Poignantly Awry - Life Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

I recently re-read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and am glad that I did. It is a leader in a small class of novels that deal so entertainingly with immortalism and aging.

Upon picking up the book for the first time, any of us would naturally ask ourselves: Did Max Tivoli really emerge from the womb an old man? That has to be writerly bravado, a wild swing at capturing the reader’s attention. Or the beginning of a story that has never been told before. Either way, the author has moxie.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is an enchanting and affecting novel about an old man born old in 1871 in San Francisco who is destined to grow young.

1st Picador Edition (2005)  ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

1st Picador Edition (2005)  ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

Andrew Sean Greer tells how this improbable mistake of biology, time and physics occurred in strikingly rich exposition. Max’s mother is from a wealthy Carolina family relocated to Comstock-crazed San Francisco. His father is one of the countless dreamers drawn to the Gold Rush. As Max tells it, “…the Comstock had made too many beggars into fat, rich men – so society became divided into two classes: the chivalry and the shovelry. My mother was of the first, my father of the wretched second.” Suitably, their union is a paradox of the mundane and the magical, which combine to create a moment of timeless possibility.

Max learns soon enough that while his condition is not unique, he is one of very, very few. So rare is his dilemma that only once – later in life as he grows younger – does he encounter another of his kind, and then it is only supposition.

Max meets his life’s great love early and their future seems doomed by the secret between them. Over time, he wins her through desperate deceptions for a glorious period in his middle years. Even then, she is unaware of his magical condition.

Greer's literary voice has been compared with Ford Madox Ford, which is high praise. Greer's narrator Max is direct whereas Ford's Good Soldier John Dowell is disengaged and distant. The ultimate unreliable narrator. " . . . I have generally found that my first impressions were correct enough. If my first idea of a man was that he was civil, obliging, and attentive, he generally seemed to go on being all those things."

Max is comfortable with seemingly straightforward declarative sentences, which are in fact occasionally complex expressions of deeper emotions woven like Celtic coils into his trustworthy narrative. He earns our confidence with candor and a voice that is consistently true to 21st century sensibilities despite its slant and attitudes of 1890's San Francisco. Max's out-of-time experiences and priorities complete the illusion of otherness. "While at twenty I had been far off the map of youth, now that I was nearly thirty I looked nearly right. Perhaps not quite in the bloom of youth, but approaching it in my ogreish way, and I began to get more than my usual share of glances from ladies who peered like fascinated children out of carriages, streetcars and shop windows."

Greer also consistently surprises and delights the close reader with his offhand use of opposites, subverting expectations and recharging our attention with the unexpectedly profound cast off phrase.  

The century turned, the seasons changed, but little changed for me until a lucky and terrible disaster.
Something of youth comes back with age.

This novel received extraordinary support with blurbs from John Updike, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, the L.A.Times, and the plaudits go on and on.


If you read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and have an issue with my description, please comment below. I will respond if appropriate and update this post to reflect new information.


Andrew Sean Greer

Born to two scientists, Greer studied writing at Brown University, where he was the commencement speaker at his own graduation. He worked for years as a chauffeur, theater tech, television extra and unsuccessful writer in New York City. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from The University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, he lives in San Francisco and is a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center.

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THE CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, opens the windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje’s writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje’s writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat’s Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

VIDEO: John Berger and Michael Ondaatje

Two important writers discuss story telling and the creative process in a conversation recorded courtesy of the Lannan Foundation.

I have read, been inspired by, and re-read several of these writers’ books. John Berger’s To The Wedding and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and English Patient are particular favorites of mine. This conversation was recorded at John Berger’s farm in Quincy, Mieussy, France, October 2002.  Enjoy…

Resonance: Dreams give us lift . . .

Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.


Dreams give us lift …  The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.

Ivan Doig
HEART EARTH (p. 133)

ANIL'S GHOST | Michael Ondaatje

Nothing Civil About This War

This novel was published after the phenomenon that was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It is more grounded in human tragedy than PATIENT, and hews more closely to the female protagonist’s (Anil’s) story than PATIENT’s Hana.

Ondaatje’s achievement here is capturing horrible truths in asides. It is in the actions of supporting characters that he makes his case for the best and worst aspects of the human experience.

In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Kip the sapper lives and works at the edges of the novel’s principal plot. Yet it is in his seemingly incongruent actions that he is so effective a presence. For example, he hoists Hana on a line into the high shadows of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo so that she can glimpse the centuries-old frescoes. In doing so, he lifts her above the nightmare of Nazi occupation in WW-II Italy and transports her across time to the heights of mankind’s artistic triumph.

In ANIL’S GHOST, we are dropped into the terror of Sri Lanka’s civil war. There she is caught between three intractable forces: leftist and separatist insurrections and the government’s ruthless repression. Here she collaborates with two brothers – one an archealogist and the other a doctor. In their world, abduction is to be expected, torture is a fact of life, and the aspirations of their professions – discovery, knowledge, compassion – are dark and threatening ideas. They are ultimately loyal to these values, these abstractions of light, shadow, and hope.

It is especially relevant reading now, when what appears to be nascient civil war threatens the Middle East from Tripoli to Tehran.

GHOST is deeply researched and written. It is a good addition to the literature of our time.

Anil’s Ghost: A Novel

Related: Michael Ondaatje: Auteur, Author


John Le Carré’s tenth novel, The Little Drummer Girl (1983), set the bar for tackling the passions and persistent complexities of the “Palestinian problem.”  It presented the big picture issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of specific personal crises and moments of life-and-death will.

The Plot

Fed up with cautious politicians and bureaucrats, Israeli intelligence officer, Martin Kurtz, gathers a small army of spies, malcontents, specialists, master operators-in-training, schemers, and fierce veterans of dark deeds behind the news headlines to craft an elaborate, complex mission to snare a Palestinian terror mastermind.

Kurtz’s most trusted associate is Gadi Becker, a seasoned warrior veteran of every Israeli success of the last 20 years.

At the heart of their scheme is Charlie, a bright, young, unresolved English actress of uncertain distinction. They attract her interest while she is on holiday in Greece with fellow troupers, a largely dissolute lot.

A dark mystery man she comes to know as Joseph (Gadi Becker) sweeps her off her feet and shows her a more intriguing and mysterious life. Soon, Charlie is brought into Kurtz’ fold and offered a chance to make a difference in the theater of the real.

Trained and prepared for the terrible loneliness of deep cover work beyond the protection of her elite team, Charlie becomes the bait that gradually attracts Khalil, the terrorist, to her in ever cautious, ever closing circles through a progression of dedicated soldiers of the Palestinian cause, each more adept and committed than the last. Finally, Charlie is tested by Khalil, who involves her in the assassination of a prominent Jewish intellectual.

Afterwards, when Khalil trusts her, and takes her for himself, he becomes distrustful and is about to kill Charlie when…

Casts a Spell

Rather than spoil the ending for you, I’ll stop there.  If you haven’t already, read this minor classic of the spy genre. We have seen the effects of the irreconcilable claims by Israelis and Palestinians to the same small area of land astride the eastern Mediterranean. LeCarré brings the passions, vexing contradictions, and cultural imperatives alive. The characters are fully realized. The settings are sensory-rich. The plot has enough switchbacks and chicanes to keep the most demanding reader turning pages. And it casts a spell by hewing closely to emotional truth.

The Little Drummer Girl was published in 1983.  Hodder & Stoughton (UK), Alfred A. Knopf (US).  ISBN 0-394-53015-2 (US hardback) George Roy Hill directed the feature film adaptation in 1984, which starred Diane Keaton (Charlie),  Klaus Kinski (Kurtz), and Yorgo Voyakis (Gadi/Joseph).

The Little Drummer Girl: A Novel

Thriller Writers Burn It Down

A visit to the mystery/suspense and thriller aisles at Borders this afternoon inspired six observations:

  1. Deceased authors are publishing new novels (i.e., Robert Ludlum, Margaret Truman)
  2. The Cold War is over, the War on Terror has evolved into traditional war, and espionage and conspiracy are bigger than ever
  3. Protagonists in thrillers are best when they are deeply, irredeemably flawed
  4. Women are gaining market share in the pantheon of mystery, suspense and thriller authors (i.e., Lisa Unger, Lisa Scottoline, Kathryn Fox)
  5. The Mystery/Suspense market is growing
  6. Successful writers in these genres ‘burn down the house’ and create palpable peril

In these categories, my reading has yet to venture far beyond Silva, Ludlum, Anthony Hyde, Clancy, Forsythe, and Cruz Smith, so forgive me if my categorization of those other above-mentioned writers contains errors.  In this, I suspect I am like many of my fellow shoppers in the aisles, scanning titles, cover art, jacket copy and blurbs – drawn to personal favorites, interested in broadening my horizons, yet conflicted about the burden on my budget and the quality of my reading, reticent about dropping $7-$12 on an unproven author.  LeCarré is a personal favorite.  He set the standard long ago in the spy novel genre and continues to craft writing that seems transparent, the writer’s holy grail.

Larry went officially missing from the world on the second Monday of October, at ten minutes past eleven, when he failed to deliver his opening lecture of the new academic year. 

- OUR GAME (1995)

There is an entire novel in that single opening line.

In mystery, Martin Cruz Smith raises my expectations, not only for quality writing, but also for my own work.

Blair lit an oil lamp hanging on the wall. Its wan illumination reached to the glory of the room, an oil painting of Christ in a carpenter’s shop.  Jesus appeared delicate and unaccustomed to hard work, and in Blair’s opinion His expression was overly abstracted for a man handling a saw.

- ROSE (1996)

But I digress.  If there is a single thread that unites the work of all of the above, it has to be the last observation.  These writers burn the character’s house down, usually early in the book, and often more than once.


LAST ORDERS | Graham Swift


Graham Swift‘s sixth novel, LAST ORDERS (1996), follows a day in the lives of the friends, spouse and children of Jack Arthur Dodds, butcher, recently deceased. Their day of remembrance is a metaphor for the ordinary, earnest yet flawed, occasionally misspent life. 

Following Jack’s three men friends and his son as they carry his ashes to the sea at Margate to fulfill one final wish is as driven, surreal and overarchingly important as a salmon’s return up a twisted and turbulent river to its life starting point.  The why of it is never quite clear to subjects, just like real life.  Perhaps Jack’s friends, son and wife discover that nothing in life should go to waste, including one last opportunity to unite with friends and family in the only place that ever held any hope of romantic significance for him. Margate was his Shangri-La, his hope for his and Amy’s connection to each other, even at the end of an estranged lifetime.

Uncompromising in his use of ordinary thoughts and language by the ordinary people of Bermondsey, south London, Swift establishes his contract with the reader early and never lets him or her down.

It aint like your regular sort of day.

…begins Swift and continues with absolute, unblinking objectivity, and an unerring ear for the deceptive riches in thought and dialogue.  At first, the similarity of voice between the characters – Jack Arthur Dodds’ understated, reticent butcher; Vince Dodds, his cagey son; Amy, his wife who chose their mentally disabled daughter, June, over her husband; Ray Johnson, his unreliable mate; Lenny Tate, his resentful Army buddy; Vic Tucker, his funeral director; and Mandy, the stray taken in by Vince – made following the changes in voice difficult to follow. I kept referring back to the chapter titles to see who was carrying the story forward.  Soon, however, each character’s emotional process and relationship with the deceased rippled outward and overlapped other characters’ process and responses.  Before long, cross currents became waypoints and I grew compelled by the journey and the back stories.  Swift’s exploration of ordinary lives in this novel is extraordinarily skilled.

This quiet novel speaks volumes about the quiet lives of its ordinary middle-class south London characters. In doing so, it speaks to the rest of us.

Graham Swift’s interview in SALON

The Booker Prize, which is often a reliable guide to literary excellence, is what originally attracted me to LAST ORDERS.

Last Orders

The END OF THE ALPHABET | C.S. Richardson

Collectible First Novel 

This story is unlikely.

So begins the first novel by C.S. Richardson, creative director at Random House Canada, award-winning book designer, and now, author. The story works on multiple levels, following the personal journeys of two individuals and discovering along with them the rare love they share. Having found each other, Ambrose Zephyr, 50-year-old advertising creative, and Zappora ‘Zipper’ Ashkenazi, fashion magazine columnist, are content in their narrow London terrace full of books when Ambrose learns that he is ill and has 30 days to live. Stunned and reeling, they depart from their home in Kensington Gardens and embark on an expedition ‘to the places he has most loved or has always longed to visit, from A to Z. Amsterdam to Zanzibar.’

Ambrose attempts to both escape his fate and accept whatever is to come next. Zipper discovers new depths of strength in herself as she overcomes her panic and creates ways to be there for him, witnessing his disintegration.

At the end Zipper is lost in the silence, the vacuum of deep space without the only man she ever loved.

She opens the journal that she purchased in Amsterdam on the first stop of their great expedition, takes in the emptiness and begins to write…

This story is unlikely.

THE END OF THE ALPHABET has some qualities of a classic.  It is visually captivating, surprises the reader by launching from a familiar premise yet takes flight into new situations, and is told in a discerning and disarming literary style.

The End of the Alphabet (2007), Doubleday, 119 pages

The WINDY DAY | Rick Bass

Wild Hearts

Bass mirrors the rush of life emergent in this story, The Windy Day, from his collection about wild hearts grounded in Nature entitled, The Lives of Rocks.

The narrator and his four-month-pregnant wife, Elizabeth, set out for town during a wind storm to learn the gender of their fetus.  Every hundred yards, they must stop to clear the road of fallen timber.  The father-to-be narrator fires up the chain saw and cuts and cuts and rolls, then gets back into the truck and moves on until they must stop again and cut, cut, roll.  It takes them an entire day (read lifetime) to reach the main road to town.  As darkness falls, the father-to-be is ready to keep going; he feels he is making progress and is intent on beating the odds.  Elizabeth says no, they’ll try again tomorrow.

Our father-to-be looks around him and imagines 16 years into the future when he and his daughter will ride horses through these woods, jumping over these fallen logs, or hauling the logs with his sixteen year old son…


Quince Tree Press Edition - 1980

J.L. Carr captures a moment in time in England’s rural north.  The narrator is shell-shocked veteran, Tom Birkin, who tells of his weeks in Oxgodby in 1920 to restore a painting in the local church.  The Pastor is a bitter and misunderstood man; his wife is a caged beauty.  In a field nearby, another veteran, Charles Moon, digs for the bones of a 500 year-old victim of this village’s ancestors.  Tom’s summer in the almost surreal Oxgodby is the tale of restoration of wounded souls, how the answers we seek are so often within our reach, and crafted in English that is a delight to read and re-read.  I was reluctant to put this small book down.

J.L. Carr’s A Month In The Country is a quiet masterwork.

Booker Prize shortlist in 1980.

Note: This edition of the novel can be difficult to find.  First published in England in 1980, it has appeared in various small press editions since that time.  I recommend the illustrated Quince Tree Press edition.


GREAT HEART | Davidson & Rugge

GREAT HEART | Davidson & Rugge

It’s rare to return to a book a decade after reading it and find that it has grown, or more accurately, it has kept pace with my own evolution as a reader.  I am a more critical reader now, probably due to the flight of years. There are ever more books to read, yet less time in an increasingly busy chain of days.  Eleven years after reading GREAT HEART – The History of a Labrador Adventure I find I am once again transported by the story of Mina Hubbard’s fierce search for the truth about her husband’s death in Labrador’s unforgiving wilds.

I wrote an anonymous review of the book on Amazon in November, 1999, and upon returning last evening to see how the book is doing I discovered that my review is featured as the most helpful ‘positive’ review.  While I appreciate that other readers rated my comments as helpful, I was disappointed that other readers hadn’t long since eclipsed my own comments in support of this good book.

Here is what I said:

Using Leon and Mina Hubbard’s diaries, as well s those of their guides, Dillon Wallace and George Elson (great character!), Davidson and Rugge reconstruct the extraordinary story of a woman’s search for the truth behind her husband’s death in 1903.  They flesh out the facts, give form to the unspoken fears and desires hidden between the lines of desperate journal entries, and then skillfully breathe life into the tragic events.  A powerful docunovel in a class all its own.  Don’t miss it.

Others have been compelled by Great Heart. In 2000, author and freelance journalist, Alexandra J. Pratt attempted to retrace Mina Hubbard’s 1905  560-mile route by canoe through the sub-Arctic of  Canada’s Labrador, but a century of forest overgrowth defeated her team’s effort.  In 2002, Pratt published Lost Lands, Forgotten Stories, A Woman’s Journey into the Heart of Labrador.  I look forward to reading Ms. Pratt’s take on this story.