What We’re Reading: Anne Bronte & Lucy Ellmann

Anne Bronte

This is a month for reading long books.  I decided this when I learned January 17 is the bicentenary of Anne Bronte’s birthday.  How could I skip that celebration?   Naturally, I am rereading Anne.  She wrote just two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so this is easier than you might think. Somewhere I have a collection of the  poems.  Too bad there isn’t more.

I am also reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the behemoth of a novel that won the 2019 Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and the Saltire  Award.  The critics were uniformly reverent:  “It is experimental!  It is the women’s Ulysses!  It is one long 1,000-page sentence!”

 Somehow it’s not like that.  It is quite accessible if you enjoy stream-of consciousness. The narrator is an American housewife, buoyantly musing on Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter, Doctor Zhivago, Trump, abortion rights, her expensive dough-kneading machine, baking cinnamon rolls and pies, choosing crudités for a cocktail party, her son’s preference for yellow crayons, her daughter’s disapproval of her sweatpants, her inability to get handymen to fix the washer on the faucet, the sad fact that they went broke when she had cancer, and much more. I’m sure she gets less buoyant at some point, but there is plenty of humor.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I am reading Ducks with the same fascination I have for women’s magazines. The housewife’s musings could easily be published in Good Housekeeping, Redbook, McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal–if there were periods instead of commas and these magazines all existed!

And when I say that, I mean it as a good thing. I have very much enjoyed what I’ve read so far.  I think many other women would like it, too, even if they’re not fans of experimental novels.

More on this later.

Gifts under the Tree: Books, of Course!

Merry Christmas!   

We’ve opened our gifts, and we’re feeling jolly.  Well, of course we are.  We picked out our own books, so everything is perfect.  I now have a copy of Lucy Ellmann’s controversial novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which won the Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.   And I have begun Eleanor Fitzsimons’s well-reviewed new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which is very good indeed.

I’m sure you have heard of Ellmann’s novel, which is 1,000 pages long, published by a small press, and written in one sentence from the point-of-view of an American housewife.  The critics love it.  I hope I will.

My favorite book as a chld.

You may not be familiar with E. Nesbit (1858-1924), who was best-known for her children’s fantasy novels.  When I was a child she was my favorite writer, so my sensible mother gave me her books for Christmas and birthdays.  I read these books over and over from the ages of 10-12.  The Enchanted Castle was my favorite.

Although I didn’t know it then, Nesbit also wrote for adults. You can very cheaply buy an e-book edition of her Complete Works, which contains all her adult books as well as the children’s books. Nesbit is undergoing a revival:   Penelope Lively selected Nesbit’s delightful adult novel The Lark for the Penguin Women Writers’ series in 2018.  Furrowed Middlebrow has also published an American edition of The Lark.   And for those of you who love trivia, Nesbit and her circle were thinly-veiled characters in A. S. Byatt’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Children’s Book.  

I am loving Fitzsimon’s biography, because Nesbit was absolutely fascinating and very “progressive.”  She was a Fabian socialist who hung out with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other famous writers; she was willing to write anything, from newspaper articles to books, to support her unemployable husband, Hubert Bland, along with their five children, Hubert’s mistress, and his two children with her.

Well, enough about my good books!  I love the bio, and will start the Ellmann soon.

Have a Contented Christmas! 

Can a Book Prize Controversy Sell “Ducks, Newburyport”? 

I have nothing against award-winning books, but I try to use my time wisely.

That said, I am considering reading Lucy Ellmann’s experimental novel, Ducks, Newburyport,  which won the Goldsmiths Prize recently and was shortlisted both for the Booker Prize and the Saltire Society literary Award in Scotland.  It is on my Christmas gift “shortlist,” mainly  because of Parul Sehgal’s dazzling review in The New York Times.

 A literary prize “scandal” has put me off, though.

Lesley McDowell, a judge for the Saltire Society literary award, resigned from a panel of five judges because Lucy Ellmann’s novel did not win.  Three of the judges voted against Ducks, Newburyport, two for it. McDowell believes it was a sexist decision.  According to The Guardian, she is indignant that the prize went to Ewan Morrison’s Nina X, a novel by a man writing from the  point-of-view of a woman.  She insists Ellmann’s Ducks is a “masterpiece” by a woman from a woman’s point of view.

And so the judges disagreed.  Is that a big deal?

Has any small-press novel garnered as much attention this year as Ellmann’s novel?  That indicates the book is well-respected, and that the writer has powerful friends.  This  1,000-page novel, told from the point-of-view of an Ohio housewife, apparently in only one sentence, is available at my local Barnes and Noble.  I glanced at it:  it is very accessble.

Our own favorite small-press author, the late Stephen Dixon, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1991 for his experimental novel, FrogThe Baltimore Press described the 769-page book as follows: “Composed of 21 chapters — each with the word “Frog” in the title — it tells the story of a nondescript, middle-aged man named Howard Tetch and his family, moving back and forth in time countless times, recasting events from different perspectives.”  He did not win.  Sounds like Dixon and Ellmann had some things in common.

McDowell claims that not all the Saltire Society judges finished Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel.  Again, I may be in Cloud Cuckooland, but this sounds like a smart move.  If the judges dislike a book after, say, 30-50 pages, is it likely they will change their mind on page 1,000?  And how do the judges find the time to read all of these books?  Don’t they need a sane process of elimination?  (You see, I am far too pragmatic for the world of award politics!)

From what I’ve heard, Ducks, Newburyport is not for everybody.  I am interested in it, but I hate award “scandals”:  the Nobel Prize scandal last year, a judge for the International Booker Prize resigning when Philip Roth, our great American writer, won, and on and on.

 Perhaps literary prize scandals sell books.  Alas, they depress me.

The fact that Ellmann’s small-press novel won one award (the Goldsmiths Prize) is astonishing!

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