Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

“It seems as if, year after year, the world becomes a more difficult place to live.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 763 pages.
Read from November 29, 2018 to December 6, 2018.

The last full-fledged novel Murakami published is the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage which was published in spring of 2013. While Murakami published some short stories since then, Men Without Women in the spring of 2014, fans like myself have been waiting for his next feature-length publication with much anticipation. Based on some of the reviews that I have read, I can sense some disappointment within Murakami fan base with this novel, I, however, do not share their sentiments.

An unnamed portrait painter in his mid-thirties is going through a divorce as a result of an affair on his wife’s part. After leaving home he wanders aimlessly for a few weeks and tells his agent that he is no longer interested in doing any more portrait commissions, his only source of income. The protagonist isn’t an especially passionate portrait artist but he is very good at it. He has a gift for being able to capture a person’s inner essence and soul. After an old art school friend reaches out to him and offers to let him rent his famous father’s old painting studio to live in, our protagonist isn’t really in a position to refuse. The home is a quaint mountain retreat out in the middle of nowhere. He begins teaching an art class in the closest town before starting an affair with two of his students, despite desperately missing his wife.

After getting a call from his agent saying that someone is offering him a ridiculous amount of money to paint a portrait, the protagonist decides to take on the job, though he has found no inspiration or desire to paint since moving. This is how he meets his peculiar and interesting neighbour, Menshiki. Menshiki is an attractive, middle-aged man with stark white hair, he is also clearly wealthy. The reasons for Menshiki wanting such an expensive portrait are unknown to the protagonist but he is intrigued. Menshiki has given him unlimited license to paint the portrait in whatever way or method he sees fit, provided that Menshiki sits for the portrait itself, a method that the protagonist doesn’t like to use.

After meeting Menshiki, the protagonist finds a painting in the attic of the home that has been wrapped up and hidden. After unwrapping the picture called “Killing Commendatore” it becomes clear that this is an unknown piece of work was done by the famous artist that used to live there. The protagonist becomes enthralled with the exquisite painting and stares at it for days.

5d530f9f8d37c089c862f9903399f499
Found an image resembling someone’s interpretation of  “Killing Commendatore” by bongsancomics.

Shortly after he is inspired and begins painting again. The recovery of “Killing Commendatore” has also brought with it a strange sound that emanates from a pit of rocks outside his home at the same time every evening. With Menshiki’s help, he aims to determine the cause of the sound, without knowing the whimsical and strange events that were to come.

I didn’t even notice that the protagonist wasn’t named. It wasn’t until I saw other people’s reviews that I went back to the book to verify that it. The writing makes it seem so natural that the protagonist doesn’t have a name because it feels like you already know him. The story, as with many Murakami books, is a slow burner that is part philosophical and part whimsical fantasy. The book contains Murakami’s trademark beautiful prose with themes of loneliness, war, family and inspiration. I particularly enjoyed some of the historical details on WWII. There are also, of course, awkward conversations with characters involving breasts and plenty of sex and peculiar sex dreams. While I know other readers found this book a bit drab I found it captivating. I felt like I knew every inch of the home the protagonist was living in and felt enveloped in the world and the characters that Murakami created. This book was even nominated for one of 2018’s Bad Sex in Fiction award and I still really enjoyed it.

While I admit that the music and cultural references that Murakami uses in this book are dated making the book feel somewhat socially irrelevant but this is the way Murakami has always written. Murakami has always included tidbits of things that he likes, such as very specific music references and detailed scenes of cooking.

While this book is far from Murakami’s best I still found it to be an immensely enjoyable read. It’s not the best book to start with if you haven’t read anything by Murakami before but it is still a must read for anyone that is familiar with his work.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of “We Should All Be Feminists…””

4/5 stars.
ebook, 32 pages.
Read September 20, 2018

I can’t recall how I found this short essay but I’m really glad I did. I have often a wondered what exactly feminism means today? Especially in this volatile political environment. How can we as women explain our situation to the many men (and some women) who still don’t think that it is a relevant position to take a stand on in the present day? Well, I think the continued awareness and prevalence of rape culture, that a misogynist is the American president, how toxic masculinity is creating more and more troubled men, and the potential uproar over women’s basic rights in first world countries and all over the globe is more than enough time to consider how important feminism still is. This essay is important, so much so that I wish I could casually hand a copy of this to nearly everyone I know.  Essays like this should be required reading in high school and universities everywhere. 

“Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”

How do you persuade people to understand a point of view? You explain how your point of view will benefit them and to not attack them for their current views. Chimamanda finds this wonderful balance between stating facts firmly to diffusing difficult aspects of feminism with grace and humour. She discusses the marginalization of men and women and the archaic beliefs that shape this discrimination, while also recognizing that we’re all unconsciously shaped by our culture so it’s easy to get caught up in what’s perceived as normal. Feminism is here to help us dismantle the beliefs that no longer benefit us in society, and that’s for both men and women. Feminism is not something to be feared, as many men do, as there is a history has a prevalence of fearmongering when it comes to women empowering themselves and others. 

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. “

In end, people will believe what they want to believe. You cannot move people like Trump and those who follow him, but for the rest of us that want better for humanity and are constantly trying to understand and improve, this essay is a wonderful, pervasive and persuasive read. 

“A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.” 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from August 31, 2018 to September 7, 2018.

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1921, Wharton’s talent has continued to be celebrated with her widely cultivated novels. I first read Wharton when I was in university with The House of Mirth, a book I did not expect to like but became enthralled with the writing style and characters.  While many of Wharton’s books are about unhappy marriages, what continues to make them so popular is Wharton’s fantastic prose as well as an in-depth analysis and commentary on women in society.

Newland Archer, a man living in high-class society New York in the 1870s, has recently become happily engaged. May Welland is well-suited to him and the two of them appear to be the perfect match. However, Newland’s whole foundation is shaken as he makes the acquaintance of May’s curious and beautiful cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen has become the scandalous talk of the town as she has abandoned her very wealthy husband in Europe. In all appearances, she seems to be attempting to walk away from a perfectly matched marriage that has made her a Countess and very wealthy. However, she is willing to sacrifice it all. Newland is entreated by May to be kind to Ellen and to make her feel comfortable in New York as well as advising her legally, that she should not file for divorce or risk losing everything. Headstrong, Ellen does not seem to care for the societal rules in New York and brushes them off as having been raised with European customs. Newland soon learns that Ellen has her own set of ideals and above all else, yearns to be free.

“Women ought to be free – as free as we are,’ he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

Without meaning to, Newland falls hard for Ellen as he begins to question his own feelings for May, his own identity, as well as the basis and cultural rules of the society he lives in.

Women wanting to be free, it is that very theme that keeps women, no matter what the ear, coming back to books like this. While things may have changed and have improved for women since Wharton’s era, many men and women, still feel trapped by certain aspects of society and by what is expected of them. Society is so prominent in this book it is the antagonist. It is a character in and of itself. Wharton does a phenomenal job of drawing you into this superficial life and then shatters it for you like she does for Newland’s. Ellen shows Newland the other side of society, what its like when you don’t fit it and once that facade is broken there isn’t any going back. The characters and their inner dilemmas stay with you long after you have finished their story. This is truly a beautiful book and if anything, should be read and marvelled for its prose.

“He had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.”

I would recommend this book for anyone who has ever wanted to read Wharton and doesn’t know where to start, prose-lovers, classics-lovers, romance lovers and historical fiction lovers.