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24 June 2013

'The Elephant Vanishes' by Haruki Murakami translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin

Murakami's art is to make terrifying magic believable by making the feelings of the characters believable

Sometimes, when I latch on to an author, I read the books in chronological order.  Even if I started in the middle, as is the case with Terry Pratchett, I go back to the beginning... rather like Inigo Montoya in 'The Princess Bride'.  I like to see how an author develops and changes over time. In spite of the fact that Murakami has written for many years, I did not rearrange my books once I had started.  I read his works as the mood takes me.

'The Elephant Vanishes' is the second short story collection of his that I have read.  It is copyrighted in 1993.  I mention it because he has written several books in the last 20 years and these short stories seem to be the seeds to some of those books, if not in themes then in feeling.  While reading these old stories, I often caught glimpses of some of his books and my heart skipped a beat... imagine bumping on the street into a loved one you thought dead... talk about disconnected from society...

Short story collections by their nature are a mix of themes and characters.  Sometimes something unifies them but most of the time the stories can stand on their own.  This particular collection has many characters that disconnect from modern society, often in true Murakami style, like in the story, 'TV People', a magical element is combined with self doubt and confusion.  It is a fascinating and frightening read.   But I will not go into details, his art is to make terrifying magic believable by making the feelings of the characters believable.

Anyway, I liked some stories and I liked some stories less.  But... then... suspicion, mistrust, as my weakness (one weakness amongst many) overwhelms me. You see, there are two (2) translators to these stories.  Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin.  So, I wonder if my like/dislike has any correlation with the translators.  I am going to go look.


Well, that is interesting. There is no correlation between translators and the the stories I dislike, which is comforting.  Out of the 17 stories in 'The Elephant Vanishes', I do not like 6.  They are evenly split.  3/9 Alfred Birnbaum and 3/8 Jay Rubin.  I know that J.R. has one less story but that does not mean that had there been an 18th story, I would dislike it.  So my time was wasted.  You see, I am a fan of translators.  Without these women and men, I would miss out on Murakami, for instance.  Do take a peak at another one of my posts, 'Is That a Fish in Your Ear?',  a book about translation written by a translator...interesting and enlightening.  Quality, of course, does differ amongst translators but my experience is that modern translators are reliable and often know their authors well.  So I am disappointed in myself for doubting.  I am sorry, I will never doubt again...probably.  Forgive me Great Editor in the sky (NYC highrise) for I am weak.

Haruki Murakami 
ISBN: 9780099448754 

20 June 2013

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Tracy Chevalier

This book is about what people see or perceive through art, through love, through hate, through bigotry, through blindness and through hunger

Most of the time, I read a book long before I watch the movie.  I can think of few exceptions.  'Girl with a Pearl Earring' is one of them.  I thought the film was lovely.  I did not even think about a novel as I did not realize there was a novel.  In any case, that was several years ago.  And now I have read this wonderful book.

I think, like most people, I take for granted that what I see and what I perceive are the same thing.  Even the blind can see with their other senses.  But do I understand, feel what I see?  Not every day.  This book is about what people see or perceive through art, through love, through hate, through bigotry, through blindness and through hunger.  Habit and emotion filter what I see into what I perceive.  Then I assume that this perception is truth.

An artist can see beyond the emotions and experiences (habits) to then invoke a new feeling.  This alchemy lets me see the familiar anew.  An old familiar street becomes a passage to adventure; a common, shy woman becomes beautiful and intelligent.  Vermeer, of whom this books speaks, had this magic, which is why he is known as a master.

I saw Girl with a Pearl Earring, the painting, in Mauritshuis about two years ago along with several other of Vermeer's works.  I was shocked by its size (small) but I was also shocked by the size of the earring.  In real life the painting should be called 'Earring Wearing Girl'.  That magnificent pearl ennobles the girl but it is also a heavy burden.  The look in her eyes and the expression on her face seem fleeting, insecure compared with the solidity of this pearl by her slim neck.

This painting arouses the desire to explore further.  The girl's slightly parted lips, the reflection on the pearl and her clothes tease the viewer with a story... a fantasy.  And so Tracy Chevalier explores and paints her own picture.  Art inspired by art.  Vermeer himself used every day utensils and furniture as well as every day people.  This tradition is continued by Chevalier as the object of her story and the painting becomes a maid in Vermeer's household... a pretty, pragmatic, intelligent maid...

Tracy Chevalier 
ISBN: 9780007232161 

14 June 2013

'The Piano Teacher' by Janice Y.K. Lee

Evocative. Janice Y.K. Lee has a vivid imagination which she shares with grace and elegance, like her heroines

There is so much sadness and regret in this book.  Doomed love is cliche in many stories but this book makes it immediate and heartbreaking.  What is the antonym to nostalgia?  The two story lines are set more or less ten years apart.  I like that because I can see the direct consequences of actions and betrayals.  As the book speaks of war, greed, envy, racism and lust women become central to the story.  No glorious fighting here; it is the women that are the greatest losers.  The men make a show of power, regret, vengeance or even remorse but it is the women who die in humiliating ways and lose so much more than freedom.  Nothing much has changed in war or in literature but that is another topic.

Books are often driven by dialogue, action or information.  In this book the settings, that is, the houses, weather, perfumes, cocktails and food showed me more than some of the action.  I am a fan of books that invoke so many senses.  The atmosphere surrounded me almost immediately.  The perfumes, smell (pleasant and unpleasant), heat and humidity were present for me.  I think I even heard a mosquito buzz by as I read.  The subsequent contrast between before the war, war and invasion and ten years after the war were striking.  The invasion of Hong Kong by the Japanese stank of death and fear.  Janice Y.K. Lee has a vivid imagination which she shares with grace and elegance, like her heroines.  The story itself lingers in my mind but I am certain it lingers because it is tied to the smell of jasmine.

I caught myself breathing deeply as I read this book.  I tried to catch the scent that she described sometimes.  Books sometimes make me nervous or angry or happy, but they do not often give me a physical reaction.  'Chocolat' did for the same reason this book did.  Scents release memories, suddenly this book I have somehow lived because I can smell it and remember it.  I think women will not prefer this book because it is a story of doomed love but because women often have more sensitive noses.  Go on walk with these heroines through the Hong Kong markets, go have a cocktail at an elegant party and enjoy strange new foods.  Evocative, beautiful book.

Janice Y.K. Lee 
ISBN: 9780007286379 

11 June 2013

'I Hunt Killers' by Barry Lyga

My son picked up my book and said: "This looks sick!" which is a positive comment

I often have to beg people to read a book I have enjoyed.  This time, though, my son picked up my book and said, "This looks sick!" which is a positive comment.    My BPR is next in line to read it over the Summer break and at least three others have said something along the lines of "you can't go wrong with a good serial killer book."  Or "Ooooo, I love a good crimi".  I do hope all this enthusiasm turns into sales for the author.  But still, I am mystified by this reaction... how weird is this?  Is it cathartic or voyeurism?  Maybe people like to imagine others behaving worse than they do?  In any case, even our bedtime fairy tales used to have buckets of blood and witches nailed into barrels of boiling oil, so this phenomenon cannot be blamed on modern media violence...

I know people who claim never to read such frivolous, violent books because they are a waste of time, without art or value.  I disagree.  To make a story with a monster, once again, interesting and entertaining is art.  A writer with skill is indeed required.  Moreover, I sense hypocrisy when someone reads only classics or serious books (for a given definition of serious... I mean, a serial killer seems quite serious to me).  It is all very well to read 'El Mio Cid' and imagine respect, loyalty, courage... then to quietly reflect on your own weaknesses and strengths of character, or the beauty of the Spanish language (if you read it in the original... beautiful).  But, and this is maybe just me, thinking about something I read 20 or so years ago, I remember the battles, murders, betrayals, rapes and famous corpses.  I also remember Sofia Loren looking amazing in a wedding dress, but that was the film, they don't make them like that anymore, do they?

It is quite a trick to get inside the head of a serial killer. To glimpse the seduction of power without conscience and at the same time not be put in a position where you sympathize with the murderer.  Barry Lyga knows this nasty topic, well, too well, mmhhhh... On to the humor.  The humor is teenage humor as the protagonist is 17 years old.  It was an easy book to read, but not so easy that I breezed through it either or put it down.  I wanted to follow Jazz and his friends and see what they were up to...  Naturally, there is a twist at the end but it is a good twist.  By a good twist, I mean something I found exciting and frightening.  Too often these kinds of books have twists that seem to belong to a different book.

So 'I Hunt Killers' does not only have my attention but also the attention of a large number of relatives and acquaintances.  If I think too deeply about this I might become not just worried but paranoid as well.   By the way, if you read my blog you may notice that I do not usually announce "This is a YA book" of some such statement unless unbelievably important.  If it is good story, I will enjoy it and I do not care who the 'intended target audience" is.  This book has an interesting point of view and humor, I like it...

Barry Lyga 
ISBN: 9780316125833 

05 June 2013

'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor's angels and monsters are new and refreshing

Now, I am an old hand at reading fantasy... I am no snob and love themes I know well retold, transformed and re-imagined. Laini Taylor takes angels and monsters and tells me something new about them.  She took a risk with such familiar literary characters.  Every reader, I imagine, has a litmus test for stories.  As a reader I pick up a book and willingly suspend my disbelief; I hope it stays suspended.  Let me explain how this works for me when I read fantasy...

Say an author tells me about angels amongst us.  She uses the word angel to describe this character.  I make some assumptions based on this word.  She then adds something new to my personal angel lore.  If I believe it and happily add it to my angel file then this fantasy is a success. If, on the other hand, I argue, snort in sarcasm and get annoyed then she should have used a different word to describe the character.  This is a simplistic explanation but that is more or less how it works for me.  There are authors that in my small reading universe add to my fantasy files, these authors include Jasper Fforde, John Ajvide Lindqvist, JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, and Jim Butcher amongst others.  You see, it is important to know lore and literature well when you chose to describe your character as a wizard, vampire, elf... Each conjures a picture, an incomplete picture.  Talented writers fill in some spaces in harmony with the rest of the picture.  Clumsy, uninspired writers graffiti annoying initials on the frame.

Fantasy is deceptive. Most writers do not just make it up.  For example, one cannot get rid of certain features of the vampire without transforming it into something else.  Moreover, one cannot add certain features to a vampire without diminishing it somehow.  The success of this give and take depends on the art of the writer, the talent if you will, and how this vision of a vampire is then presented to me.  Often old familiar fairy tales, legends, sagas, traditions or religions are the foundations of the fantasy genre.

I am cautious when I pick up a new author (new to me, by the way, I mean I can't know everybody).  I am tired of finding out the object promoted to me is number 3 in a 5 part trilogy (yes, I used trilogy with irony).  And like I have said (shouted) before, a good editor could have cleaned up these sagas into two decent books.  It is my luck that Laini Taylor knows how to write.  She has thought about her characters and her worlds.  It is funny how her description of celestial armies and the angels' inherent sadness has been on the edge of my own musings for some time... She colored these musings in for me.  Her instincts in this fantasy are excellent.  Moreover her angels and monsters are deep and knowable at the same time. I look forward to the rest of the trilogy (no irony).

Laini Taylor 
ISBN: 9781444722659