Men without women

When Haruki Murakami came out of his study earlier this year and said to his wife: “I’m going to call my latest collection of short stories ‘Men Without Women’“, I wonder if she thought to say to him: “Hasn’t that title already been used darling?”

Men Without WomenBecause it has. Ninety years ago in fact, when none other than Ernest Hemingway named his latest offering of short stories Men Without Women. I’m sitting looking at both these books right now as I write this blog. Hemingway’s with its pugilistic cover and tribute by Joseph Wood Krutch (The Nation) – “painfully good”. And Murakami’s book, beautiful to behold, the hard cover version that I have bought (yes, I know!) strokable and with a satisfying heft.

Men Without WomenI love Murakami’s writing, that deft thing he does where you are simultaneously drawn in and kept at arms length. And this book of  seven stories about men and their complex relations with women is no exception. It is a long time since I have read Hemingway, but it is resolutely muscular writing. In his fourteen stories you are pulled right into the fray, be it in the boxing ring or in a touching dialogue on a railway siding.

There are no books in Christchurch City Libraries with the title Women Without Men. To be frank I was so taken aback that I checked several times. The nearest I got to it is a book by Virginia Nicholson Singled Out (How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War).

Something about all of this is niggling me. Why did Murakami give his book this name?

Two such brilliant writers. Two great works – 90 years apart. Both made up of short stories. One title. I fear that Murakami, in this one act, has doomed himself forever-more to endless queries about his choice of title at writers’ festival after writers’ festival in the up-and-coming year.

I almost feel sorry for him.

Around the Book Groups: October

The All Girl Filling Stations Last ReunionIf September was a Goldilocks and the Three Bears reading month, October veered more towards Little Red Riding Hood. The Innocent Reader and the lurking Big Bad Wolf both played their part this month.

It all started innocently enough with Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. Set in Alabama, Southern Belle Sookie (and her equally weirdly named daughters), seems set for a peaceful retirement. Then, out of the blue, she is hit by a life crisis of epic proportions. It’s not scary, more Sookie skipping through the forest with a basket of sweet nothings while WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) planes pirouette overhead. If you are after a happy-ending holiday read, this may be the tickety-boo (as Sookie might say).

Black Rabbit HallBlack Rabbit Hall, on the other hand, is all about the setting. Not a forest in this case, but a building. The story starts ominously and just ratchets the tension up from there on in. Could a building possess a more dysfunctional presence is the big question? And why would anyone want to get married there? But Lorna does. And she wasn’t the only one to be lured in by this brooding ruin. Tragedy, ghosts, hidden secrets and an ominous atmosphere ticked all the boxes for one of my book groups this month.

Colorless Tsukuru TazakiBut my best book group read of the month – in fact now one of my best books of the year – is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. If you have so far run screaming through the woods away from  Murakami, this book (along with his novel Norwegian Wood) makes for a very accessible starting point. Imagine this – your four best friends suddenly dump you with no explanation when you are in your early twenties. Eventually, in order to save your sanity,  you decide to track them down to find out why this happened. It is a subtly tense read – absolutely gripping.

It was a month in which false identities “What big eyes you have grandma”, dark foreboding surroundings and lurking unease made up a terrific trio of book group reads. Whatever will November bring?

Festival made accessible

Catalogue search for Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami in audiobook formatAbout now you may be wondering what happened to your good intentions of reading all those interesting books by those fascinating authors you heard about at WORD Christchurch or missed out on hearing at Auckland Writers Festival. Never fear, a solution is near!

Listen to your festival favourites

You may have not enough hours in the day to sit by the fire and read your fill of festival authors but help is at hand. You need not miss out on this year’s Auckland festival headliner Haruki Murakami. Try listening to his work in an audiobook. We have him available in downloadable audiobook from Overdrive and on CD.

Catalogue search for Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world by Haruki Murakami i n audiobook formatFill in your spare moments on the bus or in the car, or while you vacuum the house, rake the leaves or paint the fence, or while exercising the dog or yourself by listening to an audiobook. If you have had a particularly tiring day and find you’re too tired to read, rather than turning on the television, snuggle up in a chair with an audiobook and soon you will be relaxed. Having trouble sleeping? My mother swears by lulling English voices as a sure-fire cure for insomnia.

Often audiobooks and large print titles have no reserve list so while others are waiting for a print edition, get ahead of the crowd. Better still, even if there is a wait list downloadable audiobooks on Overdrive do not have a reserve charge.

Catalogue search for H is for Hawke by Helen MacDonald in audiobook formatOverdrive is one of our suppliers of audiobooks and ebooks. You can find all their titles in our catalogue.

As well as Murakami, you might also try Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri whose novel The Age of Magic has been newly released and is available on CD. Sometimes the CD format can be limiting as it requires you to be stationary. Happily we have Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk as an ISIS audiobook that is a clever format which you can download to your laptop and transfer to your MP3 player, freeing you up to listen to it anywhere.

The thousand autumns of Joseph de Zoet in audiobook formatA standout from Word Christchurch was the charming David Mitchell. Your ears can ring with the sounds and atmosphere of old Japan listening to his exotic enthralling tale The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet on CD.



Large print – easy to read!

If reading is difficult at night when the light is bad, or because you struggle with print at the end of a tiring day spent staring at a computer screen, large print may be the answer! Why not try David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green or The Thousand Autumn’s of Joseph de Zoet or Xinran’s touching Miss Chopsticks.

Walliams in audio and large print formats

Book cover for Demon Dentist by David Walliams in Playaway formatNothing like a bedtime story so why not borrow one of our children’s titles by the hit author David Walliams in an audiobook format to lull your darlings to sleep? We have audiobooks on CD, preloaded mp3 players, and downloadable audiobooks for your enjoyment.

If you have a child who is yet to find their stride with reading a wonderful way to introduce the love of books is by reading along to an audiobook so why not borrow the book and the audiobook together? We have Demon Dentist as a Playaway, a preloaded audiobook in its own wee player. All you or your child has to do is press play and you can carry it around with you. Ideal for children who are always on the move.

If small print is an obstacle try these David Walliams titles in large print.

Catalogue search for Mr Stink by David Walliams in large printCatalogue search for Ratburger by David Walliams in large print formatThe boy in the dress by David Walliams in Large Print format

More festival goodies

Keep calm and read Haruki Murakami

The crowd waiting for Murakami was a fragrant one. I smelled Commes des Garcon, something from L’Artisan. There were lots of cool looking young uns. And when we got into our seats, Haruki came on stage in a tshirt saying “Keep calm and read Murakami”, pinkish pants, and nifty sneakers. Older than I know him from his author photos.

The crowd gave him a mighty round of applause after a fine intro by John Freeman.

Readers, we were in for a treat. We got to learn so much about Murakamiworld, from his own mouth. The audience was one of the most attentive, attuned, and excited I’ve ever sat in. We weren’t allowed to tweet, take pics, – but I don’t think that was why the crowd was so focused. We all wanted to be there – big time – and didn’t want to miss a thing.

Haruki told us first about the moment he decided to become a writer. He was 29, watching a baseball game, and it came to him: “I can write”:

Something fell from the sky, and I caught it. I  can still feel the feeling, I was so happy.

He went to the stationers to get a pen, and voila.

His background was in film, he wanted to write screenplays but didn’t have anything to say. When he began to write, he first wrote in Japanese, then translated it into English, then back into Japanese. This combination gave him his distinctive style:

My English vocabulary is so small. What I write is very simple and very clear. That is what I want. I made up my style.

He doesn’t do that now, but that initial double translation made that Murikami style.

We journeyed through Murikami’s life, he talked about being a teenager in the 1960s,  being part of an idealistic generation:

As we grow up the world should be saner, more reasonable  – it’s not … I am still holding my idealism in my mind … it’s a kind of warmth.

His literary inspirations are diverse. He has parents who are teachers of Japanese literature, but he bonded with Brautigan, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Raymond Chandler.

And he loves cats, and has 11,000 records!:

I love my books. I love my music. I love my cat. … Cats and music and books are very important to me.

Cover of UndergroundHaruki left Japan when he was “hated” on by the Japanese mainstream literature crowd. He went to Italy and wrote there, then to the States. But he returned home to Japan in 1995 after the twin disasters of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo sarin gas attack. From this time came the book Underground.  He interviewed 60 survivors:

Everybody as his or her own story. They are my people on the train. I got to know my people better.

This led to a strain of questioning on evil:

I go into the darkness of my mind. Everyone has a basement beneath the ground. Some people have a basement in their basement … It’s easy to go into the darkness, sometimes it isn’t easy to come back.

What sort of books does Murikami write? Gotta like his classification system:

  • Big
  • Medium
  • Short stories

I  come and go. When I want to write big ones, I write big ones.

And he doesn’t always know which one it is going to be.  His latest – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage started out as a short story, but it got longer. The story made it happen.

It’s not an easy job to do being a writer, so Haruki runs to keep fit.  A day in his life goes a bit like this:

  • Get up at 4am. Not using an alarm clock.
  • Drink coffee.
  • Start writing.
  • Sometimes he works while listening to music – low volume, classical background music.
  • 4 to 5 hours writing.
  • Do translations in the afternoon.
  • Don’t work after sundown.
  • Watch baseball.
  • Go to bed at 10pm, no nightlife.
  • “Just so”.

The translating he is working on at the moment (English into Japanese) is a book he discovered during a trip to Oslo – Novel 11 Book 18 by Dag Solstad.

1Q84 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Kafka on the Shore Norwegian Wood

Why are your stories so sad, Haruki?

I am always looking for the bright side of things … But most of my fictions are not happy endings. I don’t know why. He is looking for something, finds it, but it’s not what he expected.

And what happens at the end of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage with the marriage proposal?

I have no idea. I don’t know what is going to happen. That is life.

And with that it was question time. We had questions about being a writer, more about cats, and the surprising revelation that Haruki’s favourite foods:

I am a donut addict … Doughnuts and Tofu.

And finally:

The stories must be unpredictable to myself.

Congratulations to the Auckland Writers Festival crew for getting Haruki Murakami here, and Kia ora Haruki.

After the Quake  Sputnik Sweetheart The Elephant Vanishes Cover of The Colorless Tsukur Tazaki

How Haruki Murakami taught me bridge building

Me and Haruki have an affair going on. That sort of an affair that nobody really knows about. This is how it started.

You would not think that librarians have their own favourite librarians, but we do. At least I do. Nina is my friend and she works at the public library in my hometown. I can still vividly remember how and when she introduced me to Haruki Murakami. It was that year’s first snowfall that tempted us to visit one of the old medieval towns not far from ours. (Those of you who had a pleasure of rambling in the snowy night through old towns in Europe will well know the magic of it. Distances seem to disappear among the dancing snowflakes and the silence is so deep and dense that it feels like a soft blanket of slumber.) There wasn’t much opened at that time of the night, except one bookshop. Its windows radiated warm glow and attracted us like the light lures half-blinded moths.

1Q84 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Kafka on the Shore Norwegian Wood

The book was just there, on the right, not far from the entrance. Nina noticed it immediately and her hand, as if called by silent force, wondered to the shelf and pulled it off. Norwegian wood. The covers were made out of rough but neat plain whiteness. At the bottom, out of the edge, the leaves of grass were growing and bending into the page. There was something earthly in the touch. Later on, while reading about Naoko’s battle with depression, the touch of the covers made the hair on my back stuck up. It was probably one of the best covers I have ever seen.

I must admit the first half of the book was a struggle to read. Not because of the style, nor the structure, nor the narrator. It was the characters that were so hard to follow, hard to keep up with. The weight of their life experience, of their pain and unsettledness was unbearable. Being lost in the midst of Toru’s thoughts, meandering through his feelings of uncertainty, loss and grief was painful. Searching for meaning and hope in the maze of obscure everydayness. All the big questions of growing up revealed and opened with cruel honesty. But it wasn’t just the almost palpable harshness of coming of age experience that was hard to digest. It was the fact that Haruki managed to capture the spirit of my own youth, of my own student years with great sensitivity. Reading this book felt like I was thrown in the amphitheatre of questions about life, love and death, that I have been silently confronting with in my own reality for a while. If I could write, I would write about exactly the same themes. Same problems, same questions, doubts and fears. While living them myself, I felt they were so important and common to everyone. An integral part of human existence.

But a part of human existence is joy as well and Haruki’s story did not lack the sunny side either. It was Midori – restless, witty, playful, nonconformist wild child, who turned reading into a pure pleasure halfway through the book. Following her encounters and flirty conversations with Toru again felt like reading about my own life. Not that the stories were alike, but the indescribable sense of liveliness, hope, utter happiness. The excitement of life itself. Of things to come. I started to realize this was probably one of the most convincing reading experiences, when books build bridges among people. When strong parallels can be drawn between two totally different eras and places (end of 1960s in Japan and beginning of new millennium in Slovenia in my case) by story alone. When a book can knit individual experiences of total strangers, when it can build bridges.

After the Quake Underground      Sputnik Sweetheart The Elephant Vanishes

So we started dating (at least that’s how I imagined my time of reading Norwegian wood). Me and Haruki met on a bridge that we’ve built across half of the world, just so we could encounter in the middle and I could listen to his story. And tell him how much I can relate to it and – not how different – but how similar we are.

If you haven’t tried author-dating and bridge building, give it a go. You might not get far, or you might become a master builder in a few hours. Even if the passion takes over and you’ll be in haste, there is nothing to worry about – you will not run out of good dates. Christchurch City Libraries holds many Murakami’s masterpieces and he can talk to you in many languages, not just in English, but also in Chinese, German, Korean, Spanish, Thai, Polish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and of course Japanese.

If you’ re not sure, who you are dating, you can read a bit more about him on his homepage, watch a documentary or get a useful tip on writing from a first class writing hand.

Haruki Murakami, one of the best storytellers of our time, is coming to Auckland Writers Festival in May. I am pretty sure I will not be the only one, waiting for him eagerly on this side of the bridge.

Short stories

Short stories - a blessing for those with short attention spans
Short stories - a blessing for those with short attention spans?

My mother was an avid reader who loved to talk about literature. On several occasions I remember her expressing her dislike of short stories. My mother listened to National Radio and classical music, was passionate about gardening and always had every ingredient she might need in her pantry.

I’m afraid I have to own up to a shorter attention span: I get impatient waiting for plants to grow and usually decide to forget about them just when it’s time to give them some more attention; I never manage to buy more than one meal’s worth of ingredients at the market and I usually leave my ipod on shuffle rather than listening to an entire album from beginning to end.

Needless to say, I am a fan of the short story, though like most fiction (or most writing for that matter), it still seems that the really good examples are few and far between. Recently I’ve enjoyed stories from some new and newish collections, including Birthday stories, edited by Haruki Murakami – a collection of stories about birthdays; Second violins, a cool collection of New Zealand stories that take as their starting point the first paragraph of an unfinished Katherine Mansfield story (the unfinished stories are included); Luminous, by Alice Tawhai, a previously blogged-on book by a writer who is currently working on her third collection of short stories and has yet to publish a novel. Her style is unique, colourful and sometimes a little sad for me. She also heads up Second violins with a beautiful story which shows off her descriptive powers (especially pertaining to wallpaper) with a tad fewer depressing reflections on the state of human society.

It was hardly surprising for me to discover that Dave Eggers is a great short story writer, with heaps of amusing and serious surprises in his How we are hungry.

It is particularly pleasing to see a collection that includes stories of absolute minimum size and longer examples of sixty pages.

What is it that makes a brilliant short story, how are they so different from novels and why do most library users (and mothers) overlook them?