Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribner, 2021.

Summary: A story of five characters living in three time periods, whose lives are tied together by the story of Aethon the shepherd written by Antonius Diogenes.

I ordered this one as soon as I could. I thought Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See one of the best novels I’ve read in the past twenty years. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and I couldn’t wait to see how he would follow that tour de force. I guess my response, having read the book, would be to say, “It’s complicated….”

For one thing, it is complicated as a story, really three stories occurring in three time periods of five people whose lives are tied together by another story. The story that ties these three together is of Aethon the shepherd who embarks on a quest to find a mythical city in the clouds where all his questions will be answered and longings met. Successively, he is transformed into a donkey, a fish, and a crow before he finds the city and gains admission at the gates. The story is actually based on a few extant fragments of The Wonders of Thule, the remainders of an 1800 year old manuscript by Antonius Diogenes, according to a note by Doerr.

The first story is occurs in 1452-53, in the attack on Constantinople. Anna, an apprentice seamstress, to supplement her wages to get medical help for her sister, becomes a petty thief, climbing a tower with a lost library. While her and her accomplice sell various items, she keeps an old, somewhat mildewed book that is the tale of Aethon, which she reads to her dying sister, and preserves as a treasure, which in later years made it to the Vatican. Eventually she flees the city, meeting up with Omeir, ostensibly an enemy, a hare-lipped young man, something of an outcast, whose gentle life had been spent tending oxen used to transport siege materials. They flee together to his home.

The second story is in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the 1930’s to the 2050’s. The older of the characters is Zeno, a gay Korean war surviving POW, who first heard Aethon’s story from Rex, an antiquities scholar from England and fellow prisoner. Zeno returned to Lakeport, Idaho, where he spent an uneventful life as a plow driver, punctuated by a visit to Rex and his gay lover in England. Subsequently, through the local librarian, he learns of a digitized version of the only surviving manuscript of the story of Aethon. Consulting with Rex, he spends his retirement years translating an annotated version of the story, until enlisted one day by the librarian, Marian, to help her occupy a group of five fifth graders. He turns his translation into a play that he rehearses with the fifth graders and it is on the night of the rehearsal that he has his fateful encounter with Seymour.

Seymour is an autistic youth raised by a single mom in a double-wide she inherited, as she struggles in low wage jobs to make ends meet. What helps him survive are woods behind his home, where he encounters Trustyfriend, an owl he sits with who brings peace to the cacophony of his autistic world–until developers turn the woods into a high end development. Trustyfriend disappears. And then one day, he finds the wing of an owl. Over time, he becomes an extreme environmental activist, drawn into a dark web group for which he must commit an act of violent protest to be initiated. He chooses to make a bomb to blow up the library–on the night of the rehearsal.

The third story center around Konstance, the precocious daughter of a scientist father and teacher mother on an instellar, multigenerational voyage in the twenty-second century, who heard the story of Aethon from her father before being confined in quarantine when a disease sweeps through the ship, apparently killing all the others. Sybil, the all-knowing “Hal” of the ship will not release her, so she begins to research the story of Aethon, reassembling the scraps of the manuscript and tracing the provenance of the story, including a beautifully bound copy she sees in a digital image in a window of her father’s childhood home.

Doerr moves back and forth between the three stories, weaving successive episodes of the story of Aethon through the whole narrative. As I said, it’s complicated, layered…and for me, it worked, in ways both similar and different to All the Light We Cannot See. Like that book, children play a significant role here, as well as one older storyteller. In the first story, two children on the opposite sides in a siege intersect, with a very different result. Like that book I hear Doerr’s quiet voice unfolding a story of beauty and pathos What is so different is the use of an overarching story to connect the other three, a story that transforms characters in each of the three stories.

Perhaps the import of this all is in the dedication: “For the librarians then, now, and in the years to come.” The narrative is about the preservation of a book, a story nearly lost, hidden in a derelict library, digitized in another, translated in a third, and rediscovered in a fourth. A library played a powerful shaping role on the life of Zeno, as it did on the five children in this play, one of who turns out to be an ancestor of Konstance. A bibliophile at one point in the story reminds us that out of the thousands of ancient Greek plays, we have only thirty-two. Books may be destroyed by fire, water, mold and mildew, insects, shredding, and in our digital age, by erasure or the degradation of digital information or obsolescence of the devices on which the books are read. Doerr offers a quiet polemic for the protection of the stories of our civilization and the vital role of libraries and librarians in that work.

All this occurs against an apocalyptic backdrop, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the worsening environmental crisis of the present, and the desperate efforts to plant a human civilization on a distant world. Is there a word here that our civilization’s stories may be even more vital to preserve in desperate times when the temptation is great to neglect them? Might we find ourselves even in the seeming silliness of the story of Aethon and profit from the story of his quest? Only if the stories remain.

Bob on Books Best of 2015

Not to be outdone by all the other “best of 2015” lists coming out, I give you Bob on Books Best of 2015! This is different from many of the lists which just list books from 2015. This is the book blog of a reader who happens to review, and so some of my best books of the year weren’t actually published this year, and I’ve just gotten around to reading them.  I happen to think there are a number of really good books out there, and they weren’t all published this year!

One other thing I’ve done this year is segment my list into fiction, non-fiction, and Christian. I do read a number of Christian titles, which connects to my work in collegiate ministry, and I think my choices are worthy reads, but skip over this if it is not your cup of tea!

I should also mention that the weblinks here are to my full reviews. Those reviews include full publication information and a link to the publisher’s website, if this was available at the time of the review.

Fiction: 

All the Light We Cannot SeeDun CowBel CantoBrendanbeowulf

  1. All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr. Hands down my Book of the Year. Incredibly beautiful writing, finely drawn plot that brings together a blind French girl and a German orphan become soldier during the invasion of St. Malo. Written by an Ohioan!
  2. The Book of the Dun Cow, Walter Wangerin, Jr. A contest between good and evil in a barnyard, a modern animal fable.
  3. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett. A dinner party held hostage in a Latin American embassy and the relationships that emerge. Patchett’s best.
  4. Brendan, Frederick Buechner. An account of the life of St Brendan the Navigator as he confronts both external and internal limits.
  5. Beowulf, unknown, translated by Seamus Heaney.  I’ve read but not reviewed this yet. Heaney’s translation of this classic work brings it to light in all its power and pathos.

Non-fiction:

The Wright BrothersThe Road to CharacterThe FellowshipBuffalo for a Broken HeartBully Pulpit

  1. The Wright Brothers, David McCullough. Outstanding account that highlighted their engineering and experimental skills honed through bike-building, and their work ethic.
  2. The Road to Character, David Brooks. An effort to initiate a conversation about “moral ecology” by exploring the quests for character of a diverse group from Augustine to Bayard Rustin.
  3. The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski. A fourfold biography of the literary lives and influence of the four principal Inklings.
  4. Buffalo for the Broken Heart, Dan O’Brien. Part memoir, part nature writing on restoring life to a Black Hills ranch by converting to herding buffalo.
  5. The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Not only great for accounts of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and their relationship, but also the “muckraking” journalists brought together by Sam McClure.

Christian:

17293092 (1)A Glorious DarkSufferingSpiritual Friendshipslow church

  1. Playing GodAndy Crouch. An important book that looks at power, considering not only the possibility of corruption, but also the redemptive uses of power, which we cannot help but wield in some measure, as creatures in the image of God.
  2. A Glorious DarkA. J. Swoboda. A marvelous set of reflections on the darknesses of life and our glorious hope organized around the Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
  3. Suffering and the Search for MeaningRichard Rice. A concise, clear, and pastoral exploration of some of the ways Christians attempt to address evil and suffering.
  4. Spiritual FriendshipWesley Hill. This books seeks to restore to the church a high view of friendship, and its importance for those seeking to live single and chaste lives.
  5. Slow Church, C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Modeled after the “slow food” movement, the authors call for an embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Those were my “best of the best”. Since this medium is interactive, I’d enjoy hearing what yours were. That might give each of us all some good ideas of something we’d like to read in 2016!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Bob on Books!

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribners, 2014.

Summary: Two teenagers, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, with a gift for radio electronics, are brought together at the end of World War 2 through underground radio broadcasts by her great-uncle of recordings by her grandfather while a dying German Sergeant Major seeks a treasure in the girl’s possession.

I don’t think I’ve been gripped by the “voice” of a writer as I was from the first pages of this book since reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It is a voice that quietly and deliberately creates an atmosphere that evokes the mixture of wonder of two children coming of age and discovering the world and their own loves, the pall of sadness and terror surrounding the German invasion of France, and  mounting tension, as a sinister and dying Sergeant Major confiscating treasures for the Fuhrer closes in on Marie-Laure, all alone in one of the few standing houses in St. Malo, days before it fell to the allies in August 1944.

The book opens with the opening of the invasion. Marie-Laure is blind and alone in the house at 4 Rue Vauborel, her great-uncle Etienne having been interned and her father lost or dead in a German prison camp. Werner is five blocks away attempting to find the source of underground broadcasts, which are being made by Marie-Laure’s uncle, shelters and is trapped in the basement of a collapsed hotel.

The story shifts back and forth between the invasion of St. Malo, and a telling of the story of the childhood of these two and the events that brought them together in St. Malo in August of 1944. We learn of a blind girl whose father is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum of Paris and how she learns to find her way around the city from a scale model her father makes. We see her growing love for the creatures of the sea as she reads a Braille version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. We learn of an orphan boy, Werner, who finds and old radio and makes it work, revealing a growing gift for radio electronics. He and his sister tune into wondrous broadcasts (that we learn were made by great-uncle Etienne and Marie-Laure’s grandfather). This is an example of the luminescence of Doerr’s writing:

The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Werner’s talents come to the attention of the Reich and he is sent to a school that exists to develop the Aryan super race. He learns triangulation which leads to eventual deployment hunting down underground transmitters. Meanwhile, he witnesses the brutal destruction of his one friend Frederick, who loved birds more than war. During this time Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, the father being entrusted with a precious diamond, the Sea of Flames, and end up with her great uncle Etienne in St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. The remainder of the story traces how the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure come together in St. Malo while tension builds as the sinister and dying Sergeant Major von Rumpel closes in and then occupies the house where Marie-Laure is staying while she hides in the attic accessed by a secret door in the back of a wardrobe.

Doerr gives us a story of beauty, pathos and mounting tension. He explores through the sightless Marie-Laure and the orphan Werner the incredible wonder of discovery, whether of the world of snails and sea creatures, or the fascinations of electronic circuitry and the wonders of science. Doerr portrays the beauty of the love between daughter and father, between brother and sister, and the growing friendship between Werner and Frederick. We see that the most terrible thing about war is the brutality that is oblivious of such beauty and which seeks to obliterate the better angels of our nature. [In this context, it should be noted that there are descriptions of violence and one scene of sexual assault, none of which is gratuitous.]

Doerr’s work won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction and I would contend that it was utterly deserving of such recognition. Doerr is a master painter with words, with all the strokes falling just as they should. I’m glad for the light it shed in my life.

The Pulitzers as a Window on our World

"Gen pulitzer" by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) - http://www.pulitzer.org. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gen pulitzer” by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) – http://www.pulitzer.org. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. This prize is awarded in twenty-one categories of writing from fiction to explanatory journalism with a $10,000 prize award in each of twenty categories and a gold medal in the public service category. The award was established in 1917 in the will of publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City (information source: Wikipedia).

Reading down the list of Pulitzer awards for this year suggests to me that many of these represent not only examples of great writing but the convergence of great writing with the concerns of our time. Nowhere is that more evident than in the public service gold medal award which went to the relatively small Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina for its series on domestic violence titled “Till Death Do Us Part“. The investigation that led to this series began when reporters for the newspaper noted that South Carolina was number one in the nation for the rate of women dying from incidents of domestic violence. The series is simply a window into the much wider prevalence of domestic violence, chronicled by the statistics in this Huffington Post article.

Other journalism awards illustrate this same idea. The New York Times won the international reporting category for its series of stories on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I admit it, I accessed these stories along with many others last summer to understand the horror of this outbreak and the belated response of health organizations around the world to it. The Los Angeles Times reporter Diana Marcum won a feature writing prize for the impact of the drought on California’s Central Valley and writer Mary McNamara won a criticism prize for writing on television and culture. The St Louis Post-Dispatch won breaking news photography awards for its coverage of the Ferguson riots following the death of Michael Brown.

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_lgI think this was true of the book awards as well. I believe there is a growing sensitivity of the impact of war on children. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot Seewon the prize for fiction for his compelling account of two children whose lives are brought together by the devastation of World War II (this is one of my “want to read” books). Doerr’s book was also a National Book Award finalist.

Likewise, the non-fiction prize, The Sixth Extinction argues that there have been five previous catastrophic extinctions that have led to mass extinctions. Elizabeth Kolbert argues that we are in the midst of the sixth such extinction, and the first attributable to the human impact on life on the planet.

The prize for biography went to David Kertzer, whose The Pope and Mussolini explored the complex relationship between the Vatican and “Il Duce”. One cannot help wonder if the fascination with Pope Francis, whose engagements both with political powers in South America and the curia in Rome have caught our attention.

A complete list of prize winners appears on the Pulitzer website. In some way each of the award winners explore the intersection of our highest human aspirations and the rawest realities of the human condition. Whether in heroic resistance to tyranny, courageous medical care in a dangerous epidemic, the capturing in images of the explosive anger over the disparity between our country’s democratic ideals and institutional racism, or the consequences of our technological footprint on the fabric of life, each explores the paradox of our magnificent and flawed nature. Nowhere is this more the case than in the expose of the violence that invades the intimacy of the closest of all human relationships. The window on the world these writers and reporters give us reminds us of the line of good and evil that runs through our lives, the choice between destructive forces and the “better angels of our nature” we face each day, and dare I say, our common need of redemption. Good writing has always done this and I’m glad for the Pulitzer Awards and other prizes that call attention to those who give us both windows on our world and windows into our souls.