Traitor King by Andrew Lownie – a review

Much has been written about the dreadful antics of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. So much so that according to Andrew Lownie, the author of Traitor King, it was difficult to get reviewers to read and review his latest book. This might be because they believe, wrongly, that there is nothing new to add to the well trodden territory that has seen some fifty titles about the notorious couple. Or it might be that literary editors and reviewers are too lazy to want to learn more about them. But learning more is what Traitor King is all about: it’s new territory presented in eensy weensy detail.

The book covers the years following King Edward VIII’s abdication, his marriage to Wallis Simpson and their dubious career as celebrity royals. Much as seems to be happening with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex today, the Windsors went to immense effort to earn a very juicy living by exploiting their non-roles. No longer part of the monarchy, they continued to live the lifestyle that Edward had enjoyed prior to his new life with Wallis, except that he wasn’t king anymore. They married in 1937 as soon as her divorce from her second husband was finalised and spent the rest of their lives as glamourous nomads, mostly in Europe and often at the expense of others.

They did a stint in the Bahamas, then a British Crown Colony, where Edward was put out of harm’s way during World War II. At least that was Winston Churchill’s intention. But corruption, scandal and murder attended the Windsors’ time in the sun. Edward’s deficit of grey matter was a serious impediment when it came to making sensible choices, no matter how obvious they were. Mrs Windsor did at least make an effort in the Bahamas and got involved in good works to the benefit of the islanders. But the local murder of Harry Oakes, a British gold miner, tax exile and close friend of the Duke of Windsor, was never solved and the Duke was directly involved in the haphazard investigation into the death. In Traitor King Lownie presents compelling evidence that Windsor was implicated in Harry Oakes’ demise.

Churchill had sent the pair away for several reasons, but mainly to keep them out of range of the throne. This sounds outlandish but the close connections between the Windsors and the Nazis was more than a mere sharing of ideologies. It was easy to flatter Wallis and Edward with promises of wealth and power, as neither was politically astute. It was even easier to appeal to their shared vanity with a promise to reinstate Edward as the King of England, with Wallis as his queen once Germany had vanquished Great Britain.

Edward and Wallis were obvious security risks although much of the evidence for the gravity of the risk has only recently come to light. Sitting at the heart of the diplomatic circles in various European capitals, Edward was well-placed to keep up to date with developments as the war progressed. Unfortunately he was keen to brag over dinner about what he heard, regardless of its sensitivity and security implications. He professed he wanted to help and he craved position for most of his life. During the war, got only a token position as a military liaison official where he could do the least harm.

Wallis was known to have had Nazi sympathies and it turns out that before the war she had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop. From 1938 to 1945 he was the Nazi’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Does that title scream spymaster or what? As far as Wallis was concerned he lived up to his title. She had become of interest to intelligence services in the USA and elsewhere and a recently disclosed FBI report states that “because of her high official position, the duchess is obtaining a variety of information concerning the British and French activities that she is passing on to the Germans.”Once married to Edward the pair were targets for the British and French intelligence services as well. The 1937 tour of Germany and meeting Hitler and his odious crew didn’t help matters and nor did Edward’s close family connections in Germany. 

In 1940 the Germans set up Operation Willi, a pretty half-hearted effort to kidnap the couple. This was another reason to get the Windsors out of Europe. In the Bahamas they continued to be annoying, hobnobbing with known Nazi sympathisers and getting involved in what appears to be money laundering and currency gambles. Money was very important to the Windsors although they appear to have been takers more than givers.

Andrew Lownie documents all this and much more in granular detail. At times his book reads as if it were an elaborated list of every interaction the Windsors had with a vast miscellany of people as documented in security reports, sales catalogues, travel documents, letters and diaries. Lownie has scoured the planet for any references to the Windsors in the biographies, letters and diaries of their friends, colleagues, servants, guests, business partners and hangers on. This data overwhelm creates a tension with the book’s narrative flow and the drumbeat of meticulously documented facts too often drowns out the author’s voice. Bolder opinions on the facts presented would have made for a more compelling storyline and an easier read.

Traitor King doesn’t really hit its stride until the final quarter. By this time its 1953 and the couple is settling down in Paris where they continue to entertain on a grand scale and Edward is still trying to get his family to be nice to Wallis. That never happens and after his death in May 1972 Wallis lives on for another 14 years, still exiled, depressed and unloved. In her final days parasites posing as aides sell off her belongings and she is confined to her bedroom waiting to die. 

It’s all very sad, but although love was the reason for Edward’s abdication, love seems not to have been at the heart of the Windsors’ relationship. That is even sadder. He worshipped his idealised version of her and she treated him with condescension and distain. Ambition, greed, vanity, platforming, ostentatiousness, all ooze from these two people even at such a distance. They are odious individuals, selfish, mean and competitive narcissists of limited intelligence and perception. Beyond the romance that persistently overshadows the human reality Andrew Lownie’s book, with all its details, shows us the pair for who they really were.

Opportunities for authors and their ilk

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) recently published details of research into authors’ earnings. The study was conducted by the CREATe Centre at the University of Glasgow which found that the future of writing as a profession is under threat. But authoring isn’t under threat any more today than it ever was. People will always want to read and writers, whose imagination is their trade, are very good at reinvention. The ALCS figures, particularly the reduction in fulltime authors’ median earnings from £12,330 in 2006 to £7,000 in 2022, are alarming. But they do not tell a complete story.

Rapidly evolving digital technology has provided an environment for new commercial models within publishing. Technology has spawned a world of new opportunities throughout authors’ supply chains, primarily in online services and tools to support writers. Unfortunately this has helped to drive down average earnings.

The online publishing eco-system is a dynamic adjunct to the traditional publishing industry. It is one that publishers readily exploit without much investment. Hordes of online service providers from authors and copy writers to reviewers, filter and sift new talent at their own risk and to the benefit of publishers. These new players offer fee-based publishing opportunities and fee-based prizes in every imaginable category. New writers can today self-publish without much difficulty, because the technology and the people are there to grease the wheels. These business models did not exist in the same abundance in 2006.

There is a mutual dependency between the digital environment and those who inhabit it. And this is where publishers feed, either directly or via the agent community. That they can exploit the vanity of potential authors is a given. We are all keen for the attention of a commercial publishing contract that might take our careers in a new direction. And today there are so many more of us offering raw material: supply outstrips demand.

The online eco-system hosts all manner of writerly services from software and online courses, to review sites, editorial services, printing and publishing services, marketing, blog tours and publicity. The enormity of this opportunistic system, enhanced and amplified with a host of social media channels, means that anyone who fancies their chances as an author can present themselves as such. Authors are the raw material, rather than their work. Those who are good at the online gig (and patient enough to get good at it) are rewarded by traditional publishing in the end. Top selling titles based on blogging and websites with huge followings are massive successes. Publishers put money into these writers, knowing that their risk is mitigated.

The fall in authors’ average earnings between 2006 and 2022 reflects the brutal facts of supply and demand. Today’s economic landscape is much less favourable, as the ALCS data shows. There are so many more active authors and agents in our industry now and most will work for much less money than was likely in 2006. Back then there were far fewer writers actively pursuing success, and publishers were far hungrier.

Mainstream publishers today can and do focus on what are likely to be successful products, usually from credentialled writers. Mostly publishers are very good at doing this, as the astonishing turnover and profit figures confirm. The writer’s profession is about opportunity and yes luck. But luck has nothing to do with the inclination of mainstream publishers to turn away from reduced risk investments. That is never going to happen. Luck plays a part at all points in the publishing supply chain, from the writing and commercial attractions of a work, through to whether or not the paper costs for printing it on is within budget. The reliability or not of ‘luck’ is precisely what makes it luck. And there is nothing lucky in the success of top selling titles. They succeed because publishers put the money behind them to make sure that they succeed. As with celebrity tomes, the publishers of work that started life as a high profile blog already have a defined market.

Earning a living as an author has never been easy. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to one Mr Morgan that ‘the best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend upon it for their daily bread’. That was in 1885 and today’s publishing economics keep it that way.

The relationship between authors and publishers is changed. Publishers no longer want to recognise that support for authors is their responsibility. And why should it be when raw materials for new products are so readily available, the risk so much less and the profits so much more? The traditional contract between authors and publishers is broken. Authors need a new more compelling and sustainable model, one that authors themselves should dictate. This ought to mean opportunities for ambitious publishers keen to disrupt and reinvent their industry. Let’s hope it does.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer – A review

This book was originally published in 1958, but it’s a story we should all revisit. Not that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is peerless prose or a wild tale of derring-do. It is neither. Rather, this book is a glimpse of a place in time where men and women were on the edge of massive, generational change.

The approaching transition was from the cosy but fragile reality of the traditional, nuclear family to something much edgier. In this new something people divorced without stigma, lived together without being married and sat on each other’s laps in public. Women were on the verge of all the freedoms that sheer tights, short skirts and the contraceptive pill conferred. They were ready to turn away from conventional social constrictions and personal repression, towards something much more dangerous and risky. 

But in 1958 that was all yet to come. Postwar 1950s Britain was still a seriously limited world, a world where rationing hadn’t finished until 1954 and where Hitler’s ghost still cast a long and menacing shadow. People were subdued and passive, locked in the same class cage as before the war. With Naziism defeated the only war they faced was the Cold War, something too abstractly horrific to truly get their heads around. In this fifties world people clung to traditional roles, to old and dessicated habits because anything different or new was too terrifying. The thought of any kind of upheaval or change was direct trauma.

For most people, ideas that there could be alternatives to pre-war expectations, to new freedoms and roles, had an irrational power to instill fear. It was just too much to think about. Read the novels of Kingsley Amis and the poetry of Philip Larkin and amidst the brilliance you read a celebration of the ordinary and the pre-war status quo. Popular stories, novels and plays were about the quotidien, the unquestionable joys of the steady and reliable British routine. And we had a burgeoning of fantasies and escapism like The Borrowers and the Lord of the Rings presenting alternative safe presentations of struggle and triumph, to replace the horrors of war that had been on the doorstep.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting does none of this, but it does challenge the cosiness of the ordinary lives people were encouraged to live and any escapist fantasies they might have had. The decade was marked by economic growth and technological advance. Economic growth made the life of a housewife more exciting because she could shop at will for household appliances and stuff for herself and her family. Technology made life more convenient; television added scope for idle entertainment. But such advances also encouraged people, especially women, to question shifting individual expectations. They wanted to better understand what it means to have a fulfilled life and how to go about having one.

Penelope Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is clearly drawn from her own life’s experience as a wife, mother and housewife, and of her own frustrated intellect. In sparse and economical prose she presents a middle-class, white family living in what would once have been described as the stockbroker belt. Ruth and Max  Whiting have three children, two pre-teen boys who go to boarding school and an older daughter in her first year at Oxford. An unplanned but approaching birth is the reason for the daughter’s parent’s marriage in the first place, although Angela doesn’t know this. Angela thinks she’s in love and then she too falls pregnant. The young man in question is a carbon copy of her father at about the same age and situation in life.

Abortion wasn’t an option for Ruth and Max, but it has become unquestionably possible for Angela and Tony, even though it’s still illegal. This odious young man has contrived a personna of male authority, hiding his selfish and sleazy character without even a smidge of awareness that he is doing so. He has no moral compass, no sympathy for his girlfriend, no question of any response other than minimising his culpability. All this is carefully hidden behind a mimicry of traditional expectations of male behaviour, bluster and the puerile affectations of youth. That he wants to live up to the responsibility for getting himself and Angela out of a dreadful situation is fine in theory. But as he acts out the part, he lacks the moral courage or even the slenderest shred of nerve to face the horror of the proposed solution. Or its cost. In this regard perhaps not much has changed since the fifties.

But Ruth has been there before and can understand what needs doing, although how to do it is a harder problem. Her daughter’s child, although it will be aborted, becomes fictionalised in Ruth’s imagination. These imaginings are proxies for Ruth’s own future, although she wants to believe that the child will never be born. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting takes its name from the nursery rhyme which plays on a tiny music box, Ruth has bought for a neighbour’s little girl. She decides to keep it and it becomes a talisman, a reference throughout the novel for Ruth’s need for something reliable and consistent. A bit like how women are these days with their mobile ’phones, the music box gives her something tangible, a reference point. It’s a reminder to keep her feet on the planet. Solving the pregnancy problem for Angela and imagining her unborn child’s fictitious life, together jolt Ruth forwards so she appears to slowly move away from her own nervous collapse. 

Nervous collapse was hidden too in the fifties, just like abortion, poverty, failure, affairs. Many of these are still hidden along with anything else that could be considered embarrassing or in need of response. But people today have far higher trust that their frailties might be accepted, their expectations realised. They have far more routes and support for resolutions and towards achieving their goals. Opportunities to express oneself through words, images, sound and any other form of narrative one might think of abound. The internet fuels a perennial explosion of ideas, expressions and opinions, reverberating endlessly, every moment of every day. Central to this inexhaustible supply of content is an obsession with self and individual identity, with the desperate need to express a unique persona and universal validity. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a reminder that such luxuries are relatively new for most ordinary people and especially that they have been very, very hard won. We, men, women and other, have travelled a massive journey and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting shows us a tiny bend in a very long road. That’s why we should read this book again.

Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

Constance Wilde, born in 1858, was the wife of Oscar and the mother of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Two years after her marriage to Oscar Wilde in 1884, Constance started an autograph book for which she continued to collect entries until 1896. There are 62 in all, mostly provided by invited contributors during Constance’s At Home events. But by 1896, her husband was in prison having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and Constance was in exile in Italy. After Constance died in 1898, two years before Oscar, the whereabouts of the autograph book were unknown. 

It resurfaced at auction in 1987 and Mary Hyde bequeathed it to the British Museum in 2003. The British Museum kindly gave the Oscar Wilde Society permission to produce a facsimilie reproduction of the book. Joan Winchell, a longstanding member of the society, donated funds to make possible the book’s production. Devon Cox managed the project.

Constance’s autograph book is an unparalleled window into manners, behaviour, expectations and the nature of celebrity in late nineteenth century London. Constance was very considered in her invitations to contribute to her autograph book, so it has entries from a diverse group of men and women, from Prime Ministers and actors to musicians and spiritualists. And it has some interesting omissions, such as Oscar’s soon to be growing group of male friends.

The entries range from the profound to the peculiar. G. F. Watts painter and sculptor put “our greatest happiness should be found in the happiness of others” and “you did not promise to be her mother-in-law” is playwright Elizabeth Merivale’s rather odd contribution. And although her husband’s renown was obviously helpful in gaining signatures, the autograph book clearly reflects Constance’s independent values, spirit and aspirations. Oscar’s entry, the second in the book following that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is unsurprisingly the most intimate of all. It reads: “from a poet to a poem” and although Oscar has used this line elsewhere in his work, it is no less touching an expression of his respect and admiration for his wife. At least at the time, when she was still the love of his life.

So why should we care about the autograph book of a woman long dead and buried, who died tragically young and whose life was so overshadowed by her glamorous husband? Isn’t this little autograph book just an elaborate form of name-dropping, of literary showing off? Yes, it is an exercise in name dropping, but these names are not just collected, Constance Wilde has deliberately curated them and this is part of the fascination of the book. The names so assiduously gathered, reflect some sliver of Constance’s spirit and values. Artists and poets feature heavily, as do actors including Henry IrvingEllen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.

In the beginning of their marriage Oscar’s fame and notoriety dominated Constance’s life, and then shame and notoriety were ascendant. They forced Constance to leave the country and change her and her children’s names. First glamour and then misery. But somewhere in that glorious and successful phase of Oscar’ life, first as a heterosexual man, then as a bisexual one and then homosexual, Constance was in love and happy. Oscar too was in love and happy. The autograph book was mostly created during this period of their lives, when Constance was emerging as a socially and politically independent woman. A woman sufficiently confident and bold to hold her own in Oscar’s orbit, albeit fleetingly.

Constance was his soul mate and lover, intellectually for a little while and briefly physically. But Oscar was a serial explorer both intellectually and sexually, so it never was going to last long. Apart from their two boys, there are very few expressions of Constance in Wilde’s life. Her autograph book gives us a small shred of insight into the woman and her life with one of the world’s greatest authors. With contributions from artists such as James Whistler and William Morris, from politicians such as Gladstone, through to authors including Mark Twain and George Meredith, the book reflects Constance Wilde’s life and times but also her eclecticism. It’s a wonderful thing indeed. 

Devon Cox has overseen the production of the project and even if you don’t fancy reading all the musings in the book, his introduction alone is worth the purchase. You can buy it here: https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/autograph-book/

PS Is it just me or is there a striking similarity in looks between Constance and Bosie?

Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (not a review in the end) – if you want to know more about Oscar Wilde go here:

https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk

Dear Oscar,

My hero.

I am writing to tell you about the latest big fat biography of yourself, you, Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably already read Oscar: a Life by Matthew Sturgis, but if not do. It’s a vast catalogue of your life, a huge collection of facts all gathered together in a single volume and narrated with lively enthusiasm by historian Matthew Sturgis. Even for people not inclined to read or to learn more about your sainted self, it’s an easy page turner. Like you, the book is an astonishing achievement, exhaustive, charming and compelling, and only minorly flawed by the publisher’s sloppy production.

The book tracks the timeline of your life with immense detail. Your upbringing in Ireland and time at Portora School are carefully documented, along with masses of skinny on your relatives, family, friends and contemporaries. Your brilliance and sometime (fleeting) sportiness are shared, as are the details of your move to Trinity College Dublin and thence to Oxford. It was at Oxford that your identity as an artist started taking tangible shape, along with your previously under-developed abilities to command attention, involvement and direction. You’re soon drawn to London and its fashionable society, a larger and more demanding stage where you continued to thrive rising slowly through the soup. But you had no readily accessible means of earning a decent living, despite winning the Newdigate Prize for Ravenna in 1878 and publishing Poems in 1881. Transition was needed from poet, to performer, author and playwright, and was soon in motion.

The brilliant idea of an American tour was almost a disaster following your first performance in New York City in 1882. D’Oyly Carte had wisely hedged his gamble with only a single booking for the preening society aesthete with unproven oratory skills. Subsequent tentative dates were only to be confirmed following responses to the initial outing. Despite a rough start, the lecture and the jokes worked out and you grew over the coming months into a polished and popular performer.

It was clear from the outset that Oscar Wilde’s outwardly shifting persona would respond to the demands of audience as it did throughout the 1882 US tour. But persona and audience morphed in tandem throughout your life. Aspiration and vanity, victories and collapses, your evolving sexuality from heterosexual, bisexual to homosexual, shaped your identity and presentation. A pattern in others’ of cautious or bold risk-taking, mirrored your own mercurialism. It traces across your life: diminished risk to publish or stage your work as your reputation grew; increased risk to commercial ventures of your notoriety and attendant outrageousness. No rules. 

Mr Sturgis presents a clear picture of your obvious brilliance and magic, and also of your vulnerability to flattery and beauty. No surprises there. And throughout his work Mr Sturgis energetically corrects errors in literary critic Richard Ellman’s definitive biography, published after Ellman’s death in 1987. But the huge numbers of typographic errors publisher Head of Zeus has allowed in Oscar: a Life rather undermines one’s confidence in these corrections. I am sure someone has already pointed them out, but throughout the text’s 720 pages there is barely a chapter without mistakes: your funeral was on the 3rd December, not the 3rd November. Is it Salomé or Salome? And shouldn’t pronouns and verbs agree? 

We learn that intellect untamed searches always for innovative ideas, insights and perspectives no matter how grungy their habitats or philosophy (remember the Decadents?). Pushing the ideas of others to their limits, challenging social convention and expectations whether in poems or fashion or home décor began with you, you, Oscar Wilde. And it’s what all of us now aspire to. Aesthetic traditions, their particularities, expression, are conversely universal and unique, for individuals are simultaneously ordinary and exceptional. Whatever the green eyed James Whistler charges, your aesthetic persona and expression are more than a reworking of someone else’s philosophy. Thankfully this comes through in Oscar a Life.

It’s also clear that your genius morphs with your humanity, kindness and individualism subverted, or glittered, with vanity and ego. The emergence of the Oscar Wilde persona began early, grew as your genius became apparent, was amplified by fame and then started to distort. But never, ever did your brilliance, underlying decency and generosity of spirit diminish. Throughout the public scenes, trials and imprisonment, consideration for others was always there. It too often got lost in the torrent of passion for Bosie and his evil influence and subculture corruption. Denial and shame made you spiteful sometimes, as guilt and embarrassment periodically trumped kindness. This was particularly and horribly evident in your dealings Constance and others whom you should have trusted more. But you know this.

Knowledge, carnal or otherwise, was always your fuel but sadly wisdom too often lingered a little too long, as it does for most of us. Our shared frailty is why people still read and enjoy your work, why love for Oscar Wilde is spread so far and wide. You are not forgotten and your influence persists, variously cloaked in notoriety and hero worship. It’s acknowledged by those who know you. It’s obviously unacknowledged by those who are unknowingly beholden to you, but they are many.

You show us the origins of much that distresses modern life: performance and identity, the need for audience and attention, the desire to be heard and taken seriously, understanding what it is to be as one and as one of many. The paradoxes in which you so delight are clear in both biographies. Truth and lies, male and female, brutality and gentleness, hypocrisy and faith, the secptic and the trusting, mirrors all. But the paradoxes are clearest in your works. They veil our ugliest traits, our vanities and deceits, ignorance and denials. In the darkly radical The Picture of Dorian Grey and the evanescent humour of The Importance of Being Earnest our own hypocrisies are played out.

You were not self-destructive (too vain for that), but rather caught in a vortex of events, shocked and horrified at your own reversal, that your gainsayers really did mean it. That this time there was no chance of rebounding. You knew disaster was coming but instead stood fast, brave, and faced it. It was a matter of honour and truth, of the artistry of life in black and white and of your own integrity in the dock. You stood on a stage of your own construction and were not cowed when enemies tried to dismantle it. Not then, not now.

Ever yours,

– A Woman of Even Less Importance.

PS “…No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite 
Crawl like a snake across his perfect name, 
Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame. …”

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a Review

This review is in two parts. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. The second part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Part I

American Dirt is the story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and her eight year old son. They are on the run following the brutal assassination of all their relations, sixteen people, at a family birthday party. Lydia’s husband had been an investigative journalist. The brutal murders follow the publication of Sebastián’s in depth profile of a local Mexican cartel boss and his growing influence. The massacre is supposed to kill the entire family, everyone at the party. But Lydia and Luca, hiding in the loo, are overlooked and escape.

The book follows Lydia and Luca’s terrifying progress as they flee their home city, Acapulco, to make their way north to the United States. The journey is over 2700 km. The cartel equivalent of an All Points Bulletin, complete with Lydia’s image, is shared across Mexico throughout the criminal network and beyond to spies, informers and hangers on, anyone who’ll turn Lydia and Luca in for gain. It’s a terrifying premise made all the more sinister by the fact that Lydia, unaware of his identity, had become friends with the head of the cartel.

Javier, boss of the vile Los Jardineros cartel, had been a frequent visitor to the bookshop Lydia owns and the two share a love of books and poetry. Their kindred platonic bond had grown increasingly intimate and personal over several months. Javier calls Lydia the Queen of his soul, rather than the Queen of his heart (his wife) or of his pants (his mistress). Lydia treats their closeness as an asexual and private personal intimacy based on a shared love of literature.

These two complex and conflicted characters evoke all that is precious about relationships that don’t count as extramarital affairs, yet are profound and meaningful in an extramarital dimension. As Lydia flees she constantly re-examines to horrible effect her latent deceit or not deceit, naivety or trust, truth or lies and how she was so duped or not duped. What did she not see? What did she see? Who was that man? Who was she?

Ignore the fuss and read this book. It will stay with you.

Following the murders Lydia is a perpetual twist of emotional confusion  which gradually resolves into the only emotion she can feel: hate for Javier. She examines her relationship with her murdered husband, their deep love, romance and friendship, all that they shared. Mixed in with the hate and fear, she must hold fast to and protect Luca, all the while travelling under a veil of horror. Lydia must allow Luca his pain and his grief, and yet keep uppermost the urgency and danger of their journey. “If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief”. No time for sorrow. This must be balanced with trust and Luca’s faith in her. For the most part Cummins achieves this balance and only occasionally does the reader feel that Luca is just a little too good to be true, that his flawless acquiescence to his situation and his mother’s ministerings is real. The tears are too few.

Javier is another matter. Lydia knows him viscerally as do we as the story unfolds. She knows that Javier will never let her go, that he wants to own her in death if not in life. Lydia and the reader are unaware that Lydia and Javier share in loss, until towards the end of the book. Running from Javier and his interlinked network of ghouls to a place of safety is all that matters for Lydia and Luca. That network ranges from hotel receptionists to bus drivers, so evil and ever-present death dog their every moment. They are unable to pause to mourn or grieve or even to fully comprehend the horror of what has and is happening.

Cummins handles this tension deftly whilst keeping the book’s momentum going. Along the way they meet up with two young sisters following different but equally dreadful terrrors. The two girls and Lydia and Luca are cautious, suspicious and reluctant to share their stories. There’s the fear always that the more you share, the more you have at risk, and might lose. As the small group pushes on in the blind hope of new life in El Norte, other migrants some new to the migrant path and some not join them. And yet never is there much sense of comradery. All of them know this is fragile, transitory. They know the chances of reaching safety are slim, that everyone is an enemy, a threat, a risk. So they keep mostly quiet and trudge on, an intense blend of fear and hope pushing them all forwards. And we are there too, with every agonising and possibly futile step.

Read this book!

This is a story everyone should read. American Dirt is a story that takes a wrecking ball to our cosy sense of first-world safety and security. It leaves us bereft and distressed, haunted and overwhelmed. Shock and fear creep over us with every page; a sense of ghastly, guilty relief echoes though our senses as we keep on turning the pages, urgent and desperate to know what happens next. We are guilty because we know it’s not us, but there are lots of others suffering what these migrants suffer. The awfulness of Lydia and Luca’s experience can be kept at arm’s length, but it cannot be kept entirely away from our sense of safety. We read wide-eyed and gorge on this awful story. Yet we are secure and largely protected from the organised lawlessness that is everyday reality in Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala and elsewhere around the world.

This is a story everyone should read, because it hasn’t been told quite like this before. This is a story everyone should read, despite the hostility it provoked when first published. It is so vital a story that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is a story everyone should read, because its author binds the reader tight to the characters with every dangerous step of the way. In our guts comes some glimmer of understanding of what these people, the unwilling migrants, go through and the horrors of their experience.

Review of The Draftsman

The Draftsman is a story straightforward in overall theme, but is written with an incredible focus on detail. Some authors leave you to decide what or how the characters form, but in this book, every detail of each character and the interaction in the story is richly laid out for you. This by no means lessens the read, in fact it is nice to indulge in the language used and not have to work too hard building images in your head. Whilst reading the story, knowing the specific details of each character allows you imbue the whole storyline without guessing the direction of the theme or road the author is taking you down. You easily get into the connections between the lead character Martin Cox and feel how he wrestles with the issues in his life. You see Martin come out of his shell as he gets deeper and deeper discovering the new property he has purchased and this in turn leads to the twist every good story has at its conclusion. I would thoroughly endorse a read of The Draftsman, it was a book I felt I needed to read cover to cover.

Isn’t that lovely? Much appreciated. Thank you Brian Sims, reader.

You can find other reviews of The Draftsman here:

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1078

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1082

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1094

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1087

… and buy the book here: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Laurel-Lindstrom/The-Draftsman/25875852

You can buy the book here: https://unbound.com/books/the-draftsman/

A Country to Call Home

A Country to Call Home – edited by Lucy Popescu

I’m not much in the habit of writing book reviews. There are so many people much better at it and far more committed to it than me. And anyway I am not really sure how to go about it. And I’m lazy too which doesn’t help. Most of the book reviews I read by online bloggers are summaries of the book in question, that they mostly like. When I read those books I mostly don’t like them, so the online-blogging-book-reviewers club is not one I want to join. At least it wasn’t. Having read A Country to Call Home I find it is such a powerful piece of work that I have to share my views. 

This book is an anthology, a collection of pieces about and by young refugees, put together by editor Lucy Popescu. According to the book’s introduction children make up half the world’s refugees. Gloom alert right there, so this wasn’t a book I was desperately keen to read. I was sure it would make me completely miserable, but fortune had other plans: conscience and curiosity slapped hard my emotional cowardice.

As soon as I finished the first couple of pieces I was so glad I picked up the book, even if I had done so with some reluctance. I picked it up with a sigh, and put it down with a sigh, but one of a very different sort. Once I started A Country to Call Home I literally couldn’t put it down, not least because of how the stories, poems and interviews are organised. They showcase a diverse range of voices, ordered so you’re constantly tempted by what is coming next. What comes next is mostly unexpected, which also keeps you hooked. When I did finish this book, I immediately started leafing through to reread my favourite pieces. How did I jump from dutiful to delight in a mere handful of pages?

It was the breadth of the writing, the voices and the balance between anguish and joy, the jolting realities. It was the horror and the threats, as in “Now you tell the truth or you will end the same way” said to a child in Christine Pullein-Thompson’s I Want the Truth. It was the insensitive and lazy renaming of Jamal and Daoud in Miriam Halahmy’s The Memory Box. There are 30 such  contributions in A Country to Call Home ranging from the ones mentioned above through Brian Conaghan’s poem Just Another Someone, to Sita Brahmachari’s Amir and George. This is the longest of the stories and my personal favourite. There are contributions from Michael Morpago and Eoin Colfer, Kit de Waal and Simon Armitage to name but a few. There is also an interview with Judith Kerr, an unreluctant refugee from Nazi Germany, and illustrations by Chris Riddell throughout.

These stories, interviews and poems resonate and will touch different readers in different ways. They are rather like filters through which we can see our own experiences, which is why Moniza Alvi’s poem Exile is especially resonant for me. And in Bali Rai’s the Mermaid, I totally relate to the line: “I am just like the mermaid by the harbour. Stranded far from home. Forever.”

Dealing with such complex and personal experiences in a collection that doesn’t exclude or numb the reader, for whatever reason, takes light touch and care. The weight of the awfulness of the refugees’ horrendous experiences is balanced with hope, and an appreciation that we can hear these voices. We learn to listen, to try to understand and relate to the human stories behind every statistic, every deportation, every internment, every death.

This collection addresses a difficult and emotive subject, but you should read it because it will change you, especially your emotional responses to immigration horrors. It may also help you cope with your own tangled fears and hopes, as you consider the fates of the people in the book and for the scope of what wider awareness of their experiences might achieve. A Country to Call Home adds new dimensions to simplistic sound bite renderings that cloak truly awful human experiences with insensate numbers. All credit to editor Lucy Popescu for a sensitive, inclusive and provocative collection.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin) – A Book Review

Daniel Kehlmann and Ross Benjamin have together created an updated version of the tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel, trickster. There is a long line of retellings of this man’s story. He first appeared in print in a pamphlet published in 1515 which has Tyll born in Brunswick in the 1300s and dying of the plague in 1350.

Since his original appearance this impish man and his tales have been revamped in many contexts. In Kehlmann’s Tyll, Tyll’s life and times have been transposed to the Holy Roman Empire’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) one of the most brutal and longest wars in history. Tyll is the magic thread connecting a miscellany of stories and characters, reaching from the late English Reformation and Guy Fawkes, through to the death of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden.

As a young boy Tyll leaves his home village somewhere south of Mölln Schleswig-Holstein, with his friend Nele. For many years the two of them travel the length and breadth of the Holy Roman Empire taking up with vagabonds and minstrels, learning many tricks along the way. Tyll juggles, sings, tightrope walks and dances with Nele shocking their audiences, entertaining and manipulating them and never staying around for very long. As they travel across devastated lands they bear witness to the horror and fragility of life in a world where war defines life and death, and everything in between hobbles along in grim parade. We traverse a world of terrifying primitiveness, despite the trappings of educated religious authorities. It becomes quite clear that fear and how to wield it, is the currency of the times.

Tyll Ulenspiegel (Owl Mirror) is all of us, our glories and our not-so-glories, our ambitions, wants, all of it including our deviousnesses and dishonesties. Kehlmann’s Tyll is part philosopher, part scholar, always moving never certain, never fixed, fluid like the mill stream in which he got his second baptism and nearly drowned as a boy. Kehlmann links Tyll, Nene and multiple other characters to a series of secondary stories that mostly work. Through these vignettes we learn more, too much even, about the Thirty Years War and its destruction of so many lives.

Ross Benjamin’s translation is excellent, capturing the rhythm and nuances of the original German. His English version is lyrical and evokative of the grim reality of times when there is rarely enough to eat or somewhere safe to rest. Roving labourers, be they mercenaries or mill hands, are as much victims of their times as the famers and villagers trying to grub a living surrounded by danger and threat. No one is safe. Disease and superstition are rampant and as Tyll and his various companions move across the landscape, Kehlmann shows us just how deadly even a tiny dose of either can be. Interweaving folklore, myth and religion constantly juxtaposes the most basic questions of life (gas-food-lodging) with our need for spiritual comfort, enlightment and protection. Ignorance and Christianity are as much enemies as friends and the fears of Protestants for and of their Catholic breathren weaves throughout the texts. Like Tyll on his tightrope, they are another reminder of the precariousness of existence both in life and afterwards. Fear of what God and the devil might do to you is constantly balanced with fear of what your fellow man might do to you. This tension runs through the narrative and is evident in most of the digressions into different characters and their stories.

The need to rationalise is with us still, as are the motivations of many of these individuals, from wanting to help and heal, through to wanting power and legacy. There is always a risk that deliberate motivations and rationales will lead to corruption. Destruction and death is obviously a powerful a theme in this book, but neither is constrained to the times of the Thirty Years War. We come to understand that death is just another state or phase of existence. In the seventeenth century that state of light or dark was not necessarily so dreadful. At least not when compared to existing in a world shaped by war, want, disease, loss and futility, spells and relics. Read Tyll  and feel the slippery touch of those times.