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"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter

Excerpt Opinions

by Lesley M. M. Blume | Manhattan magazine | May 29, 2012

My husband and I are obsessive readers; our library contains thousands of books, and more arrive each week. So I employ a divide-and-conquer strategy: I’ll read a fiction title, followed by nonfiction, then a classic. This summer brings a passel of exciting books in each of these genres. Here are a few standouts.

Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter ($26, Harper)
From the author of The Financial Lives of the Poets comes this tale of a love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962 and resumes in Hollywood 50 years later.

“The sun was high over the coast and hidden by wispy clouds, which flattened the sky and made him feel as if he were under glass. He looked down at the stakes that marked his future tennis court and felt ashamed. … He would still have to blast away at the cliff side with dynamite to flatten the northeast corner [of the court]. He wondered if it were possible to have a smaller tennis court.”

Gainsbourg: The Biography
by Gilles Verlant ($25, TamTam Books)
Following the success of the 2010 film Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, this authoritative biography further illuminates the man heralded upon his death by French president François Mitterrand as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”

“Serge [Gainsbourg] and Yves [Montand] run into each other a few months later on Rue Albert Hirsch… and Serge claims to have arrogantly spat out at Montand: ‘I feel nothing when you sing my songs!’ This is Serge we’re talking about—the guy who has been waiting for three years to get one of his pieces sung by a famous artist—and he tosses this magnificent stroke of luck right onto the trash heap.”

The Last Bohemia: Scenes From the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn
by Robert Anasi ($15, FSG)
This book documents the gentrification of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg—once a ratty cradle of creativity, and now, says Robert Anasi, “a backdrop for neo-bohemian cool and playpen for stroller-pushing trendy parents.”

“The loft was on the top floor of a warehouse, a pauper’s penthouse, and belonged to a dancer, another old classmate of ours. There was no bed, just views of the bridge and the rutilant Manhattan sky. Kelly lit candles and I remember her putting down blankets and us lying on the floor. What happened next was much nicer than a night in the 94th precinct holding cell.” 

James Joyce: A New Biography
by Gordon Bowker ($35, FSG)
Janet Flanner wrote that Joyce’s Ulysses “burst over us… like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like the gift of tongues.” This is the first major Joyce bio in 50 years.

“[Joyce] presented copy no. 1,000 [of Ulysses] to [his wife] Nora who immediately offered to sell it to Arthur Power… a joke which Joyce pretended to find amusing. Although it was widely believed that Nora had never read Ulysses, according to Power it was evident that she had. She admitted to McAlmon that she had read the last pages of the book, adding, ‘I guess the man’s a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, surely!’” 

Home
by Toni Morrison ($24, Knopf)
Morrison’s new novel relays the homecoming of Korean War vet Frank Money to his racism-wracked hometown in Georgia, where he must care for a gravely ill sister and tend to his own psychic wounds.

“Passing through the freezing, poorly washed scenery, Frank tried to redecorate it, mind-painting giant slashes of purple and X’s of gold on hills, dripping yellow and green on barren wheat fields. Hours of trying and failing to recolor the western landscape agitated him, but by the time he stepped off the train he was calm enough. The station noise was so abrasive, though, that he reached for a sidearm. None was there, of course, so he leaned against a steel support until the panic died down.”