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