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.

Amor Towles Has A New Book and Recommendations for Reading

One of my favorite authors, Amor Towles, has a new book coming in October – The Lincoln Highway. Today in the New York Times Book Review, editors have included him in their ask an author section. He responds to questions with a list of books he has read, books he recommends, and more – a wealth of good ideas for individuals as well as book groups.

Towles meets with a small group of friends monthly to discuss a novel:

“One spring we read Henry James’s “The Portrait of a Lady,” Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” a project we referred to as “19th-Century Wives Under Pressure.” Often, we’ll read five or six works by a single writer chronologically. We’re about to launch into a survey of the Australian Nobel laureate, Patrick White. So, his “The Tree of Man” is at the top of my pile.”

He remembers a list of authors from his college days, you might want to discover:

“The list included an array of inventive writers and stylists, most of whom I had never heard of, including Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Evan S. Connell, Julio Cortázar, Jean Genet, Elizabeth Hardwick, Knut Hamsun, Milan Kundera, Grace Paley and Alain Robbe-Grillet. With the list fraying in my pocket, I began tracking down these novels whenever I was in a used bookstore.”

And for guilty pleasures, he includes:

“…the Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald, the George Smiley novels by John le Carré and the Parker novels by Richard Stark, {and} the Bosch books Michael Connelly}.”

In preparations for his new novel, The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles mentions a few books he read:

“My new novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” takes place over 10 days in June of 1954, so in anticipation I read a number of American works from the mid-50s including James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953); Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” (1953); Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955); and Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1955)… In aggregate they provide a snapshot of America’s socioeconomic, regional and racial diversity.”

Lots of good ideas for reading, and if you have not yet read Rules of Civility and Gentleman from Moscow, now is the time.

Related Reviews:

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2016/10/06/a-gentleman-in-moscow/

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2011/10/09/rules-of-civility/

The Plot

While some of us were wallowing in our discontent in 2020, Jean Hanff Korelitz was writing another bestseller. If you enjoyed the thrill of “The Undoing,” the HBO series based on her book “You Should Have Known,” The Plot will be no less satisfying. Perhaps you’ll figure out the true villain before the end, but getting there will still have you reeling.

Looking for his next book, after having two mediocre tomes published, Jacob Bonner hits the jackpot with a story told him by a student in his creative writing workshop. When he discovers Evan Parker has died of an overdose without finishing his book, Jacob seizes the opportunity to appropriate Evan’s narrative and write it himself. The book “Crib” is an instant success, with a movie directed by Spielberg in the offing.

While on his book tour, he has two life-changing occurrences: he meets Anna, his future wife, and he receives the first of a series of threats accusing him of plagiarism. Korelitz then begins to insert excerpts from the popular “Crib” as she continues with Jacob’s successful yet now harried life as a writer. The conceit is mesmerizing and clearly leads the reader into a series of complicated but satisfying plot twists.

As Jacob tries to confront the author of the threats to reveal his plot source, he finds himself in the middle of a family saga and another murder. Eventually, he seems to solve the mystery, but Korelitz has one last reveal at the end of her story, and it’s a good one.

Elizabeth Egan in her review for the New York Time says:

“It keeps you guessing and wondering, and also keeps you thinking: about ambition, fame and the nature of intellectual property (the analog kind). Are there a finite number of stories? Is there a statute of limitations on ownership of unused ideas? These weighty questions mingle with a love story, a mystery and a striver’s journey — three of the most satisfying flavors of fiction out there.

Jake Bonner’s insecurity, vulnerability and fear are familiar to those of us who have faced a blank screen, wondering how or whether we’ll be able to scramble letters into a story. Korelitz takes these creative hindrances and turns them into entertainment. Not only does she make it look easy, she keeps us guessing until the very end.”

A page-turner I could not put down, The Plot. Read and enjoy – just don’t give away the ending.

Whereabouts

A sense of accomplishment is overwhelming me. I donated three large boxes of books ( my covid year of reading) to the Friends of the Library this morning, and it wasn’t easy. After driving past a guard gate and through a tunnel, and stopping to ask a few masked strangers, I finally found the donation pallet described in their email among a warehouse of boxes. I just hope someone finds mine.

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri‘s new book “Whereabouts.” She is among my favorite authors and she reached a higher rung on my authors to emulate list when she moved to Italy to study the language and translate books. It’s been over ten years since “The Namesake,” and I was anxious to get lost in one her stories again.

But “Whereabouts” has no plot like her other books. Following a middle-aged woman’s thoughts and observations “on the couch, on the balcony, in bed…” was mundane at first and unclear where it was leading. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian and translated her words to English. Being somewhat biased by my own Italian heritage, I love the flow of the Italian language, and l appreciated the phrasing and descriptions she offered in translation. Sometimes a sentence would offer a window into my own world – “feeling reassured but also dazed by the outside world.”

As the short chapters evolve into a retrospective of her life, the narrator seems to emerge from complaints and despair of the past, and begins to appreciate the present. In the end, she has received a fellowship and is traveling to an unknown country for a year of study. The last short chapter shows her with a mix of hope, anxiety, and anticipation, leaving this reader a little befuddled but nonetheless satisfied.

NPR says “Whereabouts” is the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience.”

I bought a signed first edition of this book and I plan to reread it now and then. It will not be going to the library warehouse.

What Makes a Good Book and How Do You Talk About It?

The zoom book club meetings with posted unattractive snapshots of attendees does not appeal to me, but I’m still a fan of book discussions. Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood would be on my list for a book chat whenever small groups can meet in person again.

Two catalysts motivated me to find this book I somehow missed last year: one was Jung Yu’s review of the book in the Washington Post, comparing it to one of my favorite pieces of literature, A Rose for Emily by Faulkner; the other an inquiry from a friend asking for books about the writing process which led me to think about Henry James’ essay, The Art of Fiction.  

A side note was the current discussion of writers addressing characters’ viewpoints with racial identities different from their own, begging the question whether or not white authors are entitled to create thoughts out of their experience for people of color.  Yu neatly puts this latter to rest with the comment: “Execution, however, does matter. And what Fowler has executed is a book in which the black characters are thoughtfully rendered and essential to the story being told.”

Which leads me to Henry James and his ideas about what makes a novel “good.” A friend summarized his essay into three questions: What was the artist trying to achieve?  Did he or she succeed? Was it worth doing?  You don’t need to like a work to know what the artists were trying to achieve or if they succeeded, but the last question asks for an evaluation – not really whether a book was well written (a construct I’ve often heard argued in book clubs without merit) but whether the book is to your taste – pretty easy to answer and may not have anything to do with the quality of the book.

James noted the novel, for both the writer and the reader, is the road not to moral principles, but to the moral sense.  “Where the novelist is intelligent, the novel will offer an experience that has the potential for shaping and developing the reader’s own intelligence. {The novel is} the great extension, great beyond all others, of experience and of consciousness {and experience is} our appreciation and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures.  If the novel is intelligently controlled, all the necessary moral ground will be covered.”

In an essay on literary criticism, Mambrol wrote:  “Novels should not transmit moral principles and rules as such, but renovate and develop the mind by attempting to engage the reader in the pursuit of intricate combinations of form, content, and germinating subjects.”

Maybe all this is a little highbrow for the book club discussions I have heard but perhaps it would help to steer ideas into a more thoughtful hour of reflection rather than the norm of dissecting the details.