Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

My son the budding literary scholar recently mentioned that he had checked out my blog a time or two and noted that I seem to be more engaged with character than plot. That interest in character means I like The Imperfectionists, which doesn't have much of a plot, a lot. Each chapter is devoted to one character--all in some way related to "the paper"--a failing English-language international paper published in Rome. Between the chapters are brief accounts of the paper's history, from its founding by a wealthy industrialist in the 1950s to its demise under his completely disinterested grandson's leadership.

The first character we meet is over-the-hill Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko (who, we later learn, was once a star reporter), looking for a story to raise money for the rent. His latest wife is living with her lover across the hall, and the children from his several previous marriages have little to do with him. Nonetheless, he tries to wangle a story from his son, who supposedly works at the French foreign ministry. His son hints at a development in Gaza, and Lloyd turns the hint into a story (without benefit of actual reportage). When the paper rejects the story as the fiction it is, Lloyd confronts his son, with an unexpected outcome.

Rachman renders the other characters--obituary writer and son of a famous novelist Arthur Gopal, business writer Hardy Benjamin, editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson, reader Ornella de Monterecchi, and others--with an equal lack of pretense or pity, but with telling details and dialogue. While some reviewers have noted that Rachman paints the world of the newsroom affectionately (he worked as a journalist with the International Herald Tribune), he portrays the staff as complicit, if not completely responsible, for the paper's fate (which seems clear early on).

My favorite character (probably the favorite character of anyone who has tried to teach others about grammar) is corrections editor Herman Cohen. Herman scans the paper for problems and then rips off additions to "The Bible," the voluminous style guide he expects editors to follow. (See the favorite passage below for a sample.) Despite his stern approach to the staff, Herman has a soft spot for his prep school roommate Jimmy, a man of no apparent talent who Herman nonetheless believes is destined to be a great writer. His disillusionment is both funny and sad, as are the situations in which Rachman puts many of the characters--and the paper itself.

Highly recommended!

Favorite passage:
GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor's job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What Is Novel Conversations Reading

Here's the Novel Conversations reading list for the next several months:

September: Digging to America, by Anne Tyler
October: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
November: Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
December: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larrson
January: Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

I had read a couple of positive reviews of The One That I Want and thought it sounded like a good, light read. It's light for sure, but I found it silly and predictable. Tilly Farmer is a 32-year-old guidance counselor, married to her high school sweetheart, and living in her home town; as the book opens, she is obsessed with planning the school musical and the prom--but her husband is falling asleep in front of the TV every night, her alcoholic father has started drinking again, and her youngest sister is angry with everyone except their dead mother. Obviously, all is not well, and it doesn't take a series of hokey visions that Tilly experiences after talking to a fortune teller at the fair to see trouble ahead.

As Scotch develops the story, Tilly uncovers family secrets, has some insights into the reasons for her risk-averse and controlling behavior, and begins to build a new life, with a new man (because an interesting new man is always waiting down the hall at work) and a return to a childhood interest (photography--as if turning that into a career is easy). The story is both too pat and too weird (the visions) to be believable or affecting.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector is a story of pairs--two sisters, philosophy graduate student Jess and high-tech executive Emily; two high-tech companies about to go public, Emily's Veritech in Silicon Valley and her fiance Jonathan's ISIS in Cambridge; two economies, during and after the bubble; two Bialystok rabbis and their wives; Jess's two lovers; the two women who love Jonathan's old friend and programming genius Orion. Many of the pairs represent dichotomies, choices about different ways of living in the world.

Emily seems to be the ultimate pragmatist. She went to MIT, started her own company, and has put off marrying Jonathan to tend to her business. Jess, on the other hand, studies philosophy, works part-time at a rare book store, and lives with an environmentalist in a communal dwelling known as the Tree House. Yet Jess finds herself drawn to the owner of the bookstore where she works, George, who surrounds himself with things rather than people. And Emily prevents her company from developing a surveillance tool she feels is unethical; Jonathan, on the other hand, is prepared to steal and develop the idea Emily shared in confidence. Perhaps it is not surprising that Jess and George find themselves drawn together (with the cookbook collection of the title playing an important role) while Emily and Jonathan end up apart, though not solely for the reason one might expect.

Other characters swirl around the narrative as well. Some of these characters (e.g., Orion and his two women) add to the story's depth, while others (e.g., ISIS human resources director Mel and his wife Barbara) seem only to add clutter. Goodman weaves 9/11 into the narrative, but not in a way that helps us understand the causes or true effects of that tragedy. Similarly, the discovery the sisters make about their long-dead mother's background, while accompanied with much emotional turmoil, seems like a bizarre and not especially meaningful coincidence.

Goodman does provide some insight into how the young companies that fueled the bubble of the late 90s operated, though her treatment of the effects of the bubble's bursting seems to underestimate the pain experienced by those who didn't cash in their stock in time. And, in Jess, she has created an engaging and believable character who can carry the novel to its happy conclusion.

Favorite passages:
The markets swooned. Like a beautiful diver, the Nasdaq bounced three times into the air and flipped, somersaulting on the way down. Tech stocks once priced at two hundred, and then seventy-three, and then twenty-one, now sold for less than two dollars a share. Companies valued in the billions were worth just millions, and with a blood rush, investors thought, So this is gravity, this is free fall.

An intense tang, the underside of velvet. Then flesh dissolved in a rush of nectar. Juice drenched her hand and wet the inside of her wrist. She had forgotten, if she'd ever known, that what was sweet could also be so complicated, that fruit could have a nap, like fabric, soft one way, sleek the other. She licked the juice dripping down her arm.

The house was quiet. Their friends had gone. The scent of roses, wedding music, and laughter faded away. The hammock swayed under them, and George and Jess floated together, although nothing lasted. They held each other, although nothing stayed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Here if You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup was a writer and mother of four when her husband, a Maine state trooper with a calling to become a minister, was killed in a car accident. Here if You Need Me is a collection of vignettes or essays that she wrote after he died. Some of the piece are about mourning for her husband and raising her children in the months and years that followed. Braestrup seems both unusually brave and aware—she washed and dressed her husband’s body and accompanied him to the crematory—and typically unable to get out of bed some days. One of the decisions that helped her keep getting out of bed was deciding to take on her husband’s dream of becoming a minister; her time in the seminary is the focus of a few vignettes. The largest number of the essays are, however, focused on her new career as chaplain to the Maine Game Warden Service. Many of these stories deal with how Braestrup and her colleagues cope with the work of searching for missing people and dealing with the varying outcomes of those searches. While these stories are often very sad, there is something about Braestrup’s humor, attitude of love (which in many ways seems to be her religion), and calm that renders reading the book a joyous experience. Even her author photo gives one a sense of radiant calm.

For a logical-sequential like me, my inability to understand the order in which Braestrup placed the essays was somewhat frustrating (why not a nice chronological order?), but didn’t detract from the overall effect of the book. Despite not being religious, I found the book a peaceful read.

Favorite passage:

For three days following Christina’s murder, Detective Sergeant Love worked pretty much around the clock. In between all the meetings, the phone calls, the inspections of the scene and new pieces of physical evidence, the interviews with witnesses and family members, the interrogation of the suspect, and in between attending to the manifold legal requirements for proper documentation of all of the above, Anna would periodically duck into her office with her breast pump. Bottles of her milk would be sent home where her husband waited with their baby.

If ours were a sensible culture, little girls would play with Anna Love action figures, badge in one hand, breast pump in the other.

True love demands that. Like a bride with her bouquet, you toss your fragile glass heart into the waiting crowd of living hands and trust that they will catch it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

Somebody in my old Boulder book group loves Richard Russo--this is the third of his books they have read in the past three years. Unfortunately for me, the first Russo book I ever read was Empire Falls, which set my expectations for the author extremely high. To date, none of his other works have lived up to that standard.

That Old Cape Magic is the story of one year in the life of John Griffin, a screenwriter turned college professor. Griffin seems predisposed to unhappiness, and the year is marked by unhappy events--a separation from his wife and the death of his mother. Griffin's reflections include his analysis of his marriage to Joy, whose name suggests her more positive perspective on life, and his upbringing with two college professor parents, stuck in the "mid-fucking-West" when they yearned to be in the more rarefied air of the Northeast. Habitually unfaithful to each other and seemingly uninterested in their child, the two only approach happiness on Cape Cod, singing "That Old Cape Magic" (to the tune of "That Old Black Magic") as they cross the bridge to the Cape. One summer's experience with a family who welcomed Griffin into their days serves not only as a touchstone for Griffin's view of his parents but the inspiration for a piece of writing he has worked on for years. While he claims to be nothing like his parents, Griffin's similarities to them are obvious.

Parts of the book feature Russo's trademark humor: the scene at the rehearsal dinner before the wedding of Joy and Griffin's daughter is very funny. Russo also has a gift for laying out the thoughts bouncing around in one person's head--we truly come to know Griffin through his internal dialogue; how accurate his memories of the past are is unclear--but their effect on how he lives his life is clear. The story would have been more interesting and the ending more believable (perhaps) if Russo had also taken us into Joy's head.

That Old Cape Magic is enjoyable and offers an opportunity to reflect on how your perception of your parents and their relationship influence you and your relationships. But ultimately the novel lacks the depth Empire Falls proved this author is capable of.

Favorite passage:
Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.