Challenges, Fiction, Magic Realism, MetaBooks, Novella

The Strange Library

Cover image for The Strange Library by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Ted Goossen

ISBN 978-0-385-35430-1

“Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.”

A boy visits the library on his way home after school to return his books and pick up some new reading material. A librarian he doesn’t recognize refers him down to the basement, where his curiosity and quest for knowledge about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire land him in hot water. Entrapped in the “Reading Room” by a bald old man who plans to fatten up his brains with knowledge before eating them, the boy must find a way to lull his jailor into complacency, and escape without leaving behind the sheep man or the mute girl who are also locked in the labyrinth beneath the library.

Libraries are a recurring theme in Haruki Murakami’s fiction, but rarely are they the benign institutions we are familiar with. They tend to have a certain power, but also a certain darkness. In The Strange Library, the sheep man gives voice to what may be the source of both the power and the suspicion Murakami imbues them with: “If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would be the payoff for them?” From this cynicism, Murakami spins a dark and phantasmagoric tale of entrapment and escape. Narrated in a simple, straightforward style that counterpoints the bizarre events, The Strange Library is surreal in the manner of a dream or, in this case, a nightmare. The strangeness goes mostly unremarked within the story and indeed seems almost natural, but when you try to explain it to someone else it sounds completely nonsensical.

This book was first published in Japan in 2005, but is being released in English for the first time, with art direction and design by Chip Kidd who has fashioned it with more attention to form than function. (NB: The edition being published in the UK by Harvill Secker has a different design). Two overlapping cover flaps open up and down, while the pages inside open left to right as usual. The cover flaps need to be folded back and held behind the book while reading, making this slim, trade-sized volume surprisingly ungainly. The text is bulked out with grainy illustrations, and though the chapters are numbered, the pages are not. While the design is interesting, it makes the book somewhat awkward to read. The final paragraph of the book is easy to miss, centered alone on the final page of the book in much smaller type than the rest of the text.  A lot has gone into the visual design of the book, but the attention is more to aesthetics than utility.


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Also by Haruki Murakami:

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Challenges, Memoir, Non-Fiction

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Cover image for What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel

eISBN 978-0-307-26947-8

“No matter how mundane an action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.”

In the summer of 2005, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was preparing to run the New York City Marathon, his twenty-fourth marathon since 1982. Part memoir and part training journal, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running records his efforts to get ready for the race, and reflects on how running and writing novels became intertwined forces in his life. Murakami chronicles training for two events, and also looks back at how he became a novelist and a runner in the first place.

For all that Murakami is self-deprecating about his ability as a runner, he is much more serious about it than your average weekend warrior. His regular routine includes running six miles a day, six days per week, and training for at least one marathon per year. He ran the original marathon course in Greece backwards from Athens to Marathon for a magazine article, and once participated in a 62 mile ultramarathon. After burning out on running as a result of the ultramarathon, he started training for triathlons for a change of pace, and at the time of writing was doing a marathon every winter and a triathlon in the summer.

The portrait of Murakami that emerges from this record is that of a whole-hearted person who likes to put his best effort into everything he does. After a few years as a part time novelist, writing after working a long day at the business he built from scratch, he decided to go all in and shut down his jazz club to pursue novel writing full time. His running journal records the frustrations of not being able to continue to improve his times as he comes up against his own limitations, and his marathon times begin to creep upward rather than continuing to improve because he is getting older. And though he toys with the idea of giving himself over further to the sport, and running a full Ironman triathlon, or another ultramarathon, he puts these ambitions aside because training for these events would interfere with his writing.

Writing was the driving force behind Murakami’s decision to start running, when he found that he was putting on weight as a result of sitting at his desk all day after giving up running his jazz club. The long, steady work of writing a novel parallels the steady, measured pace of a practiced long-distance runner. Both can be lonely undertakings that require focus and endurance. Both draw on a similar kind of discipline, the ability to do the work even when you don’t really feel like it. The references to writing, and its relationship to running slip away in the last couple chapters of the book as Murakami recounts preparing for his first triathlon in several years in the summer of 2006. Murakami is honest about his failures to meet his running goals, but the discussion of the triathlon training is still more personal, as he tries to overcome the panic attacks he sometimes suffers from at the beginning of the swimming portion of a race.

Murakami’s account is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in that he fully acknowledges that he is chronicling what has worked for him, without necessarily recommending it for others. What is striking is the dedication with which he has shaped his day-to-day life so that it furthers his craft. Recommended for writers, runners, and fans of Murakami, and especially anyone who is some combination of the three, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a fascinating glimpse into the history and psyche of a popular writer refracted through the lens of sport.


Also by Haruki Murakami:

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World 


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Cover image for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel

ISBN 978-0-385-35210-9

“That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”

Thirty-six-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki lives a regimented but relatively empty life in Tokyo, where he works as an engineer, building and redesigning train stations. He has no friends, and he is not close to his family, though he does have a new girlfriend, Sara. When he was in high school, Tsukuru was part of a tight-knit group of five best friends. All of their names contained a kanji character that indicated a colour, and they were called by their nicknames: Ao (Blue), Aka (Red), Shiro (White), and Kuro (Black). Only colourless Tsukuru Tazaki went by his real name. Sixteen years ago, Tsukuru was suddenly cut off from his group of friends, without a word of explanation. Since then, Tsukuru has struggled to form human connections, but his desire to maintain a relationship with Sara forces him to finally confront the loss that has been haunting him for so many years.

Poised on the edge of Haruki Murakami’s usual flourishes of magic realism, but never diving deeply in, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a thoughtful novel about belonging and loneliness. Translator Philip Gabriel has conveyed Murakami’s story into English with eloquence and beauty, notwithstanding a few awkward passages where nuances of Japanese language or culture need to be explained in order for the story to make sense. Belonging is an important theme in many of Murakami’s works—in 1Q84, he investigates it through the device of the cult, and in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the Calcutec and the Dreamreader are each set apart from everyone else by the burden of their unique talents—but here, belonging is the central theme and preoccupation of the book.

Tsukuru is a surprisingly interesting character given his relative lack of agency. He isn’t as empty as he thinks he is, but he does lack self-esteem in all areas except perhaps his work, where he recognizes himself as competent, but not outstanding. However, talent is a mixed blessing in this novel, bringing some degree of torment and unhappiness upon those who have it. Talent is frequently exemplified by characters playing the piano, from Tsukuru’s lost friend Shiro, to the mysterious Mr. Green in Haida’s story. Though Tsukuru does not play himself, when he has a dream about playing the piano with great skill, no one in the audience is listening to his performance, illustrating his crippling insecurities. Without a reason for being alienated from his friends, he chooses to assume his lack of personality and distinction was the reason they decided to cut him out.

As usual with Murakami, it is difficult to connect to the female characters, who mostly feel distant and removed. The narrator is male, and all the female characters seem more like women seen through a man’s eyes than like actual people. Also as usual, Murakami is preoccupied with sex, and there are repeated dream sequences in which Tsukuru sleeps with Shiro and Kuro, made uncomfortable by the fact that while Tsukuru ages, the girls never do. However, the scenes, which at first seemed unnecessary, eventually justified their inclusion once the reason for Tsukuru’s ostracization was finally revealed. Despite their unconscious nature, they remain somewhat of a dark spot on Tsukuru’s character, even though they are relevant to the plot.

Although the female characters in general are a bit flat, it is Tsukuru’s visit with Kuro that ultimately proves to be the most satisfying encounter in his journey to reconnect with his old friends. The conversations with the two men, Ao an Aka, are revealing, but a little bit superficial, and they do not really seem to connect with Tsukuru. Neither friend can recall Le mal du pays, the Liszt piece Tsukuru remembers Shiro playing so beautifully, and Tsukuru leaves each encounter unsatisfied. Kuro, however, remembers the piece, and listens to it often, though she prefers a different recording than Tsukuru. His conversation with Kuro proves to be the most cathartic moment in the story, but the conclusion unravels from there.

This cathartic encounter seems set to move the novel towards a satisfying conclusion, but the story remained incomplete in two respects. First, though Tsukuru realizes that losing touch with his college friend Haida is also part of his past he needs to deal with, he doesn’t try to find Haida, and his friend is not mentioned again. Haida (Grey) played a more minor role in Tsukuru’s life than his four high school friends, but the loss of his friendship compounded the difficulties created by the first loss. Rather than taking his future into his own hands, Tsukuru decides to let Sara’s choice determine whether or not he will move forward, and in the end, we are not even privy to her decision. Tsukuru’s loneliness and disconnection are deserving of empathy, but his inability to finally seize the moment and move forward, with or without Sara, undermines the impact of his encounter with Kuro.

Challenges, Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Cover image for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Alfred Birnbaum

ISBN 0-679-74346-4

What was lost was lost. There was no retrieving it, however you schemed, no returning to how things were, no going back.

Set in Tokyo at some undefined point in the future, the unnamed protagonist works as a Calcutec, a human data encoder, for the System. The mysterious System is opposed by the equally shadowy Semiotecs of the Factory, who search out ways to crack the codes as fast as the System can invent them. The latest defence against the Semiotecs is an encoding process known as shuffling, but for unknown reasons, shuffling has been suspended until further notice. So when the Calcutec is called to the underground laboratory of the Professor to encode and shuffle research data, he knows that something unusual is going on. All the paperwork seems to be in order, but there is something highly unusual about the situation, and it isn’t long before the Calcutec’s carefully ordered life is unravelling around him. The ability to shuffle bestowed on him by the System is slowly destroying his brain, and the magical subconscious world of unicorns and shadows that exists there.

Haruki Murakami flits back and forth between the waking world, and the metaphorical walled Town that exists only in the Calcutec’s mind, where the Dreamreader must decipher old dreams from the skulls of unicorns while he waits for his shadow to die. As with his more recent novel, 1Q84, it is the slow-building connection between these two disparate worlds that drives the book forward, and the pleasure of reading Murakami’s distinctive prose (well-translated by Alfred Birnbaum) is in slowly fitting all of the pieces together.  Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is replete with references to classic music, film, and literature, and yet relentlessly post-modern. Both the plot arc and the conclusion are looser and more open-ended than many people will enjoy.

The least enjoyable thing about this novel, however, was spending four hundred pages inside the Calcutec’s head. The Calcutec is a familiar variety of middle-aged male character, of the sort that loves women, but who is constantly sexualizing each woman that he meets, evaluating her physical appearance, and his personal desire to sleep with her. There are two main female characters in his waking world, one of whom he refers to only as “the chubby girl,” or occasionally, “the Professor’s granddaughter.”  The opening passages of the novel are spent evaluating the sexual appeal of beautiful fat women, followed by a skin-crawling conversation with her grandfather about how the girl ought to lose her virginity, after which she repeatedly entreats the Calcutec to go to bed with her, though she is seventeen and he is thirty-five. The Professor’s granddaughter is a strong and determined character who saves the Calcutec more than once, but he spends most of his time thinking about her physical appearance. These details frequently intruded on my enjoyment of this novel, and I would qualify any recommendation I might make about the undeniable quality of the prose with a caveat about how gender roles play out in the book.


2013eclecticreaderThis title fulfills the Translated Fiction requirement for my participation in the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.

Dystopian, Fantasy, Horror, Humour, LGBTQIA+, Mythology, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Top Picks

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. My top 5 non-fiction titles for the year will go up Thursday.

1Q84 (978-0307593313) 

Cover image for 1Q84In 1984, personal trainer Aomame disembarks from a taxi in the middle of a Tokyo Expressway and climbs down an emergency exit in order to make an important appointment. But the world at the bottom of the emergency exit is subtly different from the world she left behind. Also in Tokyo, author Tengo is approached by a publishing contact with an offer to ghostwrite a beautiful and unusual fantasy novel written by a peculiar seventeen year old girl with a troubled past. Haruki Murakami weaves elements of mystery, fantasy and dystopia together brilliantly to reveal the connection between Aomame and Tengo and their seemingly disparate stories.

Categories: Fantasy, Dystopia


Cover image for Lamb by Christopher MooreWith his signature wit and humour, Christopher Moore brings a bright new perspective to the life of Christ and the many myths surrounding it by retelling it from the point of view of his dedicated and clumsy childhood pal, Biff. Biff has been reincarnated to tell the tale of the missing years of Christ’s life, between his childhood and his ministry. Their travels through Asia might more aptly be styled misadventures, but they all lead back to the fate that waits for “Joshua” on Calvary. Moore’s Gospel according to Biff is irreverent and hilarious.

Categories: Humour, Mythology

The Night Circus (978-0307744432)

Cover Image for The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternTwo great magicians with a long-standing rivalry pit their apprentices against one another in a battle of skill and wits with an unusual setting: a magical black and white circus which operates only at night. Celia and Marco are bound to the struggle but their growing feelings for one another and frustration with their mentors cause them to rebel against their fate. And the luminous circus setting in which they face off has serious consequences for the other denizens of the circus as the competition stretches on. Erin Morgenstern brings the circus to life in the mind’s eye in stunning detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Romance

The Wolf Gift (978-0-307-59511-9)

Cover Image for The Wolf Gift by Anne RiceReturning to the world of supernatural fiction, Anne Rice puts her own spin on the legend of the werewolf. Reuben Golding is a young reporter from a wealthy San Francisco family. He has a budding career and beautiful girlfriend, but his life is turned on its head when he is invited to Nideck Point, a majestic and isolated manor on the Mendocino coast. His hostess is murdered, and he is ravaged by a werewolf. When he transforms himself, he is compelled to answer the cries of suffering innocents, and is left to struggle with the moral implications of the violence he inflicts on their tormentors. Anne Rice blends philosophic introspection and supernatural mystery along with her unusual talent for describing houses and landscapes. The sequel, The Wolves of Midwinter, has been announced for October 2013.

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Song of Achilles (978-0062060624)

Cover image for Song of Achilles by Madeleine MillerThe legend of Achilles and his role in the fall of Troy are exquisitely reimagined by Madeleine Miller, told from the perspective of his dedicated companion, Patroclus. Former prince Patroclus is an unwanted exile in the court of King Peleus. Despite his dark past, Patroclus is gentle and disinclined towards the martial arts he is expected to master. Achilles is a natural warrior, destined for great conquests by the ambition of his goddess mother, Thetis. Their opposing natures bind them together into a steadfast friendship that grows into a romance that will see Patroclus follow Achilles to the walls of Troy, despite Thetis’s determined efforts to drive them apart. Miller delivers a moving tale of friendship and romance doomed by its setting on the stage of history.

Categories: LGBT, Mythology, Romance