Review: The Professor’s House

The Professor’s House, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (originally published in 1925).

Summary: The move to a new home, academic success and his daughter’s marriages, and a deceased former student and son-in-law, precipitate a crisis for Professor Godfrey St. Peter.

The first sign was when the Professor paid up the rent on his old house so that he could still use his spartan old study, furnished only with a table, a sofa with Tom Outland’s old blanket, a couple seamstress’s forms left by Augusta, the family seamstress, and an unreliable heater that required leaving a window open for safety’s sake. The lavish new home had plenty of room since his daughters had married. But this was the place where he wrote the multi-volume history, Spanish Adventures in North America, that was the cornerstone of his academic success and the awards that followed that made the new house that Lillian had always wanted possible. Up until then, any niceties had come from her inherited income.

St. Peter’s older daughter Rosamond had originally married a former student, Tom Outland, who died in the war, but not before leaving her a patent that her new husband, Louie Marcellus, has commercialized, with lavish profits that he uses to lavish favor on Rosamond and her family. The younger daughter, Kathleen, less vain and more sensitive has married a journalist. There is tension between the two, particularly as the Marcelluses take their parents on trips, including a proposed trip to Paris.

St. Peter decides not to go, pottering about in his old study, revising Tom Outland’s journals. The book takes a break at this point with Tom speaking in the first person about a magical season of discovering an ancient indigenous people’s village high up on a mesa in the Southwest, cataloging his discoveries. His partner stakes him the funds (gambling winnings) to visit Washington to recruit researchers to come, to no avail. He then returns, only to find his partner sold them out, resulting in their final alienation. Tom then migrates to the college where St. Peter is professor, works with a physics professor on his invention, graduating with a patent. Part three of the book returns to the professor, and a crisis in his life with which the book concludes.

The book is fraught with the tensions that are pulling at St. Peter’s life. There is the spartan life of the scholar (and of Tom on the mesa which St. Peter had visited) in contrast with the life of luxury that both Lillian and her elder daughter Rosamond craved, that St. Peter’s success and Marcellus’ business acumen made possible. There is the tension between the elder and younger daughter and their husbands, the younger of which, St. Peter trusts, despite, or perhaps because of his modest means. There is the growing coolness between Godfrey and Lillian as neither can embrace the life of the other. St. Peter’s stubborn hold on his study and his refusal to go to Paris, which he loves, is a kind of passive resistance after acceding to the life Lillian desires. Tom seems to represent something of an ideal that St. Peter had not had the courage to pursue.

The summer of the Paris vacation was a last respite before returning to his teaching and the comfortable life Lillian wanted (or perhaps the growing awareness of their estrangement). As their return approaches, he experiences a weariness for which the doctor can find no bodily cause, setting the stage for his final crisis.

The structure of the book seems disjointed, with the second part a separate narrative in which Tom Outland is the main character. The only thing I can think is that it explains St. Peter’s fixation with Tom by setting their lives in contrast. The question remains of how or whether St. Peter will resolve the tensions in his life, tensions such as all of us live with, tensions that can fray to the breaking or result in creative resolutions.

Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder with Foreword by Russell Banks, Afterword by Tappan Wilder. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015 (originally published in 1927).

Summary: A friar witnesses the collapse of a woven rope bridge with five people falling to their deaths and tries to discern some reason why, in God’s providence, each of them died.

It’s the unanswerable question we struggle with in every untimely death. We try to find some reason to explain why the death or deaths occurred, often some version of “it was God’s time,” or “they were too good for earth,” or that there was some sinful reason why they died. In the end we are left with uncertainty–none of these rationalizations satisfy or comfort and most explanations seem cruel or trite.

That is the premise of this Thornton Wilder story, which launched his literary career, winning him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and creating the opportunity for him to live a life of teaching and writing. Brother Juniper has just come into view of the woven rope bridge over a river gorge between Lima and Cuzco when the bridge collapses, sending five people on the bridge to their death. As a theologically oriented religious man, he sets himself the task to find evidence in their lives that would demonstrate that this was God’s plan for each person.

After the opening chapter, which lays out the premise of the story, the next three represent the account of six years of research on the part of Brother Juniper, talking to everyone who knew those who fell. The first concerns Dona Maria, the Marquesa de Montemayor, a difficult woman estranged from her daughter, who lives in Spain, and her companion Pepita, a young girl being groomed by Madre Maria de Pilar, to succeed her in the work of abbess of the orphanage where Pepita grew up. The two go on pilgrimage to a shrine so that Dona Maria can pray for her pregnant daughter. While she is praying, Pepita writes a letter to Madre Maria that Dona Maria sees, of how difficult life is with her. Pepita destroys the letter before Dona Maria confronts her, deciding it was not brave. They reconcile, Dona Maria writes a “brave” letter to her daughter, and it is on their return that they die in the collapse.

The next character is Esteban, twin brother of Manuel. The two grew up in the orphanage and became scribes, writing for, among others, Camilla Perichole, a famous and rather vain actress. Manuel dies of an infection, and Esteban, grief stricken despairs of life, attempting suicide, prevented by the captain who wants to take him to sea to restore him. Esteban wants to make a present of the pay advanced to him to Madre Maria de Pilar and dies on the bridge enroute to the orphanage.

The final two are Uncle Pio, who had mentored Camilla Perichole, helping her to achieve fame, and Perichole’s son Jaime. When small pox disfigures her, her career is ended. Uncle Pio sees her one night and she refuses to see him again but agrees to let him mentor her son. Uncle Pio and Jaime are on the way to Lima when the bridge collapses.

The final chapter describes the completion of Brother Juniper’s book in which he even tries formulas that he applies to each life, to no avail. This all ends badly for Juniper who is declared a heretic, punishable by death.

The account of their lives, in very formal language, brings no conclusion, just facts of people with their loves, longings, loneliness, petty, and noble acts. It’s simply, this is the story of their lives…and then they died on the bridge. The closest Wilder gets in the novel to making sense of it all is at the funeral in the famous, oft-quoted closing line spoken by Abbess Madre Maria de Pilar: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

I cannot decide whether this is a beautiful or a trite thought. I suspect some find comfort in keeping their dead alive in loving memory which connects them to the loved ones they’ve lost. I have those memories, particularly of father and mother and dear friends who have died, but also the apprehension of the yawning void that separates us that love may bridge in thought but not reality. I’m not sure we ever find “meaning” in the death of anyone, even if they die in some cause. I wonder instead, and this reflects my Christian convictions, if what we may talk about is hope, the belief that they, and we, will “rise in glory” after resting in peace. It doesn’t offer a “meaning” to death, which my faith tells me is the “last enemy” but it consoles in loss and grief.

Review: The Last Professional

The Last Professional, Ed Davis. Tijeras, NM: Artemesia Publishing, 2022.

Summary: A young man trying to find the tramp who assaulted him as an adolescent catches a freight and meets an old hobo running from a killer and the two form a friendship around the lure of riding the freights.

Lyndon works as a gifted programmer at a California tech firm in the early ’80’s. When an obnoxious boss attempts to sexually assault him, something snaps. He eludes the man, quits his job and hops a freight at the Roseville yard. It’s not the first time. The last was fifteen years ago as a twelve year old when “The Tramp” pulled him aboard the freight stopped behind his home as it started up. He’d seen and talked to him many times, a substitute for the father who had abandoned him. But this time was different–he was assaulted for two weeks. The author captures his ambivalence–someone who paid attention but forced himself upon him. He remembered his smell, and the distinctive, fist-shaped buckle he wore. Then he literally dumped him. But “The Tramp” never left him. And when he hops the train, he begins to wonder if he can find “The Tramp” and. . . .

Lyndon discovers he’s not alone. There’s an old hobo on the train–calls himself The Duke. Where Lyndon is trying to find someone, The Duke is running from someone. Someone from his past. He’d barely escaped him in the Colton jungle (the encampment of hobos), when Short Arm left another man dead. He was there when Short arm that name–a arm lost in a train accident–and The Duke left him for dead. Short Arm doesn’t leave anyone alive who crosses him, including two of The Duke’s friends who lie about The Duke’s whereabouts. Their paths crisscross throughout the book and The Duke knows Short Arm will find him. It’s only a matter of time

Lyndon (now nicknamed “Frisco Lyndy”) and The Duke travel, The Duke orienting him to the life of a hobo. He’s a “Profesh,” one of the last of a breed, with a code of his own and a knowledge of every yard, jungle, and good place to eat cheaply in the country. He schools Lyndon on eluding the “bulls,” the yard security, and the ins and outs of riding every kind of car and how to avoid getting killed. More than that, they just talk about life, and the draw of the freights. The Duke tells him, “These freights let you ride. They don’t let you go.”

“These freights let you ride. They don’t let you go.”

Ed Davis, The Last Professional

They talk about the man Lyndon is trying to find and the man The Duke is running from. The belt buckle identifies The Tramp as a Johnson, a group of outlaw hobos that one has to kill someone to be part of. Short Arm is also a Johnson. The Duke, partly out of protectiveness, suggests that the two couldn’t be the same person. Short Arm is the last of the Johnson’s. But Lyndon wonders. And at any rate, he won’t abandon The Duke. The Duke is the only man who hasn’t abandoned or hurt him.

In some ways, this is the railroad equivalent of Kerouac’s On The Road. The two get into scrapes and adventures as they cross the country. What separates it from Kerouac is two things. One is the friendship that forms between these two men, and the other is that Davis captures for us the hobo’s life. The narrative is broken up with numbered “Tracks” (e.g. Track #10) that are conversations on various subjects from our illusions of safety to sex to death.

Ed Davis has served up a story that builds to a powerful ending, an unusual friendship between a younger and older man, and a description of a life that is mostly in the historical past (though this article suggests there are still a few riding the rails). The illustrations by Colin Elgie both fit and created the images formed by the story in my head. I had a tough time putting it down.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Memory of Old Jack

The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1999 (Originally published 1974).

Summary: Old Jack Beechum, the oldest of the Port William membership, spends a September day remembering his life.

This book resonated powerfully with me. It brought to mind my father’s last years after my mother passed. His short term memory was failing even as he grew more frail. Mostly he spent his days remembering what he could, the earlier days of his life, summing up in a sense what his life had meant. From our conversations, these were grace-filled memories, and there was about him a profound sense of thanksgiving. He was already at peace about his life well before we laid him to rest.

As the title of this work suggests, this is also an account of remembering and summing up a life. On one hand, it is a narrative of a single sunny day in September. It is also a day of remembering the most significant events in his life. Early morning, old Jack Beechum stands on the hotel porch where he now lives, listening to the sounds of the men going about their chores and a day of tobacco harvesting. He hears Mat Feltner, a man in his sixties, an anchor of the community, and recalls him as a boy with his father Ben as he hitches up his new mule team. He recalls Ben Feltner, the loan Ben had fronted him, and the mentor he had been in the care of his land when he was bereft of his own parents and starting out.

His wife Ruth occupies many of his memories. Her beauty which led him to pursue her. Her ambitions, which led him both into debt, and a falling out with the tenant of an adjacent farm he bought, Will Wells. Ruth wanted him to be a prosperous landowner with many others working for him. He wanted to care for and lovingly restore the land he had, that his father had so neglected.

He remembers the crucible through which he went. Selling the adjacent farm at a loss, Ruth’s increasing estrangement, and the fire in his barn and more loss and debt, and the years of extra work to own his land free and clear. He goes through a kind of death returning from a fruitless errand for Ruth to get caught in a flood, barely surviving with his team, cutting loose his wagon.

After Ruth’s daughter Clara was born, Ruth insisted they sleep apart. What followed was an affair with the doctor’s widow, Rose McInnis, each meeting the hunger in the other. There came the day when a question from Ruth revealed she knew and he knew “the wound he had given her.” Shortly after, Jack returns from a trip to learn Rose had perished in a fire. All he has left is his land, on which at 48, he had paid off the mortgage–and a renewed sense of his own life:

That his life was renewed, that he had been driven down to the bedrock of his own place in the world, and his own truth and had stood again, that a profound peace and trust had come to him out of his suffering and his solitude, and that this peace would abide with him to the end of his days–all this he knew in the quiet of his heart and kept to himself.

He had come through his own valley of the shadow of death. Eventually there is one with whom he shares what he has learned–Mat Feltner, now what he once was to Mat’s father Ben. Pointing to Mat’s land, he says, “That’s all you’ve got, Mat. It’s your only choice. It’s all you can have; whatever you try to gain somewhere else, you’ll lose here.”

Sadly, his own daughter will not understand what Mat and the circle around him–Nathan and Hannah Coulter, Burley Coulter, and the tenant who cares for his farm, Elton Penn–understand. Clara followed her mother’s ways, marrying a banker, who refused an opportunity to buy an adjacent farm, that one day could be joined to Jack’s own. Clara even took dying Ruth, whose last words to Jack are “Bless you, Jack, good-by.” Jack continues as long as he can alone until he moves into the hotel.

Just before dinner on that September day, young Andy Catlett stops by to say good-bye. Andy is headed off to college, yet loves the land as he does. There is a fitting closure here, of love and fealty on Andy’s part, of blessing of the young man. It seems each knows they will not see the other again.

There is exquisite writing throughout here, and none more than in the chapter “Return.” Everything Berry writes reflects love of land, of place, of animals well-cared for, and a community that shares these values. In this work, these become the source of renewal for Old Jack, a kind of “pearl of great price.” The theme of mentors, from one generation to the next, runs through this work. There is a company of men who not only work alongside and impart wisdom, but who affirm one another’s worth and dignity. It is striking how Mat honors Old Jack when he is long past being any “use” even as Jack had honored him. Finally there is the forging of character in Jack, from the proud young man who marries a kind of “trophy” wife only to discover that he cannot live up to her expectations, to the humbled man, reckoning with all his errors, doing what he can to make amends, even with Ruth, and in the process not only becomes himself, but a model to others.

Berry reminds us that unless death comes suddenly, there will come the time of summing up, of remembering. What will we remember, and will we have found the peace that abides to the end of our days? He reminds me that it is never too soon to address oneself to these questions.

Review: Orient Express

Orient Express, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published as Stamboul Train in 1932).

Summary: Seven people on a train between Ostend and Constantinople intersect in various ways, making choices about the kind of people they will be.

Seven people on a train from Ostend to Constantinople. Mabel Warren is a hack reporter who drinks too much and is on a routine assignment when she recognizes that Richard John, a school master is actually Dr. Czinner, a dissident returning to his native country to hopefully lead an uprising, the story of Mabel’s career. Warren is accompanied by her assistant who is also her lover, Janet Pardoe, enroute to visit a relative, and secretly hoping for a different life. Myatt is a successful young Jewish businessman, an importer of dates, among other things. Coral Musker is an worn out dancer with a heart condition, attended by Richard John, exposing him as a doctor. When she collapses, she is given Myatt’s berth because she couldn’t afford her own, obligating her in the way women often have been obligated to men, which Myatt doesn’t refuse, even though he is drawn more to Janet Pardoe.

Two others play lesser parts. Mr. Savory is a popular writer, perhaps collecting material and also interested in Janet. Finally, joining them in Vienna is an elusive thief, Josef Grünlich escaping a murder charge when a safe-cracking job went south. Meanwhile, Mabel Warren, victim of another thief in Vienna is not able to reboard the train. Because Czinner refused to compromise his plans to save being exposed, Mabel wires the story to her paper, setting up Czinner’s apprehension. Coral and Josef Grünlich get caught up in it.

What is striking is the contrast between one character shaped by noble ideals and six others who live by looking out for number one. The others have their chances but basically are survivors like the great mass of us. There is also the element of a journey where the constraints of ordinary life, and relational commitments are in flux, particularly evident with Mabel and Janet, and Myatt and Coral.

This is early Graham Greene. It is said he wrote this to make a bit of money. But we can already see one of the characteristic elements of Greene’s work–characters in a liminal place and how they will respond. This lacked the focus and weight of later works, but nevertheless held your interest, wanting to see what the end of the journey held for each.

Review: Riding High in April

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021.

Summary: A freelance writer faces some crucial life choices as she joins her software entrepreneur partner of fifteen years in Asia as he tries to launch an innovative open-source platform.

Stuart is a software entrepreneur has developed an innovative open source platform enabling people to securely network in the “cloud.” He teams up with a classmate, Niraj, from India to form a company to pursue clients and venture capital, a move that has taken them to South Korea, pursuing a contract with a telecom as well as the first round of venture capital funding.

Marie, his partner of fifteen years has a gift of finding the words to help companies explain their products. She sets all that aside to join Stuart in Asia. She tells him, “I don’t want to be apart anymore.” Yet Stuart keeps leaving as he pursues contracts, deals with his business partner’s meltdown in a family crisis, the betrayal of co-workers, and ultimately that of Niraj. She follows as he tries to put out fires, and has several encounters that force her to question the premise on which her life the last fifteen years has been based.

The narrative is punctuated with episodes of Marie’s swimming. It is her attempt to teach a fearful young girl to swim and consulting with a swimming guru, that confront her with a realization about her own life and how she has made decisions.

Stuart has those moments that could be moments of insight. A heart to heart with a Japanese investor speaking to him about his health. A bite by a deadly tokay that became infected. His father’s loving words to him amid the father’s declining physical and mental health.

But the pursuit of the dream, the ability to solve problems, the inability to fail, and the refusal to settle for…what? The house on a beach with Marie?

It’s a story about two people approaching midlife faced with choices about the second half and what these will mean for their relationship. But this central thread seems to get obscured with highly technical dives into the world of open-source software, networks, clouds, and data and the opportunities for fortunes or failures. At first, I thought this was a tech thriller, but the story unfolds amid a seemingly endless round of meetings, pitch decks, the ordinary business reverses and betrayals, the crises and the pivots.

And this seems to be the problem with the execution of this story. The “deep dive” into tech seemed to be so fascinating to the author that the reader scratches one’s head trying to figure out what kind of story one is reading. Then it dawns on you that it is about the choices of growth (or not) of two people and what those choices will mean.

And that is an interesting idea, one many couples face as they move from the first half to the second half of life. Perhaps the “deep dive” reflects how one or both may become so obsessed with their work, their dream, that they lose sight of the other or even of themselves. But I can’t help but wonder how many readers will wade through the tech parts of this book and how many others who geek out on the tech will be disappointed that this was not the tech thriller they might have hoped for.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021.

Summary: A westward trip of two bereaved brothers to start a new life is interrupted when two prison friends of the older brother turn up and hi-jack their plans.

I will say straight out that I think this is one of the best road novels I’ve ever read–leaving Kerouac’s On the Road in the metaphorical dust. Towles allows this journey to unfold rather than pursue the frenetic pace of Kerouac. The adolescent characters have dreams toward which they strive, despite the cards dealt them in life, and while not saints, evidence principles and loyalties not evident in Kerouac’s dissolute young adults who still act the like immature adolescents.

The novel opens in June of 1954 with a warden driving Emmett Watson home on early release from Salinas, a juvenile detention center to which he’d been sentenced for the accidental manslaughter of a young man who struck his head when knocked down by Emmett, retaliating for insults to his family. He has returned because his father had died of cancer, his mother had long ago abandoned the family, and he is the only one to care for his precocious, eight-year old brother Billy. Billy has been looked after by a young neighbor woman, Sally, who has spent her life looking after the men in her life and wants something more.

Emmett realizes staying in his small Nebraska town is not a good idea. He has enemies and a cloud over his head and his father’s farm has been seized by the bank. He envisions a new start with Billy, driving away in his powder blue Studebaker to use his construction skills somewhere that is growing. He thinks Texas, but Billy thinks California, where he hopes to find his mother, based on the trail of postcards she’d sent. Billy has mapped out the route that follows the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway that runs close to their home. They hope to make it by the July 4 fireworks in San Francisco. Billy’s mother loved fireworks, having left the day after a local display.

Their plans are interrupted when two fellow inmates from Salinas, Duchess and “Woolly,” show up on Emmett’s doorstep. They had escaped in the trunk of the warden’s car. “Duchess” was the son of a theatrical performer who betrayed him to the authorities to escape arrest. “Woolly” suffers some form of cognitive impairment requiring medication to keep him mellow. They want Emmett and Billy to drive them to New York to retrieve a $150,000 trust fund that has been withheld from Woolly, that they offer to split three ways.

Emmett will have none of it. He and Billy pack their kit bags (Billy with Abacus Abernathe’s compendium of heroic stories that he has read 24 times already). They plan to drop the other two at a bus station, but Duchess, who always seems to have other ideas, creates a diversion at the orphanage he once lived in, then steals the Studebaker, and with Woolly takes off for New York, with $3,000 that Emmett’s father had left him, stowed behind the spare tire.

Emmett and Billy, nearly penniless, decide to pursue them the only way they can, by hopping a freight train, and the race is on to intercept them in New York, to retrieve the Studebaker, and hopefully the money, and then take the Lincoln Highway from coast to coast, fulfilling a dream of Billy’s. They make it to New York with the help and protection of a fellow hobo, Ulysses, who left his wife and son after the war and has been wandering ever since. Billy, reads him the story of Ulysses from Professor Abernathe’s book, and in a series of events, Professor Abernathe and Ulysses meet, discussing whether this Ulysses might be reunited with his wife as was the Ulysses of mythology. This encounter, catalyzed by Billy, was one of the high points of the book, capturing the arc of failure, struggle and hope each character pursues.

While all this happens, Emmett pursues Duchess and his car. But he’s not the only one pursuing. Sally, fed up with waiting for them to call to say they’ve arrived safely, and fed up with her domestic life, takes off in pursuit of them.

All of these characters are striving against thwarted destinies to make something of their lives. Billy wants to find the mother who left him. Emmett wants to use construction skills to make a life in a new place by re-habbing and flipping houses, not unlike what he’d been doing before prison. Sally is tired of doing for other men and wants to do for herself. Duchess envisions owning a restaurant like one in which he worked. And Woolly? It seems he would string together a life of “perfect days” untroubled by the demands of his station in life. The Lincoln Highway goes both east and west. Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward, as in the chapter numbering of this book. Sometimes, to get to California, you have to go through New York, uncertain whether you will make your way back, but continuing to hope.

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.

Review: Raft of Stars

Raft of Stars, Andrew J. Graff. New York: Ecco, 2021.

Summary: A coming of age adventure story of two friends fleeing down a river after what they think is the murder of the father of one of the boys, and the pursuit to save the boys from certain destruction from a danger unknown to them.

I would not have known of this book apart from an Ohio friend who put me onto this debut novel of Andrew J. Graff, a writing instructor at Wittenberg University. This was a delightful find.

The setting is the north woods of Wisconsin in 1994. It centers around two boys, Breadwin and Fish. Breadwin has a violent father he tries to stay away from as much as possible. Fish lost his father and his mother, Miranda lets him stay summers at her father Ted’s farm. Fish is concerned about the bruises he sees on his friend, and follows him home one night, to discover the father in the act of choking Breadwin. Fish spots a gun as the father spots him, fires, and the man collapses in a pool of blood. They think they’ve killed him and run for it, leaving a note at Ted’s, where they collect supplies. Fish proposes they take the path to the river that runs through the north forest to where it comes out at his father’s military post, not telling Breadwin he no longer has a father. Finding an abandoned shack by the river, they are able to turn it into a raft.

Sheriff Cal came from Texas. This little town was the perfect escape from a situation where he broke procedure in apprehending a bad character. He’s no longer sure about a career in law enforcement and drinks more than is good for him, but this seems to be the perfect place to get some peace and perspective–until he finds Breadwin’s father apparently dead and the boys on the run. He and Ted mount a search on horseback, kind of a series of mishaps for Cal, unused to tracking in a forest.

Then Fish’s mom Miranda decides to follow, along with Tiffany, a gas station attendant who colors her hair, has lived on the edge of poverty, but has come to appreciate the boys, and even the new sheriff. Miranda is a cross between a devout pentecostal and a mamma bear, the latter more urgent yet because she finds out Breadwin’s father had survived and her son was not a murderer.

The pursuit is urgent, not to apprehend the boys but to head them off from destruction from a river gorge they cannot raft through and don’t know is there. Much of the book is an account of how the boys elude capture while being pursued by their rescuers. Perhaps some of the best writing is the storm and tornado sequences, where one experiences the terror of encountering these phenomena unprotected.

What makes this debut novel so good? Is it the deepening relationship and resourcefulness of the boys? Is it the collaboration of people for whom life hasn’t been easy? Is it the lovable but seemingly ineffectual Constable Bobby (who plays an important role toward the end)? Is it the river journey, a literary trope featuring in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Only here, instead of people becoming stripped of the veneer of civilization, they summons the means to become better versions of themselves. This is an adventure story, a coming of age story, and a love story wrapped into one. And in a rare achievement, the author does it without sex scenes or profanity and through characters with flaws and grit, not plaster saints.

I understand the author has a sequel in the works, set in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up. Sign me up. I look forward to seeing how he develops as a writer. This was a very good debut.

Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Summary: The year that changed the life of a young woman in New York, remembered when photographs trigger a flashback twenty-eight years later.

Katey and her husband Val are part of the social elite at an exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. For the first time, photographs taken by Walker Evans on New York’s subways in the late 1930’s are on exhibit. Among those photos are two of him. One elegantly dressed, a portrait of subdued power. The other, more gaunt in the tattered clothes of a laborer, but with a smile. Tinker Grey. And it brings back the year in between and how Katey’s life changed, beginning her rise from a working class immigrant background.

At the end of 1937, Katey and her roommate Eve decide to do the town for New Years. Eve is from the midwest with high hopes. Katya, now Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) is working in a secretarial pool for a New York law firm, living by her wits and struggling to make ends meet, but also enjoying the city. They are in a jazz club and in walks Tinker Grey in a cashmere coat. They end up ringing in the New Year, and Tinker leaves his monogrammed lighter behind, giving them a chance to see him again. A subsequent night on the town ends in an accident leaving Eve with leg injuries and a scar. Tinker offers his home to recover. They fall in love, and Katey is nudged out.

It’s a story that traces Katey’s year of 1938 in her voice, one that is whip-smart and shrewd. Both her external and internal dialogue make this book, a feat for a male writer. We see her rise from the secretarial pool to editorial assistant for a new magazine launched by the publisher of Conde’ Nast. She recounts the nights at the clubs, the jazz of the Thirties, and her relationships with Wallace Wolcott and Dicky Vanderwhile, the latter on the rebound from one with Tinker Grey after Eve refused to marry him and went to Hollywood. One of the most interesting characters is Anne Grandyn, whose wealth helped make Tinker. She made him in other ways, and unbeknownst to Katey, helps make her as well. Instead of being a rival for Tinker, in an odd way, she is an ally.

Meanwhile Tinker’s life unravels. From Central Park, he moves to a flop house, in some ways following his late artist brother–and hence that second picture in the gallery. And yet the move in his life is from a learned upper crust civility, schooled by George Washington’s The Rules of Civility to rediscovery of the New York he loved best.

Not only does Towles do a masterful job at writing in a woman’s voice, he captures the resurgence of New York on the eve of World War Two as the country climbed out of the Depression. He explores questions of class and upward mobility. Both Tinker and Katey rise from modest beginnings on their wits, yet come to different ends. We wonder if the 1966 Katey, confronted with the images of Tinker, wonders about the life she’s embraced. Or perhaps she was reminded of the year in which her life turned, the gains and the losses, and the course that was set.

I went back to read this after reading Towles’s masterful A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this year. It is hard to believe this is a first novel. So often, we just live our lives. In both of Towles’s works, we see characters who not only live their lives, but, through circumstances, are brought to reflect upon their course and what they’ve meant, inviting the reader to do the same.