Review 1591: Ducks, Newburyport

The unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport is a 40-something Ohio housewife who works from home making pies and cinnamon rolls for restaurants. She is a survivor of cancer, and she and her husband Leo are both working very hard to pay off her medical bills. She has four children, a sulky teenager, Stacy, from her first marriage and three young children from her second.

Ducks, Newburyport consists mostly of her mental ramblings as she goes about her day, a timid woman who rarely speaks her mind and is obsessed by her failures as a parent and daughter and by violent incidents in the news. The book almost completely consists of one 1,000-page sentence, if you can call a bunch of phrases beginning with “the fact that” or sometimes just lists of words a sentence. Periodically, this monologue is broken by a few paragraphs about a female cougar and her cubs.

Ducks, Newburyport breaks just about every rule connected with literature. It breaks the Strunk and White rule about not using “the fact that” about 50 times per page. It uses no traditional sentence structure or paragraphing except in the lion sections. It breaks notions of narrative. (It’s not stream-of-consciousness.) And it has a plot, sort of, but not in the traditional sense. I’m not sure if the novel is an elaborate joke or just Ellman thumbing her nose at the rules and winning awards while she does it. Lots of people have compared it to Ulysses, but Ulysses is more poetic. The narrative style alone may drive you nuts.

I noticed that Ellman gets a few things wrong. Some are to do with the age of her character, who makes lots of cultural references, many of which are too old for her. Certainly, the narrator is interested in old movies and songs, but the mistakes I’m talking about have more to do with Ellman being closer to my age than her narrator’s. She talks about everyone having their tonsils out when she was young, but that’s a 50’s or early 60’s thing rather than an 80’s. And similarly, she says just about every woman in America is on hormone replacement therapy, but that wasn’t even being prescribed as much when I was hitting menopause, and I’m older than Ellman. Some of her verbal habits, like calling underwear me-oh-mys just seem ridiculous and old-fashioned. Of course, this last could be characterization.

I also thought Ellman has been living in the U. K. too long to get an American housewife quite right. Just a small example is her repeated references to Bath Oliver biscuits. I doubt if many Americans know what those are, even if they’ve eaten them. I had to look them up, and I have eaten them. In general, as well, Americans don’t eat beans on toast, a phrase that she repeats excessively. Of course, again, that could just be a phrase that’s lodged in her head.

These are small things that you’d think her editor would have caught, if editors even edit anymore.

Did I like it? As soon as I got a feel for what the novel would be like, I assumed I wouldn’t finish it and kept waiting to decide to stop reading. But I found it oddly hypnotic, and I finished it. I found the narrator annoying as well as unreliable. She says she doesn’t remember things, but 80% of the novel is her memories. She also says she doesn’t remember her dreams and then relates them to the tune of several a page sometimes—another rule broken—which I found irritating, because I don’t like reading about dreams in fiction.

Would I read it again? No way. Does it deserve two (at least) prestigious literary awards? I have no idea.

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Review 1506: The Broom of the System

We first meet Lenore Beadsman in 1981 as a 15-year-old on a visit to her sister at Mount Holyoke. There, three guys from Amherst invade the girls’ dorm room and more or less sexually assault them, except Lenore, who leaves. The point of this part?

We meet her again working as a receptionist in Cleveland and having an affair with her boss, Rick Vigorous. Her great-grandmother has disappeared from a nursing home along with a substantial number of patients and some staff. The manager of the home, which is owned by Lenore’s wealthy father, has been asked to keep the incident quiet, but he asks Lenore to contact her father. She is unable to reach him, however.

I tried hard to read this novel, which I know is considered brilliant and was recommended by my brother, but I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with it. Though I know it was considered innovative in its time (1987), it seemed dated to me, both in its bizarre zany humor, which reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, Tim Robbins, or Richard Brautigan, and in its treatment of women. I read about a quarter of it but saw myself completely lose interest when the cockatiel started spouting break-up lines. The novel just seemed too ridiculous, and I also felt it wasn’t going anywhere. The hyper-intellectual dialogue seemed completely unlikely. It also seemed pretentious.

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Day 1237: Little Fires Everywhere

Cover for Little Fires EverywhereBest of Five!
One Saturday morning, Izzy, the youngest Richardson child, sets fire to the house and leaves. As in her previous novel, Ng begins with the end of the novel to show how it comes to pass.

We don’t really get to Izzy right away, however. We start with Mrs. Richardson and her duplex house in Shaker Heights. Although the family doesn’t need the rent from the duplex, Mrs. Richardson likes to think she is helping someone worthy by leasing the apartments to the right person. In this case, she rents one to Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl.

Mia and Pearl have lived a wandering life, settling in a city as long as it takes Mia to finish a project and then moving on. Mia makes some money from her work and occasionally takes a part-time job to supplement their meager income. Upon arriving in Shaker Heights, however, Mia has unexpectedly announced that they can stay. She also reluctantly accepts a part-time job as a house cleaner and cook that Mrs. Richardson pushes on her.

The plot gets moving around a situation that seemingly has little to do with either Mia or Mrs. Richardson. Mrs. Richardson’s friend Mrs. McCullough is close to adopting a little girl of Chinese heritage when the baby’s mother, who has been searching for her, sues for custody.

When Mrs. Richardson figures out that it was Mia who told the mother who had the baby, she begins investigating Mia. It is her self-righteousness as well as her misunderstanding of some of the facts she gleans that mount up and provoke Izzy’s outburst.

At first, I was a little impatient with this novel. Ng certainly understands the adolescent psyche, but in many ways, this novel seemed too similar to her previous one, Everything I Never Told You. She knows how to tell a story, however, and she understands complexity in relationships, so ultimately I was swept up.

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Day 686: Everything I Never Told You

Cover for Everything I Never Told YouI just applied a new look to my site! Let me know how you like it.

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From the beginning of Everything I Never Told You, we know that Lydia Lee is dead, but her family doesn’t, and it is awhile before we understand what happened. Lydia’s story has its roots in her family history.

In 1970’s small-town Ohio, the Lees are outsiders, the only mixed race family in town. James Lee is of Chinese heritage, a history professor at the local college. Marilyn Lee is white, a former Harvard medical student who gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor when she became pregnant with Nath, their son.

Once the police begin looking into Lydia’s disappearance, it soon becomes clear that she was leading a double life. Her parents believe her to be a popular girl and a good student with a brilliant future. But when police begin questioning her supposed friends after she is reported missing, the teens claim to hardly know her. She is close to failing some of her classes, and Nath is aware that she has been spending time with their neighbor, Jack, a boy with a bad reputation.

This novel is extremely sad, about the effect on young people of their parents’ insecurities and expectations, about misunderstandings and lack of communication, and about how an event in the family’s past affected Lydia’s behavior.

The novel is moving and well written, exploring the tensions between maintaining individuality and fitting in and the stresses caused by parents only wanting the best for their child. After being almost unremittingly sad for the entire novel, it ends on a more hopeful note, perhaps unrealistically.

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Day 413: Doll Bones

doll-bonesI just realized I had inadvertently reviewed a slew of historical novels in a row, so here’s something contemporary.

I really appreciate a children’s book that has as much to offer an adult as a child. I’m thinking of those books of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, or Robert Louis Stevenson as examples. Doll Bones doesn’t actually fit into that category, but I’m sure that tweens and younger kids will enjoy it.

Zach Barlow is growing up. He’s put on enough height this year to join the middle school basketball team. What he still enjoys most, though, are the games he plays with his best friends Alice Magnaye and Poppy Bell, where they use dolls and action figures to act out elaborate stories. However, they never touch one doll belonging to Poppy’s mom that they call the Queen, an old porcelain doll that seems very creepy.

Zach’s dad left him and his mother for a few years, but now he has returned to them and is still trying to figure out how to be with them. One afternoon Zach comes home thinking about what will happen next to Pirate William, only to find his dad has thrown away all his toys and dolls. Zach is too upset even to explain to Alice and Poppy why he won’t play anymore. The two girls are devastated.

One night the girls come to see him. Poppy explains she’s had a ghost visitor who says her ashes are inside the Queen. The ghost girl has asked them to bury her ashes in her grave in East Liverpool, Ohio. Poppy believes the ghost and wants to go on a quest to return the bones, which are in the bag that makes the doll’s body. So, despite their fears of getting into major trouble, the kids get on a bus in the middle of the night to travel from Pennsylvania to Ohio.

Of course, on this trip they run into difficulties, including getting scared off the bus part way and having to make their way on foot or any other way they can find through a landscape of urban blight. On the way, some adults creepily seem to believe there are four of them. Eventually, they solve the mystery of who the girl is and what happened to her. As they meet these difficulties they grow up a little and figure out better how to handle their changing relationships.

I think kids will relate to the problems of Zach, Alice, and Poppy. I also think they’ll like the spookiness of the story. Doll Bones falls among the more innocent of contemporary books for tweens and younger teens, with a few chills but no violence or bad language. It would make a good story for any kid from ages eight or nine to, say, twelve or thirteen.

Day 406: Annals of the Former World: In Suspect Terrain

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the second book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee returns east to examine the geology of the Appalachians along I-80. Beginning with the Delaware Water Gap, he travels along the highway with geologist Anita Harris exploring the road cuts to see what can be determined about how the landscape developed. The two continue on this route through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, where they explore Kelley’s Island, travel along the Cuyahoga River for a spell, and end at the Indiana Dunes.

Having explained the basics of plate tectonics in Basin and Range, McPhee now travels with a geologist who is skeptical of the broad application the theory has found, particularly in relation to the Appalachians. Harris takes issue with the idea that the mountains were formed by the ramming of the African coast up against North America. She believes that a study of the rocks does not support this concept.

In Suspect Terrain is deeply concerned with glaciation. As well as explaining how glaciers could have formed this area of folded and complex geology, McPhee breaks off to expatiate on how the theory of the Ice Age came about, among other geological ideas. He also tells how Harris herself figured out how to use the color of conodonts, a kind of fossil, to make it easier to find the conditions for oil.

I find it fascinating to try to imagine the pictures of the earth that McPhee describes, how different they are from the continent as it is today. McPhee tells us how rivers ran to the west instead of to the east, huge tropical seas took up the middle of the continent, the glaciers shoved rock down from Canada to create places like Staten Island.

McPhee is an extremely interesting writer. To be sure, the subject matter, the ideas it evokes, and the language he uses demand full attention, but this series of books is involving.

Day 225: The Devil All the Time

Cover for The Devil All the TimeTruly gritty noir seems to come out of rural settings these days instead of the city. Such is the case with The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock.

Arvin Russell is having a tough childhood in the backwoods town of Meade in southern Ohio. His mother is dying of cancer, and his grief-crazed father Willard has set up a “praying log” where he sacrifices animals and makes Arvin pray for hours on end. When his mother dies, his father commits suicide by hanging himself at the praying log.

Back in Willard Russell’s home town of Coal Creek, Virginia, Brother Roy Laferty is a preacher who eats bugs for the glory of God and travels around with his crippled friend Theodore, a gay pedophile. Roy marries Helen, the woman Willard’s mother wanted him to marry, but later, egged on by Theodore, he murders her. The two start off on a spree of serial killing.

As Arvin grows up in Coal Creek with his grandmother, another couple from Meade haunts the highways of the midwest. Carl and Sandy Henderson pick up hitchhiking men. Carl has Sandy seduce them so that he can murder them and take photographs of Sandy with their bodies.

Lee Bodecker, the policeman who accompanied Arvin back to his father’s body when he was a boy, is now the corrupt sheriff of Meade, Ohio. He knows his sister Sandy is a prostitute but is unaware of her more sinister activities with Carl.

Now grown, Arvin has spent his high school years protecting his unattractive, devout cousin Leonora from the taunts of his school fellows. The town is excited because of the arrival of the new preacher, Preston Teagardin, a nephew of the dedicated Reverend Sykes. But Teagardin is not quite as dedicated as his uncle, and he also has an eye for the young girls. He decides that a naive, religious girl might be a good place to start.

The fates of all these people are soon to converge in a way that won’t be pretty. The flavor of the grotesque and perverse echoes of Flannery O’Connor and other Southern Gothic writers. With hardly a redeeming character to be found, we have to wonder if Pollock is simply revelling in his ability to produce such depravity.