This month I managed to read a few things I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time, as well as a couple of recent acquisitions.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean was my book club’s selection for April. Focused on the Los Angeles Central Library and the 1986 fire that did extensive damage to the building and its contents, the book explores the history of that library and, less fully, libraries in general. Orlean is a fine writer and she makes this dry topic somewhat interesting. She inserts herself into the story by describing her interviews with various librarians and investigators, rather than simply reporting what they had to say. At one point, when she is observing a social services event at the library she is pressed into service and becomes a part of the event, rather than just a reporter. I did find it interesting that the location of the library was very close to my office in LA when I worked downtown in 1990-91. I guess I was working hard because I can’t say I was even aware of it, although it was, apparently, under re-construction that year, so I wouldn’t have been able to visit even I’d known about it.
Speech Minus Applause by Jim Peterson is a book of poetry published by Press 53 that I picked up when the author, whom I’d met briefly several years ago, did a reading here in Staunton. The poems are lyrical and personal. I found one, “Dead Ringer,” about the poet’s relationship with his father, especially moving.
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami was my first foray into this author’s novels. I have several very smart friends who are Murakami fans, so I thought it was about time I gave him a try in the longer form, although I’d read a few of his short stories (or novel excerpts) that The New Yorker published. The book is actually two novellas, “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973,” Murakami’s first works. They are probably important to read to get a complete sense of his work, but standing alone they didn’t do much for me. “Pinball, 1973,” unlike the first novella in the book, does have something of a plot as the narrator goes in search of a particular obscure pinball machine. (As a pinball addict in college I could relate to that.)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen—the audiobook version, narrated by Springsteen himself—was a revelation. Although there are at times long passages where he turns inward and stays there, these are balanced by fascinating details of his career, early disappointments, building his band, finding support, recording, touring, and also his personal life, especially his relationship with his wife Patti. It’s almost a shock to discover that this rock icon is a human being. Great book.
May Darkness Restore by Sean Sexton is a book of poetry I picked up at the High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction and is published by Press 53. Sexton read from this book and some earlier work and I was fascinated with the subject matter. A farmer and rancher, Sexton writes about his work, about calves and fences and being a cowboy, and the poems felt very real to me. I have a friend who raises cattle—definitely not a poetry reader—so I got the book for him and read it before I handed it over. (Although he may have struggled with some of the poems, he told me he definitely could relate.)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was something of a disappointment after all the praise the book received. My expectations were very high. I think my reaction might have something to do with the fact that as a student of Korean history it felt familiar to me, whereas for many readers the glimpse into Korean life is new. The novel takes place during the Japanese occupation of Korea and into the postwar period in Japan when a Korean woman goes with her husband to find work in Osaka. Koreans were treated terribly in Japan during this period (and perhaps still), and maybe this comes as a surprise to some. But I also had trouble with the melodramatic plot and, as a writer, with the way the story was told. Still, I found the characters and setting intriguing and I’m glad I read it. (Plus, I love the game of pachinko; see my comments about its cousin pinball above.)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid won the LA Times Book Prize last year. It’s about Saeed and Nadia, lovers in the midst of a civil war in an unnamed country (Hamid is Pakistani), find a door through which they can flee to safety. There are other doors, apparently, but theirs takes them to Mykonos, but when that proves difficult, they find another door that takes them to London. At each stop, they encounter other migrants from all over the world who are fleeing one terror or another, but they also meet some in the West who seek to go the other way. The magical realism aspect of the doors reminded me in some ways of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but in the end, I’m not completely sure what to take away from this book.