1. Haruki Murakami - After Dark
I don't recall how I came across Murakami initially, possibly through rumors of his nomination for a Nobel Prize for Literature. Regardless, I'm glad I did! The first book I read was (I believe) the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and my interest was peeked by his style of writing, which I like to call Magical Realism. "After Dark" didn't disappoint.
The story takes place over one night and revolves around two sisters, Mari and Eri. Some months ago, Eri has fallen into a mysterious deep sleep, not a coma, since she apparently gets up occasionally to take care of herself, though no-one has actually observed this. Mari has fled the house this night and is staying in an overnight diner reading, to get away from her sister.
While minding her own business, Mari is pulled in to an escalating chain of events when an old acquintance, a trombone playing student who's jamming the night away nearby, walks in. Meanwhile, written from the point-of-view of a film-camera, we see the unplugged television set in Eri's room come to life, showing a possibly menacing figure.
The book is written as a mix of the starkly realistic and the surreal. Various storylines and reveries nicely bound together with a mix of likeable, sometimes larger-than-life characters. This book may not be for everyone, it requires the reader's active participation, in order to see the web of connections just below the surface, in order to reflect on the metaphysical nature of this world. However, it is a quick read and a great introduction to Murakami. Highly recommended!
2. Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner
I picked this book up primarily because it has been a best seller for so long, and to learn a bit about the Afghan society. I found it disappointing. It's not particilarly well written, the characters aren't very likeable, it's too predictable and the author tries too hard to tie the story together.
I don't want to sound overly harsh on the book though. It's certainly readable, and it does have it's moments. I did learn a couple of things about Afghan culture before the war, and it made me think about some parallels between human behavior during the war in Afghanistan and WW2 Europe, in particular, the dynamics of neighbors turning on neighbors, of collaboration with the enemy and resistance vs resignation.
The story tells of Amir, the son of a well-to-do merchant, living on the good side of Kabul, and his sevant and "friend" Hassan. Their bond is torn apart during the rising ethnic and religious tensions when the Taliban rise to power. Hassan is loyal to a fault, while Amir is more concerned with his own well-being. We follow Amir's journey trying to flee the country when things are really getting messy, how he eventually ends up in America and makes a good life for himself. In the end though, he's pulled back in to Afghanistan, the country of his heart, and has to face the daemons of his past, now no longer a child, but a grown man with his own responsibilities.
Will he finally be able to stand up for himself? Can he make his amends, and right his wrongs?
3. Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Gaiman is one of the great present-day fantasy writers. With that I mean his fantasy is set in the present day real world, not in a swords and sorcery universe. The story begins with a man returning to his childhood town to attend a funeral. While his old home has been long gone, he is drawn to a farm at the end of the lane the house used to stand on. Sitting besides the duck pond behind the farmhouse, memories of his childhood begin to come back to him.
He remembers how, decades ago, a lodger stole the family car, drove to the end of the lane and committed suicide there. This event set of an unfortunate chain of events that unleashed a darkness into the world that the then 7-year-old protagonist couldn't begin to comprehend.
At the end of the lane, things aren't what they seem. The 11-year-old, wise beyond her years, Lettie introduces the protagonist to her mother and granny "who remembers seeing the big bang" and helps him to begin to make sense of the darkness, while accidentally releasing something much worse, that will turn his life upside down.
I found this book highly enjoyable and quick read (I finished it over a weekend) It's one of those books where you wish there were more. I feel like there could be at least a couple more stories in this world!
4. Yasunari Kawabata - The Sound of the Mountain
This is a book I definitely found through the list of Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Although an old book (first published in 1949), it is surprisingly current. In fact, I would have guessed it was written somewhere in the last two decades!
The book is beautifully written, with a distinct Japanese flavor. I can't quite put my finger on it, it's not the clearly Japanese setting, but the prose itself. The story revolves around the aging Shingo, who at times has difficulty remembering things. One night he hears a peculiar rumbling sound coming from the mountain in his backyard, which hs perceives as an indication that his death is near.
Through the book, we get to know his philandering son and daughter-in-law, who live with Shingo and his wife. While the son is out entertaining his mistress, one of the many independant war-widows of post WW2 Japan, the daughter-in-law cares for the family, while Shingo begins to suspect his affection for her might be crossing the line of the appropriate.
I found the story rather fascinating, from the old Shingo going out dancing with his young secretary, the daily train rides to work, the confrontation between Shingo and the mistress, when he's finally had enough of his son's indecency, the temple fairs and the dynamics of traditional life.
5. Neil Gaiman - American Gods
The second Gaiman in one month, I just couldn't get enough! Again, he didn't let me down. The concept of American Gods is based on the idea that Gods (of any variety) are created by the collective believe of people. The stronger the believe, the stronger the God.
The story takes place, as is obvious from the title, in the United States, and deals with an upcoming war between the old Gods, the Gods who came in the mind of the settlers, from the old continent, the Norse Gods, the Indian Gods, the Slavic Gods and many others, and the new Gods, the Gods of the Internet, of the Media, of the Automobile, the Gods of Technology.
In the middle of this war stands Shadow, an ex-convict, who is chosed by the old God Wednesday as an apprentice, though the why has everyone baffled. Not long after taking the employ of Wednesday, Shadow is abducted by the teenage Tech God, the Media God tries to win him over for the new Gods side by speaking to him through his TV screen and he wins a bet with a 6-feet leprechaun.
Through many twists and turns, we learn of the power of sacrifice and loyalty. Not all turns out to be as straightforward as it seems, and we find out why Shadow was chosen. Lot's of fun!
6. Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Memories of my Melancholy Whores
I found the title of this book somewhat offensive in it's banality. The story, though, is solid. Garcia Marquez was what set me on the path to read some of the Nobel Prize laureates in the first place, when I first learned of his death in April last year. I've since read a couple of his books, some of which I'm sure will be featured later in this series.
This is one of his later works, first published in 2004, about an old journalist, who, on his 90th birthday, decides to indulge his dark desire to sleep with a virgin. When the arrangements have been made, a young girl has been found, desperate enough to earn the money to help her family, he discovers that, for the first time in his life, he is falling in love with the heavily drugged girl.
He never manages to actually consumate, overcome by a feeling of pity and beginning of love. He begins to return every night, even decorating the hired room, so the poor girl will have some beauty in her life.
The whole story gave me a mix of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, disturbing. On the other, all too human. The writer takes you on a bumpy ride through the mind of an old, lived, man, who discovers something completely new to him, and doesn't quite know what to do with his emotions.