Via the New York Time Sunday Book Review:

Perfect for a rainy day at the Old Folks Book Club.  Or for any other Murakami fans looking for a chuckle.  Enjoy!




2011: The Books

When people ask me about my favorite book, I often have no idea what to say.  Come up with one book that I like more than any other book that I’ve ever read?  How am I supposed to do that?  I most certainly have books I like more than others.  There are books I love and books I hate.  But I find it almost impossible to choose one single work that I value above all others because, among the really great books, they each have something of value that can’t be fairly compared to others.

In this spirit, my new years review of the books I read in 2011 will not be a single ordered list of books I liked culminating in my favorite book of the year.  Instead, I’ve come up with a few categories into which I can place just some of the books I read last year.  This list is by no means comprehensive but it gives some good examples of what made me happy to be a reader in 2011.

The “Try Not to Make an Ass of Yourself By Laughing Hysterically in Public Places” Books

The Books:  Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik; Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend by Christopher Moore; God, No! by Penn Jillette; Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Most books are not laugh-out-loud funny.  They might inspire a smirk, or an inside chuckle, maybe a giggle.  But, some books are pee-your-pants funny.  Christopher Moore’s Lamb is one of these books.  The story of Jesus’ missing years is narrated by Biff, a well-meaning but flawed sidekick to the Son of God.  For all it’s wacky irreverence, the book manages to remain surprisingly inoffensive, no small feat when dealing with two teenage boys (even if one of them is Christ).  Penn Jillette’s God No! could be summed up with  “a fat dude vomits all over naked strippers in zero gravity.”  That sentence in itself is funny and the book follows suit.  Jillette does, however, get a little bit preachy in his hatred of anything religious and that drags the book down.  Pandaemonium, by Christopher Brookmyre, sits in as a a gaggle of hormonal teens battle demons at a forest getaway.  Sex, drugs, and mayhem predictably lead to hilarious results.  And Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of an adolescent spy sent to the American heartland to instigate chaos and destruction.  Told through the butchered syntax and grammar of a non-native speaker, Pygmy  is a brutal satire of American society in the guise of a raucous farce.  It was certainly the funniest book I read in 2011.

The “It Would Be So Cool to Do These Things But I Don’t Actually Want to Die” Books

The Books:   Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; No Way Down by Graham Bowley; The Wave by Susan Casey; Blind Descent by James Tabor

Four very strong books round out this category of tales chronicling men and women jabbing their fingers into nature’s eye by exploring those places where mortals have no business being.  Two have to do with mountain climbing tragedies in the Himalayas.  Krakauer’s Into Thin Air  and Bowley’s No Way Down  read as gripping thrillers set on the rooftop of the world.  Turning a complete 180, Blind Descent by James Tabor follows those who explore the earth’s deepest depths in a claustrophobic tale of supercave spelunking.  The final work in this category is Susan Casey’s The Wave.  She follows  scientists, sailors, and (of course) surfers on a quest to find the worlds largest and most dangerous waves.  The tale of a 1700+ foot wave alone makes this book a gripping read.

The “Sometimes Religion Makes People do Crazy Things” Books

The Books:  Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Underground by Haruki Murakami; Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman; The Cleanest Race by B.J. Myers

There were four excellent books in this category, each one exploring a different religious movement and their often tragic collisions with mainstream society.  Haruki Murakami’s Underground deals with the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  Murakami chooses to forgo any sort of author driven narrative by telling the story almost entirely in the words of the victims and cult members.  The result is a sobering meditation on Japanese society and it’s culpability in this horrific tragedy.  Inside Scientology,  by Janet Reitman, takes a more traditional approach in exploring the origins, beliefs, and future of Scientology.  Her research is insightful and scathing.  While remaining sympathetic to Scientology’s many adherents, she paints a vivid portrait of a power-hungry organization founded by a delusional huckster and being led into the 21st century by a violent sociopath.B.J. Myers’ The Cleanest Race seems to be misplaced in this category as it is a book about how the North Korean people perceive themselves and how this affects contemporary geopolitics.  Myers, however, makes a very persuasive argument that the North Korean worldview is informed by their own psuedo-religious belief in the purity of their race and in their leaders ability to protect this innocence against an onslaught of corruption and filth from the rest of the world.  Finally, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven explores the violent roots of Mormonism while telling the story of a grisly modern-day murder.  This story of faith gone awry is masterfully told, moving at times more like a thriller than a religious history.  His book challenges believers to ask themselves how far they might go in the name of faith and, depending on the answer, what this implies about the very nature of religious belief.

The “WTF???” Books

The Books: American Psycho by Brad Easton Ellis; Ed King by David Guterson; The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik

As an adult reader of literary fiction, one can very easily become desensitized to scenes of violence and sexuality (or a combination of the two).  Depictions of this nature often pop up in various works and, having read hundreds of them, they’re usually not quite as shocking as perhaps they should be.  Still, every so often a book can truly jolt.  Dave Guterson’s Ed King is a modern retelling of Oedipus Rex and is billed as such.  Therefore, the ending’s not a complete surprise.  No matter how prepared you are, however, it’s still cringe-inducing when the titular character discovers the truth about his wife.  Chuch Palahnuik’s Pygmy makes a second appearance for its bipolar swings between boring suburban life and graphic mayhem.  The scene where the diminutive narrator deals with an oafish bully will test your resolve as you try not to laugh at something that shouldn’t be in any way funny.   The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks also deals with an adolescent narrator prone towards violence and sociopathic behavior.  As his story careens towards it’s disturbing surprise ending, he spends his time collecting his own bodily fluids, killing dogs, and torturing wasps.  The last book in this category, however, makes the rest of these seem like appropriate bedtime stories for toddlers.  Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho depicts scenes of violence, sex, and sexual violence more disturbing and graphic than anything else legally available.  Readers beware.

“Even Though I’m a Guy, I Sometimes Cry a Little at the End of Books”

The Books:  Room by Emma Donoghue; 11/22/63 by Stephen King; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I’m not a crier.  Even if I was, I probably wouldn’t admit it.  But, I’d be lying if I said that these books didn’t bring a tear to my eye.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 may seem like an unlikely choice – time travelling alternate histories aren’t exactly known for their emotional potency.  King, however, turn this tale into a poignant meditation on memory, loss, and time.  You’d have to be one tough person to remain dry-eyed at the end of this one.  Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men needs little explanation.  The ill-fated story of George and Lenny has been regurgitated so many times in pop-culture that it almost seems cliche.  But this doesn’t negate the raw emotional power of this tragic novella.  The gem in this category, however, was Emma Donoghue’s Room.  The brilliance of this novel lies in the author’s use of Jack, a six year old narrator.  Jack’s innocence in the face of a dark,cruel world is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.



An Exploration of ‘Why?’

Attempting to ‘explain’ incidents of mass violence is a tricky endeavor.  On one hand, an explanation can be used to disperse, or even nullify, responsibility and culpability.  On the other hand, the absence of an explanation can give the impression that an incident was simply an anomaly, without context and outside the realm of cause and effect.  Historically, attempts to explain the unthinkably horrible have been met with great resistance and, thus, undertaken very carefully.  Investigations into Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, for instance, have landed writers such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and George Steiner in a tangled, emotional maelstrom (for a fascinating account of some of the scholastic, philosophical, and theological issues surrounding the historiography of Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler is an enlightening read).

In his non-fiction work Underground, Haruki Murakami confronts this issue head-on in relation to the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo Subway by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  In March of that year, cultists released sarin gas into the Tokyo Subways in a series of five coordinated attacks.  The motive for the attacks remains unclear, although the ostensible reason was to hasten the arrival of doomsday as foretold in an esoteric Buddhist text.  As a result of the attacks, 13 people died and thousands were injured.

The bulk of Murakami’s book is dedicated to verbatim interviews with survivors of the attack and family members of the deceased.  In a second section (published later), he includes interviews with current and former members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  For Murakami, the question that fascinated him the most was one that the media couldn’t or wouldn’t address:  What happened in the Tokyo subway the morning of March 20th, 1995.

Or, more concretely: What were the people in the subway cars doing at the time? What did they see?  What did they feel? What did they think?  If I could, I’d have included details on each individual passenger, right down to their heartbeat and breathing, as graphically represented as possible.  The question was, what would happen to any ordinary Japanese citizen – such as me or any of my readers – if they were suddenly caught up in an attack of this kind.

To this end, Murakami the author takes a backseat and allows the victims to do the talking.  He asks, What happened? and writes down what they say.  In the second half of the book, he becomes a more active interviewer, pressing members of Aum Shinrikyo to expound on their answers and explain their views.  Both sections are fascinating due to the raw power of personal testimony.

In this midst of these interviews, Murakami directly confronts the issue of historical memory and culpability for these horrible attacks in an impassioned essay which truly showcases his masterful skills as a writer.  As he sees it, the subway attacks are in imminent danger of being consigned to the attic of recent history.

Most Japanese seem ready to pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH…saying “After all, this was merely an extreme and exceptional crime committed by an isolated and lunatic fringe.”

This dichotomy of “us” versus “them” is ultimately a false one, Murakami continues, because, within any society, “they” are necessarily part of “us.”  And, to truly understand what really happened and why, a new narrative is needed, one which does away with this dichotomy, “another narrative to purify this narrative.”

While Murakami’s essay deals specifically with the Japanese psyche and how it has grappled with the Tokyo subway attacks, his point is relevant to any society facing a shattering national tragedy.  The traditional adversarial narratives only serve to reinforce psychologically comfortable interpretations which absolve “us” from any culpability and places the blame squarely on “them.”  The truth is infinitely more complicated and just as uncomfortable.

While there is no excuse for the perpetrators of the attack, Murakami suggests that each member of society has a small measure of culpability and, at the very least, has a responsibility to question what happened and why.  As a novelist, Murakami’s job is to construct narratives and, as such, he personally wonders about his ability to construct narratives which can compete with the “utter nonsense” spun by the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo which, nonetheless, managed to persuade otherwise rational individuals into an almost unthinkable act.

In this short essay, only about 20 or so pages, Murakami unambiguously and powerfully calls on Japanese society to take a serious look at itself, to examine its fundamental values, and to take stock of where it is heading.  It is advice which would be wisely heeded by other societies in the hopes that a tragedy similar to the Tokyo subway attack might be avoided.

(For another great review by a fellow Murakami fan, check out this post at The Parrish Lantern)

Japanese Author Round-up

Up until recently, my entire experience with Japanese fiction was limited to the works of Haruki Murakami.  He’s a hard act to follow, but I’ve broadened my horizons by recently reading two other Japanese authors.  These two books, 69 by Ryu Murakami and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe, are about as different as two books can be.  All the same, both were wonderful stories written by authors who I will certainly read again.


69 by Ryu Murakami

A blurb on the back cover pegs this book as a Japanese Catcher in the Rye.  While many might consider this an enormous compliment, it actually put me off.  Having found Catcher in the Rye to be, at best, an unbearable bore and, at worst, the literary equivalent of fingernails screeching down a blackboard, I was tempted to give 69 a miss.  But, it is short (less than 200 pages) so I picked it up – and I ripped through it in a single sitting.

Rather than channeling Holden Caulfield, Kensuke Yazaki, the precocious narrator of 69, reminds me more of Nick Twisp from C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt.  In fact the two books parallel each other quite well – a hormonal teen-age boy recounts the crazy shenanigans he instigates in the pursuit of an idealized girl.  And both books are uproariously funny.  As with Nick Twisp, the narrative voice of Kensuke deadpans its way through outrageous situations with just the right combination of irony and sincerity to leave the reader in stitches.  In a particular scene that nearly resulted in me spraying a mouthful of Sprite all over the guy sitting in front of me on the airplane, Kensuke describes how he sneaks out of his house using an old gravestone as a step.  He then recalls how one of his grandfather’s friends used to get drunk and urinate in cemeteries – until the day he dropped dead.  This man, Kensuke concludes, had been hexed by the dead for desecration of their eternal resting place.

So, whenever I slipped out to the all-night porno flicks or whatever, I’d press my palms together as I stepped on the gravestone and say Forgive me, Forgive me, Forgive me, over and over again.  I prayed this time too, but it was different now.  I wasn’t going to a dirty movie; I was going to barricade the school.  Revolution.  Surely the spirits of the dead would let this one slide.

As with Youth in Revolt, this novel probably isn’t for everyone.  As you’d expect in a novel narrated by a teenage boy, the language is rough and the content can be bawdy.  But, for readers who don’t find this problematic (or who can overlook the most objectionable passages), this book is a hilarious romp, well worth the two and a half hours it takes to read.


Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe

This short novel by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe draws immediate and inevitable comparisons to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It’s the story of a group of reform school adolescents during wartime who are abandoned in a small village after the outbreak of a mysterious plague.  At first, the boys relish their new freedom.  They break into houses, pillage for food, hunt, play games.  Ultimately, however, their illusions of happiness and solidarity are shattered.

Where this books veers from Lord of the Flies is in its ending, and by extension, it’s implications.  When the boat rescues the children at the end of Golding’s book, the madness and mayhem cease; civilization is restored. In Nip the Buds, the return of the villagers only results in further brutality.  While blame in Lord of the Flies rests with the innate savagery of human nature itself, Oe places guilt squarely on the shoulders of his story’s authority figures.

This is a cruel book.  There’s very little found within the pages which could be considered uplifting in any way and the ending, while ambiguous, doesn’t allow for the possibility of a happy outcome for any of the characters.  Still, it’s a thought-provoking read and, although simple in style and language, challenging in its ideas and themes.



I have copies of  Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami and A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe.  Also, a copy of Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino.  Are there any other Japanese authors or books I should be looking for?



Poetic Inspiration

Having recently finished Things Fall Apart, I got to thinking about other famous novels which have been inspired wholly or in part by famous poems.  While I’m certainly not a poetry connoisseur, I do enjoy reading the occasional poem and find it especially fascinating to read (or reread) a poem in the context of a novel it inspired.  Links to the full poems are included.  Enjoy!

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)

Nabokov, in his endless wordplay, seamlessly weaves snippets of Poe’s poem into Humbert Humbert’s narration.  Annabel was the name of Humbert’s first love, the young girl that haunted his mind until he met Lolita decades later.  The themes of the poem – tragic love, death, jealousy – mirror those of Lolita.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning (The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King)

King’s inspiration for his seven-book, 3000+ page epic were Clint Eastwood westerns and this poem by Robert Browning.  While King obviously fills in quite a bit, the poem and the books follow Roland in his quest for the ever-elusive Dark Tower.

The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)

The first stanza of The Second Coming describes a world coming apart at the seams.  Blood is shed, anarchy reigns, and innocence is destroyed.  In Achebe’s novel, Okonkwo sees his world of tribal tradition and stability ripped apart from within (his own tendencies towards rigidity and violence) and from without (the arrival ‘modernity’ in the guise of white missionaries).  Things Fall Apart is a particularly apt, perhaps even understated, title.

Norwegian Wood by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami)

Yes, it’s a pop song, but technically and artistically, Norwegian Wood qualifies as poetry.  In the song, a haunted narrator looks back on the girl who slipped through his fingers.  Murakami’s  novel is beautifully structured around the same motif.


This list is by no means exhaustive.  There are countless titles that could be attributed to Shakespeare alone (think A Brave New World from The Tempest or The Sound and the Fury from Macbeth). Any other favorite books that were inspired by a particular piece of poetry?

Murakami’s Narrative Voice

One of the inherent advantages of first-person narration is that it allows the reader to identify much more closely with the narrator.  Stories told in the third-person certainly have the advantage of introducing the reader to a broader scope of characters and situations, but there’s a noticeable lack of intimacy.  Even in situations where a third-person omniscient narrator weasels its way into a characters consciousness, there’s always a narrative barrier which separates the reader from the character.

After digesting Dance, Dance, Dance for a day or so, I realize how important a role this plays in Murakami’s writing.  While not all of his writing is done  in this form (half of Kafka on the Shore for instance, and some short stories), Murakami’s most compelling story-telling is done through the eyes of his very human, very sympathetic narrators.

Some have called Dance, Dance, Dance a harsh critique on the capitalist system; the absurdity of ‘advanced capitalist society’ (a recurring phrase throughout the book) is certainly an important component of the story.

We live in an advanced capitalist society, after all. Waste is the name of the game, its greatest virtue.  Politicians call it ‘refinements in domestic consumption.  I call it meaningless waste.

These are pretty harsh words.  But the Murakami, through his narrator, doesn’t give the reader a chance to get riled up or angry.  The narrator quickly continues:

A difference of opinion. Which doesn’t change the way we live.  If I don’t like it, I can move to Bangladesh or Sudan.

The narrator, by and large reacts to what happens around him, the mundane and absurd alike, with a sense of bemused resignation.  Similarly, he explains what led to a divorce with his ex-wife.

…if you love someone, the love is always shifting or wavering.  It’s always questioning or inflating or disappearing or denying or hurting. And the thing is, you can’t do anything about it, you can’t control it…Maybe she had a different perspective on the matter. So in the end she split.

While sad (and this is a truly sad book in many ways, even if it has an uplifting ending), the narrator is not angry, not bitter.  He accepts the reality of the situation and moves on.

In the end, it’s this attitude that keeps Dance, Dance, Dance afloat.  In life, absurdities abound.  Friendships are made and destroyed.  Hearts are broken.  People die.  It’s not a question of right or wrong, fair or unfair.  They’re simply facts of human existence.   If a reader can learn to accept these realities, through the narrator, within the microcosm of the novel, they may also be able to gain some lasting perspective into their own lives.