Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Club: "The Imperfectionists"

After postponing our monthly book club meeting one week to accommodate several members, only three of us participated last night.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is about an English language newspaper located in Rome. Woven between chapters about individuals who work for the paper is the story about Cyrus Ott who established the unnamed newspaper in 1954 with Betty Lieb as news editor and Leopold T. Marsh as editor in chief. It was one of many ventures in the profitable Ott investment portfolio. As the history of the newspaper unfolds we find that Ott and his family live separate lives, he in Rome and his wife and son in Atlanta. Eventually we surmise that he started the paper to be close to Betty. It is apparent that they love each other, but neither compromises their respective marriages over their long relationship.

The stories about the newspaper's employees have a more contemporary setting and illustrate the changing landscape of print media as their newspaper gradually succumbs to the high tech world. Lloyd Burke, the Paris correspondence, is a respected journalist whose career, like the paper, is on the wane. We watch in pain as he struggles to pitch a story the editor will pay for, and cringe as he uses his son's government connection to fabricate a story that will bring in much needed funds.

Arthur Gopal, the obituary writer, is a happy family man who dotes on his daughter Pickles and is in the midst of interviewing an ailing feminist author when learns of his daughter's death. Arthur is devastated and nearly dropped from the paper when his depression and absence drag on. As his marriage fails and then ends, he immerses himself in his work and is promoted at the paper where his career soars.

Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, discovers a much admired schoolmate does not deserve the pedestal on which he placed him decades earlier. Young Winston Cheung, the novice Cairo correspondent, is trammeled upon by gonzo journalist Rich Snyder and finally gives up journalism for his original college major in primate studies.

And so the stories go.

We all agreed that Rachman did a wonderful job of developing and revealing the characters as well as exploring human dynamics. Although we were all depressed by the opening story about Lloyd Burke, we were hooked by the history of the paper and the personal lives of the remaining characters. All of the stories explore the dichotomy between how we perceive ourselves versus how others view us.

On a personal note, I was turned off by an incident in the final pages of the book that pretty much ruined all that had preceded it. Ignoring that event, I enjoyed the novel and the way Rachman wove the tales together into a whole.

We observed that Rachman's portrayal of most of the women in the book was less than flattering. Hardy Benjamin and Ruby Zaga were lonely and pathetic women. Abbey Pinnola was a divorced and lonely single mother. Kathleen Solson's significant other cheated on her so she attempts to reignite a relationship with an old flame. And Craig Menzies' significant other, Annika, tries to get a rise out of him after she has a fling with another man.

At one point in their escalating argument Annika tells Craig "You can't be with someone just because you can't face being alone." Yet it appears that several characters are doing just that.

We got a chuckle out of Winston Cheung's story and sympathized with the naive tyro as the excessively inconsiderate Rich Snyder takes advantage of him. Life lessons that, once experienced, make one older and wiser.

We decided the title pretty much described all the characters as well as the newspaper. Imperfect all, yet they kept at it and overcame their issues. The paper outlived Cyrus Ott. As for the setting, we didn't get much of a flavor of Rome from the stories. Although we did see how the mediocre paper filled a niche in Rome and elsewhere in Europe that kept it active longer that it would have lasted in a different locale.

The three of us ended the evening discussing our own news habits. Two of us take the daily newspaper. The third gets her news online, mainly from sources on Facebook. We considered how reading the printed news became part of our daily routine. I for one like perusing the pages at the breakfast table where I discover news stories that don't appear on the web site. But I lack all the high tech gadgets that are gradually becoming the norm. We lamented the ever smaller group of people controlling the print and broadcast media and their content.

In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, Rachman stated the theme of The Imperfectionists was the contrast between the grand and the human, and an exploration of the role ambition has in success. Rachman relied on his personal experiences in journalism to reveal the contradiction between the story and its creator. Amazing stories ought to have caring authors instead of inconsiderate oafs like Rich Snyder or narcissistic losers like Lloyd Burke. His insider understanding of the journalism business and characterization skills make The Imperfectionists highly readable.

Our next book is a classic:  James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

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