Powells.com & The Morning News Present


David Mitchell (Random House)

Cloud Atlas

vs. The Finishing School

Muriel Spark (Doubleday)

Judged by Tobias Seamon

A flawlessly written meditation on envy and artistry, The Finishing School centers on the obsessive relationship between would-be novelist Rowland Mahler and his Chatterton-esque writing student, Chris Wiley. The two become mutually crazed and everything else—the school, Rowland’s marriage, sanity, good manners—is subverted to their need, artistic and otherwise, for each other. Witty throughout, with sterling side characters and a gentle way of explicating even the grossest of behaviors, The Finishing School is everything that its residents aren’t: polished, eloquent, compact, and highly successful.

In comparison, Cloud Atlas is an immense—though not sprawling—story stretching from the colonial South Seas to a barbaric future near the end of existence. Mitchell uses a variety of characters—a wonderfully amoral composer in the 1930s, an enslaved clone in futuristic Korea, a 1970s muckraker hot on the trail of an evil atomic-energy corporation—to reveal the hidden connections between time and place. At its heart a moralistic cry against the chaotic violence and greed of human nature, Atlas is not as outlandish as it might appear from cover descriptions, nor is it clever for the sake of being so. If at times the links between the stories are a bit forced, Mitchell’s disparate characters and explosive prose make it that much more of a page-turner.

So how to choose between a small gem like The Finishing School and the rollicking Cloud Atlas? For books as dissimilar as these, it’s nearly apples versus oranges. The match went to OT, but Cloud Atlas won on free throws, because you never quite read the same book twice, and Cloud Atlas is likelier to be re-explored than The Finishing School.

Winner: Cloud Atlas

Judge: Tobias Seamon
Age: 32
Types of books you tend to read frequently:
History and murder mysteries (which are about the same thing.)
Types of books you rarely read:
Favorite book of all time:
Impossible question but because it's the first I thought of, "The Wild Iris" by Louise Gluck.