Lucy and Todd

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page


In Reviews of Our Books on February 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm


[Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize]

Sweet Desserts was widely praised, but outright rapture would have been more appropriate. The book starts out as an enchantment and ends as a bad dream, without ceasing to be funny.
Clive James   Observer

A triumph … there isn’t a sentimental evasion or a dull bit of writing in the book … Lucy Ellmann is an original.
Judy Cooke   Guardian

Lucy Ellmann does write a lovely novel. She knits the inner and outer worlds together with a natural grace: a kind of conversational elegance. An enviable skill, and an enchanting, enchanted book.
Fay Weldon

…Ms. Ellmann demonstrates that she is not merely a clever collage maker, but a gifted writer capable of exploring the tragedies as well as the absurdities of family life.
Michiko Kakutani   New York Times

Droll, drastically honest, deeply moving—the real thing.
Craig Raine


Imagine Anita Brookner on acid, and you’ll get a vague idea of the delicacy, charm and sheer dottiness of Lucy Ellmann’s Varying Degrees of Hopelessness … This is a novel like nothing else; an irresistible cocktail of satire, slapstick and tenderness.
Kate Saunders   Cosmopolitan

A liberating and richly inventive farce.
Jonathan Coe   Guardian

Funny and furious … her merry little novel is a vehicle for disgust … Lucy Ellmann is clever and very angry.
Victoria Glendinning   The Times

Perhaps it takes such a hybrid to revivify the English novel … There is a kind of magic in the realism of Lucy Ellmann.
Victoria Radin   New Statesman

A beautiful thing.
Nick Hornby   Sunday Times 


Hilarious … razor-sharp wit. Ellmann transcends the novel form—she’s in a class of her own.

An anarchic lament of such scope and intensity that it has an almost vertiginous quality… It also boasts dazzling jokes … brilliant.
Susie Boyt   Independent

Fabulously funny … caus(ing) bouts of loud and real laughter to go off inside you like fireworks … an unforgettable read.
Book of the Month, Irish Tatler

To read it is bliss … turning its pages brings little palpitations of pleasure and moments of happy surrender to an artful and uninhibited tale of human desperation.
Patricia Deevy   Image

Bold, wayward, fantastical … so anarchic, and so finely balanced … reminds one of Sterne, or Montaigne.
Jane Shilling  The Times

Furious wit, sly compassion and originality … the sheer verve of her imagination … leaves the reader with … giddy wonder.
Jennifer Duncan   Now Magazine 

A true poet … Ellmann is a bright and shining talent.
Meredith Phillips   Austin Chronicle


Lucy Ellmann’s delightfully dotty novel is a fantastical flight across life, death and the universe… Reading Ellmann is to be taken on a subversive adventure by a bad-tempered fairy. Rarely has there been such a mischievous affirmation of the meaninglessness of existence.
Lisa Allardice   The Telegraph

…it’s fun, it’s rich, it’s funny. It’s the kind of novel you don’t want to read alone, in silence, which is infuriating for any poor soul who wanders into the room only to be grabbed and read the good bits. And it’s all kind of poetic, as if over the years Ellmann had acquired a real, lyrical confidence, a fearless rhythm of her own.
Julie Myerson   Guardian

One of the funniest, most mordant and perfectly formed books I’ve read.                                                                                                                                                         Ali Smith

If you can picture Larry David as a ditsy, suicidal blonde living in England and collecting tea cozies, then you have a pretty good idea of Dot Butser, the heroine of Lucy Ellmann’s batty and highly amusing screed of a novel.
Michiko Kakutani   New York Times

Ellmann is better than just clever. She is a genuinely (if sneakily) humane novelist.
Claire Dederer   New York Times


…A CAPITAL case of comic genius.
Michael Bywater   Independent

In her scabrously funny Doctors and Nurses, Lucy Ellmann takes Jane Eyre, transposes it to a modern-day doctor’s surgery, spikes its drink, and does something unspeakable to its sleeping form.
Sam Leith   Telegraph

…it’s somehow hard not to be optimistic in the hands of a writer so angry and intelligent … Doctors and Nurses is a novel bracingly alive, making more polite books seem cadaverous by comparison.
Patrick Ness    The Guardian

I begin to suspect she may be some sort of genius.
Victoria Lane    Telegraph

Reviews of TODD McEWEN

In Reviews of Our Books on February 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm


El demento supremo! Todd McEwen not only has a black belt in comedy, he can turn a phrase on two wheels and blow diamond dust out of the exhaust pipe.
Tom Robbins

Todd McEwen has a voice like no other. Something like Thoreau on laughing gas.
Dan Cryer  Newsday

The impossible has happened! Someone has made Yankees funny.
Rita Mae Brown

McEwen leaves you breathless …pitilessly funny … McEwen is a social satirist, with a constitutional dislike for trendiness and a deadly ear for cant.
Adam Gussow  Saturday Review

It kept me laughing—actually writhing—more consistently than anything I’ve ever read, seen, or heard.
Grey City Journal


…a helter-skelter, scattershot novel, wisecracking and menacing from the first word to the last; a cosmic comic strip of desperation, anguish and desolation. … It’s hilarious. It’s like Saul Bellow, Groucho Marx, Harry Lauder and Bill Shankley brawling it out in a room full of funhouse mirrors. It’s the first great novel of the Nineties.
Jon Wilde  Blitz

A fondly splenetic lament over Scotland …the language is passionate, moving, even lyrical…wildly funny at times. But it’s also bitterly sad—lament as much as satire. “McX” is a … masterpiece.
James Idema  The Chicago Tribune

… a wickedly funny book … that nimbly threads its way through the cold granite of Scotland, which is as much a state of mind as it is a country. … There are echoes of Joyce, of Flann O’Brien, and above all, the giggling Beckett. … McEwen easily fits right in with these writers who found humor in the banal, in the grime of existence, and who elevated it to greatness. … It is a wild, tumbling freefall of black humor, of emotions untethered and of ultimate redemption.
Tiernan Henry  Duluth News-Tribune

A brilliantly inventive and savagely funny satirical novel about low life in contemporary Scotland … The language is playfully funny, the satire cruel and wounding. It’s a novel … James Joyce or Dylan Thomas would have adored: verbally brilliant, witty, brutally accurate.
Robert Carver  The New Statesman

…the most inventive and funny novel I have read this year. The effect is almost as if Joyce had rewritten a Road Runner cartoon.
Richard Rayner  The Sunday Telegraph

…one of the few real writers around.
Lucy Ellmann  The Guardian

…a first-rate satire of the Scottish scene; simultaneously hilarious, savage, accurate and…affectionate. … I couldn’t stop laughing. The man has a brilliant sense of comedy… “McX” is in a class with and spiritually akin to Hugh MacDiarmid’s great poem, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”. “McX” is probably the best depiction of the modern Scottish character yet written.
Edward S. Margerum  The Los Angeles Times

Todd McEwen’s first novel revealed how horrible Boston is. His second, McX, tells us how depressing it is to be Scottish. McEwen…has also travelled in the Soviet Union and Holland, so it may be that we can expect future bulletins on the forlorn condition of the Russian soul and the tedium of being Dutch. If so, I shall be among his readers, for the theme of Caledonian gloom can rarely have been treated with such wit and casual brilliance as here. …a brilliant fantasia on Scottish themes, part-diatribe, part-farce, part-romantic elegy. All these different registers are handled with the same poetic and unself-conscious acuity. …a minor miracle of compressed observation… It is…ironic…that it should have taken an outsider to provide such a graphic and pawky portrait of  the Scots mentality.
John Kemp  Literary Review


Nature may have lain about Wordsworth in his infancy but Joe Lake’s surroundings are about as natural as processed cheese… McEwen’s portrayal of the avuncular Walt [Disney] as merely a front for a faceless and grasping conglomerate throws the American dream into sharp relief …a handful of belly-laughs lurking in his skillfully-paced prose. Arithmetic…is a fascinating addition to the canon [of novels about childhood].                          The Scotsman

Arithmetic is a quirky cry from smalltown America. Joe’s eclectic child’s mind is constantly skipping from topic to topic, from the transcendent beauties of Favourite Teacher to the evils of arithmetic, to the vast oppressiveness of the solar system. Dryly whimsical … and engaging read.                                          Joanna Griffiths  Observer

…underneath the energetic one-liners and light-hearted treatment, there is the sense of a more mature psychology at work; one that invents brightly lit, cartoonish scenarios in order to show how scary real life really is. Arithmetic = Joe’s “crappy feelings”, but it also adds up to McEwen’s mastery of the comic novel about childhood.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Independent on Sunday

Todd McEwen portrays a young boy growing up in a bullish America, where technology is believed to be the philosopher’s stone. He adopts the child’s-eye view superbly, shifting the scenes quickly and fluidly in imitation of Joe’s roving mind. Arithmetic is itself like the cartoons it celebrates: bright, colourful, always charming, and often very funny.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Times Literary Supplement

…this short but charming novel…create[s] a fluent impression of childhood consciousness. Writing from a child’s perspective is notoriously difficult…but the effect is convincing. More than this, the novel is extremely funny … exquisite.                                                                                                                                       Sunday Times


Thank the many gods of Manhattan for Todd McEwen, whose magnificent fourth novel, Who Sleeps with Katz, is a belligerently witty, dazzling and oddly touching homage to New York … He plays with language with evident joy and the result is a book as refreshing as a dry martini on a hot New York night.
Anna Carey   The Irish Times

Who Sleeps with Katz is just about the best thing I’ve read all year.
Ed Park  The Village Voice

Only page three and already you’re blown away… If fiction lives or dies on ‘the voice’, then this one’s immortal… A heart-breaking, funny, sadness-tinged journey into a life lived, a life expiring, the meaning of life. Phenomenal.

Some passages of this book I read ten times, and then called people and read again, aloud. Who Sleeps with Katz cries out for a world in which a man might live his life with nobility and self-respect. Its complaints are against the powers that would degrade us: Seattle, television, girls named Debbie. It is a celebration of that by which we are elevated: martinis, the city, waiters. And it is a meditation on that which would do both: tobacco.
Max Watman   The New York Sun

… one of the funniest things I’ve read. He offers ferocious wit, a stream of magnificent sentences, something to savour on every page, and a blissful knowledge of what really matters in life … Who could ask for more?
Josh Lacey   The Guardian

What we are dealing with here is a classic. … Who Sleeps with Katz is not only one of the great New York novels, it’s also one of the few novels that can be reasonably called ‘Joycean’. … McEwen has every faith that words can catch things as evanescent as smoke. And maybe that evanescence is why Who Sleeps with Katz has more of a sense of mortality than nearly any novel I’ve read in recent years. … It’s as great and sad a love song as the city has ever inspired.
Charles Taylor   Salon


Enormous Changes at the Last Minute – Grace Paley

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm

With her unique eye for the absurd, the ridiculous, and the sweet, and her amusing take on things, Paley effortlessly soars above the type of writing now streaming out of Creative Writing training camps.  Coming across her stuff in 2012, when we have come to expect less and less of writers, the originality of it’s striking.  Surprising no doubt to many, she suggests obliquely in one or two stories that writing takes time.  She was clearly a great cutter (as well as a great thinker), and took years to finish a story.  As a result, they’re a joy to read.  The setting is New York, and returning characters include Paley herself, or something like her, her inscrutable ex-husband, a smart-alec kid, friends, her mother, and most notably, her loving, vital, somewhat enigmatic father.

“Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” doesn’t seem the best story here: it gets a bit bogged down in worthiness, I thought.  The title itself shows all her talents though, and comes from a passage attributed to some guy in the story, who sounds just like Paley’s usual witty, almost zany, narrator:

‘The kids! the kids! Though terrible troubles hang over them, such as the absolute end of the known world quickly by detonation or slowly through the easygoing destruction of natural resources, they are still, even now, optimistic, humorous, and brave. In fact, they intend enormous changes at the last minute.’

The best story here, it seems to me, is “Faith in a Tree”, in which the political ruminations work in synch with all the human business (parents and children at a playground), not just for Faith herself (Paley’s alter-ego) but for her son, and a bunch of protesters in the park.  Paley stirs all kinds of ideas together here, and what comes out is a clever and moving condemnation of the Viet Nam war.  It’s exciting to watch, like the start of a bonfire.  It ends:

‘And I think that is exactly when events turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling. Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.’



Some Soul to Keep – J. California Cooper

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm

These are longer than her usual stories, and concern women in particular.  There’s a nice emphasis on women having men on their own terms, not on men’s terms.  Perhaps because of this, men remain remote figures here: only a few prove to be of any use to these women.

There’s a wild authority in the conversational language Cooper uses, a musical transcription of African-American speech, but even more boldness in the world she creates in which women are REAL: they’re BIG and, when not deprived of everything, they can be all-encompassing.  It’s refreshing to watch a writer take women’s experiences and expectations so seriously, from poverty to orgasms (‘opera singing’), motherhood to property-ownership, from thoughts about Shakespeare, to music and the alphabet.

She doesn’t shrink from woe, but tells us about it on the way towards finding some solution.  We see eugenics irritably attempted against a girl because she’s ‘black, blind and broke’ and yet wants to have a baby anyway; and the lawlessness endured by the ‘underprivileged’ (a word Cooper uses with subtle irony), as one girl’s parents are burnt alive in their house by the KKK while she cowers outside.  By intricate twists and turns in the plot, Cooper somehow manages to contradict, or at least alleviate, the apparent hopelessness of her characters’ plights, in wish-fulfillment stories in which the good people eventually prosper. But Cooper’s optimism is never crass – it carries a weight of sadness along with it, and the success at the end is colored by the anger you still feel about what these gals have been put through (their survival sometimes looking pretty unlikely).

A lot seems to rest on education, and money, which Cooper offers as the quickest routes out of degradation. Satin sheets are mentioned, an emblem of bourgeois comfort.  Radicals in “Black Power: Mixed Tape”, a fascinating Swedish documentary about the black power movement in America during the ’60s and ’70s, bemoaned the way black liberation got sidetracked in the ’80s into a drive towards financial security, and the growth of a (conservative) black middle class: capitalism won yet again, and socialist principles got left behind.  But Cooper’s emphasis on money seems merely pragmatic.  Get money and power, she suggests, and use them to increase your choices, and spread compassion.  The sense of community, and charity, in her work is strong.

She likes to concentrate on the individual, but Cooper can nimbly reach beyond the personal into the political.  When the blind girl is eventually given a place to live, she remarks, ‘I got a temporary room with a little kitchenette with a little—very little—monthly check I was gettin that they give disabled people. It seems somebody rather spend it on war and gettin more people disabled.’  With this, Cooper notes decades of U.S. government warmongering.

And wonderfully, when a mean rival who’s had a somewhat easier life starts criticizing her yet again for having children, a downtrodden heroine finally erupts with: ‘…Four times me is in this world. Loving me! And four times them is growing up calling me Big Mama. Loving me. That’s what I am…a big mama.’ – poetry, and a beautiful defense of procreation.  Cooper is constantly trying to find a NATURAL, human way for women to live, love and be happy – despite everything they have to endure – and biology has its place in that.