Deal Me In – Week 16 Wrap Up

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Happy Easter to all! I hope everyone is enjoying the weekend and maybe some nice spring weather like we had here in Indiana today. Below are links to the new posts I’ve found since the last update. Please take a moment if you can to visit your fellow Deal Me In-ers blogs and explore what stories they read this week – maybe you’ll find one you’ll want to add to your list. 🙂

Dale’s ten of spades was Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party” http://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/graham-greene-the-end-of-the-party/

James paired Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” with Christopher Barzak’s “We Do Not Come in Peace”
http://jamesreadsbooks.com/2014/04/15/haruki-murakami-visits-bordertown/

I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Mrs. Bullfrog” as prescribed by my six of spades https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/mrs-bullfrog-by-nathaniel-hawthorne/

It’s the jack of hearts and Robert Silverberg’s story “Crossing Into the Empire” for Katherine this week: http://katenread.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/deal-me-in-week-16-crossing-into-the-empire/

And, from Hanne, the queen of spades yielded Lorrie Moore’s “How to Talk to Your Mother” http://readingoncloud9.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/how-to-talk-to-your-mother-by-lorrie-moore/#more-1283

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The Old Switcheroo

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(above: Haruki Murakami)

There’s really just no way to write this post without spoilers, so be forewarned.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble deciding what book to start next, I’ll re-read a short story. I was in this situation Sunday and found myself once again turning to Haruki Murakmki’s collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” Murakami is an author of whom I was wholly ignorant just a few years ago and only discovered after joining the book blogging community (thanks, if I’m remembering correctly, to the blog, Dolce Bellezza). The story I chose, somewhat randomly, was the oddly-titled “New York Mining Disaster.”

I remember the first time I read this being reminded of the old song by the Bee Gees “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” I think we had this single in the house when I was a kid – maybe it was a b-side of something else, I don’t remember. I thought at the time it was a tribute to a real tragedy but, checking today, it seems it was totally fictional. I always thought that was such a weird title for a pop song. It was. It is also a title of a “weird” short story. Weird, but great.

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The story (as it appears in the collection I own) features an unnamed narrator, who starts by describing a strange friend who likes to go to the zoo during “typhoons” and sit in front of the animals and drink beer. We learn this friend is important to the narrator because the friend owns a suit that the narrator (who doesn’t own a suit) has had to borrow in order to attend a funeral. What is odd is that the narrator, being only in his late twenties, has had an unlikely number of similarly-aged friends die recently. It’s an incredible run of misfortune, especially considering their ages. What can it all mean? The narrator apologizes for not owning a suit himself, but rationalizes that he’s afraid “…if I buy funeral clothes, it’s like saying it’s OK if someone dies.” One of the deaths is a suicide, but the others are accidents

“Unlike my first friend, who killed himself, these friends never had the time to realize they were dying. For them it was like climbing up a staircase they’d climbed a million times before and suddenly finding a step missing.”

Another oddity of the narrator’s friend is that he “trades in” his girlfriend for a new one every six months. To the narrator, the new ones are indistinguishable from the old ones. They’re all essentially the same girl. At this point, the reader is surely trying to decide what ties all these things together. I know I was. Another episode involves the narrator and his friend discussing television, and the friend says, “One good thing about television, you can shut it off, and nobody complains.” He does so, and when they switch it back on later, as a man talks on the screen he says, “See? He didn’t even notice we switched him off for five minutes. When you switch it off, one side ceases to exist.”

The final episode involves the narrator at a New Year’s Eve party, where he meets a mysterious young woman who claims that she knows someone who looks “exactly” like him. He says he’d like to meet such a person, but she replies that it would be impossible. The man is dead. She claims she killed him, but is evasive as to how, joking at one point that she threw him into a beehive. She does say, however, that “It took less than five seconds. To kill him.” As their conversation ends, midnight is falling. This is almost the end of the story.

The scene fades out and is replaced by some trapped miners awaiting rescue. They snuff out their lamps to conserve air and struggle to listen for sounds of approaching rescuers over the creaking of supporting beams. Murakami writes:

“They waited for hours. Reality began to melt into darkness. Everything began to feel like it was happening a long time ago, in a world far away. Or was it happening in the future, in a different, far-off world? Outside people were digging a hole, trying to reach them. It was like a scene from a movie.”

I loved this ending. Somehow the trapped miners and the world of the narrator are related, but we don’t know how, exactly. It’s that kind of mystical air I’ve come to expect – and enjoy – in Murakami’s writing. I also enjoy endings that are open to interpretation on the reader’s part, as this one certainly is.

The real shock for me, though, was after reading the story this time, I looked it up on-line and discovered that, when originally published in The New Yorker, the passage with the trapped miners was placed at the beginning of the story. This seems a far less effective method than was presented when he included the story in the “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” collection, where it came to rest at “its proper place” at the end of the story. I’m glad I only read this story after “The Old Switcheroo” had been completed.

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Have YOU read this story? What do you think of Haruki Murakami?

(below: the first couple pages of the story as it appeared in the New Yorker (snapped on my iPad from the digital edition); you can see the part with the miners is placed at the beginning)

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Days of The Ice Man

Haruki Murakami’s short story, “The Ice Man”

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I live in central Indiana. We endured a “blizzard” (well, a blizzard warning at least) that dumped from 6-12 inches of snow around these parts the day after Christmas. Then, Friday evening – three days after Christmas – some spots got another six inches of snow. With the temperature in the teens this morning, there is still a lot of H2O in its solid forms around here.

I worked the day after Christmas but luckily was able to drive to work before the worst of the storm hit. Since I work on the opposite side of town from where I live, I often drive up early to beat the traffic and then enjoy a cup of coffee and maybe some reading before I report for duty at the office. This is the plan I followed last Wednesday, reaching my favorite coffee shop with about an hour of leisure time to spend before getting chained to my oar.

But what to read? With nerves a little frazzled from driving twenty miles in inclement weather, I thought it might be fun to just re-read something instead of starting something new. Sometimes I’ll scan a former read for the comments or highlights I added (naturally, these morning reading sessions are done on my nook app on my iPad), but Wednesday I was looking for a short story. Scrolling through the dozens and dozens of books on my iPad, I saw Haruki Murakami’s collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” which I had enjoyed so much. As the blowing snow streamed past the window by my table, I scanned the table of contents and saw the title “The Ice Man.” How appropriate. Clearly THAT was the story that should be read on a morning such as that one…

Oddly, this story also showed up in an anthology (The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories) I purchased last year. [Thanks to Nina at Multo(Ghost) for making me aware of this one, too.] In the intro to the story in that book Murakami is quoted as saying “I write weird stories. I don’t know why I like weirdness so much. Myself, I’m a very realistic person.” I guess any story that begins “My husband’s an Ice Man,” holds every promise of being a bit weird.

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(Above art by Leah Thomas from Weird Fiction Review)

***Spoilers Follow***
The narrator of the story is a young woman who first meets “The Ice Man” while on a skiing trip with friends. Noticing him sitting alone in the hotel’s lobby, she is told by one of her friends, “That’s an Ice Man. They must call him that because he’s made out of ice.” He’s not really made out of ice, but he is clearly of a different race or maybe species. “The Ice Man looked young, though that was offset by the white strands, like patches of leftover snow, mixed among his stiff, wiry head of hair. He was tall, his cheeks were sharply chiseled, like frozen crags, his fingers covered with frost that looked like it would never, ever melt. Other than this, he looked completely normal.”

Naturally, the narrator gets to know the Ice Man and begins to fall for him. She is surprised that he seems to know everything about her, but when she asks if he knows her future too, he replies cryptically, “I’m not interested in the future. I have no concept of the future. Ice contains no future, just the past, sealed away.”

In spite of the objections of her parents (“listen… he’s an ice man. What happens if he melts?”), the narrator marries the Ice Man. She has discovered by now that he’s not made out of ice, he’s only as cold as ice. Somehow they live a relatively normal existence until one day she decides they should go on vacation to somewhere that he would enjoy, like …. The South Pole (not even Antarctica, but THE SOUTH POLE). At first he tries to dissuade her, but eventually he gets excited about the idea and it is she who – if you’ll pardon the expression – gets “cold feet” about going. It is too late to change plans now, though, and off they go.

Predictably, he loves it and she begins to hate it there, especially when she comes to the realization that she will never leave there. It is a sad ending, and at one point she says “Sometimes I even forget that warmth ever existed. I’m still able to cry, though.” You see, “the outrageous weight of the eternal past” had grabbed them and “wasn’t about to let go.”

I have no idea what this story truly means, even if it was the perfect story for me to read that day. It was written in 1991 and supposedly based upon a dream Murakami’s wife had(!!) (poor thing). When thinking about the story after reading it for this second time I had a flash of insight, wondering if there was a double meaning since the sentence, “My husband’s a nice man,” is almost exactly the same as the story’s actual title. Then I realized a fundamental error in my thinking… I was reading a translation. That could not have been the author’s intent.

(Other famous “Ice Men”: from top to bottom ABA/NBA star George Gervin, Val Kilmer in “Top Gun,” and Chuck Lidell of MMA fame, and, well, you probably know the last one.)

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“Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami

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“A profound meditation on human longing.”

This was what the last sentence of the book’s summary on Goodreads.com says. Although I have a default setting of distrust when it comes to Goodreads (or any similar site’s) summaries, when I revisited this one after I had read the novel, I thought this sentence perfectly described the book. The rest of the summary, though, was a little misleading.

When searching for something to read, having just recommended Murakami’s “1Q84” to a fellow reader, I suddenly found myself possessed with the urge to read something else by him. (I read, but never blogged about, the wonderful and poignant “Norwegian Wood” earlier this year and loved it. I’ve also read the aforementioned 1Q84 and his collection of short stories, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.) So a quick search led me to this intriguing title, “Sputnik Sweetheart.”

“What on earth could that be about?” I wondered. Included in the Goodreads.com summary was the statement that the novel: “plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles.” Well, that sounded great, as I am a fan of nearly all those things. Unfortunately, they don’t figure that prominently in the story. The reader does learn quickly, though, the source of the odd title: one of the characters is the 22-year old woman Sumire, a fledgling but prolific writer who is “absolutely nuts” about Jack Kerouac, and later, when she meets the “older woman” who becomes her first true love, she is asked about Kerouac by the woman who says, “wasn’t he a ‘Sputnik?'” confusing that foreign word with the term “beatnik.” Sadly, we leave Kerouac behind at that point of the book.

(below: 1957’s Sputnik satellite)

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The book becomes the story of an odd love triangle, or more properly stated, an unrequited love triangle. The narrator, a man whose name is only given to the reader as “K,” is a couple years older than Sumire and in love with her, despite the fact that he knows she does not feel the same about him. They are, however, kind of intellectual soul mates, and though tormented by his unrequited love, K cannot leave her orbit.

Things change a little when Sumire meets the older – and wealthy – Miu, who is impressed with this odd girl and hires her to help in her business. Her working relationship with Miu leads Sumire to become a little more sophisticated in dress and manner. She is unable, though, to let Miu know of her feelings toward her.

This is where we are when Murakami adds his standard dollop of the supernatural to the story. On a European trip, Miu and Sumire spend a few days on a small Greek island when strange things begin to happen… Events lead Miu to call K and ask that he come to the island.

Sumire has disappeared. “Like smoke” it seems. Of course K goes there immediately, but – though he learns more about Miu and Sumire’s relationship – he is unable to help in locating her and also gets enveloped by the numinous nature of the island, or maybe the world itself. When the search is eventually given up, he muses about things:

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

He then looks up to the stars and continues: “I gazed among them for the light of a satellite,but it was still too bright out to spot one with the naked eye. I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.”

How’s that for heartbreaking? In my opinion, the book may have effectively ended here, but K returns to Japan and his life’s routines. We – well, maybe kinda sort of – find out what became of Sumire, but I wondered if this was something better left to the reader’s imagination.

After re-reading this post, it sounds like I’m labeling the book as a real downer, but it’s not. I really, really liked it. Even more so than the suicide-strewn “Norwegian Wood” which somehow wasn’t exactly a downer (for this reader, anyway) either.

P.S. I would also like to thank the blogger Dolce Belezza for first suggesting Murakami to me when I was looking for short stories to fill my 2011 reading project.

What do you think of Murakami. What should I read next by this author?

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(above: Author Haruki Murakami <picture from The Guardian>)

Strange Coincidences

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m a fan of coincidences, even though during the week between 8am and 5pm I officially “don’t believe in them” (I’m an Accountant/Banker by trade). But in my personal life I enjoy noting their appearance and speculating about their “cause.” Why does a certain person call you just after you’ve been thinking about them? Why does a certain song come on the radio at “just the right moment” to fit your mood? Yes, I know the answer is because they are in fact just that – coincidences. Simply the law of averages dictates that we’re bound to encounter them from time to time.

I was happy, though, when reading through Haruki Murakami’s wonderful book of short stories, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” to come across a story that fit in nicely with my fondness for coincidences.

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(**minor spoiler alert**) The story is titled “Chance Traveler” and begins with the author “intruding” into the story with a couple “tales of coincidence” from his own real life. These are the lead-in to a story of a friend of his that he re-tells. This story involves a more complex chain of coincidental components, beginning when his friend is reading in a coffee shop.

His book of choice for that day is Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.” After he gets up to take a break And use the restroom, he returns to find a woman sitting (and also reading) in the chair next to his. After a moment, the woman apologizes for interrupting him and asks if he is reading Dickens too, and it turns out they are reading the same book. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, especially since the book is not a current best-seller, and not even one of the more popular novels of Dickens.

Not surprisingly the two strike up a bit of a friendship, which later grows a bit awkward when it becomes evident she is looking for more out of their “relationship” than he is able to give. A certain physical characteristic of hers reminds him, however, of his estranged sister, and he ends up calling her (for the first time in ten years) at “just the right time” when she needs him.

At the end of the book, Murakami speculates that  “…perhaps chance is a pretty common thing after all. Those kind of coincidences are happening all around us, all the time, but most of them don’t catch our attention and we just let them go by. It’s like fireworks in the daytime. You might hear a faint sound, but even if you look up in the sky you can’t see a thing. But if we’re really hoping something might come true, it may become visible, like a message rising to the surface.”

There. I think I’ve summarized the story without giving too much away if you’d like to read it for yourself. The volume of short stories that contains this tale is full of other gems that are worth your time too, and I hope I’m not too out of line suggesting that you buy a copy as soon as possible. 🙂

(Below: Haruki Murakami – perhaps contemplating a new short story idea?)

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Back on Schedule with my Short Story Reading

I completed three short stories this weekend. Two for my “one story per week” project (which I’m now caught up on again) and one for a “Great Books” discussion group meeting this evening. I’ll just mention them briefly here, maybe writing more about one or two of them later.

First, I read the sci-fi tale, “Instinct” by one of the household names of that genre, Lester del Rey. This is a tale of the future, where humankind has died out and the “alpha race” of the planet is now robots (robots!). Apparently, there is an ongoing project to re-create man as the robots have learned that the. One thing they are “missing” in their existence is a kind of instinct. Some interesting moments, but not one of my favorites from all the short stories I’ve read recently. You may know I have a random method of choosing the order in which I read my 52 selected stories. Sometimes this leads to strange coincidences. Last week was also the much-anticipated release of the debut CD of future(?) alternative music star, Lana del Rey (no relation).

Secondly, I read Haruki Murakami’s “The Mirror” from his collection of short stories, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” This one was quite short, but Murakami packs quite a punch in just a few pages. This is the story of a man who worked as a night watchman, and after being in a gathering of people who shared each of their ghost stories, is compelled to tell his own. The ghost he encounters on his rounds one night turns out to be just his own reflection in a mirror (or is it?). Some great moments here, my favorite of which is when he seems to realize that, instead of what he does being reflected in the mirror, he senses he is being compelled to mimic the actions of his counterpart… Spooky, good stuff.

The third tale is the classic Edgar Allan Poe story, The Black Cat. Like the more famous “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it involves a man trying to hide the evidence of his crime, only to unwittingly reveal it due to guilt or overconfidence or supernatural reasons. The narrator is a condemned man of questionable sanity and a clear victim of alcoholism, which ostensibly leads him to his crimes. There is also some mechanical similarity to “A Cask of Amontillado” (wink, wink). Good reading.

Have YOU read any good short stories lately?

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

The author Haruki Murakami was recommended to me by fellow blogger, Bellezza. I’d heard of Murakami before but not read anything by him until today. This morning, for my 2011 “deal me in” short story reading project, I drew the King of Diamonds (what’s with all these diamonds? I will have a flush soon!), and that card is marked for the story Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (see my page titled “deal me in selections” for a complete list of potential reads this year). Of course, I didn’t already own this one, and it is too recent to be had for free anywhere on the Internet (at least anywhere I could find), so I downloaded a collection of his stories from my Barnes & Noble account.

The collection also includes an author’s introduction, which I found very interesting. It seems he likes to alternate between working on novels and short stories, but cannot work on both at the same time, hypothesizing that a different part of the brain must be in use for each. He also includes the wonderful paragraph:

“My short stories are like soft shadows I’ve set out in the world, faint footprints I’ve left behind. I remember exactly when I set down each and everyone of them, and how I felt when I did.”

This particular story takes its name from a dream/ story that the girlfriend of the narrator’s friend told them about when they had come to visit her in a hospital after a minor operation. It’s hard to say what this story is actually about (maybe it’s about “nothing” – like that famous sitcom). What it may be about, though, is that fragile escape into memories that we all are sometimes able to effect. In this story, the narrator’s task at hand is accompanying his young cousin to an appointment at a hospital to have his hearing in one ear checked yet again. As he waits for the appointment to be over, the narrator lapses back into memory of the other hospital visit years ago.

Though reading in translation, it seems pretty clear to me at Murakami writes beautifully. Speaking of his reminiscences as “returning to the realm of memory,” and – late in the story – when his cousin grabs him by the arm, asking “Are you alright?” when it appears the narrator is “lost in thought” he (the narrator) muses immediately after being ‘brought back to reality’ that “for a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn’t exist. Where the invisible did.” I found that to be one of my favorite passages I’ve read in ANYTHING lately.

This story left me with more of a “feeling” than a “literary take” or impression, and I can’t remember anything else I’ve read recently that I can say that about.

Haruki Murakami

What about you? Have you read any Murakami? What were your impressions?

-Jay