Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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Day 791: Moloka’i

Cover for Moloka'iIn late 19th century Honolulu, Rachel Kalama is only seven years old when she develops leprosy. It starts out as just a pink spot on her leg, but as soon as authorities spot it, she is examined and exiled to the leper colony on Moloka’i. Even though her beloved Uncle Pons is already on the island, she is not allowed to stay with him but must live in the girls’ dormitory at least until she is 16. The facilities on the island are primitive and the rules rigid. She is the youngest resident of the island. It’s tough for a little girl.

Although Rachel’s father Henry writes regularly to her from his travels as a seaman, she soon has her letters to her mother returned to her. She never sees her mother again. The novel tells the story of Rachel’s life from the time she is admitted to the colony until she is an older woman.

I have to admit that I hesitated to read a novel about lepers, thinking it might be too gruesome. But Rachel’s story isn’t depressing. Aside from lightly covering a great deal of the recent history of Hawaii, beginning with the deposing of the queen by the United States, the novel depicts a life in a tough environment that slowly becomes a community. If anything, at times the novel seems to depict a rosier environment than seems possible.

Owing to lack of characterization and the prevalence of description versus action and dialogue, I was not captured by this novel until almost the end. I was interested to see what would happen, but I didn’t find the characters very involving. Still, I found the end of the novel touching, and I enjoyed learning about the history and customs of Hawaii.

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Day 534: And the Sea Will Tell

Cover for And the Sea Will TellYears ago, I was living in a house with a bunch of other students. It was then that I read Helter Skelter, the book by Vincent Bugliosi about the Manson murders. Bugliosi was, of course, the prosecutor on that famous case.

I am the type of person who is much more scared by books and movies about things that could or did happen than things that could not. I watched countless horror movies (the classics of the 40’s and 50’s) as a kid without being scared (Saturday night with my older brother, all lights off for the Christopher Coffin show), but I was terrified at the same age by The Three Faces of Eve. After I read Helter Skelter, I realized for the first time that because my bedroom was the former living room of the old farmhouse and right next to the door, it would be the first stop for anyone who broke in during the night. I was creeped out!

image of Christoper Coffin
Christopher Coffin in his coffin

This newer Bugliosi book is about a crime that occurred in the 1970’s but was not tried until the 1990’s. It involves two couples who arrived coincidentally at what was supposed to be a deserted island far south of Hawaii, Palmyra.

One couple, the Grahams, was wealthy, with a beautiful boat, fully stocked. Their plan was to stay on the island a year, although Muff Graham was there only because Mac wanted to be. Buck Walker was a fugitive from a drug-selling charge. He and his girlfriend Jennifer Jenkins arrived on a leaky, battered old boat with few stores, planning to stay there indefinitely.

In late August of 1974, after staying on the island a couple of months, Buck and Jennifer were preparing their boat for a tough sail to Fanning Island to buy more supplies. They were tired of living mostly on fish and coconuts. A couple months later, the couple sailed into Ala Wai harbor in Hawaii in a beautiful boat, clearly the one that belonged to the Grahams.

Although Walker and Jenkins were prosecuted for the theft of the boat, visits to Palmyra turned up no evidence of what happened to the Grahams. Jenkins’ story was that they found the Grahams’ overturned Zodiac on the beach after Mac and Muff told Buck they were going fishing. Walker and Jenkins claimed to have searched for the couple, but said they could find no sign of them and thought they drowned or were killed by sharks. Nevertheless, they had not reported the incident to the authorities because they had stolen the Grahams’ boat.

Seven years later, a visitor to Palmyra discovered a human skull, a wrist watch, and other bones on the beach. They appeared to have fallen out of a metal box that had been fastened shut with wires and had drifted ashore. The skull was identified as that of Muff Graham.

Buck Walker was convicted of the murder. Bugliosi’s book is about Jennifer’s trial.

First, I was surprised to find Bugliosi had changed from prosecution and defended Jenkins. He makes a major point that he only defends people he thinks are innocent of the crime they’re charged with. I was not as sure as he was about Jennifer.

This book is well written and for the most part moves along nicely. It has a few flaws, though.

For one thing, it is extremely long at more than 700 pages. In my opinion, it does not  need to be that lengthy. The crime itself occupies less than 200 pages. The rest is about the investigation and the trial. Although most of the material is interesting, at times it seems as though Bugliosi is confusing his role of storyteller with that of a litigation instructor. He spends a lot of time explaining legal procedure and concepts, some of which are very basic. For example, within the same 20 or so pages, he spends four pages explaining the difference between the verdict of not guilty and actual innocence and another four pages on the importance of the summation. He also constantly gives his opinion of the job the prosecution was doing. I sensed a lot of ego here.

Approaching the end of the book, I was astonished to find nearly 100 pages devoted to Bugliosi’s summation, which is quoted almost verbatim. Although he makes some important points not raised elsewhere, he covers a lot of ground already discussed during the trial. He could have hit the highlights.

A lot of dialogue is quoted throughout the book. Although this technique makes the book move along, it seems impossible to me that so much conversation could be accurately recounted almost 20 years (by the time of the trial) after some of the events. This approach to nonfiction makes me uncomfortable.

If you like true crime, you’ll probably find this book interesting enough to stick with it. Like me, you may find yourself skipping over pages of material. While I was reading, I often imagined Henderson, Bugliosi’s ghostwriter, arguing with him that some things should be left out.

Day 533: The Descendants

Cover for The DescendantsIf you have seen the movie The Descendants, the book will not provide you with very many surprises. But that is looking at things the wrong way around. Perhaps the novel provides a stronger sense of betrayal and even more sympathy with the characters.

He may live in balmy Hawaii, but Matt King is struggling. His wife Joanie is in a coma after a boat-racing accident. He has been the type of father who is always working; now he is becoming conscious of his deficiencies as a parent. He finds his ten-year-old daughter Scottie harming herself. Then he learns that the reason his wife sent his teenage daughter Alex away to boarding school was because she discovered drugs in her room.

Added to all this turmoil is a decision he must soon make about his family’s property. A trust is being wound up and prime real estate could be sold. Some cousins want the most money while others favor a local developer. With the majority vote, Matt has the power to decide what the family will do with the land.

After Matt picks up Alex from boarding school, she explains a big blowup she had with her mother over Christmas. Alex had discovered Joanie was having an affair.

Joanie’s doctors decide that she is brain dead, so Matt begins gathering her friends and family to say goodbye. Learning from friends that Joanie had planned to leave him for her lover, Matt decides he should notify him too.

It is in trying to identify and contact this man that Matt discovers Joanie’s affair was a much bigger betrayal than he thought. He is also brought to consider what he owes to his Hawaiian ancestors, from whom his family inherited their property.

Although narrated in a light style that is sometimes funny, The Descendants deals with such issues as grief, anger, death, and infidelity. It is surprisingly affecting, and you feel you know and like Matt, his daughters, and their friend Sid. Most of the characters are well-meaning people who are trying to do the right thing. I enjoyed this novel.

Day 85: Spider Bones

Cover for Spider BonesFor years I have been enjoying Kathy Reichs’s series featuring the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. Brennan alternates between working in Montreal and Charlotte, North Carolina, but I usually prefer the books that take place in Montreal. In Spider Bones, she goes farther afield.

A corpse from an autoerotic episode that is found in a lake in Quebec seems to be John Lowery of North Carolina, but John Lowery supposedly died 40 years earlier in Vietnam. Brennan’s investigation takes her to Hawaii to work with an old friend at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. She brings along her daughter as well as her on-again off-again lover Ryan and his daughter.

When Tempe is asked to help with the remains from an apparent shark attack and to identify some other bones from the Vietnam War, her life becomes endangered, as well has those of her companions.

I enjoyed this novel, but my interest in the series is winding down as the books depart more from the original set-up and become more like thrillers. I think the absorbing parts of these series are her descriptions of Brennan’s work and of the culture of Montreal. Also, the Bones TV series was a severe disappointment, as it bears little relationship to the books.