Book review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBDGoodreads
Publication Date: July 18, 2017
Source: Borrowed

Who says you can’t run away from your problems?

You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?
ANSWER: You accept them all.

What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, LESS is, above all, a love story.

A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, a bittersweet romance of chances lost, by an author The New York Times has hailed as “inspired, lyrical,” “elegiac,” “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” LESS shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.

I had actually forgotten that I put a hold on Less until I got the email that, a good three months later, it was finally ready for me. My TBR was honestly already derailed enough, but August’s Monthly Motif was “award winners” and this won the Pulitzer, so I guess it worked out in the end. It was also an audiobook, which is a little easier to sneak in than an actual physical book.

I don’t really have any strong feelings about this one. The writing is good, I can say that. The book can be funny, it can be sad, it can be emotional. But it’s hard to feel very bad for a man with the resources to literally travel the world for the sole purpose of avoiding his ex’s wedding. I know it wouldn’t have been as good of a story, but couldn’t he have just… I don’t know… declined the invitation? I mean, I hate conflict and confrontation more than the average person, but I don’t think that I would fly to Morocco to avoid my one and only ex. (Although, admittedly, he didn’t invite me to his wedding, so maybe I would have.)

In the end, I was entertained by Less, but I wasn’t blown away.

#mm18: award winners

Have you read Less? Do you usually read Pulitzer winners?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Rating: ★★★★★
Links: AmazonTBDGoodreads
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Source: Borrowed

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.” 

As much as I want to like this kind of slow-moving, character-driven literary fiction, I often don’t. In general, I tend to feel like I’m missing something when I read literary fiction. Like there’s some integral part of it that I just didn’t grasp. With Little Fires Everywhere, I never got that feeling. With Little Fires Everywhere, aside from a bit of a slow start, I was hooked.

I think this is probably going to be the most hyped book that I read in 2018 (we’ll see) — but the hype is totally worth it. At the time of writing this review, there were 198 (electronic) holds on this book at my library! Luckily they have 34 electronic copies. Surprisingly, I only had to wait about a month for my copy.

A confession: I didn’t read the blurb. I just knew that everybody loves this book and I jumped in blind. Because of that, the book went in some directions I really didn’t expect! (Although even if I’d actually read the blurb, I think there were still some twists I wouldn’t have seen coming.)

At first glance, the book seems to be about the teenagers. And, truly, all of the teenagers were wonderful in their own ways. (Even Moody, as he was saying unforgivable things at the end, was at least acting realistically.) I loved the strong friendship that developed between the teenagers throughout the book, but this isn’t a book about them. Not really, at least.

More than anything, I think, this is a book about the parents. Their decisions. Their actions and the reactions they caused. Mrs. Richardson thinks she’s doing the best thing for her four children, but she’s so blind to her mistakes and the pain that they cause. Mia is a great mother, but moving Pearl all over the country has surely shaped her personality. Then we have Mrs. McCullough, a white woman who adopts a Chinese-American baby under controversial circumstances and has no idea why people are asking her if she knows a single thing about Chinese culture.

The book ends in a way that’s somehow, at the same time, shocking and completely expected. I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a character-driven novel.

Have you read Little Fires Everywhere? Are you planning to?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

⭐ Goodreads ⭐ Amazon ⭐

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, except that she’s not fine at all.  The large scar on her face and her oddly developed social skills mean that she’s the butt of the joke for her gossipy coworkers.  She lives by herself, going entire weekends without human contact, downing bottle after bottle of vodka alone in her flat. Her one human connection is with her vicious Mummy, who contacts her once a week seemingly just to insult and berate her.

When Eleanor and office IT guy Raymond witness an elderly man collapsing in the street, they take him under their wing to ensure that he gets to the hospital safely. Thus begins Eleanor’s first friendship in decades, and, maybe, the first step to repairing her heart.

Continue reading

Book review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you might have noticed that I initially started reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for “a book in translation,” one of my last reading challenge prompts for 2017.  I’m sure that the book is wonderful and I know that a lot of people have enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the right book for me at this current point in my life, so I set it aside and moved on to a different book in translation, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian is one of those polarizing books.  It has an average of 3.58 stars on Goodreads, with almost as many 3-, 2-, and 1-star ratings as 4- and 5-star rating.  Read some reviews, and you’ll notice that almost everybody falls into one of three categories.  They either a) absolutely loved it and thought it was brilliant, b) absolutely hated it and thought it was repulsive, or c) had literally no idea what was going on and rated it somewhere in the middle.  To be honest, I fall into Category C.

In this book, Yeong-hye has always behaved just as society expects.  She’s a picture-perfect wife, keeping a perfect house, cooking classic Korean dishes, and even earning a little money of her own.  One night, Yeong-hye has a dream.  There’s so much death in the world, so much blood on her hands, that she can no longer bring herself to eat meat.  In some countries, this wouldn’t be a problem.  In South Korea, where Yeong-hye lives, her refusal to eat meat is seen as a problem to be solved at best and a mental disorder at worst.

The Vegetarian made me uncomfortable.  I mean, it’s supposed to.  It’s not some cheerful little book that you read to de-stress after a long day.  It’s filled with troubling imagery and scenes in which people show the worst parts of their personalities.  This is the 130th book I’ve read in 2017 and it’s the first to give me a legitimate nightmare.  I am, to be perfectly honest, very happy that the book is only 188 pages.  I just wanted it to be done.

I’ll come right out and say that I did not understand the deeper meaning of most of the book.  I know that it’s an allegory, but that did little to clear things up for me.  The ending?  Went right over my head.  This is a well-written book that, to me, seems more suited to discussion in a college literature class than to pleasure reading.  I’m not surprised that it’s been nominated for several awards or that it won the International Man Booker Prize.

I wish that I’d enjoyed this book more.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

#mmdreading: a book in translation

Book review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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From the publisher:

Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

The first chapter is good.  A bit… fluffier and more explicit, maybe, than I would expect from a Pulitzer winner, but good.  The problem is that what makes the book stand out – its many characters – also makes it difficult to care about.  I got all invested in Sasha’s story, and then we never heard from her again.  I got invested in Dolly’s story, and then we never heard from her again.  I got invested in Stephanie’s story, and then we never heard from her again.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  Egan gives us just enough to start to care about the characters, but there’s never any closure.

I was about ready to DNF after the third character change in three chapters.  And not only does the character change, but so does the writing style.  Everybody has a different voice, which is impressive and also excessive because we have chapters written in first, second, and third person, as well as present and past tense.  Heck, there’s even a chapter that solely consists of a PowerPoint presentation.  Not only that, but the time between chapters could span decades – and then we’d hop right back in the past.

This was another thing that frustrated me.  I can handle character jumps and time period jumps, but at least tell me what’s going on.  What’s so difficult about starting a chapter with the heading “BENNIE SALAZAR, 1983″ – or something similar.  At least I’d have some idea of what’s going on.  I wish the relationship between all of the characters had been better stated, as well. Some connections were clear, a daughter or friend that was mentioned in a previous chapter.  Others were tangential at best, and after finishing, I still have no idea what I read.

The book does start to pick up around the halfway mark, or maybe that’s just when I decided to power through and finish.  I’d been reading for three days and it was three days too many, so I just sat myself down and read straight through until I finished.

This book tried so hard to be clever, but it just didn’t do it for me.  It exemplifies everything that I hate about literary fiction: the lack of plot, the sweeping statements that are supposed to be thought-provoking but just fall flat, the random analogies, and the unlikeable characters.  This is so far from other Pulitzer winners that I’ve read that I just have to wonder what the committee was thinking when they chose this over the thousands of other books published in 2010.

Final rating: ★★☆☆☆

#mmdreading: a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner

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In Invincible Summer, we follow a group of four good friends – Eva, Benedict, Sylvie, and Lucien – from their college graduation to their late thirties/early forties. This book is written in bits and pieces, snapshots from the lives of these characters as they grow together and apart through the years.

There’s not much here that’s going to shock you. There are no real plot twists, nothing I didn’t see coming from a mile away, but this is not necessarily bad. You might see the words “hopelessly in love” or “pined for years” in the blurb, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that this is a romance. This is a book about friends and the ways in which their lives diverge and come together again over the years.

I think that this is a book that I would not have enjoyed a few years ago. Because, in this book, these very good friends grow apart as life happens. A few years ago, I would have sworn that you can maintain friendships no matter what. If it falls apart, it’s because you’re not trying. But then I moved halfway across the country, and, well, that makes things a little harder.

In this book, a lot happens to these four friends that creates barriers, or even just a sense of weirdness, when they hang out. Some of the characters get married, and their spouses aren’t keen on having them hang out with their single, opposite sex friends. Then come kids, and that creates a definite problem for friends who are used to hanging out at the bar. Characters move to different countries or get wrapped up in work or develop their own problems that they don’t want to share with the group, and things just fall apart. Years go by without them talking.

One of the things I really liked about this book is that these friends always find their way back together, even if it takes awhile. It was reassuring for me, someone who’s been in similar situations.

The plot kind of comes in waves – we’ll get something really interesting followed by some pretty boring filler, but that’s life, I guess.

I enjoyed this one more than I didn’t, so I’ll settle on a solid three stars.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the free copy.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

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I bought Seventh Heaven on a whim, after searching high and low for a book that came out 25 years ago, required by my 2015 reading challenge. I looked in the New York Times book review archives. I checked Goodreads best-of lists. I asked family and friends if they knew of anything that had been published in 1990 that was good. In the end, I picked a book at random off a list, bought a used copy online, and absolutely devoured it.

I was entranced by this book from the first page. For one, I absolutely love the writing style. It’s mystical, realistic but not, and flows so beautifully. It reminded me of a Tim Burton film.

Another reason I really loved this book, though, was Nora. Nora, the only divorced woman on her block, or maybe in her whole town, who just wants a friend. Nora, who doesn’t understand why nobody will befriend her son, or why the other mothers don’t want to have lunch, or why her American Dream of a cute house in the suburbs just isn’t working out the way she wanted it to.

In fact, I really loved almost all of the characters in this book. Sure, some of them are terrible people. But they all have entrancing stories to tell. All of their stories are interconnected. All of their stories are important. Nora has such an impact on all of them.

I may have picked this book up on a whim, but I will definitely seek out more of Hoffman’s books.

For my 2015 reading challenge, I crossed off #30: a book that came out the year you were born.

Final rating: ★★★★☆