Category Archives: Literature

Currently Reading: Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World (1985)

Hardboiled Wonderland

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Amazon $10.99

One defining character trait about myself is that I am a creature of habit when it comes to my book selection. For the past five years, I’ve been reading mostly the works of Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author and clear lead-running favorite on my bookshelf. To date, I haven’t kept track of how many of Murakami’s novels and short stories that I’ve read. (Though, a quick browse through my Goodreads will shed light on this metric.) And I’m determined to read them all.

It’s a delicate matter though. Timing is important when selecting a new book to read. For instance, I read Norwegian Wood during a difficult break-up and then Kafka on the Shore while questioning my career (and life) direction. Both novels colored my life with much-needed perspective to my then-life situation. On the other hand, I bought a copy of 1Q84 years ago, and still, it sits on my bookshelf unstarted and unread for lack of any good reason. It’s neatly categorized in my mind as a novel “to be read under the right circumstances,” and so far, time hasn’t allowed for its entrance.

After spending the first half of this year reading a few popular books (Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series and Dave Eggers’ The Circle), I craved a return to go back to the transcendent magical realism aesthetic, the style for which makes Murakami famousOn my most recent trip to one of San Francisco’s bookstores, Booksmith, I perused the “M” section of the fiction shelves.

I could probably close my eyes and choose any of Murakami’s books to be satisfied with. But, while at Booksmith — and this is my favorite part of bookstores — I love reading the store’s staffers’ handwritten notes, typically affixed below their respective books, that summarize in detail why they recommend this book, what makes it remarkable, and why you, reader, should absolutely read it. Maybe I’m a sucker or easily convinced, but I take these notes seriously!

Coming across and reading the notes on Murakami, I decided on Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as my next read. The note provided context to the book. Reading the bookstore note and conducting research on my own, I learned the following:

Murakami has, in multiple novels, written dual, concurrent and intersecting stories. In keeping with this style, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World are separate stories. Each chapter or couple chapters alternate the storytelling. (Some literature critics identify this style as a defining characteristic of post-modern literature.) Both narratives together create this singular novel. This novel is particularly special because it is Murakami’s favorite and Jay Rubin’s favorite. (Rubin is my favorite Murakami translator.) The bookstore note also indicated that Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, written in 1985 and translated to English in 1991, is one of Murkami’s first books to define his signature style.

To date, I’m fifty pages into the book, and at risk of confirmation bias, I regained the feeling of a cyclical process of disorientation-recalibration, one most similar when I read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart for the first time. This book is one that stands on its own though, and while I’ve only scratched the surface, and if historic trends continue, I can tell that it’ll be one hell of a trip.

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In Defense of Short Stories

I’m posted up at Peet’s Coffee on Cole Street again, and I’m enjoying the late afternoon linger. Here, I choose to catch up on news, browse through silly memes on the internet, or take things slow and read a book. Today, I chose to read.

My current read is Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, a collection of short stories from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for The Orphan Master’s Sun, 2012). I’m typically staunch on reading novels. Novels take me on vacation from my world. It’s through a novel, an elected escape, that I’m able to consider a life outside of myself and stay there. Through fictional novels, I’ve traveled to the 1920’s French Riviera (Fitzgerad’s Tender is the Night) and Spanish fiestas (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), 1970’s student riots in Tokyo (Murakami’s Norwegian Wood), on a father-son post-apocalyptic adventure (McCormac’s The Road). This full immersion ensures the sweet drug of escapism, pretending and alluring.

So, what about short stories then? They’re only short pieces of fictional work. Seemingly abridged. A tease. What escapism do they offer if a story can range from anything as short as a few pages? And its cousin, a novella, maybe 50 pages?

I’ll admit, at first, I wasn’t keen on reading short stories. I wanted to be drawn into a story; I wanted to elate and ache for characters. I couldn’t see how a short story, much less a collection of short stories, could provide me with my solace. Like a relationship-hungry girl, it’s the commitment that I was after — not the casual and fleeting short story, like a F–k Boy on Tinder who greets you with a “You up?” text at 2am after bars close. I shrugged at short stories.  “What is the point?” I’d say to them, discriminating and dismissing an entire literary form.

And then I read a short story that changed my mind altogether and forever. The short story is Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” included as the first short story in her Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). This short story was introduced to me in 2010 by my creative writing professor. I was a junior at UC Santa Barbara, and it was spring semester. The creative writing course quickly became my favorite class during the quarter. I learned about form, theme, diction and syntax, and the story-telling creative process. My professor introduced us to a variety of literary forms, including essays and poems. By far, though, the must useful and most extensive form discussed was the short story. And it is here that I was introduced to Lahiri’s most acclaimed short story.

I want to avoid spoiling this story, but I will say that it enlightened me to the beauty of it for three reasons:

#1: Brevity and Pause

Short stories keep you captivated at short stints with pauses in between each story. A short story is not an abbreviated novel. Actually, it stands on its own merits without previous context or after thought. The characters, plot, and story are lean, edited down to its very core, and self-contained. There is beauty and pain in its brevity: it’s at once a snapshot, a moment in time, yet a story with trajectory that begins and ends in two different places; for well-told stories, it conjures a wanting feeling, leaving you breathlessly asking, “Wait, that’s it?” But you know that the story was enough, that any more would dilute its meaning. Reading Lahiri’s short story helped me understand these feelings and why it is an art form.

#2: Variety

A collection of short stories offers multiple perspectives, tales, and storylines in one book, written cohesively by one author. A book of short stories is ideal for a person who likes tapas restaurants, Costco samples, wine tastings, and buffets. Unlike a novel, a short story can take you through multiple perspectives usually, though, tied along a common theme. Still, you could be reading about a romance between boy and girl or a war veteran who returns to his battlegrounds. Authors of short stories take advantage of their chosen form and provides a reader with a kaleidoscope of lenses through which she sees the world through a new outlook.

#3: Highly-Concentrated Flavor

Because short stories are not afforded the full length of a novel (dictated by the author’s creative license), the story is often highly concentrated. Each word, paragraph, and structure are deliberate. The plot is intentional. I don’t want to diminish the novel, but due to the length of a short story, each segment requires an author’s review, edit, revision, and second-third-or-nth opinion. It’s often this undiluted, concentrated story that leaves readers wanting. (And sometimes, as short stories become so popular among readers, or because authors aren’t done with those stories, these become novels.)

New to this form, I continued reading short stories long after my writing class ended. I chose to read collections of short stories by authors that I love. Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Raymond Carver. More and more, I found myself gravitating toward short stories over novels. For those who haven’t dabbled in the world of short stories, here are a few books that I recommend:

  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees
  • Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes (Especially, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”)
  • Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

So, all in all — I love the short story. Highlighting my current read, Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, I am reminded of why I enjoy this form of literature. The first story, “Nirvana,” was refreshing, while the second, “Hurricane Anonymous” a 60-page saga, left me questioning whether I liked this book. But after the hurricane story, I weathered (lol) through the third story and was delighted that I did. “Interesting Facts” moved me so much that my emotions almost betrayed me in the coffee shop. (My eyes watered, and I pretended to have been bothered by sound of grinding coffee.) Johnson has done a tremendous job of packing in variety, playing with length and perspective, in the first three stories I’ve read so far. I’m optimistic that this book will meet all of my expectations that are included in good book of short stories.

Since starting this post, I’ve moved on from Peet’s Coffee. It’s almost bedtime, and I’m going to continue reading Fortune Smiles. At least for one more story.