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20th July
2010
written by Steph

Cloud Atlas is a book that I thought I would never read. I first tried to read it about three years ago when it was selected for my real-life book club. I was really excited, but that excitement soon dissipated when I started to read the book; I just found it torture! The writing seemed overwrought and like Mitchell had looked every word up in a thesaurus only to pick the most obscure option. For those of you not in the know, Cloud Atlas is a novel composed of six interrelated stories that are broken into halves (with the exception of the sixth story which is told in its entirety in the middle of the book). I did not even make it through the first half of story number one, that is how miserably I failed at this book back in 2007. I threw it away from me in frustration at the language and vowed I would never read it because it was an awful book. It’s odd then that given past experiences I should now be writing this review, but how things change in three years! I’ve written that one of the perks of our new eReaders is the ease with which they make looking up obscure words. You just double tap on the troublesome word and voila! A little window at the bottom of the screen pops up with the definition, not at all obtrusive or disruptive, so you can clarify your meaning and head on your merry reading way. Now, I’d like to think that over the past three years of voracious reading, I have in fact become a stronger, better reader, but the ease of looking up words was still a godsend when reading Cloud Atlas this time around. Whenever I encountered words like “peregrination” or “valetudinarian”, no longer did I have to muddle on in a cloud of confusion and frustration, and I think that definitely helped. I had always been intrigued by the notion of a short story collection in which the tales are all interrelated, and so it really did pain me that I had had so little success with Cloud Atlas on my first attempt. I was especially interested by the fact that the stories break halfway through so that they are all nested inside one another; it seemed like a really interesting way of playing with the form and structure of a novel, and just seemed really fun. And it was, although it wasn’t without some hitches. One issue I’ve always had with short stories is that I have a hard time switching gears; I get really involved in a story and then ruminate on it and find it hard to get absorbed into the next one. You can only imagine how difficult it is to jump from one story to the next when each story ends abruptly partway through! Additionally, Mitchell writes each story with a distinctive prose-style and a highly unique voice, so this also contributed to a certain mental whiplash as I read. I would often find myself struggling to focus on the new story at hand, wishing I was still reading the last one, but eventually Mitchell would win me over and I’d find myself absorbed in the current tale. Only to be thrust out of it into a new one just as things were getting juicy! However, Cloud Atlas is a long book, and I think by breaking the stories up this way, Mitchell really keeps his readers motivated to keep plunging onward. By leaving so many narrative threads loose and unanswered, you can’t help but keep reading to find out what happens. That said, I’m not sure that this nested structure was entirely necessary, though I did like how it helped all the stories ultimately feel like a cohesive unit. The stories that make up Cloud Atlas are varied in their settings and scope. The six stories that are told are:
  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, which involves a discussion of religion and missionary work in the South Pacific, as well as Ewing’s trip back to America and his friendship with a seemingly benign doctor. Told in the form of diary entries.
  2. Letters from Zedelghem, an epistolary story, in which a music student takes up residence as an aide to an aging and ill composer in Belgium.
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which takes the form of a thriller novel manuscript and recounts the story of Luisa Rey, and investigative reporter who is bent on exposing a corrupt nuclear corporation.
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which is the story of a publisher who must flee for his life when the gangster siblings of one of his clients decide they want a larger cut of his royalties.
  5. An Orison of Sonmi~451, which is told in the form of an interview and involves genetically fabricated clones living in a future, dystopian Korea.
  6. Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, which takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii and talks about the decay of humanity.
I wound up enjoying all of these stories a lot, with the exception of number 6, which was written in this excruciating pidgin dialect which was agonizing to read. The rest were all really fun to read, and I really wound up respecting how Mitchell was able to take so many diverse stories and have them interrelate in terms of theme. All of the stories look at the issue of the exploitation of man, how societies from the dawn of time have worked to subjugate and profit off of other races and people. Each story tackles this idea from a slightly different perspective and showcases it in a unique way, and it was really rewarding to see this idea develop as the novel progressed. Also, I should say that even though I struggled with the writing the first time I tried this book, this time around, I was really impressed and delighted by Mitchell’s way with words. I thought he developed some very salient visual images, and manages to infuse his writing with a good deal of vitality. Perhaps the quote that resonated most with me is the following:
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
Ain’t that the truth? Glad I finally was able to see this affair to its end, though I’m not sure this is a love that’s truly over. Scanning through my notes on this book, I realize it’s so rich and layered that it’s one I’ll need to revisit in the future as I’m sure there are nuances and ideas I missed on this first pass. And of course, now I’m eager to read some more Mitchell! Any other fans out there with recommendations? I guess the moral of this story is if at first you don’t succeed, it might be well worth your time to try again. Steph of 2007 was sure this was a book she’d never read, but 2010 Steph is certainly glad that she did. I think one of the delights of tracking one’s reading (and certainly this blog allows me to do so in greater depth) is to have a living record of one’s evolution as a reader. It’s really interesting to see how my tastes of refined and sharpened with time, and here now is proof that I’m now capable of approaching and appreciating a book that once had no appeal to me. Have any of you ever had a similar experience of writing off a book only to later find you liked it a good deal? Rating: 4.5 out of 5

27 Comments

  1. This is one of my favourite books so I’m really pleased that you gave it a second chance. I still think about it many years after reading it for the first time, so I hope that it has the same impact on you.

    I haven’t gone back to a book I’ve struggled with yet, but can see a time in the future when I might do that. Congratulations on giving it another go – I hope you enjoy many more Mitchells!

  2. 07/20/2010

    I have had this book on my shelf for the longest time, and have dared not attempt it because I had heard it was extremely complex. Just reading about the style and word choices seems to make me a little anxious, but I do really want to read it because I have heard great things about it. I imagine that if I was able to get through the entire thing, I would probably feel a great sense of accomplishment though. I love that your experience was so much better die to the ability to look up words on the e-reader. Maybe that is the way to go for me as well.

  3. 07/20/2010

    To answer your question, yes, although I’m struggling to come up with an example. Maybe Blood Meridian, which wasn’t so much a matter of disliking versus liking, but simply that I couldn’t stomach it on the first three tries, but was able to read it without too much difficulty on the fourth try. I can also think of instances where the opposite is true, where a book I loved the first time around just does not hold the same magic on the second go.

  4. 07/20/2010

    I really want to read this book, but I haven’t been sure I’ll be so crazy about the interrelated short stories. Your description makes them sound really appealing, though, and now it’s more the language I’m worried about! I’ll have to remember to keep a dictionary or computer handy for the tough words – I don’t have an e-reader.

  5. 07/20/2010

    Wuthering Heights is my go-to example of books I hated on first read but grew to like. I wouldn’t even have read it a second time had I not been assigned it for school, but I’m glad I did–and I’ve since revisited it on audio and continued to enjoy it.

    As for Mitchell, this book has been on my list for years, but I ended up making The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet my first Mitchell, and I do recommend it, although I’ve heard fans say it’s lesser Mitchell.

  6. 07/20/2010

    I would like to give it a try. It sounds tough but as you say you gave it a second go and it worked for you.

  7. 07/20/2010

    @ Jackie: I know this is one of your favourite books, so I was also really glad I gave it another go and wound up loving it too! Finally we’re back in synch! 😉
     
    @ zibilee: I think the eReader helped on two counts: first, the dictionary, which I’ve already mentioned; but second, it helped me focus on the text rather than worrying about the length of the book. I think the text is somewhere near 600 pp, but with my eReader, I never worried about it!
     
    @ charley: I haven’t read tons of Cormac McCarthy, just The Road and All The Pretty Horses. I’d be interested to try the rest of his stuff though and see how that goes for me.
     
    @ Meghan: I don’t tend to love short stories, but I do like the idea of interrelated ones because I figured that might make them more like a novel! I thought they worked really well this way, and Mitchell interweaves the stories so that you’re always guessing at the form which was really cool too.
     
    @ Teresa: Oh, Wuthering Heights. I’ve read it twice and disliked it both times! I don’t think it’s one I’ll revisit just because I’m set in my ways on that one!
    Initially I wasn’t interested in the new Mitchell book, but I just might wind up giving it a try… but I think I’ll spend some time in his back catalog first!
     
    @ Mystica: I think part of what made this tough was my own preconceptions going in. Once I relaxed into the writing, it all went much smoother.

  8. 07/20/2010

    Softdrink of 2007 felt exactly the same as Steph of 2007. I never made it through the first story…and I’ve tried twice. But it sounds like there’s still hope. Now if only I can psych myself up to try it again.

  9. mee
    07/20/2010

    I haven’t read any Mitchell and I really think I should knowing so many people love his books! I have planned to read Cloud Atlas sometime this year as my first Mitchell. Hopefully it will happen (otherwise, next year :).

  10. 07/20/2010

    I’m really nervous now! I’m going to go see Mitchell tomorrow night for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m wondering if I’ll find his writing over my head. I tend to agree with you on a lot of books, so my Trish of 2010 will appreciate it along with the Steph of 2010. Or maybe I’m actually with Softdrink of 2007…hmm…

  11. 07/21/2010

    I usually love collections of interconnected stories that sort of form a novel, so I have high hopes for this. I’m glad it worked for you this time around, and it does make me wonder about books I swore off after a few frustrated attempts, like Saramago’s 😛

  12. 07/21/2010

    I have a bad track record when it comes to second chances with books. I am glad to read a success story–you have given me the courage to try out some abandoned books to see if my opinions have changed.

  13. 07/21/2010

    Wait, are you saying there are people out there who don’t know the definition of “peregrination” and “valetudinarian” off the top of their heads?

    You know, I kind of want an eReader now more than I want the book! That’s a cool feature.

  14. 07/21/2010

    I’m glad you gave this one a second chance – its one of my favorite reads. I think that Mitchell does such an amazing job with each story and the way he intersects them. I read this book after one of my friends couldn’t stop raving about it (and he’s the type of person who never raves about a book) and I absolutely fell in love with the writing, stories, characters and Mitchell. Definitely a great read! Great post, Steph!

  15. 07/21/2010

    @ softdrink: I won’t say that story one wasn’t still a bit of a hard slog at times, even for 2010 Steph, but I didn’t find it nearly as bad this time round. It probably isn’t my favorite story of the bunch in the end, but it definitely is fun to see how all of the stories interrelate.
     
    @ mee: It’s true that so many people love this book, and I think that affection is well deserved. I’m certainly curious about his other works now! I wish you luck with it!
     
    @ trish: I’m sure you’ll be fine! I’m always so envious of all the authors you get to see… Sadly, so few of them make it to Nashville. Sigh.
     
    @ Nymeth: This is definitely a book I can see you enjoying. I feel like you might like the story set in Korea best of all, but I guess you’ll just have to read and let me know whether that’s the case or not!
     
    @ Steph: It’s not often that I necessarily feel the urge to revisit previously abandoned books… I guess it just depends on the reason why I forsook them in the first place! Certain titles I give up because I feel like I’m not in the right headspace, or they’re too challenging for me as a reader, and those I leave open the possibility of revisiting one day. Others I leave and never look back!
     
    @ Eric: No! I’m sure most people know those words since they’re completely commonplace and frequently used… 😉 Also, I didn’t think I would love my eReader nearly as much as I do! I love being able to easily look up words as well as highlight with impunity!
     
    @ Nadia: So glad to hear this is one of your favourites! I think I’ve made a lot of people very happy by finally reading this one!

  16. 07/21/2010

    I’ve yet to read anything by David Mitchell but I have his new book. I will say that it’s great when you can look up the words like that–in hand. I’ve read some Shakespeare online on a site that would allow you to hover over some of the more difficult words and a little box would pop up with the meaning–it made reading so much easier.

  17. 07/22/2010

    @ Danielle: What a cool site for reading Shakespeare! For a first pass through, that would probably be ideal for so many readers!

  18. 07/23/2010

    I also found this a challenging read. His new book is supposed to be more accessible.

  19. 07/26/2010

    Interesting review! I confess I also tried this years ago when it came out and like you gave up in the first story. I thought it was dreadful and I did find a way to get rid of it by giving it away or donating it. I’ve recently received his new book as a present. First I groaned but then I found out its much more accessible so I’ll give it a go and if I like that, I’ll have to try Cloud Atlas again.

  20. Kathleen
    07/26/2010

    I’ve always felt that books will hit us differently depending on when we read them. I’m glad you gave it another go and enjoyed it the second time around. You might read it again in 3 years and wonder why you liked it so much this time!

  21. 07/27/2010

    @ Patti: Yes, I’ve heard from several sources that his new book is less confusing, which certainly intrigues me. I think I might work on some of his back catalog first, but I’m sure I’ll check out his new book at some point!
     
    @ Mrs B. : How funny that someone give you a book by a dreaded author! I’m not sure that I’ve ever had that happen before (knock on wood!)… Since you do have his new book, I think you’re right in giving it a shot. Hopefully you’ll have better luck with this new one!
     
    @ Kathleen: You make a good point! There are a few books where I’ve returned to them only to find the magic of a first read is no longer there, which is always disappointing. I think I prefer to return to a troublesome book and find it much improved! 😀

  22. 07/27/2010

    Mee and I are planning to read this probably in November.. I’m SO glad you loved it.. makes me look forward to it more.

  23. 07/28/2010

    @ claire: I think you’ll like this a lot. It’s the kind of adventure story that is exactly your style! 😀

  24. 07/28/2010

    Ok…you have convinced me! I was just reading the Booker prize longlist and David Mitchell is nominated. I thought I really to have read this author now that he’s popping up all over the place. I was just at the bookstore and they were out of Black Swan Green and Ghostwritten, leaving me with just Cloud Atlas, which I picked up to read a bit but didn’t buy. This might be some oracle that I happened to read your review. I have the same trouble making the leap from one story to another because I need time for the story to saturate. The style of this one is in particular challenging because you’re left in the air, like in If, On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, in which each chapter is the first chapter of a different book. But the point is: I really have to get on reading David Mitchell!

  25. 07/29/2010

    @ Matt: Yes, there is certainly a “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” vibe to this book, but overall I found it far less frustrating and way more rewarding. I never got the sense that anything would be resolved in Calvino’s novel and just gave up on it, but here you know everything does get tied up and there is resolution, and I definitely appreciated that as a reader. I do think it’s a great place to start for those who want to try out Mitchell.

  26. 09/03/2010

    So glad to have found your site (and your review!) our book group has chosen to read Cloud Atlas this month. Actually, it was my choice and I am already starting to hear rumblings that people don’t like it. So far I am enjoying it, but it still is way too early to tell. I am kinda nervous considering I suggested for our group. Oh, well, we’ll see…

  27. 09/04/2010

    @ Monique: Thanks for commenting! I frequently am the person for my real-life book club who picks books everyone else hates, but I’ve made my peace with that… I find they tend to result in the best discussion! I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on this one once you’ve finished it.

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