It Chooses You, By Miranda July

For sale: Odd glimpses into marginal lives

Miranda July is a true polymath. Her output has included short stories, records and Caméra D'or-winning films (2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know). Now, with this slim collection of affecting real-life portraits, she elevates procrastination into an art form.

The pitch is simple. In the summer of 2009, while wrestling with the final draft of her latest screenplay, July found solace in The Pennysaver, a free-ads booklet distributed across Los Angeles. Though she initially turned to its pages as a distraction from her professional obligations, she soon found that the questions it raised about the mysterious sellers behind each of the small, bluntly drawn adverts were far more interesting than the invented dilemmas she was wrestling with on the page. The result is It Chooses You: 13 interviews with several of these sellers, interspersed with July's observations and diaries of the creative process. These are wonderfully complemented by the photographer Brigitte Sire's poignant images of the subjects' cluttered homes and rumpled faces.

July's detractors have often pegged her as whimsical, but her work has always been sharper than that implies, tinged with an air of melancholy. Her characters often struggle to connect with the world and there is a sense that the people she has chosen for interview have been filtered through the lens of her own obsessions: an ensemble cast of lonely transsexuals, reformed criminals and proud immigrant mothers living in converted garages. More than a few of these lives are blighted by resentments and neuroses, but July maintains a respectful, sympathetic distance. (She does say of one particularly creepy interviewee, though, "Ron was exactly the kind of man you spend your whole life being careful not to end up in the apartment of", and you can't help but sympathise.)

The final chapter, detailing July's relationship with Joe, an elderly seller and prolific writer of rude limericks, is a particularly touching highlight. Here the interview and diary strands intertwine rather wonderfully, when July is sufficiently moved by his quiet patience and good humour to write him a part in her film. She writes of feeling oddly tearful after their first meeting and there is little question that the reader will feel much the same.

This is a brief read and, while there is something of the coffee table tome about its appearance and much air between the words, it nonetheless leaves a lasting impression.

A strange business, real life.