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If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1981) Italo Calvino

 

This is a very original book where you, the reader, become one of the characters. You buy a book but it has typos so you take it back to the shop where you meet a woman, also wanting to read the book, and then you both speak to a university professor about the book, then another professor, then a publisher about a different book, then a writer about another book, then you begin a relationship with the woman, then you go to another country to find the completed manuscript... and so on, etc.

Sadly, that didn't work very well for me because after the first couple of chapters where you're in the bookshop, having a coffee, thinking about the writer, you then go on an adventure with a woman called Ludmilla that instantly makes the idea of you as a character entirely redundant. It very quickly feels like you, the reader, is in fact not you at all, but rather some blank individual that doesn't matter in the slightest. The initial chapter really worked and grabbed me immediately but after that, I found myself tolerating the parts of the book where you, the reader, are doing this or that.

Meanwhile, the fictional chapters (opening chapters from books that you, the reader, are trying to find complete versions of) were far more interesting to read. There's a really great one about a couple who kill a man and are trying to dispense of the body somewhere. And one where a man is traumatised by ringing telephones; and an excellent erotic story set in Japan. Plus the others are pretty great too. When these chapters ended, I genuinely wanted to know more, what happens next, which I guess is the point. Calvino even mentions how writing opening chapters alone is very easy because there's no expectation to fill in the blanks. I even wonder if he deliberately squeezed a lot of his own aborted ideas for novels into this book purely to do something with them.

Overall, it's an interesting idea. But it doesn't entirely work. The first chapter is wonderful and really excites you but the rest of the book always feels like it's chasing that initial burst of inventiveness. It can never quite live up to it. Which is the problem with a lot of experimental novels.

I read a quote by David Mitchell about the book which rather perfectly sums up my feelings. He essentially said he was magnetised when he first read it, but on rereading it, felt it had aged and was not as "breathtakingly inventive" as it first seemed. To be honest, I didn't need a second reading to reach that same conclusion. It tries to be something breathtakingly inventive but never actually achieves it.

Definitely worth a read though.
 
7/10
 
 

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I considered buying this when it first came out but had heard that it didn’t quite work in parts. Interesting that you think it’s worth reading despite that. Maybe this year I’ll give it a try :)  

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2 hours ago, Hayley said:

I considered buying this when it first came out but had heard that it didn’t quite work in parts. Interesting that you think it’s worth reading despite that. Maybe this year I’ll give it a try :)  

 

It's worth reading in so much as it's quite a unique narrative. And the writing is of a high standard. That still doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it though. 

 

I've certainly read a lot worse. 

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) Carson McCullers

 

A superb exploration of loneliness and the roles we are forced to play.

The book revolves around a deaf/mute named John Singer. After his friend (also a deaf/mute) is put into an institution, Singer moves into a new room where, slowly but surely, four characters come to view him as a kind of spiritual leader. They go to him to tell of their woes, their frustrations, their dreams. Because he can't speak, he is forced into the role of listener (whether her wants to be or not) and they quickly transform him into a blank canvas for their worldview. Unbeknownst to them, however, Singer also has a life. He too requires a figure in his life whom can give meaning to his loneliness (this being his deaf/mute friend). That Singer has his own life never occurs to them. He has been unpersoned by them in their desire for him to have the answers.

The four of them begin to visit him on a regular basis. First, there is Biff the café owner who represents the middle-class view. Then Jake Blount, the working-class alcoholic. Then Dr. Copeland, the African American idealist. And finally, Mick, a young girl who dreams of being a musician but who is inevitably forced into conforming towards a more conventional role as a woman.

Each of these people are oppressed by the role they must play in life. Blount and Copeland seek answers in a simplistic and utopian form of Marxism. Mick in romantic ideals and Biff, the most important character in my opinion, in hoping for a better tomorrow.

The writing is wonderful, full of fluid and detached prose which works perfectly (despite often not being my cup of tea). McCullers has a great gift for telling a character's story whilst simultaneously placing you in another moment. She can switch between the two with ease. The narrative flows nicely and slowly builds a realistic world. At no point does she throw in an affair or a murder. The book essentially has no plot (my preferred type) and simply tells a self-contained story of lonely people looking to escape the chains that life has put them in.

I interpreted the ending as ultimately pessimistic though. It ends with Mick showing signs of slowly conforming to her role as a socially acceptable female. She now wears earrings, has embraced the 9 to 5, and is moving away from her tomboy persona. Some may view this as a positive (that she is blossoming) but I saw it as Mick succumbing to the social norms, to the daily grind.

Because, eventually, we all do.

A fantastic debut novel. Highly recommended.

 

8/10

Edited by Hux

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Norwegian Wood (1987) Haruki Murakami

 

This was one of the most wonderful reading experiences I've ever had. The book is no classic but it's wonderfully written and profoundly engaging. I honestly couldn't put it down. 

 

The story is fairly straight-forward and involves a man named Toru Watanabe reminiscing about his youth in the late 60s. After his best friend, Kizuki, commits suicide he becomes closer with Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko. They eventually have sex and Watanabe goes to university. Here he meets several characters, most notably Nagasawa and his girlfriend Hatsumi. Watanabe and Nagasawa begin going out drinking and meeting girls for sex. Watanabe then discovers that Naoko is in a sanitorium and struggling with her mental health. He writes to her, eventually visits, and they rekindle their romance. Naoko lives at the sanitorium with an older woman called Reiko (she tells a rather interesting tale about why she's also at the sanitorium which includes a story about teaching a 13-year-old girl to play the piano). 

 

The Japanese really do have a way when it comes to writing erotica, don't they? That being said, it felt like there was a little too much sex being used as an alternative to other, more conventional expressions of affection. Maybe that's a Japanese thing. I don't know. Everyone seems to need emotional reassurance but only expresses it through sex. Then again, it was set in the late 60s so maybe that's why.

 

The casual use of sex aside, my only criticism would be the chapter where Murakami jumps ahead and tells us about the future of one of the characters. This felt out of place since the whole narrative takes place chronologically. Only at the very beginning of chapter one does he write from the perspective of being an older man in the late 1980s. Then we dive into the story when he's 18 and stay with that story. But suddenly, halfway through the book, he informs us of a character's fate and it felt a little jarring.

 

I'm reliably informed that this is Murakami's most conventional novel. I'm not sure if I'd like his other works as much but based on this, I will definitely seek out more of his work. 

 

I honestly can't remember enjoying reading a book this much. Many people would assume that I might think the book is a masterpiece as a result of that (a mistake many contemporary readers make in my opinion). They think if the reading experience is good then that means the book must be also great. For me, it's more complicated than that. I tend to put books into 4 categories. 

 

1) The reading experience is wonderful. The book resonates, stays with you, changes your worldview, overwhelms you.

2) The reading experience is wonderful. But the book quickly fades from memory, doesn't hold its grip.

3) The reading experience is awful. But the book still somehow resonates, stays with you, overwhelms you etc.

4) The reading experience is awful. The book doesn't resonate, has nothing meaningful to say.

 

Category 4 is thankfully the most rare, followed by 3, then 1. For me, most books (and certainly most contemporary novels) are in category 2, including this. People make the mistake of thinking that if they really enjoyed reading a book then that must mean it is great literature. But often it's merely competently written *cough* Normal People *cough* etc. This is why so many modern novels get hyped, win awards, then disappear completely. 

 

I'd place this at the top end of category 2. Highly recommended. 

 

8/10

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The Plague (1947) Albert Camus 

 

One day, Dr Rieux begins to notice some dying rats and worries that something bad is coming. Sure enough, the small Algerian coastal town of Oran is soon struggling under the weight of the plague. The narrator (unknown until the final chapter) explains how the town endured this period by exploring the stories of a handful of characters in the town, predominantly focusing on Dr Rieux. Then there's Tarrou, a visiting businessman, Rambert, the journalist, Grand, the government clerk, and Cottard, a man with mental health issues. Then, of course, we have the priest, Paneloux, who has a unique perspective and role given the circumstances.

The book is brilliantly written and the language flows nicely. There are moments that generalise the events of the plague then there are moments that zero in on specific events. For example, there is a dark and unforgiving chapter which focuses on the fate of a young boy with the disease and we watch as Rieux and Paneloux cope with what they are forced to witness. Understandably, this affords Camus an opportunity to inject some of his absurdist philosophy into the book. When told by Tarrou that his victories will never be lasting, Rieux responds: 'Yes, I know that. But it's no reason for giving up the struggle.'

From a covid perspective, there's a lot that's familiar. People wearing masks, people washing hands, people dealing with separation from their loved ones. There are lockdowns (literally the town is locked down) and quarantines. There are moments where they (mistakenly) think it might be over, moments where they speculate on the efficacy of the serum/vaccine. It really was quite fascinating to read all this under our current Covid circumstances. Even the people who refuse to accept the Draconian rules are present here (Rambert himself, at one point, plans to escape the town). And then, of course, there's the conversations they have about what life will be like once the plague is finally over. To which one of the characters replies: 'there will be new films.'

Some things never change.

Of course, it's not possible to read this book without seeing the Nazi analogy. Is Camus writing about a plague or is he writing about fascism? Clearly both. With that interpretation in mind, some of the things he says become more pointed and disturbing. Especially the final line of the book where he describes the 'plague' as dormant....

"... it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city."

A wonderful piece of literature. 7/10

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Black Beauty (1877) Anna Sewell

 

I decided to read this because it was free on Kindle.

My only real knowledge of Black Beauty came from snippets of the Thames TV show of the mid-70s which made it seem like Black Beauty had various weekly adventures (essentially a horse version of the Littlest Hobo). But actually, the book is a life story, one narrated by none other than the horse (very original for 1877) and has short pithy chapters which presumably explains why it became so popular with children. It's essentially the tale of all the people that own Black Beauty through his life and the various jobs he has as a working horse.

Most of the book is rather tame and there's some obvious moralising about the ill-treatment of horses during the Victorian era. Apparently, the descriptions of cruelty caused by 'bearing rein' (keeping the horses head up) enraged readers so much that it was quickly made illegal as a result of the book.

I enjoyed the chapters where Black Beauty becomes a London cab horse and dashes around the various streets from station to station or picks up drunken revelers at 1am. And obviously the cruelty is not nice to read but it's generally kept to a minimum without ever getting too dark. But more than once Sewell has a bad human character get his comeuppance for such behavior. Oh, and there seems to be a great deal of criticism regarding the over consumption of alcohol. And one thing I didn't like was how each new owner gave Black Beauty a new name; perfectly understandable why they would but it occasionally meant hearing a name (Jack for example) and thinking... who the hell is Jack? before realising it was Black Beauty's newest name. But the book has a happy ending. And Black Beauty even ends the book with his original name.

The book wasn't anything spectacular but it was perfectly fine. And suffice it to say, it's difficult to read without hearing that damn 70s theme tune constantly playing in your head.

 

7/10

Edited by Hux

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Oh yes that theme tune, I think it got into the charts didn't it? I can see the horse now, galloping along......

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I read the book some years ago (as I posted in the other topic), but I have never seen the TV show!

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Funnily enough the theme music is being used in a TV ad in the UK, involving a tortoise.  Of course I can't remember what the ad is for though.......

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54 minutes ago, Madeleine said:

 

Funnily enough the theme music is being used in a TV ad in the UK, involving a tortoise.  Of course I can't remember what the ad is for though.......

 

 

Yes, I saw that yesterday.  I think it was for Morrisons, but I'm not sure!

 

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the power of advertising, we remember the ad but not what it's advertising:rolleyes:

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2 hours ago, Madeleine said:

 

the power of advertising, we remember the ad but not what it's advertising:rolleyes:

 

 

Partially. I've only seen it the once, and wasn't giving the TV my full attention at the time!

 

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Saw a condensed version of it last night - Sainsbury's.

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2 hours ago, Madeleine said:

 

Saw a condensed version of it last night - Sainsbury's.

 

 

At least I got that it was for a supermarket!

 

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I remember watching the film Black Beauty when I was little and it made me cry. So the trauma of that really put me off reading it as an adult so far! 

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The Land of Green Plums (1994) Herta Müller

 

After reading the first 15 pages, I wanted to put this book down and quit. The narration was all over the place and had a style reminiscent of stream of consciousness without ever quite being stream of consciousness. I hated it. But I continued regardless and gradually the narrative style started to pull me in. The writing is lyrical and disjointed but flows in a way that mesmerises. I've never really liked stream of consciousness writing but this was wonderful to read with a strong sense of the characters and the world they inhabit without ever describing anything in the traditional sense. It was like hearing someone's thoughts but without the gibberish you so often get with the stream of consciousness style (in my opinion, a lot of mediocre writing is hidden behind that particular genre).

This was elevated by more poetic and fluid writing. Some of it was broken up by images and thoughts that left you uncertain about what was happening. Other times, it flowed beautifully and wouldn't let you go. Some of the images and ideas expressed were really wonderful. Two that stood out for me were when she described her grandmother's dementia without ever using the word; she simply referenced her grandmother 'outliving her own reason by six years.' Then there was also the wonderful (and worrying) idea that whenever someone dies, we all move up in the pecking order. That made me laugh because it's literally true. Next time you hear about a celebrity dying, take a moment to contemplate the fact that you just moved up one slot.

Anyway, the plot is a biographical story about the narrator growing up in communist Romania and dealing with a state that daily interferes in their lives. She and her college friends have to write secret letters to each other and will often sing banned songs, all while dealing with a state officer (and his dog) who regularly interrogates them. Suffice it to say, they all dream of escaping the socialist utopia and regularly take comfort from the many rumours regarding the dictators poor health.

I absolutely loved this book. It was rich and human and beautiful. There was even a touch of magical realism and poetry to it. I wouldn't recommend it lightly because the style might not be to everyone's tastes but for me, it was a wonderful piece of literature. You can see why Müller won the Nobel prize.

 

8/10

Edited by Hux

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No Longer Human (1948) Osamu Dazai

 

This book is sublime. That much is clear but how much of it is fiction and how much is simply Dazai's final thoughts on the world (he committed suicide after this book was completed) is hard to tell. Actually, that's not true. At no point did I ever feel I was reading about the fictional Yozo. I always felt that I was reading Dazai's thoughts. And yet fact and fiction are sometimes the same thing.

The book is presented to us as an epistolary novel. A series of notebooks that have been found and explore the mind of a character called Yozo. As a boy he quickly fails to grasp human beings and learns that he must pretend to be one of them to fit in. He smiles when he knows your supposed to. He claims to be hungry when he isn't because he doesn't know what hunger feels like. He acts the clown because he knows it will make people laugh. Even when he is sexually abused by the servants he does not speak out because what would it accomplish?

As an adult he begins a series of affairs but never once truly connects or feels any meaningful emotion towards these women. And yet he pretends (even to himself) that he does feel something. Soon, he and his latest companion make a suicide pact but where she succeeds, Yozo fails. He now has to live with those circumstances and yet, as before, thinks only of himself. Her death is no more important to him that his next drink.

His final relationship is with a woman named Yoshiko and includes a curious (and very confusing) moment. She is essentially raped (a thing Yozo witnesses) but Yozo describes this in such a vague manner that it's hard to know if she was simply having consensual sex or being raped. It is written as though it is the latter and yet when Yozo witnesses it, he walks away as though he is the victim. It's quite an unnerving moment in the book and I'm not sure if it's a deliberate blurring of issues or simply a cultural aspect to Japanese morality. Then again, perhaps it was a call back to his own experience of sexual assault. It certainly left me with a strange feeling in my bones. Like a lot of the book in fact. Soon after, another suicide is attempted and his alcoholism is replaced by a methadone addiction. It's only a matter of time before his family commit him to an asylum. It is here that he discovers that his father has died.

Three years later, he is living alone in an old house with an elderly female servant. He requests some sleeping pills and takes ten of them only to discover that the servant actually gave him laxatives. And thus, he finishes the book pathetic... failed... alone... and shitting himself.

The book ends with someone finding his notebook and querying what happened to the protagonist. But to this we never have an answer.

The book is a staggering work of genius. And I would recommend it to everyone. It is painfully sad and yet (for me, at least) has so many excruciatingly relevant moments that I could relate to. Things which are hard to put into words but which Dazai very brilliantly succeeds in achieving. It strongly triggered memories of reading Camus' The Stranger in the sense that the main character does not... cannot... function as a proper human being. I would say that this book was actually a better exploration of that same theme:

How does one know if they're human?

 

9/10

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I’ve been meaning to read Almost Human for years but never got round to picking it up. Thanks to your review I will endeavour to read it in the coming weeks.

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The Invention of Morel (1940) Adolfo Bioy Casares

 

This was a fun read. I won't go into too many details regarding the plot because the book is very much dependent upon its plot as it moves along. Suffice it to say a man (a fugitive) on the run from the Venezuelan authorities hears of an isolated island in the Pacific that has a reputation for being a place that is uninhabitable for people and he chooses to hide there. On the abandoned island there is a large dilapidated building (referred to as a museum), a Chapel, a swimming pool and a small mill, and the man lives in the museum alone. That is until, one day, a group of strangers suddenly arrive on the island.

The fugitive runs away from the museum and hides from the newcomers in the marshlands but becomes obsessed with a woman among their group named Faustine who sits in the same spot each day to read and watch the sunsets. He then notices that there are two suns and two moons. He listens to the conversations these people have and they seem odd and disconnected. Then, finally, he reveals himself to Faustine but she doesn't appear to acknowledge him.

Anyway, that's where the plot thickens.

This book is an old school mystery adventure yarn, the likes of which you see rarely these days. In fact, it was pretty rare even when it was published (1940). It's short and perfectly plotted, and all the clues laid out for the reader as they go along. Jorge Luis Borges said that the book's plot was perfection and I'd have to agree. But the book's shortness is the very thing which allows for such concise and neat storytelling.

Anyway, I'm gonna go watch 'Lost.'

 

8/10

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Hunger (1890) Knut Hamsun

 

This book took me by surprise. It's stunningly original, especially given that it was published in 1890. I kept having to check that particular date because it felt so contemporary and modern. I'm genuinely curious to know if this book might qualify as the first truly 'modernist' novel. There might be other candidates out there but this is certainly a contender. There is no plot (a marker for many modernist novels), and the book is a first person narration filled with inner dialogue and occasional stream of consciousness writing. Hamsun also has a curious habit of switching tenses (which I don't ever recall seeing before). He starts a sentence in past tense then concludes it in present tense and so on -- and it all works rather beautifully. There's also a rather blunt expression of sexual thoughts and images which most 19th century literature wouldn't touch and which, again, seems very modern. In fact, the two earlier translations both removed them (the translation by Sverre Lyngstad is the one you want).

The basic plot is a young writer struggling to find work, food, and somewhere to sleep in Oslo. On one occasion, he sleeps in the woods, on another he volunteers to spend the night in the local prison as his only option. He's so hungry that he picks up a handful of wood chippings and eats them across the course of the day. And when he finally has some food, his body has become so accustomed to not having any that he vomits. All this is occurring as he is desperately tries to come up with articles which he might sell to the newspaper and his mind is slowly crumbling.

There are times when he speaks to himself, when the internal monologue is vocalised, and there are moments when he seems unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. As the book goes along, he appears to be falling apart and gradually losing his mind. And there is a woman named Ylajali whom he fixates on and eventually has a rendezvous with which quickly escalates into something sexually aggressive and confused. Again, this is not something I'd expect to see in a 19th century novel. This is a book about poverty and hunger at a time when it wasn't uncommon for most people to experience those things.

This was such a superb read. Magnificent.

 

9/10

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On 28/06/2021 at 1:47 AM, Hux said:

Hunger (1890) Knut Hamsun

 

This book took me by surprise. It's stunningly original, especially given that it was published in 1890. I kept having to check that particular date because it felt so contemporary and modern. I'm genuinely curious to know if this book might qualify as the first truly 'modernist' novel. There might be other candidates out there but this is certainly a contender. There is no plot (a marker for many modernist novels), and the book is a first person narration filled with inner dialogue and occasional stream of consciousness writing. Hamsun also has a curious habit of switching tenses (which I don't ever recall seeing before). He starts a sentence in past tense then concludes it in present tense and so on -- and it all works rather beautifully. There's also a rather blunt expression of sexual thoughts and images which most 19th century literature wouldn't touch and which, again, seems very modern. In fact, the two earlier translations both removed them (the translation by Sverre Lyngstad is the one you want).

The basic plot is a young writer struggling to find work, food, and somewhere to sleep in Oslo. On one occasion, he sleeps in the woods, on another he volunteers to spend the night in the local prison as his only option. He's so hungry that he picks up a handful of wood chippings and eats them across the course of the day. And when he finally has some food, his body has become so accustomed to not having any that he vomits. All this is occurring as he is desperately tries to come up with articles which he might sell to the newspaper and his mind is slowly crumbling.

There are times when he speaks to himself, when the internal monologue is vocalised, and there are moments when he seems unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. As the book goes along, he appears to be falling apart and gradually losing his mind. And there is a woman named Ylajali whom he fixates on and eventually has a rendezvous with which quickly escalates into something sexually aggressive and confused. Again, this is not something I'd expect to see in a 19th century novel. This is a book about poverty and hunger at a time when it wasn't uncommon for most people to experience those things.

This was such a superb read. Magnificent.

 

9/10

 

I read the Sverre Lyngstad translation too and as you so eloquently put it, it was excellent.  Recommended.

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Kafka on the Shore (2002) Haruki Murakami

 

After enjoying Norwegian Wood I thought I'd give this a go. And while I enjoyed the reading experience once more, I wasn't exactly convinced by the writing. There were things that only mildly bothered me in Norwegian Wood but which I dismissed because I saw them as one-off issues for that particular book. Kafka on the Shore, however, demonstrated that they're part of Murakami's entire style. The endless descriptions of what every character is eating or drinking at all times (I know how food works, thanks), and the fact that everyone seems to express even the most basic degree of fondness for one another through some kind of sexual contact ('hi, you seem nice, would you like a hand-job?'). In Norwegian Wood this stuff seemed (tangentially) to make a certain amount of sense given the context but here, it becomes clear that this is just Murakami's thing. It doesn't spoil the book in any way, it's simply a little tedious.

Then we have the actual story. It's all rather vague and metaphorical, a story about alternate dimensions, parts of your soul being lost, and so on. That's fine but I tend to view that kind of thing as more of a gimmick than anything else; one which is masking the fact that the book doesn't actually have anything meaningful to say about the human condition. Dazai's 'No Longer Human' has a great deal to say about the complexities of human existence but at no point does he rely on KFC's Colonel Sanders turning up as a character to get you a good blow job from a sex worker (that actually happens). I can imagine that if you're someone who doesn't read much then this might seem so whacky and weird that it's an example of mind-bending literary genius. When, in truth, it's simply a story about a magic stone and a man who can communicate with cats.

That all being said, I really did enjoy reading it. Murakami writes in a thoroughly fluid and page turning manner that is hard to knock. But that's the least I'd expect from genre fiction. And that's what this is: genre fiction. Something to read on the beach when you're on holiday.

I'd definitely recommend it as a piece of entertainment but generally speaking it's not my cup of tea. I will probably delve into more of Murakami's work at a later date but I'm in no rush. I think I've got the gist of what he's about. Fun to read but of little literary significance.

 

7/10

 

Edited by Hux

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