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Happy (belated) birthday Haruki Murakami

11297I saw a tweet this morning wishing Haruki Murakami a happy birthday. I got excited because a) he is my favourite author and b) I have an excuse to write a blog post about him. When I verified the information, turns out his birthday was on January 12th. (womp womp) The thing is, I composed a blog post in my head on the subway ride to work this morning, and I am not letting that go to waste!

I first came across Murakami probably just shy of 10 or so years ago. I was on the hunt for new things to read, things that were outside of my usual genres. Someone (I don’t remember who) suggested Haruki Murakami. I was intrigued. I figured I didn’t have much to lose on this venture, so I picked up a copy of Norwegian Wood.

Wow. I was blown away. I had never read anything like that before. It was so….cool and weird and heartbreaking and sincere and poignant. I had no idea that a book could be so many things at once. I was hooked.

I have pretty much read all of his books (I haven’t got to the non-fiction books or some of the short story collections). And even after all that, it’s hard for me to pin down both what is so compelling about his stories and how to describe them. I have seen his work described as Magical Realism and I guess that’s sort of it.

At the end of the day, I think he just tells a darn good story.

He does have some common themes in his books: cats (sometimes who talk), girls with small ears, simple food, Cutty Sark Whiskey. After reading a few of his books, you start to look out for these things. It’s like a literary Where’s Waldo.

I can’t pick one of his books that is my favourite. They are all different and meaningful in their own way.

If you are interested in trying out his work, I would suggest starting off with something shorter like Norwegian Wood. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative and you get a good sense of his writing style. I would save The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, and Kafka on the Shore for a little later. (Don’t get me wrong, they are really good. But they are on the long side and a little more magical than realistic.)

If you decide to check him out, let me know what you think!

The Goldfinch…the movie?

17333223 I read The Goldfinch. I know there was a lot of hoopla and acclaim for it. Me? I thought it was meh. More specifically, I thought it was about 250 pages too long. It was a compelling story, I liked the characters. But seriously, it was just a bit too much.

I heard a while back that a movie was in the works. Here is what shocked me, I thought that this might be a situation where the movie might (just might) be better than the book. I wrote about how the book isn’t always better. In this case, it might be true.

I saw an alert (from Bustle!) that the cast has been…..cast. And this was another shocking moment for me. I totally agree with it. Usually “they” don’t get it quite right. But in this case, I think they nailed it.

Ansel Elgort is playing the main character Theo. First, I think Ansel is the bees knees (did you see Baby Driver!). Second, he is kind of what I pictured in my head when I was reading it. I mean, not HIM specifically, but his look.

I am not going to go through all the casting decisions, you can read for yourself.

The other thing I think is interesting was the director choice. It is John Crowley. Who? He directed Brooklyn (which is another book to movie adaptation). So he has the chops.

I am actually pretty interested to see how this one pans out.

Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar

horseSo Barb got me A Horse Walks Into a Bar for Christmas.  It was on my wish list.  I had seen it on a lot of the year-end lists and it looked like something I would enjoy.

And I did.  It is a supreme literary achievement and deserves all of the accolades it has received.  David Grossman, the author, created a piece of writing that is at the top of the craft.

The frame of the book is deceptively simple.  The entire story is told through one man’s stand up routine in a club in Israel.  Grossman takes that frame and uses it to gradually reveal the story of the stand up comic, who is clearly tormented.  Through it all, the reader has the sense it is bad.  Is driven to keep watching.  Sees it get worse and worse and yet continues.

I can’t find the quote, but somewhere the narrator says something like “but what is literature but an excuse for a man to look into another man’s tortured soul?”

The audience at the club gets involved as part of the story.  As the story moves forward, it turns out that people who have been sitting there in the audience are actually part of the story, as if a spotlight shines on them suddenly in the dark.

Grossman’s writing has been praised in reviews for being elegant and spare.  It’s hard to describe how true this is.  Every word is perfect.  Every word is necessary.

This is one of those stories that has everything.  Abuse.  Family dysfunction.  Mental illness.  Death.  Regret.  Told in a florid and overbearing style, it would collapse of its own weight into The Prince of Tides.  It would be emotionally unmanageable.

But Grossman gives us nothing but the story and lets us supply the feelings.

I don’t like to give plot summaries, but if you read the book, there’s a scene where the comic describes being put into a truck with a total stranger and the scene goes on and on and you can feel yourself in that car, you can see what it looks like out the dusty window.  The scene, which seems incidental, turns into the book’s critical passage and it is a torture to read.

Which brings up a key point.  This book is framed in a stand-up comedy routine.  Any reader should understand that the book is almost never funny.  There are a couple corny jokes–like ones your uncle would tell every year at the family BBQ after cracking open his sixth can of Stroh’s–and you might chuckle at those, or groan.

But this book is not funny.  In fact, it is a tough read.  It is dark and it delves into the most pain and regrets that people are capable of carrying, exponentially multiplied by years of stewing.

And I guess that’s my ultimate verdict.  This is an expertly crafted piece of fiction.  I like my art dark, and it certainly is.  The only thing that keeps this book from reaching my very top shelf is just the fact that…for my taste…it is dark and humorless, unlike say Catch-22.

That’s ultimately quibbling.  This is a great book.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

music shopThis book description had me at record shop and set in the 80s.

This book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but at the same time it was more than I had hoped for.

The story is about Frank, the owner if a record shop in 1988 London that only stocks vinyl. There is a cast of supporting characters that make up the small neighbourhood the shop is located in. Frank’s life changes the day that Ilse, a mysterious woman, faints outside his shop one day.

Frank’s gift is that he can tell the song that you need to hear to fix what ails you. I am a huge music fan, and I am aware of the healing power of music. I was very much into the concept of music as a prescription for healing.

This could have been a simple love story. Between Frank and Ilse. Or between Frank and music. But it’s more than that. There are themes of moving on from your past, standing by your principles, and fighting for what you believe in.

There is a thread of what I thought was sadness, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s tenderness. The author obviously has great emotion for the topics that she writes about. This book is also, surprisingly, laugh out loud funny. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

If you are looking for a good read, that isn’t too taxing but is rewarding. This is your book. And, if you are a fan of music I would definitely check this out.

As a bonus, there is a Spotify playlist that goes along with this book: https://open.spotify.com/user/penguinbooks/playlist/1skEBZppUBtHBXxdcYIHns
(If you are like me, in these situations, you like to listen along with the songs.)

I rated this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

Ghosts of the Tsunami

ghostsSo I was looking for a book to read before Christmas and looking at The Economist’s Books of the Year List when I saw them mention Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lee Parry, the Toyko editor of The Times.   I’m not sure what appealed to me about this book, particularly as a feel-good Holiday read, but I downloaded it to my Kindle and went to work.

It is an excellent book.  If it was just about the tsunami, there would be plenty of material.  Something about these kinds of disasters leads to cliches….so far I have barely avoided descriptions like “unimaginable,” “indescribable” and “biblical.”

Luckily, Parry doesn’t have this problem.  Here is the thing.  This is not like a hurricane that tracks down the coast for days.  This is not like a tornado where you know a storm is brewing, perhaps for hours.  A tsunami starts with an earthquake and earthquakes come without warning.  After the earthquake hit–one of the five strongest earthquakes in recorded history–there were only about thirty minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami.

Parry puts you right there, speaking of survivors struck miles inland by a mountainous wall of water dragging pine trees like battering rams.  He tells the story of a city manager dumped to the bottom of the wave and feeling the asphalt of a parking lot.  He tells the story of people who reached high ground and watched their home be swallowed up with their entire family inside.  And he tells the story of a school where 74 children and 10 teachers died, inexplicably close to the high ground where they could have been saved.

Here he finds his focus.  It has been said the crises don’t build character, they reveal it.  In this case, the same can be said of tragedy.   As good as Parry’s description of the tsunami is, his best writing comes when he tells the story of the aftermath, both from the grieving parents and the school leaders as they attempted to evade responsibility.

In one sense, there’s nothing too surprising.  A parent’s grief is the worst grief I have ever seen.  No parent is prepared to outlive their children…especially when the child disappears in a wave of water, with no chance to say good-bye and a lifetime of self-doubt about whether the parent should have picked their child up between the earthquake and the tsunami.

If there’s a better description than this, I’d like to see it:

Grief was in their noses like a stench; it was the first thing they thought of when they woke in the morning, and the last thing in their day.

Or this:

The true mystery of Okawa school was the one we all face. No mind can encompass it; consciousness recoils in panic.

Just like anywhere else, those who survived felt guilty.  Those whose world’s were in turmoil looked for meaning.  And that included a demand that somebody be held accountable.

But within these univeras truths, the reader finds one more truth that is wrapped in a paradox.  Turns out, it is also true that people’s reaction to a tragedy is largely determined by their culture.

I don’t think most people in the West have an understanding about the gulf between the West and the East when it comes to deciphering the world we all live in.

For example, we know, as a fact, about the stoicism and dignity that are part of the Japanese culture.  Reading this book, we understand how deeply rooted it is, as we see the parents painfully mount a challenge to the school leadership, seeking an apology for failing to save the children from the tsunami, a disaster that was a question of when, not if.

I had had enough of Japanese acceptance; I was sick with a surfeit of gaman. Perhaps, at some level of superhuman detachment, the deaths of the Okawa children did make possible insight into the nature of the cosmos. But long before that remote point, in the world of creatures who lived and breathed, they were something else as well—an expression of human and institutional failure, of timidity, complacency, and indecision. It was one thing to recognize a truth about the universe and man’s small place within it; the challenge was how to do this without also submitting to the cult of quietism that had choked this country for so long.

Beyond that, we see the spiritual and mystic side of the Japanese culture.  Parents dream constantly of their children and mediums are engaged to try and speak to the dead children.  In the West, such behavior would be on margins, but for the people of this book, it is a mainstream pursuit.  There were also exorcisms as ghosts and evil spirits were routed.

Here, though, we see the limits of spiritual pursuit.  After 9/11, I heard ministers say that there is no explanation of how God could allow such suffering.  In Japan, a Buddhist monk said this:

“We realized that, for all that we had learned about religious ritual and language, none of it was effective in facing what we saw all around us. This destruction that we were living inside—it couldn’t be framed by the principles and theories of religion. Even as priests, we were close to the fear that people express when they say, ‘We see no God, we see no Buddha here.’

This is a fascinating book, well-researched and well-written.  It is a study of humanity and culture under the most extreme stress-test possible.  It is a great piece of writing and a great reading experience.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris

harridI need to admit up front: I am a Dan Harris fan. A friend suggested his first book (10% Happier) to me and since then I have been a convert.

If you aren’t familiar with the Dan Harris story: he is a journalist on ABC and he had a panic attack on air during a national newscast. This was due to many factors. In the book 10% Happier, he recounts the details running up to this incident, and how he investigated and found meditation and mindfulness as a solution, or at least helpful in his quest for managing his panic attacks.

When I saw there was a “How To” book for 10% Happier I was both excited (since I was a fan of the ‘franchise’) and skeptical. Skeptical because I was worried how he was going to follow up on the 10% Happier book. I shouldn’t have been concerned.

‘Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics’ follows Dan Harris and his friend/meditation mentor Jeff Warren on a 10 day cross-country tour of 10% Happier to spread the word about mindfulness and meditation.

The book is a good mix of story telling about the journey of the tour and it also gives hacks and instruction on how to start or pick-up a meditation practice. Jeff Warren is (as Dan Harris calls him) the MacGyver of meditations. My favourite is his ‘Welcome to the Party’ meditation: as you sit and find your breath, you just kind of go with the flow of your thoughts and anything that comes into your field, and say “Hey, welcome to the party, can I get you a cocktail?” (or something like that). The purpose is to just practice letting things come and go. Admittedly, it is explained much better in the book.

I really enjoyed this book. I think there was a good balance of storytelling, of instruction and theory behind how mindfulness and meditation works. It was re-assuring to me, as a intermittent meditator that this is an issue for many, and there were hacks on how to get back in swing of it, and how not to be too hard on myself about it. And there are many ‘hacks’ on how to weave mindfulness into everyday activities and not make it a ‘thing’.

If you were a fan of either the 10% Happier book, or the 10% Happier app (or podcast) you will thoroughly enjoy this. If you are meditation-curious, I think you will also enjoy this. Like 10% Happier, this takes the ‘mystical’ aspects of mindfulness and meditation out of the mix and helps to instruct you on a very simple and straightforward way.

I recommend this highly and gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)