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A while back I buddy read Haruki Murakami’s collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman with Elsje, from Elsjelas. We decided to turn it into a buddy review as well — such a fun project! Elsje usually blogs in Dutch but she immediately agreed to do it in English because of Graasland readers! How cool is that?!
We hope you’ll enjoy our ‘interview’ as much as we did :)
Why did you read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman?
Elsje: Well, ever since I discovered Murakami, two years ago, I have been wanting to read his whole oeuvre. Not many authors have invoked this type of avidity in me, that’s for sure. And reading more only made it worse. So, this was my 10th Murakami… In addition, this was the most recent book published in Dutch (or any other language, for that matter). Last but not least, my friend Gnoe, also a true Murakami-addict, was looking for someone to read along with.
Gnoe: My reason for picking up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is quite similar. Shortly after reading my first (and long-time favorite) Murakami The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in 2004, I decided to read all books by the master. Up until now I’ve read most of his novels, but I kept postponing ‘BWSW’ because I’m not really a short-story-grrl. A buddy read with Elsje was exactly what I needed! And it didn’t hurt either that March was Murakami Month at In Spring it is the Dawn ;)
What did you expect?
Elsje: After nine Murakami’s I pretty much knew what to expect: a little supernatural, complicated relationships, unobtainable love, desperate searches for lost loves, death by freak accidents and suicides, music and food. I always seem to like the Murakami novels better than his short stories: Murakami needs to elaborate to be able to hold my thoughts in his train of thoughts. So my expectations were not skyhigh.
Gnoe: Not being a fan of short stories I expected to be a little frustrated ;) Just getting into a story and then… oops! — The End. Hate that. Of course I hoped Murakami would surprise me with some enchanting writing… But I’d already read After the Quake (twice) and it didn’t impress me. Only Super-Frog Saves Tokyo lingers in my mind because it was weirdly sympathetic (or sympathetically weird).
Did Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman live up to your expectations?
Elsje: Absolutely, and more than that. I have to say that some of his most beautiful short stories can be found in this volume!
Gnoe: Well, having such low expectations Murakami could hardly disappoint. And indeed, I loved Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman! But it’s not just because of my anticipations. The stories are wonderful: little gems that are not too short at all. Of course I couldn’t (nor shouldn’t) read them in one sitting, so I had a great time savoring Murakami’s fantasies. Each had that magical touch of the master: lovely language and amazing atmosphere.
What was your favorite story?
Elsje: That one is hard to answer… Browsing the book to make a choice, I find myself absorbed anew… Impossible to choose just one. I believe my favorite stories are:
- Birthday Girl in which a girl experiences a very strange encounter on the evening of her twentieth birthday
- The Mirror in which a man finds himself looking at himself in a mirror. Creepy story!
- The Seventh Man in which a man tells a group of people how, when he was a boy, an enormous wave took the life of his best friend. The man felt guilty for years because he had not tried to save him.
- The Year of Spaghetti. A man obsessively cooks spaghetti. A whole year of loneliness. Interrupted only by his own thoughts. And then: a telephone call.
- Toni Takitani: a beautiful story about a man, the son of a jazzmusician, who looses his spendthrift wife in a car accident. The clothes she leaves behind form the basis of a strange advertisement: Toni pays a girl to wear his wife’s dresses, so that he can get used to her being dead.
- The Ice Man: a girl falls in love with, indeed, an iceman. Heartbreaking story!
- Where I’m Likely to Find It describes the search for a lost husband. And when I say lost, I mean lost: he disappeared in between floors, going from the apartment of his wife to that of his mother in law.
- The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day tells the story of a writer who has been told by his father that every man is granted only three true loves. Waiting for that love he is afraid to commit. When he meets Kyrie, he is stuck in one of his stories, a story about a kidney-shaped stone.
Gnoe: I just can’t choose one favorite story either… I liked many of them, but two really stand out (both already mentioned by Elsje): The Seventh Man and The Ice Man. Hm. There’s a striking similarity between those titles, what does that say about me?! LOL
Why did it become a favorite?
Elsje: These stories are little gems: they harbor all the Murakami ingredients, and, moreover, are complete stories. That which I found lacking in short story volumes I read earlier – elaboration – was more than sufficient in these stories. I was mesmerized by especially The Mirror, The Ice Man, Where I’m Likely to Find It and The Kidney-Shaped Stone.
Gnoe: Explaining why I rather like a story is always the hard part, but I’ll try to make sense. Beware of SPOILERS though! Elsje already gave a brief summary of the narratives in relation to previous question so I’ll just skip to my thoughts on The Seventh Man. It brings to mind early school camps & scouting outings, where the — older — supervisors (often teenagers or in their early twenties — like I said: old ;) told scary stories in the evening. The confession of ‘the seventh man’ gives me the chills, but rings true. It’s really heartbreaking, but heartwarming at the same time. I could imagine finding myself in his shoes: shock-reflexes triggering self-preservation but being paralyzed to the point where you can’t warn your ignorant friend for the approaching killer wave. I understood his feelings of guilt although we all very well know he cannot be held responsible. The image of the little boy swallowed by the sea is equally grim and beautiful at the same time. That scene is so vivid, it will stay with me forever. And I just listened to the seventh man telling his story — imagine what’s before his mind’s eye…
The Ice Man is just a beautiful love story: romantic and tragic at once, the way it should. In fiction I mean, ’cause in real life we’d like to live happily ever after ;) What I admire about this story is that I completely and totally believed in the existence of such a creature as an ice man — and in our protagonist’s unconditional love for him.
Fun fact: in his introduction Haruki Murakami says about these stories:
‘Ice Man‘, by the way, is based on a dream my wife had, while ‘The Seventh Man‘ is based on an idea that came to me when I was into surfing and was gazing out at the waves.
Explanation of the title
Elsje: The title refers to the first story, in which one of the friends of the antagonist writes a poem about a blind willow, of which the pollen, when conveyed to the ear of a girl make her fall asleep.
Trivia: I found a video on YouTube by a band named Willow, called Blind of which I don’t believe it was an inspiration for Murakami…
Gnoe: Well, there’s nothing much to add to that, is there? Unless I could elaborate on how this title reflects the complete collection of short stories, but I don’t have a clue ;) I would also like to muse a little on the meaning and importance of the poem — but again I’m tongue-beaten. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it; frustration finally setting in! ;) The story goes that the long, long roots of the blind willows go deep into the ground where there’s complete darkness. (Darkness: No Good, right?) Then there’s a medium — those little flies — that transfer the doomed pollen to innocent people. Nothing you can do about it: we all got that vulnerable spot (our ears). And then you fall asleep: lead a passive life (not living to the fullest). But what does it all mean? I’m stuck.
Anyway, the darkness reminds me of another Murakami novel: Dance Dance Dance, in which the Sheep Man (the medium between the darkness and the human world) tells the main character he has to dance to keep living. And there’s a connection to After Dark of course, in which a girl falls into a deep sleep as well. But hey, book connections is a question further along!
Elsje: I really cannot think why Murakami specifically brought these stories together in this volume.
Gnoe: I don’t believe there’s an overall theme linking the stories in this collection either, except for some general elements that keep recurring in Murakami’s books. I’ll talk about that relating to next topic. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman probably just consists of stories not previously published outside Japan.
Links with other Murakami stories/books
Elsje: Plenty links can be found. For instance
- Blind Willow reminded me of Norwegian Wood, in which the main character forms a kind of triangular friendship with a girl and a boy. The boy kills himself and the girl suffers as a result of that. In addition, the memory of the antagonist is jogged by a song he hears on a plane. In Blind Willow, a similar triangular friendship existed in the past, and entering the hospital with his cousin brings memories back about their friendship.
- Birthday Girl reminded me of A Wild Sheep Chase, probably because of the mysterious events in a hotel. Room 604… Is that the same room number?? No, the room number in A Wild Sheep Chase is 406… Remarkably similar, though!
- New York Mining Disaster stirred a faint memory of South of the Border. I think that is because the main character owns a bar.
- Man-Eating Cats: I believe Murakami used part of this story to construct Sputnik Sweetheart.
- Firefly: this story contains the same early morning ritual as Norwegian Wood. In addition, the roommate is again spic and span. I don’t remember if in Norwegian Wood this roommate was a geography student, but I think he was…
- The brilliant pianoplayer in Hanalei Bay could be based on the same idea as Reiko in Norwegian Wood?
- The Kidney-Shaped Stone reminded me somewhat of Thailand, one of the stories in After the Quake.
Gnoe: First I’d like to say that I find it amazing how much Elsje remembers of those books! I guess my taking ages to read the complete works of Murakami has its downside…
I was thinking more of book relations through recurring elements, like ears, food, storytelling, young people dying (early) / entering new life stages and (unrequited or lost) love. Of course there are many more but these come to mind thinking of Blind Willow. Elsje considered them her expectations! (I’m referring to her answer on our second question ;) A Murakami theme I actually missed in this book is the QUEST.
I’d like to highlight some of the elements because they seem important (or beautiful) in any way.
- Ear: you’ve already heard how ears play a special role in the title story. But it’s not just the poem: the antagonist’s cousin has a hearing problem that was caused by a baseball that hit his right ear as a child. Again an innocent victim hurt by external causes. And it wouldn’t be a Murakami without a special earlobe; in Birthday Girl.
- Food: Next to the obvious titles The Year of Spaghetti and Man-eating Cats there’s a disgusting story called Crabs (another vivid image I can’t erase from my mind but I’ll spare you that), which shows us a meaningful insight on the topic of food.
“You know, eating’s much more important than most people think. There comes a time in your life when you’ve just got to have something super-delicious. And when you’re standing at that crossroads your whole life can change, depending on which you go into — the good restaurant or the awful one. It’s like — do you fall on this side of the fence, or on the other side.”
Yeah well, nice observation but it doesn’t help us much, does it? ;)
- Death (young people dying):
“A man’s death at twenty-eight is as sad as the winter rain.” (New York Mining Disaster)
And a quote from Firefly:
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” (How zen!)
- Storytelling: plenty of storytellers in this book, but there’s a special narrator in Chance Traveller. The story begins as follows:
“The ‘I’ here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story. [..] The reason I’ve turned up here is that I thought it best to relate directly several so-called strange events that have happened to me. [..] Whenever I bring up these incidents, say, in a group discussion, I never get much of a reaction. Most people simply make some non-committal comment and it never goes anywhere. [..] At first I thought I was telling the story wrong, so one time I tried writing it down as an essay. I reckoned that if I did that, people would take it more seriously. But no one seemed to believe what I’d written. ‘You’ve made that up, right?’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. Since I’m a novelist people assume that anything I say or write must have an element of make-believe.”
How mean ;) The author made me feel guilty for not believing his story! And it brought to mind that other book in which a (failed) writer appears with a familiar sounding name: Mr Hiraku Makimura in Dance Dance Dance!
Elsje: Just a few suitable musical links to listen to while reading the book…
- Chance Traveller: Star crossed lovers – Duke Ellington and Barbados – Charlie Parker
- New York Mining Disaster: New York Mining Disaster – The Bee Gees
- Firefly: Dear heart – Henry Mancini
Gnoe: Thank you for the music!
Anything else to say?
We didn’t believe it at first but Elsje discovered that dabchicks really exist! From now on they’re my favorite waterbirds ;)
Elsje: Mr. Gnoe kindly lent me a book on Murakami, written by his English translator Jay Rubin: Haruki Murakami and the music of words. I really recommend this book to Murakami-adepts. Rubin addresses some of the things Gnoe and I have commented on above, in addition, he touches a whole lot of things we seem to have missed. For instance, when answering question no. 8, Gnoe confessed to feeling guilty for not believing one of the stories. Well, Gnoe, let me ease your guilt: according to Rubin, Murakami did make this story up after all!
Gnoe: That’s good to hear Elsje! But as you know there’s something else that keeps bothering me… It’s probably supposed to, but I’d like to hear people’s opinions anyway! Even though it can be considered a spoiler… What is the wish Birthday Girl made? I wanna know! Do you have any ideas?
Elsje: My volume is a first print, published by Uitgeverij Atlas in 2009. Translation into Dutch was executed by Elbrich Fennema. I am not sure wether she translated the stories directly from Japanese or from the English translation Gnoe read.
Gnoe: My paperback is a first print, published by Harvill Secker in 2006 (copyrighted 2005 by Haruki Murakami). The stories are variably translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin; both seem to have done the job very well!
Elsje: I love the way in which the Dutch translations have been styled. Always bicolored, with a tiny picture at the border between the two colors, signifying one of the main themes. The cover of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Jerry Bauer, depicts the eyes and nose of, indeed, a sleeping woman.
Gnoe: I prefer my English copy to Elsjes’s Dutch because it’s more poetic, suitable to the stories. There’s a Japanese woman sleeping underneath a persimmon branch. She lying on a soft, white underground — obviously a mattress when you take a close look, but it evokes the image of snow. The woman is wearing a spring/summer dress or nightgown, so she has definitely been sleeping for quite some time! In Buddhism the persimmon stands for transformation. The picture is a combination of a modern photograph and a detail of the early nineteenth century painting Persimmon on Tree by Sakai Hoitsu. Yep, I like it ;) The book has a white background with lettering in silver, black and several reds — colors that ‘we’ (Western people) associate with Japan. A subtle detail is that the author name is embossed, not the title (as in the thriller genre).
Well, that’s a long description of something you can largely see for yourself at the beginning of this post ;) The combination of these colors on a white background is visible in the designs of other Murakami editions from the same publisher. Of course it’s a smart move to make them look like a ‘series’ because what bibliophile wouldn’t want to show of his collection of books by Murakami? It would be fun to compare several different Murakami ‘series’ someday! By the way: did you know there’s a group on Flickr with pictures of Murakami book covers?
Gnoe: Hey Elsje, now that our buddy review is ready — let’s make plans for a follow-up to see the Tony Takitani movie?!
Elsje: I think that would be an excellent idea! In addition we could buddyread 1Q84 which appears in print next week… #hinthint
Yep: real fans, that’s what we are ;)
Again, I am being a real lookgrrl this weekend. Yesterday some grrls came over to watch the 1967 movie In Cold Blood, which we read together in November (I posted my review of Capote’s book last month). I’m actually writing this Sunday Salon post on Friday, so I have no idea yet what I thought of it ;) And when my bookish things of the week go online, I’ll be making last minute preparations for a Dexter 3 marathon. Yay!
Btw I recently heard that the 2nd series and further are no real adaptations, so you can read the Dexter novels in addition to the serial. That would be fun! I guess I’ll wait until I’ve seen them all though, just to be on the safe side.
A week ago I finally finished the third volume of Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat. I decided I would read on instead of composing a Sunday Salon post. Good idea, eh?
I’m not sure if I’ll write a real review this time because I feel I’ve spent enough time on it already. I’ve learnt a great lesson though: I prefer to read plot driven books! So what am I doing reading The Pillow Book? Erm… not sure ;) I think it will be my last one for a long, long time! Now I’m quite confident that I really shouldn’t read Moby Dick. I’ll just follow my instincts ;) In recent years I’ve bargained with Max Havelaar or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, dragged myself along The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha — and it has been enough. Gee, that I had to become 40 to acknowledge such a thing ;)
Next to The Pillow Book I am also reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: a compilation of short stories by Haruki Murakami. I’m buddy reading with Else, who has started a while back so it’s good to have started catching up. I’m just a few pages in but it already seems to be another great book! :)
The Pillow Book
Arrived at entry: 31/21
Entries read since last time: 31
Ha! Not only have I finally started reading The Pillow Book (Het Hoofdkussenboek van Sei Shōnagon), I’m also completely caught up!
What do I think about it so far? I like it, but it is very patchy. Of course I expected that since it’s not just a diary but a journal containing Shōnagon’s musings and descriptions of (court) life in Heian Japan. And I appreciate reading about the beautiful clothes (although it is starting to be much of the same), seasonal traditions and festivals, but… Shōnagon and I are not befriended. I don’t like the way she seems to look down on people, even laughs at them — especially women. Could it be a competitive atmosphere between women around the Emperor and Empress? I’m in a bit of a hurry so I haven’t thought this through very well.
The Pillow Book is quit poetic and the footnotes and appendix give some interesting, sometimes necessary, explanatory information. But I do not look them all up because that would interrupt my reading too much.
I’m not Truman Capote so I’m not going to take as long as he did to write his book In Cold Blood and ponder 7 years over a review. Let’s just get it over with.
In Cold Blood is a faction novel: fiction based on facts. It tells the story of a horrible murder that happened in Holcomb, Kansas, on the night of Friday 13th 1959. Is that where our superstition about Friday 13th originates from? (No, it’s not.) That night, the much loved Clutter family was slaughtered in cold blood by two young man that had met in jail: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The book concentrates on the events leading up to the killing, the quest to find the murderers, their trial(s) and eventually their execution.
I’ve had the book on my shelf ever since I saw the biopic Capote in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an awesome leading role as the author. But I never picked it up for fear of being bored… Because of the movie I already knew what had happened, see. But I’m glad I no longer procrastinated! I buddy read it with the Boekgrrls in November 2009; exactly 50 years after the crime. And it was quite a powerful experience.
Knowing about the case was no problem at all: the events are revealed at the beginning of the story. That’s partly what’s good about the book: although the outcome is public knowledge, it is still interesting to read. Most times… it is a bit slow in some parts as well.
I admire how Capote skips around the actual murder for quite some time; getting us to know Herb Clutter, his wife Bonny, daughter Nancy and son Kenyon. Meeting Dick and Perry ‘warming up’ with some petty crimes. The author guides us through the days preceding and following the massacre, showing us the town and its people, following the detectives that are hunting down the killers. And then finally, the moment of horror.
In Cold Blood is supposed to be the first in a genre that is now well-known: ‘true crime fiction’. Capote was looking for inspiration as a writer when he read a small newspaper article about the case in Holcomb. It took him 5 years of ‘investigating’ and another 2 to finish the book. Its suggests to be factual (presenting letters, reports etc.), so many of the people involved criticized him for not being completely true to the case. Capote himself replied that it was obviously a novel = fiction.
An interesting question is why Capote was so immensely fascinated by this case that he worked on it for so many years. I recall from the movie that the author seemed extremely ‘attracted’ by the perpetrators, especially Perry. And the weird thing is that even I felt sorry for him at times — or even sympathy, no matter that he was such a ruthless killer. On of the strongest scenes in the book is Perry’s confession to KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) officer Albert Dewey.
*** spoiler alert *** The suggestion that Perry Smith would have suffered from schizophrenia is pretty convincing. Unfortunately for him at that time in Kansas state the Durham rule was not yet in practice. This act decrees that “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act is the product of mental disease or mental defect“. I must say that I’m against the taking of any life, which means I do not approve of the death penalty in any case – not even in a horrible crime like this.
Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee accompanied him to the Midwest as his research assistent. I recently read her most acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird which she wrote a few years after the Holcomb tragedy. It has nothing to do with this case, but it does deal with legislation and justice, telling the story of a murder courtcase in Alabama. Capote is depicted in the book as the boy Dill. But Lee is never mentioned in Capote’s In Cold Blood.
BTW from the movie Capote I had gotten the impression that the author himself would play a role in his book as well, which he does not…
Perry’s childhood during the Great Depression, his family travelling the country in search of work, also brings to mind John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I had read just before In Cold Blood:
‘Tex John Smith Family picking berries in Oregon. 1933′ Was the caption under a snapshot of four barefooted children wearing overalls and cranky, uniformly fatigued expressions. Berries or stale bread soaked in sweet condensed milk was often all they had to eat. [His sister] Barbara Johnson remembered that once the family had lived for days on rotten bananas, and that, as a result, Perry had got colic; he had screamed all night, while Bobo, as Barbara was called, wept for fear he was dying. [p.177]
Because of some quotes about the role of women, the story also made me think of the October Boekgrrls’ buddy read: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is set in fifties as well. Since I’m participating in the Women Unbound challenge, I’ll give this topic its own heading.
The role of women
Bonny Clutter was a very troubled housewife (according to this book = according to Capote? The people in the village? Her family?). Bonny herself believed that a pinched nerve was the cause of her problems. But to the contemporary reader it is obvious that she was depressed; which might be postnatal depression as is suggested in the book, but I rather believe her unfulfilling everyday life must have amplified it. In the past she had been living in Wichita for 2 weeks, having her own apartment and a job. Doctor’s orders. And it seemed to help…
[..] but she had liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value. [p.26]
So she turned into a woman that:
[..] had reduced her voice to a single tone, that of apology, and her personality to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease. [p.23]
Then there’s Nancy’s attitude to her father Herb Clutter.
‘[..] Can’t you make your father understand that?’ No, she could not. ‘Because,’ as she explained it to Susan, ‘whenever I start to say something, he looks at me as though I must not love him. Or as though I love him less. And suddenly I’m tongue-tied; I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.‘ [p.19]
I don’t have any intelligent thoughts about this but I do think it says a lot about the way women wore culturally imposed and emotional straitjackets at the time. It seems to have been engraved in our x-chromosomes — and the leftovers sometimes pop-up… Because although it’s 50 years later and I’ve been raised by a feminist mom, I’m embarrassed to say that the feelings described are not completely unfamiliar to me. (Can I get another Honest Scrap Award now, please? ;)
Other thoughts on the book…
I did think the Clutters were a bit too good to be true — except for poor Bonny of course, who was such a troubled, incompetent mother & wife :\
If I had not known the book was based on facts and written relatively short after the real events, I would have sworn to have come upon an anachronism:
[..] Nancy had cleaned up, put all the dishes in the dish-washer, [..] [p.49]
OMG my well-to-do grandparents (or should I say my grandma?) first got a washing machine about a whole decade later! Let alone I would know anyone who had a dish-washer at that time… But hey, I wasn’t born yet either ;)
In Cold Blood has made such an impression that I was reminded of it during several movies I saw shortly after. That happened because of the schizophrenia in the horror movie Bug and the bloody massacre in Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance.
But it doesn’t end here; the bookgroup read will result in a film follow-up real soon! Some Boekgrrls are coming over to watch the 1967 film In Cold Blood with me. It got 8 stars in the Internet Movie Databse so I’m having no worries about being bored because I already know the story ;)
Another mission accomplished: I crossed the 100 Mile Fitness Challenge finish line in the company of some Wandelgrrls on December 30th, 2009! * whispers * There were two more secret challengers among them… :))
The original hike from Garderen to Putten got canceled because of the bad weather forecast, but 5 of us decided to go on another hike anyway: NS-wandeling Utrechtse Heuvelrug, from Driebergen to Maarn. We made a pitstop in Austerlitz, where we had some hot chocolat! The weather was fine btw; none of the promised rain, snow or ice came in our way. Still, we didn’t make a detour for Austerlitz Pyramide. But we did pass Stoop Pavilion, where I ate my Herfst Hike Bento on my first walk for the fitness challenge ;)
Better still, I’ll probably update this post later on with a new total because I am going to end this year DANCING. And in the new year? I will join in the new 100 Mile Fitness Challenge! Because I have had fun :))
WISHING EVERYONE A WONDERFUL 2010!
For today’s Sunday Salon I would like to share my thoughts about The Gargoyle, published last year (2008). You’ll find other bookish news at the end of this post.
This picture of a gargoyle overlooking Paris was made by Simon & Vicki.
According to the online Merriam – Webster dictionary a gargoyle is…
1a : a spout in the form of a grotesque human or animal figure projecting from a roof gutter to throw rainwater clear of a building
1b : a grotesquely carved figure
2 : a person with an ugly face
I read Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle during the dark days before Christmas because it’s the December read of my virtual book group, the Boekgrrls. And it was an excellent time for reading this book! It’s an easy pageturner (no brainteaser), although pretty gruesome at times.
*** spoiler alert ***
*** read on at your own risk ***
The Gargoyle is a story about a vain, superficial ‘Greek God’ type of boy getting massively burnt in a car crash. Outwardly turning into a grotesque creature (like a gargoyle; even his voice gets distorted to a gurgling sound), he becomes more human than he ever was during the healing process — thanks to his new acquaintances in the hospital.
The story starts with the accident and I can’t imagine anyone NOT wincing at the visual description. It was hard to read on (and I know people who didn’t), but you’ll be rewarded if you do. After a while the story makes a turn when the protagonist gets a weird visitor while being hospitalized, Marianne Engel.
‘Engel’ is the Dutch (and German) word for ‘angel‘ btw.
It’s a book in the style of The Shadow of the Wind (by Carlos Ruiz Zafón) and The End of Mr. Y (Scarlett Thomas). But I think I like The Gargoyle best, probably because it appears to be the least ‘pretentious’. Even though there’s a lot in it: history, art, (medical) science, religion, language and — of course — literature.
The most literal connection is La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri. I wish I had read it before I got my hands on The Gargoyle, like I’ve been meaning to for so many years! I think it would have added something extra to the reading experience. Next to being a pageturner about redemption (sic), this was a good read for the season because the stories about the rings of Dante’s Hell reminded me of the three ghosts of Christmas in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
I have thought about whether the horrifying descriptions in The Gargoyle were ‘justified’ — if you can even question a thing like that. I mean it as opposed to sensationalism in trying to reach an audience that has grown used to violent movies and video games. The strange thing is that I can’t recall wondering about that while reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Iain Banks’s debut The Wasp Factory, both with their own gruesome scenes. Maybe because they happened later in the story, while The Gargoyle begins with a bad one. Like its narrator says:
Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story. [p.5]
Aside from that it’s just plainly well-written, I do think it is valid. I believe I now have a better understanding of what burn victims have to go through and indeed it grabbed my attention. Also it is important for the story as a whole; fire being the first association of Hell, and a medium for purification. Like water that washes away sin.
- Can the protagonist feel sorry for himself or does he only have himself to blame?
A fate like that can never be said to have been deserved. It is inhumane to think so. “And I am unanimous in that.” ;)
- How do I react to people that are deformed?
I wish I would react like I do in relation to ‘normal’ people, but the fact is that I get self-conscious. Not that I look away as if that person doesn’t exist, but I do wonder about what the best way to react is. Usually I tend to get over-friendly, which might not be a good way either :\
- The way the story is told it could either be true that the main character has been reincarnated, or not. So which is it?
Like the protagonist himself I believe it is all in the head of Marianne Engel. But still, I like the idea that it could be possible and maybe there are too many coincidences to doubt the truth… In example the hallucination about arrows that cause the car accident to begin with.
(“You do not want to believe.”)
- How about the moral dilemma that the main character did not call out to Marianne in the end, considering his own thoughts about the truth?
This is something I can’t put my finger on yet. I actually feel the need for a real life discussion to get my thoughts together on this point!
Like I said, The Gargoyle was a good read for these cold & dark winter days. But it won’t make my top-5 reads of 2009.
Andrew Davidson is a Canadian author who has lived an worked as an English teacher and website editor in Japan for several years. Look at the book’s website to read more.
Other bookish things
During X-mas I also finished reading Zijde (Silk) by Alessandro Baricco. And I received the last book I was awaiting, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (again a recommendation by Kazuo Ishiguro)… It scared the wits out of me! It is a real chunker: 898 pages in small print!
I had two really nice walks this week: about 15 km around Nijkerk with the Wandelgrrls and another 15 km with wlfr (a.k.a. @variomatic) from Delft to Zoetermeer for the first stage of our new hiking project: Groene Hart Pad. We finished our other project, 163 km of Utrechtpad, last July. It took us about three years and the Groene Hart Pad is just a bit longer: 192 km… I hope we will be able to finish that in three years as well!
The picture of two hiking boots was taken on the walk with wlfr… It was really weird to come across these perfectly good shoes standing idly ‘in the middle of nowhere’! Well nowhere: the name Groene Hart signifies the still ‘Green Heart’ of urbanized Holland; the area around Gouda where cows for Gouda cheese need to graze ;)
In just one hour I will be on a real Sunday Salon: a swap meeting of the Boekgrrls where we exchange copies that we no longer need. And talk about books of course. A LOT ;) I’m just bringing a small pile and plan to take home even less ;)
Biggest news of the week: yesterday I was surprised with the kind gift of Cloud Atlas — the music. I was at a loss for words when I got it. Especially since there was no reason to get any presents; my birthday is still a few months away and I am to old for Sinterklaas too ;) Thank you so, SO much dear Else! The music is really beautiful. David Mitchell is one of my all-time favourite authors (if you didn’t know yet ;) I will have to talk about the cd some more another time because otherwise I’ll be late for my meeting.
In the mail this week: The Decorative Art of Japanese Food Carving (Elegant Garnishes for All Occassions) by Hiroshi Nagashima, which I wrote about earlier. I just couldn’t resist ;) Even though I usually refuse to buy cookbooks that are not completely vegetarian.
Finished reading: The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata. And I am definitely going to read more of this acclaimed author! It was really beautiful. I guess both Gail Tsukiyama (The Samurai’s Garden) and Ellis Avery (The Teahouse Fire) were influenced by Kawabata. Next read? I haven’t decided yet!
I notice I’m recommending Strangers (Ijintachi to no natsu or 異人たちとの夏) by Taichi Yamada a LOT. Other readers’ feelings are mixed — some love it as much as I do, others find it disappointing. I read it in 2005 and immediately wrote an extremely enthusiastic email to my online bookgroup, the Boekgrrls. For now I am just going to recycle my Dutch review here on Graasland, but I hope to get around to translating it in English sometime! Maybe after I have finished my current read: Be With You by Takuji Ichikawa — which reminds me of Strangers. I don’t know why I’m thinking about Yamada’s book so much these days, I also wrote about it relating to my first ‘Hello Japan!‘ mini mission… I even feel like re-reading Sttrangers, something I really never do.
*** The following text is (mostly) in Dutch but you’ll find some English recommendations by famous authors at the end! ***
Ik heb weer een boek gelezen waarvan ik zeker weet dat hij hoog eindigt in mijn top-10 van dit jaar: Strangers, van Taichi Yamada. Een PRACHTIG boek! Het is mooi geschreven, spannend en ontroerend. Het is me lang niet gebeurd dat ik in de trein bijna zat te huilen…
Het is een slim concept: Hideo Harada, tv-scriptschrijver, verloor op 12-jarige leeftijd zijn ouders maar komt 36 jaar later een stel tegen dat sprekend op hen lijkt — even oud als zijn ouders toen ze verongelukten. Niet alleen is dat intrigerend, spannend (‘wat is hier aan de hand?’) en ontroerend, maar ook een erg aantrekkelijke gedachte voor lezers die zelf geen ouders meer hebben. Toch krijg je nooit het idee dat het een verkooptruc is: het is gewoon een mooi, integer verhaal.
Om jullie een indruk te geven hierbij een citaat over ouderschap:
They were there for me, and though by all appearances they spent the day between my visits busy with their own work and play, it seemed quite possible that all time other than the time they spent with me was for them a void in which neither of them actually existed.
Voor veel kinderen bestaan de ouders niet (meer) wanneer ze uit hun blikveld verdwenen zijn.
Ik wens te geloven dat dit de verhaal de schrijver werkelijk is overkomen :-) Niet voor niks lijkt de achternaam Harada sprekend op die van auteur Yamada en schreef hij verschillende filmscripts. Maar ik zeg ‘wens’, want werkelijk geloven doe ik het natuurlijk niet. De suggestie vind ik daarentegen geweldig. Dat Taichi Yamada verder maar weinig romans schreef draagt aan die illusie bij. Strangers is in ieder geval de enige die in het Engels vertaald is: in 2003, 26 jaar na uitkomen.
In de flaptekst wordt het boek vergeleken met Paul Auster en Haruki Murakami. De vergelijking met Paul Auster komt volgens mij door de vlotte, filmachtige stijl. Het verhaal leest als een trein — een echte pageturner. En dat hebben beide ook gemeen met Murakami; die schrijft (be)vreemde verhalen die je bij de kladden grijpen en meesleuren. Zijn hoofdpersonen zijn bovendien vaak enigszins passieve, geïsoleerde ‘einzelgangers’ die bovennatuurlijke dingen meemaken met onbekenden — strangers.
De titel van het boek, Strangers, slaat volgens mij op het idee dat het niet altijd logisch is wie vreemden en wie bekenden zijn. Het verhaal bevat verschillende aanknopingspunten. Als Hideo op bezoek is geweest bij zijn (vermeende) ouders nodigen ze hem opnieuw uit met de woorden
Don’t be a stranger, now.
En doordat deze vreemden zo op zijn ouders lijken, voelt hij zich geweldig vertrouwd bij hen — zo veilig heeft hij zich sinds zijn kindertijd niet meer gevoeld. Van zijn eigen ouders zou je kunnen zeggen dat ze vreemden zijn omdat ze op zijn twaalfde overleden – en in hoeverre ken je je ouders als kind op die leeftijd? Hideo is vervreemd geraakt van zijn eigen vrouw en zoon, terwijl een collega hem misschien het meest na staat van alle anderen. En dan de buurvrouw uit zijn flatgebouw, Kei: ook een vreemde die in enkele dagen volledig met zijn leven verweven is.
Tja, voor mezelf heb ik nog wat notities gemaakt maar die verklappen wellicht teveel of zijn juist te nietszeggend voor jullie ;-) Het moge duidelijk zijn dat ik dit boek van harte aanbeveel als spannend, lekker-weglezend kwaliteitsvoer of zoiets ;-) Dit boek is een parel! Lof dus ook voor de vertaler: Wayne P. Lammers, want zonder hem had ik er nooit kennis van genomen en het is zijn taal. Nu allemaal naar de boekhandel om Strangers te kopen, zodat Yamada’s roman uit 1992 ook vertaald zal worden! Ik denk dat ik voor het eerst van mijn leven maar eens een bedelbrief aan de uitgever moet schrijven :-)
PS. Voor wie mij nu nog niet gelooft typ ik hier bij hoge uitzondering nogmaals de aanbevelingen van twee gewaardeerde schrijvers over.
Highly recommended. A cerebral and haunting ghost story, which completely wrong-footed me.
Bret Easton Ellis:
An eerie ghost story written with hypnotic clarity: quickly paced, intelligent and haunting with passages of acute psychological insight into the relationship between children and their parents, which is also what makes this fascinating book so moving.
Let’s start this Salon post with a confession: I have been a bad grrl and bought 3 more books for myself!
- I Am a Cat (Natsume Soseki)
- The Old Capital (Yasunari Kawabata)
- The Housekeeper and the Professor (Yoko Ogawa)
I’ve got a great excuse though: I joined the new online Japanese Literature Book Group and Read-along at In Spring It Is The Dawn — and these are the first books on the agenda. I am really looking forward to it!
Another fun thing to do over there is this months Hello Japan! mini mission:
Read or watch something scary, spooky, or suspenseful, and Japanese of course!
Since I have enough to read already I decided to rent a movie that has been on my wishlist for a long time now: Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara), by Hideo Nakata. You might have heard of the American remake with Jodie Foster, but I prefered to see the original. I’ll tell you why in my upcoming review post! It was a nice Friday night activity to surprise Mr Gnoe with, especially with the stormy autumn weather that has set in :)
But back to bookish things. For the last three months of 2009 I am also participating in the Set It Yourself Challenge (SIY) #10. Just to keep the pressure on my challenges: I have listed all 5 books I need to read before the end of this year:
- The Chosen (Chaim Potok)
- The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
- The Pillowbook (Sei Shonagon)
- The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch)
- The Old Capital (Yasunari Kawabata)
I have joined this Bookcrossing challenge before in 2008 and 2009; succeeding twice, failing once…
Speaking of Bookcrossing: I made a first attempt at the Bookcrossing monthly readathon. But instead of 24 I read for 15 hours and 8 in the last week of September. So technically I failed but I am actually quite proud of the result because it was an awfully busy week. You can read about my thoughts concerning the readathon in Friday’s post. Now I am really looking forward to the autumnal 24 hour read-a-thon of October 24th! I am already making a list of books and snacks to lock myself in with :)
Partly thanks to the readathon I finished more books in September than I usually read in a month:
- Vlinder in de wind (Butterfly in the Wind) by Rei Kimura (reviewed)
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (review pending), #4 on the list of Banned and Challenged Classics
- Het pauperparadijs (Pauper Paradise) by Suzanna Jansen (no review planned)
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (review pending)
Current book: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Wednesday’s update post will tell you why I picked this book. I am ‘buddy reading’ with two Boekgrrls: MaaikeB and Manon, so one of these days I should mail them my thoughts so far!
Another exciting thing going on this week is BAFAB! Buy A Friend A Book. One of my favourite reads of the past years is on its way to a long time friend that is on a busy schedule at the moment. I’ll give the book a chance to arrive for a few days longer, so I can’t say more! ;)
Do you BAFAB?
Challenges / Bookgroups etc.
Progress update on my challenges that I have not yet mentioned above:
- Japanese Challenge (Aug 2009-Mar 2010): read and reviewed 1/1
(✔ finished, but intent on reading more)
- Classics Challenge (2009, entree level): read 3/6, reviewed 0/6
- What’s In A Name Challenge (2009): read 6/6, reviewed 3/6
- Personal 2008-2009 Challenge: read 8/12
- SIY Challenge #10 (Oct-Dec 2009): read 0/5
Current Bookgroup reads:
- Boekgrrls September book: Away, by Amy Bloom (read and reviewed in Dutch on the mailing list)
- Boekgrrls October book: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates (read, to be reviewed)
- Japanese Literature Book Group for November 30th: The Old Capital, by Yasunari Kawabata (TBR)
- Japanese Literature Read-along for November 15th: I Am A Cat (part I), by Natsume Soseki (TBR)
That’s it for now. I need to get up my review of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird a.s.a.p. so that I can send this Bookcrossing book along to the next reader. Better get on with it!
On the first day of this Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW) I would like to turn the spotlights on Elsje las. Unfortunately for international readers, Elsje writes in Dutch (her blog title can be translated into Elsje read). What I like about her reviews is that they are short — but to the point. And I really admire the discipline Elsje shows in reviewing all the books she has read in a steadfast pace… I will never be able to do both of these things! ;)
Of course in admiring her blog it helps immensely that I like her taste in books :) Among her most recent reviews are Man in the Dark by Paul Auster, Sputnik Sweetheart (Haruki Murakami), and Hesse’s Narziss & Goldmund. Need I say more???
ETA: I must be clairvoyant! LOL
I didn’t know all book bloggers were going to post about this topic, but of course it is a logical start of the Book Blogger Appreciation Week :)