Friday, September 19, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014)

          My husband Dickson belongs to a book club, and last week we hosted his group’s bi-monthly meeting, when six or eight or sometimes ten literary men gather to drink beer, discuss books and eat whatever snacks the host has kindly provided. For this meeting they had read, at my suggestion, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, because the club is mostly made up of runners and Rabbit Angstrom’s story has a decidedly athletic feel. Even though I didn’t attend the meeting (it’s a boys’ club, so I stayed upstairs), when I came down after they were done, the conversation had turned to the newest Murakami – a far cry from Rabbit and his troubled relationship with Janice – and the excitement many club members had about reading his new work.
            I had already finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage three days after I bought the book, and the members of Dickson’s club asked me what I thought. Was it as much of a slog as 1Q84? Was it as otherworldly as A Wild Sheep Chase or Kafka on the Shore? Or was it quieter, like Norwegian Wood, or Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. So much of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is like much of Murakami’s other writing, thick with descriptions of simple meals and lonely men and strange, often very strange, sex – yet other parts of it also felt fresh and new. In sum, it was a decent new book from a man who has perfected his own subtle style. Colorless won’t make anyone turn away from Murakami, even if they’ve never read him before, and it’s engaging enough for his diehard fans. I don’t consider the three days I read it misspent.
As we sat in my living room discussing Murakami, we realized that, between us, we had read almost all of his work, and there were things we could all recite as commonalities between his books. In an interview from 2011, Murakami told a Spanish audience that he was a lonely child, and the three things that filled his quiet hours were “cats, books and music.” You can see the vapor trails of each of these things in the work Murakami has since produced, as each is filled with those reoccurring themes playing distinct roles in his characters’ lives.
In this sense, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is no different. There are mentions of cats and their tiny, silent feet, and music, particularly the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s piano solo “Le mal du pays.” Books, whether the characters are active readers or not, also merit mention time and time again, whether in descriptions of people’s bookshelves or as ways to pass the time. And, as usual, there are descriptions of the other things that constantly fill Murakami’s world: of simple meals stirfried with whatever is in the fridge, of physical deformities (six fingers on each hand, like in Wind Up Bird), and of physical activity, this time spent in the pool. There are the now-customary discussions of sexual proclivities that border on the phantasmagoric, but are always told in Murakami’s simple, matter-of-fact voice. And, like Tengo in 1Q84, Tsukuru’s sexual dreams merge frighteningly into reality, blurring the lines (and the effects) between what happens in bed, awake or asleep.
It is, like much of his work, the story of a single man, one searching for something he doesn’t understand, and who may find love or may screw it up. (My bet is usually that he’ll screw it up.) But Tsukuru Tazaki is more lonely than most, and that’s what makes Colorless a remarkable book.
Tsukuru Tazaki lives alone in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but you’d hardly know it from Murakami’s descriptions of the place. Except for the train stations where Tsukuru spends most of his time (he’s an engineer working to make stations more streamlined and accessible), Tsukuru rarely participates in social life and other people rarely infiltrate his world.
Tsukuru seems to prefer it that way. Save for a friend named Haida and a slowly-blossoming romance with a woman named Sara (who may or may not also be dating an older, mustachioed gentleman), Tsukuru lives, sleeps, eats and exercises alone. And, alone, his life is no big party either. He spent the bulk of his time in college contemplating death, not eating, barely drinking, attending classes to pass the time. Now, at age 36, he’s thin and stark. He eats like a bird and never finishes an entire beer. He knows what he is but can’t seem to change it: the man is boring even to himself.
What could have caused such a sad, desolate life? Herein lies this book’s charm: no one becomes a Tsukuru Tazaki unless something truly traumatic has happened, and Tsukuru’s trauma is dramatic indeed. After his first year of college in Tokyo, Tsukuru is abandoned by his high school friends, all four of whom remained in Tsukuru’s hometown Nagoya after graduation. This group, which had originally numbered five, was once so close they saw themselves as fingers on a single hand. So it came as an abrupt shock when they summarily dismissed Tsukuru with a single phone call, telling him that they never wanted to see or hear from him again, with no explanation as to how or why. And Tsukuru being Tsukuru, he didn’t feel the need to ask.
The title’s reference to Tsukuru being “colorless” comes from the nicknames of these four friends. The two men in the group were nicknamed Red and Blue (or Aka and Ao in Japanese), while the two women were nicknamed White and Black (Shiro and Kuro), with all of the colors culled from their family names. Tsukuru, whose name is a homophone for the Japanese word meaning “to build or make,” has no color; he is colorless, though his engineering degree makes a kind of onomastic sense.
The “pilgrimage” of the title is also apt, since Tsukuru goes on one of these as well. It’s Sara who pushes Tsukuru to contact his old friends (would a guy like Tsukuru ever do that on his own?) when she realizes that there’s something stuck in him that cannot be undone until Tsukuru has learned why he was dismissed. So on this pilgrimage he goes, first back to Nagoya, and then on, surprisingly, to Finland. He contacts each of his old friends in turn to learn why and how, years ago, they could so quickly and completely abandon one of their own.
I won’t reveal the outcomes of Tsukuru’s pilgrimage since that would defeat the purpose of reading Murakami’s book, but I will suggest that, as Murakami ages, we see him treading on familiar ground while, at the same time, invoking something relatively new. Reading Colorless will feel familiar, like reading Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 or Kafka or Norwegian Wood. But parts of it will also feel thrillingly unique, fresh in the increasing span of his decades-long oeuvre. For example, Murakami has never written so movingly about friendship, especially since so many of his protagonists are often alone, and, despite her possible ongoing affair with another man, Sara is one of Murakami’s most competent and least-batshit-crazy female characters yet. It would be lovely to see more of this real emotion explored, especially for the women who are still a minority in Murakami’s world.
But Colorless may also be a sign of the times, or at least a sign of Murakami’s ever-increasing age (he turned 65 earlier this year). In Running, Murakami described the “wells” in his mind, and how a new one must be tapped for each book to emerge. He feared, in his 2008 memoir, that his reserves would eventually run dry, and that at some desperate point the drilling would cease and his career as a writer would dry up as well. The good news is that this clearly hasn’t happened yet. The bad news, however, is that many of the same wells are being used, often at the expense of his writing anything completely exciting or new.
Like Kurt Vonnegut (blessings upon his name), Murakami is getting repetitive with age. (Did A Man Without a Country contain anything we hadn’t read before?) The direct lines between Murakami’s life and fiction are clearer now than they used to be, and themes forming between books (cats, books, music, sex, stir fry, physical deformities, dreams-with-real-consequences, men stuck in wells) are getting easier to track. Aomame, the assassin-protagonist of 1Q84, is clearly based off of Murakami’s own physical therapist, whom he described at length in Running. (A tiny woman who stretches stiff gym-going men? Who uses surprising levels of force to bend and pull stubborn muscles into submission? Who toils and works until both the masseuse and the massaged are drenched in sweat from exertion? Wait a second, we’ve seen this before!) We can see Running’s real gym masseuse in Tokyo transform into Aomame in 1Q84 in the same way we can see a woman with six fingers pop up in Wind-Up Bird and again in Colorless, or in the same way Tengo’s orgasm with Fuka-Eri in 1Q84 results in Aomame getting pregnant while Tsukuru’s dream of sex with Shiro may have resulted in something strangely tragic happening to her in real life (it’s a spoiler alert if I say what this is). In Murakami’s world, the same weird story often gets told, but each time it’s revealed in a markedly different way.
Like the bulk of his characters, Murakami feels most comfortable when treading regular ground, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading it every time. Ultimately, what I liked the most about Colorless was how it showed Murakami evolving as a person. Colorless was clearly written by a middle-aged man who has his own struggles with aging and death, and who understands that the past, no matter how painful, can never be completely changed. His characters are getting deeper too: Tsukuru is a thoughtful guy, whose pilgrimage (even if it wasn’t initially his idea) is done with a sense of purpose and commitment. He’s less swept along by the winds of fate, as so many of Murakami’s characters have been before, than he is actively trying to understand his own past, and his confrontations with his former friends are deliberate and calm.
Perhaps this is suggestive of Murakami’s own more purposeful track in life, or at least of the maturity that comes with advancing age. Would a younger Murakami have written a character like Tsukuru, who willingly confronts those who unceremoniously dismissed him years before? Would anyone under the age of 65 be comfortable doing such a thing? For me, at less than half of Murakami’s age, the idea of confronting those who hurt me in the past is terrifying, but perhaps I’m still too young to be judicious about such things. I’d rather lick my wounds than have the cojones to understand why people were once dicks, and this could be the difference between a novel from a 31-year-old versus an aging baby boomer like Murakami. Despite the book returning to his ever-present themes, a younger Murakami could never have written Tsukuru. He could only appear from a more mature, evolved voice.
Ultimately, despite treading this familiar ground, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will hardly disappoint any Murakami devotee. You can’t separate a writer from his or her themes, and why would you want to? After all, there are probably a dozen literature Ph.D.s whose degrees wouldn’t exist if Murakami didn’t write the way he does. And the world Murakami has created is a good one, a place that millions of readers regularly like to call home. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the things we see can expect to see, Murakami has created a pleasant, often exciting and certainly always perplexing place, where readers can walk on cat-like feet, alone in moments of quiet contemplation, while cooking a simple meal out of whatever they can find in the fridge.
-Emily Dufton

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The November Man - Dir. Roger Donaldson (2014)

Sometimes I get manic and I get crazy ideas that sound brilliant at the time.  Then later I go back on another bipolar cycle and I don't think doing anything is a good idea.  The request that led to this post is a result of the former state.  
I thank Jay Maronde for spending his $5 to see this movie and write this review for me without any offer of monetary compensation.  However, it is with a sense of unfortunate timing that Richard Kiel (a.k.a. Jaws) passed away today.  Maybe as an homage, the next James Bond film after the one scheduled for production (Bond #25) should involve a plot eerily similar to 9/11.  I digress--I only saw Kiel in Moonraker, but it is easy to see there why he is such an important part of the James Bond Canon.  He effortlessly played a very likable villain that seemed like he could be your friend, to the point that he does become Bond's friend.  I am glad that I can mark his passing with this Bond-related post (and expect it to get more hits than any obituaries posted here previously).   

The November Man (2014)
Dir. Roger Donaldson

Pierce Brosnan Executive-Produced His Own Funeral
by Jay Maronde

About 2 weeks ago, I received an e-mail from my editor with the subject “November Man.” He implied that he would like a review of the movie (yes my turn around time is slow).  I Googled this film, and found that it was all new in theaters and starred Pierce Brosnan (one of my favorite Bonds) as a spy. Not wanting to know another thing I went to the theater the next Tuesday and the best thing I can say about this film is that I’m so glad I waited till $5 movie night.
                Let me start with Pierce Brosnan, who, as executive producer, deserves at least his fair share of blame for this stunning atrocity. (I would like to note that I mean atrocity because this movie is very difficult to watch, and not in some sort campy cult following way either.) I will admit I love Pierce, I really do, I liked him a lot as a washed up drunk spy in The Matador, The Thomas Crown Affair was a tasteful remake, he was classic as Remington Steele, and one of the few actors lucky enough ever to portray James Bond.  However, it appears as though Pierce wasn’t satisfied with his current body of spy/action work and decided to executive produce his own funeral in the genre.
His hair still looks great, he doesn't seem winded or tired, but he’s not in his most prime physical shape. There’s at least one scene later on in the movie where it’s quite obvious that the director instructed him to hold his arm across his body as the best method for distracting one’s eye to the fact that apparently all the James Bond money has Pierce eating pretty good.  Brosnan isn't the only villain here though so let me spread the blame around.
                There must have been a really good harvest of medical marijuana in California during the period of time in which all creative meetings for this film took place. I’m not kidding or being hyperbolic in any way: thinking back on this film it truly seems as if a bunch of stoners sat around smoking some great weed and said:
                “Hey man let’s make another Pierce Brosnan spy movie.”
To wit a fellow stoned movie executive set down his bong and retorted:
“Awwww man he’s so old.”
And the first chimed back:
“So we’ll make him a retired spy!”
And the second said:
                “See man, we’re geniuses, this shit writes itself.”
Because that’s exactly what the writing is in the movie: Hollywood drug-fueled schlock. The story is extremely convoluted and requires the viewer to make such logical LEAPS that sitting there you feel like you are the CIA agent, investigating what the hell is going on in this movie.  The movie drags so bad the viewer knows what a dolphin feels like caught in a tuna net.  Before checking my watch I would have sworn it ran over an hour longer than it was. A major part of this dragging feeling is that no person a party to this film seemed to have any idea whether they were making a buddy picture, a spy movie, or some sort of variant of the Liam Neeson Taken film series—not the actors, not the directors, not the producers, not this critic.
                Let me get to some of the better parts of this film. I will give some credit to the director that while the film drags, using the magic of very good music and pretty good cinematography the viewer definitely finds themselves perpetually on the edge of their seat. The eye candy is good-to-better also: Olga Kurylenko (another James Bond connection) is, as always, stunning in her beauty and her acting is better than most women that beautiful. The male lead besides Brosnan—relative newcomer Luke Bracey, playing Brosnan’s protégé in the CIA—does a decent job of playing a young confused agent while providing eye candy. The action sequences are good-to-better, and at no point did I get that weird CGI magic feeling so common in modern action movies.  The problem with some of the action is quite the same as the rest of the movie: you feel like the whole situation has grown entirely convoluted for no reason, but as a fan of action films, I can agree that the sequences were well-filmed and convincing. 

I've seen much worse, but in truth, I’m really glad I went on $5 movie night. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Fighting Chance - Elizabeth Warren (2014)

I don't know where to start with this review.  I was thinking maybe when I first became aware of Elizabeth Warren.  I was thinking maybe a warning that if you are a conservative, you should avoid reading so as to not give yourself a headache and start a thankless debate with me on some social media platform.  I was thinking maybe an actual quote from the text:

"Near the end of the line was a young man: early twenties, medium height, sandy-brown short hair.  When I reached him, he stepped forward and, with no preliminaries, blurted out that he had done everything he was supposed to do.  Counting on his fingers, he punched out the list.  Worked hard in high school.  Went to a good university.  Got good grades.  Graduated on time.  Everything--check, check, check.
And then...nothing.  No job.  No new apartment.  No bright future.  He'd been looking for work for more than a year, and still nothing.
Actually, it was worse than nothing.  Every day he fell a little further behind.  His student loan debt got a little bigger.  His stretch of unemployment got a little longer.  His fear that he would never build a secure, independent life cut a little deeper.
Now he had moved back in with his parents--and he had no idea when he would move out or how he would get his own life under way.
I met him in Worcester.  But I heard the same story in Falmouth and Dorchester.  In Marlborough, Marshfield, and Methuen.  In Weymouth and Westport and Ware.
I heard the story over and over and over, until I wanted to shout to the rooftops on behalf of these young men and women.  They were trying so hard, but they felt like their futures had broken apart before they had even begun." (274)

Everyone else reviewed this book when it came out--about three or four months ago (I put it on hold at the CPL and just got it now).  And they all pretty much started the same way: Elizabeth Warren says she is not running for President, but maybe, oh pretty please, she might!  And after this summer, and the multiple times she has reaffirmed that she has absolutely no intention of running, and after reading this book (which provides a pretty thorough treatment of the extraordinary anxiety she endured while mounting her senatorial campaign), I believe her, and I don't blame her.


The quote from above illustrates why I care enough about Elizabeth Warren to read her book.  All too often in this world it seems like nobody really looks out for you except for your family and friends.  It's passages like this in her book that reveal why Elizabeth Warren has become one of the most important political figures in the 21st century.  She really does care about serving the public.

A Fighting Chance is broken up into a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue.  The prologue is her thesis statement, so to speak, in which she explains how she was able to build a life decidedly worth living from the foundation of a lower-middle class background.  And how it probably couldn't happen today:

"Here's the hard truth: America isn't building that kind of future any longer.
Today the game is rigged--rigged to work for those who have money and power.  Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to supports laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor.  Meanwhile, hardworking families are told that they'll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children." (2)

The first chapter, "Choosing Battles," is 42 pages long and is basically the purest "autobiography" in the book.  It tells her story from her childhood in the early 1960's through her second marriage and professorship at Harvard Law in the early 1990's.  It's pretty concise and appropriately details all of the sometimes idiosyncratic changes she made over the course of thirty years.  It will again prove to anyone that life is not always a straight path with obvious signposts along the way to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

The second chapter, "The Bankruptcy Wars," is 34 pages long and is probably my favorite section.  I am sure plenty of people expect that reading about her efforts to maintain actual consumer protections in the law that would come to be known as the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (or BAPCPA) will be boring--unless they happened to study it, and realize how fascinating it can be.  To those unfamiliar with BAPCPA, the first thing to note is that its title is extremely misleading.  The banking industry began lobbying for changes in the Bankruptcy Code sometime in the late 1990's, and Elizabeth Warren served on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.  I won't talk about the changes--I am sure you can look it up on wikipedia.  But I was particularly surprised to see how the number of bankruptcy filings fluctuated over the years.  In 1980, there were 287,570 non-business bankruptcy filings.  In 1990, there were  718,107.  In 2004, there were 1,563,145 filings (however I think this figure includes business bankruptcies).  In 2005, before BAPCPA kicked in, the number hit 2,039,214.  The next year, it dropped down 597,965.  Just reading Warren try to explain these figures is illuminating.

The third chapter, "Bailing Out the Wrong People," is 54 pages long and primarily about the 2008 financial crisis and her role on the Congressional Oversight Panel (or COP, which she loves the idea of being).

The fourth chapter, "What $1 Million a Day Can Buy," is 43 pages long and reads like an extension of the previous chapter.  There doesn't appear to be much appreciable difference about the content or tone.

The fifth chapter, "An Agency for the People," is 44 pages long and details her efforts at starting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  While I laud the CFPB, it seems pretty much impossible for me to get a job there, so reading this chapter made me feel slightly depressed.

The sixth chapter, "The Battle for the Senate," is 65 pages long and will probably be the highlight for most readers.  I had followed Warren's campaign in 2012 pretty closely and I remembered a lot of the events she described, so it was very fun to read about her private thoughts on formerly public matters.

The epilogue briefly mentions her bill to cap student loan interest rates.  Like most of the legislation she has tried to affect, her dreams did not completely come true--compromises were made, but a few more people would be helped:

"And student loans?  No, I didn't get the Bank on Students Act passed.  But at least the final deal on student loan interest rates was better than where it started: $15 billion better for students over the next ten years.  An, in the end, I wasn't alone.  More than a dozen senators from around the country stood up with me to say no to any deal in which the government makes a profit off the backs of our students.  That's not a bad place to begin the next round in this battle--and believe me, we will come back to this issue again." (275-276)

That may be cold comfort to people with 6.8% and 7.8% interest rates on debt with a principal of $95,000, especially since the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act was blocked (thank you, Mitch McConnell).  Nevertheless, after reading A Fighting Chance, I am confident that Warren is not going to stop until she secures another victory--even if it is only a partial one.

To be honest this feels like kind of a toothless review.  I like the way Warren breaks up each chapter into mini-chapters.  The book is very reader-friendly.  It's very detailed, and I enjoyed reading it.  I am a huge fan of Senator Warren so obviously my review is going to be a bit biased.  I must admit that sometimes the book feels repetitive--in particular it seems like she mentions the support of the Firefighters in Boston twice, where the second time is a more detailed account (and includes the only f-bomb, expurgated, in the text--earlier on Warren spells out "Bullshit Whistle" and apologizes for the dirty word).  Sometimes certain turns of phrase show up several more times than seems necessary.  But I suppose this is all part-and-parcel of writing a "political" book.

One of the most annoying things to me in the world is reading internet comments after news stories.  I have to admit that it is a guilty pleasure of mine, and an interesting way that the "marketplace of ideas" from the First Amendment plays out.  I do it, but I hate myself for doing it.  Some stories on Warren are filled with comments that say how wonderful she is and proclaim that they will write her name in at the next Presidential election; others snipe that she lied about being Native American so that she could get treated favorably for a job at Harvard.  It's a pretty pathetic attempt to attack her, considering it seems like it's just been made out of thin air from the paranoid fantasies of privileged white conservative pundits, but Warren's description shows just how crass they can be:

"Right-wing blogs took to calling me 'Fauxcahontas.'  Someone took out a billboard with a picture of me in a Native American headdress, declaring, 'Elizabeth Warren is a joke.'  One sunny afternoon, as I marched in a parade and shook hands and waved at people, a group of guys standing together on a corner started making Indian war whoops--patting their mouths as if they were some kind of cartoon braves.  It was appalling." (240-241)

Warren is salient on the details of bankruptcy, TARP funds, and consumer protection.  Plenty of lay readers will have a good start at exploring more complex areas of financial regulation with this book.  It doesn't really talk about the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, but Warren does mention that after BAPCPA passed, third-party debt collectors were telling the people they called that the new law made it illegal to file for bankruptcy, or so difficult to qualify that they would never be eligible.  No doubt some details will bore a fair number of readers, but Warren is great at practically explaining what complex changes to the law mean in real-life terms.

She also writes extensively about her family, and her series of dogs in very loving terms.  And then some moments of the book are downright hilarious:

"Vicki Kennedy called with thoughtful advice borne of years of campaigning across the state.  Former governor Mike Dukakis, who was now in his late seventies, took Bruce out to show him the finer points of knocking on doors, setting a blistering pace that kept them half-running from house to house.  At one home, no one answered the front door, but the governor thought perhaps someone was in the backyard.  While Bruce was thinking about the laws of trespass--he's a professor of property law and takes this sort of thing pretty seriously--the governor bounded to the side of the house and began fiddling with the gate to the backyard.  Just as he got it open, a big dog came racing around the corner, barking wildly, slobber flying everywhere.  The governor never missed a step.  After jumping onto a small side porch, he called over his shoulder to Bruce with the first lesson of political door knocking: 'Ignore the dog.  You won't change his mind anyway.'" (242)

At another point, a couple of supporters wave and shout at her from across the street, and she waves back and walks straight into a telephone pole.

This is about as good of a political autobiography as you can do while you are still in office.  I am not sure exactly what the reason is for it--Warren also writes about earlier books (the influential but policy-oriented The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke and its more utilitarian follow-up All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan) and they seem to deliver the same kind of information she researched in her bankruptcy studies.  This may be a way to bring more attention to the legislation she supports, rather than an effort to publicize herself for the presidency.  It seems she is happy with what she can do as a senator, and is aware of the parameters in which the President must operate.  It may also be a way to help other Democratic hopefuls in this election year--by publicizing herself, when candidates drop her name, more voters will know what kind of issues they support.

In summary, A Fighting Chance is similar to My Beloved World.  They're both very compelling, but I'm tempted to say I like My Beloved World better.  That is just a matter of preference.  Justice Sotomayor seemed a little more unpredictable and allowed her narrative to unfold in ways that sometimes felt more like literary fiction.  By contrast Warren is very business-like in her prose.  Regardless, the book is a pleasure and I am very grateful that Senator Warren has sacrificed herself in a way (certainly opened herself up to many painful attacks) on behalf of struggling Americans.  I have yet to feel any relief on my own putrid financial state, but I am optimistic that something positive may happen in the next few years.  In short, this book can give you hope.