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After Dark by Haruki Murakami May 31, 2010

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After Dark
After Dark
was the last English-translated Murakami novel I had left to read, so it was somewhat disappointing that I found it rather slight.

It’s a short book — not necessarily a bad thing considering South of the Border West of the Sun is one of my favourite novels. But I found this ‘Murakami-lite’, much like I did Sputnik Sweetheart: mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying. Like Sputnik, some of the plot strands don’t go anywhere and the supernatural things (like Eri’s mysterious slumber and experiences) go unexplained, at least in the context of the rest of the books events.

I realise how idiotic it sounds to be seeking ‘explanation’ in a Murakami novel — part of his charm is that ethereal quality that accompanies his stories; communication through empathy more than explicit explanation. When it works, as in Norwegian Wood, A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or Kafka on the Shore, it’s very good. But when it doesn’t quite click it feels a bit like he’s trying too hard or going through the motions only to tail off as he realises it’s going nowhere.

That sounds like a very harsh criticism, but it’s because of the regard I have for Murakami as my favourite author and a writer I look up to. But his standards are head and shoulders above most writers, so when an effort is even a little below par, it’s noticeable.

This isn’t to say After Dark is unenjoyable or difficult to read, far from it. For the ‘real world’ bits of After Dark, the old Murakami charm is clearly there — Mari and Takahashi, for example, are wonderful rounded characters with an obvious chemistry. And given that it’s so short, it’s worth reading for those parts alone.

My opening sentence is the key to why I was so disappointed, I think. Having saved this one for so long as ‘the last Murakami novel I’ll have in a while’ part of me was hoping for a real gem. I guess I’ll just have to hold out for the translation of IQ84 (or really get serious about my Japanese study…).

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The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami February 7, 2010

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Wind up bird cover

I just found this post languishing in the bottom of my drafts folder. Goodness knows how long it’s been sitting there for. It’s not even that good an analysis (which is probably why I didn’t publish it right away). But it seems a waste to trash it, so here you go.

Last night I finished a book for the first time in months. I’m very pleased with myself, especially since I love reading but never seem to make time to do it these days. Such is the legacy of working in news — you never want to fricking read anything!

The book I finished was always going to be a Murakami novel. They’re the only things that can sustain my interest these days it seems! Wind-up Bird is supposedly Murakami’s opus. Certainly it feels pretty hefty at close to 600 pages, with multiple characters flitting in and out and lots of random changes of storytelling and viewpoint (though, yes, most Murakami is like that). And Kafka on the Shore was certainly as long as well.

Did I like it though? I did. Yes, I did feel that it was a tad too long — the story just seemed to drift for the final 200 pages or so, unlike Kafka, which built nicely to a crescendo. But the majority of the novel really sucks you in: the usual dreamy Murakami descriptions, the lonely, down-to-earth hero, the troubled woman he has to save. The quirkiness of the characters is also something to be admired. Sure, there are weirdo’s in all his novels, but few with the charm of May Kasahara, or the tangibility (is that a word?) of Creta and Malta Kano.

I was satisfied with the ending too. A good Murakami ending: happy, but not totally resolved.

Japan trip 2009: The otaku experience August 9, 2009

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Film, Friends, Gunpla, Japan, Personal, Travel.
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Gundam and I, Odaiba, July 2009

Gundam and I, Odaiba, July 2009

So, I’ve written all about my Japan trip. But given the nature of this blog, it’s the geeky things you want to hear about right? ^^

Otaku highlights include the 1/1 scale Gundam in Odaiba, seeing Evangelion 2.0 in a Shibuya cinema (review to come in a later post) and discovering the ‘Akihabara of Osaka’ Den Den Town. (more…)

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami April 10, 2009

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hard-boiled-cover

Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is in a way his foray into fantasy-type storytelling. There’s even a Lord of the Rings-style map at the start of the book!

SPOILER WARNING

The plot, well, there’s really two. One is set in a mysterious walled-off village where Unicorns roam the fields. An unnamed stranger arrives to work as a ‘dreamreader’. In the second,  a Tokyo man, some kind of data-manipulator for the government, does a job for a mysterious research scientist, which leads him into a world of espionage, intrigue and fable.

The second one will be familiar to Murakami fans. You can imagine the protagonist already, can’t you? Loner who likes jazz and old movies, very intelligent, knowledgeable, good cook. You can imagine the female characters as well, can’t you? Beautiful, sexy in a believable way, but ‘quirky’. There’s nothing wrong with that. Far from it, it’s what Murakami knows best, and what we as his fans enjoy.

What gives this novel depth and sets it apart from the Murakami novels is that first plotline, the mysterious fantasy world. It’s not until two-thirds of the way through the book that the connection between the two stories becomes clear. And even then it is accompanied by one hell of a scientific explanation (it even needs a flow diagram!). It’s an interesting, and I’m sure tried before, device. But Murakami executes it well. Both worlds are rich with the sort of everyday detail that make his prose engaging. The styles of the two worlds, one chapter of each following the other, complement each other well and stop you from getting bored.

As a science writer, I was immediately wary of the scientific content, coming from an author not normally associated with science fiction or a background in science. But Murakami represents the scientific community surprisingly well. Sure, the theory he describes is nonsense, but he picks up the language of neuroscience and psychology well and he nails the personality and drive of a researcher. And it’s interesting theory, almost plausible, even if it does hurt your head to try and understand it. How much more accurate does it get than that?

There’s a lot of interesting ideas here, which from the Wikipedia entry, seem to have been collected from his many different literary influences. From losing one’s shadow to the essence of consciousness, industrial espionage and Japanese folklore, it makes for fascinating stuff. It’s not my favourite Murakami novel, but I really enjoyed it. For me, the central theme is the point of life and what you’re looking to get out of it. The main character wrestles with issues of mortality and existence. He concludes that its the small things in life, the things that you enjoy and make you you, that are what makes life worth living. A simple, and unoriginal, point, but one always worth making.

‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami October 28, 2008

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Amazon

A relatively short Murakami novel at less than 200 pages, but I really feel brevity enhances a Murakami story. I’m a big fan of his short stories and having just previously finished his opus A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I have to admit I was suffering a bit of reader’s fatigue.

So maybe it’s the brevity of the story, but South of Border shot right into my favourite Murakami stories, heck, maybe even one of my favourite books.

(Slight spoiler warning. Maybe don’t read if you really don’t want to know) (more…)

‘Underground’ by Haruki Murakami September 10, 2007

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Japan.
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Underground cover

Amazon

In short: The Japanese bury, Murakami uncovers.

Thoughts: I don’t read much non-fiction, and Murakami doesn’t write much of the sort either. But interesting things come from novelists who decide to do something different. (more…)

‘After the quake’ by Haruki Murakami March 6, 2007

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After the quake cover

Amazon

In short: Kobe, earthquake, the Japanese, <insert shock-wave/rupture metaphor here>

Thoughts: I’m a sucker for Murakami short stories and this did not disappoint. If anything, the taut length and unifying theme make it even more enjoyable. I say the theme is unifying, but really, it’s just a launchpad from which to launch each story. I guess each of them does explore a little of the Japanese psyche through reactions to the quake, but there’s no overall message or continuous thread.

The five stories contained here vary in quality, from the Murakami meander to the top-notch climax. The last two stories ‘Super-frog saves Tokyo’ and ‘Honey-pie’ are just sublime and showcase two characteristics that make Murakami’s imaginations so compelling; the former is as weird as it sounds and the latter has the familiar taste of bittersweet romance. All short, sweet and a really good read.

‘Kafka on the shore’ by Haruki Murakami February 6, 2007

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Kafka

Amazon

In short: A darker Murakami?

Thoughts: I’ve heard it said that the Tokyo gas attacks had a profound effect on Murakami and that his works after the event are somewhat darker, with a more serious tone. Being the first ‘post-attack’ Murakami story I’ve read, this would seem to be the case. (more…)

‘Dance Dance Dance’ by Haruki Murakami November 12, 2006

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Amazon.co.uk: Dance, Dance, Dance: Books: Haruki Murakami

In short: Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight.

Thoughts: Having extolled the virtues of Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, I picked up Dance Dance Dance next entirely by chance, not realising it was a semi-sequel and an epilogue to Murakami’s ‘trilogy of the rat‘. Nor was I aware that these books were his first literary forays. Serendipity? All too apt.

Dance Dance Dance
follows in a similar mold to A Wild Sheep Chase, taking up the reigns with the same main character trying to make sense of things. A series of dreams draws him back toward the Dolphin hotel, and the girl with the spectacular ears he lost during the sheep chase. Pretty soon the story is going off on all kinds of tangents, but not quite as random as the previous novel. Strangely though, the plot doesn’t feel quite as ‘tight’ – if that’s the right word. For sure, Sheep Chase was deliriously random, but the Chandler-esque plot and omimous villains gave it something more of a purpose, a goal, even if that goal was just a speck on the horizon. Our hero’s quest in DDD is very much his own, and he spends vast amounts of time just taking it easy, doing nothing, watching where the wind blows and whatever characters are blown in with it. Nevertheless, the sheer atmosphere of the novel captured me entirely. Murakami’s great strengths are the vividness of his world, the spark of his dialogue and the bittersweetness of his characters. The chemistry is all here, and even if some parts seemed irrelevant or contrived, I couldn’t help but react with a glow.

‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ by Haruki Murakami October 12, 2006

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Amazon: A Wild Sheep Chase

In short: The problems of a man, a woman and a sheep don’t add up to hill of mung beans in Hokkaido.

Thoughts: Was it that I knew little, and expected little, of this little novel? Was it that the blurb sounded just so damn bizarre that I didn’t know what to think? Or was it simply my loves of Raymond Chandler plotlines and Japanese culture colliding with the classic Murakami hero and irresistable heroine? In any case, this came out of nowhere to be my favourite Murakami novel to date. There’s no point in explaining the plot, a synopsis would make absolultely no sense. But it’s a mystery, mixed with a riddle and starting out like a typical Murakami anti-romance. The guy’s the same: lonely thirty-something divorcee, dead-end job, too much coffee and cigarettes. But what’s great is everybody else. It’s an adventure; characters flit in and out. The focus isn’t on depth, it’s on character, or more specifically that one characteristic that makes each one of them special. Like the girlfriend with the spectacular ears. Not making sense? It’s probably the book. Sorry, you can’t know too much before you read it. That way you’ll love it.