Tuesday, February 28, 2012

After Dark: Murakami After Midnight

After Dark is easily recognizable as a Haruki Murakami novel — it's a book that, much like the wee hours of the night it depicts, has a logic and flow all its own. Indeed, because Murakami's prose is often described as "dreamlike" or "ethereal," there is no better setting for a Murakami novel. I picked this up with some trepidation — it's a very short novel (clocking in at only 191 pages) that Murakami fans seem to like the least of all his work (it only averages 3.56 stars on Goodreads). But I really enjoyed it!

The story is about Mari, a 19-year-old girl who we first see reading at a Denny's just before midnight. Through the course of the night, Mari reconnects with an acquaintance named Takahashi, helps a Chinese prostitute who has been beaten by her trick, and generally begins to understand and reveal some things about herself that she never had before. The small hours of the morning are a perfect time for introspection — and, together with Takasashi, Mari begins to work out many of the problems that had resulted in her not being able to sleep in the first place.

One of those is her sister Eri — who has been sleeping for more than two months. She's not in a coma, she's just sleeping. Throughout the novel, we look in on Eri — literally. Murakami tells us that we're like a ghost floating above her bed, observing her. Mari regrets that she and her sister Eri aren't as close as they used to be and wonders how to save her from her sleep. Will she succeed? 

So, yes, by normal fiction standards, this is a weird novel. No, not everything makes sense. And so it's hard to explain exactly why it resonated with me. But it did. And it will for you too, if you're the kind of person who has ever laid in bed awake at night and had a ton of ideas that seemed great at the time, but utterly ludicrous under the glare of daylight. Yes, night has its own logic, and this novel drives that point home beautifully!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Ecstasy of Influence: Essays, Experiments, Etc.

Jonathan Lethem is a fantastically engrossing writer! I'm not just saying that because he took David Foster Wallace's coveted teaching spot at Pomona College, and you know how I feel about DFW. Nor am I saying it because I loved Motherless Brooklyn. I'm saying it because, as I learned by traversing his NBCC nominated (for criticism) The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem succeeds in getting you to read and care about topics about which you had no previous interest. And that's the mark of a truly great writer!

I'm actually plagiarizing myself with that last sentence, but one of the many things I learned from reading this amazing collection of essays, criticism, experiments in non-fiction writing, previously published magazine articles, etc., is that that is okay with Lethem. Indeed, the title essay, which is perhaps the most engrossing, argues that all art is in some way influenced by other art and other people, that pure creativity is a myth, and therefore, that copyrights and trademarks — especially by corporations — are mostly ridiculous. There's some nuance there, which you'll have to read the essay itself — oh, guess what, here it is — to parse, but those are the general ideas. This really made me think in new ways!

The book is organized into 10 sections arranged by similar topic, like science fiction, music, and 9/11. The music section, especially, is very, very good — it includes a massive article Lethem originally wrote for Rolling Stone about James Brown, as well as a piece about Bob Dylan. (The James Brown piece includes the following quote, which is hilariously awesome, about Brown's notoriously inflated ego: "James Brown knows no hesitation, no whisper of ambivalence, in his delight in his own person.")

The overall effect of this collection is almost a much more complete biographical picture of Lethem himself than even an autobiography could provide. That's because he includes essays about his Hippie parents (meaningfully, in a section about superheroes) — including one about how his artist father let Teenage Jonathan, sit in with him to paint live nude models. Lethem recalls he didn't think much of it at the time, because somehow he understood that it wasn't supposed to be sexual.

There are pieces about his work at used bookstores and about his writing process; a refutation of a poor review of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, and a short piece about why he became a writer. This includes my favorite quote from the book, about, well, why he became a writer. It's really telling. "I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of the books I'd found on the shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who'd written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed."

Also, this, on being a reader first: "Well, before I wrote, and in between each of the times that I wrote, I was a reader, and surely after I have quit or been rendered incapable of writing I'll be a reader still." YES!

You probably won't find everything here interesting, but the large majority of it is. Lethem even suggests in the Prologue that readers may not be interested in reading cover-to-cover, but I did anyway. And I loved learning more about this fantastic writer. Highly recommended, if you're a fan of non-fiction in all kinds of varieties.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Should I Read The Game of Thrones?

Alright, New Dork Review readers — my very literary future is in your hands. I need your help, your advice, and perhaps, your condolence. I'm teetering on the edge of doing something I never thought I'd do, of committing an act so heinous to my snooty literary alter-ego, it may never forgive me. After all, there are two types of readers: Those who read fantasy novels, and those who don't. And if I do this, I'll cross a literary bridge; and there's no going back. Ever.

Yes, I'm very seriously considering reading The Song of Ice and Fire series.

Before you stop reading and write an exclamation-point laden reply about how good the series is, understand this: I know it's good. People love it. I get it. And what's more, I know the series on HBO is good, too (though I didn't watch it).

So, given that everyone and their step-brother loves this series, I'm really curious about what all the hype is about. Indeed, I want to be back in the "in" crowd again. Though, I will say, it's a strange world we live in when feeling the need to read a fantasy series is what makes you "cool." But, here we are. And besides, we're all too old to care about what's cool and what's not, aren't we? AREN'T WE?!

And reading outside your comfort zone is the mark of a well-rounded, open-minded reader, right?

As you can see, I'm still trying to talk myself into it. Help me out. Post below and tell me why you loved the series. Help beat down the literary snob in me who is putting up the last degree of resistance.

(Or, maybe, tell me why you didn't love the books. I've heard very, very few negatives about the series — generally, the comments range from thorough enjoyment to orgasmic gushing.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Have You Read Neal Stephenson?

Here's a conversation I had with a friend yesterday.

Him: "So what are you reading now?"
Me: "A thousand-page novel about a role-playing video game by a dude named Neal Stephenson."
Him: (silence, shock): "You mean, a novel about, like, Call of Duty?"
Me: "Sort of — it's more like World of Warcraft."
Him: "Interesting." (Not meaning it, wondering if he still wants to be friends with such a huge nerd.)

Indeed, Neal Stephenson's novel Reamde, of which I have traversed about 200 pages, is on the surface, the dorkiest thing I can possibly imagine. I don't have a gaming bone in my body, so plowing through 200 pages of video-game-origin story would seem, to my self-who-didn't-just-read-those-200-pages, a complete bore. 

But you know what? I'm enthralled. One of the marks of a great writer, in my opinion, is his/her ability to entrance readers who don't give a peacock's petute for the subject. And here with are with Mr. Stephenson. (And incidentally, I'm in the same boat with a book of essays by Jonathan Lethem, in which, at one point, he led me through a 50-page piece about James Brown, to whom I haven't allocated more than four or five thoughts in my whole life. But I loved Lethem's essay!)

Stephenson, as his loyal and passionate fans have been telling me for a long time, writes with such flair, that even his page-long (or longer) tangents are riveting. Whether he's explaining what an Application Programming Interface (API) is, or simply describing a room, he's clever and funny, and he's constantly keeping you on your toes so you don't find yourself skimming or fading out. 

So, really, the point of this post is just to tell you that my first impressions of Stephenson are immensely positive. I'm very much looking forward to spending 850 more pages with him.

Have you read Stephenson? Impressions? Suggestions on where to go after Reamde (assuming I continue to enjoy it)?