Book Babble #2 – The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

★★★★☆

I’m a big fan of short stories. It all started after I read Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek. Anyone who knows that collection knows they’re pretty weird stories -animals measured by volume, robot wasps, zombie cafés – but I was really into them. I read more and more short story collections, and ‘weird’ seems to be a common theme. It’s almost as if writers aren’t quite confident enough to carry their strange and unusual ideas out in a full-length novel, so they opt for short stories instead.

I knew Murakami’s stuff was weird because my dad had been reading 1Q84 and told me about all the strange and wonderful things that happened in it. I wasn’t allowed to read it at the time, though, so I promptly forgot about it – until a few weeks ago. I found a very interesting-looking cover in Waterstones and recognised 1Q84, and then picked up Norwegian Wood as it had its own recommendation card. I was thoroughly intrigued, but we couldn’t find our copy of Norwegian Wood at home so I instead had a go out The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami’s short story collection.

Every one of these stories made me laugh, whether it was because the writing was funny or the story itself was just so bizarre or the ending so unexpected. Each story was, I can only assume, well-translated, although none of them felt ‘Japanese’, per se – they could be set anywhere. The stories range from family affairs (one story is literally called ‘Family Affair’) to urban adventures to unconventional mysteries, but all of them were very Murakami. Here are some recurring themes I noticed:

  • Spaghetti (or miso soup, or tofu)
  • Ears
  • Things vanishing (like elephants!)
  • Housewives
  • Obscure composers
  • American rock bands
  • Cats
  • Percentages
  • Sudden phone calls

In fact, I just found a Murakami bingo board by Incidental Comics, so I wasn’t exaggerating:

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I mentioned unexpected endings. This was a common occurrence in The Elephant Vanishes, but oftentimes perfectly justified. All too often, stories focus on having a perfectly formed beginning, middle and end, but it’s as if Murakami writes his story and finishes it when he has nothing more to add, regardless of how complete it feels. In fact, some stories might seem ‘pointless’ to some readers – if there’s no real conclusion, then why tell it? But these are the exact type of stories that I love. He plays around with structure quite a lot, especially in The Kangaroo Communiqué and The Fall of the Roman Empire (etc), and whilst every story retains its Murakaminess, each is distinctive.

Rather than themes, clichés and storylines, in fact, the largest similarities between these stories are their narrators. They’re all apathetic – they are going through what they’re going through, they don’t think too much of anything, they deal with the situation and they simply tell their story. In that sense, the reader is forced to come up with their own emotional responses. Not that we don’t do this when reading any other stories, but nothing is influencing us when it comes to reactions.

I’d thought the previous story collections I’d read were weird or unconventional before, but Murakami takes the cake. I look forward to reading Norwegian Wood next, and hopefully many more of his works.

(My favourite story from this collection has to be The Second Bakery Attack).

 

 

Book Babble #1 – A Little Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

★★★★★

I first happened upon A Little Life whilst tidying the shelves at Book Cycle. I had only just finished A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, so I can only assume Japanese names were fresh in my mind. It was tucked away in the unloved ‘X, Y & Z’ section (which was made up of about 75% Zusak and 15% Zweig), and I only really noticed it because I’d never seen it there before. It was thicker than most books, and the cover was nice and bold but nothing special – nothing like the wonderful use of ‘Orgasmic Man’ by Peter Hujar that the hardback version has. The blurb on the back didn’t give me much information, either – all I knew was that it involved a group of university students. I figured I’d give it a go; the book was free, after all.

After doing some research I was surprised to learn I had apparently been living under a rock and this book had been immensely popular, despite its length. However, I soon realised, this book had a serious case of Marmite: either you loved it or hated it. I watched a couple of vague reviews, one woman damning it to Hell and the other tearing up as she described its beauty. Typically, I’m on the more cynical, critical side of the argument, so I began reading A Little Life with slightly low expectations.

In short, A Little Life is about four friends who meet at university – Malcolm, an architect, JB, an artist, Willem, an actor and Jude, a lawyer. It follows their lives from their twenties to their fifties. I can’t say much more. Things started off slow at first. I was interested, but how could I be invested? I wasn’t sure of the writing style or the dialogue to begin with, and nothing instantly grabbed my attention. I liked it, but didn’t dedicate much time to it. I flipped through pages absent-mindedly whilst eating my lunch, not expecting much. The characters were cute, some of it was witty, whatever.

And then suddenly the book developed an endless tunnel of layers. The further I sunk into its pages, the more the writing style and the characters began to resonate with me. It was very much, in that sense, like peeling an onion when you’re ravenously hungry and you have a delicious onion omelette planned, for lack of a better analogy. And yes, onions make you cry. The more I read this book, the stronger my connection with the characters grew. It is very much a character-driven novel, so, of course, that’s crucial.  This is in no way a light-hearted book. Don’t let the first few pages fool you (despite the fantastic hints dropped throughout the first chapters). It tackles exceptionally difficult topics – sexual abuse, self harm and domestic violence to name a few – and although the writing is not graphic, per se, it sugarcoats nothing.

This book became almost an obsession. As soon as I found myself with a free period at college, I’d practically sprint to the library and start reading it. An hour was never enough, and I’d often find myself finally dragging myself out of the world of A Little Life to find my next lesson had started ten minutes ago. I had not had such a fixation with a book for a long, long time. The last lines I’d read were constantly whirring in my mind, and I thought of its characters so fondly that one might mistake them for my close friends. There was one instance, I recall, when I had to climb a flight of stairs and thought to myself, “This is ridiculous! I can’t climb those; my legs won’t be able to manage it. Why isn’t there a lift?” You see, one of the characters, Jude, has quite severe leg injuries and struggles greatly with walking and climbing long distances. A Little Life had taken over mine.

I cried whilst reading this book five times. I have never cried whilst reading a book before, and the only movie that made me cry was Donnie Darko. I love books, but I’m not a very emotional person when it comes to entertainment. Several parts made me cry, and I had to stop reading whilst I ate my lunch because I couldn’t even breathe properly. I sobbed, totally and completely, at one part of the book and also at the end – simply because it had finished. How could something I love so much end? It was a loss of life, a loss of a limb. I raced through this book and all its 700+ pages, but berated myself for doing so. It was impossible not to inhale the whole thing, but I wished I had the willpower to savour it.

Most of the criticisms for this book revolve around the fact that it’s too unrealistic both in its positive and negative experiences. For example, some characters suffer unimaginable trauma, but some are impossibly successful. I see this as a conscious decision. This is a work of fiction. The highs and lows are taken to the extreme – it’s almost as if it’s a study on what the human body and mind can endure. And I thought this was a good thing. Others have also off-handedly referred to this as “torture porn” and perhaps the descriptions of abuse will be difficult for some readers to deal with, but despite some scenes being very hard to read, it’s not an unpleasant book. This book has a central, overwhelmingly positive theme, and that is friendship.

I had to give this five stars in my head as it’s had such a strong impact on me. I want to talk about it so much more, but it’s difficult to discuss without spoiling things. I urge anyone to read it, however. I always give it its own special shelf at Book Cycle when it pops up every so often. Everyone deserves a chance to read this novel.

Book Cycle

Every Sunday lunchtime I take a ten minute walk through the neighbourhood to get to Book Cycle, where I volunteer for a couple of hours. It’s a local bookshop, but nothing like Waterstones. The clue’s in the name!

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I refer to Book Cycle as a bookshop but, strictly speaking, it isn’t. Let me explain:

  • The books inside Book Cycle have been donated to us. Either from locals, schools or even the BBC, all of these books are given to us and my job as a volunteer is to put them on the shelves. If they’re not in good condition, we send them off to be recycled.
  • ‘Customers’ can take three books a day, and they essentially decide the price. Technically, it’s a donation – some people pay us 20p, some £5, and some don’t have any money at all.
  • Certain children’s books and information books are packed and sent off to schools in Africa – Book Cycle is a charity, too!

Any book-lover would be delighted at the sound of this. Before I was a volunteer, I was a ‘customer’, and visiting Book Cycle has always been a treat. The shelves are constantly restocked and cycled and I’ve found some great books there – A Little Life, A Tale For The Time Being, Slaughterhouse 5, Farewell to Arms, and even some rare poetry collections – and, of course, no book goes to waste.

I won’t lie – I’m definitely not a fan of Kindles. To be honest, I’m anti-ebooks altogether. To me, a book should be an object, something you can hold and flick and smell and just feel. A file on a mobile device? That’s not a book, that’s text. We often receive donations in great bulks, as if people are clearing out their shelves and lofts and finally storing their library on a tablet. Half of the people who enter Book Cycle see it as a dumping ground; the other half, paradise.

Book Cycle originally began locally with just a couple of shops but it is now beginning to spread worldwide. Its founder was inspired to create these bookshops after they found a load of old books tossed away in a skip. Most of the shops are old, unused libraries and the like that volunteers restore in their own efforts. Donating books to charity shops is fine until you have three boxes worth – the people are likely to shove them in the tip. But at Book Cycle, all books are put to good use, and don’t just benefit the local community but also the schools in Africa.

I think Book Cycles would be beneficial all across the world. If you love books and hate seeing them tossed away and unloved, creating your own Book Cycle could do your community wonders. Our volunteers are all dedicated and diligent and we also put on events to raise money – not a single Book Cycle member is paid. A bookshop where you choose the price? I can’t think of anything better.