Category Archives: Novels

Time for Summer Reading

Time to read. Summer means many things — long days, hot weather, kids freed from homework, swimming pools and cool lakes and days at the seashore. Crickets (no locusts for us), fireflies, a rabbit in our front yard. Dinners cooked on the grill, lunches eaten in the yard, making homemade ice cream for dessert. Bike rides and kayak trips and maybe a baseball game.

And time to read. I have good work to do this summer (preparing my book on Letters, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, for its publication next spring and finishing up my book on poets) and housework (it never goes away, does it?) and I want to enjoy every moment I have with my kids. But I also want to read every day this summer for at least an hour a day. I spent a wonderful year reading hours a day, the year I read a book a day, but this summer, setting aside a full hour for reading is the commitment I can make. Days when I can read more, great! But every day I will make the space and find the place to read an hour a day.

I plan on reading some new books – Transatlantic, the new novel by Colum McCann, for sure — and I plan on rereading Brideshead Revisited, The Leopard, and a number of novels by Graham Greene. I will certainly read some mysteries and I know that my monthly book chats at Westport Public Library will inspire me with recommended books to read.

SO wish me luck, fellow book lovers, and I send the wishes back to you. May you find the time and discover all the joys of summer reading! I’ll be reporting back on great stuff I’ve read, and please let me know what’s been good for you. Read on!

Summer Reading: Good Times

Summer loving is good but summer reading can be even better! I won’t waste your time with long explanations — I want to give you plenty of hours to spend reading! Add in a little loving when you can, and you will have a great summer.

New Books
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende — a wonderful new novel from the great Isabel Allende, this book will have you crying buckets and laughing plenty, and thinking all the time: how could I survive something like this? what is the purpose of memory? what influences can I bring to bear on the young people in my life? how can I respect and learn from the old people in my life? So many great lines, descriptions, and characters, this is a book to underline and return to, and enjoy down to the very last page.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen — yes, Hiassen is back, as raunchy and wild and incisive and topical as ever. Applying his journalistic eye for detail and his humanistic sense of outrage when things of the planet go way wrong, Hiassen takes on corruption in the Florida Keys and beyond. Never a dull moment and always a great ride.

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan — I won’t guess his true weight but Dad is hilarious. For me, this book was a trip down memory lane, when life among the savages (young children) made me crazy, crazy in love and crazy in every other way. Peanut butter crackers for dinner, anyone? With baby carrots on the side, of course.

Letter to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson — everything I ever wanted to know about ants and more. Inspiring in his enthusiasm, impressive in his intelligence, and engaging in his writing, this book is just the right length (short) and just the right tone (life is amazing), for a weekend spent in a lawn chair watching the grass grow and wondering about the lives teeming within its wildness.

Classics
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins — best book ever. Enough said?
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – decay and ruin, love and food, Sicily and need I say more?

Nature
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating — everything I ever wanted to know about snails and life, and I promise you: this book will inspire and enthrall.

The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – Don’t hate the deer munching on your garden this summer, try to understand them. Thomas will take you to a new place of appreciation of this omnivorous (don’t believe what the nursery workers tell you – if hungry enough, there is nothing a deer won’t eat) creature populating gardens, parks, and woods everywhere.

Romance
The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras – a woman in search of her lost lover, a man in search of meaning in his life (and love), the Mediterranean and heat and sex. Perfect for beach or bath.

My House in Umbria by William Trevor – a woman who writes romances must face reality to save people she loves, and those whom she has just met. Umbria, great food, beautiful old house, heat, love.

Mysteries
Anything by Louise Penny – and a new one coming out this summer! How the Light Gets In comes out in time for Labor Day. In the meantime, read everything else she’s ever written!

Anything by Andrea Camilleri – back to Italy, Sicily this time, with a grouchy detective and a beautiful backdrop and crimes to curl your brain around.

Travel
Fancy a trip to Istanbul but worried about the uprising? Go via any mysteries by Jason Goodwin — you’ll get plenty of the history and the sites to see (the cisterns, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia). Have I taken you back to mysteries? Yes, they are my weakness and if I can combine them with travel….perfection.

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman — this book has aged well; it is never dated, although the politics by now are a bit historical. Never mind, the settings (and the conflicts?) are eternal.

In the Shadow of the Sun by Ryzard Kapucinski – another book by a journalist, the politics are fascinating but the people and the landscapes steal the book – a visit to Africa, up, down, and all around, that you will never forget.

Oleander Girl: Coming of Age

Early in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel, Oleander Girl, the dead mother of Korobi Roy appears to the young woman in a dream, beckoning to her from a bedroom window.  Reading the novel, I felt as if I were that mother, an omniscient presence able to read my child’s mind and also observe the machinations of all the other people in her life: her grandfather Bimal, proud and unyielding; her grandmother Sarojini, kind and patient; her fiancée Rajat, earnest yet conflicted; Rajat’s mother, scrapping and fearful.  Even the minor characters, which still play major roles in moving the narrative along, are open to me, and to me alone. What a frustrated mother I am reading the book, knowing what I know and yet forced to watch my well-meaning but still naïve daughter muddle – and at times charge head on – through the often painful twists and turns that will lead her not only to the truth about her own father but also to the heart of who she is.  Or rather, who she has become: a woman I am proud of.

Korobi starts out young and sure of herself, but it is the confidence of youth and not of experience.  Once she commits herself to finding out who her father was, experiences come fast and furious and Korobi is forced to grow up.  Both at home in Kolkata, where barriers between castes and races are slowly crumbling, and in the United States, where the terrible events of 9/11 have erected new barriers of prejudice against dark-skinned foreigners, Korobi discovers the penalties exacted when barriers are breached, and the rewards.

Oleander Girl is a coming of age novel in the best tradition, with a heroine who is both infuriating and endearing, and most importantly, brave. Having discovered a letter from her mother to her father, full of love but never sent, Korobi sets out on a quest to find her father.  Along the way, she confronts enemies and finds helpers, faces temptation and despair, but in the end, overcomes all to discover what matters most.  What is coming of age?  Coming of age is understanding that the world does not revolve around you; that the world cannot be forced to conform to your version of it; that the adults you revered make mistakes; and that what endures is what you have given of yourself to others.

Korobi’s gift is the effort she makes to resolve her past with her present, and to overcome barriers erected both now and then.  Divakaruni’s gift is story telling, and she is generous with her gift. Through her wonderful novel Oleander Girl, we become active participants in the unfolding of a young woman, and grateful witnesses to the maturing of a child into a woman.

Historical Fiction, Then and Now

I love historical fiction.  A writer takes what is known about a place in time or a character from the past, and then transports the reader further and deeper into what are the blood and guts of the past.  And I mean blood and guts: people and moments in time are brought back to life, bumps, lumps, warts and all.  And, of course, heart and soul.  Any great novel has to have heart and soul.  When a novel of historical fiction succeeds, history becomes as real as what we see out our window, or read in our newspapers, or experience on the street, every living day. We are offered insights into the past that not only deepen our understanding of history, but also of ourselves, the present time, and the promises (or threats) of the future. History does not repeat itself, not entirely, but great historical fiction allows us to repeat history, and what we gain from our time travel can be profound and lasting.

I am not talking about simple approaches to famous figures from the past, like Jennifer Chiaverini’s one-dimensional presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.  I am talking about vivid, complicated, and even disturbing portraits of real life characters, such as found in Peggy Horan’s Loving Frank Loving Frank rendered Mamah Borthwick Cheney in such exquisite detail of internal substance that her awful death hits us almost as hard as it hit Frank Lloyd Wright (and, of course, poor Edwin Cheney); we anguish over the risks, financial, social and familial, taken by Mamah in loving a man not her husband, and mourn the awful price she, and everyone around her, had to pay.

But even more, through Loving Frank, we understand, in a whole new way, the patterns of a paternalistic society that controlled and confined women, and we appreciate the advances forged over the past eighty years to ensure women’s ability to decide for themselves in matters of career, marriage, and divorce.

Searching for a deeper presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, I turned to Tazewell Thompson’s play, Mary T. and Lizzie K., which offers multi-dimensional characters who debate and discuss the nature of friendship, loyalty, and identity.  Thompson creates a rich portrait of the two women and also a profound exploration of what it means to be alive in times that perplex, confuse, and provoke; in other words, in the times we are living now.  When Mary Todd laments the soldiers coming back from Civil War, maimed by the experience of killing and fear of being killed, and confused over why the war was fought in the first place, we understand the trauma borne by today’s veterans. And when she damns the man who invented the first slingshot, we join in her curse and feel stronger in the cause to end wars — for what better way to get a grip on the present madness than by understanding a sliver from the past?  And what better way to do that than through the might of great historical fiction.

I am excited to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and look forward to the insights Therese Anne Fowler offers not only into Zelda’s character but also into the complicated relationship she had with her husband. Zelda has been an object of fascination for me since I was sixteen-years old and first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  I wondered then, and I wonder now, what Zelda’s life might have been under different, less demanding circumstances – how much was her mental illness caused by being married to Fitzgerald, and how much of it was inevitable? Tender is the Night is a kind of historical fiction; after all, Fitzgerald based much of the novel, both its plot and its characters, on himself and Zelda, and the complications and sorrows and joys of their years of courtship and marriage. Tender is the Night is both fiction, and a history, but it was a contemporary history of his own reality. Does that count as historical fiction today?

I wonder if Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then, a novel of fiction based on her present day reality, will lead, in some way, to a novel written forty years from now about the relationship between this writer from the islands and her husband from the Northeast establishment, who meet, fall in love, and fall out again.  Kincaid claims her novel is a work of fiction but she draws deeply from her very real life marriage to Allen Shawn and the life they built together in Bennington, Vermont, which was torn apart by Shawn’s leaving Kincaid for another woman.  See Now Then is, like Tender is the Night was, a kind of historical fiction written in the present.

I read many mysteries set in the past, including the works of Anne Perry, Stephanie Pintoff, and Caleb Carr.  I also read mysteries set in those same time periods (late 1800s and early 1900s) that were actually written in those time periods, including the delightful Father Brown mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton and the classic whodunits penned by Burton Egbert Stevenson, such as The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet.

Those mysteries were written as contemporary fiction but have become historical fiction.  Another favorite collection of mine, the Travis McGee series written by John D. Macdonald, is set in the 1960s and ’70s, and I first read them in the late 1970s.  Rereading them now, the behavior of the characters, and their surroundings — including a southern Florida just starting to be developed — are dated and fascinating, and thought-provoking: where have the past four decades brought us?   In other words, the works of MacDonald have  begun to seem historical….Who knows what the future will bring?

A Love Story

The exquisite novella, Madame Verona comes down the hill by Dimitri Verhulst is a strange fairy tale, a story from long ago brought to present day, in which a wondrous princess finds love, faces death, and never loses faith. And for her fortitude she is followed everywhere she goes by dogs, who both revere her and try to protect her. A long-awaited cello (“more than any other instrument, the cello is closest to the human voice”) plays not beautifully but well enough to bring back her beloved, or at least the feel of him. When she plays her cello, she hears the piano that used to accompany her, played by the man she will always love. “An ensemble that wasn’t, a duet with absence. Talking to the non-existent, which might be the only correct definition of very deep prayer.”

But lest this amazing book sound like a confection of a love story, let me tell you: it is not. This is one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read while also being the least sentimental; it abounds with love, yes, but also with pissing globs of froth, inveterate drunks, deep poverty, and unalloyed loneliness, to name just a few of the less than lovely aspects of the novel — and of life. What endures? “A memory of happiness that, in a more wistful key, could also be called happiness.” Amidst all the ugliness, love. Existing in fairy tales, yes, but also in life: Madame Verona comes down the hill captures both, and beautifully.

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill was originally published as Mevrouw Verona daalt de heuvel af, and was translated from the Flemish by David Colmer.

Coming of Age in Nigeria

A friend recently lent me her copy of Purple Hibiscus, the first novel of a writer I love (and have reviewed here before), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. My friend was born and raised in Nigeria, as was Adichie, and when we first met and discussed books we liked, I know Jumi was pleased to find an American who revered Chinua Achebe and Adichie as she did, and was eager to discover other Nigerian writers.

But as I had never read Adichie’s first novel, Jumi felt it was time to right that wrong, and hence the lending of the book. And what a great book it is. At the heart of the novel is Kambili, a young girl living under the domination of her father, a man publicly revered for his success (he owns several food manufacturing companies), his religious commitment (to the Catholic church), his courage (he owns a newspaper that tells the truth about the ruling government), and his generosity to the communities he is part of (the village he came from, the church he belongs to, the families of his workers).

But with his own family, Achike, Kambili’s father, is cruel and controlling. He abuses his wife and two children, and treats his own father with scorn because the old man remains committed to his traditional religion, deemed pagan and satanic by Kambili’s father. The only one willing to stand up to him is his own sister, Kambili’s marvelous aunt Ifeoma, but even she cannot loosen the grip he holds over his children and wife.

Over the course of weeks, Kambili is taken from the cocoon that was her upbringing (a cocoon with barbs and thorns and pain but also with understood expectations and outcomes) and exposed to a confusing variety of life choices, ambitions, and attitudes. Certainty no longer reigns and Kambili must reconcile her twinned love and fear of her father with her own growing awareness that every person must determine their own path, and not just follow the lead of another.

What is so compelling about the story Adichie tells — a coming of age story, yes, but so much more — is how complex her characters are, how deeply human. Even Achike is not a pure villain, but a damaged man, so eager to live according to rules that will right his world that he wrongs everyone he cares about. Living amidst the corruption that is governing Nigeria, he wants to plot a course that will bring his country, and his family, to a better place. His sister Ifeoma also has dreams for Nigeria, but hers are grounded in education, open thinking, and an embracing of the past while moving towards the future. Other characters in the book present different ways of approaching the question of how to live, and each one appeals in some way to Kambili. But in the end, she must answer the question in her own way, and on her own terms.

The Round House: Truth and Legend

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a stunning exploration of the laceration of pain, the deep bruising and scarring caused by violation. In The Round House, the violation is of a woman and mother: told from the point of view of the son, the impact of the assault and its aftermath on the family is heartbreaking. The Round House is also about the embedded history of violation that is the legacy of the community in which the family lives, and of the Native American experience. Taking, violating, degrading: these verbs apply to the boy’s mother, but also to all of his relations and friends and ancestors. There is a legacy of abuses on display in The Round House and a panoply of pain. But there is also an abundance of love, humor, and affirmation.

The situation of the family following the assault, and the circumstances that led to the assault in the first place, raises the fundamental question of justice. Erdrich explores the question on many levels: the legal question of jurisdiction when a crime occurs on Tribal Land; the moral question of who must act when the law won’t; the Native American question of “Windigo”, the justified response to hostile intentions or evil actions; and the gut-wrenching question of who bears responsibility for protecting love, peace, and security.

Is justice possible? Or is only endurance possible? And if endurance is untenable, what then? Erdrich asks all of these questions and answers them, not easily or prettily or neatly, and not with any finality. But she does answer them with portraits, rich and deep and unforgettable, of characters, landscapes, legends, and histories. The Round House is Erdrich as her very best, a masterful story teller who makes us question our beliefs (what we think is true about justice, government, faith, family) and confirm our choices (this is how legends are made): creation over destruction, love over hate, and endurance over all.

2012 Books and Thanksgiving


Thank you to the authors who make my year of reading — whether it is a book a day or a book a week — a core pleasure of my life.

Pure by Andrew Miller: Set in 1785 France, Baratte, an ambitious provincial engineer, is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, each one so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities.

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton: I just could not put the book down (and this has been true of every Bolton book I’ve ever read) because of its twisting plot (offering surprises at every turn), compelling characters (including reappearances of some of my favorites from past books), fascinating setting (the colleges of Cambridge, England) and the constantly increasing undercurrent of dread and fear. The building of tension and suspense only crested in the very last paragraph, sending me into spasms of relief and then back into the book to reread the last hundred pages all over again.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: This book is a marvel and a gem. It is hilarious and heartbreaking, and it has a message: “Be brave in love and in life.” Jess Walter, himself, is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about dreaming big, wanting more and taking on the world.

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood: This book tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago. As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things as a way to define their meaning in the culture he studied and how such meaning connected to his own way of life. As a man now trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the name of a thing is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that in the end, it is the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.

A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: Penny’s mysteries are wonderful, one after the other. In the latest, the heroic and kind Inspector Gamache finds himself behind the stonewalls of a monastery, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with rich stews, cheeses and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate — good food is always present in a Penny novel). Despite the abundance of gourmet treats, Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish; instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished, where lives are overtaken by the tolls of abuse — and lives are lost.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found striking parallels in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!), but found what he needed: solace in the wild. Strayed was looking for solace, but even more, for restoration: After the death of her mother, Strayed hit rock bottom and decided the only way back to her true and good self was to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. (Some of us read tons of books to find solace and answers, some of us take long hikes.) In making that hike, she filled the hole in her heart and restored herself to sanity and strength.

And what a déjà-vu I experienced in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a book I absolutely loved. Like Kerouac and Strayed, poor Harold has the wrong shoes on for his trek across England, but he doesn’t let pain and blisters stop him. And like Strayed, fictional Harold has a hole in his heart that needs patching up. This surprising man and his lovely story took me by the hand, and then gave my soul a good thumping (I cried buckets!) — thank you for the hike, Ms. Joyce, and I look forward to your next novel.

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam: We can all use gentle and funny reminders of how to be a good friend — and why. Klam serves up her signature wit and big heart, and inspires us all.

And for good e-books, I give thanks for: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell: Set in England just before World War II, sailor Ben Clayton, committed pacifist, finds himself involved in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up and murder. This book satisfies sailing buffs, history fans, espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn; and…

No One Knows You’re Here by Rachel Howzell: Syeeda, the reporter at the heart of the novel, is a modern-day heroine, complicated and smart and tough, who discovers that a serial killer is on the loose in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Based on the Grim Sleeper killings that occurred in L.A. in the 1980s, No One Knows You’re Here is about crimes that go unnoticed (committed against the underclass) and heroes that go unsung (journalists and writers), providing not only a great book but a sharp jab in the shoulder: Are you paying attention yet? After reading this book, you most certainly will be.

Succumb to Hell or High Water

On the seventh anniversary of Katrina, Hurricane Isaac threatened to hit New Orleans hard. Miles away, safe in my Northeast home, I settled in to read Hell or High Water by Joy Castro. My decision was not deliberate, but it proved to be appropriate, with New Orleans herself playing a main character, and Katrina lurking as the villain who changed everything. The story of the city parallels the story of the human characters in Hell or High Water: men and women who have faced their own villains and came out violated, damaged, and scarred for life. Can they reach a stage of recovery, as perhaps New Orleans has, where those scars are almost medals, proof of courage shown and resilience proved from deep within? Hell or High Water gives me hope for both for the city and her inhabitants.

Hell or High Water is a great book, not only for introducing me to New Orleans beyond her usual beignet and Bourbon Street confinements, but also for offering a realistic, moving, and deeply human story about trauma, resilience, and recovery. But that’s not all: Hell or High Water is an edge-of-the-seat thriller, a page turner with so many twists and hidden clues and sudden light beaming down that I have already reread the whole thing, eager to find the early indicators of the great surprises launched by Castro at all the key points of the book.

History book, sociological study, criminal analysis, love story, thriller, and immigrant epic: Hell or High Water has it all, and Castro does it all so well. Running through all the linking lines of storytelling is her main question: What is the nature of trauma (whether it be slavery, forced emigration, rape, floods, or confinement), and how can scars be softened, if not erased? It is up to Nola Cespedes, ambitious young reporter for the Times-Picayune, to form the question and attempt an answer, not only for the assignment she is given but for her own sanity.

The assignment given to Nola, one that might finally jumpstart her career and get her off the lifestyle pages, starts out as a simple inquiry into what happened to the 1,300 registered sex offenders who went off the grid when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Where are they now, and who is in danger? Nola quickly realizes that the story runs so much deeper than numbers and fears: It is a story of how predators are made, how victims survive, and how hope is ignited, often out of very little material, for recovery.

As Nola gets deep — too deep? — into her investigation, another story sweeps the city: A young woman has been kidnapped in the light of day, snatched from a restaurant. Fear runs through the Quarter, as this is the third case of kidnapping, with both previous victims found days later, raped and murdered, and washed up on the banks of the Mississippi. Nola feels in her gut that the answer to who is carrying out the brutal rapes is within her grasp — but to make the grab and nab the bad guy will take an act of bravery and faith on par with the saving of New Orleans, an act forceful enough to bring the dark into light, and the afflicted to comfort. Hell or High Water is a marvelous novel and a stunning follow-up to Castro’s 2005 memoir, The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I have read and reviewed numerous books on the subject of surviving Hurricane Katrina, including the deeply moving collection of first-person accounts collected in Overcoming Katrina, edited by D’Ann R. Penner and Keith C. Ferdinand. Hell or High Water now joins the shelf of exploration, a welcome addition and a great read.

New Fav Author: David Mitchell

Over August vacation, I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’d started it back in the spring but the first section of this partitioned book put me off, telling as it did the story of a traveler in the far reaches of the Pacific sometime in the eighteenth century (as best I could figure out where I was). The story was a good one but it was not until I entered the world of Zedelghem sometime in the early twentieth century that I fell deeply and completely into this marvelous book.

It was then I realized that the book is not partitioned but rather composed out of various movements, set in different periods of time, past, present, and future, and incorporating travel journals, romantic tragi-comedy, techno-eco thrillers, and science fiction. By the end of the book, I had met up once again with Adam Ewing, my traveler from the beginning, a man now changed by events happening to him and around him, and most certainly a hero, although not one looking for any kind of recognition as such: when accused by his father-in-law of being a worthless dreamer and told “only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”, has the wisdom to understand, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

As much as I admired dear Adam Ewing, my heart was captured by the rascal genius Robert Frobisher, a composer and musician and sensualist, who understands the vulgarity of seeking immortality (but wants it anyway) and the necessity of making music: “one writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.” And I also fell hard for Luisa Rey, smart and tough reporter, and for Timothy Cavendish, aging publisher who gets into a terrible situation, and also for the clone Sonmi-451 — in short, all of Mitchell’s characters captivated me, much as all his tenuously but beautifully connected plots engaged and entangled me.

What I love most of all about Mitchell’s writing, both in Cloud Atlas and in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is how keenly he understands human nature, both its foibles (from sorta bad to really evil) and its fathomless well of potential goodness, in the forms of compassion, caring, and connection. He is a really, really smart writer, clever and rich in his writing, and profound in his observations, but he is also an optimist: we are all just drops in the ocean, but what a beautiful, beautiful ocean it is.

BTW, Cloud Atlas the movie is coming out in October of this year.