Book Reviews


The BFS Recommends: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

Wind/Pinball, by Haruki MurakamiMood. An important factor in any book, but Haruki Murakami is a master of it. “He’s kind of weird?” people like to say, “but he’s cool, too, I couldn’t get this story of his out of my mind.” If you want to get technical in literary terms, he’s a surrealist, which is the fancier, upmarket way of saying he uses fantastic elements in his work (or a kind of magical realism): his books start out feeling like normal, everyday life, but before you know it, there are crazy conspiracies and alternate realities being fitted into the plot quite neatly and naturally.

If you’re a fan of the mesmerizing effect such TV shows as The X-Files, Fringe, or Twin Peaks have (though I have to go from hearsay on the latter), chances are you’ll like the mood Murakami projects in his writing. And there is always something more to Murakami than surreal/genre elements: a truly accessible author, the human condition is always at the heart of of his stories.

There are recurring themes and motifs in all his books (with a quick internet search, you’ll hear quips about lost cats, mysterious women, and a fascination with wells), but each one of his works has a unique focus. They generally have intricate plots and are quite long as well, with one of his more recent novels, IQ84, clocking in at about 900 pages.

His first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, were recently re-translated and re-published after being out of print for 30 years (in a fun double book set, with one novel printed on the first half, and the other printed “upside down” on the other half). And if you’re curious about Murakami, you should definitely give these a look.

These two novellas stand out from the rest of Murakami’s body of work in how short and poetic they are, which makes them an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to see if they’ll like his writing.  With only 100-130 pages each, you can focus on how Murakami crafts his characters, language, and mood. Both novellas also have a similar structure, as they are made up of short, chronological vignettes that focus on an unnamed narrator in his college years (or a little after, in Pinball), and his friend, nicknamed The Rat.

Hear the Wind Sing
For those who have ever felt a little lost or unsure if people get them, for those who have ever felt like they were losing connection with those they were once close to, Murakami gives you Hear the Wind Sing. Set during a summer interlude where the narrator is back home from college (but soon to leave again), the narrator and The Rat are feeling equally unmoored. People come into their lives, then leave. The mood is longing, transitory, even when the two are just shooting the breeze in the local bar. The narrator finds himself wondering about past relationships, particularly with one woman who committed suicide a year or so after they broke up. He starts seeing a girl that seems equally troubled, equally precarious.

Wind is the recurring motif, as the title suggests. It makes characters feel more connected to each other and the world than they ever have before; it makes them lonelier than they could possibly believe. It’s a characterization I can appreciate, as I’ve found there are few things like wind to suggest a person’s current mood and emotion. On a good day with the sun shining, there is little better than to hear the wind soughing through the needles of a pine tree—the world and you are in communion, connected. But on a bad day the same wind might blow hollow, reflecting the emptiness inside you in an echo chamber of depression.

For all its quiet loveliness and truth, there are some odd vignettes and inclusions in Hear the Wind Sing. It’s not as well-crafted as Murakami’s later work, but it’s still the writing of a masterful author. In his introduction, Murakami notes that he wrote the novel in the early hours before dawn, after returning from work at a jazz bar he and his wife owned. The bar was struggling and just finding its feet, while he was in the last years of his 20s and trying to find his way.

This book is the feeling you have when you awake (or can’t fall asleep) in the small hours of the night, mind humming with ideas, filled with a nameless longing.

Pinball, 1973

For those who have ever wondered where they were headed or if what they were doing matters, for those who have ever wondered why things have to change, Murakami gives you Pinball, 1973. Told in short, chronological vignettes similar to Hear the Wind Sing, we once again follow the small biographical ins and outs of the nameless narrator and The Rat. It’s set a couple years after the previous book, and the nameless narrator lives in Tokyo, while The Rat is still bumming around the narrator’s hometown, drinking beer at the local bar and living off of his rich father’s money.

The unmoored feeling of the previous book continues, but with a feeling of loss and damage, accentuated by the fact that the narrator and The Rat never meet. We get the feeling they’re still friends, but they’re apart. And the season is fall: change is in the air.

In one haunting segment, The Rat stares at an old, small lighthouse at the end of a pier. He’s longing for something, but something also feels wrong: as another section notes, “we could sense something nasty lurking just out of sight.” When I read, no, when I saw The Rat watching the old lighthouse, I was like, “This is me, at the end of grad school in 2004.” My maternal grandfather had passed away earlier that spring; I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my life or what it all meant. I spent hours walking by Lake Superior, staring at the waves and Duluth’s lighthouses. I didn’t yet know that my father had cancer.

It’s a feeling I’ve had at other times in my life as well. The truth told in the mood of this book still astounds me.

There are still weaknesses, I suppose. Being Murakami’s second book or novella, there are some bits that seem a little off to me. But even then you can see his progression as an author: themes and images are coalescing for him, which will reappear, fully formed and developed in his later work. Surreal elements which were not about in his first novella begin to make their appearance in the unnamed narrator’s hunt for a pinball table he was obsessed with playing during college. I think every reader will have a different take on the meaning of the strange warehouse the narrator eventually finds the pinball machine in, but there are undoubted echoes of his relationship with a woman that is now dead (possibly the same woman mentioned in Hear the Wind Sing). There is always some doubt or guessing to Murakami’s work, as with all great literature, but more is probably unclear here than there should have been.

Another Murakami trope, mysterious women, appear in the guise of two twins that live with the narrator for awhile. They seem real and they do not seem real at the same time. Their entrance is unclear: did the narrator meet them somewhere one night and just wake up next to them in the morning, unable to remember how he met them? Or did they literally appear out of nowhere? You could read the text either way. They do have substance, other characters in the book see them, but they are undoubtedly not like the other women in the book, who are struggling just as the narrator and The Rat are struggling.

Whoever or whatever the twins might be, they seem to be there to help the narrator deal with an unnamed trauma (probably the woman who has died, but again, the novel is a bit unclear on the details), and then they go away when he is able to deal with it, or at least bring it to terms. I’m still not sure if the twins are a weird thing for Murakami to include or if they are a perfect fit for the novel’s feeling of transience, but I do know I feel more ambivalent about them than the other mysterious women that tend to pop up in his books.

Regardless of its shortcomings, however, Pinball is a beautiful read. What feeling is it? Unlike with Hear the Wind Sing, I’ll let Murakami take us out on this one, as there is no way for me to capture it perfectly.

“{The Rat} was as powerless and lonely as a winter fly stripped of its wings, or a river confronting the sea. An ill wind had arisen somewhere, and it was blowing the warm, familiar air that had embraced him to the other side of the planet.

One season had opened the door and left, while another had entered through a second door. You might run to the open door and call out, Wait, there’s something I forgot to tell you! But no one is there. When you close the door, you turn around to see the new season sitting in a chair, lighting up a cigarette. If you forgot to tell him something, he says, then why not tell me? I might pass the message along if I get the chance. No, that’s all right, you say. It’s no big deal. The sound of wind fills the room. No big deal. Just another season dead and gone.”


A BFS Review: Mystery My Country

Mystery My Country Cover PageI’ve been remiss this past week and forgotten to post about Issue 8 of Split Rock Review going live! A colleague of mine, Crystal Gibbins, started up Split Rock about four years ago, and it’s been a great privilege to serve on the editorial staff since 2015. As with many other web-only literary magazines, most of our pieces are on the shorter side (fiction can be at most 2500 words), but we generally have a great mix of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction to check out. In Issue 8, we even have a short graphic narrative/novel this time around!

As I have with a few other issues, I reviewed a book. This time it was Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country, and wow… words are just so hard to describe this collection of short essays. I’ll let the review speak for me, but reading these essays is something akin to jumping into a frozen lake. I’m still not sure how sitting in a sauna until you’re almost uncomfortably hot can make it possible for you to run out through the snow and jump into a large hole cut in the ice without once feeling the burn of the cold, but I know it’s possible. It’s a rush and a relief, all at the same time—and that’s the closest metaphor I can find for the joy Vivian’s work creates in its reader.


BFS Recommends: Angela Melick and Wasted Talent

Because Jam is "tha very bessst!"

Because Jam is “tha very bessst!”

Straight behind my love of the written word is my love of visuals: photographs, movies, drawing, painting, and… comics/graphic novels. In writing, there’s little better than an author’s distinctive voice, which adds another layer to the story or narrative of the piece, moving it beyond mere information. With comics and graphic novels, the artist’s renderings add a whole other dimension to the ideas being communicated, whether they are laugh-out-loud hilarious or profoundly insightful. I’ve loved this ever since I started reading Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, and this love has only deepened as I’ve discovered so many wonderful artists in the webcomic community.

One of my favorites (which my wonderful wife, Jessica, introduced me to) is Wasted Talent, which is written and drawn by Angela Melick, also known by the nickname Jam. You’ve been introduced to her work already. See, over there? On the right side of the screen? I lucked out and commissioned an avatar by Jam, and you can see the wonderful added dimension her drawing and coloring style bring to her work (she is really good at Viking beards, too, since she drew one of her husband and a truly epic hockey playoff beard before she drew mine).

In her online archives, it’s also a true joy to see her rougher beginnings in black and white ink, her uses of color as her ability deepened, and her style shiftings as she found her own artistic voice. Whether she’s making use of markers or watercolors (or a mix of the two), Jam’s style is now something that is uniquely her own, though there are definitely anime/manga influences. **

Jam’s commitment to excellence and desire to push her abilities are also things any writer or artist can learn from (and be inspired by). While working full time as an engineer, she practices her art regularly above and beyond her weekly comic for Wasted Talent, tries out different comic forms (she has some travelogues and other short comics), and also pushes herself whenever she publishes Wasted Talent in book form. When publishing her earlier drawings in We Are the Engineers! (her first book), she went back and redrew them all, showing how much she had grown over a few years of honing her craft.

But what truly seems to drive the thriving vitality of Wasted Talent and Jam’s work is humanity at its best: joy and love. Wasted Talent is an autobiographical comic, so while Jam generally aims for a humorous take on life, she doesn’t hide from its ups and downs, whether it’s a lost job, the pains of a job search, a desire for something more from life, or the almost annual trip to the hospital for her or her husband, thanks to the broken bones mountain biking seems to encourage.

I’ll take the humor, though, whether it’s this wonderful malapropism of “for all intents and purposes,” a bit of everyday silliness, or a scene that seems right out of my own household. Seriously, if you ever want to know what my marriage is like (and I know everyone was wondering about that), you can get it within the pages of Angela Melick’s work.

*coughs*

Or you can just read it for Jam’s wonderful take on working and living.

**I’ll also note that the original of that last watercolor example is proudly displayed on our wall: it’s a perfect synergy of Jam’s artistic and comedic capabilities.

BFS Reviews: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo 2 comments

Many of the initial readers of The Samurai focused on its sense of adventure, where a low-ranking Japanese samurai (think knight, for those of you less familiar with medieval Japan) travels to Mexico, Spain, and ultimately even Rome in the hopes of developing trade between Japan and Spain.

And who can blame them? Adventure tales are adored for good reason—oceans are traveled, mountains are crossed, rivers are forded—they grab hold whether every pebble passed is described in delightful detail or whether whole swathes of the journey are memorably glossed, like an Indiana-Jones-style-line traversing a colorful map.

The stakes are also high in this historical adventure: in early 17th century Japan, the low-ranking samurai and three other envoys are ordered by their feudal lord—the Shogun—to voyage to Nueva España (Mexico) to open trade relations between Japan and Spain. This goal is more difficult to achieve than first surmised, however, and the envoys journey to Spain and even Rome before they can begin to return home. In the meantime, tumultuous seas, harsh deserts, Indian uprisings, and political machinations have to be endured, all made worse by their dependence on their translator, a wily Franciscan monk who may or may not have their best interests in mind.

Now, it can’t be denied that this is one appeal of The Samurai, but selling it as an adventure tale only captures a portion of it. While there is pageantry and drama to spare in a journey that takes years to finish, the real strength of The Samurai lies in its focus on the individual.

The novel’s main character, the titular samurai, is the overlord of a tiny fiefdom of three villages, surrounded by marshland. Lesser writers would struggle with making such a man’s life interesting, yet Endo makes Hasekura Rokuemon’s existence beautiful in its desolation. Rokuemon looks like the peasants that work in the three villages he rules, and he works just as hard as they do—he is not one of those idle samurai with time to paint or write poetry. The only music is that which can be found in a harsh life of labor:

It began to snow. Until nightfall a faint sunlight had bathed the gravel-covered river bed through breaks in the clouds. When the sky turned dark, an abrupt silence ensued. Two, then three flakes of snow fluttered down from the sky. As the samurai and his men cut wood, snow grazed their rustic outfits, brushed against their face and hands, then melted away as if to underscore the brevity of life.

Endo’s writing consistently reminded me of Japanese woodcuttings and paintings, with their clear black lines and sharp colors that imprint even simple scenes with a vividness that cannot leave the eye.

All too soon, Rokuemon is torn away from this world that he cherishes, leaving his ailing uncle, wife, and small children behind. While the ache of this never leaves Rokuemon, it is tempered with the joys he takes in the journey—the broad expanses of the sea, the tableaus and cacti of Nueva España, the immense cathedrals of Spain itself—all are colored by the simple delight Rokuemon takes in the them.

Nor is simple a derogatory adjective when applied to Rokuemon. While he wishes he were wily and canny, like one of the other envoys (or the Shogun, who sent him on the diplomatic mission), he knows he isn’t. All he can offer his steadfastness, his loyalty, his ability to work.

The beauty of the samurai’s simplicity and steadfastness is heightened all the more by being surrounded by schemers. It’s unclear if the Shogun truly wishes to establish trade relations and encourage Christianity (which he has recently begun to persecute), or whether he wishes to gain something else from the mission. And while the Franciscan monk who accompanies the envoys is aware of this possible duplicity, he is also willing to go along with it, all for the sake of Japan’s soul: if Christianity can only take root, it will be worth it.

This Franciscan monk, Father Velasco, is the other individual at the heart of the novel. Like the samurai, he comes from a warrior’s family, but unlike the samurai, he is a cunning manipulator. He truly wishes to help Japan, but his mind and ego constantly get in the way of his more noble intentions. He needs to be the one to save the Japanese, not the rival order of the Jesuits. He is the only one who understands the Japanese and can lead them to salvation, no one else.

If Rokuemon is made wonderful by his honest simplicity, Velasco is made relatable by this struggle. He is consistently told by church leaders that there is no hope for Japan—the Shogun most certainly will continue to persecute Christians, as he has been for the past several years. But Velasco won’t give up; he feels responsibility for all the Japanese Christians and martyrs. He has faith where other church leaders do not, and his belief continues while the Pope falters in the face of international politics and declines to pressure Spain into trading with Japan (or continue to send missionaries to Japan). While Velasco’s actions are at times tainted by pride, faith is at their root, not sin.

These two individuals—samurai and priest—eventually find themselves united in their faith against the mammoth institutions they represent. After years of traveling for his Shogun, Rokumon returns to Japan to find Christianity wholly outlawed. Unfortunately (or not so unfortunately?), he was baptized in Spain, for the sake of his mission and his Shogun. As a result, he is viewed with greater and greater suspicion by the authorities, no matter why he became a Christian.

That’s the great tragedy as well—he didn’t particularly believe in Christianity during his journey. He couldn’t understand how people could worship a broken man on a cross. That man wasn’t noble or lordly, like the Shogun. But in his persecution, he begins to understand and believe. The Shogun doesn’t understand or care for him, nor do the other high-ranking samurai who express sympathy for Rokuemon’s situation but do no nothing else. They aren’t the ones who are eventually jailed or executed.

As for Velasco, he ignores the orders of the Pope and returns to Japan, fully aware he could be executed for preaching there. Inevitably, he is captured, and he learns of Rokuemon’s execution before being martyred himself: it is a seemingly bleak ending, looking at those facts. But in the willingness of these two to go against the inertia of their respective leaders and organizations, it is a moving picture of hope.

The Samurai is one of the best evocations of faith I’ve read from an author of the modern era, but even if this doesn’t appeal to you, Shusaku Endo’s portraits of these two very human individuals should. As this world of ours is more and more characterized by its monolithic institutions that too easily forget the people that make them up, this novel’s embrace of that which makes us human is something all the more to value.