Haruki Murakami – Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

*The following applies to the English hardcover edition. (The novel was originally published in Japan in 1985.)*

  Author: Haruki Murakami
Title: Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Published: September 1991

Publisher: Kodansha
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Post-modern surrealism
Why I picked it up: Fan of the author
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: TBR Double Dare
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

I felt far more comfortable reading this novel than I did reading 1Q84. This is the Murakami I fell in love with through Kafka on the Shore – this is currently my second favourite novel by him. The story never felt drawn out or dull or repetitive. I read patiently, enjoying Murakami’s writing. Most importantly, I enjoyed the act of reading this book. 
The thing I love most about Murakami’s stories are his characters and their involvement in the plot. Okay, that sounds really lame, obviously a story is a character involved in a plot, buuuut in Murakami’s case it feels very different than your typical story. He has these often-nameless characters that feel so real even though they are in such unusual situations. They take whatever comes to them and act however they feel is right. Nothing ever feels exaggerated or over the top or out of place; following a Murakami character throughout a novel is a very calming experience for me. It’s difficult to explain, but reading the narrator’s story is almost therapeutic in a way for me – just following this character as he experiences extraordinary events in a very normal way. It’s the tiny details that Murakami adds in, I think, that are key to this feeling. For example, the occasional detailed description of the character cooking themselves a ‘simple’ dinner or when the narrator is explaining how he hates tags on clothes that come back from the dry cleaners, so he never has his clothes dry-cleaned (I would quote here but I already took the book back to the library. Page 339 and 377). Most authors would make these sorts of details seem unnecessary and dull and I might skim over them, but with Murakami I am so involved in the characters that I’m interested by these sorts of things. I don’t know.  You become so involved with the character, for me, it’s like I am them, like I’m part of the story, so of course every piece of it is interesting to me. This is a unique feeling, I’ve never experienced something like this with other books I’ve read.  I’ve already said it’s difficult for me to explain this feeling I get…but perhaps anyone who has read something my Murakami knows what I’m trying to express?But then, maybe it’s just me 😛
The explanation as to why there are two narratives and how they’re linked was overwhelming for me. I got the general idea, but all those pages about circuits and crossovers…I admit I tuned that out a bit and skimmed. I’m not sure if that part was actually difficult to follow or if I just didn’t feel like paying attention, but the whole chapter felt out of place.

SPOILERS AHEAD
This story held a couple of surprises for me. For one, there was a lot less sex/sex-related themes than I’ve come to expect from Murakami. I can understand the role sex can play in a story, but it’s not an idea I’m particularly interested in at this time so I was glad it didn’t play a critical role in this novel. The other surprise for me was the ending. I completely expected the End of World narrator to go into the pool and the Hard Boiled Wonderland Narrator would continue on with his life, but in the last three pages things completely turn around. I kind of liked that, even though it was a surprise for me. By having the narrator not go into the pool, the story’s message is completely turned on its head. The ending was rather thoughtful in this way and I like how it made me contemplate the story further.

Catherynne M. Valente – In the Night Garden

  Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Title: In the Night Garden
Series: The Orphan’s Tales

Published: November 2006
Publisher: Bantam Dell
Length:  483 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Why I picked it up: Fan of the author
Rating: 5 stars
Challenges: TBR Double Dare
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

Whooaa, this is the fourth book I’m giving five stars! For me, that fifth star is very precious and can only be awarded to books I would consider my ‘all-time favourites’. (For the curious, the other books that have gotten five stars are Wild, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kafka on the Shore.) 4.5 stars is also very good, and I would consider books with a 4.5 star rating favourites as well, but what separates 4.5 and 5 is that I had no negative thoughts whatsover about a 5 star book. For example, I adored Catch-22 but gave it a 4.5 because it was a pretty hefty book and a bit difficult to follow. So, even though I had a very minor ‘complaint’ about Catch-22, that meant I had to take it down a notch in my personal ranking system. I am explaining all this so you can see how much I really did love this book – enough to give it 5 stars! 😉 I discovered Valente in the summer when I read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I found this to be a lovely story, and I was all the more intrigued when I discovered that it’s Valente’s first work for children but she had published other novels for adults. I can’t remember why I picked In the Night Garden to read first but am I glad that I did!

This book has a rather unique structure. Stories are contained within stories, creating a deep and layered narrative. I’ve read that this is similar to One Thousand and One Nights, but sadly that’s a collection of folk tales I haven’t yet familiarized myself with. However, I also read that In the Night Garden differs from Nights in that all the stories are interwoven together and connect, relate, support, carry on from one to the next. A quote from Valente, found on her GoodReads page:

The structure is inspired by AN, but it is not, in fact, the same structure. The stories in 1001 do not come together to create one big narrative–OT is building on that structure, not copying it. The stories, beyond naming a character Dinarzad in order to tip my hat to AN, are not inspired by that work.

This is a good part of what fascinates me so much about this book. The imagination and creativity needed to write such a story! I was blown away. You would think it easy to muck up taking on such an ambitious project, but Valente’s execution is flawless. When I first began to start the book, I thought ‘Oh dear, this could complicated very fast…’ but I had no trouble following the stories, who was narrating, etc. I loved the framing and layering. The stories seem to melt together, the characters and perspectives shift easily (by which I mean you may read one story told from one character’s point of view early on in the book, then read part of the same story from a different character’s point of view later on – case in point, tying it all together with Eyvind). The novel consists of tales told by an orphan girl who lives alone in a Palace garden – everyone thinks she’s a demon and they leave her alone, but one day a boy visits her and she begins to tell him tales that are inked on her face, around her eyes – this novel is the tales written around her left eye. The tales are divided into two books, and are almost wholly separate but slowly it emerges that the two main stories connect and really are one. Encompassing the entire novel is The Orphan’s Tales, and then the two main other one’s are The Prince’s Tale, containing mostly The Witch’s Tale, and The Pale Girl’s Tale, containing mostly The Net-Weaver’sTale, and from there each tale is broken down further, containing others of their own. So, the reader is often three tales deep (hope that makes sense!). Each level is significant and can stand on its own, however, each tale is a strong one.

Then there is the matter of the tales themselves and the writing style. This novel contains a wide variety of stories, from deep, mystical, thoughtful tales (such as those told by the Witch in the first book) to funny, charming, parody tales (see the Marsh King and the Prince formula), and each tales is unique, each tale is engaging the writing never falters despite adopting many different styles. Valente’s creativity is evident in almost every sentence. For example, I loved how she used the idea of Stars. One tale is about a ship grown from a tree. Beautiful ideas are abound in this novel. Another important aspect that results from the writing style and types of tales told are the numerous characters. I never felt there were too many characters, even though the cast was quite large due to the structure of the novel, and each character felt like they were their own person with their own mind and voice, not just some fantasy stereotype. I believe Valente is a very strong writer to maintain her level of story-telling through 500 pages, through such a variety of stories that all connect. Often I’ll skim through certain parts or paragraphs of a novel, just because the writing doesn’t engage me enough to be deserving of my full attention – not once did I skim In the Night Garden; I savoured every word. Reading this book was very peaceful, calming, for me, the stories were beautiful and seductive in a way too few stories are; In the Night Garden lures you in and never lets up for a moment to give you a chance to leave.

The girl closed her large eyes as she spoke, so that her eyelids and tehir mosaic covering seemed to float like black lilies in the paleness of her face. Frogs sent emerald notes up into the air, and owls sang in low gleaming strands, resting in black branches, veiled in the violet breath of jacaranda flowers. Under their harmonics, her voice sighed back and forth. The girl drank from the wine flask, running her fingers over its engraved surface. The wind rustled her hair like petals on a lake. 

~~~

“Love, I’ve never been anyone’s mother; I don’t know how to talk to young or old. But don’t stop smiling just because I flap my mouth and say something that’s not dressed around the edges like a lace tablecloth. Thicken up and we’ll get along fine.”

Perhaps some might say Valente’s style of writing is a bit over the top, too fancy, too ornate. Too many metaphors and the like. Not me – it’s just the kind of style I eat up, as you’ll have gathered from the praise I am heaping on this book. 😉

In summary, there are three wonderful aspects to this novel and they are all executed brilliantly: Story format, types of tales, writing style. While I read and admire a lot of books, there are only a few authors who directly inspire my own writing, who I turn to when I need to remind myself how I wish to write. For the longest time, this group consisted only of Neil Gaiman and Cornelia Funke – I am happy to say I can add another author to this group.

P.S. – Did I mention there’s a second volume? Consisting of the tales inked on the orphan’s girl right eye. Oh, I cannot wait to read it but I will save it for a special occasion…don’t want to spoil myself with too much good writing!

John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

  Author: John Green
Title: The Fault in Our Stars

Published: January 2012
Publisher: Dutton Books
Length: 313 pages
Genre: YA Fiction
Why I picked it up: Fan of the author
Rating: 3.5/4 stars
Challenges: TBR Double Dare
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

***Spoilers ahead!!***

Writing about a John Green is very much like writing about Cloud Cult album. Each person’s experience with the story or the music is deeply personal and very much their own, hard to explain to other people. If you’re reading this, it’s important to keep in mind that I don’t write reviews (I refuse to comment on the whether this story is objectively good or not), I write my thoughts on what a book means to me.

I teared up only at two parts in this book, and it was only for a few seconds at a time. (Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska had me properly crying.) The first part was when Gus was trying to buy a pack of cigarettes and the second part was when Hazel was describing number ten pain (keeping this part succinct to avoid spoilers). The only reason this book made me feel emotional was when I thought What if [name of the guy I like] was in Gus’s place?’ That really messed with me, I felt so awful. I couldn’t even begin to imagine and yet I felt this bad, what if it was actually true? I felt terrified in that instant of losing him, something I never actually felt before. So this was a bit of a shock for me. It was an intense feeling, but totally unlike the feelings I’ve gotten from John’s other writings. It was all hypothetical, whereas John’s other writings described exactly how I felt at the time and what I was going through, so they were a whole lot more emotional for me.

~~~how I felt afterwards, things I don’t want to admit i didn’t really like but if I don’t that would defeat the purpose of this blog~~~

Out of all of John’s novels, I think this one is clearly the best for parents to read. Parents have always played some role in John’s stories, but in this novel that role is the most significant. If I knew someone who had a teenager with cancer, I would give them this book. It’s so heartbreaking how desperate Hazel is to find out what happens to Anne’s mother in An Imperial Afflication. I know John has the experience to be able to paint a very realistic relationship between between a terminally ill child and her parents, and I feel the story does just that.

A ranking of my favourite John Green novels, in order of most favourite to less favourite: Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, An Abundance of Katherines, Will Grayson. For me, TFiOS sits solidly in the middle. For me, it was a good book, a solid book, but LfA and PT were far more relatable to me. Those stories meant something to me on a deeper personal level. TFiOS, I feel, appeals to a larger audience. I’m not really affected by dying, by the realization that my life is coming to an end, not yet. I don’t know anyone who is terminally ill. I am not saying I did not like this book because I couldn’t understand or relate to the story (believe me, I could, see paragraph about why I cried), just that I like the other two novels more because they meant more to me personally and were more real for me.

Last thing to write about: How I acquired TFiOS and what I found written upon it. I preordered a copy for myself and a copy for my sister in November. Even so, I went around town searching for Hanklerfishes and yetis on the day of release. It was very exciting, finally holding the physical book in my hands (it’s a real object!) and seeing all the pages that John had signed. I found green, purple and black jscribbles but nothing out of the ordinary. I actually thought about buying a copy just because I didn’t want to wait, but I didn’t. I ended up buying a copy in-store today 😛 (purple jscribble). After I finished reading it, I checked the status of my shipment from Chapters and saw that it was delivered this morning XD So, of coure, I ran down to the mailbox and ran all the way back. I had my mom watch as I opened the box, pulled the two copies out and picked one for myself. (This is because one copy was for my sister and what if one was Hanklerfished or Yetied and the other wasn’t, how would we decided? We would pick our copy without looking first). I eagerly opened up to the first page…and found a black jscribble and a green Hanklerfish!!! I was extremely pleased, this was very exciting for me 🙂 Anyhow, on a more serious note: I think it’s crazy that something like this can really exist, that I hear about this book for months and months on end, I see the cover, I watch live shows of John signing the book, I see Hank scribbling Hanklerfishes, etc., all through my computer screen and then suddenly one day it’s so real and I’m reading the story, and this is what it all comes down to, these printed words on these solid pages. The book exists, the pages exists, the scribbles inside it exist. It’s all somewhat magical for me (I wrote a more articulate Tumblr post about this feeling when I received my Explorers 6 vinyl). After I finished reading the book and had discovered my jscribble and hanklerfish, I was full of conflicting emotions in a way I’ve never felt so conflicted before (I am very clear in my emotions, I always know exactly how I feel). I was happy to have my copy, to see the jscribble and the hanklerfish, but I was also still feeling so gutted and empty and sad from the story. My stomach felt strange and I couldn’t really eat supper. Now the extremes of the emotions have worn off, but I still feel happy-sad. It’s a weird feeling and I know it comes from a very tame situation (‘A book made you feel so happy and so sad at the same time? All because of a signature?’) but it’s a first for me.

Extra Books – January 1 to January 7

  • Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
    • Published: 1993
    • Genre: Memoir
    • Why I picked it up: On my TBR list
    • Rating: 3.5 stars
    • Challenges: 2012 TBR Pile Challenge | TBR Double Dare
    • My Thoughts:
      • I didn’t make any notes while reading this one. They would have been somewhat/very similar to what I wrote about The Bell Jar. I didn’t get as much out of this memoir as I did Plath’s novel; this story felt more detached (as in, the reader doesn’t get as emotionally involved with the characters). 
      • I liked this book mostly for the subject matter. I think mental health is a fascinating subject, and to read a memoir about young girls subjected to an institution in a very different time and place is interesting for me. What would be different for them today? 
      • I’m also as interested in what isn’t told in the story as what is told. There’s so much you can’t really know, especially with a memoir. Ehm, it’s hard to describe…you can never really get into a person’s mind. You can only read what they remember and what they choose to share, and you can never know very much about the other characters. Just think about interactions with people in real life and hopefully this thought makes more sense…more is not written, especially in a book like this one, than is written.
      • One aspect of the book I notably liked is the last few chapters. 
      • The inclusion of official records was a nice touch, something a bit different, that makes it hit home that this story is real, this is what it really was like at one time.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
    • Published: August 1945
    • Genre: Satirical fiction
    • Why I picked it up: On my TBR list
    • Rating: 4 stars
    • Challenges: 2012 TBR Pile Challenge | TBR Double Dare
    • My Thoughts: 
      • Oh, Orwell. You know how to write a provoking novel. While I don’t think this was as strong as Nineteen Eighty-four (probably because the subject matter of Nineteen Eighty-four is more shocking than Animal Farm), Animal Farm still makes for an enthralling read and tells just as terrible a story. This is largely due to the fact that Animal Farm can be largely read as non-fiction, as it is intended to be an allegory for what was happening in Russia. I am a bit fuzzy on Russian history (a fact I hope to remedy this year, I’ve got a good book on Russian history waiting to be read…) but I grasped enough to understand what Animal Farm was all about, and reading Animal Farm actually helped me to understand how what happened Russian came to pass, something that is quite difficult for someone who hasn’t experienced such a transformation of power to grasp. 
      • The slow but steady development of Napoleon’s policies; the reasoned, believable explanations provided by Squealer; the ending that sees the animal come back full circle to a life even worse off than under Jones; Boxer representing those who follow blindly, Mollie representing those who just want to be cared for, Snowball representing those who are easily villainized – all of these aspects, considered with their basis in reality, are what make the story so sad, so chilling. The following quotes I marked demonstrate these well:
      • ‘Comrades!’ he cried. ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers. the whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back! Yes, Jones would come back! Surely, comrades,’ cried Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his tail, ‘surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones come back?’ [This was the place in the book where I went ‘Ah, this is where it really begins, I see’; this is also the first example of Squealer’s manipulative words]
      •  …but in comparison with the days of Jones the improvement was enormous. Reading out the figures in a shrill rapid voice, he proved to them in detail that they had more oats, more hay, more turnips than they had had in Jones’s day, that they worked shorter hours, that their drinking water was of better quality, that they lived longer, that a larger proportion of their young ones survived infancy, and that they had more straw in their stalls and suffered less from fleas. The animals believed every word of it. Truth to tell, Jones and all he stood for had almost faded out of their memories. they knew that life nowadays was harsh and bare, that they were often hungry and often cold, and that they were usually working when they were not asleep. But doubtless it had been worse in the old days. They were glad to believe so. 
      • But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric lights and hot and cold water, and the three-day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally.  
      • I wonder what I would have thought of this novel had I read it earlier, perhaps in grade five or six when I wasn’t yet familiar with world issues and politics and history. I’m sure I would have been horrified, but then to find out that everything in the story happened somewhere in the real world…eek!
      • I didn’t know ‘George Orwell’ is a pen name until I read the introduction to this edition (Everyman’s Library, handy little thing) which makes it even more interesting that ‘Orwellian’ has entered our vocabulary. ‘Blairian’ (?) would not have made the transition as well.
      • I am very interested in reading more his work, particularly his essays.

    John Connolly – The Book of Lost Things

      Author: John Connolly
    Title: The Book of Lost Things

    Published: November 2006
    Publisher: Atria Books
    Length: 339 pages
    Genre: Fantasy/fiction
    Why I picked it up: Recommended by Neil Gaiman (I think…maybe it was somebody else)
    Rating: 4 stars
    Challenges: TBR Double Dare
    Buy:  Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

    While I have read a few good fantasy books over the past year or two, I can’t recall the last time I read a classic fantasy, with terrifying forests and fairy tale characters and castles and the like, let alone one intended for an adult audience that I enjoyed as much as The Book of Lost Things. The only similar stories my mind jumps to are by Cornelia Funke and Neil Gaiman. I am very picky about my fantasy, so I am always pleased when I can find a book to enjoy like this one.

    I liked that this book seamlessly integrated two different world settings: real-world war setting and struggling fantasy world. I know this is a popular thing to do (see Narnia) but I still enjoy the comparison between the two, the ideas of escape, etc. For me, both the world of WWII and the fantasy world are completely foreign so I enjoy reading about both despite the fact that I generally prefer to read about only one world at a time. So, the real world has to take a back seat to the fantasy world for me to really enjoy the story. The Book of Lost Things pushes that boundary a little further than I would normally tolerate (David doesn’t enter the fantasy world until page 65) but you could say it’s a testament to Connolly’s prose that I didn’t mind reading that far.

    Prose is such a finicky thing. When it’s bad, there are a million different things you can say about how/why it is bad. When it’s good, there are a lot of adjectives and terms that can be blanketed to apply to all types of good prose such as…flowing, effortless, like reading a painting, vivid, believable. These phrases can all be applied to The Book of Lost Things. This is one of the quotes I marked…I feel this a book that works better as a whole, just quoting fragments doesn’t really do it justice.

    David nodded, but he did not feel reassured. In this land, it seemed that hunger inevitably overwhelmed cowardice, and the harpies of the Brood, as thin and emaciated as the wolves, looked very hungry indeed.

    I liked the hints (such as what he smells, his blackouts, hearing his father, etc.) throughout the book that informed the reader that perhaps David was in a coma or something similar. They weren’t over hints, they don’t bash you over the end or try to seem mysterious, but they are there – that best describes what I linked about the integration of such hints, they were just there without being distracting, confusing, etc. 

    Another aspect of this book that I liked was the integration of tales and books. The stories talk to David, he explores his stories in his own personal adventure, he hears fragmented tales of familiar stories in his story. The Book of Lost Things contains many more tales than David’s own and all are integrated well into the main thread.

    I also enjoyed all of the characters. It would be very easy to fall back on stereotypical characters in a classic tale such as this, featuring an evil trickster, a young boy hero, a woodsman, a knight, Snow White, etc. but Connolly twists them up just enough in his own unique way (a gay knight not going to rescue the princess but to find out what happened to the knight he loved, the seven dwarfs as oppressed working class members spouting Marxist theory, the Crooked Man who really is rather creepy and twisted), which is part of the reason this was such an interesting read.

     ***The rest of this post contains SPOILERS***

    The last few pages focused on wrapping up David’s time spent in the real world, i.e. the rest of his life. This last segment provided a bittersweet end to the book, for David ‘discovered that about one thing at least the Crook Man had not lied: his life was filled with great grief as well as great happiness…’ We hear how his father dies, how Georgie dies, how he cares for Rose until she too grows old and dies. I loved the resolution between David and Rose, he accepts her love and they become very close – no evil stepmother ending here. For me, though, the most poignant part of the novel was this:

    …he lived there contentedly for many years, always answering his door to the children who called – sometimes with their parents, sometimes alone – for the house was very famous, and a great many boys and girls wanted to see it. If they were very good, he would take them down to the sunken garden, although the cracks in the stonework had long been repaired, for David did not want children crawling in there and getting into trouble. Instead, he would talk to them of stories and books, and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books. And some of the children understood, and some did not.

    One last, somewhat irrelevant comment: There was a scene where David comes across a German tank, one that looks brand new, never been used, in the fantasy world but this is never explained. I think. Perhaps I missed something? It seems a bit odd that Connolly wouldn’t have explained that, or at least hinted at a reason for the tank’s being there…

    Overall, this is a very lovely, sad tale, a well-written story about growing up and loving stories. I would have been interested in reading more of Connolly’s fantasy, but unfortunately his other novels are crime, mystery, thriller, etc. This impresses me, the two genres are so different I almost want to read his other work (almost). I would very much like to see what other fantasy stories he could conjure! Here’s hoping that he’ll publish more in the future…