Books for the beach, the backyard or an air-conditioned room

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful RuinsThere’s still plenty of summer left and, with it, a chance to drink in the great weather (or hide in the air-conditioning) along with lots of good books. Here are some I read in the last month or so.

“Leaving the World” by Douglas Kennedy (2009) is just a marvelous read. I loved his “State of the Union” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.” He writes quite knowledgeably about women and “Leaving the World” is another portrait of a beautifully drawn woman, Jane Howard, told in the first person. We follow her as a 13-year-old of unhappy parents (causing her to proclaim she will never marry or have children) to a grad student having an affair with her married advisor and then into a relationship and motherhood. But, when a tragedy causes her to “leave the world,” her journey back is thrilling, sometimes frightening, but always fascinating.

A recent choice for my book club was “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn (2012). I’m not sure how this thriller stayed on the top ten best-seller list as long as it did, except it’s a good book to talk about. It seemed as if she designed a really clever story, rather than wrote one. About halfway through the book I was ready to quit because it was boring, and then the surprise was sprung and you had to read to the end. I felt manipulated; however, the writing is good and the story does give you something to think about.

“Doc” by Mary Doria Russell (2005) is about a period of the Old West I always found fascinating. I’ve read quite a few books about the Earps, Doc Holliday and Deadwood, and this historical novel about John Henry Holliday’s life is one of the best. She starts off with a roster of characters in the book, putting those who are fictional in italics. I liked that. She needed those characters to move the story along, but you still get the full impact of the people who lived, loved, fought and died during Doc’s tumultuous life. The book doesn’t cover the events in Tombstone or the gunfight at the OK Corral. She obviously resents that Doc was reduced to a sidekick of the Earps (and other books cover that event pretty thoroughly anyway).

“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter (2012). This was a delight. Funny, wry, satirical, romantic and thoughtful, it moves from a remote coastal village in Italy to Hollywood, Idaho and Rome and from the 1960s to the present. Cast members range from a lonely innkeeper in that tiny village and an actress who finds her way there to an inebriated Richard Burton, who is filming “Cleopatra” in Italy, and sundry Hollywood types.

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls (2005) was just riveting. Another book club selection, I wasn’t thrilled it was a memoir. But, I couldn’t put it down. My reaction ranged from horror to fascination, and I read it in a weekend. The events of Walls’ childhood with two massively selfish, dysfunctional parents couldn’t restrain her sense of hope and self-reliance. She and her siblings survived hunger, neglect, cold and lack of any parental guidance; three of the four going on to become successful adults even as their parents became homeless in New York City.

“The Black Tower” by Louis Bayard (2008) is historical fiction, one of my favorites. It takes place in Paris during and after the French Revolution. Vidocq is the first real detective in 1818. His methods and disguises are the scourge of Paris’ criminal underworld and now he is on the trail of a murderer. Hector Carpentier, a medical student, is dragged into the case because his name and address were on a piece of paper in the dead man’s pocket. The two men will be swept up in a mystery involving the dauphin, survivors of the Terror, and Hector’s father, a doctor who treated the prince during his captivity. What really happened to the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? A very enjoyable read. I’m now reading another of his period mysteries, this one set at West Point in 1830, where one of the cadets is Edgar Allan Poe.

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