Book Notes 5: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

I read a review of this book in The Guardian years ago (this one, I think). It sounded absolutely fantastic, and I’ve wanted to read it ever since. But I only got round to buying it recently.

I was aware, of course, of the danger of approaching a work with unreasonably-raised expectations, so I tried not to. You can’t make yourself think “This won’t be very good,” when you actually think, “This should be pretty good.” The trick, therefore, is to convince yourself to have a slight seed of doubt. I’m not totally sure how well that can ever work, though.

I did enjoy the book, however: it starts with a light, easy style, and has an endearing central character in Sumire.

The unnamed (though referred to in the back-cover blurb as “K”) narrator is a slightly-annoying, madly-but-unrequitedly in love with Sumire figure. They met at university. Sumire dropped out to write; the narrator went on to become a schoolteacher.

Shortly after the start of the book, Sumire, who has until then seemed largely devoid of any sexual or romantic feelings, falls in love with an older, married, woman; who then gives her a job as her PA. Sumire’s love is also unrequited; indeed, unspoken.

It’s when they go on a business trip to Europe, which culminates in a holiday on a Greek island, that something strange happens.

It is a curious book. It’s hard to work out what is supposed to have happened to Sumire. It is, until then, so much a realist novel that it is hard to believe that the apparently-fantastic, dream world sequence that is all the explanation we get, is meant to be taken literally.

Then when the narrator, having gone to Greece to help find out what happened to Sumire, returns home to Japan, there is an apparently-unrelated section concerning one of his pupils. He has been having a sexual relationship with the pupil’s mother, so when the boy gets into trouble, she calls him to help. This section really appears to have no connection to the rest of the story,, and no bearing on what happened to Sumire.

So while I enjoyed reading it, on looking back over it, it seems that it is deeply flawed. Or maybe I’m flawed, because I failed to fully understand it.

I expected that it would inspire me to read more of his work, but it hasn’t: or not yet, at least.

Book Notes 4: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog since the time when he was writing this book — as, I’m sure, have most of us, what with his site being the number one hit on Google when you search for ‘neil’.

But I hadn’t actually read the book until now. I had read the first chapter online, and I had an idea roughly what it was about: real gods (maybe all gods) walking the Earth in the present day.

And it’s a stormer of a book. The pages just keep turning, the quotes are quotable (girl-Sam’s “I believe” speech is particularly fine) and myths are mashed up in glorious style.

It’s shortcomings are, perhaps, that it slows down a bit too much in the middle section; and Wednesday and Shadow make perhaps too many visits to down-at-heel gods without anything very specific happening during them. It reads like a road movie in places (which is fine), and it would probably make a good one.

There are surprises right up to the end, though, and I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future.

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Book Notes 3: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s third novel is his best so far; and it’s strange. Really, really strange.

It is the story of a man whose father is a mountain and whose mother is a washing machine. These are not metaphors.

Or perhaps they are. If so, though then the whole book is a metaphor, and I’m not entirely sure for what.

Since Alan (or Adam, or Albert, or Aaron) is very different from other people (he doesn’t have a navel, for one very minor thing) it could be seen as about alienation. Alan, however, is not particularly alienated.

His brothers are a different matter, though.

Each of the five is given a name starting with the next letter of the alphabet after the previous brother’s; but they are not called constantly by this name, either by each other or by the narrator. Instead, they are called by a seemingly-randomly-chosen name starting with ‘their’ letter of the alphabet. There seems no real purpose to it. If it is intended to emphasise the brothers’ ‘otherness’, then it does so: but not enough.

As well as that, each brother has a unique characteristic. Billy, Buddy, Bob (etc) can see the future. Charlie is an island. Davey is twisted, damaged and dangerous. And Ed, Fred and George are a sort of composite being, living inside each other like Russian dolls.

Not surprisingly, one of the subplots centres on one of Cory’s real-world interests: building a free, community-supported wireless network across the city (his native Toronto, in this case). In a way, that subplot doesn’t really mesh very well with the fantastical story: but it does provide a backdrop for it, and it shows that Alan has a life outside of his weird family.

And there’s a woman with wings. Read it for yourself. It’s quite amazing, and like his other books, available for free download under a Creative Commons licence.

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Book Notes 2: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Yes, and only a day after the last one.  It took me a bit longer than that to read it, mind you.

A science-fiction book that was nominated for the Booker: amazing. And have no doubt about it: this is a science-fiction book. Just as Nineteen Eighty Four is; and Orwell’s masterpiece is perhaps the best reference point for Cloud Atlas. The appearance of O’Brien’s Goldstein‘s book within Winston Smith’s story may well have been a model for Mitchell’s multiply-embedded stories.

And like Nineteen Eighty Four, Cloud Atlas is ultimately a bleak vision, though it contains many life-affirming moments on its way.

The interleaved narratives spread across the history and future history of civilisation, from Victorian missionaries ‘civilising’ the ‘savages’ of Polynesia, to the Hawaian islanders after the fall of civilisation, trying desperately to hold on to the ‘Smart’ of the ‘Old’uns’.

Each story contains a reference to the the one in which it is immediately embedded, and there are echoes and references across various of the layers: probably many more than I got on a first reading.

Mitchell’s command of the different styles is good, though there are one or two places where it slips, and where you wonder how reliable the narrators are.

I found it slow to get going, though: at first I put this down to not being terribly engaged with the Victorian opening section. Then I thought it was just pacing: the speed of the segments increases, it seems to me, as you work towards the centre.  But on the way back out I found the final section, back in the Victorian journals, just less interesting than any of the others.  I find the idea of historical novels deeply uninteresting, so we probably have a common theme there.

Also related to the “is it genre” question is this curiousity: in the section entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, the title character’s dead father is called Lester. Lester Rey. Sounds an awful lot like Lester del Rey, the science fiction writer and editor. Of, course, it may mean nothing: but writers don’t choose characters’ names for nothing, and it sems likely to me that you would at least check that the major characters’ names don’t relate to any real people.  So perhaps Mitchell is suggesting something.

But all of this matters little. What does matter is that this is a damn fine book.

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Book Notes 1: A Dance to the Music of Time vol 1, by Anthony Powell

This year I’m going to try to record all the books I read, and write mini-reviews of them. I’m not quite going for the "50 Book Challenge" thing, because I doubt that I can actually manage one a week, what with one thing and another. But I ought to be able to get through a few more than last year, since I’m not doing an OU course.  And in fact it’s nearly the end of January, and I have already read three books and started a fourth: so, not too bad, then.  I’m just a bit behind on posting about them.

For Christmas I got volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time: A Question of Upbringing.  I started reading it on Christmas day, so we’ll have to allow the year to start and end there.

I have been hearing quite a lot about Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume masterpiece recently: there was a whole Radio 4 programme about it, which I heard bits of twice. And I notice John Peel’s Desert Island Discs listing on Wikipedia, recently, and Dance was the book he chose.

So I was keen to read it, despite having seen the TV adaptation a few years ago, and thought it seem very shallow and superficial.

Having read the first volume I find that it’s not at all surprising that a few hours of TV that purported to convert the whole twelve volumes seemed shallow. This thing is dense. The first volume isn’t that long, but it only covers a couple of years of the narrator’s life: the end of school, some time in France, and the start of his university career.

Despite it being set in the years between the first and second World Wars — a time that is almost a century away from us, now — and the fact that the characters are almost exclusively privileged, public-school and Oxbridge types, their concerns aren’t so far from those of my own student days.  Which isn’t so surprising. I suppose: we’re all people, and the state of being a student has always been a rarefied step away from real life.

Anyway, I look forward to working my way through the other eleven volumes.  Perhaps I’ll do them all this year.