About the book About the balloons Discussion questions How (and why) I wrote the book Reviews & Press Alaska Scrapbook Past events

Overview :: Background research :: Discussion questions :: Menu     


Every reading 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. Read it over, decide what you think will work and what won't and then make your plans. Whatever happens, you can at least be confident about this much: people meeting to talk about reading is never a bad thing.  

Included below are some suggestions for background research, discussion questions and even menu ideas.  

'I have to do background research?" No, of course not. You can just start talking about the book. But sometimes it is helpful, particularly with a novel set in the past, to have one or more members of the group do a little (and it can be a very little) outside research on the subject.

This website actually makes that task quite easy. Click on "About the balloons" to learn more about the Japanese paper balloon bombs that feature so prominently in the book. You can also consult the "Balloon links" page for additional information.

The Cloud Atlas is about more than just balloons, however. To learn a bit more about the world it's set in, you might do an internet search for the following terms: "Yup'ik Eskimo", "Bethel, Alaska," "Army Air Corps," and "WWII in Alaska." Read over what you find, make a mental (or actual) note or two, and share what you've learned with the group.

Some groups also like to research the author. That's easily done here, too. Click on "About the author" for a short bio, and consult the "Interviews" page for more information.

 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?


Menu     "Menu? That's a bit much, isn't it?" Perhaps for your group, but many groups have had a lot of fun with this idea. (Maybe it's just my impression, but for a lot of groups the food and drink is as important as, if not more important than, the book in question.)

There are several avenues you can take. You can go the tongue-in-cheek route and serve Eskimo Pies or Klondike bars, but those aren't especially popular in Bethel, Alaska (where much or the book takes place). If you want something more authentic, try salmon, which is a staple of the diet (and for the sake of all those hardworking Alaskan fishermen, buy wild salmon -- farm-raised salmon is ruining their livelihoods).

If you want something really authentic, however, 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.)

*This link takes you to a PDF file, which requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. Worth the trouble, though, since you get some recipe ideas for stinkweed on the same page.