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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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Our choice for September is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell:

 

Synopsis:

Six interlocking lives - one amazing adventure. In a narrative that circles the globe and reaches from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of time, genre and language to offer an enthralling vision of humanity's will to power, and where it will lead us. A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified 'dinery server' on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation - the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other's echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. In his extraordinary third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity's dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.

Some questions to consider:

1- Who was your favourite character and why?

2- Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

3- Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

4- Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

5- Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

 

(You do not have to answer all, or indeed, any, of these questions, they are meant only as points for you to perhaps mull over as you read, and provoke more discussion. Please feel free to ask and answer any questions that come up as you read.)

 

Enjoy!

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About the discussion questions: 1/2) I think my favorite character was Sonmi. I suppose because the odds were so stacked against her that it made me care more what happened to her. Did anyone else think her chapters were reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake? I don't know why, but to me they were. And I loved that book, so that's not a bad thing at all.

I cared the least about Robert Frobisher. He was so unprincipled and only cared about himself, really. The fact that he realized it didn't make him any more lovable.The Sloosha's Crossing part was hard to get through, though interesting. I am hoping that in the case of a post-apocalyptic future, we won't all speak in Faulkner-esque dialect. I thought the gangster parts were kind of cliched. It made me wonder how many gangsters are out there at this minute, chasing down people with gambling debts and forcing them to climb down the fire escape. Because there certainly are enough of them to go around in a certain type of novel.

So I think I've answered 1,2, and 4. On to 3) I think I would try another book by Mitchell. It was kind of hard work, making you angry at the injustices that people inflict on each other, and how persistent social inequality is, and that it seems futile to fight it, but fighting it is necessary... Sort of like reading a decently entertaining history textbook. Maybe that's unfair. But it makes me feel personally useless. There aren't any great injustices in the little world around me to fight against, though I know they're abundant in the world at large. And even if an ocean is "a multitude of drops", we drops would like to see that we're contributing in the here and now. Besides, it seems unfair that in the world of Mitchell, all the people of influence should be on the side of the slavers, so to speak. Kind of cliched, like the gangsters at the door. I mean, maybe it is 'realistic' that people with power prey upon those who have less of it, but the world isn't that unremittingly grim all over. Anyway, I think I'm giving Mitchell an unfair deal. It was a good story. And I liked the way it connected. Do you think that the people were actually supposed to be reincarnations, with the comet birthmarks and all? I thought so, until Luisa, because wasn't Timothy too old to be her incarnation? But then Luisa was the only one actually supposed to be fictional. It was clever how Timothy shouted "Soylent Green is people", and then the next story had Sonmi discovering that she was, essentially, eating Soylent Green. And then I suppose, there were the possibly cannibalistic Morioris too, so it all tied in together, and fits in with the whole people preying on each other theme, though I wasn't particularly thinking of that til just now. But I would read something else by him. Hope I haven't written too much. This is the first time I've ever done one of the reading circle books. I'm in withdrawal because my offline book club is splitting up. Everyone keeps moving away. Hope everyone else liked the book. Look forward to reading your opinions!

 

Annie

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Annie - of course you haven't written too much - you've written your thoughts on the book and raised some excellent points there - I'm sure that others reading the book will be jumping in with their thoughts soon too. (Unfortunately I'm sitting this month out as I'm too snowed under with work and other things, but I shall be eagerly reading everyone's opinions on the book all the same!)

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Got off to a slow start with this book because life kept interrupting (don't you hate that? :smile2:) but now I'm getting into it more and enjoying it. I'm up to the third story; I thought the first one wasn't too bad and I really liked the second story: Frobisher the Composer was pretty amusing :)

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** Don't worry - no spoilers to follow **

 

After three years of thinking "I should really read this", I finally started Cloud Atlas on Saturday. I did start reading it three years ago, but I struggled with the opening section ('The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing') so gave up on that particular occasion. I'm surprised I didn't pick it up again sooner as I'd read Ghostwritten (Mitchell's first novel) previously and loved it.

 

Ah well, but at least I'm reading it now :smile2:

 

Thus far, I'm on page 145 so have read 'The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing', 'Letters from Zedelghem' and 'Half Lives...' and am about to embark on 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish'.

 

As with Ghostwritten, I'm really enjoying this so far: it actually really reminds me of the Ghostwritten, especially with regards to the structure, but I can tell that this is a writer who has developed his skills somewhat since his first novel. There seems to be more of a deliberate juxapositioning of themes, genres, narrative, historical context etc, but the various 'stories' are slotting into each other more fluidly. (I'm being quite vague as I don't want to discuss specific details until I've read the whole novel :))

 

One aspect of Mitchell's writing that I appreciate (and, I believe, has helped him to be embraced by the mainstream reading public), is that he really 'hooks' you into a narrative. Which is obviously key to a novel constructed of numerous and varied narrative. Ironically, I feel 'The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing' is still a difficult passage to start from, and although I became absorped by it eventually, I still think it's pretty monotonous to begin with. (Not that diaries from sea-faring types are normally riveting anyway! So I concede that Mitchell's created a convincing style, lol).

 

With hindsight, I can see why I was put off Cloud Atlas the first time I tried: I think Ghostwritten's first chapter was brilliant and so allowed me to keep my hopes high for the rest of that novel, which didn't dissapoint. With Cloud Atlas, reading the first chapter and distinctly not loving it probably made me fear for the rest!

 

Luckily, I appear to have been proven wrong. Hurrah!

 

Really looking forward to getting on with the rest :)

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I'm at exactly the same place as you PDR! And I have to agree with you about Adam Ewing's diary being a difficult chapter to lead off with. Once I got past that, I began to enjoy the stories a lot more.

 

I'm also trying very hard not to skip to the end stories (the second parts). I hope I don't forget everything I've read by the time I get to them! 'Letters from Zedelghem' is still my favourite so far, but I'm loving the completely different styles of writing. I looked ahead and noticed one story has an awful lot of colloquialism in it - think I'm going to struggle with that one; I don't mind the odd bit of slang but so much of it in one go! :smile2:

 

And a few intriguing questions and connections have opened up that I expect (hope!) will be resolved in the last few stories.

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Because I loved the rest of the book so much, I'd forgotten how tricky it was to get stuck into the beginning of the Adam Ewing journal. But it slowly begins to pick up.

 

PHEW! I'm struggling with the journal too and was worried the rest of the book was going to be along a similar line.

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And I've finally shifted on to the Letters from Zedelghem. Too much work. I want to go on holiday again so I can read more. Anyway, I absolutely love this section. I love the dripping sarcasm and all the comedy in the letters. And, if anyone's also read Black Swan Green, this will be where you first pick up one of those little David Mitchell foibles that I love. I'll say no more, yet...

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I'm looking forward to starting this as I enjoyed Black Swan Green - I've probably got about 2-3 days worth of reading Winter in Madrid (an excellent read) left before I can begin Cloud Atlas.

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I'm now half-way through the book, and reading Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After. As I suspected it would be, it's difficult to read but the story is OK so far. Letters from Zedelghem is still my favourite.

 

The book is a good read, but I wouldn't say I'm overwhelmed by its brilliance or anything :smile2: Maybe I'll change my mind by the end.

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I really liked the second story: Frobisher the Composer was pretty amusing :smile2:

 

I think this was my favorite. Robert was quite a character. With all his faults, I enjoyed his letters, even though they do not always paint a pretty portrait.

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Damn, it's completely glorious, isn't it? I love Frobisher, I love Luisa Rey, I love Timothy Cavendish. I love the way the stories connect, the way that most of them seem like fiction or at least fabrications of the truth, I love the comet birthmark tumbling through. I love the little things, like the fact that the piece Frobisher writes is "The Cloud Atlas Sextet", and that it's the six parts playing together that makes the whole, like the book. I love little things like Timothy Cavendish's whine about post-modern fiction and how he disapproves of backflashes and foreshadowings and tricksy devices.

 

I'm not in the least disappointed so far on second reading.

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Just got past the Adam Ewing journal - was starting to get into it when it ended!:(

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I've finally finished reading Cloud Atlas. I'll just answer the questions for now and maybe add some more general comments later.

 

1. Who was your favourite character and why?

Robert Frobisher, hands down. His letters were comical and I thought he was a loveable cad.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

Letters from Zedelghem was my favourite section (Robert Frobisher's letters). I thought this was the most well-written and enjoyable section. The sections I liked least were Sloosha's Crossing and The First Luisa Rey Mystery. The former was difficult to read and not that much seemed to be happening until the end; I thought the Luisa Rey storyline seemed very cliched (maybe I've watched too much 24 or something!).

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

First book by this author. Undecided as to whether I will read any more of his work; I won't be rushing out to buy every other book he's written.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

I struggled with Adam Ewing's Journal at first. I think I've already mentioned that I thought this was a difficult section to lead into the book. Struggled with Sloosha's Crossing a bit too, mostly because of the colloquial style of the language, and because it was the middle section, it was unbroken so I didn't even get a break from it!

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

Yes, it was. I definitely enjoyed some sections more than others (I guess that's always going to be a problem in a book that's made up of such completely different stories), but I enjoyed picking up on the little 'clues' linking the stories together. I also enjoyed the closing comments of Adam Ewing's Journal/the book.

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Just reached the Luisa Rey Mystery - connections are starting to reveal themselves - really enjoying it and found the Letters from Zedelghem very amusing.

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And now I'm on to Sloosha's Crossing, and I keep spotting loads of things that I don't think I spotted first time. It's not just the Frobisher Sextet, but also a jazz sextet that's playing at the beginning of Timothy Cavendish, and the new year period of Sonmi which is called Sextet, all playing with the fact that it's six interwoven stories.

 

Also spotted that Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is mentioned in both Cavendish and Sonmi, which is probably not a coincidence as we get an "empire" that starts off basic and gets more and more sophisticated bit also more and more bloated before ending up in a new "dark ages".

 

And, again, I love the way that each element is of dubious veracity (or genuinely fictional) - that Frobisher doesn't trust Adam Ewing; that Frobisher himself seems genuinely untrustworthy, that Luisa Rey is clearly a fictional novel, that Timothy Cavendish is in a fictionalised film in Sonmi's world.

 

And, at first glance in the Sloosha's Crossin' section, the Kona compared to the valley dwellers seems to mirror the Maori/Moriori, although I need to read more to be sure.

 

It's so rich and full of great detail, along with having 6 separate great stories.

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OK. So far on the "David Mitchell Characters who've popped up across the novels" theme, I know there are these

 

Eva Crommelynck, in BSG and CA

Timothy Cavendish, in GW and CA

Luisa Rey, in GW and CA

Neal Broase, in GW and BSG

Subhataar, in GW and N9D

 

 

 

 

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Not sure if spoilers are needed here so I've gone the safe route and tagged most of it. I can't put spoilers around quotes but it's in reply to Freewheeling Andy's post.

 

 

Do you think Luisa Rey and Cavendish were fictionalised? I always believed they were real. I didn't really consider it any other way. I suppose Timothy Cavendish's story could have been fictionalised, although I thought the movie that Sonmi was watching was based on his true life story.

 

And I thought that Hush woman wrote Luisa's true story to get it published. Although if it was a fictionalised novel, it would certainly explain why it's so cliched!

 

 

Actually, I've just been looking around the net for various opinions on this, and it seems that it can be taken either way (as you also mentioned). I found a comment on one particular website that puts forward these ideas (in my own words):

 

 

The Orison of Sonmi-451 that Meronym has seems to be real...or it could be a work of fiction that they just believed to be real. The Cavendish movie is supposed to be autobiographical...or it could have been fictional. Cavendish believes Hush's novel was fictional, but it's possible that the story was based on actual events (which is what I tend to agree with). If Luisa's story is fictional, well, the author could still have based Frobisher on a real-life character. And Frobisher has suspicions about the authenticity of Adam Ewing's diary.

 

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I've Finished Cloud Atlas and have mixed feelings about it - I've posted a review in my blog section.

 

1. Who was your favourite character and why?

Luisa Rey - I think because we are given her father's background it sets her up for our empathy and protective instinct.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

I really enjoyed the Luisa Rey Mystery. I don't normally read thrillers and enjoyed being entertained by the rollercoaster ride experienced by the characters of this story. I agree that it is somewhat cliched - I suspect that this is intention - but as it's not my usual genre I found it refreshing to read an adventure. Unfortunately I lost interest very quickly once reaching Sonmi 451 and Sloosha's Crossing - nearly didn't finish the book because of them.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

I read Black Swan Green recently and generally enjoy David Mitchell's writing.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

As mentioned above struggled with Sonmi 451 and Sloosha's Crossing and initially found Adam Ewing difficult to get into.

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

I found parts of it compelling and other parts a real struggle. I think on the whole I was relieved to finish the book mainly because I realised I'd missed out by not reading the middle properly. However I am so glad I gave it a go.

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Having finished re-reading it, it's everything I remembered and more. I suppose it's reasonable that some people will have problems with the stylistic shifts, but that's one of the things I loved about it, the move from slightly effete 1930s letter writer to Korean SF and so on.

 

I think Sloosha's crossing is essential to the book - you need it to be the other bookend in the Pacific to the Moriori and Adam Ewing, the return, almost, to where it started. But really, the two "key" sections of the book are Sonmi and Zedelgem; those seem to be the areas that the other stories spill out from, almost.

 

Arguably, although I loved reading Timothy Cavendish, his is the odd story out, the one which doesn't so much repeat the themes of the others, although his has imprisonment, it doesn't have the slavery aspects at lpay in Sonmi, Sloosha and Ewing; or the Pacific links of Ewing, Sloosha and Luisa; or the unrequited love in Luisa, Sonmi and Zedelgem, and so on. I love the way the themes repeat, not just the comet birthmark, and the particular stories dropping into the subsequent ones. But also the way that Buenos Yerbas is mentioned in Sloosha and Silvaplana Wharf in Ewing; the way that the Prophetess crops up in Luisa Rey, and so on.

 

I love, basically, the way that the book mimics Frobisher's description of the Cloud Atlas Sextet (p 463): "sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe and violi, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is unterrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by the it's too late." I particularly love the post-modern aspect to that, the knowingness of the author.

 

Also, later, on p479, Frobisher continues about the sextete: "Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention, if only one can conveive of doing so."

 

I understand where people will struggle with the book, but I still love it as well as admire the cleverness.

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I really wanted to reread this, but time just got away from me and I couldn't fit it in somehow. Drat.

Some of the sections were slow, to me at any rate, but the best thing was that if you waited a bit and kept reading, the next section would more than make up for it.

I don't think I have read another book quite like it and am very happy to have done so, although I know it'll take a reread to fully appreciate the connections.

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