The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami translated by Jay Rubin published by Vintage Books, New York 1997
This is an imaginative novel that somehow weaves its story within contemporary suburban Japan, historical occupied Manchuria, and an supernatural parallel space filled with danger.
Toru Okada is an ordinary man, who left his law office job to find something more satisfying while his wife’s job pays the bills. During his time of reflection, his cat disappears; then his wife starts working very peculiar hours, and stops coming home altogether. That’s when strangers begin to reach out to him with cryptic warnings about the flow of water, he hears rumors of a cursed neighborhood home, and the malevolence of his in-laws appears to take on a supernatural force.
This is not the sort of Isekai story that I’ve written about in the past: instead of the ordinary Japanese protagonist falling into another world, the ordinary world is instead revealed to be much stranger than the protagonist had noticed.
Odd characters, almost all of them women, interact with Okada in emotionally supportive and/or physically intimate ways as he navigates the altered reality that is gradually revealed to him.
(Okada seems especially comfortable when women of any age are with him, even without knowing their real names (!), who they are working for, or much about their motivations. This gives me some ideas of why his marriage didn’t succeed (other plot events notwithstanding), but this combination of being easygoing and oblivious is entirely plausible for the character.)
This is surely the least predictable novel I’ve read in years. While the protagonist seems so ordinary, the story that unfolds around and through him and his supporting characters is engaging, suspenseful, atmospheric (the humidity of summer rains or chill coldness of being underground are so well described), and is engrossing. This is my first Murakami novel, but won’t be my last.
The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino translated by Rebecca Copeland published by Canongate, Edinburgh 2012
This is a beautiful, sad, vivid retelling of a Japanese myth (Izanami and Izanagi) that I was previously unfamiliar with.
This story is narrated from the underworld, by someone who died young, and who writes of her misfortune. On a beautiful, isolated, tropical island, she was one of countless underfed locals. Her childhood came to an abrupt end when she was forced into a traditionally necessary taboo role… which prepared her, in some respects, for another role in the afterlife, where she learns that women being forced into taboo roles has a VERY long tradition.
This story is lyrical, harsh, and has haunting imagery. The modest narrator’s experiences of hunger, love, attachment, and betrayal give her deep sensitivity to the suffering of the goddess she comes to serve, and their stories interact in unexpected ways. It is a moving story written in a timeless way.
Dear Life by Alice Munro published by Vintage Books (Random House), New York 2012
I came to this collection of short stories knowing that Alice Munro had won international recognition for her outstanding writing, but not knowing if I would ENJOY it. I do! I’m delighted (and deeply impressed) by her remarkable clarity, her sharply observed descriptions of human behavior, her characters’ methods of acting out their emotional states, and her spare, crisp, and often bleak Ontario landscapes.
She says SO MUCH so efficiently! Two sentences in and I am THERE.
The collection of short stories has several themes, and the one I choose to emphasize is: turning points. Our characters decide to reach out to a stranger; have a spontaneous love affair on a train; decide NOT to return from war to their awaiting family; try to resist looking into the open casket… and these decisions do (or don’t!) change the trajectory of their lives. There is a tension between things that happen to them, their relative acceptance of circumstances, and how long they can accept things as they are before fleeing or being cast out.
The interactions are largely interpersonal, and feel like large dramas playing out on small, domestic stages. The women in particular are constantly balancing their limited options and their opportunities, rolling with what is expected of them – until they won’t. Social pressures erupt in judgments of all sorts, invariably against women who don’t try hard enough, or try too hard – the acceptable zones are small and ill-defined. Characters face conservative, conformist social pressures with a 1950s-70s weight that I’d characterize as “American mid-western,” though these stories are emphatically Canadian. (SO CANADIAN.)
From the first story I marvelled at her descriptions. How can the increasingly exaggerated and theatrical goodbyes people make through windows be so immediately and clearly written? You may not know someone’s height, or the pattern on their shirt, but you are quickly led to their careful manner, their sense of privacy, the way they speak when angry, the compromises they have made to be themselves, and what those cost them.
I have fussed over certain turns of phrase in writing about other authors, and I can say that Munro is doing something else: her language is brisk and sharp, cool and clear in a non-showy way, and all the more stunning for it.
It will be difficult to tolerate less skilled, more verbose stories by other authors for some time…
I’m a big reader, writer, and all-around-city-explorer, and don’t usually make time in my routine for television. In normal times I work long hours, see movies on the big screen with friends, go out to social dinners, run evening errands, take long walks, read non-fiction, go to evening museum events, and have a packed life: TV is just too big a time-suck. (I have so many friends who CLAIM they want to pursue some passion, but can’t because of time constraints; these same friends can summarize thousands of hours of shows, and don’t make the connection.) During this pandemic, however, I am heeding the signs posted throughout my neighborhood begging me to stay at home. Cultural institutions, movie theaters, most indoor gathering places, and all non-essential shops are closed. The streetcars stopped running, so my normal routes to explore are out of reach. There is news that melts my heart on every device around me, and I’ve found concentrating on books has been hit-or-miss, as my mind strays back to the problems of the day.
To refresh myself, I decided to seek out dystopian fiction in various video/film formats. Considering the times I am living in, I wanted something less optimistic than fairy tales or positive-future-sci-fi: since I’m living in a world where people would all become zombies due to their desire for ‘freedom’ or refusal to believe in a zombie plague, I wanted stories grounded in human flaws. I am fond of this genre (I have written dystopian novellas!!), and thought a distraction from current dystopia could be stories that are DIFFERENTLY dystopian. I found some great shows that could fully hold my attention and interest. (What are the odds?)
I’ll write about them here, in the order I watched them in:
Note that this series is set in the future of an alternative world of the ’80s comic book of the same name, but this series can also stand alone. (I do NOT recommend the 2009 movie, which is unduly creepy toward its female characters.)
Overview: decades after corrective actions are made for the (real life) 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, white supremacist violence leads the police to need to wear masks, hide their identities, and engage in very direct confrontations with extremists. The series follows one remarkable veteran and police-officer who tries to raise her family and make Tulsa safe against violent, organized terrorists. Meanwhile, the world is pelted with rains of interdimensional space squid, and people bemoan the disappearance of the god-like superhero who won the Vietnam War for the U.S.
Why I like it: it was done well enough to give me actual anxiety, so I needed a break after the first episode before I could deal with the rest! The casting is great; Regina King is a bad-ass, compelling lead; Jeremy Irons is a compelling, amoral character in a weird situation; the sci-fi elements are pretty chill, and presented in a matter-of-fact, non-distracting, just-roll-with-it way; the dialog is tight… I felt INVESTED.
Lovecraft Country (2020, one season, 10 episodes, HBO (series page))
Overview: a veteran’s father goes missing, and his search takes him and his loved ones through the dangers of both a segregated, racist, violent U.S. AND an equally dangerous, secret world of magic, curses, and monsters from another universe.
Why I like it: The primarily black cast is fantastic; all of the characters are developed, interesting, flawed, afraid, and determined in some way; the villains are layered, and their infighting and rivalries are elaborate; the costumes (especially for Ruby and Christina) are GORGEOUS; the plot is mysterious; the plot stakes are high – there are dark and often fatal consequences for mistakes and misunderstandings; the sets are great and varied… Oh, and like Watchmen, the Tulsa Massacre also figures in.
This is the first show that I’ve listened to the PODCAST for, and it was worth listening to! There is a lot of insight on the characters and script that I didn’t know I wanted to know.
Overview: Elite military operative Takeshi Kovacs is revived after 250 years in a digital prison, given a new body, and obligated to solve the murder of the wealthy creep who bailed him out. His pre-owned body has its own history with the police; his mind has a history with his mercenary sister and his lost rebel love interest, both of whom may still live.
Why I like it: it’s real sci-fi! The world is compelling, and the debates within both seasons about the ethics of the technology are realistic; the characters are fun; the world is diverse (the way my own world is); the head rebel love interest is a fun character (yes, three in a row in this post with a compelling black female lead!), and all of the major female characters have compelling motivations and different skill sets; the actors who play Kovacs are all fun, attractive (well-defined abs for miles!), and each get their own timelines/eras to take on, which lends variety and clearly defines eras in his life; the sets are great; there are some tech-artifact mysteries to be solved; and a lot happens.
Raised by Wolves (2020, 1 season (so far), HBO (series page))
Overview: After a war between religious and atheist groups leaves the earth in ruins, two androids are entrusted with human embryos to raise on Kepler 22-b, far from the dangers of human zealotry. The planet is strewn with the bones of extinct, giant reptiles and hot gas vents. It is difficult to provide enough food to keep the children healthy. Meanwhile, a colony ship is on the way, and the religious colonists believe it is a sin for androids to raise children. However, Mother, one of the androids, happens to be a reprogrammed weapon of mass destruction…
Why I like it: Ridley Scott brings us layered sci-fi! Settling new worlds, and all the things that can go wrong in that effort, is always exciting, and the design of the ships, sets, and such is all stimulating. (That colony ship!!) The two androids, Mother (who appears as a young, white woman) and Father (who appears as a young, black man), show their quirky, awkward, charming dedication to child protection and collaboration, while engaging in a purposeful rebellion against their original servant programming and the religious patriarchy. YAAY FOR ANDROIDS OVERTHROWING THE PATRIARCHY! Oh, and the villains (whose motivations change over the first season, and who (of course) do not believe they are villains) are interesting, too.
Science Fiction custody battles are the best custody battles!
These are all recent shows, and I recommend them if you like high stakes, well-executed, entertaining stories.
I’ll write about older video works, including animation, separately and later.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras translated from French into English by Barbara Bray published by Pantheon Books, NY 1985
On the paths of the yard the shadows of the cinnamon-apple trees are inky black. The whole garden is still as marble. The house too – monumental, funereal. And my younger brother, who was walking beside me, now looks intently at the gate open on the empty road.
Note: This edition of Duras’ concise novel includes an introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston, who advises us to interpret the novel as autobiographical, which I might not have done otherwise. She also observes parallels with Duras’ screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’ve read, and her observations gave me insights about Duras’ life.
If there was a character limit to my remarks about reading this book, I would write something like: at-risk French girl in occupied Vietnam escapes her unhappy home by sleeping with a meek older man; a dire situation, beautifully described. Unluckily for you, I can write all the words I want!
Through a series of increasingly vivid memories that drift forward and back in time, Duras’ novel tells the story of an impoverished French teen in French-occupied (colonial) Vietnam, living with her deeply depressed mother, two brothers, and a her own developing awareness of mortality. (So FRENCH!)
Our unnamed character’s life is tenuous. She wears her mother’s old, threadbare clothes; the family struggles on her mother’s schoolmistress wages after her father’s unexpected death; a sense of doom hangs over the family; her mother not only falls frequently into immobile despair, but also spoils her sons while pressuring her daughter to make up for their failures.
Her escape: to get into the limousine of a nervous, fellow foreigner, but one who is not French: a wealthy Chinese man, entirely beholden to his father, but also inappropriately smitten at first sight of this inappropriately dressed, quite underaged teen.
The novel is often (but not always) a first person narration, centering the girl’s alienation from Vietnamese culture and her own (French) family; the alienation of remote colonial life; the constraints of poverty; the scarring, emotional tensions of her household; her self-enforced emotional distance from her unsuitable lover; the pain of her mother’s exploitation; and always – always always – a sense that everyone will die and all things must end.
The prose is visually rich and lightly punctuated as the narrator moves from awkward social interactions of German-occupied France in adulthood to afternoons of being fully absorbed by illicit sex in Vietnam; from invisibility to parental approval for all the wrong reasons; forward to deaths, and backward to youth. It starts as a novel, and winds up a vivid, non-linear series of beautifully described recollections.
It absorbed me completely, and I’m glad I read it.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Penguin Random House 2016
“Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.” – The Husband, after his Wife’s spontaneous suicide attempt after she is physically attacked by her family. (OMG, the lack of self awareness for this character is SO CONVINCING!)
The award winning novel, The Vegetarian, translated into English from Korean, tells the story of a woman living in a strictly conformist, patriarchal society, in a traditional marriage, from a domineering family, who decides to change just one thing about her life. After a dream of animal suffering, she decides to stop eating meat.
All hell breaks loose.
Our protagonist is nameless at first, and is initially defined only by her relationships to others. Her story is told primarily through the eyes of her self-absorbed husband, her obsessive brother-in-law, and her deeply concerned sister, each of whom sees her quite differently and has a completely different experience of knowing her and watching her change.
The story (or up to four stories, depending on how you view it) is a dark view of obligation, conformity, and custom, with glimpses of vivid, delicate, fleeting freedom.
(As a vegetarian who LOVES the vegan Buddhist temple food of Korea, the lack of understanding in this setting by her conformist family was especially striking. The precedent and ethics of her choice were not relevant to anyone at the time, which is more indicative of her situation than the specific choice she was making. )
The Power by Naomi Alderman published by Back Bay Books (Little, Brown and Company) 2016
What would happen to the structure of society if women had the physical power to defend themselves, or even routinely overpower men?
In this engrossing novel, women develop the ability to generate electricity. Humans already have a lot of electrical wiring internally, but in the book, a scientific intervention intended for one purpose may have inadvertently given rise to the ability for women to generate and control electricity, an have the ability to taze at will from puberty onward.
This changes the world.
The story follows several women, both privileged and disadvantaged, comfortable and abused, in the spotlight and sidelined, who find different ways of utilizing this development to influence the direction their societies evolve in. The story of an intrepid male reporter from Lagos also provides a sympathetic (and at times, alarmed) point of view.
Alderman does a remarkable job of showing the RANGE of impacts that could arise, from fiercely patriarchal societies harming or killing women to maintain control, to government leaders militarizing this new ability; from women who use moderation in utilizing their new powers in societies that have included them, to women who wreak vengeance upon their captors and oppressors in societies were they functionally enslaved.
The way the book ends… just be sure to read what looks like an appendix, but is a key part of the story.
Yes, I’m sure Margaret Atwood is DELIGHTED that she got to make such a concise review-and-play-on-words about this book ON THE FRONT COVER.
As someone who has daydreamed of subtly engineering women to be stronger to decrease abuses, do I think that power struggles could play out as they do in this book? Yes, and perhaps Alderman is more realistic than I am, considering history. When have the powerful ever shared power willingly and peacefully? When have enslaved people ever received justice? When have oppressors ever willingly made amends? My own dark futures in fiction are dark DIFFERENTLY, but yes, I think we agree on the backlash. Because: humans.
Also note: read the acknowledgements. No, really.
Summary: a page-turner of a book with a thoughtful story arc for the characters, thoughtful (and very dramatic) implications across the wide range of conditions, and a dark view which is entirely fair, considering the state of the world. I’m glad I read it.