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.
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.
Sometimes sitting alone in my car, I feel luxuriosly safe when all around me is too chaotic to bear. The car is parked, of course, and no one else is around. I listen to the classicalradio station, close my eyes, and just drift. Sometimes I read old New Yorker magazines. Calvin Trillin’s Tepper comes to mind (from “Tepper Isn’t Going Out”); maybe it’s time to reread the book. But it’s on a shelf somewhere else, not here in my car.
I reviewed the book over ten years ago but I can still use it’s lesson in patience, especially now. Here’s my review:
A lesson in patience – that’s what the nurse said about her elderly patient. She will do what she wants, when she wants to – so time would be better spent accepting that idea and just being patient. The patient was teaching everyone around her to be patient – a recent lesson from my personal experience.
Patience in characters is hard to find. Often impatience is the character flaw that moves the story, but one of my favorite characters is Murray Tepper, the personification of patience. Tepper is the invention of Calvin Trillin, satirist who writes for The New Yorker. Trillin once noted that “…Marriage is not merely sharing the fettucini, but sharing the burden of finding the fettucini restaurant in the first place.”
In his book, Tepper Isn’t Going Out, Trillin gives Tepper patience and wisdom, mixed with lots of humor. For anyone who has lived or spent time in New York City, the complementary characters in the book, and the descriptions of New York neighborhoods and politics will make you smile.
Tepper sits in his car, patiently reading his morning paper in the evening, seemingly not bothering anyone. But, sitting patiently in a car becomes a red flag – and not only for those seeking a parking spot. Tepper becomes “the psychiatrist is in” Lucy from Peanuts to some, the guru on the mountaintop to a few, and a source of annoyance to others – as he sits patiently in his car. Even if the innuendo and satire passes over your head, the journey you will take in reading this book is hilarious.
Throughout all the hysterics of others, Tepper stays calm and Trillin brings the book to a calm and logical end. Patience is a virtue hard to acquire, and there are many who are willing to teach us a lesson in forbearance – we meet them everyday through bureaucratic jumbles and personal interactions – and Tepper is one of them.
I always look forward to reading the Washington Post Book Club essays by Ron Charles, but I don’t always get to it until later than posted. Today Charles explains “Paraskevidekatriaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th.” The Urban Dictionary says once you pronounce it, you are cured.
Editor Vanessa Cronin suggests a few books to read today, including a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child – Bad Luck and Trouble, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s hilarious Good Omens, and the book that might have started it all – Friday the Thirteenth written in 1907 by Thomas William Lawson.
I am currently reading Mrs. March by Virginia Feito, about a New York Upper East side wealthy socialite who suspects her author husband has mimicked her (not favorably) as the main character in his latest bestseller. Although starting out as a mild narrative, it is morphing into a Patricia Highsmith type of slow-boiling thriller. In her review for the New York Times, Christine Mangan says:
“By the time we approach the end, there is little doubt as to the fate of Mrs. March. And yet the final pages are shocking nonetheless, and readers may find themselves tempted to return to the beginning in order to understand just what Feito has so convincingly managed to achieve within her accomplished debut.”
I can’t wait – seems like a good page turner for Friday the Thirteenth.
Librarians always know the best books to read, and Nancy Pearl, Librarian of the Year in 2011, and NPR commentator and book reviewer, combined her recommendations into a book – Book Lust. Published in 2003, I am just getting to it, and making my list from it. Pearl has written a few sequels since then but this is a good place to start.
The book chapters are organized alphabetically by theme from “My Name is Alice” (authors) to “Zen Buddism” and “Zero,” and I started by skipping around, landing on “Magical Realism, Intriguing Novels, and First Lines to Remember.” Ultimately, I just flipped through all the pages, taking notes as I went, looking for new reads, and gratified when I came across a familiar title I had read.
Here are a few for my to-read list:
Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night uses a reunion at Oxford as the setting for an academic mystery without a murder.
John Banville’s The Untouchable is based on Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, and one of the infamous group of Cambridge spies.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams tells about Cosi Noline, who comes home to Arizona to find an ill father, complications in love, and a town facing an environmental threat.
Pearl includes a separate section – “One Hundred Good Reads, Decade By Decade,” from 1900 to 1990s; the book includes an overwhelming list of titles with separate sections for her favorite authors, including Barbara Pym and Gore Vidal. It’s impossible not to find something to read.
What I’ve Read and Enjoyed Lately – but not Reviewed
The Paris Library by Janet Charles – based on the true story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II
Dream Girl by Laura Lippman – Another thriller from the author of “Lady in the Lake.” With traces of Rear Window, this is a page turner.
The Vixen by Francine Prose – Although it’s been almost seventy years since Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for espionage, Anne Sebba’s biography on Ethel Rosenberg recently brought the story back into view. Francine Prose brings her fictionalized and somewhat askew version of Ethel Rosenberg into her new novel The Vixen. Maria Semple , one of my favorite authors, calls it ” a rollicking trickster of a novel, wondrously funny and wickedly addictive.”