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Book Reviews: Not Just Beach Reads

Our crit reviews new books from Tom Rachman, Allegra Goodman, and Tracy White


Summer may be the season of beach reads, but these books would be good any time of year.

The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman


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In a mini-essay on Amazon.com, author Tom Rachman writes, “To imagine a future in journalism, a trade that I had never loved, terrified me.” This was given as an explanation for why he quit his job at the Associated Press to write a novel. It’s also a lie: You have to love journalism to write about it as Rachman does in his debut novel, The Imperfectionists. The book, an elegantly assembled collection of what are ultimately short stories, is a tribute to a dying art. The newspaper at the center, a nameless English-language daily based in Rome, is founded by American entrepreneur Cyrus Ott. He instates a long-lost love, Betty, and her husband, Leo, at the helm. The Ott stories are miniatures: two or three pages that detail the history of the paper from the 1950s to present day. They are sandwiched between longer stories that linger on current-day employees at the floundering periodical. From the aging foreign correspondent willing to plagiarize to get a final scoop to the business writer who is a whiz with numbers but a mess at her personal life, there is not one wrong note here; these characters are so much more than just newsroom clichés. [9/10]

The Cookbook Collector

By Allegra Goodman

Chick lit gets a bad rap. OK, sure: Sparkly covers littered with high heels can be a little off-putting, and yeah, the pleasantly plump but pretty girl does usually end up with the charming, handsome co-worker. But a lot of the genre is written by ladies with talent, and it’s sad to see the whole of it be dismissed so casually. Which brings me to Allegra Goodman’s newest novel, The Cookbook Collector. Classy, muted autumnal tones comprise the painting on the cover; the font is distinguished and serious; a New York Times bestselling author notation hides in the shadowy lower right corner. But, and please don’t mistake this is anything other than praise, Goodman’s book is chick lit mutton dressed up as literary lamb. The sweet story follows two sisters, Emily and Jess, one soft and sweet, the other smart and angular—but not predictably so. Emily has the smarts and a start-up in Silicon Valley. Jess is a lost soul who works in a rare book shop, enthusing over the environment and various other causes. They both lose and find love, they both reconnect with family and re-evaluate the past. The story ends with a full heart: the characters’ loose ends are tied up, tied to each other and they’ve all ended up in a much different and better place than they began. And that’s not such an awful thing for a reader. [7.5/10]

How I Made It to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story

By Tracy White

For a long time, superheroes dominated the picture book market. Bright colors, abrupt dialogue and vivid violence defined the comic world. Then there was a movement away from the fantastical worlds of superhuman men and women, a movement that was often in black and white or muted earth tones, a movement that told the stories of real people with real foibles, real strengths and weaknesses. Tracy White’s new memoir graphic novel, How I Made It to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story, shows just how far the world of comics has come. Simple line drawings, delicate and wispy, convey the mood of the book: unstable. Main character Stacy, an alter ego of the author Tracy, has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and is working out her issues at a local mental institution, Golden Meadows. Stacy is depressed and in a relationship that is helping neither party, but is also capable of self-sabotage and demonstrates this throughout the book. At interludes, four friends from different moments in Stacy’s life answer questions about their troubled friend. Their answers speak as much about their own problems as they do about Stacy. And then the story ends. Since the author is recounting her past, you know there is a happy ending, but the conclusion is just a moment in time. No big finale or realization, just another moment of Stacy trying to step away from the sadness that has brought her to this place. [7/10]

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