Review: The Imperfectionists. Almost Perfect.

The idea is this:

Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman’s wry, vibrant debut follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it—and themselves—afloat.

Well what a great and relaxed and wonderful read.

So here’s the deal. Lately the trend in modern literature seems to be this:  release a killer debut novel and then based on that success you get to release the short stories that are so dear to you.

(I could list six examples of this right now, but so could you, so let’s stay on topic instead.)

If there is ample bidding on the novel, the writer can actually include the release of the stories in the contract, i.e. “I let you publish my sought after novel but only if you promise to release my stories in a collection shortly afterwards.”

Tom Rachman has seemed to have killed two birds with one stone.

The Imperfectionists is the story of the rise and fall of an international newspaper set in the beautiful expanse of Rome, Italy. That’s only a canvas though. Upon that canvas Mr. Rachman has painted some wonderful character sketches.

In this novel several character studies/short stories are played about the backdrop of the unnamed newspaper and those sketches are interspersed with vignettes of the rise and fall of the newspaper from 1950 to the present.

Rachman writes like a chess master. As you are reading one of the stories you realize that the seeds were planted pages before.

The final product delivers to the reader a story of the rise and fall of international journalism on a wide scope interspersed with well constructed conflicts involving much beloved and well developed characters and conflicts.

The stories ever so slightly intermix and the reading experience is delightful. Once the reader is hooked into a particular conflicting situation, that same reader is ushered quickly along to the next chapter.

The Imperfectionists is a project that readers of this blog will sail through with a smile and a solid amount of content.

The only drawback is that the same reader might be faced with a tiny bit of dissatisfaction upon closing the final page of the book.

All throughout the book we identify with the lovingly created characters and their dilemmas. As readers we allow ourselves to let the end of each chapter lie as they may as we move on to the next story, confident that we will return to each conflict to find closure on the matter(s) later in the novel.

Unfortunately, that does not happen. Instead we are tossed into new characters and problems that end up leaving us hanging on what happens next with the wonderfully crafted characters.

The reader is advised to not get too attached to any one story but rather to allow a free fall through where Rachman decides to take that reader next. The author is skilled and adept and you should trust him implicity.

We are not left totally in the dark. Mr. Rachman tosses out a  chapter at the end, in italics, that is an epilogue of sorts even though it is not titled as such. All of those characters and their problems that we encountered within the course of the novel are given a couple of sentences each to sum up where their lives ended up.

While it was nice to see a little bit of closure thanks to this footnote-ish effort, Rachman’s timbre and cadence makes for such enjoyable reading that I could have easily kept reading the book  for another 100 pages and Rachman probably could have kept writing to weave everything together at the end.

To do so may have seemed forced though. I don’t know. I’m trusting the author’s choice on this one. The characters and stories are his, and I feel honored to be let in on the journey.

Ernest Hemingway said that you can end a story with a guy hanging from a rope on a tree or you can end a story with a guy sitting on a branch on that tree staring down at the rope and contemplating how to make a noose and the latter is a much stronger ending. (Forgive the extensive paraphrasing there, please.)

All said, great book. Can’t wait to read more of Mr. Rachman. I could almost write a book about this book but instead, quit reading my review and go grab The Imperfectionists for a delightful treat.

Author Bio:

Tom Rachman was born in 1974 in London, and grew up in Vancouver. After a Master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, he worked as an editor at the foreign desk of Associated Press in New York, then did a stint as a reporter in India and Sri Lanka. In 2002, he was sent to Rome as an AP correspondent and from 2006, he worked part-time as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. Tom now lives in Rome, where he is working on his second novel.

Author Interview.

Happy New Year!

DT3

To Half or Half Not?

Lately I’ve been dealing with a dilemma. Should Bilio Circus be allowed to award half stars? If I’m stuck between giving a book three and four stars should I allow myself to give it three and a half?

Essentially, this would allow the reviews to be based on a 1-10 system as opposed to the five star system, which is the industry standard on consumer review sites like Amazon and Goodreads.

The standard  five star review usually plays out like this:

1 Star: Didn’t like it.

2 Stars: It was O.K.

3 Stars: I liked it.

4 Stars: I really liked it.

5 Stars: I loved it.

Allowing a reviewer to go in-between those measurements does a couple of things. First of all, it allows the reviewer to be more specific. For instance, I gave In Cold Blood a pretty tough two stars. I couldn’t quite bring myself to give it three of them, but two seemed harsh. If I had been working on the half -star model, I would have given it two and a half, making myself feel comfortable.

But the second issue here is this: does that let the reviewer off the hook? As a reviewer, for the good of those that read the reviews, should we be asked to commit in some small way?

The jury is still out on this one for me. For now I’m sticking with the five star model because it forces me to sincerely concrete an opinion without seeming vague. Once a reviewer opens him or herself up to half-star reviews then it allows that reviewer to make broad statements within reviews that fall on either side of the like/dislike fence, and the essence of the review can seem to lose its focus.

It’s a nice battle to deal with, but for now I think my mind has been made up just by getting my thoughts on screen here.

I’ll let you know if I change my mind. Or better yet, keep your eye out for a something-and-a-half-star review, which will mean I have either become lazy or am seriously conflicted on a particular piece I’ve reviewed.

Happy New Year,

Don Theo III

A Review From a Philistine: In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Here’s your blurb:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

Five years, four months and twenty-nine days later, on April 14, 1965, Richard Eugene Hickock, aged thirty-three, and Perry Edward Smith, aged thirty-six, were hanged from the crime on a gallows in a warehouse in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas.

In Cold Blood is the story of the lives and deaths of these six people. It has already been hailed as a masterpiece.

And here’s my take on it:

I know, I know. I’m a Philistine for not loving Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

I don’t usually write reviews about books I don’t like. Let’s face it, a negative review  serves very few purposes. Mainly, a negative review has only one positive motive and that is to rescue other readers from overblown hyperbole driven by critics and reviewers that insist on saying things they don’t believe about a book because they want to fit in with the sub-popular scene of their fellow cognoscenti.

Who am I to tell you this book could have been better when we both know I could not have done a better job writing it myself?

The amount of effort that went into this work should disallow someone like me to say anything positive OR negative about it.

Don’t get me wrong…I love Capote. I have performed scripts of his on stage as an actor and have huge pride in those projects. But this is about In Cold Blood and I have much to say about it after laboring through it for the past couple of days. Here goes.

If I made up (or more likely regurgitated) all of the praises lauded upon In Cold Blood for the sake of some sort of sordid Statler/Waldorphistic posing then it would discredit all of the things I say about the books that I read and write good things about.

I didn’t think the book was bad, it just wasn’t as good as the last twenty or so books that I’ve read.

What were my problems with it you ask? (Maybe you don’t ask that, but let’s pretend you did.)

Firstly it was the syntax. I do realize this is entirely subjective. Every reader and every writer is different. You know how you can pick up a book and the writer just seems to write in the exact rhythm in which you process sentences? It’s like a first date that goes over perfectly.

You know the feeling? You  go to bed after reading such a writer and you toss and turn thinking about where that writer took you with his or her wonderful words and structure.

You wake up the next morning pining for when you can drink in the verbiage and cadence again. You find your speech patterns in real conversations mirroring those of your new love.

Let’s just say the voice Truman Capote and the ear/eye of the reader did not get off to a good start in this instance.

I’m aware of Tru’s ineffable ability to structure breathless sentences (a la Breakfast at Tiffany’s). For some reason, Capote decided to mix up his timbre in this book. Maybe he wanted to create a self characterization of a hard boiled journalist. The sentences trade off from being long with way too many commas and bizarre backwoods vernacular to less than non-abrubt short and pithy Hammettesque throw-aways. The blend just didn’t work for me.

Again I realize this is a subjective matter but to this reader it resembled a truck with a messed up clutch splitting time between flowing smoothly on the highway for a few seconds and then lurching to uncomfortable positions of station.

Let’s let all of that go for now. Remember, this is a review by a Philistine. How else could the writer of said review say less than glorious things about a book that has a history of decades of five star reviews?

The jolting timbre is little to concern one’s self with. But Tru’s attempt at being folksy and noirish in the same paragraphs bored me to death at times. It came across as overarching and there were times I felt pity for the author in terms of the lengths he went to in order to seem both imbedded in the Holcomb community and more important than the “simple folk.”

I can’t believe I’m pressing on with this, but I opened this can of worms so I know it’s up to me now to fish or cut bait.

Let’s consider my complaints about In Cold Blood so far to be juvenile and myopic. I’m ok with that.

Let’s talk about the true “elephant in the room.”

Truman Capote was given credit for creating the genre of  “Non-Fiction Novel.”

OK, that’s a misnomer and I’ll get back to that in a minute but the genre existed years before the 1966 publication of In Cold Blood.  For example, take a look at Operacion Masacre by Argentine author Rodolpho Walsh

It’s no secret that “armchair journalists” took to the town of Holcomb, Nebraska where the brutal crime took place, and rather easily deduced that Capote had stretched or maligned the truth to fit his narrative. No big deal though, right? It’s a “non-fiction novel.”

So Tru took liberties and defended said liberties under the pretense of this “new” genre and is given allowances for melding the facts to fit his story?

It’s also well known that Truman supplanted his childhood friend Harper Lee (who would go on to write the hugely successful novel To Kill a Mockingbird) within the Holcomb community to ingratiate the cause of writing the “novel” amongst the plain but fervent women of the community. This was an effort that allowed Truman to sail into the community with all of his city-boy idiosyncratic effeteness as some sort of celebrity that was invited to Sunday dinners hosted by the Sheriff and white collared inhabitants of the otherwise folksy community.

The problem with a “non-fiction novel” is this: the writer is blending facts with supposed thoughts and dialogue.

It has been documented that in all of the countless hours of interviews that Capote held with nearly everybody in the town, he never wrote a thing down during his interrogations. He claimed to have a photographic memory that allowed him to go home and write down every detail of these conversations.  Purportedly, with Harper’s help, he recorded over 8,000 pages of post-interview notes.

If the reader knows these facts going into the reading experience, then that same reader is faced with a conflict in which neither truth nor embellishment is articulated.

In Cold Blood therefore represents a dichotomy of fact and fiction that mistreats the reader. The finished work tries too hard to be both a piece of journalism and a piece of fiction. The two extremes cancel themselves out.

Finally, the novel is not an easy read due to some serious pacing issues. Every several pages the story will start to pick up momentum. There are times where Capote’s telling of the story will put you on the edge of your seat.  But then as soon as he gets one there, he lulls the reader back into somnambulistic reverie by way of dissecting the lives of the killers’s every last relative extant.

It’s not exactly ironic that Tom Wolfe’s quote about the book was used as a “blurb” to sell the project while at the same time serves as somewhat of a backhanded compliment that describes the book rather well:

 “The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.”

I really expected to love this book but it just made me cringe every time I jumped back into it.

The cringing wasn’t even because of the crime. The cringing was because here is an amazing and sensational and chilling piece of dark crime and it would seem that a writer with Capote’s talent could have turned this into a nail-biting page turning experience.  I know a lot of people love this book and that’s great. After pressing myself to finish it for the last three days I guess I felt I had the right to say my piece.

I feel better now that I have typed this out.  It was a good escape.  I’m sure I will keep this private and resting in my “saved drafts” folder. Not so much because I have lambasted a “highly acclaimed piece of American literature” but because I did so apologetically, and no apology should be necessary.

DT3

Review: Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here’s a synopsis from Amazon‘s Anne Bartholomew

Seabrook College is an all-boys Catholic prep school in contemporary Dublin, where the founding Fathers flounder under a new administration obsessed with the school’s “brand” and teachers vacillate between fear and apathy when faced with rooms full of texting, hyper-tense, hormone-fueled boys. It’s the boys–and one boy in particular–that give this raucous, tender novel its emotional kick. Daniel “Skippy” Juster is a breed apart from his friends, more sensitive than any of them, but never visibly reactive to the pressures that weigh heavily on him. The events that lead to his untimely (though tragicomic) death unfold scene by scene, in a chorus of perfectly executed moments that are powerful enough to make you laugh and weep at once. When you read Skippy Dies, you won’t necessarily feel like a teenager again–and in fact, may realize you’d never want to–but you’ll certainly appreciate how painful, exhilarating, and confusing it still is to grow up.”

Cool book. Good story. A little sad at points but pretty impressive in scope.

Mr. Murray is an adroit wordsmith. Within this novel he also goes into complex scientific theory, Irish history and a very nicely created imaginary world called Seabrook College.

This is both a coming of age story as well as a journey back to youth for the two main characters and all of the singular pangs of angst and pathos that come along with those opposing trajectories make for a fine psychic backdrop that is very well played upon by this talented writer.

(Did you catch that, ghost of Truman Capote? That was a fifty-four word sentence without a need for a comma.)

Skippy Dies is laugh out loud funny at some moments and Mr. Murray’s character creation is enviable. He is also quite a shapeshifter when it comes to telling his story from different points of view.

Lovely piece of work and a great tone from the author. Looking forward to reading more by him.

Here’s a nice interview with Paul Murray by Jesse Montgomery of Full Stop.

Don Theo III

Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Here’s the brief write up courtesy of our friends at Amazon:

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

I enjoyed this novel on an immense level. I have not read Franzen’s other big gig, The Corrections but I most certainly will now. Having read Freedom has instilled within this reviewer’s mind a great bit of confidence in Mr. Franzen’s ability to deliver.

It can be a challenge reviewing books. Do you judge a novel’s merit on its literary fortitude or do you judge said book on its entertainment value?

Rarely does a project come along that scores high on both measures.

In interviews with the author I have read that Mr. Franzen is cognizant of his readers’ never ending displacement of attention. Therefore he puts a huge amount of focus on keeping his readers engaged. I wish more authors were big enough to realize this fact. I have a huge “to read” list (I’m sure you do too.)

What makes me take the time to read your book when there are literally thousands of books out there that we can be reading?

Franzen is a magician of sorts. Here’s what I mean by that: Often when writers shift back and forth between points of view (heretofor referred to as POV) the movements can make the novel seem somewhat disjointed.

When done correctly, the shifts of POV play out like this: Really enjoying the story being told from this character’s perspective; hate when the chapter ends because I was really into this character’s account of the events; within a couple of pages the reader is totally hooked on the new POV and hates when the chapter ends. It’s o.k. though, because we go back to the POV that I wanted to read more of from before. Rinse and repeat. Ad infinitum.

Franzen bounces back and forth from several POVs and almost jostles the reader but it does nothing less than work in the story’s favor.

This is a wide sprawling novel that covers about 50 years’ time and three generations.

The character development is sublime, the plot moves like a steady train and the sentences Mr. Franzen thrusts upon the reader will make said readers’ eyes dance to a hypnotic beat.

Highly recommended. I’ll give it four stars out of five. The only reason it doesn’t get five is because there was a little bit of heavy-handed political proselytizing in the book which I just had no need for.

Other than that, it’s a smashing story told in an admirable timbre.

Don Theo III

A Whale of a Tale. Noir Style

I found a really nice book blog today called Literary Kicks.

They have been a little heavy on the Occupy Wall Street coverage lately, which I’m not at all interested in, but there are some great posts at this site.

One of the blog authors (Levi Asher) wrote a short treatise that you may have heard of called Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong.  I haven’t read it yet, and I love Ayn Rand so I might disagree with it, but I love reading opposing opinions and I’m looking forward to reading what Mr. Asher has to say about the subject.

HERE is the blog post I most enjoyed on the site though, of the ones that I have read. It’s a grand and hilarious story of Raymond Chandler‘s shenanigans with his buddy John Houseman concerning The Blue Dahlia, a noir film that boasts Chandler as it’s screenwriter.  The story is in depth and very well researched. It’s a great read.

Don Theo III

Read Your Bookcase

Read Your Bookcase

Ladies and gentlemen…the fabulous Read Your Bookcase bookcase from the fine folks at Saporiti.

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