Book Bites: ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

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.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 9.46.50 AM


Book Bite: Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi

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

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

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.


Spy Review: The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman

“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

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.

Making It Up by Penelope Lively

As always , Penelope Lively writes with a pointed pen in light and sensitive strokes. Making it Up is a collection of eight short stories. Before each one Lively recounts an occasion in her own life. She then shows what took place when a character in the story makes a different choice; walks down a different path.

The results are interesting in themselves, and also instructive to someone trying to learn to write.

I was particularly interested by “Number 12 Sheep Street.” This is a once elegant house, now sadly neglected, which contains a priceless collection of books about which the present descendant neither knows nor cares. When the knowledge of this library gets around various people in the village try, in various ways, to get their hands on them.

Lively calls her book an anti-memoir, and ends with a rollicking satire about a character with her own name, Penelope. It is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey told in trendy, cocktail party chat.

Rep. Harris not at Party when Underage Drinking took Place

WBAL reports that Maryland First District Congressman Andy Harris says the congressman was not at a party last summer, where an underage intern was drinking wine. A blog by former Bob Ehrlich aide Joe Steffen quotes sources who say Harris’ Chief of Staff Kevin Reigurt bought the wine that the intern drank at a party that was held in her honor.

The intern was ultimately kicked out of the House intern program.

Read the full story here.