Friday, October 31, 2014

Borders: Colorless Tsukuru and his Years of Pilgrimage, a novel by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a story about borders: conscious/unconscious, reality/wish fulfillment, perception/insight, logic/intuition, work/freedom, sex/love, making/creating, and action/existence. Tsukuru lives a comfortable, uneventful, and somewhat lonely bordered life in Tokyo. He works in a profession related to his boyhood fascination with trains and railroad systems. He enjoys his work for a company that builds well-structured train stations, and he is competent, conscientious, and dedicated in his work. He is a good law abiding man who likes his pleasures in moderation, eating out frequently and enjoying a glass of wine or spirits, most of the time by himself. He takes care of his body by swimming laps at a public pool and tension relief by having sex with women he meets without much effort and with no expectations of long term commitments. Tsukuru’s inner voice continuously evalutes himself and his environment in terms of his ideas about his contours of experience. 

Tsukuru’s focus for self-evaluation is his memory of a time in high school teenage life when he was part of a 5 person group. In his recollections, this period was a high point of his life because of the unique relationship each member of the informal group had with every other member. Tsukuru played his role as the steady purposeful student with long term goals related to an interest in trains. The others, 2 girls and 2 boys, did not look as much to the future as Tsukuru and seemed more free to enjoy the moments of youthful existence that all realized were so fleeting. Even at the time, Tsukuru understood that he had the unique staid status and accepted it without question. Each member of the group had a nickname related to a color suggested by their last names: “red pine” and “blue sea” for the boys and “white root” and “black field” for the girls. Only Tsukuru’s last name did not suggest a color and so he was “colorless.” 

An unspoken rule of the group was that no personal relationships were allowed independent of the group interaction. Tsukuru experienced severe anxiety and depression when he was rejected from the group after high school graduation. The other 4 members would not discuss why he was being shunned. Now comfortably moving along on his life path in his 30’s, Tsukuru realizes his current problem of finding an acceptable meaning of life requires that he revisits the time of the group’s existence. Then, all thoughts and emotions were enclosed in logical borders determined by the almost magical experiences of the group, and life had immediate meaning. Tsukuru discovers he must challenge the logic of the borders in order to reduce the anxiety and depression that has floated freely over his head without explanation for 15 years. He did not realize that his retrospective exploration of the group would include a deadly mystery, secret love, resentment, regret, and redemption. 

Murakami writes with simple declarative sentences creating a direct realism of Tsukuru’s daily life activities and continuous thoughts. As a result, the novel is a good story that appeals to readers of all levels of reading ability and age (teen and older). The complexity of Tsukuru’s “Pilgrimage” to view and challenge the hidden borders of his life is skillfully built upon Murakami’s careful, realistic descriptions of plot and narrative. I enjoyed the book as much as I did my past reading of two Murakami novels: 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Golden Age of Pulp Magazines: The Slickers short stories by L. Ron Hubbard

The stories in The Slickers are presented in an artfully designed volume from the L. Ron Hubbard Fiction Collection published by Galaxy Press. The story was originally published in the September 1936 issue of Detective, one of the many “pulp” magazines that had their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s.  This is the 5th book in the collection I have read, and each one has colorful dramatic artwork on the cover and rough cut pulp pages to simulate the historical pulp magazines.

Unlike the novels I review on my blog that focus on the insightful Imagined Experiences of authors, the three short adventure fiction stories in The Slickers are no holds barred narratives of exciting action, in this book detailing the interactions of cops and miscreants. The title story, tells the tale of a hick Sheriff from “Arizony” who is called to New York City for a body guard gig protecting a rich man from “city slicker” assassins. The second story is “Murder Afloat” that follows the heroic activity of a U. S. Federal Agent attempting to bust a heroin smuggler on board a cruise ship. The third story, “Killer Ape,” describes the relationship between an orangutan accused of the murder of an abusive owner and a newspaper reporter who sets out to investigate the killing. All three stories are page turners that are just long enough for the reader to keep excitement going for an hour.

At first glance, would be writers may think that it is easy to write in the simple declarative sentences loaded with adjectives and adverbs. But, there was a great amount of competition to have work published in the pulps. Only a few writers were able to publish regularly in the market, and L. Ron Hubbard had a phenomenal 80% publication record. All of his stories in the Galaxy series are exciting adventures, and Hubbard explained his success in terms that are parallel to the novels I select for review in my blog. He stated that in writing good adventure stories, the writer has to be an adventurer himself. Hubbard's life, described in a final piece at the end of the volume was one of personal adventures on land and sea throughout the world.

I highly recommend The Slickers for fast reading any time readers get a break from work or other obligations and young people who could learn from the revived pulp stories to enjoy reading as one of life’s reliable pleasures.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spoils of War: Haunted a novel by Randy Wayne White

Randy Wayne White continues his series with a new story about the South Florida fishing guide and part time private detective, Hannah Smith. The tough but feminine Hannah comes from a long line of Gulf Coast fishermen and adventurers and is savvy in the ways of native born residents of the area in and around Sanibel Island. Like the first two books in the series, Gone and Deceived, Haunted describes traditions and contemporary life in an area of Florida that relies heavily on ranch and ocean activities supporting the local population. Tourists come and go, but the locals feel a deep sense of ownership and protection of the land, sea, and wildlife. White is a resident of the area he writes about, and always gives his readers interesting historical information about the Gulf Coast people and places.

In this novel, readers learn about the part of American Civil War that was waged in Florida. Legacies and relics of perhaps the worst war in U. S. history, from the standpoint of its citizens, play a role in Hannah’s investigation of a large abandoned house in partial ruin with an interesting history of family wealth and tragedy. Hired by the wealthy socialite aunt of her best girlfriend Birdy (Hannah’s nickname for Liberty Grace), the two agree to spend a week in the “haunted” house to see if it is possessed by ghosts or visited by squatters/vandals.  “Dame Bunny” as Birdy refers to her aunt is trying to sell the land surrounding the house as part of a larger real estate deal, but state mandated archaeological work has revealed Civil War relics and possible graveyards with human skeletons. The deal is on hold.

The story has many interesting interactions involving Hannah and Birdy (a deputy sheriff with jurisdiction in the area) with characters who are interested in the land deal and finding lost relics including stashes of money and historical artifacts from the Civil War period. The characters include: an experimental drug using archeologist, carnival people wintering in Florida including gypsies, dwarfs, and psychics, and a kindly aging historian with his apparently mentally challenged hired hand. Wild life is prolific in the area (wild and captive) with poisonous snakes, raging monkeys, huge alligators, swarming mosquitos, and masses of scorpions.

Randy Wayne White continues his now established Hannah Smith series with perhaps his most exciting story so far,  Haunted. Meanwhile the writer continues his much longer series featuring marine biologist and “black ops” operative Doc Ford (21 novels in that series).  Hannah and Doc Ford have a relationship, but in this novel he is in South America on a black ops mission. For readers who enjoy thriller series,  Haunted delivers all the informative and exciting entertainment you are looking for.

Friday, October 10, 2014

First Book in a Great New British Mystery Series: The Cuckoo's Calling a novel by Robert Galbraith

 The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) is the first novel in a very entertaining British private detective series. The detective is a down and out ex-British Army disabled veteran of the current war in Afghanistan. His specialty in the service was military police detective, similar to the U. S. Army CID I was in during the Vietnam era. The portrayal of his background was realistic and certainly qualifies him to open his own PI detective agency. The problem is he has more debtors than clients. Sleeping on a cot in his office after the breakup with his wealthy girlfriend, Cormoran Strike hires a temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott, and tries to get his act together with a new client. Three months after the "suicide" of his sister Lula, his supermodel adopted sister, wealthy lawyer client John Bristow hires Strike to prove she was a murder victim rather than a suicide.

As with Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, this novel is more of a character study than a narrative of the characters' actions. The gruff somewhat burned out personality of Strike is contrasted with Robin's naïve excitement and interest in detective work. The two main characters establish a somewhat complicated relationship that readers hope will last even though Robin works for a temporary agency. The two travel to several London settings that are nicely described and cover a wide area of the large metropolis.

A host of other interesting characters are introduced largely via Strike and Robin's interviewing during the case: supermodels, a movie producer and his wife, a famous clothing designer, an active duty British soldier, an indigent hostel dweller, British police inspectors, a famous rapper, and lawyers in a staid and wealthy London solicitors firm.

"Galbraith" writes the story in in a third person voice, a great choice that avoids the limitations of the detective describing everything from his limited point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed the exciting story from beginning to end and certainly will buy the next novel in the series, The Silkworm (A Cormoran Strike Novel). I liked the quotations presented at the beginning of the book and the start of each chapter. There are book extras on the Kindle edition including Characters, Glossary, Themes, Memorable Quotes and other categories of interesting information. I hope the series continues with many volumes to come. I give The Cuckoo's Calling my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Home to Eden: Full Measure a novel by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure is a great story of military and farming culture in contemporary Southern California. Patrick Norris returns from duty as a Marine in Afghanistan and musters out of service at Camp Pendleton. With very little time to make the transition to civilian life, Patrick returns home to his family’s avocado farm in Fallbrook that has been decimated by a fire. From warrior to farmer is a move eased somewhat by familiarity with surroundings and acquaintances. But, of course, Pat’s perspective has changed permanently because of war and he has plans for the future that do not include avocado farming.

In the early pages of the novel, this scenario looks the well-worn plot of many post war novels. Soon readers realize that familiar themes of readjusting and reviving old complicated family relationships take on an unmistakable post-911 chronic tension. Pat and his Marine buddies’ have had experiences in a war that at first glance seems like those of the Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. T. Jefferson Parker captures the difference in an excellent portrait of the strength of Pat’s character as he recalls the killing, death, loss, and haunting emotions of duty symbolized by the random destruction of improvised explosive devices. Patrolling the desert through ancient cultures wondering why some Marines were blown up and he survived, Pat has to conclude that coming home from Afghanistan is a matter of senseless luck. “Thank you for your service.” Right.

In addition to that wonderful description of contemporary war and its aftermath, Parker pays homage to Nobel Prize winning author, John Steinbeck by exploring themes of father and son legacies with designated favorite son and bad seed, generational separation from agricultural life, uneasy enculturation of racial groups, violent civilian factions gaining strength in periods of reconstruction, dreams lost by some and found by others, and the reaching of a separate peace for some and self-destruction by others. The full measure of a person is sufficient for some characters to find a place in the culture good or bad and for others to fall short on all accounts.

This is an excellent novel and you can see that it brings to mind Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. Like the Nobel Prize winner, the realism of the portrayal of Pat’s war experiences and adjustment to civilian life set the stage for the beautifully written scenes of the biblical/psychological interaction of the characters, meaning/acceptance in an apparently chaotic period of history.