By Andrew Sean Greer

Published  2017

Read Oct 2019

Essay updated 11/7/2019

This book is on the schedule for one of the book discussions this reader will be attending soon.  This reader was initially disappointed that the book was going to another book about the travels of a middle aged writer having a mid-life crisis (having fairly recently read Bech the Book) with a gay writer this time.  In this version the gay writer is trying to have a good excuse for not attending his last boyfriend’s wedding so he accepts a series of sometimes bizarre literary events/gigs in a variety of places around the world.

This reader was exasperated that this was a Pulitzer Prize winner—maybe for being a best seller vs having much literary value?   After a few destinations (chapters), however, this reader began warming up to the protagonist and certainly to the author’s writing (which also carried Bech the Book).  This reader stopped being annoyed and started really enjoying the humor, the witty and lyrical writing, and realized this character was going through some universal issues we all face as we “mature” (age!).  Once the character gets real criticism from a friend about why his newest manuscript wasn’t going to make it– that no one wanted to read about a middle-aged white guy (even if gay) having a mid-life crisis- the character starts getting serious about writing and about really confronting from what he was running and would never be able to actually leave behind.    This reader decided Less is a person much more worthy of praise for his achievements than he has previously realized.  Although he’s accepted “gigs” that others may not have, there are so many offers that have allowed him to literally travel around the world essentially for free. 

And the book has a happy ending, a somewhat rate occurrence in “serious” literature which this reader now agrees describes this book. 

The book discussion was great and the participants left glad that Less wrote this book, offering to us a story of universal—that are experienced universally, not just in the heterosexual world.   Give the book a read; be patient and enjoy the great writing.  It eventually will win you over as it did all those in the discussion—either during the reading or as a result of the discussion.  (Another great example of impact of discussing books with others….)

Blue Nights

Blue Nights

By Joan Didion

Published 2011

Read June 2019

A wonderful aspect of being in a book discussion group is reading things you might not otherwise read.  One discussion group to which this reader belongs occasionally has its monthly meeting discussion books chosen by the reader based on some sort of assignment.  The assignment that brought me to this book was “A book with either “blue” or “blew” in the title.”  So this reader put “blue*” into the search engine for the library consortium, to which the sponsoring library is a member, to see what the search would reveal.  As expected—A LOT  of potential possibilities books.  As this reader worked through the descriptions of a variety of books, the title of this book first provided a source of pause.  Blue is this reader’s favorite color and is a delightful favorite as the sky provides a whole palette of blues to enjoy.  The period of twilight dissolving completely into night provides a specific blue palette that is especially remarkable.  The author’s name for this book was Joan Didion, an author this reader read years ago and enjoyed much for her remarkable language although not a single specific book title read could be recalled.  No worries.  The book was requested and delivered.

Upon opening the book, the first paragraph totally engaged this reader with her description of blue nights—apparent in New York (City) (where she now lives) but not in subtropical California (where she lived for much of the time described in the book).  “You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.”  Although this reader has not been to Chartres nor seen radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors, this reader knows that blue.  She continues “During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come.  As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice:  the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.”

Thus Didion sets the stage for this book.  Although some references and critics describe the book as an account of the death of her daughter, at age 39 and only twenty months after the abrupt death of her husband of a heart attack, there frankly isn’t really an account of her daughter’s death.  Rather there are short descriptions of aspects of her life with her daughter—getting a call for her adoption, the party celebrating her official adoption, taking her on various work trips, and others. She recounts several times hearing a group of doctors on rounds indicate the vent her daughter is on  is no longer able to provide the patient sufficient oxygen There are descriptions of fears she experienced during her daughter’s life (generally the ones all parents fear regarding injuries, losing them in a crowd, etc), fears she now experiences that are much more difficult (why didn’t she understand what her daughter might had been saying at various times, why didn’t she realize that her daughter would have the abandonment fears that adopted children often experience, etc), and the fear that she will lose her memories of her.   .  As well Didion discusses her concerns about aging which she now realizes is now occurring: the loss of physical capabilities, the increasing neuropathies that hamper her senses and impair her mobility, and especially her cognitive capabilities that are apparent in the act of writing: “What if the absence of style that I welcomed at one point—the directness that I encouraged, even cultivated—what if this absence of style has now taken on a pernicious life of its own? What if my new inability to summon the right word, the apt thought, the connection that enables the words to make sense, the rhythm, the music itself— What if this new inability is systemic? What if I can never again locate the words that work?”  “I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page.  I saw it as evidence of a new directness.  I see it differently now.  I see it now as frailty.  I see it now as the very frailty Quintana feared.”

The book describes Didion’s raw thoughts and fears, some which are newly understood but had always there, some newly exposed and only evident when one reaches that certain point of the blue night.  Don’t read this book to learn about Quintana’s death.  Read this book to hear a wonderfully articulate author describe what she is experiencing as both a result of losing a daughter and as a result of realizing her summer is ending. 

Anna K, Audiobooks, and Discussion

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1873-1877

Published in book form 1878

Read 2014

This reader is publishing this essay on a book read several years ago because it was a great example for this reader about the experience of listening to the book vs reading “with your eyes”.  Tolstoy’s “first novel” and very great work is a large one—850+ pages or so.  Dispersed within the story of two marriages—the crumbling of Anna/Alexey Karenin’s marriage and creation and maturation of Kostya Levin/Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage—Tolstoy has long extensive sections on hunting, harvesting grain, serfdom, political discussions at a dinner party, sending soldiers to a war of unclear purpose, and several others.  This reader may have struggled through these sections if reading the hardcopy (or Kindle!) version of the novel, but was enriched by them when they were being read by a good reader and the reader was walking, exercising, driving, gardening, cleaning, or many other types of activities that allowed concentration on both the book and the task.  I heartily recommend this form of reading to enable immersion in books. 

Tolstoy provides an interesting look at Russian society shortly before the freeing of the serfs, with particular emphasis on the arrangement and state of marriage in upper society with respect to the public and personal expectations of marriage.  Anna is in an arranged marriage that “saves” her from a situation of no wealth and no obvious family with which to live.  However the marriage is not personally fulfilling to her, and perhaps not to her husband.  While perfectly acceptable to have discreet affairs to “fill the gap” of an unsatisfying marriage, Anna chooses a different path with her Vronsky.  Tolstoy uses this story to develop his thesis that an eternal error men makes is in “imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires”.  However, the maturation of Kostya Levin and Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage may contradict this thesis.  However they chose their marriage following a courtship focused on love (as possible within the constraints of society) and live in the country, generally unblemished by the trends and pressures of society.

Obviously there is much Tolstoy covers in 850+ pages which is not discussed here.  Listen to the book to find out the rest.  One last remark, however, regards the volume of books published while Anna and Vronsky are exiled to his country estate and the volume of books published now.  Anna and Vronsky read essentially everything that was being published at the time in French or Russian—history, science, fiction, poetry, etc.  It would be impossible to read even a small percentage of everything published now even when a person’s life is devoted to nothing but reading.  This reader benefits from book clubs which provide a great selection of books for the discussion season—either by the learned facilitator compiling the list for the season (and one providing “off-season suggestions) or through suggestions from well-read members which is winnowed down to a list for the season.  Usually the lists contain books this reader would never otherwise read but are enriching in usually many ways. 

Bottom lines:  1) Engage with audiobooks to expand your reading experience (and probably your reading volume) and 2) Seek out and join book discussion groups that can help find books worth your limited time to read and that can provide a great experience in digesting these books in ways you can’t by yourself alone.

A Discussable Book

Arabian Nights and Days

By Naguib Mahfouz

Published (in Arabic) 1979

Published (in Engligh) 1995

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was a prolific Egyptian author who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, after which his work began appearing in English.  This book is a sort of sequel to the famous 1001 Arabian Nights as it starts with Shahriryar, the sultan, the day after his virgin wife, Shahrzad, has told her 1001th story and Shahriryar tells Dandan, his vizier and Shahrzad’s father, that he has decided to stay married to Shahrzad (not kill her as he has done with his previous virgin wives).  Thus commences a series of 17 loosely connected stories including some of the characters from the 1001 Arabian Nights (notably Aladdin and Sindbad).  The book is bookended by stories involving Shahriryar in which he is reflecting on his past and how he will proceed into the future.  There is a myriad of characters so a summary of characters compiled by Arizona State University English 202 (World Literature from the Renaissance to the present day) is an invaluable resource for the reader:  https://arabiannightsanddays.wordpress.com.  

The character guide was identified by a member of the book discussion group of which this reader is a member.  This group is the reason this reader engaged with the book at all.  It’s not one that this reader would have found or, frankly, read otherwise.  But reading with the character guide enabled this reader to enjoy the book and prepare for an engaging discussion with the book group.  This book is an example of what a book discussion group can do.  The book is quite ambiguous often about motivations for the actions of some of the characters. For example—yes a genie was involved to provide the tool or suggestion (or requirement) for some action, but the character had to make a choice to take that action and why did they?

Themes the author explored, without clearly providing a statement about any theme, include:  what makes a good man corrupt; are all government officials corrupt; what characters were true to their religion; what role do women play in this society; are women corrupt or corrupting; can a murder be justified; and more. Other questions explored include:  Genies play a significant role in the various tales, sometimes prompting actions that could damage or destroy a person’s standing in the community or worse, seemingly for the sport of it.  Do such forces actually exist?  In what form?  Is this type of entity/force common to other religions beyond Islam? The book offers much opportunity for consideration and as an important identity this reader has embraced is of a shared learner, this was a delightful book to read and explore with others.  I heartily thank the club member responsible for suggesting the book, the discussion facilitators and discussion participants.   

Non-sameness confronted

This is How It Always Is

By Laurie Frankel

Published 2017

Read Oct 2017

This book first showed up for me on a suggested summer reading list.  I looked into it and decided to consider others on the list instead.  Then the book appeared on a discussion group list for the 2017-2018 season and I was confronted with choosing to read or not participate in a book discussion group I very highly value.  So I read it.  Be advised that this essay contains “spoilers” and some personal considerations.

I didn’t want to read about a transgender three year old.  I didn’t want to read about the decisions the parents might make. I didn’t want to read about a boy who said he wanted to be a boy at age three and his parents let him. I didn’t want to confront the fact that this was a real question for some people.    I didn’t want to be preached to by an author with an agenda.

After reading most of the book I found an “Author’s Note” at the end of the book.  We learn that the author has a daughter who started as a son.  We get no further details about that fact.  She clearly delineates that the book is not her daughter’s story nor her family’s story nor her own.  The book is informed by all of that, however.  I appreciate that the note is there and I appreciate that the author seeks to tell an informed story.    My overall comment:  The author tells the fictional story of Claude/Poppy  in a generally engaging way and I was informed  and enriched by it.

At times I was annoyed that the life Mother-Physician Rosie and Father-Writer Penn (as they describe themselves) create for themselves and their family was too perfect.   Doctor mother, stay at home and writer father, big house full of rambunctiously interesting boys  who enjoy listening to dad’s fairy tales nightly for more years that seems conceivable, all in Madison WI (a pretty progressive town as I know from personal experience while a grad and post-doctoral student there).  Claude’s a articulateness at age three (which is likely attributable to his highly articulate environment and inherited IQ) enables him to proclaim at age 3 that he wants to grow up to be a girl, an idea for which he shows much commitment.  Perfect parents so tolerant of all their boys’ weirdness (one son is quite adept at creating interesting practical—but knitted—items) so they take transgender into stride –at least until he starts kindergarten.  After a few days of being forced to change into boy clothes before going to school his parents let him go as a girl.  Not surprisingly for a progressive community like Madison, the school is apparently well equipped to handle this; Claude’s classmates accept it in a heartbeat; the parents are generally supportive (“you’re so brave”).

But even Madison, Wisconsin isn’t progressive enough so they pick up the household and move to Seattle, WA which the parents expect to be sufficiently safe for Claude.  The author (almost finally) provides two sources of conflict at this point—-the eldest son is very unhappy they’ve chosen Claude’s interests over his and the really big one—they decide to keep Poppy/Claude’s situation a secret.  All is nearly perfect again—a playmate for Poppy/Claude right next door in a family that becomes a “best family friend” for the Walsh family.  Son Ben likes the change the move allows for him.  The twins are unaffected by the move.   But all is not preface after all.  Dad recognizes some serious decisions are ahead as Poppy/Claude gets closer to puberty and Mom wants to not think about it.  Son Roo flunks an English class after turning in an assignment that the teacher and parents interpret as homophobic.  Then the efforts spent on keeping their secret are unraveled as Poppy/Claude is outed in fifth grade.

The author does a generally good job of “showing versus telling” us about the very real issues confronting transgender individuals and their family.  She uses the exercises provided the parents by  a Madison “multi-degreed social-working therapist-magician”,  Father-Author’s investigations into transgender issues post-puberty, and Mother-Physician’s volunteer experience in Thailand to inform them and us about the realities this family will need to confront about Poppy/Claude.  The author also helps the reader confront our culture’s focus on gender as one of the most significant aspects of identity and what we do to ourselves and each other as a result of that focus.  She exposes some realities for the lives of people trapped in the wrong body.  She reveals there are decisions pre-puberty that could actually be responsible ones and that these decisions are life-shifting ones for both the person and the family.  Fortunately she helps you to this possible opinion while ending this story before the family must make such a decision.

Throughout the book the Author-Father has been spinning a fairly tale, first for his wife as he wooed her and then for his boys, that is both autobiographical for the family and instructional for his audience.  Fortunately he eventually calls out the family on the fairy tale aspects of their lives and tells all of them that fairy tales must address the “hard stuff” and “the rest of it” too.  Their fairy tale doesn’t answer the hard questions ahead and recognizes that their love and strength will be required and challenged as they make the decisions.

Thus the author does address the challenges the family has faced to date and tells us there are even more challenges ahead, but where this family will go next is left for us to consider.  The more important consideration the author leaves with the reader is how that reader will move forward in their views of the reality that she presents in the introductory quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods:

It is always “or”?

It is never “and”?


This particular quote resonated with me very strongly.  While I’ve advocated for the concept of “and” vs “or” for decades, I’ve never considered how it does or doesn’t apply to gender.  I can’t yet advocate strongly for enabling a transgender journey for a three year old but maybe it really is better if you do if you can be clear it’s a reality for that child.


I appreciate that the author raises the question of why our culture is so focused on gender classification from birth and compartmentalizing what’s acceptable for each (of two only) gender and what’s not:  dress, play, jobs.  It’s accepted that Rosie is a physician, a “boy” job until reasonably recently, but Penn “doesn’t work” according to much of their community.  Our culture has broken down many previously gender specific roles and rights—girls can be educated, drive cars, own property, do “boy” jobs, make money, remain unmarried and choose to not be a mother, even live with and marry another woman.   We don’t always appreciate the strides our culture has made in this regard until we realize that not all cultures in the world allow these “basic” rights.  Less accepted but becoming more “normal” are men who choose to be stay-at-home dads or do “girl” jobs.  In our culture, acceptable “girl” dress has included pants for some 50 or so years.  Girls can enjoy “boy “games and play “boy” sports with boys in high school.  Even the Boy Scouts soon will let girls participate fully in their most prized program of seeking the Eagle Scout title.  So it seems the social pressure to declare a gender identity isn’t forced on a trans girl very early.   But our culture does not accept boys wearing “girls” clothes to school so parents are faced with a situation that will likely stretch their parenting skills and force uncomfortable decisions at a pretty early age, especially as a large fraction of kids attend day-care and/or pre-school.


Good books often lead the reader to read more—more from that author, more about a topic, etc.  This book definitely met this bar. I was prompted to (finally) read the chapter on Transgender in Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, an extraordinary book that covers a wide range of “non-sameness” situations including Dwarfism, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, and Crime.   While the author doesn’t delineate in this book, I became aware of the benefits of suppressing puberty for a transgender child, the decisions that transgender can or must make, and the suffering that transgender people experience throughout their lives.  I now can allow this “non-sameness” situation into my consciousness and discuss it.  Author’s mission accomplished?


I look forward to the upcoming book discussion of this novel.  I expect the capable leader to enable an extraordinary experience for all participants.

Reading About Wine –Impact of a Book Club

Summer in a Glass:  The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes

By Evan Dawson

Published 2011

Read Sept 2017

The beauty of book discussion groups!  A local library’s approach to book discussions is to set a theme and have each participant share a book within that theme.  I wasn’t sure how this would work but now I know:  IT DOES!

The theme of my first foray with this group was “Wine” — about wine or wine in the title.

A book shared at that meeting with a “thumbs up” recommendation:  Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson.

I now provide a “thumbs up” and recommend you to read as well.

I live in the Finger Lakes in the summer and I listen to Evan Dawson’s daily show on Rochester’s NPR affiliate WXXI so this seemed a natural book for me to try.  I read it in only a very few sittings and was sorry to see it end.   Evan’s articulate and crisp voice comes through as he describes with clear joy and appreciation his encounters with some of the best winemakers/wineries in the area.  He provides some of their personal history in getting to their place in the story of Finger Lakes winemaking.    I was pleased to learn that collaboration and knowledge sharing is rampant in the Finger Lakes.  These wineries want to make world-class wines and they want the world to understand this.  They believe–and walk the talk—that success of any individual winery can raise the profile of the region and engage more people to visit and enjoy them all—now over 100 in number.

I knew pieces of the stories of some of these wineries—which I’ve visited with frequency.  Others I knew less about and now I know why—some of these winery owners are very private.  I’m glad to have learned more about them and will appreciate their wine and facility even more during future visits.

Evan’s writing is brisk, concise, and engaging.  He’s packed 12 stories with index and acknowledgements into 266 pages.  He’s revealed a little, but not too much, about himself as he’s not the focus of the work.  But his desire to understand the region and tell others about it required a dedicated journey so it’s appropriate to learn about specific days and encounters.  He starts and ends with the story of a young winemaker from Germany, his strong desire to stay in the Finger Lakes, and the immigration challenges he has faced.  The reader wants him to stay too as we learn about the great wine he’s made and especially as we learn about his desire and efforts to help make all Finger Lakes wineries great.   By the end of the book word from the Labor Department about his final appeal hadn’t been obtained so it ends with a cliff hanger as well as a toast to this winemaker for the positive impact he’s made on a number of wineries.

The book was published in 2011 so I hoped that I could learn the outcome of Johannes’s wait and that it would be positive.  I was delighted to learn that it was and he and his wife are making wine not too far from where I live.  Yeah!

In summary—a pretty fast and very enjoyable read to learn about the NY Finger Lakes Wine Region and the people who are enabling it to be considered one of the world’s great wine regions.


Addendum: My Sunshine Away: Dark, Engaging and an Appeal to Be a Good Man

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Published 2015

Read 2/14/2017

Book Club discussion:  3/14/2017

As I routinely experience, Book Club discussions enhance my understanding and/or appreciation for the books I read, especially ones with which I’ve struggled a bit.  That was the case again for My Sunshine Away.

The references to the Challenger explosion and the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murder case help establish the time of this story for many readers in 2017.  I anticipate the Challenger explosion will do that for readers for many years.  I don’t think that’s the case for the Dahmer murder case, and may actually “date” the book, or maybe I just hope it won’t be a universally recognized event.  I guess I’m hoping that we don’t perpetuate the stories of deeply inhumane acts of serial violence but that’s probably not realistic since we’re all familiar with the existence of Jack the Ripper.

I now do see a useful role of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murders and why Lindsay is so interested in discussing it.  This is a public case of an evil set of crimes and, importantly, it’s not about her.  The narrator is willing to discuss primarily because of his obsession with Lindsay.

A substantial theme I hadn’t fully digested is  the importance of a male adult/boy relationship in the development of a boy into a man.  The narrator has limited interaction with his father, especially after he leaves the family for another woman.  The brief time his mother’s brother stays with the family (while he is sorting out his own problems) provides the only relationship the narrator calls out as one that has an influence on the way he views things.  The narrator reveals the true audience for his narration in the last chapter.  Exploring this theme in this way certainly elevates the novel light-years above the SVU type story it uses to start the book.

The short (50 min) but amazingly effective book discussion I attended about this book enabled me to recognize this substantial them, almost buried within the description of male adolescence and impact of a sex crime.  It’s prompted me to consider finishing “The Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks especially since there was a clear lack of positive adult male figure in the life of that book’s protagonist.   I’ve previously read and have moved by earlier novels by Banks but put this one down due to the topic of sex offense.   I haven’t yet obtained it again from the library and perhaps I won’t.  I continue to hope there are ways to discuss important human themes without involving human evil.  I continue to hope that our society hasn’t been overly numbed and requires vivid depictions of evil to be moved.  I continue to hope that Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction doesn’t continue to predict so well society trends….