One-Minute Book Reviews

July 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:45 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 19, 2009

A Set of Ethical Standards for Freelance Writers and the Editors Who Hire Them in the Age of Blogs and Other Forms of Digital Technology

The following comments are off-message for me, but I’m posting them because they relate to a core principle of One-Minute Book Reviews: This site doesn’t accept free books from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with a stake in those books. The FAQ page explains why, and the article mentioned below provides context for its comments. Jan

If you’re a freelance writer, do you tell editors when you have sources of income from (or are applying for jobs) that relate to work you’re doing for them? Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, thinks you should. Wasserman tells the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in an article called “Keeping It Honest in a Freelance World”:

“Among the big changes the news business is undergoing is a steady erosion of its fundamental reliance on full-time, salaried journalists. What’s emerging in its place is an industry built on a patchwork of different working relationships. …

“What’s emerging is essentially the Op-Ed model moved from the opinion pages to the news: A growing dependence on journalism from loosely affiliated outsiders. The typical news site will have a small editorial nucleus at the center of an orbital sphere of contributing reporters, videographers, commentators and analysts. …

“There’s good reason not to welcome this. It means journalists will be paid even worse. It means coverage is likely to suffer from further loss of consistency and coherence, not to mention expertise.

“And it replaces the clarity of loyalty, obligation and independence that went with the traditional employment model with something that’s potentially very different. Remember that the Op-Ed pages have often been little more than an ethical bordello, with editors making scant effort to learn, much less police, the various entanglements that commentators might have with the topics they hold forth on.”

Wasserman lists seven ethical principles that editors should follow when assigning work to freelancers (and that, by implication, freelancers should follow when working for them). These include:

“Require internal disclosure. These disclosures should be comprehensive: All sources of income over the previous 12 months and all pending efforts to secure other paid work. (After all, you don’t want to post what seems like journalism but later turns out to have been an employment application.) Dollar amounts aren’t necessary; it’s the relationships that corrupt, not how lucrative they are. Require people to characterize those relationships—you don’t want anybody repaying favors on your site, but you also don’t want them settling scores. Disclosure should go beyond mere names. The range of some entity’s client relationships in town could implicate a number of other areas a particular journalist should steer clear of.”

Wasserman is on the money about about all of this, and though he doesn’t say so directly, his comments have implications for online book-review sites, many of which have ties to publishers that are undisclosed or disclosed only by implication (for example, in the form of ads for books placed next to rave reviews of them or sycophantic profiles of their authors).

January 8, 2008

Backscratching in Our Time — Gina Kolata and Jerome Groopman

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work in a way that may have financial benefits for both

 

I usually post these examples of backscratching without comment, but this one is bad on so many levels, I’d like explain why. A pillar of journalistic ethics says that reporters should avoid not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts. Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who has used Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a bestselling author, as a source. As the comments below make clear, she accepted a favor from Groopman — the blurb for Rethinking Thin — that could put money in her pocket if, say, you bought the book based on his recommendation or if a paperback or overseas publisher paid more for the reprint rights because of the quote (and quotes can affect the amount offered). Kolata has compounded the problem by selecting one of Groopman’s essays for Best American Science Writing 2007, a decision that has almost certainly put money in his pocket, given that contributors to anthologies typically receive an up-front fee or a percentage of the royalties or both. She also used on the cover of the paperback edition of her earlier Flu a quote from Groopman that appeared in the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times. It gives me no pleasure to say any of this because I enjoy Kolata’s work for the Times and regard it as far superior to that of her colleague Jane Brody, who writes the Personal Health column. I also admired much about Flu, Rethinking Thin and Groopman’s How Doctors Think www.oneminutebookreivews.wordpress.com/2007/12/28/.

 

Jerome Groopman on Gina Kolata

“Kolata is a seasoned reporter, and knows how to craft a riveting tale … a masterly recounting of medical history.”

Groopman in a review of Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic (Touchtone, $15, paperback) in the Boston Globe, Dec. 12. 1999. “A masterly recounting of medical history” appears on the cover of the paperback edition of Flu.

 

“An incisive, thought-provoking examination of a subject that concerns us all. This book will educate and illuminate those seeking solid information about the struggle to lose weight.”

Groopman in a blurb on the cover of Kolata’s new Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

Gina Kolata on Jerome Groopman

“I also liked Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, ‘Being There.’ It raises an issue I had never considered, and in an unforgettable way …”

Gina Kolata on why she choose Groopman’s article as one of the best of the year, in her introduction to Best American Science Writing 2007 (HarperPerennial, $14.95, paperback), edited by Kolata and Jesse Cohen.

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes suggestions about authors should be in “Backscratching in Our Time,” a series in inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine.

© 200X Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 9, 2007

Essays for People Who Like Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feed Bad About My Neck’

Nora Ephron has reintroduced a lot of people to the pleasure of personal essays with I Feel Bad About My Neck, still a bestseller a year after its publication. What can you read next if you liked that book? A few suggestions:

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (Modern Library, $12.95, paperback), by Nora Ephron.
Crazy Salad is, some ways, better than I Feel Bad About My Neck. Many of its essays appeared in a column on women that Ephron wrote for Esquire, and the security of that perch allowed her to take on bigger subjects and dig deeper into them than she has been able to do more recently. The most memorable essays in Crazy Salad include “A Few Words About Breasts” (about having small breasts) and “Baking Off” (about the Pillsbury Bake-Off).

My Misspent Youth: Essays (Open City, $14, paperback), by Meghan Daum.
Born in 1970, Daum is a generation younger than Ephron, and some of her subjects reflect it: Internet dating, her loathing for wall-to-wall carpeting, and her pile of student-loan and credit-card debt. But like Ephron, she has a gift for blending reporting, self-analysis and satire. Some critics call Daum a snob for insisting on, for example, the superiority of hardwood floors to carpeted. It would more accurate to say that, like Ephron, she has perfected a comic shtick that at times involves turning her tastes into dogmas or neuroses in print. www.meghandaum.com

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14, paperback), by Joan Didion.
This is Didion’s best collection and perhaps her finest book of any kind. Most of its essays were written more than four decades ago, when they became benchmarks for what has become known as the New Journalism. But some anticipate recent fads such as “journaling” (“On Keeping a Notebook”) and blaming misbehavior on “low self-esteem” (“On Self-Respect”), though words like “journaling” and “low self-esteem” would no doubt make Didion gag.

To read a review of I Feel Bad About My Neck, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/. To find the reading group guide to I Feel Bad About My Neck, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2007

What Rhymes With Beltway? Hart Seely Sends Up Politicians and Others in His Collection of Satirical Poems, ‘Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington’

Filed under: Humor,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:17 pm
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We don’t know much about him.
We don’t know what he’s done.
We don’t know what he stands for,
Or why he wants to run.
We don’t know if he’s able,
Or even if he’s sane,
But, hey! let’s vote Obama,
He looks good off the plane.
– From Hart Seely’s “Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”

Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard. By Hart Seely. Free Press, 128 pp., $12.95.

By Janice Harayda

Songwriter Tom Lehrer once said that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. But Hart Seely proves otherwise in this lively collection of parodies of rhymes by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.

Seely lacks the finesse of Calvin Trillin, whose satirical verses include his brilliant farewell to the first President Bush in Deadline Poet: “You did your best in your own way, / The way of Greenwich Country Day …” Trillin’s targets are typically self-evident in context, but some of Seely’s poems will need footnotes in five years. Even now, how many people remember the so-called Macaca sandal that involved former Senator George Allen (“The Cock Doth Crow”)? Or know who former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed is or why “his pals were indicted” (“Little Ralph Reed”)? Trillin also uses iambic meter, the closest to natural speech. But Seely has to work with the less subtle meters of the nursery rhymes and other poems he parodies, such as dactylic and anapestic. This constraint can lead to forced or obvious rhymes when he takes on heavier topics, such as Barbara Bush’s influence on her family (“Mother Bush Had a House”) or Rudolph Guiliani’s attempts to cash in politically on the goodwill he earned after 9/11 (“Rememberin’ Rudy”).

Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington works best when it sends up lighter-weight trends that befit its nursery-rhyme format, including the tendency of Americans to favor candidates they don’t know well, such as Barak Obama (“Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”). In a section on the media Seely deftly lampoons Bill O’Reilly, Judith Miller, Tim Russert and others. He also tweaks the focus on Katie Couric’s appearance instead of news after her move to CBS (“Rock-a-Bye, Katie”):

Rock-a-bye, Katie,
In the big chair,
Though the news breaks,
The headline’s your hair.

Over the centuries, many of the rhymes in this book have acquired tunes. And even the weaker poems would lend themselves well to a cabaret show. If entertainer Mark Russell tires of writing his own material, he might find all the help he needs in Seely.

Best line: Some of the sharpest lines in this book have nothing to do with politics, such as these from a poem called “Blah, Blah Blackberry”: “Spam from PayPal. / Spam from a scam. / Spam from a site / That eliminates spam.”

Worst line: Poetry collections usually open with a strong poem, so it’s odd that the first one in this book is weak on every level. “Mother Bush Had a House” tweaks Barbara Bush with lines that could have come from bright eighth-grader: “She had a son, George, / A fine-looking male, / He was not very bright, / But still made it to Yale.” Among the problems: The point of the lines is unoriginal. The adverbs “very” and “still” are there are only for the sake of the meter. And all the lines end with a noun or adjective, when verb end-rhymes tend to be stronger.

Recommendation? Don’t forget this book in December when you need a stocking-stuffer for your most political friend. Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington could also be a great choice for book clubs that want to do more poetry, because it spares neither Republicans nor Democrats. [I may post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book later this summer.]

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: June 2007 www.simonsays.com

Furthermore: Seely is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and on National Public Radio.

Janice Harayda is an award-wrinning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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