Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

Title: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 608

Started: 11 April 2010

Finished: 28 April 2010

Opening words:

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax.

Plot summary:

Bad things come in threes for Toru Okada. He loses his job, his cat disappears, and then his wife fails to return from work. His search for his wife (and his cat) introduces him to a bizarre collection of characters, including two psychic sisters, a possibly unbalanced teenager, an old soldier who witnessed the massacres on the Chinese mainland at the beginning of the Second World War, and a very shady politician.

What I thought:

This book was an interesting read. A book of two halves. If I were to say what I thought of it purely based on the first half, I would use a word like “brilliant”. It was really engrossing and engaging. A good story and told in a way that I really liked. But then there was the second half of the book and somehow those observations on it no longer seem to apply. I found the second half more of a mish mash of stories and occurrences and absurdities. I just didn’t get where the second half of the book was coming from and why it was taking so long to come to its conclusion.

So it was a strange read. A lot of Murakami’s books are odd (in a good way) and tell a good story be that through a narrator or a talking animal. But somewhere along the line I thought this book lost its way and it took a lot to make me see it through to the end. Having said that, I liked the closing pages. It was a well written and moving end to the book, but it didn’t half take a long time to get there.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Author: Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Burrows

Number of pages: 248

Started: 4 April 2010

Finished: 10 April 2010

Opening words:

8th January, 1946
Mr. Sidney Stark, Publisher
Stephens & Stark Ltd.
21 St. James's Place
London S.W.1

Dear Sidney,
Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let's try it—you may deduct the money from my royalties.

Now for my grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn't.

English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators' Trade Union, marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming "Down with Beatrix Potter!" But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that's what.

I no longer want to write this book—my head and my heart just aren't in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is—and was—to me, I don't want to write anything else under that name. I don't want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh—or at least chuckle—during the war was no mean feat, but I don't want to do it anymore. I can't seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one cannot write humor without them.
In the meantime, I am very happy Stephens & Stark is making money on Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. It relieves my conscience over the debacle of my Anne Bront biography.

My thanks for everything and love,

P.S. I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? "My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes." I hope Jane spat on her.

Read more of the book here

See the publisher’s website of the book here including a video about the book.

Plot summary:

January 1946: writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.

What I thought:

I read this book while I was on holiday in Jersey because I like to read a book based where I am staying. I couldn’t find a book about Jersey so went for its neighbour Guernsey instead (which is probably not the done thing, as they are not the best of friends).

This book was enjoyable, but lacked depth. I never really felt that I truly cared about the characters or that they were always necessarily that believable as people. The style also changed at the end of the book and moved away from letters to a brief diary like conclusion, which perhaps was not the most appropriate way to finish it. That is perhaps overly critical though. It is a light read about a dark subject – the German Occupation of the Channel Islands - and it is an enjoyable read and there is always something intriguing about reading other people’s correspondence, or perhaps that is just me! It was also a book that touched on a number of issues that I learned about while I was in Jersey – the way people responded to the Occupation, how they were left to fend for themselves by the British government, how desperately they needed Red Cross food, but weren’t allowed to have it and so on. These things meant more to me when I read them in the book because I had found out about them during my trip to Jersey already.

It was a pleasant read, and good for a holiday or as a light take on life, but not one of the better books that I have read.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

After the Quake

Title: After the Quake

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 132

Started: 31 March 2010

Finished: 4 April 2010

Opening words:

Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word. Sunk deep in the cushions of the sofa, her mouth clamped shut, she wouldn't answer when Komura spoke to her. She wouldn't shake her head or nod. Komura could not be sure the sound of his voice was even getting through to her.

Komura's wife came from way up north in Yamagata and, as far as he knew, she had no friends or relatives who could have been hurt in Kobe. Yet she stayed rooted in front of the television from morning to night. In his presence, at least, she ate nothing and drank nothing and never went to the toilet. Aside from an occasional flick of the remote control to change the channel, she hardly moved a muscle.

Read a longer excerpt here.

Plot summary:

The economy was booming. People had more money than they knew what to do with. And then, the earthquake struck. Komura's wife follows the TV reports from morning to night, without eating or sleeping. The same images appear again and again: flames, smoke, buildings turned to rubble, their inhabitants dead, cracks in the streets, derailments, crashes, collapsed expressways, crushed subways, fires everywhere. Pure hell. Suddenly, a city seems a fragile thing. And life too. Tomorrow anything could happen. For the characters in Murakami's latest short story collection, the Kobe earthquake is an echo from a past they buried long ago. Satsuki has spent 30 years hating one man: a lover who destroyed her chances of having children, and who now lives in Kobe. Did her desire for revenge cause the earthquake? Junpei's estranged parents also live in Kobe. Should he contact them? Miyake left his family in Kobe to make midnight bonfires on a beach hundreds of miles away. Four-year-old Sala has nightmares that the Eathquake man is trying to stuff her inside a little box. Katagiri returns home to find a giant frog in his apartment on a mission to save Tokyo from a massive worm burrowing under the Tokyo Security Trust Bank. "When he gets angry, he causes earthquakes" says Frog. "And right now he is very, very angry."

What I thought:

This was a short, but good, read. It was made up of a series of short stories that told the tales of different people affected by the Kobe earthquake. It was a well written and slightly quirky read that told an engaging story. I really like Murakami’s writing style and this book was one of rather shorter works and a nicely observed tale.