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.

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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.

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.

A Monster Calls : An emotional ride into the mind of a child

I don’t read English YA novels.

Even with my almost thirty summer long life, I have been less inclined to surf through the pages of Harry Potter or get engrossed in The Divergent; my adventures have been rather haphazard. From William Golding’s spine-chilling ‘Lord of the Flies’, or the rather mainstream  ‘Perks of being an Wallflower’, or the will-make-your-glasses-foggy ‘The fault in our stars’, as a reader I haven’t followed a pattern, or a phase.

Maybe that has helped me more.

The story about this novel started two months back. I consider myself a medium level Otaku, and one of my staple activities is to surf through YouTube going through piles of documentaries, movie trailers, gameplay videos, tech stuff…

…and may be a couple of parkour fail and cat videos.

I saw this movie trailer featuring a relatively unknown boy, a Lord of the Rings-esque tree monster voiced by our favorite Zeus Liam Neeson, a terminally ill mother played by Felicity Jones, and a whooping two seconds of Sigourney Weaver. The movie was being directed by the same man who made The Orphanage, one of my favorite horror movies. Win-win, right?

Then I saw that it was based on a bestselling novel. Sure, every movie these days is, I thought. A casual search on Goodreads, and a few reviews later, I was downloading the book in my Kindle.

And then I totally forgot about it and went with Jack Kerouac for his exhilarating USA road trip. When I was going through my library, the intriguing cover piqued my interest (yet again), and being the lazy reader I was, the relatively short page count gave me a sudden New Year’s boost. I am to read twenty-five books this year, amIright?

A day later, I was feeling as if someone had punched me hard on my stomach. The book challenged the notion of ‘Big boys don’t cry’ and came tantalizingly close to overcome it. A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness, is a fruition of Siobhan Dowd’s concept. Dowd, a British YA author, died of breast cancer in 2007. Patrick picked up the idea and gave it shape and out came the book.

The book’s main protagonist, the school kid named Conor O’Mally is going through a rough time. Between a terminal, divorced mother and in-school bullying, between a deadpan grandma and a non-existent, living in a different continent father, he lives and relives his nightmares. There are two nightmares in his life, one that manifests when he is awake, the acerbic lashes of sympathy, and the one that he dreams of – a recurring ravenous thought, the cause of which he cannot really put a finger on. Or he is too scared to admit that he is tired of living a life that is too scrutinized, too scripted, too straight, even though that may be the only thing holding his frail idea of a family together.

Along comes a monster, a wooden, Yew tree on bipeds, one that is intent on telling stories more than raising a feeling of dread.

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

“Because humans are complicated beast,” the monster said. “How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can a parson be wrong-thinking but good-hearted? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?”

Conor is apprehensive, as all of today’s kids are, that this is a figment of his tired imagination.

“I don’t know,” Connor shrugged, exhausted. “Your stories never made any sense to me.”

The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.

Once that veil is removed, the interactions spark a series of events in Conor’s life that ultimately starts to untangle his knotted existence, and many a new secrets are unraveled, and wounds are made and healed. In the end, confronted with arguably the book’s most tearjerking moment, Conor accepts his nightmare.

And lets go. The freefalling Conor becomes the real Conor, devoid of the strings around him, flying high, even though the pillars that he stood on are no longer present. He builds the castles from the sand again, the monster watching and smiling. The brilliance in Ness’ writing is that you never realize whether Conor and the Monster are the same. He hints at the fact that the Yew tree has always been there, watching over their little family, growling to life only when someone yearns for it badly, manifesting itself with a wand of justice that is brutal yet fair. The tales are hence wondrous, and tests the notions of a little mind.

I wanted to cry after reading this novel, but hey, big boys don’t cry. The feel good moments are aplenty here, even though the words are less. Patrick Ness has created a beautiful story here, and I am eagerly awaiting the movie now. If the movie is half as good as the book, it will be spectacular.

Cujo : The dog is not the monster

I am on a Stephen King marathon it seems.

Unlike Pet Sematary, I did not remember Cujo the movie. I knew the basic premise. So it was about a rabid Saint Bernard dog wrecking havoc. The earlier book gave me a nice glimpse into King’s writing technique – that his novels weren’t just your run of the mill horror story, but they provided a unique point of view, a subjective analysis of human psyche and character that was often very sad and cruel. In Cujo, King is in his familiarity, and the story is again in Maine, where he lived a great deal. Castle Rock was a quiet neighborhood, so close yet so away from the business of New York or Boston or other big cities. Life here was on a different tone, often rolling off to borderline out of sync with the civilization that ran on steroids. Hence the story of a rabid dog that may have been a normal story in the cities turns out to be a vicious chapter in the town’s history.

Stephen King was in the peak of his drunken-abusiveness when he wrote Cujo, and he has largely admitted that he doesn’t remember the book. I think that factored in building the bleak spine of the story, a rigmarole that is relationship – be it between a married couple, or between parents and kids, or even between a child and a dog, and between a dog and his keepers, represented here with excruciating detail. It is beautifully summated in the ending quotes where King narrates:

“It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.”

Indeed free will forms a great part of this story. A woman’s free will to speak up against an abusive marriage, another’s free will to choose her path amidst a tumbling relationship and the mid life crisis – to a man’s free will to save a marriage, to a vindictive ejaculation of another man in a fit of rage, ending up to the dog’s fate of being a slave to the will of a disease, an abomination that took control of him, the mind’s forces are characters of their own in Cujo. Stephen King goes one up when he introduces Cujo as a perspective and not a third-person character, something that completely changes the way the novel reads, and it is fantastic. The gradual degeneration of his mind is almost as deplorable as the crumbling relationships around him, and the fogginess in his brain, the sharp pains in his mind and body, the slow, screaming death of his self-conscience except the blurry notions of MAN, WOMAN and BOY are eerily similar to the blurred lines of a human mind as it struggles to distinguish good from the bad. The ending is hence not surprising at all, knowing King would have liked it to end it that way, and it shows in a way that the dog was just at a bad place at a bad time, just like the Trentons, just like the Cambers, just like Sheriff Bannermann.

So this is a sad story, but why does it rank as horror? Writhing inside the story of a dog gone bad is the unnerving undertale of a monster, something that lurks inside a kid’s closet, often manifesting itself with glowing eyes piercing through the clot of darkness, prying open the door ever so slightly. Is it the dementia that was brought by Frank Dodd the serial killer? Did he never die? King never really divulges into that, and his intentional omission gives Cujo the novel a supernatural chill that elevates it from a regular tale of a rabid dog rampaging around a quiet town.

In the end, Cujo is a read that requires a little patience since it takes time to enter the world of Castle Rock. Once you enter, there is no turning back. The second half is a rabid page-turner (no pun intended). Stephen King’s Cujo is at its best when the Saint Bernard is on its paws, lunging at unsuspecting human beings, tearing them apart. It is also at is worst when Cujo is on his paws, lumbering around like a lifeless husk, too fragmented, too hurt to think, too restless to die. In a way Cujo represents excessive alcoholism of King, a story returned from the otherwise inaccessible, fucked up places in the corner of his mind.

Recommended.

Stephen King’s Pet Sematary : Foray into the world of primal horror

I vaguely remember the movie ‘Pet Sematary’ that played in HBO back in the days. HBO was particularly kind to it, showing it as a part of their horror weekends, or just randomly airing it to the unsuspecting kid who was recently introduced to the world of foreign movies. The odd spelling caught my eye first, but that wasn’t the reason I had let it creep inside that foggy corner of my mind where creatures of the imagination lurked : the premise was utterly vile.

When I finally decided to read Stephen King, there were many choices in front of me, and most of them came from my viewing of their movie adaptations. ‘Cujo’, ‘Carrie’ and ‘IT’ were instant to-reads, recommended even by the bibliophile friends, but as I was surfing through the entire collection, that buried adolescence thought resurfaced though the quagmire like a Wendigo and commanded that I opened its grave first.

And like a servant of its will, I bought this book and started to read.

This book is much, much scarier than the movie (as almost always), and I am amazed because I know the plot. I know what happens, what is going to happen, yet the way Stephen builds up the ante is unlike anyone else. Being a big fan of Lovecraftian horror stories and their almost absurd way of spreading the veil of mystery, I was immediately taken aback by how leisurely the story started – like it was nothing at all, like King was just narrating a man in midway of his career in the most boring way possible – crafty, yet drab.

There are some highs in that flat narration, the slow raise of hair around your neck when you feel something is not right, but then they are quickly drowned in the problems of the modern life. The real fun however starts after the second half when the story deviously tricks you into falling into a bog of primal forces. Then you are not Jud Crandall – the voice of reason, not the road that kills, not Rachel Creed who is too scarred for her own good, not little Ellie, not Gage, not even Victor ‘Paxcow’ Pascow who has risen from the dead as a sentry, a warning between the worlds of the living and the dead. This is the Pet Sematary I remember from my childhood days, the bone chilling surrender to a power that is ancient and primal yet very much alive in today’s world, the one that is shapeless and formless yet at times manifests itself like a cat, or a child.

Pet Sematary makes you Louis Creed, a man slowly spiraling into madness from the sane world, and that is scarier than anything else.

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