Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell--first impressions

There's just about the right amount of time to get in a quick initial post on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Hailed as one of the best books of the last decade on a variety of lists, and popular with the more literary minded of our staff when it first came out, it's one of those books that I long planned to read but never quite got around to. But last month I did manage to convince my book group to read it, which is my way of bumping a book right to the top of my To Be Read pile.

As we got a bit of a late start this time, one of our members asked if we might do this one as a two parter and everyone agreed. Don't read on if you don't like even the structure of a book to be revealed ahead of time, but in fact this is actually a perfect book to read in halves. The novel is actually six separate stories, which nest inside each other, so that the first half of the book is the first half of all stories and the second completes each of them. Concentric rings is one way of looking at it.

Having just finished the central story--central in a physical sense but not, I think in any sense of importance, I feel as baffled as ever about what the intent of the novel as a whole is. I trust that there is a whole, and I trust that Mitchell's structure is intentional, but I am not quite so convinced that I will figure out what those intentions are myself. Whether this is particularly important, I don't know.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I am not all that fond of linked or not so linked stories as a way of putting together a novel. I particularly have a hard time with stories or even series where you get invested in a set of characters and then find yourself jumping into the future where you suddenly are dealing with a whole new cast of characters. An example of the type would be Zoe Heller's The Believers, which begins with a scene in London where two characters meet and fall in love and jumps in very short order to a time near the end of their marriage, with the husband in a coma and life unraveling or at least changing for his wife and children. It's actually a very good novel, but I missed the development of those early days all through the book. This isn't a flaw in the writing, though. This is a shortcoming or at least a preference in me. Still, I might not be the only one.

The Cloud Atlas has been an interesting test for me in this regard. These are six very different strands of life and even genre and yet Mitchell was able to recapture my attention in all of them. He is obviously an extremely gifted writer, not just capable of mimicking any style he sets his mind to, but of at least seeming to have the expertise and breadth of knowledge to put across the backgrounds of these worlds without flaw. And even my problem will be addressed by bringing all these abruptly cut off stories to closure in the second half. But there is a risk that all this cleverness actually works against the reader's experience to some degree.

Because once you know that the writer is going to break the story off, isn't there just a little less engagement with it as a result? Isn't there some sense that the guy's just messing with your head? It's one thing when you have the rug pulled out from under you the first time. But when you can look ahead and see that it's going to happen at least four more times, doesn't that do something to the degree to which you immerse yourself?

Put another way, isn't it hard enough for any reader to sustain disbelief long enough to enter a story without having the author whispering in your ear all the way that it isn't real, I'm making it all up, don't get too comfortable? I know that some readers do like that experience--they want to share in the writer's experience of constructing fiction, they want to be in on the trick. Well, for better or worse, I am not really that reader.

I will add that Mitchell does not actually, in his heart of hearts, appear to be that kind of writer either. I don't know if he personally gets invested in his characters, but he certainly makes it possible for you to invest in them. The distancing does not come from the stories, it comes from the structure.

It will be interesting to see if anyone else in the group tonight has this problem with the book. Initial reports have been favorable.

I shall report back.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Crime Fiction Curriculum Challenge from The View at the Blue House

Thanks to DJs krimiblog, I learned of Rob Kitchen's Classic Crime Fiction Curriculum Challenge. He's asking anyone interested to make a list of ten significant pre-1970 crime novel still worthy of our interest. You can post a list over on his blog, or, if you're like me and are always needing to add content to your own blog, you can post it there and then email him the link.

Anyway, I welcome the opportunity to list some of my favorites. Here they are, in no particular order:

1.) The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Somewhat out of fashion just now, but Rinehart's mysteries are the real deal. There's always a big house and a nostalgic glow.

2.) Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
Hughes wrote noir when women when women weren't expected to. This one takes the main characters down into Mexico.

3.)Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
Her early Albert Campions were a bit like inferior Peter Wimseys, but she wrote much more complex stuff as her writing matured. Tiger in the Smoke is one of the best. London is almost another character in this one.

4.)Hamlet, Revenge by Michael Innes
I love novels with allusions to Hamlet, and Innes, the psuedonym of an Oxford don, is one of the best and funnest of the type.

5.)The Moving Toy Shop by Edmund Crispin. Another don writing mysteries under a psuedonym, his books are especially clever and comic.

6.)Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. People often cite Tey's Daughter of Time for it's wonderful historical research, but the rest of her books set in her own day are pretty wonderful too. This one centers on a young man pretending to be the missing heir to a fortune.

7.)Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare, yet another psuedonymous British mystery writer, but this time a British judge, not a don. His mysteries turn, naturally, around points of law, but the writing is very engaging.

8.)The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton's Gorse books are reminiscent of Highsmith's Ripley books, but with their own flavor.

9.) The Underground Man by Ross MacDonald. Finally, an American who bothers with a psuedonym! MacDonald's Lew Archer novels are in the same tradition as Chandler's and Hammett's. One thing I like about them is the metaphoric and mythic structure that shows through them. It's an interesting mix with the at the time very contemporary Southern California settings.

10.)The James Joyce Murders by Amanda Cross. Just realized that Cross's early Kate Fansler mysteries slip in under the wire of that pre-1970 stipulation. Cross, aka scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, used her mystery series to explore issues literary, academic and feminist. She was didactic in the best sense of the word.

That's it! Got a list? Put it together and let Rob know about it before January 31st. Now's your chance to get some of your favorites out there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My plans for the 2010 global reading challenge

I have realized belatedly, that, having linked to the 2010 Global Reading Challenge, I ought to make a brief list of my intentions to fulfill it.

Doing the easy challenge as I am, it's going to be a pretty short list, and very subject to change:

South America:
I think this has got to be Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

North America:
I think this will have to be Canadian rather than from the U.S., for the sake of expansion. Luckily, I think I've suddenly thought of just the one--Michel Basilières and his novel, Black Bird, recommended by Canadian crimewriter John McFetridge.

I decided to avoid England, Ireland and Scandinavia for this challenge, as I seem to do quite well finding books without prompting in these countries. It looks like the book is going to be French writer Fred Vargas' This Night's Foul Work, for the simple reason that I have already started to read it.

Not sure on this one. I'm leaning toward finally reading Peter Temple's Broken Shore.

I'm thinking of breaking outside of the crime box and reading Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy for this one.

I'm pretty sure I'll go for Deon Meyer's Dead Before Dying.

One book at a time, though. One book at a time.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge

I just realized that this is as good a place as any to make mention of Dorte Jakobsen's 2010 Global Reading Challenge, which is basically a challenge to broaden your reading a bit in the new year.Take the easy, medium or expert challenge, and then plunge right in and read books from all over the world. The idea is to review them on your blog or website or whatever as you go, but if that sounds intimidating, just remember that a review can be as simple as "I liked it".

A lot of the folks doing the challenge will be reading crime fiction, but don't feel limited to that if it's not your thing. I probably won't be sticking to that myself.

At first I thought it was just the challenge itself that was intriguing, but what will really be intriguing is the accumulation of reviews and recommendations.

What are you waiting for? Hop on over and have a look.