Ducks, Newburyport: A Challenging, Yet Rewarding Book to Read

Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 Booker-shortlisted novel Ducks, Newburyport reads like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy on steroids. This book is nearly one thousand pages, with more than nine hundred pages as the interior monologue of an unnamed middle-aged Ohio housewife. The interior monologue runs as one sentence.
Despite the daunting challenge of reading the book, I found it to be a literary masterpiece. Jane Austen wrote that that ”memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—–at others, so bewildered and so weak—–at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control….”All these descriptive adjectives of memory are found in the outpouring of words of this Ohio housewife.
She is obsessed with life in what she perceives as a dystopic America. She is outraged with Trump, America’s history of Native American genocide, slavery and lynching of African Americans, American gun culture and the resultant mass killings. And those are just a few of her peeves.
She is the mother of four children; three from her present husband, whom she loves dearly. She is a competent baker who provides her pies and tarts to the stores in town. On the surface, her life seems normal, yet her thoughts drive her to the brink of terror with fear and anxiety.
Despite its dark side, there is much humor in the novel, especially in the wordplay. The author has an incredible knack of juxtaposing horrific and comedic images that create surreal landscapes throughout the book.
Lucy Ellmann spent much of her youth living in Evanston, where her father Richard Ellmann (the biographer of Joyce, Wilde and Yeats) taught at Northwestern. There are a few references to Evanston and the nearby Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie in the book, which especially piqued my interest since I live in Skokie. The author has been  living the life of an American expatriate in the United Kingdom for nearly forty years. She currently lives in Scotland.
There is a second story in the book, interspersed alongside the interior monologue, told by a third-person narrator. It’s the story of a mountain lioness, who prowls the central Ohio countryside and suburbs searching for her lost cubs. This narration is written in a traditional structure of sentences and paragraphs. It is the protectiveness of these two mothers (human and animal) for their offspring that provides a unifying theme to the novel.
I believe that the adventurous and curious reader should give it a shot and read this most incredible literary achievement.

Chicago Writers Association Awards Ceremony is January 18th.

The Chicago Writers Association’s Book of the Year awards ceremony is always a highlight on the Chicago literary community calendar. It is coming up next Saturday evening, January 18 at the Book Cellar, located at 4736-38 N. Lincoln Avenue. I was delighted to see my friend Devin Murphy among the winners. The festivities for this free event starts at 7:00, but seating is very limited. I would suggest getting there at least a half hour early to secure a seat. The winners are:
Traditional Fiction: Tiny Americans by Devin Murphy
Indie Fiction: A Dangerous Identity by Russell Fee
Traditional Nonfiction: In Deep by Angalia Bianca, with Linda Beckstrom
Indie Nonfiction: The Buddha at My Table by Tammy Letherer

A Newberry Library Seminar on “1001 Afternoons in Chicago”

I am pleased to announce that once again I will be teaching a seminar on Ben Hecht’s book “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” at the Newberry Library in three Tuesday evening sessions, starting March 24 and ending April 7, from 5:45 to 7:45. The sixty-four incredibly imaginative sketches in the book capture the heart and soul of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape during the early 1920s. Online registration opens at 9 am (CST) on Tuesday, January 7 at

Nina Barrett Discusses Leopold and Loeb in Edgewater

Emanuel Congregation is proud present Nina Barrett as our speaker on Tuesday evening, January 14, at 7:00. Nina will speak about the Leopold and Loeb kidnapping and killing of Bobby Franks in 1924 that was referred to as the “crime of the century” in its time. It was a sinister attempt to commit “the perfect crime.” In 2009, Nina Barrett curated an exhibit at Northwestern University Library about the case called “The Murder That Wouldn’t Die.” After the exhibit closed, Nina continued to uncover additional primary source material about the case. She has collected her findings in her book “The Leopold and Loeb Files.”
Nina is a graduate of both Yale University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She is the author of three books, the owner of Bookends & Beginnings bookstore in Evanston, as well as being a master chef.
This event is free and open to the public. Emanuel is at 5959 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago. There is a free parking lot adjacent to the synagogue. Email me at and I’ll save you a seat.