Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

What happens when people open their hearts?”
They get better.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 269 pages.
Read from February 7, 2017 to February 14, 2017.

Norwegian Wood is the novel that brought Murakami international fame and has become one of the books that he is best known for.  It set a standard for his future novels in terms of themes, overall feel, and characters.

Toru is a young man about to enter college in Tokyo.  However, he has had trouble dealing with the sudden and accidental death of his close high school friend. As a result, he is drawn to the beautiful Naoko, who was his best friend’s girlfriend.  Toru becomes devoted to Naoko as the two of them try to deal with the death of someone they each cared deeply about. While a dedicated student, Toru becomes invariably lonely and lost during his university studies. He walks with Naoko, even if it means not speaking a word, to help deal with this emptiness.

However Naoko is struggling much more with the realities of adult life than Toru and eventually withdraws from society to an outlying facility to help her deal with her own sadness and emptiness. Continuing to stay devoted to Naoko, he visits and writes her as often she will allow. However, as Naoko continues to retreat into her own world with little signs of improvement, Toru finds himself drawn to a smart, feisty and rebellious student name Midori. Toru is still unrelenting with his devotion to Naoko, yet he has to make a choice. Stay in a dream world with Naoko with the hope that she will love him, or move forward with Midori?

This book is about loneliness and grief. Every one of the characters in the novel has dealt with or is dealing with some form of loss and the book is the outcome of how each of them deal with it.  In typical Murakami style, the book is evocative and dreamlike, as Murakami soothes his reader’s senses with his visceral and philosophical approach to storytelling.

I am adding this book to the top five favourites of my Murakami pile.  The plot is simple and easy to follow. The feelings of each of the characters practically seep out of the pages making for a very enjoyable read. The only part I struggled with was with Toru’s specific intimate moment with Naoko. He clearly took advantage of her and he knew it, resulting in Naoko’s own downward spiral inwards. Naoko is in such rough state for most of the book that it is hard to deal with her fragility and what feels like, Toru’s betrayal. Despite, the unfolding events Toru does eventually determine that Naoko will never love him, despite him wish it, and as a small resting punishment he is left with those memories and lingering regrets of what would never be.

As much as I enjoy Murakami, I am coming to see that the pretense to the majority of his books is very similar. Here is the formula I have come up with for making a Murakami novel:

Male main character – Always a man, somewhere between 20 and 30 and he will experience some sort of existential crisis loosely based in reality.

Female characters – There are female side characters but they are always sexualized and often love interests. They are also often portrayed as weak, indecisive, needy, or mentally unstable. Though not all of the time, as there are few exceptions to this rule. For example, Aomame from 1Q84; she is remarkably resilient and strong. However, the plot of that story is shared equally with Tengo, who is a stereotypical Murakami male character, with whom Aomame is the love interest.

However having said that, all of the characters, even the main character, sometimes give the feeling of being gender neutral. This is perhaps how female readers can still relate to the main character without hating the portrayal of the women in Murakami’s stories.

Sex – There is a ton of it. The main character will have sex with one of these said female side characters, or perhaps more than one of them, with at least one of the acts being morally questionable. The act is often meant to show some deeper philosophical meaning in relation to the plot or the main character’s journey.

Food – There will be many, many paragraphs about cooking food.  It is alway something that is really healthy but sounds down right delicious. It is often followed with beer.

Cats – a Murakami story would not be complete without mentioning cats. Either the cat is part of the main story or they are at least a part of an evocative scene when the main character is reflecting on his said existential crisis.

To be a Murakami fan, this formula has to be one that you’re comfortable with or at least willing to accept to some extent. I mean, besides the majority of his novels providing thought-provoking content, there is always the sex scenes. And cats.

Returning to Norwegian Wood, this book is the start of the style that Murakami fans love, so it is a must-read.  Whether you are interested in his writing style or not, this book is also iconic, so if you don’t have it on your to-read list you better add it!

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

“When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and go to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.”

Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?”

4/5 stars.
Read from October 01 to 18, 2016.
Paperback, 607 pages.

Murakami, this guy, he just gets me. His writing speaks to me and I can’t say that there are any other authors doing that for me right now. Love him or hate him, the man is just as much a philosopher as he is writer. Please also appreciate the fact that Murakami manages to talk about cats, food, and sex in practically all of his novels. No wonder I like this guy! Prophetic, imaginative and insightful, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a classic piece of Murakami philosophical fiction.

Toru Okada lives an unremarkable life.  However, shortly after he quits his job, with no other prospects lined up, things take a sad and strange turn. It begins after Toru is asked to look for his wife’s cat. Shortly thereafter, Toru’s wife goes missing too in which Toru is thrown into a netherworld in order to find her, the truth about himself, his marriage, and the complexities of human connection and identity. Toru encounters a facade of interesting people, including a psychic prostitute who is trying to help him find his wife, his wife’s rancorous brother with a political agenda, a WWII veteran who has stories of torture that will make your skin crawl, as well as a pleasant, yet strangely morbid teenage girl.

The book explores some deep themes on loneliness, loss, hitting rock bottom (in this case, figuratively and literally) as well as trauma. Toru spends extensive amounts of time alone after his wife is gone, especially at the bottom of a well. Every single character in this book battles with loneliness and their interactions with Toru help them come to terms with it. Each character also learns more about themselves and how it is that we connect with others in the process. This is a persistent theme across all the books I have read so far by Murakami.

Murakami is so descriptive. There were scenes in this book that absolutely shattered me. Especially the horrific scenes he laid out about WWII. Let’s just say a man gets his skin peeled off, slowly. It was horrific.  The story comes full circle as Toru investigates the whereabouts of his missing wife.

“When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and go to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.”

The first half of this book had me on the edge of my seat and had the book remained that riveting, I would have happily have given this book a 5 star rating. Not that the last half was bad, it just slowed down a little bit. So the first half gets 5 stars and the second half gets 3 stars for an overall rating of 4 stars.

This books is a refreshing read for those that may be having a bit of a hard time, for those that know what it is like to hit rock bottom, or for those that know what it means to be lonely, so pretty much all of us.

 

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

I could talk about the recent US presidential election but books seem a little less surreal now. Even for one by Murakami.

Because the world is a hard and peculiar place. We all wear masks to survive.

3/5 stars.
Read from September 16 to 18, 2016.
Mass Market Paperback, 244 pages.

I think this is probably the shortest Murakami novel I have seen so far. Murakami is notorious for writing thick tomes so this was nice surprise. I picked up this novel at the Hong Kong Book Fair a few months back. That was quite the event. I don’t think I have ever been in a venue that held so many books. It was awesome. While this novel isn’t the best that Murakami has to offer, it was still an intriguing read.

Mari sits in a cafe drinking coffee and reading a book. It is the middle of the night and yet this is an all too familiar occurrence for her. She can’t sleep and she doesn’t want to be at home. So she wanders and finds a place to read. Her sister, the pretty one, Eri, has been asleep. Not in a coma, but asleep. She gets up to eat, shower and sleep and yet somehow no one ever sees her do it. Mari has never been close to her sister. Mari is plain, yet smart and practical, but her sister gets most of the attention from others because she is beautiful. One evening, Mari is joined by Takahashi, an acquaintance of her sister’s. This sets off a peculiar string of events involving a hotel manager who is escaping her past, a beaten Chinese prostitute, and her cold perpetrator. With every character in this book, they are pretending to be something that they are not for the sake of their own survival.

The whole novel unravels over the period of one night. Each chapter is a different hour of the same evening that switches back and forth between Mari’s scenarios and the peculiar setting of her sleeping sister Eri. I don’t fully comprehend everything that was happening to Eri but the chapters were tense and interesting.

Eri, I believe, is asleep because she is tired of being a person that is not truly her, but the expectation that everyone thinks she should be. Eri confides in Takahashi that she wishes she was closer to Mari, a fact that surprises Mari when she hears it. Both of the sisters are going through similar struggles, yet each of their own personal facades keeps them from each other.

This book is a quick surreal read that brinks on the mystery genre. If you’re looking for a book to devour in one sitting that you will find yourself thinking about long after reading, check out this book.