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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times