Thursday, November 15, 2012

While You Wait for Cloud Atlas

I fell in love with Cloud Atlas when I saw the new movie adaptation. So of course, being a Ravenous Reader, I greedily devoured the book it was based on, by David Mitchell. I'll admit, I had some trouble getting into it on my first try, but this time around, it had the best of both worlds, with all the cleverness of literary fiction, and all the fun of genre fiction. While you're waiting for your hold to come in, you might want to check out some similar books and movies, or peruse the list of recommended background reading to catch its literary allusions.

When I walked out of the theater, I thought: "This is the movie of A Swiftly Tilting Planet I've always wanted!" That classic by Madeleine L'Engle, part of the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, also spans millennia, showing through telepathy and, yeah, okay, a magic unicorn, that people's actions and obsessions have repercussions that echo across centuries in surprising ways. Although it's written for a younger audience, many adults (including myself!) still count this series among their favorites. Like Cloud Atlas, it has a lot of layers that rereading can reveal.

Read on for more:
  • My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares is another time- and globe-spanning novel about reincarnation, with a more romantic focus and more approachable style. This author is better known for her children's books, but this one's quite adult.
  • If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino is also split into fragments told in very different literary styles. Its self-conscious intertextuality is a good preparation for Cloud Atlas, when characters in each section comment on the previous section.
  • Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie also traverses different countries and characters in a complex plot.
  • A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron is a lighter reincarnation story, of the canine variety.
  • Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin is a very original and refreshing take on the afterlife. It's a teen book that doesn't have much in common on the surface with Cloud Atlas, but I found its themes and voice resonating in very similar ways. Here's my review on the teen blog.
  • The Red Violin and The Fountain are movies that make good "watch-alikes."
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons is a challenging sci-fi novel with a structure somewhat reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales: seven pilgrims come to the Time Tombs and share their stories, as they risk their lives in a desperate quest.
Since each section of the book is told in a very different style, I'm going to split the recommended background reading into sections, too.
  • For The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a grounding in both the literary celebration and deconstruction of colonialism is helpful. Kim by Rudyard Kipling and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe provide perspectives from both the colonists and the colonized in India and Nigeria, respectively. Or how about rereading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, or Jonathan Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels? You might also be interested in reading slave narratives.
  • For Letters from Zedelghem, told in epistolary format (that is, letters written by one character to another; sadly, we never get to see the other side of the correspondence!), try Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, or the works of Virginia Woolf (especially the time- and gender-bending Orlando). Or try the epistolary novels whose inhuman characters' humanity echoes throughout this book: Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (and all their reimaginings over time and media formats, as you'll see when you search our catalog). If certain less-than-ethical moments pique your interest in book collecting, check out Patience & Fortitude by Nicholas Basbanes. One of the characters in this story also quotes a lot of Nietzsche
  • For Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, check out Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and Three Mile Island by J. Samuel Walker for historical context on the environmental stakes of the mystery Luisa Rey's investigating, as well as the thoughtful book she was named after (another book of interconnected stories!), The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
  • Since The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is written in a narrative style reminiscent of Martin Amis' more broadly comic work, he might be a good author to try. This section also references The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, and the movie Soylent Green, which was based on Make Room, Make Room! by Harry Harrison; these will resonate in the stories set in the future.
  • For An Orison of Sonmi~451, take the opportunity to revisit dystopias that you might have already read, like Brave New World and 1984, plus trying We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (an overlooked Russian novel that predated them). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is a quirky book that describes a religion based on empathy and the competition between humans and robots for scarce resources in a mostly ruined city. The teen book House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer follows a young clone across what used to be Mexico and Texas, with a lot of intellectual depth behind the fast-paced plot. For insight into the clash between corporations and the union at the center of this chapter, try brushing up on your Marx and checking out Studs Terkel's oral history anthology, Working. The bleak, gory reality of fabricant existence also echoes The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
  • Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is probably the most challenging section to read, since it's told in a slang reminiscent of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. We have a lot of great books on linguistics if you're interested in finding out how languages change over time in the real world. Some must-reads for wrapping your brain around this section's post-technological society include many of Ursula Le Guin's Hainish cycle (her recent Changing Planes is a good place to start), and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. If you're curious about, you know, pre-apocalyptic Hawaii, I recommend Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell  -- its musings on colonialism also might inform your reading of the Adam Ewing section.
Finally, you might be curious about these books that give a clue to the philosophical underpinnings of the movie and book, respectively: A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber and Gรถdel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

What did I leave out? Did you spot more references, or think of something perfect to give context to one of the sections? Or did you just find the book and/or movie pretentious and confusing? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Happy reading,

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