Book review: “Norwegian Wood” & “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami

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Gorgeous covers

Murakami is a giant of Japanese literature, and it was Norwegian Wood that sealed his international fame. Prior to its publication (in Japan in 1987) his reputation and readership were more modest, but when he became internationally famous with this book, he fled the country and eschewed all publicity (oh for that luxury!). I had read nothing by Murakami before this although a friend told me (when I’d only just started it) that Norwegian Wood was his favourite book of all time and after reading he went out and got hold of everything else Murakami had written.

It’s a book that really defies description. To say it’s a love story (which it is) does not do justice to the complex interweaving of themes, the darkness, the painterly portrayal of intimate relationships and the forensic examination of the dilemmas of youth and coming of age.

Toru Watanabe is on a plane at the age of 37, about to land at Hamburg airport, when the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles is played on the aircraft’s PA system. It takes him immediately back to his youth, when he was at university in 1969. His girlfriend at that time was Naoko, a fragile young woman with whom he used to walk miles around Tokyo. Naoko was, previously, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. Thus the scene is set that this novel is going to explore some challenging themes.

Naoko and Toru become lovers, but their relationship stalls when Naoko is admitted to long-term psychiatric care for severe mental health issues. Toru remains loyal to Naoko, visits her occasionally at the special hospital where she lives, some distance from Tokyo, and also strikes up a friendship with Naoko’s roommate Reiko, who, because of the very close relationship she has with Naoko, appears to know everything about Toru. A further character then enters and places Toru in something of a love triangle; Midori is a feisty, passionate fellow student to whom Toru is immediately attracted. They become friends but nothing more, mainly because of Toru’s loyalty to Naoko. Midori also has a boyfriend, although she says is not in love with him.

It is a novel in which nothing very much happens, so I don’t want to say more about the ‘plot’, and I have had some difficulty explaining to myself what is so engaging about it; I had high expectations after my friend’s endorsement. When we discussed it in my book club, we all said we found it a slow read; it is not a book you can read quickly. In a weird sort of way it forces you to read at reading out loud pace. You have to take in and savour every word, and every word has been written to be savoured. The level of detail in the observations is extraordinary. The main characters, especially Toru and Naoko, are so gentle and sensitive, that it almost has the same effect as when you hold a newborn baby – they are so fragile that all your movements become softer, your heart and breathing seem to slow down. The purpose of this, I think, is to try to take the reader deeply into the private worlds of the characters, to feel what they feel, see what they see.

There are some brash peripheral characters in the novel, such as Toru’s dorm mates, and there is a strong sense of time and place – student revolts in Japan in the late ‘60s – which serve to highlight the quietness and sensitivity of the main characters, even Midori, who comes across initially as a strong personality, but who is masking deeper insecurities.

It is a novel about coming of age, about growing up, but also about the deep darkness of depression and suicide. Insofar as it is a love story, it asks the reader what the limits of human beings’ commitments to one another are, but it will not give you a straightforward answer.

After reading Norwegian Wood I was given a copy of another of Murakami’s works, published in the UK in 2014, The Strange Library. This is a work of short fiction, a very surreal and fascinating story about a young boy who is imprisoned in the bowels of his local library after being tricked into following a strange old man in search of a reference book about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst trapped inside he meets a collection of other weird and wonderful characters also trapped in a kind of time and space limbo. Like much short fiction it concludes in a way that leaves more questions than answers. The edition I read is beautifully illustrated, which added to my appreciation of it immensely, and it has left me wanting to explore more of Murakami’s work.

Norwegian Wood is a strange and powerful novel that will certainly leave its mark. It stays with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.

If you are familiar with Murakami, which of his books would you recommend?

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December reading challenge: a short story

2017-12-18 10.46.14So, it’s my final reading challenge post of 2017, and this month it’s a short story. Just as well, because there isn’t very much month left! The reason I picked this genre for December is that I predicted, correctly, that it would be a busy month and my reading would slacken off. It is taking me ages to get through the book I am currently reading (the book club’s choice of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami).

I’d been thinking for a while what I might read this month; there are some fantastic short story writers out there, and I have to confess to not having read many of them, so I wanted to make a real effort to delve in. Then last week I heard about a short story published in the New Yorker magazine recently that has caused a furore on social media, provoking praise and disdain in equal measure. I have also learned a new word as a result – ‘misandrist’ – a person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against men, the opposite of misogynist. You have to wonder why we don’t hear this word very much!

Anyway, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian is about sex and relationships in the 21st century. What’s not to like?! If your appetite is whetted by this, you too can read along by clicking on the link below:

Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian

Let me know what you think!

Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

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My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

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Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

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Book review: “Not My Father’s Son” by Alan Cumming

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It’s been a very busy few weeks, so my reading rate has been somewhat below par. Besides half term (which, actually, was relatively low-key and relaxing) I’ve been having some further work done in the house; it was a like an ’80s museum when we bought it three years ago and we are gradually working our way through it, room by room. We have been having the final two bedrooms refurbished which has entailed complete chaos, clothes and stuff everywhere, and two weeks on a sofabed. I love it that our builder is happy to work with us in our ‘organic’ (procrastinating!) way, but we are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting the job finished! When we decorate we do so for the long-haul so it has to be right. Consequently, it was the end of October before I got around to reading an autobiography for last month’s reading challenge.

Not My Fathers SonI was really torn between Claire Tomalin, Anjelica Huston and Alan Cumming. I left it in the hands of the local library and it was Alan Cumming that became available first! I’m still waiting for Claire Tomalin, and that is probably the one I was keenest to read. I was attracted to Alan Cumming’s book, however, because its premise is not dissimilar to the book I am writing, namely family research and the uncovering of a long-held secret. There the similarity ends, however, as Alan’s book is much more about his relationship with his father.

I know very little about Alan Cumming, having seen nothing of his work that I can remember (although apparently he is in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a film I have seen a couple of times, though I don’t recall him in it). He now works mainly in the US and has done quite a bit of TV over there. He was born and grew up in rural Scotland, where his father managed a saw mill. Alan’s father was violent and abusive and the nature and frequency of the aggression Alan experienced is upsetting. What is clear from the outset, however, is that the young Alan can find no explanation for it.

In 2010, Alan was invited to appear on the BBC television programme Who Do You Think You Are?  where the family history of a celebrity is explored and hopefully something interesting and unusual emerges. In Alan’s case, the mystery to be solved was that of his maternal grandfather, who died in mysterious circumstances as a result of a firearms ‘accident’ whilst serving in the Malaysian police force. It was during the filming of the show that Alan was told by his then terminally ill father, with whom he had had no contact for many years, that he his not in fact his son, but the product of an affair his mother had with another man. This sets Alan off on a journey of self-discovery, forcing him to face up to many of his demons.

It is an engaging and at times very moving story. I’m not sure if there was a ghost-writer involved, but it is well put-together and flows nicely. It’s a decent read, and you’ll like it if you’re a fan of Alan’s work, or if you can relate to any of the themes. What I most admired was how he managed, after such an inauspicious start, to break out of the constraints of his background and upbringing, to become a successful, globe-trotting actor, living in New York, at peace with himself. To that extent it is inspiring.

 

2017-11-14 16.26.50For November, the challenge is to read a book set in or by a writer from the southern hemisphere – which is, broadly, South America, southern Africa and Australasia. As the nights draw in and it gets increasingly wintry I wanted to be reminded that in other parts of the world it is Summer! So, my choice this month is Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia, a book I picked up in my local Oxfam bookshop and which has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for far too long. Allende is such a fine writer and I’ve read a number of her books over the years. It’s great to have an excuse to dive into this one and experience the sensuousness of her writing and the world she evokes, as the last leaves fall from the trees here and nature seems to go into hibernation.

What are you reading this month?

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October reading challenge

I am turning rather belatedly to October’s reading challenge book; I’ve had a few heavy reading weeks trying to work my way through the Man Booker shortlist. The winner was announced last week, and although I fell a little short of my target, managing only five out of the six, I feel I need a little break before tackling the monster that is Paul Auster’s 4321!  There is still a week to go before the end of October so completing this month’s challenge is still achievable. I’ll be posting my review of September’s reading challenge book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, later in the week.

Continuing the theme of life-changing (it’s still Autumn and I’m still motivated!), my task this month is to read a biography or autobiography of someone I admire. Walk into any bookshop and there are dozens of course. They are particularly prevalent at this time of year as publishers turn their attention to Christmas sales. I tend to eschew those celebrity biographies which are so clearly ghost-written and which strike me as a cynical attempt to capitalise on someone’s popularity. But there are many other worthy books and authors out there.

Not My Fathers SonThere are a couple of titles that have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Scottish actor and comedian Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, which was published in 2014. It is linked to his appearance in BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 in which the result of his research caused him to reflect on his family, his upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with an abusive father. It has received glowing reviews and has also won prizes. The theme of secrets and family research is close to the book I am writing myself so it could be helpful. Or it may just make me feel like givng up now!!!

Watch Me

Option two is the second volume of Anjelica Huston’s authobiography Watch Me, published in 2015. I read the first volume A Story Lately Told, a couple of years ago and loved it. The first book gives an account of her childhood growing up in Ireland, and her relationship with her enigmatic father, the towering figure of John Huston. It moves on to London, her early adulthood and her first experiences in modelling and acting. Watch Me picks up when Huston is 22 years old and recounts her Hollywood years.

A life of my ownFinally, I saw in the bookshop recently that Claire Tomalin has written A Life of My Own, where, for a change, she is writing about herself. I admire Claire Tomalin hugely; she has written some of the finest biographies produced in recent years, covering subjects such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has led the most astonishing life: an unhappy childhood, four children, the death of her husband, the loss of a child, and the eternal struggle between motherhood and work. I think I would find this book truly inspiring.

 

How similar are these three covers!?

So, which is it to be? Grateful for views

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The latest in YA books – books for teens

Last week, I blogged about some of the interesting new children’s titles that had caught my eye. In recent years, YA fiction has rightly developed as a genre apart from younger children’s fiction, and there are some fantastic young writers out there catering for the needs of this age group. Most adults would accept I think that the pressures on teenagers these days are numerous and new, and for many parents navigating this unknown terrain can be challenging and worrying. In the same way that children’s literature can help our little ones work through some of their fears and worries (from the monster under the bed to the impending arrival of a sibling), so YA fiction can help teenagers deal with the issues they face, when they may feel their parents just don’t understand.

Here are a few of the titles that have attracted me.

No Filter

 

Irish writer Orlagh Collins’s story No Filter covers traditional teen territory, that of first love. It tells the story of Emerald who comes from a privileged background, and appears to enjoy an outwardly perfect life. Then Emerald discovers her mother unconscious on the bathroom floor and her world begins to fall apart. She is sent off to stay with her grandmother in Ireland for the summer, where she meets Liam, and begins to reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Just Fly AwayJust Fly Away is the debut novel from 1980s brat-pack actor, turned award-winning director and author Andrew McCarthy. It tells the story of fifteen year old Lucy who discovers that she has a half-brother, the result of an affair her father had, living in the same town. Like No Filter it is a novel about secrets and lies, as Lucy escapes to Maine to live with her grandfather, himself estranged from the family, and to work through the confusion and torment her discovery has left her with.

 

 

all the things that could go wrongFinally, on a different topic, there is All the Things that Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster which concerns the relationship between two boys, initially at loggerheads, who find common cause when they are forced to spend time together. Alex suffers from OCD and worries about everything. His condition is so severe that he rarely leaves home. Dan is angry, because his older brother Alex has left home and he feels lost. Initially, he takes it out on Alex, whom he perceives as weak and ineffectual, but the boys’ mothers force them together on a garden building project and the understanding that develops between is healing for both.

 

I hope one of these might be of interest for your teenager. Better still, take them along to the library or bookshop and let them choose something themselves.

I’d love to hear what your teens are reading just now. 

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Book Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is what we would politely describe as quirky. She lives a fairly isolated lifestyle, seeing no friends or relatives. She lives alone in a flat where she was placed by Social Services after leaving the care system. She is a creature of habit, wearing identical clothes each day, and following habitual daily and weekly routines. She works, in the accounts department of a design company, but her lowly position seems out of kilter with her high intelligence. There is nothing especially remarkable about her quirkiness (apart from the fact that she drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend), but her habits mark her out from the usual crowd. In particular she eschews social interaction, is cool, often hostile, to her co-workers, looking down on them, never wears make up or gets her hair cut. She appears to others as someone who doesn’t make an effort, but through Eleanor’s eyes we observe some of the absurdities of ‘normal’ life and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments, for example, when Eleanor goes for a makeover at the department store.

Eleanor OliphantEleanor communicates poorly with others, being rather too literal and pedantic for most people to tolerate and is therefore unable to form effective relationships.  At first, she is not an easy character to love, except that we as readers know a couple of things about her that her workmates do not, and which make us more sympathetic to her. Firstly, we know she drinks herself into oblivion at the weekends: as a reader we are bound to ask what she is trying to escape from. Second, there is Eleanor’s mother, with whom she speaks every Wednesday evening; “Mummy” is controlling, manipulative, cruel, nasty. Eleanor is an adult and yet there is something disturbing about the way she always refers to her parent as a child would (never ‘Mum’ or ‘my mother’). The fact that Eleanor also receives regular monitoring visits from social workers tells us that there is something dark in Eleanor’s past that has contributed to her present quirkiness, but we are not told what.

Two incidents in Eleanor’s life set off a cascade of events that will alter her life immeasurably. First, she encounters and develops a teenage-like crush on a musician. He is the lead singer in a band, well-known in the Glasgow area, lives locally and Eleanor has a remote connection with him as he attended school with a work colleague’s brother. Eleanor decides that the musician is the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She fantasises about a romance with him and ultimately marriage. Emboldened by conversations with Mummy, who is all in favour of “the project” (whilst also questioning Eleanor’s worth), she tasks herself with contriving to meet him, including visiting his apartment block, and sets about buying new clothes and improving her appearance, to bring herself up to the standard she anticipates he would expect from a partner.

The second incident is the collapse of an elderly man in the street. The old man is immediately attended to by Raymond, not a co-worker but someone she recognises as working in the same building, and he involves Eleanor and commands her help. Between them, Eleanor and Raymond manage to give the man first aid and call an ambulance. After this, Raymond draws Eleanor into an unplanned friendship. It doesn’t seem to be something that either of them is seeking, particularly. Indeed at first Eleanor is very cool towards Raymond, looking down upon his smoking, his eating habits, his text-speak and what she sees as his lazy dressing habits. But he is warm and patient with her and the friendship evolves. Through Raymond, Eleanor gets a glimpse of what ‘normal’ life and ‘normal’ family relationships can be, with all their faults.

The action takes place over a few months and the pace is measured and authentic. It is ultimately a novel about mental illness, triggered by trauma in Eleanor’s case, and as the story unfolds, and we learn more about Eleanor’s past, so her present, tightly ordered life, held together so flimsily by a set of rigid habits, begins to fall apart. This unravelling may be painful for some readers. The novel echoes that tendency we all have to say we’re ‘fine’ even when we’re not, and Eleanor learns, the hard way, what ‘fine’ means, and how to use that word honestly on her path to healing. There are some dark moments but there is also humour, particularly in the drawing of Eleanor’s character. I found myself laughing both with her and at her, which was, I must confess uncomfortable in the context of later revelations, and caused me to reflect on how we as a society react to those who do not present with an ‘average’ or ‘easily-fit-innable’ personality.

Gail honeymanThis is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and it is a stunning achievement. A thoroughly enjoyable read. In an era where poor mental health, social isolation and dysfunctional relationships seem to have reached epidemic proportions, this novel is both an examination of one person’s particular circumstances and an antidote. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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