“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

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“The Trip To Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing (2013)

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“Here’s a thing.”

Earlier this year a friend let me borrow The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which tells the stories of loneliness behind some of the greatest artists in history. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an earlier book of hers – The Trip to Echo Spring – which focuses on authors and their reliance on alcohol. As a writer who enjoys a glass of wine or six, it’s a topic close to my heart. In this book, Laing travels with width of the United States to explore the places inhabited by six of America’s greatest writers and their struggles with alcohol – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, and the poster boys for drunk authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Combining biography, literary criticism, travel writing and a treatise on the effects alcohol has on the body, Laing builds up a picture of these six men and the struggles they went through. My immediate confession is that while I’m aware of the impact they had on the literary scene, I’ve only read two of them – Fitzgerald and Cheever. I know enough about them all to be able to appreciate who they were, however, and the book helps fill in a lot of their, often tragic, backstories.

Laing travels, usually by train, around the USA, taking in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, St Paul, and Port Angeles, all places that meant something to our heroes. She explores their early lives, the relationships they formed, how they came to develop alcohol addiction, and which ones made it through the other side, and which ended their own lives over it. There are some poignant moments, including John Berryman struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, Cheever suffering from poverty in Manhattan, and Raymond Carver having marriage and fatherhood thrust upon him while still a teenager.

It is Fitzgerald, however, that shines for me. Perhaps because I know most about him and Zelda, but whatever misfortunes befall him, he can’t help but appear faintly ridiculous. Once, someone walks in on him in his room wearing several layers in an attempt to sweat out all the gin – while still drinking gin. Elsewhere, he drives around in a car with no roof in the rain until he decides he’s got pneumonia and has Hemingway take him to a hotel and promise to take care of his wife and daughter when he’s dead. Laing adds that a “few whisky sours put a stop to this nonsense”, and Scott and Ernest are out drinking again within hours.

Laing also uses personal experiences in the text, mentioning her mother’s lover Diana who was an alcoholic for many years, but has since become sober. Despite the humour of Fitzgerald, The Trip to Echo Spring is pretty sombre and a reminder that alcohol is indeed a poison and not to be messed about with. Like in The Lonely City, however, she shows how these people used their flaws and vices to create some of the greatest work in history, and she does a good job of exploring the relationships between alcohol and the written word. A thoughtful and interesting piece.

“Grinding It Out” by Ray Kroc (1977)

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“I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems.”

Ray Kroc’s name is perhaps not one that comes immediately to mind when you’re thinking about the most influential people in history, but there’s no denying he belongs in the list. He may not have discovered gravity, or come up with the theory of evolution, or invented the aeroplane, but he changed the face of the planet in such a way that there is no doubt at all that you’ve come up against his business at some point in your life. That’s because Ray Kroc is the man who made McDonalds.

Born in 1902, it wasn’t until Kroc was in his fifties that he moved into the fast food industry. Having heard rumours of a Californian restaurant run by two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, he jetted out to visit them and was so impressed by what he saw, he convinced them to let him begin opening franchises across the country, with the first one opening in Illinois in 1954. It was, almost immediately, a success. This book, written in 1977 and thus only really detailing the first twenty-five years of the business, is Kroc’s own story of how it happened.

Penned as something of a cross between an autobiography and a business manual, Grinding It Out explores the tenacity of Ray Kroc and his insistence on doing things right, not skimping on quality, and the sheer enthusiasm and passion he shows for whatever he may be working on. He was at times a pianist, a door-to-door salesman and even joined up to help in World War One, finding himself in the same company as a quiet cartoonist called Walt Disney, no less. He eventually began selling paper cups, and later milkshake machines, and it turned out he had a natural flair for salesmanship and business. Seeing McDonalds as something that could become enormous, he made a deal with the brothers and set about turning it into the behemoth that we know (and many of us love) today.

Being an autobiography, Kroc surely skips over some of his less pleasant traits, although it’s clear even from his own narration that he’s rather arrogant, pig-headed, and while he’s not always against admitting he’s made a mistake, he would rather everyone just did as he told them. He was married three times, but with the first two he ensures his ex-wife is left with a large alimony that can keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. Towards the end of the book, the company begins doing a lot for charity, in particular setting up Ronald McDonald House, and he’s not backwards in coming forwards and telling you about what a gracious, generous soul he is. Nonetheless, for all the faults he seems to have and hide, he’s a thoroughly engaging narrator. It is said that “even his enemies agree there are three things Ray Kroc does damned well: sell hamburgers, make money, and tell stories.” It’s true in spades. He’s in turn funny, charming and while you know he’d probably be a nightmare to meet, he certainly knows how to keep your attention.

Given that the book was written in 1977 and Kroc died of heart failure in 1984 (although it is said he worked right up until the end), this is only the beginning of the McDonalds story, and therefore the last forty years are entirely absent. This means that while we learn about how the kitchens were set up and see the introduction of the Big Mac and Ronald McDonald, there are no mentions of McNuggets, Happy Meals, or salads. Nonetheless, we do get to learn about how exactly the Filet-O-Fish came into being, why the Hulaburger failed, and where the Shamrock Shake had its genesis.

Love McDonalds and Kroc’s work or hate it, you cannot deny that he was certainly influential, and it’s fascinating to learn more about the man behind the company.

Pass the McNuggets.

“The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047” by Lionel Shriver (2016)

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“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”

Many people have long lived by the notion that money makes the world go round. I’m not sure that’s true, but there’s no denying that if you have money it makes for a more comfortable ride. During the credit crunch last decade, the general population wised up a little to economics and realised that things weren’t necessarily always going to be so rosy. Indeed, with Brexit looming here in the UK, the cost of it and how that money will be raised seems to be a constant topic. Economic destruction is just one of the many negative options for the future of the planet, and Lionel Shriver explores that notion here.

The year is 2029 and things in the USA are bad. The dollar has imploded and is barely worth anything. The national debt will never be repaid. An international currency war is wiping out bank accounts with great speed. The Mandible family are just one of many that are struggling to survive in this world where cabbage costs $38 a head (and rising) and homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. When the family patriarch, Douglas Mandible, sees the inheritance he was set to leave his large family disappear, the whole clan now must deal with disappointment, frustration, and a lack of anything approaching luxury.

Florence works at one of the homeless shelters and is tired of having to turn away people every day because they’ve got a distant uncle with a spare bedroom. Her teenage son, Willing, is precocious and seems to have an innate understanding of economics and the way the world is going. Avery and Lowell are struggling to give up their expensive wines and quality clothes, and their children – Savannah, Goog and Bing – aren’t at all used to going without. In fact, the only one who seems to be doing OK for himself is Jarred, who has disappeared upstate to run a farm, now that agriculture is the only way to make any money.

As prices rise and everyone’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the family find themselves making one compromise too many as they do whatever they can to survive through to a better future that may or may not be coming.

I’m not an economist by any means, but even I can see that the culture of spending money we don’t have is surely going to cause problems eventually. Shriver uses her characters (in particular Willing and Lowell) to explain the fundamentals of interest, taxation and inflation to us, and while these are the clunkier parts of the novel, they’re very useful to have. The first two thirds of the book are set between 2029 and 2032, when the country is falling apart and the final third takes us to 2047 with the surviving characters in a country that has begun to rebuild itself in a new way to aid its survival for longer. During the gap, a number of characters we’d grown to be interested in are wiped out, which is a shame and a bit of a cop out, but I also understand why it’s done.

One of my favourite aspects of dystopian futures, or anything set in the future really, is simply how the author envisions that world. I don’t mean the major details, more the little ones. In this one, for example, most of the technology brands we know have vanished and been replaced by superior models, which is by now a common idea. I do really love glimpses at future politics, too. While the story is set entirely in the USA, it’s mentioned that North and South Korea have undergone reunification, Ed Balls is the current British Prime Minister, the USA has its first Latin American President, and at some point before the story begins, Putin declared himself President for Life, and the USA went to war with New Zealand for some reason.

It’s an intelligent book, and actually quite funny as well, although the reality of what’s happening is perhaps a little daunting. I’m not sure society will ever get to these extremes, but odder things have happened. While the end careens towards a slightly more positive future, the very final paragraphs suggest that humanity, once again, has never learned from its mistakes. If humanity has a fatal flaw, it’s that, and I think it’s important to show it. Maybe one day we’ll pay attention.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Superpowers” by David J. Schwartz (2008)

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“It all started at a party, which is damn convenient if you ask me, and if this weren’t a true story I wouldn’t expect you to believe it.”

We’ve probably all, at one time or another, wondered what superpower we’d want. Some of us want to fly, others wouldn’t mind being able to teleport, or shapeshift, be able to manipulate the weather, or be able to predict the future. I’d want all the ones around time travel and time manipulation, or else being able to jump into fiction and interact with the characters inside. Broadly speaking though, you probably won’t complain with whatever you end up with – it’ll still be cool.

Superpowers takes us back to 2001, and is the account of five students in Madison, Wisconsin who all develop superpowers unexpectedly after a night drinking home-brewed beer in a colossal thunderstorm. Mary Beth is now the strongest person on Earth; Jack is faster than a speeding bullet; Caroline can fly and spends her evenings enjoying her new power; Charlie can read everyone’s thoughts and is becoming overwhelmed; and Harriet can turn invisible. Once they start getting a handle on their new abilities, they decide to form a superhero team, dubbed by the media as the All Stars, thanks to the patterns on the chests of their Lycra uniforms.

The five struggle to keep their identities secret from the wider world, but they’re drawing attention to themselves and not always in a good way. Some of the people they’ve tried to save don’t appreciate the help, and the police, including Harriet’s own father, are on the case of the All Stars, since vigilante activity is illegal. They soon realise that they are still fragile, and even they can’t solve all the world’s problems. This will become vastly more apparent to them soon, as it’s 2001. September is coming, and with it, an event that will rearrange the world order and prove to them that being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

The situation, while fantastical, is handled in a startlingly realistic way. Naturally, the characters take a while to come round to the sudden changes, but quickly decide that they must use their powers for good. When other people begin to find out about them, no one declares that it’s impossible or rounds them up for medical tests, and it’s all taken in its stride with the more pressing issues of keeping their names and faces out of the media, and how to fight crime at keep up with their classes at the same time.

It’s also quite funny in places, but does deal well with the struggles that would occur with these powers. Charlie, for example, is overwhelmed by his ability to read everyone’s thoughts, and considers it an invasion of privacy he’s not happy to have. Jack’s super speed has meant that he’s now aging far faster than the normal human rate. And Harriet soon discovers that she can use her invisibility to spy on people and pretend to be living someone else’s life. Also, it can’t maintain the comedy for the whole thing because of what happens at the end – I won’t spell it out for you, but it’s clear if you’re reading properly. The situation is dealt with in a respectful and fascinating manner, and reminds everyone of how tragic that single event was.

Ultimately, like pretty much all superhero fiction, it’s a book about power and responsibility, but even more so I would say it’s about accepting our limitations, whether we’ve got superpowers or not. It’s important to know that none of us can single-handedly save the world or do all that needs doing, but we can help out in our own small ways.

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