Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cloud Atlas is one of the most unusual novels I've read. It is a collection of six books set in different time periods and arranged like a pyramid. David Mitchell has split the first five novellas (I guess I can call them that) into two sections so the reader who starts at the beginning of the entire novel reads the first part of book 1, the first part of book 2, and so on until reaching book 6. Book 6 is presented in its entirety, then the journey down the far side of the pyramid begins with the second part of book 5, the second part of book 4, and so on until the reader finishes book 1. There are probably as many theories for why Mitchell arranged Cloud Atlas in that fashion as there are readers of the book. My own is that he was trying to say that time moves forward but ends up circling back on itself. I think he would have arranged it in a globe instead of a pyramid if that was possible.

The stories are linked in small ways. For example the letters in The Letters of Zedelghem are written to someone who shows up in Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. And in Orison of Sonmi there is a reference to a movie (called a Disney in that future time) entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which is another of the books in Cloud Atlas. Each of the six books has its own style. If I hadn't known Cloud Atlas had a single author I would have thought each book had been written by a different writer. Here are a couple of samples to demonstrate the differences:

From The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
My judgment of Dr. Goose was unjust & premature. One must be cynical as Diogenes to prosper in my profession, but cynicism can blind one to subtler virtues. The doctor has his eccentricities & recounts them gladly for a dram of Portuguese pisco (never to excess), but I vouchsafe he is the only other gentleman on this latitude east of Sydney & west of Valparaiso.

From An Orison of Sonmi
Oh, our intelligence is not so crude that we cannot conceive of an outside. Remember, at Matins, Papa Song shows us pictures of Xultation and Hawaii, and AdV instreams images of a cosmology beyond our servery.

Mitchell is very meticulous in his use of language. There is an excellent feel for the settings and times. But each time he moved on to a different book I had some trouble getting used to the shift in style. Once I became accustomed to the differences I was fine with it. Also, when I started reading I had no idea that the second part of each story would eventually be told. That was frustrating.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Memoirs From the Asylum by Kenneth Weene

Memoirs From the AsylumMemoirs From the Asylum by Kenneth Weene

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Memoirs from the Asylum takes its readers to a unique world as it helps them understand the thoughts and feelings of the people who reside there. Its setting isn't a strange country or a fictional land, but a building that could be a short distance from any of our homes. The behavior of the characters is shocking, but the shock makes sense in the strange logic of their world, a logic that stems from fear, resentment, and a need to find some control over lives that have wandered far from the path of normalcy. Ken Weene’s novel shows the worst of people who have been labeled insane while revealing their basic humanity. It’s a powerful book.

The book is a novel structured like a memoir. The story begins in first person as told by one of the patients in the asylum then it switches to third person to tell about other patients as well as doctors. Yet the events still seem to be filtered through the perspective of the main narrator. This technique blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy in a way that leaves the reader with an excellent picture of a mental patient's world. Marilyn, a catatonic patient, is living her life in a fantasy world she's found within a crack in the sheetrock on her bedroom wall. Further on in the book another character, a doctor, appears to see the world Marilyn has created.

The pages of Memoirs from the Asylum are filled with strange, but intriguing characters. There's a patient named Allan who is content to spend his time staring at catatonic Marilyn. There's an air-guitarist who carries an empty guitar case everywhere he goes and another patient whose act of violence with a chair kills one of the doctors. And there are the fantasy characters such as Eric, the younger brother of Marilyn who somehow transforms into a dog and Timmy Wang, who exits Marilyn's story but leaves a body part behind.

The language in Weene's book can be outrageous at times, but it can also switch at any moment to elegant, beautiful descriptions. Here, for example, is one way Ken Weene describes life in the asylum.

If jazz is the music of life, how can we describe the music of the asylum? Discordant, raucous, lacking in form, it is the music of a creeping, groaning machine. The sound does not uplift, nor does it invite introspection. Its emotions are anxiety and loss. It is not sad, because it does not care. Wheels squeal in resistance to one another, off-key notes of electric energy fill the air like errant bolts of lightning from a demented god. Bangs and crashes of doors and tempers provide erratic tympani. One cannot dance in the asylum. However much one may whirl about the dayroom, it is not dancing. Dancing requires freedom. Music, real music, requires freedom.

Steve Lindahl – Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anno Domina by Patrick Lafferty

Anno DominaAnno Domina by Patrick S. Lafferty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anno Domina is set in the future when the world is visited by the daughter of God in human form. This is not the second coming of Jesus. This is a separate soul who will “be sitting on the left hand of the Father, while Jesus sits to His right.” America has been through the “Water Wars,” a sequence of battles fought to protect our country's dwindling water sources. Laws have been established to keep the peace and those laws limit freedom of speech. Estephania Rodriguez (“la Hermana de Jesus, as she was dubbed by her followers...”) has broken those laws by saying “All those who thirst, of this nation and all the nations, need but ask Me and they will drink their fill. I will provide you with the waters of this land and all the land.” She has received the death sentence for this crime.

Lafferty has taken a fascinating approach to his story. This novel is not about Estephania Rodriguez. She shows up only briefly. Most of what She says is relayed by other characters. This book is about the people who surround Her. In the process Lafferty made me think about the ones who surrounded Jesus at the time of His death. It is amazing how well his story covers that complicated subject.

There are similarities to the events leading up to the execution of Jesus throughout the book. Damien Driver, the governor who has the power to pardon Estephania Rodriguez, cuts his hand while preparing an avocado and has to wash off the blood. A reporter who is following the events is named Luke. The adherentes (the followers of la Hermana) abandon her. And the church officials (represented by Bishop DeMarco) hold the politics of the situation above all other considerations.

Anno Domina grabbed me and didn't let me go until I reached the end. But there were also moments when Lafferty touched on various interesting topics. My favorite of these was when Felipe Martinez and Father Joe compared their understanding of the way God communicates with them. Felipe said, “I think it's what other people call their instinct, their gut feeling. It's that little voice in the back of your head that tells you something is really, really right or something is really, really, wrong.” Father Joe responded by saying, “It's as if God is all around me, like an ocean and I'm floating along with His every ebb and flow. And even though I feel like I know where I'm going and what I'm doing, the tack I take sailing through life, I'm merely pushed along by His gentle breezes and tidal waters.” I loved the way those two perceptions were similar, but different and I loved the fact that Lafferty took the time to share the subtle differences.

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first sentence of Ian McEwan's short novel, On Chesil Beach reads, “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” My first impression of these words was that McEwan's book would be about clumsy sex. And in some ways I found that I was right. But the word “conversation” in that sentence is far more important that it first seemed. Although a huge portion of the novel is dedicated to a very detailed description of Edward and Florence's awkward sexual experience, I think it is fair to say the book is really about their dysfunctional communication.

I recently read Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. In that book there was also a description of the first sexual experience between two virgins. But in Follett's novel the lovers spoke to each other and helped each other through the barriers of their inexperience. In McEwan's work Florence and Edward have different desires and very different assumptions. They seem to be as right for each other as any two people can be, but they approach their relationship with only concern about themselves. Neither of them tries to understand what the other is feeling. At one point in the book McEwan describes Florence's desire with the following sentence. “She wanted to be in love and be herself.” I think it is fair to say they shared that desire and that was the problem.

McEwan's language is perfect. I listened to the audio version of the book and thought it was very well read. (McEwan does the reading himself.) It's a perfect book for someone who wants a well written, short read by an author with a good feel for human emotions and failings.

Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul

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