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“Cloud Atlas” By David Mitchell

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Do you remember the first time you encountered nesting dolls? You saw an ornately painted wooden figure and picked it up out of curiosity.  Then you noticed a crack running through its midsection.  Puzzled, you pulled both halves apart to find another, smaller wooden doll on the indside.  You repeated the process again and again, until finally you were left with a tiny replica of the original figure, and the disassembled parts of the larger dolls.  Next, you put the smallest figure into the one that was slightly bigger, and so on, reversing the process until you are left at the beginning.  You weren’t quite sure of what exactly the purpose of the nesting doll was until you had reached the center, and returned to where you started.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a literary nesting doll.  The book consists of six novellas.  The first five novellas stop mid story.  When you reach the six novella, there is no interruption in the plot.  From there, the stories pick back up and finish, but in the opposite direction.  To put it simply, if each novella were assigned a number, the structure is: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1.

Each of the novellas has a different genre within itself, but the overall book is a complex exploration of religion, science, philosophy, and reincarnation.  The unifying theme is a comet birthmark, which makes its appearance in each story on one of the characters.

The message of the book, which is that we are all connected by time and souls that float from one body to the next, becomes obvious as the reader progresses from one novella to the next.  Each novella is fairly weak when examined apart from the other novels, but perhaps this was an intentional strategy.  Like a nesting doll, you need to read the entire book to fully appreciate the message.

My biggest critique of the book was that the delivery of the moral lacked the literary punch I was expecting.  Perhaps Mitchell was trying to achieve too much in this behemoth that his main message was overwhelmed by sub-meditations and revelations.  I found myself wondering what exactly he wanted the reader to take away from this ambitious novel.  It was only after I watched the movie and couldn’t fall asleep that night that I realized: if anything, this book makes you think.  There I was, lying awake at night, trying to decipher all of the complexities and subtleties and finding myself going around in mental circles.  I can’t remember the last time a book has affected me in this way.

My recommendation to readers is to watch the movie after reading the book.  Even for the seasoned bibliophile, this book is complicated and seeing the action on screen helps in peeling away the layers of the story.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars for being thought provoking, but falling short of delivering a novel, mind-blowing message that it promised.

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Sci Fi and Horror Short Stories…Oh My!

Last week I wondered whether I was becoming a literary masochist.  Between the two volumes of short stories I read, I bounced between being horrified and depressed.  All that influenced my reading choices however was that both of the authors happen to be my two favorite novelists.  With that, let me dive into the scary one first:

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Night Shift by Stephen King

Just when I think that King can’t frighten me anymore and that I’ve read enough of his work that I know what to expect from him, he shocks me again.  Though some of these stories have ties to his other novels, such as Salem’s Lot, The Stand, and Christine, there is plenty of new horror to experience in this anthology.  Many of his short stories in this book have been made into movies, such as Children of the CornQuitters Inc., and The Ledge.  

Just as he does in his novels, each short story starts out slowly, with characters surprisingly well developped given how condensed the action is, and by the time you start to notice the goosebumps rising on your arms, the climax whacks you in the face and you suddenly feel yourself shifting uncomforably in your seat.  King is a master of what I consider to be the key to creating good horror: he takes a seemingly normal situation you would feel comfortable in, then turns the plot completely around, making you realize no one is safe and evil can lurk anywhere.

Best story in the book: it’s a tie between Graveyard Shift and The Ledge.  Graveyard Shift is terribly frightening for any one who has even a sliver of disdain for rats.  The Ledge is less scary but is suspenseful and has one of the greatest literary twists at the end.  It will have you on the edge of your seat, pun intended.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

After I read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury became one of my all time favorite authors.  Although I am not a huge fan of science fiction, he uses the genre as a way to promote his warnings about humans and violence and our dependency on technology.  In that way, his books are powerful and dreamlike.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of short stories with an encompassing theme: in the prologue a man meets a tattooed carnie in Wisconsin.  Each tattoo tells a story.  Following are the stories that are pictured on the tattooed man’s body.  Many of the stories are about space travel, Mars, and aliens.  The sub plot in these novels is about how advances in technology have caused man to become isolated, either physically or mentally from others.  The other main theme is the generation gap between parents who hold onto old traditions and books, and the younger generation that embraces technology and distances themselves, again physically or mentally, from their forefathers.

This anthology is sometimes depressing, sometimes scary, but overall thought provoking.  It never ceases to amaze me that Bradbury warned us of a world of people dependent on technology and passionate about violent media in the 1950s, before TV had become ubiquitous.

Without a doubt, the best short story is The Veldt, which is about two children who live in a smart house.  They come to love their nursery, essentially a room completely composed of TV screens, more than their parents.  This story is completely terrifying and makes you question your own dependence on techonolgy.  If you aren’t a fan of science fiction, I recommend you at least read The Veldt.  

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

I was trying to articulate why it is I love short stories so much.  The fact that you can read them quickly is, of course, a plus, but the reason goes deeper than that.  David Sedaris said: “A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” I don’t think I could explain my sentiments better than that.  Great short stories, such as the ones I’ve talked about in this post, have done just that.  They achieve what a great novel does in a fraction of the pages: leave you dizzy, unoriented, and somehow different.

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Filed under Fiction, horror, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Short Stories