Archive for October, 2012

Super Sad True Love Story / Gary Shteyngart

Set in the near future, this novel envisions a dysfunctional America threatened by Chinese creditors and on the verge of economic collapse.  Books are completely out of fashion, with devices used to text-scan documents for content.  For the most part, young people are functionally illiterate, companies are so consolidated that the country’s airline is called UnitedContinentialDeltaAmerican, and the desperate poor are living in tent cities in New York City.  The story as it unfolds alternates between the diaries of Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old son of Russian immigrants, and the “GlobalTeens” text entries of Eunice Park, his twenty-four-year-old Korean American girlfriend.  While the subject is indeed a dark one, the liberal use of humor, satire, and heartfelt compassion soften the frightening scenario of American’s final days as an independent country.  Lenny is a hapless soul but a caring individual who is always trying to do the right thing.  Eunice is a beautiful young woman, and unlike her boyfriend, very much a child of her time.  They are a mismatched couple but their relationship, while rocky, is a loving one.  Shteyngart is a brilliant satirist and his prose is a delight to read.  While set in the future, it contains more than enough unsettling reality to ring true throughout.  The same can be said of the book’s love story. This novel is a rich concoction–-wildly funny, darkly prophetic, humane, and all of it delivered with an emotional wallop.  It’s opening sentence, “Today I’ve made a major decision: I’m never going to die,” had me hooked from the start.

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1Q84 / Haruki Murakami

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo.  Aomame, a young woman taking a taxi to an appointment, finds herself stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway.  Not wanting to be late to her business meeting, she decides to take an emergency stairway exit to the street level below.  In doing so, she unwittingly enters a parallel world, a place she will come to call 1Q84.  It is a place where subtle changes are gradually revealed, along with a major one; there are two moons in the sky.  Has the reader entered the realm of science fiction?  No, being the typical Murakami novel, it is a place where fantasy and mundane life meld comfortably on the page.  In alternating chapters, the reader is introduced to Tengo, an aspiring writer who has taken on ghostwriting a crude manuscript penned by a teenage girl.  It is called Air Chrysalis and tells the story of a world where there are two moons in the sky and creatures called Little People.  Emerging from the mouth of a dead goat, they seem to be up to something nefarious.  Sound silly?  Taken at face value, the plot is both bizarre and nonsensical.  Fortunately, Murakami has created two fascinating characters in Aomame and Tengo.  As an added bonus, in this parallel world there is a third character, a private investigator, Ushikama, who is pursuing them.  He is working for a religious cult with ties to the Little People.  I found him to be a complex character study, the bad guy who is not nearly as evil as one would expect.  Some will find the story far too uneventful for long stretches.  To me, it is the book’s greatest strengths; Murakami takes his time in creating characters of interest.  This is by means one of his best novels; the story tries to be too many things at once—a love story, a mystery, a detective story, and a journey of self-discovery.  The novel has been compared to Orwell’s 1984, but it does not come close to that story’s complexity or depth.  Thankfully, despite a “hard to swallow” storyline, Murakami skill as a writer kept my interest throughout.  If the reader is willing to suspend belief and be patient, 1Q84 is a parallel world worth visiting.

Although Our Eyes Say Otherwise

Just as the sun has not
vanished by simply being absent,
daylight’s thin shadows,
those solitary creatures that grasp
the feet of everything,
are not erased when night follows.

Rather, like black birds
flocking to roost, shadows solidify,
en masse, and rise
in acknowledgement of starlight
that never disappears,
although our eyes say otherwise.

December’s Eve

Evening makes itself comfortable by six.
The waft of chimney smoke
drifts and twists to the wind’s whims.
Skin pales with the cold.
Spring already seems an eternity away.
Summer’s leftover scraps
have hardened into a haunting crunch.
The withered promises of
political flyers now just tumbling debris.
A wintry chill aggressively
frisks and pats down every pedestrian.
Exertion leaves vapor trails.
Strangers approach, muffled and padded,
then turn into neighbors.
Heads bowed, starlight goes unnoticed.
Such stern beauty seems
to have taken everyone’s breath away.
On this December’s eve,
speechless, you nod as they hurry past.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog / Muriel Barbery.

This novel is set in an elegant apartment building in central Paris.  In fact, the action rarely steps outside its confines.  Its two main characters live there in very different circumstances.  Renee Michel is the building’s concierge.  Short, plain looking, and plump, to the outside world she presents herself as dull and cantankerous.  But behind closed doors, Renee lets her true light shine.  This fifty-four year old woman has a keen interest in art, philosophy, classical music, and is an avid reader of the classics.  Paloma Josse, on the other hand, is a twelve-year old living on the building’s fifth floor.  Like the rest of the tenants, her family is rich and she has grown up in the lap of luxury.  But this pre-teen also has a secret.  She is extremely intelligent, although she goes to great lengths to hide the fact.  Precocious, Paloma has already come to the conclusion that life is meaningless and she is planning to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.  With biting wit, humor, and dollops of philosophical musings, these two characters share the spotlight as they recount their lives and observe the lives of their neighbors.  It takes a third individual, a new tenant in the building, to bring Renee and Paloma out of their shell and blossom.

There is much about the book to praise.  The writing presents eloquent little essays on the meaning of life.  It has thoughtful, informative commentary on art, literature, and music.  The two main characters are interesting and likable.  But occasionally these same praises are also negatives.  Sometimes I just wanted to yell, “lighten up already.”  All the talk about “art” began to feel overblown and is narrowly focused.  Renee and Paloma are in some ways as big of snobs as the rich people they secretly mock.   These quibbles aside, for discriminating tastes, this book will most likely be a delight.  It is nice for a change to read a novel that appeals to both the intellect and the heart.