Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘america’

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

Gloria Steinem — My Life on the Road

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on December 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

I gave a speech in New York earlier this year in favor of female supremacy. At the end of it, I told the men in the audience to hand over all their cash to the women in the audience. There wasn’t universal compliance on the night, but some money did change hands. It was my first experience of this kind of activism and boy was it fun! So I can almost see how, once you get the bug, you can’t stop.

Gloria Steinem can’t stop, and that’s a great thing. She was the right person at the right time: flexible, modest, tolerant, indefatigable, determined and canny enough to weave her way past the ramparts. She calls herself a wandering organizer, and this book has a wandery form of organization too. Part memoir, part campaigning history, it mirrors Steinem’s keen antipathy to all forms of hierarchy. Unhampered by chronology, its chapters are almost interchangeable. So among her other achievements Steinem has helped liberate the memoir form.

It’s an inspiring political chronicle, illustrated by personal anecdotes and a few statistics, in the style of many a Steinem speech no doubt – which she deliver anywhere from subway stops, bowling alleys and bagel shops, to school gyms, flatbed trucks, YWCAs, churches, bookstores, college campuses, and backyard barbecues. Much of it is concerned with the patient business involved in getting bills passed, candidates selected and elected, consciousnesses raised, and enemies thwarted (Betty Friedan was one; the Pope another). It can get personal, and moving, but she’s not going to dish the dirt on her love life if that’s what you were hoping. She mentions merely a handsome boyfriend in high school, her engagement to a ‘good’ but ‘wrong’ man in college, one amorous tryst in a taxi, and her misguided attempt to fundraise in Palm Springs among her rich boyfriend’s rich friends, one of whom was Frank Sinatra, who seemed more interested in showing off his hangar full of miniature trains. ‘I try not to think about how much all this cost’, Steinem ruefully remarks. ‘In three days of talk about how to make money, I haven’t been able to insert one idea about how to use it.’

In the 1960s, Steinem wrote: ‘If men could menstruate…[they] would brag about how long and how much.’ My Life on the Road may lack that kind of sparkle, but it too has its moments. There’s the time she gave a speech on institutionalized sexism at a Harvard Law School banquet, nearly reducing one professor to apoplexy (a pity she restrains herself from making this scene as funny as it could have been). When writing an article in 1967 in defense of Ho Chi Minh, she needed to fact-check so she sent Ho a telegram. Finding his address wasn’t easy, and then he never got back to her – must have been busy. She also reveals that Bella Abzug once injured her vocal chords yelling at Friedan.

As well as co-founding New York magazine and Ms, Steinem wrote abundantly about presidential campaigns. She notes here Nixon’s excruciating attempts to ingratiate himself with members of the press at the back of the plane, by spouting some totally out-of-date personal detail about each reporter. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern both disappointed her: McCarthy for his aloofness, and McGovern for his reluctance to openly support abortion rights. Robert Kennedy would have been better, she feels. People doubted whether Geraldine Ferraro could ever be ‘tough’ enough to press the button, but ‘they didn’t ask male candidates if they could be wise enough not to’. She notes that the response to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 fight for the democratic nomination was way beyond rude, with nutcrackers made in her image, T-shirts that said ‘BROS BEFORE HOS’, and Rush Limbaugh banalities such as “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older on a daily basis?” and his comparison of Hillary Clinton’s legs to Palin’s. (How about his legs?) Steinem comments, No wonder the misogyny toward Hillary was almost never named by the media. It was the media.

We follow the growth in Steinem’s thinking about sexual politics from the early it’s-not-fair stage, through her adoption of Gandhian tactics in India, to her fascination with the Iroquois Confederacy, ‘the oldest continuous democracy in the world’. The real narrative that emerges here is Steinem’s increasing involvement with Native American culture and prehistory. She was helped in this by Wilma Mankiller, the first woman ever to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. Steinem was stunned by witnessing how Native American activists hold meetings: ‘It took me a while to realize, These men talk only when they have something to say. I almost fell off my chair.’

The best character here is Steinem’s father, whose marriage proposal to her mother was, “It will only take a minute.” His letterhead said, ‘It’s Steinemite!’ and he spent his life in the car, continually on the move, selling antiques to roadside stands. His ‘idea of childrearing was to take me to whatever movie he wanted to see, however unsuitable; buy unlimited ice cream; let me sleep whenever and wherever I got tired; and wait in the car while I picked out my own clothes… [T]his resulted in such satisfying purchases as…Easter shoes that came with a live rabbit.’ Steinem didn’t go to school until she was 10, and learnt to read by studying roadsigns, with their helpful illustrations of hotdogs and hotel beds. She was thus ‘spared the Dick and Jane limitations that school then put on girls’. But there’s a sense here that her mother, who’d once been a newspaper reporter, sacrificed a career, a life in New York, and her sanity, in order to have children. Steinem has been ‘living out the unlived life of my mother’ ever since – when she isn’t traveling, in imitation of her father.

Steinem is hooked on travel, and urges us all to do more of it. It is a bit silly for women to stay at home, when that’s where (statistically) they’re most likely to be murdered. For Steinem, travel has been a compensation, a compulsion, and a political tool. It’s the communal aspects of it she craves, not the glamour. She doesn’t drive, and reviles the isolating effect of private cars and private jets, or taxis with window barriers between the driver and passenger, that make her feel like she’s ‘ordering French fries’. A whole chapter is devoted to taxi drivers she’s met, including a racist she had to ditch mid-journey, a vocal (female) advocate of tantric sex, and a guy abjuring all forms of media so as to live in the real world. “I’ve been clean for eight months,” he proudly reports.

My Life on the Road downplays the assault on the female psyche that was ’60s America, but there are glimpses of what Steinem endured as punishment for being smart, good-looking, ambitious, angry and politicized. During Robert Kennedy’s New York senate race, she was sitting in a taxi between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. Talese suddenly leant across her to inform Bellow: “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Steinem didn’t erupt (neither did Bellow), but she admits that it’s been trying, having her success continually attributed to her appearance.

Steinem’s other major obstacle in becoming an organizer was her dread of public speaking. She found a way around it by teaming up with partner speakers. These included Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Margaret Sloan and Florynce Kennedy, African American activists who brought with them, as an extra bonus, a more diverse audience. It was a breakthrough for Steinem. Florynce Kennedy even tried to cure Steinem of her statistics addiction, by saying, ‘If you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle…you don’t send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!’ It didn’t take – Steinem kept her journalist’s weakness for numbers, but she still became an engaging if not flamboyant speaker. A firm believer in the power of talking circles, her biggest thrill is when people in the audience start answering each other’s questions, leaving the her out of the picture.

Early in her career, when she tried to get journalism assignments to write about women, she was told that articles about equality would have to be ‘balanced’ by ones in favor of inequality, for the sake of objectivity. Things have perhaps moved on. But Steinem’s still stuck trying to persuade people up and down the land that reproductive freedom is essential to gender equality. Curiously, she’s not in favor of matriarchy, and argues that it’s ‘a failure of the imagination’ to have one group dominating another. Now, this I resent. Equality’s the failure of imagination! It might do, in a pinch, but female supremacy would be a lot more fun. Men are too keen on money, oil, plastics, beef and golf. Only by restraining them can we hope to reverse the social and environmental damage patriarchy accomplished over the past five thousand years. And in this revolution, men can lick the envelopes and make the sandwiches.


A version of this review appeared in Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2016.



Buckley and Mailer–Kevin M Schultz

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 17, 2015 at 11:44 am

Do you remember Norman Mailer? He had big ears and used to bully people, especially women, at parties and on TV. You might have mistaken him for an elephant seal. He wrote novels in which bigmouthed guys bullied people, especially women. Having begun as the sort of writer who gets your attention by throwing up in your lap and then running away, his career ended badly, with novels like Ancient Evenings, in which we got to hear what sex was like 6000 years ago. His insecurities were astonishing; he wanted to be reincarnated as ‘a black athlete.’ Maybe the Egyptology helped with that?

Have you heard of William F. Buckley, Jr? Maybe. He was an arch conservative and a television wunderkind. He had a show, ‘Firing Line’, on which he debated the great and the good of the Sixties, Henry Kissinger and Hugh Hefner and Gore Vidal (who was Buckley’s real nemesis, not Mailer, and who, weirdly, gets barely a mention here).  Buckley was the pet of impressionists, especially David Frye, who used to roll his eyes up into his head and flash his tongue in and out like a lizard, hissing out pretentious Yalie phrases out like ‘ex officio’. Schultz is a bit better on Buckley than Mailer (who comes across as almost indescribable): “Buckley … seemed like a breath of fresh air for America’s conservatives. Finally someone was fighting the good fight – and doing it without looking like a hate-filled kook.” Different times.

Buckley and Mailer are both long dead and, on the strength of this history, not very interesting. Surprisingly, Buckley is the one whose ‘legacy’, to use a word beloved of ex-presidents and ex-prime ministers, is the one that may be actually be a legacy. Meaning that he left some thought around. Mailer was a novelist, admittedly a prize winner and, with the lack of anyone else around, ‘the most important writer in America’, according to Schultz and himself, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone reads him today. The ‘lyrical’ passages we’re treated to are more than enough – what a goofball.

What develops pretty rapidly is that the two did not have a ‘friendship’. It was more of a nodding acquaintance punctuated by infrequent public debates. By the time you read the very small amount of correspondence between them that Schultz deigns to quote, which consists of deep thoughts like ‘Hope to see you’ and ‘Glad to have you back’, you will be wondering how the author can claim it was a friendship at all, let alone how it could ‘shape’ something. The Sixties weren’t shaped by anything.

There is some entertainment value, at least as regards Mailer (Buckley was sort of a wit, though he wasn’t funny.) It’s amusing to read about Norman’s miniature city, which he built in his flat out of Lego bricks. This began when he decided to run for mayor of New York City. Mailer seems actually to have believed that he was studying architecture and urban planning in doing this: “Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.” Nice vision of society. So maybe it’s good that he didn’t get elected.

Schultz fails to provide any quotations which justify the two men’s reputations for rhetoric. It’s strange, but the only passages in this book that seem useful or memorable are the words of others. As regards the general pickle that Sixties America was in, here is Paul Potter, the president of Students for a Democratic Society: “What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values – and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?” Neither Buckley nor Mailer ever said anything remotely this accurate, stirring and demanding, or, if they did, it is not quoted here.

Buckley and Mailer does remind us that there used to be a being known as the ‘public intellectual’. These folk no longer exist. Their brief existences were subsumed and then snuffed out by celebrity culture, the loss of any serious broadcasting, and, by now, the internet. Schultz does a good job in demonstrating how this happened, and how fragile and misunderstood was their notoriety. People began to be horrified by Mailer, who, incredibly, conceived a kind of lurching respect for Richard Nixon; Buckley ultimately demonstrated that he was a very unenlightened kind o​f conservative (constantly insisting that whites were indeed a more developed race), though he didn’t have the chops for what became today’s ultra-right brainless rodomontade.

One gets the feeling that the strongest connection between Buckley and Mailer was that they both roomed in the same hotel in Chicago during the notorious, violent Democratic Party convention in 1968, and watched the riots unfold mostly from the safety of their windows. For all their talk about ‘morals’, these two never really had any, as is demonstrated by this over-long book. The heck with ’em.


(This review was first published in the Herald on July 11, 2015.)

The New American Uniform

In Stuff We Like on October 9, 2013 at 11:15 am

(an extract from How Not to be American, by Todd McEwen, published by Aurum, October, 2013)

For reasons too dreary to relate, I moved for a year to a remote spot in Arizona, near the Navajo and Apache reservations. My partner had a job and I did not, nor was I able to find any useful employment during the entire time we lived there. We lived in a tiny community whose only hope of survival lay in enticing people from Phoenix to drive four hours, 7,000 feet up into the mountains, to fish, golf, ski or gamble at the casino run by the White Mountain Apache. Naturally, you could get them to do this about once a year. The rest of the time my fellow citizens sat around on their mountaintop drinking and freezing – sometimes to death – in inadequate houses and trailer parks. In the depths of winter you went around wondering who needed the bait shops, gift shops, golf shops, tanning and nail salons.  …

I was sitting in the parking lot of Walmart, wondering how I was going to feed myself, when I suddenly realised that everyone in the parking lot was wearing the same thing (except for me, of course, still ludicrously togged out in plus-fours and Inverness cape). What they were wearing was this: a baseball cap, a T-shirt, shorts, and what I was brought up to call tennis shoes but are now called running shoes, or in Europe, trainers. This is what the poorest people on earth are wearing right now, I thought. Reaganomics had foisted the third world upon us.

Everything we had seen, all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Phoenix, and then all the way up into these here mountains looked so run down – the basic infrastructure of the country really was being ignored, because everyone (everyone who could) was having to work eighteen hours a day, thanks to what Reagan had done to the economy, was still doing to it. This is all the result of the one Republican thought:


The more I looked the more I saw that this really was, and is, what everyone must now wear all over America, except in the places which harbour harsh winters, when the shorts become jeans. Not that jeans will keep you warm.

A dreadful, overt conformism has surfaced in America, along with a real fear of each other. People used to enjoy being with each other, say at a baseball game. But now everyone in the ball park is afraid, afraid something bad will happen. Friendly rivalries between cities and teams have become real little wars, with their own terrorist outriders. Everyone’s full of hate.

You can spot my countrymen in Europe by this uniform of T-shirt, shorts and cap. The American used to be spottable by a crisp new Burberry acquired in London and, as Fraser Smith once said, a very silly hat. And for my older fellow Americans this is still true – but if you get underneath the Burberry (yeccch!) this is what they’re wearing. So I think of this now as a uniform – the New American Uniform. It has an important bearing on the world situation and how we may analyse it.


By the baseball cap, whatever it may say on it, Americans want to signal that they are American. But it is more a sign that they are part of the global marketing culture of fast food and pop music; it signals that they are fresh from Walmart . . . And you see everyone wearing this cap in every country now, on television, even in National Geographic. My definition of the word democratic:


T-shirts are UNDERWEAR. That is how we were told to regard them when young. So how’s that for casualisation? My mother would never admit of a T-shirt being a ‘real’ item of clothing; they were also forbidden to be worn at school – and now they’re the basis of American school wear.

The T-shirt is without complexity. It is like television: you don’t need to bother with all that HISTORY, you can go out in the world in two pieces of cloth. A T-shirt worn with shorts reduces you to a PICTOGRAM.  …


always make everyone look stupid. Though I grew up in Los Angeles, and until I was an adult never experienced temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, I always had a horror of shorts. Especially the largely synthetic tan ones with an elasticated waist I pissed in time and again my first year at school.  …


Tennis shoes? Gym shoes? Sand shoes? Running shoes? Plimsolls? BUMPERS? I was very embarrassed to have my trendy Green Flash tennis shoes called ‘bumpers’ at the beach last summer. I saw someone wearing them in Vogue, for god’s sake. Bumpers!

Mom always said, tennis shoes are bad for your feet. They give no arch support and they don’t breathe. We don’t wear tennis shoes in this family. TENNIS SHOES ARE NOT REAL SHOES. But for some reason she once bought me a pair of PF Flyers – red – and I got a free whistle which looked like the moon. Like T-shirts, tennis shoes were never allowed at school, though some of the edgier characters in fourth grade wore them. This seemed goofy, or possibly seditious. It’s possible, though, that these boys were merely poor. Tennis shoes STINK, but they can be washed in the machine.

That was then. But then came the Invasion of the Adidas, in the 1970s. And from that moment, tennis shoes got weirder and weirder and more and more hideous, to the point that they seemed actually to assert MENACE. Again, eventually, blacks customised the prevailing styles, which was to satirise them – walking around with the laces untied and the tongues hanging out – it called attention to the footwear of the ghetto (the third world – an important point), but was also like disobeying the teacher, having your shirt tail hanging out.

In the end, though, trainers are still a children’s shoe. This gives the wearer the illusion of being engaged always in active play:

Let’s be worldly for a moment: these shoes are made by very poor children in sweatshops – therefore in wearing them you say, ‘I don’t care who made this, it’s the latest thing and I got it,’ and this is really a statement that you’re happy with the world the way it is, where we’re to accept our anaesthesia so as to live happily with our GOODS.

The marketers need you to remain childlike – this uniform is proof that they are reaching complete control of our lives. They take the child as the model for the ideal purchaser – someone who is totally hypnotisable.  …


Then came the little folding scooters. You began to see forty- year-old men pushing themselves along the street on these things, dressed in baseball caps, T-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes . . . The whole thing is too obvious. Where are the beanie caps with the propellers on top? Where are the all-day suckers? Everyone is being turned into ‘Stinky’ from the old Abbott & Costello show – a rotund, bald man of fifty who wore short pants, a broad straw hat with long ribbons on it and played with a stick and hoop.

Let’s be disgusting for a moment: do you know what a back- crack-and-sac wax is? Ask at your neighbourhood salon. Men more than ever have got to be turned into hairless infants!


The New American Uniform is clothing for CLONES. The human body requires individual attention to look good in clothes, which after all aren’t natural. But this process is not about looking good – it’s about being in an unofficial American army. It’s about disappearing into a mass where you’ll never stand out, never be seen again, and can’t be targeted by those who wish to kill (or mate). And so you will live eternally! HA HA.

This uniform was in the 1950s and 1960s the uniform of slobbering, fly-blown idiots in Mad magazine and other comic books. See the art of Jack Davis.

‘Sportswear’, in general, is linked to homogenisation, tribalism, anonymity. Here we have the idea of widespread leisure, which can easily be shifted to mass idleness, not to say unemployment. A lot of people confuse these things already, unhappily enough for them.

The New American Uniform is a sexless outfit for men and women, though women seem often embarrassed to be wearing it; probably because men have forced them into it, into their army. We say these things, don’t we, fellows? This is the best thing to wear. It’s real practical! But it’s a very bad look in terms of design, of dignity even, and it makes women look particularly bad. It is an anti-ethnic outfit, too. No wonder it is satirised constantly in the ghetto and the third world.

But American OBESITY is the real capper with this new uniform: they’re all scooter-podging around wearing the baseball cap, the T-shirt, the shorts, and the trainers, and what does it say to the rest of us out here? It says to the world DON’T DEPEND ON ME – I’M ONLY A KID:



•  YOU HAVE TO BE NICE TO ME AND IF YOU’RE NOT I’M GONNA SHOOT YOU (strapping on fanny pack or gun)



. . . and what is that but United States foreign policy?