Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

In February of 2020, Seymour is on a mission to fight climate change with his razor focus, his headphones, and a backpack of explosives. Upstairs in the library where Seymour is attempting his strike, Zeno is guiding a pack of 5 excited children as they rehearse a play – their version of an ancient Greek story. In the 1400’s, there are 2 young people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople, Anna and Omeir, each dealing with their own version of trauma and poverty. And way in the future, there is a young girl named Konstance who is traveling on a mission to an exoplanet where she’ll be able to survive and restart a new generation of human life. Each of these threads are linked by the tale of the Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient, absurd tale carried from antiquity and retold through the ages, to entertain, to sustain, and to give hope.

This is an outrageously imaginative novel that may take a bit of time to get into, but then grips and holds you until the very last page. I am just astounded at how one person can weave together such seemingly disparate tales into one large picture that ultimately ties so tightly together. Writing like this is a gift. Moreover, each tale, in and of itself, is tender and gripping – each character, vulnerable and complex. We love Anna for her deep struggle to care for her ill sister, Maria. And we love Omeir for his tenderness toward his animals. We even understand Seymour’s frustration and anger as he acts out of desperation in a way he sees as his only choice. The author endows every character with so much humanity that we are glued to them, their actions, their struggles.

And the larger message here, that books and learning can bring joy – is the most beautiful. In this moment, when extremists are threatening to burn books, to limit the choices of literature that others read or access, we are reminded about what folks throughout history have lived through just to save our stories. So many have fought to save books, even those that might seem trivial or silly, because books bring light and hope and knowledge to those who take advantage and open their hearts to them.

Banning books is never the answer.

This book may not be for everyone – but if you open your imagination – it just might be for you!

 

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

“Mad Molly” has surprisingly been able to survive up there in her house on her hill, but now that her daughter Tillie has returned, everyone wonders how it will go for them. In the past, Tillie has brought nothing but misfortune for everyone around her. Even Tillie doubts that she can bring anything but danger. The one good thing she does bring is her talent for sewing clothes of the latest fashion, and this does not go unnoticed by those who eye her closely as she joins the persistent Teddy McSweeney at her first town dance. One by one, they approach her to become their seamstress, but there is a history that cannot be ignored. And that history comes back to haunt all of them.

This is a mean little novel. I found the writing to be coarse and fragmented and the many characters so unlikable (with a few exceptions) that it was hard work to keep track of who was related to whom. Even Tillie, the heroine of the story, was kept so vague, so distant from the reader, that I felt I barely got to know her. I was granted only tiny morsels of her past life, which were tossed in as tiny gems buried in the muck of the small town politics and gossip that took up most of the novel. While I was told of the intricate details of the dresses she sewed, I was told almost nothing of the life she’d lived before she came home to her mother. One must bond to the characters to feel for them.

A bitter disappointment, this one. Don’t waste your time.

 

 

 

The World to Come by Dara Horn

This fantastical journey sets out as we meet Ben, shattered by recent events in his life – a  nasty divorce and the painful death of his mother – who is encouraged by his twin sister, Sara, to attend a singles event at an art museum. As it happens, he stumbles upon a Chagall painting there that looks very familiar – so familiar that he is driven to do something impulsive, something that will have lasting implications for both him and his sister.

This story is told in layer upon whimsical layer, with narration as chromatic and surreal as a Chagall painting. The author weaves together the family stories of Ben and Sara’s parents, stories written by their mother, stories about Chagall and an author colleague Der Nister, and dream sequences, sometimes blurring what is real and what is fantasy. The prose is poetic and vivid, creating images that shower into the imagination and that will likely stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. 

There is also biblical referencing that reinforces a strong philosophical message here. Without giving too much away, there are many references to meaningful value of life and making the most of our time here on Earth. Sara’s mother tells her, “Everything counts. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re just rehearsing for your life.” We see different attitudes toward life between Ben and his sister, even between Chagall and his colleague, Der Nister. Some who live life while others who watch others live life.

There is much to keep track of here, as the story winds through its circular path. It can sometimes become challenging, even. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth the challenge, worth the swelling of your imagination, this beautiful tale. Like walking into a painting yourself…

 

 

 

 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway: A Novel: Towles, Amor: 9780735222359: Amazon.com: Books

After being escorted home by the warden of Salina, the juvenile detention center where he has just served, Emmett arrived with a fairly clear plan for starting anew, for himself and his younger brother, Billy,  Since the premature death of their father, the only parent who’d been around for the past number of years, it was now up to Emmett to see to Billy’s care and he planned to take that responsibility very seriously.  He did not, however, anticipate that 9-year-old Billy would have an equally precise idea about what their future plan should entail.  Nor did he anticipate the complicated route on which they would find themselves traveling.  

There are many reasons that I am not an author, but Amor Towles is one of them.  Many authors intimidate me, with their uncanny ability to weave together intricate plot lines, such that they push the borders of one’s imagination.  Others are able to conjure sentences that are like pearls on a string, poetry within prose, at which I can only marvel. Towles is able to accomplish both, which is the gift he shared with us in A Gentleman in Moscow, and again shares with us here. 

And the characters are as multi-dimensional as the people we know in our lives.  Duchess, one of Emmett’s associates from Salina, is a profound and complex character, and this novel is every bit about his journey as it is Emmett’s. Duchess who is the consummate showman, is always polite and upbeat and outwardly generous, is inwardly broken.  We know not to trust him but we like him in spite of ourselves; we know he has a heart, but that heart has been fractured over and over and over.  He too is on a mission, and his is understandable but misguided.

I love that Billy —  the youngest, most idealistic, and the one guided by a book of heroes — is also the character in the story with the most common sense.  Billy is the one who sees through all the nonsense that the others struggle with.  While everyone else sees themselves as his protectors, Billy is actually the one who remains calm, keeps the most level head, and pays attention to the details that matter most.  We can all learn from Billy.

The writing, the characters, the journey – give this gift to yourself.  And be glad that Amor Towles is the author, and not me! 

A definite MUST-READ!  

 

 

 

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

The Map of Salt and Stars | Book by Zeyn Joukhadar | Official Publisher  Page | Simon & Schuster

Nour has already been uprooted with her family from New York to Syria, after the death of her beloved father.  It has been hard to feel grounded, not to feel out of place, as she’s struggled to learn the language that comes so easily to her older sisters who had the advantage of having been born there.  When disaster strikes, however, they must leave once again, and Nour must find the strength to search for the place she will ultimately call home, as well as determine who she really is.  What guides and inspires Nour is her memory of the fantastical legend of Rawiya, who sets out to study the art of mapmaking, facing her own challenges and adventures.  

 It is stories like this one that brings the migrant crisis to a human level.  We might read about thousands of people crossing deserts, oceans, and barbed-wired borders in search of freedom or safety,  and it might be hard for us to connect to these realities.  But when we come to know a 12-year-old girl, with 2 older sisters, who has painful memories of her deceased father, who feels out of place and awkward and is stuck in her own dreams and her father’s stories, we connect with her.  And when she travels we travel and when she is in danger, we are in danger.   And it’s hard and it hurts – and that makes it human.  And that is the power of fiction – it makes things real. 

What works in the novel is the simultaneous tale of Rawiya,.  It serves as an emotional release from the intensity of Nour’s journey- almost a literary breath, if you will.  More than that, though, it gives an opportunity to highlight the mystical and historic richness of the lands through which Nour is traversing.   These lands of Arabia are vibrant and full of legend, and the story brings this to light.  

Again, this is hard to read, but it is poetically written, colorful and imaginative.  A journey of its own.   

 

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Wish You Were Here: A Novel: Picoult, Jodi: 9781984818416: Amazon.com: Books

It is March, 2020, and Diane may have just made the faux pas of her career.  She’d been on such a positive trajectory, climbing the ladder in the art business world just as she’d planned.  In fact, most of her life was going as planned – her life with Finn, her boyfriend, their New York, fast-paced, busy lives — really everything.  But now, who knows?  This would be the perfect time to get away to the Galapagos, as she and Finn had planned,  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though Finn will be able to get away, as this novel coronavirus has coopted his surgical training, and all hands are on deck for caring for Covid patients at the hospital.  Should she go on her own, as he’s suggested? The next few months will turn their lives upside-down, as they have done for all of us – but not nearly in the way you will expect!

When I realized that this book was taking place during Covid, I was apprehensive about reading it.  We’ve all been through it and we’re all pretty over it – to say the very least!  The masks, the distancing, the isolation – enough already!!  

But actually, this story has a novel plot line, with ample twists and turns that keep it fresh.  Covid is only a part of the story.  There are gorgeous natural scenes in the Galapagos that engage our imagination.  There are characters who are experiencing familial issues that are unrelated to the pandemic that will distract you from thinking about your mask and your disinfectant.  And there is deep discussion about art that always highlights our humanity.  

Most importantly, this narrative suggests we strive to seek our own silver lining from the pandemic.  Diane finds hers, in her relationship with her mother, in her self-discovery, in her appreciation of living in the moment.  While there has been devastating loss, unspeakable fractionation within our population, and the unearthing of so much injustice during this pandemic, there has also been newfound light.  There has been a slowing down, a “time out,” so to speak, during which we’ve had a chance to reevaluate and reassess.  There has been more intensive time with some loved ones, even while there has been time away from others, which can give us time to appreciate each other on a whole different level.  There’s been time to appreciate what we do have.  

Yes, this may all sound a little pollyannish, but I am, at the end of the day, an optimist.  It helps me to find something good even in things that are hard.   

How exactly is this expressed in the story?  I guess you’ll have to read it to find out…!

 

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved: Toni Morrison: 9781400033416: Amazon.com: Books

Denver and Sethe have found a rhythm in their isolated existence..  Even while they are haunted by an occasional eerie noise or movement from the unexpected, and even as they mourn the loss of Baby Suggs, their mother/grandmother, they have figured out a way to work and live and get through the days.   It is only the arrival of Paul D who stirs up old trauma for Sethe, throwing her back into her past, forcing her to relive old horrors.  And it is very unclear if their unusual little family will be able to leave the past behind and move forward.  

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved, is beautiful, poetic, lofty, erratic, layered, and extremely hard to understand without guidance.   It is likely that repeated readings are necessary to glean the most meaning from the text  Because it was not set up as a traditional story might be, it was hard to get oriented to the characters, — who they were, where they were,  and how they were related to each other.  Once I did muddle through the first, maybe 10%,  of the book, however, I was then able to appreciate the book for all its magnificent power.  

There is a story here, but a non-linear one and one that mixes in much superstition, supernatural, and memory.  In truth, it is a lyrical platform in which to lament the horrors of enslavement, the way in which enslavement robs us of our humanity.  It is loosely based on a true story of a woman who, rather than allow her daughter to be captured and be enslaved, murdered her instead.   This  unthinkable act forces us to examine just how desperate a mother could be to choose death over a life of ownership by another individual.  To choose death rather than not having freedom to choose whom one may love and form attachment to.  To choose death over a life of being chained, both figuratively and literally.  

Most powerful for me were the sparks of memories of Paul D and of Sethe as they went about their day to day on “Sweet Home,” the plantation where they’d originally met.  Paul D harks back to a memory of overhearing an assessment of his monetary worth, as if one could place such a figure on a life.  At another moment, Sethe remembers overhearing Schoolteacher showing his pupils how to list Sethe’s human qualities on one side of a page and her animal qualities on the other, reducing her to only partly human.  There is physical brutality described as well, but I believe these more insidious crimes reveal more about how these individuals were perceived and how these perceptions seeped into their souls– even more so than the physical harm that befell them. 

I feel that I’ve gotten so much from having read this book.  If reading can impart some degree of empathy,  Sethe’s story is an important place to start.    

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Lillian and Madison go way back – having been roommates at boarding school in high school. And while they’ve not seen each other in years, they’ve been in touch, with Lillian offering minimal details of her dull unaccomplished life, while receiving letters from Madison filled with details of her picture-perfect marriage to the senator, her picture-perfect home and her picture-perfect little boy. Now, finally, as Madison has written to ask Lillian to visit because she has a favor to ask of her, she will finally see her again in the flesh. Will it be the same between them? Will Madison really be as perfect as she has always seemed? What is this mission she is being asked to do? Will Lillian be able to live up to Madison’s expectations? Will she be able to live up to her own?

Spoiler alert: The mission involves Lillian caring for two children who spontaneously combust. Yes, they burst into flames when they are upset. They are not harmed but they can cause harm to what may be around them. They are awkward kids and are clearly affected by this inconvenient trait, but inside, they are just kids. Lillian appreciates them for who they are, in spite of this trait, but others fear them and have difficulty accepting them for who they are.

While I appreciate a dramatic metaphor as much as the next reader, I just find this entire story too incredulous to swallow. Even beyond the flaming children, there is the history between Lillian and Madison that leads one to question why Lillian would come running at Madison’s behest. And then there is the question of how, with such a neglectful mother as Lillian is demonstrated to have, she has such a knack for mothering challenging children that no one else seems to be able to handle.

I think the author had an interesting idea that started well but went so beyond the boundaries of reality that it was no longer viable. And this, at least for me, was a disappointment. Much of the story felt ridiculous and I had difficulty envisioning at least parts of it. While I did develop affection for some of the characters, such as the 2 flaming children, I wondered always what the attraction was that Lillian had for Madison, as Madison was quite the selfish, and eternally self-serving character. And while the message clearly was one I respect – that we should all be appreciated for our weirdness and quirks as well as what we can do for others —  it was delivered at too a high price.

So, unfortunately, I have to say for Nothing to See Here – nothing to read here, at least in my opinion.  

 

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman

Abraham has come from England in the early years of American settlement to work with his uncle who has sponsored his transport  He is surprised by the reception he receives:  he is thrown into the barren barracks with the other poor, desperate workers and sent to peddle the wares of the business to surrounding folks, to the best of his ability.  Abe, as he comes to be known, begins his journey as a traveling peddler by landing surreptitiously in the home of a stunning, fiercely independent, Cherokee woman.  She takes him in briefly, cares for him, and although amused by him, does not return his sudden, youthful passion.  As he seeks to reconcile this woman’s past and discover where her heart truly lies, he grows to understand not only himself,  but the complex stratification of the society he sees growing around him.

My first impression of this story was actually incredulity – that a story was being written about a Jewish man falling in love with a Cherokee woman hundreds of years ago in this country.  It just sounded to me an unlikely scenario, given the insular world of the Jews at that time.  As I read further, what I came to appreciate was that it was a clever vehicle through which to describe the era of the Trail of Tears.  This dark period in our American past is when President Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of thousands of indigenous people from their land and moved them in caravans westward.  This atrocity  was committed under perilous conditions, and thousands of Native Americans perished because of disease, starvation, unwieldy weather conditions and a lack of adequate provisions from the American government.   In telling this story through the eyes of Abe, a Jew and an outsider trying to find where he fit in among the various strata of peoples, there is often a delineation of the pecking order and a redefining of that pecking order as Abe continues to struggle with it.  Where do the slaves of the Cherokees fit in?  Where do the slaves of the Whites fit in?  Where does he fit in relative to them all?  As he is sorting this all out, we see how the groundwork of all of it is being sorted out for future generations – and how some sought to fight against it but, sadly, lost.

So, at first glance, I wasn’t sure about this book, but as I continued through it, it gained more and more value to me and I appreciate it for its very powerful messaging.  I feel it educated me and gave me insight into this bleak blot on our American past.