Saturday, December 24, 2011

One New-to-Me, One Well-Read Review: The Imperfectionists (Rachmann) and The Remains of the Day

I feels a bit funny to do a book review post X-mas Eve, but I'm halfway through my next read and I like doubles for than triples.  I actually had a few "new-to-me"s on my nightstand but I'm trying to get back in the habit of throwing in some re-reads (like Remains of the Day, below).  I don't really re-watch movies but I do like re-visiting old books, some get nearly annual reads (Red Tent, Cider House Rules).  I suppose my lack of memory skills are an asset in saving on books. 

I don't tend to like short stories and this book straddles the line between a novel and shorts-land.  It is in a similar style as Olive Kitteridge but, luckily, I enjoyed this one much more.

The chapters alternate between portraits of a newspaper's modern-day employees and a history of the paper's founding and development.  There is some overlap in the portraits, which makes sense, but they are also pretty distinct stories that could each stand-alone.  The paper is international in scope, traditional in format (not even a website), and based in Rome.  Characters vary from an aging stringer to a writer whose career becomes his focus after a familial loss.  Many are not overly likeable but most are interesting and fairly well fleshed-out for the style (my usual complaint about shorts is the lack of fullness in the characters).

I enjoyed this quite a bit and give it a solid four stars.  I'd certainly seek out more works by Rachmann since I enjoyed his writing style and his attention to character development.  I wasn't as frustrated as I might have been by the brevity of each "visit" and I think that's largely a testament to the amount he fit into the pieces.  Yes, they aren't all likeable but, in my view, that makes them all the more real.  A favorite was the piece on the Chief Financial Officer who finds herself seated on an international flight next to a man whom she'd just laid off.  There is commentary on the impact of modern life on the newspaper trade but I didn't find the context to be incredibly central to the book.  It did remind me of a favorite chapter in Ulysses (and I just like being able to tout surviving that one, as all Haverford English majors do...and even enjoying it....).

Definitely for readers who want character over plot.
This is one I've revisited several times and always enjoy (four stars).  On the surface, it is simply a six-day journey to visit an old colleague, but there's much more underneath.  Stevens is a career butler in England who recently "came with the package" when an American purchased the house he has tended for decades.  Stevens prides himself on his "dignity" and spends a lot of time reflecting on the quality which, for him, often involved staying focused on his professional role despite any personal matters.  He asserts pride in having continued to serve impeccably on the day his father, a butler as well, passed, but there is some clear doubt about his choices.  He also reflects on his long-time employer.  Stevens had been proud to serve a man involved in international affairs who claimed to be hosting gatherings with global implications in the time between WWI and WWII.  However, even Stevens will admit that his employer made some poor choices in his loyalties, having been a clear Nazi sympathizer prior to the second war.  Stevens admits his employer was mistaken but argues strongly against anyone who demonizes the man, asserting (to himself as much as the reader) that the man was truly a decent person who just chose a wrong allegiance.

Again, this is a book of characters more than plot, even though there IS much more plot than just the roadtrip.  The trip serves as a chance for reflection since it is a rare time off-duty and so it does have the "action" of many years within the short trip.  It is more about character though and about concepts like dignity, class, and culture.  A key question left to the reader is whether the quality of a worker should be judged in relation to the nature of the employer.  Stevens clearly hopes his life of service has been worthwhile, but worries about it in hindsight. 

I consider this a key piece of twentieth century fiction and recommend it to literary folks who want to be comprehensive in their reading as well as to those who like their books to provoke thought.  It is a treatise on moral reflection in the dressing of a novel and carried off well by a wonderfully talented writer (loved his more recent Never Let Me Go, 4.5 stars, and just ordered two more of his works).

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