BOOK REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

LessLess by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The book’s eponymous protagonist, Arthur Less, goes on an eight-country world tour in order to avoid the wedding of his ex-boyfriend and the emotional turmoil inherent in that event. Faced with a looming invitation, Less isn’t up for the torture of attending, but neither can he decline without a good reason without seeming petty, sullen, or both. And, even if he does decline, he doesn’t want to be around the acquaintances who will pity him, attempt to comfort him, or both. With that in mind, he gathers together a collection of invitations for writing assignments, a writers’ conference, and an adjunct teaching assignment, and cobbles together an itinerary that will keep him out of the country until well after the wedding.

Less is a novelist of some renown, which is to say one of his books was highly regarded — though his others were far less so — and he long-lived in the shadow of one of America’s great men of letters with whom he had a long-term relationship. The comedic tone of the book is set by the hapless nature we see in the character. He finds himself a secondary figure in the high-brow world of American literature, but is never completely at ease and confident in that space. Of course, when he sets out traveling in Mexico, Europe, Morocco, India, and Japan, he finds himself even less at ease than usual.

There are various mishaps along the way that make this book comedic in nature, but it also has a nostalgic melancholy about it. Not only did Less’s relationship break up followed rapidly by his ex-boyfriend becoming engaged, but one thing will happen during his travels that he can’t escape – he will turn 50. This milestone causes him to reflect upon what he might have done differently, but also causes him concern that he hasn’t enough life left to make a good go of living – either as a writer or as someone who would like to be in a relationship again.

I won’t get into the ending in detail, but will say that I was pleased to see that it didn’t just peter out into Less’s return home, but rather leaves the reader with some food for thought via the turn of events one learns about.

Needless to say, I’d recommend this book for fiction readers – particularly literary fiction readers, though it is light, readable, and short for literary fiction. This book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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POEM: Half a Hundred Hungers

1.) nose hunger happens when you leave the building in the predawn hours and the scent of bacon or baking bread cinches against the stomach

2.) hunger of social convention is when one eats a slice of granny’s pumpkin pie because one can’t be rude, even though one just scarfed down a burrito moments before

3.) the desperate hunger of the lanky kid I once saw in a cafeteria snatching waste food off strangers’ trays as they moved down the tray return conveyor to be washed

4.) eye hunger upon seeing the foodie’s perfect plate: clean, geometric, and heeding the proper balance of white space — though only vaguely looking like food

5.) the savage hunger of bared teeth seen in North Korean villagers when the famine got so bad that people’s bodies self-cannibalized the fatty tissue of their lips

6.) dilemma hunger in which one must decide whether to feed the body or some impulse beyond reason

7.) hunger for affection: a drive to feel loved sometimes expressed through the presentation of cookies and cake

8.) hunger for attention: a drive to be noticed sometimes expressed by how many grapes one can fit in one’s mouth

9.) hunger gone automatic is observed when one’s hand puts a candy  in one’s mouth before one’s conscious mind is even aware one has done so

10.) hunger for oblivion: when one east the poison, knowing it will kick one into the abyss

11.) hunger for comfort is seen when one craves any familiar food

12.) hunger for the exotic is seen when one craves anything but the familiar

13.) sexual hunger is displayed by one who looms over his food, lustily partaking of it while loosing himself in waves of euphoric pleasure

14.) jealous hunger: when one loves a food so much that one suffers pangs of envy upon seeing someone else order it

15.) over-the-hump hunger is the phase of fasting during which one no longer believes one will “literally, die of hunger,” but during which there remains a vague and persistent hunger of which one can be readily distracted

16.) sensational hunger: when a hunger becomes a mere sensation, devoid of value assignment

17.) stupid hunger is experience when the brain says, “no more thinking until I know that blood glucose is rising”

18.) hulking hunger occurs when low blood sugar sends one into furious rants about inane topics such as wallpaper patterns and the sales tax on a pack of chewing gum

19.) empathetic hunger is experienced when you see someone who looks like he is starving, even though you are fully fed

20.) ice cream hunger typically takes place when one is stuffed, but when one is confident that there are voids and crannies in one’s food pile into which the ice cream can melt, and that, furthermore, the cold, creamy goodness will somehow lubricate one’s digestive track to provide a discernible benefit

21.) mineral deficiency hunger: when you see a salt block out for cows or deer and think, “wonder if it’d be alright if I got up on that?” Eww! But seriously, it’s when you’re jonesing for a bag of chips

22.) calculated hunger: when one isn’t hungry but concludes that one should be hungry based on the when and what of ones most recent meal

23.) travel hunger is when you aren’t hungry but you know a sandwich on your budget airline will give you ptomaine and that by the time you get to the hotel you’ll have shifted into hulking hunger [18] — it’s generally a rationalization for having a brownie from the Costa Coffee

24.) breaking bad hunger is the point at which one is so hungry one will resort to thievery

25.)  requited hunger is the rare hunger for foods, such as crocodile, that can be equally hungry for one

There are so many hungers I don’t think I’ve ever known:

thick hungers  [26]

thin hungers [27]

wanton hunger [28] (full disclosure: I’ve had wonton hunger [29], which is a hunger for little Chinese dumplings)

wishful hunger [30]

troublesome hunger [31]

burdensome hunger [32]

wild-eyed hunger [33]

intransigent hunger [34]

there are the unnameable [35] and unknowable [36] hungers that I don’t know whether I’ve experienced and can’t have had, respectively

and there’s dead hunger [37] that I’ve definitely not experienced

there are others that I’ve known:

sweet hunger [38]

sweet and sour hunger [39]

umami hunger [40] but not edamame hunger [41]

42.) forgetful hunger occurs when one was too busy — or distracted — to eat

43.) time contraction hunger is a desire to eat lunch not because one needs calories, but rather because one really wants the workday to be at least half over

44.) homicidal hunger: like “breaking bad hunger” [24] this is the point at which one would murder someone for a french fry

45.) first date hunger happens after one eats that salad designed to create a good impression only to find one is still starving

46.) six-second hunger occurs when you are so hungry that you consider the five-second rule null and void and will eat food off the floor no matter how long it takes you to pick it up

47.) pizza hungry is when you are only hungry for one food — pizza — and will opt not to eat if only other foods are available

48.) “Man vs. Food” hungry: this is not what it might seem. It’s when one is so hungry that one could still eat after having watched an episode of this show — a show which usually shines an ugly light on hedonistic culinary impulses

49.) pet food hungry is the level of hunger sufficient to make one willing to eat pet food

50.) physiological hunger: the urge one has to eat in order to supply calories and nutrients to one’s body

10 of My Favorite Books from 2018

10.) Here is Real Magic by Nate Stantiforth: A professional magician, disillusioned because he has lost the sense of wonderment that it’s his job to create, travels to India to look at magic anew.




9.) Superhuman by Rowan Hooper: An evolutionary biologist examines how extreme specimens of humanity got to be that way. How come some people easily manage fluency in a couple dozen languages while some of us stumble on just our native tongue? Why is it that some people can run 100 miles non-stop when the average person’s body would start disintegrating before 20? What is the role of genetics and epigenetics versus practice and will?




8.) Anarcha Speaks  by Dominique Christina: A collection of poems formed into the story of a slave woman used for medical experimentation by a man many have called “the father of modern gynecology.” The books is a rare mix of story, history, and poetry, but it isn’t a narrative poem in the usual sense of the term.




7.) The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil: A womanizing poet and painter living in New York returns to his native India for a final show of his work. Along the way, the reader is presented with a host of fascinating characters.




6.) The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed./trans. by Jay Rubin: This collection of Japanese short fiction includes works by Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, and Akutagama Ryunosuke and covers a swath of the timeline from the days of the samurai to the meltdown at Fukushima Dai Ichi.




5.) Milkman by Anna Burns: A young woman tries to brush off the attentions of a mysterious character known as the Milkman, but is really in a fight to avoid becoming the center of attention generally.




4.) How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan: Pollan, best known for his works on food such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” tells the story of a resurgence of interest in psychedelic substances such as psilocybe mushrooms, LSD, and Ayahuasca for medicinal use as well as for mental and spiritual development. Included are descriptions of his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, Ayahuasca, and even a pyschoactive substance milked from the glands of a toad.




3.) Circe by Madeline Miller: This book tells tales of Greek Mythology with a lesser-known goddess at the fore. Circe is a daughter of the powerful sun god, Helios, but is an underdog character herself, which makes her stories all the more gripping.




2.) A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: This is the story of a man who fled North Korea, leaving his family behind, during the famines of the 90’s. Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a Korean father, and his father moved the family to rural North Korea in the late 1950’s under a “repatriation” program designed to gain workers for a war-torn North Korea while allowing Japan to offload some of the Koreans it’d forced to move to Japan as laborers during the Second World War.




1.) The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris: A love story set in the Nazi death camp in Poland. Based on a true story.

5 of the Coolest Places We Visited in 2018

It’s year-in-review time, and I thought I’d do list of the most interesting places we visited this year. We stayed in the US for six weeks for visa renewal, and so that ate a lot of travel time an energy. That said, we still visited more places than I had room for on the list. We had fun visits to Mumbai, Kodaikanal, and Galveston Island — not to mention a road trip that took us on a supremely scenic drive through West Virginia. But a few places stood out for various reasons.

 

5.) Lincoln Park: This sprawling city park along Lake Michigan hosts a free Zoo, a Conservatory, museums, beaches, and beautiful urban green space.

 

4.) City Palace: Udaipur offers one of the most scenic urban spaces in all of India. This palace was home of Mewar ruling dynasty, and, sitting upon Lake Pichola, is the heart of this historic city.

 

3.) Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum: This “annex” to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum takes advantage of the wide open spaces of Chantilly, Virginia (near Dulles Airport) to house some huge exhibits such as Space Shuttle Discovery, a Concorde, an SR-71, and commercial aircraft.

 

2.) Neil Island: This small island to the northeast of Port Blair is beloved for its snorkeling, beaches, and laid-back atmosphere. Full disclosure: I’m including this island of faith as we won’t be visiting it for another week or so, but by the time we return from the Andamans it will be 2019. For those unfamiliar, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands form an archipelago that is governed by India, though geographically it is nearer to Myanmar (Burma.)

 

1.) Annapurna Base Camp: There were lots of places in our visit to Nepal that could have made this list, but, forced to choose a highlight of our trip to Nepal, ABC wins hands down. It was the culmination of a tea-house trek of the Annapurna Sanctuary that offered spectacular views and experiences throughout.

 

As for what to expect in 2019, I have a trip to Laos planned early in January, and we are tentatively considering a hiking trip to Central Asia (probably Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.) Of course, we are not so good sticking to long-term plans, so who knows where the winds will take us.

There remain plenty of awesome travel destinations in India, though our challenge is that the low hanging fruit has been partaken of, and we are left with many locations that are a challenge to get to when one only has a few days with which to work

DAILY PHOTO: Dharohar Folk Dance Show

Flaming pot dancer

Sword dancer

Puppeteer

Pot dancer laden with six pots dances on broken glass; Taken November 25, 2018