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 1585: Eight Perfect Murders

I had a hard time rating this high-concept mystery on Goodreads, because there were things I liked about it and things I didn’t like. Overall, however, I felt it was a fast-paced novel with a love for books, especially old-fashioned crime novels.

Malcolm Kershaw has a visit from the FBI at the beginning of the novel. He is part owner of a mystery and crime bookstore in Boston. Years ago, when he first went to work there, he wrote a blog post named “Eight Perfect Murders” in which he listed eight mystery novels with near-perfect murders. Agent Mulvey has figured out that someone is using the list to re-create not the murders but the spirit of the murders. Moreover, one of the victims is someone Malcolm knew, an annoying woman who used to frequent his bookstore before she moved away. Agent Mulvey wants Malcolm to help figure out if any other deaths are related to his list.

Right away, I knew Malcolm wasn’t a trustworthy narrator, and almost immediately I guessed there would be some connection to the death of his wife, Claire. The novel takes lots of twists and turns, but I expected some of them. Still, it clipped right along, was well written, and was full of references to fiction I loved.

Why did I have trouble rating it? First, it got bogged down in the explanations at the end. The murderer explains things, and then Malcolm explains what he’s been holding back, and it’s a lot. Finally, I don’t know that I like so much these high-concept twisty-turny novels that are so popular lately, possibly because they have too many twists to be believable. They remind me of the old mysteries that are only concerned about the difficult puzzle, only with better characterization.

Then again, the book is strongly atmospheric, set in a frozen, stormy Boston, and I liked most of it. There are almost no clues about the identity of the murderer but lots of clues about Malcolm’s own secrets.

I see that Goodreads has this novel labeled Malcolm Kershaw #1. I hope that’s a mistake. I’m just saying that because of the ending. Now I bet you’re mystified. (Note: I am posting this review from my notes about six months after I read the book, and I can remember almost nothing about it. That doesn’t happen very often, so I doubt that this book is going to become a classic mystery.)

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Review 1578: After the Party

In 1938, Phyllis Forrester and her family return to England from a long period of living abroad. Phyllis has been yearning to be near her two sisters, so they settle down on the Sussex coast.

Through her sisters, Phyllis gets involved with two different sets of people, with some overlap. Her socialite and snobbish sister Patricia introduces her to an upperclass group interested in social events. Her activist sister Nina is involved in the new Peace Party that runs educational classes and camps for youngsters. It’s not too difficult to figure out that their revered leader is Oswald Mosley.

It’s difficult to decide whether Phyllis is an unreliable narrator through innocence, obliviousness, or lying. I think most likely both of the first two. Certainly, this novel downplays the most negative aspects of Mosley’s party. Anti-semitism is mentioned but is not emphasized, and Phyllis denies the group is Fascist, which of course is what Mosley thought would be best for England. No mention at all is made of the blackshirts or links to Germany. But perhaps Connolly trapped herself into this point of view by using Phyllis as the narrator. In any case, for me the effect was a sort of whitewashing of this movement.

The novel starts slowly and takes a long time to get to its meat, which is the imprisonment of Phyllis and her husband without any due process. If Phyllis can be believed, her activities were fairly benign and this imprisonment was uncalled for. It also involves a betrayal.

I didn’t have much sympathy for Phyllis or really anyone in her circle. The socialites early on are involved in an incident of throwing a terrified pig off a balcony, which some of them seem to think is funny. Although Phyllis doesn’t seem to think it was funny, she also doesn’t seem horrified by it, either. It’s not clear to me what the author’s intent is toward any of her characters unless she is criticizing the class as a whole, both in their leisure and political activities. If so, the criticism is muted.

Periodically, we hear from Phyllis in 1979 when she is being interviewed by someone. If anything, her views have become more right wing. I found this novel rather unsatisfying. Is it a sympathetic one for someone unfairly imprisoned or does it chillingly depict these upperclass people? The novel is one I read for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1524: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Mrs. Dusczejko lives in a tiny Polish village near the Czech Republic, so remote that they get Polish or Czech police depending upon where in town they call from. In the early morning, her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, comes to get her, telling her he has found their other neighbor’s body. Although she hates this other neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot, because he’s a hunter and she believes it’s a crime to kill animals, she helps him make the body decent before the police arrive. Later, it’s determined that he died from choking on a deer bone.

Mrs. Duszejko is an eccentric old lady who spends her time doing astrological charts, helping an ex-student translate William Blake’s writings into Polish, and writing letters to the police complaining about poaching. After a few months, though, her life is disturbed when men in the area begin dying in a series of bizarre killings.

This is an unusual crime story that’s not so concerned about the criminal case as it is about the activities of its characters. It is sometimes funny and always atmospheric. I really enjoyed it.

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Review 1413: The People in the Trees

Best of Ten!
When everyone was reading The People in the Trees a few years ago, I didn’t think it sounded like something I’d be interested in. Then I finally read Yanagihara’s fabulous A Little Life. That made me pick up this book when I saw it again.

The novel begins with documents written by Ronald Kubodera, a coworker and acolyte of Dr. Norton Perina, a renowned scientist who won the Nobel Prize and now has been imprisoned for child molesting. Kubodera convinces Perina to write his memoir, telling his side of the story.

Just out of medical school, Perina is wondering what to do with himself. He has no intention of becoming a medical doctor, and his graduate school lab work he finds boring. He has managed to offend his laboratory boss, so he is surprised when the man recommends him for a position accompanying Paul Tallent, an anthropologist, to a remote Micronesian island.

Perina’s prize-winning work is based on what he observes on that island. Tallent takes him to the U’Ivu U’ivu Islands, an archipelago of three islands. One of them, Ivu’ ivu, is forbidden, but there are rumors of a strange animal-like people on that island. Tallent hopes to discover an unknown tribe.

The first people they discover are in a state of extreme senility, some almost totally dehumanized. When they find the village, these other people are much like other U’Ivu islanders, only there are no older people in the village.

Perina’s discovery is to figure out that the people of Ivu’ ivu can live almost eternally after eating the meat of the opa’ ivu’ eke turtle, found only on Ivu’ ivu. The downside is that something in the meat also causes increased senility. The older islanders remain physically fit but eventually lose speech and all semblance of humanity.

Perina breaks a taboo to capture an opa’ ivu’ eke turtle and smuggle it out of the country for study. He also takes with him some of the elders, whom he calls dreamers.

This novel is about the abuse of power and what it can lead to. Perina is not a sympathetic character, although he states justifications for his own actions. His view is that any scientist would have taken the turtle even though his action results in the death of a guide whom he likes. Removing the dreamers from their familiar surroundings to a lab increases their decreptitude, but Perina seems to feel no remorse or even responsibility. He is more concerned with the inevitable destruction of the lifestyle on the islands once he publishes his paper.

This is a fascinating character study of a man so driven by ambition and his own needs that he doesn’t even notice the results of his actions. Even the structure of the novel speaks to this theme of power, for Kubodera’s footnotes abound, and he cuts out an important passage from the original manuscript, included at the end of the book. Kubodera’s comment is that it shouldn’t matter. He himself is such a hero worshipper that he’s ready to excuse Perina anything. Perina attempts to tell the truth about his life, but he is so self-deluded that he becomes an untrustworthy narrator.

Yanogihara has blown me away with another terrific novel.

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Review 1331: The Good Soldier

Cover for The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier is considered Ford Madox Ford’s greatest novel. His earlier work was more Edwardian realist, but this novel has several characteristics of modernism, including an unreliable narrator, an interest in characters’ psychological underpinnings, and a more liberated female character.

The narrator of the novel, set before World War I, is John Dowell, a wealthy but incredibly dense American. He is not unreliable because he is lying or misrepresenting what has happened but simply because he is almost willfully blind to it. At the beginning of the novel, he informs us that the Ashburnhams were his wonderful, close friends for nine years, decent people, good people. Yet, at almost the next breath he reveals that Edward Ashburnham had an affair with John’s wife, Florence, for nine years.

The Good Soldier is the story of the complex relationships between Leonora and Edward Ashburnham and how their problems affect the lives of other people, particularly their innocent young friend, Nancy. This is the kind of book, I believe, that readers will understand differently each time they read it.

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Day 1286: The Murder of My Aunt

Cover for The Murder of My AuntI’ve read quite a few of the British Library Crime Classics and enjoyed their beautiful covers, but The Murder of My Aunt is the first that has been darkly comic. Edward sees himself as fashionable and too good for the sleepy Welsh village of Llwll where he lives with his aunt. His aunt supports him but not well enough for him to live in London and indulge himself.

Edward is not a nice person, but he turns malicious after his aunt pulls a prank to get him to walk into the village instead of driving his car, La Joyeuse. He decides to murder her to get control of his life and her fortune.

link to NetgalleyIndeed, if we are to believe Edward’s version, his aunt is not much more likable than he is. But are we to believe him?

The novel is very entertaining until it bogs down a bit with a change of narrators. The Murder of My Aunt was considered a genre breaker in its time and was praised for its freshness and originality. Certainly, I found Edward’s machinations amusing, but the barbs directed at his effeminate nature are also mean-spirited.

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Day 1197: Literary Wives! The Headmaster’s Wife

Cover for The Headmaster's WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

In trying to rate The Headmaster’s Wife, I again became frustrated with Goodreads’ inflexible five-star system. The novel was more ambitious and better written than many run-of-the-mill novels I’ve given three stars to, but it wasn’t good enough to get four stars, which I give to books I like a lot but don’t think are wonderful. There was just something lacking in it, and 3 1/2 stars would have been perfect.

Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of a private prep school,  is found wandering naked in the park. He tells the police his story about having an affair with a student forty years younger than him, an event ending in a crime.

But halfway through the book, we find it is not about what we think it is. Arthur turns out to be an unreliable narrator. At this point, the focus changes to Betsy, the girl in the headmaster’s story, sort of. There’s not much more about the plot that I can say without major spoilers.

The prep school world is one that I’m not familiar with, but everything about this novel could have taken place in the 1950’s instead of the current times. I found the world of the book scarily insulated from the events of the real world.

Overall, I found this novel unsatisfying. The first half of it I found distasteful, especially in these Me Too days. But the novel, as I said before, isn’t really about what it seems. The second narrative is unsatisfying because we only actually see Betsy in her relationship to the males in her life—her boyfriends, her son, her lovers. It’s as if she has no actual life. Which, of course, leads us into our Literary Wives discussion.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

First, I didn’t believe in Betsy as a character except in Arthur’s narrative. In her own section, we have no sense of her day-to-day life. She doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe that was the intention of the author, but maybe he is just really bad at depicting women. While Arthur shuffles papers and attends board meetings, she does literally nothing except have one conversation with an acquaintance.

At the beginning of Arthur and Betsy’s relationship, when Arthur sees she is cooling off, he plays a nasty trick to get rid of a rival. Betsy is fully aware of it. Yet, we are to believe that she went ahead and married Arthur, presumably to have a place at Lancaster forever. I didn’t believe it.

Then, we see Betsy, as I mentioned before, only in relationship to the males in her life and mostly in reference to sex. That is, when she looks back at her own life, it’s one sex scene after another, except for her memories of her son, and even those are somewhat eroticized. Even her desire to become good at tennis involves an affair with her tennis instructor. All I can say is, guess what guys? Sex isn’t the only thing women think about.

The central theme of the novel is supposed to be about grief, but characters in this novel don’t deal with their grief or even really face it. I feel that Greene meant for this novel to be meaningful, but it doesn’t really make it.

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Day 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

* * *

Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

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Day 877: Literary Wives! The Happy Marriage

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Cover for The Happy MarriageA famous painter living in Casablanca tells the story of his marriage in a “secret manuscript” as he recovers from a debilitating stroke. From all accounts, he has married a woman who is almost a lunatic. He tells how his family objected to his marrying beneath his social status but he was in love. Now that he has married this much younger woman, his relatives’ fears have been realized. She has poor taste, she is vulgar, irrationally jealous. She has fits of rage where she disturbs his work and even destroys it. She is constantly asking for money and giving it away to her relatives. She drinks too much and hangs out with unpleasant characters.

In the artist’s story, he is mild-mannered and generous, just trying to figure out a way to handle her irrational outbursts. Finally, he begins trying to get a divorce.

Amina, the artist’s wife, discovers his manuscript and we hear her version of the story—which is completely different. Amina’s story is about insults to her family, consistent unfaithfulness, miserliness and lies.

This novel reminds me very much of Fates and Furies, which has the same structure and intent. However, Fates and Furies seems both more unlikely and more nuanced. The Happy Marriage deals in problems that can trouble marriage—infidelity, money issues, dislike of a spouse’s friends, real and imagined insults—but we see nothing of the more subtle aspects of human relations.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Although I think we’re ultimately supposed to sympathize with Amina, the two characters in this novel are so angry with each other that their whole relationship seems clichéd to me. I’m not sure what this book ultimately says about wives. Its main point seems to be a larger one about how people self-justify their own bad behavior and see things from their own point of view. Both of the narrators, but certainly the husband, are untrustworthy.

Still, it seems that the husband married to have a wife that he thought he could control. He picked a much younger woman who was in love with him and would be dependent upon him financially. Many of his other choices seem to be made from vanity about his position.

Literary Wives logoThe wife’s rights are changing under Moroccan law, but even though the book blurb mentions this, it does not seem important to the story except that she can prevent their divorce. In effect, the husband is reduced to blackening her name with everyone and depicting her as unstable.

But Amina seemed to be happy in their relationship as long as she could travel with him and thought he was being faithful. That is, she seemed content with being treated as a trophy wife until she had to stay home with the kids (and of course, this coincided with the infidelity, it seems). So, I’m not sure that her idea of marriage is any more strongly developed than his. In this particular marriage, everything seems to boil down to a struggle for control.

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