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review 2016-01-14 13:41
The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman

A collection of short stories, The Imperfectionists tells the stories of the men and women working for a struggling international English language newspaper in Rome. While the stories themselves are those of the contemporary employees ranging from the Editor in Chief to the obituary writer and accounts payable, the in-between moments are woven through with vignettes depicting the newspaper's history.


I was rather surprised by this collection. The author set out to write a character driven book, and he accomplished it. I appreciate that he did not go out of his way to make these men and women likable. Which is not to say they aren't, it is just very clear that his intent was to give the reader an inside look at real people, their insecurities, flaws, and imperfections. Too often authors fall into the trap of making their characters too black or white, either all good or all bad, resulting in a caricature of human nature. Rachman does not do that, and we instead wind up with a realistic glimpse into the lives of people who are no different than you or me.


While the story does advance to a definite conclusion, this book is not for the readef who needs their books to be plot driven. It is all about the people who reside in its pages. I also don't think it is for anyone who does not enjoy short stories. Once upon a time, I thought that was me. I have since realized that I was wrong. A short story done well can be every bit as enjoyable and complete as a novel. This collection does a fine job at doing exactly that. If you enjoy short stories and character portraits, then I would recommend you give this book a look.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-10-23 18:19
The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman

Striving for mediocrity and settling for less is how the characters in The Imperfectionists operate. A novel by Tom Rachman, it’s the story of an English language newspaper in Rome and the people who struggle to make it work.

We all know the fate of the newspaper industry today, but when Cyrus Ott started Corso Vittoria in the 1950s it had lots of potential. Mostly it had the potential to employ the woman he loved, (although not his wife), and to escape to Italy whenever he wanted to see her. Although starting this paper was a huge undertaking, the motive for it remained a secret, and for all its existence, it remained a sore spot of the Ott Empire. By the time a third generation Ott publisher was required, the family sent the lamest and least educated of Cyrus’ grandchildren to run the business. Even if Oliver had had some intelligence, he still had absolutely no interest in running the newspaper and ignored all phone calls from its employees. The operation had already been deemed a loss

Each chapter of this book focuses on the life of a different employee. To name a few, Kathleen Solson is the paper’s no-nonsense editor-in-chief whose solution to her husband’s marital affair is to have one of her own. Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, condemns even the slightest grammar offense at work, but will let mistakes slide at home. And Winston Cheung is so desperate for any journalism job that he accepts an audition to be the Cairo reporter and goes to the foreign city eager to please, only to be taken advantage of and miserable. All of the employees demand perfection at the office. All of them settle for less in every other aspect of their lives.

This was an interesting book from a character development perspective, and by development, I mean lack thereof. Mostly, they all just fear change. I think their patheticness is what makes them so relatable, because let’s face it… The reality is that we don’t always make the most rational decisions. I’d recommend this book for a healthy dose of realism, but not if you suffer from any sort of depressive disorder.

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review 2014-12-08 05:47
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel - Tom Rachman

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is the unusual story of Tooly Zylberberg, a young woman with an unclear past who owns a bookshop in the Welsh countryside.

Tooly’s story is unusual because she hasn’t had the most usual and common upbringing. As we read, we follow her journey trying to figure out how growing up on the move in many continents around the globe (Asia, Europe and America), surrounded by a complex variety of adults has made her the young woman she is now and find the answers that will bring closure to the unanswered questions of her past.

Tooly’s story is unusual also because of the way it was written. It is not your usual beginning, climax and happily ever after ending story. It is written in three different periods of Tooly’s life: her childhood (1988), her “college” years (1999), and her present (2011). And this is what made it hard for me to get into the story.

Tooly is a complex character to get to know. She may seem mysterious, guarded, reserved, shy and somehow a scared girl and young woman but at the same time even though she never went to school, she is intelligent, brave, wise beyond her years, extrovert, loyal, sentimental and friendly.

When I finished the book, I didn’t know if I liked her or not. Without giving much of the story away, I felt she got what she deserved because of the choices/decisions she took from a young age. 

She made the choice to leave her father and the life he gave her (the safety of a comfortable house and education). She didn’t suffer about it. She chose to stay with absolute strangers. She can’t blame her father for the rest of her life because she chose to not grow up with him.

(spoiler show)

But on the other hand I admired her ability to adapt to each situation. She just kept going, made the best of every situation, adapted and managed to survive. I don’t know if I would’ve managed that kind of life the way Tooly did.

Even though The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is about Tooly, and there are other important characters, for me the most memorable character was Humphrey. Regardless that this old Russian was an accomplice in Tooly’s unorthodox upbringing, it’s impossible not to care for this man and fall in love with what he did for Tooly.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman was not a fast paced read with all the going back and forth in time, but in the end, it is a story that reminds us that our family is not only conformed by those who share our blood. It reminded me of a Spanish saying: “Padre no es quien crea, sino quien cria” which means “A parent is not who makes you, but who raises you”. And also as corny as it sounds, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers reminds us that Home is where the heart is.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a good book for adults and book clubs. Read this story if you like stories that slowly unveil their layers by making you go back in forth in time. Don’t feel frustrated if you get stuck in the middle, keep going and you’ll see that in the end, despite all the hidden layers and complex characters The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a story about family and love.


Buy on Amazon US

Buy on Amazon UK


Check out the complete review and my other musings on my blog.


I received a copy of this book but was not financially compensated in any way nor obliged to review. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my personal experience while reading it. This post contains affiliate links.
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review 2014-10-13 22:50
Very Good, and Very Difficult to Describe
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel - Tom Rachman
    He raised his menu.
    She consulted hers. "You don't like sweet-and-sour, do you."
    "No," he confirmed. "I want food that can make up its mind."
I had a real difficult time connecting to the people, the story, this book -- but early on, I came upon this exchange between a man and a young girl -- Tooly, the protagonist.  That was enough to keep me going -- that, and Rachman's previous work, The Imperfectionists.
There are three storylines running through most of this book -- Tooly in 1988, Tooly in 1999, and Tooly in 2011. We see her as a child, still growing up; we see her all grown, but still figuring out her place in the world; and then as an established adult who's made a place in the world -- but she's still expecting/looking for the same one she tried to find in '99.
I spent most of the novel not really sure where any of these stories were going -- maybe 2/3 of it.  It didn't take me too terribly long to suss that out, so I decided to just enjoy the ride.  Which was so easy to do -- Tooly spent her life surrounded by a great menagerie of people -- Paul, a traveling computer technician working for various U.S. embassies in the 80s; Venn, a very charming con man; Humphrey, a Russian ex-pat and armchair intellectual; Fogg, a small-town bookseller; Sarah, a -- I don't know how to describe her, a histrionic woman with a short attention span (I guess, you eventually learn a lot more); a lout of a lawyer (whose name escapes me at the moment), who really isn't that much of a lout; and others.  It doesn't matter what they're talking about, you want to hear them talk, you want to see the interactions between these people and each other, or these people and Tooly.  The actual plot seems secondary as long as you get bits of conversation like this (like the above quotation, this is from 1988's story):
    "I know exactly what you're like," Sarah affirmed.
    After a long pause, Tooly responded, "What are you like?"
    "Me?  Well, I like bread with strawberry jam and believe raspberry jam ruins everything.  I think those who joke around with such matters are barbarians.  And I'm right about everything.  Except in the morning, when I'm wrong."Each chapter moves the various stories along, bit by bit -- and you get one or two strange encounters between Tooly and the other characters, you hear some strange theory about the way the world works, or how someone decides to do something, or some scheme to make sense of it all -- and I can't describe it for you better than that -- just give it a read.
Eventually, Rachman decides to let you see the pattern he's stitching -- and then it all comes together, each piece falling into place and while there was no way to see all of it coming, it all feels like it fits.  Not a "ohh, sure, I should've guessed that;" but "well, naturally -- there was really no other way for that to work, was there?"
For Fogg, Humphrey, and Tooly (and most of the other characters to some extent) books are a vital part of their existence -- or at least their way of thinking.  They're how they connect to the world, to people, to their experience.  The various ways the characters interact with, describe, and use books are just fascinating and are right up my alley.  Just for exposure to the various things this novel says about books, it's worth slogging through all the "what's going on?" of this read.  
For example -- shortly after young Tooly first meets Humphrey, she asks to see his books (he always has stacks by him, but they keep changing, so she knows he has a stash somewhere).  He takes her to a closet bursting with books.
    "Books," he said, "are like mushrooms.  They grow when you are not looking.  Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third.  Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet."
    "At my house, we put clothes in the closets."
    He sneered at this misapplication of furniture.  "But where you keep literature?"That compound interest line is a great one, isn't it?
The Rise & Fall of Great Power is a lovely little book I can't really talk about without over explaining.  Filled with great characters; plausible, yet implausible events: an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quotable lines;  interesting philosophies; stacks of books; and a dash of hope mixed a hint of existential despair.  More than worth your time.
Source: irresponsiblereader.com/2014/07/22/the-rise-fall-of-great-powers-by-tom-rachman
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review 2014-08-06 23:41
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel - Tom Rachman

When NetGalley offered this book I immediately requested it, because Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists was one of the first books I read on my kindle, and I loved it. That story, about a quirky cast of characters trying to keep a newspaper afloat was a little different than this one. Actually, their lives, as painful as they were, seem almost like fairy tales when compared with Tooly Zylerberg’s life in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. We first meet Tooly in her bookshop, “The World’s End” in a tiny town in Wales. So yes, you know Rachman had me at “bookshop”; let alone the adorable name and the quaint little rundown town it’s in.


Tooly is a character after my own heart. She has learned most of her life lessons from books; in fact, they were the whole of her formal education after the age of ten. She has survived from the mean streets of Bangkok all the way to the cultural elite of New York, mostly on a wit sharpened by literature. How she ended up in Wales is surprising, but not half as surprising as the rest of her story. This is one of those off-kilter adventures that remind me of my favorite John Irving books.


When events lead Tooly to confront her past, she sets off on a quest that would have left me huddled in a corner of the bookshop under a tidy little pile of books. Her search brings her back to the very people who ruined and saved her life in the first place. This is a character driven story, and they are developed here with convincing detail and depth. There is her painfully shy father, who tried to make the best of an impossible situation by running away. Her mother is a Sally Kellerman-like nightmare of unconscionable irresponsibility and irrepressible charm. When she had her chance to help, she left Tooly in the hands of a sketchy group: a Svengali-like con man, a quasi-Russian former pharmacist and amateur philosopher, and other hangars-on. In New York, through an elaborate scheme, Tooly ended up with a boyfriend who later feels remorse for their estrangement, and proves to be the odd link to her past.


How Tooly overcame this madness to end up in a pleasant little bookshop is just part of the story. How she manages to confront these characters and attempt to move on with her life is the rest. It is, in parts, quirky and strange, compelling and repugnant. This book defies a neat little description, and trying to write one would only make me look bad. So I won’t. Just read it. You might regret meeting some of these people, but you won’t regret reading this book.

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