Haruki Murakami – 1Q84

*The following information applies to the English hardcover edition. (the novel was originally published in Japanese in 2009/2010).*

Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Jay Rubin (Books 1 and 2) and Phillip Gabriel (Book 3)

Title: 1Q84
Published: October 2011
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 925 pages
Genre: Post-modern surrealism
Target age: Adult
Why I picked it up: Fan of the author, massively hyped
Rating: 2 stars
Buy: Chapters | IndieBound | Check your local bookstore!

Weehoo, I finished it, I finished it! The last two hundred pages made me feel like Frodo climbing up Mount Doom and now that I’m done I feel like Frodo laying on the mountain waiting to die…well, perhaps I exaggerate. I don’t know how I stuck it out to the end – I suppose it has to do with good ole’ Samwise Gamgee, always there to carry me through. Except that’s a lie, there was no Sam, I had to tough it on my own. Booo. But it’s all over now, so that’s that.

As you might have gathered from extended Lord of the Rings metaphor up there (sorry, couldn’t resist, watched 7.5 hours of LotR movies last weekend), I was not very happy with this book. Honestly, I was immensely disappointed by it and I am greatly impressed by those who are not. Interestingly, I also wasn’t that impressed by the book that preceded 1Q84…I hope Murakami’s not losing his touch! (Although I did like After Dark more than this 1Q84 if only because it’s a fraction of the length…). Why did I not enjoy this book?

The main answer to that question is there was very little substance. A few things happen regarding a book and a murder…augggh, but see, if I describe how I felt nothing happened then you might think I’m just not that thoughtful and didn’t realize what was happening. Granted, that may be the case, but I got a lot out of Kafka on the Shore and I didn’t get anything at all out of 1Q84. I couldn’t really grasp any underlying message, any purpose to anything that happened. Murakami’s not one to lay out a story neat and tidy for a reader, but I can usually piece things together to gain some meaning – not so with this novel. The third book consisted of three people waiting around to find each other. Basically, three events happen but nothing is very notable. The end. The third book was so lifeless (although the last ten pages or so were nice, admittedly) it made me forget that some things did happen. I remember there were a few moments in the first two books when I was shocked/surprised at something that happened, but the novel just dragged on sooooo long I forget that there was anything I remotely liked about it. Maybe it all boils down to the length. But even if you cut out the last book, I would still not be overtly impressed. I feel like this novel lacked the heart of other Murakami books I read. It’s all about the love between Tengo and Aomame and eventually that comes out but not until the very end. Everything to do with the book and the cult and Tengo’s first memory and anything that seemed like it was going to matter eventually didn’t. Maybe that’s the point. It was a very long and winding crazy novel but eventually you get to the end and realize none of it mattered. Haha, I think that’s the message I’ll take from this. My parents ask me ‘What’s it about? what does it have to with 1984?’ and I say ‘I don’t know, it’s difficult to explain’ and those are honest answers. It’s a love story, ultimately, I suppose? Bah, I’ve blathered on long enough. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. This hasn’t been a very good analysis of the novel’s story or what did/didn’t happen in the book so just to sum up – ultimately, I feel like this novel was lacking in the crucial something that might have brought it to life. (Perhaps a professional review would be better at conveying what I feel about this book – click here to read one that I agree with.)

Somehow, I managed to make it through books one and two without being to upset. No worries, this is how Murakami is, I’m sure it’ll all come together in the last book. The last book was fairly different from the first two, though, and by the time I was around page 700 I wanted to give up. What had gotten me in that far was Murakami’s prose. I don’t know what it is about his writing style. I can’t tell you why I like it. I just know that I can read 30 pages at a time no problem, just patiently reading every word and enjoying the flow of his words. Had this book been written in anyone else’s style, I probably would not have made it through. The best part of 1Q84, however, is probably the book design. The cover image I’ve posted above doesn’t do it justice. The translucent book jacket, the overlapping images, the symmetry and the soft smooth pages made this book somewhat easier to read.

Who knows, maybe I just totally missed the point of this novel. Maybe it’s just not for me. I felt like the story was greatly lacking even though I liked the characters (I didn’t talk about the characters at all in this post and I don’t feel like saying anymore. But I did like Tengo and Aomame and sometimes strange Fuka-Eri and weird Ushikawa). At least I have a pretty book for bookshelf.

Michael Pollan – In Defense of Food

 Author: Michael Pollan

Title: In Defense of Food
Published: January 1 2008
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 201 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I picked it up: Interested in Pollan’s writing
Rating: 3.5 stars
Challenges: Foodie’s | 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

This is the follow-up book to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While The Omnivore’s Dilemma examined where our food can and does come from, In Defense of Food presents Pollan’s opinion on what food we should consume. More precisely, he proposes various rules that might serve as guides when deciding what to eat.

I liked a lot of what this book had to say. It fits with my own developing philosophy towards eating, notably ‘eat food.’ I found his arguments about reductionist nutritionism (which focuses on isolating a nutrient and determining how much of a nutrient should be consumer rather than how much of a food should be consumed, but it is impossible to totally isolate a nutrient and its effects [says Pollan]) and I would love to whole-heartedly agree with everything he says, but I have to remember to have some caution, as this is a single person’s opinion I’m reading. As Pollan writes, ‘Are we better off now with these new authorities telling us how to eat than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted?’ I don’t think so, but then, I’m not a scientist. He suggests food is a good example of something that is greater than the sum of its part. Given the history of food, and how we’ve survived thousands and thousands of years without the science behind it, I’m inclined to think that’s true, but I need to remind myself that I don’t really know or understand any of the science behind food so I have to be careful not to get too caught in my what I wish to believe, I’m no scientist and can’t just take mine and Pollan’s beliefs as true because I want them to be true.

Even so, I can see no harm in the rules he proposes. I already unconsciously follow a lot of them and it was interesting to read some rationale for why I make the choices I do. He writes of eating food your great-grandmother would recognize as food. One example that I found striking was bread. He describes a brand of bread with 36 ingredients, many of them made necessary by the industrialization of food production. If I buy my favourite kind of bread from the local bakery, it has five ingredients (flour, water, rye sour, sea salt and ascorbic acid, I checked) – just what bread really needs. I like to eat food that’s actually food. Another important aspect of his argument is that good food is totally worth it; that is one point I can entirely agree with. Pay $4 more for organic locally grown produce? Hell yeah, I will. There are a lot of people who can afford to eat ethically produced food (if I may use a loaded term for a moment…) but don’t. I don’t want to be one of those people. I’m willing to invest in what I eat. Food is a major aspect of my life, whether I want it to be or not, and it has major implications for the environment. I’ll pay a little more to get the right thing.

In summary, Pollan presents some interesting ideas regarding the current Western way of choosing what to eat based on specific nutrients. It’s probably best to take his criticisms of nutritionism with a grain of salt, but I can’t see any reason why not to take up his suggestions of ‘food rules’. While I’m not particularly interested in my health (which seems to getting along fine without any special help from me…), I am interested in the philosophical and environmental aspects of food, so Pollan’s writings are still highly relevant for me. An interesting read with some good ideas to put into practice.

Extra Books – to November 27

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
    • Published: September 2011
    • Genre: Magical fantasy
    • Why I picked it up: Intensely hyped book with a premise that intrigued me
    • Rating: 3.5 stars
    • Challenges: 100+
    • My Thoughts: 
      • This is the only book I have ever purchased solely based on the hype surrounding it. In fact, I hadn’t seen any of the hype, only the discussion of the hype. But I was intrigued, especially by the fact that it started out as a NaNo and features a magical circus, so I picked it up. I finished reading it month and a half ago but school killed my blogging habits.
      • I had hoped this book would live up to the hype and in many ways it did. The prose is fantastic. Morgenstern’s style is lovely; she chooses precisely the right words in the right amount. It is for this reason that I will likely read whatever else she chooses to publish.
      • The many characters had lots of promise (I loved the twins and Chandresh), but none of them were quite as developed as I would have liked to see them. Frankly, I despised Celia and Marco. Well, perhaps despise is a strong word, but they were such flat, dull characters, I didn’t feel any hint of romance between them with was the central point of the story. 
      • Which brings me now to the reason why I was so disappointed by this book…the plot. For me, the plot was nothing interesting, nothing exciting. I felt no suspense or worry for the characters caught up in it. As I mentioned, the romance between Celia and Marco was greatly lacking and so prevented the final climax from being interesting or dramatic whatsoever. I found the final events to be a little confusing and rushed (but perhaps it was because I was getting sick of the story and rushing through the end of the book…)
      • I think I would have enjoyed this novel a lot more had I been able to connect with Celia and Marco. I enjoyed Celia’s introduction and thought she would be a character I would like, but unfortunately, no. The prose is the redeeming aspect of this novel and why I would recommend you give it a shot if you’re looking for something to read.
  • Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor
    • Published: June 2003
    • Genre: Non-fiction memoir/religion primer
    • Why I picked it up: Label of ‘Buddhist Atheist’ may apply to me, wanted to read about the guys ideas
    • Rating: 3 stars
    • Challenges: 100+
    • My Thoughts:
      • This book is sort of a sequel to Buddhism Without Beliefs. I knew they were related, but it wasn’t until I was a great deal in to Confessions that I realized how much of a follow up Confessions is to Buddhism. I think I would have been more comfortable with this book had I read the first book first!
      • It was hard for me to swallow a lot of what Batchelor wrote about, even if I logically agreed with him. However, I’m not familiar with Buddhist texts (I’m still a novice here) and I can’t just accept whatever he decides to pick out from the texts and whatever he decides to ignore because I don’t know what’s accurate. 
      • The purpose of this book is to explain how he came to his beliefs in his first book. I am interested in reading his first book, and I think that might help aid my understanding in this book.
      • I like the memoir segment of the book, where the author illustrates his progression through Buddhism.

Jaclyn Moriarty – The Ghosts of Ashbury High

 Author: Jaclyn Moriarty

Title: The Ghosts of Ashbury High (Dreaming of Amelia in Australia)
Published: June 2010
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Length: 480 pages
Genre: YA fiction
Why I picked it up: Love the series
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: Global | 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

It is always a rare treat to find a YA novel that I can enjoy and devour. There are a very few YA authors that I love. In fact, there are two: John Green and Jaclyn Moriarty. Green has a very prominent internet presence, whereas Moriarty does not and this is how I did not know she had a new Ashbury novel out until over a year after it was published. I am a bad fan.

I first encountered Moriarty in grade six or seven when I received The Year of Secret Assignments as an Easter present. I adored it, for its writing style, the narratives that build on one another through little clues, distinct characters and increasingly dark plot. The novel was a hit among my friends. A few years later, The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie was published. I did a book report on it in high school. It was with this second Moriarty book that I saw how all her books interconnect – major characters in one novel have minor roles in another, past events may be hinted at, characters you’ve heard about in the past novels finally make proper appearances, etc. Finally, I realized there was another Ashbury book, the first one: Looking for Celia. I read that one as well (though I didn’t think it wasn’t quite as great as The Year of Secret Assignments). Now, five years after I read the last Ashbury book, I have stumbled across a new one and I think this one is the best yet.

All the aspects of The Year of Secret Assignments (writing style, characterization, plot twists, increasingly dark plot, interconnected but distinct narratives) I adored so much come into full play in The Ghosts of Ashbury High. Moriarty has perfected her craft and method. It is lovely to actually be able to see an author’s improvement over a series of novels. Secret Assignments was great, but Ghosts feels like story that contains highly refined elements that are Moriarty’s trademark. The characters were all so well-written with subtleties that made them feel real (I’m not sure if that makes sense but it’s the best way I can think of to describe the character aspects that I loved seeing so much). Also brilliantly written was the subtle intertwining of the character’s narratives. Come to think of it, what I loved was the subtlety of Moriarty’s writing. Everything she does, she did so well in this story in such a subtle, quietly tucked into the story way. the story and the characters build, build, build, so steadily; Moriarty sucks you into the book like a slow moving whirlpool might put suck you down to the ocean floor (It’s exam time, don’t expect good descriptive sentences from me now =.=). 

Finally, I would like to add: Don’t let the ugly cover (or the vague, teenage-y description) fool you! I suppose the cover is meant to capitalize on the trend of the love for all things supernatural? I loved the old American/Canadian cover designs (see The Year of Secret Assignments with the fire alarm, and The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie with the locker). As for the description, if I wasn’t already so familiar with Moriarty’s work I definitely would not have picked up this book. This also happened with Secret Assignments: when I received it as a gift my first thought was ‘Why did parents think I would like this book??’ [Coincedentally I also received American Idiot as an Easter gift, thought the same thing, now Green Day is one of my favourite bands.] I wonder how many other readers are out there like me who could potentially love these books but were put off by the cover or description…

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

 Author: Sylvia Plath

Title: The Bell Jar
Published: 1963
Publisher: Heinemann
Length: 244 pages
Genre: Semi-autobiographical fiction
Why I picked it up: A ‘classic’, sounded good
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

I sometimes wonder if I might ever loose my grounding or go crazy or have a nervous breakdown. I think everyone does. What struck me about this book was how well I could identify with Esther. She is my age and has the same hopes and the same worries and some of the same thought processes. I liked the part where she talks about a warm bath (I completely agree that baths are/should be like a religious rite of purification) and where she describes the imaginary conversation with Buddy where she comes up with the metaphor of cadavers and dust; that’s very much like how I think. I marked the passage where she describes seeing her future branching out like a fig tree:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I can identify with that feeling very well. How do you know which path is the best one for you when you can’t try them all? How do you know you’re making the right decision? I just do my best and not let it stress me out too much. This is where I differ from Esther. I can sympathize with her but you’d have to rewind five years for me to be able to empathize with her. 

What struck me was how normal her breakdown seemed. It slowly crept its way into the story and felt like a perfectly natural and understandable thing to happen. I’ve never experienced any sort of mental illness and this book shows how it can really just happen to anyone. I liked the perspective of the novel; it felt like I was reading Esther’s diary and getting a peak inside her/Plath’s mind.

Maybe this isn’t the most well-written novel, though I enjoyed what I found was casual, easy-to-read, conversational prose; it felt to me like Esther was telling the reader the story. I don’t think one reads it for the literary experience, though, I think one reads it to experience the decline of a promising young one. That is an awful sentence. What I mean is, I chose this novel because I wanted to see what it might be like for someone to fall apart in such a sad way. This isn’t something you experience often, hopefully. I expected there to be more obvious signs, more obvious causes that would hint towards a breakdown. But there weren’t. There were difficulties and frustrations that Esther faced and unfortunately depression overtook her. It’s as simple of that. There isn’t really much you can do about it.

This post has probably revealed much of my ignorance towards mental disorders. The main point is I enjoyed this novel and getting to know Esther, even though it was a tragic read.