book review: ten billion days and one hundred billion nights

It makes perfect sense to read in the afterword of 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights that one of the big influences on Ryu Mitsuse (the author) was Stanislaw Lem. The story is about Plato and Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth (one of the three is the villain) dealing with Titans and Orichalcum, the death of all humanity, colliding galaxies and the existence of entities beyond infinity. It is fucking marvellous.

At first I thought it would be more like The Years of Rice and Salt, but 10 Billion Days is not nearly so grounded in the life of people being reincarnated. It’s the kind of book that you can sort of float through because the plot isn’t grabby, but then you shake out of yourself and ask what happened and you realize you’re somewhere distant and cosmic. I don’t know how much of that distancing comes because this is a translation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a book about cyborgs looking for god and I liked it a lot.

book review: wandering son (vol. 1)

Shimura Takako’s comic Wandering Son is about a middle school boy who wants to wear dresses and a girl who looks like a boy. I found the concept interesting, and it was a sensitive exploration of some of these non-binary gender issues, that aren’t played for laughs as in Ranma 1/2. The actual execution just didn’t work for me. I had too many problems distinguishing the similarly drawn characters to really get into the story. I would recommend it to manga fans looking for something in the YA realism vein.

book review: rocket girls

I did not like Housuke Nojiri’s Rocket Girls. It’s a science fiction story about a teenager who goes to the Solomon Islands looking for her father and gets co-opted into a space program because she’s small enough to need less thrust on the rockets they’re trying to launch into space in the next 6 months or the plug will be pulled on the project. It is so fucking stupid.

It seems that Nojiri wanted to write a cool vaguely realistic story about low earth orbit. He probably did a bunch of research on rockets and Mir. But the situation is so stupid. Yukari finds her father on the island and he’s been made chief of an islander band that cheers for explosions of the rockets as fireworks. He has another daughter almost the same size as Yukari. Who can then be her backup on the mission! And if she goes through with the training he’ll come back to Japan with Yukari and get back with her mother and they’ll all live a normal life!

There’s also sketchy bullshit about the islanders cursing the rockets, and a plan Yukari has to get Chinese food delivered so she’ll be too heavy to go on the rocket, media people bursting into her room in the middle of the night for interviews, and gay Russian cosmonauts who accidentally destroy Mir (that was a spoiler).

It’s ridiculous enough that if it was written with a sense of humour, it could be pretty fun. But it’s trying so hard to make us take this seriously, it’s just aggravating. I wonder if it’s a translation issue.

Anyway, I cannot suggest this book unless it’s to someone really into orbital dynamics. Even then the unrealistic mad scientists and complete motiveless changes of character will probably get in the way of any enjoyment.

book review: ax (vol.1)

Ax is an anthology of alternative manga stories. I don’t really read enough manga, so I figure anthologies are a good way to help me find new things. There were a bunch of stories I didn’t like, because they were too crudely drawn or too much florid art/language (which might have been better in Japanese). But there were a few I did like.

Love’s Bride by Yoshihiro Tatsumi: A guy gets possessive about a girl he knows so she tells him to fuck off and he goes to the zoo and falls in love with an ape who truly understands him. I’ve read a bunch of Yoshihiro Tatsumi books before so maybe it’s just familiarity with his straightforward style, but the story was well-done.

Conch of the Sky by Imiri Sakabashira: This one was way more metaphorical and weird, with squids crawling into the sick guy’s futon and then going off on a chase through the dark. The narration and the sinuous but not overdone art really sold it for me. It felt like a fever dream. In a good way.

A Broken Soul by Nishioka Brosis: The art in this story was what I really liked. It felt kind of cubist as the main character discovered his soul was broken.

Enrique Kobayahsi’s Eldorado by Toranusuke Shimada: This is the story of an Eldorado motorcycle found in an uncle’s garage. Toranusuke Shimada draws in a style reminiscent of Joe Sacco and tells the history of these Brazilian motorcycle manufacturers who turned out to have gotten their skills from Nazis. This one probably felt the least like what I think of as manga of the book.

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.

book review: pinball 1973

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?

book review: where europe begins

The second Yoko Tawada book I’ve read, Where Europe Begins, didn’t leave me with quite the same “Holy fuck! I can’t believe this thing exists!” feeling that I got from The Bridegroom Was a Dog. Natural really. There were expectations now. So there were some bits I didn’t like so much but others that were great. It’s another book of shortish pieces, some of them translated from Japanese, some from German. I couldn’t tell which was which just from reading them, which probably speaks to the good work of the translators.

The most important part of the book (for me) was the title story. It’s about the narrator travelling the Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow. What got me about it was the admission of the narrator that parts of the story were written before she’d ever gone to Russia. “I like to have the story of a trip planned out so I can quote from it when I inevitably run out of words in the middle of my travels” (not an exact quote – grumble grumble returned my library book too soon – but that was the sentiment). And she also says that her diary was written long after the fact. Her notebooks just sat there mute during the travels. And the narrator doesn’t make the facile statement about not writing because she’s busy experiencing life or whatever; she can’t write on the train because the words all disappear. All words everywhere. For her. The story ends with her collapsed in a Moscow train station square while alphabets try to orient her, but she can’t deal with any of it. Because she’s in the centre of Europe.

Being disoriented and bewildered are common states for Tawada characters, which probably explains my attraction. I’ve been trying to read this W.G. Sebald book which has similar themes, but it drowns in detail of a more prosaic kind. His world is bewildering because of the most mundane bits of life which he treats as special, while Tawada is making the bizarre feel mundane.