In my last post I mentioned my plan to read differently, to say no to books I don’t really want to read, to be more serendipitous in my book selections, to read fewer books more intentionally. So in support of that goal, I’ve decided to also write about my reading differently, posting more frequently about what we’re reading at the bookconscious house, rather than writing one mammoth monthly post.
I finished David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas last week, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I blogged about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet two summers ago, and I also loved Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. A customer at Gibson’s recently asked for Cloud Atlas because he’d seen the movie trailer. Apparently so did a lot of other people, as the book has seen a spike in sales.
Mitchell impresses me with the emotional intensity of his characters’ inner lives. A lot of the action in his books happens inside people’s heads. The Thousand Autumns was also impressive for its historical detail. Cloud Atlas has both things — emotional intensity and historical detail — as well as mind-bending speculative fiction, philosophy, humor, and rip-roaring storytelling.
Mitchell tells the story of five main characters living in different times; I use the singular here because each piece belongs to a larger story. First we meet a 19th century San Francisco notary in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” His story of South Pacific adventure is told, as you might guess, in diary entries.
Next comes an aspiring English composer in inter-war Belgium, Robert Frobisher. He’s living in a crumbling great house working for an aging composer, as we learn through letters to his good friend (lover?) Sixsmith. Frobisher is reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
In “Half-Lives:The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” we learn that Rufus Sixsmith became a nuclear scientist. Luisa Rey, a young reporter, gets stuck in an elevator with him and learns that a nearby nuclear plant is unsafe and mired in corruption. She pursues the lead and in the process finds Sixsmith’s letters from Frobisher.
Luisa’s story turns up as a draft novel, sent to a vanity publisher in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” His story is a romping farce in which he’s chased by gangster relatives of his most successful client (an aging rock star who kills a book critic who panned his memoir), tricked into being admitted to a Dickensian nursing home, and sprung from said home with a little help from a pub full of Scottish soccer fans.
This cracker of a tale reappears as a movie (known as a “disney”) in “The Orison of Sonmi 451.” The title character asks to watch before she is executed. Sonmi 451 is a “fabricant” – a human cloned and engineered to slave in a futuristic world where corporations rule. Is Sonmi 451 a pawn in the power struggle between Unanimity and Union or an ascendant prophet, or both? Declarations, her “catechism” (or propaganda?) explains, “in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear . . . until the only ‘rights,’ the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.”
While on the run from a man who may be a Union spy or a Unanimity agent, Sonmi 451 meets the Abbess of a community refusing consumerist culture. In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After,” a character called The Abbess teaches Hawaiian islanders (who speak and live more like Appalachian dirt farmers) the divine Sonmi’s wisdom. Zachry, the main character in this section, asks “Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi . . . an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds.”
Sloosha’s Crossin’ is the hinge at the center of the book. Mitchell leads readers back through the other stories in reverse order, leaving a trail of literary breadcrumbs. The main characters share a strange birthmark (possibly in the shape of a cloud — they all describe it differently). Frobisher’s major work is “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey feels she’s heard the music before. Bridges and heights appear in each story. So do class and race divisions.
If this all seems a little too “pat,” it’s because I’m inadequately explaining — Mitchell is brilliant. His writing is brilliant. You never feel like a puppet master is pulling strings. And a strong thread of philosophy weaves the stories together. At the end of his journal, Adam Ewing writes:
“. . . history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts. What precipitates acts? Belief. Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.” He goes on to say that if mankind believes in nothing but inhumanity and strife, that’s what we’ll have. If we believe instead in peace, with “violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.” Imagine.
Ewing admits he’s describing “the hardest of worlds to make real” and that “torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.” This book came out in 2004; perhaps Mitchell was commenting on the world at the time but he could have been talking about any time. Cloud Atlas reminds us that a person who is fully awake to the world, who doesn’t just go through the motions in life, is a person who will notice beliefs and their outcomes.
My favorite blogger, Leo Babauta, wrote a great post on intentional life this week. This sort of thing happens in my reading life all the time; I read one thing and come across something else that speaks to it. I love that, and I love a book like Cloud Atlas that not only entertains me but charges all those connections in my brain, reminds me of the best things I’ve read and the thinking I’d like to spend more time doing, stays with me. For all those reasons it would be fun to discuss with other readers.
On a totally different note, last weekend I read The Art of Racing in the Rain. I mention in my post at The Nocturnal Librarian that a fellow dinner party guest recommended it a couple of weeks ago. It’s narrated by a dog, Enzo. He tells us the story of his master, Denny, an aspiring race car driver, and Denny’s wife Eve and daughter Zoe. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, and perhaps a little bit predictable, as Denny deals with very dramatic ups and downs. But sometimes that’s just what I want when I read: a book that’s emotional catharsis, not mental gymnastics.
Which is not to say there’s nothing to think about here. Enzo is a wonderful narrator, an “old soul.” I learned a great deal about race car driving. My brother, who is a big racing fan and lives in Seattle where the book is set, says author Garth Stein is big in “local car culture” there and agreed the racing sections were impressive.
Equally interesting was Enzo’s hope that a Mongolian belief that dogs can reincarnate as humans will be true for him. He comes to believe he is ready for that change as he reflects on human nature. You might never look at dogs the same way after spending time with Enzo. And there’s plenty to discuss in The Art of Racing in the Rain, including the cultural lenses that color our interpretation of stories.
Teen the Elder finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which is the Saint Michael’s College class of 2016 community read. He found the writing style “irritating” and the thesis “fear-mongering” and was pleasantly surprised to read some responses from professors who didn’t necessarily agree with Carr either. He’s writing his own response for his freshman seminar.
For fun, he also re-read some childhood favorites this summer, including the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz and Lloyd Alexander‘s Chronicles of Prydain. And for those who are counting, he is now in his final year of being a teen; when I started writing bookconscious he was just becoming one.
At the moment I’m reading a book for The Mindful Reader, my monthly review column for the Concord Monitor. I will probably save that post for when the column comes out. So I’ll be back in a week or two with whatever I pick up after that . . . and happily, I haven’t decided what that will be yet.
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