Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I did not know who Andrew Sean Greer was until I heard he’d won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, and I continued to not know him and his sixth novel Less until I heard him read an excerpt in the New Yorker Radio Hour.  That was it; I was sold.  That short story was about Arthur Less, a nonfamous writer invited to Turin, Italy, by a minor literary prize, and it ran from one hilarious moment to the next.  Greer is one of these incredibly blessed people who just write funny.  Like how he describes the airplane lunch: “Tuscan chicken (whose ravishing name reveals itself, like an internet lover, to be mere chicken and mashed potatoes)”.

There are two things about Less that bear mentioning on a craft level (because they are absolutely crafty in the best sense of the word):

1) Greer sprinkles flashbacks judiciously throughout this novel, and he’s quite deft in the way he sneaks them in.  Example: in the last chapter, there’s this part: “…he sees a few people waiting on the dock, and among them — he recognizes her through her clear umbrella — is his mother.”  It’s not his mother, of course; rather, it’s a woman who is wearing a very similar scarf.  But this moment of misrecognition gives the reader the perfect way into this memory.

2) This novel is narrated by an unnamed character, one who acts in an omniscient manner about 95% of the time, but then there are these startling confessional first-person moments.  It’s so smart — Greer gets to have his cake and eat it, too, because he has the flexibility to play god and go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and yet he also preserves the closeness of the first-person narrator when he wants to deliver an extra helping of heart.

This is just a wonderful novel, gentle and loving and funny and sad.  Unlike many literary novels, things actually happen in this book, lots of things, tons of things.  It is, after all, a travelogue of sorts, with Less jumping from country to country, continent to continent, to avoid his former lover’s wedding and his impending 50th birthday, so there’s serious propulsion in the narrative.

The writer Greer reminded me most was another favorite of mine, Brian Morton.  Fans of Starting Out in the Evening or A Window Across the River will find a great friend in Less.  I can’t wait to read the rest of Greer’s fiction.

Something Good in Goodreads

I came across a review of Love Love in Goodreads…and it’s very kind and thoughtful.  The writer is a guy named Larry who not only read my novel but was inspired enough to write something about it.  He’s got a blog and has reviewed many other books and movies (his review of Inside Out is so closely aligned with my own view that I almost feel like I wrote it!), so check it out.

Larry’s review in Goodreads | Blog

sou

Review of Love Love in KoreAm Journal, My First Piece for KoreAm, and a Major Bummer

The lovely folks at KoreAm Journal have reviewed Love Love, and it’s an incisive piece.  Thank you, KoreAm.

Below is the first essay I ever wrote for KoreAm Journal, dating all the way back to March 2008.  On the cover were Harold and Kumar, John Cho and Kal Penn, from their second movie.

I’m not mentioning this just for nostalgia’s sake — it’s because I just heard from the editor-in-chief that the magazine and the website has changed owners and is now facing an uncertain future.  As of now, August/September 2015 is the final issue.  I sure hope this is not the case — that they will find a way to keep going, but we all know how tough it is to run a magazine nowadays.  I wish the editors and writers the best of luck.  I’d like to especially thank Suevon Lee and Julie Ha, who polished my prose and shepherded my columns every step of the way.

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

virgins

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

I’m on a roll here, folks.  A week ago, I finished reading Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean, the first published novel I read this year.  And now here I am, merely a week later, with another notch on my belt.  I’m almost two years too late, as Pamela Erens‘s The Virgins came out August 2013, but I’ll say it again: better late than never.  (I think that might be the phrase that goes on my tombstone.)

Firstly, let me say I know Pamela personally to a very slight degree; we have friends in common so we’ve met during family-related/neighborly celebrations.  And I was at one of her book parties when The Virgins came out.  “I can’t wait to read it!” I’m fairly certain I said (lied).  I’m sorry, Pamela — I’m just really, really slow.

Have I apologized enough?  Probably not.  But it’s time to move on.  It’s time to read this book, everyone.  This very sexy book, and I’m not just throwing that word around.  This novel is seriously, incredibly sexy.  Like you’ll blush as you read it.  I know I did, several times, and I don’t blush easily.  If you are squeamish about reading about people having sex, teenagers in particular, what the hell is wrong with you?  Sorry.  I meant to write, “then this book isn’t for you.”  (But seriously, what is wrong with you?)

A side (though I feel like this post has been just one big side so far): for those people who read trashy romance novels or whatever the hell it is that E.L. James writes (from the bits I’ve glanced, I wish I hadn’t), you should give The Virgins a shot, because then you wouldn’t feel so guilty about reading terribly written novels about sex.  Pamela composes gorgeous, sustained sentences that I guarantee will get you hot under the collar.  Her sentences will also make you feel.  Sometimes they’ll make you sad.  Sometimes they’ll make you laugh.  But you will very much feel (even against your will, sometimes) the tortured, elated, breathless, dangerous lives of these students at Auburn Academy, a boarding school that made me glad my parents were poor and could not have sent me to such an institution.

The Virgins is also a very well-crafted book with wholly unexpected twists and turns, but the best kind that make terrible tragic sense when all’s said and done.  It’s a fast read, and full of literary flair.  Just the very POV that Pamela chose is kind of remarkable (neither of the leads but an insider-wannabe outsider who voyeuristically and imaginatively narrates the novel).  If you enjoy The Virgins, then I’d very much recommend her first novel, The Understory, which also features a male narrator with some serious problems, one of which is unrequited love, a theme that I now declare has emerged in the Erens oeuvre (I feel very grown up now, having used that fancypants word).  I’ve read that one, too, and like The Virgins, it is equally devastating and disturbing.

By the way, something else that was kinda-sorta disturbing — the lead male in this novel is a Korean-American kid named Seung.  That’s just one letter away from my own name!  And I’m Korean, too!  Though in this novel, his pronunciation is different (“the past tense to sing“), so no worries, totally different guy.  I’ve actually told people something similar when they ask how I say my name — “the past participle of the verb to sing.”  (I’ve since learned that some people don’t know the past participle tense, so I’ve retired this phrase…)

One last thing — James Salter is an author often mentioned in reference to The Virgins.  I presume Pamela also honors him by naming one of Auburn’s teachers Mr. Salter.  In case you haven’t heard, Salter passed away on June 19.  Here’s a beautiful obituary in Grantland by one of my favorite writers.

Pamela Erens
The Virgins

288pp
August 2013/Tin House Books