“Be grateful for anything that still cuts. Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t yet destroyed.”

Richard Powers, Orfeo

1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (English translation published 2011, surrealist science fiction)

“It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

I have found an echo of myself in the work of Haruki Murakami, who explores the Japanese psyche in an unaffected yet intricate style. When I initially finished this masterwork, I wrote a bit about it here. Told from three different points of view, exploring the themes of love’s redemption, alternative realities, how we make art, religious cultism, and violence, 1Q84 has changed my way of seeing the world forever. Gobsmacked right in the gut. As I read, I felt I had lived my whole life just to be reading this novel at the moment. One of my favorite pieces of fiction, ever…

Which is curious, because this novel has vocal detractors. One review called it “stupefying.” Others hate the style, deride it as repetitious, find the ending a bit cliched. I see these criticisms, and I can identify the places in the novel that lead to them.

The most curious part of reading Murakami is that I can’t shake the distinct feeling that I am reading his mind itself, not ever just the book. I am as much taken by the way he writes as I am with respect to what he writes. After reading his running memoir last month, 1Q84, and then his nonfiction account of the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, I hear him so clearly in whatever genre he is using that it seems that his way of looking at the world is itself the book—the grand book—that he just happens to be writing in all these various works he publishes. To a lesser extent, I feel that way about Richard Powers, too. Yes, both authors have their favorite themes and motifs and hallmarks of style, but what I am talking about here seems to go beyond that. Murakami has a voice unlike any author I’ve ever encountered, one that rings true and consistent from work to work, one that builds on itself. He’s in the work, I feel. Other authors, Powers included, hold themselves at a bit of a remove; one senses, in contrast, that Murakami is not separate from his words and cannot be.

Added to this, I find myself resonating greatly with the version of the Japanese psyche that Murakami presents in his books. Sort of stoic and self-effacing, but to the point of an almost grave naivete and innocence that cannot bear to be lost, while at the same time entertaining a highly intelligent awareness of the world’s deepest damnations and not-so-improbable perils.

1Q84 is, I feel, a book that must be read. Of course it has thin lines of connection to Orwell’s work, but I think the real demand on us as readers is to force us to confront both our role as the audience in constructing meaning when we experience art, as well as our agency or lack thereof in constructing the narratives of our own lives. 1Q84 is a tome at almost 1000 pages, but I feel it must be tackled. Bill polished it off this month, too, upon hearing my wild raptures of praise for it. Not entirely sure what his mind has done with it yet… This work seems to be one that drips through the system, slowly creeping through every vein, forever. I’ll be making sense of it for awhile.

2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (dystopian fiction, 2005)

“The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.”

This novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, came to me as a recommendation from my sis-in-love’s mother. So my mother-in-law-in-law? Ha ha, I don’t know…we’re all family, that’s what I say! Lorraine’s apt recommendation was a perfect follow up to 1Q84, from which I had to emerge.

Never Let Me Go had to be one of the more disturbing dystopian novels I’ve read, I must say. It’s so subtle, but I think that’s why Never Let Me Go works as well as it does. I kept asking myself why it was so bothersome. I think, for me, it’s because the characters are so resigned to their fate and so docile. Tommy’s angry outbursts begin to form a rebellion of a sort, but he, too, accepts the social plan in the end.

In most other dystopian novels, at least one character is fighting—they see the truth plainly and reject it—but Ishiguro’s characters instead emphasize and celebrate their own conformity. Ruth wants to mimic the gestures of other couples, for example, and Kathy is also so passive. There is constantly a sense of giving up in this novel.

Also, while reading it, I felt very contained. There is almost a quiet claustrophobia inherent in the setting, to me. From the squalid conditions of The Cottages to the ruin of Hailsham to the foggy and windy Norfolk Coast to fields of weeds fenced in with prickly wire, there is a sense that everywhere the clones turn, there is no escaping.

I started wondering why no one fought. Or what would happen if the main characters did rise up. What kind of government is in the background of this novel? So many unanswered questions…. Ishiguro is so subtle. I think it is a brilliant book in this respect.

One of the bigger themes, though, can apply to all of us as well. If we all die in the end, what is the meaning of our lives? What is our purpose? All of our schooling, our lessons, our failed and thriving relationships—does any of that have a point? What would Ishiguro say about that?

3. When Plague Strikes: the Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS by James Cross Giblin (nonfiction, history of science, 1995)

“Some British clergymen played on these worries. In a sermon delivered in 1722, the Rev. Edmund Massey cited Job, who suffered terribly in the Old Testament but never challenged God’s tests of him. ‘The fear of the disease is a happy restraint to men,’ Massey said. ‘If men were more healthy, ’tis a great chance they would be less righteous. Let the Atheist and the Scoffer inoculate. Their hope is in and for only this life. Let the rest of bless God for the Afflictions He sends among us, and grant us patience under them.'” 

Uh, okay. Scary, huh? Particularly since we’ve (inexplicably and irrationally) returned to this debate (and variations thereof) in the modern 2000s. I think I will let this quote mainly stand on its own. I’ll be taking my vaccinations (not inoculations at this point in our technology), thanks, and making sure my children have them, too.

This book, which is from 1995 and therefore not written as a response to the anti-vaxxer movement, offers extremely relevant information to the science minded and to the anti-vaxxers alike. Particularly if you are an anti-vaxxer, it is worth looking into an objective historical treatment of the science behind vaccination. People forget what it was like…

4. Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way by Leonard Marcus (nonfiction, history of publishing, 2007)

Golden

I am collecting those Disney mugs, too. This one is my Bambi mug. If I can, I like to come home from my training and sneak in a bit of reading time and a few sips of coffee before my children wake up.

Golden Legacy was a gift from my friend Steve when he stayed last month for his Spartan races. I had claps of excitement when I received it because I noticed right away that it was written by the same scholar who put together and edited Ursula Nordstrom’s letters in Dear Genuis, which I read last June and which is one of my favorite reads of the year. Nordstrom was the children’s books editor at Harper Collins for years, and the voice in her letters is so greatly enjoyable.

Marcus has put together another engaging study here. Because I grew up with Golden Books, and because my children and I have dozens that we’ve read again and again, turning the pages and finding the history of particular authors and books was a real treat. Reading about Eloise Wilkin and Richard Scarry and Garth Williams was terribly exciting, since they are like friends to me.

Surprises:  1) how vocally librarians were at first against the rise of Golden Books, considering them “cheap” non-literary books; 2) Western Publishing’s work with Disney; 3) the unintended consequences of Golden Books giving authors like Margaret Wise Brown leverage in negotiating contracts with other publishers like Harper Collins.

The reproductions of art in this book are AMAZING. Not only is the history intriguing, but to have some of the best Golden Book art in one place is beyond thrilling. I know almost every book and author mentioned in this celebratory book (we have a children’s book library at home that is fairly over-the-top, I have to admit), so reading about them felt cozy, homey, and familiar.

5. Orfeo by Richard Powers (fiction, 2014)

This Powers book made it to the Man Booker Prize long list, an honor I believe most Powers novels deserve. This one tells the story of 70-year-old avant garde composer Peter Els who has retired from teaching and composing and who spends his time biohacking musical compositions into bacteria. This attracts the attention of the government, and Peter Els flees across the United States while being unable to flee his history with music and relationships with the women in his life.

Orfeo was, by far, the most demanding work I read this month. Readers of my various book lists know by now that Richard Powers is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. His polymathic ability in seeing and rendering the world is unparalleled. He generates quite a bit of criticism for being too erudite and too obscure at times. To that I say: phhhhhhht. He takes work, yes. A reader doesn’t just hop into a Powers book looking for a beach read. I read Powers because he is demanding. He is the only author I read who still will use a word every now and then that I don’t know: I think we need to search out what is new and challenging. Bill and I read Powers with reference books at the ready. It’s easier on my Kindle because I can just quickly look up anything I need to know… His magnum opus is probably The Gold Bug Variations (1991), despite it being one of the first. Orfeo takes up similar themes, but if you want the most distilled taste of classic Powers, head for The Gold Variations first.

Powers is not capable of writing a boring sentence, I don’t think. I’ve certainly never seen one in his work. He often has so many layers going on that keeping up requires all my focus. Orfeo was a labor of love for me, because of how frequently Powers employed not only musical terms in this book, but how frequently he applied musical metaphors. No doubt, this included his overall structure, too. Forget about having Powers tell you directly the significance of this title, too. That takes more research and thinking…

Music, biology, computer science, redemption, frailty: common themes across his writing. He expects his reader to know…stuff. Quite a bit of stuff.  And if we don’t know? We have to learn as we go, or the book is lost on us. I love that he demands this. If we meet our obligation to him, we are richly rewarded. His writing is beautiful. Complex, intelligent, intense. I want to make it through all of his books: I’ve read six. I have to take breathers in between them!

6. Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD (nonfiction, psychology, 2011)

“To be gender nonconforming is to risk being killed, but on a daily basis it more likely means being harassed, confused, and misunderstood in the community or maltreated by mental health professionals who traditionally have wanted to pathologies and fix, rather than explore and support, the gender-creative children who come to them.”

Since I definitely have a gender-creative child—to what extent yet, I do not fully know—I am beginning my education. I think I won’t go into too many particulars at the moment, other than that I love and support my children unconditionally and am glad I personally do not have a preexisting system of beliefs that would make it difficult for my children to be their authentic selves, or to feel fully loved and not condemned.

In the past month I have given this child a bit of freedom even in public to have that expression. It’s hard—I, selfishly, don’t want to be looked at, but to myself I say….tough beans, Sarah. Mostly, though, these forays have been positive, and at times when I have felt almost gutless I have had to ask myself hard questions, such as, “What social comfort could you possibly want more than your own child’s happiness?” And then I buck up. I realize now that everything I have ever lived or been through (a sense of ostracization in middle school and early 9th grade for loving school, dressing in certain ways, doing my homework, and answering in class, for example, or having judgment put on me from others who want me to follow their belief systems, or any kind of peer pressure I’ve ever rejected at all) has been gearing me up to be the mother bear for my child/children. I’m up to the task, if it turns out I need to be. I’ve already lost my innocence with respect to what human nature can be. What I fear most now is guiding my children through such a gauntlet. But I would fear that anyway… It’s just more difficult a task when the circumstances are a bit different, as this could be.

7. Underground by Haruki Murakami (nonfiction, history, English translation 2000)

“And what am I to think when our collective memory of the affair is looking more and more like a bizarre comic strip or an urban myth?” 

“The truth of whatever is told will differ, however slightly, from what actually happened. This, however, does not make it a lie; it is unmistakably the truth, albeit in another form.” 

“The Self is what should be discovered, not discarded. Terrorist crimes like the gas attack result from this process of easily giving up on the Self. If the Self is lost, then people will become completely insensitive to murder and terrorism.” 

In March 1995, religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin on several trains in the Tokyo subway system. I was in 9th grade at the time, and I do not remember this event at all. Reading about it now horrified and fascinated me, especially within the context of all the religious cultism that has sprung up ever since. Just like ISIS, Aum began to fancy itself a key instrument of the end times. Unbelievably, to me, so many of the Aum renunciates were educated University of Tokyo men with science backgrounds, who happened to feel disconnected and disenchanted with culture and the world.

This is a quintessential Murakami work in that, of course he is drawn to the story inside all of the interviews he conducts. Even the idea of the underground system is a motif he uses widely in other works. The releasing of the gas evokes Murakami’s Little People in 1Q84. 1Q84 also prominently features a religious cult, which is implied but never directly stated to have the control or semi-control of the dystopian world in that novel.

What strikes me most about Murakami’s write up here is, first, how deftly he manages all of the people he interviews, including former Aum members. Murakami is more curious than critical, though every once in awhile he will ask a logical question and try to probe more deeply into one of his interviewees. From these interviews, he tries to reconstruct—a little—what happened that morning, but he is artfully carefully never to make the story linear. He writes it with the same sort of dreamlike world in mind with which he wrote 1Q84.

The Japanese psyche here called to me. What comes across is the importance many of the commuters place on work—to the point of staying in their train even after starting to feel the effects of the gas. There is a stoicism, a disbelief that anything truly bad could be happening. No mass emergency systems were in place. The trains continued to run for a time, even after the mysterious packages were removed. Hospitals and law enforcement did not communicate. A sense of isolation definitely permeates this whole work. It is a perfect companion piece to 1Q84, and I would recommend them both together.

8. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (fiction, 2015)

“My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination…” 

“Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.”

Published just last month, The Girl on the Train is a Hitchcockian page turner that I could hardly put down. Hawkins makes the most of classic Hitchcock motifs: trains, peeping in windows, the voyeurism of character and reader/viewer. The themes of secrecy and murder and suspense are well done in this quick, light, read-for-pleasure book.

It drew me in initially because I’d read that the narrator was completely unstable and untrustworthy—a technique that fascinates me (I am thinking now of Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, Holden telling us forthrightly that we can’t trust him and the latter having a narrator who swears up and down we can trust him when we really can’t. Another great one for scewy narrators is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, one of my favorites). I had an intellectual curiosity about how the author would structure this narrator—who turns out to have help narrating from two other characters—and organize the mystery. Something dreadful happens, and telling it without telling it completely at first is really a work of skill and art.

I’d recommend this book for the sheer pleasure of it.

I have started another collection of essays from Edge.org thinkers, the most recent collection actually. Not sure I am totally committed yet to it…I’ve had a busy week and left off the reading a bit the past couple of days. This had to be one of my favorite months of reading since I began this goal at the end of last June. So many of the themes, again, seemed to dance around one another and play with each other in both expected and unexpected ways, making for a robust thought-life this month.

Happy reading to all, for the upcoming month of March!

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