Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Todd McEwen’

Carol Ann Duffy — Collected Poems

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 24, 2016 at 2:01 pm

There are over three hundred poems here and most of them are hum-dingers – Carol Ann Duffy is nothing if not a bang-beat bell-ringing rip-roaring Poet Laureate of the first water. In terms of the intelligence and artistry with which she has discharged the duties of that appointment, she’s the best ever to fill the job. It even says POET LAUREATE in big letters on the jacket of this volume, in case you’d forgotten or didn’t know.

The trick to it is, of course, that she’s a great poet. She’s brave, witty, wry, depressed, political, lyrical, erotic, frightened and furious by turns, and it is fascinating to note how these qualities developed over the course of her writing life. She deals with a huge number of themes and one gets a sense, in looking through the Collected Poems, of how much control she exerts over the ebb and flow of them. In turning to one subject to scrutinize, in a run of poems or a book, she draws many other cherished things closer to her.

In The World’s Wife, a scalpel-sharp look at the women of various real and mythological males, she gave voice to females you never would have thought existed, or else they were so studiously ignored by history that it was time to do something about it. But not just poetic voice – witty, superior voice. Mrs Midas tells you what it really was like to have that touch: impossible and very sad. It broke up their marriage, like those couples who win the lottery. Mrs Pygmalion decides to become a red hot lover – punished for that of course. At the zoo, Mrs Darwin whispers to her hubby that a certain chimpanzee looks like him.

One thing that makes Duffy a great poet is her intimate connection with all of poetry. The spirits of many writers flit through her work. And as a defender of poetry, and of the idea of education, she’s something of a superhero. There are quite a few poems about the abysmal experiences of school, and an equal number about a favourite teacher or book or hour by the fire: transformative moments in the lives of children that are surely diminishing. She’s also an expert on repression, something she returns to often. ‘Mouth, with Soap’ is an anatomization of a mother or aunt: “She was a deadly assassin as far as words went. Slit-eyed, thin-lipped, she bleached and boiled the world. No Fs or Cs, Ps and Qs minded, oh aye. She did not bleed, had Women’s Trouble locked in the small room, mutely.”

Duffy is a British poet in a heady way. Her poems are full of the traditional English subjects: rain, coal smoke, tobacco smoke, poverty, train journeys, loneliness, puzzling and angry fathers, seasides and sudden funerals. Politics is one of her strongest suits (although one of her best recent poems, ‘Democracy’, isn’t included here). She can be very sexy, viz. ‘Stuffed’, in which it’s tantalizingly unclear if the narrator is talking about taxidermy or erotic games. And she has a real way with occasional verse, like ‘Valentine’, where the lover is given an onion instead of a card.

The release of a Collected Poems like this is perhaps the most important milestone in a poet’s career. It should be cause for rejoicing and a little festivity, but this book is too plain, too severely designed to be such a landmark. It is unnecessarily large and too heavy to enjoy easily, with a flat spine that doesn’t fit the hand, and has quite nasty sharp corners. The layout and type are uninspired and the sections are separated by inept fuzzy calligraphic pieces that show through the paper, which is too thin. A book like this ought to be sumptuous, no? Instead it’s kind of obnoxious. Prickly. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the author wants it like that.

Duffy likes writing about Christmas, and ‘Mrs Scrooge’ is one of the best of these. Now a widow, she and society both have benefited from Ebenezer’s transformation from Cameronian to Bennite. That’s Tony Benn, folks. She’s like a Guardian reader – she takes buses, is a vegan and forager, and buried Scrooge in an eco-coffin. But it’s deep: Duffy’s reanimation of Dickens’s characters and atmosphere is quite moving, and that is a power for which many historical novelists would pay with their souls. In ‘Bethlehem’ she describes the place on the night in question in terms of smells, food and sounds. But even a great re-imaginer like Duffy still fails to explain why there were no rooms available. Was there a convention in town? It wasn’t like it was Christmas or anything.

TMcE

(This review appeared in The National, Dec. 21st, 2015)

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Orhan Pamuk — A Strangeness in My Mind

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on October 2, 2015 at 1:15 pm

The title for Orhan Pamuk’s novel comes from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, continuing with the famous ‘A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.’ It’s somewhat grandly subtitled ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.’

Boza is one of those mild old alcoholic drinks fast disappearing from the world – seems everyone wants to get blootered and go clubbing. For many years sold by street vendors, now it is made in factories and offered in supermarkets, one of many changes observed and lamented by Mevlut in the course of his life. Not because there’s anything wrong with factory-made boza, but because the disappearance of the street vendors and their cries is one more historical impoverishment in the life of a city which is, if anything, an embodiment of history.

Pamuk attempts to place us in a recognizably ‘big’ novel: Mevlut is a poetic, painterly icon as much as he is the protagonist, crying his “booozaaa” like a Papageno. He continually reminds his customers, most of whom are getting on and appreciate the old ways, that it’s the voice, the emotion of the boza seller that matters. Boza is woven into the fabric of the book, along with corruption, Kurds, Anatolia, Kemal Ataturk, cigarettes, the wares of other street hawkers, political posters, electrical power thieves and capitalists little and large. This is a city where the brand of cigarette you smoke lets everyone know exactly what government department you work in; the way you cut your moustache advertises your politics.

Mevlut is a plain person, possessed of the calm of the honest. He watches life slowly pass, even as oppressive governments, coups and earthquakes try to dent his existence, and the neurotic excesses of globalism swallow up his family and friends. He remains an extremely hard-working small businessman, selling at various times not just boza, but yogurt, chickpeas, chicken and rice, and ice cream in summer. He has a profound fear of dogs, which becomes an amusing leitmotif in the life of a peddler. When still a schoolboy, he takes to selling lottery prizes with an edgy pal called Ferhat, who becomes a Communist, and later, a government inspector too upright for his own good. Mevlut tries all his life to steer clear of the deep ideological pits of Turkish life – in this he mostly succeeds, too. There’s a funny side and a grim political one to each development in his existence.

Things start to get interesting when he’s tricked into marrying. At a wedding, he and his cousin Suleyman become infatuated with the same girl. Mevlut’s not sure of her name (of course he can’t ask her) and Suleyman fools Mevlut into writing letters to the girl’s sister. These billets doux are based on some mouldering guides to writing love letters, and the sister falls for them. Again with Suleyman’s help, the pair elope. When Mevlut realizes he’s now in possession of the girl he didn’t want, an extraordinary thing happens: he decides to love his bride as determinedly as he goes out to sell his goods. She returns his passion and they live extraordinarily happily, much more so than other couples in the story. They even make love through Ramadan.

This is where this novel succeeds, in examining compassionately and thoroughly the bad state of affairs between men and women in the western/nonwestern place that Turkey is. Girls and women literally cannot be apprehended; they are completely mysterious, alien beings. They are, in fact, only barely tolerated. This of course leads to trouble: when Mevlut is young, all he can do is masturbate to an extent worthy of Alexander Portnoy. He can barely imagine or even guess at women. He also develops a serious stalking habit.

Hadji, one of the grosser depressing businessmen in the book, puts it this way: “There are two kinds of love in our land. The first kind is when you fall in love with someone because you don’t know them at all. In fact, most couples would never fall in love if they got to know each other even a little bit before getting married. This is why our Blessed Prophet Muhammad did not think it was appropriate for there to be any contact between the boy and the girl before marriage. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that, when they have a whole life to share between them, and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.” So part of the purpose of A Strangeness in My Mind is to argue that this kind of union can work, perhaps almost as often as not.

However, one isn’t always convinced that Pahmuk himself is blameless on this. For every stab he takes at the enormous, sad gulf between men and women in Turkey, he relishes icky characterizations of women by men (another effect of having no contact with them, of course). 1961 Opels “looked like spiteful women whose mouths had turned to stone in the middle of an evil cackle.” Women are allowed to grouse about men, a little, but the effect isn’t the same.

One delight in reading this is to encounter, to a slight extent, the Turkish alphabet, a charming and useful thing. The novel unfolds chronologically, but in order to vary this Pamuk resorts to an odd formula. There are occasional breaks in the narrative in which the major characters quibble with minor aspects of the action. It’s very hard to tell how these utterances are meant. Could they be notes on the novel in Pamuk’s own pocket? A scolding of himself? Is the reader being addressed? Why aren’t these the springboards for real digressions? Most of the time it’s no surprise to learn what we do when these characters take us aside. Too often for comfort, promising figures appear who don’t amount to much, and at times it can all feel less like a novel than a lecture.

In the end, Mevlut stubbornly sells his stuff, loses a wife, gains another, tries to live honourably and, on balance, succeeds in these things. He’s lived infinitesimally against the background of Istanbul, which you might have expected to be more frightening and interruptive than it appears here. Pamuk’s novel only attempts occasionally to convey the essential life of the place.

Is Mevlut anything other than a nostalgic? Valuable old things everywhere are disappearing; any resident of the UK will readily identify with his feelings of loss. This isn’t Ulysses, or even Gone with the Wind, yet its fighting weight is about the same: I had to tear my proof copy in half in order to read it without hurting myself. You wonder in the end why this huge stage, containing lots of Asia and most of the twentieth century, had to be claimed just in order to relate a little life.

TMcE

(This review first appeared in The Herald, Sept. 26, 2015)

The Up-Down–Barry Gifford

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 6, 2015 at 6:30 pm

“In ancient times,” writes Barry Gifford, “various societies, including the Irish, Chinese and Indo-European cultures, believed there were five directions: North, South, East, West and the Up-Down, which represented the navel or center.  … The center of things is where Pace decided to go.” This is the road map for The Up-Down. It’s the story of the later, but hardly declining, years of Pace Roscoe Ripley: a sizzlingly elegiac, almost nauseatingly picaresque ‘spiritual quest’ made not only tolerable but extremely entertaining by vast infusions of the violence and stupidity that characterize modern American life.

Pace is the son of Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, about whom Gifford has written many books – seven, in fact. To be fair, I have never read them, or heard of them, or even heard of Mr Gifford: I am, literally, a dunce as regards all this – but a happy dunce, because the world into which he plunged me is one that I have definitely been missing.

Pace is in his sixties when we encounter him in New Orleans. Having inherited a little money and property he decides to close his business, and heads north. On the train he meets the mysterious Dr Furbo, who runs a wacko clinic treating ‘caterwauling’ that sounds like something you’d hear about on Fox News, and not in a good way. The locales then range all to hell and gone, from Chicago to Wyoming to North Carolina, where Pace fathers a child with one of his tenants.

In Philadelphia he has an affair with Siempre Desalmado (‘Always Cruel’), a homeless young Hispanic woman. He falls easily into bed with almost every female in the book, which can get a little old, but these people all like each other so much you end up rooting for their love affairs. “After all,” as Gifford says of the saga of Sailor and Lula,  “it was a genuine true-love story, and there never could be too many of those.”

Pace goes back to North Carolina and is seduced by the dangerously chaotic sister of the woman who’s having his child. This now leads to serious mayhem and murder, out from under which Pace, and the novel, cannot entirely crawl. “He was truly amazed that without any bad intentions on his part, life could suddenly spin so dangerously and bizarrely out of control.” He finds love again with Perfume James, an ex-child prostitute, now a pastor (self-invented religion infests this landscape). Their romance is short-lived due to a tremendous natural disaster of the kind only America can generate. This is fiction just wild, weird and quotidian enough to be exactly like reality.

Genuinely frightening violence and sorrowful deaths play a major role in a novel which, almost inexplicably, fills you with warmth, or at least a kind of optimism. It seems at times inaccurate and paranoid, but that suits it. The Up-Down is also littered with allusions to music, art and literature; some of the little tales embedded in the story are from so far out in left field that at first you wonder what they can possibly be doing here. But then they start to make sense.

It is not so usual for the main character in a novel to die before it ends. But as you read The Up-Down you become convinced that Pace is going to perish. The frame of the story, the long accounts of the lives of Sailor and Lulu that Pace has spent years writing (constituting, one assumes, the actual novels about them by Gifford) fall into the care of Angelina, one of the last women to befriend Pace. Since Sailor and Lula are dead, Pace’s story properly ends here, too.

Late in the novel, Pace encounters in Mexico a pub bore, who stuns him with hours of jabber about people he knew in the movie business. “Hugo Gresca’s monologue, fuelled by Cinco Estrellas and Negra Modelos, Pace and Terry realized, would not cease until he collapsed or died. They never did find out how Hugo had ended up in Matamoros because just as he started to tell them about a night he and Sean Connery and [John] Huston spent in a Kabul whorehouse called The Den of Forbidden Fruit during the filming of The Man Who Would be King, a very large, purple-black man wearing a crocodile-skin vest over his bare chest, entered the bar and lifted Gresca out of his chair and without saying a word carried him away.” If life were only like that.

TMcE

(This review first appeared in the Herald on April 12, 2015)

Owen Dudley Edwards – How David Cameron Saved Scotland

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 26, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Ahh – irony. That heady bourne from which no reader, or voter, may return unscathed or uneducated. And what was the natural home of irony, the modern fountainhead whence it sprang and continues to sweetly nurture us, if we will but open our minds and our hearts to its rich and scalding lessons? Why, the eighteenth century, of course, and, one might equally answer, Edinburgh. Edinburgh: the seat of the Scottish Enlightenment, which gave rise to the American and French Revolutions and a new freedom of political thought throughout the ‘civilized’ world; the home of Hume and Henry Cockburn. Curious that in the eighteenth century men like Joseph Knight were granted their freedom by other men like Dundas and Monboddo and both Boswells, and stranger still that in that same eighteenth century Scotland lost its independence and freedom to a ‘ruthless conqueror’, as Jane Porter put it.

How David Cameron Saved Scotland, and May Yet Save Us All is a brilliant feuilleton ostensibly addressing ‘our’ Prime Minister in the only language in which he really deserves to spoken to, since he, or his office, acceded to power in the eighteenth century, when Scotland lost its real identity and became just another part of the bland, struggling little corporation that is the United Kingdom. To address the Prime Minister in the language of the eighteenth century is apt – taking the debate back to the last time of serious ruction between the two nations. The book is a series of essays on the various stages of the Prime Minister’s ‘education’, all addressed to David Cameron in the language of a wily, flattering courtier. The larger question being examined is: who are these people who rise to power? What is someone who becomes a Prime Minister really aware of? What does he know?

The crucial, most daring and amusing chapter concerns itself with what David Cameron knows of Scotland. What does he know, for instance, about Cameron of Lochiel? What does he know of Keir Hardie and Cunninghame Graham? And what the hell does he know about the ancient and inalienable concept of political power in Scotland, specifically that it is given by the people to the monarch or the government, and not the other way around? Dudley Edwards goes into this fully, carefully, and cruelly, and the answer would appear to be that Cameron knows doodly squat. Is a Bullingdon Club-educated man, no matter what claims he can make for his Scots ancestry, is a Tory, qualified to be the leader of Scotland? No. He isn’t. Whatever he may ‘Vow’.

Satire can be scary. It’s a risky, almost unbelievable thing to assert that David Cameron is very intelligent, and that he is deliberately hiding it from us in order to accomplish his questionable ends. Edwards presents Cameron, on evidence, as something of a scholar of politics, guided as he was by some smart teachers at Eton and Oxford (Andrew Gailey and Vernon Bogdanor), although at several crucial junctures in his career he stopped listening to these men and went his own weird, obtuse and flabby way. It’s pretty amusing to think of Cameron as a guy who has the time to sit around reading books, although some modern leaders have done just that. Richard Nixon was one of the most astute pupils of modern political history, from all accounts. But that did not stop him from screwing up entirely and it didn’t show he was ‘intelligent’, whatever that means, and it certainly didn’t mean he wasn’t evil.

This book is full of hugely enjoyable, rageful insights which are beautiful and true: at one point Dudley Edwards asserts that Margaret Thatcher got the whole of her conception of Scotland from the seaside postcards of Donald McGill. There is little doubt that How David Cameron Saved Scotland is, and will be, the definitive, robust and necessary book on what happened to us all – or, to put it in a Freudian and more accurate way, what we did to ourselves – September last. Dudley Edwards kicks, as they would say in America, some serious Tory butt. And belabours Labour arse, too. This is the political book of the year, if we the people (apologies to Thomas Jefferson) will deign to read it in its properly cantankerous, hell-for-leather ornateness. Will it be read in England? Of course not. They don’t deserve it.

TMcE

(This review first appeared in the National, February 23, 2015)

The Emperor of Ice-Cream–Dan Gunn

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 5, 2015 at 10:02 am

Mr and Mrs Pezzini live in Broughton Street, Edinburgh, in the 1920s. Signor Pezzini makes Nativity figurines for a living. Mamma keeps house, and there are four children: Lucia is bookish and the narrator of this novel. Emilio is trying to recover from polio. Giulio is a romantic, and Dario, the eldest, is a lusty bully, always of two minds. When Mussolini comes to power in 1922, Dario founds a Fascio, ostensibly a social club for Italian Scots, but supporting the new Italian state and beats the drum for ‘Fascismo’. Thanks to the Fascio’s funds, the Pezzinis can visit Italy. Dario and Giulio attend Fascist exercises in Rome, at which almost the entire Scottish delegation faints from the heat. Giulio runs for ice cream, which renders a few of them able to stand when their leader makes a sudden appearance. Taken by surprise, they salute him with dripping wooden ice cream spoons.

The next year, Lucia visits the family village and Rome. She wears a fetching Fascist tunic and marches with a little bow and arrow in a parade before Il Duce (the Pope had drawn the line with Mussolini about girls carrying rifles). Later Mussolini converses with Lucia about Scotland – he seems to know all about Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Someone snaps a photo of her with him; back home she spends precious money on a frame for it.

There’s a lot of journeying in The Emperor of Ice-Cream, mostly between Edinburgh and Italy, yet the story is also rooted, even to the point of feeling claustrophobic, in home and family, things held dear in both nations. Dario’s fate, as a Fascist demagogue, is, of course, disillusionment, but gets still worse: he’s crippled fighting for Il Duce in the Italian campaign in Abyssinia. Lucia falls in love with a dashing Roman and waits years for him at her desk at the Royal Bank in George Street, where she becomes savvy enough about money to help her brother Giulio realize his dream, which is to open the most wonderful ice cream shop in Scotland: the Ice Palace.

Situated in Annandale Street, just a few steps from what was thought of, and perhaps still is, the Italian heart of Edinburgh, the Ice Palace dazzles the people of Broughton and beyond. For Italians it’s a more familial place to meet than the male-only bars of the day, and the Fascio is rapidly becoming a contentious venue. Indeed Giulio planned his shop to be just this, as he publicly rejects the Fascio and Fascism too (we later learn another reason why he was destined not to fit in to the rise of Aryanism).

There is much here of the twentieth-century Italian experience in Scotland. There is also a lot about ice cream, a bit like the way in which Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume linked political upheaval and the art of fragrance: what flavours tickled the 1930s palate, and the great dynasties of ices: Nardini, Luca. Your reviewer is, sadly, lactose intolerant, but he awoke in the night thinking of the exotic flavours and combinations concocted by Giulio after he visits the ultimate masters of his art, La Scimmia of Naples and Giolitti’s in Rome: ‘Bitter Cherry and Blood Orange so tart it sets the roof your mouth on fire’. Cinnamon sorbet! More than just a meeting place, the Ice Palace is the hub of several romances – love is the real subject of the book. Earthy Aunt Paola, so impressed by Giulio’s success and so depressed by Scottish cooking, also opens a shop on Annandale Street (which by now is referred to by locals as the ‘Via Pezzini’): ‘Paola’s Neapolitan Fry.’ Just in case you thought fish and chips (and deep-fried zucchini) weren’t going to get a mention.

When Mussolini abruptly signed his pact with Hitler, the British government started rounding up Italians, mostly male. ‘Collar the lot,’ Churchill said. There were vigilante outrages too, and Edinburgh was no exception: it took Giulio and Lucia almost two years of scraping and sacrifice to make the Ice Palace come true, and at the hands of frightened bigots it is ruined in one terribly sad, violent moment. ‘Who knows what will be released upon the children of us Italians?’ asks Giulio.

It’s often said that there is a fundamental sadness to Italian life. Perhaps that is another trait shared by the two countries of this story. As Lucia warms to her narrative, the prose, generally a little cautious and overly measured, can burst into affecting moments: The Emperor of Ice-Cream gets deeper and scarier as it progresses. Things don’t go well for the Pezzinis – in Edinburgh and in Italy there is primitive violence, horror and death. It’s a big family and a lot happens to them, all because of nationalism, love and gelato.

This review appeared in the Sunday Herald, February 1, 2015.

TMcE