A Bookworm's Recommendations
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
My literary favorites - updated regularly - for your interest and with hopes that you dive into them the way I joyfully have.
1Q84, Haruki Murakami
I started my love for Murakami's writing - some might call it obsession - with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the winter of 2016, and since then I have journeyed through 10 of his many incredible books, and until now I had not felt ready and well-equipped to pick up his thickest novel, 1Q84. In its single-book version (it can be read as a series of three books as well), Murakami explores the enchanting world of two individuals, tied somehow by fate like an invisible thin string throughout their lives. Aomame and Tengo, a fitness instructor with complete control over her life's every aspect; and a cram school math teacher who dabbles in writing fiction on his own time, both keep to themselves throughout most of their lives until Aomame has to climb down an emergency stairway to escape the traffic on Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway and Tengo agrees to rewrite a short story called Air Chrysalis.
Like most of his writing, 1Q84 too is littered with beautiful music, both in its tone and in its use of actual pieces of music to colour the scenes and create relations. This is one of my favorite aspects of Murakami, who himself owned a jazz bar before he wrote, and you can tell his care for the music he places inside his writing.
The novel is told in Murakami's delightful tone, observant and attentive to details which bring the story to life, yet accepting of the surreal with no intentions of confusion or explanation. You read the book with a complete acceptance of whatever comes your way - this I can say goes for all his writing - and prepare yourself to simply be absorbed by it instead of disbelieving or confused. Once you understand that and let yourself enjoy the ride, the book opens up and becomes a journey to discover all its little secrets.
The reason I'd pick this book over the many others I have read from him is the immaculate balance between surreal romanticism that carries the story and its adventure, and the underlying realist read on the history of Japan, humanity's struggle with belonging somewhere. Murakami manages to inspect relationships between parents and children, between people and organized systems of power, between lovers and friends, and most importantly one's understanding of oneself by facing their present, past, all that made them into who they are now.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go, named by Time as the best novel of its year and was included in the magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, ventures into the world of a skewed version of England, where we follow a trio of students in Hailsham School. Kathy, now at her 30s and working as a nurse for organ donors, tells of her childhood and teen years with Ruth and Tommy at their school, learning of the arts and taught to live healthy surrounded by creative endeavours. Yet the school itself perhaps is a dystopia in itself, with a fate awaiting all the children in it.
Ishiguro through a combination of seemingly innocent day to days of children with the memories of an adult now able to gaze onto her past with newfound clarity and acceptance is able to weave a story of love, friendship and memory. The book is written with a tenderness that embodies the tales of children with their innocence and their acceptance of reality without a thought clouded by evil. Their subtle dystopian reality they take as is and as kids d, they make the most of it. And as their tales get complicated, still their innocence and directness of storytelling remain. To me this characteristic of the language of Ishiguro, the simple yet powerful way he constructs his sentences and stories, which was deemed worthy of a Nobel prize in 2017, makes his work a flowing and passionate read.
The Balcony, Jean Genet
“You must go home now, where everything—you can be quite sure—will be falser than here.” Madame Irma’s last words in The Balcony do not ever explain where ‘here’ is. She leaves stage right, with us left to figure out if she is right. (She is.) The play is a perfect consideration of 'performance' and how we perform identity, desire and sexuality, The moment theatre —this illusion of a place created to bring to life people on paper, their dreams, joys, and troubles— ends, we step back into a world of performance. That it is our own script does not make it more real, but indeed even falser: we put on a persona that follows preexisting norms and has taken the shape of the box it was given to fit in, obscuring our true desires. When we lose that mask, when we find spaces to get away from it, then we stop performing and start defining —constructing— ourselves and our sexuality, formulating our desire. Genet questions how we choose when to perform, how we decide when fantasy should become reality, and how we perform our sexuality in a public realm. Indeed how is our daily performance different that Irma calls “falser than” her house of illusions?
The play by Jean Genet has been described as the "rebirth of the spirit of classical Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Indeed Genet brings about a perfect balance of humor and philosophical investigation into identity. Throughout, we are given glimpses into the dynamics between different parties in the Grand Balcony, where the customer’s pleasures are derived from constructed scenes inside constructed rooms between constructed personalities.
Reading the play is an experience in its own, an intimate one for each reader to find themselves and discover their own ways of performing, and perhaps to realize that we too just need a dreamscape to be set free to perform, a real-life Grand Balcony where Madame Irma awaits.
Demian, Hermann Hesse
Critic Lee Dong-jin, host of the Red Book Room podcast, once said: “There are two kinds of people: those who read Demian, and those who don’t.”
Demian, The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth is a Bildungsroman - a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood - and one to be read if at any point you questioned yourself, your beliefs, where you come from, what made you you. This combination of Jungian psychoanalytic approach and the concept of good and evil with which Hesse ventures into telling Sinclair's story of growth and change is the perfect tool. It allows for the reader to turn inwards as well as consider the external: one follows his analysis and consideration of Sinclair, then the world around him, the good and the evil surrounding his universe. Thus, they get the chance to consider themselves, what makes up their reality and identity, and their version of Abraxas, the Gnostic “god who was both god and devil".
“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” Sinclair demands to know at the very beginning of the novel, and the question is one that resonates easily with the reader. To discover one's own gods, demons and their fractured self, Demian becomes the best and first source to go to.
More books coming soon to the list..