Tag Archives: short stories

Don’t Dream It’s Over

The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press; $15.00; 281 pages)

Perhaps the sub-title of The Imperfectionists should have been Related Tales of Dark Humor and Irony.   This is the fictional story of a second-rate international newspaper based in Rome, a poor cousin to the International Herald-Tribune.   It has never had any more than 25,000 subscribers and readers, and it has no website.   It is, therefore, doomed.

The Imperfectionists is not actually a novel but rather a grouping of eleven short stories concerning the wild and wooly characters who work at the rag before it enters its death spiral.   One copy editor is smart enough to depart early…  She finds an apparent life raft in the International Finance Department at the Milan Office of Lehman Brothers.   Welcome to the Titanic!

This may give you a bit of insight into author Rachman’s wicked sense of humor.   Rachman could likely write about anything – even a crew of sanitation workers – and make it sound interesting and engaging.

“You can’t dread what you can’t experience.”

The reporters and allied staff members at the nearly defunct paper truly dread – like they fear their own deaths – its inevitable closing, but they take some comfort in the fact that their pink slips mean they won’t actually experience the lights being turned off for the final time.

One of the opaque characters is a copy editor who simply pretends to hate her job because she loves it too much.   “I get to stay…” she thinks as she avoids a round of lay-offs, while grousing that she wishes they had let her go.   Then there’s the veteran war reporter who is completely nuts but quite successful (like the one my wife and I had drinks with once).   These gruff and nicked guys are far more interested in telling their literal war stories than in observing anyone’s reaction to them…  They’re a bit like wild animals whose press badge serves as their “If lost, return to —” tag.

The paper in question is owned by Oliver Ott, a man who inherited the paper and who is – quite naturally – completely clueless as to its operations.

“The paper – that daily report on the idocy and the brilliance of the species – had never before missed an appointment.   Now it was gone.”

Arthur Gopal, the often-pitied obituary writer, survives to find a plum job as a top reporter in Manhattan, while the publication he so carefully wrote for expires (“Overnight, the paper disappeared from newsstands…”) without the benefit of a beautifully written send-off.   Such is life.

The Imperfectionists would be virtually perfect but for an abrupt, flawed and somewhat frustrating ending.   Be forewarned.   Still, this is well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Lyon Books in Chico, California.

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Both Sides, Now

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t/ have it/ both ways/ and both/ ways is / the only/ way I/ want it.   – A. R. Ammons

both-ways

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on the door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a wildly great time showing their students the hidden meanings and life lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Joseph Arellano

Well recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   Richard Ford


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A Well Respected Man

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings (Random House; $35.00; 640 pages)

William Somerset Maugham, author of the wonderful novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, wildly successful playwright and debonaire world traveler, was a decidedly private person.   He suffered from a crippling stutter, felt uneasy around most people, and throughout his long life he jealously and vehemently concealed the fact that he was bisexual.   Well, mostly gay.   He endured a long and miserable marriage to a brash and manipulative woman, Syrie Maugham.   And before he died he insisted that all of his personal letters and correspondence be burned.   If not for the fact that many of his friends and lovers retained the letters he wrote to them in spite of this fact, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fascinating material on which to draw.   While reading Selina Hastings’ biography, which is culled to a large extent from these letters, I felt a bit of remorse knowing that it was his wish that his “secrets” accompany him to the grave.   But I read it with zeal and enjoyment nonetheless and comforted myself with the knowledge that a brilliant and wickedly observant writer born in this century – as opposed to the late 1800s – would not have felt the sad need to cloister his activities and thoughts in this way.

A good deal of Maugham’s writing, especially Of Human Bondage, is autobiographical: it depicts the wanton and forlorn abandon with which a man, often hindered by a physical defect that alienates him from his peers, can crave and seek the attention of a reprehensible mate.   The female object of this slaving and desperate attention, never his equal in intellect or virtue, cycles though phrases of appreciation and disdain, ultimately taking advantage of him and rejecting his honest but pathetic advances.   Selina Hastings succeeds in shedding light on the host of painful personal experiences, such as the loss of his mother and father at a young age that resulted in an exile to his stern uncle’s vicarage, his years as a resident physician in London’s poorest neighborhoods and the uncomfortable lifelong relationship he had with his younger male lover, that drove him to write about such dismal subject matter so tellingly.   What she does not do, however, is to offer much on how he often managed to take these bleak tales and turn them into mild or even hopeful visions on life and the world or whether he shared the curiously calm view of many of his characters that the world is a benign place with all of its millions of threads woven life a tapestry, a place that tosses us about with no ill- or good-will.

The remainder of his prolific literary output, such as the shorter novels and collections of short stories and vignettes, was largely gathered from overheard or shared conversations within his circle of famous and worldly friends or on his extensive travels throughout the Pacific and China.   He carried a notebook with him wherever he went, recording bits of dialogue or expressed thoughts, and turned them – sometimes with the nearly verbatim remnants of his notebook entries still intact – into stories and plays.   Reading the accounts of where and when he came by some of the actual material was a real delight.   By far my favorite bits of the biography were the accounts of his actual writing habits.   Each morning he retreated at an early hour to his study and sat and wrote for hours before continuing to the rest of his social and familial duties; he often studied classics and languages for hours in the morning if he had nothing to write.

This biography is thorough, well-written and despite its length and level of detail, leaves you even more curious about Mr. Maugham.   It lends a great deal of understanding to his actions, choices and the topics about which he wrote without extending too much bias, which is something from which many biographies suffer.   Maugham was without a doubt one of the most fascinating, dedicated and talented writers in recent history.   What a joy it is to be able to learn about his life, understand the processes he used to craft stories, get a glimpse of so many of his personal letters and get a taste of the many interesting (and famous in their own right) people and places he knew and loved.

Christine Van Winkle

Used by permission.   To see  more of Christine’s reviews (literary and otherwise) go to http://www.thewritechristine.com/ .

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn.

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Wait, There’s More…

Fever Dream by Preston & Child (Hachette Audio Unabridged)

The writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Preston & Child) have a winning franchise that stars Aloysius Pendergast, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent with a distinctive southern drawl.   Fever Dream, their tenth in the series, is a mesmerizing story with an international twist.   Actor Rene’ Auberjonois’ narration heightens the atmospheric tension with a nimble voice that shifts easily from character to character.

The audio book was this reviewer’s first experience with the series and it will not be the last.   The story opens with the hideous death suffered by Pendergast’s wife, Helen, in the jaws of a lion during an African visit.   Fast forward 12 years to when Pendergast comes across evidence that leads him to the unavoidable conclusion that his soul mate was murdered and was not the victim of a natural occurrence.   The story shifts back to the United States and thus begins the obsessive hunt for Helen’s killer or killers.

The languid, lush atmosphere of the southern U.S. replete with wily characters and roadside diners makes it as much a character as is Pendergast, his brother-in-law Judson Esterhazy or sidekick, Vincent D’Agosta of the New York City police department.   This is a story of the obsession that is part of every character’s makeup.   There are meticulous details, vivid descriptions and a rather sweet ‘n salty taste to the language used by the characters.   Along the way, the listener is treated to fascinating historical information about John James Audubon who painted some of the most beautiful bird and animal pictures ever created.

This novel reminds this reviewer of the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.”   Both are highly entertaining attention grabbers.

Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Hachette Audio.

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Having It All

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t / have it / both ways / and both / ways is / the only / way I / want it.   – A. R.  Ammons

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on his door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to again listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a great time showing their students the hidden meanings and lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy, author of Liars and Saints.   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   – Richard Ford

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