Lucy and Todd

Archive for the ‘Reviews of Our Books’ Category

More praise for The Five Simple Machines

In Reviews of Our Books on December 9, 2013 at 8:11 am

The Five Simple Machines, by Todd McEwen, is actually six narratives connected by the theme of sex. Published by the brilliant small press CB Editions, McEwen’s book…got better and better, proving that intelligence and comedy go really well together…  I recall recommending his second novel, McX: A Romance of the Dour, ages ago. His comedy then was a bit more Beckettian, but his pin-sharp intelligence is now operating under no influence but his own.’

(From Nicholas Lezard’s ‘favourite paperbacks of 2013’, Guardian, Dec. 7, 2013)

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Stuart Kelly on How Not to be American

In Reviews of Our Books on November 10, 2013 at 9:20 am

This is an exceptionally urbane and witty collection of essays, loosely linked around varieties of Americana. McEwen, a Californian now resident in Edinburgh, is by turns bemused, infuriated, despairing, regretful and frankly ashamed about his natal land; and although the book is often laugh-out-loud funny, the reader is acutely aware that the comedy is a carapace for profound misgivings.

The range of styles McEwen deploys is formidable: he begins with a satirical philippic where he deconstructs the new American uniform of cap, T-shirt, shorts and sneakers and its message of surreptitious infantilism and apathy about capitalism. This is followed by a more elegiac piece “Curse of the Sand People”, which compares the desiccation of northern California with another sartorial trend, the move towards khaki and off-white mousy, preppy clothing. The collection is tightly organised – there are further reference to the Sand People further on.

Some of the pieces are wonderfully surrealistic. There is an inspired compare and contrast between Lenin and Michael Jackson, and a series of cutely dappy imagined films (such as “Civilization And Its Discontents 1940 dir. René Clair. Fred MacMurray, Greta Garbo, Robert Blenchley (as Jung). A timid European doctor is haunted by his own penis”).

There are reference points which form constellations across the essays: Thoreau’s Walden, that hymn to self-sufficiency; Sinclair Lewis’s wonderful demolition of the venal and pusillanimous nature of commercial America, Babbitt. McEwen also discusses in depth two of my favourite films: North By Northwest and Harvey.

In North By Northwest McEwen identifies the real hero of the piece as being Cary Grant’s suit (looping back to the book’s obsession with how we are tailor-made), which retains a level of self-possession despite crop dusters, gunshots, Mickey Finns and scrambling around Mount Rushmore.

McEwen is even better on Harvey. In the film, James Stewart plays the wonderful Elwood P Dowd, an amiable lush who has a 6ft tall invisible rabbit as his best friend.

The film’s key scene has Dowd explaining that “when I was a little boy, my mother used to say to me ‘Elwood’ – she always called me ‘Elwood’ – ‘as you go through life you must be either “oh, so smart” or “or, so pleasant”. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

McEwen glosses this as “a surprising mid-twentieth-century plea for weirdness, for individuality, for kindness, a vote for a necessary biodiversity of personalities, a society of emotional richness that might have succeeded that of the unsatisfactory, self-satisfied striving and self-strangulation that always defined life in America”.

This is the book’s manifesto and heartfelt yearning.

The anger in How Not To Be American stems from disappointment; that the ideals of the US so infrequently map on to its realities. “When I Become King” distils this into 19 pronouncements, ending with “The Japanese to have the only standing army on the planet, expressly for the defence of the planet. They are armed with beautiful swords.”

McEwen’s work is just such a beautiful sword, incisive and dangerous at the same time. (Among his other regal commandments are “no clothing that says anything” and “to be issued free of charge: transit fares, museum entries, health care, wine, beer, tampons, shaving materials”. It would be difficult to imagine the Tea Party acceding to King McEwen’s commands).

It is difficult to criticise a book for what it is not, but having spent time in McEwen’s company in these pages, I slightly regret that there are no essays dealing with Obama, Sarah Palin, and the state of US politics directly. His bewilderment would be a necessary corrective to the usual platitudes.

If you like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report you will find an ally, a comforter and a co-conspirator in McEwen.
If you don’t like them, you’ll probably never pick this book up and have a deep scepticism about the written word anyway.

(Stuart Kelly, Scotsman, Nov. 2, 2013)

Peter Burnett on MIMI

In Reviews of Our Books on October 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

The novelist, Peter Burnett, published this review of MIMI on his blog, epicvolumes.peterburnett.info. It includes a great rant on the formula followed by most book reviews these days (in PB’s opinion):

The world is a misogynist tizzy, not because it dislikes women, but because men simply want it all their own way. Men want to make war, and they want to make money.  And when they make all that money, these men decide that the most fun thing to spend it on — is war. The agenda is completed and while mankind moves to adjourn, Lucy Ellmann appears with MIMI. Like mysterious lights out of the darkness of the unknown, Lucy Ellmann’s book will astound you from page one, and if you’re not prepared for it, you may end up wondering why there are not more novels like this. The point is perhaps made too clearly for lovers of obfuscation to see — but this is a womanifesto with a mission to change the world.

As unreal as they may appear at the time, Lucy Ellmann’s ideas nevertheless form tangible plans which must be acted upon, and that is what makes the novel MIMI different from virtually every other one out there. THAT is an achievement. Mankind is about to be woken up from a five millennial sleep — and what has disturbed their slumber is MIMI.

As a film enthusiast, I enjoy when literature hits cinema head on, as it does in MIMI. Film and books meeting like this isn’t an important collision, but these are all cultural referents, and as an armchair semiotician, I know they have something to say. The protagonist in MIMI is a plastic surgeon, and although these guys do appear in the novels of our age, their real dramatic and comedic home is in the movies — and there are plenty movie moments in MIMI.

Yes — plastic surgery has long been a staple of the horror genre — the best being Eyes Without a Face (1960) — but ‘women’s films’ such as Ash Wednesday (1973) and Once is not Enough (1975) have made virtue of it — as did Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) which had Peter Lorre playing surgeon Dr Herman Einstein — and Seconds (1966), which apparently frightened Beach Boys composer Brian Wilson so much that he didn’t return to a cinema at all, until he braved the gates in 1982 and saw E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

The value of plastic surgery as both unfortunate fact of life and metaphor will not be lost on you — and lovers of the novel form, too, will see that it’s all change in MIMI. It’s possible that some may read MIMI and think that ‘nothing is happening’ — but then they will realise WHAT A GOOD TIME THEY ARE HAVING. I had an AMAZING time reading MIMI, and little of this was predicated on the traditionals of story telling — it was based on the jokes which are OMG good and the accumulations of ideas, words and scenery which make for a constantly shifting reading experience.  The back stories are the best thing about it, and the American childhood evoked is heartbreakingly true.

Yeh — I like that — ‘a reading experience’ — because that’s what it is.  To tell of a tale, MIMI is the story of one man’s five month love sabbatical, but as a book it ends up changing the world — you’re watching a cat lick its paws for page after page, movies, amazing revelations, grotesques, guignols and the satirising of Manhattanites and their bodily obsessions — and it ends up changing the world, it really does.

As for the extras — the varied Appendix tucked away at the rear of MIMI, you don’t have to read these if you don’t want to. The extras in MIMI are in fact there to be got or not, and they provide a function that books (what we call THE BOOK) has lost — the surprise factor.  We are so used to films, which can end at any point, the audience does not know when — and this is something difficult to replicate in a book, which we have to pare down to the last page.  Oh yes readers — you strip away the story of a book like an orange, an artichoke, the last slices of cheese — and you know as well as I there has to be at least one book (THIS IS IT!) which demonstrates the fact.  MIMI is that book indeed, and it concludes 68 pages before it ends — another fine achievement.

When I’d finished MIMI, I decided to check out the reviews. You know what I mean — Telegraph, NY Times, Guardian — and I was pretty fairly surprised at the lack of passion or interest that I found. It’s true that the reviewers representing these and other institutions get through a lot of books in their literary day — but I felt cheated — for what MIMI demands is passion — change — and feeling. The reviewers liked the book, and made a few noises to that effect, but MIMI is the sort of book that should encourage you to take to the streets, shouting. It is after all, NEW.

Now you may not have noticed this and you may not care either, but when it comes to fiction, the book reviews follow the same tendency. An average 1,000 words review is always approached thus:

0-150 — The life of the author to date. Other books they have written. Observations on the oeuvre.

151-650 — Précis for Lazy Lumps. PRESENT EXAMPLE: “The narrator of Mimi is Harrison Hanafan, a New York plastic surgeon who blah blah blah blah.”

651-800 — A great book reviewer will deliver up to three examples of the author’s writing in this section.

801-900 — The equivalent of the porn “money shot”. This is where the reviewer will say what they think (Not what they FEEL!)

901-1000 — General Rant About Other Stuff on the Reviewer’s Mind

I’m screwed however — and this is the rub. I am publishing this review on a self-hosted website and not in a paper of weighty repute.  I am not an institution, but at least, the fact of my self-publishing this review allows me to tell you how MIMI made me feel — and it made me feel GREAT. Hence I have used plenty of CAPITALISATION in my review — because MIMI even made me feel warm and important — and that’s impressive, because I am a man. It may make women feel even better.

Thing is bub, is that readers prefer to FEEL rather than THINK. If you listen to what readers say this becomes apparent, but it doesn’t work for reviewers, who must present an intellectual façade. Thus a reviewer can’t be happy or frustrated with a work of fiction, but must place it in an intellectual context, offering comparison and critiques that are not normally relevant to readers (but may be FASCINATING to other reviewers).

In these newspapers, which are primarily now websites anyway, writers therefore give description, critical analysis, and an evaluation on the quality, meaning, and significance of a book.   Reviews focus on a book’s purpose, content, and authority — and if the book has no purpose, content, and authority, reviewers actually ASSIGN purpose, content, and authority.  Reviews in this form are no use in the context of MIMI.  What Lucy Ellmann’s MIMI demands is feeling, and change, and any intellectual assessment otherwise is doomed to failure.

So — if there is one thing that MIMI by Lucy Ellmann has taught us, it’s that it’s best to tell everybody how you feel. MIMI is a book which requires devotion and full immersion from the reader. MIMI demands of you no less a feat that you complete the reading of it and then immediately set out to change the world.

What has been missed — I FEEL — is how different MIMI is from everything else that’s been published in the last while-or-so — how funny it is, and how it has the potential to effect this world change that it proposes.

I can’t overlook the importance of this final factor. Changing the world is something that we aspire to when young, and in capturing this enthusiasm, and presenting it simply, MIMI has achieved something vital that is lost in the general slow, cud-like consumption of books ‘n’ films. Stamp your feet — do a Howard Beale and rant that you are ‘mad as hell’ — because a modest novel like MIMI has told you how simple it is to perfect our world.

The answer is weirdly Obama-esque, in a punning sense at least — because it’s all about CHANGE. I’ll leave you to read the book yourself and find out how easy it is going to be.

(PB, Oct. 3, 2013)

Magnum Oh Puss

In Reviews of Our Books on June 28, 2013 at 11:39 am

Mimi — reviewed by Suzy Romer 25.5.13

There is a fire in this book but that´s not what makes it incendiary. There are doctors in this book but that´s not what makes it healing. There is a glorious love story at the centre of this novel but that´s not why there should be a copy under every woman´s pillow. There is sex (good!) and violence (bad!) depicted as they should be, but that´s not why men should read this book just before bedtime.  This is a roaring beast of a text which prods us and shakes us out of our media-induced TORPOR of fake modernity ( or modernist fakery?). It takes us on an emotional adventure of epic proportions and then invites us to take arms against a sea of terrorists (the mad, bad old men) by giving women lots of money and sex. Sound crazy? You bet your ass it´s crazy but you´ll love it.

Our narrator is Harrison Hanafan, a plastic surgeon who LITERALLY falls head over heels for the angel-faced Mimi, one of the great literary creations of the century. She is a professional speech writer and coach and has opinions on everything which are as refreshing as they are extreme and thought-provoking. “Mimi on power suits: Power suits don´t work. Power works,” (p.95) or, on another occasion,“Quilts are stitched with loathing. That´s what´s good about ´em!”(p85) Harrison is more or less over his newly ex-girlfriend Gertrude although she has not entirely finished with him. We are treated to delicious dollops of juicy information about her rich, pretentious and ultimately hollow life. I want to read the full numbered list of reasons she bugged Harrison! My favourite is no.224: “Gertrude likes to come across all scatterbrained and laid-back, like she was just some simple goose girl who leaves things to chance. Like hell.” One of her most despicable moments is as an influencial arts administrator who ignores Harrison´s sister in favour of good-looking male artists. All the arts grants go to them while Bee Hanafan, a talented sculptor, is obliged to cross the Atlantic to end up in Canterbury in order to make a living. In his solitude, Harrison meets Bubbles the cat who befriends him and teaches him the essential aspects of love and affection so that Mimi can build on firm foundations. To my joy, Mimi has the wisdom that Anita Loos (Red Haired Woman, The Women) and Dorothy Whipple (Someone at a Distance) among others have tried so hard to impart to us. Many men are not invincible when it comes to sex and a momentary weakness with a determined rival should not necessarily be condemned unconditionally by the woman at the cost of love and sexual partnership.

Ellmann´s style and thematic material is pleasingly familiar from previous books – she is sweet and shocking at turns, there are lots of lists, there are enough words in italics, there are unpredictable catastrophes, and a love-hate relationship with society – but in Mimi there is a melding of championed themes which come together in exquisite harmony (definitely more Shostokovich than Mozart), an appropriate metaphor for a book which is punctuated by musical extracts which have significance for Harrison. For this reader at least, this book is her magnum opus.

This book made me write all over the margins (it´s my own copy). At first I wrote as if I  were making university notes for an essay. As the book went on, however, I started using my most beautiful handwriting to decorate the margins and added drawings to illustrate the text, much as members of religious orders were inspired to do centuries ago. There is something that primitive about the impact of this book. Reading it as a woman of 37 (who knows Persephone and Virago), I cannot understand why I have never read anything so immediate and stirring before now. Ellmann applies common sense and logic to many aspects of modern life and comes up with terrifying and thrilling facts all over the place. She addresses simple questions I have never even formulated before. These range from the seemingly frivolous to the deeply disturbing. Why is liking cushions a gender issue? What do I reply to someone who says “You´re not one of those feminists are you”? Why have I always undervalued the ability to sew and make jam? Why am I frightened to walk home alone at night? Why do I regularly cry when I hear national and international news about men, women and children being abused and killed? Ellmann identifies enough everyday misogyny in myriad aspects of modern life (pop music, advertising, fashion, the “beauty” industry, porn) to knock any so-called post-feminists off their high horses.

There are very dark moments in this book (I won´t be going back to Canterbury soon) but after identifying the problems, she reminds us of the positive presence and achievements of women throughout the ages. There are so many symbols (egg, moon, heart, butterfly) which I have always loved but now they have been re-identified as symbols of womanhood and femininity, a set of “girl guides”, as it were, to navigate the male universe I´ve grown up in and accepted for so long. Ellmann rescues the traditions of quilt-making and jam production, everyday cooking, cleaning and the creation of coziness and peace from their scorned corners and gives them the credit and praise they deserve. She also reclaims great sex for women and reminds us of the importance and potential of pleasure for everyone if we could just wipe out the stereotypical norms of the media and porn industry.

If only Harrison had given his speech at my graduation ceremony where the female speaker lamented contemporary society and said that “problems like drug use and homosexuality will not go away” (enough said?). Harrison demands respect and money for women on a world level so that they can use their new status and power to save and rebuild the world. He argues convincingly that his proposals are no less strange than leaving the world in the hands of the men who are exploiting and destroying it for their own ends. The book finishes with a real call to action, a revolution of values and actions with plausible benefits and tremendous possibilities. I may have to brush up on my pre-history to learn about the full benefits of matriarchies before I cut out and send off my membership form.

I have given this book permanent residency on my bedside table. Initially, this was while I read it from beginning to end. Now, it is staying on as a general reference work and moment of solace from my future bedtime reads which won´t always provide the blast of fresh air which this book does. My suggestions for future editions is to include a system of chapter numbers and verses for quick reference use, maybe an index, and a few more blank pages at the end for one´s own lists.

“Who made world history? Not the most reasonable people, the madmen. So if painting is the mirror of a time, it must be mad to have the true image of what a time is.”
Max Ernst,on Monitor, BBC, 1961

(copyright: Suzy Romer)

Latest News, & Reviews of The Five Simple Machines

In Reviews of Our Books on May 4, 2013 at 7:19 am

Todd’s next book, How Not to be American, will be published by Aurum Press in the Autumn, 2013:

‘Union Books, an imprint of the Aurum Publishing Group, has signed up a non-fiction title from novelist Todd McEwen.

How Not to be American: Misadventures in the Land of the Free is described as an examination of what America has become that will “annoy and delight”.

‘Editorial director Rosalind Porter bought world rights to the title from Derek Johns at AP Watt at United Agents.

‘Porter said: “Born in California, but longtime resident of Edinburgh, America still drives Todd crazy, though he has the perspective—and the vocabulary—to be both scathingly satirical and surprisingly affectionate about his beloved homeland.”

‘The book will be published in autumn 2013, in time for Thanksgiving.’

(Joshua Farrington, Bookseller, July 23, 2013)

***

Nicholas Lezard’s Book of the Week in the Guardian!

Craig Raine on the radio last week came up with a phrase that captured nicely the common English reaction to a novel that is not rigidly conventional. “Why, that novel isn’t even wearing a suit!” (He was talking apropos Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Well, this novel isn’t wearing a suit. Actually, it’s not even a novel: it is six separate narratives, and they are certainly not wearing suits. They are, figuratively speaking, wearing loud Hawaiian shirts and holding improbably large cocktails and being incredibly indiscreet – and making you laugh until you wonder whether you can take much more.

By which I do not mean that there is anything tacky about them: the prose is tight, even when it looks colloquially sloppy. Todd McEwen can get you to laugh, simply by the quick spin he puts on someone’s turn of phrase. Here is one narrator describing how he introduced two senior clergymen to each other at a convention: “And this, I said, is Bishop Staunton. We’ve met, said my uncle, strangely, and they sneered at each other.” You may not find that in and of itself hilarious, but here’s the context: an ex‑girlfriend of the narrator’s, whom we already know to be a little odd, had left him 10 years earlier for this Bishop Staunton chap, on account of his having (a) the largest known collection of gnostic literature on the eastern seaboard of the US (“but how large does it have to be, I said, to be the largest known etc”), and (b) an improbably enormous penis (“proportionately as knobful ivory and stiff as the Staunton chess piece of the same name”).

Or how about something more conventionally, if that is the word, funny? On people in the BDSM “scene”: “There’s an entire race of people out there with dungeons in their garages. They publish very bad magazines about this – they are called Fake Dungeons Monthly and Stupid Looking Dungeons and Slobs in Rubber.”

So, the stories in this book about reminiscences of sex: relationships that went bad, or were ridiculous, or were mismatches – there’s one about a marriage that seems to be working, yet is still radically unsatisfactory.

The titles are “six so-called mechanical powers – the lever, wedge, wheel and axle, pulley, screw and inclined plane”. The explanation for the confusion arising from the six mentioned here and the big red “5” on the front cover comes in an italicised form under the chapter headed “Wedge”: “It is well known that, strictly speaking, the wedge is only an application of the inclined plane. But.” And then we’re off: a story in which the girlfriend wears wedge shoes, her car looks like a wedge, and there are wedges driven between the characters.

McEwen is not afraid to alert us to any possible metaphorical or secondary applications of the terms he uses. You should see what he does with “Screw”. No, really, you should: McEwen knows what he is doing – this is his fifth novel, and I recommend the others, too. I gave a brief thumbs-up to McX: A Romance of the Dour 15 years or so ago, but this is much more chatty, fluid, and, once you accustom yourself to its varying rhythms, hilarious.

This is a rare kind of humour: it is not only a matter of verbal deftness – a word, or a comma, popping up unexpectedly – but of intelligence, lightly applied. Says a narrator admiring his girlfriend’s autumn outfit: “Wow, I thought, who has not seen thee oft amid thy store?” – which is sweet and charming to boot. Another character, whose girlfriend works in Wall Street and doesn’t understand her job (this one’s set in the 1980s, I’d say), chats up a different woman in a bar: “he listened to her describe her job and realised she didn’t understand it.” These stories manage to be unflaggingly funny, yet never wearisome: the tonal control is complete. And the deeper message is that laughter is a cure. I have the best job in the world because I can tell thousands of you at the same time about this book, instead of having to tell everyone individually.

(Nicholas Lezard, Guardian, April 2, 2013)

© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

******

The Herald

This beautifully produced little book is about sex.

It is not about sex in a way that puts it at any risk of being nominated for the ludicrous Bad Sex Award that acknowledges the clumsiness of some novelists when they feel the need to join their characters between the sheets. Nor is it anything to do with the sort of erotic fantasy that made 50 Shades Of Grey a Kindle hit. In fact, it takes time to ridicule people who find diversion in the paraphernalia of manacles, whips and chains and have fake dungeons in their garage instead of a car and a lawnmower.

Doubtless such folk would retort that McEwen’s way with sex is “vanilla”, but more of us might regard it as adult, realistic and recognisable (even when it is dealing with the juvenilia of real life) – and remark that vanilla is surely the gold standard for ice-cream. As much, if not rather more, to the point is that it is beautifully written and extremely funny. The conceit of these six narratives of sexual relationships is that they are titled after the six simple machines that demonstrate mechanical power – the lever, the wheel, the screw, the wedge, the pulley and the inclined plane. The discrepancy the more numerate reader will have picked up on between the title and the number of tales is explained (sort of) by the debatable distinction between the wedge and the inclined plane as a mechanical device. McEwen may not be 100% serious about this, but he is fastidious about the extended metaphor of the book.

Pulley begins with the words: “Got to raise something heavy here.” By which time we are well in on the joke, as well as the ones about the actress and bishop and the narrator hoist by his own petard. Screw does not eschew the obvious, but it is also a stream of consciousness that embraces being screwed up and being screwed, in every sense, as well as the manufacture of the actual objects for fixings. Wedge clads the object of its affection in appropriate footwear even as it documents the dividing agents being forced into the relationship. Wheel proves highly informative about the mechanisms of early merry-go-rounds. The opening tale, Lever, plunges straight in, examining the physical and mental tumescence of a narrator fascinated by his own apparatus, and the very mechanics of fornication.

Perhaps that makes McEwen’s writing sound cold, when it is anything but. There is a palpable affection for his characters, even when they are plainly misguided, obsessive or barking (up the wrong tree). Names are important, and sometimes particularly in their absence (“girlfriend”) or their masking of a true identity. It is never just the description of carnal activity that is explicit – the appetite for self-deception can be every bit as seductive as the appetite for sex.

It is tempting to draw conclusions about the author’s own self-awareness in some of the clarity of the analysis in all this, but there is no hard evidence for that, really. I fancy, nonetheless, that there is more than an element of autobiography in the closing meditation on “inclination”.

Elsewhere, the voices of the stories and the sharp, concise portraits of the characters are as much of a delight and McEwen, as readers of any of his work will know, has a remarkable gift for the startlingly original and yet instantly comprehensible descriptive phrase. I have been squirrelling away some of these phrases for future use. I hope to use them to impress women. You’ll have guessed why.

(Keith Bruce, Herald, May 4, 2013)