Contrary to popular belief (expressed by no one) I do in fact read things that aren’t terrible fantasy novels. Most of the time I haven’t actually been reviewing these either because they’re non-fiction, which I don’t have a whole lot of experience writing about, I didn’t finish them or I’m not sure I could really say enough of substance to fill a full-length review.
So I thought I’d start writing posts with little short mini-reviews instead. Here’s the first batch:
1Q84 (book 1) by Haruki Murakami
(TW for rape, child abuse)
Murakami’s books are a real mixed bag for me. On one hand you’ve got Hard-Boiled Wonderland and TheEnd Of The World, which is by turns beautiful and delightfully weird, and then on the other hand you’ve got Kafka On The Shore which features Colonel Sanders as a major character.
1Q84 settles right into my personal habitation zone in the Murakami Weirdness Space. It’s strange, but it’s not so strange that you start to wonder if the author is just trolling you. The book tells two I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-the-same-story intertwining narratives: Aomame, a woman who assassinates men on behalf of a women’s shelter run by a reclusive widow, steps off a traffic-choked highway and appears to enter another universe, identical to our own except that two moons hang in the sky and a handful of fairly minor events over the last decade have changed in subtle ways, sending ripples into the present. In the second story Tengo, a cram school teacher with aspirations toward becoming a novelist, is approached by his editor to surreptitiously do a re-write on Air Coccoon, an ingeniously imaginative but unpolished manuscript submitted by a strange 17 year old girl. Before too long it turns out the two stories are linked in odd and beguiling ways.
All of Murakami’s favourite tropes are in here- an obsession with 60s American music and pop culture, reclusive 30-something year old male protagonists, quirky women with esoteric and insatiable sexual appetites and dashes of magical realism that are taken for granted by the characters. What’s new to Murakami’s oeuvre is a sense of sleaziness I’ve never encountered before. Tengo’s storyline is a slow paced and thoughtful character study with some genuinely intellectual content- for example, the book’s thematic connection to Orwell’s 1984 (I’m assuming no is going to be surprised to learn that there is one) is fairly sophisticated and subtle. Aomame’s half of the plot certainly has elements of that put to a surprising degree often more resembles a cheap airport thriller.
One of the reasons I held off on reading this for so long is because people kept comparing it to Steig Larson’s god-awful Millenium series. To be absolutely clear 1Q84 is far, far better written, but I can see where the comparisons come from as both books feature Strong Female Characters motivated by either their own or other women’s sexual abuse at the hands of men. This is a problematic idea in its own right, and one that Murakami really doesn’t seem to be qualified to handle. The whole “enclave of abused women who plot the assassination of men” angle comes across like a particularly sheltered and naive middle-aged dude’s idea of what a post-feminist society would look like and there’s a whole lot of victim blaming going on. When discussing a friend of hers who was murdered by her boyfriend Aomame spends way too long lamenting that she kept going out with men who were no good for her and if only she’d stop seeking out no-good violent lowlifes then this wouldn’t have happened. At one point Aomame and a newly acquired drinking buddy/ possible love interest have a wild night out with two office dudes, which Aomame doesn’t remember at all the following morning. The way she reacts to this- by strenuously and pointedly thinking about how it’s not a big deal and she’s certainly not going to get worked up over it- struck me as possibly being a dig at women who do consider the idea of waking up in pain after a night of sex with two men they don’t even remember talking to to be something worth getting alarmed about. Maybe I’m reading something into this that wan’t intended, but in a cultural climate where efforts are being made to more clearly solidify the boundaries of consent and remove a lot of the supposed fuzziness and grey areas that have historically allowed abusers to justify their crimes I can’t help but look at this seemingly totally pointless sequence and wonder if there wasn’t an axe being ground somewhere when it was written.
What’s less ambiguously gross is the fact that Murakami brings a sexually abused young girl into the story, leading to a series of alarmingly graphic discussions about the rape of a ten year old which- I swear to God- go like this:
“She was raped?”
“You mean…. full penetration?”
“With a penis.”
“Yes, I think it’s realistic to say that we’re talking about actual penetration of the vagina, with a penis.”
And so on, until I wanted to put either the book or Murakami himself in a wood chipper. Also Tengo totally gets off on staring at the 17 year old author’s chest and sniffing her pyjamas, so there’s that.
1Q84 has everything it needs to be a good story and I did enjoy it a lot when it wasn’t being creepy and gross. I really have no idea why Murakami felt the need to sabotage his book like this, unless he really did read Steig Larson’s novels and enjoyed them so much he decided to emulate them, a scenario so terrifying that just typing that sentence gave me palpitations. I might someday get around to checking out the second book- enough groundwork has been laid that Tengo and Aomame’s inevitable encounter should be worth seeing- but I’m in absolutely no hurry.
Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield
A nonfiction account of the rise of America’s targeted kill/capture and drone programs, this gives a detailed and at times insider view of the behind the scenes machinations that resulted in the US military conducting covert operations all around the world. It’s no dry and detached account of the facts; Scahill opens with that famous Voltaire quote about killing to the sound of trumpets and it’s clear from the start that his intention is firmly to throw the book at the US government at the highest level. I was pleased to see a non-partisan approach to this, as Scahill devotes major time to exploding the myth of Obama as a more moderate successor to George Bush.
Over the course of Dirty Wars Scahill documents how elements of the US government at the highest level murdered, detained and tortured civilians with impunity, repeatedly and consistently created the very Islamic terrorist organizations they were supposed to be fighting, destabilized several countries to chase after relatively minor security threats, deceived or shut down anyone who tried to lift the curtain on what they were doing and laid the groundwork for an endless cycle of worldwide conflict leading to a potential state of never-ending war against an enemy which is continually replenished by the very methods the US is using to fight it.
It’s a powerful and at times shocking book that acts succinctly as both journalism and polemic, with Scahill weaving the narrative of Anwar Awlaki, the fist US citizen to be targeted for assassination in a drone strike (the second being his 16-year old son) into the political wrangling and maneuvering of the Bush and Obama administrations. Reading the words of family members of the dead who had previously been indifferent or outright hostile to the groups that their loved ones were killed in pursuit of vowing to blow themselves up in revenge really drives home how massive an injustice has been committed over the last decade and how dispiriting it is that so few people even recognize it as such. The sheer number of civilians murdered worldwide by US “targeted” killing campaigns is staggering.
The book has some flaws, it has to be said. Scahill goes into a bit too much detail about the exact steps taken in the creation of covert branches of the military empowered to operate free from any governmental oversight, which is important to the story he’s telling but could perhaps have been truncated slightly. As it is I often found myself tripping over pages of military acronyms.
Scahill also at times slips into either speculation in order to charge the US government with things that admittedly they’ve shown themselves fully willing to do in the past but which the evidence for in some specific instances was scanty, or engages in hyperbole- the opening chapters accuse elements of the Bush administration of conspiring to destroy American democracy, which the book never gets around to actually proving.
Overall Dirty Wars is an informative inside look at the events of the last decade and change as well as a powerful shock to the system for anyone whose acquaintance with those events has been filtered through the mainstream media. Given the sheer scale of the destruction and death wrought by the US’s counter-terrorism program it becomes very difficult to view them as substantially different from the terrorist groups they’re ostensibly meant to be fighting.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
This one is in the “books I’m not smart enough to talk about intelligently” category. It tells the story of the titular Mr. Fox, a celebrated writer who is unexpectedly visited by Mary, a woman who we are initially left to assume is an old mistress. As it turns out Mary is quite peeved with Mr. Fox’s books, speficially with how he keeps violently killing off all of the women in them. And she’s got just the way to turn the tables: by forcing him to live through a succession of stories, each time with Mary and himself playing different roles, different names, different genders.
What follows is essentially an anthology piece linked by two repeating characters. I’m going to confess that I often didn’t comprehend the connective tissue of the story in terms of which role the two protagonists were playing and what that was supposed to be indicating about them (not because Oyeyemi herself was unclear on those points, but just because I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out), but the individual segments are wonderful enough that they can be appreciated entirely separately. In the space of a single chapter- sometimes in just a few pages- stories as rich and absorbing as lesser authors would struggle to create in an entire novel are conjured up. All of them are infused with a sense of fairy-tale magical realism to various degrees, from a melancholy drama about a lonely woman interacting with a strange writer all the way up to a delightfully over the top story about a boarding school for potential husbands that includes the trickster-God Reynardine chained to the bottom of a lake.
Like I said, there’s not much I can adequately say about Mr. Fox except that you should go read it immediately. You’ll be glad you did, trust me.