Friday, April 2, 2010

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami

With spare, simple prose, Murakami evokes a dream-like story, full of allegory and illusion - or is it?

The main character is Mari, a 19-year-old student who is spending the night away from home. We find her in Denny's at first. A young man comes in, recognizes her as someone he met once a while back, and sits down to talk. The talk tends to be about Mari's sister Eri. Eri is beautiful, so beautiful she apparently stops traffic. Two years older than Mari, she is the center of attention wherever she goes. Mari knows she looks nothing like her sister, and she is a serious student, presumably the genius in the family rather than the beauty.

It soon becomes obvious to us that Mari is a bit distant. She is honest and blunt, almost to the point of incivility at times. She is not used to pleasing others, like her sister, and therefore has no problem being simply who she is. As she goes through this night, having a conversation with this young man, then helping with an injured Chinese woman, later meeting the young man again, and conversing with women who work in a "love ho" ("love hotel", rooms by the hour), we find she is admired by others for her directness and honesty, for having a strong sense of herself.

Her sister, though, we get to see too, in a different way. We watch her sleep, then watch as she appears on the other side of a television screen in her room, and as she awakes, finds herself in a strange viewless room and fights to get out, to get away from the emptiness.

Mari finally tells somebody about her sister's sleeping. Through the night she seems to take in another way of seeing her relationship with this sister and perhaps of setting aside her own frustrations for a moment.

A simple tale, really, quickly read, very visual, like an art film. In its quiet way, a story about love.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Second in the three-part series by Larsson. Too bad there can't be any more!

This one is a real thriller, almost from the beginning. There is no guessing which way it will turn and who will get hurt.

We begin with Mikael Blomqvist, journalist and publisher of Millenium, a magazine that exposes the truth about a wide range of issues through extensive investigative work, discussing the publication of a "themed" issue on the subject of the sex trade in Sweden, as well as publishing a book on the subject, with his staff and the guy who is writing the book. The group gives the idea the green light and the race is on to get the magazine together and the book done in time for both to be published simultaneously.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, diminutive but tough "girl with the dragon tattoo", has taken time off from any kind of work to assess her options. She has accumulated enough money to last her lifetime, so when she returns from spending over a year abroad she sets about getting herself another, larger apartment. Consistent with her constant paranoia, she makes sure nobody can find her. Yet she hangs on to her old apartment, and in fact offers it to an occasional lover who could use a little more room. She had cut off all contact with Blomqvist when she left the country and is not interested in seeing him again. She found she cared too much for him.

It turns out that Lisbeth's and Mikael's lives are bound to cross again, however. The sex-trade investigation leaks into parts of Lisbeth's own past. Because so many people's reputations (and perhaps free lives) are going to be adversely affected by the publication of the book, there is a good chance of danger to those involved.

In one night everything goes to hell and Lisbeth is on the run. Or, perhaps more correctly, in hiding. In different ways, Mikael, the police, and Lisbeth, as well as Lisbeth's former employer, are all trying to put the pieces together to make sense of a horrifying tragedy.

This one had me short of breath at times. I couldn't easily put it down and had to make promises to myself, to reward myself with more reading after I had done the things that had to be done around the house. I am glad I had a break from the first in the series because it increased my anticipation of the second, and now there will be another break before I read the third. During this break I intend to find out more about Larsson, about how he became such an advocate for women.

The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan

I didn't particularly like The Joy Luck Club, finding the voices too much alike, and did not really want to read this one. However, it found its way to me and I decided to give her another try.

Again, Tan focuses on the differences in cultures and generations in China and the U.S., contrasting the "modern" with the traditional Chinese and Chinese-American. More, though, this story is about one woman, middle-aged, seeking her place in the world, reconciling her roots with her present family.

Ruth is a successful "ghost writer" or co-writer, particularly for writers of self-help books. One day she finds a picture that her mother, LuLing, says is of her (LuLing) with her mother. But then she discovers that the woman LuLing calls her mother is not Ruth's grandmother. So what happened here? Through LuLing's memories and incidents in Ruth's life we learn of LuLing's real mother, the bonesetter's daughter. As with The Joy Luck Club, the voice of LuLing is halting English, English as spoken by an immigrant from China. LuLing's beliefs, too, come from China and from her past and her parents' past.

The main difference between Ruth and LuLing is in the "mystical" or perhaps "mythical" beliefs LuLing holds, cultural stories that have made their way down several generations. Like Ruth, I found myself impatient with all of the insistence on the importance of this or that action, this or that word, on the future of a person. I personally have difficulty with the concept of living a life through belief in messages from the past, from the dead. I felt, though, that Ruth was actually more sympathetic to her mother's way of thinking than she let on. Perhaps she will eventually cling to such beliefs herself.

It's an interesting story that brings in a lot of history of China from the WWII years, as well as the continuing conflicts between native-born Chinese and Chinese-Americans.