I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.
First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.
Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).
Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.
Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.
Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.
In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.
Subduction is a book about a young doctor banished to an island full of elderly people who won’t abandon it just because earthquakes threaten it. It’s an interesting story and has art by LJC Shimoda that’s beautiful, but doesn’t really add much to the tale being told. There are three young people on the island and they get involved in a weird little relationship triangle while the doctor is told stories about everyone who lives there. I liked the framing of these stories well enough, but the whole book felt like it was trying very hard to be a Haruki Murakami novel. The big reveals in the ending were a bit too melodramatic and silly for my taste, but if you can swallow them the whole thing isn’t too bad. There’s a melancholy feeling about this dying island that Shimoda conveyed very well.
Usurper of the Sun is a science fiction novel by 野尻 抱介 (Housuke Nojiri). A blurb on the cover said it was a “blend of Arthur C Clarke and Haruki Murakami” which made me grab it off the shelf in the library. Let me warn you: the only similarity with a Murakami novel is that both authors come from the same island nation. Happily, it is very much like an Arthur C Clarke novel, which was enough for me to like it.
Aki is a young girl in high school who is the first person to notice a giant structure on Mercury that will eventually block out the sun. She dedicates her life to science to understand it and find out who built it, why and what can be done to communicate with the Builders all while ensuring human survival in our solar system.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in the book. It’s a good first contact story dealing with communicating with aliens that are entirely different from ourselves, and the assumptions humans bring to communication.
The characterization is pretty terrible. Maybe it’s just the translation, but everything is very declarative about loneliness and how much things mean to the different characters, and it all feels very clumsy and amateurish. But the characters were clear and you could see how better word choices could make it feel less sterile. Maybe it was trying to emulate those old science fiction stories where characters were standins to carry science around. In that case it worked. It felt very classic in its approach.
The ideas were interesting and if it seemed a little simplistic in places, well, there are worse things in the world.
Vera Brosgol wrote and drew Anya’s Ghost so well it’s widely regarded as one of the best graphic novels of 2011. I see no reason to disagree with this wide recognition I will not provide evidence of. (Okay fine: Here’s evidence she’s on the YALSA 2011 top ten list. Don’t go expecting anything more than cryptic un-referenced opinions in future reviews.)
The story is about a girl, a Russian immigrant girl in a crappy private school, who falls down a well. As a Haruki Murakami fan I am contractually obligated to love stories featuring wells. True fact. But then in the bottom of the well, Anya finds a ghost, which she brings up to the surface when she’s rescued.
The rest of the story is about her and the ghost and negotiating high school and the usual teen stuff about insecurity and being different. It’s beautifully done. Brosgol’s art is simple and clean and communicative. I heartily recommend it if you like ghost stories.
Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite writers. I make no secret of this, so take this review with that in mind. I really liked 1Q84 (though I still don’t know how to say the title in English – it’s Ichi Kyu Hachi Yon in Japanese – maybe Nine-Cue-Eighty-Four).
One of the things about knowing an author’s work pretty well is you can see the recurrent characters and themes from other works. 1Q84 feels a bit like a greatest hits collection of Murakami themes. We have (and here thar be spoilers): two worlds being traversed (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Sputnik Sweetheart), disappearing women (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), affairs with an older married woman (Sputnik Sweetheart), mystical people with weird powers (TV People), Ushikawa (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), a cynical older peer figure (Norwegian Wood), a piece of classical music with great significance (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Second Bakery Attack), cults (Underground), becoming a writer (Norwegian Wood), a thirty year old narrator vaguely disconnected from life (almost every thing Murakami’s ever written) and there are probably more. In any case, a lot of the book felt familiar, but it was all rearranged into a more or less pleasing form.
There is a fakeout ending that isn’t so severe if you read the three volumes in one shot the way my translation is put together, which was robbed somewhat of its impact. And I feel like the whole thing ended too easily. There was a lot of time spent talking about issues, restating them and not pushing forward. I feel like this could have been a leaner story, and it’s not going to be the first Murakami book I’d recommend to someone. For me so much of the pleasure was in the interplay of the old stories and seeing how these characters behaved differently from their previous incarnations.
For my money I’m still pegging Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as my favourite Murakami novel. The themes are very similar to 1Q84′s but I think it’s a better working of them.
None of this is to suggest I think 1Q84 was a bad book. I loved it as I read it. The page-numbering goes up and down the margins, flipping into horizontal reflections as they pass the midpoint. That’s the kind of beautiful little detail emphasizing the characters’ situations that I loved to pieces, and really only gets to happen in a book by a famous writer who keeps on being in the Nobel Prize conversation.
Actually, a bit about that. I don’t really understand why Murakami would be in the running for a Nobel. I love his books, but they don’t scream “This is the pinnacle of World Literature” to me. They are books that I love but they feel too idiosyncratic to be winners of that kind of award.
I want to be Joey Comeau. I will just say that. His writing is probably the stuff in the world that gets to my emotional core the best. There’s a Murakami story about a really good letter writer who makes you feel like you’re eating the hamburger steak she’s writing about, or so the narrator says. If I could do the stuff Comeau does, I would be a hell of a writer. His weird funny tales just dig into you and take your fucking heart and break it. In Bible Camp Bloodbath that’s almost not a metaphor. The ad copy for the book is “Child Murder: Anything this fun should be illegal.”
The book’s about a weird quiet kid named Martin. His mom works in horror movies and he goes to Bible Camp. At this Bible Camp nearly everyone is murdered in fantastically escalating gory ways. This is not a spoiler. The book is saved from being a self-conscious “Dude, we’re in a horror movie” wank-fest (note that there is some wanking in the book) by the refusal to really engage in the cliches of the “reflexive about horror tropes” sub-genre. Instead of winking and nodding at the reader the book revels in gory description that is painful, terrifying, ludicrous and oh so fucking graphic.
The terror of the victims plays into it, sure, but that’s not where the book’s heart is, at least, not for me. It’s almost a novel about the joy of being a weirdo, which is a common Joey Comeau theme, and one I’m happy to embrace. The victory condition achieved in the end of Bible Camp Bloodbath is beautiful. It’s not sentimental. It doesn’t fuck around with the novel’s rules. It just makes you cry. Made me cry. Although I did read it on the plane going to a funeral, so I may have been in a weird emotional state.
Anyway. If you want, you can read the whole thing for free here (at the bottom of each chapter just click Newer Post to read it in order from there). I bought it because it’s cheap and Joey Comeau deserves encouragement to keep on making these weird heartwrenching things. (Also, it has an index of murders which is a hilarious summary of the book.)
I’m not entirely proud of how I got my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Pinball 1973. I found a pirated translation in the geocities archive. So I downloaded it and put it on my ereader and felt bad. But. It’s not available to buy in English anywhere but Japan in a version that was created for Japanese learners of English. Murakami has said that he’s not interested in his crappy immature work being translated for international audiences. So a copy of that English version of Pinball 1973 (and his very first novel Hear the Wind Sing) is something I’d been keeping my eyes open for for ages, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $100 on a copy. This was a free PDF with the attendant formatting issues, but because it’s ripped from the Kodansha student edition of the book, it’s an Alfred Birnbaum translation (not some amateur’s), so that’s good.
(Note: If you ever want to buy me a present I’ll cherish forever, get me signed/rare copies of books that I love that are too expensive to justify buying for myself, since I have a copy of the work already. See what I did there? I differentiated between a FRBR work and an item. I’ve learned something in this semester of library school.)
Anyway, Pinball 1973 is about the boku narrator from A Wild Sheep Chase (and Dance Dance Dance) and his friend the Rat (just a name). It’s very loose and non-plottish. The narrator is living with indistinguishable twins and generally feeling like his life is aimless. The bit of plot comes from him trying to find a pinball machine of the type he played a few years before, but that quest is barely there at all. The whole thing is much more of a mood piece.
It definitely feels like a warmup to A Wild Sheep Chase. You can see all the Murakami-isms taking shape and it feels familiar but sketchy. Nothing’s as stab you in the heart awesome as his later work, but it’s Murakami that I hadn’t read before, so how could I dislike it?
Another book Holly had kicking around for me to read while hanging out at the bakery was Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I love this book so much. I think this was the first time I’ve ever read it while being in love, though, so it was a new experience despite being the 8th or 9th time reading it.
There are two parts to the book that I hate. Not that I hate the writing or whatever, I just wish things would go differently each time I read it. I hate what happens to the characters.
The first is the story of Reiko and the evil little girl who fucks up her life. Just for a lark. I mean, there’s not a lot of subtlety to how horrible this girl is and it flips all these sexualized roles around and is so creepy and it’s just to be evil. There’s this whole lack of control in the telling of that story that makes my guts twist up. It’s not Reiko’s fault, but this awful thing happens to her anyway. Shudder.
The other part I hate is how Watanabe doesn’t comment on Midori’s hair. How he goes to get a coffee and finds her writing him a letter. And then he’s fucked everything up forever. Because he didn’t comment on her haircut. Saying “Cute hair” is the kind of thing you can forget so easily. I hate to think about that being the gap between love and nothing.
But it’s such a good book. I can’t think of a better love story.
Doug Dorst’s The Surf Guru is a good collection of contemporary short stories. The best ones are funny, but nothing really changed my life.
One of them is about a controlling-personality woman who goes kind of wacko when she loses a wedding cake job (she’s a pastry chef). Another is about a quack doctor who’s treating Vincent Can Gogh. There’s also a collection of biographical sketches of botanists by a cantankerous botanist compiled by the son of the cantankerous botanist’s ex-wife (both ex-wife and son are also botanists). That was probably the funniest in tone of all the pieces, but the footnotes in one of the biographical sketches were either done from the wrong point of view or they were clumsily suggesting an alternative explanation for what was going on. It’s hard to say, as this was an advance uncorrected proof, so there might be more editing to do. Two stories were about the same fuckup characters, one story them on the road, and the other about them before they left. Those were my least favourite, apart from the really short one about firecrackers.
They were all decent stories about people who were on the edges of things and weren’t ever going to find their ways to anything important, so the whole thing had a bit of sadness hanging over it. I don’t agree with the backmatter text that calls Dorst “a Northern California Haruki Murakami,” or buy into him being “one of the most creative, original literary voices of his generation.” The stories are good. I’ll read more by Dorst if it’s set in front of me, but I’m not going to go hunting his previous novel down or anything.
In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.
Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.
But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.
Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).
It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?