Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review - Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

The term "cloud atlas" is an oxymoron - not because an atlas of clouds would be meaningless to the average person, but simply because such an atlas could never exist. An atlas is a bound collection of maps, and the very idea of a map presupposes that whatever the area being represented, that area will continue to take up the same size and shape for an indefinite amount of time. A map of Europe, for example, will always be accurate at least in a topographical sense, because Europe's land does not shift drastically on a daily basis. But clouds do not stay in the same formation. They move constantly - breaking apart, pulling together, traveling with the wind, exhausting themselves in rainstorms, engorging themselves with evaporated water. The title of this book, therefore, refers to something that cannot exist: an atlas of things whose deviating masses resist the defining power of maps.

At its most basic level, Cloud Atlas is a series of short novels that occur at different points in time. Mitchell has arranged six different narratives, in a sort of pyramid structure: we read the first half of the first narrative, next the first half of the second narrative, and so on, until we reach the sixth narrative and read it in its entirety uninterrupted. Then we read the second half of the fifth narrative, the second half of the fourth narrative, until we have finally gotten back to the first narrative and learn what happened to the characters who last appeared four hundred pages earlier. Decades, if not centuries, separate each narrative; the author does not always specify the year.

Doubtless, critics have taken great pains to analyze the different narratives: I will summarize them here. In the first story, we read the diary of an American notary in the 1800s named Adam Ewing, who witnesses the savage treatment of colored natives at the hands of white settlers while he is on an expedition by boat. In the second story, we peruse the letters that the British musician Robert Frobisher writes to his friend while apprenticing himself to an ailing composer in the 1930s. In the third story, an American journalist named Luisa Rey pursues the truth about the safety flaws of a nuclear power plant in the 1970s. In the fourth story, an aging publisher named Timothy Cavendish struggles to prove his intellectual acumen to the world as he navigates an unfriendly world in the early twenty-first century. In the fifth story, we hear the testimony of a genetically-modified servant-woman named Sonmi-451, who criticizes a technologically advanced but morally bankrupt future as she explains her rebellion against it. And in the sixth story, which probably takes place many centuries later and in a dystopian distant future where most technology has perished, a teenager named Zachary ponders how to deal with a series of terrible events when he believes that he has brought bad fate upon everyone with his own actions.

As an author, I was tempted to interpret this structure in an elemental sense - that is, to classify each story as a representation of a certain general quality, with the different qualities adding up to a sort of philosophical whole that the author offers as an ideal for the human mind. Adam Ewing, with his sympathy for those who suffer the ill effects of colonialism, represents compassion; Frobisher, reveling in a world of music and having an affair with the composer's wife, represents sensation; Luisa Rey, in her relentless pursuit of the journalist's perfect "scoop," represents impulse; Cavendish, who quotes every book he has read (his favorite author seems to be Solzhenitsyn) in a futile attempt to convince the staff of a nursing home that he is of sound mind, represents intellect. These four qualities then correspond to the four elements of Greek mythology: water (compassion), earth (sensation), fire (impulse), and air (intellect).

Sonmi-451's statement just before her execution, however, shows a break from any of these attempts at a philosophical outlook on life. Horrified by the depravity she has witnessed in a bleak world that reminded me of why I don't like the movie Blade Runner, derisive at any pretensions the court officials have about their own understanding of justice, Sonmi-451 coldly tells the attentive Archivist that any sense of order in the world will collapse eventually, that a belief in one's permanence is precisely what causes one's downfall. "As Seneca warned Nero," she tells him, "No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor." After a life of being manipulated by people, most of whom she has learned to recognize as pompous fools, she sees everything as an illusion. And in the sixth story, the apex of the novel, Sonmi is the deity of Zachary's village. Her ability see past illusions, and to shame people for their hubris, is at once an oppressing force in Zachary's world and a source of hope that someday they will transcend their conditions.

It is not progress; but perhaps we are better off that way.

The writing of the novel is extraordinary. Each story has a unique voice, and I almost had trouble believing that a single author wrote all of it. Every protagonist somehow becomes aware of the previous protagonist: Frobisher discovers the journals of Ewing; Luisa meets Dr. Rufus Sixsmith, the man to whom Frobisher sent his letters decades ago; Cavendish decides to publish a manuscript of "The First Luisa Rey Mystery"; Sonmi-451 watches a "disney" about the life of Timothy Cavendish; and Zachary witnesses a holographic recording of Sonmi-451's testimony, though he does not understand her language at all. The connections between the characters are thin, and Mitchell shows little interest in bridging the gaps in the overall timeline. We have only a vague idea of what destroyed civilization as we know it and brought Zachary's world back to the stone ages. So many causes probably contributed, so many people probably worked so hard to protect one another (or perhaps just protect their own private interests).

Cloud Atlas is, as I noted before, a thing that does not exist. And Mitchell does not try to tease it into existence. We see no grand plan, no progression, no symbolic journey that leaves us with the taste of "true meaning" on our tongues. It is a profound exploration of all the wonderful and terrible things people can do, without the author plastering the inside of the cover with a "map" that shows how it all fits together. The novel has very little science-fiction or fantasy. And while I would not call it a "celebration of life" (as I did with the novel Forever; I get the feeling David Mitchell does not enjoy himself writing a novel the way Pete Hamill does), Cloud Atlas has moments of relief and wonder, in spite of the erratic, destructive nature of the plot. When Adam Ewing's father-in-law chastises Adam for his idealism, his pointless dedication to abolitionism, the father-in-law predicts, "Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" Unruffled, Adam merely responds, "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

I will confess that I really just don't know what to make of this book. If I had written it, I would have enabled the different protagonists to meet each other, and work together toward some greater goal. But, from what I have read, Mitchell had no interest in a greater goal. Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, but it is perhaps the least teleological masterpiece I have ever read. Somewhat in the spirit of Nabokov, Mitchell paints a world where nothing quite fits in, where everyone is "doing his own thing" and occasionally elbowing someone in the ribs because we've all been squeezed into a room that's just a bit too small. Because, if everything is connected, then the connections become pernicious snares that restrict our movements. The first four protagonists of the novel operate under the illusion of personal freedom; the last two know that everything influences and is in turn influenced:

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.

In 1931, Robert Frobisher begins work on the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece destined to resound throughout the rest of the novel. Whereas some novels manage to be more than the sum of their parts, I think Cloud Atlas aims to expose the weakness of this technique. The stories counter and undermine each other, like harsh waves slapping the ocean's surface endlessly in the middle of a sea that does not care how many ships divide its waters. Cloud Atlas is a thoroughly unique novel, and while I am not sure if I enjoyed it, I highly recommend giving it a try.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Best Books of the Year...So Far!

Here is BookRiot's list of the best books of far.  How many have you read?

Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition ... Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is [their center of gravity] Jude, ... by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he'll not only be unable to overcome--but that will define his life forever.

Judith Mitchell Claire's THE REUNION OF GHOSTS
In the vein of such classic family sagas as Fall on Your Knees, A Reunion of Ghosts is the confessional of three sisters who have decided to kill themselves on the very last day of the 20th century; in it they tell the story of a family haunted by suicide ever since the sisters' great-grandfather, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, developed the first poison gas used in warfare and also the lethal agent used in the Third Reich's gas chambers--inspired in part by the troubled life of Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of mustard gas.

Courtney Summers's ALL THE RAGE
After being assaulted by the sheriff's son, Kellan Turner, Romy Grey was branded a liar and bullied by former friends, finding refuge only in the diner where she works outside of town, but when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing and news of him assaulting another girl gets out, Romy must decide whether to speak out again or risk having more girls hurt.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, history has always been personal. At every stage of his life, he's sought in his explorations of history answers to the mysteries that surrounded him--most urgently, why he, and other black people he knew, seemed to live in fear ... In [this book], Coates takes readers along on his journey through America's history of race and its contemporary resonances through a series of awakenings--moments when he discovered some new truth about our long, tangled history of race, whether through his myth-busting professors at Howard University, a trip to a Civil War battlefield with a rogue historian, a journey to Chicago's South Side to visit aging survivors of 20th century America's 'long war on black people,' or a visit with the mother of a beloved friend who was shot down by the police.

Laura Ruby's BONE GAP
Eighteen-year-old Finn, an outsider in his quiet Midwestern town, is the only witness to the abduction of town favorite Roza, but his inability to distinguish between faces makes it difficult for him to help with the investigation, and subjects him to even more ridicule and bullying.

Phoenix was grown and raised among other genetic experiments in New York's Tower 7. She is an 'accelerated woman'--only two years old but with the body and mind of an adult, Phoenix's abilities far exceed those of a normal human. Still innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world, she is content living in her room speed reading e-books, running on her treadmill, and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human of Tower 7. Then one evening, Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated by his death and Tower 7's refusal to answer her questions, Phoenix finally begins to realize that her home is really her prison, and she becomes desperate to escape. But Phoenix's escape, and her destruction of Tower 7, is just the beginning of her story. Before her story ends, Phoenix will travel from the United States to Africa and back, changing the entire course of humanity's future.

Anna Freeman's THE FAIR FIGHT
A debut historical novel set within the world of female pugilists and their patrons in late eighteenth century Bristol.

Chigozie Obioma's THE FISHERMEN
Told from the point of view of nine-year-old Benjamin, the youngest of four brothers, The Fishermen is the Cain and Abel-esque story of an unforgettable childhood in 1990s Nigeria. When their father has to travel to a distant city for work, the brothers take advantage of his extended absence to skip school and go fishing. At the forbidden nearby river, they encounter a madman who predicts that one of the brothers will kill another. What happens next is an almost mythic event whose impact--both tragic and redemptive--will transcend the lives and imaginations of The Fishermen's characters and its readers.

Mia Alvar's ... debut gives us a vivid ... picture of the Filipino diaspora: exiles and emigrants and wanderers uprooting their families to begin new lives in the Middle East and America--and, sometimes, turning back.

An unapologetic filmmaker uses the stories of those around her to create movies that bring her both critical acclaim and ire from the people whose secrets she has exposed. By the author of America Pacifica.

In a riveting debut novel that reads like Prep meets Gone Girl, a young woman is determined to create the perfect life--husband, home, and career--until a violent incident from her past threatens to unravel everything and expose her most shocking secret of all. Twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker Ani FaNelli seems to have it all: she's a rising star at The Women's Magazine, impossibly fit, perfectly groomed, and about to marry Luke Harrison, a handsome blueblood. But behind that veneer of perfection lies a vulnerability that Ani holds close and buries deep--a very violent and public trauma from her past that has left her constantly trying to reinvent herself. And only she knows how far she would go to keep her secrets safe. When a documentary producer invites Ani to tell her side of the chilling incident that took place when she was a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School, she hopes it will be an opportunity for public vindication. Armed with the trappings of success--expensive clothes, high-powered byline, a massive engagement ring--she is determined to silence the whispers of suspicion and blame from her past, and prove once and for all how far she's come since Bradley. She'll even let them film her lavish wedding on Nantucket, the final step in her transformation. But perfection doesn't come without cost. As the wedding and filming converge, Ani's meticulously crafted facade begins to buckle and crack--until an explosive revelation offers her a final chance at redemption, even as it rocks her picture-perfect world. Equal parts glitz and darkness, and with a singular voice and twisting plot, Luckiest Girl Alive reads like Sex & the City--if Carrie Bradshaw had a closet full of skeletons instead of shoes. In Ani FaNelli, Jessica Knoll has created a complex and vulnerable heroine who you'll be rooting for to the very last page.

Rebecca Makkai's MUSIC FOR WARTIME: Stories
The singing women -- The worst you ever feel -- The November story -- The miracles years of Little Fork -- Other brands of poison (first legend) -- The briefcase -- Peter Torrelli, falling apart -- Couple of lovers on a red background -- Acolyte (second legend) -- Everything we know about the bomber -- Painted ocean, painted ship -- A bird in the house (third legend) -- Exposition -- Cross -- Good Saint Anthony come around -- Suspension : April 20, 1984 -- The museum of the dearly departed.

Check out the complete list here.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Reblogged: 82 Books for Book Club 

Check out these recommended books for your book club from

How many has your group read?


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review - Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I have just read the novel Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. It is his first novel, and takes place in the near-future, in the 2040s. It is a dystopian novel, and, paradoxically, a utopian novel as well.

I want to start by saying, for better or for worse, that Ernest Cline is perhaps the biggest nerd I have ever encountered in my life. Throughout the novel he shows an encyclopedic knowledge of video games, from Atari to online multiplayer, as well a prodigious knowledge of cult films and television programs. He makes me sound like a surfer from Santa Cruz. Sporadically during the first half of the novel, he would suddenly halt the plot dead in its tracks to summarize the storyline of a famous game or film, or to remind us of exactly how long a TV show was on the air. It was cute the first time, but after a while I was tempted to reach my hand into the past, grab Mr. Cline, and pull him the hell out of his basement.

The story is one that we have all seen before, though perhaps not on such a grand scale. In the future, energy is scarce and everything is polluted. The world is bleak and dirty, and people escape by plugging into a virtual reality world called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersion Simulation; as a librarian, who must keep up with all kinds of acronyms for my job, I was impressed by how many acronyms Cline managed to come up with). OASIS is, in fact, an entire galaxy of thousands of different planets, each with simulations that represent video games, movies, board games, historical periods, novels, brothels, bars, terrains, and damn near anything else you could think of. Every user creates an avatar with customizable appearance, and that avatar can gain abilities and credits by taking on "challenges" that were created by other users. People connect to OASIS by means of a special visor and haptic gloves.

The premise is all too familiar. In today's world of YouTube, Netflix, X-Box, World of Warcraft, etc., Cline's creation is remarkably easy to envision. The novel succeeds by means of Cline's spectacular imaginative power. What it lacks, however, is a decision whether to treat this world as science-fiction or as fantasy.

In our library, Ready Player One is labeled as Fantasy. The plot does, indeed, resemble an epic quest from Tolkien or Simon R. Green: the creator of OASIS, a man named James Halliday, has died and bequeathed all of his riches and all of OASIS to the person who can solve a series of puzzles hidden in the virtual realms and collect the supreme "Easter Egg." A young orphan named Wade Watts escapes his miserable surroundings by logging on to OASIS as much as possible, and he is the first to take a step successfully toward finding the mythical egg. Soon Wade, along with a handful of allies (whose names he does not even know, since they have only met online and share only their avatar names), are racing to obtain the egg before an evil corporation obtains it first and turns OASIS into a for-profit amusement park for the very rich. Wade must face riddles, demons, dragons, space battles, and hand-to-hand combat as he continues in his quest.

I've read that the difference between fantasy and science-fiction is that, whereas fantasy asks us to suspend our disbelief and experience the impossible while knowing it is not really there, science-fiction attempts to back up its ideas with enough facts that it becomes plausible to us, and we recognize that those ideas are already a part of our real world. While the premise of Ready Player One is plausible enough, the action of the novel is mostly the stuff of dreams and video games. Thus, I am left with the feeling of an author telling me, "Yes, life really is a dreadfully dangerous thing, but you can always imagine something better and then the world won't seem quite so bad - until you go outside again and receive a fresh reminder." When I first saw the cover of this book, I imagined the story as something where a person must play his way through a series of fantastical-yet-real challenges - a story that inspires us to rise to the challenges of everyday life, and that teaches us not to be frustrated by failure. But Ready Player One achieves neither of these effects. It paints the world as a harsh and futile place, and any taste of success in the novel feels contrived and forced.

This book has been called a "nerdgasm," a "cyberquest," one that "pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body." Yes, they are already working on a movie adaptation of it - directed by Spielberg! Holy cow! Perhaps that name will draw enough people to the theaters, so that it is not a box-office bomb like Ender's Game or Hugo. This book panders to an audience that "knows" how to seek virtual solace as a substitute for a real connection to the world. Richmond Lattimore once wrote of the playwright Euripides, "Even his own invention, bright optimistic romantic comedy, becomes drama of escape. Usually, escape is impossible. He believe in a world he disliked. His gods represent this world." No matter how much we want to escape the world, the only thing to which we can escape is more of the same world. The language and culture might be different, but the limitations are the same.

Perhaps I am being hypocritical. I play computer games sometimes, and I used to play them a lot more than I do now. I write my own fiction, much of which involves fantasy and science-fiction. But Ready Player One is an exciting, epic story that tells me nothing about the author. Every "challenge" in it, every "game-within-a-game" that Wade plays through, is taken directly from a preexisting work - and half of them are very old video games. Cline spends pages describing a tedious PAC-man tournament, a battle against a computer player in the old "Joust" game, "Tempest," "Black Tiger," and more. A video game is a simulation of a story, which is a retelling of something that might have happened in real life or simply come out of the programmer's imagination. And Cline actually describes the events of the gameplay - in other words, the novel becomes an imitation of an imitation of an imitation. Whatever meaning existed in the original game is lost now; Cline exploits the sense of challenge in a game, just as a means to make the eventual victory over the machine seem as if the gamer has earned it.

The book did not bore me. It was exciting. The second half of it moved a lot quicker than the first half, and I get the feeling that Cline was becoming more and more comfortable as an author as he went on. The dialogue was very 21st century colloquial. My favorite example is when Wade says to the evil corporate executive, whose cronies are derogatorily called "Sux0rz," "You and the other Sux0rz call go f--- a duck." Very classy. One hundred years from now, I doubt people will be able to appreciate half of the references and phrases that Cline uses.

What I wanted from this book was the feeling that I was experiencing a real adventure, one probably wasn't real but one that I wanted very badly to be real. I guess I was aiming too high, as usual. The best fantasy adventure novels I have read so far are The Golden Compass, Howl's Moving Castle, and the Akira manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo. Akira, now that I think about it, is a more successful blend of science-fiction and fantasy: set in a Neo-Tokyo, it portrays a group of teenagers who must adapt as their world becomes a battleground for a set of psychic juggernauts, who struggle to control their powers as they destroy the lives around them and are in turn manipulated by various forces. The action of the graphic novel is impossible, but I can believe in it the way I believe that a person's psychological and social struggle can bring him to do wonderful and terrible things beyond anyone's predictions.

Ernest Cline is, clearly, a very intelligent person. His plot is intricate and well-imagined. This will not be his last work, and I have high hopes for him. What I want is for him to put himself in the story. Ready Player One seemed to imply that the reader needs to stick a quarter in and enjoy the ride, through the kaleidoscope of gameplay and virtual artifacts, all the while knowing that we are being pulled through a preconceived storyline that has just a few endings, all of which have already been programmed in. What I want from Cline is, to quote Neo from the end of the The Matrix, "a world where anything is possible."