Tag Archives for " eccentrics "

A whodunit that’s not about a detective

whodunitA review of The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway Mysteries #1), by Elly Griffiths

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

You might call this book a whodunit, a species of fiction that I tend to shun because I find the circumstances that cast doubt on the innocence of several characters to be contrived and ultimately boring. However, author Elly Griffiths managed to keep me interested to the end despite the contrivances. Her protagonist, Ruth Galloway, is not a detective but a forensic anthropologist who teaches at a provincial university in Norfolk on England’s east coast. Galloway and the other characters in the novel are well developed, the author makes artful use of the myths and legends of the locale, and the story is suspenseful. She writes well, too.

An eccentric investigator

Ruth Galloway is an eccentric woman nearing the age of forty. She lives alone in a cottage on the edge of a coastal marsh with two cats for which she has an unnatural attachment. Her claim to fame in professional circles was the discovery a decade previously of an Iron Age “henge” (think Stonehenge) on the border of the marsh.

When the local police come across the bones of a young child buried near the marsh, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson turns to Galloway in hopes she can determine whether the bones are old or those of the missing girl in a current high-profile case. She confirms that the bones are indeed of ancient origin, and the police continue to involve her in their ongoing investigation after more bones are found. It soon develops that Galloway’s own professional colleagues are among the suspects in the girl’s disappearance. Naturally, Galloway and Nelson team up to identify the culprit, but there are many twists and turns along the way.

About Elly Griffiths

The Crossing Places, published in 2009, was the first in Elly Griffiths‘ series of Ruth Galloway Mysteries. The character was inspired by the author’s husband, who left a job in the city to study archaeology. Griffiths is clearly prolific, as there are now eight books in the series. She has also written two detective novels in a second series — all in the past six years.

Ten great recent books by Berkeley writers

Berkeley writersMaybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so.

So far as I can tell, people living in what has become my home town of Berkeley, California, have been writing an inordinate number of really good books in recent years. That’s probably because the town attracts creative people like . . . well, should I say, like flies? No, that wouldn’t fit. For example, we have our own famous “Three Michaels” — Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker), and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They’re hardly alone. It’s tough to stumble into any corner coffee shop here and not find some future Pulitzer-winner hunched over a laptop and the coffee cup by her side that’s been empty all day.

Though I do have a certain affection for the products of the town I call home, and am thus more likely to pick up a locally grown effort than one labeled Brand X, I can’t possibly keep up with all the collective literary output of my landsmen. So, what I’ve read is just a smattering of what’s on offer. And it all arrived on my Kindle only after squeezing through the finely meshed sieve of my idiosyncratic reading taste.

Here, then, are ten Berkeley-sourced books I’ve read and reviewed in the last few years that I can still wholeheartedly recommend.

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

Grounded in thirty years of dogged research, including mountains of documents from Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, an investigative journalist reveals the close collaboration between J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan that brought violence to a generation of college students and the Right Wing to the White House.

All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff

With sparkling dialogue and finely honed psychological insight, the celebrated screenwriter and novelist explores the town’s historical obsessions with sex, drugs, and revolution in this brilliant novel about six friends whose lives and loves intersect and overlap over the course of four decades.

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick

MacArthur Fellow Peter Gleick, one of the world’s reigning experts on water resources, exposes the scandalous practices of the bottled-water industry and its unfortunate environmental impact.

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III

Two scholars probe the tragic, short-lived history of the Black Panther Party, which flourished in Berkeley and Oakland in the late 1960s, spread through African-American ghettos nationwide in the 1970s, and collapsed early in the 1980s under the pressure of violent FBI and police suppression as well as internal conflicts.

1Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis

In his latest foray into the canyons of the contemporary Wild West we call Wall Street, Michael Lewis takes on the notorious high-velocity traders who have come to dominate — and distort — large swaths of the stock market, raising profound questions about the fairness of the venerable institutions that manage the world’s most-watched markets.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

A science journalist explores the prospects for human survival in the face of the wrenching changes already underway as a result of human-initiated climate disruption — and prescribes what our species must do to avoid extinction.

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

A leading UC Berkeley social scientist explores the extreme Right Wing’s latter-day rise in American politics in an anthology of scholarly articles drawn from a diverse range of experts, dispelling myths right and left along the way.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s latest book spotlights his own neighborhood with illuminating portraits of the diverse characters who populate the North Oakland-South Berkeley borderland, showcasing Chabon’s showmanship with words, which cascade down the page in glorious profusion, evoking image after image.

A Theory of Small Earthquakes, by Meredith Maran

The long-time Berkeley memoirist (Class Dismissed) ventures into the realm of love and the true nature of family in their many dimensions in a story of relationships tested by the tumultuous events of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

The celebrated financial journalist gets to know the fascinating and eccentric investors and speculators who dared to buck the tide of ebullience that enveloped Wall Street and Main Street alike in the heady days of 2007-8, as the Great Recession took hold.



Who has written the most books?

who has written the most books?You’re gonna love this.

Once upon a time, back in the distant reaches of the twentieth century—well, actually it was 1984—one of my clients assigned me to ghostwrite a fundraising letter that Isaac Asimov had agreed to sign. I approached the task with some trepidation, both because I knew Asimov’s reputation as a prolific author and because I had actually met the man once and knew how prickly he was (but that’s another story).

Eventually, I managed to draft the letter and, as directed, I sent it off to Asimov’s New York apartment via FedEx. I phoned two days later in hopes the famous man had actually had a chance to read my deathless prose. His wife answered. When I asked to speak with him, she said, “Oh, no, he’s much too busy to talk. He’s writing.” (Well, of course! What else would the man be doing?) She added that she was certain he’d get back in touch with me.

Sure enough, the following day I received a FedEx package from Asimov. Fearfully, I extracted the draft copy—and was flabbergasted to note a signed permission slip and, miraculously, what appeared to be absolutely no changes in the text. However, when I examined the text more carefully, I noted one alteration in tiny handwritten script.

I had written “As the author of more than 300 books . . .”

Asimov changed that to read “As the author of more than 310 books . . .”

Ultimately, the celebrated author of both popular science and science fiction books went on to write a total of more than 400 volumes. Is he the most prolific author, living or dead?

Not by a long shot.

A widely circulated post on the Internet attributes that dubious honor to a certain South African writer named Mary Faulkner, who died in 1973 at the age of 70. The Guinness Book of World Records reportedly ranks her as “history’s most prolific novelist, [who] wrote under six pen names.” Faulkner wrote a total of 904 books.

Writers much better known than Faulkner (Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Barbara Cartland, Alexandre Dumas) as well as others much more obscure appear on the list below her, each credited with writing between 258 and 850 books. And the list doesn’t even include the two people I know personally who have each written more than 400 books.

But wait. Even 904 novels won’t cut it.

Further investigation turns up a report that “In 2006, Guinness World Records declared L. Ron Hubbard the world’s most published and most translated author, having published 1,084 fiction and non-fiction works that have been translated into 71 languages.”

Don’t recognize the name of this illustrious wordsmith? He’s the paranoid schizophrenic, pathological liar, and fugitive from justice who founded Scientology. He died in 1986 at the age of 75 with a fortune equivalent to nearly a billion dollars today. (Hubbard’s the man who famously said, “If you want to get really rich, start a new religion.” Ahem!)

But hold your horses. Isaac Asimov, Mary Faulkner, and L. Ron Hubbard combined don’t even register in the same octave as the prodigious Philip M. Parker. This superhuman individual, a 54-year-old professor of management science at INSEAD, a top-rated global business school based in France, claims to have authored more than one million books. (My source is This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research, by Marc Abrahams.)

You read that right. One million books—and he’s only been writing them since 2008. (However, Amazon lists only 133,501.)

Here are a few of Professor Parker’s deathless titles:

  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Bathroom Toilet Brushes and Holders in the United States
  • The 2007–2012 World Outlook for Rotary Pumps with Designed Pressure of 100 P.s.i. or Less and Designed Capacity of 10 G.p.m. or Less
  • Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide
  • Webster’s English to Romanian Crossword Puzzles: Level 2
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Golf Bags in India
  • The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Frozen Asparagus in India

Just makes you want to rush right out and snap up an armful of these gems, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not. And especially when you learn that Professor Parker doesn’t actually write any of these books. This obviously clever man has instead written a slew of computer algorithms that do the writing for him, turning out, say, at least six books about the outlook for bathroom toilet brushes.

Bianca Bosker, writing for Huffington Post, reports that “Parker started by generating market reports sold to banks, consulting firms and government trade agencies interested in the sales outlook for, say, rubber or corrugated cardboard. Now, he hopes to use the algorithms to help with language learning and education in developing countries. Thanks to Parker’s automated radio broadcasts, people in parts of Malawi are hearing weather forecasts in the local language for the first time—and are already changing their farming patterns as a result.”

September 16, 2013

From the Summer of Love to the Jonestown massacre

jonestown massacreSeason of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s difficult to imagine any city in North America that has experienced such a short and intense period of tumult and terror as did San Francisco from the mid-60s to the early 1980s.

The Summer of Love. The racist Zebra killings. The People’s Temple mass suicide. The assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The onset of the AIDS epidemic. And the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Janis — oh, the music!

You can’t make this stuff up.

For those of us who lived through this era in and near San Francisco and even knew some of the players, David Talbot’s masterful portrait of that time and place, Season of the Witch, reawakens memories, some of them long suppressed. To recall that we lived our lives punctuated by such rapidly alternating bouts of exhilaration and despair!

Talbot tells the tale of this time through a series of interconnected biographical sketches, bringing the bold-faced names of the 1960s and 1970s back to life in vivid detail: Scott Newhall, Herb Caen, Joe Alioto, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Harvey Milk, Janis Joplin, Dianne Feinstein, and dozens of others. This is a story not of saints and sinners but of flesh-and-blood human beings with their own faults and failings no matter how society may have lionized them.

Season of the Witch opens and closes with vignettes from the colorful lives of Vincent and Vivian Hallinan who, with their six pugilistic sons and the other lawyers the old man trained, set the combative tone for progressive politics in the city for decades to come.

Talbot makes clear that San Francisco was always a world apart from the nation, with its origins rooted in the frenzy of the Gold Rush (the pro football team isn’t called the 49ers without reason!). “By 1866,” he writes, “there were thirty-one saloons for every place of worship.” Six decades later, “[d]uring the Prohibition era, the local board of supervisors passed legislation forbidding San Francisco police from enforcing the dry law.” It could have been no surprise, then, how young Vincent Hallinan responded in an early court appearance when asked by a judge whether he wished to show contempt for the court: “‘No, Your Honor, I’m trying to conceal it.'”

To Talbot, the story of San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s is one of a “new city growing within the old” — the flower children, anti-war protestors, weed smokers and acidheads, the gays, and more gays: these were the newcomers who grafted themselves on to a tradition-bound, Catholic, pro-labor town run by Irish and Italians who were never prone to go down without a fight.

David Talbot was the founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Salon in 1995 after serving as an editor for both newspapers and magazines. He has written for many other publications and has authored several other books.

A war hero and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in a funny anti-war novel

anti-war novel: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben FountainBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Tending to squeamishness as I do, I don’t often read novels about war unless they’re written with a generous dose of humor. Oh, I’ll admit to having read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and a few other classics I remember less vividly, but that was all long ago. More recently, I’ve read and reviewed only Kill Anything That Moves, by Nick Turse, and The Outpost, by Jake Tapper. The war novels I truly cherish and have even been known to re-read are . . . well, anti-war novels, not to put too fine an edge on it. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richard Hooker’s MASH, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 are all dead serious, of course, but they’re also hilarious from time to time (and Catch-22 nearly nonstop so). I generally find it difficult to deal with the grim side of war without a little help.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fits very neatly into this latter category. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face to face with insurgents. It was no surprise to me when I learned after finishing the book that it had won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. It’s that good.

Billy Lynn is a certified, true-blue, red-blooded American hero, one of eight surviving soldiers in a ten-man squad that engaged a large band of Iraqi insurgents in a deadly firefight. One of the two lifers in the squad, a sergeant Billy idolized, was shot, then grabbed and dragged away by two insurgents. Witnessing this terrible scene, Billy instantly, unthinkingly, leapt into the line of fire, shot and killed the sergeant’s two captors while dodging a barrage of bullets, and then proceeded to kill many of the other enemy fighters with one hand while he tended to the gravely wounded man with his other, finally cradling him in his lap as he died.

Clearly, events like this, though uncommon, were not unheard-of in the Iraq war — but this show of heroism was unique: it was captured on video by a Fox News camera team embedded with a neighboring squad and quickly found its way onto every TV, computer, tablet, and smartphone in America. Suddenly, Billy and his squad — erroneously dubbed “Bravo Squad” by reporters — are national heroes. Two, including Billy, received Silver Stars (though Billy’s commanding officer had recommended him for the Medal of Honor). Donald Rumsfeld’s Army, never slow to notice the possibility of a PR coup, yanks the squad out of Iraq and puts them on a multi-city “Victory Tour” all across the United States. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk tells the tale of the last couple of days of the Bravos’ tour, as they rush through a series of grueling appearances on Thanksgiving Day — prior to returning to Iraq to complete the eleven months left on their tours of duty.

Much of the story revolves around Billy’s interaction with the folks at home, and here’s where Ben Fountain shows his stuff and lays bare his feelings: “All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms. Billy himself never noticed how fake it all is until he’d done time in a combat zone.”

Billy is nineteen years old, a native of small-town Stovall, Texas, and the rest of the Bravos hail from other towns throughout the broad sweep of the American South, from North Carolina to Arizona. They’re white, black, and brown. They’re real.

Ben Fountain has written one previous novel and a slew of short stories and nonfiction pieces for a long list of prestigious publications. He has won an arm’s length of awards for his literary work.

You might be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels, of which Billy Lynn is one.

Tea Party politics may not be what you think

Tea Party politicsSteep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you know nothing about the Tea Party other than what you’ve picked up from the daily news and a magazine article here and there, chances are excellent that you’ll learn a great deal from reading Steep. Here are just a few of the insights I gained from this superb collection of scholarly articles that examine the Tea Party from the front, the back, upside down, and sideways:

  • There is, really, no such thing as “The Tea Party.” The term encompasses thousands of organizations at the national, statewide, and local levels that at any given time may well be found squabbling with one another about ideology, tactics, or just plain personality differences. I knew about the proliferation of groups but not about the diversity of views among them.
  • The Tea Party phenomenon first surfaced less than a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President in 2009 — yes, less than four years ago — as what one scholar calls a “test marketing” campaign backed by money from the Koch Brothers and mainstream Republican operatives such as former Congressman Dick Armey, which we all knew very well at the time. However, the movement spawned by this intentional investment in destabilizing the fledgling Obama Administration grew so quickly and with such spontaneity that its original backers soon lost control. Whatever else it might be, the Tea Party is a grassroots phenomenon.
  • Unlike the Christian Right before it, the Tea Party brought few new voters into the Republican column. As several of the authors in Steep make clear from their studies of a wide variety of poll results, the Tea Party is populated largely by Right-Wing Republicans who usually vote, anyway. (They also tend to be white males at or nearing retirement age.) The Tea Party brought passion to the Republican grassroots base, providing the necessary motivation to draw more foot-soldiers to the conservative cause.
  • The old John Birch Society, which we all thought had gone the way of the Cult of Isis in the 1960s after William F. Buckley, Jr. consigned it to purgatory, somehow managed to resuscitate itself and become engaged in Tea Party activities. So did former leaders of the White Citizens Councils, the militia movement, and other assorted cranks, kooks, and eccentrics and the delusions they brought with them. Since nearly one-half (44%) of Tea Party adherents professed to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the United States, using the term delusional is not out of line.

The most intriguing chapter in Steep is University of Michigan political science and women’s studies professor Lisa Disch’s, in which she “advances a counterintuitive argument: The Tea Party movement is sparked, in part, by the threat its supporters perceive to their share in two key programs of the liberal welfare state [i.e., Social Security and Medicare]. Tea Party politics is conservative, but its supporters’ material commitments and even aspects of their rhetoric place them in a liberal genealogy.” Disch argues that, during its first two decades, Social Security was explicitly racialized — farmworkers and domestic workers were specifically excluded from benefits (and guess who they meant by that!) — and that for decades afterward Social Security was seen as largely a benefit to white people, even after the coverage was broadened. “This makes Tea Party mobilization a ‘white citizenship’ movement: action in defense of material benefits that confer ‘racial standing’ in a polity that purports to deny precisely that — special standing based on race . . .  [T]he Tea Party movement belongs to liberal America even as Tea Party rhetoric denounces liberalism and liberals denounce Tea Partiers.”

Since I’m not bound by the strictures of academic “objectivity” (whatever that is), I can sum up all this information with my own conclusion: The Tea Party is the latest and the most extreme expression of the Right-Wing Republican movement that has been growing since its inception in the 1940s and 1950s in McCarthyite anti-Communism, the John Birch Society, and Southern opposition to civil rights, and in the backlash to the New Left, feminism, and the anti-war movement. Though the Tea Party is heterogeneous in many ways, and its focus nationally has been on advancing the Republican agenda of small government and rolling back taxes, the overwhelming majority of its adherents also embrace the social politics of the Christian Right (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights) and the suppressed but all too real racial resentment that has been the centerpiece of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy since the days of Richard Nixon.  

As I write this, however, I wonder whether anyone but historians and political scientists will care much about the Tea Party five years, or even a year, from now. It remains to be seen what impact the Republican losses of 2012 will have on the spirit and the cohesion of the Tea Party.

Steep is a product of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California’s flagship campus, edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, the Center’s director and associate director, respectively. More power to them!

September 10, 2012

If you like weird stories about eccentric people, you’ll love this novel

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? - Maria SempleWhere’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Whenever I needed an excuse for something questionable I’d done as a child, I made up a story. Some of those stories — there were a lot of them — were colorful, detailed, and complex, based on the theory that the more I talked, the more likely it was that my parents would get bored and hence the less likely I would be punished. That actually seemed to work. Often as not, instead of moving to do something tragic, such as confine me to my room for a day, they would roll their eyes and say, “A likely story!”

Now, you may not be able to hear the intonation in that phrase, as I do, but I hope you get the point: the tale I’d told was beyond the realm of credibility, since my imagination had run away with me.

In that same sense, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a likely story.

I picked up this book because so many of the reviews I’d seen had labeled it “hilarious.” Sadly, I didn’t find it hilarious. Amusing, yes, even genuinely funny at times. Unusually well written, to be sure. Cleverly plotted, without question. And imaginative — to the max.

The Bernadette of the title is a 40-something suburban mom in Seattle who is anything but typical (if, in fact, there is such a person). She is a refugee from a former life in L.A., where by happenstance she was awarded a McArthur “genius” grant for her bold, unconventional work in architecture. Bernadette was “green” before there was green, or so the story goes. However, shortly after the national recognition she received as a result of the grant, Bernadette went off the rails and fled to Seattle with her husband, Elgin, who had conveniently sold his artificial intelligence company to Microsoft and secured a senior position to continue his work there.

Cut to Seattle, where the tale begins. Bernadette and Elgin have purchased a cavernous former “school for wayward girls” on a hilltop overlooking one of the city’s exclusive, high-income suburbs. Their 15-year-old daughter Bee (nee Balakrishna) narrates the unfolding story of Bernadette’s protracted nervous breakdown and later disappearance, interspersing her commentaries with email messages and official documents.

Author Maria Semple, who lives in Seattle, has practically nothing good to say about the place, and Microsoft bothers her, too. In fact, Semple doesn’t seem to like much of anything or anybody, as absolutely no one in this cockamamie novel comes off as completely sane and desirable — except for Antarctica, which possesses the rare virtues of being home to lots of penguins and very few people. You’ll have to find out for yourself how the story gravitates from Seattle to Antarctica.

You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

A funny story by a veteran British playwright and novelist

Veteran British playwright: Skios by Michael FraynSkios by Michael Frayn

@@@ (3 out of 5)

You may have heard of Michael Frayn without remembering his name. The successful British playwright and novelist is best known for the stage plays Noises Off, a frequently produced farce of mistaken identities, and Copenhagen, which portrays a meeting in 1941 between two of the giants of 20th Century physics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, at a time when Heisenberg was thought to be working on an atomic bomb for the Nazi regime.

In Skios, Frayn develops two intersecting stories based on the premise that one protagonist — a philandering nutcase who lives by impulse alone — inhabits the identity of the other, an internationally renowned author and lecturer on the subject of the scientific management of science. The expert is scheduled to deliver a lecture on a Greek island, Skios, to an exclusive audience assembled by a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the highest aspirations of European culture. Need I say that monumental complications ensue both for the expert and for the imposter, not to mention the foundation, its staff, and its guests? Might I add that, by the end of this little book, the body count numbers more than a dozen — and that no reader is likely to miss any of the deceased?

Skios is much closer in character to Noises Off than to Frayn’s more thoughtful work but is much less successful. Frayn’s humor comes through loud and clear — the story is frequently hilarious — but the utter absurdity of the plot unravels at the end, where Frayn lays out not one but two possible endings for the book. (One of them, perhaps the author’s original conclusion, is presented as conjectural. The other is presented as “real.”)

I loved Noises Off. I laughed until I was hoarse. And as a child I read Frayn’s first novel, The Tin Men, and loved that, too. Though I enjoyed Skios enough to finish it, I was disappointed.

You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

English eccentrics have nothing on the characters in The Imperfectionists


The Imperfectionists by Tom RachmanThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Throughout this peculiar novel, I found myself wondering “What’s the point?” When I finished reading it, I realized that question was the point.

A former reporter in Paris for the International Herald Tribune, Tom Rachman created a thinly disguised analog of that paper and placed it in Rome staffed exclusively by American ex-pats. However, I suspect that the publisher, editors, and staff of the IHT would take umbrage at the uniform pattern of neuroses, inadequacies, and generally annoying behavior of the characters in The Imperfectionists. I wonder if his former colleagues are still speaking to Rachman.

“The paper,” unnamed in the novel, is founded in the 1950s by a wealthy industrialist who hires his lover and her husband, and moves with them to Rome to run the paper, leaving his family behind in Atlanta. The whole gambit is suspicious from the start, and of course it is: nobody in The Imperfectionists seems to possess admirable motives even in the best of times.

This book, which is labeled a novel and seems to be accepted as such by most reviewers, is essentially a string of short stories about the people connected to the paper and, in many cases, to one another. It’s also a colorful picture of the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry over the past half-century, and that, to me, is its greatest strength.

English eccentrics have nothing on the characters in The Imperfectionists. From the young latter-day publisher who talks only to his dog, to the lowly staffer whose only ambition in life is to loaf on the job, to the impossibly incompetent would-be stringer in Cairo, these people are hard to take. From time to time I wondered whether this was all supposed to be funny. It wasn’t.


E. L. Doctorow on “Homer & Langley,” the legendary Collyer brothers

Homer and Langley by E. L. DoctorowHomer & Langley by E. L.Doctorow

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

“Homer & Langley” may not be the product of E. L. Doctorow’s finest writing, but stacked up against the usual run of popular contemporary fiction it has to be regarded as superior. This tale of the legendary Collyer brothers who perished in old age in their family’s once-elegant Fifth Avenue home offers a unique vantage point on New York society from the First World War until after the Second, ending with the brothers’ deaths in squalor in 1947.

We’re all familiar with the urban legend of the ancient recluse, holed up in a decrepit house crammed to the rafters with old newspapers and junk of every description. That legend may have begun with the Collyer brothers, whose eccentric behavior over three decades became notorious, first to their shocked neighbors and later to millions of New Yorkers through lurid accounts in the City’s press. Doctorow tells the story of their deterioration over the years in this thoroughly engrossing little book.

What is most remarkable about “Homer & Langley” are the inimitable characters of the two brothers, one blind and both clearly emotionally disturbed; the dynamic backdrop of New York through some of the most vigorous years of its history; and the extraordinary power of Doctorow’s writing.