Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murikami

The timing – and indeed the reading of this novel – has an unusual genesis: a specific request for a birthday present from a close friend. The present takes the form of a blog entry on Rabbit Reader and the October 4th segment of “Likely Stories,” my twice-monthly radio show on the local NPR affiliate, KWBU-FM 103.3 in central Texas. Happy birthday, P.! I hope you enjoy my review.

This might be the hardest review I have ever written. I have read Joyce’s Ulysses, and Proust – of which I have only read a few fragments -- and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. These great works share some things in common: complex plots, a large cast of characters, enough symbolism to make one’s head spin, and a plot which defies simple explanation. Muraki Hurakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle definitely belongs in the company of these stunning novels.

I first encountered Murakami when I heard of a new novel, Kafka on the Shore. I bought it simply because of the intriguing title. I loved the book, and went in search of something else by the Japanese author. I quickly found the Chronicle, but because it was over 600 pages, I put it aside. Then the request for the birthday present arrived.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1949. He attended Waseda University as a theater arts major. He runs marathons, and reportedly has a collection of over 40,000 jazz recordings. In 1974, he opened a Jazz bar, which he named “Peter Cat.” He published his first novel, Hear the Wind, in 1979, and he won a major Japanese literary award for it. In 1992, he was named an Associate Professor at Princeton University. In 1996, he published Chronicle and won another major Japanese Literary prize.

Normally, my habit in these reviews is to place a quote or two to give a flavor of the novel. However, I have so many passages underlined, bracketed, and starred, I would have difficulty choosing one. Furthermore, those I might choose would require so much background information, I would spoil the plot, while making the review impossibly long. Suffice it to say Murakami’s prose sparkles with amazing and hypnotizing detail. A reader cannot help but be drawn into the story, as if descending into a deep, dark well, with no light and only inner thoughts for company. Readers of the novel will understand this reference – like many others – repeated in various forms throughout the story.

Now, I always tell my students that reading and writing should raise questions in the reader’s and the writer’s mind. So rather than only a cursory trace of the plot, I will also share some of my questions.

The core plot set in Japan is simple. Toru and Kumiko meet and decide to marry. Her father does not like Toru, but agrees to the marriage on one condition: the couple must meet weekly with the mysterious Mr. Honda. Kumiko’s father will pay for the sessions. Mr. Honda proceeds to tell the couple strange and sometimes terrifying stories of his experiences in the Sino-Soviet war in Manchukou in the 1930s. This continues for about a year. Then, the couple’s cat, named Noburu Wataya, after Kumiko’s brother, disappears. Kumiko is heartbroken, and she insists Toru spends his days looking for the cat. Then, one day, Kumiko leaves for work, and completely disappears. Toru’s life then takes a surreal and, at times, bizarre turn. He meets a succession of strange characters, and the novel takes a sharp detour into the realm of magical realism.

Some of the questions which emerged as I read include: Why are all the products mentioned western? Why are all the long dreams of these characters described in vivid detail? Why is all the music the characters listen to exclusively western classical pieces? Who are all these strange surreal people who pop in and out of Toru’s life? What really happened to Kumiko? What boundary lines divide reality from dreams? Dreams from hallucinations? Hallucinations from reality? I could go on, but I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this great work.

Haruki Murakami is a genius, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is one of the great pieces of world literature. I classify it as a must read for all devotees of serious fiction. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 9/29/12

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’s essays on his slow walk to death, all have an air of seriousness, of course, but a vein of humor runs through them like a stream of cool water. I read this 104-page gem in a single sitting. The book includes a forward by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, for whom Hitchens wrote for many years, and an Afterword by his wife, Carol Blue.

According to her, “Hitch” – as his friends and readers affectionately knew him – wrote up until the end. In fact, the main point of the book is about the importance of writing. His greatest fear seemed to be the loss of this ability. During the final stages, speech became almost impossible, but he kept writing away. The last chapter consists of fragments, which “seem to trail off, but in fact were written on his computer in bursts of energy and enthusiasm as he sat in the hospital using his food tray for a desk” (103) as Carol Blue says.

Hitch gave some advice to writing students, which I have shared with my writing classes. He would begin, “by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in the class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ This had its duly woeful effect.” He then added this advice: “Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. … So, this above all: Find your own voice” (50).

He wrote on an incredibly wide variety of topics, but I did not always agree with him, particularly in regard to his support of the Iraq War; however, I always loved his prose, his way with words, his humor, and his evident love of the English language. Mortality is a sad good bye to and from Hitch.

Reading this meditation upon his impending death, inspired me to dig into the recently published mammoth, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. At nearly a thousand pages, it contains well over a hundred of his essays. I would rarely sit down and begin reading something like this from cover to cover, so I devised a plan -- an homage -- to Hitch. Starting on Sunday, September 16, 2012, I read one essay every night before bed. It will take more than three months, but that will be my own meditation on the loss of one of the great writers and orators of the 20th and 21st centuries. 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/22/12

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Through the years, the name Paul Auster would occasionally pop up in interviews, reviews, blogs, and even a half-hearted suggestion from a friend. But none of these sparked any interest in this prolific author. He has written 16 novels, 4 screenplays, 6 works of non-fiction, a volume of poetry, 3 illustrated books, and he has edited 3 anthologies. When I received an advance reader’s edition of his latest work – a memoir, Winter Journal -- from Henry Holt through the early reader’s club of, I decided it was time to find out what Paul Auster was all about.

Winter Journal appears 30 years after his critically acclaimed memoir, The Invention of Solitude, and, as the cover notes say, “Auster gives us a second unconventional memoir.”

The cover notes further state, Auster writes a “history of his body and its sensations – both pleasurable and painful.” Unconventional is a bit of an understatement. Auster wrote Winter Journal in the second person. Normally, I do not read second person novels. Ever since Jay McInerny’s, Bright Lights, Big City, I have resisted the temptation to read second person works. Auster’s memoir, however, has given me pause – a great, big, eye-opening pause. His narrative is engaging, and drew me almost from the first page, once I got over my “you/your phobia.”

Early on, when Auster examines his young body, he writes,

“…you ask your mother the question all children ask their parents, the standard question about where babies come from, meaning where did you come from, and by what mysterious process did you enter the world as a human being? Your mother’s answer is so abstract, so evasive, so metaphorical that it leaves you utterly confounded. She says: The father plants a seed in the mother, and little by little the baby begins to grow. At this point in your life, the only seeds you are familiar with are the ones that produce flowers and vegetables, the ones that farmers scatter over large fields at planting time to start a new round of crops for harvest in the fall. You instantly see an image in your head: your father dressed as a farmer, a cartoon version of a farmer in blue overalls with a straw hat on his head, and he is walking along with a jaunty, insouciant stride out in some rural nowhere, on his way to plant the seed.” (36).

My mother told me an almost identical story, except that the seed was “planted” beneath the mother’s heart. I had no idea back then my mother was so poetic!

Auster’s Winter Journal becomes a new connection to a favorite author. I already have a copy of The Invention of Solitude. I might even go back and take another look at Jay McInerney’s novel. 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/16/12

Making Things Better by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novels usually feature women loners floundering under bad relationships, who then try to escape depressing situations. As I wrote in 2009 about Strangers, this might seem boring – mining the same plot line over and over, but she draws her characters as finely as detailed, realistic paintings. Brookner spent years teaching art history in England. Furthermore, each of these characters deals with the escape and resolution in an entirely different manner. Strangers was the first of her novels I read that featured a man as the main character. Making Things Better, published in the U.S. in 2002, also features a man -- a loner, a dejected, rejected man who suffers some serious losses in his life.

Julius Herz manages a business owned by his father, Willie, and his partner Ostrovski. He lives alone in a flat over the shop. Julius meets Josie, and they marry. They try to live in the cramped flat, but Julius’s mother needs care, so they move into the even smaller flat with his mother. Julius’s world is shrinking – literally and figuratively. Josie hangs on for two years, but she abruptly leaves and files for divorce.

Then, the last prop is shoved out from under Julius. Ostrovski decides to retire to Spain, and he sells the business, but he does take care of Julius by settling a large amount of money on him for his years of service. Julius is now confronted with the possibility of a life style he never thought possible. He first leases a larger flat, and then – a creature of some serious habits -- continues his daily routine broken only by an occasional trip to a museum. Then he decides to take a holiday.

Brookner’s novels feature little in the way of dialogue. Rather, her forté is the serious interior examination of her protagonist’s life, loves, dreams, fears, and pleasures. In this scene, Ostrovski has broken the news of his retirement to Julius. Brookner writes,

“The suddenness of Ostrovski’s announcement seemed to have obliterated any response. Julius went to his small desk and scrutinized the invoices and accounts, the contents of which he knew by heart. But it was no good; he could make sense of none of it. His working life, it seemed, was over. Not quite what he had expected, he had admitted to himself in the course of the afternoon. Yet he had expected nothing, and had been endowed with freedom, a freedom for which he was entirely unprepared. … he would have to find somewhere to live. The prospect posed even more difficulties; he had never exercised his own wishes in this respect. … all his homes had been chosen for him. And home was such an emotive concept that he doubted whether he would be able to live up to it, to make a place for himself in a world where people exercised choices” (63-64).

The name “Julius Herz” sounds like a clue to the main character’s state of mind. My faithful readers know I am a fan of novels with deep psychological insights. Making Things Better fills that bill perfectly. 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/10/12

Monday, September 10, 2012

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

One of my favorite books of the last few years is Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for March, as well as critical acclaim for The Year of Wonders. Brooks has set all of these novels in remote time periods, and they all share one important similarity. Each time, Brooks captures the voice of the characters in their time and place. Her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing follows this pattern with superb results.

Geraldine Brooks loosely based Caleb’s Crossing on the true story of Caleb, a Native American living near some less than strict Puritans, in 1660, on what is now known as Martha’s Vineyard. He befriends the 15-year-old Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a strict Calvinist minister trying to convert Caleb’s tribe. The two form a bond which lasts for many, many years.

Bethia’s father agrees to tutor Caleb, and another young Indian, Joel, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in order for them to qualify for a scholarship dedicated to Native Americans to the recently founded Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before the arrival of Caleb, he tutored Makepeace and Bethia, but his son proved a poor student, and he despaired and stopped the lessons for both his children. He tried again with the two Indians in the hopes that Caleb would inspire his son.

He succeeded with Caleb and Joel, both of whom received the scholarships; however, Makepeace faltered. His father could not afford the cost of sending Makepeace to a preparatory school – along with Caleb and Joel – but he solved this difficulty by sending Bethia as an indentured servant to the headmaster of the school. Bethia narrates the story and reveals many of the secret meetings she has with Caleb. Her struggles with religion and her blooming womanhood are the keystones to the story.

As always, Brooks’ plots have a certain something, which creates vivid images in the mind of the reader. Her attention to detail raises the story to a level of realism I find most admirable. The icing on this marvelous dessert, however, consists of the voice of the narrator. I have spent a fair amount of time studying the 17th century, and have read a few books set in that period, not the least of which is Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. Brooks deserves a place of honor right next to that spectacular novel.

Bethia struggles with her religious views after spending some time with Caleb. He explains to her his pantheon of deities after Bethia tells him of the “one, true God of the Christians.” Brooks writes,

“But then, I remembered the singing under the cliffs. An inner voice, barely audible: the merest hiss. Satan’s voice, I am sure of it now, whispering to me that I already knew Keeskand, that I had already worshipped him many times as I bathed in the radiance of a sunrise, or paused to witness the glory of his sunset. And did not Nanpawshat have power over me, governing the swelling, salty tides of my own body, which, no so very long since, had begun to ebb and flow with the moon. It was good, the voice whispered. It was right and well to know these powers, to live in a world aswirl with spirits, everywhere ablaze with divinity” (36).

Numerous words in the Wampanoag tongue add additional spice to the story. Bethia explains some of the words, some are clear from context, while translation of others are easily found with a smart phone.

Bethia seems a bit too mature for a girl of 15, and sometimes I found this a bit annoying. Nevertheless, in Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks has another wonderful historical novel to her credit. I can’t wait for the next. 4-1/2 Stars.

--Chiron, 9/1/12