Author: Rupert McNally

Killing Commendatore Book Cover Killing Commendatore
Haruki Murakami
In Store Now!

The Great Gatsby has loomed large in the imagination of Haruki Murakami for some years now. To my knowledge, creating a Japanese edition of the novel is the only translation work he’s ever done. Gatsby is a favourite book of mine, just as Murakami is one of my favourite authors. So, you can imagine my excitement upon hearing that his new novel, Killing Commendatore, was going to be his take on the classic.

Of course, as with anything Murakami does, it’s not quite so straightforward.

Murakami is a master of magical realism. His oeuvre is filled with talking cats, animate whiskey logos, and alternate realities. Only, the fantastical is usually counterbalanced by the incredibly mundane: his characters still go to the grocery store with regularity, there’s always a lot of cooking involved, and whole scenes will transpire with nothing but two high school friends sitting in a living room chatting.

If there’s a spectrum in Murakami’s work it runs from the everyday of Norwegian Wood on one extreme to the fantastical of Kafka on the Shore at its opposite end. It’s not quite that the success of any given novel depends on the marriage of these forces, but there’s something to be said about the fact that this new novel balances those two aspects perfectly. In my opinion, this is his best work yet.

Killing Commendatore, like all of Murakami’s writing, is extremely fun

Essentially, the protagonist of this novel has three motivations: to protect the thirteen-year-old girl who lives in the neighbourhood, to solve the riddle of the mysterious Gatsby-esque man next door, and to pull himself out of the funk he’s been in for the last four months.

It’s the third motivation that is both the most subtle and the most important. Each of Murakami’s main characters must be understood as suffering from some existential crisis: the normalcy of their life, upon which the foundation of their identity is based, has been uprooted. But, rather than dwell or psychoanalyze, they are forced into action. Still, whether they’re bargaining with an embodied ‘Idea’, digging a massive hole to find where the ringing of the bell is coming from, or traveling to the realm of metaphors, the fantastical is always in service to the everyday. In this, the whole story functions as something of an analogy.

But, the last thing I’ll say is that this novel, Killing Commendatore, like all of Murakami’s writing, is extremely fun. Six hundred pages might seem like a lot, but the writing is conversational, and the story immersive, so that you end up feasting through it. There’s a warmth and a certainty to be reading one of the maestros.

Mad Boy Book Cover Mad Boy
Nick Arvin
Europa Editions
In Store Now!

Henry Phipps is just a boy, no matter how much offense he takes when it’s pointed out to him. It’s easy to forget his youth, considering the immense burdens he is forced to bear. Only, every now and again he’ll react with nervousness and a reckless energy that will remind you: he’ll simply run out of a conversation and into the woods, he sometimes cries.

Henry is trying to get to Baltimore, where his father is being kept in debtor’s prison, and where his older brother Franklin is due to be executed by the firing line for defection from the American army. This might be a pretty straightforward mission under normal circumstances, but there is much with which Henry must contend: he is convinced, beyond all reason, that he ought to carry his mother with him. He has a penchant for turning even allies against him. There’s a war going on.

Indeed, it is tough to know when the War of 1812 is following Henry or when he is following the war. If he is going to succeed in freeing his father, he will, after all, somehow need to raise some 900 dollars, an impossible sum. But, “war is like a rich man dancing with a hole in his pocket,” Henry repeats.

Surprisingly, things don’t turn out as easy as that. Henry does meet quite a few people in his travels, and many of them do have ideas on how it is he’ll be able to raise some capital. These notions vary in practicality similarly to how the thinkers behind them vary in circumstance and morality. But, these encounters do provide the narrative with tension and propulsion. This book is a page-turner.

It is the absurdity that gives this book its ample charm, on the other hand. In the first ten pages alone a standoff is broken by a redcoat falling on his face, a dead woman finds her voice, and a cow falls through a roof. But, these mad-cap happenstances do not by any means detract from either the realism or the effectiveness of the narrative. I found it was the opposite, in fact: it was the fantastic quirks of these characters that made them endearing, just as it was the caprice of the fortunes of war that made the surroundings so dangerous.

war is like a rich man dancing with a hole in his pocket

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was in turns rollicking, hilarious, and emotionally affecting. Henry is a fine companion through the New England territory, and what is left of his family is the type you are rooting for, despite their flaws. Surely, as the Phippses keep telling themselves, their luck must turn.

Frankenstein in Baghdad Book Cover Frankenstein in Baghdad
Ahmed Saadawi
Penguin Books
In Store Now!

Judging a book by its cover is one thing. I worry, though, that it would be easy to assume that this novel could be judged on its title alone. But Frankenstein in Baghdad is very different from what you might expect: it’s moving, sympathetic, funny, and even gentle at times. As it is, I was blown away by this book.

Each of the characters who populate Saadawi’s Baghdad, with their attempts to make a place for themselves in the scarred capital of the war-torn country, is immediately recognizable. From the lost and lonely widow Elishva who punctuates her every sentence with an allusion to the son she lost some twenty years ago, to Mahmoud, the earnest young journalist trying to cope with his new responsibilities, to Hadi the junkdealer, perpetual liar but beloved raconteur, all of them are sympathetic in their struggles and familiar in their desires.

And, while the community we are introduced to in Bataween is peopled by individuals with different religious beliefs, different sources and levels of income, different backgrounds and responsibilities, the violence that is perennially in the background exposes their similarities: each is vulnerable, each is scared, and each has suffered loss.

 

When a monster is created from disparate body parts of victims of bombings, shootings, etc., its mission of vengeance seems straightforward, unequivocal.

 

It is the last of these similarities that composes the major theme of this novel. Everyone living in Saadawi’s Iraq has a vendetta, regardless of whether they have plans to act out their revenge. Most are simply seeking a personification for their pain, someone to blame for their loss. So, when a monster is created from disparate body parts of victims of bombings, shootings, etc., its mission of vengeance seems straightforward, unequivocal.

But violence is never either of those things, and it is fascinating how this creature is interpreted by the various characters, and how it only obfuscates the already tenuous situation in the country.

It would be doing this novel a disservice, though, to call it a monster story. It is as much a monster story as Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a story about a crow, or Animal Farm is a story about a horse. Neither is it a horror story, or even a war story.

At its heart this is the story of the characters living in Lane 7 and their struggles to impose normalcy on a deteriorating situation.  It is ripe with interpretations of the continuing struggle faced by Iraq and much of the area. But, it speaks to something larger, something perennial and universal: violence begets violence, vengeance begets nothing but new vendettas. Even if one is endowed with more power than one’s opposition, can there be a way out of the most vicious of cycles of violence?

Munich Book Cover Munich
Robert Harris
Random House Canada
In Store Now!

This story follows two friends, alumni of Oxford: Hugh Legat (now one of Chamberlain’s personal secretaries) and Paul Hartmann (a German diplomat).  They find themselves on opposing sides of battle lines being drawn, yet they have more in common than even they seem to know. Still, trying to arrange a meeting is difficult enough in Nazi Germany, especially at a time when Hitler is raring to storm into Czechoslovakia. And it is the fate of that country which hangs in the balance when Chamberlain’s offer to travel to Munich to negotiate terms for the country’s division is accepted by Hitler. Mussolini and the French Prime Minister Deladier are also to be in attendance.

 

While it is easy to find Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement efforts laughable in hindsight, it is also easy to forget just how popular Chamberlain’s promotion of peace was—at least before Hitler moved into Poland. And this was so not just in England, and throughout continental Europe, but even in Nazi Germany.  Crowds flock to greet Chamberlain and his entourage as they land in Munich, and seem to follow him as he moves through the city. We can easily dismiss the prime minister as naive or cowardly, but in this book I found him—for the first time—sympathetic.

Trying to arrange a meeting is difficult enough in Nazi Germany, especially at a time when Hitler is raring to storm into Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps the most striking of Robert Harris’s many strengths as a writer is his ability to take a moment in history directly preceding a crisis and to allow the reader’s knowledge of what is imminent to paint the story. He’s done it before with his novel Pompeii, set on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius towards the end of the year 79 c.e. In both books the truly impressive feat of Harris’s is his ability to deliver a balanced, subtle narrative: overwrought chase-scenes and showdowns are avoided in favour of pointed questions in interviews and a shadowy feeling of foreboding.

 

I loved this book. Harris is much too skilled a novelist to succumb to waxing anachronistic. His characters inhabit their moment of history properly. The reader is left to make sense of what each action implies. This is never at the expense of the story: the tides of optimism for Chamberlain’s peace efforts are arrayed against the belligerence of the Nazi leader. The reader is allowed to glimpse the good and the terrible of 1938.

Himself Book Cover Himself
Jess Kidd
Simon & Schuster
In Store Now!

I remember reading somewhere that the difference between a mystery book and a piece of literature is the resolution: in the former we find out the answers to the internal question, whereas in the latter we are never given such an explanation, and are left to extrapolate for ourselves what the answers could be. We don’t do much differentiation at the store, especially in terms of fiction. It was only August of last year that we began keeping our science-fiction/fantasy novels separate from the general fiction alcove. And, while we’ve always had a separate place for mystery books, that place will include thrillers and horror stories, which aren’t quite the same thing.

So, when we received our copies of this beautiful book this morning, I had to think about how to classify it. On the surface of things I guess it should be in the mystery section. After all, it’s the story of Mahoney, who travels to the small town of Mulderrig at the behest of a note left with him upon the doorstep of an orphanage in Dublin some 20 years previous. It reveals to him his real name, and his mother’s, and ends: “For your information she (his mother) was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.”

This, then, is the RACHE scrawled in blood that sets Sherlock on his first hunt, i.e. the beginning of a mystery investigation. And Mahoney is different from Holmes in that where the great detective had only the powers of logic Mahoney has nervous visitations from ghosts, which he tries his best to ignore. Both protagonists are enigmatic and magnetic, and both Arthur Conan Doyle and Jess Kidd know how to write a memorable charm into their characters.

So, why do I hesitate, pondering where it is I should file Himself?

Jess Kidd has that rare ability to tell a story with the type of confidence of which seasoned writers will be jealous.

Is it that Mahoney refuses to be bound by the conventions in which he seems to be situated? He is far too aloof to be considered an investigator, after all, perfectly happy to allow the pair of old ladies he teams up with to do most of the digging and prying. He’s immensely cool like that. But, that’s not quite it...

It is also true that Jess Kidd has that rare ability to tell a story with the type of confidence of which seasoned writers will be jealous. There is a literary bent to her pen and a glint for detail in her eye.  Thus, while the plot is thick with the intrigue one would expect from a mystery novel, it is here a foundation from which Kidd can reach for something higher —or something deeper.  But, there’s more than that, too.

I think it’s because Jess Kidd doesn’t just reach; she grabs hold firmly. She understands how to detail the idiosyncracy of a lonely maid in small Mulderrig so that it resonates. She knows how to explore the ties that bind the community in a fashion that bespeaks how secrets of a larger scale are kept and hidden; and how those more mundane can still matter profusely.

Most of all, Himself is going to be kept in the fiction section because the resolution of its plot doesn’t begin to answer the questions the book poses. Most of these questions are left to the reader

to answer. Simple ones like: why is a book about a man trying to solve what happened to his mother entitled Himself? Or: if the dead can help you solve your issues, why would you ignore them?

Born a Crime Book Cover Born a Crime
Trevor Noah
Memoir

This is a superb book.

Before becoming the host of The Daily Show last year Trevor Noah was a seriously hard-working stand-up comedian. He once spoke about his habit of doing shows in both London and New York on the same weekend. This tireless approach to his craft is undoubtedly responsible for his ability to tell a story. That his anecdotes are rich and rewarding and hilarious, that his insights into human nature are penetrating, comes as no surprise in the context.

But, it’s my experience that a book of anecdotes, no matter how well told, or how funny, will only ever be remembered for the better jokes and asides. With Born a Crime, on the other hand, there’s a gestalt that separates it from others of its kind. To a great extent this comes from Noah’s experience being ostracised under the apartheid regime in South Africa. As the title suggests, Noah’s very birth was considered an infraction of the law. Sexual relations between people of different races were punishable by five years in prison at that time, and Trevor was thus walking evidence in any proceeding the state might take against his parents. Racial distinctions were bureaucratically kept, vigilantly policed, and violently maintained. But this says nothing about how these distinctions were embodied and normalized in society, or how it felt to be labelled a certain way, and thus limited. It takes a personal narrative to begin to understand the difficulty involved therein.

So, while Trevor’s mother was designated black and his father designated white Trevor was labelled ‘colored’ on his birth certificate, a distinct racial group. This nomenclature ruled his life. The questions of where he was allowed to live and with whom (i.e. not, legally speaking, his parents), what schools he was allowed to attend, and a multitude of others, were legal questions, not social or financial ones.

With Born a Crime, on the other hand, there’s a gestalt that separates the book from others of its kind.

The criminality of Trevor’s existence meant that he made for an unusual presence in Johannesburg, in the townships around the city, and in each school he attended (and there were quite a few of those). Too, it made for an unusual and heartrending family dynamic. A sad ritual was undergone for any family outing to the park. Noah’s father, on the few times he accompanied his son, found it prudent to walk on the opposite side of the street, so as not to be recognised as the boy’s father. His mother, who raised him, would chance holding his hand at times, only to make him feel “like a bag of weed,” as she would drop him at any sign of the police. Mind, in many ways Trevor’s mother is the hero of this book. She learned to type at a time when even secretarial work was legally barred to black people. And she raised her child neither in ignorance nor in fear of the regime, but in tacit disobedience, as if implying that she would not be reduced to the level that the government was trying to reduce her to, nor would she allow her son to be.

But, the unusual figure that was and is Trevor Noah was thus provided the outsider’s view. There was a distance between him and each of those around him. And this perspective not only informed his comedy for the better, it informed his compassion and his ability to identify with others despite striving for so long to find a stable identity of his own.

While it is never explicitly stated, it is my belief that the gestalt of this book amounts to this: to some extent, at least, Trevor is a synecdoche of a country perennially coming to terms with its past. His presence on a stage in front of an audience bothers and embarrasses some people, his existence demanding they confront what was until all too recently not only a crime, but a social taboo, a perversity. But, his popularity (the DVD sales of his first stand-up show easily broke all previous sales records) suggests that the population of South Africa is indeed coming to terms with the legacy of apartheid, if only slowly and sometimes tumultuously.

This book, then, is an extension of that notion, though it may be so only subconsciously. It is in turns hilarious and heartrending, but it amounts to something so very powerful.

And I have to say this: it seems a little cruel that after overcoming the odds against him to earn a platform from which to (in some small way) help a country reconcile its difficult relationship with race Noah’s success in America (e.g. his promotion to star of The Daily Show) seems to suggest he will have to do the very same thing for the next four years. It is one of few things that give me hope that our cousins to the south haven’t completely lost their way.

2135313Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa.

The Infidel Stain Book Cover The Infidel Stain
Blake and Avery
Carter, M.J.
Fiction
In Store Now!
Hardcover

The second installment in the Blake and Avery series, The Infidel Stain is the sequel to The Strangler Vine, which hit our shelves just last year. The Strangler Vine saw William Avery, a young and ambitious recruit of the East India Company stationed in Calcutta in 1837 (much to his chagrin), where he is frustrated in his attempts to ingratiate himself with the ‘better’ parts of society yet dismissive and superior towards the Indian population around him. When he is teamed up with Jeremiah Blake, a notorious ex-solider, fallen from favour, and disgraced, he imagines what little luck he’s had up until this point has evaporated. Blake and Avery are paired on a mission to track down the Thuggee cult, believed to operate in large groups, to surround innocent travellers, win their trust, and then strangle them or slit their throats in the middle of the night.

Jeremiah Blake is a reticent man, and in many ways the opposite of Avery: he distrusts soldiers, officials, anyone with the slightest bit of power. He spends all his time in the slums, and speaks more in the local languages than in English. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of antagonism between the two: Blake can barely stand Avery, the latter being naïve and superior towards the locals. And Avery is suspicious of Blake, having been told by their keeper to watch him closely. Blake is a loose cannon, after all, and has never been known to follow orders with zeal.

While the settings are what catch my attention, it is the characters that keep me interested and invested in the story.

Three years have passed since their Indian adventure, and while both have been struggling to adjust to Victorian England life, they are struggling for very different reasons. Avery is a married man expecting a child, and his family is pressuring him to make connections, to ‘advance himself.’ Blake has become an ‘inquiry agent,’ tasked with finding information among the seedier streets of London. In no way is there relationship repetitive or derivative in this second book. They consistently frustrate each other, follow their own notions, and keep secrets. Throughout the book it is obvious that both their hearts are in the right place, even if their intentions lead them down the wrong paths.

So, once again, Blake and Avery innocently get themselves caught up in matters well beyond their control and comprehension. More than a mystery, The Infidel Stain, like The Strangler Vine before it is a fast-paced adventure story. It is well-written and fascinating, in a nostalgic sort of way.

While the settings are what catch my attention, it is the characters that keep me interested and invested in the story. And this book is rich with characters of different stripes, styles, and motivations. So much so that even Charles Dickens makes a fleeting appearance.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

mj-carter

M. J. Carter is a former journalist and the author of two acclaimed works of nonfiction, Anthony Blunt: His Lives and George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I. She is also the author of a previous Blake and Avery novel: The Strangler Vine.Carter is married with two sons and lives in London.