Men without Women – Haruki Murakami : Book Review

It must’ve been ten years back. Looking into my jar of memories, I cannot find the exact calendar. Amidst the blurry mess that my subjective hearing and sort of cognizant, destructive amnesia made of my past, I somehow find a few solid, well formed artifacts, like one finds a ring from a papier-mâché of rose petals, water and milk during some Indian marriage ceremonies. Those memories are especially vivid- like me attending an awkward Physics Lab exam in my college years, or getting engrossed in the pond-fishing in our school complex when I was ten, or my first actual date with a representative of the opposite sex. I don’t then remember other stories; of me almost drowning when I was a toddler, of countless Durga Pujos I’ve spent, of some long dead relatives who are just a face in yellowed out album pages now. My existential crisis is only worsened by authors like Haruki Murakami, who continues to write stories of unknown sadnesses, and introduces me to another ocean that I need to conquer, only this one more grayer than the last, more hands to drag me down under, to choke my last bits of sanity.

I’ve been remarkably slow in reading books this year. I started well, however, finishing 4-5 books under the first one and a half months. That’s almost blazing speed for someone who reads and re-reads, and is painstakingly slow in the process. Then I was hit by a barrage of personal events: I got married, moved to a bigger apartment, and have been trying to settle down in the quagmire that is married, docile life. So when I began reading Murakami’s latest and greatest, I wanted to get back to the habit, and to keep my promise of finishing twenty five books in 2017, not realizing what I was getting into.

Men without Women is a concept. A man meets multiple women in his life; some he becomes friends with; some he makes love with; and then there are some that just exist, right on the border of his attention span, waiting, faceless existences that at times get slight warmth of notice. The man may have similar situations where he’s the mannequin, just another voice in the ether, but that often doesn’t bother him until he becomes a ‘Man without Woman’. A man who has no woman in his life – no Scheherazade to tell eccentric stories of lampreys and breaking into others houses. No once known, now a blur woman that had a thing for wonderful sex and elevator music. Not even a woman with burn scars and a woman with her breasts undulating while she rode another man in front of her husband. This profound state of systemic decay, a rather dystopian conclusion of human sentiments is ‘Men without Women’. There’s not only tragicomic sadness at play here, but Murakami plays from strength to strength narrating stories that has a familiarity, a loneliness that is often found in his works. Dr. Tokai finds love all of a sudden in a sea of nonchalance. Kafuku wants to know the lovers of his late wife to make a complete picture of a woman he never really knew fully. Kitaru, one day, vanishes, leaving his friend and his girlfriend in complete darkness – these stories are intertwined in curious cases of emotions. Men with Women, fascinated by Men without Women.

The stories, except the last one, circle around in a narrow boundary. Murakami keeps a strong bind here – a mixture of solitude and vivid abstraction with his undenying love for old music and movies. This book is so much more than a collection of stories – it’s a homage to Ernest Hemingway, a direct tribute to Franz Kafka and ‘Metamorphosis’ (one of my favorite stories in the book), and also a nod to a lot of forgotten people, standing in the queue, waiting for their turn to tell stories. I as a writer find this amazing, but I may be biased, so leaving this to personal interpretations is the best choice.

Are all men to become ‘Men without Women’ eventually? Is there an indication here, a forecasting of our lives? Yes, and no. Like a lamprey hunting for its halibut to cling on, our relationships are also clingy. Subconsciously we wait for the right moment to jump and press our jaws into one another’s body, and suck emotions from each other – that’s how we survive. The book tells you the exact thing. Don’t believe for a moment that you can swim through this madness of becoming Men without Women.

You can’t.

What remains of Edith Finch : What really remains

Indie games are winning.

In an era where major AAA gaming franchises are either strained cash cows or a mass-marketing grand fiasco, indie games are continuing to hold the benchmark flags high. Video games to me are story driven pieces of art, an amalgamation of smart level design, breathtaking atmosphere and intuitive combat. At its core is story and gameplay mechanics. Somehow this notion seems to be unknown to even accomplished studios and people helming them (Peter Mollyneaux comes to mind). As a result we end up getting a lot of games that are unfinished. Either great story, or great combat, or a memorable soundtrack, but very few times coming together to create an unforgettable experience.

Last year, Firewatch became the raging point of discussion amongst the gaming community. A walking simulator as critics labeled games like these, Firewatch told a story that was emotional and lacked any fluff whatsoever. It was blunt and extended the right amount. Conservative in its frame narration and removing any sort of superhuman notion (which games like CoD and Battlefield have been famously known for), the game provided a riveting insight into the human psyche, painting a picture that was to last quite a while. Firewatch to me was the best game of the year, followed closely by another gem, Inside.

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What remains of Edith Finch is a different take on the Firewatch genre, but it keeps the core ideas same and evolves on the concept. Telling the story of a decaying family from the perspective of its youngest member is quite a task to take on, and this game hits it out of the park. This is not so much a game as it is an experience, a soul wrenching at that. There is an unbridled joy in freedom of expression, in freedom to choose life and death and the realities that surround us, and visiting every Finch, knowing their fate through their own words is both harrowing and spectacular. The monsters that consume them eventually are their own creations : fame, desperation, despair, fear, delusion, craving — and most of all, a relentless pursuit of their realities.

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The ending to it all was not as sad as I thought it would be, but the individual stories left a deep mark on me. After I finished this short game, the haunting, minimal soundtrack kept on harping on familiarities that I didn’t want to dig up. Somewhere I longed for my family, my own bunch of loonies with their own fallacies and their own perceptions.

This is where Edith Finch succeeds in telling a story, and being an art. It makes you think : of all possibilities that could have been, and whether we maketh our destinies or our destinies maketh us. At one point I contemplated on whether I should write it all down and get it off my chest, but this in its current state is absolutely worth experiencing.

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What remains of Edith Finch ends up telling us whatever remains of us and people we care for, in a way I have never seen told before through the world of gamepads and keystrokes.

Best Game of 2017, yet.

Logan : the superhero movie that we may not want, but one that we absolutely need

It all started with Batman Begins.

Christopher Nolan’s retelling of the rise of one of the most iconic heroes of comic book universe had won critics and viewers alike. It will be followed by the superb The Dark Knight and inspire producers to take the superhero genre seriously, something that had all but died after the atrocious barrage of Batman and Superman movies.

Sam Raimi in his infinite wisdom had created a launching pad for Spider-Man, yet after the second installment the party was over. Spider-Man 3 was a quagmire of missed opportunities and bad character choices, and sort of bucked to the trend.

A trend where the superheroes were normalized, the stories changed, their actions either over the top or simply too humane, the villains relegated to flesh and blood animations without any sort of mysterious hyperbole. The movies often felt like slick thrillers. Some hardcore comic book nerds were left displeased as a result. Essential violence was stripped off; characters mellowed down – no ferocious animosity, no vicious path for absolute justice, no ravenous appetite for destroying the world or saving it, movie after movie succumbed to a global rise of PG era nonsense that was often too comical for its own good. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, a sleeper hit couldn’t prevent it. Last year, I saw two massive chances for comic book adaptations’ return to form squandered (counting Suicide Squad makes it three). While Batman vs Superman was certainly ambitious in its premise, the rush to meet Marvel at its path ruined the sustained story development. Hollow characters, deep holes in the plot and mindless battles only fastened its sad demise. Captain America : Civil War on the other hand ended up becoming too civil, too contained – almost too safe. It was a painful reminder of how a strong platform can still be ruined if no risks are taken. For reasons purely based on business, the story was criminally changed and forced on us.

It was only natural that the ghost of all these movies were still lurking around me when I finally decided to give Logan a shot. Two hours later the things that were in my mind were a mixture of the movie’s strong points and the fact that I was about an hour and a half late for home, the latter not sitting well with my parents. But off I went, promising myself to write a review because this movie deserved one.

In many ways, Old Man Logan is Marvel’s deviation from the norm, much like how The Dark Knight Returns was for DC. Alternate universe – check. Old, aging, dying superhero – check. One last mission – check. Morality strains – check. Wolverine, often used to the point of irritation as this hot with rage killing machine cum southern biker – a shallow existence who serves as a thug with pea brain and yellow costumes is shredded to bits here. Replacing him is a degenerating hero, not wolverine but Logan, Logan of yore who has forgotten his ways of being part of X-Men. Saddled with the responsibilities of a mortal man and the depressive disorders of a schizophreniac, he lunges onto one straw from another, trying to find a safe place to die. This Logan is cornered, vulnerable, and dangerous.

A deranged Professor Xavier is his sanity clause for the moment. The movie focuses on their love hate relationship. Some scenes are truly beautiful and worth pausing and rewatching (something I wish I could do in a movie theater). The small holes in the water tank and the rays of the sun poking through them creates the illusion of a starlit sky; the flood of light on the other hand concentrates on a small batch of greenery, giving the place a stark contrast and a touch of the mundane. Xavier’s demons were to be exercised there, away from humanity, in the middle of nowhere. But fate and Wolverine had other plans.

What happens after that is a two hour long escalation of situations and emotions. Kaliban, the mutant with a Brit accent and a pale skin is interestingly put inside this story and he surprises with his quips. He seems to be the only one with a sure footing in this world that has lost its own. Xavier and Logan on the other hand are too volatile, too vibrant and too crass.

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The story changes gears and gives us flashbacks of the old Logan, both as a protagonist and an antagonist- Wolverine if you’d like to call him that. The bleeding and carrying the adamantium bullet to relieve himself of his life Logan is arguably far more interesting though, as is wave-splattering, hallucinating Charles Xavier. The old reminiscing is what is utterly fascinating, to hear and see them go about discussing events that took place a long time ago. Mutants were gone, so were their well wishers. The remaining museum samples were being hunted down like dogs.

Twenty-three, or girl with the wolverine claws shows up under a familiar trope of a circumstance, and immediately triggers a whole barrage of crap onto the hapless trio. The redneck villain is surprisingly menacing here, mixing usual goof with unusual ferocity. The girl doesn’t steal the show, and neither does the villain, because this is not about them. It was never meant to be about them.

What about that ending though? I honestly feel that there couldn’t be a better ending than what Logan gives us. A conclusion that is devoid of the There was a huge bomb blast with the hero in tow but he still survives and many years later is seen in Italy enjoying a drink bullshittery, Logan’s finale is much more grounded in reality, something that immediately connects with the audience, the ‘No more guns in the valley’ notwithstanding.

Two hours later, I have nothing but praise for Hugh Jackman, Sir Patrick Stewart and James Mangold who gave us a fitting reply. This is the sort of comic book adaptation people want. A no fluff story, fewer, stronger characters and loyality to the original storyline and essence. Not the moviemaking kryptonite that kills superheroes and creates Barney the dinosaur in their places.

Now where’s that R rated Batman movie, DC?

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman – a fresh coat of paint

For People who love mythological stories, the Norse stories are surely a draw. I had an odd thing introduce me to this grandeur – a video game, Ensemble Studios’ Age of Mythology. Later I figured out that much of Tolkien’a lore was actually influenced by the Norse Gods and creatures, and that fact intrigued me even more.
Gaiman’s retelling of the stories – from beginning to the end don’t give you anything new if you are aware of the central themes. It however gives you a fresh coat, a different literary perspective, something which Gaiman has plenty of experience dishing out. With his sharp, measured approach, the stories are cut lean, stripped from all the usual chatter that most writers tend to introduce. Gaiman also lends his lucid way of storytelling, far cry from the campy or dark, Brother Grimm like ways.

I thoroughly loved it, and this book will appeal to even the staunchiest of myth disapprovers. You don’t have to believe in divinities – just enjoy the larger than life stories.

The Wendigo – Algernon Blackwood : visiting one of the sources of Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary is one of those books that has many uncommon tropes of the horror genre, penned effortlessly by Stephen King in his drunken rage, only to loosen up the dreary influences he received from multiple source materials. Blackwood’s The Wendigo served as one of the biggest catalysts in the early 1900s to have writers incline towards Native American folklore – and before you knew it, a sub genre was born that dealt with only these legends. In Pet Sematary, arguably King’s finest telling of the Wendigo lore of the Algonquinian tribe, the literature peaked at its best, yet to get to the root of where it all started, we will definitely have to give due credit to Blackwood. Derelith, who wrote the marvelous Ithaqua, drew heavily from this psychological thriller of a short story, and in turn ended up influencing the monster that dwelt in the marshes beyond the Creed’s, one who was barely seen but was often heard, one who walked with the wind.

The premise in itself is pretty barebones : but that gives the narrator plenty of time to spin his web and create an atmosphere that is as vicious as it is visceral. Five people break into groups of two and three in some remote American wilderness, hunting big moose. The obscurity of the forest ensures that the stories inside it also stays intact, and something primal lurks in it that the forest protects fervently. It is no accident that this creature, the Wendigo, masks its presence so well amidst the dense foliage, icy terrain and a placid lake that splits the forest into two. You have a hard time for the most part deciding who is the villain here : is it the monster that feeds on fear, or is it the forest that creates that fear?

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There’s a third perpetrator in this tale : the human yearning to jump into things that they don’t comprehend, a sort of answering the call of the wild, feral, the uncharted – that inevitably brings about their doom. Blackwood is quick to point that out in The Wendigo, that even though the monster of the folklore maybe out there, it is the curiousity of the hunters and trackers that ends up being one of the deciding factors in their encounter with the elusive beast, and as much ferocity nature can conjure, it is also the fate of a few inconsiderate people who run chasing every rare chance an obscure wilderness may present : in their callousness they give life to folklore and legends that are best left unseen.

Unsurprisingly enough, it’s the Indian tracker Dévago who bears the brunt of the abuse of senses – in his change of form from a jocund moose-tracker to something else that is most profound here. Blackwood also throws in the possibility of a possession and its fatal aftermath, but the conversation between a newbie Scot and a veteran Dévago constitute the better part of the story. Punk and others chip in and fill the holes in the plot.

In the end, the sparsely heard song is what remains as a crushing reminder :

“Oh! oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! oh! This height and fiery speed!”

There is an undeniable Lovecraftian quality in this story that I absolutely adore. The thrusting into the atmosphere horror, the unseen protagonist, the psychological turmoil, the relentless questioning of human psyche elevates this story into a work of art from a simple narration. No wonder it inspired a generation of writers to spin their own twist on this genre.

Chatwin’s Patagonia, or why I couldn’t finish the book

There are five or six different types of places in this world in my opinion. Most of them are synonymous with one of your own emotions – remember that I said yours and not the generalized human emotion, because emotions are purely subjective, a customized version atop a common platform. So what Kolkata might evoke in you may not elicit the same emotional response in me. But then there are places that come very close to defying that rule. Places that are either too crowded, overbuilt and infested with civilization to the bones – your days are too sped up there for you to conjure up things in your mind. It’s like a whole array of art installations on a conveyor belt. The moment you blink, the visceral statue of a muscular, dead horse is replaced by a rather jaunty, psychedelic picture of a man screaming his head off.

Then there are places that are so derelict, so devoid, so empty, so abyssal that the small bubble of human emotion just fizzles out in front of it. The absorbing power of such place is unheard of, not only because human beings have not yet stepped on it, but also because of the core ingredients that constitute such an ocean of emptiness has yet to come into contact with enough of our species to form a bond. Hence the stories that are found there are conserved ferociously, almost like the treasures of Nassau, and are being passed from generation to generation with occult like precision.

Patagonia – or where the memories evolve.

Bruce Chatwin, born and brewed in the society that rejected the tribalness in human nature, took it upon himself to fancy a chance in exploring the extreme nomadism that existed in the loneliest parts of our planet. It all started with his childhood fascination for a Brontosaurus bone (in actuality, a giant sloth’s called the Mylodon) that he saw in his grandparent’s home. The bone was found in Patagonia, a large, mostly uninhabited land on the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile that stretches from the prairie like grasslands of the Pampas to green and yellowish lakes to the remote snowladen peaks of the mighty Andes that stretches to Antarctica. To the child, it was a land of never before seen stories, of giant animals and long lost worlds, but he never thought about it before his monotonous work took him to Eileen Gray, the then 93 year old architect who had a map of Patagonia printed on her salon wall. There, revitalized by the nonagenarian’s inspirational words, he flew to Lima two years later on a whim, to find out what that world had to offer.

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In Patagonia is a two-hundred page book filled with Chatwin’s recollection of the stories that he collected in his multiple travels. The stories, often criticized as more a figment of his own mind mixed with some truth, are disjointed, experimental, and divided into nearly a hundred chapters that range from a paragraph to two pages. The biggest flaw of the book turns out to be this: the nomadism that Chatwin so wishes to experience ends up being so evident in his writing that he ends up not building any sort of flow whatsoever. You can safely skip pages without any consequences here.

While that is my biggest gripe, there are some more glaring omissions as well. Reading through the chapters felt like Chatwin was aiming for a cheap recipe of storytelling : not investing in any characters that he met, rather swiftly browsing through their daily lives, trying to cover as much as possible. Hence we never get any ramblings of his mind, just a clean, journalism-esque reporting of incidents. This puts him in accordance to his then livelihood and hammers any prospect of getting a Borges out of his diaries.

So after trudging through halfway of this book, I am heavily inclined to abandon my journey through Bruce Chatwin’s eyes. Not like I don’t like Patagonia – I want to go there, I want to experience the lack of emotions myself, I want to feel the vastness of absolutely nothing, the fiendish preservation of culture of the people surviving there, albeit I want to take time to assimilate them all. A fast one won’t do.

Brontosaurus bones or not, the Chatwin Patagonia continues to be one of the best travelogues, popular amongst many book lovers. I agree to this: read this book as a simple travel diary – just don’t expect anything better.

Reviewing “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” : A small sized terror-hole

I paused several times while reading this book, shuddering at the thought of the visceral scenes of a Nazi concentration camp. Auschwitz-Birkenau had been a slaughterhouse for millions of Jews, Romanies, Gypsies, people political and apolitical, and Dr. Nyiszli writes their plight with the flair of a surgeon. This book, arguably one of the shortest accounts of the atrocities of the Second World War by the Germans, has the precision of a pathologist. Hence the words are not flowery or pretentious; there is hardly any fluff; and grabs the nerve exceptionally well. He understands the symptoms of the Reich. How criminal behaviors were masked with the veil of scientific research and progress is shown time and again in this journal.

But one thing also stands out here in this book – about how people accepted their fate and never fought back. The reason Dr. Nyiszli came back alive from that hell is because he rebelled against the norm – the guineapigging, the shoving to the chambers, the expendable scenario. He saw liquidation after liquidation and yet through those crumbled mass of sanity and devastation, emerged alive.

A haunting reminiscing. Not sure if I can recommend this to people who are more addicted to romanticized accounts of war, but if history fascinates you, this is probably as close to it as you will get.