Reading Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, is a bit like watching a lush Hollywood epic. Flipping back and forth between glorious, outrageous 50′s Hollywood and present-day reality-show-poisoned Hollywood, Walter’s book spins two tales that eventually intertwine: a starlet waiting for love on an isolated Italian island and a producer’s assistant looking for integrity in an equally isolating and morally vacant movie studio. It’s an ensemble piece, really; the symbiotic roles each character plays would be cardboard cutouts without each other. I liked it, though, because it has everything: humor, absurd violence, decent bittersweet moments, a knee-slapping cameo by Richard Burton. And who doesn’t like any book that skewers Hollywood, while also offering “Hotel Adequate View?” After reading his book, I’d rather stay there than sip bubbly with Brad Pitt at Chateau Marmont. Ok, maybe with Daniel Craig, but that’s a different post. It did remind me to start being a real American mom and watch some old classics with the offspring. If we’re not going to get them to Disneyland – and chances are looking slim, as they’re taller than us now and we’re still too cheap and lazy – I feel like I should make them watch Cleopatra and The Sound of Music and Gone With the Wind. Or, at least expose them to Gene Kelly because, heaven knows, when will they ever see that kind of charisma and dancing? Which brings up dancing. Mr. Halfstory is solid in the beats department. He’s the Groove Master, the guy who danced with all the girlfriends and wives willingly while his buddies used the international sign for “one more all around.” But the kids don’t dance! We tried but there was a lot of “can we stop now,” “I hate this music,” “please stop, Mom.” If they can’t dance, how will they move on to making scrambled eggs or understanding co-payments or knowing they should always turn down credit card offers? Who knew you had to teach kids everything? These are the shallow thoughts that run through my head, often at 2:00am.
Of course, this frivolity was crushed like a bug after reading the YA book, Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys. It’s 1940 and 15-year-old Lina is seized by Russian soldiers and hauled off to Siberia, along with her mother and brother. Being Lithuanian, they are despised by Russia and become several of countless victims of Russian NKVD (pre-KGB) atrocities. While I wouldn’t recommend this book for the faint of heart, it’s incredibly detailed, meticulously researched and well-written…and completely appropriate for adult readers (as are many YA books). I was astonished at how much I didn’t know about the oppression of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia before and during WWII. I would recommend it for teens; it’s important to know how this chapter was successfully buried by both sides, for many complicated and heart-breaking reasons (and for the details on that, do read the afterward and author’s notes – it’s worth it). That said, within the bleak Siberian landscape, there is beautiful romance and kindness. So go out out and shake those kids out of their vampire stupor. Please.