Monday, February 15, 2010

What I think about when I think about Lolita: an Introduction for the Book Club Discussion

(Generally spoiler free- intended for before or concurrent with your reading of the book.)

First, I don't claim to be an expert on Lolita. I read this book once, about ten years ago, and have only picked it up a few times since then to dip back into certain sections. I did a little more research before writing this and am working my way through The Annotated Lolita in addition to the Jeremy Irons audiobook to prepare for the discussion. This is just an attempt to identify, in advance, some things you might want to think about as you read Lolita.

Humbert Humbert is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. As you read the novel it's clear that you are being manipulated by the way he presents information and his constant dissembling and rationalizing, even though he does admit to some pretty unsavory things. The entire story (except the Forward) is relayed to us by Humbert which means that he controls and shapes the tone; he gets to "spin" the story, to use the modern parlance. The result is that the book manipulates you into sympathizing with this character who is, when taken objectively, a monster. His seductive tone, the remarkable elegance of his narrative voice creates a conflict within the reader of how to interpret what we are being told. This aspect of Lolita colors everything else to come. Only the Forward, the only part of the book that is not in Humbert's voice, allows Nabokov the opportunity to distance himself from this awful narrator and condemn the things he does, and even the Forward should be taken with some salt.

The novel is presented as being written by Humbert after the events took place. As a result there are hints, clues, and allusions in early chapters of characters and events that come later. This gives Lolita at least some aspects of a mystery story as the plot unravels. Weather you are reading this for the first time or rereading be aware of foreshadowing and alluding to future events, and also the use of coincidence to drive the plot.

There are lots of linguistic games and intricate wordplay going on. Nabokov fills the book (all his books, really) with hidden meanings and obscured references. For the most part I would say that "getting" all these references isn't really essential to the understanding the basic story, but they do provide another level of detail to think about. If you pick up a copy of The Annotated Lolita it will provide a lot more insight on these things, but it can also be very disruptive to the reading experience and I would not recommend it for a first time reader. It's probably better to simply read the novel on your own, attentively, and take from it what you get naturally. If something tugs at your brain or strikes you as a little odd it is probably intentional, and worth prodding for additional meaning (but not losing sleep over).

I will, however, provide a few tips on some of the larger allusions and references as a starting point for what to look for in order to gain a deeper appreciation of the work. There are several references to Edgar Allen Poe, and specifically to his poem Annabel Lee, not just attributing the name to Humbert's "initial girl-child" but several lines from the poem are also echoed in the novel, especially that first chapter. It should not be lost on the careful reader that Poe married his 13-year-old cousin in 1835, and this is one of several examples of pedophilic relationships in history and myth that Humbert provides as a loose justification for his condition in the early chapters.

There are also several instances of words and images the evoke elements of classic fairy tales. Examples of this can be found throughout, from the neologism "nymphet" to figurative descriptions of Humbert’s pursuit and Lolita’s innocence. Imagery related to butterflies comes up frequently as well, with many possible interpretations (Nabokov himself was a collector of them). Be aware of how ideas and concepts from psychology, especially Freudian psychology get mentioned. Nabokov was an outspoken critic of Freudian psychology, which is worth noting when considering Humbert's contempt for his own psychiatric examinations as well as his willingness to attribute childhood trauma as a cause of his fixation on young girls. These are just some of the things you find when you dig deeper into the text and background sources.

The novel is filled with coincidences, puns, allusions, alliteration, silly and unlikely names of people and places, implausibly convenient plot developments, foreign words and phrases and other linguistic flourishes. These all have a way of disrupting the reality of the narrative and unsettling the reader. Obviously it is a conscious choice made by the author- the whole point of such things is to call attention to them- but it is interesting to consider why Nabokov would want to do this as you read the novel. What effects does this have on someone trying to interpret and understand the story? What, if anything, does it say about our narrator?

Another thing to think about is that this novel was first published over 50 years ago, and where a lot of books and films that were considered shocking 50 years are downright tame by today’s standards Lolita still retains a lot of it's potency. Even on Pajiba, on the internet, ten years deep into the twenty-first century picking Lolita for the book club caused a few eyebrows to go up and a few comments to be made about the controversial subject matter. I guess it's a good thing in some ways that even as we grow more and more accepting of sex and sexuality, pedophilia still retains some of its taboo.

And yet, there is an argument to be made that even that is eroding in some ways. It certainly seems like sexualization of young girls is becoming more prevalent, at least of the 'look but don't touch' variety. Miley Cyrus and Dakota Fanning are only just outside of Humber Humbert's "9-14" criteria. Also, there is the popular usage of the term 'lolita'. It's usually applied, not so much to victims of sexual predators, but to precociously sexual young girls who experiment with sexual assertiveness or make a wanton appeal to that kind of attention. It takes on an unseemly 'asking for it' connotation that is not necessarily representative of the book's portrayal of the eponymous character.

When the relationship does turn sexual (spoiler: it turns sexual) how do you interpret Lolita's feelings given the unreliability of Humbert's account? At times she is portrayed as a willing and active participant, even a seducer of Humbert, but later details cast a different light on the effects this relationship has on her. Some of this could be attributed to the complexity and conflicting nature of her character (at first it's a game, but later the trauma and regret are felt). Then again, how much can we trust Humbert's version of Lolita's attitude toward him? Of course he is going to portray himself as desirable and her as willing. Where might the "truth" lie, and what difference would it make? Humbert is a predator, regardless. Does Lolita's attitude change in any way your interpretation of the story? Can there be, as Whoopi Goldberg put it, a distinction of rape but not "rape-rape"?

And finally, just take in the beautiful, lyrical writing. It's amazing. Several people already mentioned Humbert's opening paragraph on Lolita, which is one of my favorites, too. This isn't some Dan Brown hackery. Nabokov is acutely aware of the way his language feels and how we can experience it viscerally. He draws your attention to Lo-Li-Ta ("the tip of the tongue taking a trip down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth"). Everything is carefully composed just so for a reason. The rhythm and cadence, the flow of words and sentences, the tactile sensation of reading it aloud (the lilting of "Lolita" and the double rumble of "Humbert Humbert" are meant to convey the essence of those characters), the significance of different ways to name something ("plain Lo, in the morning.... Dolly at school... Delores on the dotted line") or the ability to find poetry in a list of schoolchildren's names; it's not just an awareness of the etymology and meaning of words but also of their sensation and feeling, every word has been weighed and considered by Nabokov in creating this work. Regardless of how uncomfortable it may be to contemplate some of the things he says, how can you deny the beauty in the way he says them?

I hope you all enjoy it, and I look forward to the discussions to come.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

13. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

"There is clearly someone in the house. Walk into the bedroom: something falls in the living room. Look for the cat: it's sitting on the little table in the front hall, its ears pricked up; it clearly heard something, too. Walk into the living room: a scrap of paper has fallen, all by itself, from the piano, with someone's phone number on it, you can't tell whose. It just flew off the piano soundlessly and lies on the carpet, white and alone.

Someone isn't being careful, thinks the woman who lives here. Someone isn't even trying to hide anymore.
- from "There's Someone in the House"

I had never heard of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya either, before I started seeing this book mentioned or reviewed by various blogs. According to the introduction Petrushevskaya is one of the most important and prolific contemporary writers in Eastern Europe, and probably the most important female writer. At one time she was censored by the Soviet government (although there is nothing overtly political in her writing) but now she is celebrated as a National Treasure. This collection of short stories is the first major translation of her work by an American publisher. She is an essayist, novelist, and playwright, too.

Of course the first thing you notice is the title- it certainly is attention getting- before stopping to take a look at what exactly this book is about. The stories are referred to as "scary fairy tales" and they do tend to consist of that grim macabre mingled with the supernatural that the name would imply. Most take place among poor peasants in small villages. The people are isolated, desperate, and usually fixated on some strange personal desire or else trying to avoid some crushing fate. Many are driven by familial love to save a child or a spouse. Their salvation, when granted, comes through sacrifice, forgiveness, and love. The stories are bleak but do allow for some hope and humanity to shine through. They are also fantastically well written.

Several of the stories are in familiar ghost-story territory. A character encounters someone from their past or a husband mysteriously returns early from the war and they have a strange interaction or receive bizarre instructions, and by the end of the story it is revealed that the person they met had died sometime before, and that it was their ghost reaching out to achieve some end. Other stories are allegories for desperation felt under the Soviet system. There are tales of suffering and redemption, of magical or supernatural intercession (both actively sought for and uninvited), and of dreams, death, and unreality. There are nineteen stories in the collection. I'll share two of my favorites:

One particularly good story is "The New Robinson Crusoes." A family leaves their home to move to a remote village. They work hard to fix the place up, keep a low profile, and establish a sustainable existence growing food or trading with the few elderly and impoverished neighbors. They are cautious and resourceful, and it gradually becomes clear that they are trying to stay one step ahead of... something, but we are never told exactly what. The father starts disappearing deep into the woods each day, leaving the mother and children home to work. He is building a cabin there, a fall-back shelter for when even the small farm in the remote village they are squatting at is not safe. Eventually that comes to pass and they abandon their farm, taking as much as they can carry as more and more refugees arrive and overrun the village. We are never told why this is happening, just left in confusion at the harrowing story that unfolds. It's like a compact version of what Cormac McCarthy tried to do with "The Road", except more real and affecting.

My favorite story in the collection was "There's someone in the house". An old woman comes to believe that her house is haunted, and that the spirit is vandalizing the house and wants to kill her. A shelf falls, and she is certain it was ghost. What makes this story so interesting is that while most of the scary fairy tales are clearly of the supernatural, this one reads more like the woman is insane. In her unhinged state she begins destroying her apartment to prevent the ghost from doing the same. She smashes the TV and throws it out the window. She cuts up her clothes in the closet and tosses them as well. She vandalizes her bed, her dishes, her cupboards, and anything else she sees. She plans to abandon the ruined apartment and become homeless, to avoid the ghost. She drags her reluctant cat out with her, locks herself out of the apartment, and prepares to leave for the streets and life in utter despair.

And then, with her freaked-out starving cat refusing to leave but certain to die if left alone, she hesitates and reconsiders. She has the landlord let her back in to her apartment. She feeds the cat and surveys the damage. The clothes she things she threw away have already been picked over and scavenged, but there are a few things she didn't destroy. There is a bag of old clothes that, with some minor alterations, can be made to fit. The TV is broken, but she discovers her old record player still works, and she still has her books. As the story ends she is excited about all the possibilities of her new lease on life.

It was an incredible story to read, and my two paragraphs don't nearly do it justice. The emotional response evoked by this poor and probably crazy woman living alone, destroying her possessions, helpless and soon to be homeless, and then the brilliant pivot to redemption when she is able to return to her apartment. The old woman who was kind of miserable and complained frequently in the first part is grateful now for every scrap of food and furniture left behind. Every rag of clothing is a gift. She is not simply restored to her previous life she is redeemed, saved, by a trick of the mind. If I could find it online somewhere I would link to it for you.

12. God Is Dead by Ron Currie

"Disguised as a young Dinka woman, God came at dusk to a refugee camp in the North Darfur region of Sudan. He wore a flimsy green cotton dress, battered leather sandals, hoop earrings, and a length of black-and-white beads around his neck. Over his shoulder he carried a cloth sack which held a second dress, a bag of sorghum, and a plastic cup. He’d manifested a wound in the meat of his right calf, a jagged, festering gash that was attracting flies. The purpose of the wound was twofold. First, it enabled him to blend in with the residents of the camp, many of whom bore similar injuries from the slashing machetes of Janjaweed raiding parties. Second, the intense, burning ache helped to mitigate the guilt he felt at the lot of the refugees, over which he was, due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, nearly powerless."
- God is Dead by Ron Currie

The title of Ron Currie's novel, God is Dead, is not meant figuratively like when Nietzsche said it. The premise of the novel is the literal death of God and the resulting effects on society.

Let me explain: God takes the human form of a refugee in Darfur. He does this to be closer to the suffering there, something he feels sorry over but cannot fix. He wants to apologize and do what he can to alleviate suffering. While in human form he is killed, and this death is apparently final. The novel does not give the impression that God was trapped against his will in human form or frantically trying to return to heaven before he died ('beam me up, Petey'). This gives the impression that his death was accepted voluntarily, the first act of suicide in a book that throws an awful lot of them at you.

Eventually the world learns of the death of God (wild dogs that ate from God's corpse and gained enlightenment tell them about it telepathically) and society begins to fall apart. People stop working, stop caring, anarchy and chaos reign, a lot of people are killed or commit suicide (this seems counter-intuitive to me; if there is no God, that's all the more reason to make the most of life on Earth). Eventually, when the world doesn't end- doesn't change at all, really, except for the behavior of people on it- order is restored and life begins to get back to some kind of normal. Except it is much more authoritarian and fragile, like a world glued back together after being shattered.

This is really difficult to describe in a book review. Let me back up a little. This actually is a serious novel, not a sci-fi fantasy written by a misanthropic high school kid. The books is organized as a series of interrelated short stories that progress chronologically. The characters and setting are never the same, but the premise and continuity are. The first story is the death of God. Then we get the suicide of a priest. Then, a group of friends back from college make a suicide pact amid a post-apocalyptic world thrown into chaos. Details of what happened and how are usually not filled in until later. The chapter "Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God's Corpse" which occurs about half way though the book sheds a lot of light on the events between chapter one and the later chapters (it's also one of the more interesting chapters). Other stories give pretty heavy-handed satire, like when religious wars are replaced by wars over beliefs in evolutionary psychology and postmodern anthropology.

One story that emerges is that in the absence of God people begin to worship their children in "a transference of the innate human need to worship something." This is taken to such an extreme that it threatens to undermine the thin semblances of civilization. Children are worshiped to an unhealthy extreme. They are indulged to the point of ridiculousness. Parents stop going to work so they can sit at home and watch cartoons and play with toys all day, in order to get closer to the sanctity of children. They let their children make major decisions for the household, like what the spend their money on. The government intervenes with laws restricting the worship of children and forcing adults to attend counseling sessions where they are told their kids are average, stupid, unspectacular and dim. Of course I had the interesting perspective of reading this chapter with a sleeping infant on my shoulder.

Again the details of how society pulled itself together are largely ignored. The novel jumps around and focuses on single characters and small-scale events. The larger developments or the godless world and the authoritarian power structure that develops to hold it together are for the most part ignored, with only a casual reference to the formation of the laws against child deification or the illegality of owning, not kiddie porn, but any pictures of children at all which could be worshiped as religious icons. It's bizarre and disorienting and illogical and belies a weakness in storytelling. It was an interesting, quick read, but not really anything I would recommend unless the details above made you curious and your library has a copy. A few stories were pretty good, others not so much. Waiting a month after I read it to write the review probably didn't do this book any favors.

11. Homer & Langley: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley Collyer were real-life hoarders who lived in New York during the first half of the twentieth century. In his new novel, E.L. Doctorow appropriates the famous brothers as characters and tells a fictional story around them. Most of the details and side characters are made up, but in some cases they are drawn from items found in the 140 tons of junk removed from the house on 5th Avenue after the brothers were found dead. So the novel provides a back story for the collection of old bicycles, the musical instruments, the thousands of newspapers and books, the old medical equipment, and the Ford Model T in the dining room. All these are explained in the story so that, while they aren't exactly normal things to obsessively bring into a house they at least seem like reasonable acquisitions at the time.

In addition to the fictitious account of the two brothers, the novel is about a time and place- New York City from the 1920's through the 1960's. It reminded me a bit of Forrest Gump the way pivotal events of those decades kept passing through their lives. Silent films, Jazz musicians, Gangsters, speakeasies, two world wars, Japanese internment camps, and a group of free-spirited hippies all play a role in this fictional account of the reclusive brothers lives. Doctorow even gives them an additional two decades to extend his story through the 1960's whereas the real Collyer brothers died in 1947.

What is fascinating about the novel is the way that the tragedy sneaks up on you. We know that this will end with an almost complete withdrawal from society, chronic hoarding, and the brothers dying amid the junk that has consumed their rotting Harlem brownstone. Yet at the beginning of the novel they seem almost completely normal. Homer begins to loose his eyesight as a teenager and soon he is completely blind, yet he remains fairly normal despite the handicap. Langley returns from World War I the victim of a gas attack with a persistent cough and the seeds of mental instability that will eventually be the brother's downfall. Still, they have a cook and a housekeeper and a large sum of money left by their parents. They have interests, they host and attend parties, and they go out frequently to walk and interact with the world. Gradually they withdraw, or they encounter events that make them more fearful and guarded against the outside world. Eventually, they are boarding up the windows and living as shut-ins without electricity or running water.

The story is especially tragic because it is told from Homer's point of view in the first person. Homer's blindness makes him very dependent on Langley, who is clearly the more disturbed of the two. Homer seems crazy by proxy, conforming to the eccentric behavior exampled by his brother because that is all he knows. Homer is intelligent and insightful. He is easygoing and for the most part he is happy. He is sometimes worried about his brother, and the deterioration of the conditions they live in, but mostly they get along well and enjoy their life.

The story, too, is mostly happy and uplifting. It is episodic and spans a large part of early twentieth century American history. It is touching and thoughtful and well-written by Doctorow. This is one I am comfortable recommending to anyone who likes to read, watches "Hoarders" on A&E, and wishes Fincher did a better job with Benjamin Button.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

short feature: Skhizein (2008)

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, we can all watch brilliant short features like this which just a few years ago would have never crossed our path. Who ever saw any of the "best animated short subject" nominees at the Oscars, even though they all look so cool? I want to share this award-winning French animated short with anyone who might not have seen it yet. It is less than 15 minutes long and is well worth the time.

It is brilliantly conceived, thought-provoking, and features a hauntingly beautiful score (too much clichéd praise? Or can I throw in "ominous" and "gripping"?) The story concerns a young man who is struck by a meteorite and finds himself living precisely 91 centimeters from himslef. If that doesn't make sense, well, you just have to see it for yourself.

Skhizein (Jérémy Clapin,2008) from Bertie on Vimeo.

And if you like cool, free, animated movies from talented people working outside the mainstream you might want to check out Sita Sings the Blues. (link) Sita Sings the Blues is a musical, animated interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayana interspersed with musical interludes from the 1920's Jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, commentary, and events from the artist's personal life. Due to copyright issues the film could not be released commercially so the filmmakers decided to release it for free under a creative commons license. Roger Ebert has praised the film, among others.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

10. The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank by Christopher Miller

I originally purchase this book as a Christmas gift for my brother. It looked interesting and he is enough of a sci-fi fan that I figured he would appreciate it. When I got it home I skimmed a bit more, started reading the first few pages, and before long I realized I was going to need to find a new Christmas gift for that brother. (Sorry, Ryan! Glad you are enjoying the Veronica Mars DVDs. You're welcome to borrow this anytime now that I'm finished.)

The Cardboard Universe is a story about a fictional science fiction writer named Phoebus K. Dank. But it isn't a conventional novel, the book is set up like an encyclopedia of his life and work written collaboratively by two critics who knew him in life. It starts with an 'about the authors' blurb, a preface, and a "Dank Chronology" timeline (all fictitious) before going on to an alphabetical listing of entries on major and minor works, family, ex-wives, and other life events (with footnotes) that makes up the entire rest of the novel.

The tone of the dual narrators is an important part of the storytelling. The primary voice is Boswell, a friend of Dank and a committed admirer of his work. Boswell is trying to start the Dank Studies department at the local college and bevies Dank to be one of the greatest writers of our time. He lived with Dank until the author's death (murder, actually, and all this is in the preface so no spoilers). The other narrator is Hirt, a former schoolmate and also former roommate of Dank. Hirt's entries, though, are much harsher and more critical of Dank, both as a writer (a hack) and as a person (a slob). Boswell maintains that Hirt killed Dank in a fit of jealousy but the case was never resolved and Hirt is sending his contributions to the encyclopedia via email from an undisclosed location overseas.

Each entry is written by one of these narrators with the other occasionally interjecting a footnote for additional commentary. The entries range from a few paragraphs to a few pages long, so the novel is very fragmented. From the beginning the book deviates sharply from what a serious encyclopedia would look like. Most of Dank's writing comes from his life- his self doubts, his fantasies, people he knows and events he experiences and then reimagines into a fantastical sci-fi premise, so the narrators constantly speculate on these inspirations and tie various stories back to real-world events. There are continuous digressions into not just the personal life of Dank and the quality of his writing, but also the personal lives of Boswell and Hirt, anecdotes about their current situations, and back and forth snipping at each other. These tangents always start out loosely related to the topic of the entry and then spin off into unrelated territory. Through this technique the rigid structure imposed by the encyclopedia format is broken down and allows for a more conventional narrative story to develop (still quite unconventional, but not nearly as tedious as piecing together a plot from the raw data of a realistic encyclopedia).

For the most part the entries feel almost random since you are getting them in alphabetical order rather than chronological. Also, certain entries refer to future or past entries (cross references are provided in the text). I realize this description makes it sound extremely complex and hard to follow but I want to stress that it is really the exact opposite. Despite all the postmodern indulgences the reading itself comes easy and the story isn't too hard to follow. If anything it spends too much time reinforcing the same points and becomes a bit repetitive but the fragmented nature of a series of entries keeps it varied and makes it easy to pick up and put down.

The aspect of this book that first got me hooked were the entries that encapsulated Dank's many short stories and novels. Each new premise and summarized twist ending kept me engaged to see what else he would come up with. The personalities of the three main characters (Dank, Boswell, and Hirt) quickly emerge through the entries and before long you are invested in the story and interested to find out where it is going. Despite the seemingly arbitrary ordering of entries and the invitation to jump around the text following cross references this is a novel that you want to read straight through. There actually are a few twists and surprises to be revealed in time. I will admit that at over 500 pages it gets a little long and starts to drag a bit in the middle as the seemingly random stories of Dank's laziness, eccentricity and agoraphobia pile up, but it picks up steam toward the end as the real lives of Boswell and Hirt become more interesting.

Dank is obviously inspired by Philip K. Dick, although Dank's fictional lifetime (1952 - 2006) is skewed roughly 25 years from Dick's (1928-82). Also it is clear that the author (the real author, Chris Miller) is a fan of Phillip K. Dick despite the fact that Dank is portrayed as a hack, a slob, and a lazy, somewhat incompetent writer. In fact, Philip K. Dick is even worked into the novel but as a fictional character created by Dank, an imagining of the type of writer he wanted to be. The novel also clearly takes inspiration from Nabokov's Pale Fire, and is reminiscent of Bolano's Nazi Literature in the America's. [bonus book recommendation: someone should check out "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry" which is a work of fiction that attempts to tell the story of a relationship entirely through pictures and accompanying text in the style of an auction catalogue.]

I really enjoyed reading this. It was one of those books that puts you in a good mood knowing that you are on your way home and will have a chance to curl up with it when you get there. I enjoyed each new and inventive story-within-the-story as Dank's oeuvre was reviewed by the collaborators. I want to recommend this book, not just as one of the best of 2009, but as one I think a lot of other people would enjoy and one they might not hear about otherwise.

Monday, January 11, 2010

9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is the first novel I have read by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. It is the breakout novel that launched him to Superstar Author (from merely famous author) when it was first published in Japan in 1987. An English translation was published in 2000.

The straightforward realism of Norwegian Wood is uncharacteristic of Murakami, who, as I understand it, usually favors complex and unconventional stories with supernatural elements. Here we have what is primarily a coming of age story, and also a love story, that is so vivid and emotional it could easily be a memoir. I was told it is a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with his work, and after reading it I would have to agree. It may not be necessary to ease into Murakami with so much caution, as if his other writing would be too difficult and complex for the uninitiated reader, but this elegant and beautiful novel is certainly as good a place to start as any.

In it the narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his days as a young student in Tokyo. The primary focus is on his relationship with an emotionally troubled girl named Naoko. Both of their lives are affected by the tragic suicide of Kizuki, who was Watanabe's best friend and Naoko's boyfriend when they were all in high school together. The "it's complicated" relationship that emerges between Naoko and Watanabe plays out as both go on to college in Tokyo and try to come to terms with Kizuki's death and growing into their own adult lives. The specter of suicide haunts the novel, looming in the past and the future of it's characters.

Despite the foreign country, Japan, and foreign time period, the late '60s, I found it very easy to relate to the characters and events in this novel. Murakami is dealing with universal themes and he renders them so clearly that identifying with Watanabe is effortless for the reader. He is honest and thoughtful, very observant of the world around him and always trying to make sense of his place in it. He is very accepting of other people, and an eclectic cast of supporting characters are intorduced as the novel progresses. His roommate, nicknamed stormtrooper, is an awkward neat-freak who inspires many humorous anecdotes. He also befriends the charismatic but amoral alpha-male of the dormitory, Nagasawa, who bonds with Watanabe over their shared interest in The Great Gatsby and takes him out to meet girls. Midori, a flirtatious classmate, becomes the other woman in Watanabe's life while his strained relationship with Naoko plays out.

Another aspect of the novel that makes it easy to relate to is the presence of Western culture, especially American pop music and literature, referenced throughout. The title is a reference to the Beatles song, Naoko's favorite, that always reminds Watanabe of her. Watanabe has an affinity for American music, literature, and films. Other than the fact that everyone has a Japanese name and the food is a little different the story could be transplanted right down the street and take place last year.

I loved the descriptiveness and insightfullness of this novel without it ever seeming wasteful or unnecessary. Everything is communicated simply, directly, and with a purpose. I will be making a point to pick up more Murakami in the near future, probably Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.