Ducks, Newburyport - final tread

TalkClub Read 2020

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Ducks, Newburyport - final tread

Apr 4, 2020, 9:27pm

Original 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%

March 14: 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%

today: US 777-988 : UK 786-998 and appendix

Apr 4, 2020, 9:29pm

I'm on page 850, so don't really belong here yet. Slowly making my way through to the end. I can't say I like the book better when it's slower, but my attention has been struggling this past week, so it's just harder to read than normal (and not as much fun...)

Because I'm so far back, no summary yet. But feel free to comment here once you feel ready to.

Apr 5, 2020, 6:48am

I finished Ducks this morning with a range of emotions. I really enjoyed the last 200 pages, and particularly appreciated that everything that had gone before was a lead up to the last 50 or so pages. We're left with the satisfaction that good has come out of something bad, which feels like a nice message given the current times we're living in.

I also have to admit to feeling some relief that I've now reached the end of it. I'm very glad I read it, and the more I think of it the more I appreciate what a clever piece of work it really is. There must have been a huge amount of work involved tying in all those news stories and snippets of information on movies, climate change, etc. However, it was a book that required close reading because of its narrative form, and at times with everything that's going on in the world at the moment I just craved reading something light that I didn't have to think about too much.

Being guilty of recently catching the first couple of episodes of Tiger King on Netflix, I gather that the story she references of a lot of wild cats being released in Ohio was actually true. Is the story of our mountain lioness completely fictional, or is there any truth to that story?

All in all a clever book, and thanks for spurring us all on to read it through this group read, Dan. I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise.

Will we ever notice if full stops are missing in books again?

Edited: Apr 5, 2020, 8:02am

I have also finished. Like Jennifer, once this was the only book I was reading I was able to find time and focus and read at a faster pace. Unlike Alison and Dan, I have not read it closely. Instead I allowed myself to be hypnotized and weirdly calmed by the flow of words. Now I am strongly resisting the urge to go back and figure out how much of this was based on real events, because I am not sure where it started but at some point I thought there was a gentle slide into absurdity -- it was harder and harder to suspend disbelief with the accumulation of both detailed and casual calamities.

The flas flood at the Mall, okay but then the house on fire floating by? The casual mention of a house that exploded right across from the school? It was also reflected in the story of the lioness -- at first it was sort of a realistic portrayal of her in nature, but later on the dreams of the lioness? I am not sure what I think about all that.

Edited: Apr 5, 2020, 8:22am

>4 AlisonY: Congrats on finishing! I also was satisfied that the end brought things together.

>5 ELiz_M: Congrats on finishing, Liz! I was with you in that I don't think I read it particularly closely. Part of that was that most of her "obscure" references weren't that obscure to me (the old musicals and midwestern references were part of my life anyway) and I didn't worry too much about the rest.

I thought that the author purposely added all of the real-life calamities because though it might be unrealistic to all happen to one person, it made the narrator's thoughts, which at first seem sort of crazy, have more weight. Otherwise the reader could have left thinking mainly that "midwestern housewives are pretty crazy and worrying about a lot of things that would never happen anyway".

And for the lioness - linking human impact to animal life seemed intentional. I thought it interesting that in about 1/5 as many words as she used for the narrator's story, Ellmann explored similarities and differences with human mothers AND the impact of human life on the lioness pretty deeply. So she can create a more tightly constructed story!

It bothered me a little that there was such a shift from the beginning where her thoughts were all interior and barely related to what was happening in her day, to being almost a straight recounting of what was happening in real life. Did other people see it that way or did I just get used to the style and to picking out what was happening by the end?

I'm also still bothered that I never figured out the timeline. At first I was highlighting passages that gave me a sense of time, but about 1/3 of the way through I gave up on that. Does anyone have a clear picture of how much time this covers?

Apr 5, 2020, 10:30am

Congrats all for finishing!

Sorry I’m still reading and can’t comment much, but a couple crumbs:

google “ 2011 Zanesville, Ohio animal escape” - she changed the timeline to the Trump era. The whole story real other than the year.

Timeline: I didn’t get a year, but we started in February and, as of page 811 we were in March. Since it’s the Trump era and it was published in 2019 it could be 2017, 2018 or 2019.

Edited: Apr 5, 2020, 10:33am

Oh, just googled “mountain lion loose in Ohio” and found this - from 2011. 🙂

Apr 5, 2020, 10:36am

>7 dchaikin: it is 2017 -- The Solar Eclipse they will be watching took place on August 21, 2017.

Apr 5, 2020, 10:39am

There have been lots of sightings! (Although only one photograph). See the video in this link:

Apr 5, 2020, 10:40am

>9 ELiz_M: great catch!

Apr 5, 2020, 11:32am

Thanks for the timeline info!

Apr 5, 2020, 1:12pm

>8 dchaikin: Good digging! I'm not really bothered if she messed around with timelines (in terms of years) to fit her story. It's cool that a lot of what she references has happened at some time or another.

>5 ELiz_M: I forgot about the house that floated by! Maybe she was just having a bit of fun with those extra crazy stories. Mind you, a quick Google and I'm coming up with plenty of references to houses floating down the Ohio River during a storm. Haven't found one that was on fire yet, but there were some on fire floating down rivers in other States... I guess sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Apr 8, 2020, 9:15am

Not ready to post any thoughts yet...but I did just finish.

Apr 8, 2020, 9:19am

the fact that it’s unbelievable but every single thing alive has its own center of being, and looks out on the world from that point of view, even a worm, or a jellyfish, hamsters, owls, the fact that even a leaf has feelings, the fact that you know the leaves are enjoying this warm sun going right through them, the fact that the leaves seem to be sunbathing, letting the sun lick them, the fact that there are times, maybe the most unlikely times, that you realize you’re simply thrilled to be alive, and what a great piece of luck it is just to be a part of things, to have a body, so you can feel and see and walk the earth, for just a little while, the fact that children are born happy, and it’s a mom’s duty to preserve that in them as long as possible, everybodys’ duty, the fact that it’s the same with flowers, the fact that there is no way a newly opened poppy can’t be thrilled to be alive, and trees, waterfalls, the fact that waterfalls sure act thrilled, except when they dry to a trickle during a dry spell or something, the falls at Fallingwater, the fact that water must have a sense of itself, a real liking for itself, because bodies of water are always trying to meet up, the fact that it’s hard to keep them apart, the fact that that’s why oceans exist, they’re big water get-togethers,

the fact that there is no place for me in this world, no place, the fact that I am broken, broken, the fact that there’s no room in the whole of Ohio for my needs, my desires, my dilemmas, my tragedies, my flat tires, my mommy, Mommy, the fact that I want my mommy

Apr 8, 2020, 7:18pm

>14 dchaikin: Congratulations, Dan! We've got the champagne on ice...

Apr 8, 2020, 7:29pm

>14 dchaikin: nice work! The quote from pg 926 that you put in >15 dchaikin: really stood out to me too. She used those phrases so often and seeing them all together towards the end was moving.

Apr 8, 2020, 8:54pm

>16 AlisonY: so ready for the champagne

>17 japaul22: thanks. Yeah, a lot of stuff coalesces there. She is such a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, self-doubt leading her to dive deep down depressive holes, dwelling on dreadful things, yet actually steady and able to capture some really beautiful things. I like seeing the two quotes together, although they give a misleading bipolar impression - she wasn’t bipolar, just always juggling several things in her head.

Edited: Apr 10, 2020, 6:14pm

So, I'm noticing, as I try to think this through, I have very conflicting responses to this book. First, it was exhausting and time consuming. But second it was remarkable. But third there was so much anxiety, it was bit overwhelming to read. But fourth it was difficult to read because I could relate, because I have my own assortment of under-the-hood relentless anxieties. And, it's an interesting experiment.

I'm one of those who is frustrated by the lack of a clear definition of "stream of conscious". (Well, it doesn't help I haven't really read much of it... hmm) But I get the sense that no one actually thinks like the classic "stream of conscious" novels. We construct our thoughts in ways coherent enough for us to understand...well, what we want to understand. Certainly, we obscure a lot and our unconscious driver unashamedly interferes tearing up logic, putting up false walls etc. But, the point is this stuff is poorly defined. And here was a completely different take from the norm. This isn't really a parallel to other stream-of-conscious novels, but it is a variation on the stream of conscious concept. She's thinking and that's how it comes out.

Or, I think. The thing is I haven't been able to place this thought process in my own conscious mind. Up front I don't think in a way like she writes. At the forefront of my mind is what's happening right now and when I'm writing it's a very streamlined thought process, fudges are scraped away, it's all streamlined for communication. But when i talk to myself, that's the same as how I write here - it's a clean thought process. I have coherent dialogs, I debate and play-act, and then I criticize it all, point out to myself how careless and silly my self of a moment ago was (and then thank myself for not saying all that junk out loud).

Of it an of course...well it is to me. So, of course there are many layers of thinking going on behind that fore-fronted thinking. And that's where I feel the need to place this. Her running commentary here is clearly conscious and intentional (my doubts on this are eventually scrubbed away). But yet - she never speaks to that task at hand except when it cuts deeper. Her narratives are after the fact. It's not like she says, "I worry about my kids and their, turn off the stove, future lives and all these dangers, pull out the sugar, where are those measuring cups..." The "now" stuff, the stuff that allows us to function, simply isn't there. It's as if she took all her thoughts and filtered out that now stuff, just edited out, and laid out the rest. But - where does that put this text? And does it really apply to reality ("reality" is a weird term in this context where it's all in the mind)

Edited: Apr 10, 2020, 6:17pm

And then there's the heart of this novel. It's is warm, embracing family and her close relationships with people past and present. There is a confused complexity that adds a something special to all this. And yet there is this negative stuff. Nuclear wars, trumpers and open-carry guys, real massive regionally extensive severe pollution (not to mention global) in a first world country that should be able to manage this and how the pervasiveness of it simply overwhelms our ability respond either in action or emotionally. We go do denial. And there's the massacres of the natives and all the horrible horrible headlines, all this crazy world stuff (makes me think of Genesis - this is the world we live in)

So, I mean, there is a gaping chasm between our relationships, no matter how bad, and all this negative stuff - human and human both, yet one bearable and embraceable, and the other beyond comprehension, defeating, larger than we can manage, necessitating denial just to get by.

I took in all her bad news and it all made sense to me. Some things were ... how we can say ... over-hyped? dramatized?, spun to make them worse than they maybe are. But the full tide of all of that bad information rings true to me. It becomes not just an ugly world of sprawling parking lots and concrete buildings, but something in air, the water, the globe, the global psyche... And suddenly to find any warmth, it comes with this terrible stuff as a back drop - like hug in battlefield strewn with corpses (ok - I admit, I watched 1917 last night.)

Apr 10, 2020, 6:13pm

but the thing is that to process all this requires some constructive thought. And...Ellmann isn't provided constructive thought. It's all deconstructive, distracting. Whatever calm we come up with ourselves, Ellmann pounds away at, pressing that anxiety hard, undermining our efforts. I found that very difficult to deal with while reading. It's a little easier now.

Anyway - I'm processing. And I'm tied up in contradictions everywhere.

Apr 11, 2020, 9:02am

Enjoyed your analysis, Dan. You've brought out some things I hadn't really considered before. I'm considering your considerations (I'm sure that's a thing - if not it is now).

Apr 11, 2020, 9:22am

I agree that her thought pattern is what is taking place one step deeper than conscious thought, but I'm not exactly sure how that works either. It's like there is the level being written, the level above it where you plan/have internal conversations/react to your current experience, and then the spoken level above that? I don't know. It definitely bothered me at first that I couldn't place what level of consciousness this was but then I decided to just go with it.

Apr 11, 2020, 2:33pm

>22 AlisonY: parallel wavelengths of a sort, maybe. What did you make of the narrative style?

>23 japaul22: I admit, it didn’t bother me while I was reading. Had to go with it. But now that I’m thinking about it - about how to analyze it, and trying to figure out what I think about it, it bothers me that I left unsure with what to make of the narrative. Maybe it’s a simple as I just need to find the right words to classify it, and then I can move on. Sometimes I’m like that.

Edited: Apr 11, 2020, 4:41pm

>24 dchaikin: I'm thinking about whether it's as Jennifer suggests, i.e. her thought pattern is one step deeper than conscious thought, or whether it's still fairly reflective of actual thought, but without the humdrum (did I put the pepper in that sauce yet?... ugh - I hate how egg gets so stuck to the plate... etc. etc.).

I think I'm leaning towards the latter. To me, a lot of the humdrum thoughts we have are reflexive and feel that they're more part of our subconscious thoughts, whereas the self-chatter, worries and anxieties feel much more conscious. I hold my hand up to being one of life's stressers, so I definitely could identify with that anxiety-driven hopping about between subjects, and I find when I'm in the 'stress red zone' that spills over into anxious thoughts about anything and everything.

Those sorts of thoughts permeate my head most when I'm doing tasks that don't require my attention and hence allow my mind to wander, so it worked for me (in terms of believability) that a lot of the narrative takes place when she's mindlessly baking, something she's clearly experienced at and can do with her eyes closed. To me, that's a different kind of thought process to when you're concentrating on figuring something out, or working on a task that needs full attention.

Perhaps that's it - attention driven thoughts versus absent-minded thoughts. This feels like a book that chronicles absent-minded thoughts.

Apr 11, 2020, 4:01pm

>25 AlisonY: that’s a good way to think of it, Alison. I’ll need to keep pondering it!

Apr 11, 2020, 4:11pm

I’m thinking through your post too, Alison. When I’m mindlessly active, my thinking can be very active, but tends towards clear construction - just unguided by judgement (unedited, so to speak). They aren’t like this text. The closest I come is the background stuff that I have very little control over and am not always aware of.

Hmm. If I were to record that background stuff _and_ then add conscious commentary to it, it might look something like this text.

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:18pm

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Apr 11, 2020, 6:27pm

FW a favorite? !! I’ve been too intimidated to try it. Well, all Joyce is on my one-day list.

I’m with you on the dreams. I could relate. For me it was the real world anxiety transferred into something else in my dreams. (Although, oddly, that aspect seemed to fade the last 200 pages)

Glad you’re still truckin, Glenn.

Apr 11, 2020, 8:09pm

>29 dchaikin:, because I was thinking of it and was restless, I just did a thing on Facebook. I posted my memory of a sequence from near the beginning of Finnegans Wake.

Then I posted the actual text. I was only off by one small word (I had "while" where the book has "and", and I had the character name Shen as Shem).

Not bad! I used to have the whole opening committed to memory. I owe reading the book to a very stubborn pretentious spirit I have. I've gone through it twice. It really isn't one to read for plot, though you can pick up a little of what Joyce was up to from secondary literature and see how it sort of structures the 628 pages (or so) of the book. He was trying to capture dream logic and language, drawing on (if I recall correctly) Jung and the idea of the collective unconscious, and so FW becomes not the dream of one of its 'characters' (who are hard to separate out from the prose, but they're there) but the dream of all humanity.

Did he succeed? I guess not. But it's the product of seventeen years of trying by one of the world's great writers, so I've always felt a bit bound to step up. The experience of reading it is not like any dream I've ever had, but it rises often enough to the realm of glorious music that I don't mind. I don't mind anything, when I'm in that maze -- because it's beautiful. :)

Apr 14, 2020, 2:08pm

Glenn - I read your post, got pulled away and completely forgot to come back here. But what you wrote about FW (and I think it’s relevant here, as this book is a kind of descendant of Joyce) is quite fascinating. The parts I’ve heard, it sounds, read out loud, like he was trying to recreate the once more natural alliteration of older Englishes or the like. (Some heavy Gaellic, too, I thought). Admittedly that was a draw for me, just the sounds. But - to maintain that over pages and pages - I don’t know. The dream logic and dream of all humanity, or at least the effort to seriously capture that, also interests. I should hunt down a copy so I can page through it a bit. Maybe a hook will catch

Edited: Jun 8, 2020, 1:19pm

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Apr 15, 2020, 7:34pm

Beautiful story about your mother. I will search out that recording, thanks!