Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Two Moons and Little People

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

944 pages. Knopf (October 25, 2011).

Murakami’s 1Q84 has a 19th century feel to it. Not just because it is long. Rather, the Japanese writer seems to be saying to the reader,  “I have a story to tell, and I am going to take my time telling it. If you stick with me, you will be rewarded. So relax. Enjoy the journey.”

Even though 1Q84 takes place in an alternate world, it is not about rings, wizarding schools, or families going for a throne. It is about Aomame (pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh) and Tengo in 1984 Japan, trying to escape a religious cult and connect with one another.

Murakami opens his novel with a thirty-year-old Aomame. She sits in the back of a taxi, listening to Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Her cab is stalled in traffic. The driver lets her know that the cab isn’t going anywhere for a while. But there is a way for her to get to her destination and make her appointment. Get out of the cab, go to an emergency exit, climb down the stairs, catch a train. As she gets out of the taxi, he warns her, “Please remember, things are not what they seem.” Then she steps into the alternate world of 1Q84.

The next chapter introduces Tengo. In his early thirties, he is a single man. He teaches math to high schoolers prepping for their university entrance exams. He is also an unpublished writer and a reader for an editor. He has read a manuscript by a seventeen-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, called Air Chrysallis. The writing isn’t good but the ideas conveyed are unique. The editor asks Tengo to rewrite the manuscript. Then the editor will submit the novella to a major literary contest. This is Tengo’s entry into 1Q84.

This alternate world centers around a religious cult called Sakigake. Fuka-Eri was the daughter of the leader of the cult. And her novella reveals certain secrets about that cult. One of these secrets is the Little People. Throughout 1Q84, the cult threatens Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Through her actions, the cult goes after Aomame as well.

Murakami slowly spins a spider’s web, dropping information drip, drip, drip. You’re being pulled into the web. The closer to the center you’re pulled the more dangerous things get for the two main characters. Slowly the connections between Aomame and Tengo are revealed. That they have a connection through Janacek’s Sinfonietta. That they both can see the two moons. That they went to grade school together. Despite everything you may have heard about the novel, it is a love story. Sakigake will do everything it can to keep them apart.

1Q84 isn’t for everybody. After all, it is a novel written for an adult audience of experienced readers. But Murakami has created two characters I came to know intimately and liked very much. They not only have breadth but the depth of personality that makes for a marvelous story. Few contemporary writers have given the reader as complete characters as Murakami in his 1Q84. And I will miss them.

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Not your same old dystopia

the The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood.
320 pages. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A good definition of dystopian is a utopia that backfires, thanks to humanity’s ability to screw up any dream. In other words, the more that a group of human beings try to create the perfect society the more they create an imperfect society.

Atwood’s novel is not the first nor will it be the last dystopia. Before her novel, there was 1984Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. Recently we’ve been given updated reports from the Continent of Dystopia in the form of The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’d say that, if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, Atwood gives us about the best of what can be done with the genre.

And since the novel was published, there have been a movie and a tv series based on the book. I’d advise reading the book before seeing either because there’s so much to be missed that appears as subtext in the novel.

Labels can keep a reader away from a novel that should have a wider audience. And this is true of Atwood’s book. Yes, it can be said that the novel is feminist. Yes, it can be said that it is an attack on the patriarchal system. And yes, it can be said that it is an expose’ of certain fundamentalist religions. The problem is that, when we label a novel these things, we limit the audience for its story.

Offred is not the protagonist’s real name. She was given that name by the theocracy. We never discover her real name. Once upon a time, she lived with her husband, Luke, and her young daughter. Then the United States was overthrown by a theocracy. When the family tried to escape the new order, they were caught. Offred never discovers what happened to Luke or her daughter.

In the society this new theocracy has created, most women cannot have children. Those who have the potential to give birth are set aside as handmaidens (or concubines) for the upper classes. Offred is one of these women.

First she was taken to a re-education school, then she was placed in the Commander’s home. During her most fertile period, the Commander has ritualized sex with her to produce a child.

Atwood has used Orwellian elements in the society. The Eyes are reminders of Big Brother. The taboo against reading and words like grace and freedom are forbidden.

I was struck by how much the society paralleled certain societies these days with their religious police searching for any infraction of the rules. The society of Handmaid’s Tale has ritualized all relationships, using the rituals to prevent relationships. And infractions there are.

It seems that everyone at every level is bending or breaking the rules. The Commander breaks them by having private meetings with Offred and playing Scrabble with her. The Commander’s wife breaks the rules by offering to set Offred up with a sex partner who will make her pregnant because Big C is not up to the task.

It seemed to me that one of the major themes, if not the major theme, of the novel was the loss of intimacy. Women are not allowed to talk to each other, to create friendships. And men are locked into their roles as Commanders, Angels and Guardians. No touching allowed.

With the help of the Commander’s wife, Offred ends up having an affair with Nick, the chauffeur. If they are caught, they will both be punished. Appearing close to the end of the novel, she visits Nick. These lines gave me a sense of this lack of intimacy:

With the Commander, I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps…

The people in the society infringe on the rules because they are longing for intimacy, the intimacy of love and the intimacy of friendship. Maybe the loss of intimacy is the real reason behind the society’s sterility.

Atwood’s novel continues to be relevant. These days it is not some religious police that intervenes to prevent intimacy. It is technology. In this sense, Atwood has seen into the future and written a very prophetic novel, as prophetic as 1984, and maybe more so.

A Monday Xtra: Why Kindle is so Kindle-licious

I appreciate that many of you prefer physical books. But I have come to enjoy eBooks as well. The reason I am posting this is not to say eBooks are preferable to physical books. If you are reading, you are awesome. I am writing this simply to state that both have strengths and weaknesses.

So here are fourteen reasons I am happy with eBooks.

1. Convenience. I am one of those peeps who carry a book everywhere. I read them at lunch. I read them standing in line at the grocery store. Some books are too heavy to carry around. They can be thick and cumbersome. Not so with an eBook. The size and the weight are the same whether I have one eBook or fifty on my Kindle.

2. Reading at lunch. I have not found a place holder that would hold different sized books in place while I ate.

3. Reading faster. I am a slow reader. When I first got my Kindle, I immediately read five books on it. Then I read a physical book. An interesting thing happened. My reading speed increased. My reading speed increased to about 1/3 faster than previously.

4. I often read more than one book at a time. I can easily switch from Emma doing her matchmaking to Miss Marple solving a mystery to James Bond going after Goldfinger, then return to Emma and her new boyfriend.

5. The Kindle and other eReaders are designed to make reading easy on your eyes.

6. I don’t need to look for large print books. If it is on Kindle, I can adjust the font size and the margins.

7. Out-of-print books and books I could not find previously are now available.

8. Easy access to a dictionary. I click on a word in an eBook and the definition pops up.

9. eBooks are often less expensive.

10. For a writer, an eBook is a great way to send your work out into the world initially. Once a writer has built a readership, then that writer has some negotiating power.

11. For a publisher, an eBook is an opportunity to find out if a writer will have a readership. Before heavily investing in print costs.

12. Publishers can easily correct mistakes without having to create a new edition. Even reference book editors make mistakes or facts change. For instance, it could be that astronauts discover the world is truly flat or half round and flat on the bottom. Updating the facts in eBooks are as simple as upgrading to accommodate that information.

13. If you are upset over poor formatting by established publishers, I am too. I also get upset over some publishers throwing together physical books and having them fall apart after one or two reads.

14. And I have all that shelf space I used for books now available for other things like DVDs, plastic flowers, etc. I know I have way too many et ceteras. My closet is bursting with them.

Disclosure: Amazon did not make any contribution to me for these words.

Book Review: A wonderful bit of writing 

I want to thank Beth of I didn’t have my glasses on for calling my attention to Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume.

Opening lines of a novel or a short story are always an invitation. Some opening lines are so oft-putting, you just know that a visit with the folks in this house is not going to be worth the effort. Or the time.

A good opening is a Welcome mat that invites you into the story. It says, “C’mon in and sit a spell. You’re sure to have a mighty fine time.” Sara Baume opens her novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither with these words:

He is running, running, running.

And it’s like no kind of running he’s ever run before. He’s the surge that burst the dam and he’s pouring down the hillslope, channelling through the grass to the width of his widest part. He’s tripping into hoofrucks. He’s slapping groundsel stems down down. Dandelions and chickweed, nettles and dock.

Those are the words of Ray, a 57 year old man in this first person account. He lives alone in a coastal Irish village in the house he inherited from his father. He has only the memories of his father to keep him company. He’s “too old for starting over, too young for giving up” (p. 12). He rescues a one-eyed dog he names One Eye. They are both outcasts, the man and the dog.

When Ray goes to the grocer to buy some food, he reflects:

The grocer’s girl, April, talks loudly on the telephone as she scans my goods, forgetting to proffer a paper bag. I’ve always imagined April was born in April and has three sisters called May, June and July, perhaps an only brother called December because if the summer is a woman, so the winter much be a man. (p.23)

As Ray and One Eye bond, the man takes on a dog’s eye view of his world.

Now the food bowl is the epicenter of your existence, to which the house is attached, and everything beyond radiates from, like sun beams. (p.36)

On a walk with One Eye, Ray comments:

I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. (p.41)

Then this:

Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost. (p.43)

And there is a joy Ray experiences when he lets One Eye run free in a field outside the village.

You wag your tail. This is the first time I’ve seen you wag your tail. “GOOD BOY!” I yell. (p.48)

One day, while Ray and One Eye go walking, the dog attacks a collie. Ray finally gets One Eye to let go. The collie runs away with its female owner it chasing him. Ray takes One Eye home and hides in the house, afraid of what may happen next. After a while, Ray and One Eye continue their walks. They go out at dawn and find places where they can walk and not have a repeat of the incident with the collie.

Then it happens again. One Eye goes after a shih tzu. Ray retreats back into his house. He is afraid of losing One Eye. The local warden comes for the dog. “A complaint’s been made.” How Ray responds to that complaint drives the rest of the novel.

The friendship that grows between the animal and the human is chronicled in detail in Sara Baume’s beautiful novel. For the first time in each’s life, they have a friend. As I read, I was completely pulled in, not only by the language, but also by the character study of Ray, revealing his rich inner life.

Not only does he open up his perceptions of the world to One Eye. There is also a running dialogue about his dead father. So strong is his memories that it can be said Ray’s father is the third of three major characters.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a book that you will remember long after you put it down. One thing is for sure. Sara Baume has created one of the most moving novels I have ever read. And, in case you’re wondering, Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a mondegreen for Spring Summer Fall Winter.

Sara’s second novel, A Line Made By Walking, is out. From the reviews on Amazon, looks like she has a winner with it as well. It will be interesting to follow this writer five, ten, twenty years down the road to see where she leads her readers.

To Gatsby or not to Gatsby, that is the question

Most writers want to be somebody else. Joseph Heller wanted to be Groucho Marx. Norman Mailer wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway wanted to be God. But that job was taken. So he became Ernest Hemingway instead. Mark Twain did not want to be Edgar Allan Poe, though Sam Clemens did imbibe from time to time. He had way too much Mississippi River in him to be anybody other than Tom Sawyer. After all, Tom could tell a whopper with the best of ’em. That’s a fact.

Thing is that Shirley Jackson wanted to be Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Flannery O’Connor wanted to be a saint. They both just about made it. Jonathan Franzen wants to be John Updike. John Updike wanted to be Henry Green and Proust while J. D. Salinger wanted to be Scott Fitzgerald.

Scott Fitzgerald wanted to be Zelda’s husband. Jay Gatsby had a lot of Fitzgerald in him, especially his desire for Daisy Buchanan. Thing is Fitz was that he was as much Nick Carroway as he was Jay Gatsby. Seems to me that Nick went east to become Herman Melville and go after the great American novel, the “Moby Dick” of the twentieth century. As John Lovitz used to say, “Could happen.” Nick managed to gather the material when he arrived East. Jay Gatsby was Captain Ahab and Daisy Buchanan was the whale. Daisy always wore white and her palace in East Egg was white.

The point of all this is that few things are as they seem on the surface. As my granny used to say, “It just ain’t so. You got to dig deeper, Boy, to get to the marrow of the thing.” And, as far as I am concerned, “The Great Gatsby” is not Jay Gatsby’s story. The character arc points elsewhere and that elsewhere is straight at Nick Carroway. Nick is the one who changes in the novel. From beginning to end, Gatsby is after Daisy. As he floats facedown and dead in the pool, he still believes he can have Daisy.

The movie folks don’t seem to get it. They continue to make movies, doing a Somerset Maugham where the Narrator Nick is barely a character and making Gatsby the protagonist. All through the novel, it’s Nick the reader sees change. It is Nick, the country bumpkin, who comes to the big bad city to make his fortune. It is Nick who gets the Daisy treatment. It is Nick who is impressed with Gatsby and all his parties. It is Nick whom Tom Buchanan confides in about his trysts with Myrtle Wilson. It is Nick who is sadder but wiser at the end of the novel.

If the focus is going to be on Gatsby, then what we get is a character study with a plot thrown in at Act 3. And one thing is for sure. Character studies do not good movies make. By the end of the novel, it’s obvious that Gatsby has been scratching at the wrong door all along. But Gatsby never gets it.

Why would Daisy give up everything for Gatsby? Things like a husband who got his wealth the legitimate way. He inherited it. Jay Gatsby got his the nouveau riche way. He gambled for it. Plus Tom Buchanan treats Daisy like a princess. Daisy is no Jordan Baker. She has enough self-understanding to know that she is fragile. It won’t take much to break her. Plus she and Tom have a child together. Old Gatz forgot that. For a mother, a child trumps a dream any day.

Besides she’s pretty happy in the cocoon her husband has made for her. He may be an s.o.b. but he’s the kind of s.o.b. who will give her the security Gatsby will never give her. The Gatz has beaucoup cash now. But her family warned her about the Panic of 1907. “Here today gone tomorrow,” her daddy wisely pointed out to the darling of his eye.

So where does this leave the film maker? With an older, but wiser, Nick Carroway. Mature enough to know that maybe, just maybe, he can make a life with Jordan Baker while he writes that “Moby Dick” of a novel he’s been meaning to write.

I know. That’s not in the novel. But who knows? It could be in the movie.

Do you have a favorite novel or a favorite writer?