Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cloud Atlas

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Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Year: 2004
Genre: Science fiction/short stories
Rating: 1

Articles of life that we barely understand are sometimes the most beautiful. Those great mysteries that we realize can never be solved attract us over and over throughout our lives, preying on the backs of our minds, nagging, wondering. How is it that we cannot put them out of our minds? We know they have no answers, and never did, but some little part of human nature says that we cannot help ourselves. It’s better to wonder and never know than to be forever incurious.
Cloud Atlas is that balance of curiosity and answer, like echoes down a long canyon, leaving us to wonder if there really is a source at the other end. Woven artfully through difficulty and oppression, all of the characters of the book are victims of some heinous thing, but all heroes by their own spirit. Even if their stories end ingloriously, the meaning still stands, and that fact is the whole point.
            Summarizing David Mitchell’s abstract work is a bit like trying to make a Da Vinci out of cat’s cradle. So many different pieces pull against one another and seem separate, but are still knots on the same rope. We follow, more or less, a stream of consciousness on its path through six different lives, watching and guessing how they impact and change one another through the upheavals of time. From earthy, grounded Adam Ewing on the Pacific in the late 19th century to an unspecified, post-Apocalyptic Hawaii, Mitchell leads us along his twisted storyline of broken lives, and we wonder what anything means for the first 300 pages. And then, like a ball that’s made its weary way to the top of the hill, we slowly unwind to the bottom in a rush of emotions and revelations that both end our wondering and launch it into a new stratosphere.
            Mitchell is not only a literary master, but also clearly an outright genius. The organization and ingenuity it took to engineer the crisscrossing, complex, interlocked lives chronicled in Cloud Atlas would make the average novelist dizzy, let alone the invention of the unique structure. Formatted like a series of short stories, we are cut off at crucial moments and left to wonder for unnervingly long page numbers. For instance, we part ways with Adam Ewing after 39 pages and don’t meet him again until 475. If Mitchell were an average writer, we would hardly care for any of his characters by the time we see them again, but thankfully, he is not.
            Mitchell is renowned on both sides of the pond for his vivid imagery and evocative characterization, much stemming from this novel. With remarkably few lines, he attaches us so firmly to a person that never existed and never could (e.g. clone Sonmi-451, an artificially grown human that becomes sentient).
            Another feat of writing is the center segment, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Everythin’ After.” Written in a pidgin English style that evokes Brer Rabbit, Mitchell flexes his imaginative and technical muscles, detailing a world completely foreign to us in language difficult for us to understand. Somehow, it comes out clear and endearing, and that alone earns him a star.
            Another star comes for the sheer beauty of the ending. Many modern authors have lost the ability to move their readers by the sheer beauty of their prose, but Mitchell clearly feels deeply about the written word and the power it can bestow. He uses the last, poignant moment to reflect on what it is we are, summarizing the novel in one way and in another dispersing it.
            In essence, Cloud Atlas tells the story of what we mean to one another. Just as there is no way to accurately summarize a life, there is no way to summarize them all. We study, we learn, we pull meaning out of the past and apply it to the present, but each second creating a past that will only be changed in the future. The truth of history is what we make of it; the truth of the human experience is what we are.
            Mitchell delivers us this observation in an airy package full of printed sounds, black and white colors, and souls wrapped in words.  Something undefined fills the karma that he implies—that no matter if we live alone, feel alone, and die alone, as long as we are alive, we are never truly alone.
            Cloud Atlas is available on the Kindle for $11.99, or in paperback from Amazon for $12.98. This is not your average light weekend reading, nor is it pure entertainment—no, this book requires your attention and consideration as the pages turn. It was recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, and I have not seen it yet, but I cannot fathom how the screenplay runs. I’ll have to watch it just for pure curiosity as to how it flows.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Dark Lord of Derkholm

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Title: The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Year: 1998
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 1

Everyone has one of those silly books that they're incredibly attached to. Something about it just stirs your heart, and even if the language is simple and the concepts basic, you laugh every time and read it again and again. For many people, these books are those like the Harry Potter series; for others, it's The Enchanted Wood.
The Dark Lord of Derkholm is mine. And it's not because I read it when I was very young; in fact, I picked it up off a neglected bottom shelf at my small town library when I was 15 because it happened to be next to Howl's Moving Castle, which I was reading in preparation for the animated film. Something about it snagged my attention, and I proceeded to read it twice before I had to return it. I ordered my own weatherbeaten paperback and have read it at least twice a year since.
Diana Wynne Jones, who has a knack for bringing a sense of humor to the genre of fantasy, has created a world with charm, wonder, and intrigue. Derk, a homely wizard who creates unique animals (e.g. daylight owls, pigs that fly, and intelligent griffins) finds himself pegged to play the role of the Dark Lord for the Pilgrim Parties, tours that annually come through Derk's world and make a proper mess of everything. Derk and his people are contractually bound to play along, pretending that their fairly well-developed world is a medieval waste living in fear of the Sauron-like Dark Lord, and the Pilgrim Parties each think that their role in their tour is to kill him and liberate the world. However, as Derk scrambles to put his life aside to perform the role, other wizards work behind the scenes to end the Pilgrim Parties forever.
We meet dozens of hilarious, colorful characters, such as Derk's family, which is composed of his wife, son, and daughter, and five griffins he has mixed with human cells "to make them people," as one of them explains. Each one behaves just like a peevish human teenager, and Derk's relationship with each of them is heartfelt. By the end of the story, we've nearly forgotten that they're griffins. Jones also presents ordinary domestic stresses to the story, weaving them neatly in with the magic of the world, creating a believable family with believable problems.
Oftentimes, fantasy writers are so caught up with creating their worlds and developing the science, characters, and plot, they lose their voices as storytellers and become mere documentarians. Jones skilfully paints her world with so many joyful details, kingdoms, and stories that we are dazzled from the beginning; add her dry, subtle sense of humor, and you have a masterpiece. She masterfully satirizes the fantasy genre while adding an unforgettable piece to it.
Derk is, of course, the man around which the entire novel whirls, but Jones easily transports us to and fro across the world to catch up the most important pieces of the story without losing us along the way. Communicating stress in a novel can be a dangerous thing (you don't want your readers to become too stressed themselves to keep reading) but Jones does it playfully, yet strongly enough to induce her audience to pitying our favorite wizard. Derk is just a harassed, unfortunate man, and yet a symbol of strength and steadfastness; just what a father should be. And yet, everything goes wrong.
Jones's main point in the story is to remind us how very little we are in control once we give ourselves away. Sometimes, giving up control can be a good thing, like submitting to those we love; however, sometimes it can be so easy to just give in to those who want control, and for the sake of those we love, we cannot stop watching for what is best for our world. The end does not justify the means; collateral damage is necessary, but people's feelings must always be considered.
Maybe this novel doesn't change the earth, but it worms its way into your heart, never to be forgotten. With lighthearted love for that world, readers of every age can enjoy The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its manifold virtues. At any rate, it's worlds better than your average R.A. Salvatore novel. All of Diana Wynne Jones's novels satirize fantasy, but this one does it best.
The novel has no conclusive ending, but in the mood of the story, we don't miss it. Life goes on. Its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, was published in 2010; I have yet to read it, but be sure I'll get around to it.
Because this novel is quite old now, it's available in most book stores, or on the Kindle for $6.64. Or, if you want a printed copy, it's available at Barnes and Noble in paperback for $7.99, which I recommend. Pick up one from your library if you can, but if not, it's worth the purchase. It's pretty bloodless and devoid of serious swearing, so kids can enjoy it. That is, once their parents are done with it.

Monday, January 7, 2013


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Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year: 2010
Genre: Teen/thriller/sci-fi
Rating: 2

The end of a series is supposed to settle the readers' minds, even if it's not a happy ending. We want to see our heroes reach a resting place to nurse their wounds and work their way toward happiness after the battle is over.
But for a hyperactive, ADD plot like Mockingjay's, concluding is synonymous with death. Had Suzanne Collins not committed to a trilogy, she would have probably drawn out Katniss's story for another two books or so, and if it would have helped to pace this novel better, she would have been right to do so. As it stands, Mockingjay reads like twenty climaxes smashed together to make a jarring, heaving, ponderous plot laced with gratuitous gore and little meaning. The only thing that keeps us going is an attachment to the central characters.
At the beginning, we find Hunger Games victor Katniss Everdeen broken, bruised, and confused after her dramatic rescue from the arena and removal to the mythical District Thirteen, which resembles some kind of industrial distopia. Katniss chafes at the rigorous rules of her new home and at the expectations placed upon her to become the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion now seizing Panem. For the past two years, Katniss's presence on national TV has been sparking these seeds of discontent, and now the rebels see her as an icon of hope, of defiance. All she wants to do is go back to District Twelve with Gale Hawthorne and her family, but her home has burned to the ground, her friends either dead or refugees, and Peeta Mellark in captivity in the Capitol.
Katniss, besides being faced with the decision to be the face of the revolution or not, is also faced with that omnipresent question of romance: her best friend Gale, or her fellow victor Peeta. As the violence spins more and more out of her control and she begins to question her own dedication to the cause, the world exerts more pressure on her and on her fellow soldiers, driving their war to the bitter end.
The most interesting thing that Collins does with the idea of revolution is the PR face. Katniss is by no means the great general that the rebels need to command them; she is merely the symbol that they all recognize to keep fighting, and the hard-hearted president of District Thirteen is set on using her as propaganda to propagate her war. The executives of the movement tape clip after clip of Katniss and her team to indoctrinate the people, constantly considering her behavior and how it will affect mass opinion of the war. Katniss knows this and feels ill-used, which is the most complicated emotion in all the books that Collins puts forth: are the deaths of all the people she encourages Katniss's fault?
When it comes to sheer surface entertainment, the Hunger Games series is unrivaled. Loaded with suspense and danger, Mockingjay keeps readers on the edges of their seats and guessing until the end, the plot careening down a wildly twisting path until the conclusion. And it is twisting: any sense of restraint that Collins felt about her violence is suddenly stripped away in her third installment. The first two books were graphic, but there was always a subtle hint of reluctance to kill characters that we had grown attached to. Not so here. Just like her characters, Collins seems to have driven herself to the edge and held her ground strongly enough to kill off rebels that she had written extensively about. This lends the story a feeling of reality-- revolutions are horrifyingly bloody, and many beloved people die every time. It would have been laughable had all of Katniss's allies made it through unharmed.
Oh, do the parallels of the evils of socialism continue. District Thirteen is an eerie shell of Soviet Russia, with toe-trampling rules and over-the-top punishments for tiny crimes. Freedoms are restricted to the bare minimum, and the people don't seem to mind. Only Katniss and Gale, the brave champions of freedoms, are willing to defy the rules of the overbearing society, braving the anger of the ruling powers for the general good.
However, that's the only real parallel. The surface entertainment is about all the value available in Mockingjay; Collins awkwardly skirts around any pithy topics, even if she has set up a perfect situation for them to be explored. One theme that appears over and over again is the question of what it truly means to kill another person. She repeatedly mentions this struggle in Katniss's thoughts throughout all three books, and yet after roughly 1100 pages, we still don't know what it really means. Death after death goes by, and the only one that really comes close to touching that question is Rue's death in the arena in the first book.
(On a side note, does Collins really think she's being clever with her Latin? Maybe for a monolingual society she is, but seriously, I saw the Rome parallel before I even read the book. She didn't need her whole Panem et Circenses bit. Plus, Avox is a really pathetic attempt. When the characters think 'hijack' is an archaic word, how on Earth do they know enough Latin to name various things?)
The most disappointing part of Mockingjay is the ending. With all this colorful, thrilling writing under her belt, one would think that Collins could piece together a conclusion worthy of the characters that she has spent so much time developing, but we're left with a twenty-five page slop that is like staring at grey wallpaper with grey patterns on it. Sure, she's trying to portray a fog of grief, but the writing should induce tears of sympathy, not boredom. Even the epilogue is arbitrary and pointless. The bare facts of how the story ends are sort of bittersweet and touching, but change in pace drops us like a stone into the cold water of the book being over. Something tells me that her publisher was pushing her toward a deadline and she had to crank out an ending.
Altogether, the Hunger Games tells a beautiful, terrible story, filled with characters we can believe in images we won't forget. Perhaps the meaning is meant to come from us as we read. Collins has provided us with a beautiful wilderness of story; it's up to us to make it mean something.
 Mockingjay is available on the Kindle for $5.99, or in hardback from Amazon for $9.86. Because the Hunger Games is such a book of our times, it's worth a read, but don't go in expecting deep thoughts. Consider the series a light weekend thing, but definitely don't read it to your kids. It's a little graphic even for adults.