Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

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Hello blogsphere. Again I find that my blogging is flagging a fair way behind my reading. However, some weeks back I read my first Japanese novel: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

The novel begins with a 37-year-old man named Watanabe in an aeroplane, who finds his mind suddenly taken back – by a Beatles’ song – to events that took place many years previously. The remainder of the novel is his nostalgic account of the events of his youth, 20 years earlier, in late-60s Tokyo.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is a tale of love and of loss and of youth and of discovery. While there is happiness and humour in parts, it is also a fairly intense read, containing pretty hefty dollops of loneliness, relationships that are intense by anyone’s standards, characters struggling with mental health issues, and even suicide. The book was hugely popular in Japan upon its release, and I certainly enjoyed it, but it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

I said that this was a fairly intense narrative, and part of the intensity comes from the fact that there are actually very few characters. In fact, the majority of the book revolves around Watanabe and his complex relationships with two very different women.

First we meet Naoko, who was the girlfriend of his best friend growing up. Naoko is quiet and beautiful and lyrical but is a troubled soul, who can never seem to escape her past. Later on in the novel Watanabe meets Midori, a loud, witty, self-confident young lady, who is so very different from Naoko. Midori is a party girl, who says what she thinks, and enjoys shocking others. However, we discover that her confident exterior is also hiding an inner vulnerability.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Back in November, I had a week off work and I took my time choosing a new novel to read. I knew I wanted something with some strong characters and a compelling plot, which I could happily lose myself in for a few hours at a time. So, what did I choose? Answer: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I did not know a great deal about the novel before reading it, but it had been recommended to me, and I also knew that it had been a huge hit a few back, when it was first published.

What little I did know about the book was largely what I learnt from the book’s cover: namely that it was set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death. Not the most promising sounding book for a little holiday reading, you might think, yet within the first few pages I was totally hooked and pleased with my choice.

The main character is Liesel Meminger, who at the beginning of the tale is ten years old. We learnt that her father abandoned them and that her mother was forced to give her up. Hence at the start of the tale, we find a very distressed Liesel arriving at the house of her new foster parents: Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The Hubermanns are both great characters: Hans being a painter by trade, an accordion player by night, and as kind and as soft-hearted a man as you are likely to find anywhere. Hans’ wife Rosa, by contrast, is a feisty, ill tempered woman, who cooks great steaming vats of pea soup, swears like a trooper, but also loves her foster daughter, in her own special way.

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

Then there is Leisel’s neighbour and best friend Rudy Steiner, the ever hungry yet ever happy boy with whom she has many adventures, including year-round football games, apple scrumping, and, significantly, book thieving.

Another major character, and key plot-line involves Max Vandenburg, a fist fighting Jew who ends up hiding in the Hubermann’s basement. However, I shall not say any more about Max, Rudy, Hans, Rosa, Leisel, nor Death himself, as I would hate to give too much away. So, if you want to find out more, you will simply have to read it yourself!

I hugely enjoyed The Book Thief, and raced through its 550-odd pages. Although the novel is set in Nazi Germany, and therefore necessarily shrouded in sadness and brutality, it also contains some moments of beauty and even humour, and is ultimately very life affirming.

A truly entertaining and memorable read, which I highly recommend.

Sat at my favourite local cafe, reading 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak

Reading it in your favourite cafe with a pot of tea and a flapjack, also highly recommended!

Even death has a heart.

Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey

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I was bought this novel for my birthday in late January, started it mid-February, and due to general business of life, have only just finished reading it this morning. It is a truly unique novel; quite unlike anything I have come across before. It is part bildungsroman, part romance, part adventure story and part cock-and-bull story (of the finest kind, I might add).  If I try to describe the events which take place between its 500 pages, it will sound equally strange: the story  explores the battles between the different branches of Christianity, the study of the natural sciences, gambling (in various forms), travel, the New World, inheritance, the manufacture of glass, and, broadly speaking, eccentricity in various guises.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Amongst all of these unlikely aspects, a romance emerges between the two characters of the title when they meet and discover that they are both gamblers (one obsessive; one compulsive). Ultimately this leads to Oscar taking on the bet of his lifetime: to see whether he can transport a glass church from Sydney to a remote settlement 400km up the coast.

If this all sounds most improbable, that’s because it is. It is also however, a very entertaining read.

Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee

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Following on from recently reading The Sea, the Sea and Possession, I decided to pick another Booker Prize winner off my shelves. According to the Oxfam receipt inside, it appears that I picked up this book in Brighton back in April 2002, so it’s had quite a time sitting in my study unread.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

The novel details the fall from grace of David Lurie, a middle-aged scholar of Romantic poetry at a University in Cape Town. Lurie, whose looks and charm are beginning to fail him, finds himself at the centre of a public scandal, the details of which he freely admits, yet his refusal to repent of how he has acted leads to him losing his job and his reputation. Lurie decides to take some time out to visit his daughter on her isolated smallholding, but things only go from bad to worse for him and her after he arrives. Although focusing on the life of one man, Disgrace is really about the changing atmosphere of post-apartheid South Africa. Questions of belonging, identity and power pervade the narrative, and it is perhaps not surprising that David Lurie’s life – like that of his country – enters a period of extreme and uncomfortable turbulence.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Cry, The Beloved Country – Alan Paton

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Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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