When great authors are not that great

Publishing is a seasonal job. Everything big and noteworthy gets crammed into fall, leaving summer slow and slim on new releases. This summer has been particularly sluggish, judging by the slew of unpublished/posthumous/discovered books publishers threw in our direction in the past couple of months: Harper Lee, Dr. Seuss, Shirley Jackson, Ayn Rand, a bunch of grumpy Bukowski’s writings. The only previously unseen title that seems to be getting great reviews is Clarice Lispector’s complete short stories. The rest of them might as well have been left in the archives.

windpinballI briefly succumbed to the previously unpublished manuscripts reading frenzy and finished Wind/Pinball, which contains the first two novels Haruki Murakami wrote in 1978 at his kitchen table (Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973). I like Murakami. He is great. I don’t love everything he has written, but there has never been a falling out between us. That said, those two first works? They are not that great. They are obviously novels by an author learning to talk about people’s internal lives, learning how to make a story. It even seems he is less concerned with the story itself, particularly in the second novel, which jumps around from Saturn and Venus to train stations to abandoned fishing villages. There is some good material in both of these to make a few neat short stories, but as novels they just don’t work.

Murakami seems to be writing for himself (which is what you should do anyway, according to Stephen King), and he doesn’t seem confident that he can pull it off. Both novels are meta to an extent. The first one mentions a not particularly good writer. The second one is permeated with a certain lack of self-confidence and doubt: ‘I still couldn’t get a handle on how to deal with myself’.

And yet there is something appealing in these two short works, something that makes you stay with them even though they feel very unpolished, meandering, not done. There are seeds of later, familiar Murakami in them — references to music, certain oddness, unreal being presented as ordinary, ordinary as unreal. They are also quite inspirational. By being not particularly brilliant or polished, they convince you that you too could sit down at your kitchen table and write a novel.

Reading update: short fiction and Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

This week, spurred by either a work-induced existential crisis or a well-meaning attempt to de-clutter both my space and my brain, I got rid of approximately 20 books (while proofreading this post, I realized I typed ‘I got read of 20 books’. Sort of true.). That’s 20 more than usual. I shoved a couple into my local tiny library. The rest went to the staff break room. I also decided I wasn’t going to bring books home. That resolution lasted exactly until I laid my eyes on this:


Oh, it was so pretty. Look at what was under the dust jacket:


Could you resist? I could not. I adopted it and brought it home. I had read it already (and here’s what I thought), but I wanted to own the book.

My only other acquisition was a collection of short stories by Atwood, with whose writing I have a conflicted and tempestuous relationship:


I am on some kind of mad and inexplicable short fiction kick at the moment, so I think this time we’ll hit it off.

The aforementioned short fiction obsession has so far resulted in a diligent reading of The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year, volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan. I am normally quite bad at reading anthologies and short fiction in general. I like the fact that someone has already combed through various short stories of the year and picked what they thought were the best, but I never really read them. And yet here I am on story #22, with no sign of stopping. In fact, I have gathered a few other anthologies to feed my new-found short story love. I want to try and figure out who my favorite editor might be.

My other obsession in the past couple of days has been Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer. Commence incoherent gushing (which is ironic, seeing how it’s a book about writing). It is indeed quite wondrous and delightful. I love everything about it: writing advice, asides, examples, extras by some really great contributors, weird art.


So that’s what I’m doing with my tomorrow.

The photos in this post might lead you to believe I live in a lightless cave. This is not entirely wrong.

Murakami-sensei and his wacky cups

tazakienglishThe world doesn’t really need another review of Murakami’s latest novel. Which is why I’m only going to say that I read it and really enjoyed it. I’m quite excited to go to the store tomorrow morning and look at the finished book (I read a galley that barely had a cover).

Murakami can really do no wrong. There is a recent article in the Salon saying that he can even do things that are expressly forbidden in creative writing courses and still be awesome. What this basically means is Murakami has reached that particular sensei-level where he can do whatever the fuck he wants. It’s like pottery masters who at some point in their careers start creating these wacky pieces, cups bent all out of shape, vases that can’t really stand up. This is why he can produce ridiculous three-volume (in Japanese, anyway) books like 1Q84 to great hype and critical acclaim (though to be honest, I do not really remember what kind of acclaim accompanied 1Q84).

tazakijapaneseIncidentally, 1Q84 is still sitting on my shelf largely unread. Maybe I’m a Murakami minimalist. Maybe my favorites are his smaller, less weird creations. Which is why Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki worked so well for me. Its rather hard to describe what this book felt like. Aesthetically, it was very… Japanese. Kawabata-esque, even. It felt almost un-Murakami-like, but then again, Murakami is one of those writers you can’t pigeon-hole. It’s wacky cups one day, classical vases the next. It takes a true master to make both beautiful.

I leave you with Patti Smith’s review, which really sums it all up quite nicely.

May reading tally: ‘Too Early to Talk About’ edition

May was extremely satisfying reading-wise, but entirely frustrating when it came to reviewing. I read a few really, really good books, and I can’t tell you about them. Because it is too early. Basically, this month, I read 80% of all my ‘Can’t Wait Till Release Date” books for the entire year. These books are the ones that go immediately to the top of the reading pile, and I will, in fact, drop any other book I’m reading to read these.

What this means is that this month, my books acquired should be pretty similar to books read. Fingers crossed.

Books acquired (including borrowed) – and this time I was pretty good about photo documentation:


A couple of bookgroup books (Sabriel and Blindsight), plus The Bees, which I reviewed here.


Guys, guys, it’s the xkcd book! The only reason I’m not done with it yet is because I got it yesterday. Also, Sally Ride!

Continuing with non-fiction theme:


Plutopia is supposed to be great.

I then acquired this odd hardcover edition of Dune (pictured here melding with the table):


All these were satisfying acquisitions, but the true highlights were these babies:


0510141221 IMG_20140527_174921

Really, how can you not drop everything and read these? I binged on Vandermeer all last Saturday, finished Mitchell in two days, and Murakami in a day and a half. The only thing I can say is that you will want to get these as soon as they are released.

And now, on to books read:

1. Chester Brown, Louis Riel

2. Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

3. Yuka Igarashi, ed. Granta # 127: Japan

4. David Mitchell, Bone Clocks

5. Jo Walton, My Real Children

6. Rivka Galchen, American Innovations

7. Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever. (this is obviously Canadian Content month)

8. Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t

9. Laline Paull, The Bees

10. Jon Skovron, Man Made Boy

11. Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

12. Jeff Vandermeer, Authority

13. Jeff Vandermeer, Acceptance

14. Lish McBride, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

15. Michael Deforge, Ant Colony

16. Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

The Best: this is really hard. Vandermeer is a wizard. So is David Mitchell. Murakami is in his own category. But to be honest, the book that took over my mind for days after I was done was The Orenda.

The Worst: nothing was truly terrible. I was disappointed in My Real Children, but I think that’s because I had really high expectations, and the book just didn’t seem to match what was in my head. Also, I’m in the minority here.

I honestly have no idea why I read Douglas Coupland’s book. I needed something truly out of my reading range. I read him before, but during an entirely different phase of my life. Worst. Person. Ever. was crass and disgusting and really made me feel like I was watching a train wreck. It wasn’t terrible (in a sense of ‘boring, can’t go on’ book terrible).

The Weird: only two graphic novels! But they are both by Canadian artists (Canadian Content month continues). Ant Colony is truly weird, but really awesome. Also, I’m never touching Sweet’n Low.


Yes, they are all ants.