iceman1

I read The Ice Man over the Christmas holidays last year, often a few chapters at night in bed followed by half an hour’s worth of surfing on Youtube watching all the Ice Man documentary videos. I’ll tell you from the outset that this is a book that is very hard to put down once you start reading it.

It is the true account of the life of Richard Kuklinski – outwardly a doting and caring father/husband to his family but secretly a top hit man for the American Mafia. He killed over 200 men – but never women and children – for the Mafia, for himself and for anyone who’ll pay his professional fees. And if you want the victim or “the mark” in hitman talk to suffer before dying, then  Kuklinski will make that happen for an extra fee.

He perfected the art of killing, using guns, knives, pipes, cyanide and poison and even using his bare hands. And then there are the caves and rats for extra gruesome killings where Kuklinski would drag his victims to, tie them up using duct tape, slice them to make them look extra delicious to the rats and leave them there with a video camera and lights on to record the whole feast as rats descend on the helpless screaming victims, devouring them alive, and leaving nothing at all in the morning except for scraps of bloody cloth and bones.

He’d kill people who being rude to him or anyone who made him angry. Rude motorists who gave him the finger were followed and shot to death at quiet light junctions. An impatient man at a night club who got on Kuklinski’s nerves was strangled to death in an alleyway as he took a leak. Another had an arrow shot into his head as he bent down near the car to answer Kuklinski’s queries about directions – just because Kuklinski wanted to try out his new cross-bow from Italy.

That was the bad Richard, as his wife Barbara called Richard. Not knowing what he did for a living and never asking for fear of inviting his violent temper, Kuklinski’s family learned to live with the two Richards – the good Richard being the caring and providing father who hosted neighbourhood barbeques and swimming parties, and the bad Richard being the one who’d come home in a foul mood and start to hit his wife and destroy furniture and his children’s toy. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Kuklinski was a giant of a man and you can imagine the terror he struck into the heart of his wife.

He later explained in prison that he often felt detached from the pain he caused people and had no connection at all to his victims as he inflicted pain and death on them. He had people sliced up in a bath-tub, left to hang so the blood would drip dry from the body before chopping them up at the joints (easier because then he didn’t have to saw through bones) and disposing of them in metal drums, or into mineshafts, or the sea, or in the freezer (hence the moniker ‘Ice Man’) so that he could remove the frozen body and leave it out somewhere to be found later to create the impression that the murder took place at a later time and not at the time the person was first reported missing – to create confusion in the minds of detectives.

As a child, he together with his younger brother Joseph were abused and beaten by his father Stanley Kuklinski. He claimed that Stanley “beat the humanity” out of him. I assume the same happened to Joseph who was a bi-sexual paedophile and who was later arrested for the rape, sodomy and murder of a little girl in his neighbourhood. It is in many ways a tragic story of childhood lost and a damaged adulthood spent trying to cope with the effects of abuse. Kuklinski rented a garage where he kept metal pipes and baseball bats, and he’d bring his victims there – slowly smashing the bones in their legs, arms and then hitting and damaging the rest of their bodies before killing them – with each swing of the pipes, he’d release the anger he felt towards his father. He often describe the relief he felt as he watched the “life go out in front of him.” Killing became a way for getting relief from stress and pressure. He enjoyed it thoroughly and took pride in his work, often earning S20,000 to $30,000.00 per kill.

Through an elaborate sting operation that spanned years, Kuklinski was finally caught and arrested, and put on trial. He was given the life sentence and served out the rest of his life in prison, living to the age of 70. He turned prosecution witness against mob personality Sammy “the Bull” Gravano and was about to testify in court when he died the day before the trial commenced leading to speculation (which he himself claimed numerous times) that he had been slowly poisoned while in prison. Charges against Sammy Gravano were eventually dropped.

To the very end, Kuklinski said he regretted not killing his father. And rather poignantly, he lamented that he had wished a different path in his life, where he’d be a good father and husband, living a straight life. But that was not to be – “it was not on the cards for me”, he said.

For obvious reasons, this is also a book that you’d want to talk about and share with friends the gory details. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a serial killer who took it to an unprecedented level and almost turned it into an art-form with his meticulous methods of killing. Kuklinski makes Jack the Ripper and all other killers look very amateurish.

If you are into true crime and are intrigued by gory details of death, murder and organised crime – then get this book. I strongly recommend it.

I’m in the mood to watch the Godfather after finishing this … and to acquire a hunting knife.

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n131213 What a gem this book is and how thoroughly enjoyable it was to read! So many times I’d walked past this book in the book stores but never bothered to pick it up, thinking (as I knew then) that it was being adapted as a movie starring Kal Penn as the lead character. “I’ll just watch the movie version,” I always told myself.

So when the book stores ran out of new titles for me to browse, this book got my attention again and I thought oh what the heck and got it. Am I glad I did. I’m now a fan of Ms Lahiri’s writings and plan to get her other books (collections of stories) – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, the only titles available here in the shops. But first, my review of The Namesake.

The story revolves around an Indian boy named Gogol, after his father’s favourite Russian author Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol and a journey that begins with a near-death experience his father Ashoke Ganguli had in surviving a train crash, his arranged marriage to Ashima and their eventual migration to Cambridge, Massuchusetts where Ashoke lectures at MIT.

Gogol is a pet name given to the boy as opposed to a public name. This is a fascinating facet of Bengali culture that I discovered from reading the book.  But in The Namesake, through a series of unintended events, the boy ends up having his pet named registered as his official name – Gogol Ganguli and the story starts from there. From the confusion and amusement it creates in school, to his later decision to do a deed poll and change his name to Nikhil Ganguli in his search for acceptance in American society … and more importantly, his search for his own identity amidst the rich Indian tradition and upbringing he inherits from his parents.

As a student studying overseas in my late teens to mid twenties, I can relate to that desire for familiar surroundings, for people who look the same, or talk the same. I guess in Gogol’s case, his desire must be manyfold more as a ABCD (Amercian-born Confused Deshi) living with conservative Indian migrant parents with strong links to India and the story is about his rebelling against it in the beginning and later, his acceptance and embrace of it – as seen through his progress from boy to adult, and through the relationships he has with his parents, and girlfriends and then his spouse.

It is a coming of age story in some ways. And in other ways, it’s about human relationships and our search for happiness and a place under the sun. I loved this book and dreaded its end as the pages started dwindling. The characters are colourful, their personalities memorable.The story is unforgettable .. and beautiful.

It is a wondrous journey that Gogol undertook and I followed him diligently every night without fail. It is a hard book to stop reading once you start. The end is charming and I closed it so reluctantly, feeling like I need to be there to continue the journey with the Gangulis to wherever Ms Lahiri may choose to take us. It’s that good.

I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. I feel as if I earned it, truly.

I remember a scene from The Sopranos where someone tells Tony that if he keeps going back to the Asian masseuse, sooner or later he’d end up doing her. Like going to the barber’s, if you keep going back there even if you’re not getting a haircut, sooner or later you will end up getting one. Ditto what Dr Melfi’s husband tells her about having Tony over for his sessions, “sooner or later, you’re going to get beyond psychotherapy.”

Does the same hold true for writing? If I persist with blogging and writing piecemeal about daily mundane things, is it a case of “sooner or later, ya gonna end up writing a book?

Tony fantasizes about Dr Melfi and I dream about the day when I do finally write a book. I’ve got a few plots in my mind one of which I’ve started work on in a note pad. A few pages of scribbles describing characters, places and time but nothing beyond that. It’s not easy writing, especially for someone like me. I’m a stickler for perfect word processing, eg. margins, fonts, format, etc. I spend more time adjusting font sizes and font types than I do worrying about the contents. And if the composition does not look pleasing, nevermind the story, I’d just scrap the whole thing. Delete. Close. New document.

The same problem applies to my work. Legal submissions, written arguments take the longest time with me because of this irritating behaviour. I’d spend the longest time on snazzy headlines, on crafting that great opening line, on the right type of font to make the whole document look so ‘learned’ or ‘professional’. I envy those who can get straight into the thick of things and make their arguments straight away. If this were a race track event, I’d be the contestant fretting over the color of his running shorts and totally missing the crack of the starting pistol.

I’d be writing one whole paragraph (finally!) and then mistype a word. Instead of deleting that one word, I’d delete the whole paragraph and start all over again. And halfway through restarting, I’d get sidetracked by my own irritation at myself for doing that.Is this some kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour albeit on a milder scale?

Am I the only one suffering this way? God, this is downright irritating.

It started as little white furry spots on the potted plants in my office. First on the leaves, then the stalk and some on the soil. “How cute!” I thought to myself.  ” I’m growing little mushrooms!”. As more appeared, I delighted in them, even spraying water on them to help in the growth. This went on for a couple of weeks until I noticed the leaves of my plants becoming limp and dry, and which would literally drop off  when touched.

And that’s when I noticed also that my mushrooms could walk. This, they did with small little legs. I began to spend a lot of time standing by the window, under the harsh tropical sunlight studying the creatures. Small and almost minute, it was hard to see them properly so I headed off to the stationer’s to get a magnifying glass.

White and furry. I couldn’t make out their heads or tails. Turn them over and I’d see a reddish underside. Remove them from the plants and leave them on the table long enough and I’d see them start to scurry about, as if looking for the nearest plant.

“Those aren’t mushrooms,” A.H. the Account Manager said. “At least they don’t look like any mushroom I’ve seen before.”

I started to feel stupid and wondered where I got the idea that these were mushrooms in the first place. Funny how that idea came to me, and how it stuck around long enough for me to make a fool of myself telling my co-workers that I was growing some cute mushroom species.

“I was only joking. I meant they looked like mushrooms in the beginning. They only look like it,” I explained, trying to look like I was the knowledgeable gardener that I clearly wasn’t. I could see A.H.’s facial expression, as she thought to herself, “I’ve never heard a mushroom joke before.”

So ok. Turns out my mushrooms are aphids. That was according to my colleague whom I shall call “Mike” for the sake of brevity. Aphids. Aphids. Let’s see what aphids are. I googled it and on Wikipedia this is what confronted me:

Aphids, also known as plant lice (and in Britain as greenflies), are small plant-eating insects, and members of the superfamily Aphidoidea. Aphids are among the most destructive insect pests on Earth.

“Most destructive insect pests on earth!?”

“Yep. They’re the ants’ dairy cows,” Mike informed me over morning coffee at LY’s.

LY is an old cafe where I have my morning coffee breaks and sometimes breakfast. In my town, owing to its long establishment, it’s almost an ‘institution’. Everyone I know has been there before and the proprietors – a man, his wife and his sister – know everyone and have a habit of saying, “I’ve seen you when you were this small” and with obvious good reason too since LY’s been operating since the 60s, I think.

“Ants rear aphids. They carry them to the plants. The aphids feed on the plants and produces honeydew – a type of secretion on their backs which the ants like. Kinda symbiotic, ants feed off this sweet liquid and in return protect the aphids from their predators.”

Sounds so peaceful, doesn’t it? I’d just about started to think that if Man could live like this, we’d have no conflicts in this world when further reading on Wikipedia showed me this:

Aphids passively feed on sap of phloem vessels in plants, as do many of their fellow members of Hemiptera such as scale insects and cicadas. Once a phloem vessel is punctured, the sap, which is under high pressure, is forced into the aphid’s food canal. As they feed, aphids often transmit plant viruses to the plants, such as to potatoes, cereals, sugarbeets and citrus plants. These viruses can sometimes kill the plants.

Plants contain low densities of the nitrogen compounds needed for building proteins. This requires aphids to consume an excess of sap to satisfy their nutritional requirements. The excess is expelled as “honeydew”, out of the anuses of aphids, in such large volumes that in sometimes it can “fall like rain”. Aphid honeydew is rich in carbohydrates, like the phloem it derives from.

Viruses? Anuses? These creatures are like bloody ecologically destructive timber loggers!

Stressed out, I tried flicking the little pests off my plants using the tip of a pencil, sometimes squishing them on the spot. But the ants kept coming back with more aphids and there was no way that I was going to stand there all day in the office waiting for them. Because I had my pots on the window sill, it was easy for the ants to come in from the outside. My dream of having some greenery in my office was fast turning into a nightmarish scene of flora and fauna gone horribly wrong complete with fat aphids sucking the life out of anything with chlorophyll.

The pencil was at best a stop gap measure. I had to figure out a solution quickly. Ridsect didn’t work. I tried spraying that on plants just a few months ago to rid them of ants but ended up getting rid of dead plants instead. Dead plants with live ants swarming all over them, to be exact. So, I turned to the internet and with some reading here and there, came home one day with a list of ingredients for concocting my own homemade organic pesticide. 1 litre of water, some hand liquid detergent, a bit of vegetable oil and 3 cloves of garlic. A stinking concoction to be sure!

“You know, when a new ant queen leaves the nest to start a new colony, it’ll take along with it aphid eggs,” Mike said. “So it can start a new farm too.”

“That sounds disgusting,” I replied, sipping LY’s famous thick black coffee with sweetened condensed milk; just a teaspoonful to temper the bitter coffee – just the way I like it, and perfectly mixed to my personal taste. 3 years of daily patronage here for my morning coffees earned me the right to sit at the long table in LY, a table I like to think of as exclusive seeing as only LY’s ‘special’ customers sit there – like the old man with the er-hu (Chinese classical violin), or the fat woman who drinks 5 cans of Stella Artois on her own every morning, to name a few. LY’s resident barista, will always come and sit with whoever is seated at the table though he won’t make any small talk, or talk at all. He’ll just sit there quietly, looking at you and you can look back at him. And then one of you will turn to look away because of the discomfort. If you’re reading newspapers, he’ll sit opposite you and try to read what you’re reading. That in turn gives you guilt for turning the pages too quickly, making you wonder if he’s done with that page everytime you think about turning it. So you end up reading more slowly, trying to guess which column he’s reading and whether he is finished. But still, it is a coveted table, a status symbol – you sit there and all and sundry will know you’re on the Proprietors’ List, much like academia’s Dean’s List.

“Just imagine the ants drinking liquid secreted from the back of that furry creature. That’s revolting,” I continued.

“And we don’t? Isn’t it the same with cows?”, Mike asked.

“You’re going off topic,” I said, smarting.

Back in the office, I initiated my fight-back plan and sprayed the stinking concoction on the plants. There were no aphids of course by then – thanks to the pencil. But the ants were still around. Like shepherds roaming the hills looking for their lost cattle. I hope they get the message that grazing pastures my plants certainly are not!

Spray I did, and cough I did more – the garlicky mist floated everywhere in my room, infusing my clothes and making everyone think I’d been consuming a garlic-rich diet. I resorted to opening all windows to try to rid the room of the stink but it was slow to dissipate. So for now, the following have stayed clear of the plants – the ants, aphids .. and me.

I stand a few feet from the stinking leaves each day, staring at the leaves – looking for signs of their return. So far so good.

engulfed-in-flames My mother in law lives in the state capitol which is about 7 hours’ drive from the town I live in or a mere half an hour by plane. Recently, with my father in law and my wife’s other siblings, they drove all the way over.

“I really enjoy the drive,” she said. “Especially when we stop at all the little towns that line the route. We get down, have a drink and then drive on leisurely to the next town and so on.”

I guess David Sedaris’ “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” is a bit like that. It is a book I thorougly enjoyed from start to finish. There is no plot or storyline, just a beginning and an ending – like the beginning of the drive and the end of it. Along the journey, there are humourous paragraphs mostly unrelated bits and pieces about the mundane things in life we all take for granted but now see in a funny way, thanks to Sedaris’ keen observations.

He writes about his relationship with Hugh, his partner. His time in Normandy, France, living in Japan and learning to speak Japanese.. about trying to quit smoking, about his neighbour, Helen, and almost anything and everything – including the Stadium Pal (tell you more about it later below). sedaris

My favourite passage in this book is the one about Helen the feisty foul-mouthed arrogant pushy fascistic seventy year old neighbor:

While in France, I’d brought Helen some presents, nothing big or expensive, just little things a person could use and then throw away. I placed the bag of gifts on her kitchen table and she halfheartedly pawed through it, holding the objects upside down and sideways, the way a monkey might. A miniature roll of paper towels, disposable napkins with H’s printed on them, kitchen sponges tailored to fit the shape of the hand: “I don’t have any use for this crap,” she said. “Take it away. I don’t want it.”

I put the gifts into the bag, ashamed at how deeply my feelings were hurt. “Most people, most humans, receive a present and say thank you,” I told her.

“Not when they get garbage like that, they don’t,” she said.

In fact these things were perfect for her, but Helen wouldn’t accept them for the same reason she wouldn’t accept anything: the other person had to owe and be beholden. Forever.

I picked up the bag and headed for the door. “You know what you have?” I said. “You have a gift disorder.”

“A what?”

“It’s like an eating disorder, only with presents.”

“Take that back,” she said.

“My point exactly.” And then I left, slamming the door behind me.

I got to the end of this book very quickly – too quickly, and even checked the pages in the middle to make sure I hadn’t skipped any. All in all, it was a fun read, light and humourous – I found myself chuckling a few times on my own. The funny parts were good enough to read over and over again, and that I did aloud to my wife to share the jokes with her.

Yes, recommended light reading. Totally funny and enjoyable.

I end this post with a video of Sedaris at a bookreading for this book where he reads the passage on the Stadium Pal. Hilarious!

This is the book that almost killed reading as a pasttime for me. I say “almost” because I managed to put it down in time and not force myself to finish it because I paid money for the book and because I don’t like to have half-read books on my shelves.

Evening is ‘laborious’ in many ways – it’s laborious to read and I’m sure, to write. Samarasan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and you can almost hear the voices and critique of her peers in Evening in the long-winded verbose style of writing, as if trying to accommodate everyone’s suggestions for a better way of describing an event, a thing, a place, a feeling. In the end, this book reads like a thesaurus. It feels like someone tried to join the words in a thesaurus into a plot and story.

I struggled to get to the 100th page, a marker I usually use as the point where I decide if I like a book or not. For evening, I went up to page 200 just to give it a second chance and still I did not like it. I waited in vain for the painful multi-descriptions to stop but Samarasan persisted.

No doubt, the storyline is there – a death in the family, a mystery as to how it happened, ghosts in the house seen only by the youngest child, race riots in a turbulent time, and a marriage gone stale – all set during Malaysia’s first years after Independence. It’s just the writing style that irks me. It irks me even to think about the book and I’m glad I stopped reading it before it turned me against reading altogether.

If you like dictionaries and thesauruses, then you might enjoy this. Otherwise, it’s not a book I would recommend to anyone. One word – labourious. Or as Samarasan would put it – arduous, backbreaking, burdensome, effortful, fatiguing, forced, heavy, herculean, labored, onerous, operose, ponderous, rough go, stiff, strained, strenuous, tiresome, toilsome, tough, tough job, wearing, wearisome, wicked.

Part One of Review Page 1 – 232

Kafka is the translated work of Haruki Murakami, originally in Japanese – 海辺のカフカ Umibe no Kafuka and my first book by Harukami.
What struck me straight away was the ease of reading the language presented. I’d expected the opposite so this was a pleasant surprise. The other thing I noticed was the dialogue between the characters which was rather ‘wordy’, just like in anime translated into English; as if words are said purely to fill in the time that lips are moving. This made for awkward exchanges that are quite noticeable.

So, alright. Let’s start with the characters encountered so far.

. . . . . . .

Kafka Tamura: This is the lead character. A lanky 15 year old boy who runs away from his father in search of his mother and sister both of whom he has never met before. He gets on a bus in Nakano Ward and travels to the town of Takamatsu, south of Tokyo. A bit strange at first but slowly I realised also that his conversations with a Boy Named Crow were actually conversations with his own alter-ego, “Crow“. Crow tells the runaway Kafka throughout the book that he has to be the “toughest fifteen year old boy in the world”.

Satoru Nakata: An old man. His is a parallel story in the book which I am still waiting to cross paths with Kafka’s. So far at this point, nothing. Nakata is retarded/mentally challenged, a condition that he found himself in as a child after being unconscious for weeks following a flash in sky which he and a group of 16 small children saw while on a mushroom gathering trip in the forest during World War II. Like Nakata, all the children had lost consciousness and collapsed after witnessing the flash but all woke up a few hours later, except for Nakata. When he came to, he found that he could not read and speak properly anymore. He was no longer the bright child that he used to be. However, he suddenly had an ability to talk to cats. In Kafka, he speaks to the cats Mimi, Kawamura, Goma and Otsuka. These cats (except for Otsuka), are captured towards the middle of the book by Johnnie Walker, a strange character who dresses exactly like his whiskey namesake who has a penchant for killing cats, slicing them open and eating their beating hearts before sawing off their heads and displaying them on a tray.

Nakata earns a living as a tracker of lost cats, earning a fee for finding the neighbourhood’s lost pets. He also gets a subsidy (or sub city, as he calls it) from the Governor. He comes across Johnnie Walker while looking for the lost pet Goma.

Johnnie Walker: A feared person (at this stage of the books). Cats warn Nakata of him but Nakata brushes the warnings aside and waits in an empty plot of land for Goma or the man with the hat (Walker) to show up. Later on in Johnnie Walker’s house, after seeing him kill cats, Nakata is consumed by anger and stabs Walker to death and leaving his body in a pool of blood. Nakata collapses into a couch shortly after in Johnnie Walker’s house but wakes up in the empty field again with the cats Mimi and Goma around him. Was it a dream? Where did the blood stains on his clothes go to? Confused, the simple minded man walks into a police station to confess the ‘murder’ but is not taken seriously by the officer on duty. Strangely also, Nakata was suddenly able to prophecize that fish would fall from the sky. This only earns Nakata more of the officer’s ridicule.

But fish do fall, as predicted, from the sky. And the body of a man is later found, stabbed. Having ignored the old man and done nothing – not even taking down the report, the officer tries to cover up the fact that Nakata had been to the station in order to protect himself.

Sakura: In Takamatsu, Kafka stays at first in a hotel but after finding himself waking up in a park with blood on his clothes, decides to call on Sakura a fellow passenger he met on his bus trip to Takamatsu. They’d talked and she gave him her contact details. He asks to spend the night at her place, afraid of going back to the hotel in that state for fear of raising suspicions that he was a runaway. In the middle of the night, as both are unable to sleep, Kafka climbs into Sakura’s bed at her invitation. He has an erection and she gives him some relief using her hand. This is a strange part of the book, and it made me uncomfortable as certain parts seem to allude to the possibility that Sakura may be Kafka’s sister.

I also notice that Harukami writes a few times rather matter of factly, about Kafka’s masturbation and acts of cleaning and scrubbing of genitals. As if trying to sound liberated in writing about these, I felt they stemmed more from Harukami’s subconscious rebelling against Japanese cultural suppression of sex and sexuality. As a result, it made the character of Kafka look like a pervert more than anything else. Just my observation.

Oshima: After deciding not to return to the hotel and having left Sakura’s flat after one night, Kafka goes to the Komura Library (a place he frequents daily while in Takamatsu) and seeks the help of the librarian Oshima. “I just need a roof over my head”, Kafka pleads. Oshima obliges and brings Kafka to the countryside to a log cabin where he leaves Kafka alone for a few days. I enjoyed this part of the book, where we read about Kafka’s fear of the darkness (night) and the relief and beauty of the surroundings during the day. Later on, Oshima returns and moves Kafka to live in the library, working as his assistant.

Miss Saeki: Miss Saeki is Oshima’s superviser at the Komura Library. While at this stage of the book Kafka has not met Miss Saeki, we learn that she was the lover of the eldest son of the Komura family. Separated (he left to study in the city), she wrote poetry and love songs dedicated to him. He becomes active in student politics and the upheavals of the 1960s, eventually being killed during a student uprising on the campus.

At around the time of his death, she had a written a poem and set it to piano and sang it in front of people. Long story short, Miss Saeki’s song – ‘Kafka On the Shore’, became a hit single. After learning of his death, she ceased to sing anymore. Some years after the tragedy, she returned to Takamatsu and found a job taking care of the Komura family’s library.

Oshima explains to Kafka that Miss Saeki is a bit odd, “There’s one other thing I’d like you to be aware of. Miss Saeki has a wounded heart. To some extent that’s true of us all, present company included. But Miss Saeki has a special individual would that goes beyond the usual meaning of the term. Her soul moves in mysterious ways. I’m not saying she’s dangerous – don’t get me wrong. On a day-to-day level she’s definitely got her act together, probably more than anybody else I know. She’s charming, deep, intelligent. But just don’t let it bother you if you notice something odd about her sometimes.”

. . . . . . .

Part-Review: Some quirky bits in the book. Again, I think owing to Japanese culture.

I’m still enjoying the book so far, every page beckons you to turn the next. Nakata’s tale is enchanting, of fish falling from the sky and talking cats. Surreal. Whereas Kafka’s is a journey of self discovery. (Part Two to follow)

Part Two of Review Page 233 – 615

haruki-murakami

Haruki Murakami

I finished the book at midnight last night. This is the rest of my review.

. . . . . . .

Surreal” is again the best word to describe this book. Many nights I read and gently drifted off to sleep holding this book in my hands. Of talking cats, spectral beings, Johnnie Walker murdering cats and Colonel Sanders pimping college call-girls, this is a book that will blur the line dividing your conscious waking hours and that dreamlike state you’re in as the tides of slumber rolls quietly over.

Two tales run parallel in Kafka. There is the journey by the runaway Kafka Tamura and then there’s the other one by Nakata, the tracker of lost cats. In the end, I realised the common theme in both their stories. Both are searching for something. In Kafka’s case, he is seeking the love of his mother and sister. He searches for the reasons why he was abandoned by his mother when he was four. What could have led his mother to such a decision? He is looking for something he never had.

Nakata on the other hand, is looking for what he had but was taken away from him as a child – taken from his self, his very being. He is incomplete. He has half a shadow and not all of himself. He is looking for something taken from him, something he lost.

Both are linked together by a magical thing called the Entrance Stone, a gateway between this world and another realm where people go to escape, to find things .. where souls go when they depart. A place called “limbo”, a place between Heaven and Hell.

I won’t go too much into the details of the plot or the rest of the characters such as Hoshino, Colonel Sanders, etc. Suffice to say this second part of the book gets much more interesting as the plot races towards its conclusion where both journeys meet and intertwine.

There are humourous moments, such as the exchanges between Nakata’s volunteer travel companion, Hoshino and KFC’s Colonel Sanders as he leads Hoshino through the maze of alley-ways, much like the White Rabbit in Alice Through the Looking Glass – except that it wasn’t down a hole but to a love hotel for a rendezvous with a prostitute. Or Hoshino’s conversation with Nakata the corpse (Oops! Have I revealed too much?)

Anyway – the conclusion does not afford a resolution. Questions linger about the murder of Kafka Tamura’s father – who actually did it? And is Miss Saeki Kafka’s mother? And what about Sakura? I also don’t quite get the symbolism behind the attack on Johnnie Walker (who I thought was supposed to be dead) by the Boy Named Crow.

I did some background reading, and I found this on wikipedia –

After the novel’s release, Murakami’s Japanese publisher set up a website allowing readers to submit questions regarding the meaning of the book. 8,000 questions were received and Murakami responded personally to about 1,200 of them [citation needed]. In an interview posted on his English language website, Murakami stated that the secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. Murakami: “Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.”

Well, I’m not that driven to try and solve the riddles. Overall, I’m happy with just one reading. I can live with not knowing the answers, leaving the magic unexplained. I can imagine this book being made into a anime movie, it has all the wondrous elements in it. Truly brilliant. I enjoyed it. Or to paraphrase old Nakata – “Yes, this book is one of my favourite books”.

Magical!

This is my second book by Markus Zusak, which I got after very satisfyingly finishing “The Book Thief“.

Messenger is a delightful read. Entertaining, funny … light. Most of all, easy on the senses. I finished the book in less than a week, reading it for about 30 minutes everyday.

It has memorable characters that stay with you long after the book has taken its place on your shelf: Ed Kennedy, 19 years old – an underage cabbie who is hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey – also a cabbie. Both in dead-end jobs. Ed driving from one destination to the next. And Audrey from one boyfriend to another. Both lost and without direction. They hang around with Ritchie and Marv, playing cards and lounging in Ed’s shack in the evenings. Ritchie is unemployed. Marv works as a builder. And oh, there’s the Doorman, Ed’s 17 year old Rottweiler/German Shepherd cross who smells every inch the stinky dog that he is. The Doorman loves coffee, and likes to sit by the door. Hence the name.

Ed’s our main guy and the story starts with him and his mate Marv being held hostage in a bank robbery. The scene inside the bank – with the staff and customers all sprawled out on the floor and held at gunpoint by a gunman – and the exchange between Ed and Marv about Marv’s wreck of a car being the funniest. One thing leads to another and next we see the police arriving and unsuspectingly orders the robber’s waiting getaway car to move from the front of the bank, leaving the robber stranded. Desperate to escape, he orders Marv to give him the keys to his car (thanks to their exchange about Marv’s car outside) and attempts to get away. The robber drops his gun outside and Ed seizes it and goes to corner the bungling robber before he can start the engine (there’s always a problem with the car’s ignition – amongst other things).

So Ed becomes a local hero, his face plastered all over the local newspapers. And that’s when the cards start arriving.

The first card has the names of streets and times. He visits the addresses and sees that each of them has a story to tell. For example, there’s the house on Edgar Street with the abusive drunk husband who comes back every night terrorising his wife and daughter. Then there’s the house with the old lady – Milla Johnson who keeps calling Ed ‘Jimmy’ (‘Jimmy’ being her husband who died in the War). Milla’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, you see.

Ed steps up to the house on Edgar Street, and hears the commotion inside. The little daughter comes running out, and sits on the steps. Ed’s there but he is powerless to do anything. So he does nothing. He goes home, and finds a gun in his mailbox. Long story short, Ed finds himself in the woods, with the abusive man kneeling in front of him. The gun in Ed’s hand to the back of his head.The man pleads for his life and Ed shouts his warnings to him about acting like a bastard to his family. The gun goes off, and the man runs. Never to be seen again. One mission accomplished and peace returns to the home on Edgar Street.

With Milla, Ed becomes Jimmy, visiting her, dining with her and being a companion. He reads Wuthering Heights to her on every visit, and spends time with her until she sleeps. He tucks her in and leaves. This goes on throughout the book and is very touching to read.

And so goes the story. Ed finishes the list of missions on each card and moves on to the next. In the process, he makes friends (think of the Tatapu family, Sophie, etc) and enemies (think of the Rose brothers) and slowly discovers himself and his own life. From a life of ordinariness, the missions give his existence meaning and he ceases to become “Just Ed” – much to Audrey’s dismay. We find out later that she (as do Marv and Ritchie and a host of other characters) has her reasons though not conscious of them.

An ordinary bloke delivering messages, changing people’s lives. In the end, Ed realises that his life is not so ordinary after all. He matters. It’s pretty much summed up when he says that “if a guy like him can stand up and do what he did, then maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.”

Zusak’s Australian and you can read a lot of Aussie slang in this book. It brought back memories of my boarding school and University days in Australia, and that probably made the book that little bit more special to me.

This book was written before The Book Thief and in one part of it, there is already a reference to ‘colours’ – later a theme that features prominently in The Book Thief. I guess the idea came in this book and perfected in The Book Thief.

I enjoyed this book though I do find the ending a bit of a let-down. I was hoping for a resolution, but was left with more questions than answers. It felt as though Zusak rushed the ending. I never quite understand why anyone would go through such an elaborate plot involving a bank robbery, etc just in order to get to that kind of ending with Ed. And who exactly was the mastermind?

Perhaps these things don’t matter. We should just understand the book’s message, and not the book itself.

Yes, highly recommended. Read it.

My verdict – Misleading.

Allow me to explain.

Death of a Murderer spans 249 pages. By the time I turned the 200th page, I knew something was very wrong because the “chill” that was supposed to run down my spine still had not manifested itself. Not only that, but the whole premise of the book (as represented on the backcover synopsis) – centered around the death of convicted child serial killer Myra Hindley – seemed almost non-existent.

Boyd Tonkin of the Independent reviewed this book as “Fearless … summons up the monsters that haunt both self and society”. Eve Magazine wrote that “this chiller is one to read with the lights on … an ultimate dark night of the soul.”

The backcover states: “One night in November 2002, PC Billy Tyler is called to a mortuary in Suffolk to guard the body of a notorious child-killer. But in the eerie silence of the hospital, the killer’s presence begins to assert itself … A vivid evocation of an extraordinary moment in crime history, Death of a Murderer is a dark and gripping meditation on the fears and temptations that haunt us all.

Let me tell you what happened in the eerie silence of the mortuary. PC Billy Tyler struggles to stay awake. He drinks coffee alone watching the mortuary fridges one of which contains Hindley’s body. He doesn’t have the key to open the locked fridge door so he sits there and he starts to daydream and have flashbacks of his wife Sue, his daughter who has Down’s syndrome and he has erotic thoughts of his ex-girlfriend Venetia who is half Scottish half Indian. Twice during the night that he is on duty guarding the body he hallucinates that he is talking to the dead woman, who appears wearing a lilac suit and smokes incessantly. She asks about the person he loved the most in his life.. A philosophical exchange.

Eerie? Chilling? No. Nothing of that sort. Nothing even close to that sort. And that left me so very disappointed. I had wanted to read a ghost story, something disturbing. But the cover of this book is everything that its story is not.

This book would more aptly be titled “Dreaming in a Mortuary” or “My Conversation with Myself in a Mortuary” or “Policeman’s Erotic Daydreams” and clearly not “Death of a Murderer”. Because there is nothing about Myra Hindley or her tormented soul coming back from the dead. There is nothing about her dark sadism that consumes PC Billy Tyler during his watch. Nothing at all.

Instead, we are treated to endless flashbacks of Tyler’s life before and during this time in the force. There are the adventures he had in Italy with his friend Raymond Percival, sex with Venetia … how he wore his police uniform and went to Venetia’s father’s house late one night to convey his daughter’s sentiments to him about their 6-year incestuous relationship, thoughts about Emma his daughter, etc. But nothing about the Myra Hindley murders or for that matter, any of her “presence”.

It’s not a bad book. Don’t get me wrong. It was an enjoyable read, but I read and read, turning the pages because I was led to believe by the covers that this was some kind of ghost story. In the end it was not. And hence my disappointed take on this book. I was misled.

Backcovers and Hindley aside, this is a book about Mr Everyman. About ordinary people living today, worrying about the future and pondering on the past. PC Billy Tyler is the sum of it all, and with him, we too are invited to think about our own lives and what we’ve achieved within the time given to us and all of our struggles for acceptance. Myra Hindley is just a backdrop to all this.

If you’ve read this book, I’d like to know what you thought of it. And on that same note, I’d appreciate it if someone could recommend a really scary book for me to read (No Stephen King, please).

I picked this book up simply because I could not find anything else to buy in the bookstore. The circumstances being such, I thought I should try reading something from a totally different genre. Forget the soapy stuff that Oprah would recommend, I walked over to the series of Action Adventure Thriller books and again, based purely on the cover, picked up Crossfire by Andy McNab. Guns. Terrorists. Mayhem. Simple enough, I thought – not too much thinking involved. A quick one before I launch into another deep novel.

It took me another 2 weeks before I actually came around to reading it. Ploughing through the thick My Little Friend, by Donna Tartt left me exhausted and I ended up watching a lot of television after that.

Crossfire features the lead hero, Nick Stone – a former SAS soldier now freelancing as a security contractor, providing bodyguard services to various news agencies (or anyone for that matter who pays) operating in the Middle East, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan. Stone is also a “K” – an agent working for the British intelligent services on ‘deniable’ operations. This is the first McNab book I’ve read and I understand that the character Nick Stone features in all his books as the central lead.

The plot is simple enough. Stone is protecting a reporter and his cameraman on the streets of wartorn Basra, Iraq. During an insurgent attack, Stone is knocked unconscious but is saved by the cameraman. Shortly after, he discovers that the cameraman is dead and the reporter, Dom – missing. Presumably kidnapped and held for ransom. What follows next is a fast paced adventure to London, Dublin and Kabul with lots of violence and action as Stone is ordered by the Intelligence Service to locate the whereabouts of Dom.

I didn’t think I’d come to this conclusion but I have to say that I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the killing and the fighting and never ever thought I could be so immersed in a gunfight scene purely based on written words – to the extent that my eyeballs felt like they were pulsating as they raced from one word to the next.

The dialogues are witty and quick. The action unforgettable – almost a learning experience as Stone gives pointers on how to sneak into a building, introduces and explains various weapons and my favourite, making a home-made taser using forks, a broom handle and a wall circuit point.

Now, I’m on the look out for Bravo Two Zero, another bestseller by McNab based on his true account of a mission inside Iraq with the SAS. Thanks to this book, I’ll never look at this genre quite the same way I used to.

The Twittering Monk

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