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 1020: One Thousand White Women

Cover for One Thousand White WomenWhen I first began reading One Thousand White Women, I didn’t think I was going to like it. I was unconvinced, under the circumstances, by its narrator’s facetious tone, and I felt that the way some characters told her their deepest secrets on first meeting was unrealistic. I was also afraid that most of the characters would turn out to be caricatures of real women. However, I eventually changed my mind from my first impressions.

This novel is a completely fictional imagining of what would have happened if an actual event had taken place. During an 1854 peace conference, a Cheyenne chief suggested that the United States trade 1000 white women for horses, reasoning that this assimilation of cultures would ultimately result in understanding between the two. This suggestion was indignantly received, but Fergus’s novel imagines what would have happened if the experiment were tried.

In 1874, May Dodd is one of those women. She has decided to participate to escape from a mental institution to which her family committed her after she had children outside of marriage with a man they found socially inferior. With her on the train west is a colorful group of women, some of them fleeing ruined lives and others hoping for a family.

On the way out, May falls in love with Captain John Bourke, in charge of their escort from Fort Laramie. Unfortunately, Captain Bourke is engaged to be married, and May feels herself pledged to the mission, which has been presented to the women as a patriotic one.

May is chosen as the bride for Little Wolf, a respected chief of the Northern Cheyenne. He is an older man with two current wives, but he is a man May can respect.

Fergus is strongest in his descriptions of the western landscape and life among the Cheyenne. As I mentioned, at first all the women seem like types, but eventually I came to care for most of the major characters, from the timid Martha to the African-American Amazon, Phemie. And the major Cheyenne characters are sympathetically depicted.

Of course, we know what kinds of things were going on in the West at this time (and if you don’t, I recommend Dee Brown’s excellent and affecting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). This novel is a sensitive and powerful depiction of the native American life and struggles of the time.

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Day 917: Neverwhere

Cover for NeverwhereI haven’t read any Neil Gaiman except a book about a witch that he wrote with Terry Pratchett. That one was very silly, but I thought I should read some more Gaiman since he is so popular. I should maybe mention that fantasy is not usually my genre, with notable exceptions.

Richard Mayhew is happy with his life. He is a successful young investment counselor and is engaged to a beautiful but demanding woman. One night when they are on the way out for an important dinner with his fiancée’s boss, he finds an injured girl lying on the sidewalk. The girl is filthy, and Richard’s fiancée wants him to call an ambulance and leave her there. But Richard picks her up and takes her to his apartment.

We have already met the girl, being chased by two villains named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar through dirty dark tunnels. When the two men come to Richard’s apartment looking for the girl, he says she is not there.

The girl’s name is Door, and she asks Richard if he will go somewhere for her and fetch the Marquis de Carabas. Doing this favor takes him to a strange world underneath London. Richard returns Door to the Marquis, but once she is gone, he realizes he can’t return to his own world. When he tries to, people can’t see him. He finds he has no job, no fiancée, and his flat is in the midst of being let to someone else. He returns to the other world to get help from Door.

Door is the daughter of Lord Portico, a family famous for opening things. Recently, her entire family was slaughtered by Croup and Vandemar, and she wants to find out who ordered it and why. When she returns home to find her father’s diary, it tells her to go to Islington, a legendary angel. Richard finds himself accompanying Door, the Marquis, and Door’s bodyguard Hunter on a dangerous quest through this alternate world that makes its home in the London underground, with characters whose names play on the names of underground stations.

At times this novel seems quite juvenile. In fact, partway through I started trying to figure out if it was intended for adults at all. This is because the humor often seems to be aimed at 14-year-old boys, for example, a villain who is constantly eating live slugs and pigeons. But the Introduction states that it is meant for adults, to do for them what books like the Chronicles of Narnia did for Gaiman as a child.

For this adult, anyway, it fails. I was mildly sympathetic to Richard’s plight, but the book doesn’t do enough with the characters to get us more interested in them. And I wasn’t enamored of Gaiman’s vision of a filthy, mud-filled underworld of strange beings.

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Day 875: The River of No Return

Cover for The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return was popular a few years ago, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now. The plot combining time travel and romance reminded me of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, which I loved. I found Ridgway’s book not nearly as interesting, though.

Nick Davenport appears to be a wealthy dilettante dabbling in cheese making in 2013, but in 1810, he was Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown. While fighting in the Peninsular Wars, he was suddenly thrust forward in time to 2003. There he was picked up by a society of time travelers called the Guild, trained to live in modern times, and given a potload of money to live on. Now, the Guild wants him to travel backward to 1815, something he didn’t even know could be done, and resume his earlier life to carry out a mission for them.

Back in 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather has just died, leaving her at the mercy of an unknown cousin. Since she was a child, Julia has watched her grandfather play little tricks with time. She is just beginning to realize that she can do it, too. Then her cousin Eamon arrives and begins looking for something, a talisman. Julia eventually realizes that she herself is the talisman.

When Nick arrives back in time, he learns he is to find a representative of a rival time-travel society called the Ofan and kill that person. The Guild has learned that the time period within which they can go forward is moving backward in time, and they think the activities of the Ofan have affected the river of time. The Guild thinks this Ofan member lives in a house neighboring Nick’s, the home of Julia Percy.  But Nick has no intention of killing anyone.

A portion of this novel is more romance novelish than I like, a fairly standard romantic plot with unlikely (for the time) sex scenes. Since I am not a fan of the standard romance novel, this was not a plus for me.

Worse, though, is the theory of time travel and its link with human emotions and monetary exchange, which is scientifically absurd. Audrey Niffenegger’s genetic abnormality is at least faintly believable.

All in all, my reaction was fairly meh. The novel is well written, but I wasn’t particularly interested in most of the characters. I thought Nick was incredibly naive about the Guild and went along with it far too long. An alternate explanation of the moving time horizon seemed immediately obvious to me, although it is not addressed in this novel. Because this novel is clearly designed for a sequel, only the romance plot is resolved.

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Day 819: The Winter People

Cover for The Winter PeopleReading two books by Jennifer McMahon doesn’t make me an expert on her, but they do have something in common. They both show a fascination with the supernatural and the grotesque.

Like her more recent book The Night Sister, The Winter People is set in Vermont. It takes place in two time periods, the present and 1908.

In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea lives with her husband and daughter on a barren farm near a landmark called the Devil’s Hand. Sara was raised by a Native American woman she calls “Auntie,” whom the nearby villagers visit for potions and spells. We know from the beginning of the novel that she died a terrible death and that parts of her story are recorded in her diary, which has pages missing. In the village of West Hall there have long been legends of “Sleepers,” people who are brought back from the dead.

In the present time, teen Ruthie returns late from a date to find her mother, Alice, gone. When Alice hasn’t returned by the next day, Ruthie and her little sister Fawn begin looking through the house for clues to where she has gone. In a series of hidey holes, they find some strange things, a gun and the wallets of two people from Connecticut. Since the countryside around West Hall is known for people’s disappearances and the Devil’s Hand at the edge of the farm is supposedly haunted, Ruthie begins wondering what her mother could be involved in and doesn’t call the police.

Katherine is grieving the death of her husband, Gary. He had been distraught since the death of their son, but recently things seemed to be better. Then he told her he was going to Cambridge to photograph a wedding but died in a car accident in Vermont. What was he doing there? When Katherine gets back his charge receipts, she finds he ate lunch in West Hall, so she decides to move there to try to find out what Gary was up to.

McMahon builds up quite a bit of suspense in this novel, often from small things like the tapping on a closet door. The novel centers around a series of grief-stricken people and the belief that people can come back from the dead. Can they? And if so, in what form?

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Day 812: Shirley

Cover for ShirleyBest Book of the Week!
Shirley is both an homage to Shirley Jackson, dealing with some of her own themes and preoccupations, and a novel about her. It works well on both counts. Don’t be mislead by how it is being marketed, though. It is not a thriller, even though its main character becomes obsessed with a disappearance that may be a crime.

Young, pregnant Rose Nemser and her husband Fred travel to Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 1964. Fred is a graduate student working on his dissertation who has taken a position as teaching assistant with Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The Hymans welcome the  young couple and offer them a place to stay in their spare bedroom.

Rose is a shy and unconfident 19. Because of her poverty-stricken upbringing and meager education, she feels inferior to her husband and his family. Surprised at this invitation, she is delighted to stay. She is a fan of Jackson’s work and hopes to become her friend.

Soon Rose believes she has made a friend of Shirley, but Rose is naive and can’t begin to understand the demons that haunt her hostess. Shirley’s husband is a professor at Bennington who is known for having affairs with his students. Shirley, too, is jealous of male colleagues whose work has received more recognition than hers.

Rose begins delving into Shirley’s books on witchcraft and also becomes fascinated by stories of Paula Welden, a Bennington student who disappeared years ago while on a hike in the mountains. She begins having fancies about the house, similar to the ones held by Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.

So, the novel develops that mixture of the mundane and the off-kilter that characterizes much of Jackson’s fiction. Shirley is a deeply interesting and atmospheric novel that causes you to sympathize with the fictional Rose while feeling that you learn something about the actual Shirley Jackson. Like some other recent fiction I have read (Miss Emily comes to mind), it combines a completely made-up plot, aggravated by Rose’s fantasies, with biographical details of Shirley’s life.

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Day 801: Wolf Winter

Cover for Wolf WinterBest Book of the Week!
It is 1717. A few days earlier, Maija and her family arrived at their new home on the side of Blackåsen Mountain in the Lapland area of Sweden. They moved away from Finland because Maija’s husband Paavo, formerly a fisherman, began to see dead men in the water. But here on the mountain he is ineffective and frightened.

Maija’s daughters Fredericka and Dorothea are out with the goats when they find the body of a man. Although the nearby settlers are quick to claim an animal attack, it is clear to Maija that the man, Eriksson, was killed by a person using a lance. She has already felt an unease on the mountain and believes they must find the murderer. Unfortunately for the search, Eriksson seems to have been disliked by all.

Maija’s family has had some experience with the older ways, even though they are forbidden by the church. Fredericka, however, was being instructed in them by her grandmother without her mother’s knowledge. Fredericka finds herself being haunted by Eriksson, who wants her to find his murderer, and tries to seek help in the supernatural from the Lapps.

Another important character is the new priest for the region. He comes to visit the area and tries to help with the investigation. At first, he seems cold and unready for a position in such a wilderness. But he is actually bewildered. He was a court priest and a friend to the king until he was abruptly sent away from court.

When the snow comes early and kills the harvest, Paavo decides to travel to the coast to earn some money. Maija is left to struggle through a particularly harsh winter with the girls. There are wolves on the mountain, and some of the settlers believe the mountain itself is evil. No one has found Eriksson’s killer, but Maija is still looking.

link to NetgalleyThis novel creates an atmospheric, fully realized world that captured me from the first words. Although it is centered around a mystery, it is just as successful as a historical novel, with a touch of the mystical, set in an unusual place and time. You can easily imagine the cold and hardships. This novel is excellent.

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