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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Cloud Atlas

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David MitchellThe Thousand autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

This was Tracy's Our Book Club book pick for June 2010 and she loved it for total escapism, being drawn into a time when a civilisation was just being discovered. This is a book that you need to keep reading and possibly re-reading chapters as it is challenging to remember everything going on, so probably targeted to the more dedicated book club readers. This book was selected for the Man Booker Prize 2010 Long List and Tracy believed it was worthy of at least a Short List spot, but alas Mitchell missed out again. In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable. The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland. But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?” A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author (these comments are from the Publisher). Click here to read the full book review.


1. Do you think Jacob ever really intended to return to Zeeland to marry Anna?
2. What do you think was Mitchell's purpose in describing William Pitt?
3. Did you think the novel was historically factual? Was Mitchell sometimes to graphical in his account of conversations between the Dutch inhabitants?
4. If you were Aibagawa would you have returned to the Shrine or continued on your escape bid?
5. Should Jacob have assisted Aibagawa when she came to the gates of Nagasaki to avoid being abducted by Enomoto?
6. Did Ogawa do the right thing in trying to rescue Aibagawa and right his wrongs?
7. What was your opinion of Dr Marinus and his teaching methods. Was he right in abetting Jacob and Aibagawa, or did his actions draw too much attention to their romantic trysts?
8. What was the moment in the book that stayed with you the longest?
9. What were the differing qualities of Dutch and Japanese patriotism? Would being under English patronage have been more lucrative for the Japanese?
10. Why do the Japanese isolate European traders from their society, walling them off on a man-made island? What do they wish to accomplish...or avoid?
11. How do the Europeans view "orientals" during the period this novel takes place? What are the stereotypes they perpetrate? Why are Europeans determined to break through the barriers errected by the Shoguns—are their motives humanistic or mercenary...principled or unprincipled?
12. What are the differences between European and Japanese cultures? Describe the conflicting social, political and cultural values Jacob faces in Dekima. In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, David Mitchell said his intention was to "write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." Do you think Mitchell succeeded in being even-handed to both cultures?
13. Jacob is referred to as "an honest soul in a human swamp of crocodiles, a sharp quill among blunt nibs." How well does this passage describe his character? How else would you describe Jacob; what other personality/character traits does he possess?
14. Is Jacob naive to see right and wrong as "moral bookkeeping" and to believe "all that matters is truth"? How difficult is it in this book to define, or discern, or prove what is true?
15. Follow-up to Question 5: Mitchell is interested in language. How powerful are the story's translators? What role do translators play in protecting—or distorting—meaning and truth through the use of language? In what way do they affect the destiny of the two nations?
16. Follow-up to Question 6: what is the difficult moral dilemma faced by Ogawa Uzaemon?
17. Discuss Japanese society: its highly stratified social order, including the role and of women and restrictions placed on them. Is Japanes society more or less hierarchical than European society?
18. Talk about Orito Aibagawa and her disfigurement. How has Mitchell developed her as a character—how would you describe her? As a follow-up to Question 7, what is her role in Japanese society? In what ways does Japanese culture restrict, even debase Orito. What is it that makes Jacob fall in love with her when he is already committed to a fiancee back home—and when Orito, herself, is in love with another?
19. Discuss John Penhaligon and the pivotal decisions he makes in the novel.
20. Which of the book's three sections do you find most engaging...or least engaging?
21. Mitchell plays with time in this novel, moving back and forth between the Japanes and Gregorian calendars—and back and forth in time. What affect does this have on the novel? Why might the author have used a distorted timeline?
22. How would you classify this novel—as a suspense-thriller, mystery, melodrama, cultural study, or historical novel? How would you describe it to someone?

Questions 10 onwards are provided by LitLovers.

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Cloud Atlas by David MitchellCloud Atlas by David Mitchell

In this audacious and dazzling novel, Mitchell weaves history, science, humor, and suspense through six separate but related narratives, each set in a different time and place, each written in a different prose style, and each broken mid-action only to be concluded in the second half of the book. A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity’s dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us (these comments are from the Publisher). Click here to read the full book review.


1. What is Cloud Atlas about? What are the questions the book explores—its primary thematic concerns?
2. Is this a cautionary tale...a prognosis...a diagnosis? In Mitchell's tales, what do humans seem bent on doing to one another...and why? With little left at the end, what, if anything, remains?
3. Why does Mitchell use the structure he does? What might he be hoping to achieve through the six (or twelve) interrelated stories, each based on a specific genre: epistolary, mystery, farce, sci-fi, post-apocolyptic? What is the effect, then, of reversing the tales and going backward?
4. How do each of the tales fit together...forward and backward. Put the pieces of the puzzle together—showing how one story links to another. How, for instance, is Luisa Rey in t connected to Frobisher?
5. What is the significance of the title, "Cloud Atlas"?
6. What are some of the neologisms used in the sci-fic chapters on Sonmi~451—and how do they reflect our use of language today?
7. Which was your favorite tale...and least favorite?
8. What was your experience reading the work: did you find the structure disruptive and confusing...and did you enjoy picking up the linkage between the stories and seeing how it played out by the end?
9. Have you read other dystopian...or post-apocolytpic works? If so, how do they compare with Cloud Atlas?

Questions provided by LitLovers.

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