The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (and four other strange books I've enjoyed)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Strange Library
Last weekend, I was browsing through my bookstore, when I came across a copy of Haruki Murakami's The Strange Library - all shrink-wrapped and looking like a book-lover's toy. Seriously, how do you resist a book like that? Even if I didn't like Murakami, I would probably walk out of the store with that book.

I love books (and food) that are interactive. It feels almost four-dimensional to me. There's the mental pleasure of being lost in the book and there's the physical pleasure of just wrapping that treasure open and wading in with excitement. The front of the book has two flaps that snap together, very much like your typical cereal box. And then you flip the pages to read.

As for the plot, The Strange Library was... well, strange. A boy goes to a library to borrow some books, instead he is sent to the mysterious basement where he had never set foot in. There he meets a strange man who have some twisted devilish motivation for running that place. The boy is trapped in his evil scheme and comes across a sheep-man and a mysterious girl who sort of help him.

There is more to the story but I don't want to go too much into it because this book is a nice little gem to read. There is some strangeness to the book, and it feels more like being lost in a nightmare. But it is nowhere near strange as some of his other books. It reminded me more of Neil Gaiman's Coraline than a Murakami book. If you have been unsure about reading Murakami, this is probably the good one to start with. It has a lot of his tell-tale narrative style and some of the strange stuff he is famous for, but it is not a full-fledged Murakami book, both in size and content, so you'll probably not feel too dazed.

That said, this is a short book, more a short story than a novel. His novels have felt more complete, if you know what I mean, despite any amount of fantastical themes. This is more like a fable, so if you do want to sample a full Murakami, I would try one of his novels, maybe Kafka on the Shore, which I enjoyed a lot.

Reading this book made me think about other strange books I've read in the past. Personally, I like the challenge of reading through a book filled with a lot of strange wonders and coming out of it, feeling accomplished. But more than that, reading such a book is also like navigating a maze. You don't always know what the relevance of something strange is, and maybe it is just a red herring, but it is refreshing to see how far the author can stretch reality and hold my attention. Still, I don't always enjoy such books. They can be a hit or miss with me. But there are some that have been a great pleasure to read.

Coraline: Imagine being lost in a strange place as a kid where your parents looked same but also different. And they weren't your parents at all, but some impostors intent on harming you. Being lost was something I feared as a kid, probably like many other kids too, so this book with all the creepy strangeness in it felt a little like falling into a deep hole in one of those nightmares. Even Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane was just as strange and beautiful.

Life of Pi: This isn't as strange as the others but it was still pretty strange. What really happened to Pi? Was it all a dream? Did he really sail with those escaped animals (oh poor animals)? Or did the accident have such an impact on him that he replaced real people and incidents with a fantasy built entirely in his head? And what was the deal with that island?

Kafka on the Shore: Here's a Murakami book that left my mind reeling. Talking cats, falling fish - you know the drill. It's amazing how Murakami can hold a story together on a bunch of inexplicable fantasies. It's not like he builds this weird world of his. He just goes with the flow. Oh, I think a talking cat will be a good thing to include here, let me write that scene - that's what I imagine him doing. I always find reading his stuff amusing, because he really stretches my imagination and makes me feel wow about it.

The Silent Land: Probably my favorite book of the lot, this one isn't so much strange by the time you get to the end - all the strangeness actually has a logic. But it is the first 90% of the book that dominates the book that seriously gets your skin crawling and your brain in overdrive. Meat that doesn't decay? A hotel whose guests suddenly vanished? A road that just goes in circle? It's super strange and super sad too. But super rewarding as well.

Now, tell me about the strangest book you ever read!

The Sunday Salon: Magazine culling.. in progress

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Sunday

Good morning fellow readers! The apple crumble is in the oven - always a finger-licking breakfast in this house - and I'm settling down this morning to do some blog writing, reading, and housekeeping.

For weeks, I have been thinking about doing some major decluttering in the house, specifically some magazine culling. I have a horrible habit when it comes to magazines. Personally, I don't really like them much. The idea of reading a magazine is something I like in theory but never really cared for in person. But every once in a while, the airlines that we have frequent flyer numbers with send us "Urgent" emails coaxing us to fly more with them or use our points because they will expire in the very immediate future.

Ugh, this is passive aggression.

So that takes me browsing through all the things I can buy with their points, and every damn thing worth their money obviously requires an embarrassingly huge number of points. Except for magazines. So that's how I end up with copies of Good Housekeeping, Money, Forbes, Health, and many others that I don't even care to read. But want to read one day. For many past weekends, I have been slowly (one magazine a day) getting through my stack.

You know how many of you probably have too many books in the house - some on the nightstand, some on the shelves, some probably in the bathroom, some on the floors. etc. Well, that's the problem I have with magazines. I can handle books all around the house. They almost look decorative, plus they are usually pretty small in size. But magazines can make your house look ugly in seconds.

Photo credit

Last night, I went through a big stack of mags before I let myself read a book. The only mag I really enjoy reading from my entire stack is the EW. If only I would read them as frequently as they post new issues (weekly). The rest of the stack should go by quicker. I used to enjoy reading Health as well, but hey a pregnant woman doesn't need to read that junk, right?

Speaking of which, thank you to everyone who wished me on my last week's announcement. Even at 16 weeks, we are still getting used to it. I have only just started showing, but if you didn't know I was expecting, you would think I had one hell of a Christmas/New Year party that involved excess eating. I can't wait to look more pregnant and less pudgy.

Last week, I finished an audiobook (Lost in Shangri-La) and a print (The Strange Library). Currently, I am reading through two books, The White Tiger at the gym, and Never Let me Go. I have been restricting myself to one checkout from the library, and so far this is actually working, in that I am reading and finishing the book, rather than dipping in and out of all books and not getting anywhere. Hopefully, I can get more reading done today.

How is your Sunday going?

The Martian by Andy Weir

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Martian
Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10."

I first started listening to The Martian on a road trip with the husband in May last year. The audiobook was around 8 hours long, and our road trip was 16 hours total. We figured we will be able to finish this book, even though we were going to have extra company on the return drive. But we only managed 4 hours of audio - blame it on the traffic, the many directions by the GPS lady, and the horrible rainy weather for a good part of the drive. We loved the book thus far but never got time to go back to the audiobook. Finally, in December, I borrowed the ebook version from my library and raced through it.

By now, everyone should know what The Martian is about - an astronaut, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and left behind on Mars after a freak storm sends the rest of the crew packing away. Eulogies are being sung everywhere in Earth and the remaining crew is distraught, but Mark is neither dead nor dying. How does a man, left for dead, on a planet that's not our home Earth, let the universe know that he is alive and kicking? Especially, when his communications systems won't work since the spaceship they all came in has left Mars boundary. More importantly, how will he survive on the planet long enough to establish contact or wait for the next crew to arrive years from then?

I loved The Martian. Mostly. If you love science, there is a lot to enjoy here. Even if you do love science, some of those facts could still be flying over your head, because there is A LOT of that. I admit to reading past them occasionally, but I appreciated that the author had all that information in there, because even if you don't understand any of it, you will 1) be wowed by how well this guy uses his brains (and just his own brains) to apply science to the Mark Watney survival project, and 2) be impressed that much of the science he applies are really basic high school science that we could also apply if only we had paid more attention in class. I don't think I would have been that impressed by Watney's daily routines, if some of those oh-so-dreary facts weren't paraded around.

The book is also very visual. I could picture most of the details in the book, and for that reason, I am super excited about the movie coming out later this year. Sure, Hollywood is going to spin it even further to make it feel more dramatic and heroic, but I can live with that after having read the book. The only problem I had with the book was the ending. Don't get me wrong - I couldn't imagine any other ending either, but it was a typical Hollywood-style ending - over-dramatic, 11th hour nail-biting moments, several edge-of-the-seat minutes. I wish the author had written the ending less like a scene from a movie, and more like a scene from a sensible book. After all the good scientific stuff in the rest of the book, the last part just felt more driven by luck and a Hollywood director than whatever set the tone in the book until then.

Despite that awkward ending, this is still a book I will strongly recommend. I didn't even mention the best part yet - Mark Watney is a seriously hilarious guy. The kind of guy you want to hang out with all day. The humor could, however, rub you the wrong way, because most of the time it is of the sarcastic kind, but hey, the guy is stuck on Mars alone, let's cut him some slack, shall we? It's amazing how despite the heavy odds stacked against his survival and all the dangerous things he does on the planet, he still manages to keep his humor hat on and say something funny.

I borrowed this ebook from the good old library.

Announcing our little secret: There's a bun in the oven!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Sunday

I've been composing this post in my head for months and wanted to just shout it out so many times - sometimes even while commenting on some of your posts. When I stayed offline for most of December, when I was complaining of feeling lethargic and unmotivated, or when I was reading similar posts on at least three other blogs, it took all my willpower to just keep a straight face, figuratively speaking. But the time has finally come and I can say it, nay shout it.

We are expecting!

I'm about three and a half months along, and well into enjoying my second trimester. My first wasn't terribly bad - I was nauseated all day long, right after breakfast until I hit the sack. There was not much I could bring myself to eat. I couldn't open the refrigerator without pinching my nose, or I will be gagging for some time after. I couldn't eat chicken, and even now, I am very picky about how my chicken is cooked, thanks to memory by association. Even the pregnancy book I started reading around the time my nausea started got chucked into a corner, because everytime I see that book, I remember those horrible days of nausea. (I will need another book now.) But at least I didn't get sick, and I try to be grateful for that. Still, by the end of my first trimester, I had lost five pounds.

Now, I am more than happy to eat anything. I've been slowly picking up all those lost pounds and only just got on the positive side of the weight gain. I haven't been having any other symptoms though, other than a recurring hip pain that has bothered me for years. I would love to get some cravings, just to know what I will crave for, but so far, nothing, nada, zilch. There's still plenty of time. July is so far away!

We had our first ultrasound last month and it was so emotional watching the baby wiggling and dancing about. Let me tell you what I used to think of ultrasounds. I had always felt them to be weird. When a friend shows me the sonogram, all I'm seeing is a grainy picture with various shapes, and sometimes, okay, most times, I cannot make out which the baby is or where the body is. I was prepared for a similar reaction to my ultrasound. And then the baby did its cute little wiggling. Honestly, I am now a convert. I had to see my own ultrasound to get there. And then when the technician caught the heartbeat, I was just a blubbering mess who couldn't comprehend the miracle happening inside me. My husband had missed being at the ultrasound, since he was away in India, but we just went for our follow up last week, and he was similarly amazed on hearing the heartbeat.

I'm now allowing myself to relax and not get too worked up about the odds of things going wrong. We had already told our family within minutes of the pregnancy test glowing positive. Of course, there was no way we could do any big surprise announcement with them, since they have been sighing about grandkids since forever. We've told many of our close friends too, and decided now is the best time to go public. We still don't know whether it's a boy or a girl, and it may be another 6-8 weeks before we get that information. But we already got our first baby-gifts, when my parents sent some baby blankets, and our best friends gave us their infant car-seat. We won't be shopping much yet, but I have already been thinking about the nursery, which room to remodel, and what colors I want to use.

When the nausea hit me full-time, I couldn't wait to fast forward nine months and have the baby, just so I wouldn't have to deal with the nausea, but now that I feel so much better and have been feeling quite energetic, especially in the mornings, I am happy to take this slow. For now, I just want to relish this experience.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
I hated being volunteered. The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea.

I've been trying to review this book in my head for a week and I always get stuck with the summary. This is not an easy book to review, not because it is deep or mysterious or happens to  have a spoiler you absolutely should not reveal, but just because this is a book more about the journey of two beautiful characters, and a journey cannot be summarized in any easy way.

I had wanted to read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, ever since I saw this gorgeous cover and spunky title. But like many other books I want to read, it found its place in the dusty never-trodden folds of Mt TBR. Until I found myself in a rut for most of December, and remembered Jenny's review of this book. I found it on Scribd and settled down with the book, hoping it would save me from a rut. It did more than that.

Aristotle, or Ari, as he likes to be called, is a somewhat-angry teen who is more like his quiet, soft-spoken, PTSD-suffering father than his cheerful happy mother. He wants to understand his father better, but his father isn't keen to talk much. Dante, on the other hand, is a know-it-all, who makes up rules for everything in life and expects things to go his way. When the two boys meet one day at a swimming pool, they hit it off immediately, and become best friends. But when Dante moves to Chicago for a year, Ari doesn't quite behave as if he misses him. He is mostly confused by how he feels.

If I didn't know anything about this book, I would have been even more wowed by how Benjamin Alire Sáenz tells the story of Aristotle and Dante. But, this was still a seriously awesome book. Aristotle and Dante are at the age when boys are exploring their sexuality. They think about dating and meet girls, and learn things along the way about themselves and their friendship. Dante, being the more open person, reveals his feelings easily. Ari, who is the narrator of the book, isn't much into understanding himself, even in his own thoughts. He doesn't believe that he could be a great person that other people love and respect.

But Ari made for the perfect narrator. His confusion is our confusion too. At times, I could see what his thoughts were hinting at, but since our narrator refuses to pursue those ideas, I doubted my theories. When I finished reading this book, I wanted to reread it - this time, armed with complete knowledge of the characters, so that I could look at their behavior better.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a satisfying coming-of-age story. By the end of the book, they learn one of the most important facts about themselves that they wouldn't have learned without each other, or at least not until much later. Moreover, I was super happy to come across two teens who obviously and openly loved their parents. I know real-life teens who adore their parents, but the teens in many books either hate their parents, think their parents are not important, or love their parents but don't ever share that opinion.

I read this ebook on Scribd.