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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Norwegian Wood

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I wouldn’t have picked up Norwegian Wood if it wasn’t by Haruki Murakami. The back cover promises semi-autobiographical recollections of college days. Those narratives makes up a respectable (but not overwhelming) chunk of contemporary literature in western countries and largely don’t fall into my wheelhouse, though at least coming out of a different culture adds another layer of interest on top of the more typical explorations of early-adult ennui.

The novel is still twice removed from the bulk of Murakami’s work–ambling narratives with fantastical elements that combine into a unique sense of atmosphere and isolated, detached moments of beauty. Norwegian Wood has none of the unreality lying at the heart of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Shore; it’s a more straightforward depiction of Tokyo in the late 1960s and the relationships formed by Toru Watanabe with two women as he’s on the cusp of turning 20. Elements of elegy and hints of nostalgia abound.

It was a slow read; I took Norwegian Wood in small doses over a long period of time and feel that matches the structure of the novel, itself unhurried and purposefully aimless. The other Murakami books I’ve read take the same relaxed approach to narrative, and that’s one of the reasons I like him. However, paradoxically, while Norwegian Wood cleaves closest to reality, bereft of the bizarre situations and undercurrents of the author’s other books, I found myself at far more of a distance from the work itself. I could not get a grasp on Watanabe, could not find points of connection with Naoko or Midori or Watanabe’s other friends. Watanabe is not significantly different from Murakami’s other protagonists, but it’s almost as if when those characters are faced with the baffling and strange they tap into a set of universal fears and an emotional space that makes them suddenly relatable. They come to occupy a space where I can feel the same things they do. Watanabe doesn’t face these things, and becomes locked away in his own thought processes, inscrutable to me from the outside.

And still, Norwegian Wood is well-measured, well-written. It remains Murakami’s most successful work financially, perhaps partly because it’s the most overtly erotic of his books. As far as sex scenes go, you could use this book to teach a class on them. That’s by no means the chief reason to read this; now, it appears as a generational marker, bottling up the era in an oddly efficient way. Yet it’s specificity to that era makes it less attractive to me than other Murakami: I’m more drawn to his manner of connecting the deep past and with the present through the timeless myths that run between them.

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I’m three-quarters of the way through Thomas Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabron and I’m just not feeling it–not the characters, not the world, not the story. Passages go by where I realize my inattentiveness several pages later, reading but not registering, and then having to flip back to figure out why Will is doing this thing or why the wolf is over there. Not a good sign, and one that chafes because Wharton’s glacially-paced Icefields kept me far more engaged. Much more happens in Shadow, yet the impact is much less. (more…)

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There are a lot of books on writing fiction, so many that I wonder just who’s buying them all. They’re either disproportionate to the people who actually sit down and write, or publishers can always count on writers (published and unpublished and self-published) to buy these books to the degree that releasing one is always a safe investment. Or else I’m missing something about the marketplace completely. (more…)

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When I bought a new laptop this year, the shiny HD screen lured me over to the world of digital art. I bought a Wacom Intuos tablet shortly afterwards and had a go at painting with a stylus. What’s really impressed me over the last few months have been the wealth of free and open source tools available for creative expression that are capable of some really impressive results. Not just for painting, either: Blender, InkscapeGIMP and LibreOffice are all catching up to their commercial counterparts, sport an appealing anarcho-punk approach to giving users complete control over their products, and are sometimes friendlier to use.

My tablet came with ArtRage Lite as the bundled software, but I found I didn’t get along with it. The heavy focus on reproducing the effects of physical media ran counter to what I wanted to do—take advantage of the freedom provided by the digital space to produce artwork that would be otherwise impossible or too time-consuming if I used the supplies in my “art box”. The user interface was also a major turnoff for me, performance issues proving the final straw. After some experimenting, I’ve settled on three painting programs for use with my tablet: MyPaint, Krita and FireAlpaca. (more…)

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The only times Tatsuhiro Satou ventures out of his tiny apartment are for the basic necessities of life, and even then, he doesn’t go far. 22 years old, a college dropout, unemployed and living off a meagre allowance from his father…Satou seemingly has no hobbies or interests beyond sleeping, staring at the walls, or getting drunk/high. He’s been like this for four years now, and while he berates himself and dreams up various schemes to become a “normal person” again, he inevitably ends up retreating into his constricted existence. The days flow by and his only comfort rests in bizarre conspiracy theories about how the world is out to get him. That is, until he bumps into a young woman named Misaki who makes him sign a contract to take part in a “special project” to reform his life.

The hikikomori phenomenon was starting to get major media attention in Japan when Tatsuhiko Takimoto wrote Welcome to the NHK! (2002). While this manifestation of alienation, social anxiety, and inability to deal with expectations is largely unique to Japan, the problems that lead to it are common enough in the western world. NHK is in part the author’s own attempt to come to grips with these issues, but is clearly also a personal expression of the yawning hopelessness the author himself once felt. The Afterward confirms that NHK is semi-autobiographical, “I felt as though I were taking my own shame and revealing it to the whole world.” Out of all I’ve read, it most closely resembles the middle section of Lanark: both by the main character’s depths of self-loathing and the honesty with which it touches on that character’s less savoury qualities. (more…)

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One charge often lobbed against secondary-world fantasy novels is that they don’t dwell on the economics of their imagined landscapes. What currency do the people use? Who grows the food? Who manufactured that cloak? The complaint strikes me as a little silly; most realist and historical novels I’ve read are similarly disinterested in these questions if they’re not directly tied to the narrative. I don’t see why the switch to an imaginary place suddenly makes the absence of economic matters a sin. The romantic tradition that influenced fantasy literature involves narratives that don’t, by and large, make economics a primary focus. Maybe our society frowns upon literary creations that seem overtly escapist when they don’t factor in the primary ideologies that run it–in North America, capitalism and economics; similarly, in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the spectre of Marxism. Or maybe the capitalist focus of our society makes dealing with those issues in fantasy seem like a path to being taken seriously in a genre that still isn’t very respected.

Which isn’t to say that narratives where economics play a huge part are boring or unsuitable for fantasy. I spent this summer reading the Spice & Wolf series by Isuna Hasekura, a 17-book series out of Japan that centres heavily on economics. Hasekura takes the high medieval setting of most western fantasy and makes the stories all about the nuts-and-bolts of trade and commerce that those stories usually elide. (more…)

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There are two books I read over the summer/autumn that I meant to write about at some length on this blog, but never actually did. With winter very close and the days shortening at an alarming rate, it seems as good time as any to get my thoughts about both of them out in one go.

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As an aside, I really love the design of this cover.

Children of Earth and Sky – Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

I should have enjoyed Kay’s latest more than I did, since it once again happens to enter an area of personal historical interest: the eastern Mediterranean in the late fifteenth century. I did enjoy it, for the most part, and the thematic echoes of his earlier Sarantine Mosaic are clear. There, Crispin travelled to Sarantium to create a mosaic commissioned by the Sarantine emperor. Here, Pero travels to then-Sarantium now-Asharias to paint a portrait of the grand khalif of the Osmanli Empire. Seemingly insignificant people put in positions where their decisions have grand historical consequences abound, as is usual for Kay, with a similar sense of crushing weight to history in its uncaring inevitability. That weight is most evident in the Osmanli (Ottoman) attempts to besiege Alternate-Vienna; foiled not by the actions of the brave Senjani soldiers we follow who trek to defend the Jaddite faith, but something as simple and fickle as the weather. The historical content is great, as usual, especially the depictions of a parallel Venetian court as well as in-fighting among the Ottoman sultan’s sons, and unlike Under Heaven or River of Stars, Kay feels free to move aside from “how things really happened” and explore his own scenarios, what-ifs and characters. Of those characters, Danica of Senjan, a female mercenary who wants revenge on the Osmanlis for destroying her family and who is literally haunted by the ghost of her grandfather, is the most compelling. (more…)

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