Tag Archives: David Mitchell

denesteak’s CBRIII #17: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s writing is not the easiest to get through in the beginning. He chooses to write in a style that is demanded of the time period his narrative takes place in – which, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is in the late 18th century in feudal Japan. Depending on whose point of view he’s taking, Mitchell’s prose can range from being frustratingly filled with phoneticized accents to simple, iron-like words with gravitas. But like Cloud Atlas, the language, which will seem difficult (not in meaning but in getting used to) at first, will later be the reason why you continue reading.

To read the rest of my review, click here.


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denesteak’s CBRIII #16: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My friend Emily raved about David Mitchell and recommended Cloud Atlas as a good beginner’s guide to his writing. Now, I went into the book with no idea about what the plot was, so let me just say that the beginning of the book is quite difficult to get through. It’s not mentally taxing to read – it’s just slightly annoying because the first chapter is a journal written by Adam Ewing, an American traveling around the New Zealand islands (I think) that have been colonized, and his writing seemed archaic and awkward to my modern-prose-tuned ears.

But I’m glad I gave myself time to get into it, because this was really kind of an amazing literary ride. Mitchell divides his novel into six stories: Adam Ewing’s ship journey around the Pacific Ocean as seen through his dairy; letters written by an early 19th-century musician who managed to convince a famous composer to take him on as an amanuensis; a thriller following a young reporter as she tries to uncover a conspiracy surrounding a nuclear facility; a hilarious account of an aging book publisher who is accidentally admitted into an old folks’ home and held there against his will; a pre-execution testimony of a clone slave named Sonmi-451; and a narrative from the point of view of Zachry, a tribesman living on an island after the fall of civilization.

To read the rest of my review, click here.

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The Believer 2011 Music Issue (Sara Habein’s review #30/53)

The Believer: Eighty-Second Issue: The Music Issue: July/August 2011
Featuring a CD of new work by contemporary composers, among other interesting things like words from David Mitchell, Nick Hornby, Martha Wainwright, and David Byrne

Anyone who wants to tell me that a magazine shouldn’t count toward Cannonball Read has clearly never read The Believer. Most of the images are small and hand-drawn, and the reading is usually involved. That’s not say it is humorless — sidebar lists like “Members of The Decemberists with Unusual Feet” attest to that — but it’s certainly not like cracking open Spin or People, not to mention there’s considerably less advertising. I don’t have a subscription to The Believer, but I’ve purchased the music issue for the past three years. What can I say; I’m a sucker for publications with a free CD.

Let’s talk a little bit about the CD first. I have limited knowledge of classical music — and by classical, I mean the composers we’ve all heard of like Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, etc — and I know very little of contemporary composers, outside of some who are known for movie scores. It’s not my field of expertise, so I welcomed the mini-education the CD provides. Being a former cello player and a former dancer, my listening was less emotional and more physical. Either I could feel bow movements, or I could picture potential choreography. There’s so much potential performance in many of these songs.

Tyondai Braxton’s “Uffe’s Woodshop,” the disc opener, is mechanically ordered, yet chaotic in a good way. There’s so much going on with all the electronic looping and orchestral noises, but I liked it a lot. From there, we immediately calm down with Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Nausicaa,” taken from her Penelope. YouTube is not all that forthcoming with many of the songs from many of the composers, but this is in a similar vein to “Nausicaa:”

Shara Worden’s vocals are just gorgeous, and I’d gladly take a whole album of this music. And speaking of interesting vocals, Erin Gee’s “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece” (part 3) recalls Björk’s Medulla experiments.

Owen Pallett’s “Scandal at the Parkade,” which combines impressive violin-playing with looping pedals:

And then there’s “Save My Death,” which stems from this:

TIMBERBRIT is a full-length opera starring fictional versions of Britney Spears and her erstwhile lover Justin Timberlake. In an alternate pop universe, Britney’s latest breakdown has propelled her into her final hours. Justin learns of her imminent demise and rushes to her side to profess his undying love. The music of TIMBERBRIT is inspired by incredibly slowed-down versions of Britney’s own songs. Composer Jacob Cooper stretches the tempo to its breaking point, infusing the familiar pop structures with a deranged, nightmarish intensity. Breezy tunes about teenage crushes become statements of mortality and supreme love, much like those common in traditional opera.

That is both ridiculous and awesome, and I love it. Other highlights from the disc include Ted Hearne’s “Snowball” (jazz with strings), Jozef Van Wissem’s “Aerumna” (atmospheric and meditative), and Nicole Lizeé’s excerpt from “King Kong and Fay Wray” (ominous, brief).

Probably my favorite from the collection is Bryce Dessner’s “Lincoln’s March.” Filled with french horns and other muted brass, it reminds me of some of the stuff I used to play in orchestra. Dessner is the guitarist for the National, a band I keep hearing is brilliant, but I’ve yet to check out. I wish YouTube or Vimeo had this song.

About the only song I just flat out did not like was Daniel Padden’s “Ship Sarangi.” I sort of understand what he’s doing with non-traditional sounds and instruments, but it trips all the wrong switches in my brain and just feels like noise. It’s not for me. I’m not super crazy about Tristan Perich’s “Momentary Expanse” either, but I like the title, and if I’m in the right mood, I keep listening when it comes around. Overall though, this Believer disc is well worth the cover price even before one gets to the magazine content itself.

And what of the magazine content? Listen, as soon as I saw that David Mitchell was involved, that was enough for me. The few interviews and one book (so far) I’ve read have made me hopelessly literary-enamored with him. And he’s cute, and sometimes I am shallow.

He talks to Brian Eno, a musician I find interesting, even if he’s more of a background figure in some of my listening. They talk about the evolution of ambient music, inspiration from dreams and otherwise, the variables involved when a person listens to music, how they interpret and feel connected to it, depending on their environment. It’s lovely and fascinating, but this might be my favorite bit:

DM: Novels are palimpsests written over earlier versions, red herrings, wrongly barked-up trees, and still somehow contain the ghosts of the novels that didn’t get written in order for this one, the finished one, to emerge. In a not-dissimilar way, one senses the thought behind an Eno composition — all the paths not taken to find the uncluttered path that is taken.

When I do listen close and hard to your work — as opposed to writing to it — I feel watched. I don’t know where this is going — a confession of paranoia, perhaps! — but your music has a particular hold on its listeners, and we hanker to know why.

1. Fiction writing is often rearranging ghosts, yes — of other books/stories and our histories.
2. The act of listening closely is a bliss that rivals the joy of finding great music to which I can write well.
3. He said the word “hanker.” I thought I was the last person on Earth to use the word “hanker.”

Much like myself, The Believer is fond of lists and bringing together seemingly disparate things together under one theme. There is a whole article about songs that feature the telephone, either conversations on or the noises associated with it (busy signals, dial tones, etc.). As someone who has made lists of songs that all have the same title, or songs that feature clapping, I am familiar with the undeniable categorization urge.

Lists carry over into Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” which have thankfully made a return to the magazine’s pages. For those not familiar, he lists the books purchased that month, and then the books he read. Sometimes the two lists overlap, sometimes not. This time, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester were both purchased and read in the same month. I’ve read his collected volumes of columns, and together they do end up flowing together nicely, in a way that I would imagine a lot of people who write books for a living would manage to do. The trouble with reading a standalone column is that I just end up wanting to read more.

There’s also a great longer article about the unloved bassoon, “The Farting Bedpost.” Writer and former bassoon player Eileen Reynolds wonders and researches how the bassoon became the go-to stand in for clown-like noises and its place as the “Rodney Dangerfield instrument.” Having played in a full orchestra quite a bit, I was aware of how a bassoon could sound outside of “dopey pet food commercials,” but I’d never given it much thought before. Then I remembered that I used to refer to my strange sounding ’88 Volvo car horn as “an out of tune bassoon.”

David Byrne’s conversation with Brazilian musician Tom Zé is fascinating, even if I suspect I might not like all of Zé’s music. Now, don’t hold me to that, as I have yet to investigate, but maybe with my noise sensitivities, I tend to be a bit leery when it comes to someone who has used a floor polisher as an instrument. However, I definitely respect innovation mixed with tradition, and that is something with which both Byrne and Zé are familiar. They get a little technical at times, discussing musical theory and things like “integral serialism” and “radicalize the twelve-tone method,” and I admit it went a little bit over my head. Still, their enthusiasm is infectious, and I particularly liked this exchange:

DAVID BYRNE: Is music taught in secondary schools in Brazil? What kind of music is taught?

TOM ZÉ: Music education has not been a requirement in Brazilian schools for many years. This year it will be reinstated. Some schools already included music in their curricula. For example, the Colégio Construarte, here in São Paulo, has an elementary curriculum for students up to nine years old who receive musical education. They learn about the use of one’s own body to make sound, voice as an instrument, the practice and recognition of rhythms, the identification of rhythms with corporal movement, and the recognition of sounds produced in nature and by instruments. In 2011, musical education will be restored in all schools.

DB: This is great news! Sorry if it is a surprise to be asking about music education — it fascinated me at the moment. Art and writing and other creative endeavors seem to be getting let go of here and in the U.S. at the moment; there are big cutbacks going on. I think it’s particularly sad, as I think it turns us into a nation of art, music, and writing consumers, as opposed to creators. It turns us into passive beings who accept the assumption that others can always make better stuff than you can. Encouraging students to flex their creative muscles doesn’t mean they necessarily have to be artists or musicians, but it opens up neurological pathways — ways of thinking that are useful for all sorts of careers. That’s not a question, I know, it’s a rant. I’m glad to see Brazil is more enlightened in that respect.

Every time I read about the decline of music and arts education in the U.S., it makes me so glad that I have moved back to a school distract that values it. Both of my kids are very creative in their own ways, and I’m glad to know that some form of both music and art are still requirements for students here, all the way through high school. Part of the reason why I played viola for three years, and then cello for four, is that I didn’t want to be in choir. It’s not that I disliked singing — I just didn’t enjoy many of the songs they ended up having to perform. But kids had to be in choir all the way through 8th grade if they didn’t want to be in either band or orchestra, and once high school started, there were a certain amount of fine art credits one had to acquire, but there were a variety of choices that were not solely music-based. Between those requirements and vocational requirements, I feel like kids in the Great Falls School District get a more well-rounded education compared to districts that cut these classes. That’s not to say that they do not experience cuts around here, but the fine arts classes do fare a bit better on the whole and the community is likely to support those efforts.

I also enjoyed Greil Marcus’ column “Real Life Top Ten: A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects,” as well as the interview with Trey Anastasio. I’m not much of a Phish fan, but I find the culture and dedication surrounding the band interesting, as well as Anastasio’s thoughts on creative collaboration:

BLVR: You guys have interwoven music into social life.

TA: I have. I think that’s the truest thing that has been said in this interview so far.

BLVR: There’s no on and off switch.

TA: Yeah, but that can be dangerous. People in my immediate family think I’m losing my mind because I don’t know how to turn it off. I really don’t. As a matter of fact, I’ve been encouraged by my wife and those around me to, on New Year’s Eve, hand over my phone for a month. This is actually something I’ve never talked about before. This what I’ve done to my life. Anybody who comes into my life, I start collaborating with.

To a milder degree, I am married to someone like this. Or at least, to someone who has a million projects in mind.

Just when I think, “Yes, I have covered all that I really liked about this issue!” I remember something else. Martha Wainwright is also interviewed in this issue. My dad was a longtime fan of both her mother and father’s music, and I bought several of her brother Rufus’ albums before her first album came out. Musical families fascinate me, and despite a chaotic upbringing, I think it’s great that they’ve all been able to perform together at one time or another. Martha talks about her mother’s death from cancer, the effect it had on her pregnancy, and the difficulty of writing songs without being able to call her. It’s a lovely, informative interview, and it just serves to remind me that I have some catching up to do when it comes to owning her music.

Is that it? Is that all I have to talk about with The Believer Music Issue 2011? Have I spoiler-ed it plenty already? Have I made you want to buy it and further investigate its content, as the content inspired me to further investigate its subject? Yes? Good.


(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters)

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Carolyn’s CBR Review #45- Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is simultaneously audacious, pretentious, dazzling and frustrating, weaving history, science, suspense, and pathos through six separate but loosely related narratives. Each of the stories is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, and each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book.

The first tale is about a 19th-century American lawyer, Adam Ewing, crossing the Pacific in 1850, meeting Maoris and missionaries, a seedy English physician and some nasty sailors. The second is about a young British composer in 1931, who cons a dying genius into taking him on as his musical transcriber. This narrator, Robert Frobisher, composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet “for overlapping soloists” on piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, “each in its own language of key, scale and color”. Frobisher’s tale is told in a series of letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, who later appears as a nuclear scientist in Reagan’s California in the 1970s. This Californian thriller is the tale of Luisa Rey, a journalist who finds herself in the midst of an ‘Erin Brockovich”-style industrial conspiracy and is at constant risk of assassination. The fourth voice is Timothy Cavendish, a 1980s publisher, imprisoned in an old people’s home. The fifth is the pre-execution testimony of Sonmi-451, a cloned slave in some future state, who has acquired intelligence and vision. The sixth, and central one, is about a young goatherd named Zachry who bears unknowing witness to the final fall of humanity into superstition, violence and war. Each story has a character with a birthmark like a comet, implying that they are different incarnations of the same soul or different forms of the same cloud of molecules (One character notes, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”). They are linked by other artifices – Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s Pacific diary; Luisa Rey acquires both Frobisher’s letters and a rare gramophone record of the Cloud Atlas Sextet; Cavendish is sent “The First Luisa Rey Mystery” by its author; Sonmi’s dying request is to watch an old half-viewed film of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, and Sonmi herself has become the goddess of the Valley Tribes of Zachry.

As you no doubt have already figured out, this book is hard to read and hard to review. I had heard so many amazing things about this book and I wanted so desperately to love it. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I enjoyed the puzzles in the book and trying to figure out how all the stories were connected. It was also incredibly well written, with each story possessing a distinct voice. But sometimes I felt like Mitchell was too impressed with his own writing and too clever for his own good, making the book deliberately difficult. He wanted the novel to be more of an “Event” rather than a book. However, I still enjoyed the book and if you are willing to power through all 600+ pages, you might enjoy it too.


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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is desire. It is sacrifice, honor and poetry. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is humor within research. It is massive in both physical size and narrative scope, and it is a lingering, gratifying read. And despite all these wonderful qualities, I might never have checked out the book had it not been for a Rumpus interview with David Mitchell. I’d heard of him at that point, but I’d never read anything by him. With answers like these, I realized the glaring gap in my reading repertoire:

“Books are made of changes of minds. The actual writing of the book, I’ve found, teaches you how you should have written the book.”


“Possibly novelists are all aliens among natives. We should all wear little signs around our necks that mark us as aliens. It happened a few weeks ago, where I completely lost it and I was sobbing my eyes out. I happened to glance and there was a mirror in the corner of the room. I stopped crying and looked in the mirror—oh, so that’s what grief looks like. That’s something only a novelist would do—or an alien. But to get back to what you said… I would say one must be someone else to a certain degree to portray that character convincingly, his voice and his thoughts. The implication of your question is that one needs to escape oneself. I don’t think that is the case for me.”

Never mind that I rarely read anything that could be classified as “historical” (recent reviews notwithstanding), suddenly I had to read a novel set in 1799 Dutch-occupied Japan. Nestled in the new books section at my local library, all 479 pages called to me. My heart burned beyond a mere hunch — David Mitchell would be one of my favorite authors. I would immerse myself in his words, his world, and I would not much mind the month I spent reading de Zoet. I knew this before I made my way to the checkout counter, disappointment only a faint consideration.

Thank goodness I liked the book, yeah?

For all that we hear about British occupied lands and their Empire during the infancy of the United States, one forgets that the Dutch had their own world domination designs. In Dejima, a trading port in Nagasaki Harbor, the “Zeelanders” have felt their power slip. Populated by deceitful merchants and distrustful Japanese, the people coexist only semi-amicably in order to maintain their respective finances. Amidst them lives Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk to the Chief Resident. During his five year post, he hopes to earn enough money to satisfy his fiancee’s father back home.

When he meets Orito Aibagawa, a local midwife, his visions for the future begin to change. Unsettled as he is by his mental infidelity, he must know this woman. His world is now filtered through the light and shortening of breath he feels in her presence.

Night insects trill, tick,bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubbyhole outside Jacob’s door.
Jacob lies awake, clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue’s root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily, he reenacts today’s scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese, half-Dutch window…
… Glass panes melt moonlight; paper panes filter it, to dust.

Mitchell injects bits of poetry into his prose, and it never feels awkward or ostentatious. When time slows for Jacob and he absorbs the minutiae of the moment, one may find a rhyme scheme or more involved imagery. Between the masterful way in which he threads these literary bits of style and the different points of view, the amount of research involved in writing de Zoet is all the more impressive.

In interviews, Mitchell has talked about the difficulty in conveying an accurate sense of the way people talked, without their words distracting the reader. That early19th century people would say “Gadzooks!” does not matter when the 21st century person will too busy giggling to care as much about why the character exclaimed. Though the more formal overall tone takes some acclimating, the distinct voices from the different characters are never distracting, unless one is busy thinking how good they are.

“Twould bend company rules on private trade, aye, but the trees what survive cruel winds are those what do bend, eh, are they not?”

“A tidy metaphor does not make a wrong thing right.”

But forget about the writing for a moment. Really, it is other writers and reviewers who spend significant amounts of time dissecting the craft. What of the story? Jacob de Zoet may at first be the primary voice one hears, but others are quick to share what brought them to Dejima. Jacob befriends a Japanese interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, a man who finds his work rewarding, though not quite enough to satisfy his longing:

“But Mr. de Zoet may pass through sea gate and away, over ocean. But I — all Japanese […] prisoners all life, who plot to leave is executed. Who leave and return from abroad is executed. My precious wish is one year in Batvia, to speak Dutch… to eat Dutch, to drink Dutch, to sleep Dutch. Just one year…”

Everyone in the port town wants something, and some are willing to lie, while others hold steadfast to their integrity to achieve it. At the moment Jacob decides to make his intentions to Miss Aibigawa known, she is sent away to a mysterious and isolated mountain shrine. The unfolding details concerning the shrine are what make up the meat of the story, and are what propel the pages forward. Yes, there are still concerns regarding the Dutch occupation, and the conflict between East and West, but Mitchell has not written a simple historical novel. At the heart of everything is communication — what we understand about one another, the struggle against the unknown, and what we choose to withhold. Even the more reprehensible characters are fighting their own battles, and while one may not feel the same empathy towards them, their toil is understandable. And despite the seriousness throughout, Mitchell also provides subtle humor — overbearing mothers, card game insults and sarcasm transcend time, really. I invite you all to use the word “cockchafer” at your earliest convenience.

Though I have yet to read David Mitchell’s other novels, I still feel like my favorite has yet to come. That’s not to disparage anything about de Zoet, but for making me love a story I might have otherwise ignored, I can only guess that his more modern settings will leave me lacking in the adequate vocabulary to describe their greatness. This is high and hypothetical praise, I know, but my head and my heart are in agreement.

And on a superficial note, I may be a bit smitten with Mitchell’s author photo shot by Paul Stuart:

All right, I’m a lot smitten, but then, talented, English 40-something men have a way of doing that to me. Does it matter what an author looks like? Not really. We’re the tribe of comfortable pants and inarticulate real-life conversations, after all. But with David Mitchell, it’s one more (albeit small) reason to pick up his books. A bonus, if you will. Get in.



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Jelinas’ CBR-III Review #14: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

black swan green

Why don’t more people talk about this book??? It’s fantastic. It’s like a semi-serious version of About a Boy.

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Jen K’s CBR-III Reviews 1-4

It took me a little bit of time to get on the group blog (I was putting it off due to a slow internet connection), so here are links to my first four reviews.

Drood by Dan Simmons

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

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