Source of book: Audiobook from the library
I had this one on my list since it came out, because of a recommendation from a reviewer I consider reliable. It also happened to be selected by the other book club my wife is part of, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to follow along during my commute.
I think I will start with the bottom line: I think Doerr tried to do too much in a single book, and ended up with three stories that would have been better as stand-alone books, with more detail and attention. I get what he was trying to do, making a single book about the fragility of books and writing in general, and finding stories past, present, and future to illustrate it. And I found his individual stories interesting. But because they had to fit in a single book, he cut corners on developing his characters, and I don’t think it quite holds together. It is a decent book, but mildly disappointing.
Doerr, in the fascinating afterword, credits The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt for inspiring the book. I agree that The Swerve is a truly delightful and enlightening book - and the inspiration is clear. So many books of antiquity have been lost to us forever - plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus, works of history, philosophy, poetry…it really is a tragedy. So, Doerr chooses to name his book and build it around a fictitious work by a real author. Antonius Diogenes is known to us for a long lost work that sounds a bit like the fictitious Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is quoted by other authors to the degree that we know some of the plot. If it were intact, we might consider it one of the first proto-novels. For his book, Doerr quotes from the fictitious one throughout, and we learn that story as kind of the fourth thread in the plot.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is essentially three stories, as I noted above. The story from the past takes place at the time of the sack of Constintanople in 1453. Omier is a Bulgarian boy who is conscripted along with his family’s two oxen by the Ottomans and forced to assist the invading army. Anna is a young seamstress working in the city, who learns to read from an elderly scholar, and makes a bit of money on the side assisting another local boy in “stealing” books from a long-ruined monastery. Which is how she comes into possession of a codex of “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” After she escapes the city, she runs into Omier, who has fled rather than become cannon fodder. The two of them escape together, and eventually the book makes its way to the Vatican library.
The second story takes place mostly in modern-day Idaho. Zeno, a Greek immigrant who was a prisoner of war in Korea, decides to translate the newly-discovered manuscript for “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” and with the assistance of local kids, put on a play version of it. Meanwhile, Seymour, a troubled (and likely autistic) teen is recruited by an eco-terrorist group, and brings homemade bombs into the library, after which everything goes to hell.
The third story takes place several generations later, after the environmental catastrophe, with Konstance, a young girl, traveling on an intergenerational interstellar voyage to an exoplanet. Her father tells her the story of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which gives her the chance to preserve the story for a new generation. (There is a lot more going on, but the plot twists in this story are a lot more surprising.)
There are some parts of the book I really liked. Both sides of the Siege episodes were well written, although I could have done without the side plot of Anna’s sister dying of what was probably a brain tumor. It felt like it was there solely to give someone for Anna to read the story to, and that could have happened without the added tragedy. That time could have been better spent on any number of things. After the fall of the city, we really get just the one scene where Anna and Omier meet, but almost nothing further of their journey. Which seems to me to be would have been interesting. How did the two of them figure out how to communicate? And if, as we learn later, the story kept them alive on the journey, how was Anna able to tell the story as she learned a new language? What were their adventures? See, if this had been made into a full book, it would have been fascinating. It would also have made the ending feel less contrived and hurried.
For the modern story, I liked most of it. My main quibble was that I really wish that writers (and the media in general) would stop using autistic people as their go-to for mass shooters and bombers. This is factually inaccurate (autistic people are no more likely to be violent than neurotypical people, and less likely to engage in pre-planned mass casualty acts), and also misses the point that it isn’t the mentally ill that are the problem - it is violent, entitled young males (usually white) with easy legal access to weapons. As it is, we as a society tend to be suspicious of people who are not neurotypical, while giving a pass to “normal” sorts who just happen to be violent to their partners, or who share fantasies of mass murder. Likewise, there is already plenty of stigma in poverty, which is why the idea that it was Seymour’s poverty that was a significant factor seems off. So, in that sense, although Seymour was a well-drawn character, he also represented a lot of unfortunate stereotypes.
I liked Zeno a lot better. From his background as an immigrant, to his experience as a young orphan, to his reluctant military service (which he joins in part to make his late father proud, and also as a way of proving he isn’t a coward for being gay), to his lonely life in a small town, he is a believeable character. The POW scenes seem to fit with the rest of the book - the theme of confinement - and are beautifully written. I could have enjoyed a book about Zeno with a lot more detail.
For the Science Fiction plot, it felt like it never really got going until far later in the book. Perhaps this was because of the difficulty of integrating it with the rest. As with the other two plots, I would have preferred this to be its own book. Konstance eventually became a compelling character, but it took a while. And it isn’t until she is literally the only character left in her story that she becomes interesting. We never have a chance to make a connection with any of the others, so they serve as mere back story. This is yet again why this should have been its own book, not just the third (and most neglected) thread in a single book. I say this in part because there is so much that could have been explored in this story, but was just left to be imagined. The ending - like the first one - skips way ahead at the end, because there was no time left to tell the middle, which is a shame.
Thus, I would say that, despite some good writing, a trio of interesting stories, the book felt to me like a missed opportunity. It could have been more by not trying to be too much at once.
Note on audiobook: The narration was mostly by Marin Ireland, with the “Cloud Cuckoo Land” parts narrated by Simon Jones. In general, it was good, and I appreciated the good compression.
I did hate one thing, however: the length of the tracks. Some were over 20 minutes long, which is incredibly awkward for a commuter who uses different vehicles – there was no reason they couldn’t have done 3-5 minute tracks as usual. So that was a hard fail.
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