Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
This hodgepodge of six stories strands the reader, over and over, in new lands without a map. One, two, three, four, five, six times the stories course from the past to the future, in chronological order. (Later it returns to each storyline again, five to one.) But each story is so compellingly-told that it pulled me along. I wanted to figure out who the characters were, where and when they lived, and what tied all the stories together.

The first section plunks into a 150-year-old South Pacific travel diary. Not a little off-putting is the pedantic pen of the uptight diarist, with his obscure bon mots and taste for foreign tongues. But quickly it gets juicy, with cannibals, gold rush fever, stowaways. The diary ends mid-sentence. New story, new style: Snappy, sassy letters from a young destitute musician conning his way through life. 1930s Belgium. Combination of Catcher in the Rye and The Graduate. Letters to whom? Some friend, unclear who. Round three: 1975, California, a powers-that-be story of industrial greed and hit men. What next? Style shifts, settings jump, plot twists, always surprises.

See A. S. Byatt's review from the Guardian (UK).

Friday, November 19, 2004

Floating Off the Page by Ken Wells
Most newspaper articles aren't worth reading a year later, but book collects unusual articles. They're the A-heds from the Wall Street Journal, weird, wacky, funny, fascinating stories that break the usual reporting mold. How cheaply can someone live on a cross-country trip? A thrifty reporter does it to find out. What's it like for a car show model? Or a belly dancer in Egypt? Again, the reporters go and find out. One scribe writes on folks who talk in only short words, one beat per.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

by Jim Crace
This novel's characters endure self-imposed quantines in hopeless attempts to cure not only their sick bodies but sick minds. Five travellers set out into desolate wastes for forty days of fasting and deprivation, to lead simple lives and purify their souls. But they run up against their own weaknesses and the conflicts with each other and two others they run into on a barren plain. The stupid mind games the characters play with themselves are exactly like what I found myself doing when I was on meditation retreats. Either Crace has been on retreat—or he's just in touch with his demons. In this stripped-down environment, the characters' personalities are laid bare, and it's both comic and disquieting to see people so unmasked.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Bryson is my new favorite author. He somehow manages to dig up all sorts of quirky facts I'd never heard about subjects I thought I knew about. I just finished reading his Mother Tongue on the history and study of English. It was nearly as good as his Short History of Nearly Everything (though this is on science, a subject closer to my heart). I also love how he skewers past pedants and their outdated ideas. Even when they're easy targets, with his light touch it's still fun to read.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
It's no accident the characters in this novel work at a virtual reality company. The book is itself virtual reality. I'm enveloped in the tumult of the lives of two multiples—people with multiple personality disorder. The way one character handles her difficulties reminds me of the guy with no short-term memory in "Memento"—and the book is as engrossing as that movie. Like, when I'm reading it, I'll think I'll just read one more page before I go turn on the music or get some food or whatever, and next thing I know I've read ten pages. It's as if my mind that wants to read is split off from my body and from the minds that listen to music and wander off, contemplating tomorrow. Brings home how in our fragmented consciousnesses we all suffer a bit from split personalities.