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

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.