Archive for the ‘Tom Rachman’ Category

I am not one to rush towards new technology.  No one has ever accused me of being an early adopter.  I may admire new technologies and innovations, I may think them clever and even useful, but it generally takes more than that to convince me to commit to them.  I need an incentive.  This is why I didn’t get an e-reader until I discovered I could read The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim on it for free.  And it is why I didn’t join NetGalley until this summer, when I realised that by doing so I might get to read The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne months ahead of its release.  Well, I joined and I got to read it and, happily, have read a handful of other NetGalley books since.  Now, finally, I should probably get around to reviewing some of them.

9781451660548.225x225-75The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne
I am a huge fan of Browne’s novels.  They are light and funny but have heroines who I can actually identify with.  Unlike the bulk of ChickLit novels, Browne’s female characters know how to balance a chequebook, dress appropriately, and generally behave like adult human beings.  Life is difficult enough as a single woman without being saddled with an infantile intellect or a crippling shoe fetish.

Rosie, an events manager at the exclusive Bonneville Hotel in London, has all the hallmarks of a Browne-heroine: she is organized, well-mannered, and has a completely awful boyfriend.  Working towards a promotion, the last thing she needs is the appearance of laid-back Joe, the son of the hotel’s owner, who after years of travel and general surfer dude behaviour has come back to learn the ropes of the family business.  Despite being generally affable and helpful, not to mention unthreateningly charming, Rosie finds it exhausting to work with Joe, especially when he gets involved with the wedding planning portion of the hotel business, Rosie’s special domain.

Something about this didn’t quite click for me.  Browne is really good at writing about female characters and their struggles to sort out their lives.  But her male characters are often poorly fleshed out and so the romances fall a bit flat, which is what happened here.  That said, I still really enjoyed the book and liked it well enough that I bought my own copy when it was released earlier this fall.

The Rise and Fall of Great PowersThe Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
I loved Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, and this was even better.   When we meet her, Tooly Zylberberg is in her early thirties and running an unprofitable bookstore in Wales.  Over the course of the novel, as it jumps around through her childhood and early adulthood, we learn about her unusual, globe-hopping childhood and the eccentric, rather shady, and essentially mysterious characters who raised and shaped her.  Completely wonderful and highly recommended.

At-Least-Youre-in-Tuscany-Gemelli-Press-ReviewAt Least You’re in Tuscany by Jennifer Criswell
A funny, unvarnished and honest memoir about an American woman’s life after she moves to Tuscany.  Single, struggling through Italian bureaucracy, and still with an uncertain grasp of the language, Criswell’s time in Italy is far from the sun-dappled idyll that so many other books chronicle.  And that is what makes it worth reading.  A nice reality check, reminding us that the Good Life takes some work.

In Your DreamsIn Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins
Talk about perfect timing.  My request for this, the fourth entry in Higgins’ “Blue Heron” series, was approved the night before I flew to Europe.  If there is anything nicer than having an eagerly anticipated book to read on a long plane ride it is being surprised with that book.  And I couldn’t have wished for something better to pass the hours – at least a few of them.  Sweet and funny, In Your Dreams is Higgins at her best, with a likeable heroine and a hero who actually gets to be a person in his own right.

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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman certainly seems to be the book of the moment.  Catapulted to fame by an uncharacteristically enthusiastic review  in the New York Times, the film rights were recently purchased by Brad Pitt’s production company.  Even my colleagues who only pick up two or three books a year know about it and are planning to read it this summer.  Not bad for a first novel.

It’s not a typical novel though.  In truth, it’s really a series of short stories, centering on characters whose lives revolve around an English-language newspaper in Rome, interrupted by the narrative of the newspaper’s history.  The stories weave together, characters over-lapping from their own tale into a coworker’s and, like most work-place fiction, I found it absolutely fascinating.  I love reading about other people’s jobs, other companies and industries, even the ones I have no interest in working in.  Especially those ones.  Like journalism.

The weakest part of the novel, for me, were the sections dealing with the newspaper’s past.  Following each chapter, there would be a few pages detailing the evolution of the paper, working chronologically through the fifty years from its founding to its demise in 2007.  I suppose it provided a focus, a sort of circle-of-life, ‘why we are all here’ narrative device but it didn’t work for me.  It was bland and inoffensive but it did not add any value to my reading experience and, more often than not, frustrated me when I reached the end of a chapter and realised I’d have to wade through this bit before moving on to the next much-anticipated story.

But the stories themselves?  The modern ones focusing on those who work for and are involved with the paper?  They were wonderful.  Each one had enough layers that I was never truly comfortable while reading, never confident that I knew what was coming, and yet, even by being unpredictable, Rachman’s prose never felt formulaic.  It just felt very real.  The entire reading experience was rather strange and sad, but very real.

As with any book of stories, I had my favourites.  The chapter devoted to Arthur, the obituary writer, broke my heart but did so without descending into that dangerous pit of cloying sentimentality that captures most new writers who attempt to deal with the same topic.  Abbey, also known as “Accounts Receivable”, was the easiest for me to identify with, both because of her unique and much-hated role within the company (no one likes the person who tells them to cut costs) and because of the following sentiment, which distills the very essence of the long-haul traveller, a role I’ve played far too many times:

Once at the boarding gate, Abbey falls into her customary travel coma, a torpor that infuses her brain like pickling fluid during long trips.  In this state, she nibbles any snack in reach, grows mesmerized by strangers’ footwear, turns philosophical, ends up weepy (p. 227)

But, more than any other character, I loved Herman Cohen, the fierce corrections editor.  A respected leader among the newspaper staff, Herman’s story revolves around a visit from a long-time friend, a man Herman has always idolized, always viewed as the next-great-thing in the way you do the cool kids that you look up to as a child, never stopping to reassess them as the years go on.  Herman, who spends his life catching the small details that others miss, remains blind to the truth about his friend.  And when he has that revelation?  For me, it was the most perfect moment of the book.

I think I liked the book more for knowing a few simple facts about Rachman.  He was raised in Vancouver.  Really, that’s all I needed; my hometown loyalties are firmly in place.  After realising that he wanted to be a writer, he moved to Europe to get experience as a journalist and hopefully find inspiration.  This seems like such an outdated, romantic, 20th Century path, doesn’t it?  It seems like most aspiring writers nowadays go to school to learn how to write rather than actually going out and writing.  But I love that Rachman took this path, that there are still some writers who refuse to let the time-honoured traditions die (though, by all reports, he did not enjoy it – but I’m fairly confident that’s part of the tradition too).  It was clearly his journalistic past that led to such spot-on observances as “‘news’ is often a polite way of saying ‘editor’s whim’” (p. 30) and “…the cocktail bar in the east wall was replaced with a watercooler; the consequent decline in typos was extraordinary” (p. 201).  More than anything, sentiments like that make me desperate to cling to traditional journalism, to the idea of a newsroom rather than an internet chat room, printing presses rather than a computer server.    

(also, because I never get to say this, can I just say how much I prefer the North American cover to the British one?)

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