Monday, September 24, 2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

While author David Mitchell pays homage to numerous other works (e.g., Ulysses and The Bridge of San Luis Rey),  Cloud Atlas is a novel unlike any other I have read. It tells six stories, all in different voices, set in different places and time periods, and presented in different "genres"--Mitchell flexes his writerly muscles and does it well. The first five stories are interrupted in the middle; after the sixth story, the ends of the first five stories are presented. If this makes no sense, here is how one reviewer represented the structure: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

The first story is written as the diary of an American notary, Adam Ewing, who has been sent to New Zealand to find the heir of a client. On the sea voyage home, he falls desperately ill. The second epistolary story, set in Europe after World War I, features the amoral Robert Frobisher. Disowned by his British family and pursued by debt-collectors, he has found work as the assistant to a well-known (and syphilitic) composer. He steals from his employer and sleeps for his wife, all of which he believes is justified by the work he is composing--the Cloud Atlas Sextet, featuring overlapping solos by six instruments. He also finds an interesting book in the library--the diary of Adam Ewing.

The third story is a mystery set in the 1970s. Reporter Luisa Rey is stuck on an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith (the former lover to whom Frobisher's letters were addressed), a physicist who shares frightening results of a study on the safety of two nuclear plants on an island off the coast of California. When Sixsmith is murdered, Rey comes into possession of the letters Frobisher wrote him. The fourth story features Timothy Cavendish, a British publisher (of the vanity sort) in the present; fleeing from "goons" who believe their jailed brother has been cheated of royalties, Cavendish ends up trapped in a nursing home. He receives a submission that is the story of Luisa Rey.

The fifth story, and my favorite, is set in the future in Korea. Sonmi 451 is being questioned by an archivist regarding how she, a fabricant genomed to work in a fast food emporium, ascended to sentience. In this corporatic future, brand names have become the generic terms for most items (starbuck for coffee, ford for car, nikes for shoes). Sonmi's favorite disney (movie) is the story of Timothy Cavendish.

The sixth story is told as an oral history from father to sons; it is the tale of Zachry, a goatherd on the Hawaiian islands even farther in the future. Civilization has collapsed, and Zachry's family lives hard-scrabble existence facing murder or enslavement by the neighboring Konas. Zachry's family takes in a Prescient--one of a group of educated survivors. Zachry comes to believe that the Prescient is Sonmi, whom he worships (how Sonmi became a deity is unclear).

The world of each story is violent, if not brutal. And much of the violence occurs across groups--one tribe or race enslaves and abuses another, countries lurch toward war, people create fabricants to be their slaves, and on and on.  Human nature and the direction of civilization are among the themes Mitchell explores.

The theme that resonates with me is the nature of time and reality. Are the stories simply nested fictions? Are they "an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each 'shell' (the present) encased inside a nest of 'shells' (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of 'now' likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future"? Are the characters linked in some supernatural or genetic way (one character in each story has the same birthmark and Mitchell hints that the birthmarks represent a significant connection but never explains what that connection is)?

I'm sure Cloud Atlas would yield more if I read it again. However, even though I enjoyed the book, I don't feel drawn to reread it--at least not in the near future.

Favorite passages:
Snow is bruised lilac in half-lite: such pure solace. . . . Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively.

. . . and there, in the background, the brite spring sky's sediment had sunk to a dark band of blue. Ah, it mesmerized me . . . like the snow had done. All the woe of the words "I am" seemed dissolved there, painlessly, peacefully. Hae-Joo announced, "The ocean."

The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Auto-correction Blooper

I am in the early stages of one of my patented mystery binges. In one of them, Stephen White's Line of Fire, I saw an auto-correction that made me laugh out loud. White referenced an eastern Colorado town named Limon, to which auto-correction (or a very, very bad copy-editor) had added an accent mark on the "o."  Thus, the plains town named for a railroad man had been converted to a Spanish town named for the lemon. Don't humans proofread books anymore?

BTW, White's series continues to get more bizarre and Alan Gregory's professional and personal ethics more questionable with every title. Luckily, he plans only one more title in the series. The other book I've read so far in this binge is Kathy Reichs' Bones Are Forever, in which she educates the reader on gold and diamond mining in Canada. Not great, but not terrible.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater

Subtitled A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries is a record of Slater's shopping, cooking, and eating over the course of a year. In the book's introduction, he says "Learning to eat with the ebb and flow of the seasons is the single thing that has made my eating more enjoyable." Thus, his shopping focuses on farmers' markets and specialty stores that carry seasonal foods. Along with providing complete recipes for some dishes and rather vague directions for preparing others, Slater ruminates on whatever season is at hand, as well as the way he thinks about food, eating, and feeding others.

I had wanted to check out this book since it was published in 2006--I just found the premise intriguing--but it was rather expensive and I couldn't find it in the library. I finally bought a used copy last fall and began reading at September, reading each month's chapter during that month. Some months I was charmed by Slater, other months he got on my last nerve, whether because of his writing or my own mood, I don't know. I didn't have a lot of luck with the recipes I tried--the dishes that were more like suggestions actually turned out better for me. I'm glad I didn't pay full price for the book--but I'm glad I got it.

Favorite passages:
Some nights it just has to be pasta. Not out of sloth, but because tender yet substantial ribbons of starch will hit the spot like nothing else. This is one of those nights. A fine autumn day has turned to a chill evening, where the dry leaves are being blown against the windows, whirling and crackling in sudden gusts.

Few sights lift the spirits like a crate of lemons with their glossy leaves intact. They keep well, so I buy them by the dozen. I snap their stems and sniff the cut ends as I pile them into a bowl. They carry with them the faintest ghost of their white blossom. Lemons are as much a part of this kitchen as pepper and salt, but right now their spring-like freshness is more welcome than ever.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

Roseanne McNulty is an ancient woman--perhaps 100 years old--who has lived for more than half of her life in Irish mental hospitals, first in her hometown of Sligo and then in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She has begun to write her life story, which she hides under a loose floorboard in her room. And it is a life of terrible tragedy, full of events that could indeed drive a person mad--and yet it is clear from her "testimony" that Roseanne is not insane. As Roseanne recounts her story, horrendous experience follows horrendous experience--as just one example, she witnesses an orphanage burn down and scores of children die as the result of a mistake by her father in his role as the town's rat-catcher. The Irish civil war and the oppression of women within the Catholic Church (and Irish culture, nearly the same thing at that time) feature prominently in Roseanne's early life. Throughout Roseanne's testimony, Barry builds a sense of dread--clearly, the events that led to Roseanne's institutionalization  involved unbearable pain and betrayal, and we know we will eventually learn what those events were. As the dread grows, however, so does the reader's respect and affection for Roseanne.

Meanwhile, Dr. Grene, who has worked at Roscommon for some 30 years, is attempting to evaluate Roseanne, both because the hospital is about to be torn down and every patient must be relocated and because current policy requires that those who have been institutionalized be considered for reentry into the community.  Dr. Grene is unable to get much information from Roseanne, but he conducts research back in Sligo to try to learn more of her history. He finds her company enjoyable, especially as he is grieving the death of his wife, who was apparently unhinged by a one-night stand Dr. Grene indulged in at a conference some years earlier.

The story alternates between Roseanne's testimony and the notes that Dr. Grene writes in his daybook. Roseanne's version of her story and the one that Dr. Grene uncovers vary on numerous critical dimensions, putting the reader in the position of knowing something that the two characters don't know while still not knowing whether either version is accurate. Near the end, there is a truly startling development--one that I found almost unbelievable--I had to listen to the passage where the surprise is revealed three times to make sure I understood. While I thought this development was a little "hokey," it did not interfere with my overall enjoyment of the book.

The Secret Scripture is the story of ruined people, ruined institutions, and a ruined country, told with what I think of as a sad Irish eloquence.  Yet . . . the story still somehow manages to be about the resilience of the human spirit. Definitely recommended.

Favorite passage:
It is a scandal in the halls of myself.
(There is much to enjoy in the writing but I was listening to the book and did not do a good job of nothing important passages.)

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

When The Awakening was published in 1899, it was condemned and occasionally banned because of its focus on its protagonist's sexual awakening and subsequent claiming of independence. Edna Pontellier is a young married mother of two when the book opens. She and her children are summering on the Gulf Coast, while her husband comes out from New Orleans for weekend visits. Among the crowd at the beach is Robert LeBrun, whose family owns the resort where the Pontelliers are staying. Edna and Robert form a bond through long days spent talking, walking, and swimming (Edna has household help to care for the children); their relationship is one of the stimulants to Edna's sexual awakening, but so are learning to swim, the sultry Louisiana weather, and the music that another guest at the resort plays some evenings.

When the summer is over, Robert, constrained by convention from taking his love for a married woman beyond a close friendship, announces he is moving to Mexico to pursue business opportunities.  Edna is devastated, but nonetheless begins the process of changing her life back in New Orleans. She cuts off most of her social contacts, simply not being there for her usual "Tuesdays at home" when estimable ladies come to call. She begins working on her painting, heretofore just a pastime, and makes some questionable connections, most notably with the womanizer Alcee Arobin. When her husband Leonce goes on an extended business trip to New York and her children are sent to stay with her mother-in-law, Edna asserts her independence even further, going so far as to rent a separate house for herself (her husband arranges for remodeling at their family home to cover up her scandalous behavior).

Then Robert returns from Mexico and admits that he loves her but must leave forever because their love violates society's conventions. Edna is devastated; she returns to the resort where the two fell in love and walks into the Gulf of Mexico to die (an ending that is foreshadowed in several earlier scenes in which the water seems to call to Edna).

Chopin evokes the Southern environment, both physical and psychological, beautifully; while the physical environment helps to unlock Edna's sexuality and awareness of herself, the psychological environment is stultifying. Regarded as one of the first feminist novels, The Awakening is very much a part of its late 19th-century time--Edna does, after all, still kill herself over a man. And yet Edna's suicide is also a final statement of her independence (cf. Austen's "independent" heroines of  earlier in the century or even Louisa May Alcott's Jo, who found their happiness in marriage). Jane Smiley suggests reading Chopin in conjunction with Edith Wharton and Henry James (neither of whom I have read much of), and I am thinking of following her advice.

Favorite passages:

It is really too hot to think, especially to think about thinking.

Woman, my dear friend, is a very peculiar and delicate organism--a sensitive and highly organized woman, such as I know Mrs. Pontellier to be, is especially peculiar. It would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them. And when ordinary fellows like you and me attempt to cope with their idiosyncrasies the result is bungling.  [This is the opinion of a doctor Mr. Pontellier called in to ascertain why his wife was behaving so oddly.]

When the weather was dark and cloudy Edna could not work. She needed the sun to mellow and temper her mood to the sticking point.