Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love: One Couple’s Memoir, by Susan Stellin and Graham Macindoe****

ChancersI decided to read and review this title because I anticipated that it would be, by and large, a depiction and critique of the American prison system and Homeland Security. As it happens, that is really only a small part of this memoir, which focuses more on the couple’s relationship and the way that addiction warps and undermines trust and affection. Nevertheless, I found it really compelling, and so thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the opportunity to read and review free and ahead of the public in exchange for this honest review. The memoir will be available to the public June 7, 2016.
Susan met Graham at a beach getaway where they were two of the people sharing a large house over the course of a vacation. Later, when she needed an author photo done for a book she had written, she remembered that he was a photographer that had worked for the Guardian, and she called him to see if he was interested.
That’s when everything began.
The memoir was originally going to be Susan’s alone, but eventually it occurred to her that Graham could contribute a lot in sharing his experiences with addiction and the point of view from which he saw the world when he was in that condition.
Imagine using heroin because it is easier to hide than alcoholism. From the frying pan into the fire! And hide it he did through the first stages of their relationship. He did romance like nobody’s business and she tried to remain objective, but there’s nothing all that objective about falling in love. And so although he made some highly questionable decisions, it took her awhile to find out about the heroin, which he had told her was behind him. But the heroin wasn’t behind him, and neither was the crack. And before she knows it, she is drawn partially down his rabbit hole while keeping one foot in that of mainstream journalism. It’s a strange place to be.
This reviewer has never minced words about my dislike for cops in general and the punitive, demoralizing, racist, class-based system that is the so-called American Justice System; yet Macindoe didn’t earn much sympathy from me. His narrative is in turns puling, angry with no justification, whiny and full of self pity, up until the end when he has finally shucked the monkey from his back as he reaches his golden years.
Macindoe had climbed from his early impoverished years as a child of a Scottish miner to the middle class world of photo-journalism. He was in the USA by preference and because his son from an earlier marriage was here; thus it was hard to feel the kind of solidarity with him that automatically comes to me regarding Third World citizens that are in the US as the only means by which they can feed their families. He owned a brownstone in New York City and had published photos internationally, garnering praise and a certain level of renown. And so…seriously? Heroin?
It was Stellin that kept me turning the pages. Every time she decided to step back from the relationship I wanted to yank her into the nearest lady’s room and tell her one woman to another to lose this guy entirely. Even her former husband, now in a gay relationship, advised her to “cut bait”. And every time she decided she could offer him some assistance even though they were no longer romantically involved, every time she wondered what their relationship could be like if only he were off the smack, I wanted to howl. After all, the relationship might be interesting if one of them grew a second head or a third eye in the middle of the forehead, but what were the chances?
“Chancers” turns out to be a Scottish expression, and I will leave the reader to find out what it means.
I found this story had an addictive quality of its own, a romantic drama not unlike the soap operas that were the only adult voices I heard most days when I was a stay-at-home mother in the 1980’s. Graham was full of shit, I figured, but I still had to know what happened next.
In the course of hearing Susan and Graham’s story, I did learn a number of things about Homeland Security that I had not known before. Imagine feeling nostalgic for Riker’s Island because it was so much more compassionate than the one for potential deportees!
And so I have to say this is a good read, an ideal book to take on vacation and flop on the beach with; just don’t get so absorbed that you scorch your tender skin, because it’s mighty distracting regardless of what is happening around you.
Fascinating and recommended to those that like compelling memoirs or are interested in addiction issues and the US penal system.

A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life, by James Bowen *****

AstreetcatnamedbobHow does a young man from a middle income family end up sleeping on the streets in a cardboard box, addicted to heroin?

Answer: it happens all the time. It’s closer than you think.

James Bowen does a really fine job relating, in this lovely little memoir, how it happened to him, and the role Bob, a street cat who adopted him, had in pulling him off of Methodone and toward recovery and a life in mainstream Britain.

Here’s the disclosure: I won this book through the Goodreads.com giveaways. I say this on the fifth day of my new blog with a kind of nostalgia, since this was the first book I got free in exchange for a review; it’s been just over a year since then. The review to follow is the one I originally wrote for him back then.

James Bowen’s memoir smacked me upside the head by showing me a bias I did not know I had. First, I assumed this might be poorly written, and successful in England for the content and novelty of its subject matter rather than any attendant writing skill. When I saw the elegantly simple text, the well-crafted pacing, the deftness with which the writer weaves his life’s narrative in and out of the tale about himself and his cat, I started to look for a co-author or an “as told to”. In short, I did not really believe that someone who had (as he put it) “fallen between the cracks” of society would have the skill to write this book.

Slap my Marxist mouth! I am appalled by the social Darwinist that was lurking in the shadows of my own character, and I thank Bowen for casting that particular demon out by the dumpster, where it belongs.

Bowen has a few really brilliantly descriptive passages here, but he is not a master wordsmith. What works is the continuity of the story without any pauses for maudlin self pity. What amazes and strikes deeply, at least for me, is the way he continues for an astonishingly long period of time to assume that the cat will not want to stay with him. He has taken it in, but assumes that the streets will do better for this critter than he ever could. Time and again, he offers the cat the opportunity to run away and reject him, even after he has spent nearly all of his hard-earned money gained as a street musician on veterinary care, food, and wow, even a microchip (which my own little beagle does not have). Bob has the character to stick around, though, and eventually, in a truly marvelous moment, when a well-to-do woman offers Bowen a thousand pounds for his cat, he in turn asks her the price of her youngest child.

Sometimes people who have seen life’s dark underside commit terrible crimes and take a passive voice in discussing them later. They didn’t do something, but rather, it happened. A recent headline in my home city blared that a killer had apologized for his crimes, but when I read the article, the “apology” turned out to be, “I am so very sorry for the things that happened.” Though Bowen is surely no killer, I was watching for it. I’ve worked with youngsters who have been in and around the juvenile “justice” system here in the States. They get good at distancing themselves from their own wrongdoing, seeing it as tragic but inevitable, and adults do it too. But Bowen does not do that and does not go there. Anything he did, was something he did. If it was wrong, he owns that too. It gives his writing integrity that those who feel terribly sorry for themselves cannot impart.

So here it is. This book is terrific, and you should buy it and read it. When I entered the giveaway, I signed an agreement that this review could be used for marketing purposes by the author and his agents. I wasn’t required to write it, though, and if you’ve read my other reviews, you know I never pull punches. This one was well earned, by the way the man pulled himself out of the abyss, for himself and for his kitty, and for the way he tells the story.

Good job, Bowen.