Audiobook review – “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

I reached a reading milestone recently – I finished Ducks, Newburyport. This humungous novel, which clocks in at a whopping 1030 pages (paperback) is easily the longest book I have ever read. I listened to it on audio, brilliantly read by Stephanie Ellyne, and it lasted over 45 hours, easily the length of six or seven “normal” books. I started it around Christmas time I think, so it has taken me months. I would probably have got through it more quickly in ‘normal’ times as I would have listened to it while driving, but I have hardly driven at all this last year. Mostly I listened to it while cleaning the house, which seemed very appropriate.

The un-named central character and narrator is a middle-aged American woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She is a mother of four, cancer survivor, former college lecturer, and self-employed baker, who makes pies for a number of local cafes and restaurants which she delivers each day. The novel is a written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, almost entirely in the present, and many of the sentences begin with the phrase “the fact that…” as she tells us about the various aspects of her life, her family, her husband, her dead parents, their parents, baking, her past career, her cancer and American society. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place over a short period of time, but, let’s be clear, very little happens in this novel.

A big image for a very big book!

It has been criticised for its length; indeed, I read that Lucy Ellmann’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, declined to publish it for this reason, so instead she went with a small independent, Galley Beggar Press, which is based in Norwich.

The themes of the novel are emptiness and loneliness in modern American life, the dilemmas of being a woman, motherhood, loss. Our narrator commentates scathingly on Trump, on guns, and on the violence in society. She bemoans the decline of childhood, how young people have been lost to technology, social media and advertising and the inequalities not just in American society, but across the world. Yet at the same time, she is a woman who wants the best for her children and therefore perpetuates those inequalities. The essential dilemma. She laments climate change and the loss of the natural world while also contributing to it with her own lifestyle. (As do almost all of us). Yet another modern dilemma. She loves her children, but has a somewhat estranged relationship with her eldest daughter, Stacey, who has a different father to her three siblings.

Mostly, the narrator is grieving; there are frequent pained references to “Mommy”. Her mother died some years earlier after a long illness and the narrator cannot let go of her feeling that she should have done more for her mother, and, mostly, that she misses her terribly. The loss continues to blight her life, and she feels deeply the lack of nurturing she has in her own life. She seems to have a good and loving relationship with her husband, bridge engineer Leo, but it cannot make up for the loss of mother.

There is a parallel story going on in the narrative; a female mountain lion roams Ohio, creating fear throughout the state and leading to a frenzy of trackers and gun-owners who try to hunt her down. She is simply looking for food for her cubs and the reduced wild territory available to her means she trespasses on human occupied land. Our narrator is aware of the lion and fears for her children’s safety, while also virtue-signalling and taking positions on habitat destruction for wildlife. The cubs are captured and taken to the zoo, but the mountain lion continues to search, ceaselessly. Her drive to mother is all-encompassing.

This novel is profound and if you can stick with it, it will reward you handsomely. There is so much complexity, it is so multi-layered. The length also means we bond quite closely with the narrator, in a way that I don’t think would have happened if it had been shorter.

I recommend this book highly, while recognising that few will have the time and opportunity to embrace it. Take a year, six months at least. Get the audio – it is read brilliantly and you can at least do the vacuuming/ironing/cooking as you do so!

Earth Day 2021 and a lost cat

It’s Earth Day today and I am relieved at last to see the United States taking a global leadership role once again in pushing urgent climate matters forward, setting new and ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions. Let us hope all nations follow-through (and in fact go further than) the promises that have been outlined today.

The global coronavirus pandemic has, I think, caused many of us to reflect on the way we live our lives and to ask ‘How did we get here?’ What bits of the present world order have led to this desperate situation? I think our cavalier attitude to the environment is right up at the top there among the possible answers. Over this last year of curtailed movements many of us have got to know our local areas much better and I have become well-acquainted with many of the beautiful and interesting trees in my neighbourhood that I see on regular walks. It’s not that I didn’t know they were there before but I definitely paid less attention. Even the most pedestrian trees are quite spectacular when you get close to them. Here are a few in my locale:

Two trees side by side that have become one!
The exposed roots on this tree, which is growing on a slope, look other-worldly!
I wonder what caused this midriff bulge!

I started to see trees and their importance in a different way after I read The Overstory, the 2018 Booker-shortlisted novel by Richard Powers. It is an extraordinary book that I still consider one of the best I have ever read. Another book I read more recently, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, was a rather more frightening foreshadowing of where we might end up if we, as the nations of the world, continue in the present direction of travel. Both books are sobering reads for World Earth Day.

Another thing that has made me very reflective this week, and, indeed, got me out and about in my neighbourhood, is that our lovely family cat Ziggy went missing seven days ago. We have had him almost eleven years and we think he is about twelve (he came from a cat rescue centre so we are not really sure), but he is the friendliest cat I have ever shared my space with and we all miss him terribly.

Our handsome boy

He never goes very far so we have hunted high and low for him in the neighbourhood. I have put up posters and leafleted all the houses in the vicinity of our house, but so far to no avail. I have had so many calls from different people wishing me luck in the search as well as possible sightings (all false alarms sadly, as a neighbour of ours has a very similar-looking cat). It is heartwarming to think that people take notice and want to help.

We continue to look and to hope.

It is that spirit and human kindness that has got us through a pandemic and will, I hope, get us through the challenges we face in the future.

Haven’t picked up a book at all this week – too distracted.

Happy reading everyone.

Audiobook review – “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize. It was one of only two of the shortlisted books I managed to complete before the prize winner was announced (the other one I read, Burnt Sugar, I liked somewhat less and have also reviewed here). I had another of the shortlisted books ‘in progress’ at the time the winner was announced, The New Wilderness by first-time author Diane Cook, which I listened to on audio. It was utterly compelling and was beautifully read by Stacey Glemboski. It reminded me very much of a previously shortlisted book, The Overstory, by Richard Power, which was nominated in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years.

The New Wilderness is set in what seems, frighteningly, a not too distant future in America. Environmental decline has wreaked havoc on ordinary life, such that urban living is barely sustainable, and there are few alternative spaces left for citizens to inhabit. The government has authorised a research project to allow a small group of twenty people to inhabit one of the last remaining wild areas, but there are strict rules that they must observe, including having no contact with the outside world, and leaving no trace of their habitation on the environment, which means not staying in one place too long or building a camp. (The irony is not lost.) The group is closely monitored by Rangers, who enforce the regulations, and the group is required to attend stations every few months to register births, deaths and significant events. The story is told through the eyes of the leading character, Bea, whose partner Glen was one of the academics leading the research. Bea had volunteered for the project in order to remove her daughter Agnes from the city which was killing her slowly. Agnes suffered from a range of unnamed conditions which have been cured by life in the wilderness. Agnes is about ten or eleven when we meet her although no-one has really been keeping track; time is marked by seasonal change not the calendar.

When the book opens the group has already been living in the wilderness for some years. It opens dramatically with the deaths of two members of the group in a hazardous river crossing, in which a valuable rope is also lost. What is immediately striking to the reader is how the loss of the rope is mourned nearly as much as the loss of the companions, indicating how the group has become more focused on survival than finer human emotions. Further death occurs early on when Bea gives birth, alone in the forest, to a dead baby, which she buries quietly and away from the rest of the group. The dead child will be a recurring motif throughout the book; Bea left the city to save her daughter, and lost another because she was in the wilderness.

Life is extremely challenging and there are clearly tensions in the group, which the author takes great care to illustrate in skilful detail, particularly over ‘leadership’ – Glen, as one of the project’s initiators, was once looked to as a kind of informal leader. Glen becomes sick, however, and another of the group members, the strong more dominant alpha male-type, Carl, sees an opportunity to weigh in. Bea has also emerged as a strong leader in the group and Carl, in an attempt to fully oust Glen from his unofficial position, goes about bringing her to his side as well. Here the community is disintegrating; it’s like Lord of the Flies with grown-ups. Further chaos ensues when a small group of newcomers – city refugees who were on a ‘waiting list’ to join the original group in the wilderness – is encountered. To anyone who knows anything about group psychology – forming, storming, norming and all that – this is fascinating. It is also fascinating to see the way the two distinct groups spar with one another, with whom individual members place their loyalties, and how readily the original population integrates with the ‘immigrants’. There are also more young people among the newcomers, teenagers, and Agnes, now a teenager herself, has the opportunity the develop relationships with people her own age for the first time. But the differences between them in terms of their life experiences to date makes it difficult for Agnes to navigate her way among them. With the teenagers a further faction in the group emerges.

Author Diane Cook

What the author creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of our problematic human society, where Utopia cannot exist, where the human condition leads to inevitable decline. The wilderness is not the ideal society that the participants hoped it would be; yes, it is ‘natural’ and (mostly) unpolluted, but it is also brutal, and even the most idealistic among them hanker after a shower, some easy food, a haircut. Most strikingly however, is the failure of the community, socially, although the strict policing of the rules by the overweening and power-drunk Rangers (some more than others) does not help.

I have only scratched the surface of the book in this review – it is a highly complex novel and I fear I have not done it justice. It is a dystopian novel, which predicts a bleak future (do not read this if you want something uplifting!) where the opportunity to influence climate change has passed. It is also a novel about motherhood; Bea left the city to save her daughter’s life. In the middle of the novel she also flees the wilderness for a time (abandoning her daughter) when she learns that her own mother has died. The mother who begged her not to go.

All of the Booker-shortlisted novels I have read so far are about mothers or motherhood. Is that a coincidence?

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

According to my Goodreads account, I started this book on 4 December. It was the final book I tackled on last year’s Man Booker Shortlist. I have only just finished it. It has taken me well over six weeks. I have read a couple of other books alongside it, mainly because it is currently only available in hardback and at 502 pages it does not slip readily into the handbag. It is also a book that demands to be read slowly, almost at the pace of a tree growing, so it requires something of an investment. If you are put off already, read on, because I must balance that by saying that it is a quite extraordinary book and every hour I have spent with it has been time well spent. It is not a book that rewards being read a few pages at a time, it is best approached with an hour or so in hand.

the overstory img

It is hard to know where to begin to describe it so I will give you the New York Times quote from inside the dustjacket:

“A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world.”

After reading it you cannot help but feel that the human race is bent on a suicidal mission, that we will take most of nature down with us and that our tenure as a species on this earth has been wild and reckless and over in the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms). We’re on the way out I’m afraid. The author’s framework for exploring this is the life of trees. The number and range of trees on the planet was once phenomenal, and humans have systematically destroyed most of them, in the pursuit of so-called ‘progress’, grazing land and space for short-term cash crops, a grossly selfish and short-sighted error of judgement:

“We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” (p386)

This is the essential powerful message of the book and his method of telling it is also extraordinary. The first part ‘Roots’ is made up of individual chapters about nine individuals, their background, how they came to be at whatever stage of life they are at and, for some, how their families came to be in America. For each individual, trees represent some significant event in their lives. For example, Douglas Pavlicek served in Vietnam and after his plane was hit, he parachuted out and his landing in a banyan tree saved his life.

The second part of the book ‘Trunk’ is the most substantial and details how each of the individuals lives proceed. For example, Neelay, badly paralysed after a childhood fall from a tree becomes a powerful computer games entrepreneur when he invents an extraordinary virtual world. Patricia, an introverted sight and hearing impaired young girl, whose father invested in her a love of nature, becomes an academic but her book about the secret language of trees is derided and she retreats to a reclusive life as a ranger. Many years later, others will agree with her and her thesis becomes fashionable and influential. Olivia, who almost died in part one, becomes an activist, and hooks up with Nicholas, who lost his entire family in part one after they were accidentally poisoned with gas in the family home. The two of them occupy a giant redwood tree in forest threatened by loggers for many months, though ultimately their protest proves futile (this is a metaphor). Many of the characters’ lives intersect, while others remain firmly parallel, for example Dorothy and her quadriplegic husband Ray; it is not clear until close to the end how their story is relevant.

The third part of the book ‘Crown’ is a coming together of all these separate stories, the logical conclusion to the each of the individuals’ stories and the fourth part ‘Seeds’ is about the legacy they leave behind. The end is anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that is the point; for all our ego and self-importance, the mark that humans will leave is pretty insignificant in the long-term. We will simply destroy ourselves. As the book progresses the pace also picks up, as does the switching between the individuals and their stories and the sense is created of humans accelerating towards their decline.

It is hard to do justice to the book in a short review. It is a book which merits deep reading. It is a remarkable concept and remarkable in execution and the writing is sublime, possibly the finest prose I have read in years. In some ways it has left me profoundly depressed about the direction the world is going on – it would be easy to focus on the events of recent years for examples of this but the reality is we have been crafting our own demise for decades, since the Industrial Revolution. Despite all the evidence, we continue to press on with our self-destruction, although there are a few people out there trying desperately to make their voices heard, the author being one of them – I’ve heard him a few times on the radio making the case for paying attention. The non-depressing thing about the book is the realisation that human beings are actually just a miniscule episode in the natural history of this particular planet, and it will prevail, with or without us. This is the ‘overstory’, the picture that is much bigger than us. In this respect our arrogance, particularly that of some of our world leaders, is really rather laughable. What is fascinating is the why, what drives us humans to behave the way we do, and this book sets about trying to explore that.

Though I really loved Anna Burns’ Milkman and felt it was a worthy winner of the Man Booker, I am also rather desperate for a serious realisation of the impact we are having on the world around us, and feel that greater publicity for this book could at least have contributed something to that debate.

One thing is for sure, I will never look at trees the same way again.

Highly recommended, your patience will be rewarded.

If you have read The Overstory, do you agree with my take on it?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media. 

Book review: “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada

This was April’s book in my Facebook reading challenge – I had mistakenly assumed it was a children’s book, as that was our theme for the month. It quickly became apparent to me that it definitely was not! This raises an interesting question in itself, however: why are we enchanted by our children’s books, with their talking animals, cross-species interaction, and animals mixing, seemingly without comment, in the human world, and yet, for our ‘adult’ books, we find this difficult to accept? Don’t get me wrong, I did indeed find this a really challenging read, and I’m still not really sure what I think about it, but it has made me realise that the genre of magical realism, into which I think this book falls, requires a certain openness of mind that we have to be really ready for. I think part of my problem, particularly with the opening section of the book, is that it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I felt somewhat thrown and it inhibited my engagement with the book.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear imgI’ll summarise the basic story of the novel. Part one is the most surreal and the most difficult. It is narrated by the nameless ‘grandmother polar bear’ (grandparent to Knut, star of part three). She has been reared as an attraction in the Soviet Union, by a cruel master, who, among other things, teaches her to stand on her back legs using what we would now regard as unethical methods. I think that by getting the bear to stand like a human the author justifies the morphing of her subject into something less animal. Throughout this part we are asked to suspend our disbelief: the bear escapes Soviet Russia, writes her memoirs, and flees to Germany, where she is ‘protected’ by an unscrupulous agent who simply wants to exploit her because her book has been so popular. The bear visits bookshops, makes human friends and animal enemies (the sea-lion publisher who makes ever more unreasonable demands). It’s all very tricky for us as adult readers.

I think part one is the most overtly political: there is the comment on the dehumanisation of life in the Soviet Union (thus the blurring of the boundaries between the animal and the human?), the bear as outcast (because she is foreign not because she is a bear), the futility of administrative and management practices, and about the impact of climate change – there are frequent references throughout the book to the threat to the species from the disappearance of its natural Arctic habitat. I think as a reader you just have to accept its surreal qualities.

Part two is about the polar bear’s daughter Tosca, who is a circus performer in East Germany. It is narrated by Tosca’s trainer, Barbara (although there is an interesting twist at the end of this part which I won’t spoil), and as such it feels more ‘normal’ to us as readers. Tosca and Barbara develop a very deep connection, which results in extraordinary performances, driving the greedy circus managers to demand ever more dramatic stunts. Her relationship with the polar bear leads Barbara to reflect deeply on the relationship between humans and animals and the author exposes the hypocrisy of the humans, who for example, see polar bears as aggressive and unpredictable whilst prosecuting violent wars themselves. There is also an exploration of gender inequality in this part as the trainer Barbara is as exploited as her animal charge.

knut the polar bear
Knut the polar bear (2006-2011) with his keeper at Berlin Zoo

The final part of the book is about Knut, Tosca’s son, and is based on real events. Tosca says that she gave Knut away (in reality he was rejected by his mother, the inference being that reproduction in captivity drives unnatural behaviours), and he is raised by a human keeper, with whom, once again, he develops a very deep bond. I found this part the most moving and it is definitely more rooted in realism, even though it is narrated by the bear. I have read a little bit about Knut subsequently and it has made my reading of this part of the book more poignant. (Knut died suddenly in Berlin Zoo in 2011, aged only four years, from a brain disease). This part of the book truly challenges our attitude to animals and our use of them in captivity for entertainment, amusement and commercial gain. It also exposes most starkly our attitudes to climate change, habitat loss and species decline: we claim to raise animals in captivity (with all the inherent cruelty that entails) so that we can protect the species, without doing anything about the underlying causes of species decline.

 

Overall, I found this book quite difficult to engage with – I wish I’d known a bit more about it before I started it, but all the reviews I read didn’t really give much away about what the book was about. That is normal for book reviews – no-one wants to give away a spoiler. But there isn’t much to spoil in this book because there is no ‘plot’ as such. I think I could also have engaged with it more if someone had told me to read with a very open mind! That’s a lesson for me as a reader. I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect, as I have reflected on its subject matter and themes, and I am glad I have read it, even if it didn’t always keep me awake at bedtime!

Recommended if you like these themes and can be open to the surreal!

How did you get on with the surreal aspects of this novel?

If you have enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button, and let’s connect on social media.