5 reasons why you should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle right now

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I’ve never read Haruki Murakami before I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. When I did, I fell in love. So if you haven’t read any of his books either, you’ll want to — and just start with Wind-Up Bird, okay? — because:

You’ve never read anything like it

Murakami is weird. While I was reading Wind-Up Bird, I had no idea where the story was going to go next or what new character I was going to meet. He kind of pulls things — weird things — from all over the place, and it’s very surreal. Yet at the same time, it feels totally ordinary.

Here’s what I mean: Wind-Up Bird is about a guy — a rather boring, passive, pushover guy named Toru Okada — whose cat disappears, followed by his wife. That’s pretty normal in a way, but then totally crazy stuff happens to him. His next-door neighbor is a girl who likes to talk about death and is slightly perverted and fakes having a limp and judges bald guys on a rating scale for the wig company she works for part-time. A series of women start consulting with him about his lost cat and have dream sex with him. His brother-in-law is a psychopath with the clout of Oprah Winfrey. And to get his bearings on life, he sits for days in the bottom of a well.

… Right?

Yet underlying these events is a gravity: a man trying to make sense of his life. Through this is a connectedness that spans time and space — between people in history and the present, and between realities and dreams. The story is hard to recap concisely, yet there is a cohesiveness to it. It’s hard to tell where the line between fantasy and reality ever blurred in the first place.

It’s a fast read

But it’s not a short book. You’ve got 600 or so pages to read, and it’ll blow right by you. Because it’s so random and absorbing, you won’t want to stop because where the fuck is it going next? Who knows!

Wind-Up Bird well

It’s kind of beautiful

“I was dying. Like all the other people who live in this world.”

Wind-Up Bird is surreal. That makes sense, given how strange it can be. But even with all the sex talk and the perviness and sometimes the violence, the way the words add up on the page can be quite beautiful and wise. The way the characters’ conversations get at the truth of human nature is affecting.

For instance:

That night, in our darkened bedroom, I lay beside Kumiko, staring at the ceiling and asking myself just how much I really knew about this woman. … In the dark, I thought about blue tissues and patterned toilet paper and beef and green peppers. I had lived with her all this time, unaware how much she hated these things. In themselves they were trivial. Stupid. …

But this was different. It was bothering me in a strange new way, digging at me like a little fish bone caught in the throat. Maybe — just maybe — it was more crucial than it had seemed. … I might be standing in the entrance of something big, and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast world that I had never known. I saw it as a big, dark room. I was standing there holding a cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room.

Would I ever see the rest? … What was the point of my life at all if I was spending it in bed with an unknown companion?

Murakami pays the kind of attention to details and words the way a patient man does his surroundings — and both Murakami and the main character are painstakingly patient men. (OK, well at least I imagine Murakami’s that kind of guy.)

The descriptions can also be pretty funny

Sometimes I’m not sure if certain word choices just got lost in translation or if Murakami meant them to be that way. Like this sentence: “Thanks to the phone call, the spaghetti was a little softer than al dente, but it had not been dealt a mortal blow.”

I find some of the conversations totally ridiculous, too. There’s a woman who nicknames herself Nutmeg, for instance, and the conversations between the main character and his teenage neighbor are inappropriate yet oddly endearing. She’s way too open, he’s way too understanding, and somehow they conduct a perfectly civil conversation about how easy it would be for her to kill him — depending on her mood.

May Kasahara

The neighbor, May Kasahara, via Tumblr.

The chapter titles are like poetry

The Well and Stars
How the Ladder Disappeared

or

The Signal Turns Red
The Long Arm Reaches Out

How the pieces fit together to tell a story is a little like how the characters come and go in each other’s lives: Affecting seemingly little, yet making a ripple that touches everything, and in turn everything else.

Is there a message to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? I’m not sure, but it might have something to do with how little control we have over the reckless current of our lives, and how hard it is to change its direction. It might have something to do with your answer to this:

“… I feel as if my every move is being controlled by some kind of incredibly long arm that’s reaching out from somewhere far away, and that my life has been nothing more than a convenient passageway for all these things moving through it.”

… “Haven’t you ever felt that way?”

The Maze Runner: I have no idea what I’m in for

The Maze Runner movie

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is, well, weird.

Basically, I have no idea whether the movie — which hits theaters this Friday — is going to be awesome or The Langoliers corny. Back when I was a kid, I thought that Stephen King film was the most frightening thing ever (I mean, come on, monsters that eat reality itself?!?!), but when I rewatched it as an adult, it was goofy as hell.

The monsters in The Maze Runner — an easy read of 300-some pages — remind me a lot of those bad CGI creatures. That is, I have no idea how they’re going to manage to look cool on the big screen when their descriptions in the book are so bizarre and … kind of stupid.

Let’s back up. The Maze Runner is sort of like The Langoliers meets The Lord of the Flies. A bunch of boys are thrown into a walled-in area they call the Glade — with no memories of who they were or how they got there — and forced to investigate a deadly, gigantic maze for a way out. The maze surrounds them on all sides, so while they have to form their own organized and civil society (they even have a council) just to survive, the braver few go out into the labyrinth during the day and try to learn its secrets.

The Langoliers movie

The Langoliers: Totally not scaring after the age of 12.

Not everyone gets along, though, and that’s made worse when the newest recruit, Thomas, arrives and weird things start happening. Including the appearance of a girl — the first ever in the Glade.

Cue awkward teenage sexual feelings and, erm, telepathy.

Yes, The Maze Runner is kind of a cheesy book, made weirder by the slang the boys throw around as their own primal island language. Words like “klunk” and “shank” and phrases like “good that” are totally normal conversation. They might as well be jumping from trees and sticking pig’s heads on stakes.

But the monsters are something else. Part slug, part death-metal-torture machine, the Grievers that patrol the maze are … totally ridiculous to imagine and maybe not as frightening to picture as Dashner thought. But then again, I’m not the target age group for this book.

I plan on seeing The Maze Runner in theaters later this month, mostly because I’m just damned curious — either it’s going to be the lamest young adult movie ever (maybe dumber than If I Stay seemed?) or it’s going to be somehow totally amazing, and Grievers will become the stuff of my nightmares. I mean, I dig mazes, so anything’s possible.

Can robotic slugs freak me out? Will I ever be able to take the words “shuck-face” and “Greenie” seriously? I have no idea.

Let’s find out.

Why I won’t be seeing the movie If I Stay

If I Stay

I want to talk about If I Stay, the young adult book by Gayle Forman. All 231 pages rest on one question: What would you do if you had to choose?

As in, if you found yourself looking down on your comatose body after surviving a terrible car crash that kills your parents and only brother, would you want to stick around for all the ensuing pain or hightail it out of there?

When I saw a commercial for If I Stay (out Aug. 22) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s (one of my favorite young actresses) character got all weepy saying, “He wrote me a song,” my heart didn’t flutter. I thought it looked dumb and badly acted:

Like, this scene looks boring:

But maybe the book is good, I thought. OK. Nope. Not any better.

If I Stay has the potential to be good, but it’s a hugely overrated book. While wandering the hospital all corporeal and watching her loved ones talk to her broken body, the character Mia debates whether she wants to stay (and live without her family) or let herself die. You figure the author isn’t going to write a book where the message is “life isn’t that worth living,” so you know she’ll probably choose to live — but the point is more to explore the decision and all its implications. After all, who really gets to choose? Probably doesn’t happen all that often.

So she does a lot of thinking, mostly about music and her boyfriend. Her parents were rockers in their day, and her boyfriend has his own band that’s gaining popularity, but she plays the cello. Lame — or at least she thinks so. Most of her recollections deal with her doubts, not about whether her boyfriend Adam loves her but why he loves her. She can’t believe someone so cool would care about someone as plain as her. She doesn’t feel like she even belongs in her own family.

Then Adam shows up at the hospital (back to real time now), and she’s a mess. Seeing him makes her want to live, and that complicates her decision to call it quits. Because romance.

If I Stay is a pretty easy read — and it ends so abruptly you’ll be disappointed (I didn’t realize the 100 pages at the end of my version was all authory, previewy stuff). I wanted Forman to dig deeper into the question of why someone would stay (and what it means not to), but she never did. She never ventured beyond the obvious or connected all the stuff Mia thought about — music, love, family belonging, friendship — back to her final decision in a way that felt like it actually meant something.

And what about the movie line where Moretz’s character cries and smiles and says, “He wrote me a song”? Yeah, that never even happens.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m chalking this one up as another overrated YA book and skipping the theaters.

Grade: D

A land without its name: a review of Tigana

Tigana

They don’t seem like conquerers … They didn’t seem like men in the midst of a triumph. They just looked tired, as at the end of a very long journey.

I haven’t sat down and read some good, thick fantasy in a while. Tigana was an excellent homecoming — rich in lore without being too fanciful, and hundreds of pages long without being indulgent.

Summarizing Tigana is difficult without revealing the heart of it, and perhaps that’s what gives Guy Gavriel Kay’s language, his story, its magic: Two tyrants, both sorcerers, are vying for domination of the world, but those who have been wronged by them — who have fallen from the grace of their beloved Tigana, a land now cursed so that none can hear its name except those born there (or with magic in their blood) — are gathering together to kill not only he who cast the spell but the other tyrant as well, so that neither shall rule.

This mutinous group, led by the dethroned prince of Tigana, does more sneaking and meddling than war-making, gathering their forces in secret and manipulating the tyrants from afar. Felling one tyrant is difficult enough, so I was eager to see how Kay would go about having them do away with two in a plausible, believable way. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel isn’t riveting, but it is deeply enjoyable in that simmering old way of classic fantasy. Read the language carefully, and you can appreciate the fine craftsmanship that Kay put into it. Tigana is full of lengthy chapters but never lingers on one perspective for too long a time; it keeps the tension taut by introducing strange new characters and interweaving them into the plot, mounting ever higher the grand and fragile house of cards that Kay is building, all centered around the tyrant Brandin who cursed Tigana and the future of the lands.

The characters surprise you. One who stands for all that is hate and vengeance becomes a symbol of good and redemption; another who vows to destroy her enemy comes to love him. Moreover, a controversial scene in the opening chapters left me uncertain of my feelings about one of the central protagonists and caused me to wonder whether the author was mistreating another character for the sake of scandal, but Kay never let that event tarnish the respectability of either or let it govern their fates.

I only thought one character was done injustice: the tyrant Alberico, who is little more than a two-dimensional, exaggerated villain whose ill deeds and manner lack the complexities of the fellow tyrant Brandin’s.

The others, despite their role in the story — a hindrance or a help to the freeing of Tigana — I cared for equally. The ending is bittersweet: both happy and tragic, with a reveal of a secret that was brilliantly concealed and saved for the final moments. The story ends how you suppose it will, but not how you hoped or predicted.

Kay weaves together many small stories, consequential or seemingly trivial, without losing sight of their place in the conflict that’s brewing or forgetting to convey the sense of time it took for it all to come together — years and years, with the ache of centuries and an unmistakable weariness hanging on each word.

The magic here is old, and trembling, and monstrous. It’s used carefully, for fear of repercussion, which always comes. And it’s not restricted to one form but to many: to wizards who hide their power to save their life, to those who walk in a dream realm at night, to those who heal and others who torment and are crippled by their own sorcery.

That magic is never quite enough to fill you. Tigana leaves you yearning.

Grade: A