Piercing – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)

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After reading and enjoying In the Miso Soup, I spotted this book shortly afterwards! Fairly short and so I gave it a go:

Kawashima Masayuki is a graphic designer living in Tokyo with his wife, Yoko, and their healthy baby girl. Outwardly, their lives are a picture of happiness. Every night, however, unable to sleep, Kawashima creeps from his bed and stands over his newborn child with an ice-pick in his hand, and an almost visceral desire to use it.

The book follows the decision by Masayuki to carry out a murder in order to satisfy the desire in him to harm his child. He decides that this best be a prostitute, and done under a false name. He makes his excuses and books a hotel room for a week.

His plan is set – he will hire a prostitute specialising in BDSM, have her tied up, and use that opportunity to carry out his plans. Only it turns out the prostitute sent to him is just as traumitised psychologically as he is – her upbringing too is effecting her thoughts.

The book is creepy in it’s own way as two damaged people misunderstand each other through the own false interpretations of the world: one perhaps through over-trusting, the over through distrust. This leads to some interesting insights into how the thought life of each person can interpret the same events in very different lights; a sort of cognitive-dissonance.

Though not as engaging as In the Miso Soup, this book follows very much a similar vein of writing – people with evil intentions facing various challenges in Tokyo night-life. Brutality and no barriers to descriptions of cruelties present, and absence of resolution completes it. I quite like this about Ryu Murakami though – the endings are very interesting in their “incompleteness”.

I felt in some ways that this book was trying to be creepy though. There were some clever bits, but other parts felt a little forced and predictable.

Perhaps if you have read In the Miso Soup this might be worth a read, but I certainly preferred the former! I will read more Murakami though, certainly an interesting guy in a strange way.

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Day of the Oprichnik – Vladimir Sorokin (Book Review)

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I haven’t read much modern Russian literature and so this is my first!

Moscow, 2028. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull Andrei Danilovich Komiaga out of his drunken stupor. But wait—that’s just his ring tone. So begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar’s most trusted courtiers—and one of the country’s most feared men.

In this new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy, Komiaga will attend extravagant parties, partake in brutal executions, and consume an arsenal of drugs. He will rape and pillage, and he will be moved to tears by the sweetly sung songs of his homeland.

The book follows almost along the lines of the famous A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn but from a different class of people altogether. We follow Andrei throughout an average day in his life, from waking up and going to bed. As a member of the feared oprichnina, his duties include serving the tsar and mostly this means stamping out anyone who wonder slander the regime. His first meeting the day involves the execution of a nobleman, and the rape of his wife – all for the glory of the state, of course.

As we follow his day we get a glimpse of this “New Russia” too, and see the open humiliation of those who hold different ideologies or break certain rules, such as swearing.

Though well-written an interesting in places, perhaps I missed a lot of nuance in this book due to not being overly familiar with certain happenings in modern Russia (this book often been considered as a sort of satire of it). The following along the lines of Ivan Denisovich is interesting though, and seeing a modern take on such a famous Russian classic was definitely worth the time taken.

There are certain scenes in this book which I found a little uncomfortable to read, and it’s likely that if you have read you will know which I am referring too. Perhaps I get that particular remark on Russian culture though…

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)

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I’ll be honest, I was attracted by the strange title and interesting front-cover. I’m also trying to read shorter books in preparation of facing down War and Peace later in the year. But this was a pleasant (?) surprise:

 In the Miso Soup tells of Frank, an overweight American tourist who has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo’s sleazy nightlife. But Frank’s behavior is so strange that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion—that his new client is in fact the serial killer currently terrorizing the city. It is not until later, however, that Kenji learns exactly how much he has to fear and how irrevocably his encounter with this great white whale of an American will change his life.

Kenji, a young Japanese man, makes living from taking foreigners around Tokyo’s nightlife, most those with the intention of finding strip clubs or hiring prostitutes. Kenji being well connected makes a fair living from this, though un-registered as a tour guide.

When he is hired for three nights on the run up to New Years Eve by an American named Frank, he first suspects a similar job to usual – a business man in the country for a few days looking to find a prostitute before leaving back to his home life in America. But, something about Frank is very strange, and Kenji becomes unnerved by suspicions of Franks true identity and desires.

The book, unsurprisingly, is very dark and described in such detail as to only be recommended with those who approach it expecting this. The descriptions of murders around Tokyo and the “sleazy nightlife” are skimped out on, and are given as graphically as possible. Though perhaps in a way to shock the reader to the realities of the life there.

It was truly saddening to hear even fictitious lives of prostitutes in Japan who are often young and down on their luck, meaning they sell “there only marketable thing”: their body. The men who approach them are looking only for a bit of fun, but for them it’s a life which has become inescapable.

I found myself drawn into the darkness of the world portrayed, and I found it hard to stop reading out of curiosity for what will happen next. I don’t often read thrillers but if many are like this one, perhaps I should…

I recommend this for anyone interesting in Japanese life or literature, but only if you approach it knowing it’s a little dark: not as bad as American Psycho, but certainly in a similar vein!

The ending was very poetic in a way, and left a lot of things open intentionally it seems, as fitting for the story.

Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames (Book Review)

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I was interested in this book when I first heard about, though never actually got around to buying it until recently, and am I glad I did!

Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld. 

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

The book follows a group of mercenaries, who were once regarded as the greatest band of fighters, coming out of retirement for one last mission: to rescue their leaders daughter from a city under siege.

Gabriel, once “Golden Gabe” is now a nervous, middle-aged man and seeks the help of his friends for what is essentially regarded as a suicide mission. Clay “Slowhand” has since settled down and has a young daughter; Moog the magician has retired to his tower to search for a cure of a disease regarded as incurable; and Matrick, their former rogue has become an over-weight king. Ganelon, they assume, hates them all. Gabe sets out to recruit the team again and cross thousands of miles of treacherous terrain to return his daughter home.

The book contains all sorts of great fantasy tropes and nods to popular series, and the “band” dynamic of mercenaries, though strange, works really well!

There are parts in this which are genuinely hilarious and I found myself re-reading paragraphs that were so great. The characters are all unique and I wish we had access to their old adventures often alluded to as well. There are also some moving parts of the book which, intertwined with the comedy, works seamlessly, making it hard to believe that this is Eames first published book; and well deserved it is!

The next book in this series is due for release this year and I for one can’t wait for it to be published – a book I’m very likely to re-read; a genuine pleasure.

If you are a fan of fantasy books or games, then this book is definitely worth your time. Eames writes like someone who knows how to make you laugh and pull your heart-strings too, and seemingly effortlessly draws out a story which makes finishing the novel sad for the reader.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (Book Review)

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I read this after reading much about it in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I often saw it in book shops on the “Must Reads” tables, and so reading it was inevitable:

Hundreds of years in the future, the World Controllers have created an ideal civilization. Its members, shaped by genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning, are productive and content in roles they have been assigned at conception. Government-sanctioned drugs and recreational sex ensure that everyone is a happy, unquestioning consumer; messy emotions have been anesthetized and private attachments are considered obscene. Only Bernard Marx is discontented, developing an unnatural desire for solitude and a distaste for compulsory promiscuity. When he brings back a young man from one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old unenlightened ways still continue, he unleashes a dramatic clash of cultures that will force him to consider whether freedom, dignity, and individuality are worth suffering for.

The book essentially follows two main characters who are living in a future where amusement and consumership are held in the highest regard, and where it is considered the height of barbarism to commit to only one other human in a monogamous relationship, or to (worst of all) became a parent. Babies are grown in test-tubes in this future, and abortion clinics are there for emergencies (though from a very young age, contraception is taught to be of the utmost importance).

Bernard Marx struggles in this society as he has found within himself another desire – a desire to be an individual. This world which humans exchange sex and drugs so casually sickens him, and he wishes to abandon his base desires in order to search deeper meaning – though this is actively discouraged!

Upon bringing back a “savage” (raised by a mother, taught monogamy, and to whom religion is very important) to “civilised” society, the savage shocks many with his views and disgust towards this world. Even when the girl he is in love with offers him sex so casually, he is infuriated and refuses this meaninglessness she has attached to offering her body to men.

The book is a strange one as it differs from Orwell’s 1984 in a few stark ways:

Firstly, the world is controlled through the means of pleasure and an abundance of amusement. This keeps the population so disinterested in seeking out individualism or meaning, as they are kept sedated from doing so by having all they seemingly need.

Secondly, the characters revolt against the system isn’t so much a physical one in attacking the government, but a mental one in which he must battle the things he has been taught as normative since birth (and often failing to do so).

Thirdly, the number of those in revolt against the system are so few as to make their impact near negligible. Rather than groups of “rebels”, there are only two people within the novel who seemingly want to change the world, or at least survive it differently.

There are moments when the book took a little inferring due to leaps in character development with little build-up, but otherwise it was written fairly well and with haunting clarity.

Postman suggests (and I would tend to agree) that insofar as predicting the future, Huxley was much more on target: We now have an abundance of entertainment and attach a great deal to being constantly amused (affecting all areas of our life from religion to education); we take little to no interest in politics or meaning unless it directly affects us and our comfort; and (without perhaps sounding prudish) we have diminished the meaning of sex to little more than a physical exchange, and monogamy to little more than an outdated way of viewing relationships. We are entering this “Brave New World”, not in such a dramatic way, but step-by-step.

Penance – Kanae Minato (Book Review)

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After reading Confessions earlier this year, I immediately bought Manato’s second book as soon as I heard there was one!

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emily by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emily is found murdered hours later. 
Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emily’s body was discovered. Asako, Emily’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder. 

This book is similar to Confessions in some aspects – it follows essentially the results of one persons act of vengeance. After the murder of Emily, Asako vows that her friends will pay if they do not find the murderer or pay a kind of penance for not saving her daughter.

As a result of this, the book follows the girls lives as they grow up with both the trauma of finding their dead friend, and the threat from her mother. Each follows a different path in life with different consequences stemming from this promise of revenge.

I couldn’t help but think that this novel would have benefited more from being longer, however, as I didn’t feel overly attached to many of the characters or their ensuing fate. In fact I struggled to recall one of the girls story line until it was repeated in a conversation in the final chapter.

The story ends with a solid conclusion – where the actions of one are considered with the effects on the many.

It does seem like Minato has a knack for endings though and this novel is again rounded off perfectly – I felt completely satisfied with the ending, which is something which is often hard to attain.

Though perhaps not as good as Confessions, it is still worth the read. I’m hoping for many more books from this author, though I’d like to see some more variety in the stories. Clearly a very talented writer.

Notes from Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky (Book Review)

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I have for a while been intending to pick up a copy of this book, though could never find the version I liked anywhere (the one pictured!). Pevear and Volokhonsky are fantastic translators, and so picking up theirs was a must:

One of the most remarkable characters in literature, the unnamed narrator is a former official who has defiantly withdrawn into an underground existence. In full retreat from society, he scrawls a passionate, obsessive, self-contradictory narrative that serves as a devastating attack on social utopianism and an assertion of man’s essentially irrational nature.

The book is narrated by a man who has long since began living outside of the societal norm, and in an essentially nihilistic existence. He disdains everyone and bears life unwell day to day.

There’s a lot in this book which is reminiscent to Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt and seems to me to face a similar though opposite saddening experience – namely the desire for salvation from a life of prostitution. The difference is, that the “hero” of this book has no desire to save Liza, but to humiliate her – “unable to love” as he has become. Even in a scene where the two seemingly from passion alone have relations, he follows it up by offering her money – intending to insult her.

The narrator, referred to by many as the “Underground Man”, is an unlikable and vengeful man who delights in offering insults and ruining the hope those around him. He represents though, and propounds in his notes, an interesting idea which is perhaps true: that the idea of society being able to progress it’s way out of suffering is an unachievable goal, due to man’s perplexing addiction to suffering: give a man wealth, food, shelter, and women, and he will soon “suffer” from boredom – we are unable to be satisfied fully and so suffering follows us, no matter what negative aspects we avoid.

An interesting philosphical fiction from Dostoevsky as he began what are considered his major works in his later years. Short and worth a read – though be prepared for a challenge in terms of how we perceive humanities ability (or even desire!) to achieve happiness.