Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Imperfectionists Lied To Me

Flower, as we know...

Short story collections equal small sales. If I could explain the whys and wherefores of this I would be a hugely well paid executive who takes Fridays off. Having worked in the retail end of the book business for 20+ years I can tell you that it is a go-tell-it-on-the-mountain-carved-in-stone-cold fact. Perhaps this is why the author and publisher of The Imperfections claim it is a novel. To let the world know right on the cover of the book that it is a short story collection would be the croak of death to sales. However as you cannot be sort of pregnant so a novel cannot be short stories. A work of fiction can be a novel or it can be short stories. There is no such thing as a novel in stories because that isn't a novel it's a short story collection. Got it? Good. Now on to my reading of The Imperfectionists a short story collection by Tom Rachman. I have not read what the cover of this book proclaims it's self to be; The Imperfections a novel by Tom Rachman.

After this lie can I rebuild my trust, move on and like The Imperfectionists? Why yes I can. How very big of Me.

There is a great deal of charm in The Imperfectionists. The stories are about very likable people living in a glamorous and exotic (to me the outsider) city who all in some way, for good or bad get shaken out of the limbo land in which they have been living. They have to face up to how they wound up with these lives and that their lives are changing. The characters work for an American owned, English language newspaper in Rome. If there were days of heady success for this paper they ended a while ago. Now the newspaper is struggling to survive for the obvious reasons: the internet and money. The history of the newspaper is given away bit by bit in the stories.

Once the pattern of the stories is set it's easy to anticipate what is going to happen to the characters. It's a testament to Rachman's writing that it doesn't matter. He is a fine writer and has no trouble keeping a reader interested. Rachman's straight forward style of writing might be a play on newspaper reporting it's self. It certainly adds a level of authority and realism to the storytelling and to the foibles of his characters. It's a sort of marriage between the delightful, heartfelt adventure of Roman Holiday and the bullet point facts of a resume. How could that be easy to capture?

I have to assume that since this book is labeled as a novel (Yes, I am continuing to beat that horse.) that the stories are meant to come together as a convincing whole, that doesn't happen. The characters make special guest star appearances in each others tales and they all seem to have their epiphany moments but you could start this book on any "chapter" or read it in any order because it doesn't matter. You don't glean any new insight by reading the book from page 1 to page 269 either. Does that make the book innovative? No it makes it a short story collection--that is both available and worth buying at any independent bookstore.

Ok. I really am over the whole short story thing.


P.S. The Brit cover? It's not working for me. It makes the book look like a mod, cafe society novel. Why look young Gertrude Stein spotted a tourist.
Although I am forced to say that this cover makes no written claims either way about what is inside.

Friday, June 25, 2010

How Did You Get This Number

Flower do you need a laugh?

I can help with that. Read How Did You Get This Number. You will laugh my friend. There the problem is solved. What a nice friend I am. Anything else I can do for you? Want me to explain nuclear fission? Why my sister cannot apologize? Finish up a few lingering trigonometry problems?

Laughing through author Sloane Crosley's embarrassments, adventures and complaints is such a load off for the rest of us. Now we can relax about public mishaps, venting inappropriately about friends and family, our wondering at the strangeness of the world and the general humiliations of life. Crosley has surveyed/survived the territory and has taken it all on the chin for you and me. She has taken the pressure off. What a pal.

Crosley's previous collection of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake is a tough act to follow but How Did You Get This Number does the job. I don't usually read books that people tell me will make me laugh because in my experience they almost never make me smile let alone laugh. No so with both of these collections. Not only is Crosley funny and a good writer but she's friendly too. There are no snotty pretensions here. She isn't looking at the world from a self centered hipster view point. Reading Number was like getting to be Rhoda while Mary tells you about her day. There is a chunk and a half of things you are going to laugh at and some sweetness and understanding that you will savor.

One more thing. Often you see the word 'wry' flung about when essays are described with the same abandon that the word 'multi-layered' is used when describing a novel you can read either (but I hope both) of Crosley's books with out fear of wry.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Get This Day Over With!


Don't look now but it's almost over, daylight that is. Today is the l-o-n-g-e-s-t day of the year and soon it will be over. Color me happy. Color me thrilled. Color me on my merry way to the shortest day of the year.

Happy, Happy, Happy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Playing House


Who knew that 50 years ago college level Home Economic programs would use 'practice babies' as teaching tools? How strange is that? When I was 4 I was 'loaned' to my older sister's high school Home Ec class for a week. I would go to school with her, spend the day with the Home Ec classes and then go home. The vague memories I have of this are all good. I remember playing and being surrounded by teenagers interested in me. I'm sure I was in hog heaven with all that attention. So in a minor way I am a sort of veteran of the type of teaching programs that author Lisa Grunwald explores in The Irresistible Henry House. A wonderfully fun nature verses nurture tour of a baby boomer's life.

In 1946 orphan Henry is brought to the all girl Wilton College as a practice baby but instead of going back to the orphanage at the end of the semester, Henry is adopted by Martha Gaines the head of the college's Home Ec program. So begins Henry's childhood. At Wilton Henry gets a batch of doting new mothers every year. He is also the recipient of the changing attitudes of raising children. The last tenants of the Victorian nursery were blowing away and Dr Spock was replacing them but not for Martha Gaines. She tried to bring Henry up with science not cuddles. Martha's student mothers on the other hand were eager to please Henry. As a result Henry grows up seeing women as interchangeable. A series of people easily pleased and ready to be manipulated and cajoled before they inevitably move on.

Henry's life through the 50's and 60's hits on all the major cultural touch points. Grunwald's writing about the events we all know about and Henry's adventures with them is fresh and fun. No mean feat. Henry becomes an artist as an adult and on the surface manages to successfully play well with others. His issues of trust and abandonment torpedo any lasting relationships until he meets another former practice baby. Mother Martha's life with and after Henry is a more distant study of those times but equally well written and for me very moving.

I relished reading The Irresistible Henry House. The basis for the story is a grabber but there is much more to this book than that single idea. Lisa Grunwald entertained me and made me want to share Henry--just like all those make believe mothers at Wilton College.


Can I Get A Scandinavian Here?

So. I'm wondering, Flower.

For what, ten years (More than that if you want to start with Smilla's Sense of Snow) now
Scandinavian Crime Fiction was been hip, hot and selling like it's free, correct? It's so popular that if I were a mystery writer I'd change my name to Astrid before sending my manuscript to a publisher. It could only help. So where is all the other Scandinavian fiction? If people in the U.S. are devouring Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbro and others why aren't publishers racing to sell us general fiction from Scandinavian writers? I don't think that I'm going out on a limb by assuming that people in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark read more than just mysteries and that some of those novels are bestsellers and/or critically acclaimed. So why not tap into that?

How many Young Adult novels have a mystery at their core? I would say from what I see 50% is a fair estimation. Why not try some Scandinavian YA? Whatever is appealing about those mysteries to parents, who are doing the purchasing, could also resonate with their children. There will be cultural differences but no more than in your average fantasy novels geared toward readers ages ten to fourteen.

Maybe there are translation issues that I am not aware of. Could be. However weigh that against acquiring a finished product with a proven track record in it's own country. Wouldn't that be a smaller risk than an untried manuscript that lands on a publisher's desk? Especially since an audience, who are not all mystery readers only, are already reading books set in Scandinavian counties?

Happier if I were reading more Scandinavian novels.

Friday, June 11, 2010

1000 Autumns Will Never Be Enough

Hello Flower!

Ah David Mitchell! He's another author (like my girl Hilary) that I feel like I discovered for the world. Yes, I know that isn't true but how often are feelings and truth at odds? I have been an avid fan of his since his first book, Ghostwritten. How many people have I hand sold his novels to? Incalculable but more than a thousand. So I am going to continue to believe that I should be thanked by all the thousands of David Mitchell fans out there for bringing his brilliance forth to the reading public. And your welcome.

If you have resisted my praise of Mitchell (And given my almost Super Friends caliber of Nag Power how is that possible?) give in now and read The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is his best book yet, will undoubtedly bring him his 5th Booker nomination and is my new favorite. Autumns is set in 18th century Japan. The Dutch East India Company has the monopoly on trade with Japan and is the only contact that Japan has with the world outside of it's boarders. Jacob de Zoat is an honest, insignificant accountant whose job it is to hide the corruption that riddles the company's offices in Japan. He falls in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito and struggles with a courtship complicated by language and social barriers, kidnapping and laws forbidding fraternization. What else do you need to know plot-wise? Nothing in my opinion. I could lay out more of the characters and events but if you are already interested or a fan there's no need and if you aren't then I will resort to arm twisting, brow beating, nagging and other non-plot revealing tactics.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a first for David Mitchell. This is the first book of his that does not intersect even in a mild way with any of his other novels. Recurring characters and references float in and out of his novels. His books are not what could be labeled a series in the traditional sense. You don't go from book one through to book four and watch the family saga unfold until Lord Earwig finally dies and Penelope inherits. They also are not individual citizens of a common community. There is no fictional cathedral town where the action lives and each book plays out the trials of the butcher's or the vicar's families. Mitchell's books can be read one off and enjoyed immensely but when you read them all you are in on the joke. It's the difference between seeing one painting by artist X verses a room full. The one painting is beautiful, but with the room full you now have the beauty and the language of that artist to drink in.

Most historical fiction has some pot boiler elements and Autumns does too but as exciting as these moments are they are secondary to magnificently refined writing. I can't say enough about how well David Mitchell writes. Given the setting of the novel and that the characters are living in 3 different worlds it's not surprising how much language and translation plays a part in Autumns. The miscommunications from Dutch to Japanese to English and back again give Mitchell wonderful opportunities to play with words. This is a novel to savor. You will fly along on the plot, be captivated by the characters but it's the writing that you will swoon over.

Happy and yet unhappy that I cannot read The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet again for the first time!

P.S.  The comparison of the U.S. cover verses the Brit? I think it's a tie although I'm not hearting either one.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Me Reviving The Dead But In A Good Way

Flower, can you hear me now?

So. Picture if you will me doing laundry. It's a joyous picture. I like having clean clothes, you know? I decide to throw my favorite summer handbag, a pink Fossil messenger style bag, into the wash. Easy. I have washed it 50 times. I empty the bag and move on.

...Or did I empty it?

No. I left my cell phone in it. I didn't realize that until I was putting everything into the dryer. Little cellie went through an entire wash cycle. ~~sob~~ We have been together for 5 years. But wait? Don't I have the power to give life? Why yes I do. I took little cellie and put him in a bowl and covered him with uncooked, plain popcorn which I learned from watching Alton Brown is the way to go not with rice like I would have thought before Alton set me straight. Cellie sat in his popcorn tomb all day yesterday. I charged him over night and then left him in the popcorn over night. What do you think happened? He held the charge and I just used him to call my house AND IT WORKED.

I pledge to use this new power over life and death only for good.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Girl In Translation, Me In Fixation


First novels, coming of age novels and the immigrant experience novels are all two a penny and when all three types are blended into one novel it's..... Well it's still nothing new. Precisely because these novels are so prevalent I think that they more than any other kind of fiction they demand good writing to succeed and stand out. They can have great characters, interesting plot lines, hell they can even have ponies but without strong writing behind it all they turn into yet another of more of the same.

~~~~Drum Roll~~~~

So how thrilled am I that Girl in Translation defies the odds and is that wonderful, well written combination of first novel, coming of age story and immigrant experience story? Totally thrilled, my friend.

Eleven year old Kimberly and her Mother are relieved to be able to immigrate from the about to be in Chinese hands Hong Kong to Brooklyn. They have been promised an Eden. Aunt Paula has a job waiting for Kimberly's Mother and a place for them both to live. When they arrive both promises come true but only up to a point. The job is grueling, poverty level sweatshop work and the apartment is so roach infested that the bugs carpet the place. In addition to this squalor Kimberly's lack of English causes her to struggle in school and her nights and weekends are spent working at the sweatshop with her Mother. This young family's circumstances and their determination to overcome them make a powerful story, but it's the humanity the author details in the mother-daughter relationship and in the loneliness and fears of the outsider that raises Girl above similar novels.

Reading the short author bio on the book it's easy to see this novel as autobiographical. Jean Kwok and her family immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was a girl. Whether you write from experience or research good writing is good writing and this is good writing. Kwok's quiet but insistent style brings a matter of fact-ness to the book that makes the story even more compelling and the hardships more painful. Girl in Translation was a transporting read. I was invested in the character's lives and have continued to think about them. I am looking forward to Kwok's next book.


I Love This News!


Be prepared to think this news is wonderful. Here is proof positive that there are teens out there reading good books. Books that are challenging and well written.

As reported in this morning's Bookseller Briefing, the Orange Prize Youth Panel (set up to celebrate the Orange Prize's 15 anniversary) has selected Anne Micheal's Fugitive Pieces as their winning choice from out of a list of six previous Orange winners--all adult novels. The contest was sponsered by Penguin and run off of their website, Spinebreakers. Excellent!