book review: absolutely on music

I’m a Haruki Murakami fan. Absolutely on Music is a book of conversations he had with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa. It’s fine.

I found some parts interesting, but this one would really benefit from listening to the music along with the book. I just don’t have the in-depth knowledge to compare what they were saying with my experience of music. Now I want to listen to multiple performances of Brahms to try and make the sorts of comparisons these two were doing, but I doubt I’ll get there.

book review: colorless tsukuru tazaki and his years of pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the new novel by Haruki Murakami. It was more in the realm of Sputnik Sweetheart or South of the Border, West of the Sun than it was a 1Q84 or Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Really, that’s probably all the review this needs. I love Murakami novels (even the ones I have issues with) and this is very definitely a Murakami novel.

In this one, the protagonist Tsukuru Tazaki is trying to reconnect with his tight group of friends from when they were young. There’d been five of them and he was the only one who didn’t have a colour in his name. He lost contact when they all abruptly cut him off one day, out of nowhere. Tazaki is pushed into this task by a girlfriend and it involves a lot of reflection and listening to Liszt.

It didn’t get very weird. It echoed the dream responsibilities and other worlds of some of his other books, and there’s speculation about what could have happened and Tazaki’s responsibility for what a nonexistent version of himself was capable of.

I liked it. Not set on fire by it, but Murakami is my comfort reading now, so I’m okay with my brain being set aflame elsewhere.

book review: zone one

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.

book review: subduction

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.

book review: usurper of the sun

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.

book review: anya’s ghost

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.

book review: 1q84

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.