Friday, February 24, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami because I was looking to try something new and kind of get out of my comfort zone. The English translated version of Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84, arrived in bookstores on October 25, 2011. And even though the idea of tackling that particular book kind of intimidated me (hence, the reason I chose to go with one of his previous works), I do plan to get a guest blogger to explore it at a later date. As for this book, I will go ahead and say that I am pretty sure I don't get it, but I nonetheless enjoyed the ride. 

The Situation: Toru and Kumiko Okada live a fairly mundane and normal life in suburban Japan where Kumiko works in the publishing business, and Toru is currently unemployed. Toru is not quite sure what he wants out of life or what he wants out of a career. Motivated by the disappearance of their cat, Noboru Wataya (which is also the name of Kumiko's bother, whom Toru can't stand), Kumiko enlists the help of a sort of psychic medium name Malta Kano. Both the disappearance of the cat and the initial meeting with Malta Kano seem to jump start the action of the novel and the interesting sequence of events that continue for Toru in the next few years or so.

The Problem: Yeah, the missing cat turns out to be the last thing Toru should have been worried about. On day Kumiko doesn't come home from work, and at some point Toru finds out that she never intends to. The even deeper problem that stems from this is that Toru is not sure if Kumiko is staying away of her volition or against her will. And either way, it is clear that Kumiko's family (who never thought much of Toru) are involved and know more of what is going on that they are willing to tell her husband. Also, Toru's investigation of Kumiko's disappearance causes a few unwanted confrontations with Noboru Wataya, a charismatic but inherently evil politician that seems to be in his rise to power. And as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Toru's quest is much more complicated that just a search for his estranged wife, and that it is about to yield a whole lot more than he ever thought.

Genre, Themes, History: I don't even know where to start in terms of genre. I know it is a novel, that much I can tell you. But I really don't feel prepared to go much deeper than that. 

And the themes are incredibly varied and complex. Just to start, themes include water, war, travel, mind-reading, life/death, dreams and even politics. There is one part of the novel where it stops being Toru's story and we get a detailed account Lieutenant Mamiya and his time in the Japanese military during World War II. His story contains one of the most gruesome scenes I have ever read in any book, and yet I kept reading (you'll know it when you see it). Also, many of these strange characters that Toru comes in contact with end up having doubles or counterparts to other characters. Or the reader will realize that the collective pasts of two different characters link up in some weird yet unexplained way. It adds to the mystery of the novel, and also my unending confusion.

My Verdict: Although I didn't get it, I do want to try reading more of Murakami's stuff. Maybe I'll attempt one of his shorter novels (this one clocks in at a whopping 600+ pages in paperback, which also makes it a door stop) that was published more recently. I recommend it for anyone wishing to try something new and get a little bit outside of the typical contemporary fiction comfort zone.

Favorite Moment: When May Kasahara realizes all of the lengthy letters she has sent to Toru never made it. I just really love her reaction.

Favorite Character: Although she annoyed me at first, my favorite character ended up being May Kasahara. At first she came off to me as a bratty teenage girl who didn't want to go to school, but little bits of her are slowly revealed over the course of the book and she turns out to be refreshingly honest in a see of really cryptic characters. 

Recommended Reading: I would have to go with something else I consider "out of the box" that most modern American readers wouldn't think to pick up, so I have decided to recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Great British humor coupled with time travel. Great time had by all.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Coffee Trader by David Liss

For this week, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight a local San Antonio author that I discovered just a few years ago. David Liss's newest novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, was published this past August. But the first book by Liss that I ever picked up was given to me. The Coffee Trader is one of those books in which I was not always quite sure what was going on, but I was still utterly fascinated and just had to know how it all would end. I am also not typically a fan of historical fiction, but Liss's books have turned out to be the rare exceptions.

The Situation: Miguel Lienzo has a plan to get out of a bad financial situation by trading in coffee, which in 17th century Amsterdam is a new commodity. His trades in sugar have gone horribly wrong and have left him in the financial crisis he is in now. Miguel simply needs to buy and sell the coffee at the right price in order to not only be rid of his debt but also make a handsome profit.

The Problem: Miguel cannot openly deal in coffee as it is forbidden his community council. Also, because of his financial troubles, Miguel lives with his brother Daniel, whom he dislikes, and his brother's young pregnant wife, whom Miguel has a thing for and the feeling is pretty mutual. Also, an unstable Dutchman named Joachim is also after Miguel after losing five hundred guilders that Miguel invested for him. Joachim continues to essentially stalk Miguel looking for his money. Amidst all of this, and a few other seedy characters in the novel, Miguel must successfully, but illegally, trade the coffee, pay off his debt, and avoid being caught in the process. Oh yeah, and being a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese inquisition in Amsterdam has its own issues.

Genre, Theme, History: As I already mentioned this is a historical novel. And while neither that, nor the themes of commerce and religious persecution often excite me, I really got into this book. Perhaps it was the constant adventure and the fact that no matter what, Miguel really didn't know who to trust because at any moment any his so-called allies could have turned out to be against him. Also, Miguel is the uncle to Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist in Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper. But even though this novel is set about 30 years earlier, it is not considered a prequel.

This book also makes many references to the Portuguese Inquisition, whose main target were those who converted from Judaism and Catholicism, but were still suspected of secretly practicing one or those religions.

My Verdict: As I have mentioned already, this type of book is usually not my cup of tea, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book. Definitely a must for fans of historical fiction, and maybe even a few that aren't. I have never in my life had an interest in commerce in 17th century Amsterdam, but here I am endorsing this book.

Favorite Moment: I really enjoyed basically any moment where any of the characters, including Miguel, weren't quite sure how to consume coffee because it is such a new substance to them. This is definitely not a problem in our society today.

Favorite Character: Hard to say really. Liss likes to create characters that may be likeable, but still have some sort of major character flaw. I guess I would go with Hannah, the young Catholic bride because for me she was the most sympathetic. 

Recommended Reading: A Conspiracy of Paper is the first book by Liss in a three-book series that involves Benjamin Weaver (Miguel's nephew) and his adventures involving intrigue, politics, murder, religion, and even some romance.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Twenty Boy Summer by Sara Ockler

I have decided to review another young adult fiction novel by an author who also has recently published another work. On January 3rd, Sarah Ockler's third novel Bittersweet hit the bookshelves and I am excited to eventually read it. Twenty Boy Summer was Ockler's first novel and one that I am glad I picked up on kind of a whim.

The Situation: Anna is getting ready to tag along with her best friend, Frankie, and her family for their annual summer trip to Zanzibar. Frankie is determined that they each meet one guy a day for each of the twenty days they are there. If they really do meet a different guy each day, than there is a real chance that Anna will have her first summer romance.

The Problem: Anna already had her first summer romance the previous year...with Frankie's brother...and Frankie has no idea. Matt promised Anna he would tell his sister after his family had left for their trip, but he never came through on the promise. Before the family leaves, Anna, Matt, and Frankie are all in a car accident that leaves Anna and Frankie as the only survivors. A year later, everyone is still hurting. Anna can't seem to let Matt and her secret romance go, and Frankie has turned into a self-destructive, self-absorbed nightmare. Even so, the trip to Zanzibar Bay is on and so is the twenty boy challenge.

Genre, Theme, History: Not much I can come up with here for history, but there is of course the general themes of love and loss, and also the kind of hurt and anger and bitterness and resentment that can result when people refuse to acknowledge or talk about their loss. Anna holds onto her secret for over a year, fearing that it will damage Frankie even more if she tells her. I personally don't see the big deal, but I am also not 16 anymore so my viewpoint of the situation is slightly altered and probably somewhat jaded. And instead of talking about her brother, Frankie decides to hook up with every cute (but incredibly vapid) guy she meets and dress like a street-walker. Her mom and dad are also pretty preoccupied with their own feelings, so Frankie is kind of left to deal with her pain on her own there.

My Verdict: I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. It is kind of a light summer read, but there is more to it than that. With some of the scenes I could almost feel the tension from the pages. And some of the interactions between Frankie and Anna will make a lot of females incredibly embarassed because some of us know we have had similar conversations...more similar than we would care to admit.

Favorite Moment: Overall I just liked the setting of Zanzibar Bay. I am having a hard time picking one particular scene in general but I kind of wish this vacation spot actually existed.

Favorite Character: I also do not think I could pick out a favorite character since they all spend a good amount of time getting on my nerves. Anna is a very sweet and very relateable girl next door, but I still have a hard time rooting for her. This may be why I only gave the book three stars on Goodreads even though I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Recommended Reading: Fixing Delilah, Ockler's second novel. Not as strong as this one in my opinion, but still a good read. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nonfiction: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I have yet to read Bossypants by Tina Fey, but I think I can go ahead and say that this book is not like Bossypants by Tina Fey. So if you just finished Bossypants and are picking up this book thinking it will be just like it or just as good, I think it is safe to assume (from what I gather from other reviews) that you will be disappointed. Mindy Kaling even says so in the beginning of her book.

Genre, Theme, History: We can't really call Kaling's book an autobiography since 1. I think she is too young to be writing an autobiography, and 2. it is really more of a memoir, although even that does not quite fit. It is more like a collection of essays that anything else because as is proved by the last quarter or so of the book, Kaling does not yet have enough material to write a full-on memoir or biography.

The book of course talks about Kaling's childhood and growth through college and into adulthood, and eventually gets to where she is now, a writer and actress on the NBC television show The Office. Throughout her story are anecdotes from Kaling's ongoing issues with her size and weight. And there are also more than a few discussions about just how famous she wants to be, what kind of fame she wants, and what she would like her future to look like regarding her career, love life, and wardrobe.

My Verdict: The best moments in the book come from Kaling talking about her road to becoming a writer on one the most popular television comedies in the U.S. today. The middle of the book was by far my favorite part as I enjoyed Kaling's honesty about her personal trials in her attempts to break into the business. She does not hold back on some of her most embarrassing moments in the business, including her less than memorable stint as a guest writer for Saturday Night Live. Of course, she has plenty of successes to share as well. But as great and endearing has that part of the book is, the last 40 pages or so are a rambling mess. It is as if once Kaling tells us about The Office she really has nothing left to say. At one point the reader is seriously being shown the pictures that are currently on Kaling's Blackberry. And the part that I found almost depressing was the chapter where Kaling tells exactly how she wants her funeral to play out. It is not that I think the idea of planning your own funeral at 34 is morbid...I plan mine every time I start a new journal (I really don't know why I do this so don't ask...I don't have an answer), it is just the way she goes about it and what she wants to happen that makes me incredibly sad all of sudden after reading such a seemingly joyful book. Overall, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, and I at least recommend it to fans of The Office, even if you don't like Kelly Kapoor. 

Favorite Moment: I actually will have to go with the very beginning when Kaling lists a series of considered but ultimately rejected alternative names for her book. My favorites are "The Girl With No Tattoo" and "Harry Potter Secret Book #8." Ha!

Recommended Reading: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. This book is also an easy read but Steve Martin, who I feel is old enough to write an autobiography, tells his life in such an honest and frank way that does not hide his trials and hurts, but with the same sense of humor his fans have come to love so that his honesty is not at all painful to read, but just, well, honest. It reads more like a conversation than a book, and who wouldn't love to have that talk with Steve Martin?