Ducks, Newburyport - week 2

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Ducks, Newburyport - week 2

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Mar 14, 2020, 3:38pm

Mar 14, 2020, 3:44pm

some quotes from our second section:

the fact that it’s only funny to atheists, but getting your tire fixed by a guy named Jesus is just not something a person can keep bottled up for long

the fact that that’s what people would probably do if they ever found the Abominable Snowman too, just drive over him or shoot him and then head over to IHOP for some pancakes

the fact that all my life I’ve been feigning an interest in the aurora borealis, hoping, waiting, to get interested in it

as if anybody’s ever rational about their dad

the fact that I learned nothing about life when I was a teenager except that I can’t do things, and that I’m a disappointment, to myself and others, the fact that high school was like a four-year training camp in how to be disappointed in myself, kneading, stuffed shells, sfogiatelle, that fact that my whole life is a series of mistakes, large and small, the fact that I wish I could save Stacy from some of this

Mar 14, 2020, 3:46pm

Discussion Plan for Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

(Page numbers are from two editions: US Biblioasis and UK Galley Beggar Press. All weekly breaks occur at a break in the text of some sort, as noted.)

March 7: US 1-189 : UK 1-199 ending at the PTA sign: LET THEM EAT CAKE, ~19%

today. US 189-397 : UK 199-406 - 4-dot break begins: “Puddles favored by crows have a sweet, earthy taste.”, ~39%

March 21. US 397-581 : UK 406-591 - 4-dot break begins: “The shock of losing her cubs reverberated like rain on water.”, ~57%

March 28. US 582-777 : UK 591-786 - 4-dot break begins: “A lot of wilderness exists between the cracks,”, ~76%

April 4. US 777-988 : UK 786-998 and appendix

Mar 14, 2020, 4:10pm

More of the same but also a little different. For starters, we have a little bit of plot element with a visit the dentist and then some tension with a flat tire along a rural highway in the snow. The flat tire had some interesting impact on the text itself, fronting itself in her thoughts, but only while she is outside freezing. Once she gets back in her car and turns the heat on, the thoughts disengage from what she is actually doing. And then we have several clear breaks in time, as Leo returns home and it appears several days pass. (I wasn't able to keep track of the time line). Along the way we learn about her almost rape in Venice, more about her parents, more about Leo (and Chuck and Frank), a whole lot about Ohio Indian massacres and pollution and some dwellings on various fictional stories - including The Wizard of Oz, The Accidental Tourist and actor James Mason.

I know we're in the midst of a strange place with the Coronavirus. Hopefully Ellmann provided a nice distraction, but also this kind of stuff can make reading harder, especially reading this kind of book. Sometimes it's strange how real life impacts our reading. No worries if you're not caught up. No spoilers here and the thread should still be here when you do catch up.

Some questions : Feel free to answer

1. How is your progress? How is the Coronavirus affecting your reading?

2. What are your thoughts on section 2?

3. Were you able to track the timeline? If so, please share.

4. I think some key elements of the book have changed. The dentist and flat tire showed some of my own theories from last week were on the wrong track, especially in terms of how the text is reflecting her thinking. How have the changes affected your perspectives?

5. Anyone else getting hungry?


Perhaps not the best list of questions. But mainly share how you're doing and anything you're thinking about as you progress.

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:21pm

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Edited: Mar 14, 2020, 5:51pm

Two things that might help: Leo teaches engineering (?) at Peolia College in Newcomerstown, Oh. The town is real:,_Ohio Leo was in Philadelphia for a conference. I think the college is fictional as I couldn’t find any colleges in the town. Closest are Zane State, a campus of Central Ohio Technical College and a couple campuses of Belmont College, all about ten miles away in different directions. CORRECTION: Canton in a ways north and has several colleges (I thought it was closer. Google maps is confusing me) Leo was in Philadelphia for a conference of some kind (engineering?)

I’m pretty sure Ben, who should be either later middle school or early high school, only sampled two or three streams. The rest she just lists.

As for Louisville, KY instead of Cairo, IL - yeah, got nothing there. The Ohio river passes through Louisville, but still has a long way to go before it reaches the Mississippi River at Cairo.

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:21pm

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Mar 14, 2020, 6:12pm

🙂 i’ll come back later and say more about your posts, but it’s not an easy book to track. The only reason I know some of the stuff above is because I started writing down possible key locations as they came up. They’re incomplete notes though, I don’t catch everything. Also, I read Louisville Ky and thought, huh, didn’t know that, and then read on without questioning. Glad you pointed it out!

Mar 14, 2020, 8:06pm

>5 tungsten_peerts: and >6 dchaikin: I might be able to shed a bit of light on the Ohio River bit. The Falls of the Ohio run beath the old railroad bridge leading to Louisville. THese aren't dramatic the East branch of the Ohio is about 2 feet higher than the west branch. Some have confused this as the end of the Ohio River and the begining of a branch of the Mississippi. This is incorrect of course but I've even heard some of the old timers refer to it as the Eastern Wabash. But this is a hyper local thing that older generations hold with even some be very hostile to the idea that Cario is the actual meeting place for the two rivers. I couldn't imagine how someone Ohio knows anything about this though unless she made a visit to the state park and stopped to listen to the craziness that some folks try to sell the world.

It's cool geology and fossil hunting the first Macedon fossil was found at the falls.

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:21pm

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Edited: Mar 14, 2020, 9:48pm

>9 stretch: How do you know about this? Cool. I don't recall her mentioning the Wabash, much less the "Eastern Wabash". Interesting that she was excited to say that the first mastodon fossils were found in Ohio. I don't remember how she worded it. It appears the first bones and tusks were found in Ohio, but the first teeth were found earlier, in many places, including New York (1705), Kentucky and South Carolina - this is all according to Wikipedia.

Here's the quote from Google Books (I don't have the page number)

"the fact that the two meet at Louisville, I mean the Ohio River and the Mississippi River, not Francis Scott Key and Quantrill, the fact that the Ohio's actually bigger than the Mississippi when they join at Louisville, the fact that the Ohio's a mile wide there, that fact that without the Ohio there'd be no Mississippi...the fact that both these Rivers join and head down to the Gulf, which now has a dead zone the size of Connecticut"

I think you nailed it, Kevin. It explains the phrase "meet" and the mile-wide comment is accurate. From Wikipedia: "The widest point on the Ohio River is just north of downtown Louisville, where it is one mile (1.6 km) wide."

I've been resistant as I look stuff up, but it adds up. The only oddity is that you are the only source of this Eastern Wabash that I have found.

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:21pm

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Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:21pm

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Mar 14, 2020, 10:02pm

>5 tungsten_peerts: I'm fascinated you water skied on the Ohio. Interesting to read your struggle with the book...and yet you're persisting. I have the same feeling about the lack of narrative, the relentless, directionless facts get tiring. I'm ok for a while and can enjoy it, but when I force it - which I'm doing to stay on pace - it's tough... and I find myself thinking I want a regular story to remind myself that I like reading.

>8 dchaikin: Wooster College - this really is your neighborhood! I did a google map from Newcomerstown to Wooster and it's cuts through New Philadelphia - 53 miles, with an alternate route almost through Coshocton - 55 mildes.

>10 tungsten_peerts: fine, you're a terrible person. 😉

>13 tungsten_peerts: cool!

Edited: Mar 14, 2020, 10:32pm

>11 dchaikin: When we first moved to Indiana we lived in New Albany right across the river from Louisville. Locals from both sides had some odd theories about the River. My dad and I drove to Cario to see its actual meeting place. I've only heard the Eastern Wabash thing from the Indiana side near Evansville I doubt anyone not from there would ever heard the name, confused the hell out of us because we couldn't figure out they were talking about for ages. Where the Wabash and Ohio meet is dramatic as well.

There is fork of the Wabash called the Eastern branch in Indianapolis, that in the late 70's was turned into a canal to disguise the underground combined storm water and sewage outfall. And that ends my trivia of Indiana waterways.

Edit: correction it was first complete Macedon fossil found in the falls. i want say early 1800s? it's been a while since i did the museum. Before the Army corp put in the weir to control flooding the entire north bank of the Ohio dried up in late summer reveling massive fossil beds all manner of creatures and fossils have been found there. Today the weir makes it a bit less dramatic and only a small 100 yd or so strip dries out enough to walk the beds. Still teeth and tusks are found there all the time. There's also something about Mammoth skull controversy, that still isn't resolved from the 1850's. It's a interesting place and I really should stop saying Indiana geology is boring.

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:21pm

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Mar 14, 2020, 10:38pm

>15 stretch: Ah yeah we moved here Fast time and slow time was still a thing. It was confusing for me because we live in county that was on Eastern but didn't do daylight savings time, I went to high school in county on centeral time but didn't practice daylgiht savings (refered to as slow time) and worked in county on eastern but did practie daylight savings time (fast time). I can't imagine a single town on slow and fast time.

Mar 15, 2020, 6:24am

I caught up with our reading schedule yesterday. I have less to say about this section. I thought the "Jesus saved me" phrase was funny - especially since it did take me a few pages to realize what had happened with the tire and that she wasn't a religious fanatic.

I'm still troubled by the timeline - how and when she's thinking all of this - and on what level of consciousness it's occurring. I was hoping I'd catch a real story or real themes slipping in amongst it all and I'm not sure I'm seeing that yet.

Also, her thoughts are quite a bit darker in this section. Pollution, Native American massacres, politics, etc. Liz alluded to this a few days ago, but her thoughts are really nothing like my internal chatter. Mine is more based on "practice conversations" and planning my life both daily and long term.

And yet despite all of these observations, I intend to keep reading. I'm hoping for some sort of revelation by the end. We'll see!

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:22pm

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Edited: Mar 15, 2020, 11:11am

Like many of you, by the end of this section 2 I was starting to feel a bit jaded with Ducks, and to be quite honest I was glad to get to the end of the break point so I can pick up another book I'm reading at the moment. I'll keep at it, but I'm starting to get frustrated as I eyeball a few other books I have at home that I'm champing at the bit to get stuck into.

I definitely got pandemic sidetracked this week as there are a lot of decisions to make with regards to work and the kids' schooling. I therefore decided to bring another book to read on my commute that was mentally 'quieter'. When I went back to Ducks after a couple of days absence, I found it harder to get back into a positive groove with it, and wished I'd kept the continuity. Part of that is to do with what's going on in the world at the moment - Ducks does not feel like a relaxing reading refuge - and part of it is that I think I'm just getting bored with the structure of the book. It feels mentally exhausting at times, and it can be hard to maintain my concentration. However, I also feel like I'm learning a lot (although I can't assess how factually reliable the narrator is).

I found this section quite different from section 1. Whilst the first section to me spoke about the challenges of trying to keep all the plates spinning between her business and home, this second section felt much more of a political commentary on today's America as she rails against heinous environmental decisions, Trump, gun laws and racial prejudice past and present. I regularly read a lot of books set in the States, yet this one has me reaching to look up American words, phrases and history much, much more than normal (which is interesting given that Ellmann now lives in the UK). Word-wise there are so many new words I didn't realise were different from the UK before. Pocketbook, for instance - is that really what you call a handbag? That's a notebook in the UK, so I was seriously confused for a while there. Open carry was a new term to me too.

I definitely feel that background US history and 'local insider knowledge' must be an advantage when reading Ducks, as I had so much Googling to do about the Indian massacre and the Hanford nuclear waste issue, for example (btw, the latter left me completely horrified and dumbfounded that I've never heard of this before on our side of the pond).

I enjoyed the early part of this section more than the last 100 pages, with the jaunt to the dentist and the flat tyre issue. I was hoping that this would be the start of some interesting commentary about her day and her social / family interactions, so I was disappointed that then she went so heavily into the political and historical commentary with no here and now thoughts about her family. I want to know more about interactions with Leo, Stace, etc.

My question to all of you American friends reading Ducks is this - how do you think she's portraying the US? Do you feel that it's an unbalanced view of excessive negativity, or is she capturing the mood of the moment?

Mar 15, 2020, 12:48pm

>16 tungsten_peerts: >17 stretch: that's just confusing...

Mar 15, 2020, 12:53pm

>18 japaul22: OK, the Jesus saves really through me. I was thinking, it's so off character, but she never said anything about religion, maybe I just missed it... but I'm amused in hindsight.

"but her thoughts are really nothing like my internal chatter." - so, something tiny bit funny. My wife was asking me to explain the book, so I was trying to describe the word association and whatnot, and she responded, in a frustrated tone, something like, "that sounds what's in head". Of course, only Ellmann filtered through me, but I was entertained.

Has you view on how she thinks changed over these last 200 pages?

Mar 15, 2020, 12:59pm

>19 tungsten_peerts: that's funny, Glenn. Something I would do, call in on a Sunday.

The pandemic has given me background stress, and, with kids home (and my wife away the last few days), not enough structure. Reading anything is a struggle. I found myself trying to read late last night and drifting off, and trying to force myself to read a little...because it was quiet.

Anyway, wish you some calm mental focus... (wish myself this too)

Mar 15, 2020, 1:28pm

>20 AlisonY: Duck is so not relaxing...that's another issue I have with it.

I thought, others have mentioned this too, that this book hit a crystallizing point when she had the flat tire and was outside freezing and panicking about bear attacks and what. I thought we could feel her panic and tension, and I was really tensing up as I read! But...that whole book is like that, just not so so tense. It's anxiety, just usually shushed to background - but not unconscious background.

Have I mentioned this yet? In Jeanette Winterson's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, she says that every thought has an emotion. And I think that true here - these underneath emotions, largely anxiety, are bubbling up to conscious random thought. The variations of these tying to fear, shame, lack of self confidence, uncertainty...along with feelings of affection, and being productive and just knowing stuff. Anyway, not relaxing.


pocketbook is...someone else should answer, or at least correct me. It usually implies a small purse...although those have gotten get bigger. So, yes, really a handbag, I term that works here too.


I didn't look up the Hanford Nuclear waste sight... crazy...


"My question to all of you American friends reading Ducks is this - how do you think she's portraying the US? Do you feel that it's an unbalanced view of excessive negativity, or is she capturing the mood of the moment?"

This is a really interesting question and you have my little head firing off synapses. I think different people would each have a different answer. But most people who don't agree with her are not the type to read this book and vast majority of those who do read this book probably agree with her. I think - so, maybe we need a group read poll. Anyway, I do. My take is this is the situation of the well-informed. The more you know about the current US situation, the more frustrating and depressing it is. But yet there is huge support for all this "bad" stuff, and they makes it worse and forces us to keep a lot of our frustration inside.

It's like, when Ida Tarbell, or Upton Sinclair published, they informed a broader part of the US and knowledge meant action. Standard Oil was broken and the US FDA became significant. But this idealism tarnished over time. When I was a kid, I still thought information meant resolution, and exposés were good. But overtime, I started to realize that wasn't the case, and that actually this stuff was getting shrugged off as un-resolvable - even when it was very much resolvable. Then we had media attacking the facts and today there is a whole population that simply choose not to believe what they don't want to believe, and even argue that it's the opposite of the truth, "fake news", and that saying these things are harmful in themselves. I know, we all know all this. I'm just putting some of my own perspective. But, the bottom line is that whereas information used to feel powerful, now it feels impotent. We know...and yet we can't do a thing about it and there's so much resistance that when we try to bring up, we become social outcasts (for the moment). So knowledge depresses. Again, this is my take. It would be nice to hear others.

Mar 15, 2020, 6:00pm

>24 dchaikin: very interesting thoughts, Dan. I think your take on it makes sense.

She certainly seems hell bent on touching on just about everything that's not right about the US, present and past. From an outsider looking in perspective, this feels very much like the Trump effect - that if you're in the non-Trump camp then it feels like he's left a stain on many moral aspects of US life. We're not perfect in the UK either, but I don't feel the same sense of... shame almost... that I'm getting from this book.

I just wonder why she's choosing to delve into the past and bringing up the Native Indian atrocities as well. That's why I was particularly interested in whether this feels fair as an American reader, or if it feels unnecessarily negative. We have plenty of atrocity skeletons in the closet through the long days of the British Empire, but I'm struggling to imagine, say, Ali Smith dragging those into a book that's largely reflecting modern day Britain.

Anyway, just my thoughts. Happy to accept arguments to the contrary. My brain is tired (my mum ended up in hospital in the middle of the night) so perhaps I'm over-thinking this.

Edited: Mar 15, 2020, 9:39pm

>25 AlisonY: so sorry about your mom.

I don't think you're overthinking anything, it's just the American I-do-whatever-I-want-even-kill-you mindset. It's what Kennedy tried to put in the closet to improve the US reputation with non-western countries in the 1960's, and what came back out in force in 2016. There was a mindset that allowed these early American settlers to commit gruesome murders, for everyone to know they committed gruesome murders and yet there was no shame or condemnation to come from it. Chivington in Sand Creek was extremely gruesome, in 1864, and he was celebrated for it (and, Ellmann mentions, a critic was murdered. I didn't know about this). This mindset, xenophobic on another level, it's still there. I think that's what she is getting at. She is basically arguing that the native massacres in the 1700's have direct links to MAGA today.

Mar 21, 2020, 8:59am

I'm really lagging.... I'm about 140 pages behind, but I'm aiming to keep going. Just not getting so much reading time at the moment.

Mar 21, 2020, 9:21am

>27 AlisonY: me too, Alison. I have about 80 pages to go. I might get there today, though, since it's Saturday and we won't be doing any homeschooling. I was super excited that I got to the part that explains the title - you must be just about there. Something to look forward to!

Mar 21, 2020, 11:01am

Now I feel better about being a bit behind. I’ll catch up this morning and start the thread.

Mar 21, 2020, 1:07pm

Not sure if this is helpful, but these were my notes for Section 2

• Taking Jake to dentist
• Flat tire
• Venice rapist
• Wizard of Oz
• Freezing then turning on the heat
• The Accidental Tourist
• Jesus saves - Jesus López Pérez of New Philadelphia, after 3 hours
• Leatherlips
• A few days later, Leo speaks - first clear break in time I noticed. p298
• Ohio River Pollution p316 etc
• Indian massacreds - Gnadenhutten & Lenape p320
omnes tenebrae videre non possum p324 (I cannot see all the darkness?)
• Robert Frost p340
• AIDA p349 - The advertisement strategy - awareness interest desire action
• James Mason p369 (Cary Grant, N by Nw)

Mar 21, 2020, 2:00pm

>27 AlisonY:, >28 japaul22:, >29 dchaikin: And I'm about 200 pages behind, having just finished section 2. :)

As a reader that generally goes with the flow and has trouble analyzing or thinking about what I am in the middle of, I am still enjoying this. I've accepted that the narration isn't my conscious thought patterns and am enjoying the flow of words. Apparently I am not an anxious person as I find it soothing and often fall asleep while reading. So I am having trouble reading more than 15ish pages at a time.

I'm not really tracking the timeline. I did notice some of the gaps, but I am not entirely certain how important the "real-world" timeline is.

>20 AlisonY: I hadn't heard of the Hanford Nuclear Waste site either.

I think this novel captures the modern moment rather well. If you think about it, there is so much news -- every little town in the world every day has dozens of stories that could be news. That is billions and billions of news stories and with social media and being in constant contact with dozen of people it seems both possible and yet completely unrealistic that we should know these stories. There is no filter, no selection, no shaping of society. Tere is no stry (and certainly no facts) held in common. So, agree or disagree with the actual poltical commentary of the narrator, it feel very contemporaneous (and apparently American).