I’ve bitten into my university reading list before the classes even begin. My reviews will be totally honest—so if a book doesn’t make any sense to me, then that’s exactly what I’ll write. Before I start reviewing university books, though, here’s one piece of fiction:
Disappointing writer’s scrapbook. pages, ★★
I can’t relate to the good reviews of this book. These 24 surreal short stories are mostly negative, bleak, largely pointless and totally lack a common theme.
Whether taken individually, or taken as a whole, these 24 stories have no typical ‘story’ structure to them. Murakami’s novels (see my review of 1Q84) are so well-written that I had high hopes for his story collections, too. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed with all of them. ★★
Cult mentality at its worst. An appendix to Cults. 366 pages, ★★★★
In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.
Underground is divided into two parts. The first, larger part focusses on the victims of the attack and their families. Author Murakami does this because he feels the media focussed too much on the perpetrators, and neglected coverage of the victims.
The second part consists of interviews with cult leaders. His conversations make the fictional cult/gang in 1Q84 very believable.
Translator’s footnotes describe the fate of the attackers throughout Underground. Some of the attackers were sentenced to hard labour, some received the death penalty, and a small number were still awaiting trial.
The line between ‘cults’ and ‘charismatic groups’ is a fine one. Arguably, ‘cults’ are just the products of ‘charismatic groups’ gone awry. They exist in every country and need to be kept in check. This book made me wonder: what if Scientology, with all its resources and influence, were to turn violent?
I recommend Underground for anyone interested in cults, and for all die-hard fans of Haruki Murakami. ★★★★
Running is a form of meditation. Murakami says he “doesn’t doesn’t know what he thinks about when he’s running”. When he’s happy, he thinks a little about being happy, and when he’s unhappy, he thinks a little about being unhappy. He says the average human mind isn’t strong enough to sustain a vacuum of thoughts, so random thoughts will seep in occasionally no matter how hard we try to block them out (see my book review on meditation exercises). That sounds like meditation to me.
Murakami started running to recover from an addiction to cigarettes, and has since run multiple marathons, including the original marathon route in Greece (he did it alone, surrounded by traffic!) Running motivated him to write, to give up smoking, and to run even more. Runners compete only against their former selves.
This humorous, autobiographical collection of essays, letters and memories persuades me strongly to get up and run.
Dark, deeply descriptive account of one eventful night in Tokyo.
256 pages, ★★★★★
At its center are two sisters—Eri, a fashion model slumbering her way into oblivion, and Mari, a young student soon led from solitary reading at an anonymous Denny’s toward people whose lives are radically alien to her own: a jazz trombonist who claims they’ve met before, a burly female “love hotel” manager and her maid staff, and a Chinese prostitute savagely brutalized by a businessman. These “night people” are haunted by secrets and needs that draw them together more powerfully than the differing circumstances that might keep them apart, and it soon becomes clear that Eri’s slumber—mysteriously tied to the businessman plagued by the mark of his crime—will either restore or annihilate her.
Murakami’s thriller After Dark is similar to his epic 1Q84 trilogy. Both books have a small number of characters, are slightly surreal, and both are set in Tokyo. Both After Dark and 1Q84 are highly addictive reads.
After Dark goes further than 1Q84 in one respect. In 1Q84, Murakami writes that good authors “omit description of the familiar”. The gun in 1Q84 was only described in great detail because, according to Murakami, “it is going to be fired”. After Dark, However, is different—every minute details is given excessive description—the wrinkles on someone’s face, the texture of a paper coffee cup, the lyrics playing in 7-Eleven. I like this slowed-down version of time that After Dark‘s excessive description creates. Amidst chaos, the reader (and Eri, who is sleeping somewhere in suburbia) are the only two people who have time to appreciate fine details in this hectic, dystopian novel.
We see detail from every angle. When a prostitute has been hurt by a client, we learn all about that client and his job, his actions and his alibi for that night, even his relationship with his wife. Murakami writes explicitly that the reader’s perspective is “a camera, observing momentarily from each of many different angles”. After Dark‘s tangled plot would take any of its characters years to unravel, but our ‘magic camera’ perspective is granted access to all angles, to every missed encounter, and sees all the coincidences in the story. All the book’s characters, meanwhile, are blissfully oblivious.
I love this book. It’s one of few short novels to rival 1Q84 in quality. I recommend After Dark for anyone who loves being gripped by fiction. ★★★★★
Norwegian Wood summarises adolescence with a clarity that no 17-year-old possesses. We follow Protagonist Tora Wantanbe and his closest friends as they feel love, unrequited love, sex, death, promiscuity, mental illness and heartbreak, with naïvety and bewilderment, for the first time. Like these characters, I saw all of the above, and can testify that at 17, that’s a lot to take in.
I had no idea what was going on when I was 17. At least these characters at least seem to understand it all a bit better than I did. Having their hot-headed stories told by a highly articulate adult (Murakami) makes all their teenage shenanigans seem smooth, painless and futile. Of course, it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time.
As always with Haruki Murakami, the novel has beautiful sex scenes. Unlike The Time Traveler’s Wife or Fifty Shades of Grey, whose ugly sex scenes tarnish the whole book, I find the sex in Murakami’s books very agreeable.
Here’s the character map I made for this simple novel:
It’s a gripping book and I read it all in one sitting. Starting with 1Q84, I think I’ve discovered my first favourite author. I absolutely love Murakami’s writing!★★★★★
Disappointingly disconnected, slightly bizarre short stories. 147 pages, ★★
In 1995, an earthquake in a prosperous Japanese city left only spiritual rubble. This story documents people’s reactions immediately following the quake. One woman leaves her husband, and one man accepts a mysterious delivery job. Most of the characters have either lost something, or are looking for something, in the vaguest sense.
Aside from that, unless I go into some philosophical over-think, the characters in these short stories have nothing in common. They also never meet each other. The final story then becomes surreal when it introduces a giant frog character, which unlike the fantasy elements of 1Q84, is neither spiritual nor meaningful.
After the Quake feels like a work-in-progress, a rough sketch, an EP. I am still confident that Murakami’s best works are yet to be found, and I’ll keep looking. ★★