Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 7)

An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Here’s another book that’s been on my to-read list forever: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I had a copy on my shelves, but I kept saving it for “the right moment”. Well, given everything that’s happened in the U.S. over the past couple of months, that moment is now. This is the book that Oprah says has “redefined the traditional American love story”.

An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, but it’s truly her “break-out” book – the one that brought her international attention and acclaim. I love the story of how the idea came to her, which she relates in a letter to the reader in the front of my edition:

An American Marriage is a love story I found in the mall, of all places. Sitting in the food court, I overheard a young couple arguing in hushed tones. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He looked puzzled and then replied, ‘This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’

Tayari Jones, An american Marriage

From that spark of inspiration came this story of Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African American couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

Now, An American Marriage is not a did-he-or-didn’t-he story. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. Fortunately, Jones also sidesteps describing or interrogating the nature of the assault that did actually take place (so there’s no fuel to fire any false-allegation readings) – she presents this as a case of mistaken identity, with the weight of hundreds of years of systemic racism behind it. A black man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid the price: convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.



Of course, given the premise, this book is about the incarceration of black men in America (56% of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic, and Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men; source) but that’s not all it’s about. Jones has taken the maxim of writing about “people and their problems” (as opposed to simply problems personified) seriously. Roy and Celestial, and the characters on the periphery of their relationship, are complex, fleshed-out, “real”. As much as this novel addresses very timely social issues, it also looks at what it takes to make or break a marriage, the sliding doors moments that affect all our lives. I think what it shows best of all (to borrow and mix a couple of metaphors, forgive me) is that there is no one straw that breaks a camel’s back, and no marriage exists in a vacuum.

Some sections are epistolary, told in letters sent back and forth between Roy and Celestial. They’re essentially existing on different timelines; “real life” has stopped for Roy, and he has little to do but think about his marriage, but everything continues for Celestial on the outside. Jones is really clever in how much she “shows” the reader about these characters, and how they change, through their letters. For the first few years, they’re writing frequently and emphatically, but there’s a noticeable shift as Celestial’s life begins to progress and Roy feels frustrated at being “left behind”. It’s a unique window into the ebbs and flows of a relationship where each character takes the time to articulate their thoughts on paper, directly to the other, with nothing said in haste and no performance for onlookers.

Then, there are other sections that are internal narratives, told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre (a vested third party in their marriage). This is another deft stroke from Jones (gosh, she’s clever), as it lets each character speak for themselves and gives them each an opportunity to win us over (or piss us off). There really is no “hero” in this story, no one character that you’re really rooting for at the expense of the others. You’ll be lured into loving and resenting all of these characters, all simultaneously. Some might find that annoying, but I actually really appreciated the shades of grey, and being able to see things from all sides. It’s the most realistic kind of love story. And, besides, at the heart of it all, there’s one common enemy, for the characters and for us: the racism at the core of the U.S. “justice” system. That’s not a focus of the novel, per se, but it’s the backdrop against which the love story plays out.



Anyway, back to the plot: three years into Roy’s sentence, Celestial tells him she no longer wishes to be his wife, which pisses him off (obviously). He refuses to see her or accept her letters for the following two years. Then, his case is overturned on appeal, and he is released. He optimistically reaches out to Celestial, hoping that their marriage could be rekindled (as she never formally divorced him), naively forgetting that he’s coming “home” to a marriage that existed mostly in his mind.

Normally, this is where I’d just go ahead and dissect the ending for you too, but I reckon this’ll be one of my very few spoiler-free reviews (okay, fine, Roy’s early release is probably technically a spoiler if you’re going to get all persnickety about it, but that only comes about half-way through the book, so there’s still a whole lotta twists and turns that I’m not ruining for you, suck it up). What I will say is that Roy and Celestial’s story, the way it unfolds, is heartbreaking and infuriating – all the more for the fact that it’s such a common and devastating reality for so many American families.

I worry about pushing that angle too hard, though, lest An American Marriage get pigeonholed in your mind as an “issue novel”. It’s truly not. It’s based on realistic “issues”, yes, but it’s ultimately about loyalty, how much we owe and to whom. It’s about marriage, and what we can reasonably expect from our spouses and ourselves. And, best of all, it’s so readable (stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable), and so emotive (make-sure-you’ve-got-tissues-handy emotive). If you’ve been putting off reading this one because of all the hype, stop doing that and get on it right now – An American Marriage totally lives up.

My favourite Amazon reviews of An American Marriage:

  • “I bought the audible version – I liked this book but it’s probably not going to end the way the reader wants it to – life is like that.” – Theresa V
  • “Ex-wife purchased dumb book” – Mr. Bill
  • “Why all the fuss? Not only is it unrealistic, it puts some truly unlikable characters centre stage. Reading the reviews was more interesting.” – Antonio C

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado through the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast (specifically through her lecture – which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet, otherwise I’d link to it directly – about Law & Order: SVU). I’d not encountered her work before, which wasn’t entirely surprising. She didn’t have a particularly long publishing history at that time, after all, just one short story collection: Her Body And Other Parties. Now, it’s truly phenomenal that a book of short stories from a debut author received enough attention to earn her an invite to speak at a festival half-way around the world, but I think it’s more than Machado’s brilliant writing craft that got her to that point. She is completely beguiling, scarily smart, and almost-embarrassingly frank. This short story collection is like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest).

The first story of the collection is possibly Machado’s best-known work: The Husband Stitch. It’s a reimagination of an old and oft-retold spooky story (borrowed from a French folktale of unknown origin) The Green Ribbon. You know the one, the woman who marries a man but won’t tell him why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck, until she finally lets him remove it and her head falls off? The thrust of Machado’s version is much the same: basically, we screw women over by denying them self-determination. It’s one heck of an opener, and it really sets the tone for the rest of Her Body And Other Parties. Even the new title is revealing in its gruesomeness (steel yourselves): the “husband stitch” is a euphemism for doctors using more sutures than necessary to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, purportedly to make the vaginal opening smaller and sexual penetration more “pleasurable” for her male partner. (Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.)



Another one of the stories that received a lot of attention was Especially Heinous (and it’s probably the reason she was invited to give that lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to begin with). Essentially, it’s a novella-length story told through imagined plot summaries of a parallel-universe series of Law & Order: SVU. It sounds bizarre, and it is. Machado had the idea after she streamed endless seasons of the show while recovering from surgery, which is what lends Especially Heinous its surreal, feverish quality. Plus, it’s a very obvious but still very poignant critique of our culture’s obsession with violence that victimises women. To call it “twisted literary fan fiction” would be underselling it, but it’s a really hard premise to describe, so give me a break!

“VULNERABLE”: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

Especially heinous, her body and other parties (P. 80)

My personal favourite of the collection (though, of course, they’re all worth reading) is Inventory. What looks like a simple list of a woman’s lovers turns into an incredible work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian world where a virus is killing off the population in swathes. You might think I’ve spoiled it for you now, but I swear I haven’t: it would take a lot more than a single review on a book blog to ruin all of the surprises that Machado has in store for you.





It should be fairly obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t: the stories in Her Body And Other Parties are “dirty”. Like, would-make-you-blush-if-you-read-them-out-loud-to-your-mother “dirty”. The main characters of The Husband Stitch fuck, in graphic detail, twice within the first five pages. Machado isn’t here to play, she’s not bashful or coy about sex – my kind of girl! I only mention it because I know that’s not for everyone, but I still want to vouch for the book (even if “smut” isn’t your “thing”). The sex isn’t pointless titillating garbage, it’s integral to the story (as it is to life), and I think even the pearl-clutchers among us will at least admire Machado’s erotic fearlessness.

Also needless to say: Her Body And Other Parties went on to win a lot of awards. A lot. Like, I got exhausted trying to collate them into a list. Every professional review I read was glowing, at minimum (I think they call that “critical acclaim”). Plus, more importantly (in my view), it’s achieved cult status – this is a book that will be passed from youth to youth, on university campuses and at seedy bars and over cheap coffees, for years to come. Machado is the real deal, folks, and I’m going to be overjoyed to be able to say “I remember reading her very first book” late in her long, long career. She’s already on her way, having released a breathtaking memoir – In The Dream House – which has revolutionised the genre and already cemented itself a place in the queer literary canon. Do I recommend Her Body And Other Parties? Abso-fucking-lutely.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Her Body And Other Parties:

  • “fun stories. different. freedom fighter stuff.” – Eddie
  • “that’s all. read it.” – G.S.
  • “Not what I expected, but definitely a well-written jaunt into lesbian-fueled surrealism.” – A Long Walk In The Woods
  • “Hot trash” – Mark Fulghum
  • “I don’t like the book, but it came in great condition and exactly as described.” – Maddie


Tracker – Alexis Wright

How do you go about writing the autobiography of a man who was larger than life? The short answer is, you don’t. Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in 1954, in the latter years of the White Australia policy. He was one of the Stolen Generation, removed from his family at three years old, and raised on the Croker Island Mission. He went on to become the country’s most powerful advocate for the social, legal and economic advancement of Aboriginal Australians, working with the Central Land Council and other organisations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, until his death in 2015.

Alexis Wright has carefully pieced together his life story from the recollections and statements of over fifty contributors, each carefully selected and approved by Tracker before his death. The effect is something like sitting around the dinner table after a large family reunion, listening to everyone hash over their histories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The strongest speaker, though, is Tracker. He is instantly beguiling, his distinctive “voice” booming loud and large from the page.

That’s not an artifact, it would seem: it was how Tracker did business. He was charismatic, skilled in the art of tailoring his message for the listener, informal and crass at times but always disarming with his good-natured humour. He was multi-lingual, able to converse in several Indigenous languages as well as Australian English, and this fluidity of language allowed him to act as a conduit, and a mediator, between groups. Even where all parties shared a common language, Tracker still managed to form bridges across political and cultural divides; he was determined, in every circumstance possible, to create an environment where people felt they could talk to him, and to each other, as a way of finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.





Tracker is a long(!) book, one that requires close and attentive reading over an extended period. Even though I was deeply engaged in the content and very interested in Tracker’s life and perspective, some parts dragged, which I guess would be the nature of any biography told in multiple voices (not all of them will resonate equally for every reader). It follows rough timeline, as you might expect of a biography, in that it starts with childhood and follows the trajectory of Tracker’s life and career. That said, it’s only very loosely structured. Sometimes, the same events are revisited and re-told from different perspectives, the pieces of the puzzle pushed together in a new way to form a different picture. This all seems to emerge organically from the mode of storytelling, rather than being forced or engineered as some kind of gimmick.

Wright doesn’t intervene as a narrator at any stage (she’s so absent from the narrative that where she is referred to at all, it is in third-person), which means there is no umpire adjudicating for the reader the contradictions between the different versions of events, and the different descriptions of Tracker. And it’s not all glowing, let me assure you: Tracker is, at times, criticised for his derision, his sexism, and (for want of a better word) his lack of polish. He was “certainly not politically correct by the standards of polite white civility”, and so it’s hardly surprising he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Where the first half of Tracker focuses mainly on events and achievements in Tracker’s life, the second focuses more on his philosophy, his ideas, and his insights. It’s not dense sociopolitical commentary, mind you – just an airing of Tracker’s vision for economic, social, and legal self-determination for Indigenous Australians. For him, it wasn’t just about the legal ruling or the funding approval for an initiative, it was about the practical impacts for the community, what a given decision or action would actually do to combat the entrenched inequality that still exists in Australia. For all the unwieldy complexity of the issues and challenges he took on, he boiled almost everything down to financial independence: “If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t work”. That might not be a popular view in today’s climate, reducing cultural continuation to dollars and cents, and it’s one I approached with much skepticism – but I’ve got to say, Tracker’s way of winning people over is just as effective on the page as it was in life.

Tracker also presents his views on the ever-timely issue of constitutional recognition:

“It is not our constitution, it is their constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sorts of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything.”

Page 407

This view surprised me a little – not the sentiment, but the vehemence of it – as did his views on the Greens and other environmentalist groups. Tracker pointed out a lot of problems in the ethos of these organisations that I’m privileged enough not to have had to consider previously. For me, Tracker really highlighted – in a way we don’t see often enough – the heterogeneity of “the Indigenous community”. Just like there are a broad range of views within “the gay community” or “the Muslim community”, the First Nations people are a diverse group with diverse views. That kind of nuance is too often lost when, as we’ve seen recently, they’re forced front and center of a political debate.





Another surprise: Tracker was a far less emotional read than I was expecting. Most of the contributors presented their stories in a matter-of-fact way, without the grief-stricken lyrical waxing I suppose I’m conditioned to expect from what is, in effect, a eulogy. This is not a book that sobs into the reader’s shoulder about how sad it is that such a brilliant man faced such hardship, and was lost so young (though it is, of course, extremely sad) – rather, it’s a careful record of the “facts” of a fragmented history, and in some ways, that is perhaps a more fitting tribute.

For her efforts and vision, Wright won the Stella Prize in 2018. It’s hard to imagine that a life as large and far-reaching as Tracker Tilmouth’s could have been captured in writing in any other way, and I’m glad that the literary community has recognised this stunning, epic achievement. I’ll leave the last word to her:

“Tracker was the one who made us look more, and work harder… The holes in this book are the missing stories of hundreds of people who knew Tracker. You can go anywhere in this country and there will always be someone with a great story to tell about Tracker, of something he said or did. Keep sharing those stories. Embellish them. Make his stories your own story. Most of all, be the story. That is what he would have wanted.”

Acknowledgements (Page 617-18)



The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

All my life, whenever The Handmaid’s Tale came up in conversation with someone I know well, they were always shocked to learn I hadn’t read it already. I’d absorbed enough about it through popular culture that I had a vague idea of what it was about, of course, but no more than that – somehow, I remained miraculously spoiler-free. I hadn’t even watched the HBO series! So, I sat down to this one with a clean slate, and an open mind.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1985. It’s set in a near-future New England (an eerie echo of The Scarlet Letter, perhaps?), re-named Gilead, where a new theological totalitarian regime has overthrown the U.S. government as we would know it in the “real” world (yes, yes, I know, the “real” world now resembles Gilead more than it ever has before, but that point has been made so often that it just feels hacky to even bring it up).

The story follows Offred, a “handmaid” in the house of Fred (get it?), the master whom she is bound to serve in this religious patriarchal hellscape. Basically, widespread infertility has rocked society so hard that they’ve rounded up all the fertile women and started using them as breeders in the households of wealthy elites. Offred is lucky enough to have functioning lady bits, so off she’s carted to Fred’s house, and his wife has to sit around and watch as Fred tries to stick one in her. Fun times!

And where the heck does Atwood even come up with twisted shit like this? The “real” world, of course (turns out I couldn’t help myself, sorry). She drew a lot from the Puritans (interesting-but-only-semi-related-fun-fact: Mary Webster, one of Atwood’s ancestors, was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England, but survived her hanging), and other regimes in which women are subjugated on “religious” grounds. Basically, Atwood is challenging us to look at what would happen if casually misogynistic attitudes (prevalent in the ’80s, at the time of writing, and sadly still today) were taken to their logical extremes. Atwood has famously said that nothing in her speculative fictional world of Gilead hasn’t already happened at some point in human history. So, that’s a cheery thought!





Of course, the system extends far beyond a simple fertile/non-fertile binary: there’s a (conveniently colour-coded) hierarchy to assign women their status and roles. The Handmaids (red) are in charge of baby-making, the Aunts (brown) are in charge of “educating”, the Marthas (green) are domestic servants, the Wives (blue) are married to the men in charge and pretty much just swan around trying to hide their drinking problems and brunching, and the Econowives (stripes of every colour) are expected to do the lot for lower-status husbands. The hierarchy for men is less clear, but it seems to boil down to Commanders (like Fred) who run things, and their soldiers/lackeys. The only ones free from expectation (as much as one can in a totalitarian regime) are the Unwomen and the Jezebels, who have committed “crimes against their gender” so egregious that they’re not accepted in polite society. Good on ’em!

The history and structure of Gilead is relayed entirely from Offred’s perspective, as well as her own personal story – thus, The Handmaid’s Tale (and things from here on are going to get spoilery, so exit your browser now or forever hold your peace). She points out that dividing women in this way, so visibly and without recourse, stops them from empathising with each other (which, in turn, prevents them from banding together in resistance). Still, her exposition, her explanation of how all of this came to be, is gradual – sometimes frustratingly so. I get that Atwood didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with all the details of her world at once, but in some ways, I kind of wanted her to! Just give me the lay of the land and let’s get on with things! (And that’s why jumpy timelines and I don’t normally get along…)

And jumpy it is: in between drip-feeding us fascinating insights into how Gilead works, Offred tells us the story of both her past and her present. In her past, as the Gilead takeover was happening, she smelled blood in the water and tried to flee to Canada with her husband and child (they’d been adulterous, had a kid out of wedlock, Offred wanted to be able to do stuff like make her own money and read books – all the shit theological totalitarians hate). Ultimately, she was caught and separated from her family. Serving as a Handmaid was her punishment (or “reward”, depending how you look at it – she was “saved” by her functioning ovaries from being exiled to “the colonies”).





In Offred’s present, her life revolves around doing the daily grocery shop (because stretching one’s legs is good for the womb, somehow), and The Ceremony every time she ovulates (i.e., a rape ritual, intended to impregnate her). That is, until her Commander goes off script, and asks to start seeing her on the side. They’re not supposed to have any interaction outside of The Ceremony (she’s not a concubine, after all, she’s a Handmaid), but he’s all keen to get together and play Scrabble, and he gives her lotion and booze as bribes to keep her quiet about his indiscretions. Offred later learns that he tried a similar carry-on with his former Handmaid, and she killed herself when his wife found out.

But Fred’s wife is none the wiser, for the moment, and even decides she likes Offred enough to make her own illicit overtures: she suggests that Offred try to get their driver, Nick, to impregnate her (seeing as Fred’s clearly struggling to get the job done). Offred and Nick develop a relationship, getting it on every chance they get, and eventually start sharing secrets.

Atwood keeps on world-building, right up until the final chapters – I know I complained about that just a minute ago, but I’ve got to give it to her, the writing craft is absolutely superb. It turns out, there is a resistance, and Nick might be able to get Offred out, smuggle her to safety. But can she trust him? He could be a spy – an Eye, as they’re called in Gilead – and it could all be an elaborate ruse to catch Offred out. In the end, Nick shows up with a car full of Eyes, and tells her to let them “arrest” her because they’re actually undercover members of the resistance. She figures she doesn’t have much choice, she’s bundled into the car, and away she goes. Her fate, in the reader’s mind, was left completely uncertain (until the sequel was released last year, anyway).





The real master-stroke, the knock-out punch, is the epilogue that reveals the “truth” of the story’s frame. It turns out Offred’s narrative was recorded onto a series of cassette tapes, and the transcript is being presented at a conference for academics that study “the Gilead period” of history. Atwood implies that Gilead collapsed, at some point, and a more equal society then emerged, with restored rights for women and freedom of religion. The academics, like the reader, have no idea what happened to Offred in the end, and these tapes are one of the few records (or “testaments”, eh?) they have on what went on in those dark days.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a vital book – even if the jumpy timeline(s) and drip-feed world-building annoyed me, I absolutely acknowledge its brilliance and ongoing relevance, on par with Nineteen Eighty-Four. It won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the Commonwealth Literature Prize, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release. Plus, it’s been challenged and banned too many times to count (always a good sign!), because it’s too sexually explicit, it has “adult themes”, it presents a negative view of religion, yadda yadda yadda…

That’s not to say it’s beyond reproach, of course (literature, no matter how good, never is). One particularly interesting critique I read, from Ana Cottle, positioned The Handmaid’s Tale as a manifestation of white feminism. Not only did Atwood barely acknowledge the absence of women of colour in her story (thankfully rectified somewhat by their inclusion in the HBO adaptation), she also borrowed heavily from the lived experience of oppressed women of colour (Cottle specifically mentioned African-American women, but I think her critique is applicable more broadly) and slapped it on women of relative privilege. To loosely paraphrase, the reason we find The Handmaid’s Tale so confronting is that the abuses perpetrated against women of colour are suddenly perpetrated against white women, and that blows our tiny minds. It would probably take a PhD thesis to fully explore this idea and do it justice, but I still thought it worth mentioning.

In the end, I totally understood why all my friends were so shocked I’d never read The Handmaid’s Tale. It was so far up my alley, I almost laughed when I finished it. I’m glad to have read it now, and hope to do so again – it seems like the kind of book that would benefit from many re-reads, spaced out over time. As the world changes, and the reader changes, the story it tells will change too, I’m sure.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale:

  • “Handmade tales. Love this book.” – Annmarie Iamonica
  • “I didn’t enjoy the moral content.” – j3a3r
  • “This book is dark and twisted what are they thinking to come that far for womens rights then give up” – Michael Robertson
  • “Boring, weird and just more weird and boring !!!!!” – Amy R.


Less – Andrew Sean Greer

On my journey out of the post-Ulysses haze, I found myself unsurprisingly in the mood for some “light” reading. Big Little Lies was a page turner, don’t get me wrong, but there weren’t a whole lot of laughs to be had amidst all the rape, abuse, and manslaughter. Browsing my shelves, I happened upon a little light blue spine: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It piqued my interest, as I knew it to be a unicorn: an #ownvoices comedy that had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

You might wonder how I knew it was a comedy, #ownvoices or otherwise, and to answer that I’ll give you a short excerpt from an event I attended at the Sydney Writer’s Festival that year, Andrew Sean Greer in conversation with local legend David Marr:

Marr: “Look, I don’t know how familiar you are with Australian English. Do you know the meaning of the word ‘fuckwit’?”

[audience laughs]

Greer: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that.”

Marr: “It means ‘fool’. It’s a vivid local piece of patois to mean ‘fool’.”

Greer: “Wonderful! ‘Fuckwit’?”

Marr: “Yes, fuckwit. Because the hero of your book is, it appears, for a good deal of the book, a complete fuckwit.”

And with that, I was formally introduced to the protagonist, Arthur Less – the one that David Marr described as a fuckwit, in tones of great affection (as Australians are wont to do). On that basis alone, I was inclined to give Less a go. I also noticed that one of the highly complimentary blurbs on my edition came from none other than my girl, Karen Joy Fowler. That settled it: I had to read this book.

Arthur Less worries that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old” (which made me laugh… until I thought about the heavier connotations, “old” gays being the only ones who survived the AIDS crisis, not so funny). He finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time fuck-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements.

And there we have it: this fuckwit is relatable as all hell. Planning a round-the-world trip on the spur of the moment to avoid an awkward social encounter? Big mood!





This premise gives Greer the opportunity to absolutely tear shreds off the literary world through satire. He never misses an opportunity to lampoon the self-reverential ridiculousness of it all. Arthur Less is “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”. His first stop is New York, where he chairs an event for a wildly successful and seriously overrated sci-fi writer (Less suspects he was the only author desperate enough to do the gig for free). Then, he joins a panel at a festival in Mexico, only to learn that all the preeminent guests are dead. In Italy, a generous translation of his debut novel wins an award, judged by a committee of high school students. On and on it goes…

The episodic structure also allows Greer to parade a series of colourful characters through Arthur Less’s voyage of self-discovery, BUT – I hasten to add – this isn’t your standard white-guy-sees-the-world-and-comes-home-transformed narrative. Greer is very careful not to fetishise the “exotic locals”. Arthur Less, the fuckwit, is always the butt of the joke. And his “self-discovery” seems almost accidental. He didn’t set out with any intention of transformation, he just wanted to avoid his ex’s wedding, and his personal growth is just a side-effect of his bumbling adventures.

My favourite part: Arthur Less accepts a visiting professor post at a university in Germany. He teaches a class called “Read Like A Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”. It becomes immediately clear to the reader and everyone else that Arthur Less’s insistence that he is “fluent” in German is a complete delusion. Hilarious!





The narration feels very personal, a conversational third-person perspective, or so we think. In a Vanity Fair-esque twist, we learn towards the end that the story is being told by… shall we say, a friend of Arthur Less (for once, I won’t give spoilers – I don’t want to ruin the fun!). I think that’s the key, that’s what makes Less work. Arthur Less is so lovelorn, so self-pitying, such a sad sack, that Less would not have worked if told from his own point of view. It would have been morose and miserable and flat-out annoying. As it stands, though, Less is a very literary comedy. Even when the humour is slapstick, Greer manages to write it in a clever and challenging way. This is a book that could work equally well as a beach read and a citation in your thesis.

That was the whole idea, of course. Greer said that he began writing Less as a “very serious” novel, but he soon figured out that the only way to write about the miseries of an ageing, gay writer (as an ageing, gay writer) was to make it funny. This is a realisation that Arthur Less has himself in the book, too. I really dig this determinedly self-deprecating approach. It lets Greer parody all the priviliged-white-American-abroad tropes, to my great delight.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, Less also spent an unbelievably long time on the New York Times Best Seller List, and even won the 2019 Australian Book Industry Award for International Book Of The Year. All of this is to say that Less is both a critical and a popular success. Greer has certainly won a fan in me! I highly recommend this book, particularly to fans of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, or anyone in need of a chuckle and a little heart-warming.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Less:

  • “I was expecting more.” – Peter Boyd
  • “My whole book club did not like this book. I liked the writing about the different cities.” – Elaine M. Bloom
  • “I never write book reviews but good god, what a complete dump of a book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I read it. It was a book.” – M D White
  • “Some humorous lines, but not worthy of such praise. I really don’t get all the accolades… guess I am less understanding.” – Nance T Lodge
  • “Less less less less less less less
    Lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser
    Least least least least least least least.” – Mike F.
  • “I am an avid reader . I usually love Pulitzer Prize winners. I did not think this book was very special.” – Maria G. Fitzpatrick
  • “Love the ending. [SPOILER ALERT] it’s basically the gay, prose version of Taylor Swift’s “How You Get The Girl”” – Joyce Reneau


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