Friday, July 5, 2013

The Pendulum That Moves The World (Kafka on the Shore)

Kafka on the Shore is the second book I've read by Haruki Murakami. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle was the first, which I read at the end of May. Normally I space my reading of specific authors out more, even when they are good. I realize that two novels into a career's worth of work technically means I am a novice when assessing the larger significance they might hold in the world of literaturebut damn if I don't think I've found the genuine article here, a master of letters. I see a lot of people try and put a finger on Murakami's particular brand of genius by inserting the names of two to four of their favorites and then adding some off color comment about how they fit together. A common example mentions something like 'having a baby' or 'throwing a party' or 'cramming in a clown car, speeding down the freeway high on mushrooms'. You'll get none of that from me ; though honestly it isn't because I'm altogether against that kind of mash up comparison. I just really wouldn't know how to put it. Murakami is just too uniquely Murakami for me to smartly simplify things for you.

One of the things that struck me during, and after reading this book was just how interesting I found the characters. This is an impressive feat considering the cast presented. Kafka, the main protagonist starts out a runaway whose determined to be the toughest 15 year old kid in the world. Kafka is running away from a prophecy, and a fate out of Greek tragedy. This quest alone may have been enough to carry a very good story – but this was better than very good. As such Murakami introduces us to Nakata, an old man who suffered a mysterious accident in his youth and has subsequently lost the ability to read and write, forcing him to live on what he calls his sub city from the government. However cruel this may seem the accident has somehow left Nakata with the ability to speak with cats. He uses this ability to earn a little money on the side as a cat-finder in his neighborhood. Once the story gets rolling chapters alternate between these primary points of view. Even this doesn't really express the depth of intrigue that Murakami's characters provide. Everyone in this book is interesting and in some way memorable : from the hemophiliac assistant librarian who likes to listen to classical music while speeding in his sportcar, and his generous yet secretive boss who once topped the charts with her one and only record, the truck-driver who shares a name with the manager of his favorite baseball team and feels a duty to the elderly after wild teenage years – not single character is without depth. Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker even make appearances, the latter delivering one of the creepiest scenes I've ever read.

Reading Murakami can certainly be a mind-bending experience – though it also feels like a distinctly enriching one as well. We get some ruminations on history, philosophy, poetry, music, classic Japanese literature and more. With so much weirdness going on one might easily get lost in a Murakami novel. Some reviewers have expressed this, saying things to the effect of 'this is a mess of a plotline' or something similar. I can sympathize with that in some respect. I think perhaps if I wasn't so into the story, or if I was otherwise halted in my reading for some reason I might lose my bearings too. Though in my two experiences reading Murakami I have gotten hooked early and flown through them at a good pace. For me it was anything but a mess, in fact I consider it to be incredibly well crafted. It is posed more than once in the novel that everything, including the world is metaphor for something else. I understand that such things can be a bit too highfalutin for some, but I am not of their number. I enjoy a good mental puzzle and Murakami is anything but clumsy with with his layered meanings, otherworldly atmosphere and referencing of all things academic and cultured.

I could go on with a further plot summary, but I really don't like writing those – I also think especially in the case of a writer like Murakami synopsis' are really only going to fill space in a review and not communicate much of what makes the book special. I am tempted to go buy a bunch of Murakami right now and read them in succession. But I won't do that. As much as I've enjoyed both of the novels I've read by him I also kind of like the idea of saving those trips for later. Maybe when I hit a little rough patch of minor or major disappointments I'll come back to Murakami, and the comfort of knowing I won't be bored for as long as it takes me to read a third book by a trusted friend.

For the song I am compelled to use Kafka on the Shore* - first written only in lyric form in the novel and later recorded (and included as part of the audiobook) This blog is called Subliminal Maybe : this sort of takes the maybe out of question, I know. I could have racked my brain and come with something interesting I'm sure. It is an inspiring kind of novel that gets plenty of things turning over in my head. But for all that this still feels like the right choice, if anything is in the spirit of the concept of my blog this is it. Plus how many books actually have a song written 'in them' anyway? I also noticed after looking for the song, not knowing if it was recorded anywhere – and finding it, that there is actually a band called Kafka on the Shore. See what I mean about it being inspiring? 

Monday, July 1, 2013

You And All Your Pieces [Shadows]

Follow Her Home is the first offering from L.A. native Steph Cha. Cha quite clearly loves the noir masters like Chandler and Hammett – a love she passes on to her protagonist Juniper Song. By embracing these influences she is able to create a likeable heroine and connect with readers all in the same introductory space and get the story moving quickly. In a way Song's experiences mirror the author's possible apprehensions. Writing a first novel is a lot like having your first case as a private eye – you have some idea of how things should fit together, but until you are really in it for real you can't be all that sure how things will shake out. Thus having the literary touchstones to help serve as a guide can only be a comfort.

This book does follow tried and true conventions in some respects. It moves fast, like all noir should in my opinion. The genre's best examples are page turners that hook you early and send you careening into dark places both physical and emotional. Places where dead bodies are sure to pile up and deceptions only seem to get deeper and more layered as time passes.

Song is enlisted by her best friend Luke to investigate the possibility of an affair between his big shot lawyer father and an attractive young woman, Lori Lim, who works at his firm. This is merely how we get started however, we quickly learn that Song has gone snooping in the past and that the results were somehow disastrous. Through this secondary mystery we will learn more about Song's past and her current motivations too succeed where she once failed.

Many a noir has begun with a mysterious woman being followed or otherwise investigated. Though this is the first time I have personally read such a novel with a female gumshoe. [not that there aren't examples out there, but young boys don't typically go for Nancy Drew mysteries]. Call me a sexist if you must, but  the one time I caught ten minutes of an episode of the tv adaptation of the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series - I was decidedly not into it.

As a sleuth Juniper is a bit of a smart-ass, but if your hero is Philip Marlowe this is to be expected. Maybe that is why I found it easier to like the character. It didn't feel like 'gendered genre fiction'. It was simply a good modern noir story for anyone who appreciates mystery and plot twists. Song often thinks in terms of what Marlowe would be doing in her position, not having a wealth of previous cases to fall back on. I also had one of those weird 'meta moments' when Song mentioned Murakami being on a certain bookshelf – if you glance at my goodreads shelf just now you'll see I'm currently reading Kafka on the Shore. 

I don't want to give much of the plot away, so I won't go too far into detail. I think it's enough to say that the book kept me engaged throughout the duration. I read it in two days and enjoyed it more than I expected. I'll gladly check out what Cha puts out next though I'm curious to see if it will be another 'Juniper Song Mystery'. I guess I could see it happening because so many of these things turn into series – though in my view that is also why many of them fall into a rut of feeling formulaic in short order. I suppose Hammett's Continental Op, and Chandler's Marlowe were notable exceptions to the rule so maybe underestimating the staying power of Cha's heroine would be a mistake on my part.

Whatever the case may be, this was a solid debut by my reckoning. For the song on this one I have selected “Shadows” by Warpaint. Fittingly enough a kick-ass 'girl band' also, from L.A. It was featured on their 2010 debut full length The Fool which was one of my favorites from the year. Oh, and one last point of curious interest - whilst  I was trying to make up my mind on a song for this review I stumbled onto some mock up movie trailers for this. I kid you not. It must have been a school assignment for a whole class or something, because there were quite a few and they all had groups of four to five students in them. It was one of those strange things that could only be possible on the internet.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

And The Scars Run Together (Golden & Green)

When you give a story collection a well known and weighty title like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” there is some considerable risk inherent in the choice. Robert Rash likely understands that such a reference is more than an homage to Robert Frost – it also comes with some serious expectation about content and impact. After all, the original poem is one that even casual readers of the form know and appreciate. It certainly has depth for the critical eye, but the thing is you don't need that critical eye to find the core of the poem's power.

Some of these stories are like that. The best of them are at least. The fact that this collection which normally would have taken me roughly about two hours to read ( given the short length) ended up taking me four days to complete says something . The struggle was entirely due to that gravel-in-your-guts feeling that effectively bleak writing can give you. Another strong point of this collection is that while the time periods vary, the sense of place is still a strong anchor which grounds the stories in a common kind of rough reality.

I've never read Rash before, though I gather that he has published several collections previously and has gotten a fair bit of acclaim (being a PEN / Faulkner finalist, and winning the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award). This was a good impression for an introduction to his work, though I have no way to know if it fully showcases his talent. My favorites were the title story Nothing Gold Can Stay, Something Rich and Strange, A Servant of History, & A Sort of Miracle.

As a reader you learn to not expect happy endings in short fiction. Short story writers often go for raw nerves. This brand of Appalachia centric despair has a lot in common with the work of Daniel Woodrell , whose collection The Outlaw Album I have previously reviewed (and ranted about). In all honesty I do prefer Woodrell and that may be why I wasn't moved to give this a higher score. Make no mistake however, this was good - it just didn't have quite the shine for greatness. For the song I have chosen “Golden and Green “ by The Builders & The Butchers.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Judgments of All Kinds ( See Me and Suffer)

I haven't reviewed anything in ages. Honestly I was wondering for a while if I'd ever get back in to the habit of it. I decided to jump back in with D.B.C. Pierre's Booker Prize winning debut “Vernon God Little”. My decision wasn't based on a particular love for the book, as one might assume, nor was it based on a deep hatred of it. I say this noticing that this novel obviously inspired a fair bit of both on Goodreads. My desire to review this came instead from those strong reactions it has drawn out of other people. I enjoy seeing a book get discussed with real vigor by both defenders and detractors. My feelings on the work actually fall somewhere in the middle ground. (If I could give it 3 and ½ stars I would)

On one hand I see why a voice like Vern's could captivate some readers. The vulgarity and biting social commentary coming from a 15 year old kid can be endearing to the right ear. It may also be infuriating and laughable to the wrong one. I was made to understand quite early on that I was supposed to sympathize with Vernon. Likewise I was prompted to immediately dislike the vast majority of Pierre's secondary characters in this small Texas town. I did get a few laughs out of the observations young Vern provided, which is the most one has the right to hope for in a book dealing with the fallout of a school shooting. Still there were some overblown caricatures here that somewhat tarnished the overall strength of what would otherwise be perfectly valid criticisms of modern American life.

I've seen some responses that lambasted the Booker Prize selection committee – one reviewer who was apparently very offended stated that this was ' more proof that the Brits hate the United States' or some such blah. (ignoring the fact that although D.B.C. Pierre sounds like the name of a slimy Frenchmen – he is in fact a resident of the U.S.) Booker Prize winners haven't always struck me as great. In fact some have left me rather bored, but I wouldn't suggest that it proves much of anything about animosity felt across the pond.

I found this mostly entertaining if at times implausible. It does attempt to tackle heady issues, with a humorous bent -which as a lover of satire I can only appreciate. I won't give any spoilers away – the little blurb on the back cover says all you need to know, if you are wondering whether you'd be interested in it.

I went along D.B.C. 's insistence about who to root for, and who to despise in the story. But there is a point where I draw the fucken line partner ; *being the only reviewer I know who pairs their criticism with a musical accompaniment I could not in good conscious (or good taste, whichever you prefer ) make my return to reviewing and leave you all listening to an awful Glen Campbell song. No siree, I just wouldn't do that to you. So instead, here is a song that was quite clearly inspired by the novel itself.

See Me And Suffer “ by Owen Hackett

Saturday, December 31, 2011

..And There Ain't No Way Around It (A World of Hurt)

There are so few perfect sentences in literature. As a poet I'm reminded of this fact often enough, which is perhaps why I've long thought that brevity is best when making an attempt at perfection. There is something extra special about being able to put weight and impact into a single line of prose ; a line that could stand on its own as poetry, or in song. With Daniel Woodrell's collection of short stories, The Outlaw Album, he shows a rare ability to do this rather frequently. His sentences sometimes stop me dead, and force me to think. Not because what was written isn't clear or otherwise confusing - but because it strikes a chord of some truth deep down in whatever it is that makes us human.

To say that this collection of short fiction is grim or sad would be putting it very lightly.  After all Woodrell made his writers bones penning stories of woe and sorrow years ago.  ( I wasn't a reader until recently however). His Bayou Trilogy [ Under The Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, The Ones You Do] was released originally in the late 80's and began his career characterized as country noir. You might also know of Woodrell from Winter's Bone [ the 2006 novel that became the 2010 film of the same name, a Sundance darling that later saw an academy award nomination for Best Picture]   Now, I have read the Bayou books and liked them quite a bit, but it wasn't until I read some of Woodrell's short fiction that I was absolutely sold on his brilliance. The knack for voice was there early on to be sure but I think that it was the shorter works' natural structural limitations that really let his style shine.  Several of the stories in The Outlaw Album are only a few pages long but in those few pages there is heart and soul that most authors can only hope to someday approach.

The setting of Missouri Ozarks figures into a large portion of Woodrell's writing, and this is as true as ever in The Outlaw Album.  The setting is as much a character as any other, and really helps to ground everything in a sense of authenticity. The people in the stories are desperate, if far from innocent, and well acquainted with hardship : From a father who refuses to welcome home a son whose become a poet in prison knowing nothing of the words but too much about where they came from , or a niece who does what she to must pacify a monster. These characters are real, and  believable in both the best and worst ways possible.  

I don't want to give away much of what's here except to say that this collection is one of the finest things I've read in a long time. [as if my sudden return to blogging doesn't say that loudly enough] A Best of the Year candidate without question. A quick read that I flew though in weekend and then actually went back and re-read just so I could dig in to some of those awe-inspiring little passages and ponder.


Monday, May 23, 2011

How Wise Were The Old Men (Chinese Translation)

Ah summer is here again, time to read and be contentedly lazy. Shen of the Sea : Chinese Stories for Children by Arthur Chrisman, is not the first thing I've read so far during my summer break, but it felt like the right book to review to get back in the swing of this blogging thing. For starters it is the very definition of light reading.  It only took me an afternoon to get through, and still it left me in a thoughtful mood. I should also add that having taken a course on children's lit this past semester I have a rekindled interest and appreciation for books aimed at kids ; So when I saw the brand new shelf reserved for Newbery Medal winners at Kearney's freshly renovated public library I went straight over and picked this up.

In the aforementioned class I read several Newbery winners, and without fail they were all worthwhile reads. This is quite impressive considering the fact that I've been underwhelmed and let down by just about every other literary award under the sun a time or two. The Pulitzer, The National Book Award, The World Fantasy Award, The Man Booker Prize, The Nebula, The Hugo, you name it - they have all lauded a stinker somewhere in their history.  Critics of the Newbery Medal have said that the Childrens Librarians section of the American Library Association, who award the medal, often pick the books they like, as adults, and not necessarily the ones that kids themselves would want selected. As true as that criticism may be I find it hard to find fault here. I mean honestly doesn't that very dynamic ensure greater quality? Think of awards in other mediums of entertainment, If you're fine with Justin Bieber sweeping award shows go ahead and watch Nickelodeon's Kid Choice Awards.  Personally I think the Newbery is more serious than that, and thus adults, who are after all the writers of childrens literature, should be so discerning when picking the one work every year deserving of the medal.  Now that I'm done with that rant we can get on to the fun part, the actual review.

Shen of the Sea was originally published all the way back in 1925 (winning the Newbery in '26) and as such it does feel a bit dated. However it's age also makes it all the more interesting to read today.  Literature has always provided a unique lens through which to view the past - and this is especially true in books for kids.  We see not only the prejudices and biases of the day, but also the curiosities and concerns of parents during that period.  Sometimes this is humorous sometimes it is embarrassing, or sad.  In the case of Shen of the Sea it was all three from the word go. The very first story included in the collection titled "Ah Mee's Invention" opens by referencing an old Chinese proverb about the positive side to rainy days in which " There will be plenty of leisure in which to beat the children".  This is not I might add, the only instance of child abuse humor in the book. In fact it makes no fewer than three appearances in the sixteen stories.   Of course the speaker in this case does not mean it to be taken literally. Yet his brother thinks he does, as his nephew Ah Mee  has recently stomped his 'honored uncle's' cabbage patch while pretending to be an elephant.  The boy had previously promised never to stomp the cabbages while pretending to be a dragon. Ah Mee's example is very similar to other children in these stories - who are mischievous and flawed, but still somehow remain endearing.  Folktales are often viewed as something akin to fables where morals seem to be found at the end.  Yet my understanding of the difference rests not in the existence of didactic devices , but the function of them.  In a fable there is a moral about human behavior - in a folktale, there is a fictionalized explanation for  a tradition in a given culture.  They are still lessons in their way, but they also connect in a larger sense to the people they are about.

The fact that this collection was written by a white man from Virginia may seem to render it inauthentic to some readers. Although personally I think Chrisman did a great job taking Chinese stories and presenting them to an American audience.  He chose his words with care and that has not only made this stand the test of time for adult readers but has kept it easy and fun for kids to read themselves.  Still, I imagine this book is at it's best when a parent reads it to a child, out loud. The names especially seem to illustrate this, as in one story "Chop-Sticks" the two main characters are Cheng Chang and Ching Chung. Many of the stories have similarly named characters so that the effect of reading them out loud creates those tongue twister sentences that make children giggle with glee.  The illustrations by Else Hasselriis are also eye catching and really help give the stories some added Chinese flavor ; they are black and white styled drawings that resemble Chinese print-making - which fittingly enough is the the tradition  featured or 'invented' in the first story.

Admittedly I am nowhere near ready to be a parent. Yet if and when I father something other than blogs and poems I will read this again. Out loud and maybe even in the voice of a little old Asian man.  For now I will settle for recommending it to friends and family who currently have one of those tiny monsters they call children running around pretending to be dragons, elephants, or even a Phineas or a Ferb (whatever the hell those things are supposed to be)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Until My Darkness Goes (Paint It Black)

I'm back from my blogging hiatus now that another semester has passed. How long this return will last before I'm pulled entirely back into my studies I can't be sure. Still, it is nice to have time for reading for fun again. The Best American Noir of the Century is a collection compiled by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler.  It's a massive book with nearly forty stories, and stretches as far back as 1923 (Tom Robbins' "Spurs") and as recently as 2007 (Lorenzo Carcaterra's "Missing The Morning Bus")  for it's material. When a collection claims to be the best of the year, I approach it with what can only be described as modest expectations. If the time period expands to larger proportions, such as decades or more my skepticism and hopes rise in rather unequal amounts. Usually in favor of the former, seeing as I am a bit cynical, even around the holidays. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised again and again while reading these stories.

Noir, in literary terms can seem at times to be simple and complex when it comes to classification. It started as a sub-genre within mystery fiction which has since broadened its scope and  as such has grown to include  a wider array of writing.  Perhaps the easiest way to explain noir to those unfamiliar with it, might be to say the stories are well, black. From the settings to the plot lines and characters there is an ever present sense of darkness. Murder happens more often than not in noir fiction. There are ill-fated love affairs, of standard and triangle  variety. There are heists gone right, or wrong, and sometimes there are just psychopaths - who kill, just to kill. What makes almost any character interesting in any genre, is the depth and complexity of their flaws. That, for me, is what makes noir so fun to read. The protagonists aren't who you'd always expect. They are as flawed as anyone and might be called bad guys depending on how one chooses to look at it. Personally I've always been drawn to anti-heroes and so with this collection I found a lot to appreciate.

I've read countless collections and anthologies throughout the years - but never, and I mean never, have I been introduced to so many interesting authors as I have with this. Many of those authors are well-known and so I knew of them going in, but still hadn't read any of their work. This short list includes James Ellroy, who helped compile the volume and is regarded as one of America's finest crime writers. ( L.A. Confidential, The Black Dalia )  Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) is another prime example. I'd been intending to check her out ever since I read and reviewed Thieves of Manhattan - the story she wrote in this case was actually inspired by a Richard Nixon quote, scary right? "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" is just so memorable and creepy that I had to reference it by name. ( it is also the title to a short story collection by Highsmith) Lastly among these well known but, new to me writers was Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) You may have noticed by now that all the larger works I've mentioned were made into films, some with greater success than others. But that brings up another intriguing fact about this collection in that many of the stories included have been made into films themselves. Oftentimes re-branded with new names such as the aforementioned opener "Spurs" which was adapted way back in the black and white era into the film Freaks (1932). An example of one story that kept the original title when it was adapted would be MacKinly Kantor's Gun Crazy (1950). I plan on trying to track down a number of these movies sometime "Spurs" with it's midget, murderer, anti-hero was one of my favorites from the lot. As for what was my absolute favorite story, right now, I am leaning toward Tom Franklin's "Poachers". I'll leave the details to those curious enough to actually check out the book, as it is one of the longer works included. But what I will say is that setting, and the characters are just fantastic. I've always thought there was something extra unsettling about the south, this story and a few others selected only prove that point.

I'm tempted to give more plot specifics to certain stories, but I think that to any serious reader there is something terribly exciting about not being told everything.  There is something special in discovering these kinds of stories, and writers on your own so I will leave that reward for you. To readers looking for something new I strongly recommend giving this a try. Nearly every story is a gem. Maybe not emeralds or sapphires but surely obsidian - black, flawed and still beautiful. Stories of covetous, murderous dreamers who aim for stars because anything less would be inhuman ; or perhaps un-American. The genre, and American talent, could scarcely be better represented than they are in The Best American Noir of the Century.