Monday, February 28, 2011

This debut novel is so darn good

Reading debut fiction is quite risky, no? You end up either reading something that's total trash or discovering amazing new talent. Fortunately, with Tom Rachman's debut novel The Imperfectionists, it was the latter.

The Imperfectionists is about the private lives of the staff who run an English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter, which focuses on a particular staff member, reads like a short story. The opening chapter focuses on the newspaper's foreign correspondent in Paris and his dysfunctional relationships with his sons and daughters. Another chapter deals with the paper's obituary writer and how one death paves the way for his career to be resurrected. There are other chapters with beautiful storylines and wonderful narratives in Rachman's debut novel.

Even though the chapters have the feel of stand-alone short stories, there is a subtle narrative thread that ties the individual stories together. The business reporter's unhealthy romantic relationship is linked with the sad story of the news editor's partner. When the chief financial officer is duped by a frustrated and retrenched copy editor, it's not long before you discover that it all ties up with the publisher's indifference to the eventual fate of the paper in today's age of the Internet and free information.

It's hard to pick a favorite character in the novel. Rachman's microscopic exploration of each of his character's private life is so believable that you live it. For a few hours, I became the failed and cowardly Cairo stringer, I was the meticulous corrections editor, and I was the uber-controlling editor-in-chief. It's a sad feeling when you reach the end of each chapter, as if you're saying good-bye to that particular character.

Rachman gives all his characters distinct voices. Oftentimes, it is the dialogue of the characters the propel the story, it is their lines that give their purpose. The Imperfectionists may have focused on flawed characters, but Rachman has come out with a debut that's almost perfect in every way. I do believe it's the best novel I've read so far this year.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wanted what it's like to work for a newspaper.
  2. You're a sucker for debut fiction.
  3. You're a voyeur.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Some people seem to have it all

Nicholas Sparks looks like this:
Yet I haven't read a single novel of his.

Still, I don't mind if authors aren't eye candy at all.
Since I know that they'll write beautiful works such as this:
Don't you agree, dear reader?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A travel writer who hates traveling

I may not have traveled much, but with the few places I've been to, I made sure to see all the sights, sample the good food, and get to know the wonderful people of these places I've visited. This is a far cry from the main character of Anne Tyler's beloved novel, The Accidental Tourist.

In the novel, we meet Macon Leary, a travel writer whose specialization is to focus on as little as possible about the esoteric, the foreign. He gives practical advice to businessmen on a trip -- the location of the Burger King in Paris, the colors to wear during trips (gray, never white), and the right way to keep foreign currency (with a specific currency in each small envelope). Needless to say, he hates traveling.

At the beginning of The Accidental Tourist, Macon's wife Sarah is leaving him and wants a divorce. She's had enough of his obsessive-compulsive behavior, the lack of spontaneity, and the loneliness that seems to pervade the couple. Macon and Sarah has lost their one and only child in a bizaare murder incident. Macon naturally goes into a slump, causing him to get behind on his manuscripts for his travel guides entitled The Accidental Tourist. (There's an Accidental Tourist in Paris, an Accidental Tourist in New York, etc.)

After a frantic conversation with the owner of a publishing house who's been needling him on the deadlines, Macon books a flight to the next stop in The Accidental Tourist series. But there's one problem -- he has to find a vet who he can leave his dog with. He finds one at the last minute, and this is where he meets an eccentric dog trainer named Muriel. After his trip and while temporarily shacking up with his siblings, Macon receives several calls from Muriel, asking him to let her train the dog and, surprise surprise, to go out with her. What follows is an unconventional love story between two persons who are way too different from each other.

Yes, at its heart, The Accidental Tourist is a love story. But it isn't a sappy one. The romantic angle doesn't become realized until halfway through the novel. The story about two mismatched persons who fall in love with each other may not be original, but Tyler managed to pull it off. Macon is never the hopelessly clueless character that we might expect. Muriel's fish-out-of-water personality never goes overboard.

Tyler even writes a bravura ending. Just when we thought that Macon may have the wish to go back to his wife, who now seems accepting of his shortcomings and quirks, Tyler has written an ending that is pleasantly rewarding, something that makes you feel that her characters are totally human.

I'm not big on love stories. Most of them make me feel nauseous with their cardboard-cutout characters. As a novel, The Accidental Tourist, may feel like a breezy read, but its message certainly packs a punch. Most people say that this is also Anne Tyler's best work. I wouldn't know of course, since this is my first Tyler read. But I certainly would now be open to reading her other novels.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wondered how travel guides are written.
  2. You're longing for an unconventional love story.
  3. You know that opposites do attract.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Funny travel journal

When you're young, idealistic, and fresh out of college, the first thing you do is find a job, right? No, says Mo Willems, the 6-time Emmy award writer for "Sesame Street" and acclaimed author of children's books such as Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.

Way back in 1990, Willems decided to go backpacking across the world for one year. And every day of that year, Willems sketched the most poignant thing that happened on that day. The result is one hilarious travel journal entitled You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Moonsoons, a book filled with memorable sketches and funny and touching short anecdotes.

Willems's book is beautiful, each page dominated by a sketch and then followed by a short description of it. Most of the entries are funny and has caused me to giggle by myself this fine Sunday morning. It's a thick book by the way, since it has at least 365 entries, but it certainly was an enjoyable read.

Willems managed to start his journey from the US of course, then visiting other countries such as India, Indonesia, Luxembourg (terribly dull), Turkey, Spain, and Singapore (where all the fun stops), just to name a few. Below are two of my favorite pages from the book.

I wish that I can go traveling around the world, too, like what Willems did. I'm not so sure of the backpacking however. I love clean underwear, and the smell of hotels gives me a natural high. Nevertheless, I'm envious with all the experiences Willems had during that year, the people he met, the culture he was momentarily a part of, the food he sampled, and the invaluable lessons he learned.

Read this book if:
  1. You're a travel bug.
  2. You like big pictures in your books.
  3. You're craving to read something funny.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Short but satisfying

Last month, the book club I belonged to had an online discussion on coming-of-age novels that the members find memorable. And one of the novels that received special mention, especially from my fellow book blogger Honey, was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

The House on Mango Street is a very short work of fiction, just a little over 100 pages. But it's one of the most satisfying 100 pages that I've ever read. The novel basically describes the hardships that the Cordero family endures as immigrants to the US, all told through the voice of Esperanza. Because Cisneros is a poet, the words in the novel flow beautifully. Cisneros's writing style, as she describes the coming of age of Esperanza, is lyrical.
In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.
Seldom does a novel evoke so many feelings in me as this one. Esperanza's story, told in vignettes that run for an average of 2 pages each, is sad, funny, life affirming, and brutal in equal doses. I found myself angry after reading Esperanza's sexual violation. I laughed at all the hysterical episodes in her childhood.

Ultimately, The House on Mango Street is anything but hopeful. In the Cordero's house in Mango Street, where the residents are subjected to racism and so many disheartening experiences, one can only survive by realizing that he can rise above it all.

Read this book if:
  1. You like coming-of-age fiction.
  2. You love a touch of poetry in your novels.
  3. Your parents are immigrants themselves.