For People Too Hard on Themselves


By Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer’s peripatetic contemplation on love and self-worth is a pleasant and often lyrical experience. The Less of the title is one Arthur Less, the author of several lesser works, and himself a self-deprecating fellow. The novel follows him as he travels the world to lesser award presentations, lecture gigs, and retreats to redraft his latest novel that his long time publisher has rejected. His impetus for leaving is that his younger lover, Freddy Pelu, has left him for another man whom Freddy is about to marry; yet another indignity and punishment the world has inflicted on him. If there’s a literary conceit here it is that while Arthur things little of himself, believes that the world continually catches him in traps designed to pummel him with failure, the opposite appears to be true; that many do like him as a man, respect him as a writer (just not a loyal gay writer), and love him enough to give up other lovers and husbands for him. If we can find a lesson here, perhaps it is that we shouldn’t be quite as down on ourselves as some of us tend to be; that, really, we probably are better people than we give ourselves credit for being.

Greer possesses a skillful style that floats the story along and engages the reader. Even when not much happens, the little bit happens with charm. Greer’s also a keen observer of people, in particular people many readers probably don’t encounter much in their own lives. These are people steeped in the art of thinking about themselves, those around them, and translating their observations into essays, novels, and poems we read to sharpen our own insights not only into the workings of the world but ourselves as well. Greer has created a charming voice for the narrator. The narrator knows Arthur intimately, in fact, better than Arthur seems to know himself. Most readers will soon enough figure out who is telling the story of Arthur’s loves and writings and bouts with angst, but even so it’s pleasantly and warmly rewarding when that narrator steps from the shadows.

So, if you’re in the mood for a charming, witty, and insightful trip around the world that includes San Francisco, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India (containing some of the best passages in the novel), climb on board Less. w/c


What If You Could Have 4 Lives?


By Paul Auster

Lives You Could Have

Paul Auster explores in great detail the effects a change early on can make in a life. The subject is Archie Ferguson and the change is the burning down of his father’s appliance/furniture store. As Archie himself muses fifty or so pages in, “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now.” The last line is the theme of the novel, a “what if” game played on what is at once a small and large field, these being one man’s life through some turbulent times, the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s an interesting thought for the very reason it is unoriginal: nearly everybody wonders what if at some point. Few, however, flesh things out in the extravagant detail you’ll find in 4 3 2 1.

Auster groups Archie’s four possible lives into seven chapters, dividing each chapter into four parts, Archie’s four lives. This can make for some reading challenges. As you might imagine, once you’ve read through a full chapter you have to pick up the thread of Archie’s first life again. Auster thankfully puts in small markers at the start of each to help you orient yourself. Just a guess here, but he’s also anticipated that some readers after the first chapter will decide to simplify things on their own by reading each life straight through. Not a bad strategy for keeping everything straight as Auster cobbles on a coda at the very end which sorts out the real and imagined. The only proviso here: you’ll want to read them in order, that is life one first, etc.

Prepare yourself for lives in great detail. Few of us probably are as introspective as the four Archies, even as a small child, since he is quite a precocious fellow. Archie delves deeply and in detail into home life, all school levels, sports, current events (assassinations, wars, elections, poverty, white flight, etc.), and particularly love and relationships, his own, his parents’, grandparents’, and friends’. No wonder the novel clocks in at 866 pages.

However, because Auster writes deftly, the whole thing moves along at a fairly rapid pace. So, don’t be put off by the massive paragraphs and the long winding sentences. They may appear intimidating, but you’ll find yourself gliding along without much trouble.

Will you like the novel and will you be willing to spend a considerable amount of time with it? You will if the idea of “what if” intrigues you. You will probably pause from time to time to consider your own multiverses. You certainly will if the time periods interest you. Auster does a remarkable job of hitting all the high and low points, a memory jogger for older readers and an introduction to interesting times for younger readers. And, finally, if you click with the fellow who will be with you every minute of the trip, Archie. w/c

For Those Who Enjoy Melancholy Stories

The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert

How to describe Walbert’s short novel of interlaced lives of people living in New York City under the pall of sad memories and impending doom? Something like being confined to a single room in gloaming caused by an unending rain storm seems about right. This isn’t to say the novel isn’t good, for it is in its own special way; it is to say the novel is not for everybody and certainly not for those who like a soupçon of joy in what they read.

Walbert opens with three elderly women–Helen, Simone, and Marie–seeking to occupy their time and share by participating in a painting class led by the disheveled and not very successful artist Sid Morris. In time, readers meet Elizabeth, a renter in Marie’s brownstone burdened with an incubus from her childhood, and her husband and teenage son. Later, along come the leaders of Progressive K-8, the school Elizabeth’s son attends, and then Jules, son of Marie, and his partner Larry. Periodically, readers also learn about the women’s deceased husbands and their lives together, much of this related in extensive footnotes. Not really ancillary to the stories but integral to understanding the melancholy of the women’s lives, these are an unusual and interesting but not always welcome way to expand upon the backstories of the characters. Death and longing play a large part in the stories, as does the fear of destructive natural forces.

In case you’re wondering, the title refers to the inspiration for Helen’s painting in Sid’s class, Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie piano prelude, an impressionistic piece attempting to evoke the sense of the legend of the mythical city of Ys built off the coast of Brittany by King Gradlon. He built it for his daughter Dahut who ultimately opened the gates to flooding in a besotted fit of possession by the devil himself and destroyed it.

In fact, you might say, Walbert’s novel is much like Debussy’s aural attempt, except Walbert’s is an impressionistic piece in words of lives in a city that will eventually sink into the ocean. It may work for some but certainly not all of us. w/c

The Outlaw’s Daughter Grows Up

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti merges two genres, coming of age and crime thriller, into a powerful tale of a daughter learning about her often absent outlaw father, then bonding with him, accepting him for the imperfect man he is, and discovering her own inner strength. Though filled with violence and plenty of death dealing, it ultimately finishes on a hopeful note, and stands as a testament to the goodness and love within even the most ruthless people.

The novel alternates between Loo, the daughter, growing up from age twelve to just shy of eighteen and the nomadic life of her father, an outlaw who freelances in crime. You have Loo and Hawley living together, learning about each other and Hawley’s criminal life centered around how he came to acquire eleven gunshot wounds. How he received these and curiosity about how he will get his last, the twelfth, plus how Loo will react when she discovers what Hawley really is, provide the propulsive drive of the novel.

Hawley has been a criminal nearly from the time he was a teen. He hooked up with Jove, an older man who claimed to be a doctor. Maybe he was, because he teaches Hawley quite a bit about field treating injuries, especially gunshot wounds. Hawley travels with a well stocked medical kit. Bad guys, after all, can’t just present themselves in emergency rooms. He and Jove see each other when they are working on a job for a kingpin named King. King deals in rare artifacts, which Hawley and Jove retrieve for him. When contractors steal from him, King dispatches Hawley and Jove to collect and mete out the criminal version of justice.

King’s a man who lurks in the shadows. Hawley meets him for the first time in a diner, where he also mets Lily, a memorable pairing. Eventually, he marries Lily. They have a baby, Louise, nicknamed Loo. Something terrible happens to Lily, reported back in her hometown as a drowning. This leaves Hawley with Loo. Hawley, though, has business to take care off, so he leaves Loo with Lily’s mom, Mabel Ridge, an eccentric and crusty character, in the coastal New England fishing town Lily grew up in. Hawley returns after four years and takes Loo back. With her, they traverse the country, dodging whatever Hawley believes wants to find them.

Finally, when Loo is older, they settle in the New England town. When she turns twelve, the start of the novel, he teaches her how to shoot. Let’s just say her upbringing bears not the remotest resemblance to that of Anne of Green Gables. She’s odd girl out at school, terrifically strong-willed, constantly rebellious, and sometimes given to violence. Marshall, a student in her school, develops a crush on her. When he kisses her, she responds by breaking his finger. He’s odd, too, and slowly they fit together.

Time passes and we readers she her relationship with Hawley change and deepen. We learn more about her mother, Lily, whom in spirit she bears a striking resemble to. And we feel a certain amount of tension, because it is quite clear Hawley lives an edgy life, waiting for something to happen, waiting for somebody to catch up with him. Then Jove reappears, surprising Hawley and Loo. And then we slid into a climax that calls on all the knowledge Loo has acquired, the astronomy she knows, what she’s learned about the ocean, and, of course, her shooting skills. The ending proves very cinematic.

While the novel contains copious amounts of crime and violence and the ending brings these together in the ultimate test of father-daughter bonding, it’s at its heart a story of girl growing and discovering herself and a father learning again how to love, this time his daughter. Tinti’s writing and mastery of criminal life, weapons, the outdoors, the sea, the sky, and human motivation will impress you, and are another reason to read the novel. w/c

For You, If You’ve Never Liked a Franzen Novel


By Jonathan Franzen

In his really good Purity, Jonathan Franzen ditches many of his literary pretenses in favor of an often humorous quest novel, carried along by plot and not a few coincidences of the type you might encounter in old English novels. The result is a story that even those who don’t particularly care for Franzen will devour with pleasure.

Pip Tyler sets out on a journey to find her father. Her mother has hidden his identity from her, raising her alone in a small cabin in the California mountains, isolated from modern life. When we meet Pip, she’s getting by in a ramshackle house in Oakland, living with a strange group that comprise something of a family for her. Among them reside temporaries, a couple of Germans. Annagret introduces Pip to the idea and possibility of working for the famous internet hacker Andreas Wolf, the revealer of big and small secrets who has secreted himself in the wilds of South America. The offer includes the seductive allure of finding out who her father is. Resistant at first, she succumbs and works for Wolf’s Sunlight Project. She doesn’t last long but uses her newly acquired skills and a key bit of information to land a job at an independent news organization that plies its trade over the internet. It’s sufficient to say that nothing is quite as it seems, she does discover her father, and she attempts reuniting her parents.

As you might guess, the title Purity, which is also Pip’s first name, represents an ideal that nobody in the novel lives up to, except perhaps for Pip and, oddly, certain characters in the Oakland house, which, naturally, in this world automatically makes them even weirder. While Wolf, Tom Aberant, Leila Helou (both of the Denver Independent), and Anabel Laird (Purity’s mom) seem to operate from decent motives, all share dark pasts. These pasts, comprising the plot and the forward engine of the plot, are parceled out in long sections that finally come together as a whole in the end. The organization makes for a real page turner, confirming your suspicions and the obvious.

The topics here, for Franzen’s always about something, include secrecy and privacy, the increasing difficulty of keeping things private, loyalty, the tyranny of the digital world that may be as oppressive as a police state, like the one that oppressed old Communist East Germany under the hand of the Stasi, as well as how few of us are pure, though we may strive for it and, in the end, we produce something close to pure.

Thanks to Franzen for a terrific tale most will like, finally. w/c

What is the Good Life?

The Good Life

By Marian Thurm

“Devastated” is the best word to describe how you will feel upon finishing Marian Thurm’s first-rate literary thriller. And since she employs “Chekhov’s gun” principle at the outset, introducing the weapon in the preface to the first chapter, you know something terrible will happen; you just don’t have a clue as to how bad it will be and how it will send shivers through you. To put it briefly, literary chills don’t get much better than this.

Roger and Stacy Goldenhar appear to be the perfect couple: she a bit quirky and socially conscious and once a social worker; he driven to success and lover of the high life, raking in bags of money as a commercial real estate developer specializing in shopping centers. They share much in common, not the least of which being born in the same New York City hospital, though years apart, graduating from Harvard, she as an undergraduate and he from the business school, the two even having the same birthday, April 20, common also to Adolf Hitler, which should have seemed ominous to the pair; too, both would live nowhere else but in Manhattan, parent two very smart young children, a girl and a boy. As a result of Roger’s business acumen and success, they live in a fabulous three-bedroom apartment on the upper Eastside, on Park Ave.

Well, at least they did live in that apartment for a while and they did enjoy a huge income. When the novel opens, we find them on a short vacation in Miami in Roger’s mother’s small and outdated apartment. As we learn about their life together, of their extended families and the joys and hardships of them, we also learn about Roger’s reversal of fortune, of their downgrade to a rather ordinary, smaller apartment a few blocks removed from Park, though still quite nice by most people’s standards, and of all the other shocks in his life. We begin to worry, then, worry as Stacy does, about Roger’s health, his mental state, and just how bad everything has gotten. But we readers know something Stacy doesn’t, not till later; we know about “Chekhov’s gun.”

Thurm masterfully builds suspense, for while we know from the get-go something bad will happen, we don’t have a clue as to what it will be, or even if it will happen. After all, Stacy proves a very positive person, quite strong when confronted with typical familial adversities, among them horrifying illnesses and the deaths of people dearest to us. Above all, even in the face of Roger’s withdrawal, his obsessive worry, his sleeplessness, his weight loss, and an incident in his early college days, she loves him.

Thrum’s novel is both a terrific thriller and a smart commentary on just what constitutes the good life of the title, and perhaps what might happen when we lose sight of what really is good in our lives. w/c

Can Fantasy Be Good Literary Fiction, Too?

The Buried Giant

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Surely if any writer could create a fantasy tale with all the literary trappings, Kazuo Ishiguro is that writer. One only has to read his remarkable The Unconsoled to appreciate this ability to artfully blend psychology, mystery, and stylied writing into a very compelling novel that while satisfying is also frustrating. Perhaps that’s part of its power to involve and push you along.

So, then, what about straightout fantasy, the conjuring of an Arthurian tale of sorts? Does Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant work as both good fantasy and something approaching a literary adventure. His new novel, appearing ten years after the wonderful Never Let Me Go, is at once a novel you can appreciate for its ideas, while not particularly enjoying the story.

The ideas are Ishiguro’s meditations on memory, specifically burying the past in favor of peace and harmony. In the case of The Buried Giant, a spell has been cast over recent post Arthurian England, suppressing memories of battles and slaughters, as well as personal betrayals. The daze in which people exist and the consequences of lifting the veil are the crux of the intellectual aspect of the novel. In a nod to Ishiguro, it’s something of the perfect novel for current times in which many, while not exactly under the pall of total forgetfulness, definitely approach national and world history with sharply limiting selective memories. While Ishiguro’s tale plays out on a less grander stage than modern tribulaltions, his story brings the pain and suffering down to a scale we can appreciate.

As for the story, it’s a tale with place, history, and character, yet coolly vague, like a play performed against scenery painted either white or black, depending on the mood being conveyed. Perhaps this is an issue only for an audience of one, but a bit more meat on the joint would added more savor to the novel.

There’s also the issue of style, a characteristic of literary novels, a voice unique to the book. The Buried Giant certainly possess this; however, Ishiguro has so stylized the dialogue and descriptions as to strip the novel of what it needs badly, what any novel with fantasy and lore at its heart usually delivers: passion.

As to the tale, it is a simple quest weaving in Arthur, Merlin, spells, and speculation on post-Roman English history, something of a void Ishiguro found during his background research. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to search for a son they dimly remember having. They set off for the village they believe him to be living in. Along the way, they attract friends and enemies. In addition to Axl and Beatrice, the two other major characters are the youthful Saxon warrior Master Wistan and the gallant old knight of a bygone era Sir Gawain. While seemingly all strangers and gracious to each other, below the surface soon to rise is what the mist, an important inanimate character, has obscured for years. Ishiguro has said he took inspiration from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can see the influence in the story of Sir Gawain and his relationship with Axl, Beatrice, and Wistan. Though, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight proves a more colorful exploration of the chivalric code.

So, while you’ll find many things to like about The Buried Giant, you’ll also find many things to not like so much. Thus the feeling of being caught betwixt and between on recommending it, because, sorry to say, it leaves you with that very unsavory sense of disappoint, as well as and wondering if fantasy and literary fiction can be one. c/w