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Reading Update April 2015

1. Takashi Hiraide - The Guest Cat

Takashi Hiraide is primarily a poet, and it comes through in this delightful novel. The writing style is terse, I think you could best describe it as Zen. The timing is impeccable, flowing like a clear spring creek. While the story is interesting, this book is mostly about the art of writing. Like the difference between Kenjitsu (the material, practical, purpose-driven use of the sword) vs. Kendo (the spiritual, form-driven, art of the use of the sword) in Japanese martial arts.

The story is about a young couple that has just moved in to a small outhouse on a Tokyo estate. They both work from home, writing and copy-editing, but through the years they don't have much left to say to each other other. Not that they've grown apart, but each of them is absorbed in their own work, and knows the other so well that there isn't much need for conversation.

One day, a neighbors' cat wanders into their cottage, has a look around, and disappears again. But the following day, it's back. Over the weeks and months, it continues to show up, and begins treating the house as it's own. As time goes on, the couple grows attached to the guest cat, start to make treats for it and even create an entrance for it to go and leave at any time.

As the cat becomes part of their life, it naturally begins to form the nucleus around which the couple begins to talk to each other again. Slowly their life begins to be more colourful and light, as they observe and discuss their guest and all it's ways.

This book reminded me in many ways of my own guest cat, when I was still living in Holland. It wandered into my place once when still a kitten and stayed the night on the balcony. Years later, when I had moved to another apartment (in the same building), it found me again and at first began following me around when I was walking to-and-from work or the supermarket. Eventually it would start to come in to my apartment, sleep on the sofa next to me, while I was watching TV, and after an hour or so, wander out again.

We named her Muta (Ironically, if you've seen The Cat Returns. Our Muta was a small, mostly black and very gentle cat)

2. Albert Camus - Exile and the Kingdom

This collection of six short stories is Camus' last published work before his death, written at the height of his career. As many of his books, the belief that life in itself is meaningless, perhaps absurd, and the desire to nevertheless find meaning in it are central to these stories.

The stories cover a nice range of people, at various stages in the realization of the meaninglessness of life. We start with an unfulfilled wife who, tempted by the call of the desert, is unable to break free. A missionary to the most savage people in a destitute land, who becomes the evil he arrogantly thought he could eradicate. An artist drowning in his own success. A French engineer in a Brazilian outpost, who becomes enthralled by the dancing madmen and a stone.

Many of the stories are about the stranger in a strange land, something which I can relate to. Especially during my first years in China, when I didn't understand a word of the language, I would occasionally fall into a kind of introspective trance while out-and-about, especially in large crowds. Life was bustling around me at fast-forward speeds, but not being able to understand a word I heard or read, it was as if it didn't concern me.

This is not casual reading material, but Camus writes well. The questions he explores may not be relevant for everyone, but I'd still implore anyone to give him a chance!

3. Roger Zelazny - Bring me the Head of Prince Charming

Browsing through my library, deciding on what to read next, my eye fell on this book. It had a bookmark, somewhere a third in. As a Zelazny fan (Amber series primarily), I couldn't just leave it there. I didn't remember starting this book, so it might have been a decade... I started afresh and enjoyed myself. This is one in the Comedy Fantasy genre.

The year 1,000 is coming up, meaning the Millennial Games between Good and Evil are coming up. At the turn of each millennium, a competition is held to decide which side will control the world for the next thousand years. This time, Azzy, demon, is determined to win control for Evil.

He hatches a plan to stage a real-life fairy tale, but one that's supposed to turn out not so "happily ever-after". Of course he won't be allowed to directly influence things when the games are set in motion, so he must carefully choose his players. Or rather, carefully construct them out of suitable parts. To make things worse, Good has sent an observer, angel Babriel, to keep a close eye on him.

Although he has gotten a limitless black credit card, allowing him to order anything he needs from Supplies, but he soon finds they are rather... under-stocked, and a massive pain to deal with. (Bureaucracy, after all, is a primary evil) He gets more support from his angel-observer, who can't help but helping out people in need, even if they are the enemy, than from his own people.

The book reads like it might have been a bet over beers, but it kept a smile on my face and was delightfully lighthearted.

4. Haruki Murakami - The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

The stack of Murakami books I've read is slowly growing. The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki has been one of the most "serious" books so far, though he can't help himself to put in some things mysterious in this one as well. The protagonist is a reasonably successful railway station architect, living in Tokyo since his college years, who is haunted by his past.

When he was 20, he was kicked out of the close-knit group of friends, and he doesn't know why. Everything was going fine, until one day they suddenly stopped seeing him, stopped talking to him, even refused to take his phone calls. Tsukuru Tazaki has always considered himself colorless, not only because he was the only one among his friends without a color in his name, but also because he considered himself as bland, uninteresting, without any particular merits.

He blames himself for being kicked out of the group, although he has no idea what he did to cause this. And he has lived with this weight on his shoulders ever since. When he starts dating a young woman, she forces him to come to terms with his past, find out what really happened, and find a way to deal with it.

This proves to be the push he needed. Talking with his old friends one-by-one, he hears about what happens from all their viewpoints, and starts to piece together what actually happened.

As with all of Murakami's books, and with real life for that matter, not every question is resolved in the end. It leaves you wondering, which is a good thing. It keeps the story in your head long after you've put the book down.

5. Michael Meyer - The Year that Changed the World

The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall

As a European, having lived through the fall of the Soviet Union, I knew of course that Reagan and his infamous "Tear down this Wall" speech had nothing to do with it all. I also knew that the best thing Bush did was to first ignore and later keep his hands out of the matter altogether.

However, I think that the delusional idea that America brought down Communism in the East Block and Soviet Union may have been the cause of the mess we are now in, in Afghanistan and the Middle East. This book needs to be much more popular in the US, and needs to be read religiously by any policymaker, lest they forget history altogether.

What did cause the fall was that the general population was just fed up with the system. That, and some courageous in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary that set things in motion. With these events widely publicized and happening during my formative years, I was aware of the general narrative. Meyer has done some serious in-depth investigation though, exposing many of the intricacies I wasn't aware of. Couldn't have been aware of at the time, since they had to be highly secretive.

For example, how Miklos Nemeth plotted to become prime minister of Hungary, and almost single-handedly (with Gorbachev's blessing) brought down Communism in Hungary, and then went on to drain tens-of-thousands of people out of East Germany into the West. How Lech Walesa in Poland got much more than he bargained for when Solidaritat was legalized not just as a Union, but totally unexpectedly, as a political party. How Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia managed to turn disparate groups of protesting students into one massive peaceful force for change. The fumbling Erick Honecker, who, in trying to stop the brain-drain in Easter Europe, managed to turn even his few supporters against him.

Over the course of this book, I learned some interesting statistics as well, in East Germany, the epitome of a police state, about 0.5% of the population was employed by the Stasi, while the army made up about 1% of the population. In contrast, the US police (not counting all the three letter agencies) currently employs 0.34% and the army 0.83%. They're getting there!

6. Robert Jackson Bennett - City of Stairs

Decades ago, I read a novel which premise turned around the conflict between magic and technology. I can't remember the title or author (let me know if you have any ideas!), but that's what I was reminded of reading City of Stairs. I quite enjoyed this book, it's a refreshing genre-blend between fantasy, spy-thriller and murder-mystery. The world is very familiar to our own, with a late 19th century feel.

I like how we jump into the story somewhere in the middle. There is a very rich history, pieces of which are revealed little-by-little as they are relevant to the story. The story begins with the murder of a historian, who has been digging through the history of the old continent. Some 80 years earlier, the technological "slave race" of the new world has rebelled against their masters and taken power by assassinating the gods of the old content and starting a purge of anything divine.

No-one knows exactly how or by what means the great Kaj managed to kill the gods, nor do they have any idea of the true origin of these gods. Moreover, it seems some of the old miracles are still functional. Understandably, this makes certain people quite worried.

When she learns of the murder of the historian, a master-spy starts her investigation, only to uncover a must larger and far deadlier conspiracy. As it turns out, not all of the old gods are dead, and there are some plotting to bring them back. Will she have what it takes to stop them?

The book covers many interesting questions about racial and religious tensions, science vs believe, the nature of miracles, the origins of gods and the mutual dependent nature of gods and their believers. With a variety of plot twists it kept me on my toes and, though the story was wrapped up nicely, there is more than enough cliff-hanger to leave me wanting for more.

Volume two is due next year.