Day 399: Beautiful Ruins

Cover for Beautiful RuinsAt times I wasn’t sure how much I liked this novel, whether it wasn’t going to wrap its many threads into too neat a package. It does wrap things up, but ultimately in a satisfying way.

The novel begins in 1962, when Pasquale Tursi is a young man. He dreams of turning his very small Italian seaside village into a tourist attraction, so he is futilely trying to create a beach on a small strip of waterfront when a boat pulls in. It is carrying Dee Moray, an American actress who has been working on the troubled set of the movie Cleopatra. She has fallen ill and has come to Porto Vergogna to wait for her lover at Pasquale’s hotel, the Hotel Adequate View. Pasquale is immediately smitten.

In present-day Los Angeles, Claire Silver is contemplating leaving what she thought was her dream job, as chief development assistant for the legendary film producer Michael Deane. Claire’s vision for the job had been that she would help develop many exciting projects, but unfortunately for her, Deane hadn’t produced a hit in years until Hookbook, a TV “reality” show, like Facebook for dating. Since then, she has spent her time listening to pitches for sleazy reality programs.

This day might be her last Wild Pitch Wednesday, when anyone who can get an appointment can pitch her an idea. If she takes the new job she’s been offered, she’ll return to film archiving–for the Church of Scientology.

Shane Wheeler is on his way from Portland, Oregon, to present an idea at Wild Pitch Wednesday. A failed novelist, he has decided to trying pitching an idea for a movie about the Donner Party. On the way into the building, he encounters Pasquale, who has come all the way from Italy to try to find Dee Moray. Pasquale’s only lead is an ancient business card he got from Michael Deane, who was an assistant on the movie at the time, taking care of problems such as those posed by the scandalous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Shane, Claire, and Michael Deane soon find themselves involved in helping Pasquale find Dee.

These are only a few of the characters we encounter as the story moves backwards and forwards in time, moves from person to person in point of view, and takes us from rural Italy to Rome to the inner circles of Hollywood to the Fringe Festival of Edinburgh to an amateur theatre performance in Idaho. On the way we are entertained by wry observations on the Hollywood film business and the music business, and the straight narrative style is carried forward by partial movie scripts, acts from plays, pitches, pseudo-pitches, a chapter from a novel, and some brief notes.

At times knowing, at times amusing, at times sweet, Beautiful Ruins is an engaging postmodern love story and commentary on the entertainment industry.

Day 241: True Grit

Cover for True GritBest Book of the Week!
After the Coen brothers version of True Grit came out a couple of years ago, I became curious about the book. If you have seen that version of the movie, it is almost identical to the book and is much more faithful to it than the version from 1969 starring John Wayne.

For those who are not familiar with the plot, 14-year-old Mattie Ross travels into Indian Territory intending to track down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, a hired man who killed Mr. Ross for his extra horse. She looks for the U.S. marshall with the most grit and is pointed to the drunken Rooster Cogburn, who is reluctant to take on the job. She also meets a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf who is after Chaney for the murder of a Texas judge. Mattie is determined that the villain will hang for the murder of her father.

What makes True Grit unusual is the portrait of Mattie through her own words. She is indeed a unique character in fiction, scrappy, opinionated, tight with her money, not to be cheated, not to be turned from her self-imposed task, and tough as nails. Her narration drags us into the story and won’t let us go until it is over. This will be a quick read, because you won’t be able to put the book down.

The characters also speak in a stylized way using old-fashioned dialect that seems oddly formal and elaborate to our ears. It is expertly reproduced in the more recent movie.

If I can combine a book review and movie reviews, I have to say, “Sorry, John Wayne fans.” The Coen brothers movie starring Jeff Bridges is much better. I rented the 1969 version shortly after seeing the other movie and was surprised to see the contrast. Not only has the 1969 version been bowdlerized a bit, but the difference lies principally in the atmosphere created and the acting. The older movie is shot in standard western territory, probably in the hills of California, while the newer one is shot in a bleak landscape that makes us feel the danger and solitude.

As far as acting is concerned, Glenn Campbell as LaBeouf is pathetic as an actor, stiff and awkward. LaBeouf in the more recent version is played by Matt Damon, and I didn’t even recognize him for quite some time, so much does he submerge himself in his role. Although years ago I thought Kim Darby was good as Mattie, Hailee Steinfeld, acting at a younger age, is amazing. The older movie also minimizes but still fails to carry off the unusual style of dialog, coming off as stilted, whereas the newer movie embraces it.

Day 67: Life Itself: a Memoir

Cover for Life ItselfWriters of memoirs and biographies have the same difficult problem to deal with. There is a fine line between giving too much detail for the work to be interesting or not telling enough. (I once read a biography of Aldous Huxley written by his niece that told everything he did every single day but gave absolutely no insight into him as a person, for example, his opinions or the conversations he had with other people.) When you are writing a memoir, you have the additional difficulty of drawing the line between what should remain private and keeping readers’ interest.

In reading Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s memoir, I admit to feeling a little frustrated at times about the level of information provided while at the same time recognizing Ebert’s intent to be open. I certainly wouldn’t want to read a tell-all, because I think the world is unfortunately losing its sense of privacy, but although his memoir forthrightly confronts some issues like alcoholism in the family and his own physical problems, it seems to skip over certain periods of his life.

Ebert chooses an unusual organizational approach to his memoir. Instead of going chronologically (although the book is roughly chronological), he writes each chapter on a different topic, as if it were a series of essays. And perhaps the book originated with some of the blog entries and articles he has been writing for years. This approach made it sometimes repetitive and sometimes seem like little more than impressions and lists of things and people. Of course, it has some delightful chapters, especially the nostalgic ones about his youth.

Perhaps because Ebert is trying to protect other people’s privacy, aside from his family he hasn’t written very much about ordinary people in his adult life but a lot about the famous ones, which gives a bit of an impression that Ebert is a name-dropper (even though I don’t think he is). For example, although the information about his adult ordinary life is limited (though he writes a lot more about his life since his illness), the book contains complete chapters about famous people he interviewed only once or twice. You can’t help having the impression, time after time, that Ebert has really gotten a kick out of hanging out with famous people.

Again, this skewing gives me another reason to suspect that many of these chapters originated as blog entries and articles he has written over the years. Because of this aspect of the book, it may be more likely to appeal to people who are fascinated by everyone in show business than those like me who think famous people are just ordinary people who happen to be famous and wish everyone would leave them alone.

(As sort of an anti-intuitive “proof” of this idea, I point out the reviews on Amazon. The people who disliked the book criticize it for spending too much time on his childhood and youth, which I thought was the interesting part, and not enough time talking about famous people. In other words, they want even more information about famous people than he provided, whereas I wanted more about him as a person. Perhaps they don’t understand the point of a memoir.)

The chapters on Gene Siskel and Ebert’s wife Chaz are touching. The book is, of course, very well written. We have a lot of sympathy for Ebert’s condition–a talker who is unable talk–and come away from the book believing he is handling it with dignity and an amazing optimism. My overall impression of Ebert from this book was that he went through a lot of his life being pleased with himself for his own intelligence (and must have been extremely annoying to some of his teachers in school and professors in college) and the luck he has had in his career, but that–as he himself admits–he has finally learned later in life about what is most important.

This review sounds like I did not enjoy the book. I enjoyed it but also found it frustrating at the same time.