Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

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This was exactly the book I needed to read right now! I’ve tried to read it before and given up after twenty or so pages, bored by the lack of a story question and disliking the characters. Still, my friends persisted in telling me that it was a great book and I would love it. They were right.

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. His travails with the rough sailors and their captain are somewhat ameliorated by his friendship with a doctor who promises to cure him of his rare disease. From there we move to the story of an irresponsible young composer in 1931 Belgium, who has wasted his inheritance and tricked his way into the home of an aging and infirm yet still famous composer. Then we are on to others, moving forward in time to the present and beyond.

The structure reminds me of “Menelaiad”, a short story by John Barth. As we go further into the nested tales, the sequence of quotation marks increases. Then as we go back out they decrease. I once heard him read the story and he used a flip chart to show the growing series of quotations marks and then flipping back as we came out. I don’t want to pre-empt your own discovery of how Mitchell’s structure fits this story, so will not say more, only that you will not be disappointed.

Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing! Ian McEwan did something similar in Atonement, writing each section in a style that reflects a popular literary style of the period.

Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mitchell story takes things—ideas, trends, prejudices, movements—that we can see happening in our society today and carries them to a logical outcome, with an equally terrifying result. There was nothing in here that made me think, “That will never happen.”

I don’t want to give too much away. I can only tell you that I came away feeling both frightened and reinvigorated. More confident than ever in my path, I set aside discouragement and depression and put my shoulder to the wheel again. Thank you, David Mitchell. I will never forget what you have done here.

Is there a book—fiction or nonfiction—that you’ve read that gave you courage?

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

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Author of over 25 novels, Greene brought his complex view of human nature to whatever genre he chose as his starting place. While he famously separated his oeuvre into serious novels and “entertainments”, he nevertheless imbued even the lightest of stories with a dark undercurrent of moral ambiguity. While he is often called a Catholic writer since several of his novels feature protagonists and themes that are overtly Catholic, Greene took his exploration of moral issues well beyond Catholic doctrine.

This early novel, published in 1945, is a thriller which employs the now-common trope of an ordinary man stumbling into a morass of international intrigue. He has to figure out what is going on while trying to rescue himself (and usually another; oh, and possibly the world).

In wartime London, Arthur Rowe impulsively attends a church fête, drawn by memories of his innocent childhood. It’s a rather sad affair, with few booths, but some of his anxieties are eased as he tries the games. He makes a wild guess at the weight of cake, said to have been made with real eggs, before ducking into the fortune teller’s booth. He ends up walking away with the cake.

It is not an ordinary cake, though, and Arthur is not exactly an ordinary man. He’s been living a half-hearted life in a rooming house since his release from prison where he’d been sent for the mercy killing of his beloved but ill wife.

He is pursued by the people involved with the cake, though he only gradually begins to understand his danger. The kaleidoscope shifts constantly as he tries to determine who to trust and what their motivations are. Even identities shift constantly. The stakes are raised as he is dragged from his self-imposed isolation and begins to care about others.

Greene reflects Rowe’s dilemma in two opposing forces. The first is the Blitz. The nightly bombing raids not only ratchet up everyone’s anxiety level but also continually rearrange the fabric of their lives. Buildings disappear; streets are rerouted. If you turn a corner, the street may or may not be passable. If you call someone, the phone may or may not ring. If you go to their home, the house may or may not be there. People abandon their bedrooms to sleep in shelters.

The second is a children’s book, The Little Duke, by Charlotte M. Yonge, which Rowe also carries home from the fête. In the story young Richard of Normandy becomes the duke when his father is killed. He must learn whom to trust: those who flatter and cajole him or his father’s trusted lieutenants who tell him hard truths. He is betrayed and kidnapped, yet his trials teach him to do what is right; he learns how to be both brave and gentle. Although some of his people are puzzled when he forgives his enemies, they love the little duke for it and support him without fail.

While not didactic, the story is obviously meant to be instructive, with its themes of honor and glory: that maintaining your honor by doing good will bring you glory in war and in the hearts of your countrymen.

Such childish illusions were shattered in the trenches of the Great War, and shattered again for a new generation in the war against fascism that is the setting for Greene’s story. A more nuanced understanding of good and evil is required.

Like Rowe, we are asked to leave behind the comfortable certainties of childhood to navigate this adult world where everyone has secrets and reality is always shifting. As Yonge put it, we must find “the only safe way across the morass, and a very slippery, treacherous, quaking road it was.” The tension that is created between the broken and uncertain present and the sweet simplicity of the past amplifies Rowe’s predicament. And what could be more relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today?

Also relevant is the title, which refers to one way Germans are said to control the fifth columnists working against England in the war. They come up with something on them, forgive it, and then control them with the threat of blackmail. As one character explains, “‘They formed, you know, a kind of Ministry of Fear—with the most efficient under-secretaries. It isn’t only that they get a hold on certain people. It’s the general atmosphere they spread, so that you can’t depend on a soul.’”

These days it is hard not to look around and wonder who is being paid or blackmailed, if the people in power are taking orders from our enemies and selling out their country. Amid threats and firings and lies, we must stand up to the Ministry of Fear that threatens our fragile covenant.

Have you read anything by Graham Greene? He was one of the most popular novelists of the 20th century. Do you find his work relevant to today’s world?

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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As most people know by now, the protagonist of this popular, award-winning novel is Cora, a young slave on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. After experiencing the brutality of Cora’s life there, the reader might think Cora would jump at the idea of escape, but we understand her reluctance when we see how recaptured slaves are tortured. Eventually, though, a slave newly arrived from Virginia persuades Cora to run away with him. He’s made contact with the underground railroad, which contrary to popular wisdom extends into Georgia.

Of course, the real underground railroad did not reach Georgia, so we quickly learn that the author is going to play fast and loose with the truth. Depicting the railroad as real trains running through real tunnels under the ground is only the most famous of the fantasies in this book. Among other things, skyscrapers and the Tuskegee Airmen appear a hundred years early, and the dreams of the American Colonization Society are imagined as having been made into law in North Carolina.

I realise this is fiction and recognise the metaphorical weight of these unreal elements.

Still, I wish the author had added an afterword separating what was real from what was false. It is disturbing that some readers will take much of this as fact. Even worse, given so much that is exaggerated or false, other readers will question the book’s brutal depiction of slavery. There are plenty of people in the U.S. who believe the false narrative that slaves were treated well and were happy in their work. While this is powerfully refuted by the book, especially the part on the plantation, it won’t help if people decide that it, too, is exaggerated.

Many in my book club disagreed with me, asserting that it was fiction so we shouldn’t have any expectation that it would conform with reality. Some also disagreed with me about Cora herself. I didn’t feel as though she came alive as a character. She seemed to me a cipher, deliberately empty so that the reader could imagine ourselves into that space, while they found her distinctly individual and realistic.

If I thought that Cora and all of the other characters could have been more fleshed out, I have nothing but admiration for Whitehead’s world-building. He brought each place and its culture to life such that they still linger in my memory. From the first page to the last, Cora’s life depends on her ability to suss out each new environment she enters, uncovering its secrets, identifying the dangers and guessing who can be trusted. As I traveled with her, I understood a tiny bit better what it must feel like, even today, to walk the streets—and drive the highways—as a person of color. Such an expansion of empathy is one of the greatest gifts of fiction, as I’ve said before.

I thought the book powerful and gruesome. Although I appreciated it more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, I find myself pondering many of its ideas. I think about the alternate forms of communication among the powerless and the fierce hold of an obsession. I think about the great cost of one person’s push for freedom and the stories that we would like to tell about ourselves. I think about the blood and injustice upon which this country was founded.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Life Upon the Wicked Stage, by Grace Cavalieri

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In my memoir classes I stress that there are different reasons for writing a memoir. You can write a memoir as therapy, to help deal with a traumatic event or period of your life. You can write one for your family. I wish my mother had left more than a few pages about her childhood; now that she is gone I wish I knew more about the rest of her life and had a record of her oft-repeated anecdotes. Or you can write a memoir for a larger audience, a story that addresses some larger issue that will be of interest even to people who do not know you.

I go on to say that only the last sort of memoir is eligible for publication, since that is the only one designed for a larger audience. But Cavalieri’s new memoir proves me wrong.

She clearly states on the first page that she is writing “a catalogue of what I’ve done, where I’ve been in my career so our daughters, Cindy, Colleen, Shelley and Angel, will have a chronology.” The chapters that follow are not actually in chronological order or, as far as I can tell, any sort of thematic order. They are brief tales of her professional life as a playwright, teacher, broadcaster, and poet interspersed with memories of her beloved husband Ken and a little about her parents and grandparents.

Why does this family memoir work so well for a wider audience? One reason is that those of us who read, write and love poetry and drama are all part of Cavalieri’s family. In addition to writing many plays, she worked for PBS in the early days of children’s programming, founded and co-founded independent presses, worked as a book editor, and taught writing. Today she is best known for “Exemplars”, her monthly poetry feature for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and for “The Poet and the Poem”, a radio interview program from the Library of Congress. Cavalieri is also celebrated for her unfailing support of poetry and her generosity to other poets (including me, whose book Terrarium she reviewed in “Exemplars”).

Another reason to enjoy this book is her insider’s description of the worlds of drama and poetry, including tales of the poets laureate she’s met and interviewed. I was especially intrigued by her depiction of her early days writing poetry when she had to persuade the 1960’s literary community in Washington, D.C. that yes, a suburban housewife could indeed be a poet.

And the writing itself is reason alone for plunging into this memoir. Cavalieri quickly brings people and places to life. Her straightforward prose carries emotional weight. Best of all, many of the chapters include a poem of hers about the same events or people. She’s the only other person I know of who starts with a poem and may then expand the idea into a prose piece. I will also sometimes go in the other direction: if I get bogged down in a story, I’ll write it as a short poem, an exercise that helps me get to the heart of the story.

As well as many reasons to write a memoir, there are many ways to do so. You can write a memoir, as I did in Innocent, that has an overall narrative arc like a novel. You can arrange your pieces according to themes, as Vladimir Nabokov did in Speak, Memory. You can put fragments together in such a way as to create a mosaic, as Denise Levertov did in Tesserae.

Or you can arrange your chapters in a way that seems right to you. Although I cannot discern a pattern here, I have to say that the chapters flow seamlessly. I especially like the combination of prose and poetry. I’ve seen this done before, but never so well.

I’m glad to know more of Cavalieri’s life and achievements and grateful that with this book she’s shown me yet another way to write a memoir and reason for publishing it.

What memoir have you read that impressed you?