I'm not really sure why I went into this novel feeling slightly prejudicial.
Jess Walter is from one of my favourite places in the world: Washington StI'm not really sure why I went into this novel feeling slightly prejudicial.
Jess Walter is from one of my favourite places in the world: Washington State. That alone should recommend him. I think maybe I was slightly put off from reading Beautiful Ruins because I waited too long to do so. The book was published back in 2012, and I heard so much about it back then that I wanted to read it, but then I didn't and experienced that inundation from NPR and the NYT and really, every literary source I follow. When that happens and I haven't managed to read the book during it's initial celebratory release time, my brain starts whispering to me that it really can't be that great, that it's overhyped, over-exposed.
But a sweet friend gave me the book for Christmas, and because he liked it so much. I was visiting him last month, so I felt like I had to finally read it.
And I'm so glad I did.
Whew, there's a lot of slander here, for both the imaginary and real-life (Richard Burton) characters. While reading I had a lot of questions like, "Wait, is Richard Burton still alive? Was he really that much of an ass?" And since Richard Burton is dead - thanks, Google! - (I'm not all that up on celebrity-alive-or-not-statuses), "Could Richard Burton's estate sue over a book like this?"
And I liked everything: the settings (Cinque Terre, Los Angeles, Washington state...), the characters, the writing.
But my favourite thing about Beautiful Ruins?
Nothing ended in the expected, Hollywood sort of way. Okay, one of the relationships sort of did (but only after deviating for several years into the unexpected), and it was the one you most hoped to end in that way. We are introduced to meet-cutes in the typical sort of way, expect grand, deep romances out of others, expect a particular jerk to keep being a jerk, which he mostly does, but then also surprises us slightly.
Will absolutely be reading more of Jess Walter. ...more
Despite the size of this book (a smaller hardback just brushing 300 pages) and despite my earnest attempt to devote time to it (as necessitated by reaDespite the size of this book (a smaller hardback just brushing 300 pages) and despite my earnest attempt to devote time to it (as necessitated by reading it for a final project for math class), it seemed to take forever to get through it. And I cheated.
I found this a frustrating narrative. I was enthralled by the personal and professional details regarding Leonardo but skimmed through pages of math far beyond my comprehension. I don't pretend to be anywhere near competent in math but I've discovered in this class that, given time and a good teacher, I can understand concepts pretty well. This book seems to market itself (and is categorized in the library) primarily as biographical, then art, then science. This made me approach it feeling like, sure, there's going to be some math in here and I'm going to have to deal with that but sort of assumed (to my fault) that given the apparent mainstream targeting that it would be at least comprehensible. About a quarter of the way through, despite reading examples multiples times in an attempt to understand them, I began to believe that even my mathematically and scientifically minded friends would have some difficulty following it. This made it more difficult to understand the general concept of the golden ratio and at about page 200, I put the book down, went to Wikipedia, and understood the whole concept better just by reading the first paragraph on that page.
Also, it feels really cobbled together. For the second half, I skimmed through it, looking for the pertinent parts I needed for my project and details about Leonardo, which I always find fascinating. I get the sense that the author is a great artist and a great scientist and probably even a very good writer but the book seemed like he worked on different parts of the whole - concepts and historical aspects linked to both Leonardo and the golden ratio - but then just kind of them threw them together instead of forming a more comprehensive narrative. I found myself reading things towards the end about which I kept thinking, "Well, why didn't he explain that earlier?"
I think dumbed down a bit for a more general audience and with a better editor for the general map of the book, this book would have found a wider audience. If I had picked it up for the Leonardo aspect alone as pleasure reading and not for primarily a school project, I would have abandoned it far earlier. As it was, I still couldn't bring myself to read the whole second half. I'm glad the book was written; I love reading books that combine two of my pleasures - art and science - it just feels like it could have been better executed. ...more
It seems blasphemous to give a book which has been personally autographed by the author three stars instead of five. Four stars seemed quite possibleIt seems blasphemous to give a book which has been personally autographed by the author three stars instead of five. Four stars seemed quite possible but considering that I skimmed the last couple of chapters, I'm settling on three.
I did have some of the same complaints about this book as other reviewers such as Mayes and her husband always staying in expensive places and even moving when the places did not meet their high expectations. However, when I thought about it I realized that I have little room to criticize. If I had the kind of money they seem to have, I would stay in the nicer places when possible and I would definitely eat the gourmet meals.
Some people seem critical of Mayes because she has the money to simply travel but I can find no fault in this. We all have certain priorities in life. I cannot count the times that I have chosen to spend whatever money I can scrape together - after sacrifices in other areas of life - on a trip only to have a friend/relative/neighbor snidely say, "Wow, wish I could afford to travel like you", as they climb into their new SUV, drive past their freshly remodeled home, and on to their higher paying jobs. I certainly don't fault them for their choices in life but some people seem to see traveling as a luxury while others see it as a necessity. I haven't been able to travel for a few years now but I still see it as a vital part of life which I hope to return to some day.
The writing is beautiful, though often a bit too bogged down in detail so that even though I enjoyed her descriptions, I still started skimming towards the end.
So why do I (somewhat reluctantly) give A Year in the World only three stars? Because it's not really a year and it's not really in the world. Mayes gathered a number of travel experiences together to make up the collection but didn't really make all the journeys consecutively within a year. And I pictured in the world as truly a larger variety of places scattered throughout the world, not centered in the Mediterranean and mostly throughout western Europe (a bit of the UK is touched upon). She even presents separate "chapters" as different trips which are actually to the same locations previously visited in earlier chapters.
Most of all, and what dropped it a whole star for me, was when Mayes recounted conversations with her husband Ed that would (reportedly) sound like, "...what explains the rise in popularity of flamenco, here and everywhere?" and Ed would reply, "A yearning. This art touches a yearning we have. The unspoken longings way inside the heart." Okay, sure, she loves her husband and wants to include him in the book. I don't have any issue with this. And sure, couples talk philosophically with one another but according to the book they talk like this all the time, in every conversation. And skeptical me, I presume that they either do not really talk like this all of the time which makes it seem as though she's trying to seem pretentious or they really do talk like this all the time and really are pretentious. In either case, if I were eavesdropping in a tourist line behind them, I would be rolling my eyes in short order. ...more
So I honestly want to give the book three stars. What I enjoy about Brown is how he can write almost 600 pages of a book and I get almost to the end aSo I honestly want to give the book three stars. What I enjoy about Brown is how he can write almost 600 pages of a book and I get almost to the end and realize that it has taken place all in the space of one day. As a writer, I would love to be able to do that. The weaving of religious and scientific themes into an adventure set in European locales is also right up my alley.
What I don't like... and why I am forced to drop down to two stars (just a few examples):
That same time stretching often results in a parceling of time that is terribly irritating - most of the book actually isn't just in less than one day but in about four to five hours. Unfortunately, in one part of the book, given twenty minutes, the protagonists can, say, drink tea and eat scones, talk at length about their theories about what's happening, run from one location to another, save someone, and research an important historical fact. But during another twenty minutes, they don't seem to have enough time to, say, run the length of a block and enter a building. It must be difficult as an author to keep track of this sort of incongruity but this is Brown's special trick and it's irritating that he can't follow his own rules. It needs to be either one way or the other but not both.
Every few chapters, he seems to feel the need to reintroduce his main protagonist by first and last name, "Robert Langdon stood in front of the church..."; like we haven't met this character yet for every single paragraph for the last 126 chapters (and no, I'm not exaggerating on the numbers of chapters).
This really, really frustrating thing where the protagonist, Langdon, is this brainy professor that can supposedly figure out these relatively obscure, secret messages hidden by other brainy men hundreds of years ago in order to save the world... and yet he can't figure out the REALLY obvious things right in front of his face. I was listening to this on audiobook and I SWEAR, I kept expecting a three year old child to pipe up from somewhere in the back of the crowd, saying, "Oh, come on, mister! You can't see that? Seriously? Aren't you supposed to be the hero? Even I can see that!!
And, finally, lines like, "The silence that followed might as well have been thunder." Um, what... honestly, what? Is this Brown's version of "A thunderous silence followed..."?
It's really rather frustrating because I honestly think that in many ways Brown is rather talented; in some of his plotting, the details, the ideas he pulls together. I just wish that in other ways - the writing, some characterization, he could catch up with his other abilities.
After reading The Da Vinci Code, I was going to read both this and Digital Fortress but I do believe I will stop here... wishing I could tip it over to the three stars....more