Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

“the fact that what is it with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff”

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is mostly written in the form of a single sentence, containing many commas, and running across almost one thousand pages. Add in the notes at the end, expansion of the acronyms scattered throughout the text, and it easily breaks this tally. It also weighs more than a kilogram – a Big book in every sense of the word.

I mention that it is mostly written as a single sentence. There is a story within about a mountain lion that runs in parallel. This is presented in a more conventional format and provided relief from the frantic intensity of the stream of information and opinion pouring from the narrator’s head. The two tales increasingly segue and enable a devastating denouement. The final line was breathtaking, and not just because the book was finally finished.

I recently read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession and it was like being enveloped in a welcome hug – it is quietly splendid. While Leonard and Hungry Paul is a story that makes me feel good about the world, Ducks, Newburyport is its opposite. Over the course of its thousand pages it lists many, many ways in which man is a scourge on our planet. I’m still not sure I can forgive the author for putting the picture into my head of the teenagers with a baby dolphin – just one horrific scene in a multifarious outpouring. By the end of the book I was believing the world would be a better place if we all followed the lead of several minor characters and removed ourselves. This tome is depressing.

Set in Ohio, America, the sentence is the internal monologue of a middle-aged wife and mother of four children. She bakes cinnamon rolls and pies in her home, supplying select eateries around her local town. She keeps hens in her backyard. She misses her dead parents, especially her mum. We learn of her history and current concerns between ephemera meandering around such subjects as: baking, films, actors, popular culture, books she has read to her children. She watches the news and bemoans the state of modern America – the atrocities enabled by American gun laws and the thoughtless self-entitlement of humans.

“the fact that nothing you do seems innocent anymore, the fact that even baking a pie has many ramifications”

The woman’s history does provide interest. She has lived in Europe as well as America. She has suffered serious health issues. The facts and feelings engendered by these nuggets sown within the digressive text need to be sieved from the stream of facts that are often inane: types of pie, the contents of cupboards, shopping lists. She details her dreams, her worries about her children and the type of mother she is.

“the fact that I’m only doing it to help my family, and yet to make any profit on these pies, I have to ignore my poor family half the time”

The reader is taken on trips to a shopping mall and a visit to the dentist but mostly the woman is in her kitchen, baking and watching news on TV. She is thinking about her shyness, looking back on all the incidents in her life she feels bad about, remembering her parents. She is considering the way Amish people live and how simple their lifestyle appears.

There is a great deal of repetition: polluted water supplies, bottled water, plastic pollution; how inspectors drive around gathering samples and thereby contribute to air pollution; cruelty to animals, factory farming, the billions of chickens raised in cages to sate man’s wasteful food preferences.

“the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”

The narrator is neurotic – well meaning but selfish. The narrative is all over the place and this appears to be deliberate – that thoughts will wander as connections with memory are triggered by current events.

“the fact that I do feel guilty though, bringing kids I love into a world we’ve trashed”

This trashing of the world along with the senseless cruelties inflicted by man are, of course, done for money – personal gain.

“the fact that it was the costliest natural disaster in Ohio history, the fact that it’s always about money, the fact that they think that’s the only thing that interests people, the fact that they can’t just talk about a violent storm, they always have to translate the damage into cash terms”

The woman regularly mentions her money worries, blaming the cost of medical care. She worries about environmental issues but mainly their impact on human health.

Trump is mentioned along with his Make America Great Again slogan. This is backed up by national educators’ desire to instill patriotism, optimism and contentment in their students.

“the fact that a lot of American history is nothing to be proud of, the fact that it makes you pretty sick, but my students didn’t want to hear any of that, the fact that they wanted everything to make a pretty picture, upbeat”

To get to the story there is a need to read through page after page of frenetic, often upsetting and then inane, tortuous facts.

“the fact that celery puts so much effort into being celery, just to end up filling the plastic lunch box of a not particularly hungry American kid”

I wondered why this structure had been chosen. It is audacious and ambitious but felt done for the sake of it.

Amongst the many books I have not read, or not finished, are tomes such as Don Quixote and Ulysses – books that certain people seem to believe should be appreciated by anyone who wishes to have their opinions on literature taken seriously. Ducks, Newburyport may well end up sitting amongst these supposed greats. Making it through to the last page certainly felt like an achievement.

There is much to ponder within its pages but also a great deal that felt like filler. Had the book been a quarter of its size, had it told the family story and the lion story but without quite so much litany, then perhaps I would have been more impressed. As it is, the sheer number of words and the form in which they were written overwhelmed the beating heart of what is a devastating take-down of human consciousness and behaviour. The issues confronted may be worthy, but I am glad to have finished reading.

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press.

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Book Review: The Narrow Land

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950. It is a study of people, how they regard themselves and how they are judged by those they meet. There is an undercurrent of sadness, of privilege failing to offer fulfilment. The ebbs and flows of both adult and child relationships are evoked with skill.

The story opens by introducing ten year old Michael who was brought to America from Germany after the Second World War as part of a government programme offering a new way of life to orphaned children. Michael was adopted by the Novak’s whose infant son died. Now Mrs Novak is pregnant again and Michael is concerned that he is being dismissed from their home in New York as he is no longer required. Mrs Novak views the opportunity to send him to Cape Cod for the summer as potentially beneficial for all involved.

The Kaplans have taken a summer rental on Cape Cod for their family and friends. Mrs Kaplan suggested to Mrs Novak that Michael join them as a playmate for her grandson, Richie, who is still grieving for his father, killed in the Second World War. It is assumed by the adults that the boys will get on despite their backgrounds and upbringing being so different. Their summer by the beach is regarded as a treat for which they are expected to be grateful.

Not far from the Kaplan’s holiday home is the summer residence of the artist, Edward Hopper, and his volatile wife, Josephine. Unlike the local adults, who fawn over the famous artist in their midst, the young boys are unaware of the couple’s celebrity status. Michael and then Richie strike up a friendship with the pair that then draws the Kaplans and Hoppers together. Josephine grows jealous of her husband’s perceived interest in this household of women.

The points of view shift as the story progresses offering a window into each of the key characters’ thoughts, disappointments and aspirations. Josephine is a particularly complex character, not likeable but evoking a degree of sympathy. Her feelings towards her husband and his work are proprietorial and demanding:

“deafened by the clash of envy and pride, admiration and resentment”

Loneliness and self-pity are explored as is the disconnect that occurs when expectation leads to misunderstanding. The Hoppers are shown to connect with both boys better than the Kaplans, who demand a standard of behaviour that suits their societal standing. They project their own thoughts and interpretations onto these young people, rarely concerning themselves with reactions.

Katherine Kaplan, who is ill and declining, offers friendship to a besotted Michael but not loyalty when it matters. Edward is also drawn to her fading beauty, a risky preoccupation given his wife’s temper.

Josephine regards herself as a talented artist whose work deserved some of the attention her husband achieved. She blames him for not being a sufficiently loyal advocate over the years of their marriage. When she attends a party at the Kaplans’ she tries to raise her cachet amongst the guests by putting others down.

“She feels sorry then and slightly ashamed of herself for trying to demean them by demeaning their lives.”

When she overhears how this behaviour was regarded, something she has heard said of her before, she is mortified and blames Edward for not doing more to ensure her talents are revered by the people they meet. We are shown that Edward has been doing the best he can.

The writing flows gently throughout yet offers a depth of insight as the summer progresses towards fall and festering frustrations bubble to the surface. Each of the characters is flawed with the denouement offering an alternative view of their behaviours when another couple arrives on the scene.

The narrative is haunting as reader empathy is sparked and then repeatedly challenged. A deceptively straightforward story that provides a lingering, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Atlantic Books. 

Book Review: Vanish in an Instant

Vanish in an Instant, by Margaret Millar, is an old time crime thriller set in small town America’s mid west. First published in 1952 it needs to be read with an awareness of attitudes at the time. The women all appear to be looking for a husband, the men for a woman who takes care of her appearance. A new romance that blossoms was the one aspect I couldn’t make sense of in what is otherwise a carefully crafted tale.

The story opens with a concerned mother, Mrs Hamilton, flying into town to help her married daughter, Virginia, who is being held at the county jail following a murder. Virginia, was picked up by local police, seriously drunk and covered in the blood of the victim. They had been out together the night before. Virginia cannot remember anything about what happened at the cottage where the body of the married man was found.

A local lawyer, Eric Meecham, has been called in by Virginia’s husband, Paul. Mrs Hamilton takes an instant dislike to Eric. The mother is resentful that her son-in-law hasn’t managed to prevent the possibility of such a situation occurring. She appears overbearing but not entirely surprised at developments.

Before Eric can make progress with uncovering what happened, a witness appears whose evidence allows Virginia to walk free. Late night meetings and a series of unhappy marriages bring with them the whiff of dodgy deals. A further death takes Eric out of town where he becomes embroiled in the well being of an elderly alcoholic who the second victim was trying to help.

There are the requisite twists and blind alleys as the affected families and those associated with them reveal their links to both victims. Eric appears content to work without payment, despite it being offered on numerous occasions, as he follows leads and tries to uncover the truth of a sorry situation.

The writing flows and the plot is well structured. The denouement provides answers to the puzzle with the scattered clues now making sense. The era evoked brings to the fore the dissatisfaction and frustrations of, particularly, the female characters. This may be old time crime – lacking forensic analysis and effective, dogged police work –  but it offers a window into sociological aspects that are still not as distant as many of us desire.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

Book Review: The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries, by R. O. Kwon, is a doomed love story between two troubled students who attend an elite American university. It opens with an explosion. The voice switches between Will, Phoebe and the snake oil salesman John Leal. Will is looking back, trying to understand why his Phoebe would get involved in a violent protest during which people died.

Will was at a bible college until he lost faith in the existence of God. He is now at university on a scholarship but has to supplement this with a job at an upmarket restaurant. He meets Phoebe at a party when she spills her drink down his trousers. Phoebe seeks distraction in the form of attention and alcohol to drown her grief following the death of her mother. Both these young people have an aching hole in their lives. John Leal has observed how humanity craves something to believe in. He is seeking power by creating a religious cult.

Will is drawn to Phoebe from the first night they meet, fantasising about how they would be together. When this happens for real he regards her as an amalgam of what she shares of her background and the ideal of his desires. Both had childhoods cloaked by intense faith, followed by loss, guilt and disappointment. They look to each other for hope, a chance of redemption, but instead find flawed individuals. When John Leal’s bait is accepted and he starts to wind Phoebe in, Will grows jealous. He wishes to save her, but for himself.

Phoebe is fond of Will and does not want to let him down as she understands others he loved have done. She also desires John Leal’s promises of deeper meaning and higher rewards. Observing her inculturation Will tries to force her hand. He behaves abominably.

In spare and powerful prose the author adds layer upon layer of reason and action fleshed out by numerous twists and shocks. The supporting characters evoke campus life and how little even close friends know of each other’s inner turmoils. Throughout the story being narrated Will is trying to understand. Yet the Phoebe he desires is an imagined one who puts him at the centre of their universe.

The varied roles of religion and the manipulations this allows are well portrayed. Little in the story is black or white. The denouement leaves much to ponder, not least that love may be as much a human construct as other beliefs.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago. 

Book Review: The Dominant Animal

The Dominant Animal, by Kathryn Scanlan, is a collection of thirty-six short stories portraying ordinary if atypical aspects of the lives of fictional Americans. There is a detached and disturbing undercurrent as individuals’ private moments are observed. The raw imagery appears somewhat shocking in our carefully curated and sanitised social world.

A Deformity Story is set during a lunch where friends are gathered in a restaurant and the narrator wishes to share an anecdote. How often in social situations are participants performing to the crowd?

“I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it.”

People and the things they interact with are presented as grotesques, as, to conclude, is the behaviour of the friends.

Colonial Revival condenses a life into three pages. A man returns from a war, builds a business and home, marries, has children. The hollowness and futility of what many would aspire to and be admired for is brought to the fore by the lack of emotion. There is kindness and there is death – and time moves inexorably on.

Surroundings are described and, at times, enjoyed but many of the lives are lived without apparent beauty. Humans encountered are disturbing, their distasteful aspects presented unadorned and without obvious recourse. There are moments of horror – one story includes the sexual abuse of a baby – but even the more mundane lack hope of uplifting. And yet, the characters mostly accept their lot. It is, perhaps, this reader who looked for succour.

To give an example, descriptions of foodstuffs are of bagged, wet, congealed, oily concoctions. Taste is rarely mentioned. There appears little desire to create pleasure. The characters are mostly insular and focused on self.

Small Pink Female describes what its narrator considers a typical date.

“I’ve courted in the traditional fashion, of course – coming together on evenings arranged in advance, in the dark, on padded seats, facing the huge brash rectangle, or else in simulated candlelight, knees tucked beneath a drooping white cloth, enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication.”

Where is the excitement? the potential for fun?

Salad Days describes a relationship, its beginnings where everything, however ordinary, feels like a prize. Inevitably this cannot last. Dissatisfaction leads to violence.

Within these pages parents dislike their children and children their parents. Couples tolerate derided behaviour and take part in activities they do not enjoy. Those who manage to escape rarely find anything better. In Bait-And-Switch a couple carelessly destroy the comfort they have unexpectedly been granted.

The subjects may appear hollow and dark but there is a breathtaking honesty in the layers of meaning, however challenging this is to absorb. I was left feeling bereft at the humanity presented, yet in awe of the skills apparent in the author’s writing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.   

Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One, and imprint of Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Things We Nearly Knew explores the lives of the regular clientele at a bar in a small town in America. The narrator and his wife own and run the establishment. Over time the regulars come and go, people move on, circumstances change. The story told here is set over a nine month period which saw the arrival and departure of one such drinker.

Arlene first showed up in February. She ordered a vodka Martini and asked after a local man named Jack. With no surname to offer it wasn’t much to go on. She demonstrated a marked reluctance to share much about her history saying that she came from many places.

All the customers start out as strangers. The more often they visit the more facts can be gleaned. Still though, the narrator only knows whatever customers are willing to tell, or what others might say about them. How well can anyone know another person anyway?

Davy, for example, may or may not have been married. He has pictures of kids in his wallet but they might not be his, he has never said. More is known about Nelson who has lived in the town for many years, as have the bar owner and his wife, Marcie. They went to school with Mike, another regular but one they would describe as a friend. Later Franky will arrive, much to Marcie’s displeasure. He left under a cloud and she would have preferred if he had stayed away.

The men are drawn to Arlene with her red lips, dark hair and slinky dresses. Davy will become involved with her, as will Franky eventually. And then, after nine months she will leave for good, her tenure at the place a much mulled over memory.

The narrator did not always run a bar. Once he was a teacher. He and Marcie keep no secrets from each other, but no one shares everything about themselves.

There are glimpses of personal histories, teased out by the casual interest of the curious alongside a reluctance to fully engage. The middle aged are survivors of their past – there will always be elements they would prefer not to have to share. This is made harder when others talk freely of events, when they were also there.

The voice of the narrator is anecdotal with an undercurrent of regret. He is recounting the months at his bar which revolved around Arlene but with widening ripples. He and Marcie have been through a great deal together and will be affected by the fallout from these events. Some things may be better left unsaid.

The writing is concise with an almost abrasive view of human interactions. There is a distancing from emotion, a numbing of the senses. The mysteries are solved with an outlook of stoicism for the pain life brings, and leaves in its wake.

Any Cop?: This is a compelling read but a somewhat bleak perspective.

 

Jackie Law