Spontaneous Reads: The Imperfectionists

I had little to no preconception of this book before I started reading it: it was perched on a bookshelf at home, acquired via the good luck of having a boyfriend who edits a book section and has a lot of interesting books sent to him without ever even having to ask. The cover is arresting, but interestingly enough—since after all, it was the cover that led me to pull this one off the shelf—there really isn’t much to it. In fact, while the packaging as a whole is nice to look at (scrolling, scripty font, simple image, contrasting colors), it really tells you nothing about the book. There’s a brief phrase on the back of the paperback copy about “the topsy-turvy private lives of the editors and reporters of an English language newspaper in Rome” but otherwise, the cover is just chock-full of famous authors and notable reviewers clamoring over what a “beguiling,” “spectacular,” and “magnificent” book you have in front of you.

Luckily, they aren’t over-selling. This is a truly luminous debut—the word “dazzling” actually popped into my head within the first few short chapters. I ended up having some very real reservations about the book, but even so—Rachman is a gifted author and I really look forward to reading another book of his in the future.

The Imperfectionists is centered around the lives of the reporters, editorial staff, and (in one case) readers of an English-language newspaper in Rome. The Italian backdrop comes up on occasion, but seems more of a nod to the author’s own job history more than anything else—it could have just as easily been a newspaper in Vienna or Hong Kong if a little local color was changed here and there, and two of the stories (including the very first one) take place in other cities: Paris and Cairo. It can’t really be called a novel, but it also isn’t a short story collection. Rather, its narrative is explored over the course of linked stories. Characters who narrate one story show up as minor blips in others, and while the stories are ostensibly chronological—they are all dated and the circumstances of the paper (as an entity) develop and change as time goes by—each one exists very much in the specific life, circumstances, drama, and perspective of the person who narrates.

Each character is so fully realized and so precisely idiosyncratic that at first, before you really become aware of how unique each voice is, The Imperfectionists is actually rather subtle in its brilliance. Authors spend whole novels developing and fine tuning the specificity of character and depth of back-story and circumstance that Rachman establishes for each of his 11 narrators in the space of 20 or 30 pages. You get a glimpse of a whole world in each story, and while most of them could certainly be developed into longer, more elaborate portraits, Rachman generally knows when to end a good thing. For the most part—and there are two notable exceptions, in my opinion (more anon)—he knows what moment to end a story on, and when to leave a character. And that’s a difficult thing for many authors to figure out.

Rachman also has a great gift for managing the scope of his story by knowing not only when, but how to elide moments in time and skip seamlessly from one scene to the next. I frequently quibble and moan about books in which an author drops physical placement details or has a character pull something out of a bag that you didn’t even know the person was carrying. Consider these the ‘continuity errors’ of fiction writing. (There’s a passage in one of my least favorite reads of the last some-odd years that exemplifies this perfectly: in Peter Hoeg’s The Quiet Girl, a deeply ill man in a hospital bed is talking to someone in the room when suddenly he takes off a clown wig. It’s horribly jarring for no apparent reason—the reader was never told he was wearing a clown wig in the first place.)

What’s really impressive then, is Rachman’s ability to skip from moment to moment—across locations, sometimes even across days—without the transition feeling disjointed or abrupt to the reader. Much of the time, this is because of a really skillful set-up. For instance, in “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” the narrator, Arthur Gopal, is told in the first pages that he is going to have to go on a trip for work. In the next scene, he’s picking up his daughter (the strange and completely charming ‘Pickle’) from school, making her a sandwich, and then having a conversation with his wife:

Pickle hands him the remote and wanders off to her room. He watches her go down the hall, then turns to Visantha. “You know what she told me today? She doesn’t remember the twentieth century. Isn’t that terrifying?”

“Not particularly. What are we doing for dinner?”

“Pickle,” he calls down the hall. “Any thoughts on dinner?”

The secretaries book Arthur to Rome from Geneva by rail, a ten-hour journey with connections in Milan and Brig. Supposedly this saves money on a short-notice flight but is a colossal nuisance for him. He boards the early train at Stazione Termini…

That sudden hop to the work trip should be jarring—there’s no page break, no real transition. It’s not even the same day. But the reader has already been well primed for the transition, so it works really elegantly.

While Rachman is a gifted writer and a great storyteller, there are moments when he falters. For instance, he doesn’t show the same depth of understanding (I don’t think—people have disagreed with me) in Ruby Zaga’s story—she’s hated by almost everyone in her office and after her story finishes, you’re not sure that they’ve actually missed something. She seems a rather flat creation compared to previous ones.

Abbey Pinnola gets similarly disregarded, although the shortcomings of her story actually touch on what is the larger problem in The Imperfectionists, a problem which doesn’t really take hold of the book until a pattern starts emerging about three quarters of the way through. And that’s that Rachman seems to have an odd predisposition for sad, ironical, and often mean-spirited punch lines.

Allow me to clarify. Although almost all of the characters in the book are fully imbued with what can only really be termed “humanity,” very few of them are sincerely likable people. Or at least people that you can like without feeling at least a bit of pity for. This is honestly fine. I do not require my characters to be good people or necessarily likable people for me to be invested in their story. The problem is that Rachman sets them up—much like bad jokes. He gives them something or someone to love, to be entirely dependent on, or he gives them a really profound weakness. Then he emphasizes that thing or person or weakness so that you know just how important it is, just how much the character would be crushed if the object of affection or obsession were removed. And then, almost without fail, he takes it away. In a rather brutal, pitiless fashion.

There’s not necessarily a good reason for this, either. In one or two cases—in one of my favorite of the stories, actually—the Profound Loss (as I’ll call it for lack of a good example that wouldn’t spoil a whole story for you) does work. But in many of the stories, it’s just strangely mean and predictable in that sort of devastating-irony-of-fate way that only happens in books or movies that are much, much worse than The Imperfectionists. Which makes it all the more perplexing.

But honestly, it’s still a book I would recommend to almost anyone. Which is quite an accomplishment.

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Fun for Friday: What Your American Girl Doll Says About You

What Your American Girl Doll Says About the Rest of Your Life

I’m posting this because it is, ostensibly, related to the American Girl book series, and although I know not many young girls/tweenagers read them these days, they (and the amazing American Girl catalogs) made a *huge* impression on me as a child. Some snippets that appealed to me, who did not have an American Girl doll, but balanced an adoring sort of love of Samantha with a far more practical affinity with Molly:

On Samantha: “a Samantha doll was the designer jeans of third grade”

On Molly: “If you had Molly, you probably wanted Samantha instead, but contented yourself with Molly because you too wore glasses, liked books, were bad at math, and would concoct various schemes to get attention…As an adult, you’ve developed a carefully honed aptitude for sarcasm. You’ve gotten contacts, and a slightly edgy haircut.”

On No Doll: “Your parents wouldn’t buy you an American Girl doll because $80 is a ridiculous price to pay for a toy, which would then inevitably lead to the purchase of multiple accessories ranging from the overpriced ($18 for “Winter Accessories,” consisting of tiny doll mittens and a hat), to the exorbitant ($56 for an “Ice Cream Set,” consisting of tiny plastic scoops of ice cream), to the highway robbery ($349 for a “doll’s chest,” a.k.a. tiny wooden box). You grew up to be financially independent, level-headed, unspoiled, and still just a little bit resentful whenever you walk by American Girl Place.”

Like the Oscars (but Shorter): Watch the Best Translated Book Awards

At a beery-cheery award ceremony at the Bowery Poetry Club during the PEN World Voices Festival in April, this year’s winners of the Best Translated Book Awards were announced.

For poetry, this year’s winner was The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, which was translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry.

For fiction, I was absolutely delighted that Tove Jansson’s True Deceiver, translated beautifully from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, won the award. I had a bit more stake in this one, I’ll admit: Jansson is one of my favorite newly-discovered authors. I read and reviewed True Deceiver for The L last year (read the review here) and was even more charmed by the new translation (also by Teal) of Fair Play (that review is here).

Teal’s acceptance speech was definitely the highlight of the 13 some-odd minute ceremony–he tells a great anecdote and is obviously delighted by the recognition. And, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you don’t have to rely on the notes I took in the dark–you can watch the whole thing yourself:

Booklist’s The Year’s Best Crime Novels

Booklist‘s has just published a list of “The Year’s Best Crime Novels,” (compiled by Booklist publisher/editor Bill Ott) which does, of course, raise a few questions given that it’s only May. But whatever the logic behind this mid-year round-up (maybe it’s their own annual cycle? Some of the books were published in 2010, some in 2011…), it’s an enjoyable list of 20 books–there’s a top ten, and also a list of the ten best debut crime novels. You can check out the full list on their website, but I’ve cherry-picked a few of the ones that sound most interesting to highlight below.

I’ve actually only read one of the titles, but I was glad to see it on the list: Camilla Lackberg’s excellent debut novel, The Ice Princess, which I reviewed for Reviewing the Evidence in June 2010.

But here are some titles that sounded particularly interesting to me, just in time for summer reading!

Bury Your Dead. By Louis Penny. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377045).

Penny’s sixth Armande Gamache novel is her best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling. Juggling three freestanding but subtly intertwined stories, Penny moves seamlessly from present to past as Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, investigates a murder in Quebec City, tries to determine if he jailed the wrong man in an earlier case, and struggles with his memories of a third case that went horribly wrong. Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed mysteries in years.

Painted Ladies. By Robert B. Parker. 2010. Putnam, $26.95 (9780399156854).

Are we honoring the late Parker’s career here or is this really one of his best books in its own right? Well, both. His penultimate Spenser novel captures all the charm of the landmark series. The iconic Boston PI can still nail a person’s foibles on first meeting, still whip up a gourmet meal in a few minutes, still dispatch the thugs who haunt his office and his home, and still do it all while maintaining a fierce love of Susan Silverman and English poetry. Parker was one of the first to show us that a hard-boiled hero doesn’t have to frown all the time, and we’ve been smiling along with Spenser ever since.

Started Early, Took My Dog. By Kate Atkinson. 2011. Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, $24.99 (9780316066730).

In the latest entry in Atkinson’s brilliant Jackson Brodie series, the semiretired detective is touring abbeys in northern England, but soon enough he becomes involved in several interrelated cases, one of which concerns a police detective who has rescued a child from a prostitute by paying cash for her. Her odyssey as a new parent, relayed with tenderness and wry wit, must be one of the grandest love affairs in crime fiction. For its singular melding of radiant humor and dark deeds, this is must-reading for fans of literary crime fiction.

Mr. Peanut. By Adam Ross. 2010. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307270702).

Despite the fact that David declares that he has been in love with wife Alice ever since he first spotted her in a film class, he is continually imagining her death via everything from carjackings to “convenient acts of God.” Naturally, when she is found dead at the kitchen table, he is the leading suspect. Ross is interested in all the soul-killing ways men and women try and fail to achieve intimacy, and he explores his age-old theme (marriage as one “long double homicide”) in eloquent prose and with a beguiling noirish sensibility.

PEN World Voices Recap: A Literary Safari at Westbeth

Until last week, I had never heard of the amazing artist community Westbeth, which since the 1970s has been providing amazingly attractive, delightfully eccentric, and—believe it—affordable apartments to artists of all stripes in the very West of the West Village. As part of the PEN World Voices Festival last week, Westbeth hosted a “literary safari,” inviting guests into its labyrinthine, oddly dorm-like hallways to attend readings of PEN authors in the homes of Westbeth residents. For some, this was the ultimate in real-estate envy (an avid hobby of pretty much anyone in the city). For others, it was a chance to hear great writers they had never been familiar with read. And for most, I think, it was a combination of both.

Interesting side note: there will be a documentary about Westbeth coming out in the next month, which seems to have been produced by a Danish arts organization. There’s a trailer here.

Here’s the start of the piece I wrote for The L about this:

Just after work and just before sunset, the “Literary Safari,” that took place at the Westbeth Center for the Arts’ romantically crumbling apartment complex just off the Hudson River in the West Village, combined two of New Yorkers’ most beloved pasttimes: attending exclusive cultural events and envying the well-appointed, divinely located apartments of our betters. The Safari promised a “unique experience,” and so it was. For two hours, guests were invited to “wander the hallways” of Westbeth, attending readings by 20 international authors in the homes of Westbeth residents.

For those unfamiliar with the community, Westbeth (which is, to this day, managed by a non-profit orgnaization)—is located in a former Bell Laboratories complex which were converted, in the late 60s, into 383 studio apartments by architect Richard Meier. The community first opened to residents in 1971, promising affordable housing for low and middle income artists of all stripes. (Don’t get excited—Westbeth stopped even waitlisting prospective residents in 2009 “due to the length of time applicants now spend on the list.”) The complex is 13 stories tall, and all of the studios, whose eccentric and whimsical floor plans vary considerably, are centered around a large central atrium. The hallways themselves give the building a sort of art-school dorm feel: many of the doors are painted or decorated by the owners, and each one features a different color triangle, oriented in various directions and suggesting some sort of cryptic code or affiliation. Idiosyncrasies in the layout render it impossible (on certain floors) to walk from the western end of the building to the eastern end, making navigation in the twisting, labyrinthine hallways feel not unlike stepping through the looking-glass.

My full recap is here.