Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on James Lasdun, Andrew Solomon and Woody Guthrie.

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun

Writing in the Observer, Mark O’Connell describes James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked as “a fascinating meditation on the malleability of identity in the online age, on the ease with which the truth about individual lives can be publicly distorted.” The memoir “is as unsettling as anything I've read about the internet's awful capacity to facilitate the dissemination of hatred”. O’Connell writes that, “perhaps the book's most terrifying revelation is the idea that all that is necessary for a person's life to be made utterly miserable is for another person to want this badly enough, for whatever reason. The internet is the genie that grants such poisonous wishes.” The reviewer is also impressed by the range of Lasdun’s book, writing: “As intriguing as this material is in itself, it's Lasdun's deviations from it that make for such an odd and original work of nonfiction. There are long, idiosyncratic digressions in which he views his situation through various literary lenses – readings of Tintin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth and the poetry of Plath.”

Jane Shilling’s review in the Telegraph describes Lasdun’s attempts to address the internet in his memoir: “Lasdun accomplishes the task with his habitual luminous elegance, drawing into his account wider questions of honour, reputation, masculinity, creativity, the nature of evil and the experience of 'an unbelieving, not even entirely kosher Jew [who] finds himself subjected to a firestorm of unrelenting anti-Semitism'.” However, Shilling contends that the book is somewhat let-down by Lasdun’s “inability to do more than glance obliquely at the crucial questions of love, flirtation, fidelity and the nature of the marriage bond itself”.

In the Guardian, Jenny Turner is somewhat less complimentary. She says that, “the book as a whole is skewiff, with both far too much information in it and not enough” and she “could also have done without some of Lasdun's own psychic self-dramatisations”. Turner adds that the possibility of Lasdun’s stalker, Nasreen being in “terrible distress” is neglected – “Lasdun isn't interested in a diagnosis, preferring to see her behaviour as motivated by 'a malice that … simply is'.”

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

In the New York Times Dwight Garner reviews Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon’s book on parental love, based partly on his experiences with his parents as a gay child. It is a “book is about diversity of a harrowing sort. He introduces us to families who are coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia and, in some cases, multiple extreme disabilities. He writes about rape victims who have kept their children”. While the book is certainly dense - it’s nearly 1,000 pages long and includes interviews with over 300 families – Garner says, “my respect for it rarely wavered.” Where the book lets itself down, it is through prose that is “dry and epigrammatic.”

To Emma Brockes, writing in the Guardian, Solomon’s work is “a rebuke to everything shoddy and dashed off in the culture, and the density of his empirical evidence decimates casual assumption”. Brockes is particularly impressed by “those parents who forfeit the good opinion of their peers by not doing what is 'expected' of them: a woman from Oxford who, after a terrible period of indecision, gives her mentally and physically disabled child up for adoption; the mother of two severely autistic children, who, when her husband asks, 'Would you marry me again?', replies, 'Yeah, but not with the kids.' “

In the Telegraph, Jane Shilling is interested by Solomon’s exploration of identity. “The theme of identity haunts Solomon’s book. He distinguishes between vertical identity – traits we inherit from our parents, such as ethnicity or language – and horizontal identity, acquired from a peer group.” The personal dimension of the book is also notable, writes Shilling.  “As ]Solomon] watched his infant son undergo a CAT scan, he recognised in himself the quality that he had spent so long observing in others: the dazzling terror of parental love.”

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie composed 3,000 songs. It turns out he was also a novelist. Martin Chilton, writing in the Telegraph, praises his novel (written in 1947 and previously unpublished) as a “heartfelt story about grinding poverty”, and a “rallying cry for building better homes”. The edition contains an introduction by Johnny Depp and the historian Douglas Brinkley which describes the novel as “an artefact from another age” – an introduction which Chilton finds “engrossing”. The novel contains “vivid descriptions” of terrible housing conditions in New Mexico, but Chilton ultimately assesses them as “dated and slow”. This defect is balanced by Guthrie’s powers of observation, which “enabled him to write with a homespun authenticity, and a fine ear for dialect”, and by scenes which are “genuinely moving”. The novel contains a 30 page romp in a barn (“You got more joosey magoosey in these tits of yours here than in any of our old milk cows”) and an extended birth section, which combine to enunciate themes of hope and “weary resignation”. Chilton awards the long-forgotten novel, “both welcome and timely”, an up-beat three stars.

Michel Faber, in the Guardian, is a little more unsettled by the sex scenes in the novel. “Such prose was clearly unpublishable in its time, and is still unusually explicit today”, he writes, after quoting an instance in which “the liquids from [Ella May’s] womb smeared through the hairs on [Tike’s] stomach”. This emphasis on sense data, continues Faber, is “all part of Guthrie's larger vision of human experience. Every sensation is noted and riffed on. Every thought is felt, every feeling anatomised at length. Weather permeates the soul and the soul mingles with the elements. The cry of Tike's newborn baby is described for two pages, because for Guthrie it is the cry of all things on earth”. Faber cannot help but snigger at the introduction, which takes the novel to be a kind of prophetic cry against global warning, and during which Depp and Brinkley “work themselves up to a pitch of bombastic celebration”. This focus is misleading, he contends, and should be transferred to Guthrie’s “linguistic bravado”, which nonetheless is at times a little circumlocutory. In sum, the book is an “eccentric hymn to the everythingness of everything, a sort of hillbilly Finnegans Wake”, and a “historical curio, a precious relic of semi-legendary Americana”.

A range of other reviews echo Chilton and Faber, such as David Martingale’s for America’s Star-Telegram. Martingale finds the novel “entertaining but slight”, “engaging but odd”, and at times “jarring and heavy-handed”. The “dream-like quality”of the prose is commendable, but when Depp and Brinkely compare the novel to Steinbeck they are “guilty of overstating the importance of House of Earth ... a treasure and a pleasure for Guthrie enthusiasts, but hardly an American classic”. 

House of Earth will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Woody Guthrie photographed in 1960 (Getty Images)
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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle