Friday, December 7, 2012

How to Read Clouds

For years, my sister has been recommending that I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  In my defense, I tried.  In fact, I think that I gave it about 215 pages before giving up, which is pretty generous.  When I last tried reading it though, my daughter was just going through her testing for dyslexia, and I had a lot on my mind, other than trying to piece together the tangled web that Mitchell was weaving. 

This past Christmas, my sister bought me Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green by Mitchell.  She knew that I had tried CA before, and gave up, but she thought I should give it another try.  I wasn't exactly in a rush.  But, then I read Black Swan Green, and really loved it.  So, I agreed to give CA another look.

Even the second time around, Cloud Atlas was not an easy read.  Part of the problem is that for the first half of the book, the reader is trying to figure out what is going on.  But this time I realized that if I would have just hung in for 20 more pages the first time, I probably would have been hooked.  So, if you are interested and want to know how to read the book without getting frustrated, keep reading.  On the other hand, if you want to be surprised about how the book works, stop reading here.  I'll insert a nice picture of the CA movie poster, so you don't have to read more than you want.

OK.  For those who are still with me . . . see that tag line above?  "Everything is connected"?  Yes, it is.  To prepare yourself for reading CA, start with the back cover.  On the back of my copy, Michael Chabon describes the book as "The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes. . . "  Remember that.  Then, look at the names of the chapters.  You have "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing", then "Letters from Zedelghem", then "Half Lives:  the First Luisa Rey Mystery", then "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", then "An Orison of Sonmi-451", then "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After".  Halfway though Sloosha's Crossin', you are halfway through the story of the book.  From that point, you will revisit the characters from the earlier chapters, in reverse order, starting with Orison of Sonmi, then Timothy Cavendish, etc.

Each chapter seems to be entirely unrelated to the others, with different characters, taking place in different periods of time.  The chronology, as it is, begins with Adam Ewing during the California Gold Rush.  It then progresses in each chapter, with the Timothy Cavendish chapters being the closest to modern day, and Sloosha's Crossin' being in the (hopefully) very distant future.  After the Sloosha's Crossin' chapter, time goes backward again until we return to the 1800s. 

Knowing this, I think you are now prepared to read CA.  The first time I tried it, I just didn't get why we were ending each chapter in the middle of a story, but never getting back to it.  You will get back to each story, but it will take a while.  As I read, I tried to look for the connections, and had corners turned down in my book all the way through the first Sonmi chapter, marking where I could look back to the precious hints I had recognized.  After Sloosha, however, Mitchell hits the reader over the head with the connections, in a way that ties everything together.

There are recurring themes, and Mitchell explores how each plays out in the different eras.  The battle of good versus evil begins with bullies as the bad guys, progresses to corporations as evildoers, and then progresses into the future even further, where we return to bullies. 

Mitchell has a couple of great and timeless quotes.  The first that I really liked, possibly because it could have fit just as well in Black Swan Green was "Prejudice is permafrost", which is in the first Sonmi chapter.  The second, which doesn't blog as well as it read, was from Sloosha,where two characters were talking about what separates the civilized societies from the violent ones.  The more optimistic character says that in the violent societies, there are savages with beautiful hearts, who might make a difference one day.  The doubting character says "'One day' was only a flea o' hope for us."  "Yay" says the other character, "but fleas ain't easy to rid."

Cloud Atlas is a good book, with a lot to discuss when it is finished.  Why are there two characters named Adam?  Do the birth marks mean what I think they do?  What caused the Fall?  Do the Henderson Triplets create the Sonmi culture?  But it would be a lot for most book groups to digest. 

Cloud Atlas was a NYT Notable Book in 2004.

Next up:  Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  Yep, I managed to get it, even after it made the NYT Notables!

Still Listening to:  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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