book club resources

This remarkable first novel...will entice the book club crowd; the strong characterizations and moral dilemmas will leave them with plenty to discuss. Highly recommended.
— Library Journal (starred review)

Every group is different: each one has different interests, aims, ways of reading and discussing. This guide, then, is really just a starting point for your group. Below you'll find 

  • discussion questions,
  • a short essay on how (and why) I wrote the book
  • and even menu ideas.

If your group is interested in history, and in particular, the historical background of this fascinating and largely forgotten chapter of World War II, I've drawn up a short primer -- and warning -- about balloon bombs.

 

Discussion questions

  1. Three storylines run simultaneously through the book. How does this affect how you read and think about the novel?
  2. Reviewers have commented that Alaska is as much a character as it is a setting. What do you think? Many of the balloons landed in Washington state and Oregon -- do you think the story would work as well there? Why or why not?
  3. What does the book's title refer to?
  4. This story is told from the first person point of view, that is, a character narrates the story, using the pronoun "I".How would the story change if it were told from a third-person POV (the narrator is outside the story and employs he, she, they)? How would the story change if it were told from the first-person POV, but from a different character's perspective -- say, Lily's? (Confused by POV? Here's a glossary of literary terms.) 
  5. In interviews, Liam has said The Cloud Atlas is a book about "belief, and what it means to believe." But who says authors have the last word, especially on their own work: is this a book about belief? If you had to describe what this book was about in one word, what would you choose?
  6. Why does Louis become a priest? Why does he stay in Alaska? (He provides his own answer on p. 345, but do you believe him?)
  7. How integral are the balloons to the novel? Could the same story be told if Louis had been in search of, say, landmines? 
  8. What role does Yup'ik culture, especially its beliefs, have in the novel? 
  9. Early in the novel, Louis talks about his "amalgamated Alaskan faith," whose core, he suggests, rests on the word "maybe." Why?  
  10. As the book mentions, a critical part of America's response to the balloon campaign was a complete news blackout. (See this part of the website for more.) Was that censorship justified? If you had been a newspaper editor in Oregon at the time, what would you have done? What relation does this issue have to events today?
  11. Did Gurley and Lily really have a future together? Did Lily and Louis? 
  12. If the novel were to continue one more paragraph or page, what would happen? What does Louis mean by his final words?

For yet more questions, consult the Penguin Random House Reader's Guide for The Cloud Atlas.


How (and why) I wrote the book

People usually interrupt me with two questions when I start telling them about this book. One, are the balloons real? That's easy; they are. The next question is tougher: when did you first learn about them?

The strange thing is that I don't ever remember not knowing about them. I'm a compulsive reader of footnotes and a cataloger of curiosities. Long before the internet, I followed old-fashioned hyperlinks through libraries and museums: a citation here would lead me to a source there and that source to another book or article, and then on to another one, and soon enough, the day was shot. I'd gone to the library to look up something on the Sierras, say, and emerged knowing something about the house where Grant died. 

It must have been during one of those forays that I first came across the very strange story of WWII Japan's paper balloon bombs (also called fire balloons, or Fu-Go weapons). But I'm sure I didn't come across much of a story. Part of the reason the balloons remain such a secret today is that two entire nations were committed to keeping them a secret back then: Japan didn't want America to know where the balloons were coming from, and America didn't want Japan to know that their balloons were, in fact, reaching North America. The U.S. banned all news reports of balloons--you can read more about this in the site's "About the balloons" section--and though the censorship order was later rescinded, silence followed for decades. 

There have been a few exceptions. In 1996, John McPhee published a New Yorker  article about forensic geology (the article is collected in his book, Irons in the Fire). One part of the article dealt with the balloons, or more specifically, with the sand the balloons used as ballast: by examining the unique makeup of this sand, US government geologists were able to determine the balloons' launch sites. And in the 1970s, Robert C. Mikesh, a retired Air Force officer and National Air and Space Museum curator, wrote a slim volume, Japan's World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America. It remains the most comprehensive history of this strange weapon.


Menu

Leave the Eskimo Pies at the store and whip up some so-called Eskimo ice cream, or, to use the Yup'ik term, akutaq. (And if you're thinking this will be like making a snow cone, forget it. The recipe * calls for shredded reindeer fat and a cup of seal oil. Don't fret, though; if you can't find those ingredients you can always substitute Crisco, or, in this more healthy version, yogurt. For background on this dessert, try here.)

For beverages, ayuq tea--mentioned in the book's first chapter--is a good choice, but hard to find. One online store offers something called "Native Scents Sweetgrass Tea," which includes the ingredient Labrador tea, which is another name for ayuq. If you're strictly wine drinkers when it comes to talking books, you could try a wine from Kodiak, where part of the book takes place. (Please note, I'm not endorsing either the tea or the wine; I've never tried them. I can vouch for Kodiak salmon, though, and ayuq soap -- oh, and Kaladi coffee. I've discovered there's no such thing as a bad cup of coffee in Alaska, but Kaladi Brothers is really the best.) And if you want some background audio, I've long been a fan of radio station KNBA