Christmas Just Isn’t The Same

It’s been a while – no real excuses except feeling too distracted to write – but not to read. I have a list I will share, but first – Joan Didion. I remember reading The White Album years ago, and when I heard of her death, I had to stop reading my current book to find an old copy. Her first line lives on as one of the best first lines of a book – “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Enough to inspire me to reread it to discover what Didion’s words might mean to me now, forty years and a never-ending pandemic later, and if they would have the same impact. I struggled to think of a current writer who has the same impact with her clarity of observations.

Zadie Smith in her tribute to Didion in The New Yorker, noted:

It is a peculiarity of Joan Didion’s work that her most ironic formulations are now read as sincere, and her sincerest provocations taken with a large pinch of salt. Perhaps when your subject is human delusion you end up drawing that quality out of others, even as you seek to define and illuminate it. How else to explain the odd ways we invert her meanings? We tell ourselves stories in order to live. A sentence meant as an indictment has transformed into personal credo.”

Joan Didion’s name may be more familiar to modern audiences than her work, except perhaps for “The Year of Magical Thinking,”(she wrote five novels, six screenplays, and fourteen works of nonfiction), but it’s never too late to read books guaranteed to inspire, jolt, and perhaps persuade you – “…while everyone else drank the Kool-Aid, she stuck to Coca-Cola …”

Books I Have Been Reading Recently

Never by Ken Follett – slow start but picks up into a roller coaster ride – watch out for the ending

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman – the fourth book of witchery – fun to read and wish you were part of the Owens family of witches

Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France by Katie Quinn – a better version of Eat, Pray, Love with the author’s tongue-in-cheek memoir, good information, and a few great recipes.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen – the first in a trilogy. The book made the Washington Post’s top ten for 2021. The story revolves around an associate pastor at a Protestant church in suburban Chicago who’s troubled by his own envy and adultery. “The novel presents an electrifying examination of the irreducible complexities of an ethical life.” Take the time to savor Franzen’s use of words, and the inevitable thoughtfulness he will instill in you, as you read.

The Party Crasher by Sophie Kinsellla – read just for fun – book candy

What I am Reading Now

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weil – I hope it has a happy ending…

Books on My To Read List

  • Gilded by Mariss Meyer
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  • These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
  • A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris
  • The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz
  • The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier
  • Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Huck Finn on the Lincoln Highway

A reviewer recently noted Amor Towles’ new novel The Lincoln Highway follows the theme of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Just for fun, I thought I’d try to compare them.

If ever there were a rapscallion like Huck, it would be Duchess, the young escapee from Salina prison, who hides out in the trunk when the Sheriff takes Emmett back home to attend his father’s funeral, and then “borrows” Emmett’s inheritance. Instead of rambling down the Mississippi on a raft, they are driving down the old Lincoln Highway in a Studebaker.

All the boys are on an adventure, and the characters they meet could more closely align with the journey of the Odyssey, neatly used as an inspiration in the book of heroes by Professor Abacus Applenathe, a gift from the town’s librarian to Billy, the eight year old younger brother of Emmett. Billy still believes in dreams and magic, while Emmett and Duchess are jaded at eighteen, one looking for easy street, the other for a better life.

I’ll leave it to you to connect the characters they meet to famous literary or mythological counterparts, but Penelope is there, in the form of Sally – true and waiting.

It’s a fun road trip to make, although the switchbacks at each chapter to another character speaking can be disconcerting. In the end, some keep traveling the highway while others come to their roads end.

For more details, check out NPR’s Heller McAlpin’s review – https://www.npr.org/2021/10/05/1043187103/amor-towles-the-lincoln-highway-review

Cloud Cuckoo Land

These days we might all want to escape reality and live in a cloud cuckoo land. The phrase has been used in politics, poetry, and music, but Anthony Doerr cleverly channels its ancient Greek mythological origin to tie together a story spanning from Constantinople, to the Korean War, to present day, and finally, to a spaceship of the future where a few select citizens of Earth have escaped the apocalypse and are traveling to a better place, light years away.

The kernel of the story keeps reappearing as a favorite book of five intersecting characters across centuries. The book first appears as a crumbling codex in the legendary library of ancient Constantinople just before the city was captured and destroyed. Anna reads the story of Aethon to her sister. Once told by an ancient Greek as a bedtime tale and based on Aristophanes’ play, “The Birds,” a man wishing for a better life dreams of becoming a soaring bird, in order to reach the fabled paradise of cloud cuckoo land. He first turns into a donkey, then a fish, until finally getting his wings to land at the gates of his destination.

Before the city falls, Anna escapes with the book and meets Omeir, a village boy with his oxen who had been conscripted into the war to destroy Constantinople but is now heading home.

When the book started, I got lost and had to start again. The stories seemed unconnected as they jumped centuries, but the rhythm soon caught up with me, until it became a page-turner I couldn’t put down. The ingenious hook occurs early in a scene at a library, where children are enacting the mythical story about the donkey searching for redemption. Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war and is now an ardent library regular researching the old Greek tale, is directing children in a play about the search for cloud cuckoo land. Doerr later backtracks to fill in Zeno’s life as a young man, but here, at the beginning of the story, he is an old man in his eighties, about to confront a teenage terrorist with a gun and a bomb, intent on using the violent suggestions he learned from the internet to save the world from the encroaching development destroying the environment around him.

We learn Zeno’s fate through the young girl in the spaceship of the future. Konstance was born on the spaceship and only knows about Earth from her research, facilitated by Sybil, the computer driving the ship and in charge of the ship’s library. Seymour, the troubled teenager with the bomb in the library of 2020, developed the software for Sybil, and secretly placed a series of hidden clues in the code which leads the girl to her destination.

Despite knowing what will happen to Zeno, the intermittent returning to the library with children cowering in the stacks remains the tease – maybe it will turn out better, we hope, knowing it won’t. And, knowing the girl is on the spaceship in the future, looking for another planet, proves the Earth has already self-destructed, yet this doesn’t keep us from hoping otherwise – we are all in cloud cuckoo land, after all.

Like so many wise epithets included in Doerr’s story, the donkey turned bird is faced with a riddle to solve before being allowed entrance to the gates of paradise: “He that knows all the Learning ever writ, knows only this.” What is the only thing he knows? You might guess the answer – the more you know, the more you know you know nothing. And libraries are the places where you can find out.

Doerr connects all the lives in the ending, the book is returned to the library, and he neatly wraps up the donkey’s quest. Faced with the choice of staying in the paradise of cloud cuckoo land, since he has solved the riddle, he chooses instead to “eat the rose professed by the goddess and returns home.” The myth’s ending has two possibilities in the original Greek version but I prefer the one Doerr chose – no matter where you go, there’s no place like home.

Doerr is a master storyteller and in Cloud Cuckoo Land he reminds readers what a respite reading can offer. He manages to weave the stories of five very different characters together through the love of reading a good book.

It’s Tuesday – Where Am I?

Fodor recently ran an article about Disney World in the time of the pandemic, with visitors needing to be more organized and more patient. Disney is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, and I remember my advance planning years ago with two children anxious to see it all. I had maps, diagrams, routes from one park to another, places to eat with reservations at the Disney version of fast food places. Back then, no Fast Pass existed, but staying at a hotel in the park gave the customer an extra early hour to start queuing up. Each hour brought more frantic hurry to get through and get it done. Later in life I joined European tours with each day preplanned, hour by hour, popular tourist spots carefully timed, each hour strategically organized to see the most, the best, the fastest.

I don’t remember not having a schedule, and not being in a hurry, so now I dream of going back alone – strolling quiet streets in Provence, wandering the outdoor market to pick up some herbs, stopping to pick up a baguette and some cheese, or wandering down the steps of Portofino to my favorite small bakery for a breakfast of almond cake and an espresso before checking on the ferry to Capri with no worry about germs spreading and attacking me as I breathe in the air. Will it ever happen?

Capri

Tours seem too full of people to be safe; I often caught a cold on a packed bus traveling from one attraction to the next. Maybe with a mask, disinfectant, cleaning spray, and whatever other mitigation efforts the tour companies are hawking these days, it would be safer, but I would be no less anxious. Maybe this will all pass and be remembered only as a nightmare, someday. It’s hard to know how many years we can endure the strain – has it been almost two years now? Patience has never been my forte.

In the meantime, I dream about walking isolated streets and beaches, and try to read about whatever will help me escape, but it isn’t easy. Lately, some of the books I’ve finished include:

Bewilderment by Richard Powers – good writing never goes out of style, and the Pulitzer Prize winner returns with a heavy tome examining Artificial Intelligence, grief, and our brains. The hope of new worlds and a better environment seem timely. Not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it. If you want more, try the review by NPR’s Heller McAlpin – https://www.npr.org/2021/09/21/1039090479/richard-powers-bewilderment-review

The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman – a Gothic mystery thriller from one of my favorite authors

Apples Never Fall by Lianne Moriarty – this author never disappoints with her unexpected plot twists and surprise ending. The story reminded me of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” but with a touch of “Gone Girl.” The ending seems to be a little too long after the big reveal but my friend tells me it has already been optioned for a TV movie/series.

I am almost finished reading the new Anthony Doerr book – Cloud Cuckoo Land and it is a faster read than I expected. Actually, cloud cuckoo land sounds like a good place to be right now.

What are you reading to escape?

Books Coming Soon

It’s been hard to focus on anything but survival lately. Even Krueger’s new book “Lightning Strike” has been wallowing at page 14, waiting for me to get back to it. But I need to shape up; I’ve preordered 5 books to be delivered soon and they all promise to be good reads:

  • “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doer
  • “The Book of Form and Emptyness” by Ruth Ozeki
  • “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
  • “Apples Never Fall” by Lianne Moriarty
  • “Small Pleasures” by Clare Chambers