Monthly Archives: October 2012

Review of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Two facts must preface this review for the reader to take into consideration: I have not seen the film based on this book (it was only released two days ago) and I rarely enjoy contemporary novels. What drew me to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was indeed a trailer advertising the aforesaid movie; I was intrigued by the premise, but I also have a deep-seated compulsion to read a piece of literature in its “pure” state so that my mental images of the settings, characters, and events are solely influenced by the author.

My dislike of the majority of contemporary literature usually causes me to approach a recently-publish novel with an eye of critical scrutiny. I did that with Cloud Atlas almost unconsciously, and to my surprise, the beginning of the book read very much like something written in the mid 1800s. Certainly fitting, since this part is a nineteenth-century thirty-something’s diary. True to the diction and cultural underpinnings of language at the time, Mitchell produces a rather believable voice for the main character within this particular story. But he does not stop there.

Framed within each story is another story. Mitchell actually describes the structure of the novel within the book itself, through the perspective of a character from the 1970s named Isaac Sachs. “One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each ‘shell’ (the present) encased inside a nest of ‘shells’ (previous presents)…. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be…” The entire novel consists of six separate stories, each nested within the last both figuratively (using Sachs’ metaphor for time) and literally (each story is split in half, and all stories that happen after it chronologically take place in full between these halves). But the stylistic creativity does not end there.

Despite the fact that five of the six narratives are in first person, each story is told differently. One is a journal, one is a set of letters, one is a novella (this is the one in limited third person), one is a memoir, one is an interview, and one is a spoken story. Mitchell’s command of voice is significant within this piece because he reproduces as best he can the language and culture of the voice’s temporal context. Additionally, each has a specific audience interior to the novel, each has a separate locale, conflict, time period, etc. In fact, the only immediate semblance of connectivity between the six is an occasional reference to a previous narrative: the letter writer says he is reading a journal, the story-teller watches a recording of the interview, or an item preserved by time will resurface, such as a music recording. Mitchell subtly includes deeper references between the narratives in a way that requires one to reread the book to catch all the contact points, for it is rich with them. Certainly, physical ones stand out, like the comet-shaped birthmark that is shared by a major character from each story. Beneath all that, though, are thematic and literary intertwining.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme across the novel is that the individual cannot pit himself against the whole of society and indeed the very core of human nature and hope to succeed.

“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.”

This takes on various timbres throughout the different narratives, but therein lies the ingenuity: Mitchell backs this theme with a hefty claim that it is universal. Put it in the past or the present or any sort of Utopian or post-apocalyptic future, and it may adopt different textures according to its context yet still hold true. At the same time, Mitchell is intensely critical of the avarice and prejudice which characterize all societies, suggesting that these very attributes which allow a nation or people group to succeed will ultimately cause its downfall. But within the hopelessness of our individual efforts, Mitchell offers this question at the end of the book: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

As a student and researcher in astrophysics, I am deeply intrigued by the nature of time. Cosmology places us inside  nested spheres of time extending back to the threshold of the origin of the universe, a literal extension of Sachs’ matryoshka doll metaphor. Special relativity allows someone traveling at the speed of light to see all events as simultaneous in the same way the reader sees all six narratives at once. The periodicity of motion, the recurrence of events and patterns, these are not just typical of physics: they are its very heart and soul. Mitchell gets at this through Timothy Cavendish, who says, “You would think a place the size of England could easily hold all the happening in one humble lifetime without much overlap…but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.”

But this piece is not simply a heady philosophical treatise; it’s also engrossing and suspenseful. The rich drama of a musician named Frobisher composing while cuckolding his employer’s wife and the intriguing insights into colonialism in the Pacific through the eyes of a notary, Adam Ewing, are slower plots, but the vividness and uncertainty make convincing worlds. On the other hand, the investigative reporter Luisa Rey researching corporate scandal while being shot at contains a lot of suspense. The runaway clone, Sonmi-451, who is wanted dead by a violent corpocratic government, also leads us through a thrilling action-filled plot, as does the goatherd Zachry as he is hunted by savages while protecting a scientifically advanced visitor from the last remnant of civilization. The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish trying to escape imprisonment in a nursing home falls in between the suspenseful and the more aesthetic.

While this is certainly not my favorite book of all time (Mitchell is no Margaret Atwood, believe me), I thoroughly enjoyed the piece. Mitchell demonstrates frequently that he is well-read, referencing authors like Emerson and Melville, and excellent in the crafts of voice and imagery, developing convincing characters and vivid worlds.

F*ck I’m in My Twenties

No, this isn’t your traditional book, but it does have two covers with words in between them, and it contains some incredible truths about being a twenty-something, so to me, Emma Koenig’s book is no less engaging than any of the others reviewed on this blog.

Starting out as some jotted notes in a notebook, then transitioning to tumblr where the drawings and notes were reblogged thousands of times (maybe more; I don’t know the numbers), before being picked up by Chronicle Books. Koenig is a New York-based actor/singer/writer, who begins her book with a witty forward, which includes such gems as

“I could have sworn that during freshman orientation the dean had said that as soon as we got our diplomas, a genie would appear and grant infinite wishes. Although now I think of it, I may has misheard her because I was texting.

“I hated that almost every conversation I had was either a defensive explanation of my life or a bland packaged script; both were devices to prove to whomever I was addressing that I had everything under control. Which I most definitely did not. I also couldn’t tell if I was overreacting. Was everyone else pleased as punch with their twenties? Was I insane for experiencing it this way? Did my mother obsessively read THe Bell Jar when I was in utero? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME?”

“[I went] to drama school, where it’s a prerequisite to have taken Overanalyzing 101 and to carry a Moleskin notebook everywhere.”

“This isn’t a ‘how-to’ book or a ‘how-not-to’ book, it’s more of a ‘how do I deal with my life without wanting to stab myself in the eyes with icicles?’ book.”

“Perhaps you’re one of those people who is (or was) perfectly content in your twenties. If so, FUCK YOU! I mean, um, CONGRATS.”

“I haven’t gotten very far at all imagining what my thirties will like, except for owning a really nice desk lamp.”

That’s just the introduction; most of the book is comprised of entries and pictures written and drawn by Koenig’s own hand. 50% of the book is what appeared on tumblr, while 50% of the content is new. In order to (try to) avoid copyright infringement, I’ll share a few that have appeared on tumblr, since they’re already been circulated on the internet. To see the others, buy this book! It’s available at Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters (in the latter store, it’s probably the only thing marked below $10, and therefore, the only thing I could afford, which only makes me like it more.)

The Wilding by C. S. Friedman

The Wilding is one of the most recent novels by notable science fiction and fantasy author C. S. Friedman. The piece is largely reminiscent of Asimov’s Second Foundation in his highly acclaimed Foundation series, in which psycho-history and telepathy are integral to the functioning of society.

For those of you familiar with Friedman’s much earlier piece, In Conquest Born, my review of the exposition may seem like overkill since this novel takes place in the same universe, just 200 years after the events of In Conquest Born. The vast majority of the book takes place in two contrasting expansive interstellar empires: the American-esque Azean Empire that allows for diversity and equality between humans of any sort, and the Roman-style Braxin Holding in which power, treachery, and good breeding are admired traits, misogyny is expected, and raping a woman is supported by law. We follow a number of characters, one main persona from each empire and a plethora of secondary ones. What is central to the plot is the existence of an entire civilization of humans who have telepathic abilities and have seceded from the Azeans because of political reasons.

Friedman develops culture, religion, ecology, architecture, fashion, and even linguistic idiosyncrasies with convincing and compelling detail. Each world, space station, and star ship we encounter, every government system, commercial organization, and  religious group is explained in detail. But Friedman does not draw out her descriptions like, say, Victor Hugo, but rather weaves bits and pieces of her world into the plot. It is not overwhelming, and the significances, while sometimes a bit obvious, are not too subtle or cumbersome. In short, she doesn’t write this like a textbook.

The characters themselves are well-developed for the most part, if not predictable and somewhat flat in places. Tathas and Zara, the two main characters, are especially static and experience little to no change whatsoever throughout the plot. Perhaps the only truly dynamic persona is K’teva, but despite this great development, Friedman gives her little attention. In fact, we are given nearly as much insight into an irrelevant courtesan who services the ruler of the Holding, the Pri’tiera, and an Azean intelligence official who also contributes nothing to the plot. There are a number of named characters that contribute little or nothing to the plot, many of which die. So while the exposition is quite engaging, the characters leave much to be desired.

What really disappoints is the ending of the novel, which “resolves” the principle conflicts but fails to truly bring catharsis to the piece. Not to mention that the ending consists of an almost random and rather abrupt assassination followed by a scene with vaguely developed characters commenting on issues that far exceed to plot and characters of the novel. And while few could meet the standards set by Asimov and authors like him, Friedman fails at rising to her own standards of good writing. Having previously read and enjoyed her Coldfire Trilogy, I was hoping for something with just as much depth and excitement and with equally compelling characters. But Friedman has certainly missed the mark on this one.

Review of Birthday & Nobody

Crystal Skillman’s two-play collection is one of those lucky accidents for me; I picked it up in the Drama Bookshop, and, upon flipping through it, saw that it might contain a few good monologues. While these two plays do, in fact, include good monologues, they’re also just good plays.

The plays are sold together because they could be presented together or separately. Both  take place in various locations in a bar- backroom, bathroom, bar, tables, etc.  However, neither play relies on the other, and could be performed on their own.

In Birthday, Leila stumbles into the back room of the bar at which her co-worker’s birthday party is being held. Because she’s crying so hard, it takes her a second to realize that she’s not alone. Kyle, the owner of the bar, is listening to his music and it rather startled when Leila begins to pour out her life story to him: the lie from which she got her name, why she chose the beer she’s drinking (because she’s obsessed with farms, and guess what, once a horse bit her on the boob), how her dad made her play the guitar, how she had to buy an Easter egg piñata for the party, how she likes to write songs and once wrote one about a seagull flying in the snow, and how it’s her birthday today too and she’s twenty-nine but she hasn’t told anyone. Kyle listens patiently, compliments her singing, shows her pictures of his four year-old son as Leila decides not to tell him how horrific she thinks marriage is.

Of course, not everything is as great for Kyle as it seems. Though he owns what seems like a popular and well-off business, he’s not exactly happy. After all, he’s been hanging out in the back room for awhile, and tells Leila that his wife doesn’t know he’s there.

The two of them are well-suited for each other, at least at that moment, in that room, for that conversation. It’s nice to have someone there, and maybe better that they’re strangers. Which makes it even sweeter when Kyle lights a birthday candle for Leila and lets her make a wish for the birthday no one else knows about.

On the other side of the door, in the next play Nobody, six characters deliver a series of monologues. Kat, a proofreader, relives her best friend’s wedding and how it was never supposed to happen. Alex, a chef, is distraught over a package sent to him by his ex-girlfriend and reviews how horrible his life is without her. Kash masturbates in the bathroom and tells how he rode a bus that morning and saw himself in the crowd of elderly people sitting around him. Ilona, a waitress, confides to the audience her dashed acting dreams and her confusion that she’s not clinically depressed.  Louise, a widow, is in the bar that her now-deceased husband once saw her enter in a dream before he had a heart attack. And Anna, a poet, finds herself unable to go to work because she’s a kind of sick she can’t put her finger on.

Both plays are poignant and provocative, written in a style that evokes Molly Hagan for its poetic nature and Jane Martin for its halting speech style:

She was sleeping.
Then a sound, like a whisper, sob.
She was shaking me.
Gently shaking me awake.
Asking if I…
The most basic of questions of what I had to give.
If I loved her.
As if after she heard that she would be changed in some way […]
I pretended to sleep, but I could heard her. I could hear her cry.
Which is funny because I didn’t hear her go.

Both plays give the reader a sense of desperation and claustrophobia, especially since the characters are so relatable. It’s almost uncomfortable to see yourself reflected in the characters, but somehow you want to keep reading, and that is the mark of two truly fantastic plays.

Choice quotes:

It’s so packed- it’s so full- no one can hear what you’re saying.
You’re like an ant.
There’s been all these birthday parties.
Everyone’s born in the spring I guess.

And just before we’re supposed to leave Greg takes me to the top, to the roof of the building.
The top of like a thousand floors.
We’d been there before.
I mean we’d go up there because at the front I have all the keys to everywhere and up there, it’s just like starting to stay lighter later and we can see the sun behind everything and it’s all shadows and that’s like what we are too, with each other.

I drank more than all of them.
And even though it seems like I’m letting go, it’s calculated. Me who tried to control everything, even planning in his mind where to have spontaneous sex when I get the chance.

And it gets so bad what I’m feeling.
Like something is wrong with me that no one can see.
Like when I’d look at my mom and know there was some reason she shouldn’t be left alone.

I decide to read.
And not poetry, actually sick of it.
I go through my books:
Ayn Rand,
Hawthorne,
Philip K. Dick.
I’m obviously schizophrenic.

How could two girls who were never girls, never knew how to be happy, learn to be happy?

Review of The Diviners

I have no self-discipline when it comes to Libba Bray books. I promised myself that I would not crack open The Diviners until I had completed memorizing my script for work… and I finished the book last night. Oops.

But reading a Libba Bray book is never a mistake, and this one, especially. The Diviners, which is the first installment of, I believe, a four-part series, is incredible. Set in New York City in 1926, the height of Prohibition, the backdrop is already intriguing. Add to it seventeen year-old Ohio-born transplant Evie O’Neill and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Evie is sent to live with her occult-museum curator uncle Will after she causes a disturbance in her small Ohio town by announcing at a party that the community’s golden boy got a chambermaid pregnant. It doesn’t matter that it’s true; everyone wants “that horrible O’Neill girl” out. No one even cares that Evie discovered this truth by divining it from the boy’s ring; it was just a party trick designed to insult the boy in question, they’re sure.

When Evie arrives in New York, she’s kissed (and simultaneously pickpocketed) by sweet-talker Sam Lloyd. She also reunites with her best friend Mabel and meets her uncle young assistant, the awkward and bookish Jericho, for whom Mabel carries a torch. Mabel’s a little awkward herself, often pushed to the background as her passionate and glamorous proletariat parents fight for cause after cause. Living in the same building are Theta Knight, a Ziegfield girl, and her best friend Henry, a pianist for the same show. Further away in Harlem, Memphis Campbell, a teenage bet runner, observes the development of his little brother’s psychic ability while wondering at the loss of the healing power that once made Memphis himself famous.

All of these individuals are affected when gruesome murders begin to happen all over the city, the only connection between the killings being that the murderer takes some part of his victims: the eyes, the hands, the mouth, etc. Each character in The Diviners has their own hand in the solving of the crimes, but in the end it’s up to Evie to finish the job.

Libba Bray is a masterful writer. While I have always loved her ability to write in  limited first person, present tense (as she does in the Gemma Doyle trilogy and Going Bovine), her choice to tell this story in third person omniscient is perfect; I like Evie very much, but it was great to hear the story from everyone’s point of view in turn. With this approach, Bray is also able to cover a huge array of topics: Prohibition, the proletariat movement, the Harlem Renaissance, religion, eugenics, homosexuality, interracial romance, rape, and all with her usual unflinchingly truthful outlook.

Many books that involve people with magical abilities begin with the person discovering that ability; indeed, Bray’s own series, the aforementioned Gemma Doyle trilogy, has the title character stumbling upon her power in the first chapter. I was glad that Bray took a different tack in this series, choosing to introduce characters who are well aware of their abilities, even if they find them strange or frightening.

Bray always manages to write characters I care deeply about. This book has a lot of main characters, and that’s a lot of caring, but I absolutely felt for each person, except for perhaps Sam Lloyd, who felt a little underdeveloped compared to everyone else. And while Evie was quite dimensional, I wanted to believe even more; on the surface, Evie is a thoroughly modern flapper, spilling over with slang, drinking her cares away. But inside, she’s thoughtful and a little haunted, and she sometimes slips up and reveals her inner self to the other characters. While I enjoyed, funnily enough, reading this seemingly shallow character, I think Evie was a little too good at being the flapper girl, so much that the persona fooled the reader as much as Evie’s intended audience. Because of this, her moment of poignancy are uncomfortably jarring. However, I still cared for her deeply; when she cried, I cried.

As with most writers, Bray’s books always carry a common thread. The themes that appear in all of her books are seen too in The Diviners: the question of what equals belonging and being loved, the difference between outward expression and inner turmoil, and the dangers of being different. Also present is her sense of humor, seen often in Evie but in many other characters as well. But after reading all of Bray’s other books, I sometimes hesitate to laugh; you never know when an exchange such as ‘”Evangeline,” Will sighed. “Charity begins at home.” “So does mental illness.”’ is not a lighthearted quip but the foreshadowing of some terrible truth coming down the pike.

One of Bray’s talents is writing scary, creepy scenes. While The Diviners, being a murder mystery, is filled to the brim with creepy, Bray outdoes herself sometimes, writing scenes so scary that I actually got dizzy while reading them because my breathing was so irregular with fear. That is the power of a good author, one that makes the reader come back for more and more and more.

Choice quotes:

“Don’t tell me you’re scared.” George smirks. He has a cruel mouth. It makes him all the more desireable.

The [dance] contestants, young girls and their fellas, hold one another up, determined to make their mark, to bite back at the dreams sold to them in newspaper advertisements and on the radio. They have sores on their feet but stars in their eyes.

“Your mother and I do not approve of drinking. Have you not heard of the Eighteenth Amendment?”
“Prohibition? I drink to its health whenever I can.”

“What crime did she commit? Did she turn the gin to water?”
“She was different. That was her sin.”

When her mother smiled and hugged her and called her “My darling, daring girl!” Mabel was suffused with such warmth. And when her mother inevitably got caught up in this cause or that injustice to be righted, Mabel would stand at her side,playing the dutiful daughter, proving just how indispensable she was. People who were helpful and indispensable were loved. Weren’t they?

Mabel was tired of being overlooked or compared to someone’s sister or passed off as a sweet, harmless girl, the sort nobody minded but nobody sought out, either.

Yes, she was too much. She felt like too much inside all the time. So why wasn’t she ever enough?

The song was a lie, a shiny bauble meant to distract people from their cares and woes. But they’d all agreed silently to be blinded by it […] They kept the lie going, and the people loved it.