Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami was recommended to me in the fall by a friend and then subsequently fell onto my “books to read someday” list that grows every time I walk into a bookstore. I’m currently trying to read my way through the stack of unread books in my apartment, though, so I forgot about it. Then, another friend finished it, shoved it in my hands and declared that we must talk about it while it was still on her mind. So I read it. And then I learned that yet another friend had fallen prey to Murakami. She and I talked about it while driving upstate a few weeks ago and realized that there are so many lingering questions that cannot be answered with just one read.
Kafka on the Shore pulled me in, got me thinking and sort of left me there. It was the kind of reading experience where you finish a book only to realize you need to turn back to page one and start rereading in order to make sense of it. That is not to say that I didn’t follow the story line, but that once I knew how it ended I realized there were details I had brushed past. I started doing some research and found that Murakami said in an interview: “Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write”.
Set in Japan, the basic plot of the book is of two main characters, a 15 year old boy who has re-named himself Kafka and a sixty-ish man Nakata, whose stories alternate chapters and begin to run closer and closer together. Kafka has run away from home, fleeing a prophecy his father shared with him. Nakata, who is somewhat mentally handicapped due to an incident as a child during World War Two, is fleeing a crime he committed, but felt he was led to commit. Both characters know they are looking for something, but are unable to say exactly what it is and both begin traveling toward the ocean.
The whole process of reading this story, and the knowledge that I’ll need to reread it, has been on my mind lately. Especially one sentence that I think encapsulates the entire story and this reading experience. It is from when Kafka spends time alone at a new friend’s cabin deep in the woods. His friend warns him to always keep the cabin in view while wandering because “Once you get lost in these woods, believe me, you stay lost, ” (116).
At once this became a metaphor for my experience reading this story. Murakami has put together a narrative that is tied together enough where one can discuss substance and meaning, and yet it is loose enough that nothing ever felt definitive. When my friend and I were talking about it in the car, we kept coming up with more questions and the knowledge that we’d have to go back and reread and re-discuss, reread and re-discuss. Obviously, we were left longing for our college literature classes and enough free time to nerd out and follow up with all this thinking.
I’ve also done a lot of thinking about how there can be mental places that feel like those woods where one can stay lost. The sense of being lost isn’t necessarily bad or good, but rather frustrating and interesting at the same time. The existential questions that plague me seem to be telling me that no matter how much I try to read the world around me, there may not be a definitive answer to my questions. And maybe what I need to remember is to keep a metaphorical cabin in my eyesight so that I can find my way home. Interestingly, toward the end of the book Kafka finds himself once again in these woods and intentionally goes much deeper into them without the thought of making it back to the cabin. This narrative development throws a wrench into my thinking pattern and loops me back to the idea that once you are lost in the woods, you stay lost.
And sometimes it is easier to to dwell lost than to find a way out.
I had another conversation with a friend about changing habits in the context of changing the patterns of poverty that exist. In the midst of talking about how easy it is for us to point to someone else and say, well, if you changed your spending habits, you wouldn’t be in this situation. But then my friend mentioned that it was easy for us to think like that when we have healthy spending habits, budgeting knowledge and have had a completely different life story. She compared it to us trying to rid our diets of all sugars, and how much discipline and will power it would take. Habits of living–much like habits of thinking–are incredibly difficult to break.
And so. I am left with wondering what it would take to find my way out of my metaphorical woods.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was hailed by most critics last year and I’d been meaning to read it for a long time. It is a novel that is book ended by two main characters, Sasha and Bennie–in their relative youth and in their more middle age. In between is a series of chapters where these two characters are on the periphery somewhere and the chapter is focused on someone loosely connected to one of them.
As I was reading it, I found it a little kitschy and a a little hard to follow, feeling like I knew I’d have to reread it if I wanted to truly understand. After I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews and most people described the chapters as more like short stories. Had I gone into the reading with that mindset, I think it would have been a different experience.
The part of the book that I loved, however, was when the narrator was Sasha’s 11 year old daughter Alison, who told her story in a powerpoint journal. The future sections of the book all showed technology gone incredibly annoying, but somehow this was a thought provoking blend of the visual and the written. A few of the things she mentioned particularly struck a chord with me and I found a bit of a kindred spirit in both of these female characters. This is, in part, a book about time, and these moments felt the least jaded and most hopeful to me.
“Mom’s Art” slide is where Alison tries to explain the art that her mom, Sasha (who the reader meets at the beginning of the book as a 30 year old women in therapy for kleptomania):
“She uses found objects, they come from our house and our lives, she glues them onto boards and shellacs them, she says they’re precious because they’re casual and meaningless, but they tell the whole story if you really look.”
This is an interesting fact to learn about Sasha: that she now “steals” objects that have no meaning to most people, but is able to find meaning in them, and that she seems able to create true meaning in her life. As a reader, writer and sometimes poet, I love small details that feel meaningless to most people, but have a story underneath. I think it’s significant that Egan uses the word shellacs–it sounds a bit like a desperate push to save something, or, an artistic way to create and remember the details that get forgotten among louder, bolder ones.
I’ve found myself telling others recently that maybe New York has finally gotten to me because I have felt really cynical about a lot of things lately. This is not how I would ordinarily describe myself, so it has been interesting to find this creeping in on my psyche and seeing it play out in my life. Reading this section reminded me that I am both nostalgic and sentimental; and rather than seeing those characteristics as sappy or weak, I think that they allow me to look at the big picture of beauty in life–and that is just what this part-time, temporary cynic needs.
My blog is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary next month. I wrote my first post on January 6th, 2007, partly to slow down and think about what I was reading again and partly in an effort to get more comfortable with sharing my writing in a “public” space (I would like to thank my 4 loyal readers at this time: Mom, Dad, Alison Covey, Kendra Bloom). Every year when I’m home for Christmas I read every post I wrote over the year and choose the top ten best books I’ve read.
Usually, it takes me many hours to reread my blog posts for the year. As I read, I take notes and end up with a list at least 20 contenders for the coveted top ten. I have to do some serious thinking and rereading of posts to decide which books had the biggest impact on my thought life–and then spend some serious time laughing about the nerdy ways I spend my time. This year was not so difficult. Sadly, I don’t think I can attribute that to any increased coolness to my life, but I do think I have a few answers/self justifications for the reasons why this year I had only 23 posts (2008 holds the all-time high of 97):
- The spring was filled with YA books that enriched my teaching life and a side project I’m working on, but weren’t necessarily significant enough for me to subject my loyal readers (see above) to.
- The summer, normally the two months that I read the highest number of books, was filled with Infinite Jest, a book that I felt I needed to finish before I posted anything about it. (Then, the fall happened and I still have 5 additional posts about Infinite Jest sitting in my drafts.)
- This fall, I got caught up reading books for and with my students. Many of my Saturday mornings, normally my drink-a-hot-beverage-and-write-about-my-reading time, were filled with training for my half marathon. Also, my book club choice was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is not a read-before-you-fall-asleep kind of book: I would make it literally 3 pages and fall asleep. I’m finally about to finish it, which I owe to traveling 3 out of the last 5 weekends on U.S. Airways, who does not offer in-flight television.
All that to say, it is interesting to look back on a year through the lens of reading. I am nerdily excited for what 2012 will bring in my reading life…and the reflections that accompany good books. As for the Top Ten, I have to credit Margaret, who is the sole other member of my book club, because six of our choices made the top ten list this year. So, in no particular order:
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This book received an insane amount of press when it was published last year. Overall, especially because my book club read read The Corrections first, I throughly enjoyed getting inside the mind of Franzen.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart
Not especially well written, but it definitely was the instigator of many great conversations and some science-fiction/technology induced nightmares.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I think this was the most historically significant, jarring book that I read this year, and combined with its lyrical prose, it left me speechless.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Short. Beautiful. Inspiring.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The most enjoyable book of the year.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller (reread)
This book was a non-fiction, good reminder of all things I love about story and life.
The Summer Book by Tove Janssen(reread)
This book has become one of my yearly rereads and I’ve written about it a few times. I spend the quiet, early summer mornings I have at my parents’ house on their screened in porch reading just a chapter or two a day so that I can savor and soak in it during my entire visit. This year it was my respite from Infinite Jest, to make sure that reading was not only speaking into the my academically-minded side of my brain, but also my soul.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read the first book of this series as soon as it came out, on recommendation of our Teachers College professional developer. I never finished the series because I felt like I knew enough to talk about it with kids and had so many other books to read. However, after the Epic-Literary-Reread book club on Harry Potter with my students last year, I thought that it would be cool to do the same thing with The Hunger Games this year. I read these books in about a week and was amazed to see all of the entry points for young readers to have uber literary conversations. I have also been amazed at how many of my adult friends have been reading the series and are eager to discuss. A post-movie discussion party is in the works.
Cheers to reading and a 2012 filled with more writing about it!