Staff Picks: Ducks, Dubs, and Dung


This Week’s Reading

Nicole Flattery.

When I moved to New York, I was overwhelmed by the sense that everyone I encountered was desperately holding themselves together. I could not escape the feeling that I, too, must be very careful, that if I were not, some crack in my skin would open and spill my insides onto the sidewalk. Accompanying this vigilance was an impulse toward rebellion, the sense that if only I were reckless, I could finally have some fun. I came to fancy myself somewhat deranged and decided to leave it at that. There are many such women in Nicole Flattery’s outstanding collection Show Them a Good Time—women who are holding themselves together or flagrantly resisting the mandate to do so, in worlds both horrifying and hilarious. “Abortion, a Love Story” is a standout, a lengthy piece that merits the patience it requires. Natasha, engaged in a “tedious liaison” with her pathetic professor, believes she must “keep her emotions quiet and fixed in place or her whole face [will] break apart.” Out to dinner, she returns from the bathroom to find herself replaced by her inverse, a girl named Lucy. Lucy is “monstrously drunk” and looks like “what was promised men when they returned from war.” This Gogolian turn does not end in tragedy but in rapturous joy, the women holding hands as the lecherous professor quite literally fades into the background. I hope one day to be so united, warring impulses finally in harmony. In the meantime, Flattery’s collection will be my wry and devastating companion. —Noor Qasim 

“Carnivores beware,” begins one review of Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia. “Dung, urine, mucus, blood, bile and every other bodily fluid spread noxiously across the pages of Animalia,” another warns. A third: “With stomach-turning flamboyance,” Del Amo describes “the slimy, spurting realities of breeding, birthing, castration and culling.” Okay, we get it. Animalia, which is Del Amo’s fourth novel—though the first to appear in English, via Frank Wynne’s translation—is gross. But Del Amo’s multigenerational portrait of a hardscrabble family of pig farmers in Gascony is also a lyrical powerhouse, a sophisticated portrait of a fucked-up feedback loop of familial cruelty and disappointment, and a story that, for all its brutality, also reveals something more. Yes, many of Del Amo’s descriptions will turn you vegetarian for a time, and there is wickedness enough for this book to stand alongside Cormac McCarthy’s meanest, but the brief moments when these beleaguered characters show their humanity and kindness—delivering a calf, bathing a mother—left me breathless. (PS. I’ll be speaking with Del Amo, Maxim Osipov, and Ishion Hutchinson this Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival.) —Emily Nemens


Paul Muldoon. Photo: Peter Cook.


As the name suggests, Paul Muldoon’s newest poetry collection, Frolic and Detour (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November), is a rambling book, digressive even for a poet famous for digression. Playful, lyrical, and a little melancholy, it pirouettes between forms—from sonnet to ballad to pantoum—all the while demonstrating Muldoon’s virtuosic capability. The overall effect is exciting, madcap even, like white-water rafting in a river that threatens at every moment to overflow. The book is densely populated, too: contained within these pages are chickadees, fancy cheeses, celebrity eulogies, and Celtic clansmen. There is ibuprofen, bird feed, Bacardi, and bok choy. All this gives the reader the sense that they are riffling through the desk drawers of an eccentric and aging intellectual. Muldoon’s humor, incandescent as ever, is most visible in his wordplay, which can be almost ostentatious in its silliness—as though he were proving, just in case we had forgotten, that he can do whatever he wants. In “Belfast Hymn,” for instance, he rhymes “cream of tartar” with “complete nonstarter.” In “Position Paper,” a merry catalogue of altered aphorisms, he tells us: “You can’t teach an old dog and not get up with fleas,” and “sometimes the bearer becomes the bad news.” Fast-paced and labyrinthine, the poems can, at times, be a little hard to follow—jumping between different trains of thought and historical periods with dizzying speed. Somewhere between modern-day New York City, nineteenth-century Ireland, and ancient Budapest, a reader might feel left in the dust. Still, for the most part, it’s fun to watch Muldoon scurry mischievously around the next corner, always one or two (or ten) steps ahead. —Cornelia Channing

For the past year, I have been enraptured with the music of Katherine Paul, who performs under the name Black Belt Eagle Scout. Her music is a gorgeous brand of achingly melodic indie rock: songs about longing, pain, and the spaces between things. She’s released two albums in quick succession; the second one, At the Party with My Brown Friends, is as good as her debut, Mother of My Children, and adds a sweet melancholy—it’s a kind of rainy-day party—that I can’t resist. She plays all the instruments on her records, effectively making her a one-woman band. Whereas many artists who overdub themselves seem too close to their own music to actually hear it, Paul discovers something at every moment in her several-way conversations with her split selves. Especially stunning is “Half Colored Hair,” a spare song about new love that flickers with hope: “How you look at me,” she sings, “in the brightness of your room / The lightness of my fingers on your face.” She knows how to start a sentence that doesn’t need finishing. Black Belt Eagle Scout’s music seems to slowly billow outward from a dark center, filling a heavy room with increasingly breathable air in which one might eventually levitate. —Craig Morgan Teicher

Although it’s been less than a week since I finished Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the entire experience feels something like a far-off fever dream. Perhaps that’s because I read it over the span of a weekend, devouring the thousand-page epic at the expense of interacting with my friends, roommates, and assorted other loved ones. This was the right decision. Most of the novel is devoted to a stream-of-consciousness narrative from an unnamed Ohio housewife as she goes about her day, taking care of her four children and making sweets for a baking operation she runs out of her kitchen. Reading this in a marathon session creates an experience that’s hard to replicate elsewhere—I found myself sinking into the narrator’s mind, consumed in such a way that it was as though we were merging. On Saturday morning, I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming in her distinctive style, each phrase beginning with the fact that. The length of the book works to its advantage. Yes, this is a novel about Trump’s America, but politically it’s about much more than that. The narrator’s mind slides away from the minutiae of her everyday and toward meditations on the violence that is baked into the very structure of the United States and the entire concept of empire itself. The Native American genocide is remembered, as is the violent legacy of slavery and continued antiblack racism. Excess—be it an excess of words, the excess of a new nation’s attempts to claim land, the excess of human attempts to cast dominion over nature—is tied, again and again, to destruction. Intercut with the narrator’s thoughts are brief sections following a mountain lioness as she is separated from, and attempts to reunite with, her cubs. What is the demarcation between human and beast? By the book’s last thirty pages, it’s unclear. —Rhian Sasseen


Lucy Ellmann.