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Books of Note

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.
Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertai…

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Oedipal fun for all the family!
Haruki Murakami and I should really get along well. Me and his novels, I mean, not Mr Murakami himself, as he runs too much and is too fussy about his coffee–that would likely bug me. We have much in common; we're both mysterious, otherworldly, filled with wonder and mythology; we're both light on the eyes but heavy on the brain; and we both like wearing white*. But I have a history of missing the point with Japanese literature, something I am trying a little to rectify. Much like Japan's famed Noh theatre, I know I like what's going on, but I don't know why, and it is a source of irritation. Am I obtuse? Is it all too subtle and refined for me? 

Someone told me that in a Western theatre tradition, acting comes from inside–it's driven by emotions–whereas the Japanese tradition is cerebral, actors becoming the essence of characters and the literal ghosts of ancestral beings. I think I might just lack the cultural references to fully grasp what I see and read. I hope it's as simple as that. What I do trust though is that I love the alienness that this little misstep of comprehension creates. 

Circuitously, I came by this novel because of a post somewhere about a new translation and edition of Sōseki Natsume's short novel The Miner and about how the titular Kafka Tamura discusses it with the librarian of the private library which serves as the hub of the action and through which nearly all actors pass at one point or another. Funnily enough, sitting on my shelves, along with I Am A Cat and The 210th Day was this novel, in hardback, untouched since I liberated it from the damaged stock bin at my bookshop in 2005 (along with 1Q84 and the more recent Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, both unread as yet)Enough of a intertextual coincidence to nudge me into trying again to understand what the hell is going on in a Murakami novel.

This one, luckily, starts out fairly straightforwardly, with a boy talking to a crow about running away from home. Then come some transcripts of interviews about a strange incident during World War II about mass and unexplainable unconsciousness. Then an old man who we eventually realise is one of the children affected by the mysterious occurrence talks with cats. Then the boy, Kafka Tamura, runs away from home and the old man murders something that he thinks is the physical embodiment of the man on the label of Johnnie Walker-brand whisky but turns out to be Kafka's father. Then it rains mackerel.

Okay, so I lied, it's not at all straightforward, but for once, I was being swept along, understanding not an impediment to a deep and satisfying enjoyment. It was like being in a forest in summer, moving from patches of luscious green shade into hot summer sun, insects skittering and fizzing around, birdsong bright in your ears, and not caring that you don't know how and why it all came to be. You have only a ghost of an idea, that's all.

But it's not all simply a transient, sensory feast; there's cement beneath the snow. When Kafka meets Oshima and Miss Saeki at the Komura library, or even before that, in a bus during his flight from Tokyo, we stumble on to a terrible Oedipal prophecy; the old man is given a quest he can't understand (being not bright at all); there are characters offering profound insights and deep understanding, like a Greek chorus explaining the action throughout for the dullards like me, and peppering the story with discussions on irony, philosophy, classical music, writers and artists, showing off Murakami's own diverse and eclectic interests and learning; and there are concepts striding purposely about, both literally and metaphorically, directing the course of characters' lives and even scoring a hooker for one. It's a densely layered cake of a novel, filled with mythological jam and creamy erudition, drizzled with love and loss, passion and pain. It's a wonderful book, haunting, and both cerebral and visceral, bridging the divide between Eastern and Western literature. 

Maybe I've been too stupid in the past, too young and impatient to properly appreciate the work of Murakami. But then maybe he's being deliberately enigmatic? I say, what's a little bit of mystery between friends?


*Or at least we did, until Vintage gave him a new wardrobe.

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Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a …

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…