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  • Jeff Somers 9:30 pm on 2017/01/10 Permalink
    Tags: all the missing girls, , cloud atlas, , , huh?, megan miranda, story of your life and others,   

    7 Novels With Chronologies That Will Break You 

    We all love to be fooled. Some authors take this a little further than others. While all narrative is trickery in a sense, there are books that mess with the fundamentals of time and space so thoroughly, you have to open up a spreadsheet in order to figure out the timeline. Since our sense of cause-and-effect is so essential to our sanity, this messed with can be an exhilarating experience—which makes the following six books mind-bending literary achievements.

    All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda
    Miranda takes a typical thriller plot—a crime from someone’s past seems to be repeated shortly after she returns to her small hometown—and twists it into something amazing by telling the story backwards. The opening sets the premise: a woman named Nicolette returns to the town where her friend disappeared 20 years before. Her circle of friends fell under suspicion, but the missing girl was never found and no charges were filed. Shortly after Nicolette’s return, a girl disappears in a similar way. Then the story jumps ahead fifteen days and is slowly told backwards. The end result is so tense, you can barely stand it.

    Good as Gone, by Amy Gentry
    Taking its cue from the horrific story of Elizabeth Smart, Gentry’s new thriller tells the story of a 13-year old girl, Julie Whitaker, who is kidnapped from her home while her younger sister cowers in the closet. Eight years later, Julie suddenly returns, telling a grim story of abuse, rape, and other horrors. The question of whether this really is Julie is up-front—but is clouded by the reverse chronology Gentry employs, and a series of first-person accounts by women and girls who may or may not be Julie or someone else. Gentry uses this technique to explore what makes us us, the very nature of identity—and the result is thrilling, if challenging on the first read-through.

    Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
    Amis crafts a story about a man living in reverse, beginning with his death and spiraling backwards to his birth. This seems straightforward enough, except the narrator is a distinct, separate entity from the protagonist, and the narrator is…confused, and seemingly unaware of the true sequence of events. It can take the reader some time to figure out what’s happening—especially since conversations are also reported in reverse. That the character was involved in the torture and murder of Jews at Auschwitz slowly brings to the fore the theme of the ability of a movement like Nazism to distort reality, where truth is lies and brutality actually heals. If there was ever a novel you need to immediately read a second time, this is it.

    Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
    Heller’s brilliant novel has a surprisingly complex treatment of time, made even more challenging by the huge cast of characters and the zero amount of hand-holding he offers. Characters frequently refer to events the reader hasn’t yet witnessed, and the heavy doses of contradiction and irony muddy the waters further. The tone also shifts, beginning in absurdity and comedy and slowly drifting towards a final section that’s much darker and more violent. What seems at first to be a series of comic vignettes slowly coalesces into a narrative—but only if you’re paying close attention.

    Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
    The short story that the film Arrival is based on offers one of the most surprising and affecting uses of a complex chronology in recent years (spoilers follow—seriously, don’t read this if you haven’t yet seen the movie or read Chiang’s excellent story). Interspersed with the account of a linguist’s mission to decode the strange language of aliens who have arrived on Earth are thoughts of her daughter—which initially seem like memories, implying a tragedy. The reality is tied to her epiphany regarding the alien language, and changes the whole tone and message of the story in a brilliant twist that will stick with you.

    Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
    Cloud Atlas is structured as nested stories sharing reincarnated characters, either repeating the fate of their previous selves or rebelling against them. The characters’ souls undergo various transformations as the timeline advances—but that advancement is difficult to follow, as each story is interrupted at a key moment, at which point, the next story begins—until we get to the sixth, central story. From that point on, each of the first five stories is continued, finishing each narrative. The connections between the stories go far beyond the characters, making this one of the densest and most complicated narratives of all time, a structure the movie version couldn’t even begin to replicate.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    One of the most complicated novels in general has the sort of timeline that isn’t exactly obscured, but becomes so tangled and complex that people are still arguing over certain scenes based entirely on what characters are described as wearing. In short, the story begins at the end, snaps back about a year, and never actually bridges events to the end that was the beginning. In-between is a huge cast of characters who seem to move about in the background like NPCs in a video game, their actions sometimes not evident until many, many pages later, when you may very well have forgotten all about them. You may enjoy Infinite Jest, you may think you understand it on some level (or many levels), but you will never be able to completely untangle its chronology.

    The post 7 Novels With Chronologies That Will Break You appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2015/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: cloud atlas, , , , , gravity's rainbow, , , , , , , reading resolutions, , , the gulag archipelago, the name of the rose, , , , , ,   

    10 Books You Should Finally Read in 2015 

    Umberto Eco's The Name of the RoseLife’s not getting any easier—and neither are these books. While there’s nothing wrong with reading a brisk spy novel or a weepy romance or a horror novel you have to put in your freezer at night in order to be able to sleep, you know you’ve been avoiding certain novels your whole life. Time to put on your grownup pants and tackle these tomes—and here’s how to do it.

    Ulysses, by James Joyce

    Relax. Ulysses is challenging, but it’s not nearly as challenging as some of Joyce’s other works (did I hear someone scream “Finnegan’s Wake!” in the distance before bursting into tears?). The trick here is to stop trying to comprehend every specific reference to Dublin in 1904 and just get into the rhythm of it. In other words, don’t study Ulyssesread it.

    The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

    The opening chapter of this novel is one of the hardest to crack in fiction, but the secret to The Sound and the Fury is in the fact that all the information you need to figure it out is right there in the story. The trick? Remember that if you take away the technical virtuosity and literary technique, what you have left is a rip-roaring soap opera about a family destroying itself.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

    The real challenge of Infinite Jest may be its gonzo science-fiction universe. With wheelchair-bound Québécois assassins, years named after consumer products, and women too beautiful to view safely in full daylight, Infinite Jest takes a while to acclimate to. The secret here is to view the book not as a heavy work of literary genius, but as a roiling comedy that uses its ridiculous setting and details to craft a series of darkly hilarious set pieces.

    Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

    Moby-Dick has the distinction of being perhaps the most well-known novel no one has read. Its reputation for 19th-century density and complex language makes it fearsome. The trick to Moby-Dick? It is hilarious. There are more dirty jokes in this book than you can shake your peg-leg at (see what we did there), and the whaling stuff? Absolutely thrilling, once you get used to the rhythm of the language.

    In Search of Lost Time (aka, Remembrance of Things Past), by Marcel Proust

    Yes, In Search of Lost Time is easily the longest thing you’ve ever declined to read. What’s remarkable about it is the depth of the personal—you do get the sense of accompanying someone on a sense-memory exploration. The key here is simple: This book is about many things, but chief among them is sex. Start looking for the dirty bits, and before you know it you’ll be in the middle of volume three.

    The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Rambling, complex, and filled with lengthy philosophical detours, this novel is pretty daunting. But rather than being a dour, endless novel, The Brothers Karamazov is a raucous tale of drunkenness, murder, and lust. The trick here is to stop trying to catch every detail and just enjoy the main stories: Mitya’s and Lyosha’s. If you understand what happens to them, everything else falls into place.

    Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

    It’s time. You’ve been avoiding Gravity’s Rainbow since you were a kid. You’ve been avoiding the endless symbolism, the encyclopedic puns, and the faint sense that Pynchon is pulling our legs. But this is a book you can’t dismiss unless you’ve read it, and it’s time. The trick—as with all of Pynchon’s work—is to stop thinking of the book as an awesome piece of serious literature and just enjoy it as a silly farce. This is, after all, a book that includes a bit about a man whose erections may predict rocket attacks on wartime London.

    The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    The language of this book even in translation isn’t complex, and the story it tells isn’t symbolic. The difficulty lies in the subject matter; it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could experience—and survive—what Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners did. The trick here? Every time you finish a page, wiggle your toes inside your slippers and sip something nice and simply be happy it’s a book.

    The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

    When approaching this book nervously, from an angle, you’ll hear some fairly alarming terms, like semiotics or deliberate mistranslation. Fear not! The trick with this admittedly dense and fascinating novel is simple: It’s a murder mystery. Let everything else hit you subliminally, and just concentrate on enjoying the story at its most primal level.

    Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

    Cloud Atlas has the difficult novel trifecta: A shattered timeline, an invented patois, and a story involving several sets of characters in completely different time periods. The trick with Cloud Atlas is that it’s like reading seven novels all at once. There is a theme, and a point, but ultimately what this means is that if you’re confused or bored or mildly alarmed by what you’re reading, just muddle through—a new story will begin shortly.

  • Joel Cunningham 6:00 pm on 2014/09/02 Permalink
    Tags: , , black swan green, cloud atlas, , ghostwritten, , number9dream, , the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet   

    With The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell Reinvents the Novel—Again 

    David Mitchell's The Bone ClocksIn reviewing The Bone Clocks, the newest novel from David Mitchell, Publisher’s Weekly asked, “is this the most complex novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” It’s easy to confuse the two, as Mitchell has made his career asking a lot out of readers. From the start, his books haven’t skimped on the tricksy techniques: multiple narrators, shifting timeframes, metafictional musings, mix-and-match genre tropes, and prose that shifts drastically in style from chapter to chapter.

    Despite all the writerly showing off, though, his work feels confoundingly effortless, to the point that it’s kind of hard to imagine he’s just one guy, writing, arguably, masterpiece after masterpiece. Take The Bone Clocks, out today, which, over the course of six interconnected, decade-hopping short stories, reveals the strange life of Holly Sykes, an ordinary girl with an extraordinary destiny involving a in-the-shadows struggle between powerful immortal forces that shape all of society. The book is not only incredibly ambitious on its face, but also apparently a lynchpin in some kind of “David Mitchell Multiverse,” revealing connections and recurrent themes that inhabit all of his work. In particular, one key character previously popped up in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which, you may recall, was set about 200 years before the start of The Bone Clocks.

    If you’ve read Mitchell before, you’re used to this sort of thing. With each book, he reinvents the novel, or at least, the David Mitchell Novel, as is made clear by a quick review of 5 earlier works:

    Ghostwritten (1999)
    Right out of the gate, Mitchell’s debut bucked convention, trading a linear plot for a sequence of 9 shorter first-person narratives, each set in a different location with a different cast of characters, which are connected through events that could be called coincidence but might also hold a deeper meaning. More than that, it muddies the genre waters, incorporating elements of science fiction and the supernatural. It’s a ragged take on themes (and structural choices) that Mitchell would revisit again (and again), but an undeniably arresting debut; even when it doesn’t quite hold together, it proves he’s a master of pretty much any narrative voice he chooses.

    Number9Dream (2001)
    Mitchell lived in Japan for a number of years, and to call his sophomore effort an homage to Japanese literary superstar Haruki Murakami would be an understatement. In both story (a young man’s search for a remote father figure) and structure (intertwining a linear narrative with chapters that illustrate a concurrent, imaginary metaphysical journey) it recalls The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (and even, somehow, Kafka on the Shore, which was published a year later). It also includes an example of the author being perhaps too cute for his own good—there are nine chapters (hence the title), but the last one is blank.

    Cloud Atlas (2003)
    Mitchell’s breakthrough work is so structurally complicated, you practically need a paper and pen to adequately map it out (a fact that caused raised eyebrows when the film adaptation was announced, though said eyebrows were quickly lowered when the movie wound up basically ignoring the blueprint of the novel). Short stories that break one another in half like a steppe pyramid tell more or less separate tales (with settings that range from hundreds of years in the past to the far future) that nevertheless resound with echoed narrative melodies—signs, symbols, and themes. It’s a book both beloved (for its genre-hopping ambition and gorgeous prose) and written off (often by people who see no point to all the hopping about in time), but it’s a definite must-read landmark of modern literary history.

    Black Swan Green (2007)
    Even when he’s penning a thinly veiled roman à clef about his own childhood struggle with stuttering, Mitchell manages to keep you on your toes. This story is set over 13 months in the life of 13-year-old Jason Taylor, a shy, emotional kid growing up in the titular working-class English town of Black Swan Green in the early 1980s. Each month is given its own chapter, and though a whole definitely emerges, the parts are beguilingly incomplete, reading like isolated short stories with indeterminate endings, anecdotes intentionally delivered without a punchline.

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2011)
    This one is the outlier, an ambitious, deeply rewarding historical novel set within the confines of the only foreign trading post to Japan on the cusp of the 19th century. Despite a cast of characters so freewheeling I literally needed a cheat sheet to keep them straight and an intricate, carefully researched plot that pulls in elements of Japanese folklore, fate, and mysticism, it all unfolds in a surprisingly linear manner. Some might consider such straightforwardness a disappointment, but it’s still a book by David Mitchell (and, shhhh, I even prefer it to the narrative trickery of Cloud Atlas).

    Do you have a favorite David Mitchell novel?

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