Neshama’s Choices for December 6th

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The Blizzard

This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read (and that’s saying a lot) but I found it utterly captivating. A doctor is on his way to a village to stop the spread of a highly contagious malady that is picking off citizens right and left.  His transportation plans fall through, so he’s left with a sled that runs on horsepower of sorts: a herd of tiny horses that propels it by running on a treadmill under the hood.  The journey is fraught, what with severe weather conditions, layovers, and detours. The relationship between the driver and his passenger keeps shifting; the doctor feels very superior (he sports a pince-nez) but would be lost without him. Sci-Fi elements creep in, too. An odd translation that turns dialog into backwoods vernacular. I can’t get those little horses, the size of partridges, out of my mind. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land

Doerr has produced a beguiling tour de force which ranges from ancient Greece to present day. Starting with an incomplete codex, the eponymous fable which becomes precious to the various folks who encounter it through the ages. In Constantinople in the 1500s we meet fierce, plucky Anna who learns to read against all odds.  Omeir, born with a cleft palate, is conscripted with his two well-trained oxen. She’s inside the walls, he’s part of the advancing army trying to breach them, yet they manage to connect. In a present -day Idaho library an old guy who translated the fable helps create a play based on it with kids, while Seymour, a very troubled teen, has doomsday plans to send a message about climate change to the world. And in the future, young Konstance comes across the book in her space capsule’s magical, well-stocked library. All this conveyed in very short chapters that bounce between eras and interweave magnificently. Very moving and immediate despite the long reach of time. I was in heaven! 

Count the Ways

It seems like such an ideal family on a Vermont farm in the ‘70s: handsome Cam, a craftsman. Eleanor, an artist whose successful books for children provided their nest egg. Three happy kids. But when tragedy strikes—Toby almost drowns in their pond and ends up brain-damaged—the underlying tensions erupt and it all falls apart. Eleanor moves to Brookline; she can’t bear to be reminded of what happened. Cam stays at the farm but takes a lover surreptitiously. The kids hate it in the city and end up with him. Money is always a problem and Eleanor’s resentment is crippling. Eventually they all converge at the farm where the son (once daughter who transitioned) is getting married and the daughter who cut ties with Eleanor over a family secret is almost ready for an uneasy reconciliation. I got very caught up in all this family dysfunction (can’t get enough of it) and found this book a very satisfying read. 

Devil in the Details

Subtitled Secrets from an Obsessive Girlhood. It didn’t help that she was Jewish: so many picky and arcane rules, and she tried to follow them all. A solid, supportive family (thank G-D) but she had a rocky road despite. Tricky because her father is non practicing and her mother Catholic. Traig is brilliantly comedic despite (or because of) her burdens and I found myself chuckling often, which seldom happens on the page. She grew up and came through it (whew). Funny as a crutch. 


12th Century religious life—how could such a story be relevant today? Groff pulls off a fascinating look at women’s roles though the lens of Marie. Semi-highborn but an impediment in court, so she’s shipped to an English abbey. Marie is tall, gawky, independent, and very smart. She brings the failing institution to prosperity but there are endless skirmishes, political and personal. Marie’s always been covertly in love with Eleanor, the queen who exiled her. Strong emotions roil under her strict persona. I’m relieved not to be living back then but found it fascinating to experience the era through great character development and vivid atmosphere. Time travel without pain, as it were. 

Back next week.