Andrei Strizek

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My first encounter with Murakami

I’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami before this novella, not for any real particular reason other than perhaps that not many of my friends have talked about him, so I never felt a strong pull to pick up one of his books. Well, that, and probably the length of his novels subconsciously forced me away from his books. So when I saw The Strange Library near the cash register at Tattered Cover over Christmastime, I grabbed it, figuring there wouldn’t be any time like the present to check out Murakami and his “magical realism.”

I don’t know what “magical realism” means, exactly, other than that’s how Amazon labels Murakami’s writing. But it seems fitting for this story. We come into the life of an unnamed protagonist as he stops by the local library after school to return some books. Immediately we see that this is an unusual place, for when he asks to check out more books he is told to go “turn right at the bottom of the stairs Go straight down the corridor to Room 107.” I, for one, would have turned and gone the other direction. Our hero, though, only comments that he never knew the library had a basement.

The new moon will shape our destinies.

The nameless, ageless narrator (all we know is that he is a “child” and that he is in school; his obvious attachment to his mother hints at him being young, but throughout we get impressions that, while he may be young, he is mature for his age) requests some books about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire (a strange topic if there ever was one). From there we enter the world of “magical realism”: A jail cell, a mysterious girl who drifts between the real-world and the book-world, a man in sheep’s clothing (“it was real sheepskin, and covered every inch of the sheep man’s body … there was a short tail attached to the back of the sheep man’s outfit that bounced from side to side with each step, like a pendulum”), and a man who is so old that he could likely be past his time here on earth. A brief and odd - and, at times, disconcerting - tale unwinds. It's full of short, crisp sentences that hide and reveal more than one could think. The story is possibly warning us of the perils of capitalism or modernism, or of the dangers of authoritarianism. Or, it’s just a surreal tale; a story that is just meant to be a story and not an allegory. As this was my first encounter with Murakami, I’m not sure exactly what to make of it. (The tale has been spinning back and forth in my mind for almost a week now.) But I do know that I enjoyed the novella, and that his recent books (IQ84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) have been added to my reading lists.

When you start reading it, it doesn’t seem all that complicated. But the further you get into it, the more complex it becomes in this stealth kind of way, and you become really invested. I find this minimalist maximalist quality very engaging.
— Chip Kidd

A note about the design: this publication has art design by Chip Kidd. “Illustrated by” is the not the word to use, for Kidd’s artwork is more of the collage type and is influenced by impressions of the story at hand. His artwork adds to the tale but is not distracting; the surreal nature impacted me as I was reading the story and improves the overall package. (It also helps justify the $18 cover price.) There were a few pages where I definitely took pause to further absorb the design. There was recently an article in the New Yorker about Kidd’s work on this novella; I encourage you to read it.

The world follows its own course. Each possesses his own thoughts, each treads his own path. So it is with your mother, and so it is with your starling. As it is with everyone. The world follows its own course.

It won’t take you very long to read The Strange Library. I think I finished it in an hour or two, stretched out over the course of two rides on the Long Island Rail Road. I actually read it a second time, after about a week, to pick up on new things that I missed the first time. My guess is that if you like Murakami you’ll enjoy this, and if you're like me and you’ve never read him before, this is an excellent place to start.

"Gracefully" starting off the New Year

Well, the first book I finished reading in 2015 was one I never would have expected - actually, it's a book I wasn't aware of until about 5pm on New Year's Day: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. I saw the book in the young adult section while shopping at Target, and the premise intrigued me enough to purchase the book and start reading it almost immediately. It seems that most "YA" books fall under the heading of either dystopia or romance with a tragic twist. Gracefully Grayson doesn't fit into either category.

Gracefully Grayson centers on a 6th grader who is slowly coming to the realization that she is trans*. At first I thought the book was a little heavy-handing, bringing up all of these things to make us look at Grayson with a certain amount of pity, to see all these horrible things that have happened to her, to create an immediate sympathetic character. But, while many of those things were important to the discovery of Grayson (our discovery and her discovery), they ended up being less-central to the plot and character development than perhaps initially implied.

We follow Grayson as she works her way through 6th grade, trying out for the spring play (based on the Greek mythological tale of Persephone - an apt metaphor that at times seems reminiscent of some lyrics on Hedwig and the Angry Inch), making new friends and seeing others fade away, and working out who she is. We don't end with a strong conclusion, but that's okay. Grayson is only a 6th grader; she has much more time to learn about herself (don't we all!), and ending conclusively would be misleading. One thing I appreciated about the novel is that it's pretty straight-forward and not polemical in the least.

This is Ms. Polonsky's first novel, and while I wouldn't put it on the same level with some other "YA" books I've read recently, it's a strong first-outing. I hope she continues to write, and I hope that her books continue to give voice to those who need to be heard.

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