Book Bites: ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

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This delightful novel whirls us from the Hotel of Adequate View in a tiny Italian village on the Mediterranean sea, to Rome,Hollywood and Idaho. In the cast are: Pasquale, the inn keeper, a beautiful dying starlet, the scheming Michael Deane, Richard Burton (of all people ) hopeful writers and others.

You read their letters, a first chapter and a “pitch” for a movie. Author Walter tangles their lives, and then untangles them, and a good read ensues.

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Book Bite: Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi

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The book begins in 1993 with the author receiving Ninety Thousand Dollars in cash for a painting of a pair of hummingbirds he had left to be sold at Christies auction house in London. The artwork was one of  the author’s forgeries in the manner of Martin Johnson Heade, noted for his brilliant paintings of birds amid exotic flowers.

The rest of the book is a hard-to-believe story: a teen-ager growing up in Palisades Park, New Jersey falls in with a group of wild and crazy artists and eventually becomes an enormously successful forger of  American and British “masterpieces.”

Perenyi had real talent as a copier,  and with study and experiment was able to devise ways to fool leading art experts. He painted on wood from the bottoms of drawers of  17th century antique furniture, (scrounged from broken and discarded pieces in junk stores), for his forgeries of  the Dutch painter van Ruysdael.  He learned how to concoct “antique” varnish, create cracks, and finish the backs of the frames with rusted tacks .

He seemed to have no trouble passing these finds along to his many cronies in the art scene. The book is crammed with so many names it is hard to keep track of  them all.

Perenyi had several close escapes, was never caught, and is still painting in a studio in Florida.

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

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A tree is blown down by a storm on the owner’s house and his wife is killed.

This book is a very gentle exploration of his grief. He keeps seeing her and wonders why his kind, concerned friends and neighbors cannot. Eventually he can no longer find her and begins to notice the new world he must now live in.

There is a happy ending which is a delightful twist in contemporary literature.

The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Conner

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Although Varley O’Conner calls this a novel, it reads like a biography of ballet dancer Tanaquil LeClerque. George Balanchine, world famous dancer and choreographer, made her into a star, and designed ballets for her. She became his 5th wife.  At the height of her career she contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down.

O’Conner’s descriptions of what LeClerq went through, her time in an iron lung, the painful exercises she endured, and life at the rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia, are moving and powerful.  Balanchine took good care of her, but eventually his life with the Ballet and other dancers drew him away from their marriage, though they never divorced.  And Tanaquil,  from her wheelchair, became a teacher who inspired  a new generation of young dance students.

Festival Notes: Harp & Tractor by Mary Wood

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Saturday was a glorious morning for the National Music Festival’s concert of “Beauty and the Beast” for Tractor and 2 Harps at the Farmers Market in the park.. One harpist was the son of Leon Fleischer – also rated number 10 in the world ping-pong player . He had played on Friday with a local group and had autographed the paddle of one of the members.The other was his student Eleanor Clarkson, from Texas.

They first played Debussy’s Danses Sacre et Profane – Then they started in on a very delicate, rippling tune. From the audience, Richard Rosenberg the distinguished conductor of the whole festival,strolled up, looking very disagreeable and disapproving, wearing a straw hat, chewing on a raw onion and breathing on them. Then he climbed up into the tractor, turned on the key and gave the engine a blast as a puff of black smoke came from the exhaust. He did everything possible to interrupt them. Harps played louder and louder, tractor kept perfect rhythm by revving the engine.

The tractor was gleamingly new , bright green, and when the music folk asked to borrow it from the Atlantic tractor company, the man said – “Well you realize it’s our tractor that’s the beauty.”

Illustration courtesy by Raymond Logan

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman

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“The loblollies off Hail Point, the spars and poles of the oyster dredgers “ are what Edward Mason and his elderly cousin Miss Mary Bayly can see from the porch of the Mansion House. She is dying and is in the process of deciding to bequeath him Mason’s Retreat, her land beside the Chester River, in Queen Anne’s County, which her life’s work has been to turn it into a model dairy farm.

Edward is shown around the farm by its manager, Mr. French, a wise man loyal to the land, and to those who worked, black and white. During the course of the tour he learns more than he really wants to know about his ancestors and the land where they have lived since l657.

Edward learns of Miss Mary’s grandfather, who in 1857 sold the slaves too old or too young to be of use, to a dealer in Virginia for “30 cents on the dollar”. His 15 year old daughter Ophelia watched their sad procession to the boat which carried them down the river. She tried blotting out this shameful memory by turning her back on the Retreat. As soon as she was old enough she left the farm for social life in Baltimore and later Paris.

In one of the most engaging section of this book Tilghman writes of two young boys, Thomas Bayley,(Miss Mary’s brother) and Randall Terrell, (son of the Retreat’s black orchardist), and the adventures they had as they played pirates in the orchard, collected pebbles in the river, flung jellyfish at each other and hid from Beal, Randall’s kid sister. For them that time The Retreat was Eden.

Ophelia’s scientist husband Wyatt Bayley, challenged by the Retreat’s acres of fallow, riverside fields, decides to plant them with peach trees. Then a blight begins to kill thousands of peach trees on farms all over the Shore, breaking the heart of Wyatt who was unable to discover a cure and has to burn the orchard that was his pride and his life’s work .

It is Mary who remains loyal to the land. She spends her life restoring it to productivity through her dairy operation.

This novel has the sweep and depth of one of the great engrossing 19th century novels – Dickens, Eliot, even Tolstoy. A large cast of vital characters play their parts in a beautifully observed Shore, while the shadows of disease, racial prejudice, greed and war flicker over them like heat lightning.

How fortunate we readers are who live here, and can learn of the history,and the heartbreak as well as the beauties of our world in The Right-Hand Shore.

The Ripple Effect by Paul Garrison

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If your “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” needs a workout, try this thriller, The Ripple Effect. It is a sea story with an extremely colorful cast of characters, all of whom sail about on boats – the goodies as well as the baddies. If it’s not giving the complicated plot away, the baddies’ boats are bigger, newer, and more expensive.

You’ll read of business deals so complicated that even those involved in them don’t understand what’s going on. You’ll suffer through storms and hurricanes.

You’ll meet an extraordinary 15 year old girl and her cat who tries to save the day.

Does she ? That, gentle reader, is for you to find out.

How it All Began by Penelope Lively

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Penelope Lively has assembled a cast of characters whose lives are changed as a result of the mugging of Charlotte Rainsford, whose hip is broken as she falls.

Thus a distinguished Historian, (who is someday going to write his memoirs, peppered with the names of all the people he’s known), has to ask his niece to accompany him to a college where he is to speak; as Rose, his PA, must take care of Charlotte, her mother.

The niece, a decorator, meets a man who offers her an interesting job.

The marriage of a couple who have never heard of Charlotte begins to come apart.

And Charlotte volunteers, while she recuperates, to teach English to a middle-aged Central European immigrant .

Lively has created characters who engage us, amuse and charm us, and writes with clarity and deep understanding of what it is like to be old.

“The long and the short of it is,” fumes the Historian, “you can’t bloody well remember what you were going to say next when you know perfectly well what it was.”

The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea by John Moynihan

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This the diary John Moynihan kept and turned into his senior thesis when he finally returned to Wesleyan college.It is an account of life on a supertanker en route from Camden, New Jersey to the Mediterranean when a change of orders sends it to Japan via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean.

Frustrated with college, John Moynihan, with help from his influential father, Senator Patrick Moynihan, goes to sea. Sworn into the Coast Guard as a Merchant Marine, he’s handed a job ticket.

“Ordinary Seaman on the Rose City . . . early tomorrow for forty-five days in the Mediterranean . . . and so far as anybody’s concerned your father is a bartender on the West Side.”

But somehow the truth leaks out and John is hazed mercilessly by the crew. He survives. How did anyone survive the constant drinking and hangovers ? He flounders through his watches, finally learning to steer well enough to be at the helm of the 894 foot long ship as they made their way up Puget Sound with a radar that didn’t work. Home at last.