Monthly Archives: August 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Zeno is headed to the library in February, 2020, to work with a group of kids he’s come to love. They’re putting on a play that Zeno translated from the ancient Greek. Seymour is headed to the library, too, to set off a homemade bomb.

Anna lives in Constantinople in 1452 with her seamstress sister who is going blind. Anna is learning to read by deciphering a set of parchments she found while stealing and selling old manuscripts in order to pay for her sister’s treatment. Omeir is outside of Constantinople with the Sultan’s troops. He was conscripted into service with his beloved oxen, helping to build the siegeworks to bring down the city walls.

Konstance is in a spaceship in Mission Year 55 with her family, part of a generational effort to save humanity from an earth that has been destroyed by pollution and to start anew on the planet Beta Oph2. By stepping onto her Perambulator, Konstance can join her friends and their teacher in the huge library in virtual reality. She loves the atlas of Earth and spends whole days inside, walking around whatever country she chooses that day.

Weaving back and forth in time, Doerr divides the sections by inserting passages from the folio of Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Antonius Diogenes, the ancient manuscript that connects all of these stories.

A 622-page novel may seem daunting, but Anthony Doerr, the bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See (reviewed here), makes the pages fly by. Each of the characters is compelling individually, but the growing realization of how these stories set in different times and places weave together is stunning. It is through the tiny details and ordinary days of small, seemingly inconsequential lives that we perceive the greater story of the fall of rich kingdoms, powerful cultures, and even entire planets. Whether the power is held by soulless developers, greedy sultans, or vast corporations, most people are at the mercy of a stranger’s voracious quest for wealth and dominance. Yet, Doerr counterbalances this sad story of mankind’s endless appetite for conquest with a deep love of nature and a gratitude for its endurance and continual rebirth. It is in the sight of an owl, the sprouting of a seed, or the first lungful of fresh air that our souls are touched.

From battlefields to hearths, Doerr’s stories are so fascinating that the reader becomes attached to every character. In each plot thread, someone is absorbed in the satisfying work of scholarly research and storytelling, and the novel is filled with a love for libraries and librarians. This is a book that will appeal to every type of reader, since the author brilliantly combined historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, and science fiction, all in one volume. Set aside some time for this one. It will be THE literary event of the year. The publication date is September 28th.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance copy of this book, with thanks to @simonandschuster and @scribnerbooks. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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New Grandma’s Review Roundup

In June, I was thrilled to become a new grandma, although it was almost three months early and my knitting projects were still in progress! After all, I have double the projects with newborn twins, sister and brother. What with trips to the hospital for cuddles, library work, and keeping the yarn flowing, I am listening to more audiobooks and writing fewer reviews. Here are some quick picks from a wide range of titles.

My Contrary Mary

Such fun! This alternate history of Mary, Queen of Scots and her young marriage to Francis, heir to the French throne, is somewhat complicated by the fact that, in this version of the world, some people can turn into animals and some cannot. Naturally, the ones who can’t hate the ones who can and vice versa. Don’t bother looking up the dates on Wikipedia, this story is about what the writers want to have happen in the unfortunate monarch’s life. The team of Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows bring us another rollicking tale, supposedly written for teens but with many adult fans, certainly among my own acquaintance. I listened to this one on audio, because the reader, Fiona Hardingham, is fabulous and adds another dimension to the experience. My favorite by this group is still My Plain Jane (reviewed here) perhaps just because of the petulant voice of the ghost.

The Eternal Current, by Aaron Niequist

Many Christians are leaving traditional churches these days, not because they don’t believe, but because they cannot find life in the dry, rote services they find there. Jesus gave us traditions that are earthy and real, and they were embraced by the early church, but somehow lost over the centuries. Pastor Aaron Niequist and a group of like-minded believers formed a group called The Practice which began meeting each week to recapture historic and new traditions of Christianity. This book, subtitled How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning, is also a podcast to help readers flesh out the concepts and even the methods for the various practices. For example, the members of Niequist’s group all expressed a desire to participate in communion more often and in more meaningful ways. Jesus obviously taught this meal to his disciples, but most Protestant churches today only have communion once a month or even less, using little plastic cups of grape juice. Niequist isn’t condemning these churches; rather, he is asking: “How can we do this better? What did Jesus intend?” If the name Niequist rings a bell, his wife, Shauna, is also a writer and appears with him on the podcast occasionally. Her book, Present Over Perfect, is reviewed here. One of our pastors mentioned this book as being instrumental in the direction of our church, so if you are also longing for meaning, reach out to me and I’ll give you more details.

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light, by Helen Ellis

The author of Southern Lady Code brings us another collection of humorous essays, this one centering on the lives and relationships of women past a certain age. Think hot flashes. Helen Ellis can be hilariously funny, but she can also be quite coarse. The author reads the short audiobook herself, which is always a treat. I listened to this one while prepping dinner for just a few days. Entertainment for the fiercely feminist, but proceed with caution.

Love People, Use Things, by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

I was expecting the Marie Kondo element, but the 7 Habits vibe, the heavy dose of Dave Ramsey, and especially the memoir took me by surprise. Also the kick in the pants. The guys from The Minimalist podcast start off by helping you to deal with your extra stuff, and then Joshua launches into a life history with lessons that he learned along the way. Ryan ends each chapter with a summary and some questions to get you thinking. They take a deep dive into relationships and values, delivering far more than a cleaning manual. Good stuff if you want to give your life a thorough airing, plus I gave away six boxes of donations just from my dresser drawers and closets.

We Are the Brennans, by Tracey Lange

Sunny Brennan left her large, Irish-American family five years ago to live in California. When she drank too much and crashed her car, she reluctantly agreed to come back home to her three grown brothers, her ailing dad, and her former fiancé, who is now married with a little son. She had only planned to stay while she healed, but her family soon had her helping at the pub, where she began to suspect that her oldest brother was hiding something. He’s not the only one. Sunny has been keeping a painful secret that has changed all of their lives forever. So much family drama! An engrossing read with love triangles, squabbling siblings, and crimes new and old. Sunny’s mother is firmly planted on my Most Despicable Characters list.

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The usual disclaimer: I read or listened to advance copies of all of these except The Eternal Current, which I own. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford

The Book

Fanny was an only child, but she spent a great deal of her early years at Alconleigh, the estate of her raucous and numerous Radlett cousins. Fanny was being brought up by her single Aunt Emily, since her own mother had abandoned her to live what the cousins considered a thrillingly scandalous life. They were so jealous, since their parents were stuffy and strict. Aunt Sadie dithered through life, surrounded by tumbling, energetic children, while Uncle Matthew spent most of his time hunting and shooting. Matthew scorned Emily’s attention to Fanny’s academic pursuits, as he was completely opposed to education for “females” and was proud that his daughters were ignorant and decorative. Fanny and Linda were the same age, and they could not wait to grow up and fall in love, with Linda pining for the Prince of Wales. They were the children of The Great War, and no one ever thought there would be another such terrible conflict, but as adolescence gave way to weddings and babies in the late 1930s, rumblings of war began again, and all their wealth and sparkling parties could not keep them safe.

The Pursuit of Love is an autobiographical novel by Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the real-life Mitford sisters, who were rather like more mannered Kardashians of their day: beautiful, famous, and always scandalous. It is told in the third person from Fanny’s point of view, but she is not actually the author’s true identity. That falls to her Radlett cousin, Linda, who led a much wilder life than Fanny.

Mitford’s style can only be called charming. Her writing is so light and amusing that it reminds one of Jane Austen; however, Miss Austen would blush at Linda’s tempestuous existence. After an indulgent childhood, Linda gravitates toward people on the outer fringes of society, and even when she tries to make good choices, they turn sour before her very eyes. Mitford takes on the serious issues of her day, including the failing aristocracy, misogyny and women’s education, communism, class distinctions, and war’s far-reaching power. Perhaps the most shocking element of the story is Linda’s complete disregard for her daughter, whom she finds repugnant from the moment of birth. Still, the heaviness of these issues does not weigh down the fascination of the plot and the humor carrying the reader through the pages.

Nancy Mitford also wrote a sequel to this novel, Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several well-received biographies.

The Miniseries

Amazon Prime has recently adapted The Pursuit of Love into a 3-episode miniseries, starring Lily James as Linda and Emily Beecham as Fanny. While the book would probably be rated PG-13, the miniseries brings it up to an R rating, and some of the sensationalist elements that were hinted at in the book were splashed out on the screen. Others were made up from whole cloth. There is one improbable scene that looks as if it were borrowed from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The miniseries does manage to hold on to the humor, though, and even seems campy at times. The introduction of new characters and places reminds one of Love & Friendship, the Kate Beckinsale adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Everything freezes, and the name of the person or place is scrawled across the screen in antique script.

The film follows the plotline of the book very well— aside from its startling first scene— and images of English estates and Parisian streets are always fun. The period costumes are fabulous, and Lily James is lovely, as usual. It’s a great popcorn experience, but this is one time that I would say to please, please read the book first. Nancy Mitford doesn’t deserve the judgment that I, for one, would heap on her if I had only seen the miniseries.

Rating: The book is better, probably 4 ½ stars. The miniseries is 3 ½ stars.

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*Miniseries photo from The Hollywood Reporter.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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