March 4, 2015

Monthly Reading Wrap-up: February 2015

I read nine (9) books in February, but before you start getting really impressed by my reading speed I will admit up front that:
  • none of these books was very long ...
  • they were all fast, easy reads ...
  • one was a children's chapter book ...
  • and three of them were comics.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
Sputnik Sweetheart is a melancholy love story, a detective story, and a surreal mystery all wrapped up into a meditation on the human condition of longing and loneliness.

I read this book as a buddy read with Sabrina at Unmanaged Mischief. She has a fantastic channel on YouTube that you should check out. I also read this as part of my own reading goals for 2015 to read at least one piece of Japanese Literature per month.

I've written a full review of Sputnik Sweetheart that you can find here.

Recommended: Recommended for those who like to read Japanese literature or who have read other works by Murakami. If you don't like magical realism or can't stand ambiguous endings, then you might want to give this one a pass.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back."

Giovanni's Room is set in 1950s Paris. It is about an American and other expatriates living lives of sexual liaisons outside of the conventional morality of the time - most especially outside of the conventional morality of America. The main character is torn between his desire to live a life of passion with those of his same sex and an equally strong desire to follow a conventional pathway of marriage, home, and children. Through the main character we find the above quote about home to be applicable to both country and relationships - sometimes you can never go back. I found the writing to be beautiful, the story depressing, and the characters overly self involved. Even so, I liked the book immensely!

I read this book as part of my personal reading goals for Black History Month.

Many reading and other events took place online during the month of February for Black History Month. One of these events was #ReadSoulLit, a photo challenge, hosted by Didi via both Twitter and Instagram. She also hosted various reader videos on her YouTube channel, frenchiedee. You can find out more about #ReadSoulLit on her blog, Brown Girl Reading. I highly recommend both her blog and her YouTube channel!

Recommended: Recommended if you like beautiful writing, stories of sexual exploration, or stories of ex-pats living in Paris during mid-twentieth century.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Family by J. California Cooper
Family is one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read. It is set in the Civil War era and is the history of four generations of a slave family. It is a novel filled with some of the greatest ugliness that humankind can inflict on each other as well as a testament to love, hope, persistence, and family.

I read this book as part of my personal reading goals for Black History Month.

Watch this lovely video of J. California Cooper reading her "Wild Stars Seeking Midnight" in 2007 or this interview with the author in 2013.

Recommended: Everyone should read this!
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
Odd and the Frost Giants is a short novel inspired by Norse Mythology. It is full of gods and giants and is simply magical. A little boy named Odd comes across a fox, a bear, and an eagle while out in the forests of Norway. They tell a strange story and then embark with Odd on a journey to save Asgard from the Frost Giants and bring Winter to an end.

Gaiman's stories are hit and miss for me, but this one is absolutely delightful.

Gaiman shines when reading his own work and I had the good fortune to hear him read a part of this story a few years back at UCLA. Here is a video snippet of Gaiman reading from this book (from an appearance at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA).

Recommended: Fans of Gaiman must read this. I would also recommend it to those interested in mythology or to those simply looking for a delightful and magical read.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Iron Jackal (Ketty Jay) by Chris Wooding
I'm tempted to say, "Just read it! It's FUN!" The Iron Jackal is non-stop action packed adventure with a bunch of wisecracking characters aboard the Ketty Jay (spacecraft) that reminds me of the crew of Joss Whedon's Firefly. The crew of the Ketty Jay are a bunch of misfits who learn to pull together and become the family that none of them has outside of the crew.

The Iron Jackal is the third of four books about the crew of the Ketty Jay.

Recommended: Recommended for those who like action-adventure, wise-cracking characters that you can come to love, and just all around fun reading. Those who liked the Firefly series by Joss Whedon will probably LOVE this series.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad) by David Eddings
A fantasy book full of adventure, magic, and mystery. It is a story of war between gods and the men who follow those gods. Sorcerers, prophecies, objects of immense power, and quests fill this fantasy. What I like best about this first book in a series of five, is the storytelling. I feel that Eddings is telling me an ancient story and I really want to know what happens next. Good thing I've got the next book in the series!

Recommended: Recommended for those who like classic fantasy and a good story.
Rating: not yet rated (I will rate this when I've finished the series)

Hawkeye: My Life As a Weapon by Matt Fraction
Hawkeye: Little Hits by Matt Fraction
Hawkeye: L.A. Woman by Matt Fraction
Comic series about Marvel character Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, as he fights for justice with Kate Bishop, aka Hawkeye and ex-Young Avenger, by his side. These comics are fast paced and tell the story of what Clint Barton does when he's not being an Avenger. Because of this, familiarity with the Avengers story lines are not necessary to enjoy these Hawkeye comics. The third in the series, L.A. Woman, features Kate Bishop, a real kick-ass lady!

For a much better look at these comics, you really should go visit Memory Scarlett at her blog, In the Forest of Stories. She is much more expert with comics in general and Hawkeye comics (and Kate Bishop!) in particular:

Recommended: For fans of the Avengers, Marvel comics, kick-ass action, and style.
Rating: 3 and 4 stars out of 5
(5 stars for the stylish artwork that made me want to rip my copies apart to frame the individual issue cover art)

March 3, 2015

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?

One of my reading goals for 2015 is to read a piece of Japanese literature per month and I chose Sputnik Sweetheart as my choice for February. I'm not the only one reading Japanese Literature this year. Sabrina at Unmanaged Mischief has a reading project called Year of Murakami and plans to read twelve books by Murakami this year. While my reading project is not focused exclusively on this one author, I am reading several Murakami novels. Sabrina was reading Sputnik Sweetheart in February so I thought I'd join her.

Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by K, a teacher in love with an aspiring novelist named Sumire. Sumire views K as her best friend but is, herself, smitten with a sophisticated businesswoman named Miu. Sumire spends many hours talking with K about the big questions of life before accompanying Miu to Europe and then on to a tiny Greek island. It is on this Greek island that Sumire reveals to Miu that she is in love with her, but this love is not reciprocated. Soon after this revelation, Sumire disappears "like smoke." Miu makes a desperate call for help to K who hurries off to the Greek island in search of his friend. K discovers that something very strange has happened to Sumire even as he has his own haunting visions and uncovers the strange history of Miu.

Sputnik Sweetheart is a melancholy love story, a detective story, and a surreal mystery all wrapped up into a meditation on the human condition of longing and loneliness.

Themes, Writing, Thoughts
The usual Murakami themes of isolation, loneliness, and alienation are present in Sputnik Sweetheart. The title refers, in part, to Sputnik 2. Sputnik 2 was the first spaceship to carry a living animal, a dog named Laika, into space. It was rumored that Laika lived for a while, circling alone above the Earth. This was likely not true, but the image of a dog looking longingly out the window at the Earth persists. This image is used by Murakami in Sputnik Sweetheart to represent the human condition of longing and loneliness. We streak soundlessly, alone, across life. We are all truly alone when it comes down to it. We are like Sputniks orbiting around each other in isolation, unable to connect.

In Sputnik Sweetheart the characters are not only alienated from each other, but are also alienated from themselves and experience a type of self obliteration. Sumire tells K that she has "this strange feeling I'm not myself anymore" and appears to melt away "like a chunk of ice left out in the sun." She mysteriously flees the real world. This is where the story becomes Murakami-esque. Has Sumire truly vanished or has she simply had a mental break? Is Murakami using her physical disappearance as a psychological metaphor? We are left to ask ourselves what is real and what is unreal. Perhaps the more accurate question should be, "What is true?" A fictional account can represent the truth of something while still being fiction. I'm reminded of a quote from another novel by Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: "More often than not I've observed that convenient approximations bring you closest to comprehending the true nature of things." Perhaps the physical disappearance of Sumire in the story is a convenient approximation of the true nature of Sumire's psychological condition. Murakami does not always make it clear when he is using a "sign or a symbol" and often requires us to put our own interpretation on things, and this can be uncomfortable. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami draws us into what appears to be a straightforward storyline and mystery, but then he releases us into a place that does not have clear lines.

I anticipated the themes presented in Sputnik Sweetheart since they are common to all of Murakami's works that I have read thus far. He handles these themes in an unusual way. I hesitate to call what Murakami does Magical Realism, since I think it goes beyond that, but I'm not sure what else to call it. I generally find meaning in Murakami's works in a less cognitive way. I have written a bit about this in the essay and book reviews that are linked below.

The shift from straightforward storyline into that fuzzy weird place was a bit disconcerting in Sputnik Sweetheart because it took place quite late in the story. I'm not sure what to make of that yet. As is usual with my reading of Murakami, I will have to let this book and story settle into a less cognitive area of my brain and see what comes of it in future. I anticipate that I will make some odd connections much later when I least expect it!

I recommend Sputnik Sweetheart for those who like to read Japanese literature and/or those specifically interested in the works of Haruki Murakami. I also recommend it for those interested in the themes of loneliness, longing, and alienation and/or those with an interest in psychological metaphor. Those who can not abide story lines with ambiguous or blurry lines of reality might want to take a pass on this.

More of my writing about Murakami is available on my personal essay blog, Tip of the Iceberg. You can find those pieces here if you are interested: