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as Ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments changes, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the Epic Poem stretched for centuries as far as the world.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (who is, actually, a dude, contrary to my initial belief) is a contender for the 2013 Tournament of Books – and the second Tournament book I’ve read, the other one being The Fault in Our Stars. No lie – I loved this one WAY better than TFIOS, but I think I might be in the minority on this one (or at least, don’t think that Beautiful Ruins will end up beating out TFIOS in the long run).

This story is a story about so many things. It flashes back in forth in time from Italy in the 60’s to Hollywood in the present day, and it offers such great commentary on things like reality TV, our obsession with movie stars, the magic of the early movies, as well as larger issues like regret, doubt, love, and creativity. Plot wise, we follow both Italian hotelier Pasquale as he meets, falls in love with, and loses a woman he knows only as Dee Moray. Dee Moray who, for a brief period of time, has an affair with Richard Burton and is starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Flash forward to the 21st century and we’re with Claire, production assistant to aging and desperate producer Michael Deane, the ‘Deane of Hollywood’. She’s about to quit, betting fate that unless one last good movie pitch walks in – enter Shane Wheeler, who sets in motion a chain of events that reunites Dee Moray and Pasquale almost 40 years after they saw each other, a chain that effects ever character involved, with beautiful language and a plot that pushes forward.

But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos– we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short car rides and regional jet lags– four states and twelve hundred miles traversed in an afternoon– 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.

To be honest, there were some slower points in the novel, and while I enjoyed the different media included in the book (there is the discarded first chapter from Michael Deane’s memoir, as well as the first chapter of a book by aging writer Alvis Bender, and, of course, the screen pitch for the movie Donner! (a hopelessly depressing movie about the Donner party that Shane Wheeler brings to pitch to Michael Deane), sometimes they felt a bit jerky in their transitions between these portions and the narrative flow of the other chapters. I also had some issues with characters (Michael Deane is reprehensible, and I felt that some of the characters stories lines overlapped in a way that seemed too fortuitous, not to mention the sheer cast of characters that Jess isn’t afraid to return to), but on the whole I thought that this book was a really great social commentary on the way we’ve changed the way we view our entertainers and the world in which we live, entertainment wise. I felt like it was one of the better contemporary novels I’ve read in quite some time, and it left me feeling excited about diving in to the rest of the Tournament book list!

Rating: Hell yeah!

PS: If you’re interested in seeing even more discussion of the Tournament of Books books, then I urge you to check out Book Riot’s commentary on the competition, especially the discussion of Beautiful Ruins that they did!

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January Short Story: “Paper Menagerie”

origami animals

I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring. ‘Zhe jiao zhèzhi,’ Mom said. This is called origami. I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

If you guys will recall, one of my goals for reading in 2013 is to read more short fiction – I’m beginning to write more and more short fiction, and I love the beauty that tends to hide in so many short treasures, so I’m looking forward to exploring more than just the short stories I read in high school. I also want to read more globally. So, imagine my UTTER DELIGHT when Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness over at Books on the Nightstand decided to declare 2013 their year of the short story as well! Part of their short story project involves featuring a different short story every month, and the story for January is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (which, my lucky dears, can also read online here, which I of course recommend you go do IMMEDIATELY!)

“The Paper Menagerie” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2011 and is the first work of any length to have ever won all three major science fiction awards – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. It’s a novel about imagination and friendship, about American culture and Chinese culture, about the way kids relate to their parents and the way that, as we age, our current self relates to all our former selves. I will admit, the first time I read through the story I didn’t really pick up on the science fiction/fantasy aspects of this story (bonus, for those of you who might find the genre titles a little off-putting) and it read to me much more like Marquez, or any of the other Latin-American magical realists. But I’m not sure that it’s easy to draw the line between when ‘magical realism’ ends and ‘fantasy’ starts, and furthermore, I don’t think it’s the fantasy parts of this story that give it the take-away. I think it’s the very-much-so real and human parts that pulled me back to this story for multiple readings.

Every once in a while I would see her at the kitchen table studying the plain side of a sheet of wrapping paper. Later, a new paper animal would appear on my nightstand and try to cuddle up with me. I caught them, squeezed them until the air went out of them, and then stuffed them away in the box in the attic.

Which of us, at one time or another, hasn’t thought that our parent’s didn’t understand us, and if only the could or would see things our way, then they would finally ‘get it’ and things will be better. I find this dynamic so much more pronounced in cross-cultural or multi-generational immigrant stories, and I think that the pull of that here in Ken’s story really just pops off the page. By the time we get to the end of the story, we, along with the narrator, see what true magic Mom possessed, and what kind of story it take to bring a Chinese woman to a Connecticut suburb. The story plays really well the concept of language, and whether or not the language you can speak with your lips is a vital or as necessary as the one you speak with your heart. I walked away from the first reading of the story feeling profoundly sad, but profoundly grateful that I feel I understand my parents, and they understand me, pretty damn well. Still, I had to wonder – what don’t I know about them, and what may I not know for a very long time?

Rating: OMFGZ!

PS: Wanting more Ken Liu (I know I was after I finished!)? Try “The Illusionist”, “Memories of my Mother”, or “The Box that Eats Memories”

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