Norweigan Wood

Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin9780375704024

publication date: 1987 (translation: 2000)
pages: 296
ISBN: 296-0-375-70402-7

In this coming-of-age story, university student Toru Watanabe attempted to maintain a recent relationship with Naoko, his best friend’s ex-girlfriend, while meeting unusual new people, including a talkative and unconventional young woman, Midori. Watanabe navigated these relationships against a backdrop of 1960s student protests and a rash of suicides among young people.

Norweigan Wood was incredibly popular in Japan after it was published in 1989. Young people were drawn to Murakami’s western-centric language — the title comes from the name of a Beatles song — and his grappling with heady themes while writing from the point of view of a young protagonist. The book was also well-received in America, especially after it was translated into English.

Murakami used what may have seemed like a straightforward love story to explore numerous weighty themes. Murakami examined the circular and repetitive nature of time, which never quite moves the way we want it to. He also discussed sex, and the myriad forms it uses to manifest itself. Probably the most pervasive theme, however, was the specter of death. Murakami suggested that death was mainly experienced by the living:

The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything is dark and you can’t see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive.

Murakami also imbued his love story with a tension throughout the book. The tension was often a vague feeling of dread, as in this passage, where Watanabe was taking public transportation to visit Naoko:

The bus would enter cedar forest, come out to a village, then go back into forest. It would stop at a village to let people off, but no one ever got on. Forty minutes after leaving the city, the bus reached a mountain pass with a wide-open view. The driver stopped the bus and announced that we would be waiting there for five or six minutes . . . Eventually another bus came climbing up from the other side of the pass and stopped next to ours . . .
It was not immediately clear to me why our bus had had to wait for the other one, but a short way down the other side of the mountain the road narrowed suddenly. Two big buses could never have passed each other on the road, and in fact passing ordinary cars coming in the other direction required a good deal of maneuvering with one or the other vehicle having to back up and squeeze into the overhang of a curve.

Beyond setting an effective tone, there were so many times that something in the narrative was pleasingly relatable. I was often reminded of something a friend had recently said, or something I’d thought while drifting off to sleep. This introspective passage, for example:

At five-thirty I closed my book, went outside, and ate a light supper. How many Sundays — how many hundreds of Sundays like this — lay ahead of me? “Quiet, peaceful, and lonely,” I said aloud to myself. On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.

Although there was a lot I liked about the book, I often found it tiresome or maddening. It was sometimes repetitive, and the prose could be dull or inconsistent — although that might be the fault of the translator.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t gain a lot of satisfaction anymore from coming-of-age stories with a man who is finding his way in the world with the help of lessons learned from the women around him. I’m tired of reading sentences like this:

The power she exerted was a subtle thing, but it called forth deep resonances . . . It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained — and would forever remain — unfulfilled.

Or:

I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centered beauty that seems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else.

Or, my favorite:

[Falling in love with two women happens] all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and lake are beautiful.

I suppose it wasn’t Murakami’s fault I’ve read variations on those lines dozens of times. Doesn’t make it less annoying or less inaccurate, though. Although the book was inconsistent, there were enough potent passages to make it:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian 
The Ooh Tray blog

Inside a Silver Box

Inside a Silver Box by Walter Mosley9780765375223

publication date: 2016
pages: 306
ISBN: 978-0765375223

In this work of speculative fiction, Mosley introduced the Silver Box, a god-like sentient machine that was a prison for its god-like creator and archenemy, Inglo. The Silver Box and its prisoner, after much clashing, ended up on Earth, and the enemy escaped his prison. In order to save the world, two humans – Ronnie, a black ex-convict, and Lorraine, a privileged white woman – were thrown together by the Box to recapture Inglo. Although the book presented this story, it was much more existential than plot-driven.

The plot seemed important to Mosley, but it also was a way for him to discuss many themes. One theme was the interconnectedness of all things, from the violent life of a criminal to the rarefied world of the elite. In this passage, Mosley described that link through the fledgling relationship between Ronnie and Lorraine:

“It’s kinda strange when we’re next to each other, isn’t it?” Lorraine asked.
“Yeah. It feels like the way I did when I was a kid and my mama would hold me.” [Ronnie said.]
“When I close my eyes,” Lorraine said, straining for the right words, “it’s like I’m floating in space and there’s a drummer playing just for me.” . . .
“We got the same blood,” he said. “I mean, probably everybody and everything in the world got the same blood, but somehow you’n me can feel it, ‘specially when we’re next to each other.”

A related theme that the book explored was how, as connected beings, we are all culpable for any bad things that happen. This theme manifested itself differently for the white Lorraine and the black Ronnie. In this passage, Lorraine was confronted with the consequences of her class:

[Ronnie said, “You] run down the street past poor, sick, uneducated, homeless, and hopeless people with yo’ fine ass and your pockets full’a money. I belonged in prison but that don’t make you innocent . . . . It’s easy to find guilt all up and down the streets. But how’s all that no-good shit gonna be there, and here you are so innocent that you don’t have nuthin’ to do with it?”
This thought wasn’t that alien to Lorraine. She had studied original sin and the various interpretations of social and socialist revolutions. She had written a term paper on the paradox of capital punishment. [And] she realized that all of this had been in her head, that she’d never had to answer for the crimes of her culture and her class; nor did she truly believe that she should be held responsible.

Later in the story, Mosley also explored the culpability of Ronnie’s class, to the extent that they were descended from slaves:

Slavery was a terrible thing, Ronnie remembered Jimmy Burkett saying when Ronnie was just a child. . . . But you know the slave play a part in it too.
What you mean? Little Ronnie asked.
In order to be a slave you have to believe that shit, Jimmy said. You got to say yes, sir, and yes, ma’am. If you don’t do that, if you refuse their dominion in your heart, then even though you might die you will never be their slave.

Inside a Silver Box used plot and dialogue to examine Mosley’s ideas about race, gender, class, and technology. It revealed an author who was empathetic and concerned with Americans’ realities.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Journal Of Books
The Future Fire blog
Fantasy Literature blog

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas9780062498533

publication date: 2017
pages: 464
ISBN: 9780062498557

In this topical YA novel, author Angie Thomas explored issues of race and violence. The story involved Starr, a 16-year-old black woman who navigated between two worlds: her family and neighborhood, which were black, and her school and friends, which were white. Starr was forced to confront the inherent inequities of these worlds when she witnessed a white cop killing a young black man during a traffic stop. The title of the book came from a Tupac quote, where he explained that he believed Thug Life was an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.

Thomas explored several important themes in The Hate U Give. She explicitly discussed the militarization of police forces and the covert racism of society that leads to white on black violence. She also examined what it’s like to be a brown person in a sea of white faces, and what it’s like to be constantly assessing your own identity as “other,” as in this passage:

The ironic thing is though, at [majority white high school] Williamson I don’t have to “play it cool” – I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in [the black neighborhood of] Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day.
Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.

Although the book covered weighty topics and themes, Thomas’s writing was often funny. For example:

The school year’s almost over, so everybody’s goof-off levels are at their highest, and white-kid goofing off is a category of its own. I’m sorry, but it is. Yesterday a sophomore rode down the stairs in the janitor’s garbage can. His dumb ass got a suspension and a concussion. Stupid.

Thomas also created very effective characters. Starr was intricately developed, as was her family and close friends. The book included scenes that showcased each of Thomas’s characters, beyond their importance to the plot.

The book had some flaws, however. The dialogue was inconsistent: sometimes it rang true and conveyed something about the characters or the book; other times it was simply a device to shoehorn in exposition that Thomas thought was important. Also, mot of the action or violence in the book was not effective. For example, the shooting of the young black man was written in a hurried and detached style and did not become urgent until relived by the traumatized Starr.

The Hate U Give was published as YA. It was written in a straightforward manner, with a young narrator who had parental problems and was exploring her nascent sexuality. It was also a funny and engaging read that also illuminated some of the most weighty and pressing topics of today.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Book Smugglers
Baltimore Times
Black and Bookish

The Passage

The Passage by Justin Cronin9780345504975

publication date: 2010
pages: 766
ISBN: 978-0-345-50496-8

In his novel, Justin Cronin explored every possible meaning of his title: the passage of time, safe passage, the passing from life into death, a hallway that takes you from A to B, and even a diary entry. Cronin utilized 766 pages to tell the story of a post-apocalyptic Earth in the not-too-distant future. This Earth was overrun by carnivorous beings that the remaining humans had many names for: virals, smokes, dracs. Basically, they were vampires with 400 pages of back story and a medically explainable origin.

The book revolved around Amy, a young girl with the unique ability to talk to the mysterious vampire-like creatures. The story was epic in scope, encompassing decades and much of the United States. The plot began in the very near future, with the government experimenting with the creation of immortal beings. As time passed, and the setting turned more dystopian and fractured, the story shifted to a West Coast community that called itself The Colony.

In my opinion, Cronin wrote this book to explore – or capitalize on – the vampire myth but in an ostensibly “literary” way. The book included many themes, including ruminations on death, time, and fatherhood. It also introduced seemingly logical explanations for what was happening, like a virus that hyper activates the thymus gland. The book was also written from many points of view, all with their own thoughts and motivations. Additionally, Cronin supplemented the narration by including maps, diary entries, academic findings, and the like. Obviously, a lot of time and effort went into the formation of The Passage.

However, with all that effort Cronin put into it, the book didn’t always work. It was too long, with too many twists and turns. It was like watching a Pixar movie, where the characters had to go through numerous pointless adventures. I found myself bored often. Not only was the plot sometimes monotonous or senseless, the abundant meditations on the book’s themes were repetitive. I read what seemed like dozens of paragraphs that were variations on this theme:

His whole life Peter had thought of the world of the Time Before as something gone. It was as if a blade had fallen onto time itself, cleaving it into halves, that which came before and that which came after. Between these halves there was no bridge; the war had been lost, the Army was no more, the world beyond the Colony was an open grave of a history no one even remembered.

Starting about page 425, I was wondering if the book needed to be as long and convoluted as it was; by about 600 I caught myself skimming just to get the book over with; and at about 740 I was bewildered as to the point of it all.

The book wasn’t bad, and it had some interesting parts. If you like reading hefty tomes with plots that never quit, I would absolutely recommend this. It could keep you busy for a while.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Times
The Nerdist

House Of Rain

House Of Rain by Craig Childs9780316067546

publication date: 2006
pages: 496
ISBN: 978-0-316-60817-6

In House Of Rain, Craig Childs presented a piece of reportorial nonfiction, interwoven with narrative travelogue. For several seasons, Childs trekked the southwestern U.S. in order to discover for himself the world of the native people who inhabited that land before Europeans. Childs moved through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico, often on foot, to follow the centuries-long migrations of a people he usually called “Anasazi.” There is some controversy surrounding the term Anasazi, both because there is disagreement about how large their territory actually was and because Anasazi, a Navajo term, can be objectionable to modern-day Pueblo people – who instead may use the term “Ancestral Puebloans.” Childs used this phrase sometimes, along with another – Hisatsinom – that is used by contemporary Hopi. Childs explained his use of the word Anasazi and used other words when he thought it was appropriate.

House Of Rain described Childs’s travels as he explored cliff dwellings, seemingly uninhabitable gorges, great Anasazi kivas, and active archaeological digs. His travelogue writing was compelling, although often pretentious. A good example was this passage, when Childs was exploring Anasazi construction on what is now a national park:

A cascade of flute music emanated from speakers tucked among the ceiling beams. I stood still for a moment, a little surprised, recognizing immediately that the music was played not on a Native American flute, but on a traditional Japanese shakuhachi. . . . This kiva was tangled in eclectic ancestry, unrelated histories passing in and out of each other, brought together by this place. What was it Einstein said, that time and space are the same entity? Does that mean that if you stand in one place and are a keen enough observer, you can see clearly through time’s entire lineage?

His discussions of the Anasazi people could also be self-serious or extravagant, but he did present many interesting facts about their daily lives and viewpoints. Here was his discussion of Kinishba, a vacated Anasazi compound:

I sensed manners and social regimentation in the way the site was laid out. It was not the monastic atmosphere I had once imagined in the halls of [another compound called Chaco], but a busy, orderly setting, an urban trade center. Everyone had a place, some families having doorways that opened prominently onto plazas, others living in smoky, poorly lit rooms deep in the pueblo’s interior.

The nonfiction account of the Anasazi people and Childs’s descriptions of his expeditions was often woven together effectively and he presented a convincing case that the land he was exploring needed to be walked or hiked to ever understand the Anasazi people.

Childs’s tone was often dense and he imbued even the smallest event with meaning. However, he created a generally compelling and informative work.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Orion Magazine
Ms. M’s Bookshelf
Light+Space+Structure blog

Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett9780062237378

publication date: 1992
pages: 386
ISBN: 978-0-06-223737-8

In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett lampooned religion, God, gods, and the certainty and absurdity of men (and I mean men; basically none of the characters were female). Generally, Pratchett’s mockery was successful, and the book became more than just a send-up of humanity’s foibles.

Almost certainly, the book’s ultimate goal was to show the folly of religion. Pratchett’s plot, style, characters, and setting were all used to further that goal. Within the book, Pratchett created a fictional, long-established religion: The Church of the Great God Om. The country of Omnia was ruled by the Church and the Church dictated the laws of all Omnians. Pratchett introduced us to Brutha, a slow-witted and good-hearted Omnian monk who accidentally stumbled upon a quest on behalf of the Great God Om. Pratchett also presented Vorbis, a leader in the Church and an all-around bad guy. Finally, Pratchett introduced Om, the once-great god who remembered the days when he was powerful enough to smite enemies and sacrifice believers but who now, because of a decrease of faith in Omnia, is only a one-eyed tortoise who reluctantly relies on Brutha’s help.

Pratchett didn’t always take his plot too seriously. His writing style was satirical and clever. The pages were covered in jokes; some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Many of the jokes were at the expense of religion or the idea that human knowledge and certainty is anything less than ridiculous. For example, here was an exchange Brutha witnessed when he first met the learned philosophers from the country of Ephebe:

The [philosopher] called Xeno stepped forward, adjusting the hang of his toga.
“That’s right,” he said. “We’re philosophers. We think, therefore we am.”
“Are,” said the luckless paradox manufacturer automatically.
Xeno spun around. “I’ve just about had it up to here with you, Ibid!” he roared. He turned back to Brutha. “We are, therefore we am,” he said confidently. “That’s it.”

Although Pratchett used his plot as a tool to convey his message and showcase his cleverness, he did give the story a beginning, middle, and end, and I was usually invested in what was happening with Brutha, Vorbis, and Om. The story was too long, however, and became repetitive and dull. Also, Pratchett would sometimes write with such heavy irony or such deliberate passivity that the action was confusing and the story was unclear.

Also, the whole book left me with a vague feeling of bewilderment. Parts of it were funny or interesting, but it all seemed pointless. If Pratchett wanted to convince people of his anti-religion message, surely a heavy-handed book making fun of religious people wasn’t the best tactic? But if Pratchett instead wanted to entertain those who already believed in the stupidity of religion, than the whole book was like an echo chamber, full of self-congratulatory jokes.

With that said, the book was funny, clever, and filled with details plucked from Pratchett’s active imagination. Go ahead and give it a whirl, if you want.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Faith Fusion
The Narratologist
SF Reviews

Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham9781563899423

publication date: 2002
pages: 119
ISBN: 978-1-56389-942-3

In Fables, creator Bill Willingham presented, in comic book form, an alternate ending for all those stories we heard as children. What if, instead of “Happily ever after,” all the characters in the fairy tales were driven out of their idyllic homelands by a villain of pure evil and forced to spend eternity living in Manhattan? Volume One of Fables, titled Legends in Exile, collected the first five issues of the comic and introduced us to Fabletown, a Manhattan enclave where all the fairy tale fables lived. These included Snow White, deputy mayor of Fabletown and competent administrator; Bigby Wolf, the big, bad wolf in human form, who now uses his powers for good as Fabletown sheriff; and Prince Charming, a triple divorcee and unscrupulous womanizer. Legends in Exile also introduced The Adversary, the mysterious evil force who chased all the fables out of their kingdoms and into the New World centuries ago. The plot of Legends in Exile followed Sheriff Bigby Wolf as he attempted to solve the murder of Rose Red, Snow White’s younger sister

This comic contained a lot of good things. I though it was especially effective when it showed the fables actually inhabiting New York City and surrounded by New Yorkers. For example, there was a scene where Prince Charming was walking his new conquest back to her apartment; as they were walking they were surrounded by very detailed background New Yorkers, including a door man with a soul patch and a woman wearing John Lennon glasses and carrying a baguette as she waited to cross the street.

Bigby Wolf’s character was also a lot of fun. His face was always drawn in partial darkness, giving him a sinister edge. And, in at least one panel, his shadow is drawn as the silhouette of a wolf, even as Bigby is in human form. In fact, most of the images throughout the volume were compelling and memorable. The faces were intricate and drawn with emotion. The panels included lots of great details. Also the color tones were really effective at showing emotions and feeling.

However, Legends in Exile definitely had some flaws. First of all, everyone was white. I noticed one black character, and he was in the background, without any place in the plot. Secondly, as is a problem with many comics, the boobs were ridiculous. Every female character, if she was seen from the front, had large, round, and floaty boobs displayed for all to see at least once in the comic. I guess not every female character: they didn’t show the elderly black forest witch’s cleavage.

Also, the dialogue was not always compelling. Facts about the characters or plot were often presented in a rote manner, and with unnecessary bluntness. For example, here is how we get introduced to the character of Rose Red, within a conversation between Bigby Wolf and Snow White:

[Bigby Wolf:] You need to prepare yourself for some bad news, Snow.
[Show White:] Don’t be so dramatic. I already know. My ex is back in town. . . .
[Wolf:] This isn’t about Prince Charming. It’s about your sister, Rose Red.
[Snow:] This may surprise you, Mister Wolf, but I’m not entirely an idiot. I actually know my sister’s name. So what’s she done this time?

Also, the plot came off the rails sometimes, although I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to introduce any spoilers.

Overall, this was a fun comic, which would probably be a good introduction for those who are looking to read more graphic fiction. I’ve continued to read subsequent issues of Fables, if that’s any indication.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Pop Matters
The Literary Omnivore
PFS Publishing Book Club blog