Friday, March 25, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

After learning that A Wild Sheep Chase was the third installment in the trilogy of the Rat, which began with Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, I moved the blog schedule around a bit just so I could squeeze in yet another book by Haruki Murakami. Eventually I will have to get to Dance Dance Dance as it is part four of the series. Most likely when Murakami publishes his next novel, I will take time out to explore it as well.

The Situation: It has been quite some time since we last heard from the unnamed narrator in Wind/Pinball. Since those two stories, he has gotten married, and then divorced, and the small translation company he started with his friend has grown into a full-scale advertising firm with many employees. He also has a new girlfriend who is an ear model, of all things. He still seems to suffer from the same lack of direction and purpose, as well as overall loneliness. And he has not really heard from the Rat in quite some time. 

The Problem: A strange man visits our narrator at his company with a request, which turns out to be really more of a demand. Recently, the narrator created a piece of advertising for a client, using a picture of sheep in a pasture that was sent to him by the Rat. It is this picture that interests the strange man, as he wants the narrator to find the pasture, and one sheep in particular that happened to make it into the picture. The strange man also wants every piece of advertising that features the photo pulled from circulation, even though that would mean great losses for the company and possibly a ruined reputation. If the narrator refuses, or fails, the strange man promises to ruin him and the company. And even though the narrator agrees, failure seems like a real possibly as he is given a deadline of one month. Thus, he embarks on a literal wild sheep chase, but of course the adventure ends up resulting in so much more.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in late 1970s Japan. One thing about this book is that no one is given a real name. Other than J, a bar owning friend of the narrator; the Sheep Professor, a hermit-like elderly gentleman obsessed with sheep; and the Rat, everyone is referred to in general terms. There is the narrator himself, his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his alcoholic friend that he works with, his employees, the strange man, the chauffeur, and the Boss. No names like John, or Chris, or Ken, or anything, are ever used. And the same was true for both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball. And like other Murakami novels, there is an odd blurring between the real and surreal. Things that simply do not happen in real life are brought into the story and, for the most part, are accepted occurrences. And for those looking for other common Murakami themes, I will confirm that there is a (flatulent) cat, weird dreams, the odd details about food and cooking, and of course, the hapless male protagonist. 

My Verdict: For me, Murakami tends to be hit or miss as to whether or not I actually enjoy reading the book, and while I was dubious at first, I will say that this one turned out to be a hit. I feared that the ending would be rushed, or at the very least just unsatisfactory. Fortunately, it was actually neither. The entire story was just the right mixture of strange and simple, with the plot not being so far out there that it was hard to grasp. And ultimately, the story was an adventure that allowed the protagonist to drop everything on go on a seemingly impossible mission. A classic adventure story is easy to mess up, and it can be incredibly satisfying when it is done as well as this one was. 

Favorite Moment: When the narrator is listing off all of the tasks that must be done when taking care of his elderly, fat, sick, and ridiculously gassy cat.

Favorite Character: This can be hard because most of the story is spent inside of the narrator's head, with other characters coming in and out of the story for brief amounts of time, and yet I cannot really say that the narrator is my favorite character. If I had to pick, I guess I would choose Kipper, the gassy cat.

Recommended Reading: Just like last week, I recommend Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It is still my favorite one, although 1Q84 is also pretty great, just incredibly long.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

Anytime I pick up a book by Haruki Murakami, I immediately accept the fact that there are some things about it that I am just not going to understand. And even though Wind/Pinball was first published in his early years, and contains his first two attempts at writing, the same rules apply and I still found myself embracing the confusion and enjoying the simple dialogue and wonderful descriptions.

The Situation: The narrator and his friend, only known as the Rat, spend a considerable amount of time at J's bar, drinking bear and smoking cigarettes. At least that is how it goes in the first story, Hear the Wind Sing. In Pinball, 1973, the narrator no longer hangs around J's bar, and even has a steady job making decent money for the first time in his life. The Rat, however, is still hanging around J's bar, and doesn't seem to do much else.

The Problem: From the outside, both men live fairly normal, average, middle of the road existences. But they are also both incredibly lonely, despite having people in their lives; and seem to lack either focus or purpose to do anything meaningful. In Pinball, the narrator has managed to move past spending all of his time in J's bar drinking beer. Now working as a translator, he has his own place, which he shares with twins, and simply lives his life. Meanwhile, the Rat is still in J's bar, and cannot seem to make himself move forward, despite his apparent inner resolve to do so. The two men are restless in a way that cause them to not actually do anything about it. Eventually, the narrator manages to track down an old pinball machine that he and the Rat used to play at J's bar. His obsession with finding the machine puts him on a quest that seems to give his life new meaning, if only temporarily, while the Rat continues to struggle with finding any motivation to do much of anything.

Genre, Themes, History: Wind/Pinball is really two novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, put together under one title. Together they may up two-thirds of the trilogy of the Rat, with A Wild Sheep Chase as the third, and Dance Dance Dance makes a fourth. They are what Murakami call his kitchen-table fiction as he sat down at his kitchen table one day to write them after having a strange revelation that writing may be something he would like to do. In both stories it is easy to see elements of the Murakami-style of writing his fans have gotten used to reading. There is the lonely young man, or in the case of these books there are two of them, making a decent enough living but not exactly satisfied with the life they have created for themselves. There are mysterious women who the narrator does not know much about, and manage to exit his life just as quickly and easily as they enter it. There is an obsession that moves much of the story along and becomes a problem that the lonely young man has to solve, if only for himself. Many of the characters are nameless, or they have names such as the Rat and J. And there is even a cat. It isn't there for very long, nor is it at all important to the plot (I don't think), but it is there. 

My Verdict: Once again, I will reiterate that there is a very real possibility that parts of both of these stories were completely over my head. When it comes to a Murakami story I am inclined to just enjoy the ride. But usually, the ride is a little more fun and not quite so dull. With 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I enjoyed the rise a great deal despite my confusion. There was mystery, there was adventure, and there was danger. While Wind/Pinball isn't without its interesting and fun moments, I found most of it to be pretty boring, and that is really saying something as the book is only a little over 200 pages. It is an interesting look into the beginnings of a great writer, but I am certainly ready to move forward to A Wild Sheep Chase, if only to see if this story eventually goes anywhere.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator flips the switch that allows 78 pinball machines, all lined up in a warehouse, to come to life all at once.

Favorite Character: The most constant character that does not seem to be moping around throughout either story is J. He is the bartender who serves up beer and french fries to his patrons while listening to their general complaints about life.

Recommended Reading: For a better introduction into Murakami, I recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There is more story, better characters, and a better sense of just what kind of world Murakami is capable to making up.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

I am excited to introduce what will be my first book of 2016 that I believe could be nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award come November. Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom is about Parker, a blind teenager trying her best to navigate adolescence after a recent loss. Though Parker's assertion on the book jacket that she is like everyone else but smarter made me fear that I was in for a long ride with an unlikable narrator, I still went with it.

The Situation: Because of her situation, Parker has a few rules. For the most part, they are simply asking that people use their common sense when they are around her. For starters, she is blind, not deaf, so there is no reason to shout when talking to her. Also, don't touch her without asking because it may cause her to be surprised and react accordingly. And don't enter or leave her area without saying something, because how else is she going to know who is around. But the common sense rules all come after the all-important rule #1: Don't deceive her. Ever. Especially using her blindness. Especially in public. Break this rule and you are essentially dead to her. One person in Parker's life broke this rule, and she hasn't spoken to him since. Most people break at least one of the common sense rules at one point or another, especially when they first meet her. But Parker is always ready - almost too ready - to let people know what they did wrong or how they've failed her. She will offer a thorough explanation as to how you fell short, most likely making you feel stupid in the process. Not surprisingly, Parker's circle of friends is incredibly small, but they are all loyal to her, and she is loyal to them.

The Problem: Parker's father died only three months ago, and since her mother died years before, in the same car accident that took Parker's sight, her aunt has moved into her house along with her husband and two children. And as if there hasn't been enough recent change in her life, Parker's high school has also recently merged with another one, not only bringing in a whole new crowd of people who don't know the rules, but also the guy who broke rule #1 back in middle school. Since she is blind, she is never able to see him coming, never knows if he is around, and couldn't possibly avoid him if she tried. Avoiding her angry and angsty cousin Sheila will also prove difficult as she now lives under the same room as Parker after being forced to leave her own home, life, and friends behind. Beyond keeping on top of school work and offering somewhat unsolicited advice to classmates, Parker focuses on not crying over her dad, and calling every day that she doesn't a victory. But while Parker does her best to not let her blindness hinder her ability to see people, she quickly begins to learn that there is plenty she isn't seeing, and it has nothing to do with her sight.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that follows Parker Grant, a junior in high school who lost her eyesight at the age of seven. As the first-person narrator, Parker is less than endearing, at least at first. She is rude, condescending, a bit bitter, and smug, all under the justification that people don't know how to behave around a blind person. And while that may be true, it has certainly alienated her from most people. But she still has Sarah and Faith, and new girl Molly proves to also be trustworthy as well as a quick study with the rules. But as the novel goes on, and Parker understands more and more just how wrong she has been, she softens up considerably and isn't quite as hard to be around. Ultimately, what Parker seems to value more than anything is honesty, and also information. If you tell her truth, even when it's ugly, things go much smoother than if you try to hide anything. Plus, it is likely she'll find you out anyway. When it appears that anyone is holding onto any information, Parker becomes anxious, and that anxiety eventually builds up into anger. But without sight to guide her, it is understandable why Parker would get antsy when it is obvious someone isn't being entirely truthful about what is going on. Trust is everything, and with it, Parker's blindness actually isn't that much of a problem.

My Verdict: This is a fantastic premise with fairly strong characters and an even stronger narrator. Parker does not suffer fools, but she also belittles them and makes sure they know they're fools. In other words, she isn't exactly the easiest person to be around, or read about. Thankfully the brutally tough act doesn't last throughout the whole novel. Any issues I have with the book have more to do with its structure than anything else. Parker rubs many people the wrong way, and while I didn't expect for her to end up being best friends with every person she encountered, I at least expected something that showed where she stood with everyone in the end. Some characters completely fizzle out without a mention, while others are prominent in one area, but nowhere to be found during certain events where it would make since for them to show up. Some of the conversations feel unrealistic to what teenagers would say to each other, or even to someone else, with a few of them going on longer than what the situation would realistically allow. All of this to say that I did enjoy the book, but there were elements that distracted me from the overall storytelling, which actually was not bad at all. 

Favorite Moment: When Parker is approached about running for the track team. Despite being blind, she is incredibly fast and would make a great sprinter. 

Favorite Character: Even though Molly is a new addition to Parker's world, she catches on quickly and is able to throw back whatever Parker dishes out. She isn't scared off, and quickly becomes one of the few within Parker's small circle of friends.

Recommended Reading: Mosquitoland by David Arnold. It includes another first-person narrator that, due to her past, others have a hard time interacting with and can be difficult to be around. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is one of those books that I knew was out there and had taken notice of, but then I got distracted by shiny things and forgot about it. And then it ended up being a finalist for the National Book Award, and would therefore no longer be ignored. So I am a little late to the party on this one, but still eager to see what got the critics so excited.

The Situation: Charles "Cha-Cha" Turner is the oldest of 13, and is almost 100% positive that he is being haunted by a ghost, or haint. His first encounter with the haint happened when he was just 12 years old, and the oldest six of the 13 Turner children were around when it happened, though Marlene cannot claim to have actually seen anything as she did not make it out of the girls' room until after the commotion was over. Even so, the children would bear witness to Cha-Cha wrestling with a blue ghost-like figure, often still insisting even after their father, Francis, asserted that there were no haints in Detroit. Now over 50 years later, the haint is back, and Cha-Cha cannot imagine why. Unfortunately, no one really has time to indulge or humor him, as all 13 of the Turner kids are attempting to live their own lives, raise kids and grandkids, and also get used to the fact that their mother, Viola, most likely won't be around for much longer.

The Problem: Keeping their sick mother comfortable and relatively pain free during what it likely to be her last days is Cha-Cha's number one priority. But in actuality, it is his wife Tina who has become the primary caregiver as Cha-Cha has a hard time just entering the room his mother stays in. And if it wasn't enough to have the haint as a distraction, Cha-Cha has also taken the lead on what the Turner children are going to do with the old house on Yarrow Street. In one of the worst neighborhoods in a crippled and struggling Detroit, the old family house isn't worth the money Viola still owes on it, and coming to a consensus with 13 different opinions isn't going to be easy. Cha-Cha may be the oldest, but he has a haint to deal with. Meanwhile, the youngest, Lelah, struggles to fight her gambling addiction, and must deal with her pride issues if she has any chance of salvaging the strained relationship with her daughter. The youngest son, Troy, wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, but is coming dangerously close to ultimate rejection as he considers doing the unthinkable. While all 13 of her children attempt to navigate life, Viola's primary daily task has become managing pain while remembering the past, and the man with whom she started her life with at just 18 years of age.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set primarily in Detroit in 2008. There are sections that tell the story of a young Francis and Viola just after Cha-Cha was born, as they are both attempting to earn money to support their small family. With Detroit as the setting for the modern day sections, there is of course plenty of discussion regarding the economic collapse, corrupt political officials, white flight, and the housing crisis. Once upon a time the Turner house was a great house in a great neighborhood. Now it is only worth a tenth of its mortgage, no one lives there, and Cha-Cha has commissioned a long-time neighbor and family friend with making sure no one squats in the place or does any damage to it. Initially Francis was sent up north from Arkansas with a letter of introduction from his preacher, and would eventually bring Viola and Cha-Cha up with him. Now, 13 grown kids later, as well as grandkids, and great-grandkids, Francis has passed away and Viola may soon join him. Some of the Turner children have stayed in Detroit, but others, mostly from the younger half, have moved away in an attempt to outrun the long reach of such a large family. The book's narrative spends the most time with Cha-Cha and Lelah, although there is some focus on Troy. But it is primarily the experiences of the oldest and youngest that make up the events of the book.

My Verdict: I loved the idea of a family with 13 children, all of whom are still alive, even though I knew that most likely there wouldn't be heavy focus on every single one. Even so, it excited me that the first two pages of the book contained an extensive family tree. And while I was reading, there were parts that made me anxious, excited, incredulous, and even parts that made me disappointed in some of the characters. In other words, it was like being around family. But with that said, I found the overall story to be somewhat unsatisfactory. There isn't even really a true ending. Sure, the book ends, but not much has been solved. And I get it, oftentimes that is just how it is with families, big or small. But some people disappeared midway through the book, never to return; others stuck around but nothing really happened with their stories; and still other big plot points were left unresolved. All of the momentum of the story just sort of fizzled out into nothing, leaving a lot to be desired.

Favorite Moment: When Lelah got in Troy's face and wouldn't back down.

Favorite Character: Family can be exhausting, but Marlene (number five) seemed to be the least exhausting while also being the most helpful.

Recommended Reading: Immediately upon reading the synopsis I thought of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. These are two very different books, and Mathis focuses on each child individually instead of more or less telling one collective story like Flournoy. But if you enjoyed The Turner House I think you would like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as well.