Books in Light of Clouds

The October-to-May rainy season in the Pacific Northwest is also the reading season. Everyone hunkers down with a blanket, a hot mug of something, and a stack of books. During the 2009-2010 reading season, my head was in the clouds and I was plowing through dozens of non-fiction titles on clouds and meteorology. I was also in two book clubs and was reading two works of fiction every month or so. Once you have clouds on the brain and are looking for material, it is challenging to read a novel or short story without looking for descriptions of clouds as scene setters, weather or plot prognosticators, or metaphors for brooding or stormy protagonists.

Here's what I've been reading, scanning, not reading, and planning to re-read:

The Theory of Clouds, by Stephane Audeguy. When I told a friend I was planning to write a book of fiction based on clouds, he asked me if I had read this book. I hadn't so I did. One chapter in and I decided to write a book of non-fiction based on clouds. This is the book I had in my mind to write. This is fascinating twining of stories about a late-19th century meteorologist during the heady Age of Wonder and an early 21st century eccentric collector of literature on clouds and meteorology. Audeguy writes about clouds metaphorically, meteorologically, perfectly. So much atmosphere.

Here if You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup. No clouds—literal or metaphorical. The author is the Maine game warden chaplain, the “plucky widow”of a state trooper killed on duty in a car accident. This is a fascinating story about her unusual job for which she is uniquely, heartbreakingly qualified. I want to be plucky, too, but the book made me feel lazy and weak.

Book of Clouds, by Chloe Aridjis. First things first: The book’s cover features menacing stratocumulus and nimbostratus clouds in royal blue and purpley gray (no happy white clouds here). Oh, and in the right-hand corner, four eerily lighted chariot pulled by four verdigris-tinted bronze horses and one winged warrior atop a classical marbled building (supposedly Berlin). This is a debut novel about a young woman, Tatiana, adrift in Berlin where she takes a job transcribing notes for a reclusive historian named Doktor Weiss. Two’s company, three’s a plot and so the good Doktor introduces Tatiana to a handsome meteorologist who has poetic things to say about clouds and uses them as metaphors for Berlin.

“And do you have a special focus?” Tatiana asks.

“Clouds, “ he immediately answered. “Definitely clouds.”


“Oh, I was quite young," he said, "Nine, I think. I used to pretend to keep a cloud garden, which I fed daily. And when the clouds were big and strong I would unfasten them from their roots and let them drift upward, into the sky…”
  Clouds, most especially a thick and obscuring fogs, move, linger, and drift, throughout this novel and appear mysteriously in the climactic moment. This books bears an uncanny resemblance to The Theory of Clouds, which is to say, it involves clouds. But it's not really about clouds.Not when you have a young single woman floating around a large European city and working for strange old men who introduce their assistants to their handsome young colleagues. Nudge nudge wink wink.

The Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Great cover. Readable until it becomes really hard work. I gave up just after the midpoint, but am planning to re-read it to figure out the connection to the actual Cloud Atlas. I believe this connection is revealed toward the end of the book. I am embarrassed to admit how sloppily I read this book--essentially speed reading it to get to some useful information about clouds. The cover alone will compel me to finish this novel.

The Service of Clouds, by Delia Falconer. Lead male character, Henry Kitchins, is referred to as Henry Kitchins throughout the entire book by the lead female character and narrator. Never just Henry. I found this irritating. I returned it unread to the library. Good riddance, Hank. 

Storm Watchers Great descriptions of weather phenomenon before each chapter—written in such a way as to be both straightforward meteorology and metaphor simultaneously. For example, All motion in the atmosphere is caused by the unequal heating, by the sun, of different parts of the planet. Heat is constantly seeking to exchanged, between the warm tropics and the cold polar regions. This causes movement of air, winds, changes in air pressure, temperature fluctuations, clouds, precipitation of rain and snow.
Everything we call weather.
Going round and round in and endless effort to settle and even out that which can never be settled and evened out.

Pick Up, by Nadine Gordimer. Her characters are detached, detaching, trying to attach. They are floating like clouds, indifferent, unable to settle into a life with family, country, race. She leaves him in the end, or, more accurately, she stays behind when he leaves. This seems to come out of nowhere. But you could see it coming. There is something virtuous about staying behind.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.. There are no clouds in this powerful and brilliantly told and retold story. It makes me want to write a non-linear story. I need to get off the grid. Do clouds have a story line? Clouds come and go. In between the coming and the going they cause all sorts of mischief. This is their plot, not mine. I need my own plot. I need a way to intersect the material, to cross plot lines, to tie knots in them, to weave them, to tangle and untangle them.

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. This is the textbook for one of my book groups (all writers of non-fiction in addition to their day jobs). We try to read a chapter before each meeting and then discuss our book selection in light of Prose’s ideas. It’s a fabulous structure for a book group, but it slows my reading down to a snails pace...and since snails can’t read, this is excruciatingly slow. After reading Prose’s chapter on sentences, I was getting stuck in sentences like they were quicksand. The more carefully I read, analyzed word placement, punctuation, sentence length, etc. the longer it took me to finish a sentence, paragraph, chapter. I could easily spend half an hour thinking about a sentence. I started reading prose like poetry. I read armed with a highlighter, pencil, notebook, and a sticky notes. I wonder if there are parallels between the way words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs are put together to form stories and the way atoms and molecules and storms form clouds.

The Heart is Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I cannot recall anything about clouds, only the descriptions of how insufferably hot it was all the time and how nothing really happens to anyone. Maybe I'll try writing about nothing happening. But likely not so well or at such a young age.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. No clouds here either, though this novel does not need clouds. The interconnected stories are about relationships, often quirky and mature ones involving at least one septuagenarian (Olive mostly). I could read but one story a day. Each is a perfect short story, devastatingly perfect. I needed a full day of recovery. I would like to write as gracefully as this. Only funnier.

Out Stealing Horses by Pers Petterson. A well-written if slightly confusing book with prose savor—but I couldn’t finish it. I spent too much time gazing at the cover photograph of two wild-looking horses silhouetted against a stormy sky of blue and white and gray stratocumulus clouds. At least that’s what I think they are.

The Slippery Year, by Melanie Gideon. I read this in one night. It is about a woman’s midlife crisis. I laughed, I wept, I chortled, I gasped. I had to put the book down; I was at home alone and feared cardiac arrest. I would like to write this funny but without having to be spoiled and gorgeous like the author. Clouds aren’t part of this very urban lifestyle book, but that’s okay. Clouds are not funny, so a bit of comic relief is welcome and necessary.

Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin. My first (and probably my last) attempt to read this author.  

March by Geraldine Brooks. It starts off promising: “October 21, 1861. This is what I write to her. The clouds tonight emboss the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each raveling edge as if the firmament were threaded through with precious filaments."  Then it proceeds brilliantly into familiar, well-trodden territory in that Louisa May Alcott style I cannot abide. An excellent book, but too precious for me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society. I would like to hand-write witty letters instead of tap out a book on clouds. 

Five Skies, by Ron Carlson. The cover is wonderful as are Carlson’s descriptions of the skies on a sagebrush plateau above a river gorge in Idaho. “The sky was an amorphous glaring canopy, and the horizons were all tattered in such bright haze.” I love this book for what is not said, not described, not spelled out by the author and his three non-verbal characters. The book mad me crave spare spaces, elemental, basic, and harsh—a place where feeling is beyond words. I have yet to figure out the meaning of the title.

Birds in Fall. The opening chapter is so gripping that my heart began to race and I started reading faster and faster to keep pace with the jet plane as it begins its horrible descent into the sea. This chapter is gripping at the cellular level; the blood coursing through my body is left agitated. I think of water molecules agitated to boiling in a microwave oven. I set the book aside. Inhale. Air. Exhale. I am not drowning. I am stunned. I am shaking. Two days pass before I can pick the book up and start the second chapter.

Wild America: The Legendary Story of Two Great Naturalists on the Road. By the eponymous great naturalists, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. The cover photograph is 1/3 cumulus clouds—a bit blurred as if the photograph were taken from a car-- “on the road.” Peterson was the renowned American ornithologist, author, and illustrator. Fisher was a British authority on seabirds. The two men begin a hundred-day field trip around the North American continent in April 1953. They do not discuss clouds, even in the tropical cloud forest of Xilitla, Mexico. The book has that checklist feeling and little time is spent on the processes that make ecosystems—like tropical forests (or “jungles” are they are still called in this book)—work. I have to remind myself that in 1953, Earth Day hadn’t been invented, naturalists and ornithologists were still professional titles, and the concept of an ecosystem or environmental science were in their infancy. Wild America is considered a “classic” of such importance that the journey its authors chronicled was retraced and recounted in 2003 by Scott Weidensaul in Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul. The entire top half of the cover of Weidensaul’s book is clouds though clouds are not discussed in the book, not even when he visits the Xilitla Cloud Forest.

You’re an Animal, Viskowitz! by Alessandro Boffa. This is the most brilliant and hilarious metamorphoses I have ever read. Three times. The animal kingdom is anthropomorphized with biological accuracy and literary verve. Imagine a microbe with an inferiority complex! I cannot read it in public. I tried once, in a barbershop while my tween boys got haircuts. When asked by the barber, “What are you reading?” I looked up, saw him standing there, hovering over my son with a pair of scissors and with a six-point buck head hovering over both of them, and realized that I could not answer his question without sounding like a lunatic. There are no clouds whatsoever in this book. But clouds aren’t funny and I need to laugh.

Wild: An Elemental Journey, by Jay Griffiths. It took the author seven years to write this masterpiece of non-fiction natural history. In seventy, I will never produce anything that approaches her energy and wisdom. But I am not going to give up trying. This is a very personal odyssey into the physical, spiritual, and cultural realms of earth, water, fire, and air. Savagery and beauty go hand in hand throughout. Clouds don’t make much of an appearance in this book, perhaps because they are, for now, truly wild and beyond the reach of human society to tame or manipulate (let's admit cloud seeding has been a very expensive failure). This is a strong book to be taken in small doses.

Amsterdam, by Ian McKewan. An an entertaining and carefully crafted story about male egos and a double suicide. These problems could have been prevented if they had spent some time cloudspotting.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. I read the book, then the screen play, then watched the movie while following along in the screenplay. What’s wrong with these three women? They are weak, self-absorbed, and seem incapable of doing anything except spiral inward in increasingly small circles. I hear a voice in my head, it sounds like my husband’s: Don’t get like that.