Saturday five, #2.

Five books, five links to my own stuff, and five links to others’ articles.

I’ve read eight books since my last post on any of them, so I’m going to take a shortcut and catch up by highlighting the five most interesting. Now that spring training is ending, I hope to get back to regular dishblogging soon.

* Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the one non-fiction book in this bunch, a history-of-math tome that incorporates a fair amount of philosophy, physics, and religion all in a book that’s under 200 pages and incredibly readable for anyone who’s at least taken high school math. The subject is the number zero, long scorned by philosophers, theologians, and even some mathematicians who resisted the idea of nothing or the void, yet which turned out to be critical in a long list of major scientific advances, including calculus and quantum mechanics. I generally prefer narrative non-fiction, but Zero moves as easily as a math-oriented book can get without that central thread.

* Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town is one of three major Hammett short-story collections in print (along with The Continental Op and the uneven The Big Knockover), and my favorite for its range of subjects and characters without feeling as pulpy as some of his most commercial stories. The twenty stories are all detective stories of one sort or another starring several different Hammett detectives, including early iterations of Sam Spade and the character who eventually became the Thin Man, as well as a western crime story that might be my favorite short piece by Hammett, “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams.”

* Readers have recommended Tim O’Brien’s short story cycle The Things They Carried for several years, usually any time I mention reading another book that deals with the Vietnam War and/or its aftermath. The book, a set of interconnected stories that feels like an novel despite the lack of a central plot, is based heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences in that conflict, especially around death – of platoon mates, of Viet Cong soldiers, of Vietnamese civilians, and of a childhood crush of O’Brien’s who died at age 9 of a brain tumor. The writing is remarkable, more than the stories themselves, which seemed to cover familiar ground in the genre, as well as O’Brien’s ability to weave all of these disconnected stories into one tapestry around that central theme of death and the pointlessness of war. The final story, where he ties much of it together by revisiting one of the first deaths he discussed in the book, is incredibly affecting on two levels as a result of everything that’s come before.

* I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan – and no, I haven’t read 1Q84 yet and won’t until it’s in paperback – but Dance, Dance, Dance was mostly a disappointment despite some superficial entertainment value, enough to at least make it a quick read if not an especially deep one. A sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase, it attempts to be more expansive than that earlier novel but still feels like unformed Murakami, another look at him as he built up to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a top-ten novel for me that hit on every level. Dance is just too introspective, without enough of Murakami’s sort of magical realism (and little foundation for what magical realism it does contain) and no connection between the reader and the main character.

* I loved Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a funny, biting satire on upper-class life in the United States just after World War I, so I looked forward to House of Mirth, present on the Modern Library and Bloomsbury 100 lists, expecting more of that sharp wit but receiving, instead, a dry, depressing look at the limitations of life for women in those same social circles prior to the war. It’s a tragedy with an ironic title that follows Lily Bart through her fall from social grace, thanks mostly to the spiteful actions of other women in their closed New York society; it’s a protest novel, and one of the earliest feminist novels I’ve read (preceded, and perhaps inspired, by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), but I found myself feeling more pity than empathy for Lily as a victim of circumstances, not of her own missteps.

Next up: I’m reading Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (filmed as The American) and listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. The Booth book is on sale through that link for $5.60.

Five things I wrote or said this week:

On Jeff Samardzija’s revival.

This week’s chat.

One batch of spring training minor league notes, including the Angels, A’s, Rangers, and Royals.

Tuesday’s “top 10 players for 2017” column, which I emphasized was just for fun and still got people far too riled up. There’s no rational way to predict who the top ten players will be in five years and I won’t pretend I got them right. But it was fun to do.

I interviewed Top Chef winner and sports nut Richard Blais on the Tuesday Baseball Today podcast, in which he talked about what it was like to “choke” (his word) in the finals on his first season and then face the same situation in his second go-round. We also talked about why I should break my ten-year boycott of hot dogs.

And the links…

* The best patent rejection ever, featuring Borat’s, er, swimsuit.

* A spotlight on Massachusetts’ outdated liquor laws. For a state that likes to pretend it’s all progressive, Massachusetts is about thirty years behind the times when it comes to alcohol, to say nothing of how the state’s wholesalers control the trade as tightly as the state liquor board does in Pennsylvania. The bill this editorial discusses would be a small start in breaking apart their oligopoly, but perhaps enough to start to crumble that wall.

* I admit it, I’m linking to Bleacher Report, but Dan Levy’s commentary on how Twitter has affected what a “scoop” means, especially to those of us in the business, is a must read. And there’s no slidshow involved.

* The Glendale mayor who drove the city into a nine-figure debt hole by spending government money to build facilities for private businesses – including the soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Coyotes – won’t run for a sixth term, yet she’s receiving more accolades than criticism on the way out. Put it this way: Given its schools, safety, and public finances, we never considered Glendale for a second when looking to move out here.

* The “pink slime” controversy has led the manufacturer to suspend production at three of its four plants. That makes for a good headline, but are job losses really relevant to what should be a discussion of whether this is something people, especially schoolchildren, should be consuming? And now the controversy is moving on to carmine dye, derived from an acid extracted from cochineal beetles and used in Starbucks frappuccinos. If nothing else, I applaud the new emphasis on knowing exactly what we’re eating.

A High Wind in Jamaica and After Dark.

Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, ranked 71st on the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century, is an anti-adventure novel that deglamorizes the traditional pirate story and instead uses pirates as a vehicle for a serious novel about innocence and its loss.

The novel tells the story of the Bas-Thornton children, five preteens who live on a plantation with their parents in Jamaica, but who are sent back to England after a terrible hurricane convinces their parents that life on the island is unsafe. Traveling with two children from a neighboring plantation, they have barely embarked when their ship is set upon by pirates, led by the Danish sailor Captain Jonsen, who takes the children as well as all of the cargo. The cowardly captain of their original ship believes them killed and reports as such to their parents, who don’t learn the truth until the end of the book. Captain Jonsen tries to leave the children with a matriarch in a pirates’ haven on the island, but is rebuffed after an accident befalls one of the five, leading to several months at sea during which tensions rise between crew and captives and their “adventures” prove more harrowing than thrilling.

Unlike typical novels set on the high seas, A High Wind in Jamaica veers straight for the more serious themes, including rape and murder, that would be required in any realistic depiction of piracy. Forcing children who do not as yet understand mortality, and all of whom but one remain unaware of sexuality, into a situation where they will be confronted by the harsh realities of adult life allows Hughes to explore innocence and the cognitive dissonance children utilize to deal with events they can’t fully understand.

Hughes’ skill in dealing with this extends to his ability to bounce between the children when providing perspectives within the book, and aside from the one real murder of the novel, often describing occurrences in obscuring language to mirror the fog a seven-year-old might perceive when older children are discussing sex. The way Hughes jumps from child to child also seemed to me to mirror the rocking of a boat sailing somewhat aimlessly on the open seas, as Captain Jonsen wishes to rid himself of his human cargo (without harming them) but fears that he will be charged with kidnapping or worse if he tries to hand them over to another ship.

The book reads quickly as Hughes’ prose is straightforward, but lacked much narrative greed – there seemed little chance that Hughes would simply wipe out all of the children to end the book, so I read it assuming full well that there would be a reunion before the novel’s conclusion. Those final few short sections are critical, particularly to the resolution of Emily’s story, as she ends up the most central of the child characters, but I found my involvement within the plot to be rather limited.

I haven’t even acquired Haruki Murakami’s new book, the mammoth 1Q84, and probably won’t until it ends up in paperback next year. (When I’m reading a book, I tend to carry it all over the place, including on planes, and a three-pound book just isn’t my cup of tea.) I am still working my way through his back catalog, and read the somewhat inconsequential After Dark earlier this month. Telling the story of a few lost souls on one peculiar night in Tokyo, Murakami slips in a little magical realism, a few touches of his usual violence (off screen, for a change), and a lot of the vaguely philosophical dialogue that populates most of his novels.

The two main characters, Mari and Takahashi, meet by chance, and then are thrown together again by necessity, launching them on an all-night conversation that links their story to the parallel tale of Mari’s sister, who has been asleep – but not comatose – for what seems to be months, the result of a depression that is never explained but that has taken a toll on Mari as well. The parallel narrative trick worked more effectively for Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, another book of his I’d rate below his average (which is still above most contemporary writers’ averages). In After Dark, all edges are blurred, perhaps a nod to the darkness and the way our vision is distorted by artificial light, but that same blurriness keeps his characters at arm’s length, and the novel is so brief that we never learn enough about any of the central characters to understand what’s driving them to or away from anything.

Next up: I just finished W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – I can think of at least one thing wrong with that title – and have moved on to James Crumley’s hard-boiled detective novel The Last Good Kiss.

A Wild Sheep Chase.

Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, gives an early glimpse of the mind-bending plot twists that define his two best novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, along with the usual measures of food, cigarettes, nonchalant sex, and characters that alternate from three-dimensional to transparent, sometimes within single passages. While it can’t match either of the other novels I mentioned, it’s a good read on its own both for plot and for its expansive thinking, and also interested me as a look back at Murakami’s formative years as a writer, like watching video of a big leaguer from when he was a prospect in high school.

None of the characters in A Wild Sheep Chase have names; the best we get are the Boss, the Rat, and J, while the protagonist and his girlfriend don’t even get so much as a nickname or a single letter. The main character is in advertising and, as the book opens, his wife leaves him for one of his closest friends (although he’s more numb than mad or grieving, as the marriage seems to have been long dead), shortly after which he receives an urgent summons from a mysterious businessman about a PR flier his firm put out that included a photograph of a very unusual sheep. That photograph, sent by our hero’s friend the Rat, seems to show a sheep that, by all accounts, shouldn’t exist, at least not in Japan, but the businessman’s interest goes beyond mundane questions of taxonomy, as this sheep appears to have powers beyond any other ovine known to man.

That businessman represents a shadow organization that controls many aspects of Japanese industry, particularly on the advertising side. He offers the protagonist a deal, without much say in the matter: Find that sheep within a month or find your life ruined. So the hero and his girlfriend – whose ears are, as it turns out, fairly important in their subplot, if not the main plot as well – set out to figure out where the Rat is and thus, they hope, find that sheep.

The wild chase is anything but wild; it’s slow, halting, and in some ways quite realistic, even if the sheep they’re chasing and the people they encounter aren’t. And it’s not clear, even after the chase is resolved, whether the protagonist was searching on behalf of the Boss’s minion or for his own personal growth. Before the sheep tale appears, he has no real anchors left in his life – no wife, no kids, a routine job, a scarce existence in the physical or emotional planes. The chase itself provides much of what’s missing from his life, including purpose and urgency, but of course the chase will end, after which he’ll either find his life in tatters or he’ll have the riches promised him … and he’ll have to find a new purpose. Explaining my thoughts on the end and what Murakami may have been trying to express would give away too much of the resolution, but I can say that I found that payoff a little underwhelming. The physical plot was resolved, but the philosophical questions and answers remained vague. It’s a better read as a suspense novel that makes you think a little differently than as a book pushing for any specific philosophy or emotional reaction, whereas his best works provide more clarity without devolving into sermons.

Next up: Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which seems to be just the book to buy your sister if she’s already read At Swim-Two-Birds. it’s currently on sale through that link for $6 in the Penguin Ink paperback, with cover design by tattoo artist Bert Kerk.

Norwegian Wood.

Haruki Murakami is one of the most intense, imaginative authors I’ve ever come across. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, #15 on the Klaw 100, destroys the line between our world and the world in our dreams in a way that goes beyond mere magical realism, creating a second, parallel existence for its characters and the reader. Kafka on the Shore (#92) mines similar territory, with a slightly more mystical bent, while Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World mixed in a scientific explanation for a fantastical setting and saw the main character jumping back and forth from reality to a strange world that exists only inside his head.

Norwegian Wood, an earlier Murakami novel that wasn’t translated into English until 2000, is a much more mundane work, a coming-of-age novel that focuses not just on the standard material of that genre (sex, mostly, and there is a lot of it) but on life, death, and the way we must deal with our loss of innocence about our mortality.

The protagonist, Toru, is a stand-in for Holden Caulfield but is more directed and a lot less frustrating to follow. He’s in a relationship with Naoko, formerly the girlfriend of Toru’s best friend who killed himself without warning or explanation one night, and the suicide has left both Toru and Naoko broken inside. Naoko comes undone gradually over the course of the novel as Toru happens into another relationship with the unpredictable, liberated, impetuous Midori, who co-opts Toru to fill the holes but ends up finding more meaning in their relationship than she does in the one she has with her boyfriend. Toru is gradually drifting through university as these various affairs occur, where he has a foil in Nagasawa, a materialistic, cynical boy who mistreats his subservient girlfriend yet can’t seem to feel remorse or stop his selfish behavior.

Even without his usual conceits of alternate realities, Murakami still writes in bold strokes, leaving Norwegian Wood open to quite a bit of interpretation, and the novel’s postscript implies that he wasn’t thrilled when the novel became a favorite among Japanese teenagers who read it as a straightforward story of love, sex, and loss. I found it largely unromantic, but at the same time Murakami was offering a view on what Aldous Huxley referred to in Island as “the Essential Horror” – the knowledge that we must die, and, in Norwegian Wood, that many of the people we love will die before us, leaving us to deal with grief, loneliness, and depression. He litters the book with examples of characters who choose not to deal – some kill themselves, others withdraw from society or flee their existing lives – but, of course, Toru does not choose an easy exit and instead has to face the reality of our existence, first choosing to live …

I’m never sure if it’s Murakami’s style or a loss in translation, but his characters often speak in an unrealistic manner even as what they’re saying is interesting, clever, or witty:

“I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself. That’s just the kind of person I am. I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me. I don’t mind at all. Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match.”

I love that analogy, but have never come across anyone who speaks remotely like that. Then again, Norwegian Wood is populated by characters who dance on the edge between sanity and insanity, and over the course of the book several of them fall into the abyss, so one might forgive the author his creation of characters with slightly stilted or awkward speech.

Nagasawa was the one poorly drawn character among those who appear for more than a page or two, and he’s more of a stand-in for a way of life Toru rejects, one that sits between stoicism and nihilism with a healthy dose of selfishness mixed in. But I did enjoy his take on languages, even if I can’t share his view on the fairer sex:

“The more languages you know the better. And I’ve got a knack for them. I taught myself French and it’s practically perfect. Languages are like games. You learn the rules for one, and they all work the same way. Like women.

There is, as I mentioned above, a lot of sex in this novel, and I saw one review that referred to it as Murakami’s “most erotic” work. That deprecates Murakami unfairly, since the novel is attacking larger themes and – I hate to break this to you – people have sex, especially people in romantic relationships, so it’s not as if he went out of his way to include it. More importantly, the different ways various characters in the novel view and approach sex gives the reader windows into their personalities, and to me made it more apparent that, for example, Naoko was a stand-in for an unsupportable path through life, where one refuses to give up one’s innocence and then is unprepared to cope with tragedy or loss.

Next up: Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Klawchat Thursday 1 pm EDT.

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World came before his magnum opus (and top-ten entry on the Klaw 100) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and having read the latter book first, I can see HBW as a buildup to the later masterwork, where Murakami was still honing his storycraft. The voice is unmistakably his, as is the raucuously inventive plot, but it’s less cohesive than TWUBC or the similarly amazing Kafka on the Shore.

HBW tells two stories in alternating chapters, with the connection only becoming apparently at or just after the book’s midpoint. The main storyline revolves around a narrator who is a Calcutec, a person responsible for encrypting data in his brain, which has been surgically altered to allow for separate, independent access of the two halves of the cerebrum (?). He’s called in for a special, top-secret project by a mysterious hermit-like possibly-mad scientist who knows more than he lets on.

The second storyline is mysterious, as the narrator has just arrived in a strange Town where time exists but moves on forever – not in an infinite loop, where time repeats, but with neither beginning nor end, to say nothing of purpose. People in the Town have no names, no identities beyond their assigned roles, and no feelings. The Town is walled – by a Wall, of course – and there is no way out, although the narrator is never explicitly described as a prisoner and seems to be a VIP of sorts. Its nature is deliberately vague, and only becomes clear after Murakami connects the two plots.

Unfortunately, Murakami appears to have started with the idea of writing one novel and decided midstream to write a different one. In the first half of the book, it appears that the narrator is going to be sucked into an underworld battle between factions fighting over what appears to be control of critical data that he has been encrypting. He’s threatened and injured, goes on the lam … and that plot line ends there, with no return or hint of resolution, and it’s never quite clear what his assailants were after or what they decided to do in the day and a half that follows the assault.

Murakami’s easy, almost conversational style – like having a conversation with a slightly crazy person – and gift for creating memorable side characters was already in full effect in HBW, so it’s an enjoyable read, and he creates plenty of tension to propel the reader through the book. He goes off on an explanatory tangent mid-book, where he has to explain to the reader some bit of science or (in this case) mock science so that the overall plot will make sense, and it’s a jarring interruption to the flow of the story and the prose; it’s a crutch of a weak or inexperienced writer, and Murakami didn’t use it in either of the two books by him that I’d previously read.

If you haven’t read Murakami before, I’d strongly recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle over HBW. Wind-Up Bird is, on its surface, the story of a man whose wife disappears under odd circumstances, sending him on a quest not just to find her, but to find himself. This type of introspective journey forms a part of the ultimate uber-plot in HBW, but it’s incomplete and not as all-consuming as Wind-Up Bird, a book that possesses your mind as the dream of a deep slumber. HWB is best for Murakami completists.

Next up: Alan Lightman’s Ghost.

Kafka on the Shore.

Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel, wasn’t quite the masterpiece that its predecessor, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, was, but it’s still in the upper echelon of contemporary novels I’ve read.

Murakami’s narrative is split into two, although we know from the start that they will converge near the book’s conclusion. The first narrative, told in the first person, is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who runs away from home for reasons that are never entirely clear and adopts the pseudonym of Kafka Tamura. Kafka flees to the city of Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku, largely because there’s a library there to which he is inexplicably drawn. The second narrative, told in the third person, follows a sixty-year-old simpleton named Nakata who can talk to cats and who is either a mystic or a pawn of mystical forces. Kafka is, to some degree, on a quest to find the mother who abandoned him and his father when he was four years old. Nakata ends up committing a crime he doesn’t understand that may have involved an out-of-body experience … and this just skims the surface of the events in the book.

Like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore is a mind-bender with plenty of magical realism and dreamlike passages. And like its predecessor, it has one scene of very graphic violence (this time against animals, not that that’s much easier to tolerate) and lots of slightly awkward descriptions of sex, although confused sexuality is a major theme in the novel, perhaps as a subset of the larger theme of confused identity. Murakami also raises questions about independence and fate, but like any skilled writer, offers little in the way of set answers other than a few platitudes in the book’s closing pages.

What I particularly enjoy about Murakami’s writing is the way he makes coincidence and fate a part of the novel without allowing the characters to ignore it. They’re either amazed by the coincidences, or are pondering whether it’s fate or Fate at work. Even the magical realism elements get mixed reactions, with some characters unfazed but a few always there to offer some double-u-tee-eff thoughts on the matter.

Next up: We’ve had Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist for some time, and I’ve even brought it on a few trips, but never got around to actually reading it.