Magical Realism on the Shores of Japan

I don’t tend to give out five-star ratings very lightly; in fact, the only book I’ve read this year that was worthy of five stars was Cloud Atlas. Until now. This morning I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long, long time. 460 pages hasn’t gone by so fast in a while! Murakami’s novel came out in 2002 in Japan but was released in the U.S. in English a few years later. I had heard of the book, and the author, but I hadn’t read it nor anything by Murakami. I guess I had some preconceived notion based on stereotype that Japanese novels were always about World War II or Geisha girls and what not, but of course like any cliché that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kafka on the Shore is a brilliant novel that crosses multiple genres and takes the reader on a strange journey that would make Franz Kafka himself proud.

The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home to escape his father, a famous sculptor and possibly a mad cat-killing psycho. The other protagonist is Satoru Nakata, a 60-year-old man who lost most of his intelligence after a strange flash in the sky during World War II and who as a result can talk to cats and make it rain fish. The two are connected but never meet, and in the spirit of the magical realism of the novel may in fact be the same person! Nakata is also on a journey, having killed Kafka’s father (maybe, or perhaps it was Kafka acting through Nakata). Kafka ends up in a quiet beach town where he may or may not have discovered his mother and sister, both of whom abandoned him and his father when Kafka was four. Nakata is not so much running from the murder charges as much as he’s running toward an event that may set him free from his chains and potentially shed light on Kafka’s life story. Along the way we meet strange characters like a pimp dressed up like Colonel Sanders, a pair of Japanese soldiers from World War II who have not aged and who guard the entrance to a magical place that may be the gateway to heaven (or hell), and a transgender librarian who helps Kafka discover his place in the world. Oh yeah, Kafka may also be sleeping with his mother and gets a hand job from a teenage girl who may be his sister. Can you see why Kafka on the Shore has been compared to a Greek tragedy and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel?

Murakami’s novel is certainly Kafkaesque, but it’s also tender and funny and inspiring. Both Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata are honorable and empathetic characters who as a reader you can’t help but root for. Kafka has clearly had a troubled childhood and his father didn’t help matters. When he runs away from home he is searching for himself as well as his mother and sister and like any coming of age story the trials he goes through, both mental and physical, shape his future in a positive way. Nakata is a tragic character because he is dumb and lives on a “sub city” from the “Governor” as he says. But he’s also a strong character because he is unselfish and good (he kills the mysterious cat killer only to save the lives of other cats he has befriended and because the man encourages him to kill him). But for me it’s the magical realism that makes the story so amazing. The reader never really knows what is real and what is not in the story. Some of the characters and events may or may not be what they appear to be, and may even be figments of Kafka’s imagination. These mysteries do not ultimately reveal themselves but rather the reader is left to ponder them at the conclusion of the book. In fact, after the novel was published Murakami put up a website for readers to ask questions and it received more than 8,000!

Kafka on the Shore is the kind of novel that reaffirms why I love reading so much. I literally couldn’t put down my Nook and several times fell asleep on the sofa reading because I didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. I highly recommend it, especially if you like magical realism, and even if you have no idea what magical realism is this novel is a great introduction to it. As for me, expect to  see a whole bunch of Murakami books added to my “to-read” list.

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Cloud Atlas an Epic Masterpiece of a Novel

Imaginative. Ambitious. Rich. Enthralling. These are just a few of the adjectives that pop into my mind when I think of Cloud Atlas, the David Mitchell novel from 2004 that I completed last night. Cloud Atlas is so interesting and unique I’m not even sure how to describe it, but in a nutshell it’s a series of stories that span a huge swath of time from the past to the present and far into the future that are loosely interconnected and when put together tells the story of what mankind’s future might hold if we do not veer from our course of corporate control of politics and everything else.  I said it was ambitious!

The story begins with the tale of a 19th century American writer on a journey in the South Pacific, reaches a pivotal point in the distant future where mankind has experienced a “fall” back to his hunter and gatherer ways, and then abruptly does an about-face and journeys back to the beginning. Each story is interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, but when put together the novel is a strange and exotic journey itself. I wasn’t sure what to think when I began reading the novel, and when the first twist came I was quite confused but continued on, and after a while I figured out Mitchell’s strategy but still had no idea where he was taking me or where I would end up. It was such a fun read.

I’m not going to delve into the plot, but I will say the novel was superbly written and the characters were robust and each was unique. Mitchell is a glorious writer with a fabulous imagination. I’m not usually one for literary gimmicks (I thought Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad relied too heavily on its gimmick), but the way Mitchell tied these stories together was quite brilliant. Again, I don’t want to give anything away because I encourage you to read this book — but I will say each story leads into the next with just a hint of connection. The novel is pretty complicated a have to admit. At times you can lose track of characters and relationships, especially since just when you get used to a character Mitchell switches things up and changes stories. I would have loved a character map, or perhaps I will simply read it again and keep notes.

I highly recommend Cloud Atlas. And you should definitely read it before Fall 2012 so you can be well prepared for the film which stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry amongst others.

Enjoying the Classics (or Why I Love Steinbeck)

I like to mix things up when I’m reading, so I will often follow up fiction with non-fiction and vice versa. I also like to check in with classic authors every so often to remind myself what great writing is all about (not that there aren’t any great modern writers, but let’s be honest…the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds are fewer and farther between nowadays). I have to admit though that I’m not a huge fan of the classics, but I do have a soft spot for American masters. Which brings me to John Steinbeck.

Somehow I managed to get through high school and four years of college without having ever read a Steinbeck novel. The closest I ever came was seeing the 1992 Gary Sinise film version of Of Mice and Men. I always assumed that I wouldn’t like Steinbeck because he was too commercially successful, and that is in fact what many critics argued when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Then something interesting happened to change my mind — I read a Steinbeck novel!

As a graduate student in English at NAU a few years ago I took a class in which we had to read East of Eden. I remember thinking to myself it was going to be a struggle and that I’d have to slog through it, but once I started reading the words on the page I was sucked in. This post isn’t about East of Eden, but suffice it to say it is now one of my all-time favorite novels and features one of my all-time favorite literary characters in Samuel Hamilton.

Steinbeck writes about everyday people and chronicled the American experience during his career, which spanned from 1927 with the publication of his first novel to his death in 1968. His political views played a major role in his writing, and his characters always seemed to say something powerful about what it takes to overcome poverty, hardship and even persecution. He was his generation’s Michael Moore, and for me that’s a good thing. He also touches on themes of religion and the difference between right and wrong, yet he does so without espousing any religious convictions or spirituality — giving him major points in my book.

After I graduated from NAU I decided to go back and, over time, read the entire Steinbeck collection. I’ve since read Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley. This weekend, after several mediocre reads, I decided it was time for a palate cleanser so I am now reading To a God Unknown. After just a few pages I feel like I’ve been rejuvinated. It’s such a pleasure to sink into Steinbeck’s warm storytelling and near perfect structure.

Just saying.

Pulitzer Gets a ‘Visit from the Goon Squad’

A few weeks ago author Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” I was just finishing up a book, so I downloaded it to my nook and moved it to the top of my rotation. Yesterday I finished it and I’m going back and forth on it frankly. It doesn’t measure up to some recent Pulitzer winners like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz or “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, two of my all-time favorites. But I liked it.

I hadn’t read any of Egan’s previous work, and truth be told I thought she was a chick lit author so I never even skimmed a jacket. I shall offer a mea culpa for that bit of chauvinism and admit right now that she is definitely a literary author. Goon Squad is a very modern tale written in a progressive style with interesting characters and told using a very unique literary device. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, a character that you only learn about from the previous chapter. On top of that, the chapters jump back and forth across time so that there is no easy literary flow. I was intrigued by the device and at the same time confused. I thought the concept was great, but as a result it was very hard to follow. I sort of want to go back and read it again, this time keeping a flow chart of the relationships between all the characters!

With or without the literary chicanery, the characters are all very interesting and the individual stories are fun. It was fun to read. But at the same time, I feel like I didn’t really follow the lives of the two main characters that well. The novel begins with Sasha, a young woman who we learn has a little issue with stealing things. She works for a record producer, Bennie, who was famous for discovering a popular punk rock band. Each chapter can be related back to Bennie and/or Sasha, even as they are told through the eyes of secondary and tertiary characters. For example, in one chapter Sasha’s uncle is wandering the streets of Italy looking for Sasha, who has run away from home. He interacts with her while there, so we learn a little bit about her motivation. That’s sort of how the novel goes.

I won’t say anything else in case you want to read the novel, which I do recommend. Along with the Pulitzer it has won numerous accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was a PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist and a New York Times Book Review Best Book. I think it has won so many fans because of both the unique way Egan tells the story and because it’s a modern tale that is very well written. I am definitely going to go back and look at Egan’s other books now and will consider adding them to my reading list.

How to Decide What to Read

I read a lot. Many of my friends ask me how I find the time, but truthfully I don’t think that’s the right question. You should ask yourself if you enjoy reading, because if you do you will find the time. I don’t watch as much television as I used to for example. I have a few choice shows, plus sports of course, but most evenings I’ll sit on the sofa and read.

Aside from finding the time to read, people always ask me how I find the books I read. That, my friends, is an art form! The fact is I am never at a loss for something to read because I keep a list of books I’ve run across that I’d like to read. You can do this with a simple word or excel file, or you can use a web-based tool like I do. I keep my list of to-reads on Goodreads, a wonderful free app that is sort of a social network for book worms. I have several “bookshelves” on Goodreads, including my “to-read” bookshelf, my “read” bookshelf and my “currently reading” bookshelf. Whenever I run across the title of a book that interests me I add it to my “to-read” list. Goodreads also helps connect you to other people who like to read, where you can share reviews and discuss books and authors. Another list I use is my nook wish list, which I use to keep track of books I may like to download and read on my nook.

But keeping track is one thing — how do I find out about all these books? Here are some tips:

  • The first place to look for good reading material is by looking for books by authors you already know you like. If you liked Franzen’s The Corrections, chances are you’re going to enjoy Freedom
  • There are tons of great websites specifically designed for book lovers. A few I keep up with include The Millions, the New York Times Books site, Arts & Letters Daily, and Salon.com Books.
  • My favorite bookstore is Powell’s, which is a chain in the Portland area. The employees at Powell’s recommend books online under Staff Picks. Find an employee who has similar tastes as you!
  • Keep your eyes open for books wherever you are on the web. Lots of times I’ll read about a new book on CNN.com, or The Daily Beast.
  • Use your smart phone to jot down a title you may find interesting while you’re flipping through a magazine at the doctor’s office or at a newsstand.
  • Check out all the award winners. Each year there are tons of awards handed out for books and Powell’s does a great job of keeping track for you. They have current winners and past winners listed nicely in their Award Winners section online. I just added A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan to my reading list after it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the other day.
  • Use the Literature Map to find authors you’ll like. This amazing website asks you to type in an author you like, then it suggests similar authors. How cool!

These are just some of the ways I find books to read. Now you may ask, with all these books on my “to-read” list how do I choose what to read next? Good question! That’s just a matter of mood. I just read a nonfiction book about food, so you can expect I’ll jump into some light fiction next. In fact, what am I doing blogging — I have to go decide what to read next!

Reading My Way to Eating Smart

“I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily.” — The Clash

Do you have any idea what to eat? It used to be so simple, you just opened the fridge and cooked up something that looked good. But nowadays it seems like every day there are new warnings about certain types of foods and new specialty diets that swear they have the answers. Eat like the Japanese. No, eat like the Greeks. No, eat like grandma told you. Aargh! Eating isn’t as fun as it used to be, despite what Anthony Bordain thinks. If you’re like me, you’re concerned about your health but you’re just not sure what’s right anymore.

I have a family history that predisposes me to adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. I’m healthy, but I’m a ticking time bomb. A few years ago, in his early 60s, my father had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. In order to stave off a similar fate I went to a cardiologist who ran some tests, told me I was fine, suggested I pop an aspirin every day and come see him again in five years. Thanks doc, but that still didn’t help me understand what to eat. So I started reading.

I haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s since reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. In Defense of Food gave me some good ideas and a manifesto (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants). The South Beach Diet was a bust (have you ever tried to eliminate carbs?). All that reading led me to think seriously about eliminating red meat but I did not. And of course it made sense to increase my intake of fruits, veggies and super foods (whatever they are). Then I saw the film Food Inc. and that pushed me over the edge — I walked out of the theater having sworn off all meat except seafood. Yep, I became a pescetarian. That was two years ago, and in that time I think the only meat I’ve had (aside from fish) is half a grass fed beef cheeseburger and a few bites of turkey at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately I am exactly the same weight and bored to death at mealtimes. And I eat way too many carbs!

I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an ethical vegetarian — I’m a Darwinian so that would be hypocritical (survival of the fittest and all). I’m just confused and hungry. I saw an interesting documentary a few weeks ago called Food Matters, and that made me go out and buy multivitamins and a juicer. I’m still unsure about meat though. There are all those chemicals, antibiotics and all that darn corn. Corn huh? Maybe that’s the key?

So last week I picked up Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and started reading. He’s the unofficial spokesperson for eating healthy, and he eats meat. The book begins by posing the question — what should we have for dinner? I’m halfway through the book and have no idea what to eat, but I definitely have a new opinion of what it means for a food to be “organic” and now I’m not even sure that means anything. I am also convinced that corn is evil and grass is good. But I hope the second half of the book actually helps me answer the “what to have for dinner” question because frankly I could really sink my teeth into a big juicy steak right about now! I’ll keep you posted. And if you know what the hell I should eat I’m all ears.