Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasCloud 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 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

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Day 1037: The Bloody Chamber

Cover for The Bloody ChamberBecause a few months ago there was some mini hooplah about The Bloody Chamber, I thought it was a recent book, but it turns out Angela Carter died in 1992. I was totally unaware of her unique work.

The Bloody Chamber is a series of fairy tales and legends, retold. In them, heroines strip away their passivity. Some of the tales are gruesome, and all of them feature blood.

“The Bloody Chamber” is the story of Bluebeard retold. The young bride sells herself for riches and is taken to a castle floating in the sea. Her husband tempts her to look in the forbidden room by his very act of forbidding it, and she finds a slaughterhouse. When he returns unexpectedly, her intrepid mother saves her life.

I won’t tell the ending of the others, but Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast are all featured. The prose is gorgeous, with startling images and strong feminist themes, and Carter has a fascination with wolves.

This book will probably not be for you if you are at all squeamish. I am not, and some of it was a bit much for me. Still, it is a quick read, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

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Day 1015: Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

Cover for Tales of Mystery and the MacabreAs I am familiar with an Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote relatively realistic (for a Victorian) novels about ordinary people in different stratas of society, I was surprised to find this collection of strange and gothic tales. That shouldn’t have surprised me, though, because the supernatural and the fantastic were preoccupations of the Victorians. Séances were popular, and many reputable people believed in the supernatural.

That being said, these stories are not Gaskell’s best. When I looked them up, I was surprised to find that she wrote them later in life. They are about what you’d expect from the genre, though less fantastic and not really scary. Straight narrative dominates over dialogue and scenes.

In “The Old Nurse’s Story,” a little orphaned girl goes to live in a relative’s house that is haunted by the ghost of another little girl. In “The Squire’s Tale,” a new neighbor is found to be a robber and murderer. “The Poor Clare” is a story about a woman who inadvertently curses her own granddaughter.

I found three of the stories too tedious to finish. “The Witch Lois” is about an unsuspecting English girl who arrives in Salem, Massachusetts, to live with relatives just in time for the witch scare. “Curious, If True” seems to be about a lost traveler who comes upon a party of fairy tale characters. And “Disappearances” is a string of short anecdotes about people vanishing that did not seem to link up.

So, a disappointing book this time. Almost all of the main characters are women, and them so virtuous and retiring that they weren’t very interesting.

Happy holidays!

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Day 928: The View from Castle Rock

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe View from Castle Rock is an earlier Munro collection of short stories than Family Furnishings, which I previously reviewed. Since Family Furnishings is an anthology of Munro’s stories over the course of her career, I had already read several of the stories in The View from Castle Rock.

All of these stories have to do with the history of Munro’s family. In “No Advantages,” she has traveled to the area of Scotland where the Laidlaws came from. This story incorporates excerpts from other writings and quotes the epitaphs of some of her ancestors. It explains their hard life and the kinds of people her 18th century ancestors were.

In “The View from Castle Rock” Munro relates a family legend about how their drunken great-great-great grandfather James Laidlaw took his son Andrew up onto Castle Rock in Edinburgh to view America, probably as a joke, since they were looking at Fife. Although he talks of emigration throughout his life, he is unhappy when some of his sons finally take him and their families to America. This story is about their voyage and the fates of some of the family on board.

Other stories are more recent. “Hired Girl” is about a summer when Munro worked as a hired girl at a beach house on an island. For that summer, she had to learn that her employers did not consider her an equal. This was a tough lesson, as her mother especially had always had some pretensions of superiority even though they were poor.

In “Home” she revisits home after living away for some years. Her father has remarried after her mother’s death, and her old house has changed almost completely.

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe stories in this collection are powerful, relating the hard life of her family farming and raising fur, their close-mouthed quality, pride, and stubbornness. She is courageous in her ability to look at everything with honesty, even her own foibles.

One comment I have to make is on the cover of my Vintage International edition, shown here. It has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the book and gives an entirely misleading idea of the stories. The only story that even faintly is about a beach is “Hired Girl,” and the girl is not exactly lying around in the sand. Sometimes I wonder what publishers are thinking. The cover that I used at top is much better.

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Day 927: The Casebook of Carnaki the Ghost Finder

Cover for the Casebook of CarnakiW. H. Hodgson’s sleuth Carnaki is in answer to the fad for detective stories that came about after the success of the Sherlock Holmes stories. But Carnaki is not a regular detective. He is a psychic detective who investigates hauntings. The Casebook of Carnaki the Ghost Finder is a collection of nine Carnaki stories.

These stories all follow the same format. Carnaki summons a group of friends to his house for dinner. He speaks very little before and during dinner and will not talk about what he’s been doing. After dinner, he relaxes into his favorite chair and relates his latest case. This format is very common in earlier genre mysteries. Unfortunately, it removes some of the immediacy of the story.

These stories are straight wonder tales. There is no attempt made at characterization, of Carnaki or anyone else. The stories are simply meant to amaze and puzzle and so have more in common with earlier gothic stories than with Sherlock Holmes. The puzzle of whether the mystery will be of human or occult causes is probably the most interesting part of the stories.

I actually found one of these stories to be quite chilling. That was “The Gateway of the Monster.” In that story, Carnaki is called to investigate the Grey Room in a very old house. Although the door of the room is locked every night, it is slammed continually all night long. Each morning, the bedclothes are found jerked off the bed. Since three people were killed there years before, no one has slept in the room.

Unfortunately, Hodgson cheats by waiting until the end to tell us a key piece of the story. Also, this haunting, along with some of the others, runs more along the lines of something like The Castle of Otranto than a more modern ghost story, and I find things scarier that are more feasible.

In “The Thing Invisible,” Carnaki is summoned to figure out how the butler could have been struck with an ancient dagger when there was no one around him and he was in full view of everyone. This story is marred, too, because one person there understood what had happened and would never have summoned Carnaki.

Still, this book is full of haunted castles, spectral horses and pigs, a ship pursued by strange weather, and other wonders. It can be quickly read and should offer most folks some pleasure on a rainy afternoon (or a dark and stormy night).

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Day 920: Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation

Cover for Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of TemptationSidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation is the fifth book in the series known as the Grantchester Mysteries, even though Sidney no longer lives in Grantchester. I have only previously read the first book, and much has changed in Sidney’s life since then. It is 13 years later, Sidney is married to Hildegard and has a four-year-old daughter Anna, and he is an archdeacon.

Like the first book, this Sidney Chambers book is also presented as a set of short stories, but this is a bit of a misnomer. The mysteries are contained within a story, and many of them are very slight, but the back story and the other events continue through the book as if it were a novel. Consequently, the focus has moved from solving mysteries to the discussions of various spiritual issues. I believe the Father Brown mysteries touched lightly on similar issues, but Runcie is much more heavy-handed.

In “The Dangers of Temptation,” Sidney is drawn back to Grantchester by a former parishioner, Mrs. Wilkinson. Sidney both does not like her and is attracted to her. She has asked him to do what he can to extract her teenage son Danny from a commune run by Fraser Pascoe. Sidney is unsuccessful, but then Pascoe is murdered.

In “Grantchester Meadows,” young Olivia Randall loses a valuable family necklace while she is fooling around in a meadow during a drunken party for May Week. At the same time, there is a general panic because a young man across the field is nearly trampled by cows.

Sidney’s good friend Amanda’s marital troubles come to the fore when her husband’s first wife is murdered. The murder is secondary to the plot about what will happen with Amanda’s marriage.

link to NetgalleyIn other stories, Sidney and his family travel to East Germany to vacation with Hildegard’s family, and an arson and blackmail force Sidney’s ex-curate Leonard to consider his sexuality. “The Return” has a plot suspiciously similar to a Father Brown story.

For the most part, these stories devolve into discussions of a spiritual nature. In fact, the mysteries started to seem like excuses to springboard these musings. I, for one, did not find it interesting. Further, I prefer the 50’s setting of the older mysteries to the 60’s setting.

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