We offer you insights on things we are reading, be it old or new, obscure or bestselling, for fun or for insight. Whatever it is, we tell you a bit about it here. We start with just a few:
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Every now and then I like to read a book that is on The New York Times Best Seller list. Typically I choose a novel and almost always find myself purchasing it at an airport bookstore. In my line of work, it is worth knowing what the masses are reading and considering why they are reading it.
Beautiful Ruins was just such a book. All the more so since this novel received universally rave reviews from Kirkus, Oprah, Salon, NPR, The New York Times, and just about everyone else. “To be untouched by Beautiful Ruins,” says one such reviewer, “might well be like having no inner life at all.” My, needless to say, I was intrigued.
Jess Walter’s novel begins with this quotation from a 2010 column in The New Yorker:
“[Dick] Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980 … Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.”
This sets the tone for the story Walter wants to tell and introduces one of its central characters.
The narrative follows the life of a minor actress, Dee Moray, and her lifelong love for the man she knew only briefly, Richard Burton. Burton, at the height of his acting prowess and his tempestuous relationship with his occasional wife, Elizabeth Taylor, is portrayed as the hard-drinking, womanizing, self-destructive man of Hollywood legend. Though his appearance on the pages of this novel is fleeting, his presence is nonetheless felt throughout the story as a result of his influence on Dee’s life, and through her, on many others.
The story begins in 1963 with an ill Dee Moray waiting for Burton at a hotel in fictitious Porto Vergogna – “Port of Shame” – a shabby little Italian village that doesn’t see many visitors, much less one who is so glamourous. There she meets the struggling Italian hotelier, Pasquale, who is simply trying to keep the family business afloat. Like Dee, he is nursing private wounds from his own poor decisions. Unsophisticated, he is immediately smitten by this woman who is, according to his modest standards, a worldly, ethereal being who lives in a realm well beyond his reach.
Dee, however, barely notices Pasquale. Her focus is, and will remain, Richard Burton. She had met the movie star on the set of the blockbuster Cleopatra, and that encounter forever changed her life. And this is part of what this book is about – the ripple effect of our decisions, positively and negatively, throughout our lives and that of others. In Dee’s case, the consequences are largely unhappy: she marries someone she doesn’t really love, as no man, it is implied, will ever quite measure up to the larger-than-life Burton, and her connection and love for the British actor remains a secret buried deep in her heart for the rest of her life.
As Dee’s situation gradually becomes known to Pasquale, the Italian sees reflected in her and her absentee lover his own character flaws: in her, the madness of love; in Burton, the desire, common to men, to flee circumstances he cannot easily fix. Burton, Moray, and Pasquale all share a kind of ruin in their lives, self-inflicted and otherwise, and it remains for the author to redeem that ruin and make it beautiful.
I love the metaphor here, the idea of our lives as beautiful ruins. The cover of the book suggests it, depicting as it does Portofino or one of the other villages of the Cinque Terre along the Italian Mediterranean coast. These ancient terra cotta roofed villages with their charming crumbling walls, villas, and old churches, are indeed picturesque. I love the implied redemption of things inherently battered and weakened through the natural course of their lives, and being made whole again.
This is, I think, the mass appeal of this book. Life is messy and people get hurt. We are bruised by our own mistakes if not those of others. Everyone needs redemption of one kind or another, and, on the surface of it, Walter’s novel offers the promise of it. But for me, in any case, the author never delivers on that promise. For this he cannot be entirely faulted. Given the utterly secular worldview that prevails throughout the novel, what other options did he have? I suppose Walter might have ended the novel with Burton and Moray patching up their differences and marrying in grand fashion in a Porto Vergogna Ritz Carlton owned by the once-impoverished Pasquale, but such redemption, happy as it may be, is very limited in scope.
This is because secularism is, by definition, self-limiting the way an aquarium is self-limiting to its occupants in spite of the fact that it sits inside a room and a world. By the rules of that worldview, reality is pared down and confined to a tiny space where there is no soul and no hereafter; there is only this life and the material things in it. Meaning, therefore, is as artificial as the plastic coral or pirate ship pressed into the sandy bottom of the bowl. Walter’s characters cast about within, searching for something that doesn’t exist in that altered reality where objects appear bigger than they really are.
This book is not anti-God in the conventional sense. It is simply a book where God and the implications of his existence – that is, meaning, hope, justice, etc. – are not in view. The limits of the author’s worldview must inevitably limit that of his story and his characters.
Beyond the bowl of secularism, however, is a much larger reality where our souls find the wide open spaces for which they were meant. There, hope is real and is equal to our outsized spiritual needs. Consider these promises:
Revelation 21:5: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”
Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
Again, the beautiful ruins motif is one that I find very attractive. But it is one that no secular author can deliver. Redemption, a biblical concept, has no secular equivalent. It’s A Christmas Carol where Scrooge becomes a warmhearted philanthropist but his soul remains unredeemed.
This book was, as I said, universally hailed as a work of genius. This says a lot about the world in which we live and the poor substitutes for meaning and hope many people are willing to accept.
Full Reading List
Agent ZIGZAG, by Ben Macintyre
During the Second World War, both sides were desperate for intelligence on what the enemy was doing on everything from grand strategy and troop deployments to political machinations and secret weapons. The human toll was considerable, and as the war dragged on, the need for new agents grew accordingly. Sometimes, governments employed agents with whom they would likely never associate in peacetime, much less employ. But desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures.
Such was the case with Eddie Chapman. Chapman was a petty thief who constantly ran afoul of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. Indeed, he was imprisoned numerous times and his hosts were confident he would always be back. Finding his prospects of continued freedom dwindling in London, Chapman decided to go to Jersey, one of the British Crown dependencies in the Channel Islands, to continue his career as a thief. Shortly after he was arrested and imprisoned there, the island was invaded and occupied by the Germans.
Endlessly charming, likable, and resourceful, Chapman was, the Germans concluded, the perfect man for them to train and drop into England to spy for them. He was, after all, English, knew the country, was used to stealth, he could pick any lock or crack any safe, and as a man who had been imprisoned by his own countrymen, he was undoubtedly full of hatred for England and the English.
There was only one problem with this plan. Much to Eddie Chapman’s surprise, he slowly discovers that while he is unquestionably an unrepentant thief and womanizer, he is no traitor. On the contrary, he would prove to be one of Britain’s most fascinating, roguish, and important spies of the Second World War — and all of it quite accidentally.
This book was rip-roaring good fun. If you look further on our list of book recommendations, you’ll see that I have read other books by this author. Macintyre’s writing combines fast-paced narrative with compelling history, intrigue, and character studies. And Chapman’s antics are often as hilarious as they are outrageous.
Donald Drains the Swamp & Donald Builds the Wall, Eric Metaxas
Author and television host Eric Metaxas is a man of many talents. He writes books, hosts a television show, and is a champion at origami. If you haven’t heard of him, check out his books at your local bookstore or his show on TBN. You won’t regret it.
When I was in New York a couple of months ago, Eric gave me a copy of his little book “Donald Drains the Swamp.” This is not, I am confident Eric would say, his magnum opus. This is a fully illustrated coffee table book that Eric wrote during commercial breaks. Okay, he didn’t say that, but it’s very short. Think Dr. Seuss. A book that your children can read, but one that adults will like, too. It is witty and knee-slapping funny.
Well, Eric just sent me the latest iteration of this series: “Donald Builds the Wall.” Again, this is a witty book. I read it during a commercial break of my own. It’s that short. But it’s Far Side kind of funny!
I shall not say more. Were my review any longer it would give the whole story away. But I will give you this spoiler: Donald Trump builds a wall!
Secret Lives of Great Authors, Robert Schnakenberg
Lauri picked this one up at a book table abroad. As she read, she occasionally stopped to peer at me thoughtfully over the top of the book. On one occasion while reading in bed, she turned to me and said teasingly, “You’re not nearly as messed up as these people.”
As you might have guessed, the book is a romp through history’s great authors and offers the salacious details of their “secret lives”: Louisa May Alcott’s opium addiction; Dickens’s tragic love affair with his muse; Hemingway’s penchant for beating up his critics and his endless search for the next adrenaline rush to stimulate his writing; Tolstoy’s hatred for his wife, his many mistresses, and his belief that cutting meat from his diet would help him overcome his need for the opposite sex; J.R.R. Tolkien’s bad driving and total disregard for road signs; T.S. Eliot’s love of practical jokes, whoopie cushions and exploding cigars most of all; and much more! If you want a fun beach read, this one is for you.
Love Life Again: Finding Joy When Life is Hard, Tracie Miles
Living on this planet is hard. Indeed, no one gets out of here alive. While our circumstances bring us great joy from time to time, sooner or later we all get bruised and we bruise others. We suffer loss and disappointment. Tracie Miles takes a biblical approach to how we respond to these negative circumstances. Rather than waiting for things to improve, Miles argues that contentment is a choice and that we need to be proactive in changing our outlook if not our circumstances. If you struggle with contentment, with the stress of trying to make your InstaTwitFace life look like your friends’ lives on social media, and with seeing the glass half empty rather than half full, Miles’s short book will be helpful to you. Life is a gift from God and it is not to be wasted.
A Gathering of Spies, John Altman
Do you like a good international spy thriller? I do and I enjoyed this one. It is the story of a beautiful young woman who is a German spy planted in America before World War II. Seducing a lonely physicist involved in the Manhattan Project, she steals the formula for the atomic bomb and races across America and the Atlantic to bring that vital information home. The clock is ticking as a British agent, called out of retirement, is sent to track her down. But this chick is not to be trifled with as authorities soon discover. A master of disguise and a cold-blooded killer, she is the very definition of femme fatale. Altman is a good storyteller and this book will keep you entertained as you wiggle your toes in the surf this summer.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, Anna Funder
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, millions of German lives were changed with the onslaught of freedom, the revelations of betrayals to the Stasi (i.e., the East German secret police) in the previous decades, families on opposite sides of the wall seeking to reunite, and the difficulty of coming to terms with the past. In 1996 Anna Funder, an Australian journalist living in West Germany, traveled to the former GDR and interviewed ordinary people about life on the other side of the wall. She meets a rebellious rocker named “Mik Jegger” who defied the authorities with his music; Miriam, who, as a girl of sixteen, literally put a ladder against the wall and tried to escape to the West; and Frau Paul whose baby was in West Berlin when the wall went up. I loved this book. Funder is more than a storyteller, she is a superb writer in an age when books seldom have any literary merit.
We Die Alone, David Howarth
In March 1943, a team of Norwegian commandos, disguised as fishermen, returned to their Nazi-occupied homeland to organize the resistance movement. The mission went awry from the outset when they were betrayed. The book follows the extraordinary journey of Jan Baalsrud’s attempt to escape capture. He is aided by brave Norwegian men and women as he treks through Nazi-occupied towns, over mountains and frozen lakes, and is forced to hide in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. I bought this book at Norway’s Resistance Museum in Oslo during the Around the World in 80 Days expedition. A riveting summer read, I couldn’t help but wonder why this little gem has not received more attention. Originally published in 1955, it is a firsthand account and represents storytelling at its finest. It has since been made into a Norwegian film. To commemorate this hero’s journey, each year many Norwegians attempt to follow Baalsrud’s route to Sweden. Few are able to complete it.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
This mega-bestselling thriller focuses on the handsome couple, Amy and Nick. Amy discovers Nick has been unfaithful to her and decides, with cold calculation, to destroy him. Vindictive and so cleverly manipulative that only Nick knows what she is up to, Amy manipulates media, fakes journals and her own death, and, because Nick has had an affair, the police, the public, and even Nick’s friends are all too willing to accept Amy’s fraudulent story: “She was well aware that everyone would put together the easiest narrative to explain what happened.” Apparently the book is much more than any of this: it is, according to many mental health experts who reviewed the book, a picture of mental illness. As one therapist writes, Amy has borderline personality disorder (BPD). “People with borderline personality have dramatic highs and lows of emotions. Amy goes through emotional swings of loving her husband to wanting the greatest harm inflicted upon him…. These life-long unstable relationships usually show idolizations early on in the relationship and then later inappropriate and intense anger towards the person.” So if you like psychological thrillers, this book is for you.
All the Money in the World, John Pearson
In the autumn of 2017, a film by this name starring Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, and Mark Wahlberg was released. The book is much better. It is the story of John Paul Getty, at one time, the wealthiest man in the world. Where the movie is only about the kidnapping of his grandson, John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973, the book is about Getty’s miserable, miserly life. But the book also contains an element of redemption for his children. Pearson’s book is well-written and entertaining.
It’s All About Him, Denise Jackson
This is the story of Denise Jackson and her marriage to country music superstar, Alan Jackson. High school sweethearts from small town Georgia, the couple has experienced it all: a deep love and history together, early financial struggles, the pinnacle of success, and (his) infidelity that nearly destroyed their marriage. Denise Jackson tells how their love for each other and their faith in the Lord restored them to something better than before. Her love for her husband, for her God, and her strength will inspire you.
The Forgotten 500, Gregory A. Freeman
This book tells the long-ignored story of the rescue of some 500 downed American airmen in Yugoslavia in 1944 and the people who hid them, fed them, and helped them often at the expense of their own lives.
Get Out of that Pit: Straight Talk about God’s Deliverance, Beth Moore
We picked this one up in a discard pile at an antique store. Whatever your opinion of Beth Moore, this is a solid book. Although she is not explicit in providing unnecessary details about the brokenness of her own past, Moore is open in acknowledging it. Much is implied, and this is part of what makes her very successful: she is accessible. More endearing, she does not blame others, name them, or make it a badge of honor. She uses it to discuss the thesis of her book: God’s redeeming power in our “pits,” whether you were thrown into a pit, slipped into a pit, or jumped into a pit.
Rogue Heroes, Ben Macintyre
Part of a research project for Larry, this book is (he says) a rip-roaring good time. It is the true story of the founding of the British Special Air Service (SAS) and their role in defeating Nazi Germany in WWII. The book is full of high adventure and the good guys win. He is certain readers—men especially—will enjoy Macintyre’s tale.