Review: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
2 of 5 stars

I recently read Norwegian Wood and was plagued with a sense of nostalgia. Others have remarked that Murakami’s a master at nostalgic scenes, and while that may be true, it turned out that it wasn’t the cause of my particular case of it. I had actually read the novel a few years before! I could tell that I read certain passages before, but I couldn’t pin down how the story ended. Maybe it’s because nothing really happens.

No wait, something happens. A few things happen. But I still think nothing happens because the characters living in Norwegian Wood never mature or change. Naoko and Toru both are so meandering and so damned introspective that I found them to be total bores, which is unfortunate because they and their relationship is what the novel is about.

I have no doubt that Murakami is an excellent storyteller and his prose (at least, what gets across through the translation) does have a certain poetic quality to it. The descriptions of scenes painted a very vivid picture of Japan. The problem was, I kept getting tripped up by the dialogue.

The characters are painfully self-aware to the point that the dialogue feels too artificial. No one is brutally honest about their feelings in dialogue like they are. The frustrating part is that while the characters love talking about their emotions and their deepest doubts, none of them actually take any action regarding those feelings. Maybe if they stopped obsessing and talking about their feelings and actually did something about them, they wouldn’t be in the rut they’re in.

Even if the dialogue were more natural, I’d still dislike the novel because of one thing: Naoko. It’s a crucial point since the novel revolves around her and her inability to cope with the ups and downs, (okay, mostly the downs) of life. She comes off as neurotic, unpleasant, and useless, which is why I had such a hard time dealing with the fact that Toru was in love with her. I guess I don’t care for helpless female characters. I was relieved when she finally took matters into her own hands instead of just hanging around and bringing everyone down.

On the other hand, I really liked Midori, who seems to be one of the few characters in Norwegian Wood that has her shit together. The contrast between her personality and that of Toru or Naoko was so great that the more I read about her, the more I got frustrated with Toru and Naoko’s pathetic one-sided relationship. I guess in that way, Murakami wrote a splendid recount of the turmoil of a love triangle.

After reading Norwegian Wood for the second time, I’m still ambivalent about Murakami’s writing. On the one hand, he’s a decent writer and I can see people liking his style. On the other hand, the actual subjects he writes about are so flawed that I end up despising them. I guess I can’t really deal with aimless characters who fall for aimless girls for no reason. I just don’t feel the same sense of satisfaction I get after reading a book I genuinely enjoyed reading.

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Review: Thorn Queen (Dark Swan book 2)

Thorn Queen (Dark Swan, #2) Thorn Queen by Richelle Mead

4 of 5 stars

I dove eagerly into Thorn Queen as soon as I finished reading Storm Born. Richelle Mead is a straight-forward writer and an excellent story-teller. Her descriptions of the other world and supporting characters made it incredibly easy to relate to Eugenie Markham, the main character. (Yes, that’s the main character’s name. I hated it at first, and I still cringe sometimes when I read it.)

So much happened around the main plot in Thorn Queen that it wasn’t until I was halfway through the apex of the storyline that I realized that that was what the book was about. The relationship and internal character angst distracted me from seeing that there was an ever larger conflict and mystery to be solved by the main character.

The last quarter of the book sped by quickly because everything was so tense that I couldn’t put it down till things were resolved. There was action scene after action scene, and then after that, it was a bedroom action scene. I literally finished the book while waiting for a light to change on the street because I was walking while reading. That’s how hard it is to put down.

Even though when I started this series, I thought I’d have trouble believing a story about a woman who spends half her time in the real world and half her time in some other dimension fairy world, it actually works. Towards the end of this book, I started thinking of the fairy world as more permanent and real than the human world that Eugenie also inhabited.

Thorn Queen has enough lead up into the story for people who never read the first book in the series, but I highly suggest reading the first book to just get the emotional baggage and background of all the characters. It makes the interactions in this book all the more worthwhile. Although the plot was decent and the mystery not bad, what I really liked about Thorn Queen was the way characters related and hated each other. It was like fast-paced, magical, soap opera.

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Review: Shanghai Girls — A Novel

51l6-ppyntl_sl160_There’s a phrase in Chinese, chi ku (eat bitterness), which Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls exemplifies perfectly. From one end of the book to the other, there’s nothing but hardships and heartaches.

The first hardship I found is not actually in the story in the novel, but comes from the novel itself.  See writes in the first person through the voice of Pearl, a girl growing up in Shanghai during the volatile Sino-Japanese war. Unfortunately, Pearl seems too self-aware of other people’s thoughts, motives, and the world in general. Writing in the first person voice, but with an omniscient view of the environment makes Pearl’s thoughts feel artificial and awkward.

Another thing I found difficult to overcome in the novel were the inconsistent choice of Chinese words.  The author insists on using the Cantonese word cheongsam for the traditional dresses worn by women at that time, trying to give Pearl a continental and modern flair, yet uses the traditional and scholarly term ‘wu dialect’ instead of the modern ‘Shanghainese.’ I still think that if Pearl were a Shanghai girl, she would have said qi pao, the Mandarin word for cheongsam.

If one can get over the technical problems of the novel, it’s easy to get sucked into the twists and turns of the two Shanghainese girls.  But be warned, the book really is like vicariously eating bitterness. There are several graphic scenes that I found difficult to read as well as parts where I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  See does a decent job of illuminating the difficulties women and the Chinese in general faced during that time.

At the end of Shanghai Girls, I literally sighed.  The story has so much potential to be epic, yet falls slightly short of that because of technical difficulties I couldn’t overlook.  Maybe I’m just being snobbish because my hometown is Shanghai, but the novel could have been so much better.