book review – ‘men without women’ by haruki murakami

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I have to begin by saying that Haruki Murakami is, by far, my favorite living writer. He might even be my favorite writer of all time, though that title is one I’m loathe to give anyone. Writing is living – how do you chose a favorite?

Men Without Women is Murakami’s most recent publication in English. It is a book of 7 short stories, one of which I’d read in The New Yorker a few years ago.

The first several stories (perhaps the starting 4) are the least “classical Murakami” that I’ve ever seen him write. They take a much more matter of fact view of reality than I’m used to engaging in Murakami.

It’s a hard concept (“classical Murakami,” at least in my understanding) for me to unpack, but here’s an effort: Murakami has a particular presentation of reality that, although it varies in detail between novels and stories, is consistently a mixture of our known human experience with something other, something beyond. It’s often said, and I’ve used the phrase in my own writing and discussion, that his style is very similar to mystical realism. The other pokes in its head, but no one thinks it odd to encounter, even for the first time, something outside the realm of typical human experience and knowledge.

Story number 5, ‘Kino,’ is the first traditional Murakami engagement with reality of the collection, and was one of my absolute favorites. It’s the story of a man dealing with the end of his marriage, and the tale’s approach is simply beautiful.

The final story, ‘Men Without Women,’ lends its title to the book for good reason. It is another tale of loss, and loneliness, and telling our tales from the side, as we often do. Pain is difficult to face directly, so story provides an ideal outlet for that least pleasant of emotions.

I strongly believe that understanding and attraction come in knowing – so I’ll end with 3 of my favorite excerpts from the text.

Enjoy my Murakami.

Excerpts


“But the movement of time seemed not to be fixed properly. The bloody weight of desire and the rusty anchor of remorse were blocking its normal flow. Time was not an arrow flying in a straight line. The continuing rain, the confused hands of the clock, the birds still fast asleep, a faceless postal worker silently sorting through postcards, his wife’s lovely breasts bouncing violently in the air, something obstinately tapping on the window…In a small dark room, somewhere inside Kino, a warm hand was reaching out to him. Eyes shut, he felt that hand on his, soft and substantial. He’d forgotten this, had been apart from it for too long. Yes, I am hurt, Very, very deeply. He said this to himself. And he wept. In that dark, still room. All the while the rain did not let up, drenching the world in a cold chill.” (pp. 184-185)

“Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try and fix it…But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.” (p. 209)

“I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say here. Maybe I’m trying to write about essence, rather than the truth. But writing about an essence that isn’t truth is like trying to rendezvous with someone on the dark side of the moon. It’s dim and devoid of landmarks. And way too big. What I want to say is, M is the woman I should have fallen in love with when I was fourteen. But it was only much later that I fell in love with her, and by then, sadly, she was fourteen no more. We were mistaken about the time when we should have met. Like forgetting when you’re supposed to meet someone. You get the time of day and place right, but miscalculate the day…

That’s what it’s like to lose a woman. And at a certain time, losing one woman means losing all women. That’s how we become Men Without Women…” (pp. 218; 227)

Men Without Women: Stories

not a review, but thoughts after reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “Faith is only a word, embroidered.”

“It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation.”

I finally understand. I see why The Handmaid’s Tale has claimed a spot again on the best seller list. I sit on my couch and feel like a damn idiot. How have I not read this by now? A degree in English, plenty of graduate work (150+ hours and degrees to show), thousands of books read, 39 years of life gone – but never this one. The older I get and the more I experience and read, the more I realize that I know nothing, I’ve read nothing, and my life has practically been wasted.

I can imagine a Trump-esque regime leading America to the dystopian reality Atwood’s novel portrays. Fortunately, it seems that public sentiment is slowly turning away from the insanity we see daily from the government (bought by foreign powers, abandoned by those who could help) leading our country today.

Who publicly calls one of their leading allies evil?
Who uses world tragedies to attack their detractors?
Who rapes women?
Who physically attacks reporters?
Who shoves world leaders to keep themselves front and center in all things?
Who brags about supporting Everyman, yet refuses to pay their employees and contractors?
Who brashly shares state secrets with people who are virtually enemies?
Who plots to cut funding for the arts, education, and healthcare?
Who destroys you with a smile, claiming everything will soon be better?

The US today is mimicking the Republic of Gilead, where half of the population repeats phrases they know to be false, praising a regime that continually demonstrates disregard for all but the top 2% of the top 1% (economically).

Artists and writers and the press are persecuted in order to stop them from speaking the truth to the masses. Sound familiar?

The rights of women and minorities are oppressed in order to keep homogeneity in power. Sound familiar?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, our protagonist (and her frequently quoted aunt) remember what life was like before tyranny. But then we hear this: “We were a society dying…of too much choice.” Defeat. Aunt Lydia, and many like her, had not only accepted cruelty and deceit and a warped vision of life, but had come to embrace it. Yes, most likely as a coping mechanism for a reality that felt inescapable, but accept and support and preach they did.

This is our America, 2017, filled with adults and leaders who are bowing to what they swore they’d never accept. Evil, oppression, bigotry, isolationism, authoritarianism – these are the reality of what the regime wrenching power from the people represent.

Attack the press – attack the judiciary – attack the legislative branch – attack foreign governments – attack founding documents – attack the rule of law and justice – attack protestors – attack entertainers – attack artists.

All of this has happened, and will continue. This is a bald-faced attempt to change the landscape of American life, values, culture, history. This is a full-on attack on freedom.

You don’t have to be a particular fan of America to see the problem — I’m not. I often wish I weren’t born here and didn’t live here. But this county has always valued freedom and equality — these are being threatened today, under the very noses of those who swear protection, by the ones elected to protect them. That’s not alarmist — read the news, watch the people running things today and listen to them…listen to the words they proudly speak — there’s no question about their aims.

The Handmaid’s Tale offers us a warning. It shows us a vision of what life could look like if we allow our country to get out of control…if we allow regression to continue. A few glimpses of life in Gildead follow; heed this warning from literature.

Quotes for consideration:

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“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”

“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

“Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.”

“Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.”

“Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen. It’s one more thing I would like to steal.”

“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.” [it seems so…does this always have to be true?]

“But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.”

“There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with.”

“Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.”

“Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”

“I don’t want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don’t want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power.”

book review – ‘the twelve lives of samuel hawley’ by hannah tinti

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I’m typically not a huge fan of stories that would be categorized as “thrillers,” but this novel had me from the first pages.

Book blurb (from The Dial Press, Random House Publishing Group) – A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past—and the truth about her mother’s death—in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief. After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past—a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks. Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

Tinti’s novel reminded me of classic Southern storytelling — there was an smoothness about the writing, easy to follow but nuanced and quality. Tough scenes were presented without apology; humor peppered the story (I laughed aloud on multiple occasions). Characters were immediately relate-able and realistic. Audiences will form a connection with several of them. I was particularly attracted to Loo, the co-protagonist of the novel.

I enjoyed the pace and structure of the novel, alternating between the life Hawley and Loo now share, and easily transitioning to reveal pieces of Hawley’s earlier years as a criminal. The past and the present are woven together nicely, each revealing more about the other as the story progresses. Hawley’s backstory ebbed and flowed and was wonderfully built, especially his relationship with Loo’s mother (dead before the novel begins) and his growing fondness towards his own daughter. One of the high points of my reading experience was the loving, delicate way relationships are described throughout.

You must respect a novelist who takes the story where it demands to go. About 96% of the way through, things began to happen to simply had to happen. I hated almost every one of those pages — I didn’t want my friends to deal with situations I’d feared were coming for some time. Yet I loved the author telling the story that had to be told, versus taking some easier way out. And the conclusion for everything was wonderfully handled.

Tinti isn’t what I’d think of as a writer of literature, but the writing throughout is solid. There are some odd word choices from time to time (that don’t seem to fit a particular character or situation), but otherwise the writing is consistent and enhances the story.

This is certainly a novelist I would read again.

book review – ‘the shadow land’ by elizabeth kostova

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When I was 28, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). About a year later, at a routine check-up, my lung X-ray showed a cloudiness that concerned my rheumatologist. He immediately referred me to a pulmonologist, fearing that I’d developed lymphoma from my RA treatments. After a series of tests, eventually I had to undergo a lung biopsy. [Skip to the end – not cancer, but sarcoidosis.] As I recovered from the procedure, I read a book I had recently picked up in the sales bin at a local bookstore – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. I devoured the book in about a day and a half. I loved her take on the Dracula mythology, which happens to be one of my favorite mythological topics. When I was sent an ARC of her newest novel, The Shadow Land [due out April 11, 2017], by Random House, I could not wait to tear into the text.

Book blurb, from Random House Publishing Group/Ballantine – From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present—and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country. A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger. Kostova’s new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

I will just jump right into this review: I felt the quality of this book fell short of what I’d hoped for, especially after my excitement to have another novel by the author of The Historian. The story is not bad, but it is also not great. The writing certainly is not bad, but it also is not the subtle and tugging language I had expected. I found nothing specific to dislike, but also very little to recommend the book as one people should dedicate time out of their lives to read.

One notable exception: Kostova’s description of music in general, and the playing of a violin in particular, was nearly enough to bring the fictional notes alive in my ears – these several passages were among my favorites in the text, and among the best written in all of the novel.

The most intense scenes in the novel (flashbacks, for the record), often difficult for the writer to craft, were the best written and most powerful sections of the novel. Again, confusion for me as reader, that the more “mundane” moments were not written with equal clarity and beauty. I want a consistent, lovely experience as I read. [That’s the ideal.] A terrible or mediocre experience, acceptable for consistency’s sake. The medley of quality in this text detracted from my experience of the novel – but I will reiterate again, the highs were very good. (Reminding me of The Historian, which was so well written and uniform.)

I did also enjoy the development of characters in this novel, especially the very elderly from the countryside of Bulgaria. They had an honest and genuine feel as characters, nothing contrived. The main two characters, however, sometimes felt forced, as opposed to behaving how they naturally might in any given situation. In fact, the flashbacks and stories throughout the novel resonated much better than the current turns of events in the text.

The ending of the novel also caught my attention – a twist, unexpected but not unbelievable or trite. Very well handled, leaving the reader on a high note as the story slowly comes to a close.

The novel is an odd mix – I like the characters, but never really develop concern for them. The novel is not flat, but also fails to draw the reader into the story in the way a truly great novel does. The suspense of the situation is managed well, but never reaches a level of interactive suspense for the reader. There’s just something missing, a connective dynamic with the text that simply never establishes itself, though most everything about the novel is quite good.

All in all, I would have to say this – The Shadow Land is an enjoyable book, and I would not dissuade anyone from reading it. But The Historian was a far better representation of the author’s ability, and I would recommend that book much more heartily than her new one.

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book review – ‘i called him necktie’ by milena michiki flasar

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“I called him Necktie. I will write: He taught me to see with eyes of feeling.”

I wanted to read this novel from the very moment its publication was announced. Somehow, I never managed to pick it up, but was fortunately given a copy this past Christmas (by my very thoughtful fiance). I have been somewhat obsessed with Japanese literature for some years now (the author is half Japanese), and particularly interested in hikikomori. The author describes hikikomori in the novel’s glossary as such: “…word used to describe Japanese youths who refuse to leave their parents’ house, shut themselves in their rooms and reduce their contact with the family to the minimum…” More information on the phenomenon can be found here: Hikikomori.

Blurb for the novel (from Amazon): Twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro has spent the last two years of his life living as a hikikomori—a shut-in who never leaves his room and has no human interaction—in his parents’ home in Tokyo. As Hiro tentatively decides to reenter the world, he spends his days observing life around him from a park bench. Gradually he makes friends with Ohara Tetsu, a middle-aged salaryman who has lost his job but can’t bring himself to tell his wife, and shows up every day in a suit and tie to pass the time on a nearby bench. As Hiro and Tetsu cautiously open up to each other, they discover in their sadness a common bond. Regrets and disappointments, as well as hopes and dreams, come to the surface until both find the strength to somehow give a new start to their lives. This beautiful novel is moving, unforgettable, and full of surprises. The reader turns the last page feeling that a small triumph has occurred.

As I expected, this novel was beautiful. The writing sparse, direct, and elegant, very nearly a work of poetry in prose. Organizationally and texturally, the work lies near perfection, carrying the reader through the worlds of Hiro and Tetsu, allowing us to observe them interacting, gradually revealing their backstories, and developing an intense empathy for them both. Tetsu teaches Hiro, and Hiro, in turn, teaches his elder.

Apart from the sheer beauty of Flasar’s writing, my favorite aspect of the novel was the deep reflection on topics of life, meaning, choices, and chance that the characters’ self-realizations engendered also in me. I frequently had to set down the book in order to ponder my personal interaction with the text. I love a book that makes me think, that makes me introspective, and especially one that, as this novel does, naturally accomplishes this without manipulation on the part of the author.

A spectacular novel that everyone should pause and read.

Two Quotes
“A sad charm. With him it as a sad weariness. When I opened my eyes I noticed that the people surrounding me were mired in this weariness, and we all appeared to be waiting for someone who would set us free. A cold hell we persevered in. Now and again a sentence recurred: You must do something.”

“If I think: Society. Then my head spins. Too big. What is that? I can’t see it. What I see are details. That’s what I want to stay with. With small things. And there, everyone is marked, everyone has a flaw, everyone needs each other…I reach out my hand towards you, and, that’s the answer to your question, perhaps it really is this reaching out, this reaching towards someone else, that’s needed most of all.”