Category Archives: General Fiction

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

People have been recommending this author to me for a long time. One of my reading goals in 2017 was to try to read authors of more diverse backgrounds, including books published in languages other than English, and this one has been on my list for a while. The edition I have is actually part of the Vintage 21 Rainbow set with tinted edges, however because this one is white, strictly speaking the page edges aren’t coloured. Either way, it looks good on my shelf and it was high time I read it.

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“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami is a magic realism novel set in Japan in the 1980s. The story is told from the perspective of Toru Okada, a man who has recently quit his job as a law clerk and who stays at home keeping the house while his wife Kumiko works. When Kumiko asks him to search for their missing cat, named after Kumiko’s brother Naburo Wataya, Okada begins to have strange encounters and telephone calls with some very unusual people. Okada begins to realise that the missing cat is the least of his problems.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s quite lengthy, so I won’t go into too much more detail about the plot. It is also a translated novel, with the English by Jay Rubin, so events aside, my review will necessarily have to be based on Rubin’s interpretation. Anyway, first of all, this is a fascinating book. Okada is quite a subversive protagonist whose passive and domestic ways are almost a rebellion against the expectation of both the reader and those around him. Despite the criticism he receives from others in the novel, I found him to be a refreshing character. Like a kind of magnet, people are drawn to him and compelled to tell him their life stories and in listening, he begins to draw out themes and parallels that apply to his own problems.

This is a story that is very rich in motifs and imagery. There is quite a large cast of characters who each take turns telling bits and pieces of their own stories, and it is a very complex novel. It becomes increasingly complex towards the end as the supernatural elements begin to become more prominent although Murakami manages to maintain a reasonable level of coherence throughout. I found that this book had quite a Roald Dahl-esque tone about it, no doubt due to the translator’s own style, with lots “terrific” thrown about that ultimately I felt suited the story.

Writing this review is tricky because while it is a complex, compelling story – is that enough for it to be a good book? There were quite a few times where I felt like there was a little too much crammed into this book, and some of the delicacy and subtlety of the earlier chapters was lost towards the middle – especially Lieutenant Mamiya’s recollections of his involvement in the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo in World War II. It is quite a long book, and there a lot of strands of story to keep abreast of as it progresses – some of which, like Creta Kano’s, seem to fizzle out without resolution.

An incredibly intricate story with a myriad of characters, it was at times a difficult read but has definitely left me wanting to read more of Murakami’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Vintage 21 Rainbow

Slaughterhouse Morning

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

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“Slaughterhouse Morning” by Nyla Nox is the third novel in the “Graveyards in the Banks” series about Nyla, a humanities graduate who is forced to work for the Most Successful Bank in the Universe to keep afloat in a hostile economy. Part satire, part thriller and part exposé, this book explores the dark corporate underbelly of the banking world and of those who are stuck working in it.

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t ordinarily jump into a series without having read the first books, but I was assured that you can read this book as a standalone and I largely agree. Without too much detail, the reader can extrapolate that despite her role in previous corporate restructures, Nyla has managed to keep her job at the bank. Working civilly alongside her ex, Nyla is instead focusing her energy on secret hotel liaisons with a high-flying businessman referred to only as the Bagman. However, with banking collapse looming on the horizon caused by people like the Bagman, Nyla’s job, relationship and future are all in jeopardy.

The author clearly draws on her own lived experiences evident in the detail of the workplace and the use of euphemisms in place of actual names. Nox has a clear, honest writing style and has unique and refreshing ways of describing people and their relationships. Admittedly, this is quite a long book, and there were times where the narrator’s description of the office environment and internal monologues about ethical dilemmas felt like they could have been abbreviated.

Nevertheless, this was an interesting book that gave a lot of insights into the politics, morality, conflict and insecurity of working on a temporary contract for a big business.

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My Brilliant Friend

I first really heard about this book when there was a media storm about the author’s real identity being revealed. The series had received a lot of acclaim, either in spite of or because of the author’s use of a pseudonym, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

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“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is a historical novel set in a poor, post-war neighbourhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Playing and going to school in this grim era, blonde Elena meets the naughty and sullen Lila who dazzles the teachers with her intelligence. After a cautious beginning to their friendship, Elena finds in Lila the inspiration and competition to succeed at school. However, as the two girls become teenagers, their lives begin to take increasingly different paths.

I think this is one of those books where my expectations just didn’t match up to my experience. It’s translated from Italian, and the translation seemed perfectly fluid. Ferrante manages to convey a tense, sepia tone to the novel that evolves as the economic situation in Naples improves. Ferrente’s real strength however is shining a light on the gender inequality of the time. Elena has to be consistently excellent at school to be allowed to share the same opportunities as boys the same age who are simply mediocre. I also thought that Ferrente handled Elena’s developing sexuality as a young woman very convincingly.

The uneasy but intense relationship between Elena and Lila is presented as the highlight of the book. The author spends a lot of time making many pointed observations about Lila and her life from the perspective of Elena, who is constantly comparing herself to her friend. However, I felt like a large proportion of the novel is laying groundwork for something that ultimately doesn’t even happen in this book. Although the focus of the novel appears to be Lila and how her upbringing shapes her life, I actually found the protagonist and narrator Elena far more interesting.

“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a series of four novels, and while I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’m compelled to read any more of the books. Ultimately, this book is fine, good even, but I just didn’t find it brilliant.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

A Little Life

Content warning: basically everything but especially self-harm, trauma, abuse, child abuse, suicide ideation

I had this book recommended to me as a book that will “change your life”. That’s a pretty big statement, so I added it to my list of eBooks that I loaded up onto my Kobo before I left. When I was sitting in the aeroplane seat, deciding what to read on my trip home, I remembered this book and felt that I wanted to read something profound. I decided I would make this my tenth and final book on my five weeks of American literature.

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel about four close friends: Malcolm who is an architect, JB an artist, Willem an actor and Jude a lawyer. At the beginning of the story, set in New York after the four have graduated university, the reader spends a relatively equal amount of time with each character learning about their backstory. However, when Jude’s turn comes, it becomes apparent that his friends know almost nothing about his life before he started university. Even to Willem, who is closest to Jude and shares a one-bedroom apartment with him, Jude’s background largely remains a mystery; including how he sustained a car injury that resulted in a noticeable limp and chronic pain. As the story progresses, the narrative becomes less about the group of four and more and more about Jude’s past life and his struggle to overcome it.

This is a really difficult book to review. On one hand, Yanagihara is a beautiful writer who brings to life four complex characters by detailing the idiosyncrasies of each of their personalities. I think this book is a very powerful exploration of love, trust and relationships and Yanagihara focuses particularly on male relationships: parent/child, lover/lover and wholesome/toxic. I think she also tackled the issues of disability, chronic pain, self-harm and suicide ideation excellently and captures the helplessness that can be felt both by the individuals who are suffering and their loved ones who don’t know how best to support them.

However, as this book becomes more and more about Jude, as engrossing as it is, it does start to feel a lot like misery lit. After a while the suffering inflicted on Jude begins to feel utterly incessant as Yanagihara both gradually reveals the litany of abuses he has suffered over his lifetime and introduces new struggles as he ages. This book actually reminded me a bit of a much better written, much darker adult version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with Jude like a much more traumatised, adult version of Charlie. It’s a long book, and after awhile, especially when the other three characters start to fade into the background a little, it’s hard to see where exactly Yanagihara is going with it.

There were also couple of things that were a bit confusing to me. Firstly was the almost complete absence of meaningful female relationships in Jude’s life. Although there were some peripheral women, they all took secondary roles. I understand that the point of the book was to explore male relationships in all their forms. However, given Jude’s many negative experiences with men over his lifetime, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief that he wouldn’t form any kind of relationship with women. Another thing that wasn’t really very clear is how exactly the four friends all end up becoming extremely successful in their chosen fields. They sort of weren’t, and then they were, without any clear path between and the reader just has to take it as a given.

Finally, I felt a bit like the efforts of Willem and Jude’s doctor to get Jude to see a psychiatrist were at best inaccurate and at worst potentially deeply harmful. Jude doesn’t connect with the psychiatrist he’s referred to, and instead of finding him a psychiatrist he does connect with, his friends just keep trying to get him to go back to the same one. Having worked in mental health, I just question the impact that this might have on readers for whom the takeaway message seems to be that counselling is futile. I understand that survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse can take decades to disclose, but that doesn’t mean that seeing someone is pointless. Yet I think there’s a tension here, similar to the one I discussed in “13 Reasons Why“, between raising awareness about mental illness by depicting it dramatically and potentially having a negative impact on readers who may themselves be struggling with their mental health.

I can see why this book was a Man Booker Prize finalist. It’s well-written, gripping and, particularly with respect to disability and chronic pain, groundbreaking. However, I did feel a bit like Yanagihara subjected Jude to basically every single negative experience a person could conceivably live through and ultimately it just felt relentless.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

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Of Mice and Men

After finding out that despite being dead for nearly 50 years that this author’s books are still in copyright (something I talk about on my latest podcast episode), I had decided not to buy any of his books for my five weeks of American literature. However, while visiting friends in California, they actually had a copy of this book on their shelf. When I saw how short it was, I thought I’d better give this classic a go and I managed to read it in an afternoon.

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“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck is a novella set in California during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The story follows two men, George and Lennie, who are travelling workers trying to save money to buy their own piece of land one day. Lennie is incredibly big and strong, however has an intellectual disability that means he struggles considerably. George serves as his somewhat reluctant guardian who has managed to line up a new job for them both after things went badly at the last one. To keep Lennie focused, George tells and retells him about the house they will own together one day and the animals they will keep. However, when they arrive at the new farm they are faced with lots of new men and the Boss’ aggressive son Curly. With all the new distractions, George struggles to keep Lennie in check.

This isn’t going to be a long review because while this wasn’t a long book, it was an excellent book. Steinbeck has crafted the perfect novella. He lays the foundation to create a story at once unforeseeable and inevitable. He touches on lots of themes in a very short time including friendship, disability and poverty. Even though we are only with the characters for a very short time, I was left with a real sense of wanting to know much more about them.

A real highlight during my five weeks of American literature and a book I’m extremely glad I got the opportunity to read this classic.

 

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Bastard out of Carolina

Content warning: child abuse.

My bestie lent me this book ages ago, and knowing that I was travelling to America, I thought I would take the opportunity to add it to my five weeks of American literature. Again, I completely forgot to take any photos of the book while actually in America, but I was reading it while I was in south California, so have a photo of a cactus to set the mood.

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“Bastard out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison is a novel about a young girl called Ruth Anne Boatwright, known to everyone as Bone, who is born to an unmarried teenage mother Anney in South Carolina. Due to South Carolina’s laws about legitimacy, Bone’s birth certificate is stamped with the word ‘bastard’, despite her mother’s multiple attempts to change it. When Bone is still small, mother marries, has another daughter and is widowed in short order – now a single mother with two small girls. Despite the circumstances of her birth, and becoming increasingly aware of her ‘white trash’ status in the community, Bone cherishes her Boatwright family, including her grandmother, aunts, wild uncles and cousins. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Anney eventually agrees to marry her long-time suitor Glen who promises a life of financial stability. However, Glen’s quick temper and inferiority complex result in him losing job after job, and the family constantly moving home. Glen begins to lash out at Bone and as she gets older, the physical (and later sexual) abuse against her escalates.

This was a book that was both easy and hard to read. Allison is a beautiful writer and captures Bone’s internal voice perfectly. I read the 20th anniversary edition of this novel which includes Allison’s thoughts about the impact her story has had on survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse, especially as a survivor herself, and some of the history of the book being banned in schools. Although Bone is a fictional character, Allison was able to draw on lived experience to explore the same issues of abuse, poverty, class, faith, gender roles and the body.

Allison’s biggest strength is in her ability to translate emotions onto the page. The hate that Bone begins to feel both for herself and her tormentor is absolutely visceral. The depiction of Bone’s fraught friendship with Shannon who suffers from albinism. The increasing distance and betrayal from Anney. Bone’s relationships with her aunties who have their own struggles with sexuality and health.The brutality of Daddy Glen’s abuse. Allison captures them all. This isn’t a particularly long book, but Allison has managed to fill it with so much humanity that it is impossible to walk away unmoved or unscathed.

An excellently crafted but heart-rending story.

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The Sellout

This book was just what the doctor ordered. I started reading it while I was stuck in a car line to get into a festival in Oregon for 12 hours (no, I am not exaggerating) to help keep myself from losing my mind. I had heard about it after the author was last year named the first American ever to win the Man Booker prize. I was blown away by the novel’s beginning and I have a keen memory of sitting in that car seat shrieking every few pages. Then, after we finally made it into the festival and wasted a day moving campsites, the following night I became very ill and was tent-bound for two days. This book was my absolute solace. I needed an excellent book to get me through and when my eReader froze just as started getting better, I almost lost it.

The Sellout

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty is a satirical novel about race relations in the USA. The narrator, who is never given a first name, is a quiet young African American man who lives in a fictional Los Angeles town called Dickens. Despite wanting to live an understated life as a farmer, after he loses his father, an experimental sociologist who used his son own as a test subject, the narrator finally finds himself faced with the racial discrimination his father always lectured him about. However it is the final straw of Dickens’ erasure from the map that sets off a chain of events resulting in the narrator appearing before the USA Supreme Court accused of crimes against humanity.

This book, without a doubt, is the best book I have read this year so far. Beatty is an absolute master of the craft and every sentence in this book is full of double entendres, socio-political references and neologisms. I think my eyes were almost falling out of my head the entire time I was reading this, and it is definitely not a book that you can skim through. This book demands your full attention and the rewards are instantaneous. I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot because I really think it’s best to go cold, but it is really is exquisite in its audacity. However as outrageous as the premise is, as a modern social commentary it is bang on the mark and blistering in its honesty.

Although it has been some weeks since I finished it, I am still thinking about this book. It’s hard work, and I think that you have to be pretty up to date to get all the references (there were a couple that went over my head as a non-American), but it is a brilliant read. I truly think this is going to become a modern classic and I can’t wait until I can read it again for a second time.

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