Calypso David Sedaris.jpg

It’s become something of an annual tradition that my boyfriend and I read to each other David Sedaris’ ‘Santaland Diaries’ around Christmas time. So when we got his new book “Calypso” I gradually read him the entire collection over a period of several weeks. Sedaris’ hilariously black humour is perfect for being shared publicly and read aloud – which is why Sedaris has become so successful touring and reading aloud from the memoirist essays in his bestselling books. This, in turn, has fuelled new stories in some of his most recent essays included in this book which recount how he frequently travels to entertain audiences. This can result in funny and bizarre encounters with the public. One audience member even took him back to her house where she cut out a benign tumour from David’s body. He didn’t want this procedure to take place in a hospital because the law required they dispose of the tumour and David had an unfathomable compulsion to save his tumour to feed to a disfigured wild turtle. Such freakish desires and occurrences are commonplace in Sedaris’ writing. His unique point of view and sense of humour are so bombastic while being oddly relatable to make his essays relentlessly entertaining.

However, many of these most recent essays are also tinged with a sense of grief and a growing awareness of his own mortality. Many centre around family get-togethers Sedaris orchestrates after purchasing a vacation beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina – a place he hilariously names The Sea Section. The family used to regularly take trips to a rented property in this area when David was growing up. Now he’s reinstated this tradition with the added bonus that, because he owns the property, he gets to set the rules and assign who takes each bedroom. But absent from these new family trips are his mother who died a number of years ago and sister Tiffany who committed suicide after a prolonged struggle with mental problems and substance abuse. David was estranged from her for a number of years after a sad final parting so David’s sense of grief is also mixed with feelings of guilt and frustration. It’s interesting how there’s been a shift in these essays which have become more reflective and sombre while still retaining his trademark sense of humour and appreciation for the absurd.

There’s also a political slant to some of the essays which reflect the widening gulf of conservative and liberal opinion where David’s elderly father frequently spouts Trump-inspired rhetoric. He’s an individual oddly similar to the reactionary grandfather in Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel “Unsheltered” and I wonder if this is because they represent an older contingent of US citizen particularly prone to the paranoid indignation of conservative chat shows. Anyway, adding to the dark sense of absence left by some family members in Sedaris’ essays is an awareness of how little time he has left with his father and how difficult it is for them to speak to each other. Nevertheless, encounters with his father are frequently very funny and the weird blend of personalities which include his stalwart partner Hugh and wacky sister Amy make for some absolutely hilarious scenes. It’s always a gas following David’s antics and his family experiences - all captured with his mordantly humorous slant on life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Sedaris

Being an immigrant gives someone a unique perspective on a country and its culture. I moved to England seventeen years ago and although I’ve lived here my entire adult life I don’t think I’ll ever feel wholly English. I’ve certainly been welcomed into the society, but I’m always conscious a national division exists. It was much easier for me to integrate into English culture because I’m American whereas someone coming from Eastern Europe like the narrator of Laura Kaye’s debut novel “English Animals” will inevitably face more challenges. I have conservative colleagues at my office who complain generally about immigrants destroying the country – despite one of them being married to an Eastern European and me being an immigrant but oddly I’m considered outside of this label. Sadly many people in London have these views as do many people in rural England where this novel takes place. This novel dynamically portrays the insular attitudes of some English people from the perspective of an outsider. It’s also a uniquely tragic love story.

Mirka moved to London from her native Slovakia, but she found the city somewhat oppressive so answered an ad to work within an English country estate. The novel begins with her arrive an indoctrination into this particular kind of English life. Like many grand old houses passed through generations of the aristocracy, this estate has run into financial trouble. The proprietor Sophie and her husband Richard have been working on a number of schemes to pay for the substantial costs of running the property. Mirka finds that she’s unknowingly being recruited to join Richard’s latest venture of running a taxidermy business called Nose to Tail. As Mirka grows accustomed to the peculiarly English life on this rural estate and the work, she finds she has a special talent for convincingly stuffing animals and develops a particular attachment to Sophie. Sophie and Richard are in many ways a friendly, modern-thinking couple, but they are also the products of a culture with particular customs and traditions. Straightforward Mirka finds it difficult to find where she really fits into this seductive country life. Her soul-searching dilemma prompts her to perpetually wonder “how would I know when a life was really mine? How did you know when you had found a home?”

Mirka skilfully depicts intricate scenes of English life in anthropomorphic models using small mammals.

Mirka skilfully depicts intricate scenes of English life in anthropomorphic models using small mammals.

Troubled love triangles have been written about in many ways before, but I admire the honest and compassionate way Kaye depicts this particular situation. Since her first romantic affair Mirka has always been certain about her desire for other women, but it’s this very clear-sightedness and unwillingness to pretend to be anything different that led to her exile from her family and native country. Now she finds herself embroiled in a romantic conflict with someone who is already in a long-term committed relationship but also “wanted everything.” Sophie and Richard’s permissive attitudes make Mirka feel at times like she’s wholly a part of their family, but in some crucial ways to do with class, nationality and sexuality she remains a perpetual outsider. These feelings are certainly reinforced by some of the small-minded locals who either look down or show open contempt for Mirka as an immigrant. However, Kaye also shows more liberal English individuals who welcome and respect people based solely on their character. 

In some ways this novel reminded me of both the novels “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters and “Skin Lane” by Neil Bartlett, but Kaye's book is less sinister than either of these. Her writing is much more straightforward and at times scenes can become bogged down in a minute amount of trivial detail. But the plainness of her writing style is also part of this novel’s charm and accurately reflects Mirka’s character: English isn’t her first language and she is doggedly transparent in her feelings. The imagery which Kaye builds in her depiction of the taxidermy work and the way people in the countryside relate to the natural world does build a subtly moving picture of a particular kind of national character. The English people that Mirka meets are so steeped in their national identity with its attendant manners and attitudes that she is like a perpetual observer who must always remain on the other side of the glass. As long as she’s kept on the outside she must continue to search for a home of her own.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLaura Kaye

Louise Erdrich is one of those well regarded American authors I’ve always meant to read, but never got around to. When I was sent a copy of “LaRose” I thought I’d dip in to see what her writing style was like. The story had me instantly hooked! It begins with a terrible hunting accident within a Native American community. A man named Landreaux accidentally shoots his neighbour/friend Peter Ravich’s young boy. To compensate for the loss he’s caused and in keeping with his tribe’s tradition, he offers his equally young son LaRose to Peter and his wife Nola to compensate him for his loss. There follows an emotionally complex series of events as the Ravich family struggle with their real son’s loss and Landreaux’s family adjusts to living without LaRose. Meanwhile the boy is caught in the middle. This extraordinary drama raises questions about the meaning of family, guilt and the role traditional Native American beliefs, practices and history play in modern day life making this a deeply engaging novel.

Erdrich has a special ability for writing compelling three-dimensional characters who stick with you. Peter’s wife Nola is a strict Catholic and a hardened woman with self destructive tendencies. The way that she and her strong wilful teenage daughter Maggie play against each other is wholly believable. They are combative characters that find themselves united by love in moments of real crisis. At one point Nola looks at her daughter and realizes “She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair.” This compellingly conflicted relationship plays out in a way which shows deep layers of hidden emotions.

The unorthodox Father Travis is a fascinating individual who formerly served in the military. He finds that “Getting blown up happened in an instant; getting put together took the rest of your life.” Now he takes an active role in recruiting converts by trawling bars to preach to the most vulnerable and running a drug/alcohol rehabilitation group. Romeo Putay lives on the margins of the community, skimming prescription drugs off from the sick and elderly to use or sell at a profit. He also hoards discarded information to later leverage a sense of power over those he believes have wronged him. The story of his difficult childhood and orphaned life alongside Landreaux is particularly memorable. Romeo’s son Hollis has been raised by his former friend Landreaux adding another dimension to the sense of improvised family units and loose support networks formed to bring together a suffering community.

The individuals living on the Native American reservation in Erdrich’s novel engage in a self conscious struggle with problems that affect their community. A friend of Landreaux’s teaches Ojibwe culture and “Going up against demons was Randall’s work. Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history. What was in that history? What sort of knowledge? Who had they been? What were they now? Why so much fucked-upness wherever you turned?” The overall portrait is of a people strengthened by their traditions, but hampered by years of being inhibited by institutions that have slighted them and a history of oppression. Romeo has a conversation in a bar with his son Hollis where the teenager remarks about their people “When we fuck up now, we mostly fuck up on our own” to which Romeo replies “Are you crazy! That’s called intergenerational trauma, my boy!” The common problems of their people can’t simply be changed by personal willpower because they are the result of many years of systematic abuse and a conscious effort to eradicate their culture.

Writer L. Frank Baum once wrote: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."

Writer L. Frank Baum once wrote: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."

Within the novel Erdrich recounts the shocking fact of author L. Frank Baum’s chequered journalist past where he advocated for the extermination of Native Americans. I had never heard of his outrageous assertions but subsequently read about it in this NPR article and in other sources. Erdrich also incorporates elements of Native American folklore into her story in the form of a particularly unsettling and surreal section about a teenager named Wolfred who flees with a girl who is sold into slavery by her own mother, but the pair are continuously followed by the head of Wolfred’s boss Mackinnon in a way which is terrifying. These fantastical elements add a layer to the novel’s underlying messages about issues to do with guilt and possession which saturate the entire culture.

Erdrich’s way of writing about tricky moral dilemmas and very sympathetic characters reminds me of the excellent Canadian writer Joan Barfoot. She looks at complex issues and tests how they play out in extreme situations. I hope to read more of Erdrich’s acclaimed work based on the strength of this novel. “LaRose” is an absorbing and utterly fascinating read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Erdrich
2 CommentsPost a comment

What makes reading novels such a rapturous experience for me is the way stories can connect the particular with the infinite. When an author uses the right form of telling to bring me on a character’s journey which becomes my own it’s tremendously liberating. I feel simultaneously free from myself and more capable of inhabiting my life. I don’t read novels for answers; I read to share in the mystery of being. Samantha Hunt’s powerful novel “Mr Splitfoot” raises many questions and leaves them magnificently suspended in the air. I finished reading it feeling enormously moved and pondering many issues of faith, family and meaning. It’s a beautiful tale told with precision and an accomplished feeling of symmetry.

“Mr Splitfoot” is the story of an orphaned girl named Ruth raised by a psychopathic “Father” who leads a ragtag foster home he calls ‘The Love of Christ!’ where “children are a rainbow of deformities.” From the age of five, Ruth shares a profound connection with a boy named Nat. The pair call themselves “sisters” and grow to be con-artists who claim to communicate with the dead for a fee. (The title character Mr Splitfoot is the fictional intermediary spirit Nat calls upon to speak to the dead.) Years later, Ruth’s niece Cora embarks on an extended journey by foot for an unknown destination. She is pregnant and longs for a connection with her mysterious aunt. Like many of us, she is addicted to using the internet through her phone and finds it hard to let it go: “I want to push little buttons quickly. I want information immediately. I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling in the sun. I want people to like me, like me, like me.” Yet, she temporary breaks from this for an ascetic life walking to better understand what she really wants, engage in a series of surprising adventures and discover a link to her aunt’s past.

One of the greatest things about this novel is Hunt’s radical redefinition of family. Characters aren’t locked into relationships with the groups they are born into, but choose their family based on their personalities and needs. There is something so disarming about a young boy and girl who call each other sisters, yet they radically make this word their own regardless of gender-distinctions. Equally, Cora comes to think of Ruth as the father of her baby. This feels like a way of breaking down traditional barriers so people aren't inhibited by the expectations of family roles and can become whatever they need to be.

It's particularly effective how Hunt describes the experience of pregnancy and how it changes the people around the expectant mother. Cora finds that “Now that my belly shows, I’m public property. Strangers speak to me all the time.” It's disturbing the way people project onto Cora all their own problems as if the fact of her pregnancy should permit a greater intimacy. It's touching the feelings Cora expresses while expecting her baby, that “Pregnancy is a locked door in my stomach, all the weight of life and death and still no way to know it.” It's as if this experience should naturally provide a number of answers about life to her, but she feels just as uncertain as she always has.

 

Ruth's sister Eleanor hears Linda Thompson singing while driving one day and is so moved she tracks down a copy of this song. 

The novel also says some profound things about how faith and fantasy equally play a part in our lives. Cults run throughout this book with their fanatic leaders' belief systems transparently based on their desire for money or power. Yet, Smith presents people's personal beliefs as something that naturally occur as a way of coping with life. One character named Sheresa remarks: “History holds up one side of our lives and fiction the other. Mother, father. Birth, death, and in between, that’s where you find religion. That’s where you find art, science, engineering. It’s where things get made from belief and memory.” It's through a constant interplay between fact and fiction that we find motivation to make decisions on how to proceed forward.

At times the way in which Hunt uses language reminded me of Ali Smith’s writing as she often plays on words’ double meanings. For instance, the word 'Comet' is used as a rock hurtling through outer space that a cult leader wishes will hit his followers that he can’t control and it’s also the name of a cleaning product an obsessive man uses as a drug. Both meanings of the word entwine in a surprising way to make an entirely new meaning. The style of writing is similar to Ali Smith as it often loops surreal experiences into scenes treating them as equally valid as mundane reality. The character of Cora also feels like a quintessential Smith character as she is often funny, curious and savvy. Yet, Hunt’s story has a much more American feel to it with its skilful presentation of individuals struggling with issues of identity amidst the influence of cults with extreme beliefs.

Recently, I went to see David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation where they spent quite a while discussing ghosts (which are prevalent in Mitchell's most recent novel “Slade House”). They remarked on how ghost stories have the ability to tap into fears which lay dormant within people so their response to ghost stories seems to come naturally as if it's a story they already know. There is a fascinating and poignant conversation about ghost stories between Cora and her lover at the beginning of this novel which becomes a ghost story itself. The dead have such a presence in people's minds many of them are complicit in Ruth and Nat's cons because they want so badly to believe: “People who don’t believe in the dead are still affected by them.” It leads Cora to eventually remark that “every story is a ghost story, even mine.”

“Mr Splitfoot” is a deeply moving novel that creatively approaches many serious questions with flair and humour. I was totally captivated like a boy being told a ghost story late at night.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSamantha Hunt
3 CommentsPost a comment

It’s difficult not to romanticize the period of history in the 18th century when countries sent ships out in an attempt to fully explore (and colonize) every mass of land around the globe. Conceptually, first world nations believe this was all about investigating new frontiers as if the world was covered in virgin soil to claim and conquer. These missions created many significant moments of connection between disparate civilizations which had long-lasting impact as we shifted towards a sense of globalization with all its positive and negative consequences. There was so much peril to these journeys and a sense of the unknown tied into them. Debut novelist Naomi Williams has an interesting tactic for approaching a specific expedition from history. Rather than focusing on the many months spent at sea, she concentrates only on the occasions when an expedition reached land and the interactions between sailors and the native inhabitants. Focusing on a broad spectrum of characters and using a variety of narrative techniques, Williams creates a riveting story that embraces the drama of global exploration while sympathetically highlighting the cultural clashes which occurred.

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   Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse

In 1785 two French ships set sail for a world-wide voyage to follow in the path of the famous captain James Cook. They aimed to further map little-explored areas of the globe, make scientific collections, establish trade routes and create political allies. Jean François Lapérouse led this mission which touched down in such far-reaching areas as South America, Alaska, California, Macau, Manila, Russia, Samoa and Australia before coming upon the Solomon Islands where both ships disappeared. The novel “Landfalls” brings this four year journey to life as the sailors touch these specific landing sites of the expedition. Sometimes the chapters focus on the perspective of engineers, naturalists or priests from the ship. Other times the reader sees events through the perspective of the inhabitants who meet them such as members of a Spanish colony or the native people of South Sea Islands. This gives the reader a multi-layers perspective where both the explorers and the explored appear at times as foreign entities that conflict with or adapt to each other’s different customs.

There are several particularly dramatic events which are brought fully to life such as a celebratory display for the Spanish in Chile, a tragedy that occurs in heavy currents on the coast of Alaska and the religious subjugation of the “neophytes” by Catholics in the Americas where severe punishment was inflicted upon the impious. Interestingly, the incident in Alaska is shown through both the perspective of a girl on shore who witnesses it and the crew suffering from the consequences afterwards. This gives a rounded perspective where you can see the naivety and misunderstanding on both sides. Another dynamically rounded point of view occurs when a series of letters by different people describe the plight of the kept wife of a particularly tyrannical and nasty official. The author gives careful focus at several points to the limitations imposed upon women at the time: “Names belong to men, while women belong to names.” However, she also takes time with the special bonds that can be formed between men on extended journeys. One of the most sustained and gripping accounts is concerning Barthelemy de Lesseps, a French translator who accompanied the sea voyage for two years before disembarking in Kamchatka. In order to return dispatches from the ships, he had to make a long and dangerous journey across northern Asia to get to St. Petersburg. This account is filled with sled dogs, perilous arctic conditions and a unique kinship Lesseps forms making it a particularly vivid chapter.

Watch Naomi Williams talk about her inspiration for Landfalls.

Many of the central characters involved have amusing quirks and the author has a talent for playfully poking at their sometimes inflated sense of self importance or pretentions. These particularly come out when the hierarchical relationships between characters become clear. Some people must be tolerated over long periods of time within the confined space of the sailing vessels. At one point it’s amusingly remarked that “Who among us does not have the odd friend whose virtues we admire, but whom we do not wish to impose on others?” There is antagonism between some and tenderness between others. Some display a grudging tolerance and other crew members come into violent conflict with each other. It can be moving to see how relationships change over the course of many years and the impact caused when some explorers are lost. However, because the novel spans a long period of time and involves such an extensive cast, I did find it confusing at some points trying to keep track of everyone involved. Although there is a map of the expedition at the beginning of the novel it would have helped to also have a list of the characters with brief descriptions of each to refer back to. As a helpful note, many of the central cast in this novel are based on historically significant people who you can easily look up on Wikipedia for a quick reference to remind you who is who. Nevertheless, many personalities brought to life by the author stick out in my mind for their distinct character. It’s particularly moving how Williams ends the book and approaches the mystery of what happened to these two fated ships from history.

“Landfalls” is an original and engaging read that has a dynamic approach to history while stirring a sense of adventure.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNaomi Williams