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.

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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.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

You think, “Great, I understand this. I got this. I can understand Stephen Hawking, damn I’m smart!”. It is a false hope.

3/5 stars.
ebook, 280 pages
Read from September 26, 2018 to October 5, 2018.

Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man, I don’t think there are many that can deny that (well, maybe a few religious fundamentalists). All over the world, the science community mourned the loss of Hawking this last spring when his struggles with ALS came to an end. Hawking made powerful contributions to the realms of physics, he was also an accomplished author and was one of the most recognizable faces of a modern-day genius. After his passing, I meant to finally read one of his books and while it’s a bit delayed I did finally manage to. I clearly did not know what I was getting into.

Despite being an English major, I have always enjoyed the sciences. That is, except for physics because I fucking suck at it. That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the questions that physicists have, it’s that my brain isn’t capable of doing the equations to solve them. I’m still interested in the process and the conclusion, just when someone else does them and then I can read about it later. Having said that, this book was by no means a cakewalk and I would be lying if I said I understood it all. The first part of the book gently sucks you in as the content feels like a nice refresher on high-school level physics. You think, “Great, I understand this. I got this. I can understand Stephen Hawking, damn I’m smart!”. It is a false hope. sh I do not know the target audience that Hawking was aiming for as some parts of this book break down the concepts so well that any beginner can grasp them but the once the quantum physics comes in and Hawkings starts talking about black holes, he just assumes that his brief intro to physics basics will be enough to understand the hard concepts and theories he then elaborates on for the rest of the novel.

Would I say this book is enjoyable? Not really. Is it worth reading? Yes. Is it important? Yes. Despite its challenges this book is probably as simple as these complex concepts are going to get and it’s mind-blowing to look at our world, space and the universe from this perspective.

“I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.”

 

Vi by Kim Thúy

“My first name, Bảo Vi, showed my parents’ determination to “protect the smallest one.” In a literal translation, I am “Tiny precious microscopic.” As is often the case in Vietnam, I did not match the image of my own name.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 88 pages.
Read September 28, 2018.

Having enjoyed Ru for its beautiful prose, I was happy to find this short read by Thúy.

This story follows a similar formula to Ru, as it follows one girl, Vi, and her family’s story of immigration from Vietnam to Canada during the midst of the Vietnam war. Their father does not take the perilous journey over with causing a tear in the family. Once in Canada, the once affluent family has to make serious financial adjustments in their new home. In a way, Vi is another adaptation of Ru. Vi is a first-generation Vietnamese-Canadian stuck in between the cultures and traditions her mother believes in and the new ones in their new home in Montreal, Canada. As with many first-generation immigrants, Vi is at odds with her values and identity. Her mother is traditional and wants her to follow her upbringing but the current atmosphere in Canada is very different compared to where she grew up and she dabbles in what her mother views as scandalous behaviours.

The story is short and the ending is ambivalent but it’s an honest rendition of one person’s struggles to come to terms with their own identity as they grow in a new country there is, however, some jumping around with the timeframe in the plot that is hard to follow at times.  As with Ru, I am curious to know how much of the story actually happened to the author as she shares a similar background story to her characters.

Overall, this book is a beautiful read and an easy way to get a quick read in if you’re looking to catch up on a reading goal.