Monday, April 25, 2011

CBRIII #9: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

When I left my job, one of my bosses (I had probably 3 bosses, which did not make life easy) handed me The Imperfectionists as a gift at my office's going-away party. Since I don't really read book reviews and therefore know nothing about Tom Rachman's novel, my first thought was quite defensive: What are you trying to tell me here, huh?? Then my co-workers told me that this book is actually pretty perfect for me since it chronicles the lives of the staff members of an English-language daily newspaper in Rome. After devouring the pages (figuratively, not literally - I read it in a day and a half), I can only hope that the fates of the book's characters is not what I have to look forward to.

Tucked inbetween the chapters of The Imperfectionist is the origins story of the paper, of how it was conceived by a wealthy business man who kept his passions and motivations a secret, even from his own family. Meanwhile, each chapter follows a staff member, and there is even one devoted to a faithful reader of the paper. Beginning with Llyod Burko, a freelance writer past his prime whose children from his four ex-wives refuse to have anything to do with him, Rachman sets a seriously depressing tone that is only lifted during moments of dry newspaper humor.

There is Arthur Gopal, an obituary writer who gets by with doing minimal work; Craig Menzies, a news editor who hates his job and is disrespected because the entire office knows that his girlfriend cheated on him; Hardy Benjamin, a business reporter whose name seems to be the only thing about her that commands respect as she seems willing to contend herself with mediocrity; Kathleen Solson, the editor-in-chief who reacts with indifference to the realization that her husband has cheated on her and contemplates a dalliance with an old, now-married boyfriend; Abbey Pinnola, the financial officer who has to wrestle daily with the corporate company over layoffs, and then finds herself sitting next to the copy editor she just fired on a flight to Atlanta.

Truly, the only person who seems remotely happy with his existence is Herman Cohen, the corrections editor. Though portrayed in the beginning as a crotchety old man who nitpicks on the mistakes that appear in the paper, he is the only one who is happy, without compromise, with his life at the paper and at home. (By the way, Herman's entry in the newspaper's style book for the word "literally" reads: "This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as 'literally' did not happen at all. As in, 'He literally jumped out of his skin.' No, he did not... Eliminate on sight.")

All of which made me very nervous and apprehensive while reading this. I'm old enough now to know that happiness is relative and is often a work in progress throughout my adult life. It's bad enough that the journalism industry stereotypes perpetuate that every working journalist is either an alcoholic or a drug user who has probably been divorced three times. But to see all these characters portrayed as cynical, un-self-aware, sad, desperate - well, it made me wonder what the up side is to my chosen profession.

Probably the most depressing part of this book concerns its protaganist, the unnamed newspaper. It was disheartening to read of the newspaper's glory days under the first and second publisher, while alternately experiencing the sad encounters of the individuals who are now running it into its eventual demise (Oops, spoiler. But you probably saw it coming.) While reading this, I kept aching for more - more of a closure for many of the characters, more happiness for some of the saddest, un-self-respecting individuals, and just more of the newspaper lore. This is a well-written and poignant novel, but if you are a journalist, it doesn't give you much hope.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Country Living/Leaving

This was where I spent most of my weekend.

I went to my uncle's house in upstate New York, and it was wonderful just to get away from the city, if only for just 24 hours. I arrived there Friday night, slept in a bedroom that was built in the 1700s (and was just a bit disappointed that I wasn't awaken in the middle of the night by ghosts), biked along an old rail trail on Saturday afternoon and spent time playing with my little cousin. Then I was on the 7:45 p.m. train and whisked back to the city.

My uncle, his daughter and his wife

When I arrived at Port Authority, I made my way to the ACE. Some guy violently bumped into me and I looked up (from texting, of course), annoyed, and glared at him. He quickly apologized, and instead of saying, "It's ok," I snapped, "Dude, watch where you're going." I instantly regretted being rude but didn't know how to take it back. The kid was younger than me, looked like he was from out of town and looked seriously freaked. He disappeared before I could figure out an appropriate way to apologize.

Perhaps I've been in New York a little too long? Six years ago, I would have accepted that apology without a second thought; yesterday, I had to bite my tongue from saying something inappropriate.

I suppose these thoughts are only natural since I am actually leaving the city. I am leaving the country, to be more exact, on May 1 to Cambodia for a new job. I am absolutely thrilled/nervous/thankful for this opportunity and jumped at the chance when it was offered – but a part of me wondered if I was ready to leave this city I love so much. An old friend of mine said once, "I don't think people should leave New York until they absolutely cannot live here anymore." Her reasoning was that if we left before we were ready to, we'd always keep coming back, searching for that new shiny life, and being disappointed over and over again. It's a little bleak, for sure, but it's difficult to take an optimistic point of view when city living can beat you down with the high rents, high expenses and rude people (Exhibit A: me.)

On the other hand, I could also argue that the people of New York, be them transplants or actual locals (not an urban myth by the way), are some of the best people I have ever met. There are so many that are genuine and interesting and weird and strange and hardworking and good – I have become much more open-minded to so many different types of people, and I am always able to see the goodness in them. They (we – because as my uncle said, I am a New Yorker, even if I'm not) can be brusque and a little rough around the edges. But what you see is what you get, and if you don't like it, we really don't care.

My favorite quintessential New York Summer photo. Taken in 2007, I think.

So no, I'm not quite ready to leave here yet. But I am so ready to start on my new gig. Anyway, I'll always be back.