Cloud Cuckoo Land: Finally a book to make you feel good about the end of humanity

There are books readers like because they make them feel good about being a reader (think Shadow of the Wind or the recently reviewed Last Chance Library) . Books that stroke the ego –you are okay because you spend time thinking about things, going slowly through the pages of fat novels, valuing ideas and argument. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is one of these books, but more than that it’s a book that tries to assure the reader that, while all evidence points to the imminent collapse of humanity (and the book doesn’t skirt this point), people are okay or will be okay because there are books. It is an extremely soothing thing to read in 2022.

Let me explain. [Spoilers abound, as they do in all my reviews, so do what you want]

The novel has three competing temporal settings – the semi-near future of a technological and climate apocalypse; the almost immediate present of the time just before the pandemic* like so almost immediate as to be literally February 2020 (an important point on pre- and post- pandemic novels I want to return to); and the past of the 1500s with the fall of Constantinople. Oh and a little detour to the Korean war.

And five narrators. Konstance, our futuristic child trapped [or is she] on a spaceship (aptly named the Argos) searching for a new planet after the ecological devastation of Earth renders it uninhabitable; Zeno the Korean war vet turned snow plow driver turned Greek translator turned children’s theatre producer who was always gay and in his last moments acknowledges it and maybe that matters but probably it doesn’t; Seymour, the autistic – or is he just sensitive to noise – climate activist who genuinely believes blowing up a housing development office is going to bring about global systemic change; Anna the Greek child who was never going to fit in as an embroidress because she is too Impish and Adventurous, but then is somehow okay to spend her life milking cows; and finally Omeir who loves animals, isn’t as fond of long city sieges and how does having a cleft palate in 1500 make him the man he becomes, or more, how do the reactions of people around us/trauma – in this case chased from their village with torches – make you the person you become.

So yes. Three time frames, five narrators, all brought together through repeated themes of environmental protection/sensitivity to animals, the risks and dangers of technology (whether that be the introduction of the first cannon or the threat of Google maps), the possibility of redemption through singular acts of sacrifice and, of course, through books and reading.

[Small detour to say this description might make the book sound daunting. And after my mum described it to me and I got it from the library it sat for a few days gathering dust (especially bad as it was a 7 day loan and 500 pages). We’d just learned we had the ‘vid, and could I really summon the energy to Read A Big Book That Sounded Very Complicated? Yes. You can. It is incredibly ‘readable,’ written for its movie adaptation but also to be churned through. Make it through the prologue and the first six pages and you’re set to finish it in… well, not seven days if you’re working full-time, homeschooling and sick, but you know, at least 14.]

Each chapter and within each part we brush up against the fictionalized Greek comedy Cloud Cuckoo Land in which our protagonist yearns to reach the impossible land in the sky, Cloud Cuckoo Land, where he will be transformed and finally free of suffering. On reaching the Land he discovers that while this blissful place contains all that could be known and promises no shortage of satisfactions, he would instead prefer to be on earth, just as it is. Or at least, maybe that’s the ending. The great scheme of the novel is to continually ask – because of the degradation of the text over time [but really because of metafiction] – whether this could be the ending, or whether instead he stays in Cloud Cuckoo Land and that we will never know, we must decide the ending for ourselves.

Even while Konstance, Zeno, Seymour, Anna and Omeir in their own ways all ultimately decide that it is this life, this earth that they will choose.

So why is this a book about feeling okay about the climate apocalypse? Well that part about deciding the ending for ourselves, about making individual choices about where we will compromise and how we will sacrifice. But its the thing about books that made me think Doerr was trying to be outlandishly hopeful. That in making the argument that some books survive he’s saying humanity is going to be okay. If books can survive all kinds of calamities and impossibilities (even the all-seeing-repository of the Argos didn’t hold it! but it was still recovered!) – that these stories arrive in our libraries and on our tablets is so improbable, so genuinely miraculous, that there must be a similar hope that 2000 years from now our books will find their way to whatever remains.

That humanity lives on in story is as staid a theme in literature as one can find, but still, here and in this particular now it brought this reader some kind of comfort.

And that’s where I’d return to this as a post-pandemic novel. It couldn’t have been set in March 2020 because the world it is trying to capture in February 2020 is one where climate can be centre, and where collective energies can also be imagined. One where we are not all So Sad and So Tired that we can’t imagine going to a children’s play staged in a small town library if only because it would mean putting on hard pants, but really because it would mean summoning the kind of belief that these tiny acts of optimism are worth applauding, and indeed, contributing to.

So while the hope is faint, the likelihood all but impossible, Doerr asks us to stay on this earth. To read, to sacrifice, to pet animals and to be kind.

It is not, I think, the worst book I have read about the end of humanity.

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Apples Never Fall: Bor-ing

Liane Moriarty books are supposed to be delightful page turners of silly mysteries. Apples Never Fall tries to be the same – the wife/mother disappears in the first pages and we go back and forth in time trying to understand how and why – but it’s just boring. Not enough at stake, or who cares, or is there really a mystery here or did she just get fed up and drive off. Anyway, if you are looking for a follow-up to Big Little Lies or State of Terror this is Not The One. Move on.

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State of Terror: Such Fun and Why Not Now

Guys you need something fun. You need something that makes fun of Trump and has little dashes of totally unreasonable and ill founded hope and goodness. Louise Penny can be counted on for these qualities, and when the novel is co-authored with Hillary Clinton… well, it’s just fun.

State of Terror follows the barely fictionalized Secretary of State for the President just following President Dunn (the Trump stand in) as she tries to thwart a nuclear attack on the United States. It attempts to Seriously Grapple with the ethics of preemptive strikes, of torture, of the relative moral standing of the US in the world, and while it does dabble in those themes, it does it in the most gentle of ways. With mere seconds on the bomb left to tick down the anxiety never ratchets far: we know we are in safe hands.

And with a cameo from Inspector Gamache and plenty of descriptions of delicious food, we know that the primary pen here must be Penny, but with plot credit going to the presidential nominee.

I paid so many dollars in late fines for this one (it was a ‘quick read’ and while it *is* a quick read, my life is a hellish landscape of email and toddler snacks) and it was worth it. Even more so because Guelph is doing away with late fines in 2022 and so I may as well give them all my $ now.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

The Last Chance Library: Snuggly and soothing and aren’t libraries the best

There is nothing but cozy feelings in Freya Sampson’s The Last Chance Library. It borders on the saccharine and pat (in the way of A Man Called Ove or The Hundred Year Old Man) but perhaps because its is also an ode to the library as essential public institution, or perhaps because the world is terrible and we all need the occasional reprieve, I enjoyed it.

The book opens with June, 27 years old and working as a library assistant in the tiny town of something that starts with a C. If you were drawing the plot arc of this book, alongside the character development it would go something like this: (1) June is timid/still lives in childhood home/can’t connect with others because of her grief (2) library is threatened with closure/June encounters man from childhood who also loves books and is incredibly kind/June is timid and now aware of how her grief and timidity are preventing her from living her life (3) a series of escalating moments of decision force June to take tiny steps to connect with others and to be brave and a series of obvious but nevertheless endearing obstacles get in the way of June dating the man (4) climax where we see June and the library get what we hope (5) very tidy ending.

The whole time you know exactly that everything is going to work out, and that all of the little challenges – will they get enough people to the protest? – are manageable and quaint and so even if somehow things go wrong… nothing will explode. Identity, politics, the fate of the world, none of them are implicated here. Just… will the library be saved, will June move on in her life, and the whole time we all know: yes, just the question of how.

I shouldn’t say politics aren’t involved at all. The library is threatened because of government spending cuts, and part of the argument the townspeople mount is how the library is the one remaining space where people of all ages and backgrounds can come for a safe place to be, to connect with one another and to receive service and care. And to use the washroom and get out of the heat or cold. I appreciated the way the book tried to figure out what it was that makes libraries so special – is it the place, or the people, or the librarians, or the programs, or the books, or the history – but ultimately allows that it has to be all of those things, and that we will each have special resonance with the library.

I do love the library. And if nothing else this book reminded me not to take it for granted. But mostly, it reminded me – as I’ve always known and still forget – that beyond baking shows, I can also be soothed by a completely gentle and utterly enjoyable book.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction