books #10-13: tan twan eng, haruki murakami, john updike, and neil gaiman

terribly behind on writing about books i’ve been reading, but as i’m currently incapacitated by a viral infection (hooray), seemed as good a time as any to do some catching up. the only other activities i’m capable of enduring (other than the basics) are reading and watching episodes of mindless television as i can barely move, so adding this for some variety. please forgive an inevitable dose of curmudgeonly irritability in these write-ups, not the book’s fault, but all but untreatable discomfort (again, hooray!).

and why are the books numbered? trying to get through 52 books by the end of 2013. definitely behind in writing (and reading) but still somewhat on course.

#10 the garden of evening mists by tan twan eng


the opening sentence of this rather beautiful book is as good as it gets in terms of intriguing a potential reader: ‘on a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of japan.’ what follows from there is a memory tale filled with hurt, mystery, and a slice of history probably not often explored by most western readers (myself included). the central character and our narrator is yun ling teoh, a recently retired judge, suffering from steadily worsening aphasia. she has returned to settle business at an estate where she stayed in malaya during her youth, where she begins to document in her memoirs life during the japanese occupation of malaya and her time after the war. yun ling is the sole survivor of a japanese internment camp in malaya, where she had at one time promised her sister that she would build her a japanese garden. after her escape yun ling decides to fulfill this promise to honor her deceased sister. yun ling visits a family friend in the cameron highlands, who knows a man named nakamura aritomo who lives in a nearby estate, who happens to have been at one time (as mentioned in that alluring opening sentence) the gardener for the emperor. she becomes his apprentice, mysteries are unfolded, tensions leftover from unspeakable atrocities are brought to the surface, and it is all told with a wonderful delicate prose that is never anything but engaging. the book does distract at times with a seeming awareness that it would make a wonderful “oscar caliber” film. it has an epic sweep and all the missed opportunities for love and reconciliation that made stories like the english patient and out of africa so richly embraced by hollywood. even the title evokes an image of a filmmaker’s dream project. but here that occasionally syrupy quality makes the plot points somewhat predictable, and the emotion less compelling, even where the writing is beautiful. regardless, it’s a rich setting and story, and exposure to this time period and conflict makes it a satisfying read even when it feels cliche. there are wonderful discussions about art, creation, and the meditative spirit required for such undertakings, and it’s clear the writing here was constructed with the same care and precision as any of aritomo’s gardens.

#11 1q84 by haruki murakami


easily one of murakami’s most maddening books, 1q84 is set in and around tokyo in a twisted version of 1984 (the year, not the orwell novel, though that is referenced at various points). the narrative concerns two main characters, each chapter alternating between their points of view, aomame (a fitness trainer and hired assassin) and tengo (a math teacher and aspiring novelist). eventually a third character is given POV perspective in the book, ushikawa, but to explain who he is would be complicated and probably reveal far too much of the plot. in short (that’s a lie), aomame and tengo have both seemingly stumbled into an alternate reality that aomame will call ‘1q84’ and tengo will dub ‘the cat town’. in this alternate reality there are two moons in the sky that no one seems to be fazed by, so aomame and tengo attempt to ignore it. aomame gets caught up in a plan to murder the leader of an enigmatic cult sakigake. tengo is brought into a fraudulent plot to ghost write a novel for an escaped member of sakigake (fuka-eri, an eccentric girl of 17) titled ‘air chrysalis’ that may accurately describe her life in spite of the clearly fantastical otherworldly nature of the story. all of these occurrences are being loomed over by the undefined and menacing watch of a group of entities (gods? fairies? spiritual beings?) known only as ‘the little people’, who sakigake may or may not, work for/worship/i don’t know. for most of the book you will wonder how tengo and aomame are connected, but of course their stories do intersect, becoming the driving tension of the novel, rather than all the complicated mechanics and ever-changing rules of this strange, slightly off world. it is in the end, like most of murakami’s work, a love story. the trouble with the book is its length, there’s simply no reason it needs to be as long as it is to effectively tell this story. while complicated, the narrative, especially in book 3 (of 3) becomes bogged down in endless descriptions of people sitting around, making food, staring at stuff, remembering what just happened to them, etc. so what starts out as a taut and compelling mystery becomes turgid and stiff. the dialogue becoming explanatory rather than active and the push towards a satisfying conclusion is immensely labored. the early parts of the book concerned with tengo ghostwriting for fuka-eri, aomame’s relationship with the dowager who gives her assassination jobs, and a particularly tense scene between aomame and the leader of sakigake are as good as any of murakami’s writing. it’s filled with the typical whimsy, creativity, unnerving mystery, and brazen sexuality that makes murakami so enjoyable. it just loses steam. where fuka-eri was such a compelling and nuanced character, she becomes unimportant in the later stages of the narrative. where the little people were a creepy and dangerous concept early on, by book three their powers seem to have been limited and you no longer feel their pressing menace. in fact, the latter half of the book is mostly serendipity and aimlessly wandering, as the characters mostly wait in the final installment. 1q84 desperately needed an editor, because the central story is strangely wonderful, and regardless of these criticisms if you start the book, in spite of the tedium, you won’t be able to resist reading through to the conclusion.

#12 rabbit, run by john updike


it’s difficult to know how to feel about this novel without reading the three subsequent installments updike wrote involving his most famous character, harry ‘rabbit’ angstrom. this installment is intimidatingly well-written, shocking in tone and plot, and filled with baffling, unpredictable characters and dialogue. but you are left without resolution to the central question that propels rabbit through the story. he is guided (or distracted) by his dissatisfaction with his middle class humdrum life and yearns to find purpose elsewhere. obviously the conclusion of this novel sets up an easy transition for a sequel, but updike didn’t write that novel for eleven years (george r. r. martin fans, quit your complaining, fans of this series didn’t get the conclusion rabbit at rest until 1990!), so perhaps after finishing this novel it’s best to put oneself in the mindset of 1960, reading rabbit, run without knowing there would be follow-up novels. in that sense this is a bizarre and discomfiting read. rabbit isn’t by any stretch a likeable character, his behavior and choices are disgustingly self-serving and immature, but perhaps that isn’t the point. his mostly failed attempt at rebellion against the american zeitgeist, i would imagine rang even more profoundly in 1960 than it would today. it’s not that harry angstrom is the exemplar of how to buck the system, but rather that he tries, and yes, falls apart miserably, but the fact that he tried probably spoke volumes at the beginning of that wild decade. this is not to say that the novel doesn’t have power for an audience today, it is startling to have a novel populated by such rash characters, where your time with them is only about recognizing an inherent underlying tension informing such behavior, not necessarily in empathy. it’s as if updike is calling out to his reader ‘we all know dissatisfaction, we all know feeling stuck, and here’s how one man attempted to deal with it, and that’s it, you understand?’. the book is not a plot heavy experience, rabbit leaves his wife to live with another woman (a one time prostitute), he reminisces about his only days of glory as a high school basketball star, makes the acquaintance of a local priest who tries desperately to reconcile him and his pregnant wife, allows some truly awful things to happen along the way, and makes a somewhat open-ended decision by the end of the book that will determine his future fate. while it’s hard to say you like rabbit, you can’t help but continue to wonder and care about him, and in the end the strength of the novel remains in contemplating just how updike managed such an impressive accomplishment.

#13 the ocean at the end of the lane by neil gaiman


this is a book about childhood and memory, and what makes it so wonderful is also what makes it ever so slightly frustrating. our narrator is a grown man returning to his childhood home after attending a funeral. he reflects back on his mystical experiences when he was 7 years old with a neighboring farm and the family that lived there, the seemingly ageless hempstocks. it’s easy to see that much of the narrative is based loosely on gaiman’s own childhood (he all but admits this in his acknowledgments) and he convincingly captures the perspective of a young boy at an age where you are really just beginning to form a framework for how the world actually works. while your sense of wonder is still grand, there’s a frightening, ugly world of adults that’s impossible to comprehend, but is simultaneously your source of reassurance, comprehension, and really the sustenance of your life. the unnamed narrator befriends lettie hempstock, a young girl on the farm, who lives with her mother and her grandmother, who takes him on a journey into a strange and fantastical world populated by odd cloth beings, mandrakes, and nightmarish creatures called ‘the hunger birds’. because of an impulsive action on the narrator’s part this realm bleeds into the “real” world and what ensues threatens not only the kingdoms beyond earthly knowledge, but the fate of the world we know. throughout the novel our narrator hints at a difficulty remembering the specifics and details of events, and many individuals and sights are indescribable or inconceivable, and so you are left wondering how reliable a narrator we have been given for the tale. and in this gaiman perfectly captures childhood experience, that mystifying blending of the fantastical and real, where memory and invention in retrospect become interchangeable. this is what i find brilliant about the novel, but also deeply frustrating, because you are guided through a world that the rules are determined on the spot by forces that the narrator seemingly has no control over. because his old self is looking back on the events without having really determined their entire meaning, you are, yes, very much in his shoes, but also incapable of determining what is a real threat, why certain actions lead to the resolutions that they do, and in the end what any of it really means. there’s a magical whimsy typical of gaiman’s work, drawing heavily from the myths and fairy tales he grew up reading, where perhaps explanation isn’t always necessary, but when, as an example, a malevolent force is bound to an area because lettie hempstock leaves pieces of broken toys in apparently strategic places that also serve as a beacon for the hunger birds, as a reader you desperately want to know so much more about this world and its logic or lack thereof. sadly you are given almost no explanation as to what this ritual is or why it works. the entire novel functions in this way, where almost all of the magic and fantasy works or exists just because. in the end it’s clear that this is not what gaiman is concerned with, as i say, it’s about childhood and the experience of struggling with difficult experiences, but because he can’t help but be an enormously creative writer you feel somewhat teased by this world in which he immerses the reader. you are left with many more questions than answers, but you also know from the conclusion that as a writer he was aiming for that feeling. this isn’t an emotional journey that needed clear moralizing or conclusions, because childhood doesn’t work that way, so in that sense it is hugely successful. but the world of this story seems so rich and full, it’s difficult not to feel slightly dissatisfied not knowing more about its rules and inhabitants.


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