The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – Book

From a Google Image Search – Amazon

Maggie O’Farrell, of Hamnet fame, gives us a look at sixteenth century Italy, divided into various small Duchies, in her newest book, The Marriage Portrait. Her great talent is to bring eras and famous figures alive, much like the painting of her main character in this novel. She describes a restless young woman raised in a loving family who must leave her home to marry a young handsome man from Ferrara, a place across the mountains. It is fortunate that Lucrezia was not a biddable child, because the family she marries into is modeled on the De Medici family. Is it the fault of her beautiful mother whose mind wandered while her husband took his pleasure in the map room?

“Picture Eleonora in the autumn of 1544: she is in the map room of the Florentine palazzo, a chart held close to her face (she is somewhat short-sighted but would never admit this to anyone). Her women stand at a distance, as near to the window as they can get; although it is September, the city is still suffocatingly hot. The well of the courtyard below seems to bake in the air, wafting out more and more heat from the stone rectangle. The sky is low and motionless; no breeze stirs the silk window coverings and the flags on the palazzo’s ramparts hang limp and flaccid…Eleanora’s eyes rake over the silverpoint rendering of Tuscany: the peaks of hills, the eel-like slither of rivers, the ragged coastline climbing north. Her gaze pauses over the cluster of roads that knot themselves together for the cities of Siena, Livorno, and Pisa. Eleanor is a woman all too aware of her rarity and worth: she possesses not only a body able to produce a string of heirs, but also a beautiful face, with a forehead like carved ivory, eyes wide-set and deep brown, a mouth that looks well in both a smile and a pout. On top of all that she has a quick and mercurial mind. She can look at the scratch marks on this map and can, unlike most women, translate them into fields full of grain, terraces of vines, crops, farms, convents, levy-paying tenants.” (pg. 16)

Lucrezia is a painter. Painting techniques of sixteenth century artists play a big role in this story. The art of the underpainting is used by the painter of the time to record disparate truths; and it is used as a nice piece of symbolism by O’Farrell.

Lucrezia leaves Tuscany with her new husband and soon learns that he is not always the sanguine whimsical partner that he has pretended to be. He is desperate for an heir and Lucrezia’s mother is called by many La Fecundissima. She soon sees that her husband has two faces, and one is neither patient nor loving. When women did not produce children in the sixteenth century it was never the fault of the man. Lucrezia is not with child after nearly a year of marriage. Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, her husband, takes her to a hunting lodge at the edge of a forest to have her marriage portrait painted. A kind act based on a piece of acquired knowledge may have a profound effect on Lucrezia’s fate. 

“Lucrezia is taking her seat at the long dining table, which is polished to a watery gleam and spread with dishes, inverted cups, a woven circlet of fir. Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening his knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed them, that he intends to kill her.” (pg. 12)

Obviously, the rest of the story is told in flashback, a common element of story structure these days. The contrast between the lovebirds in Tuscany and the darker stuff of Ferrara gives scope to O’Farrell’s descriptive talents and offers a sense of real drama. I found the ending both satisfying and shocking, but I cannot tell you why without giving the outcome away. This quick read is also immersive, a way to spend a day half in light and half in shadow.

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty – Book

From a Google Image Search – Milwaukee365.com

Tess Gunty took me to The Rabbit Hutch. My first thoughts as I read the novel were how much novels have changed in the twenty-first century. The story structure wasn’t new. There have been stories about the tenants of apartment buildings in other books. But characters have changed a lot and the culture has changed a lot. Everyone seems to be more unhinged. The deep flaws in the characters are reflected in our real-world examinations of the deep flaws in our societies and in ourselves. Perhaps it is that we feel more crowded as population nears 8 billion souls on the earth and it is far easier to feel lost. At one time an apartment building may have been a small community, but the inhabitants of The Rabbit Hutch hardly exude communal spirit. 

We have Joan in C2, a woman who keeps to herself, has no friends except the people she knows at work. She scans the comments people make on obituaries and weeds out any negative content. That’s her job. When Elsie Blitz dies, the famous star of Meet the Neighbors, and her son writes scathing remarks, Joan eliminates them. The son of Blitz, now in his forties will soon pay her a luminescent and scary visit without violent intent.

In C8 we have a new mom named Hope who is afraid of her new baby’s eyes, obviously fighting post-partem depression. She has a loving and patient husband. Will that help?

And in C4 we have 3 teenage boys and one teenage girl, recently released from foster care to take part in an early release program, turned loose from woefully few role models, bad foster parenting, and without mentors. The teen girl in apartment C4 is our heroine, Blandine née Tiffany Watkins, a beautiful girl, abused in the way women are abused by someone who makes them believe they are loved, in this case her high school music teacher. Blandine refuses to accept a view of herself as a victim, although she cannot face going back to the private school where she was a scholarship student, and she gives up the promising future the school had opened to her. 

Blandine loves her hometown, Vacca Vale and one reason she loves it, and one reason for all the animals that appear in this story is that the town fathers had created a green space they call Chastity Valley. Developers want to build expensive homes in place of this park. The town of Vacca Vale is on a river which has 100-year floods that are not always 100 years apart. Chastity Valley protects Vacca Vale from the worst effects of this flooding. Blandine does not know this fact, she just wants her town’s best feature left alone. Blandine seems unaware of her beauty, but the boys and men around her are not unaware. 

When a load of dirt and bones and sticks falls out of the ceiling of the Vacca Vale Country Club during a meeting between the town and the developers no one knows who could have done such a thing. It is a statement of environmental activism and a sign to us that one young woman has not lost her sense of personal power and agency. Blandine has been studying the lives of the mystics.

However, back at The Rabbit Hutch, we have three teen boys with little education, access to social media, and too much time on their hands, living with a beautiful mysterious teen girl. These boys have made a wrong turn.

The flaws in our society are reflected in the tenants of The Rabbit Hutch in way that points out the lack of a center in our culture. Historical novels often  are centered on royalty or a hierarchical social order. War novels focus on ways that war is full of terror and uncertainty which tends to make humans closer and give them a purpose. We live in times where we seem to have lost our center, where individuals go it alone and where life does not offer people much satisfaction or many clear goals. Tess Gunty’s book reflects our times very well, but it is disconcerting to read new authors when your best reads are from the twentieth century. Don’t avoid modern novels. Although depressing they are quite honest. 

“…so Blandine exits herself – she is all of it. She is every tenant of her apartment building. She’s trash and cherub, a rubber shoe on a sea floor, her father’s orange jump suit, a brush raking through her mother’s hair. The first and last Zorn Automobile factory in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a nucleus inside a man who robbed her body when she was fourteen, a pair of red glasses on the face of her favorite librarian, a radish tugged from a bed of dirt. She is no one.” (pg 10)

Michael Connelly’s Bosch Books

I set a course to read all the Bosch books by Michael Connelly this summer. Well, I didn’t quite make it before fall set in but, except for the newest book, which is not available yet, I finished all of them. I did not review each book as I finished it because I decided to classify them as recreational reading, but characters like Bosch deserve a few words. Harry or Hieronymus Bosch is a police detective in the homicide division when Connelly’s series begins. He has a sad past as he was born to a single mother who did not share the name of his father with him. They lived in run-down apartments in poor neighborhoods and his mother sometimes prostituted herself to earn enough money to live. She was found murdered in an alley; a victim of a crime Bosch eventually solves. Bosch is sent to a home for orphaned children, a place that locked defiant children away in a dark cubbyhole in a time when there were no laws about such abuse. Bosch was a defiant child and a frequent runaway.

But Bosch developed an anathema to the evil side of people, people whose acts create the dark corners of our society, its dark hidden alleys, and the twisted actions of those who are damaged. So, despite Bosch’s obvious issues with authority and his contempt for the politics of policing he is a detective who doesn’t quit. He breaks rules only if they prevent him from pursuing a case using rules he deems trivial. If his current LT (Lieutenant) happens to be a stickler for rules or in cahoots with the big wigs on the tenth floor, he is likely to be suspended once he solves a case (sometimes even before he solves the case). In some of the Bosch books he is a private detective. In later books he works to solve cold cases or volunteers at the San Fernando police department, gets hired there, gets suspended from there and finally retires for good, but still mentors Renee Ballard, a smart young policewoman.

Bosch’s house, where he spends far too little time, is an oasis above the city, a legacy of a movie that was made about a case he solved. It sits high above the city cantilevered out over scrubland and coyotes with a wall of windows and outside an open deck with a convenient railing. Jazz music fills the space which is somewhat minimalist and rather shipshape as if floating in air is like floating at sea. It does have three bedrooms however, which is fortunate when Bosch discovers that he has a daughter from his only wife and only love, the former FBI agent and very successful gambler, Eleanor Wish. Wish and Bosch do not work as partners but their daughter, Maddie, is a great addition to the series. She plays a more prominent role in the TV series, but she and Harry have an easy and positive relationship even though or perhaps because Harry is hardly ever home. Maddie understands what drives her father and she finds herself driven by the same desire to rid the world of evil doers. She humanizes Harry.

Michael Connelly creates a thinking detective, not an action hero, and he takes us through cases that come out of the news of the moment. This gives his books a historical perspective on what different eras have brought to life in Los Angeles and to the world. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my summer of Bosch. It offered a nice break from the ever more chaotic politics of America and everywhere else. To go along as a hero follows the trail of a criminal murderer or rapist, an arsonist who burned up children to cover a crime, or people who committed ‘all the sins that flesh is heir to’, to use a “murder book” to catch a criminal, brought a sense of balance back into my life. Seeing wrongs righted offers satisfaction even if the heroics are fictional. I also find, whenever I read a book set in LA, that we are given lots of highway routes in case we ever want to follow in Bosch’s footsteps. Don’t bring a gun; bring some Charles Mingus and some good fast food. You won’t need a GPS. Just take the 405 to Mulholland

From an SNL skit:

Yes, Californians yak about traffic the same way Oregonians talk about the weather, effortlessly working it into conversations.

A hilarious example from jealous boyfriend Fred Armisen during Saturday’s SNL skit “The Californians”:

“I think you should go home now, Devin! Get back on San Vincente. Take it to the 10. Switch over to 405 North and let it dump you into Mulholland…where you belong.”

Thank you, Michael Connelly. You provided a great bridge to take me out of COVID isolation and sorrow, back to fighting the good fight to save democracy and enjoying life.

Trust by Hernan Diaz – Book

From a Google Image Search – Oprah Daily

This book is so unique that you might set it aside, but the departure from traditional story structure is an essential element of this novel of a man so private and yet so concerned with his legacy that just one version of his story will not suffice. Trust by Hernan Diaz will perplex you and engage you and deliver you up to an ending you will either love or hate.

This is a billionaire’s tale from before, during, and after the Great Depression. This is social commentary. It’s a glimpse into the roots of conservative American financial philosophy. It exposes the rationalizations for breaking financial rules for personal gains while assuaging guilt and, in fact, turning insinuations of crimes into a philanthropic set of actions that saved and preserved America. That’s some major league rationalizing. Andrew Bevel (aka Benjamin Rask) is practically on the autism spectrum with almost no social skills, but a clear understanding of markets, math, and the outputs of the ticker tape machine. We hear his story in four different versions from different fictional authors, Harold Vanner, Andrew himself, Ida Partenza, and Mildred Bevel. Similarly, we get four different views of Andrew’s wife, Mildred. 

The author does not say that Bevel’s stock shenanigans (short selling) may have contributed to (caused) the crash of the stock market in 1929, however it’s possible to draw such a conclusion. We see market machinations through Andrew’s eyes so any criticism is offered through tone or insinuation; commentary as dry as Andrew’s personality. There is also the contrast between Ida Partenza’s father, activist and typesetter, socialist/communist/lefty. Andrew’s contempt for American workers who became impoverished during the Great Depression is a subtle match for the “makers” and “takers” that are used to rationalize the financial rights of twenty-first century millionaires and billionaires.

Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust is both different; and good. If I say too much it will ruin all your fun.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson – Book

The Vineyard Gazette – From a Google Image Search

Do you believe in magic? (Did your brain sing this sentence?) In Neal Stephenson’s entertaining novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., magic and physics partner up, with physics being used to bring back magic which has gone missing from the modern world. Triston Lyons literally bumps into Melisande Stokes outside the Harvard office of Dr. Blevins, the Head of Ancient Linguistics. Triston Lyons has figured out that magic died when photography was born, specifically when Berkowski, a daguerreotypist, took the first picture ever of a solar eclipse somewhere around the 1850’s. Melisande is fed up with Dr. Blevins, her Department Chair and boss, for good reasons. Triston has asked her bad boss Blevins to work on his D.O.D.O. project and has been turned down, so Triston takes Melisande for coffee and convinces her to join up. He can’t even tell Mel what DODO stands for; everything is “classified.” She makes a series of witty guesses such as, Department of Donuts, Department of Dusty Objects, Department of Deadly Observations, Department of Doing the Occult, and Department of Diabolical Observations, The interactions between these two suggest that they might “hook up” but Triston is a perfect boss for the “me too” era and is actually so obsessed with his science that he is oblivious to sexual undertones, to the amusement of most of the women and a few of the men he encounters as the project progresses. 

Melisande is introduced to Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca East-Oda. Frank is a retired physicist who has designed a time machine. The only thing missing is that it is necessary to use a combination of magic and physics to send someone back in time. It’s a big hiccup because there is no magic left in the modern world. Time travel is something that must be approached cautiously as there are rules to follow. If you don’t insert someone gently into the past; if you don’t carefully limit interactions, then you can cause a diachronic shear that obliterates everything in the path of the shear, causes mayhem and death, and changes history. While they build the first ODEC or time machine, under the auspices of a government department called The Department of Diachronic Operations they advertise for witches. One persistent person keeps calling them to insist that she is a witch, but they are skeptical until they finally meet her. Erzebet is a witch stranded in modern America without being able to use her magic to get her back to her home in Hungary in 1851 so she can spit on the graves of her ancestors. Magic works in an ODEC.

You can begin to see that this is the kind of story that Neal Stephenson excels at; a complex plot, a huge cast of characters, a scope that embraces time and space, and lots of cutting-edge science that may or may not ever be useful. The inclusion of magic is new, but it gives Stephenson and his partner who writes the follow-up book, an interesting way to talk about the multiverse and quantum mechanics. It seems that witches have for centuries used primitive style “abacuses” to keep track of different strands in the multiverse, although that is not the name they use. They can move sideways across these strands to affect events in the real world. Witches understand the danger of diachronic shear but have different names for the catastrophe. Erzebet knows it as lomadh, or perhaps that’s Gráinne, a witch who lives in London in 1850, around the time that the first photo is taken of the eclipse.

As with any scientific project that becomes a matter for national intelligence the military soon gets involved and complications multiply. The loosey-goosey early structures of DODO get whipped into shape with layers and layers of bureaucracy. And sad to say, they hire Mel’s old boss, the arrogant, clueless Dr. Blevins to be the head of the project. Triston, our oblivious dreamer, keeps his eye on the target and as he is in the army is unfazed by the hierarchy. Others are not so blithely unaware of the danger of an administration that doesn’t understand the project. In fact, the military would not be involved in this endeavor at all if other nations were not working on similar projects, making this a possible issue of national security.

The first mission of DODO (or the first DEDE), once the ODEC is up and running and Erzebet understands and reluctantly agrees to her limited magical role as a “sender,” is to steal a valuable first edition of a religious book published in Massachusetts when it was still the Bay Colony, to hide it in what will be the garden of Frank Oda’s wife Rebecca East-Oda, and then dig it up in modern day Massachusetts and auction it off for funds for their project. This is far more complicated than you would expect and leads to travels back to Shakespeare’s London and that’s how the bankers get involved, the Fuggers, who seem to have the ancestral memories of insects or birds. These bankers are not magical but find a way to crop up in almost every diachronic operation. By the way the real meaning of DODO is – the Department of Diachronic Operations. 

I always find Neal Stephenson books to be delicious nerd-romps in truly imaginative spaces and, since they usually involve plenty of speculative science, are intriguing to real scientists and dabblers alike. The book is intended to be fun, and it is, but it also tries to make complex knowledge understandable. Of course, ironically, if Triston succeeds in wiping out photography, he will also wipe out computers and almost all of modern technology. Just another little hiccup.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara – Book

Vanity Fair from a Google Image Search

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara begins with an America that is hard to recognize and yet unsurprising, given recent exposés of our historical and current prejudices, works as an obvious device for a novel of social commentary and is smack in the middle of Yanagihara’s wheelhouse. The Northeast section, NYC is called the Free States. Then there are the Colonies which include Southern states and Texas and Oklahoma. The current states east of the Rockies, north of the Colonies and including the Midwest are called America, the west coast is known as the West. You can find copies of the maps on Google Images. The social mores of Americans have been changed along with Hanya’s changes in the map of America. 

Although it is only the end of the nineteenth century same sex marriages are totally legal and acceptable if you live in the Free States. Same sex relationships are illegal elsewhere. There are also male-female marriages but the relationships we are concerned with for the most part involve two men, and these are not casual relationships, they are marriages, and these couples adopt children to become families. These relationships are hardly perfect; same sex couples experience the same challenges all marriages present. Couples may stay compatible for their entire lives or may drift apart because their partner is not who he seemed to be, or because of infidelity, or just from plain disappointment. 

This is a family saga with a time-travelling family tree that has some large gaps and, at the end, a big leap forward into the future. The Bingham family is wealthy, and the family is given credit for the founding of the Free States, so they are famous. They live in a mansion on Washington Square. The children live with their grandfather because both parents died. John, Eden, and David are grown now. John’s partner is Peter, Eden’s partner is Eliza. Learn the names because they come up in every era to mark characters in the Bingham family line. Charles Griffith has been matched with David Bingham, but David meets Edward Bishop and falls in love. He does not want to settle down on Washington Square, or in a stodgy marriage. Edward offers love and adventure although he is a slightly louche character. Remember those names also because there will be several incarnations of Charles and a few of Edward. Adams pops up over and over as the butler. It’s a very interesting and unique way to connect stories that could be lacking in continuity.

Book II involves a sojourn in Hawai’i, a colony, once a kingdom, that lost its culture to mainland invaders. Our next David is a member of the sidelined royal family. He is known by the native name Kawika. All the David’s have difficulty with social adjustments. Perhaps they would be placed on the autism spectrum today or diagnosed with Asperger’s. They just do not have a grip on their own life or identity. David does not know that he might be a homosexual in this future story. He meets Alice and she has a son who he becomes responsible for. For the most part the son is raised by the grandmother. He is called Wika. Then Edward, a young man Kawika went to school with arrives in his life as a grown man with a fire in his gut to return Hawai’i to its former glory. There is a Charles Griffith; he’s the family lawyer. Here the family blood line adds Asian-Hawaiian genes to its DNA.

In Book III we pop up in Zone Eight and travel back and forth in time between 2050 and 2094. Zone Eight centers on Washington Square in the same mansion where the story began. The Bingham family still owns the house for a while. Nathaniel and Charles are married and have just moved to Zone Eight from Hawai’i. Nathaniel, who studies and collects artifacts of his homeland is not at all happy to be in Zone Eight. Charles has an important job at a Research Center. The world has been rocked by one virus after another, and in what used to be New York and Washington, DC plans to contain diseases as they arise are changing America beyond recognition. So is climate change which is making cities so hot that people must own cooling suits to go out-of-doors at times. 

We focus on Charlie, a child who recovered from one of these viruses but with cognitive damage. Charles is protective of her and when he realizes that he will be arrested by the state, he finds her a husband and teaches her how to be a wife. Charles writes to the man he loves in New Britain whose name is Peter. It is so friendly to meet these familiar family members as we time travel through a culture like ours with this family. Many of these family members have dark skins so racism is not the issue in this book, but homosexual relationships become illegal once again. Hanya Yanagihara has a sort of mission to normalize LGBT+ relationships and make them as acceptable as heterosexual relationships or even staying single. 

In the future the author subtly suggests that the government of the once Free States is somehow now ruled from Beijing, so we can only assume that Beijing has taken over as the world’s most powerful nation. The Free States are no longer free. The fear of viruses that repeated in 2050, 54, 70, and now in 94 has allowed the government to control the population by promises to cure the viruses as they spread if the people will do as they are told. It may sound like residents have a choice, but their choices dwindle as new viruses continue to threaten. All is done in the name of keeping people healthy and safe. Since so many people are dying or being removed to containment areas or rehab centers, there is a big push for relationships to produce offspring. Homosexuality still exists but it must be kept secret and can lead to arrest. Fortunately the David in this timeline is focused and sure of himself.

“There were some people who thought the scientists were creating the sicknesses in our labs, because they wanted to eliminate certain kinds of people or because they wanted to help the state maintain control of the country, and these were the most dangerous people of all.” Pg. 383 “Back then, the Square (Washington Square) had been planted with trees and covered with grass, and the pit in the center had been a fountain, where water erupted in bursts and then fell back into the pit again. Over and over the water exploded and fell, exploded and fell, for no other reason than because people liked it. I know it sounds queer, but it’s true; Grandfather showed me a photograph of it once.” Pg. 388 

Is Hanya against mandates, is she an antivaxxer, or does she think that the temptation towards authoritarian solutions to problems that affect the lives of everyone must be considered very carefully to balance freedom and health measures? Clearly the world did not solve climate change. Are there still places in the world that have handled things in better ways with less disruption of normality while holding on to freedom and human rights? Clues suggest there are. I would have liked to go to New Britain to see what they did differently. You will have to decide where Yanagihara stands and even where you stand on these matters, but whatever you decide you will most likely agree that To Paradise is another Hanya Yanagihara tour de force. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – Book

From a Google Image Search – Vulture

Having seen announcements of Louise Erdrich books for some time on Amazon, Goodreads and in the New York Times, I decided that I should read one. I knew nothing about Erdrich’s connections to indigenous people and shame on me. The Sentence begins with a set up. Tookie, our main character, describes herself as solid and unattractive. She had to raise herself because her mother was addicted to drugs and was so often using that she had nothing to offer Tookie, which certainly explains Tookie’s lack of self-confidence. 

Tookie answered a call from someone she had been close to and agreed to perform a task that every cell in her brain rebelled against. She did it out of a sense of duty owed to a pair of old friends. Her friends betrayed her. Tookie ended up sentenced to fifteen years in jail. There was no one on the outside to care about her except a tribal police officer named Pollux. But if you need someone to care about you Pollux is your man. He felt so guilty about arresting Tookie that he hovered nearby, and he even quit the tribal police force. 

Love does wonders when it is a supportive force, as it is in Tookie’s life. She finds a job in a bookstore that specializes in native books and her love of books makes her invaluable to Asema, the owner. Penstemon also works at the bookstore. Obviously being an indigenous author opens up a wide range of interesting character names. Pollux attends native ceremonies, drums for the dancers and feeds everyone. All goes well until two complications arise. A customer named Flora dies, but for some reason she still hangs out at the bookstore every day. Tookie can hear her bracelets, her footwear on the floors, her silky clothing swishing. Sometimes Flora knocks books off the shelves in front of where Tookie is working. Since no one else can hear Flora Tookie at first says nothing, but after she finds a mysterious book that seems to have caused Flora’s death, Erdrich’s title takes on a new meaning. Tookie believes that when Flora read a certain sentence in the book it killed her. Tookie buries the book next to the tree that recently fell in her yard, but signs are adding up. Eventually the other two in the bookstore sense Flora’s presence.

The other complication that arises is the pandemic, the COVID pandemic, which has the bookstore busier than ever with mail orders. But Tookie cannot work in the shop alone, the sense that Flora wants something from her is too menacing. Does it have anything to do with the fact that Flora has adopted an indigenous heritage when she is not indigenous at all? Between being unable to visit Pollux, sick with COVID and in the hospital, trying to forge a better relationship with Pollux’s daughter and her new baby boy, and the terror she is beginning to feel whenever Flora makes her presence known in the bookstore, Tookie is having a difficult time holding on to the sanity she found in her relationship with Pollux. She is reliving past sorrows. 

Erdrich obviously loves books and is a voracious reader. When her tale is done, and throughout the book great titles and exciting reads spill out, and as a bonus end up in lists of book recommendations at the end of the story. Read with a pen and paper handy because you will want to write down those book titles. Nothing like a good haunting, insight into indigenous lives, and a precarious love story to provide readers with a book that is hard to put down.

Anthem by Noah Hawley – Book

From a Google image Search

Anthem was a gutsy title for Noah Hawley to choose since the original book with that title was written by Ayn Rand. His invocation of the previous book was perhaps done deliberately to stress his similar themes and to point out that threats to the free world now may be as serious as the threat of the rise of Hitler was in 1937 when Rand wrote her book. 

Hawley’s book takes place in near-future America. Teens are committing suicide, and no one knows why. Parents are devastated but they don’t seem to blame themselves for their children’s choices. Simon loses his older sister Claire in just such a way. His anxiety disorder soars, his grief for his sister is all-encompassing, and his wealthy parents eventually place him in a center that tries to prevent the inevitable in children who are exhibiting signs that they should not be left alone. At the recovery center Simon is given a program of medications to treat just about every mental ailment that medication has been created for. He meets a young black girl named Louise who has suffered and wants revenge on someone she calls The Wizard, and he meets another teen named Paul, who wants to be called The Prophet.

America is the same mess we see around us right now only the social diseases are further along a scale indicating that collapse and chaos are imminent. Simon’s father makes a pill that is as addictive as opioids and yet he never accepts that his destructive path to personal wealth might have been what upset his daughter, although she papered the bathroom where she bled out with the wrappers that held her father’s pills. 

The original trio is joined by others they collect along the way, Felix, aka Samson, son of Avon who lives way off the grid. Felix shares a guilty secret with his father. Story is the girl Felix falls in love with and is hiding out with. Story’s mother is in the process of getting approved as a Supreme Court Justice. Story doesn’t know that Felix has another name, his off-the-grid name. Felix’s sister, Bathsheba has been kidnapped by a billionaire with a taste for sex with very young girls, (parallel with Jeffrey Epstein’s predation scheme right down to the female “friend” who keeps him supplied). Bathsheba, now called Katie, has been impregnated by her keeper, The Wizard, and she is being held as a prisoner in a compound in Texas until she gives birth. Louise was molested by this same billionaire who lives in houses all over the world and never has to suffer any consequences for his horrific behavior.

As the teens make plans to rescue Bathsheba, as they collect weapons and learn to use them, the world explodes around them and complicates their mission. There are militias all over the place, some organized, some not. Why are the teens feeling such despair? Is there any hope for creating a world where money doesn’t rule and any endeavor, no matter how harmful to a healthy society, is fine if it offers material rewards? The Prophet tags along on all the rescues but his true purpose is for this band of unlikely heroes to establish a utopia, to start over and to not make the same mistakes as their parents and ancestors.

Noah Hawley breaks the “rules” of writing fiction by breaking into the story to present commentary about the events of the story and to talk about the questions his daughter asks about what he is writing. It may not be part of usual story structure to sort of “break the frame,” but Hawley also writes for TV and movies which may explain his willingness to use story structure creatively. This is just the sort of dystopian tale that I enjoy, especially because of the social commentary that also tags along for the ride. One more thing – if you get a text message that says “A ll” you had better get a copy of Anthem right away so that you will be able to decode the message.

Is it possible for flawed humans to create a Utopian society? Maybe not, but if it takes a few centuries for a culture to turn bad then starting from scratch every now and then may be the only way to avoid the human capacity for rationalization, for turning our worst traits into self-destructive positives.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr – Book

From a Google Image Search – NPR

It’s possible, but not certain, that the city named “Cloud Cuckoo Land” dates back to an Aristophanes story “The Birds” written in 414 B. C. E. “…how long had those tablets moldered inside that chest, waiting for eyes to read them? While I am sure you will doubt the truth of the outlandish events they relate, my dear niece, in my transcription, I do not leave out a word. Maybe in the old days men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, true it was. But let us turn to his story now, and decide his sanity for ourselves.” (pg.14)

So, we start with a book, an old, old book, a book that has been wet and attacked by mold and lost for uncounted amounts of time. We end with the book in a new form, translated by Zeno Ninis who learned Greek from his fellow prisoner in a POW camp in the Korean War. The book may be fiction, and the characters may be fiction but the power of a great story to offer hope, to mellow grief, to calm anxiety has been a factor in many of our lives.

Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light You Cannot See. If he never wrote another book that one volume would be enough to keep him in my list of great authors. But here is another great book that stretches from the siege of Constantinople to sometime in the future. In the legend there is a shepherd who hears the tale of Cloud Cuckoo Land, and he learns that if you get to that land, you will be satisfied; that restlessness and yearning will no longer hound you. In the clouds where the birds circle the cloud towers is peace. But humans cannot go there, only animals. The shepherd uses magic, but it backfires, and he turns into a donkey. You will hear this story repeated in every age and the tale works its magic on many humans, even though they cannot expect to find Cloud Cuckoo Land unless they are transformed by the gods because of their deeds into a bird who can fly there. There is more to the shepherd’s story, but you should discover it for yourself.

Two characters are alive at the siege of Constantinople – Omeir and Anna. Anna finds the old manuscript when she is trying to save the life of her sister. Zeno begins his life about 18 years before the Korean War. The Cunningham sisters are librarians at the local library in Lakeport, Idaho. They introduce Zeno to the Greek writers, especially Aristophanes and his birds. There are birds everywhere in this story, especially owls. Seymour lives in the same place as Zeno, but when Seymour is a young man Zeno is in his eighties. Seymour has a mental disorder that involves hypersensitivity to sounds. His mother Bunny is patient but must work two jobs to support the two of them. Once Seymour disobeys Bunny and goes to the woods behind their double-wide he begins to communicate with a Great Grey Owl, and he finds peace in nature. When developers buy the land and remove the forest Seymour’s anger cannot be eased. We also have Konstance who is travelling aboard the Argos to a new earth she will not live long enough to see. 

Perhaps an homage to books, because of the lengths people go to save this book and because of the number of different historical contexts in which the story lives in the minds of readers; perhaps a coming-of-age story, there is yet another aspect of Doerr’s book that speaks about the damages done to our modern world, and the possible dystopia that awaits. “In late August, twin forest fires in Oregon burn a million acres each, and smoke gushes into Lakeport. The sky turns the color of putty, and anyone who steps outdoors returns smelling like a campfire. Restaurant patios close, weddings move inside, youth sports are canceled; the air is deemed too dangerous for children to play outside.” (pg. 487)

Konstance, in the Argos seems to be the only person left after her fellow travelers die in an epidemic that sweeps through the ship. She has her “perambulator” and access to a prodigious digital library. She makes it through a year of solitude by cutting up pieces of her 3D-printer powdered food sacks and writing down the stories her father told her about a donkey and a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. If you like fantasies there is plenty of that; but it you require realism, there is also plenty of that. What book would you take with you if you could only take one. So many found exactly what they needed in Antonius Diogenes’ 24 Folios about a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. The connections made between characters and eras in this book may remind you of your own eureka moments when your brain made similar connections as you read books and learned your way through life.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodreads

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen took me back into my childhood. My large, unruly childhood family lived next door to a quaint and very tolerant Mennonite couple. Franzen’s main character in Crossroads grew up in a Mennonite family, living in a Mennonite community. These simple folks, similar to the Amish people, usually eschew modern machines and inventions, although Russ Hildebrandt’s family did have tractors. Mennonites are often farmers because other careers take them out of their spiritual comfort zone.

Russ leaves the Mennonite community in Lesser Hebron, Indiana where they practice simplicity “to make the Kingdom of Heaven manifest on earth.” He learned about serving others because it was a way of life. His father was the pastor for the community. His mother “made emulating Christ seem effortlessly rewarding.” Russ left because he was drafted in 1944 with five semesters of college completed. Because he could not shun his grandfather for living with his girlfriend, Russ’s family disowned him. He did his army service at a former CCC camp outside Flagstaff, Arizona, which is where he connected with the Navajo people who he continued to visit over the years. He was comfortable with the Navajos because he understood that they lived simply, also for spiritual reasons.

Because of Russ’s background sexual thoughts presented as a feeling of nausea. These thoughts were sinful. While still in the army he met Marion, his future wife, and learned that the way his body reacted, in his case, to women was natural but had to be governed and controlled by will. Marion was a Catholic girl with many secrets of her own and she carried with her the kind of guilt that caused monks to flagellate themselves or wear hair shirts constantly irritating their skin.

These two complicated people (and aren’t we all complicated) parented four children; Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson and lived together peacefully until they all reached a sort of midlife crisis as three of their children entered puberty and a beautiful widow arrived at the First Reformed Church where Russ was the Associate Pastor. He was feeling low, having recently been replaced as the Youth Group leader by a younger hipper hiree. Marion was also at a crossroads. In fact, Crossroads was the name of the church youth group and clearly a symbol of one of the themes of the novel. 

It’s the 70’s, near the end of the Vietnam War. There are no cell phones; there is no social media, but there are drugs. When parent’s lives go off the rails even temporarily, families can suffer losses. As children begin to see the flaws in their parents and separation begins, children may make choices that dismay even the most distracted of parents.

Underpinning this story of an American family lies a nuanced conversation about God and Jesus, faith and religion, service to others and self-absorption. There is nothing preachy about it. Because Jonathan Franzen is able to entwine spirituality around the lives he depicts and the events he recounts, the exploration of spirituality is where the true value of this book lies. It reverberates in your mind and reminds you that you may indeed have a soul.