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 – Francis Plug: Writer in Residence

Francis Plug: Writer in Residence, by Paul Ewen, is the follow up to the author’s remarkable debut. How To Be A Public Author introduced the unsuspecting world to the inimitable Francis Plug during the period when he was conducting booze fuelled research for his Booker Prize winning novel. In a travesty of justice that first book was not awarded the prize. It did, however, lead to Francis Plug (and in real life, Paul Ewen) being offered the post of Writer in Residence at Greenwich University.

Francis takes the job title literally and moves into an empty office on campus with his camp bed. The Christopher Wren designed surroundings prove more comfortable than the rat infested garage in West Hampstead where he had previously laid his inebriated head. It also saves on travel costs, an important consideration since he lost his gardening equipment and thereby any means to earn an alternative living.

Francis’s immediate superior in the Creative Writing Department that now employs him is Dr Alex Pheby. Dr Alex is organising The Greenwich Book Festival and asks Francis if he could use his connections to persuade other authors to participate. Francis regularly meets the big hitters of the literary world, usually at their events where he enjoys the free drinks. He sets about fulfilling his appointed task with gusto. Despite many drinks being consumed the authors do not appear amenable to Francis’s mostly incoherent invitations.

As Writer in Residence, Francis is expected to write his next book while in residence. The office environment suits him best when it is empty of colleagues – when, for example, he may race up and down the corridor on his office chair. For actual writing he works best in a pub, preferably one in a backstreet location not frequented by students or charging tourist prices. He locates several local establishments that suit his needs before being barred due to drunken infractions that upset other regulars.

Francis intends to write a campus novel (which will include the blowing up of a neighbouring power station) so sets about reading other author’s previously published works on this theme and attending their events. As a published author he must also appear before the public, the prospect of which requires a great deal of lubrication. He travels to Paris for an event at Shakespeare and Company, staying in their writers’ accommodation. He participates in the book festival despite complaints about his behaviour.

Francis may have written a helpful book on how to be a public author but performing in public is not an activity he is comfortable with. Neither is teaching students, although he makes an impression. Even when schmoozing with the literati at exclusive events his publishers, Sam and Elly, grant him access to he struggles to make appropriate conversation. When he is recognised it is not for lauded authorial achievements.

This book is best read in chunks rather than in a sitting to fully appreciate the wit and wisdom. The antics, conversations and observations are laugh out loud funny while also being percipient. The inclusion of real people and events, some of whom I have met, adds to the entertainment. I hope that those name checked are happy with their depictions.

If you read books, attend author events, have any interest in the literary world, then this novel is for you and comes highly recommended. Francis Plug may be a socially inept alcoholic, one you may hope never to encounter beyond the page, but his salient thoughts, poignant musings and indecorous behaviour deliver a comedic triumph.

 

If you wish to purchase the black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The purple paperback will also be available from the publisher, discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.

Book Review: Lucia

The AI sheet that accompanied my proof copy of Lucia informed me that

“Lucia is intellectually uncompromising. Lucia is emotionally devastating. Lucia is unlike anything anyone else has ever written.”

I concur. This, his second work of creative fiction based on the life of a real person, establishes Alex Pheby as a literary talent deserving close attention.

The eponymous Lucia was the second child of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. The bare bones of her story are easily verifiable but little else is known. She was born in Trieste, Italy and lived across Europe, her peripatetic parents moving the family from hotels to shabby apartments depending on their financial status. Lucia was a talented dancer. She was Samuel Beckett’s lover. She spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. Following her death her remaining family strove to erase her from the public record. They destroyed her letters, removed references to her from the archives. Even her medical records were taken.

In this novel the author does not attempt to create a detailed biography. Rather he presents Lucia’s story in fragments and told from a variety of points of view. Between each chapter is a motif detailing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is developed to serve as explanation.

The story created is shocking and affecting, presented in a manner that makes it all too believable. The voice throughout remains detached, the needs of the narrators evident even when they presume they are acting in Lucia’s best interests. The reader will feel outraged at her treatment.

The tale starts at Lucia’s end, in 1982, when undertakers arrive to collect the body of the deceased. Six years later a student is employed to burn the contents of a chest filled with letters, photographs and other effects. The thoughts of these characters offer a first glimpse of Lucia. Mostly though they focus on their subject as they go about the tasks assigned. Lucia is subsidiary, often something of a nuisance. This sets the tone for how she was treated in life.

Lucia is depicted as an object that others must deal with. If she will not comply she must be tamed. Children are expected to behave, denied agency ‘for their own good’ with resulting complaints dismissed. Troublesome little girls can be threatened to silence them.

Lucia’s relationships with various family members, especially her brother, are vividly dealt with. Whatever other’s behaviour, it is she who will stand accused of spoiling things for everyone if she protests.

As a young woman Lucia was considered beautiful. She clashed with her mother which led to her being incarcerated. The cutting edge treatments for mental illnesses at the time were experimental and horrifying.

Lucia was moved around as a cure for her behaviour was sought. After the war she was transferred to an asylum in Northampton where she spent her remaining decades. She was buried here, away from her family. Even in death they sought to silence her.

The fragmentary style of writing and the distractions of the narrators are effectively harnessed to portray the instability that was a signature in Lucia’s life. The reader is offered glimpses but always at the periphery. There is a sense of detachment, a tacit acceptance that those who will not behave as society requires are a nuisance to be subdued and hidden away.

Yet this is a story that pulses with emotion. Lucia rises inexorably from the page. The author has filled out the gaps in her history with a story that whilst unsettling resonates. That he does so with such flair and aplomb makes this a recommended read.

 

Book Review: Wrestliana

Wrestliana, by Toby Litt, is part memoir, part biography. It is an exploration of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man, particularly in our modern world. I wondered whilst reading if I could be amongst its audience, if I could understand. Certain elements of the narrative made me uncomfortable. I found myself wanting to point out that girls play football and mothers stand on touchlines. Despite it being an intensely personal story I needed to step back from the author and focus on the writing.

Toby Litt’s forebears lived in Cumberland in the eighteenth century. One of them, William Litt, was, for a time, a local wrestling champion. He was also a writer and published the original Wrestliana – ‘a history of wrestling from its origins’. Toby grew up hearing his father talk of his great-great-grandfather: the wrestling; his time as a smuggler; the loss of a small fortune; his escape to Canada where he died. When Toby decided that he wanted to be a writer the only story his father wanted him to tell was that of William.

This is also, however, the story of Toby. As well as exploring the lives of his wider family, he shares: how he was bullied at school; his time living in Prague; his hopes for his own two sons; how he teaches Creative Writing. When teaching dialogue he tells his class:

“When two men say Hello in the street, one of them loses.”

Toby describes himself as competitive and many of his musings are around whether, in any given situation, he has won or lost. This attitude overflows into his writing life, his thoughts on other writers and their work. I baulked at the apparently disparaging comments about John Boyne whose books I enjoy. I understood better when I read an interview Toby gave to The Word Factory from which I quote:

“For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me.”

Following the John Boyne encounter, Toby mentions his reaction when a book he believed was amongst his best work was entered for the Booker Prize, and the crushing disappointment he felt when it was not longlisted. The pages on writers and literary prizes are enlightening.

Toby has long eschewed sport but, once immersed in his extensive research about William, found himself considering the importance placed on a man’s physical size, strength and prowess. William’s politics, his beliefs, are described as

“manly, patriotic, straightforward”

Toby considers: his own life as a family man and writer, those moments when he ‘won’; if this is all that matters and if, in aging, the best times are gone. There is an undercurrent, a fear of, inferiority, or being seen as such. Perhaps a more competitive person than I will empathise.

Everything that William wrote, of which there is still a record, is dissected and examined in forensic detail to provide a picture of the man, the life he led, and why. This includes gaining an understanding of the style of wrestling at which he excelled and which is still practised in the north of England. Toby visits to observe and talk to those involved. I found the sections describing in detail the sport the least interesting. The history on the other hand proved engaging, as did the comparisons and attitudes across the generations.

Toby deploys the analogy of wrestling to life and this spills over into his relationships with his father and his sons. There appears to be a need to prove oneself different yet better, to escape from under the family shadow yet still be deemed worthy. Near the end of the book he regrets that his sons cannot compete in the traditional wrestling bouts he has been learning of. I wonder what they would think of this idea.

Despite my inability to empathise with the author’s attitude to being a man in the modern world, the book offers an interesting history and perspective. I would have preferred the impact of the women involved to be taken more into account but understand it is intended to be only about the men. A need to feel macho may be beyond my comprehension but in presenting his thoughts and feelings so honestly the author offers insight into what can prove toxic concerns. It is an alluring read.

 

Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press. To support their work please consider buying direct, or from an independent bookshop.

 

Book Review: Tinderbox

Tinderbox, by Megan Dunn, is a book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides.

In November 2013 Dunn set out to participate in NaNoWriMo. The premise for her novel was a rewrite of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of Clarisse McClellan, the teenager who befriends the fireman in Bradbury’s work. Dunn intended to produce a homage to the book, which she had studied in High School. Things didn’t quite go to plan.

Dunn decides to reread the novel but ends up taking much of her material from Sparks Notes (a study guide) and the 1966 film version of the book, featuring Julie Christie. Dunn admires how Christie dresses and looks. She is also fascinated by the film making process detailed in the DVD extras. She is easily distracted when writing which provides for entertaining asides.

By 2013 Dunn had left behind her career as a bookseller at Borders, a chain of bookshops that went into administration in the UK in 2009. She recounts episodes from her experiences in the various branches where she worked, and of being made redundant. Her recollections are honest and lacking the usual sentiment book lovers apply to booksellers. As an aspiring author she had hoped that inspiration would seep from the pages of the stock she handled but this wasn’t to be.

Dunn struggles to churn out the words required to meet the NaNoWriMo target. She ponders Bradbury’s creative process, how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a library typewriter hired by the hour, completing the first draft in nine days. Her own writing refuses to flow.

Dunn reflects on the books that sell well; on culture snobs and the popularity of reality TV; on the rise of Amazon and growth of on-line retail; on Kindles and other eReaders. She studies the future as imagined by Bradbury and observes the habits and technology of today.

The writing is sharp and contemporary. There is no shying away from such issues as the prevalence of downloading digital content illegally. Dunn admits to drug taking and reflects on the breakup of her marriage. She mentions the large number of creative writing courses she enrolled in over the years. It is refreshing to find an autobiographical account of failure that is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity.

I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched the film referenced but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Dunn’s portrayal of book selling was of particular interest. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

Tinderbox is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Book Review: We Are The End

We Are The End, by Gonzalo C. Garcia, is a book from one of my favourite publishers and therefore a story I wanted to enjoy. Unfortunately I did not. My negative reaction led me to consider not posting this review but I try to be honest with my readers. The structure of the tale may have been intended as edgy, contemporary, experimental. I felt it lacked depth and coherency.

The protagonist is Tomás, a twenty-seven year old computer games designer living in Santiago who teaches at the local university one day a week. Tomás fits the often unjust cliché of the media derided millenial. He is self-absorbed and impractical, seeking validation without effort. Although desperate to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Eva, his attitude towards her is one of ownership and a desire for sex.

Tomás has recently moved into a new flat but has yet to put together a bed frame, sleeping instead on the floor or a couch. Eva took many of their possessions when she left so he drinks his coffee from the jug it is brewed in and eats his take-away meals from paper plates. His inability to move on with his life appears to preclude him from replacing what most would regard as essentials. He may not be rich but, from his other spending, could afford such basics.

Tomás is obsessed by Eva, refusing to accept their relationship is finished, something she has made clear. He drifts through his days achieving little, including the work required by his employers. When he manages to sleep he has vivid dreams. Between his wakeful and sleeping fantasies it can be a challenge at times to understand what is real.

A mutual friend informs Tomás that Eva, a marine biologist, has gone to work in Antarctica. Tomás decides that he will follow her, thereby proving his devotion and impressing her with his ability to be spontaneous. His planning is ludicrous but he does not appear to see this. If the ridiculousness of his purchases offers an attempt at humour it lacks urbanity.

Following a liason with a student, Tomás befriends a group of young people who work at a pawn shop. He attends events where he feels older than most, his concern at aging a recurrent theme. He is mocked for the way he chooses to dress and his general behaviour.

The writing is divided into sections narrating Tomás’s day to day activities, curated memories, ideas for computer games, and his dreams. The continuity can be somewhat fluid in places. His relationships with family and friends appear shallow and deceitful – his personal view of himself requiring that everyone see him in a more positive light than is deserved. His need to isolate himself from reality adds to the loneliness he will not own. His life has stalled.

I suspect that readers are meant to find many of the recurring themes depicted humorous, there is an element of burlesque. Tomás’s sexual fantasies culminate in a disturbing idea for a computer game that I found grotesque.

Tomás is envious of friends’ success, especially their depiction in memes. There is further irony such as a self proclaimed satanist named Jesús, and the absurdity of many situations Tomás finds himself in. He has a preoccupation with used chewing gum stuck under a desk. He considers himself busy yet does little with his days.

Water is referred to in many ways: the polluted river; a bath filled with booze that he climbs into fully dressed; the rainy weather and his lack of coat; a hole dripping water from his flat’s ceiling; his dreams of Eva and a house by the sea. Any joined up significance remains a mystery.

The roles of the protesters, party goers and various retailers add colour but little of substance. Tomás is depicted as impractical and oblivious; there are shades of parody, attempts at panache, but they fall short in conviction.

The book is a little over three hundred pages long. After one hundred pages an event was related which renewed my flagging interest. It was not retained. At just beyond two hundred pages there occured another event which was enough to propel me towards the end. That I was noticing such progress, willing myself to continue, demonstrates my lack of engagement.

I have the greatest respect for this small publisher’s ability to discover quality fiction. I will be interested in how other readers take to this tale with its often puerile representations. It was not for me.

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

Book Review: We that are young

We that are young, by Preti Taneja, is a fabulous reworking of King Lear. Having enjoyed a number of adaptations of this Shakespearean tragedy on stage I was familiar with the direction the arc of the story was likely to take. This did not in any way detract from my enjoyment. The book is big in size, scope and depth. The action is set in modern India and offers a masterclass in the country, its people, and the stubborness and hurt inherent in wider family feuds.

The tale opens with the return of a son, Jivan, banished to America with his mother when he was thirteen years old. Prior to this he had been one of five young playmates, although as the child of his father’s mistress had never been permitted full integration into the privileged lives of his friends. His half brother, Jeet, and he grew up alongside the three daughters of a hugely wealthy businessman, Devraj, who is also Jeet’s godfather. The girls – clever Gargi, beautiful Radha, and baby Sita – have in the intervening years grown into outwardly dutiful and obedient women.

Jivan returns on the cusp of change. The oppulent farm where the family now live is being prepared for Sita’s engagement celebrations. As Jivan is shown around, a lunch is taking place that will be the catalyst to Devraj’s ruination.

Economic growth has enabled India to consider itself a world player and with this has come a clash of cultures. Despite the quality and beauty of local products there is a hankering after western labels. Colour and vibrancy are being toned down, flesh exposed in imported attire. Women desire more freedom and opportunity than tradition permits.

Devraj demands that his daughters regularly demonstrate love and respect for him, in word and deed. When Sita unexpectedly refuses to conform he attempts to punish her by passing on the share of the business he had selected for her, his favourite, to her sisters. Gargi and Radha watch as he reacts to their little sister’s rebellion, envious of her courage but afraid of its effects. They fear their father may be going mad and determine to save the business for themselves.

The story is told from the points of view of each of the five former playmates, with occasional chapters in Devraj’s voice. Their’s is a life of excess, abuse and thwarted desire. When Jeet chooses to leave the farm the reader is offered a snapshot of the lives of India’s untouchables, a contrast that is shocking and telling. Those who grow up in comfort will struggle to understand the psychological effects of poverty, the cost of survival.

Devraj strives for a new India yet fights any attempt by his daughters to embrace change, to relinquish stifling traditions. This generational divide is all too familiar. Elders are eager to force the rules of their upbringing on their children, unappreciative of the differing challenges they must face in an evolving world.

The writing is stunning, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the region, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the corruption and striving for a better way of life at all levels. Turns of phrase deserve to be savoured, imagery basked in. The story is labyrinthian and should not be rushed.

Although a literary feast this is also a highly readable story. It remains engaging, tense and compelling throughout, despite knowing how it must end. I wanted to applaud that last line, the author deserves all the commendations. Recommended without reservation.

 

If you wish to purchase the cool black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The same words, bound in orange, are also available from discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.