The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

“Ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 96 pages.
Read on July 4, 2019.

This is a perfect example of a book that you should not read on any sort of e-reader. The novella is its own form of art with its unique open-flap cover and varying font formats and sizes throughout its pages. It’s the kind of book that’s hard to say no to when you see on the shelf at a library or bookstore.

The plot of The Strange Library is strange indeed. I mean, most of Murakami’s works are strange but this short novel had a different feel to it. It’s the tamest Murakami book I’ve read so far as well as there are no sexual references within this book. Or of cats. Or of food, for that matter, which are normally typical themes within Murakami’s books.

A boy, whose mother is expecting him home for dinner, gets lured into a strange section of the library by an old man who wants to eat his brains. The man insists that knowledgeable brains taste better so he insists that the boy read tomes of books for a few months before he is going to be eaten. A sheep-man appears to be the old man’s slave as he unwillingly does his bidding out of fear. As time passes the boy, sheep-man, and a mysterious girl plot their escape from the maze of the strange library.

The plot is like a childish nightmare, hence the sheep-man (counting sheep), worrying about not being home in time for dinner, an extensive maze, and cannibalism as they seem like things a young boy would have nightmares about, which is something I didn’t come to see right away. After coming to this realization I came to appreciate the story much more. Having said that, the story is still very different from other things that Murakami has done and I didn’t care for it as much as some of his other books.  It was still a short and pleasurable read and well worth picking up if you’re looking to catch up on a reading goal.

 

Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews

Likely the most fascinating place in Hong Kong with some of the best South Asian food in the city. Chungking Mansions is a curiosity that is not to be missed.

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 256 pages.
Read from June 25, 2019 to July 3, 2019.

I’ve called Hong Kong home for a few years now and have come to love it for all of its unique flaws and qualities. Hong Kong is a busy city but outside of its city walls are beautiful running trails, beaches, and hikes. There is something for everyone in this diverse city no matter what kind of person you are. As an expat, Chungking Mansions is a fascinating place that needs to be visited at least once, but for locals, it is generally a place to be avoided. The stories of crime and gang activity, along with the lack of familiar local faces, usually are enough to keep many locals away. However, this impression of Chungking Mansion isn’t its whole story.

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Grey facade – Photo by Gerald Figal on Flickr

Gordon Mathews is a university professor in Hong Kong and spent years living in and studying the people and it’s unique economy and isolated globalization. Chungking Mansion is located in the bustling and wealthy Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong on the Kowloon side. It’s a popular district for shopping and has lots of tourists from mainland China and elsewhere from around the globe. Yet inside Chungking mansions is like entering a different world. Just outside of the building, you’ll find it brimming with South Asians, who, if you’re white, will try and sell you knock-off watches, handbags, or tailoring services. Inside the building is old and run down compared to the shiny shopping area it’s surrounded by. Inside you’ll find cheap rooms for rent, refugees, illegal workers, traders, sex workers, drug addicts, and small businesses from all around the globe. African traders come to find cheap cellphones to bring back to their countries. South Asians come, often illegally, to try and improve the quality of their lives as well as their families. Many refugees come and get trapped in the system of long waits within Hong Kong and are unable to work legally too. Despite the illegality of most of what goes on in the building, a blind eye is often turned by police. Without the illegality of workers and many other trades, Chungking Mansions would not exist. The diversity of the building makes for some of the most eclectic and delicious food in Hong Kong and for rock-bottom prices. It also makes for a unique area of globalization that isn’t really seen anywhere else in the world.

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Image from Asia Times

I’ve actually had the pleasure of dining in Chungking Mansions with a group of refugees and have nothing but great things to say about the place despite its seedy reputation. I would go back in there in heartbeat for the great food, company, and people watching. That isn’t to say that sketchy things don’t happen at Chungking but in general, it’s a decent place to grab a good bite to eat provided you don’t mind how run down some of the establishments are.

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Image from Wikimedia

This book is a perfect insight into Chungking Mansions as its clear that the professor himself has become an established name inside the building and is someone that everyone seems to be comfortable talking with. He seems to have a clear understanding of Chungking Mansions and the people that live there. The novel felt a bit like something I would read in a university class but that’s not surprising since I’m sure that was one of the reasons it was written. Mathew’s writing is as informative as it is fascinating and if you’re in Hong Kong and have ever wanted to visit or know more about Chungking Mansions I would highly recommend this book.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 440 pages.
Read June 12, 2019 to June 17, 2019.

Well, well, well, isn’ it wonderful when the hype about a book turns out to be true? This novel had the perfect combination of things that I love in a good book. A historical-fiction plot based in WWII (one of my favourite settings), strong and dynamic female characters, great writing, and a few surprises in store at the end. If this book has been on your TBR pile, it’s time to go and pick it up!

It’s 1939 and the Nazis have started to encroach on France. Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are about to face the war that’s coming. Having lost their mother at a young age and with an absent father who was dealing with his own demons from WW1, the two girls each felt abandoned in their youth. Vianne, the eldest, found love and married early but always relied on her husband for the guidance, rarely making decisions for herself. Isabelle never stopped feeling angry for being abandoned by her whole family. Rebellious at heart, she was kicked out of several girls schools before the start of the war and is rash and headstrong. The two of them couldn’t be more different yet each of them must face the war and the occupation of their country. Vianne must say goodbye to her husband, the only solid foundation she has ever had in her life, as he leaves to fight in the front. Isabelle is anxious to do something to assist in the war efforts, naive to the potential costs and sacrifices. Each sister grows and finds strength through horrible circumstances and rekindles a sisterly love and forgiveness for each other before the tragic end of the war.

The depth of characters in this story is what makes this book so exceptional. Vianne grows from a meek and passive young woman to finding her own voice even through immense tragedy and suffering. Isabelle joins the Resistance and makes an impact in the war yet when she returns home she finds that she is not the only one that has suffered and comes to understand her sister’s sacrifices, as well as their father’s.  The story is both moving and inspiring and there is a particular moment with the father that nearly brought me to tears.

This book has something for everyone and combine that with the great writing it’s no wonder it’s been so popular. Unless another book comes around before the new year, this book is the top contender for my favourite book of the year.