Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Susan Cain’s Quiet
August 13, 2013, 8:24 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

quiet

As the sort of person who regularly cancels on dates, happy hours, even running club, because I’d rather sit on my sofa reading and recovering from the stresses of a day surrounded by people in an open-plan office, I expected to love Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Besides being an introvert, I appreciate affirmation that my way is the best way, and was looking forward to 270 pages of hearing about how great I am and also how I can make everyone else realize how great I am.

I got that, sort of. Cain makes a convincing case for the strengths introverts bring to both professional and social situations, and while doing so strives to “normalize” introversion. If 30% of us are introverts, as she writes, isn’t it time for America (despite its extrovert ideal) to embrace us? This was kind of what I wanted: a manifesto on how great I am, and on why my unique skillset/need for quiet space/horror of parties should be valued in a professional setting. Instead, I got a short trip to a Tony Robbins seminar and some meanderings around the science of introversion, ultimately leaving me with the sense that it’s great to be an introvert as long as you work for, and are in a relationship with, someone willing to adjust his or her expectations to suit your personality type.

Was I bringing wildly unrealistic expectations into this reading? Yes, of course I was. I fess up. That doesn’t change, though, that Cain’s book doesn’t quite live up to its promise, in large part because halfway through she loses the thread and shifts into explorations of sensitive types, breaking down relationship communication styles, and how to raise an introverted child. These are interesting in their own way – there were moments in the final chapter, “How to Cultivate Quiet Kids in a World That Can’t Hear Them”, that made me (a) want to cry, (b) appreciate that my parents were pretty cool with me hanging out by myself, reading and writing, and (c) want to hug all the teachers who didn’t force me into dreaded group work – but they read as diversions from the earlier thrust of Quiet, with its focus on introverts in professional settings. What’s more, as an introvert who is decidedly not sensitive, I was thrown by the link Cain attempts to draw between introversion and extreme sensitivity – the sensitivity issue belongs in an article or book of its own, rather than being hidden in the middle of this one.

There are things to appreciate about Quiet, though, and in the interest of time and getting back into this whole book reviewing thing, I list them here:

  1. The introvert quiz on pages 13-14. Thanks to this quiz, I’ve learned that I’m a 16/20 on the introvert scale – just where I would expect to be. I should here note, however, that no one has ever described me as “mellow” and that people never “tell me that I’m a good listener,” although I do carry the introvert’s fear of small talk. It’s online, if you’re curious.
  2. Kagan’s study on “arm-thrashing infants.” Good to know that we’re pretty much set as introverts or extroverts from birth!
  3. All of Chapter 3, on the rise of Groupthink and why groupwork is not all it’s made out to be. As someone who is never able to muster my creative powers during group sessions, or able to think quickly enough to participate in some blah-blah-blah discussion, it’s great to learn that I’m totally correct in thinking that groupwork is the worst. Thank you, Susan Cain, for that: now just please convince corporate America of this.
  4. Parts of Cain’s chapter on acting extroverted are fantastic. As you might guess based on the 30% introvert rate she mentions throughout the book, there are a lot of introverts-in-disguise wandering around – we just manage to put our introversion in the backseat until we’re done with the important work. It never occurred to me, though, that there would be any conflict surrounding this effort to act extroverted, to in essence “pass” as an extrovert. Interesting stuff.

The gist? Don’t read this book if you want concrete advice on how to better succeed as an introvert in America. Do read this book if you want to know that there are others out there just as opposed to groupwork, open-plan offices, all events with more than three attendees, and spending a Friday night anywhere but your own living room, as you are.

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Review: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers
November 20, 2012, 1:37 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

The conceit behind Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is fantastic: the long-awaited Rapture finally comes, decimating lives and families not only because of the sudden disappearance of so many people, but because the people who are left behind are so often the ones who had held some expectation of being raptured themselves. The religious are left to grapple with the meaning of an event that is commonly thought of as “the rapture” but that doesn’t match their own conceptions of what that event should be, while others focus their concerns more on the day-to-day of life without a husband, a child, or in the case of one woman, her entire family.

Perotta doesn’t get too far into the details of the event, the Sudden Departure, which sort of works within the confines of this novel. In other areas, that vagueness becomes frustrating, as some of Perotta’s characters seem more markers of a character type than real people. The Leftovers is a loosely plotted novel with more of a focus on the courses of characters’ lives (or more correctly, in some cases, their emotional lives) than on the political or social events that follow the Sudden Departure. The downside of this is that the social, largely religious, movements Perotta describes, often seem too vaguely realized to warrant serious consideration on the readers’ part. The prophet Holy Wayne, the Guilty Remnant cult, the Barefoot People who in reaction to the rapture devote themselves to the pursuit of pleasure, read more as devices for moving characters’ lives than as actual, explicable, movements.

If there’s one thing Perotta gets right here, it’s the sense of a transitional moment. His characters, by and large, are trying to figure out their lives after they have been so rudely disrupted by the disappearance of loves ones, either to the Sudden Event itself or to the emerging groups like the Guilty Remnant cult, which requires not only that its members stop speaking, but that they cut off ties to their former lives – with the only exceptions coming when they appear to haunt, in a sense, their former families on a holiday.

Perotta’s prose is fairly unadorned and makes for easy reading, and works best with his youngest characters, where he can most easily display that sense of transition. There’s Jill, daughter of the mayor of Mapleton, the town where the novel finds its center, who is dealing with the loss of her mother to the Guilty Remnant and her brother to the prophet Holy Wayne, and whose attempts to find herself are the typical teenager moves of drastic haircuts and ill-advised friendships and romantic pursuits. Her brother, Tom, who drops out of school to follow Holy Wayne, and who then becomes infatuated with one of the prophet’s teenaged wives, spends much of the novel with no clear sense of his direction after the prophet’s fall from grace. The fumbling efforts of Perotta’s teenaged characters to find themselves following the Sudden Departure are believable precisely because they so closely mirror what these characters would be going through anyway. Given the shock of the disappearance of huge numbers of Mapleton’s residents, there’s no real question that the students at the local high school would feel unmoored, a loss of any clear direction in the face of the fact that so many lives were abruptly disappeared.

With the older characters, though, the lack of detail regarding either the event or the underpinnings of the religious movements that spring up in its wake, undermines the plotting. It’s not that it’s hard to believe that an adult’s life wouldn’t be disrupted when she saw her family, or the family of a friend, vanish, but that because the novel is so closely tied to Mapleton there is no real sense of scope. What makes the disappearances these men and women are dealing with different than the deaths of family members in a car accident, the loss of a spouse to an infidelity, a child who moves away and cuts off contact with the family? Perotta’s explanation of the Sudden Departure may be enough for the reader’s understanding, but it is not enough to illuminate so much of what comes later in the novel:

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn’t some ancient rumor – a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire – or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea. (2)

And that is about as clear an explanation of the event as Perotta will ever offer. This lack of detail places The Leftovers into a particular camp of cross-genre writing which treats the sci-fi-ish event at its heart as a jumping-off point rather than as an event worthy of explanation in its own right. I’m not going to deny having a certain fondness for this breed of writing, but its potential for failure becomes so evident in The Leftovers: that by failing to ever explain the Sudden Departure, or even to fully explore why it has such an overwhelming impact on lives not directly touched by the event, Perotta weakens the event that should be structuring and holding together his novel.

The Leftovers, at end, is a fun book, but it’s hard not to finish it with a sense of mild disappointment. Perotta closes with a sense of hope and movement, the idea that people might find a way to move past the event into restructured lives, but with so little exploration of why this event has had such an outsize impact on the social and religious structure of this town – even accepting that such changes are the obvious outcome of such an event – it’s hard to care too much about these characters and their vaguely explored reactions to the event. The Leftovers reads more like a thought experiment than like a fully-fledged novel, with an appealing plot device withering thanks to Perrotta’s apparent assumption that such a device might stand on its own, with no real development or explanation required over the course of the novel’s 350 pages.

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams

Many of Ismail Kadare’s novels take place in a sort of dreamscape, a land between the real world and the world in which myths are taken to be real, in which dreams and stories have a direct influence on daily life. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (which I have not reviewed – this is one I need to reread before discussing) Kadare moves so far into this mythical middle world that it’s hard to gain your bearing as a reader in the short novel. The Palace of Dreams, though explicitly dealing with dreams and myth, is better-grounded in an understandable world, making it a more welcoming novel than Spring Flowers.

The palace referred to in the novel’s title stands during the Ottoman empire, for the purpose of evaluating the dreams of the empire. Branches of the palace collect the dreams and send them on to the Palace of Dreams, where they make their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of sorters and analysts who attempt to find some meaning or hint of the future in the collected dreams. One dream each week is passed on to the sultan; this is the Master Dream, and is taken to be the most important and impactful dream of the past week.

Kadare follows a new employee of the palace as he struggles to make his way through the palace, which is both physically and mentally labyrinthine. Mark-Alem is a member of a well-known noble family that has a storied history with dreams, having frequently been the victim of the cryptic analyses of dreams. In following Mark-Alem, and showing not only how the dreams of the empire touch his family, but how he rises at unprecedented speed through the palace’s ranks, Kadare shows us a sort of everyman. Although Mark-Alem rises to a high position within the bureaucracy, he rarely seems to understand his own interactions with the empire.

As with so many of Kadare’s books, this novel speaks clearly to the time of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania. Here, though, Kadare never overreaches or overstresses the links between the old world he writes about and Hoxha’s regime (as he did in The Pyramid, where ties between the pyramid-building Egyptians and Enver Hoxha’s scheme to build thousands of concrete bunkers around the Albanian countryside were so nakedly pointed out that it was hard to feel Kadare fully trusted his readers), and the Palace as a mental and physical space suggests rather than demands that we use this story as a means of considering the dehumanizing effects of power.

Where Kadare really shines in The Palace of Dreams is in the bureaucratic stylings of the Palace. He nails everything about this, from the way Mark-Alem gets lost in the building even as he receives promotions, to the way that most employees have little sense of what work others in the building do, to the way Mark-Alem appears set up for failure but somehow stumbles through this incomprehensible system. Just see his first day on the job, when Mark-Alem’s boss offers vague instructions on his task, suggesting not only that he has little real idea of what his employees do, but that each dream makes countless directionless loops around the Palace before finally being deemed important or filed away in the basement.

“This is your first file. It contains a group of dreams that arrived on October nineteenth. Read them very carefully, but whatever you do don’t be hasty. If you think there’s the slightest chance that a dream might have been fabricated, leave it where it is and don’t be in too much of a hurry to remove it. After you there’ll be another sorter, or, to give him his proper title, a second inspector, and he’ll check what you’ve done and correct any errors. Then there’s another inspector to check up on him, and so on. In fact, all the people you see in this room are doing just that. So good luck!”

He stayed there another few seconds looking at Mark-Alem, then turned around and left. Mark-Alem was momentarily rooted to the spot, then slowly, trying not to make any noise, he edged the chair back a little, slid between it and the table, and, still very cautiously, sat down. (31)

In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare’s spare prose is the perfect counterweight to the ineffable subject matter. The novel at times verges on farce, as inspectors and interpreters in the Palace struggle to find some meaning in that which may have no meaning, looking to the lives of the dreamers and to past dreams for help in deciphering the images placed in their file. When it shifts from farce to tragedy – when we, and Mark-Alem, see the impact these dreams, and their interpretations, can have on a life – Kadare keeps the novel so tightly tied to the dream descriptions that reality itself begins to shift into a sort of dreamscape. The Palace of Dreams is a gorgeous imagining of the attempt to impose reality upon dreams, and dreams upon reality.

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Siege

Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.

The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.

There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:

He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)

Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:

The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)

There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.

Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.

“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Accident

Ismail Kadare’s The Accident is a brief novel that explores, sometimes obliquely, the ways stories are told, how relationships develop and shift over time, and the life of Albanians following the collapse of Communism. The story centers on the accident of the title, which is detailed in the first of the novel’s three sections. A man and a woman leave a hotel and get into a taxi for the airport. Something happens – something distracts the driver – and he goes off the road. The man and woman are seen in the air, sometimes clinging to one another, sometimes seperate. Both die. The driver survives, but is unable to describe what he saw that caused the accident, other than to say, time and again, that just before the accident the man and woman tried to kiss.

There doesn’t appear to have been any foul play, but because the accident is a strange one it is marked as an “unclassified” type, which gives to it a longevity as Serbian and then Albanian spy agencies come across the file, and later as a researcher opens the file and tries to understand the nature of the relationship between the man and woman. The attention given to the accident is remarkable; as Lisa Hill writes in her fantastic and detailed review of the novel, the novel shows the “excess of agents and analysts with not enough to do after Tito had gone and Yugoslavia had been dismembered.” See how the accident is forgotten, briefly, before being brought back to life by these young Balkan governments:

Three months later, the archivist could not hide his astonishment when the governments of two Balkan countries, one after another, asked to inspect the file on the accident at kilometre marker 17. How could the states of this quarrelsome peninsula, after committing every possible abomination known to this world – murdering, bombing, setting entire populations at each other’s throats and then deporting them – find the time, now that the madness was over, instead of making reparations, to enter into such minor matters as unusual car accidents?

Kadare’s prose here is marked by its opaqueness. When one researcher – the one who provides us much of the lovers’ story, as he can imagine it from reading their letters, speaking to friends, piecing together their movements over the years – details their affair, the language of it is often combative, not so dissimilar from the language of war. Much as the novel centers on and spins off of the central event of their accident, the lives of the lovers Besfort Y. and Rovena St. spin around the collapse of Hoxha’s Communist government, that shared history explaining, for some, their off-and-on relationship. For Rovena St., the end of the dictatorship is imagined as a sort of dividing line, not just between past and present but between the impossible and the possible.

The rattling of the chains dragging the dictator’s statue through the centre of Tirana kept interrupting her thoughts. It was this sound, louder than any earthquake, that divided past from present. Everything that had once been impossible had suddenly become real, such as his invitation over dinner, a week after they had met, to a three-day conference in a Central European city.

As the researcher reconstructs their relationship, Besfort Y. and Rovena St. reference their relationship in regards to Albanian folklore and Cervantes. Mystifying references in their letters to meeting “post-mortem”, and descriptions of their meetings that suggest they have shifted from romance to the relationship of that between a call girl and her client, become easier to understand when viewed through the lens of attempts at reconstruction. Sensing their relationship is coming to an end, the lovers attempt to find some new way of understanding their relationship, a new way of being. This is, as Lisa wrote in her review, not so different from the attempts of new Balkan nations to build themselves after achieving a first or reformulated independence. There are depths to which every relationship is unknown and remains unknowable, or appears differently to each person, as Kadare suggests via the very structure of the novel, in which certain sections are acknowledged to be entirely imagined. And yet, there is also the suggestion that all these things can be tethered to another, older story, that there is a reference point for each and every story, as with Besfort Y’s request for three days’ leave from work, just before his death.

He could not forget what a colleague had said a long time ago, when he first mentioned the inquiry to him. In such cases of law, the English refer to remote history, Muslims to the Qur’an and emergent African states to the Encylopedia Britannica, but in the Balkans they find every precedent with little effort in their ballads. Three days’ leave to carry out a duty, normally something left undone? There will certainly be a well-known paradigm for this.

At end, The Accident is an elliptical and often frustrating novel. These frustrations, though, are coupled with moments of intense beauty. Though Kadare offers no clear guide to his goals with the novel – though there is no real path to understanding the relationship of Besort Y. and Rovena St., or the interest of the spy agencies with their accident, or the interest of the researcher in the couple’s story – he does offer a story that is as gorgeous as it is baffling, as it shifts through time and space and myth in seeking an answer to this couple’s story. That there doesn’t seem to be an answer, that their lives are as enigmatic at the end of the research as they were in the moments following their deaths, doesn’t weaken the novel, but rather serves as encouragement and inspiration to explore it for a second time.

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Readalong: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

After a few failed attempts to read Cloud Atlas, I joined in to this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and The Avid Reader’s Musings. Fun! This week, my thoughts on the first half of the novel.

Last weekend The New York Times ran a review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The reviewer, Douglas Coupland, referenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as an example of a new type of literature that in a single novel crosses huge swathes of time and literary genre. Coupland writes:

This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.

And yeah, that about gets at the heart of Cloud Atlas. I was passingly familiar with David Mitchell’s skill at literary ventriloquism, having read two of his novels, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, before starting this one. Swan and de Zoet are about as different in style and theme and place and time as two novels can be, so that it’s hard for me to imagine the same author wrote them. But Mitchell seems to do it so effortlessly – he seems as comfortable capturing the voice of a clerk living at a Japanese trading post at the turn of the 19th century as he does with a boy watching a neighbor heading off to fight in the Falkand Islands.

The first section of Cloud Atlas is the hardest to get through. It’s a short section of the 1850 Pacific diary of Adam Ewing, so we’re going with the antiquated speech patterns. Mitchell does it perfectly, of course, and by the time the section ends – abruptly, as if part of the diary has been lost – I was upset to see Ewing go. This is a trick that Mitchell pulls off again and again. The first half of the novel follows five stories (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher [1930s, young composer/layabout], Luisa Rey [1970s, journalist for a tabloid magazine, with her first lead for a real news story], Timothy Cavendish [a vanity publisher], and Somni ~451 [a fabricant – a clone – who has achieved consciousness]) and as each story comes to its sudden end – not conclusion, but simply end – I felt torn up again.

I’ve only read half of the novel, so I’m going to hold off making any judgements or guesses about what Mitchell is doing with this structure as a whole. What I’ll say for now is that it’s gorgeous and captivating, and that I totally get, now, why so many people have told me to read this book.

Mitchell connects the segments of the novel loosely. That diary of the first part is found by Robert Frobisher in the library of a composer he’s working for. Frobisher mentions the diary in one of the letters he writes to his friend Rupert Sixsmith, who turns up again as an old man meeting the reporter, Luisa Rey. Luisa Rey’s story appears next as a novel in the hands of the publisher, Cavendish, and Cavendish himself reappears when Somni ~451 describes having seen a film of the story we’ve just read. All the characters express some curiosity for the lives of the characters they read of, and they are also linked together by the prescence of a comet-shaped birthmark they all have. (This comet thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly artful, so I’m curious to see when it will reappear next, and what Mitchell is going to do with this thread.)

The publisher Timothy Cavendish writes:

England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.

That quote is, I think, as close as I can come to organizing my thoughts about the first half of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s characters interrupt and cross into one another’s lives. They seem marked by some sort of mission, by something they’re seeking: Ewing by the history of the Moriori; Rey by the coverup Sixsmith has told her about, that could be her first “real” story; Somni ~451 by the very ideas of consciousness and what distinguishes her from other clones and from humans. So far, though, they don’t appear to be searching for the same things. His characters do, however, take some comfort in the stories that have come before their own, so that a woman like Luisa Rey can read the decades-old letters sent to Sixsmith from Frobisher and find some suggestion of a life, and perhaps some commentary on her own life.

And, you know, that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Discussing books at the midpoint has never been my strong suit. I’m curious where Mitchell is taking things, how he is pulling everything together, and whether it’s going to become more clear (as he says in an interview quoted over at Care’s Book Club) that these characters are all reincarnations of the same soul (which would sure explain why they all seem so drawn to these stories they pick up at seeming chance). But for now, I’m just enjoying watching the writer work with these huge stylistic shifts. Each of Mitchell’s characters is so fully and perfectly drawn, even in the brief spaces they’re allotted, and each of the genres is done so well. As I’m reading, I’m totally aware of the fact that this is a novel – it doesn’t feel like one of those collections of stories clumsily drawn together into a “novel” – but also feel that in many ways, the sections of Cloud Atlas are complete and perfect on their own.

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Review: Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The premise of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is so clever and surreal that it’s hard not to be taken in. A girl, tasting the lemon cake her mother has baked for her ninth birthday, tastes not just the cake but her mother’s emotions. She can barely choke the cake down. After this, she can taste emotions in everything she eats. She stands around the school cafeteria hoping that she’ll be able to pick up food from the lunch lady who adds to her food a solid sort of sadness, becomes a connoisseur of the vending machine, and one day ends up in the emergency room because she is trying to remove her mouth from her face.

Although the premise is presented to the reader with no real explanation, Rose realizes early on that she can’t tell anyone what she’s tasting in food. There is, really, an entire world in each bite that Rose takes, and from the first bite of that lemon cake, the blessing and misfortune of Rose’s gift are clear.

[…] as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down…. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.

What is so horrifying for Rose in that bite of cake is the way her mother seems to be not entirely there – that Rose can taste not just that her mother is sad, but that she isn’t fully present in her life. At eight years old, though, Rose can barely understand what is happening when she eats food, let alone find a way to understanding her mother’s emotions. Although she knows even the most minor details and disruptions of the lives of those around her, Rose keeps her gift – or curse, depending on your view – a secret, only telling her brother and his friend George. Bender’s writing here, with George conducting “experiments” on Rose to test what emotions she can taste, and how accurately she can describe the people making her food, is entertaining but short-lived. George is a figure throughout the novel, though often in the background, but his interest in Rose’s abilities die off, along with the experiments and any hope Rose had of coming to understand herself.

The weakness to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is this habit of Bender’s, of dropping details and stories into the novel but not following through. The text feels unbalanced particularly near its close, when Rose is drawn into her brother’s life and his own hidden talents. Hints about the lives of Rose’s family members are tossed to the reader in rapid succession, suggesting that Rose is not so alone as she’s long felt; but Bender never fully explores the lives of Rose’s family members and what their stories mean in relation to hers. The end of the novel is so sudden that it’s hard not to flip through the final pages, searching for something more than is given us; but there’s only a fading away of Rose’s story, not a conclusion to it.

When Bender’s writing is good, though, it’s very good, almost addictive. By the time the novel ends, Rose’s story has shifted into a traditional coming-of-age story, with her ability to taste emotions seeming not so different from someone else’s talent for writing, or painting, or business. Earlier in the novel, though, Bender does an extraordinary job of parsing Rose’s emotions and her unwillingness to see what is forced before her. Others, like George or a friend she has in high school, might view her talents with admiration, but for Rose they’re more of a curse.

I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will. Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.

Watching Rose grow, and the way she matures – sometimes earlier than she should, thanks to everything she has had to learn, so unwillingly – is fun reading. Bender’s novel may not remake the coming-of-age story, but it does fit itself into its strictures in new and sometimes exciting ways.

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