More bite-sized reviews

Firstly, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Arthur Less is a middle-aged, second-tier novelist and has been ignoring literary invitations—the kind of invitations that second-tier novelists receive, like literary panel positions, writer-in-residencies, interviewing slots at literary festivals, all in far-flung locations. But when his young lover, Freddie, out of patience with Less’s reluctance to commit, announces he’s getting married to someone else, Less needs to be out of San Francisco—even better, out of the country—for the wedding. So he accepts invitations to Mexico, Japan, India, Morocco, Italy, France and Germany and blunders around the planet, doing his best to fool himself that he’s happy for Freddie—and over him. But before you pick Less as a total loser, listen to this: ‘He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.’ Oh – and Less won the Pulitzer Prize last year.

Now for the book that won the Man Booker Prize last year. Lately I’ve given up on Booker winners, finding many recent ones quite unreadable. Too clever by half. Last year’s, Milkman by Anna Burns, is no exception, and I only persevered to the end because it was this month’s book group book. I found it tedious. Reviewers talk about the ‘unique voice’ Burns created for her narrator and I can’t disagree. But unique is one thing—readable and engaging quite another. She’s repetitive (the copyeditor in me wanted to slash every page on my Kindle screen with red pencil), circuitous, irrelevant at times—for long, dense paragraph after long, dense paragraph. But don’t take my word for it—the other three members of my book group loved it!

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Unsheltered, is good. It could well be great, but she raised the bar so high, IMO, with The Poisonwood Bible, The Prodigal Summer and The Lacuna that her chances of meeting my expectations ever again are, sadly, very low. There are two timelines to Unsheltered. Against the presidential election of 2016, writer Willa Knox and her family (academic husband, ailing father-in-law, two young-adult children and newborn grandson) have fallen on hard times in a very modern-day-American, no-fault-of-their-own way and all they have to show for their life’s labours is a dilapidated house they’ve inherited in New Jersey. This same house already had structural faults in 1871 when science teacher Thatcher Greenwood moved in with his beautiful but socially ambitious new wife, her griping mother and feisty sister. It doesn’t take Greenwood long to fall out of favour with the conservative-Christian town authorities for teaching Darwin’s controversial new theories in class.

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