Old Characters, New Problems – Book Reviews

I  recently read a number of new and old books which feature older characters, and so would like to pass on some observations and recommendations.

I was excited about Anthony Doerr’s new book, as I had loved (and learned much from) his last novel, All the Light We Cannot See.  Cloud Cuckoo Land is a very different kind of book, and the main character is Zeno, an old man who thinks that life has passed him by until he connects with five young people whom the kind librarian sends his way.  Doerr writes about the endurance of story, as we follow an old Greek text through the centuries, until – encouraged by his young friends – Zeno turns it into a play, the performance of which is interrupted by an ecoterrorist attack.  In flashbacks, we follow the life of the manuscript, of Zeno, and the immature and misguided terrorist.  In flash forwards, we see Doerr contemplate what may be the fate of books, people, and the planet. It is all wonderful, but Zeno is the best of all, working on his Greek with the help of the library computers and exciting his young friends with the things he is still enthusiastic about.

In Richard Osman’s mystery, it is the old people who put the world to rights with their wisdom and experience and lack of self-importance (most particularly the latter).  The fact that they are continually underestimated and unnoticed works to their advantage.  The Man Who Died Twice is the second in Richard Osman’s series about this group of elderly sleuths; it is devastatingly funny and real.  His senior-living residents have all the challenges of old age: recovering after falls, bladder control, going into nursing homes, facing death.  One of the group has a husband at home in the early stages of dementia.  But the oldsters egg each other on, comfort each other, and care about the world that they know they will be leaving soon.  A really enchanting read – but please start with The Thursday Murder Club,  the first in this series.  I hope there will be many more.

Old age and climate change also are topics of concern in The Emissary by Yoko Tawada. This dystopian novel takes place in a secluded Japan after an undefined period of war and climate change.  The younger generations are growing weaker and weaker from pollution, radiation, who knows what else. (In the UK, the title of the book was Last Children of Tokyo.)  It is the old who are forced to be strong, to push the wheelchairs, provide food, take charge.  Our hero here is 108-year-old Yoshiro, who is taking care of his weak (but wise) great-grandson Mumei.  Retirement is unheard of – then there would be nobody to do the work.  The extremely old do what they need to do, but they still age, ache, falter:

Stumbling as he took his shoes off, Yoshiro rested a hand on the wooden pillar to steady himself, feeling the grain of the wood under his fingers.  The years are recorded in rings inside the trunk of a tree, but how was time recorded in his own body?  Time didn’t spread out gradually, ring after ring, nor was it lined up neatly in a row; could it just be a disorderly pile, like the inside of a drawer no one ever bother to straighten?

Yoko Tawada is a wonderful writer (The Emissary won the National Book award for a work in translation), and the novel has much to say about what we have done to the world around us and the possible consequences for future generations.  It is a book to read slowly and ponder.  It will scare you, but it will also give you faith in the ability of the old to persevere, to face the challenges that are presented to them.

I also re-read Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey  recently.  Surely you have read (or were forced to read) it many years ago.  If so, you probably did not fully appreciate the old characters –  the most memorable being the Marquesa de Montemayor.  The book purports to be based on the work of Brother Juniper, who is convinced that the death of five people when the old bridge collapses cannot be a random act.   In trying to make sense of their lives, he tries to make sense of all lives.  If you have never read it or cannot remember it, pick it up again some time and try to decide whether Brother Juniper comes to the right conclusion.

I cannot leave any discussion of recent books without recommending Richard Powers’ new novel Bewilderment.  For the most part, the characters are not old; the main character is a young boy.  But it is about memory and loss, climate change and mass extinctions, love and mourning.  It is about the promises and dangers of technology and what happens when we can’t bear what we are doing to the world.  And it is a good read.  If technology could put you in communication with a loved one you had lost, would you be interested?  This is a book that challenges us to think about the meaning of relationships – between people, between people and animals, between people and technology, between people and the earth. 

All of it is fine reading as we head into the colder, indoor months.  Enjoy.  There is a certain amount of divination in all these books, but if you want to read about bibliomancy (the process of divination through the use of books), try  my short story, “By the Book.”

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