Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

ruinsBeautiful Ruins was our last book club read before our summer hiatus. It was also the winner of ‘Best book’ or, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when we vote, ‘book we enjoyed reading most.’ (Thus, ‘worst’ book becomes ‘book we enjoyed reading least.’) It was a close race between Beautiful Ruins and The Children Act, but Walter’s fantastic novel won out in the end.

I think I am going to have a hard time articulating how I feel about this book because it hit a lot of my sweet spots. First of all, part of the novel is set in Italy and anyone who knows me knows that Italy is my dream place. I’ve been twice and often say that some day I will live there…even if it’s just for a few months. The other part of the novel takes place in Hollywood and, okay, I admit it – I love the movie stars. Just ask anyone who was around during the David Boreanaz days…or go further back…the Robby Benson days. Ask my students how often I work Ryan Gosling into the conversation.

Beautiful Ruins follows the fortunes of Pasquale Tursi in Porto Vergogna, a tiny village near the Cinque Terre region of Italy only “it was smaller, more remote and not as picturesque.”

Port Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of a sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.

Pasquale has come back to Porto Vergogna to care for his dying mother and the Hotel Adequate View, and it is there he meets actress Dee Moray, who has come, by mistake, to the Adequate View to rest. She is in Italy to make Cleopatra, the notoriously bad film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

richard and elizabeth

The title’s phony – her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. She tends Michael’s whims. Answers his calls and e-mails, goes for his sandwiches and coffee.

It is not the life she dreamed of when she gave up her doctoral film studies program to make movies. Now she is on the cusp of leaving her job and going to work as a curator for a private film museum.

If you’re wondering how Walter is going to dovetail these two eras, all I can say is “masterfully.” We flip back to 1960’s Italy and recent-day Hollywood and neither story (or character) gets short-shrift. In fact Claire and Pasquale aren’t the only characters who populate this story – even minor characters are fully realized including Pasquale’s elderly aunt Valeria (who provides comic relief), Shane (a screenwriter who comes to Hollywood to pitch the story of cowboy cannibals), Alvis (the failed American writer who comes to Porto Vergogna once a year to work on his novel) and even Daryl, Claire’s hunky porn-addicted boyfriend. Even Michael Deane, slimy as he is, is fun to spend time with.

And what are these Beautiful Ruins? Well, I think that’s probably the reason everyone and their dog was praising this book when it came out in 2012. This is a great story – funny and heartbreaking in equal measure – about big ideas. The people that you meet and the choices that you make are at the very center of this book. But as Alvis says to Dee, “No one gets to tell you what your life means.”

I loved this book so much.

Highly recommended.

Jacob Have I Loved – Katherine Paterson

jacobKatherine Peterson’s novel Jacob Have I Loved was a Newberry Medal winner in 1981. Although this book has been on my radar for many years, I was perhaps just a teensy bit too old for it when it was published in 1980, so I didn’t read it then. It is a pretty famous book though, and I figured I should read it. So I did.

The title of the book comes from the bible, Romans 9:13: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The quote refers to the story of siblings Jacob and Esau and the novel tells the story of siblings Sara Louise and her twin sister, Caroline. The girls live on Rass Island, off the coast of Maryland. Their father is a fisherman; their mother a former school teacher. Their crotchety paternal grandmother also lives with them.

Sara Louise, or Wheeze, is the narrator. She is an adult when the novel opens, returning to Rass Island where her mother still lives. “…it is a pure sorrow to me,” she says, “that, once my mother leaves there will be no one left with the name of Bradshaw. But there were only the two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay.”

The bulk of the story takes place in 1941 and the years that follow. Wheeze, 13, and her best friend, Call, 14, spend their days hunting for crabs. Their little island is isolated and days there are marked by routine – fisherman out on the water early and home late, school and church, the occasional ferry trip to the mainland. Paterson deftly creates a world that will be – for most of its young readers –  a place long ago and far away.

While readers may not recognize the time or place, they will most definitely recognize the friction between Wheeze and her sister, the beautiful and musically talented, Caroline. A sickly baby, Wheeze feels that Caroline has been coddled all her life and that in “the story of my sister’s life…I… was allowed a very minor role.”

There is a rare snapshot of the two of us sitting on the front stoop the summer we were a year and a half old. Caroline is tiny and exquisite, her blonde curls framing a face that is glowing with laughter, her arms outstretched to whoever is taking the picture. I am hunched there like a fat dark shadow, my eyes cut sideways toward Caroline, thumb in my mouth…

Wheeze is resentful and jealous, even though Caroline never really seems to give her any reason to be. It’s one of the lovely things about this book, which is remarkable in its stillness. Wheeze isn’t particularly likable, but you grow to love her just the same.

Jacob Have I Loved is without the bells and whistles that marks much of the YA fiction out there today. I would suggest that this is a book better suited to middle school readers, but I think anyone who has ever shared close quarters with a sibling would enjoy this story.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle_and_dante Aristotle (Ari for short) is a 15-year-old Mexican American living in Texas in 1987. He’s bored and miserable and pretty much hates his life.

Dante is also 15, and also Mexican-American, but he’s “funny and focused and fierce.” Ari says “there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you. How could a guy live without some meanness?”

Aristotle and Dante meet at the local pool where Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim. “All that summer, we swam and read comics and read books and argued about them.” It’s the beginning of beautiful friendship, something that Ari seems to desperately need.

Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that. Maybe it had something to do with my birth order. You know, I think that was part of it. I didn’t like the fact that I was a pseudo only child. I didn’t know how else to think of myself. I was an only child without actually being one. That sucked.

Ari has older twin sisters and an older brother who is in prison. He was born after his father returned from serving in Vietnam.

Sometimes I think my father has all these scars. On his heart. In his head. All over. It’s not such an easy thing to be the son of a man who’s been to war.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming of age story. It’s a story about fathers and sons and mothers and sons. It’s about sacrifice and loyalty. It’s a story about friendship.

I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.

It’s a love story.

I was the age of these characters somewhere around 1976. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Okay, looking back – of course I did, but we didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t acknowledged. As far as I know, they weren’t out. I am profoundly grateful as a teacher and a parent, just as a human being, that books like this exist. Alire Sáenz has written a story about boys who are smart and fragile and flawed. I admit it – I got teary a few times reading this book.

What are the secrets of the universe? As Ari discovers “we all fight our own private wars.”

This is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it.

This Is Not A Test – Courtney Summers

testThis is my second book by Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers and, that’s it:  I am a fan. I previously read Some Girls Are and I was totally taken with its unflinching look at what it is to be a teenage girl. It isn’t pretty, people.

This Is Not A Test has won a slew of awards including being named a  2014 OLA White Pine Honour Book, 2013 ALA/YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, 2013 ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, and  a  Kirkus New & Notable Books for Teens: June 2012. Trust me, the book delivers on every possible level.

Sloane lives in with her father  in Cortege. Her older sister, Lily, has left home and taken a piece of Sloane with her. It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Sloane’s father is abusive. She tells us he burns the toast because she deserves it and when he reaches out to examine her face, Sloane flinches before she can catch herself. It’s no wonder that Lily has left, but the plan was that they were supposed to go together.

Based on the first couple of pages, it would be reasonable  to think that This Is Not A Test is a story about abuse, but you’d be so wrong. As Sloane is contemplating the burnt toast and the note her father has written to explain her absence from school, their front door starts to “rattle and shake.”  Someone is screaming for help and it is such a creepy event that as Sloane’s father heads to the door to investigate Sloane notes that he hesitates and she has “never seen him hesitate” in her life.

When Sloane’s father returns to the kitchen he’s screaming that they have to leave and he’s covered in blood. And then all hell breaks loose, literally.

Seven days later Sloane finds herself barricaded in Cortege High School with five other students: student body president, Grace, and her twin brother, Trace; Rhys, a senior;  some-time drug dealer and some-time boyfriend to her sister Lily, Cary and Harrison, a freshman who can’t seem to stop crying. The high school offers the six teens sanctuary while they wait for the help the feel sure will come. Unfortunately, the only announcement on the radio proclaims that “This is not a test.”

As the days drone on, Sloane and the rest of the trapped teens struggle to stay calm. They jockey for position, alliances are formed and they wonder what has happened to the rest of the world. It all makes for a riveting psychological drama because Summers has an ear for how teens speak and she doesn’t shy away from the fact that this scenario is relentlessly grim. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Except for the feeling fine part.

Sloane narrates this story and she is a sympathetic character. Even if she could get back home, what does she have to return to? No one knows about the abuse she suffered and without Lily she feels as though she has very little to live for. Thus, she has nothing to lose.

This Is Not A Test is my very first zombie novel. I’ve pretty much avoided them until now because, truthfully, they don’t really interest me all that much. If they were all as good as this one, though, I’d be a fan.

Apparently there is an e-sequel available, but truthfully, I thought the ending to This Is Not A Test was pretty damn perfect.

Highly recommended.

The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

historyWhen Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love was published in 2005 it took the literary world by storm (though not like the storm that is raging outside as I write this, cozy in bed with my cat and my tea.) Everyone loved this book: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail. It was also the winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish fiction and BMOC’s Best Literary Fiction. The book has been on my tbr shelf forever (emphasis on the ‘ever’) and so I chose it as my pick for book club.

The History of Love is the title of the book Leo Gursky wrote for the love of his life, Alma. Alma flees Poland just before the invasion of the Nazis and when Leo finally makes his way to America, he discovers that not only does he have a son, but that Alma has married someone else.

…he stood in her living room listening to all this. He was twenty-five years old. He had changed so much since he last saw her and now part of him wanted to laugh a hard, cold laugh….She said: You stopped writing. I thought you were dead. …At last he managed three words: Come with me….Three times he asked her. She shook her head. I can’t, she said. And so he did the hardest thing he had ever done in his life: he picked up his hat and walked away.

Now Leo is at the end of his life. “When they write my obituary,” he says, “it will say LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.” Leo just wants to be seen. “Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor,” he says. His voice, one part resigned, one part hopeful is one of the novel’s greatest charms.

The other charming voice belongs to fifteen-year-old Alma – not the love of Leo’s life, but that of a teenager who lives in Brooklyn, with her widowed mother (who works as a translator) and younger brother, Bird. Her name is no coincidence: she was actually named after the character in Leo’s book The History of Love. This is where things get a bit complicated and I’m not going to bother drawing the chart required to understand it all – trust me, it’ll all sort itself out.

Alma is on a mission to find her mother a boyfriend. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when Alma was just seven and Alma feels as though her mother has been sad ever since. Alma is trying to navigate adolescence, her mother’s sadness, the fact that her brother thinks he’s the Messiah and her first love, too. Then (and I’m going to say it, girls!) by a weird twist of fate, The History of Love arrives for Alma’s mother to translate and the threads of Alma and Leo’s stories start to reach towards each other.

I really enjoyed The History of Love. There were some moments in the book that literally stopped me in my tracks. For example, Leo says: “All the times I have suddenly realized that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist.” Those of us who have lost our parents will recognize that feeling (although perhaps never articulated) all too well.

This is one of those books, I think, which needs some time to sit in your belly. It is a book about connection – lovers, siblings, friends, parent and child. Leo, at the end of his life (which some might argue he wasted by loving someone he couldn’t have and not pursuing a relationship with his son) has all the insights of a person who has made errors in judgment, but is somehow still open to the world. Ultimately, The History of Love is about the desire we all have to be seen and understood and often the smallest gesture can have the biggest impact.

Highly recommended.

Charm & Strange – Stephanie Kuehn

charmWow. This William C. Morris Debut Award winner has it all. Charm & Strange, the first novel by Stephanie Kuehn, is amazing. I read a lot of YA fiction and this book is just a cut above. Way above.

Win has attended a boarding school in New England since he was twelve. A top-ranked tennis player, Win once hit an opponent across the face with his tennis racket.

He’s a lot of things. He is prone to motion sickness. He’s cold. Dangerous. Broken.

Into his life comes Jordan. She’s the new girl and she doesn’t know anything about Win and that’s pretty much the way he wants to keep it. They meet in the woods. Win has just been attacked by a couple of school bullies and Jordan has witnessed the whole thing. She asks why he didn’t fight back. Win never fights back because “That wouldn’t be fair.”

Their relationship is tentative because Win tends to stay away from people. His only other ‘friend’  is Lex, his former roommate, but even their relationship is strained.

Charm & Strange is a compelling story about dark secrets and how they can twist lives. Kuehn skillfully pulls the reader along a path that is almost too painful to read about, but she does it so well that you just can’t stop turning the pages. The novel is layered: Sixteen-year-old Win at school is told in first person sections called ‘matter’ and ten-year-old  Drew at home with his family (first person narrative in sections called ‘antimatter’). Win and Drew are the same person, and the reason for the name change will be revealed in due course. Win’s family: professor father, depressed shadow of a mother, older brother, Keith, and younger sister, Siobhan, are important characters is Win’s story.

This novel is so cleverly constructed; every page offers just a little more of Win’s story. Win is convinced he is about to change and not in a good way.

Change is imminent.

It has to be.

“Yeah, well, have fun with that,” Lex says. “Moon or no moon, I don’t plan on being anywhere near you.”

“Good,” I snarl, and he laughs even harder than before. My hands curl into fists. I want to shut him up.

Lex notices and skitters toward the door.

“Hey, Win,” he says as he leaves, “maybe it’s your head that’s broken, not your body. Ever think about that?”

Charm & Strange is a terrific book. I am having a hard time articulating how amazing it is. It is almost relentlessly bleak and yet as I closed the final pages I felt confident that despite Win’s dark past, the beast within would be tamed. For mature YA readers, Charm & Strange is one of the best of the bunch.

Highly recommended.

When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead

book-whenyoureachmeRebecca Stead’s Newberry Award winning novel, When You Reach Me, is a puzzle of a book. And I should note that the Newberry isn’t the only prize this book received – there’s a list of twenty other prizes and distinctions this book has received. This book has some serious pedigree. It’s a middle grade book, but I’m telling you – those middle grade kids better be on their toes because this book is a puzzle.

Twelve-year-old Miranda lives in a New York City apartment with her legal secretary mom. Sometimes her mom’s boyfriend, Richard, is there. That’s okay because “Richard looks the way I picture guys on sailboats – tall, blonde and very tucked-in, even on weekends.”

Miranda’s best friend, Sal, lives one floor below Miranda. For as long as Miranda can remember it’s been Sal and Miranda, Miranda and Sal. Until it wasn’t.

It happened in the fall, when Sal and I still walked home from school together every single day: one block from West End Avenue to Broadway, one block from Broadway to Amsterdam, past the laughing man on our corner, and then half a block to our lobby door.

Miranda has been receiving mysterious notes, notes that seem to predict the future. The notes seem to know an awful lot about Miranda and her life. And then the spare key to the apartment goes missing. And while all this is happening Miranda has to manage her estranged relationship with Sal and all the other pre-teen drama a twelve-year-old must face.

When You Reach Me is a delightful hybrid. It’s one part coming-of-age novel, one part science fiction, one part homage to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and all parts fabulous.

Rats Saw God – Rob Thomas

ratsRob Thomas shares his name with the lead singer of Matchbox 20, and although they are both writers, this Rob Thomas is better known for his television show Veronica Mars than his hit songs.

Rats Saw God is a Catcher in the Rye-esque coming of age novel about Steve York, a high school senior who ends up in his guidance counselor’s office trying to explain why he’s flunking out when his SAT scores are through the roof. The fact that he’s regularly stoned might also be a contributing factor, but in any case, Steve finds himself sitting in Mr. DeMouy being offered a cup of tea. DeMouy tells him that at the end of the semester he’ll be one English credit short.  DeMouy makes him an offer: write 100 typed pages – about anything. If he does that, DeMouy will make sure Steve graduates.

When Mom and the astronaut called Sarah and me into our Cocoa Beach, Florida (see I Dream of Jeanie) dining room to tell us they were getting a divorce, I admit I was shocked. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but the warning signs had been such a part of the status quo.

Thus begins Steve’s paper. It’s the story of his junior year. After the divorce, he moves with his dad, “that barely animate statue,” to Houston and his sister, Sarah, twelve at the time, moves to San Diego with her mom. In the summer, they swapped. Steve and his father have an estranged relationship:

He would leave for work before I woke but would provide a list of chores by the sink, paper clipped to a ten-dollar bill, which was to provide me both lunch and dinner.

At school, Steve befriends Doug, a skateboarder, and that friendship leads him to Dub, and the people who eventually become GOD, the Grace Order of Dadaists.  Dadaists, Steve explains ” were painters, writers, sculptors in the twenties who believed in art without coherent meaning. Nothing they did had to be justified. The more abstract, the weirder something was, the better.”

Rats Saw God is funny and smart  and it is a delight to watch Steve try to figure out the world, even when he has to face the truth that sometimes people will disappoint you. Of course, sometimes they’ll surprise you, too.

The Worst Thing She Ever Did – Alice Kuipers

worstthing Sophie releases the details of the worst thing she ever did through journal entries and this turns out to be a blessing and a curse in Alice Kuiper’s second YA novel, The Worst Thing She Ever Did. It’s a blessing because we get to hear Sophie’s authentic teenage voice and a curse for the same reason. Teenagers are, by definition, insular and of course no where is this made more apparent than in the pages of a teenager’s diary.

Sophie is keeping this journal at the request of her therapist, Lynda, who tells her that “Writing in here will help you remember.” Sophie doesn’t want to remember, though, and The Worst Thing She Ever Did  takes its own sweet time revealing what it is Sophie is so desperately trying to forget. I’m not suggesting that Sophie’s tragedy is not worth the effort, just that Sophie often teeters on the edge of coming across more like a petulant child than the survivor of a horrific act of violence.

But maybe that is part of what would make this story so compelling to young adults. I think they will recognize themselves in the pages of Kuiper’s novel. Here is a girl who is living her life. Her sister, Emily, is home from art school and Sophie doesn’t varnish their sibling relationship. Sometimes Emily really pisses her off. Sometimes Sophie feels like Emily is the favourite child. Mostly though, Sophie misses her older sister and it is clear that something horrible and unspeakable has happened.

Sophie’s mother is coping with the loss as badly as Sophie is, but the two of them don’t talk about it. In fact, sometimes they “circled each other like cats.” Sophie pretends not to hear her mother crying. There is no joy in the house they share.

There’s no joy for Sophie at school, either. Everything is different. “Everything going on around me – the others, the noise, the ring of the bell to get to class – was so loud it gave me a headache.” Sophie’s best friend, Abigail, has moved on.  Sophie tries to navigate the aftermath of the tragedy (which is only alluded to until almost the end of the novel) and work her way through being a teenager with varying degrees of success. There’s school to contend with and fractured friendships and boys – one boy in particular – and her mother. All of these elements would have been enough for a YA novel and a half, but Kuipers ups the ante here.

If some of the reconciliations seem a tad trite at the novel’s end (I wasn’t really fussy about the subplot concerning Abigail), they don’t really detract from the story’s larger theme: healing takes time. Kuiper’s is a lovely writer and although my feelings about The Worst Thing She Ever Did are similar to my feelings about 40 Things I Want To Tell You, I still think Kuipers is worth checking out.