Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the latest novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, was released yesterday.

I first read Murakami in the early 2000’s, the last time I decided I was reading too much old fiction and solicited suggestions for good, recent books (I believe I specified books written after 1950, that time). There was probably a list somewhere I could have consulted, but I was part of a big active web community then, and I wanted to know what the people I looked up to liked. A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s third novel, was suggested to me by a 17-year old girl from Oregon, and of all of the novels I read that year, it resonated with me the strongest. I dove into all of his novels that I could get my hands on (there are two tricky ones that it took me a few years and the money a real job brings to track down. Now of course you can torrent digital copies of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 trivially, but I first read them in little paperback editions shipped over from Japan for an enormous sum), and he quickly took pride of place as my favorite author.

Since that binge, four novels of his have come out in English: Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, 1Q84, and now Colorless…. It’s tempting to divide these four into parallel categories: Kafka and 1Q84 are long, sweeping, excellent works; After Dark and Colorless are short, limited, somehow lesser works. With a kindle download, of course, I never really bother to work out the length ahead of time, so when I picked up Colorless yesterday, I made big plans to clear my life. I have an opera Saturday night and a birthday dinner Sunday for my Aunt, but my plan was to disappear into this new treasure as soon as I got home from work Tuesday and re-emerge god-knows-when. Obviously, that didn’t happen, or I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I got home at around 6 and started reading, and I took an hour to do some chores and get groceries in there, and maybe half an hour to shower before bed, but I finished the book at Midnight, and turned out the lights. And had trouble getting to sleep.

At first I felt like I was disappointed with the book. It ends mysteriously, or at least with a number of mysteries unsolved, and it would be easy to think of it as half-finished or half-written. But a day on, I think it finished where it needed to. I want to know what else happened because I care about the characters, but you don’t always get to know everything about everyone.

Now I think i was unsettled because I anticipated, during the four or five hours I read it, a certain kind of criticism that would be leveled against the story. Some characters express unenlightened and insensitive opinions, and what’s more, they don’t ever get corrected. There’s no wink from the author that says we’re all sharing the knowledge that these people are wrong and bad. So of course, if you read the negative reviews of the book, people get angry, and assume that this means Murakami espouses these troubling ideas. And maybe he does. He’s a generation older than I am, and he comes from a very different culture, why would he hold trendy American beliefs in 2014? But I think what made me uneasy was the feeling that I was going to have to defend him, since everyone who knows me well knows that Murakami is my favorite author.

And I suppose I will defend him to this extent: if you want to read a book where every character is a mouthpiece for the author’s ideology, Ayn Rand wrote a lot of books. Of course, her politics might not be your politics, so you may still hate it, but if what you want to read is some writers version of “the way it is and the way it should be,” you can start there. I hope you enjoy it, though the writing is pretty poor and she doesn’t trust her audience, and bludgeons you with her philosophy. Let’s allow the rest of the world to write without having to also pass judgement on their characters, so we know they’re on the good side.

(I find it very hard to write about this without spoiling plot elements.)

In the end, I got out of this what I expected to: for the time it took me to read it, I didn’t want to do anything else. I was absorbed into the Japan of Murakami’s creation and felt things at his whim. Not every book reaches me that way, but his universally do.

Of course I am recommending it

Best Books of the 00’s – Carter Beats the Devil

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold is the tale of a vaudeville musician turned feature performer suspected of the murder of President Warren G. Harding, the Secret Service agent investigating the death, a fellow magician disgraced early in Carter’s career, and the two loves of Carter’s life. The story has a less complex narrative than the others on the list so far, though it does shift characters at major story breaks and moves through time some, and for a story about a magician, there aren’t many misdirects in the plot and the few that appear are telegraphed well in advance.

It’s a good story, and a fun read, and I moved through it fast, but there wasn’t anything about it that I found gripping or moving or evocative–not evocative despite the fact that it takes place largely in San Francisco and Oakland, 40 miles from my house, among familiar names and places.

So I don’t have a lot to say. Feel free to read it, especially if you like magic, or want to read a book about a relentlessly good character (rescues animals, falls in love with blind woman, helps fellow performers, never has sex with anyone he isn’t in love with, abused as a child, loves his gay brother).

Read it or don’t.

Best books of the 2000’s – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the critically acclaimed debut novel by Junot Diaz. It describes the lives of a Dominican family cursed by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina in the 1950’s in the disorganized, slang-and-reference packed style of a family friend turned narrator.

The title character is an overweight, unpopular, science fiction obsessed writer and hopeless romantic whose inability to live up to Dominican Male ideals is the first evidence of the demonic presence haunting the family since his grandparents were disappeared and their wealth and status destroyed for an alleged minor insult against the dictator whose presence looms over the entire text. Things, generally, fail to go well for Oscar. They go less-than well for his mother, and other of his relatives, and to some extent, for his sister. They don’t really go well for anybody in the book.

It’s that kind of story.

But it isn’t, really, a bummer. The character narrating takes the stance that the bad things that happen are too bad, but were essentially inevitable, and though he’s sorry they came to pass, he doesn’t waste a lot of time in mourning. His job is to record what happened, and if he passes judgement at all, it is against the monster Trujillo who held the Republic in his thrall for so many years.

It was a little difficult to get started with this book, both because I don’t speak Spanish (really, the problem is the slangy Spanish vocabulary, not the complexity of ideas expressed in the language), and because the character narrating and the title character are both Genre nerds several levels beyond me, and there so many references to comic books and old science fiction stories that understanding the allusions in detail is impossible and I ended up trying to read things from context.

So for me, it was a book where a lot of the specific descriptions of people and places floated over me, and I got a sense of mood, a hint of what I was supposed to feel about them, and not much more. A careful reader with the internet available all the time could do better than that, and maybe there’s more in the book, waiting to be unpacked, but I enjoyed what I got out of it and I’m happy to have given it a chance.

4 stars, I think.

Best books of the 2000’s – Atonement, Bel Canto, Blind Assassin

Ten years ago I looked around and took stock of what I’d been reading and realized that I had a pretty solid foundation in Russian literature and a good survey of 19th century literature generally, but I wasn’t reading anything really modern. So I put out the call for good books written in the last half-century, and got a wonderful outpouring of suggestions from the people of the internet of the early 2000’s, a small and loveable group who didn’t post pictures of themselves at the gym or captions about being treated like a queen, but wrote about what they were feeling and experiencing. I read them voraciously. But then I got a job, and then a job at a start-up, and then a job at a start-up and a wife. So I started reading a lot less, and when I did read, it was a lot of garbage. Sometimes pretty entertaining garbage, but not the best of the best. So this year, after a particularly trashy spell inspired by a Barnes and Noble purchase of the Star Wars Trilogy in book form, I decided to get back to this project. A little googling found me this list: The Best Books of the ’00s – Onion AV Club. All such lists are subjective, but I thought this would be a good place to start. My plan is simple, read one of these good books, read something light, read the next of these serious books.

I’d read two of them already, so I won’t be reviewing them here, because they’re not fresh: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. In short, the first one was okay, but not much more than that, and the second was great, really great… but then Zadie Smith’s next book wasn’t so great, and I think that’s tarnished White Teeth in my memory some.


Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the one of the two books I’m writing about today that are set largely in the 1930’s, though both shift around the century a bit and share the narrative device of being written by a character in the story. The narrative in Atonement feels straightforward and easy to read, though, so it isn’t until the end that it becomes clear what you’ve been reading, and this seems to be at the heart of many of the negative reviews of the book on places like Amazon and Goodreads. There’s a sense at the end that things in the universe of the book didn’t occur exactly as they’ve been recorded, and that seems to upset some people, as though one level of fiction–the idea that this book didn’t really happen–is ok, but a second level, that the story being told to us is being embellished as it is told, is unfair. I don’t know how these readers got out of high school. I remember a rather tedious lecture about unreliable narrators with regard to Wuthering Heights, so you figure this kind of thing has been literary fair game for 150 years now.

But Atonement is a wonderful book, and I didn’t think I wanted to review it at all when I was done because all I could think to say was “five stars.” The world and the characters feel real, and I finished the story on my lunch hour, about half a mile down the marina from the office, and got to walk back really thinking and wondering about it. The revelation at the end that upset all of the 1-star people is an open invitation to reflect back on the whole story, and how it was filtered through to us by the mind of a child and the deliberate choices of an author, and it seems like there is so much room for misinterpretation and deliberate injustice that you can paint a much prettier picture of the people in the story, and the whole thing left me feeling happy and sad at the same time.

Anyway, read this one.


Bel Canto

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a romanticized retelling of the Peruvian Embassy Hostage crisis of 1996, and if Atonement felt real and true to life, Bel Canto is always one step removed from reality, maybe one-quarter of the way into a magical realism story. People are impossible versions of what they would be in their real life, but impossible in a way that lightens the horror of the inside of a months long siege. There is an opera singer in the group, the only woman left after the first day, and all of the men fall in love with her. The Vice President of the unnamed country becomes a devoted housekeeper and gardener. An ambassador becomes a chef. A child guerilla learns to read, and another learns to sing. A polyglot translator becomes the most important person present, everyone’s messenger, and the only person who gets to know everything going on. Though it has grim moments and the scene ends badly, it’s very compelling and I rushed through it in a daze. It was after finishing Bel Canto that I wondered if I wanted to skip the parts of my plan where I read lightweight garbage in between weighty books. Wondered if there are enough truly great novels out there to last the rest of my life.

I gave it five stars, the least you can do is read it.


The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin has a lot in common with Atonement. Setting, narrative structure, even some plot elements. It is about sex and war in the upper echelons of Canadian (instead of English) society in the first half of the twentieth century. And like Atonement, it’s a good book, but it’s a little less good. It’s four stars, not five. I moved through it at a more leisurely pace, ten days instead of two (though it’s a bit longer, also). Its very complicated structure–now an excerpt from the eponymous work, now a newspaper article, now the reminiscence of an old woman from the end of her life, the first half of which is about her struggle at the end of her days and the second half of which is autobiography–makes it difficult to get a hold of at first. It’s also a careful slow misdirect that serves as foreshadowing for thoughtful readers or as an eventual twist ending for careless ones.

If you’re only going to read one, read atonement, but really go ahead and read them both.

GoodReads: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So we’ve reached the point in our discussions of WWII where writing about individual battles isn’t exciting enough, and we need to start breaking up the action even further. This book, for instance, is the story of the near catastrophe off Samar, which was one component of the naval action usually grouped together as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It also covers, in some detail, the previous day’s Battle of the Sibuyan Sea and the previous night’s Battle of Surigao Strait, and Halsey’s decision to take the Third Fleet after the Japanese decoy carriers, so even though the focus is on the Center Force action off Samar, it gives a pretty good gloss on the entire battle.

So here’s the arc: the Japanese Navy, in an attempt to forestall the liberation of the Phillipines, and with no real naval air power remaining after the Marianas Turkey Shoot, concoct an elaborate plan to split their surface ships into two large fleets and catch the American invasion force in a pincer, while using empty carriers to draw off the main strength of the American Third Fleet. Halsey and the Third Fleet do take the bait and go chasing off, leaving the Army forces covered only by small escort carriers and a handful of destroyers and destroyer escorts. The Southern Force is destroyed in the Surigao strait, but after a brief retreat, Admiral Kurita’s center force falls upon the US Navy’s tiny escort carrier group with a far superior surface force of battleships and cruisers, including the massive Yamato. With no choice but to fight, the captains of the task force known as “Taffy 3” take their tiny ships into action and sink three cruisers, forcing the Japanese into retreat. The Japanese fleet spends the rest of the war in harbor and never threatens the American advance again. It is a big deal.

Like most recent books about naval warfare, Last Stand spends a lot of time detailing the events leading up to the battle, and a lot of time detailing the aftermath of the battle. The survivors of the crippled DDs and DEs spent a long time in the water, dealing with the elements, delirium, and shark attack, and it makes for pretty grim reading. If your interest is just in naval strategy and the timeline of the battle, you could, I suppose, skip the last several chapters, but you could also simply read the pretty detailed wikipedia page here and give the whole book a miss. The human story is important and well told.

All in all, a very solid read