Book Review: Dance Dance Dance

20160816_200951.jpg

What we seek is some kind of compensation for what we put up with.

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

A lonely and nameless protagonist, a missing girlfriend with perfect ears, and a precocious teenage girl. As an avid fan of Murakami, I’m more than familiar with his various tropes, and perhaps because of this, reading a Murakami novel takes me far less time than any other book. When something surreal or slightly supernatural happens, as it inevitably does, I’m rarely surprised and simply read on.

Three of Murakami’s earliest novels are considered the Trilogy of the Rat: Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973;  and A Wild Sheep Chase, the last of which I’ve read but haven’t reviewed. While Dance Dance Dance is a continuation of this series, it isn’t considered a part of the series itself. Personally, I enjoyed Dance Dance Dance much more than A Wild Sheep Chase, which I found unnecessarily convoluted and simply unenjoyable to read.

While reading Dance Dance Dance, I acknowledged the usual Murakami tropes and themes, yet I found the most fascinating aspect to be the theme of consumerism and commercialization, especially of people. Prostitution, especially the willing prostitution of upper middle-class, sophisticated women, is a common theme found in Murakami’s works, but the commercialization of people extends beyond this in Dance Dance Dance. The unnamed protagonist’s sole connection to the world appears to be through his work as a copywriter, and he is also paid to be a companion figure to Yuki. The novel is full of characters seeking other characters to relieve their own loneliness, rather than to actually enjoy their company, with many of these interactions having an admittedly transactional nature. Even with Ame and Dick North’s supposedly happy romance, Dick’s efforts at keeping the house tidy seemed to be necessary to continue his relationship with Ame. It made me think more closely about this question than I would have liked to – is all human interaction transactional? Is there a way to enjoy another person’s company without some sort of transaction taking place?

In addition to this, there are references to more conventional consumerism. The protagonist shops for groceries at Kinokuniya while complaining about its prices and luxurious brand image. Gotanda and the protagonist both view Gotanda’s Maserati as an unnecessary luxury, in some ways inferior to the protagonist’s Subaru. And even the new, gleaming Dolphin Hotel is a shadow of its former, shabbier self. Similarly, Gotanda’s luxurious lifestyle is shown to be just as devoid of real interaction as the protagonist’s. It’s the age-old message that money does not equal happiness, but somehow it is newly poignant, coming from Murakami.

YES OR NO?: YES. Compared to Murakami’s other works, Dance Dance Dance is simple and straightforward, other than the occasional moments of the supernatural. I think this book would also be a great introduction to a new Murakami inductee, since there’s no need to read the other books in The Rat Trilogy.

Advertisements

Book Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

thumb_DSC_0108_1024

Most human activities are predicated on the assumption that life goes on. If you take that away, what is there left?

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

It’s been roughly two weeks since my last post. Looking back on the blog’s earlier days, I’m astounded that I had time to read a whole novel and draft a blog post in a week’s time. But to be fair, I had more time to myself at the time, with a long commute that gave me plenty of time to read a chapter or two everyday. I recently moved out of my parents’ house for the first time (!), and now my time is filled with laundry, cooking, and cleaning: “adulting”, as the kids call it.

Still, I can always make time for Murakami. This is my tenth Murakami novel, leaving me with only three left to dive into (Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973; Dance Dance Dance). It’s been a few months since I read Murakami, and I happened to chance upon this novel while wandering the stacks at my local library so I gladly picked it up.

Like the title and cover suggest, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is split into two parallel narratives told in interspersed chapters. At first, the two worlds seem quite different. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, the unnamed narrator is a divorced man in a somewhat modern Tokyo (the novel was published in 1985), going about the everyday life of a working man (although one with a peculiar occupation). The End of the World, meanwhile, seems to be taking place in some sort of post-apocalyptic world, in a town gentle yet ominous. The prose of the two stories is quite different as well. The narrator of Hard-Boiled Wonderland is relatable and humorous (including many mouth-watering descriptions of homestyle Japanese cuisine), while the End of the World is much more dreamlike and ethereal.

As you might expect, though, the two narratives are not completely separate. Murakami’s novels often introduce parallel narratives that converge (1Q84After Dark, etc.), but I personally thought this novel employed this technique to the best effect. It’s difficult to describe this without giving anything away, so I’ll just forge ahead.

Anyone familiar with Murakami’s works will recognize his repeated motifs in this novel: the solitary narrator who is irresistible to women, libraries as troves of information, the nourishing comfort of food, and so on. As this is a relatively early work, these motifs are still in their early stages. I personally found the narrator refreshingly different from other Murakami heroes in that he seemed more confident and did not linger on his loneliness. It helped that the mystery of his story (the hard-boiled aspect) helped keep me focused on the plot, which progressed somewhat logically. I would recommend this novel to someone who has heard of Murakami but hasn’t necessarily read any of his works yet, as it would serve as an enjoyable introduction to his other works.

YES OR NO?: YES. A quick read, this novel is a delightful but thought-provoking blend of Murakami’s realist and surrealist styles. If you’re anything like me, this book will leave you wanting to live in its world: a world where everyone is well-read and well-versed in pop culture. Added bonus: Murakami splashes in a lot of his own book recommendations through his characters, so now my TBR list is many titles longer. Overall, a solid read, although somewhat less insightful than his more involved works such as Kafka on the Shore.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

20160201_170450.jpg

In everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it won’t surprise you to learn that I’m a huge fan of Murakami. I’ve already published reviews of two of his other works (Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun), and mentioned others in my end of year wrap-up posts. The book that started my love affair with Murakami was 1Q84, a giant tome that I picked up on a whim. The main reason that I became so engrossed with 1Q84 was that it was so profoundly different from anything else that I had read before that. Murakami’s world was, and is, so wonderfully strange and unique, with its own brand of surreal logic. Yet I also found 1Q84 daunting. There were some symbols that I could never decipher and simply wrote off as intentional illogic meant to convey the sense of a distorted world.

I’d put off reading Kafka for a long time, mostly because I’d heard from friends that it was the most difficult to understand out of Murakami’s novels. Yet, for some reason, I found this book relatively easy to get through, probably thanks to my now extensive experience with Murakami’s style and motifs.

Kafka on the Shore is the tale of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, who flees his hometown of Tokyo to escape an Oedipal curse and ultimately arrives at a small but distinguished private library run by an intriguing older woman, Miss Saeki. The novel switches back and forth between Kafka’s story and that of Nakata, a simple-minded man in his seventies who has a fondness for eel and ekes out a living by locating lost cats for his neighbors. The novel begins by covering the faux historical background of Nakata’s story, which is tedious at first. However, by the time the story gets rolling, I found the book hard to put down. Translated by Philip Gabriel, the novel is at once easy to read, but sprinkles in enough references to Japanese and Western pop culture to keep you engaged.

Murakami novels are infamous for sharing the same characters and highlighting what appears to be the author’s own interests: music (jazz and classical), books, and cats. In addition to the above, I was delighted to find some classical and literary allusions that I normally don’t associate with Murakami. The obvious one, of course, is the Oedipal curse. To add to this, blood is a constant in this novel, even in scenes that don’t involve murder or injury. There’s a scene early on where a character can’t seem to wash blood off their hands no matter how hard they try, which I interpreted as a clear reference to Lady Macbeth. The idea that Kafka’s curse is a source of pollution reminded me again of Oedipus and other Greek tragedies in that Oedipus is polluted by his curse, and that the pollution spreads to his children and leads them to tragic fates. And lastly, though I don’t think this is as direct a connection, the character of Miss Saeki reminded me of Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations: a woman who’s chosen to live trapped at a point in her life when she was happier.

One thing that I found a little frustrating about the book was its need to incessantly revisit certain ideas, specifically the identities of Kafka’s sister and mother. I personally would have preferred if this was hinted at a bit more subtly, since I felt that this (and some other meaningful moments) were handed to me on a plate. I like to work for answers as a reader, so I was disappointed by the overtness of some of the narrative. Still, I liked the rest of the book enough that it didn’t hinder my enjoyment to an excessive degree.

YES OR NO: YES. Surreal as it may be, the story of this novel is surprisingly easy enough to follow. That being said, there are still so many questions and thoughts I have about the book that I’m sure I’ll never be able to figure out (what’s the significance of the leeches?). Also, remember to be patient at the beginning! It gets off to a slow start, but the story soon picks up.

 

Book Review: South of the Border, West of the Sun

20160109_122111.jpg

I felt I knew more about her than ever before, and she must have felt the same. What we needed were not words and promises but the steady accumulation of small realities.

South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami

Despite my ambitious reading goals for 2016, I spent the first week of the year struggling through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Although it came highly recommended, I was simply too tired from work or busy sorting out appointments to really focus on the book. Maybe I’ve exhausted my own affinity for sci fi.

The other day, I stopped by my local public library and picked up this book. I was aimlessly looking through the shelves when suddenly it struck me that I hadn’t read any Murakami in over a year, since Sputnik Sweetheart. This was the only one I hadn’t read that the library had available, and I distinctly remembered a friend saying that this was his favourite Murakami book. And despite struggling through Ready Player One, I plowed through this in roughly a day and a half.

For me, reading Murakami is visiting an old friend. A friend who loves cats, has an affinity for jazz records, and although a lonely man is somehow an irresistible womanizer all the same. The protagonist of South of the Border, West of the Sun, Hajime, is your typical Murakami protagonist, although he has his moments of strange humor (although some I think were lost in translation). Shimamoto, the main love interest, is like most Murakami love interests: mysterious, beautiful, flawed, and with a deep, unexplainable sadness at her core.

Out of all the Murakami I’ve read, I would say that this book is closest to Sputnik Sweetheart and Norwegian Wood. Although a fan of Murakami, I tend to prefer his straightforward tales of nostalgic, star-crossed romance rather than the surrealist elements of works like Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

This is a quiet, short read that still makes you reflect on yourself and your own relationships. As a young adult who’s only recently started on her post-university life, Hajime and Shimamoto’s boredom and melancholy was something I identified with more than I cared to admit.

YES OR NO?: YES. I would never not recommend Murakami to someone. I also think this book would be an ideal way to introduce someone  to Murakami’s body of work, since it is a shorter read that still embodies his style and themes.

Reading very, very long books

I’ll admit it. I’ve been a bit lazy about blogging lately. But the main reason I haven’t published a full book review is because I’ve been trying to get through Stephen King’s The Stand for about a month now. It’s my first time reading Stephen King, and while the subject matter and tone isn’t right up my alley, The Stand is engrossingly detailed and meticulously thought out in its depiction of destruction. With the various epidemics that have happened worldwide since The Stand’s publication in 1978, the novel still feels relevant despite its dated and sometimes unrelatable references.

But it’s still so long. I’ve often wanted to give up on books simply because of their length, but there are many books (including The Stand) that I simply couldn’t give up on. Here’s some long (very long) books that I think are worth the time:

  1. Crime and Punishment: A challenge to read, because of its length, sometimes abstract subject matter, and huge cast of characters with long names. But it definitely altered my perspective on a major issue, which any great novel should do.
  2. The Count of Monte CristoA classic tale of revenge that actively shows the consequences of an all-consuming revenge.
  3. The Portrait of a Lady: While not quite as long as the other works on this list, I would still consider it a hefty book. Isabel Archer’s attempts to survive as an independent young woman in the Old World is still relevant to modern audiences.
  4. 1Q84: 1Q84 is so long that it’s often split into three volumes. I read it as one huge tome, which I lugged around to and from work for a month. I also remember staying up to read it on Christmas night, after presents had been opened and a plentiful dinner consumed. 1Q84 introduced me to the strange and fragile world of Murakami.
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire: People often say that this series overrated, and as someone who generally doesn’t delve into high fantasy, I’m not sure if I have the most expert opinion. I don’t watch the show, but I found that even after hundreds of pages, I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next to Jon, Arya, and Dany.

What long books do you think are worth the read? Have you ever given up on a book because of its length?

Getting back into writing

Since I was a little girl, I loved to write. I crafted little fictions about my stuffed animals, my classmates, and sometimes fantastical worlds that I dreamed up. And as any aspiring writer should, I loved to read.

Now, I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get paid to write. Sure, it’s not the novels I dreamed of writing as a child. I work in technical writing and marketing for a software company, so instead I write how-to articles, corporate blog posts, and website content. I spend most of my time thinking about the nature of words, how to clearly and concisely explain concepts to strangers, and I read a lot of articles on Medium about startups, Silicon Valley, and content strategy.

The trouble is that I’ve neglected this blog for over a month. I told myself that I was busy, but I wasn’t busy. I was lazy. This blog is mostly a book review blog, and I’d slogged through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the past three weeks, not because it is a bad book by any means, but because I was being lazy. And today I actually sat down, intending to write about the book, but I found I didn’t have much to say about it, or no insights that I thought worthy enough to share.

So I’ve been in a slump, you could say. One of my own choosing. But the other day, I ran into this quote by one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

I could say that it’s difficult to find time to write, which it is. But the truth is that I simply need to make it part of my routine, until it becomes engrained within me. Obviously I can’t follow the same routine as Murakami, but setting time aside each day to write and recognizing that writing is a time-consuming, laborious act is obviously key.

A few years ago, one of my friends told me, “You can always make time.” In other words, being busy should never be an excuse. And, to be honest, if I really scrutinize my schedule, I’ll see that I’m not very busy at all. I can always cut down on the time I spend on Facebook, or Reddit, or whatever other time waster I like to indulge in.

Even if I have to wake up an hour earlier each day (which would put me at a god-awful 5 AM), I promise to put aside time to write each day, to contribute thoughts that will eventually result in a weekly blog post. Because writing is important, and as much as I love technical writing (and I do actually love it), sometimes I need to write my own words about my own thoughts.

Book Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart

Still, the time I spent with her was more precious than anything. She helped me forget the undertone of loneliness in my life. She expanded the outer edges of my world, helped me draw a deep, soothing breath. Only Sumire could do that for me.

Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami

I remember the first time I encountered Murakami. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and I was spending the summer in Seoul visiting relatives. On my uncle’s bookshelf there was a copy of the Korean translation of Kafka on the Shore. The bookshelf was in a room that was my bedroom during my stay.

I remember gliding my fingers over the spine, reading the premise on the back cover, and sliding the book back into place. It sounded intriguing, but I didn’t trust my deteriorating Korean comprehension skills to be able to make sense of it.

Years later, I still haven’t read Kafka on the Shore, in Korean or otherwise, but I have accompanied Murakami’s characters through unexpected phone calls, ear fetishes, encounters with enigmatic, unconventionally attractive women, and many other motifs that reoccur in Murakami’s world.

Those who are not fans of Murakami complain about the overuse of these motifs. “Can’t he do something else? Doesn’t he have any other ideas?” I’ve heard these complaints from acquaintances who enjoyed their first Murakami work, tolerated their second, and had the magic wear off for them by their third.

For me, these motifs make diving back into Murakami like visiting an old friend, albeit a quirky, lonely one who spends more time with books than people. And I would attribute the repetition of the motifs as proof that all these stories exist in a preferable, parallel reality (another of Murakami’s favourite motifs), rather than the author’s lack of new ideas.

I received Sputnik Sweetheart for Christmas, from a close friend who shares my love of Murakami. And, true to form, it contains characters with literary aspirations, pianists, unrequited love, and numerous other Murakami tropes.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I loved Sputnik. At barely 200 pages, it made for a quick read that easily distracted me from the crowded, uncomfortable reality of my morning commutes.

One of the factors that set Sputnik apart for me was the characters. There are only three key players in Sputnik: the narrator, identified only as “K”, Sumire, and Miu. At the surface level, all three are simple reconstructions of the usual Murakami tropes: the introverted protagonist, his quirky love interest, and the mysterious, wealthy older woman.

But as I continued to read on, the characters developed into more than the usual tropes. I’m not sure why, but loneliness and unrequited affections, often part of the pervading atmosphere in Murakami’s world, felt more acute with these three characters than with any other Murakami cast.

K felt lonelier to me than any other Murakami protagonist. In fact, he didn’t even feel like a protagonist. When I was learning about different types of narrators in elementary school, I remember my teacher struggling to come up with an example of a second-person narrator (maybe other than Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) or simply telling us that there was no such thing as a second-person narrator. For me, K, while not exactly a second-person narrator, certainly felt like a 1.5-person narrator. His story revolves exclusively around Sumire. Unlike many other Murakami protagonists, who seem to be magnets for interesting occurrences and attractive women, once Sumire was removed from K’s life, there was no one else.

Maybe I also felt K’s unrequited feelings for Sumire more acutely because they simply are more unrequited than any other such relationship. K loves and desires Sumire, but Sumire desires no one but Miu, and appears to have no desire for men in general. Yet K remains a faithful friend to Sumire, and acts unselfishly to maintain their relationship, which is, to him, the most important in his life. K’s inherent unselfishness made him, to me, one of the most intriguing Murakami protagonists, despite his otherwise lack of personality.

YES OR NO?: A definite YES. Even as a seasoned reader of Murakami’s work, I was completely invested in Sputnik as I read it. I’d also recommend it as an introduction to Murakami, as the plot and characters are both fairly easy to understand, and it is light on the surrealistic elements, while still familiarizing you with all the usual tropes.

What I read in 2014, and what I hope to read in 2015

I’m happy to say that despite various jobs, schoolwork, and other commitments, I happily surpassed my goal of reading one book a month in 2014. I managed to get through twenty-three titles, mostly novels (with one collection of short stories and one Gladwell pick):

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  2. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  3. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
  4. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell
  5. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
  6. A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon
  7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
  8. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  9. Small Island, Andrea Levy
  10. Taipei, Tao Lin
  11. A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
  12. A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
  13. Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
  14. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami
  15. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami
  16. A Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami
  17. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  18. Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson
  19. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
  20. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
  21. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  22. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  23. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

2014-12-25 01.42.20 1-1It seems strange to end off the year without mentioning Christmas. Happily enough, this Christmas, I received some excellent gifts to fuel my literary interests. Murakami was the author who dominated my year, especially my summer, which was spent poring over tales filled with cats, jazz cafes, solitary protagonists, and surreal happenings. Out of all the books I read in 2014, I would say that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was the one that left the biggest impact on me, with its subtle melancholy and not-so-subtle nostalgia. And in 2015, this obsession with Murakami will continue, since one of my friends was kind enough to gift me a copy of Sputnik Sweetheart.

In 2015, though, I hope to get even more reading done, especially with the help of my brand new Kindle Paperwhite, which I received for Christmas. I’d previously been ambivalent about e-readers, preferring the feel of crisp new pages and the simple smell of books to a screen, but after having used my Kindle consecutively for a week, I can definitely see the benefits. The Kindle is so light, a huge plus for people like me who use their long commutes for reading. It also has a very long battery life, and its Vocabulary Builder is too convenient for words (pun not intended). Although I still love the feel of a real book in my hands, I look forward to the new year with my new Kindle.

Happy New Year, and happy reading in the new year!