Cloud Atlas

Wow. That’s the word I have for this book, just Wow.

For a little background, I picked this book up quite awhile ago, probably at my favorite San Francisco bookstore, Green Apple Books. Green Apple is one of those independent bookstores where the smart and savvy employees write little comments on a note card, tempting you to make purchases you might not have otherwise made. Thus it was with me, and I made the purchase, brought the book home, put it in my TBR pile, and promptly forgot about it. Months later, I picked it up, and started in. Chapter one was kind of boring, and I gave up and picked up something a bit more lively.

Thank goodness, then, for the Chunkster Challenge, which sent me searching my bookshelves for books of 400+ pages that I hadn’t yet read. I picked East of Eden, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Cloud Atlas. I’m SO glad, because all three books have been remarkable. And in such different ways. In fact, Cloud Atlas is different than any other book I ‘ve ever read. The book is composed of 6 stories, told by 6 different characters. The stories are nested, so that the narrator of the first chapter is the same as the last chapter, the second is the same narrator as the penultimate chapter, etc., with only the chapter in the middle of the book being one story instead of divided into two. What was fascinating to me, though, was that the chapters are not only told in different times and by different characters, they were all different genres.

The first (and final) chapters are The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. This journal is circa 1850, and the author is a young man traveling from the Chatham Islands home to San Francisco. He is a very religious man, and the story has to do with his adventures along the way.

Next is Letters from Zedelghem, told in the form of letters from a young composer during his stay in Belgium in 1931. The letters are to his friend and lover, Richard Sixmith.

Next is Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which is the tale of an idealistic young reporter named Luisa Rey and her fight to uncover corruption at a local Nuclear Reactor in the 1970s.

Next is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a very funny story of a low level publisher who inadvertently hits paydirt with one of his authors, and subsequently finds himself locked up in a mental institution.

Then we come to An Orison of Sonmi~451, which is told in the form of an interview, and points to a dystopian future ala Philip K Dick or perhaps Margaret Atwood. Sonmi 451 is the name of the clone who is being interviewed, and her chilling tale of her fight against the corpocracy. The vision of the moon being used as a billboard for big business was a chilling one, that I hope no one at coca cola or pepsi gets ahold of.

Lastly, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, a post apocalyptic tale told by Zachary, a tribesman trying to retain some degree of civilization after the ‘fall’, in which most of humanity dies. This is the only story told all in one chapter, and it is nested between the two halves of Sonmi~451, which is nested between the two halves of Timothy Cavendish, and so on.

The stories are all interconnected, though some more so than others, and there is the undercurrent of reincarnation as well. I wondered if perhaps the reason the first chapter seemed somewhat boring to me is that I’m not a big fan of Melvillian high seas lit. Then again, I’ve never read any Melville (maybe the next classics challenge?), so I don’t know. I do know that by the end of the book, the last chapter, also told in the same voice and genre, wasn’t boring at all.

The themes that occur and reoccur in each story are timeless and universal. Power struggles between the strong and the weak. Slavery and imprisonment. Racism and prejudices. Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone, but for some strange reason, I think it might especially be enjoyed by Jefito, Py Korry (who can read my copy 😉 ), Maya’s Granny, and Ms. Mamma. Jefito and Py Korry because of the futuristic chapters, which I think would appeal to them. Maya’s Granny because I think she would enjoy how cleverly (sometimes perhaps too cleverly) the stories connect and weave, and she knows all of these genres well enough to enjoy that as well. Ms. Mamma because, well, I think she’d just love it. That’s a stretch, since I don’t know her in person, but there it is.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Last night, I finished the second book in my Chunkster Challenge, Half of a Yellow Sun, in which the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of the small, short lived nation of Biafra.

Biafra tried to seperate itself from Nigera in a horrible civil war, from 1967 Р1970. Nigeria received support from the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, while Biafra was supported covertly by France, Rhodesia and South Africa. While Nigeria certainly had military superiority, they mainly won victory by shutting off borders and shooting down relief planes, causing a famine that killed over a million people. It was from the horrors of Biafra that the humanitarian group, M̩decins Sans Fronti̬res, was born.

Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of this civil war from the point of view of three characters. Olanna, a wealthy woman who leaves her life of security and wealth behind to live with her revolutionary lover, Odenigbo. Richard, a British writer who comes to Africa because he falls in love with the art, and wishes to study it, and ends up falling in love with Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene. Ugwu, a young peasant from a village who comes to work as a houseboy for Ogenigbo.

There are some books that take awhile to pull you in, and when you read them, you’re not sure whether you will become involved with the story or not. Not to worry, Half of a Yellow Sun sucked me in from the first page:

Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair. Ugwu’s aunty said this in a low voice as they walked on the path. “But he is a good man,” she added. “And as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day.” She stopped to spit; the saliva left her mouth with a sucking sound and landed on the grass.

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. They had been walking for a while now, since they got off the lorry at the motor park, and the afternoon sun burned the back of his neck. But he did not mind. He was prepared to walk hours more in even hotter sun. He had never seen anything like the streets that appeared after they went past the university gates, streets so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them. He would never be able to describe to his sister Anulika how the bungalows here were painted the color of the sky and sat side by side like polite well-dressed men, how the hedges separating them were trimmed so flat on top that they looked like tables wrapped with leaves.

The story is hauntingly told, with moments of moral despair that threaten to pierce your soul. Perhaps that is overly dramatic, but parts of this book were horrible to read, and yet I was pulled back to the narritive. Ms. Adichie is clearly a gifted writer, and I am looking forward to reading her first book, Purple Hibiscus. Thanks to Lotus for recommending this book. I also highly recommend it.

East of Eden

I finished East of Eden last night. Whew, what a story. I can’t believe it took me almost a month (started on the 1st), but I guess that’s what makes it a Chunkster…that it takes awhile to read. What makes it a Classic, though, is not only the fact that it’s over 50 years old, but also that it’s famous, and accepted in literary circles as a great work.

In case you haven’t read East of Eden yet, I’m going to highly recommend that you take a month out of your schedule and do so. This is a wonderful book, full of hope and love, pain and death, sex and violence and betrayal. Everything that makes a good soap opera is here, including tragedy and drama.

I knew that this is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis, and I knew that it was an epic story, set in the Salinas valley in Central California. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much sympathy I would have for the Cain figure in the story. In Genesis, I always felt like he got a raw deal, with God favoring Abel’s gift of a lamb over his gift of crops that he had grown. I mean, shepherding seems easier than farming to me, so why favor that one? The answer, according to a conversation held between three of the main characters in East of Eden, is because the folks that originally told that story were shepherds, so of course their God would favor shepherding. Makes sense to me.

Speaking of Genesis, there is one theme that they discuss within the book that is pretty profound, and that is held within the word, “timshel“. I don’t know Hebrew, so I’m not sure of the correct translation, but according to Lee, the highly intelligent Chinese servant in East of Eden, it means, “Thou Mayest”. The crux of the story is that in many translations of the Bible, God says, “Thou Shalt”. Yet, in Hebrew (again, according to the story), the correct translation should be “Thou Mayest”. Thou Mayest rule over sin. Or, perhaps, thou mayest not…the sins of the father are not necessarily the sins of the son, and we do not HAVE to do evil, just as we do not HAVE to do good, and we have control over our actions.

I’m not so sure that the character, Cal, would agree, however. He is tortured, like Scarlet O’Hara in another very long book, by his desire to do good, to be good, and his belief that deep down, he is bad. He does cruel, mean things, and then regrets them deeply. I never knew in Genesis, whether Cain regretted killing Abel. I’m sure he regretted being punished, but I wasn’t sure if he regretted the murder itself. East of Eden gave me a glimpse, through more modern eyes, of what Cain must have suffered after his fit of rage.

I’m going to stop now, because I fear I am going to ruin the story for those who might be interested. The first 100 pages kind of drag, as with many long books. Stick with it, because it’s definitely worth it.

Chunkster Challenge

chunksterbuttonI decided to participate in the Chunkster Challenge, but I don’t know if I mentioned it in my blog more than in passing. Silly me. The time frame is January 1st through June 30th, and the guidelines are pretty free flowing. Bookfool from Bookfoolery and Babble decreed that all participants should read as many or as few (but duh, at least one) ‘chunksters’ during this time period. What, you may ask, is a ‘chunkster’? Well, as it has nothing to do with the size of my waist OR my thighs, I’ll be happy to tell you. It’s a book that is daunting in length, or, if you must be specific, any book of over 400 pages. I’m not sure how many books I’ll get in, but I’m going to do at least two, and try for three.

First, I’ve already mentioned that I’m reading East of Eden. I’m also reading this for the Winter Classics Challenge, but they both say it’s OK to use books for multiple challenges, so no guilt. I started on January 1st, and I’m just over 1/2 way through. It’s just over 600 pages, I think, so it definitely qualifies. Then I’ll be taking some time off from the Chunksters while I finish the Winter Classics Challenge, since the time frame on that one is sooner.

Next, I’m going to read Half of a Yellow Sun, which I read about at Lotus Reads, and thought it sounded like a great book. I received it for my birthday, and as it’s 433 pages, it qualifies as a Chunkster. Yay!

Publisher’s Comment: A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by the Washington Post Book World as “the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” Half of a Yellow Sun re-creates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s, and the chilling violence that followed.

I’ve read a few books by Achebe, and liked them enough to name my Volvo after him. Is that rude, to name a car after a person? I hope not. Anyway, I’m looking forward to this read.

I’m also debating this one…Cloud Atlas…has anyone read this one? I read the first part, and couldn’t get into it, but then I heard that the rest is better, so we’ll see. It’s 528 pages, so it counts here. 🙂

Maybe I’ll come up with some more Chunksters before the end of the challenge…I seem to have plenty of time, since it goes until June, but I also got some other books for Christmas and my birthday, which are NOT over 400 pages, and which I’m looking forward to digging into, even without any sort of challenge to encourage me. 🙂

And, throwing a wrench into my Winter Classics Challenge was the email that I received today from the library, telling me that the new Dick Francis book is waiting for me…and I still have 4 classics to read by the end of February. Gulp. At 320 pages, it doesn’t qualify for a Chunkster, and his books are usually pretty quick reads…but still. Wish me luck. Good thing I don’t watch a lot of TV lately!