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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who Is This Haruki Murakami Fella?

Here's a piece of under-the-radar publishing news from last week: Japanese novelist Huraki Murakami's most recent novel, 1Q84, will be published in English translation this October. The novel appeared in two volumes in April 2009 and May 2010 in Japan, but will be published as a single thousand-page volume in English.

And there was much rejoicing. It's been more than four years since his last English-translation novel After Dark came out. As the Guardian puts it, "Harry Potter-style late-night bookshop openings may be pushing it, but such is the passion of Murakami's loyal readers that publication will certainly be an event."

And I'm excited too. But here's what's strange. I've never read Murakami. He's the one writer I think for whom my fascination is most disproportionate to the amount of actual time I've spent reading him. I know several people who count The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle among their favorite novels of all time. And people I ask about Murakami, to a person, absolutely rave about Kafka On the Shore. And both of those novels have been on my shelf for years, sadly untouched.

Why haven't I read him? I don't know, I honestly don't. It's a riddle as enigmatic as some of Murakami's plots (apparently). Maybe it's something to do with the anticipation being sweeter than the actual anticipated. Maybe it has something to do with my hesitancy toward books in translation. Maybe it's just that I'm an idiot. The LA Times blog, in its announcement about 1Q84 says that Murakami has "an avid following of readers who crave smart and challenging literature." I like smart literature. I like to be challenged. So not having read Murakami seems like a rather glaring omission. 

So, I need your help, Murakami fans, of which I know there are many. Make the case for HMur. Why should I stop what I'm doing right this second and go grab one of his novels?  Which should I start with, as you have my word that I'll read at least one of his novels before 1Q84 is published?

34 comments:

  1. I am just dittoing your post. I have Kafka on the Shore sitting unread, I too am rather intrigued by Murakami despite not having read him, and I'm even a bit excited about 1Q84 again despite not being familiar with his work. A situation we both must rectify.

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  2. I've read three of Murakami's books. About a year ago, only a few were available on Kindle, so I made Kafka on the Shore my first read of his works. It was amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing. Next I tried Sputnik Sweetheart, which was good, though not amazing.

    And then, finally, a whole bunch of his books were made available in the Kindle store, so I downloaded Wind -Up Bird Chronicle, because I had heard fantastic things about it. Boy did it turn out to be a real snooze. There was all this talk about wells...? I finally decided to switch to Norwegian Wood, but the opening chapter of that ALSO talks about wells! It took me quite a while to finish Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I still haven't finished Norwegian Wood. I know I will, and I'm sure I'll read more of his books, but I don't think I'll ever find one I loved as much as Kafka on the Shore.

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  3. I, too, have yet to read any HM, but I've had Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World highly recommended to me. If you like weird.

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  4. A couple of years ago I read the first chapter of "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" on the web and ran out to buy the book but got distracted and have never read it. Meanwhile, I picked up "Sputnik Sweetheart" and one other whose title escapes me. "Sweetheart" was entirely disappointing and, despite how intriguing I found that chapter of "Wind-Up," I haven't made the effort to read the rest of the book. So I don't know what all the hubub is. But people love him.

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  5. I don't have a copy of any of his books on my shelf, but other than that minor detail, I'm in the exact same position. I'm gonna check back for other peoples answers. Katie is already one vote towards Kafka on the Shore.

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  6. I'm just another unhelpful commenter here. I'll be checking back to see what other people recommend because I find myself in the same situation...

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  7. @Trisha - I love the cover for Kafka on the shore. Every once in awhile I take it down just to giggle at it. Maybe a summer Murakami reading club?

    @Katie - Interesting - so you stand in pretty stark contrast to the folks who loved Bird Chronicle. Was it just that it was too detailed about the mundane that made it dull? Or something more specific you could point out? But I'm heartened to hear the ringing endorsement for Kafka.

    @Kathy - I do like weird. And smart. And detailed. Those two novels you mention seem to be his "deep cut" books.

    @Scott - Yeah, people love him. But people also love Stephenie Meyer. Gotta find out about Murakami for myself - given the seeming swing of opinion from book to book here.

    @Ben - Yeah, can't wait to see if I can find myself convinced to read him sooner rather than later (but definitely before 1Q84 comes out.)

    @Kerry - Cool - thanks for following along. Hopefully someone will come along soon either gushin' or hatin'!

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  8. Here's a comment that just came in via email - I'd say it's a positive review:

    I started with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a beach in Bora Bora many years ago, and I was so moved, intrigued, fascinated, mystified, curious, appalled, horrified, and gratified by the experience that Murikami shot to the top of my favorite authors list and Wind-Up became by favorite book of all time. Are you still in HNL? Find a warm beach and start there.

    Katie Post

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  9. Read ANYTHING. I just started reading him last years, so far I've read 2 novels, 1 short story collection and 1 non-fiction. This year lined up I'm hoping to read another 2 novels. And so far everything has been aweseome, so I'd just grab one you already have and dig in!

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  10. I am a Murakami fan wannabe. He just seems like the kind of quirky, intelligent author that I should love. So I started out reading this memoir "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" and I loved it. Cool dude, this Haruki. I tried a collection of his short stories on audio, and it didn't work. I have Wind-Up Bird and Kafka on my shelves. I need to get on the bus with this one too.

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  11. I have read about five of his books and I plan to get to the last few soon (I own but have not read Kafka & A Wild Sheep Chase).

    I started with Wind-up Bird, which is as good a place as any to figure out if you are on Murakami's wavelength.

    Hardboiled Wonderland is actually my favorite, because it ties together two of my favorite genres, dystopian sci-fi and noir. Norwegian Wood has a different feel than anything else he has written; his most popular book it Japan, it's a heartfelt coming-of-age piece that is without the bizarre dream logic that characterizes most of his books.

    My only caveat is that all the translated Japanese lit I have read tends to feel somewhat stiff, no matter the author or the translator.

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  12. HMmm seems like I am the only one who loved e it s included in the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I adored it and picked up "After the Quake" (excellent short stories) and "Pinball 1973" (not easy to find).

    But go read him. He is just fantastic!

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  13. I vote for Wind-up Bird Chronicle. If you end up reading only one of his books, I think that's the one. It's also a great one to determine if he's an author for you. Some of us love him. Others are sadly misguided.

    And I know what I'll be reading this summer.

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  14. I've yet to read Murakami as well, but he's been on my radar for awhile. I was thinking of starting with Norwegian Wood since it's one of his earlier works (1987) and doesn't seem as daunting as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Then my plan is to move through Kafka into Wind-Up Bird. It's all very ambitious considering I don't even own one of his novels yet.

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  15. @Zoe - Thanks for the encouragement. Wasn't even aware he'd written non-fiction too, to be honest. What was the book you read?

    @Sandy - Ha - a Muraki fan wannabe. I think that describe me fairly well, too. It'd be interesting to do an experiment to find out how different the "reading" experience is between audiobooks and actual books. Not sure how to do that, but it'd be interesting.

    @Joel - The stiff English is one of the reasons I think I've held off. But I'm heartened to learn that you're a big fan - appreciate the comment!

    @Caitie F - Thanks for the encouragement!

    @CB - Wind Up Bird, it is, then! And I like that you referred to those who don't like Murakami as sadly misguided. Do you think Dan Brown's or Stephenie Meyer's fans call us that, too? ;)

    @Brenna - Yeah, Wind Up Bird does seem a tad daunting - it's 600+ pages and REAL small type. Stop by your local Half-Price Books - I'm sure you can find some Murakami there for well...cheap.

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  16. Greg. Go take your copy of the WInd-Up bird. Slap yourself a few times in the face with it, and read it. You'll love me. It's that good. The first chapter it a little dry, but it kicks about 40 pages in. Murakami is one of my favorite writers. I will read 1Q84 like a dope fiend I'm sure.

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  17. I think a lot of my problem with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was the translation. It felt so flat! But yes, the mundane details throughout the 600-page book were what really disheartened me while I was reading it. I don't want to spoil anything, but he's unemployed during the whole book, and spends a lot of time alone. There were good parts (I really like the daring use of time and space in his books), but as a whole, it just wasn't for me.

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  18. Here is a very quick write-up I did after finishing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

    And, in contrast, for Kafka on the Shore

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  19. @Katie I have read that the french translation (the one I read) is the best and the closest to Japanese. Since I don't own it in many languages though, I can't confirm or infirm.

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  20. "Maybe it's just that I'm an idiot."

    Hmm.

    I have this problem too.

    Have you read Number9Dream? That just might be Murakami enough.

    Cheers,
    K

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  21. I've read three Murakami books. I started with Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and loved it, then read Norwegian Wood, and loved it more, then read Sputnik Sweetheart and didn't love it as much.

    My vote is for Norwegian Wood which is strange, but not as strange as WUBC. It is simple and really beautiful. It is also shorter than some of the others and makes for a nice "starter" Murakami.

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  22. I've read almost the entire Murakami catalog (excluding two works that were published in English translation in Japan, but never published abroad). As a lover of smart, challenging fiction, you'll love him. I'll echo the other posters here who have suggested starting with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was a truly amazing, mind-bending read. After that, try Norwegian Wood or South of the Border, West of the Sun. They're a little different in flavor from Wind-Up Bird, but still very distinctively Murakami. I am holding my breath until October...

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  23. I read After Dark and loved it. It was very different and cool. That's all I have to say.

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  24. @Katie - Yeah, the clunky translation is one of my biggest hesitations. And the same guy who translated The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is doing 1Q84, too. Uh oh. But I enjoyed your take on both novels. Comparing Kafka to Infinite Jest, eh?! WOW! And, yes, I've read Freedom - and loved it! ;)

    @Interpolations - Haven't read any Mitchell except Jacob de Zoet. Heard nothing but great things about Number9Dream, though.

    @LBC - Nice - thanks for the input. Norwegian Wood does, indeed, sound like a good intro to Murakami.

    @Pete - Mind-bending, eh? Sold! Should be interesting to see 1Q84's reception here - hasn't been a Murakami that long, right?

    @Ingrid - Succinct - I like it. Thanks for the input! I thought your comment was both fun and cool.

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  25. I've enjoyed Murakami ever since a friend got me started with Hard-Boiled Wonderland many years ago. It's definitely stranger than some of his other books, but I think so far it's my favorite. I've also read Kafka on the Shore, After Dark and The Elephant Vanishes (short stories, also very good). Start with any of them! If you like Murakami, which I think you will, you'll probably end up reading them all eventually.

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  26. The Elephant Vanishes was great. The first chapter from Wind up bird is in there as a short story. "The Silence" is my favorite of the lot.

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  27. I'm in the same position you are. I own WUBC, but I've never read it, and I don't know why. People rave to me all the time about Murakami, and I just want to love him. I'm a little afraid though that I will be let down or that I won't get it. I'm afraid of being too obtuse to appreciate the quirkiness or the weirdness. I think I might just think it's weird and leave it at that. I would like to at least TRY to read him, otherwise this is just a stupid fear without any basis.

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  28. Hmm here's another author on my 'why haven't I read any of this yet' list. My jaw dropped at the 1000 page information - solely because the Japanese lit I've previously seen has all been so tight on the word count. My Japanese friends told me this is a cultural thing - ie saying the most with the least words is a measure of skill and talent (also applies to art, architecture, landscaping). I'm eagerly awaiting your review of this to help me decide if this is one of those books I should read but will likely never get to, or one of those books I'm going out to buy right now.

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  29. Absolutely loved Hard-Boiled Wonderland: it's clever and weird and thoroughly enjoyable. Doubt I will read 1Q84, but his other books are like HBWatEotW (haha), definitely recommend that you read the ones you own.

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  30. "Sputnik Sweetheart" is my favorite. I've enjoyed his older works and short story collections more than his recent fiction ("Kafka on the Shore," "After Dark"). The Vintage Murakami collection contains a short story, "The Ice Man," that's just *chilling*. You can read it online, free, at http://wis.cs.ucla.edu/~hxwang/newyorker/blog/files/icemanmurakami.html.

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  31. I've read Kafka on the Shore. It's an incredible book, but strange and disturbing at the same time. I haven't read any others, but I've been wanting to pick up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

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  32. I'm faced with a similar problem. My office buddy is a devoted Murakami reader and everytime I bring a new book to the office, I get a glare and am asked, "Why don't you read Kafka on the Shore already?!" I've also been slapped in the face several times with After Dark and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, I don't know what to do... I suppose at some point I'll just have to buck up and read the guy!

    I'm thinking to start with the backlog first. Better to go with the safe rather than the risky. Such a good rep... I wouldn't want to waste it on a new book that hasn't stood the test of time quite as much.

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  33. Greg...
    I always wanted to read him also, so I suggested my book group start with Norweigian Wood. Loving the song didn't hurt, either. Book was gorgeous, he's worth it, check my links at our Murakami page. I recently read his semi-biography about running, which was very interesting. Start small, start with success. He's fab. Renee

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  34. As a sometime-visitor to your site (and a friend of Jeff Boehm's, who recommended you site to me), thanks for all of your thoughtful reviews of various books--several times I have found myself agreeing with you or adding items to my ever-burgeoning wish list based on your recommendations. Murakami is fantastic. I've only read The Windup Bird Chronicle and Kafka On The Shore, but both were intensely enjoyable reading experiences. Murakami has a way of creating a mental space that feels strange, elsewhere, and yet recognizable and familiar. I read those two books over a couple of weeks last summer, and I remember feeling throughout those two weeks as if I were in a waking dream--not all the time or in a dramatic way, but just that I felt a bit more open to unexpected things happening and saw things around me as if they were just slightly askew. It was like the language of the books had come into my world and nudged objects around from where I knew I had left them, but their new orientation made sense in an internally consistent way. Like reading Pynchon, or some of David Foster Wallace's fiction--demanding, even tiring, but worthwhile.

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