Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

HardBoiled WonderlandWhat a fantastic book. After reading Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I feel like I’ve entered a stranger’s dreamscape yet I feel like it exists even within my own subconscious. There’s something familiar and compelling about Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but with its many intricate and precise details, I am still trying to gather my thoughts about this novel. Nonetheless, I’m going to try my best and review Hard-boiled Wonderland.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami follows two narratives – one a dreamy exploration of the ‘subconscious’, taking place at the ‘End of the World’, that is suspended from reality; the other a sentimental but hard analysis of life in ‘reality’, taking place in underground Kafkaesque Tokyo – and portrays an elegant unfolding of what happens when these two worlds meld together, becoming increasingly familiar with each other.

I have no idea where to begin with this book. My previous experiences with Murakami – Norwegian Wood, South of the Border West of the Sun and Sputnik Sweetheart – analyzed the subconscious on an emotional, sentimental level. Hard-boiled Wonderland and Murakami’s ingenuity cannot be conveyed with mere words; Hard-Boiled Wonderland is a unique experience. There’s something extremely raw and profound in the feelings and thoughts that the narrative elicit. The prose is so immersive that hints of the subconscious – the unicorn skull, the subtle mention of objects, and character’s thoughts – within the ‘reality’ narrative become distinct and familiar because the subconscious of the book enters your own subconscious. And as you flit between subconscious and reality, the reader becomes the superego as you attempt to negotiate between the two.

Perhaps it’s clear from my poor plot summary, but Hard-Boiled Wonderland has a plot that cannot be easily summarized into a few words. It is nuanced and detailed, and as the reader, you ultimately choose what is meaningful and what is not; every reader will experience Hard-Boiled Wonderland differently, and what emerges or elicits feelings of familiarity will differ from reader to reader. For me, Hard-Boiled Wonderland was a contemplative story about our inner struggle to seek meaning in life and our existence. The writing integrates a blend of philosophies and perspectives, and is filled with the mundane, farce, fantasy and analyses of the human condition, in which the themes bleed into one another to produce an intricate novel. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is both perplexing and thought-provoking.

After finishing Hard-Boiled Wonderland, I felt like I’ve read the heart and soul of Murakami’s works. Surreal, challenges boundaries between real and subconscious, and transcendental, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is a fantastic book and truly, as what they call, a tour de force.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 400

A personal post and a little bit of a life update.

Hello!

So I thought I would write a personal post today, which is something I have yet to do on this blog. My life has been quite tumultuous lately, and I feel like I have this obligation to write something. Don’t worry though; this post will be somewhat related to my reading life!

Two weeks ago I started a new job. It’s my first full-ish time job after finishing university, and though this job is not ideal (then again, it isn’t permanent either), I am thankful that I have a job and can make a dent in my student loan. For the past two weeks, I’ve worked full time hours, and I feel exhausted after work. More so, I used to sleep at 1am daily, but because I have to get up for work and prepare and so-and-so, I go to sleep at 10:45pm. I lament to my friends that I’ve become an old working person. This really hit the nail on the head when I was out with a friend and had to interrupt our deep, invested conversation to tell her that I had to go home because I had to sleep. I’m not sure if this is how twenty-somethings should be living, but here I am, and things could be much worse, I suppose. (My attempts at optimism are really weak but I get points for trying, right?)

As my free time has been radically curtailed, I have had less time for reading which means I’m writing less reviews. Though I still have a little read before I sleep, I try to read when I’m on the bus, when I’m on my lunch break and when I’m waiting for dinner to cook as well. My parents always make a joke that I’m under a lot of self-afflicted pressure to read, read, read, but truthfully, I just really love reading and I’ve embraced it to be a hobby that I unashamedly invest a lot of my time and effort in. I guess when you are starting a new job and it’s difficult to relate to the people at your workplace (all of the people working there have children and are at least twice as old as I am), reading keeps loneliness at bay. Don’t worry though — I still see my friends when I’m not reading, though I feel that social interaction feels so contrived these days. Maybe I need better company.

At the moment, I am reading Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I am not sure if I am well equipped to write a review on this book. It’s truly fantastic and I feel like I am reading one of Murakami’s greatest works, but I feel like I am not familiar with abstract/surreal literature enough to fully grasp the ideas that he is trying to convey.

More recently, I won two Goodreads giveaways. I won The Golden Widows by Isolde Martyn and Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult. I have started the former, though the more I read this book, the more my poor knowledge of history on the War of the Roses is starting to becomes apparent. However, after I finish Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I intend to pick up a young-adult novel so I can establish a sort of balance in my reading life.

To explain: I feel like I need to read two books at a time – one that is serious and one that is less so (or at least something that is very easy to read). I feel like I am reading two serious books at once at the moment, which, I think, is beginning to make me feel uncomfortable, so I want to return to a sense of equilibrium soon. (If it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it doesn’t really make sense to me either, but if it makes sense to you – great!) But really, I don’t know if this reading philosophy that I have is because of my need for balance or my need for jouissance.

Speaking of jouissance, I miss studying so damned much. People have always talked about how the transition from study to work is quite big and different, but I think I underestimated the impact it would have on me. Going from something that inspired me everyday, something that I was so passionate about and something that I loved to mundane, mindnumbing corporate work was not easy. I felt overwhelmed. I felt like I had lost an important part of me, and I felt devastated. Two weeks later, I don’t feel entirely upset anymore, though I do miss studying a lot. 
 
Anyway, it was nice writing on this blog (I feel like I am writing for myself/neutral-but-affirmative audience) and it feels nice. But, I think the next time I’m in the library, I’m going to pick up some sociology/psychology books and read them for fun. sigh the idea of it makes me really happy. I think I shall do that this weekend.

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

The Silver Linings PlaybookLike almost everyone else, I watched The Silver Linings Playbook before I read the book. First, let it be known that I actually did not like The Silver Linings Playbook movie (I’d go as far as to say that I really, really did not like it). There was fantastic cast and a promising beginning – an examination of the effect mental illness has on the sufferer and the family – but ultimately the movie was shallow, played into the ‘love solves mental illnesses’ cliche, and the ending was so silly and unrealistic that I am still confused as to how the movie is critically acclaimed and loved by all.

But, I am not here to talk about The Silver Linings Playbook movie (though I may draw from it to make comparisons of why the book succeeds and the movie does not). I am here to talk about the book.

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick follows our protagonist Pat Peoples, a sufferer of an undisclosed mental illness who believes in looking for the silver lining and believes that his life is a series of movies, complete with montages, expected and deserved endings for its characters, and a climax where he wins his wife, Nikki, back.

At its very heart, The Silver Linings Playbook is a quirky, sweet and endearing novel that raises important questions of family, mental health and perspectives in life. Pat Peoples has a simplistic outlook in life, and that really shines through his narrative (without it becoming too repetitive or condescending to the reader). The narrative is simplistic, but I think this sort of childish narrative has a sort of charm, especially Pat’s willful ignorance to maintain his naive and optimistic perspective in life. He speaks with a self-unaware tunnel-vision that is difficult to ignore, and somehow Quick pulls it off and he isn’t detestable.

American football has a distinct presence in The Silver Linings Playbook. At first, I was very cynical of this, since I personally do not care very much for sports, or books about sports. Instead, what I discovered was the presence of sports in this book was not because the sports was important, but because American football is irrevocably intertwined with Pat’s life, as well as how he makes sense of the relationships in his family. As Pat’s family is heavily invested into their beloved Eagles team, this has a significant impact on the relationship he has with his father (and to an extent, his brother as well) – for better or for worse.

What I found particularly poignant was the nature of Pat’s father within his family; his emotions, moods and how he treats his family are dependent on the football team’s success. (Spoilers; highlight to view:) Throughout the novel, I couldn’t help but to share Pat’s optimism and hope for his father to change his ways and to become a different man who had more compassion for his wife and son. But we discover in the end that some people just do not change, no matter how much others depend on that person to change. And I think it’s a tragedy. (Spoilers end.) Essentially, the sports isn’t part of the gamble Pat’s father makes with his friends (as portrayed in the movie), but the American football becomes a means for Pat to reconcile and establish a healthy relationship with his father.

The characters of The Silver Linings Playbook bear a unique kind of authenticity; the characters are fleshed, interesting and all compelling and relevant, but also deeply familiar. I deeply sympathized with Pat’s mother, and Pat’s father and his stubbornness shook and aggravated me to my very core. I really liked Tiffany’s characterization in the book, and I felt like her confession in her final letter to Pat gave her the substance that her movie-counterpart did not have.

The ending is also an important aspect that I want to talk about. Most of the reason why I feel a lot of disdain towards the movie is because the ending struck a wrong chord with me; as I mentioned earlier in the review, something that both the movie and book do is examine the impact mental illness has on its sufferers and those close to them. However, towards the end of the movie, this examination is forsaken for an ending that seems to imply that love solves mental illness, which is a misconception I do not condone, and spirals out of control into something disjointed from reality.

What the book does right, however, is that its overall message is that mental illnesses – or traumas, setbacks or bad things in life – are overcome not immediately and miraculously but through a slow, gradual process of acceptance and healing. Though the ending isn’t entirely conclusive, it ends on a heart-warming note as it closes a difficult chapter in Pat’s life as he reaches an understanding that is both beautiful and validating of the whole novel, and furthermore portrays recovery of mental illnesses in a much more sensitive and realistic manner. (Spoilers; highlight to read:) Pat realizes that his ‘love’ for Nikki was comprised of the very idea of her – that she was the key to his self-acceptance, forgiveness, or a symbol to prove that he had changed – and that she, as an individual, was not the right companion in the next chapters of his life. “Nikki would not have done this for me, even on her best day.” What a bittersweet but beautiful and necessary revelation. (Spoilers end.)

The Silver Linings Playbook was an unexpected read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it (even the football parts). I’ve omitted many important details in this review, but I think those details are better left read first-hand by readers. Though The Silver Linings Playbook isn’t intended to be insightful or wholly intelligent, it is sensitive, honest (though not daringly so) and actually kind of sweet. Ideal for readers who are looking for an easy, enjoyable and quirky book.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Silver Linings Playbook
Author: Matthew Quick
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 289

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang

the hen who dreamed she could flyThis is such a beautiful book. For something that’s only 132 pages, I didn’t expect it to make an impact, but The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly creeps up on you. I picked this book up at my local library when I was browsing for new books to read. I was immediately drawn in by the simple, minimalistic but quirky artwork, which complements the story and the style of the narrative.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang is about a farm hen called Sprout, who spends her day laying eggs for the farmers. She dreams of escaping the coop and have an egg and baby of her own.

From this simple premise comes a simple and moving tale about motherhood, sacrifice and freedom. When I read the blurb of this novel, and it is described to be an ‘anthem of … individuality’, I was wary that this was going to try and be an antithesis to collectivism. I was mistaken – the way The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly portrays individuality is the notion of a woman, a mother, taking command of her life and breaking away from farm dogma, and giving her entire being to her child, even if she and her child are inherently different.

I think one of the great things about this novel is that because the characters aren’t human, it allows us to detach ourselves from the characters and view this novel from a broader perspective. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly can be interpreted in a variety of ways – people can see this as about culture, adoption, ethnicity and identity, politics – but the most distinct theme for me was the idea of motherhood; the hardships and tribulations of being a mother, the enduring and eternal love a mother has for their child, the helplessness as you witness your baby change from someone who needed you to someone who has to find their own path, and (literally in this book) the empty nest syndrome that may follow. Reading this book about Sprout and her love for Baby/Greentop made me think of my own parents and how much they sacrificed for my sake.

Ultimately, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a beautiful, beautiful novel. It is easy to read, its simple prose charming, and its message universal and guaranteed to move.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
Author: Sun-Mi Hwang
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 132

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the WIld

I picked up Into The Wild at my local library when Shingie asked me about Chris McCandless. She asked me if I had heard about an idealistic college-aged man who became fed up with society and its conformist ways and decided to travel around America but eventually died in Alaska. And you know me – if there’s idealism and a deliberate attempt to subvert social institutions, I’m immediately intrigued.

Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer, follows the life of Chris McCandless, after he abandons a life closely bound to society and material possessions, and begins an odyssey across America as well as his final trek into the Alaskan wild, where he eventually starves and dies.

Though we learn about Chris McCandless through the recounts of others, my take on Into The Wild is that it is not a novel about Chris McCandless or Alex Supertramp, but it is about the lives his intersected with, touched, and moved. What stood out for me was the profound effect Chris/Alex had on the people he meets; throughout the novel, Krakauer interviews various people who describe their time with McCandless. What seems to be a common denominator in his acquaintances, is that they all seemed to care about him. There were some who certainly cared more than others, but they would have all agreed that he was a special individual.

A question I asked myself throughout the book was: why did these people care so much for a stranger? I don’t know if this is because of some hospitality common in the United States, or if it was because Chris McCandless was truly a unique and special individual. And whilst it may be a mix of both, something that compelled me in this novel was McCandless himself. His strong sense of idealism is something that drew me in, and that drive for him to do something about world issues – poverty, race, genocide in Africa – as well as his search for authenticity are characteristics that I really identify with. Sometimes, the search for meaning and authenticity is difficult when materialism and social norms pervade our society – sometimes the latter is necessary, but sometimes they border on the extreme and it feels artificial, arbitrary.

McCandless’s ideals should probe introspection, rather than critique (even if his supposedly plight is that of the privileged white man). What I find interesting is the reactions people have had to his journey and his endeavour to explore and seek meaning that transcends materialism and what we find in the norm. Readers have asserted that McCandless was mentally ill or was naive and foolish. Putting aside whether there is any truth to be found in these speculations, isn’t it interesting how people respond to McCandless’s deviance? It’s like people struggle to understand actions that are beyond the boundary and are acts of deviance but the ‘deviant’ is doing it at their own free will and is conscious of their actions.

Putting aside his privileged background, his conflict and discomfort with society and all things material is something worth thinking about. Personally, I share McCandless’s contempt for modern society (though my own feelings are of a lesser degree), and the powerlessness he felt in society. Setting out into the wild was an attempt to gain mastery of his life. While society is dictated by a set of rules, norms and values, the flip-side is a free-for-all; there are no rules or norms in deviance or non-normative society. People see deviance as a barren wasteland, but McCandless perceived it to be a world full of opportunities without constraints, limitations, and devoid of anyone who could curtail his idealism and life.

Furthermore, McCandless’s contempt for how our lives are structured and prescribed since the day we are born is particularly evident through the accounts of his acquaintances. And this isn’t about the suggestion that McCandless didn’t want to ‘grow up’ – because that’d be a gross misrepresentation of McCandless’s ideas – but McCandless identified something in society that pervades our social life, namely the struggle with capitalism, and entering the conveyor belt that ultimately leads from exploitation to death. What I see in McCandless is a manifestation of a social disease that Marxists call alienation. Not just alienation from our labour, but also alienation from our own lives – to whom do our lives belong to? McCandless tried to ensure that his life would belong to him, and him alone, and that meant relinquishing his ties to society.

Aside from an otherwise interesting book, there were some passages that deviated from the main purpose of the book. Though I can understand the chapters where Krakauer talks about others that decided to forsake society and live in the wild, one particular chapter was dedicated to speculating whether McCandless was sexually active or celibate. And I know that all aspects of McCandless’s life should be fleshed out for the sake of autobiography and understanding the depth of McCandless’s character, but I found this little passage to be… creepy? More so, the chapter where the author talks about his own life were not interesting to me. Krakauer wanted to use himself and his time as a youth to draw parallels between McCandless’s life and his own, but it felt superfluous and the book could have done without it.

Otherwise, I found Into the Wild to be an engaging and compelling read. I felt like I could strongly relate to McCandless’s idealism, and though idealism comes with its faults – sometimes our idealism makes us naive, and although we are conscious of our own naivety – we feel like we have to try regardless. I think it begs the question of what our lives mean – or could mean – if we did things differently, and what it means to live and then die for our ideals and beliefs.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: Into the Wild
Author: Jon Krakauer
Publisher: Pan Books
Pages: 205