Book reviews: ducks, decks and disturbances

Another three books (including one whopper) have passed through my eyeballs, so it’s time for another reading recap. I’m certainly finding it more enjoyable to chunk a couple of these together – I hope that’s better to read for you, too.

Nic knows the score. Three. That’s the score.

I’m feeling pretty good about how the reading has progressed so far this year. I’m making progress on my list, and haven’t really had a dud yet, so it’s a Good Year, at least as far as text goes. Sure, there’s still the 2020-2022 malaise thing happening, but turning the pages is keeping it at bay, at least so far.

So, onwards!

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.
My rating: five stars

When I first read James Joyce’s Ulysses, I was drawn to the book’s final chapter. In it, the main character’s wife, Molly Bloom, provides a survey of her thoughts, of her love of the physical, all in eight famously long sentences. It’s a blast of night thoughts, of enthusiasm and of love.

Lucy Ellmann’s parents were a feminist critic and perhaps the Joyce scholar, so it is perhaps unsurprising that she has created a work that takes the peregrinating internal voice of a woman and extends it over the length of a novel rather than just a chapter. It’s a thousand-odd pages of Molly Bloom unchained and upgraded.

(These sentences are long. Forget anything you know about paragraphs.)

The novel opens with a middle-aged mother in the midst of professional baking. She’s a survivor – of cancer, of shit marriages, of the Trump administration (just) – but she is, like most of us, a worrier. While she works, her mind picks at the loose teeth of her life: whether her eldest daughter likes her; whether the guy who drops off the chicken feed is a creep; and most importantly, whether her life went wrong when her mother died.

“The fact that” is a phrase repeated throughout the narrator’s run-on musings: it provides a hook to hang the progress of the work on. It’s almost a tic, a sort of spell that starts her sentences and provides impetus to continue. It underscores the way the mind niggles, and provides a comfort to the reader: a form of familiarity. With the phrase as a safety net, Ellmann’s narrator provides an eviscerating critique of modern America – from rivers of fire to shooter-drilled children; from personal dissatisfaction to unaffordable healthcare – all while she explains how to make perfect cinnamon rolls.

the fact that I don’t remember much, and everything I do remember makes me sad

This is really the sort of book that’s quite difficult to review. I suspect the people with whom it doesn’t make a solid connection are probably the sort of people who are well adjusted and haven’t ever suffered anxiety or depression. Ellmann has so successfully captured the way one’s internal narrative coils around itself, expanding to take focus from everything else, that I can’t really put my finger on another work to so successfully skewer that monopolising inner voice, to capture the slippery self-deprecation that only one’s own mind can muster.

the fact that I think the trouble is I became a mom before I figured out how to be a daughter, the fact that maybe it wasn’t until Jake was born that I really started to catch up with myself, the fact that things happen so fast, too fast, the fact that you never have time to think properly, the fact that life is all crisis-management, the fact that is it like that for everybody

The novel switches between long, run-on ruminations by the unnamed narrator, and taut straight narrative from the viewpoint of a mountain lioness. Despite the differences in narrative style, the two are linked in ways which become more apparent as the work drifts on.

Remarkably, I can say I was never distracted or bored with this novel, and I never felt it dragged. The enterprise entranced, and cast me, the reader, as a secret observer of an average mum’s hopes and fears, those unvoiced dreads and the moments of transcendent love.

Honestly, the plaudits for Ducks, Newburyport are well deserved. I fucking loved it.

The Library of Esoterica #1: Tarot by Jessica Hundley.
My rating: five stars

Part of The Library of Esoterica, a new line of books from noted art/nudes publisher Taschen, Tarot offers both the cartomancer and the casual something of interest.

Essentially, the work is a visual history of the cards, from earliest editions up to the latest esoteric – and teen magazine tie-in – variants.

The chronology of the cards – from earliest gambling decks through to the codifications that followed its adoption by those in the Western Magical Tradition – is covered in enough depth to provide an overview but not enough to bore. There’s essays on the cards’ role as an instigator of art, from the Dadaists to Jodorowsky. It’s all well written stuff. But the real pull of the book is its journey through the major and minor arcana.

The examination of the major arcana takes the form of the trip from The Fool to The World, and offers a guide to the standard Rider-Waite-Smith appearance of the card, as well as its purported meaning, and a couple of correspondences. But the real pull is the inclusion of several images per position, showing a range of takes on each card, varying from classic to oblique.

I’m familiar with a lot of decks, but I certainly found a lot to interest me in this section of the book. While old favourites turned up – I must admit I was probably turned on to tarot by the deck designed for Live and Let Die, which does appear – there were plenty of variants which were new to me. The quality of the art varies with one’s taste, naturally, and I found it went to both ends of the great/shit spectrum, but that’s really the point of a book such as this.

Ah yes, the Exploding Condo card. Very, uh, good.

The minor arcana are handled a little differently. They are broken into the four suits – wands, cups, pentacles and swords – and given a per-suit rundown, followed by some of the more interesting depictions. It’s obviously not as in-depth as the attention paid the major arcana, but it would obviously push the book’s length way out to do so.

There is, of course, a rough guide to using the cards included, but it doesn’t offer a particularly meaty overview: naturally, the book points the reader towards some of the more well-regarded training texts, such as Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom.

Though I did have some beefs with this volume – certain decks seemed to turn up again and again, where others (albeit less rare, perhaps) might have provided a different view or broadened the number of interpretations covered – but it would be churlish to mark down such a well produced effort for things which really come down to taste. This is an excellent coffee table book, and it made me want to start reading the cards more regularly, so that’s a pretty positive result.

There’s another two titles in this series: Witchcraft and Astrology. I am keen to check them out, if the quality is anywhere close to the consideration given Tarot. Here’s hoping the line expands beyond these first three tomes and delves deeper into esoteric art – there’s an (other)world of creation out there.

Also, thanks Jo and Rob for this! It was a birthday present this year and was just *chef’s kiss*. Now go buy Rob’s great new album.

The Paradise Motel by Eric McCormack.
My rating: four stars

I’ve discovered that the review I wrote when I last read this book, eight years ago, still holds pretty true. So here it is!

Following a read of one of McCormack’s other works, I decided to reread The Paradise Motel, his second book. It was the first of his I’d read, years ago, after I discovered that a band I really liked had taken their name from the work. 

In the five-odd years since my last reread, it seems I appreciate the work more, though its faults are readily apparent. If you’re looking for a conclusive narrative here – or in any other of McCormack’s work – you probably won’t be best pleased by the tenuous grasp on narrative authority. This is a book like smoke, ungraspable and shape-shifting. It means what you want it to mean, and though there is a big reveal in the tale, it’s almost comforting. 

The most telling phrase in the book is one where McCormack gives away, I think, his modus operandi. He has a character discussing a book deal, in which his work is dismissed as a group of short stories, loosely assembled. 

“That’s what life is anyway: a handful of short stories pretending to be a novel.”

As I grow older, this gathers more of a ring of truth to it. The idea of a grand narrative, so appealing in youth, just waiting for one to deign to play along, becomes less likely as age increases. Instead, we’re left with a bunch of smaller incidents, tied together under the banner of life. With The Paradise Motel, McCormack uses his box of bleary recollections, travel-sick visions and ghostly totems to show this to the reader, if only they’ll take note. 

It’s funny that it’s taken me the better part of twenty years to grasp this.

Like I say, it still feels pretty correct. The years (almost 30?!) have increased, but each time I read The Paradise Motel I find something else to interest me, some small perversity or mundanity that leaps out at me. It took me a long time to find the paperback copy I’ve lugged all over the world, and it’s pleasing to me to note that McCormack’s gothic oddities have been given new life in ebook form.

The gnomic author’s output has certainly had an effect on me, and I urge you to explore them too.

Remains brilliant almost thirty years on.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.


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