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July 19, 2017

Book Notes - Andrew Sean Greer "Less"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Andrew Sean Greer's new novel Less is a heartfelt comedy, possibly his best book yet.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Less is perhaps Greer's finest yet.... A comic yet moving picture of an American abroad.... Less is a wondrous achievement, deserving an even larger audience than Greer's bestselling The Confessions of Max Tivoli."

In his own words, here is Andrew Sean Greer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Less:


"Wonder Where I'm From" by the Magnetic Fields

Well what luck: the peerless Magnetic Fields came out with an album this spring called 50 Song Memoir with one song for every year of songwriter Stephin Merritt's life. Like their famous 69 Love Songs, it goes from cowboy song to sea shanty to disco without any reason (but with plenty of rhyme). There is no progression—just like life? But it's marvelous. No reason not to start with the first song, about the year of his birth. After all: he's exactly the same age as Arthur Less.


"El Rey" by Alejandro Fernandez vs. "El Rey" by his father Vincente Fernandez

I have performed this song many many times, accompanying myself on ukulele, and people have noted times that I don't actually play the ukulele during the song but instead gesture with it. I feel this is in keeping with the spirit of the song, as well as the spirit of my lack of talent. It is a classic mariachi song, in which a total loser—who has "no crown or queen"--is nonetheless a king. This is never explained. But I turn you to pop star Alejandro Fernandez and his father Vicente, who truly is the king.


"La Donna Cannone"

By Francesco de Gregori, a beguiling and baffling Elton-Johnesque song that seems to be about a "human cannonball" performer who, in love with a man she cannot be with, shoots herself into the stars. I think. My Italian is terrible. But it's quite beautiful.

"Roma, non fa la stupida sasera"

Okay. So this one time when I had a reading in Rome, I had the great idea to perform a song as well, and friend said this one would be perfect. No problem; you just learn the lyrics in the Roman dialect! They'll eat it up! I practiced for weeks and weeks and when it finally came to the moment—I forgot the words. When you forget the words in your own language, you can kind of make them up. When you forget the words in a foreign language, you sort of make up "tonalities" of Roman-sounding words that of course sound totally ludicrous to listeners. If you like that sort of thing, you can look up a video of me making a fool of myself with a great deal of audience laughter, but I ask you: what kind of horrible person are you to look that up?


Maria & Margot Hellwig – "Geburtstagsjodler"

This is the video I sent to every friend on their birthday. It is the famous mother-daughter yodeling team of Maria and Margot Hellwig. It seems to be from a television show in the seventies, when Germany was of course still a divided country. The pure innocence of the song (basically, "I am giving you a yodeler for your birthday") is bizarre and charming and then bizarre again.

Silly featuring Anna Loos – "Kopf an Kopf"

To cleanse your palate, let me offer "Kopf an Kopf" by Silly, featuring Anna Loos. It was a famous East German band whose lead singer died in 1996. Anna Loos joined not long ago, and is spectacular. I guess I should mention she's a friend of mine. This song begins quietly and builds like my favorite eighties ballads. Did I mention they are on tour right now?


Jacques Brel - La chanson des vieux amants

I am not putting this in to depress you; even if you are lucky enough not to understand French, you can't miss the despair and regret in his voice, and you are going to get depressed anyway. I'm putting this in because one lovely evening I had the pleasure of singing this with the great French writer Maylis DeKerangal. Well, I didn't sing; I played ukulele. Well, I didn't really play; I gestured. But in my memory, we were fantastic!


Moustapha Baqbou

I was staying in Marrakech with some musicians and, being a basically cowardly person, I ventured out now and then to buy shoes in the market, maneuvering my way back with GPS as if through a wilderness area. I recall returning to the riad to discover the musicians, who I had left hungover by the fountain, had gone out and made friends. They had bought instruments down the street and invited the musicians there over to play, and by gosh there they all were. I will never be a person like that; I can't even get the local coffee shop guy to remember me after 20 years. And they were playing gnawa. Gnawa is about a group--"jamming" I guess if you're the kind of jerk who talks that way, which apparently I am—but you can start with the premier lute player in Morocco: Moustapha Baqbou.


"Daddy Cool" by Boney M

I spent a wonderful six weeks at an artist residency in Kerala, India a few years ago. It was really just beginning, and there were only two of us there: me, and a college-age painter from England. We went a little mad. For one thing: it was a dry state, so we never got a drink at the end of the day. Desperate, we went online to find out how to make coconut beer; we had coconut-seller cut open a coconut and put the juice into a water bottle, then we bought yeast, put in jaggery (a kind of sugar) and waited for a week. Then we drank it. It tasted like paper towels, and we got roaring drunk. Anyway, the point of my story is that we were chatting with Benny, the lovely man who helped run the place, and he had never heard of any Western bands we thought would be universal; not the Beatles, not Elvis Presley, not the Rolling Stones. But we did find one band he knew: Boney M. So here you are.


"The Book of Love" by the Magnetic Fields

I was considering ending with "Been Around the World" by Lisa Stansfield because she ROCKS IT in a spit-curl, but I think everybody danced to that song too many times in the 90s and now it only reminds me of waiting for my laundry at Star Wash on Dolores. So I picked another Magnetic Fields. It's not from 50 Song Memoir. But I love it. It begins complaining that a book is too boring and ends with a marriage proposal. Like many high school romances.

Andrew Sean Greer and Less links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

WBUR interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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