The BookBrowse Review

Published October 6, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Rise Up! by Crystal Marie Fleming (rated 5/5)

Extras
Cloud Cuckoo Land
Cloud Cuckoo Land
A Novel
by Anthony Doerr

Hardcover (28 Sep 2021), 640 pages.
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN-13: 9781982168438
Genres
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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, perhaps the most bestselling and beloved literary fiction of our time, comes a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring novel about children on the cusp of adulthood in a broken world, who find resilience, hope, and story.

The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril.

An ancient text—the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky—provides solace and mystery to these unforgettable characters. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we're gone.

Dedicated to "the librarians then, now, and in the years to come," Cloud Cuckoo Land is a hauntingly beautiful and redemptive novel about stewardship—of the book, of the Earth, of the human heart.

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Excerpted from Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. Copyright © 2021 by Anthony Doerr. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Consider Sybil, the omnipresent, teacherly AI system aboard the Argos, to whom we are introduced in the prologue. Sybil's core objective is to keep the crew safe. As the novel progresses, Sybil's objective remains the same, but her role in Konstance's story grows more and more complicated. How does your opinion of Sybil change as the novel progresses? In your opinion, is she a sinister character, a benevolent one, or neither?
  2. Early on in the novel, Anna is enchanted by an ancient fresco in an archer's turret; each time she looks at it, "something stirs inside her, some inarticulable sense of the pull of distant places, of the immensity of the world and her own smallness inside it" (page 36). How does Anna's response to the image of Cloud Cuckoo Land compare to Aethon's when he envisions a city in the clouds in Folio β? What does Cloud Cuckoo Land represent for each of them?
  3. Libraries play a central role throughout the novel, both as sanctuaries for children and as stewards of knowledge. Compare the library in Lakeport and the one aboard the Argos. How does the virtual library of Konstance's time differ from the library in modern-day Idaho? In what ways are they similar? Imagine a library in the year 2200 AD. What does your futuristic library look like?
  4. In the immediate lead-up to the siege of Constantinople, Anna and Omeir suffer personal tragedies on opposite sides of the city walls. How does the loss of Maria, Moonlight, and Tree affect these characters? What do you think would have happened to them had they not encountered one another in the forest outside Constantinople?
  5. After the death of Trustyfriend, Seymour falls into deeper and deeper mourning for his beloved forests and their inhabitants. As a teenager, he becomes enraptured with a militant environmental justice group, lead by a mysterious figurehead known only as "Bishop." In what ways does Seymour's ideology initially match that of Bishop's group? How does Seymour's ideology in his adolescence compare to his thinking later in life? In your opinion, what accounts for the change?
  6. Throughout the novel, Konstance wonders what drove her father to join the crew of the Argos. Name a few plausible motivations. If you were in his position, would you be willing to accept a spot on the Argos and leave the Earth forever? Why, or why not?
  7. Consider Zeno's epiphany—that "Diogenes, whoever he was, was primarily trying to make a machine that captured attention, something to slip the trap" (page 490). Why is this realization so important to Zeno? What is an example of a story that was meaningful to you during your childhood, and what impact has it had on your life?
  8. To gain entry to Cloud Cuckoo Land, Aethon must correctly answer a riddle. "He that knows all that Learning ever writ, knows only this." The correct answer is "nothing." Recall that this section of the original Greek manuscript was too eroded to read. Why do you think Zeno chose to complete the riddle in this way?
  9. On page 534, Omeir thinks to himself, "All my life ... my best companions cannot speak the same language as me." What does he mean? What role does Omeir's empathy for all creatures, regardless of their ability to communicate verbally, play in the story?
  10. Ilium employs Seymour to help overwrite "potentially undesirable items inside the raw image sets" (page 562). Over the years, Seymour begins to rebel, hiding bits of code in Ilium's system that, if touched, reveal the gritty reality beneath the corporation's glossy alterations. Why does Seymour decide to stop cooperating with Ilium? Do you agree with Seymour, that it is important to remember the past in its entirety, sadness, ugliness, and all? Why or why not?
  11. Consider the two possible endings to Aethon's story. Based on Zeno's translation up to Folio X, which path do you think Antonius Diogenes intended Aethon to take? Why do the children at the Lakeport library prefer the version in which Aethon returns home, and how would your perception of Diogenes's tale be different if Aethon had remained in Cloud Cuckoo Land? How would it have changed your perception of Doerr's novel as a whole?
  12. Consider the many examples of nostos, or "homecoming," in the novel: Konstance breaks free from the Argos and embarks on a life on Earth; Zeno returns home after the war to his quiet life in Lakeport; Omeir, too, returns home from war, to his beloved village in the Bulgarian hills; Seymour finds himself drawn to the virtual version of the hometown he left behind; Anna, always so restless, finds a peaceful life of love and intellectual freedom with Omeir. Which story did you connect with the most, and why? In your opinion, what does the novel have to say about the value of "home"?
  13. Konstance's narrative bookends the novel. Why do you think the author chose to start and finish Cloud Cuckoo Land with her story?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Pick up some ancient Greek literature. Consider Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey, a perfect example of a work that has survived the millennia.
  2. Cloud Cuckoo Land encourages readers to think about the state of the world we will pass down to future generations. In your book club group, brainstorm some simple, everyday ways to combat climate change.
  3. Visit your local library for a book event or drop in for some browsing. Get to know your librarians and find out whether they are seeking volunteers!

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A tour de force from the Pulitzer-prize winning author of All the Light We Cannot See.

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Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land may be even more remarkable than his Pulitzer-prize winning work All the Light We Cannot See. This marvelously imaginative tale crosses time and genre, ultimately weaving a story that captivates readers in a way few can; simply put, it's dazzling.

The third-person narrative rotates between several storylines. Konstance is a teenager, a colonist living on a spaceship headed to a far-away planet in the 22nd century. Born in transit, she has never set foot on Earth, and the ship's journey is long enough that her generation will be long dead before the vessel reaches its destination. Zeno, an octogenarian, is at a library in current-day Boise, Idaho, rehearsing children for a play he wrote, while a young man, Seymour, is committing an act of ecoterrorism elsewhere in the building. Other plot lines explore Zeno's and Seymour's youths, leading readers to understand how they each arrived at this point. And finally, Anna and Omeir are children during the Fall of Constantinople (1453 CE, see Beyond the Book), one Christian and one Muslim, on opposite sides of the city's famous Theodosian Walls.

Doerr ties these disparate tales together through a story called Cloud Cuckoo Land, a book he imagines to have been written by the ancient Greek author Antonius Diogenes. In it, Aethon, a shepherd, desires to fly to a utopian civilization in the sky and seeks a magical means to transform into a bird to achieve this end. The fact that the book's extended title is Aethon: Lived 80 Years a Man, 1 Year a Donkey, 1 Year a Sea Bass, 1 Year a Crow is some indication of how he fares. Each of Doerr's characters encounters this work in their youth and attaches great sentimental significance to it, and their love for the story is what allows it to be preserved for future generations.

There are so many extraordinary things about this complex novel that it's hard to know where to begin. It defies classification, alternating between contemporary fiction, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and Doerr handles each of the genres superbly. The stories themselves are fascinating, too. When I encounter books with multiple plot lines, I often find myself preferring one over the others, but not so here. Each of the narratives drew me in completely, and while sorry to transition away from a story I was enjoying, I nevertheless greeted the next with eager anticipation. Every last character is unique and vibrant, and I grew to love and understand each of them, even a young man about to cause death and destruction. And, of course, there's Doerr's prose, which is heartbreakingly beautiful at times; there's plenty of gorgeous description, but it's never so dense that it slows down the book's pace. It's truly amazing that he is able to weave so many people, events and themes into such an immensely satisfying tale, and I'm in awe of his achievement.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is much more ambitious than All the Light We Cannot See. It's longer, more complex, and has a lot of moving parts that don't seem to relate to each other until the book nears its conclusion. I personally found Cloud Cuckoo Land considerably more entertaining and believe it's a stronger work than Doerr's previous novel. If I have any complaint at all, it's that the book's ending isn't as complete as I'd have liked. All the plot threads wrap up nicely except for Konstance's, and although her story's conclusion is appropriate it still left me with questions. Every other aspect is so outstanding, though, that this minor nitpick should deter no one from reading this wonderful work.

I've been fortunate to have read some truly exceptional books this year, but absolutely nothing compares to Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's one of those books that's sure to generate a lot of buzz and garner much acclaim — it may well be the "must-read" book of the year — and I highly recommend it for all audiences.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

O, the Oprah Magazine
An Escher-like narrative whose complex architecture feels as intimate as a bedtime story.

People
Epic and profound.

San Francisco Chronicle
Stunning… deeply imagined…a novel about how people find hope in the midst of chaos and fear, and how books themselves might be the best things humans have ever done.

EOnline
Worth the seven-year wait... . Will leave you in awe.

NPR
I don't have much in the way of life advice to offer anyone, but I'd say that when you have a chance to read a book that's supposed to weave together stories from the 1453 siege of Constantinople, an elementary school play targeted by teenage ecoterrorists, and a 14-year-old girl aboard a generation ship headed for a new Earth, all revolving around a long-lost book from ancient Greece and the stories it contains, you put that right on top of your 'To Be Read' pile immediately. The fact that it's coming from Anthony Doerr, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? That's just gravy.

Washington Post
If you're looking for a superb novel, look no further.

LA Times
[Cloud Cuckoo Land] is as extreme a departure as they come, but so original you won't care.

Good Housekeeping
[An] intricately braided story ... [and] a stunning, mind-bending tale of survival and how closely we're all connected.

The Guardian (UK)
A dazzling epic of love, war, and the joy of books.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Doerr returns with a deeply affecting epic... . [Cloud Cuckoo Land] is a marvel.

Library Journal (starred review)
Doerr's first book since his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See and even grander in conception and delivery ... . [Cloud Cuckoo Land] is a glorious golden mesh of stories that limns the transformative power of literature and our need to both dream big and arrive back home in a world that will eventually flow on without us. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space ... As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Booklist (starred review)
Doerr demonstrates a singular gift for bringing these complex, fully realized characters to empathetic life in this brilliantly imagined story, which moves backward and forward in time ... One of the joys of reading Cloud Cuckoo Land is discovering the threads that link the five characters' lives, which ultimately cohere in ways that are simply unforgettable, as is this amazing gift of a novel.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Jan
Loved this book
I really didn't want the story to end I enjoyed it so much!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Margo Christensen
Mesmerizing ~
Doerr’s writing opens new lines of knowledge for me: I research about as much as I read in all of Doerr’s novels. Cloud Cuckoo Land integrates story, emotions, and human desires as the reader juxtaposes story within and story without. This novel is heavy and light and dark and whimsical. Both my bones and heart and sinew are strengthened and nourished in this Cloud Cuckoo Land. Amazing. Thank you, Mr. Doerr!

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by RDRA
Fascinating, but not easy...
I am generally not a fan of books where there are multiple stories taking place in different time periods. I find that although the storylines eventually merge the journey is too disjointed and jumpy for my liking. This novel uses this format, and although I did not love that aspect, the writing and the stories made it worth the effort. This is a novel for lovers of books and libraries. It celebrates stories and the power of books to educate, comfort and transport us.
The author gifts us with characters we rarely read about - my favourite being Omeir, a boy who farms with his team of massive oxen and who is forced to work, driving his team for the Sultan who is intent on invading Constantinople. In each story the attention to detail is astounding - I truly felt I understood the lives each character led - from minute personal details to larger issues of politics, religion, war, safety etc. The novel made me really think about our world and what we are creating and destroying. For me, when a story leaves me thinking for days about such issues it is worth reading!

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The Fall of Constantinople

Painting of the Fall of Constantinople from above Parts of Anthony Doerr's novel Cloud Cuckoo Land take place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) had long been an important trading hub by the time it was officially established by Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330 CE. The ruler moved his government to the city, and it consequently became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the center of Christianity — a position it held for a millennium. By the 15th century, however, both the city and the empire were in decline; schism had weakened the church, warring among European powers had caused fragmentation of the empire, and plague had killed off much of the population. Still, Constantinople was looked on as the last bastion between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

The city had been the object of fighting throughout the centuries, but it survived siege after siege primarily because of its Theodosian Walls protecting its western side from land attacks. Built during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450 CE), these defenses were recognized as the most formidable protection throughout Europe and were thought to be impregnable. Any attacking army had to first get across a moat (around 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep), then scale several increasingly high walls, the last of which was about 40 feet tall and 15 feet thick. The walls were arranged so that defenders could stand on a platform and fire downwards on any advancing forces. As of 1453 CE, they had only been breached once, by knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE, but this was because a door had been left open and not because the defenses themselves had failed. Constantinople was similarly protected from ocean attack by an impressive sea wall, parts of which were 20 feet tall, as well as a chain that could be stretched across the waterway, blocking access to the city from the Bosporus, a body of water that runs between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

19-year-old Mehmed II became the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1451, and he began making preparations to attack Constantinople almost immediately. The Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, realized a siege was imminent and began appealing to his neighbors for help, but received little support. Hungary, the major power in the area at the time, had already negotiated peace with the Ottoman Empire; Pope Nicholas V saw Constantine's weakness as an opportunity to force a reconciliation between the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church; and other European states were occupied with their own problems and had few resources to spare. Constantine was convinced, however, that the walls would withstand any attack, and that once European rulers saw the threat they would come to the city's aid.

Mehmed's strategy was a simple but effective one: Completely seal off the city, and then bombard the walls until they fell. To this end, he deployed gunpower on an unprecedented scale. He had about 70 cannons constructed, the largest of which was about 30 feet long with a mouth about three feet in diameter, capable of firing an 1100-pound ball over half a mile. To take control of the city's waters, he built a ramp that allowed him to portage vessels around the chain blocking the Bosporus. His force of 60,000-80,000 men on the ground, along with a fleet of around 30 warships and over 100 smaller craft, began the attack on Constantinople on April 6, 1453. The walls began failing almost immediately against the cannons, but the citizens repaired them, defending the openings and keeping them small so no invading forces could gain access.

On May 29, 1453, Mehmed launched a massive assault that eventually allowed a force of Janissaries — elite infantry units — to gain access to the city. In the process, Constantine was killed, and a rout ensued. Mehmed rode in triumph to the Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in all Christendom at the time, and declared the edifice would henceforth be a mosque, renaming it Ayasofya.

Many European powers were shocked and horrified by the Fall of Constantinople, but had little power or will to do much about it. Pope Nicholas V tried to convince others to mount a crusade to retake the city, but died before his efforts could come to fruition. Constantinople remained under Ottoman control until the Empire itself was dissolved by treaty in 1922 following its defeat in World War I. From the ashes arose modern day Turkey. In 1930 the city changed its name to Istanbul (derived from the Greek for "to the city"), which had been in informal use since at least the 10th century.

Painting of the Fall of Constantinople by unknown artist, late 15th to early 16th century

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By Kim Kovacs

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