Lucy and Todd

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Louise Erdrich–LaRose

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 25, 2016 at 6:42 am

In 1999 while trying to shoot a deer, Landreaux, a North Dakotan husband, father and home care worker, accidentally kills his neighbours’ five-year-old son. The two families immediately go to pieces. Landreaux and his wife Emmaline, both of Native American descent, retreat to a sweat lodge where they make a remarkable, if somewhat excessive, decision: they will offer their own five-year-old son LaRose to their neighbours, as a replacement.

How this altruistic step helps, and doesn’t help, plays out over the next three years. Nola, LaRose’s new compulsive-cleaning ‘mother’, already prone to ‘screaming, shouting, …rage, sorrow, misery, fury, whimper-weeping, fear, frothing, foaming, singing, praying, and then the ordinary harrowing peace’, now becomes suicidal.

But she takes to LaRose. She likes to read him Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are again and again. LaRose, a good kid, possibly saintly, puts up with it. Meanwhile his own mother, having agreed in principle to the sacrifice of her son, gradually learns to love her husband Landreaux less, resenting him for their painful predicament.

So far, so Jodi Picoult: the examination of a social worker’s dream of a conundrum, followed by the inevitable American slog towards some form of redemption. At first the situation seems hopeless and unfair. Poor little LaRose is forced to live with near-strangers, all to make up for his father’s momentary lapse. He longs to be home. When allowed a brief visit, he runs into the house, ‘clutching his stuffed creature, shouting for his mom’, and his teeny-bopper sisters ‘competition-weep’ for joy.

Rather anticlimactically, the families soon start sharing the boy, and LaRose obediently moves to and fro between the households. In both he is loved aplenty though he has to tread carefully, the grief is too fresh. But in his new family, he’s also on suicide watch – over Nola. And so, the problems of the parents eat unjustly away at the children in the traditional manner.

Among a large supporting cast, an old admirer of Emmaline’s and now the ominous local badass stands out. Drunk, druggy and disordered, Romeo lives in condemned tribal housing, ‘built unfortunately over toxic landfill that leaked green gas’ (that ‘unfortunately’ is pungent). He hangs out at a bar called Dead Custer and, like a maltreated dog, ducks whenever anyone makes any sudden movement.

A louse, but an entertaining one, Romeo attends a relative’s funeral purely to siphon off gas for his car and steal the deceased’s prescription medications. The nightly News, all about 9/11 and Iraq, feeds Romeo’s sadistic appetites: ‘Bush reminded him of all the things he hated worst about himself: weasel eyes, greed, self-pity, fake machismo. In this nation of self-haters, Bush could win.’

The story unfolds at a steady pace except for odd jerks in time and some vivid flashbacks to the purchase and rape of one of LaRose’s ancestors in 1839, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe girl. She sees her abuser, a white trader, as an ‘old stinking chimookoman’. Ancestral memory or, as Erdrich puts it, ‘intergenerational trauma’, seems to link this girl’s unhappy story to the contemporary vortex of loss, via inherited female anger: ‘the bitch gene’.

Spirits visit too, and not just during vision quests. Vengeful severed heads chase people over considerable distances. That’s fine, a touch of the supernatural, and highly relevant to Native American lore. But does Erdrich really believe in all these spirits watching over everybody, or is she just loyally positing it?

The trouble is, the after-life has become such a well-worn plot device in obnoxious mainstream efforts like The Lovely Bones, or If I Stay. Out-of-body experiences seem a dime a dozen in America. So we’re pretty blasé when Erdrich’s ghosts turn up at an Anne Tylerish picnic to eat barbecue meat, coleslaw, potato salad, and sheet cake swathed in combat camouflage icing. Imagine, coming back from the dead to chow down on American grub. Yuck-o!

Though there are at least forty droopy references to the ‘heart’ here, these may be more folkloric than sentimental. Erdrich’s generally not soppy, but she’s at her very best when she gets mad. A chronicler of the continuing destruction of Native American communities, she writes beautifully about what Indian children used to learn from their parents: ‘how to find guardian spirits…how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark.

‘How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones, how to weave reed mats and make birchbark pots…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick, dig certain roots, carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag…how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream.’

Whereas, in the government’s forced-assimilation boarding schools (to which many Indian children were sent, well into the Twentieth Century), a girl was taught ‘how to survive on bread and water…how to do menial labor… How to imagine her own mouth sewn shut. For speaking Anishinaabe. …how to endure being beaten by a board’.

These lawfully abducted children, torn from their families and cultures, faced indifference, discrimination, enslavement and loneliness on an undignified diet high in cabbage: ‘The crying up and down the rows of beds at night kept her awake, but soon she cried and farted herself to sleep with everyone else.’ How do destroyed people carry on? That’s what this book is about.




This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

A. L. Kennedy–Serious Sweet

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 20, 2016 at 6:52 am

This is a bold, cinematic novel that covers a lot of territory, its subjects as large, diverse and intimate as addiction, politics, clothing, animals, coffee, the trappings of power, and what little measure of kindness may remain in the world. Not to mention love, and London itself. It has a great feel for London, London on a slightly discomfiting day when you are not sure you want to be there or that you can make the city do what you want.

It would be hard to describe it as a ‘romantic comedy’, although it is a romance and parts of it are terrifically funny. But that is what its ultimate effect is, even though the coming together of hero and heroine is painful to witness.

Jon is a rawther senior civil servant, the ne plus ultra of anonymity. He’s supposedly from Scotland, although aside from some hints about a stultifying childhood in Nairn and some good old Gordounstoun-style school torture, Scotland hasn’t had much effect on him. He’s a thoroughly British, thoroughly messed-up male; the pathetic quality of British maleness is one of the most satisfying themes of the novel. His job of course is never, and can never be, sufficiently explained to himself, or to us, because that’s part of how Whitehall works: it never admits anything, even to itself.

He deals with documents mostly, but sometimes is sent out into the field, Alex Leamas style, to confront someone going haywire or threatening to leak. He even gets beat up at one point. It’s hardly convincing, yet the reader feels that that is what it would be like for someone this neurotic and ineffectual to get beaten up: not very convincing.

AL Kennedy is really entertaining on this milieu, and at times the story looks like it is going to become a full-blown Le Carré, although a kinkier and more descriptive Le Carré. Jon muses on the hierarchical nature of Westminster, even office fitments. He admires the ‘nicely heavy doors’ of the offices of his superiors.

There’s a fetishistic level of interest in clothing throughout this book, particularly among the etiolated senior servants who haunt the plot and Jon’s various paranoias and day-to-day tribulations. A bird craps on him one morning when he has almost arrived at work, necessitating a quick substitution of ‘non-U’ garments, and this is what starts the story rolling. He has to go to an (ugh) off-the-peg clothier’s where the selection of aristo trews appalls him:

‘… pink corduroy, gold corduroy, yellow corduroy, powder-blue corduroy, purple … Christ … it was either that or even more horrifying options in linen – twenty seconds after you’ve got inside it, linen’s like wearing a week-old handkerchief, you can’t win … The predictably garish choices preferred by gentlemen of influence.’

One is intrigued to know how Kennedy can be so good, so accurate on all this stuff, and one might be frightened to know the answer. Has she herself had to intrigue, for our benefit, in the corridors of limp British influence? Hope not.

Like every character in novels about Whitehall, Jon has a secret. It’s an innocuous one: he has advertised himself as a writer of letters to women who are lonely. It’s not pornography; for a fee he simply writes adoring letters to women who would like someone to be nice to them.

The spooks find him out of course and tell him his career’s over, which doesn’t make sense: he’s not an operative, he’s not in an important ministry (we never know which it is) and there’s nothing illegal about writing love letters for money. Is there? The implication is that something tawdry could be made out of it, and as Whitehall is totally tawdry, something will.

One of the recipients of Jon’s pretty sentiments is Meg, a recovering alcoholic, who spends her time fussing over many varieties of coffee-based drinks and working for an animal rescue charity. (There’s a superb Kennedy explication about the character of gun-dogs of the rich in here).

Meg, too, is a writer of an interesting kind. She has suffered greatly at the hands of both Alcoholics Anonymous and some ‘group’ which annoyed the hell out of her in its cloying unhelpfulness, which involved the members patting each other a lot. She’s won her own way in recovery, partly by making a serious effort to write down every incident she witnesses as a Londoner where someone is kind to someone else. These parts of her diary punctuate the neurotic miasma of the love story, and are striking and very touching.

As soon as we have been given a real dose of Jon’s and Meg’s respective problems and obsessions, we know they are fated for each other. We are anxious for them to conjoin. Very soon. Serious Sweet takes place in the course of about a day and a half, yet Kennedy puts so many obstacles, real and psychotic, in the way of Meg and Jon getting together that it seems like a thousand years, even though it is fulfilling when they do.

The actual moment when they fall in love is one of the best descriptions of that major human treat ever.  But if Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr were even half as messed up in the head as these two, you would have walked out of An Affair to Remember after about five minutes.




This review appeared in the Herald, May 7, 2016

Jenny Diski–In Gratitude

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 20, 2016 at 6:44 am

Cancer is everywhere. It’s like a parallel universe. If you don’t believe it, take yourself off to the Cancer Centre at Edinburgh’s Western General. There’s an entire city of pain there.

And cancer diaries are now a major literary genre. In Gratitude is partly the late Jenny Diski’s examination of this. She took the time, while dying, to discuss the ins and outs of the kind of book she was writing: should it be written at all? What are the merits, the uses of this sort of book? Do such memoirs comfort the writer, or the reader?

Diski, who died of lung cancer last month, was uncertain about joining the ranks of those who go public with a terminal illness. She even felt some sympathy for Clive James, who magisterially announced his cancer with some very effective poetry, and who, thanks to medicine, now seems to be doing better.

She talks about cancer books a little disquietingly, as if writing them is a contest. She wonders which cancer-stricken authors will get the most press. She mentions Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, by the art critic Tom Lubbock (reviewed in these pages four years ago). That was a vivid book about the writer’s unhappiness at having to leave the world, all the more poignant in that the increasingly muted form of the book mirrored his day-to-day losses as his brain tumour grew. Diski doesn’t mention one of the best, but perhaps least known of the genre, My Diary by Mio Matsumoto, a surprisingly beautiful, wrenching graphic novel about cancer of the tongue.

Diski is opposed to characterizing having cancer as a ‘battle’, as was the late John Diamond, who wrote persuasively on the subject; she also despises the popularity of the word ‘journey’ in its many modern touchy-feely contexts. Good for her.

Lots of things in this world were ranged against Jenny Diski. Much of that was her own doing. One comes away from this book thinking that the real illness being discussed is not cellular but mental: she suffered from a backbreaking amount of depression all her life and never got any real help for it. A doctor she hated told her she had an addictive personality and put in her notes that she would have a terrible life and a lonely death.

She also constantly compared herself to others. This wasn’t good for her. A writer needs a bit of emotional home turf, and this she never got. She wasn’t one of those writers who feeds solely on disquiet, although she may have wanted to be.

Another thing that never helped her, as becomes plain here, was her relationship, as daughter or step-daughter or adopted daughter, with Doris Lessing. This was unhealthy, no matter how much good Lessing thought she was doing in ‘rescuing’ this classically screwed-up literary waif.

Lessing put a lot of her own trauma, and aspirations, on Diski, fitting her with a diaphragm at the age of fifteen and introducing her to a lot of men too old for her, as if deciding, after taking this troubled girl into her home, that the only thing to do was to force her to become an adult as soon as possible so she could get rid of her. This is distasteful and troubling. Did Diski survive Doris? It’s too close to call.

In Gratitude reads as though it’s not the book Jenny Diski wanted to write. On several levels of course this must be true: she didn’t want to have cancer, nor find herself writing a book about her cancer, and she must have found it immensely frustrating that this was the only book she could write. Particularly in the section on chemotherapy the reader will grasp how difficult it was to get anything written in the midst of this full-scale derangement of body and mind. And it was a close-run thing, but by all accounts Jenny Diski got to hold In Gratitude in her hand: it was sped to her straight from the printers by her agent and publisher. This book she never wanted to write.

‘You’re not the only fish; not the only one with cancer’, Diski says ruefully. She’s good on rueful. ‘The world has its timetables and rhythms. It was precisely for weeks like this that our parents were supposed to have taught us to put aside childish notions of instant gratification for the more mature deferred sort. As we all know, come cancer scans and silent lovers, it doesn’t work.’



This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

Julian Stannard—What Were You Thinking?

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

‘I had not realized how much one could look at a tree and hate it.’ This is a book of playful, moving poems with an almost excruciating self-deprecation. It’s lyrical, real, wistful, and then sometimes it barks like a dog you can’t completely trust.

There are strange happenings, ancient and modern. The poet’s bedsheets emigrate to Poland. Mothers dress their children in tutelary clothes so they can carry uncooked Christmas turkeys the weight of the baby Jesus across heaths. Sheep wait for the writer to speak to them, to give them ‘something they can pass around themselves’. A teenage wheelie bin that writes poetry gets blown by the wind to Paris and his mother goes berserk.

Mothers are much in evidence. On the phone, the poet tries to be breezy with his. She senses he is lighting a cigarette and scolds him; he can then ‘hear her frowning’. She goes on to use the word ‘alakefic’ which he affects to understand. If you look this word up, you will encounter claims on very dodgy-looking etymological web sites that it is RAF slang, but one might equally guess Stannard made up ‘alakefic’ and planted references to it on the web. Such are the thoughts you will think while reading this.

‘Imagine a castle defended by poets. How easily we capitulated!’ This from a poem about a certain well-known writers’ retreat not a million miles from Edinburgh. As in all such places, the quality of the experience is determined by whom you are thrown together with and how good the food is. For amusement there’s something proposed called ‘Scottish roulette’, which involves dangerous amounts of porridge. ‘One night I met the American poet on the stairs by candlelight. How much self-hate can there be? she asked. I said, There can always be a little more.’

Stannard has spent much of his life in Genoa, where, he writes, there is always something to find out, and you can lose your way twenty times a day. The wonderful section ‘The Street of Perfect Love’ addresses Italy, and love. It hasn’t worked out too well maybe: ‘Someone had taken an axe to my life.’ Dragging a Christmas tree through the city streets he starts to feel alarmingly Biblical and it’s very funny and sad.

Most of these poems are a page in length, but they’re packing heat. They read like memoranda from the future, from someone who’s got slightly worse luck than you do. ‘Burlington Arcade’ is a terrific riff on the luxurious late capitalism that will choke London to death. In a longer piece, about hell, the writer opines it’s like public school. You get free towels, cover versions of the Pet Shop Boys and occasional amyl nitrate (actually, what’s he complaining about?). ‘As a rule I find damnation’s good for the figure’. But the problem with this particular hell is that there are no women, and he finally guesses they must have their own inferno – with plumped-up pillows and pot-pourri. Hell as Laura Ashley.


This review appeared in the Herald on May 2, 2016