How Do You Live? By Genzaburo Yoshino is Wonderful

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino is an important book. It’s a book that I wish I had read when I was younger. I think it would have helped me with quite a few things that caused me to suffer. I think this will be true for most people too. That isn’t to say that there is only something here for younger audiences. Everyone can take something from this novel. It is lovely. It’s a lovely and positive book that celebrates humanity and how one might grow to be a better person. We’re never too young for lessons like that and this book is suffused with them. 

How Do You Live was published in 1937 and this year marks the very first time it has been translated into English and published very kindly by Random House in a beautiful hard cover edition. It is a best seller in Japan and has been beloved for decades and now English speaking audiences can find out for themselves why. 

How Do You Live follows the life and learnings of a young man named Honda Junichi. We chart his life and discoveries as a teenager in an increasingly militaristic Japan. The book takes two perspectives – the first is that of Junichi or Copper, a nickname that quickly becomes his moniker – the second is that of Copper’s Uncle who fulfils the roles of father figure, elder brother and spiritual guide. 

The book weaves between events in Copper’s life as they occur and his Uncle’s journal. The journal is written to Copper and filled with wisdom, analysis and teachings in reference to the things that he has experienced. His uncle’s love and respect for Copper is plain, as is his admiration for his budding intelligence and empathy. It’s clear that he wishes for Copper to live a good life and to fully realise what it is to be a good person. 

The result of these segments is a meditation on life and learning through the lens of a young man and all of the turbulence and melancholy of one’s teenage years. His uncle’s advice is critical without being negative, it’s supportive and nurturing while also piercing, but most of all it is true. The truth in the story is so redolent because of their faith in each other. It’s honest and true and brave. 

The book is a baring of ones soul. Nothing is hidden, it is all revealed in its beauty and ugliness. Copper is a precocious and intelligent boy but he is not without his flaws. The book reveals a few of them, almost painfully at times. The virtue lies in his realisation of them, his Uncle’s sage advice, and Coppers willingness to face it. The book is perfect in its imperfections. 

One thing that I’ll take away from this book and hopefully take to heart is the message that no matter how badly you may feel in a moment of regret, be it of an action or words, the other party or parties will have forgotten or forgiven it long before you will. There are a few moments in the book that beautifully illustrate this and it felt like a gift to me. Nobody will ever be harder on you than you are on yourself. It’s good to be reminded of that. 

This book is filled with little moments like that. 

I didn’t know how badly I needed to read a book like this, or how badly I needed to forgive myself for the innumerable things that I’ve lashed myself over that were, in the end, negligible or inconsequential. Copper’s uncle would suggest that we aren’t defined by mistakes. We are instead defined by what we do after we make them. In that is one of the keys to being a good person, I think. 

It should come as no surprise that this book was a childhood favourite of Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli and will soon become a Ghibli Film. The Ghibli tradition of heart and warmth will fit this story perfectly. Miyazaki has stated that he is making the film for his Grandson, almost as an epitaph to remain after he is gone. This film will remain with the world in legacy, as Yoshino Genzaburo’s book did before him. It’s a wonderful tribute. 

Having read this now I feel a responsibility to spread word of it in my own small way. If one more person reads this book because of my post I’d consider it an honour.

Pandemic Page-turners: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

I discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami after reading Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I loved that book and, as a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, I was already sold on the wistful and melancholic sensibilities that flow from Japanese authors. I decided to dig into some current Japanese writers to broaden my perspective. Hiromi Kawakami did not disappoint.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a diaphanous, sweet and contemplative love story. It foregoes the surrealism of Murakami’s work and doesn’t have the nihilistic edge of Sayaka Murata’s books, but Kawakami has a delicacy and affection that provides her own distinction.

There is something magical about these writers. They are capable of infusing books with the bittersweet moment of parting. They possess a sense of yearning that is unique.

There are moments of loss, but these are contrasted by what is gained. The richness of an experience is that despite the pain you may endure one day when things change, it is worth it. That feeling is proof of significance. You can’t gain without loss – there is a price to be paid. To mourn the absence of something means that it was special. The presence of this philosophy in these books provides a strange sense of both pragmatism and romanticism.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is occupied with the personal transformation that takes place inside an interpersonal relationship. There is a balance between loneliness and isolation and company and companionship. I think this contrast is the key to one of the novel’s great successes. It’s firmly entrenched in the notion of loss and gain. The book is about a chance meeting rooted in the past and the profound effect that it has on two lives.

The book centres on Tsukiko and a random meeting with one of her teachers from primary school, referred to as Sensei. Despite the significant age gap between them, and his position as an old teacher of hers during her childhood, the two find themselves drawn together. They begin to bond through small similarities – tastes and appreciation of food and alcohol are significant, for example. The book weaves through small vignettes of their meetings and partings and the indelible marks each interaction leaves on them.

These fleeting moments are captured beautifully by Hiromi Kawakami. What begins as chance and casual encounters meanders into affection and then melds slowly into love. The book is short but the story is a memorable one. It shows just how fleeting and precious life is, how important it is to grasp onto the things that are important to you. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a book where you face this and the achingly melancholic truth that nothing lasts forever.

Pandemic Page-turners: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Sci-Fi? Aliens? First Contact? Check, check and check.

Axiom’s End is the first book in a new series called ‘Noumena’ by Lindsay Ellis. The second book ‘Truth of the Divine’ is due October this year, so now is the perfect time to tuck into Axiom’s End and join me being hyped.

I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi and have been since I was a kid. So any book that purports to be about Aliens and first contact are irresistible to me, regardless of execution. Name it and I’ve probably read it, the good and the bad. So given my preponderance of Sci-Fi books what did I think about Axiom’s End?

I loved it.

This book scratched a lot of itches. I realised that I haven’t read a really gratifying book about Alien life in a long time. There are a lot of great ideas in this corner of the genre and Lindsay Ellis explores some of the most fascinating ones.

First is the concept of Aliens. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise the idea of Aliens. It’s in our nature to do it. To visualise another intelligence, that could very well be unknowable, it is reasonable to assume that we would apportion these existences familiar anatomical landmarks. But in reality intelligent life out there could be so unfamiliar and unknowable to us that we wouldn’t know it if we saw it. I love that mystery. It is something that is utterly out of our comfort zone and experience. I think the book addresses this concept while also moving along a narrative vector that abides it. The concept of Aliens is, well, Alien.

One of my favourite ideas from the book came about from a discussion between two characters, that I won’t spoil, but it concerns the concept of the ‘Great Filter’. This is in relation to the Fermi Paradox, named after Physicist Enrico Fermi. I won’t go too deeply into it, but the gist of it is this: Given the enormity of space, the billions of potential of stars and planets that could theoretically support life in our galaxy, why have we not already encountered intelligent species beyond our own? The contrasting lack of evidence of other intelligences lead to the argument that there is a qualifying process that a species must pass through before extending beyond their star – a great filter for civilisation. It begs the question: when is this obstacle encountered, and when found, what is required to pass it?

This is heady stuff and I love that the book delves into these concepts.

Amongst these broad themes is the main character Cora Sabino and her family. The book is their story amidst tidal undercurrents of global change. Given how significant the events in the book, focusing on a family was an incredibly clever way to ground the story and make it relatable, while also exploring the deeper implications of Alien life and what that might do to our civilisation and our view of the Universe.

Through Cora we determine how prepared we are for the appearance of Alien life while also reconciling how we might go about quantifying it and understanding it. We have the contrasting needs of Cora’s granular concerns regarding her family and their wellbeing and her own safety and the overarching security of state and the governments mandate to protect and insulate the people in the face of something that nobody really understands.

Cora’s struggle between the immovable forces of government, the unknowable and unfathomable depths of Alien life and her own estranged whistleblowing father make for a dynamic and multifaceted conflict that explores the primary questions surrounding the idea of Alien life such as disclosure and freedom of information versus the need for security, preparation and the public’s ability to deal with this information.

And beyond all of this is the actual process of communicating and even understanding an Alien intelligence.

I’m inclined to keep talking about it but this post is more to nudge people toward reading the book, and not to break it down and spoil things. It’s better this way.

The more books we have on this topic the better and Lindsay Ellis have given us a great one. I’m looking forward to the next.

Ten Books to Combat an Existential Crisis

Does existence terrify you? Does life seems dark and horrifying? Have you lost your faith in people?

Are you looking for a glimmer of hope to grasp onto?

Maybe you just want a few incredible and life affirming books to read. That’s cool too.

I hope that this list will aid with any and all of these states. I present to you my list of books for your mental bomb shelter. These are the books that you crack open during times of upheaval. They are funny, sad, confronting, and most importantly, hopeful. They are a valuable resource in this day and age, worth their weight in gold.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657The story of Scout, Jem and Atticus is timeless. Harper Lee wrote this book with enormous empathy. The book deals with tumultuous issues such as gender, race, justice, and rape. The book is eternally relevant, and the moral heroism of Atticus Finch, and the innocent optimism of Scout, is still positive and vital.

This is a book filled with hope, compassion and courage. Read this book to remind yourself that there are, and have always been, good people who will do the right thing, the good thing, in the face of ignorance and hate.

  1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

28921Stevens is a butler. The book is a meditation on his life and choices. It deals with shifting relationships, decisions made, and the loss of opportunities. The novel weaves through Stevens’ life, through past and present. I was hugely sympathetic to this story when I read it. Stevens is such a lonely character. But he is also a man of conviction, pride and professionalism.

The novel considers things like love, duty and loyalty, in addition to the influence of time on perspective and thought. It is about a man taking stock of his life, and considering what could have been but also what is. It is sad, but it is also hopeful and genuine.

  1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

17910048The Goblin Emperor is almost entirely unique in the fantasy genre. The book defines itself by its warmth. The book addresses social issues such as class and race but does so through the unique lens of Maia, the main character.

Maia is a son of the Emperor of the Elflands, but he happens to be of mixed Elven and Goblin heritage. This renders Maia immediately as an outsider in the court, but the true difference between Maia and the denizens there is without a doubt his warmth, sympathy and empathy. Maia is simply and genuinely good.

Maia lives in isolation until the sudden death of his father the Emperor, and his elder siblings, leaves him at the head of the line of succession to the throne. The book follows Maia’s descent into the dark waters of political intrigue with all of the callously ambitious aristocracy one might expect in such a court. Maia, though, is immovable in his goodness, and he attempts to govern as such. This is a book of hope. It is emotive and positive and a breath of fresh kind-hearted air.

  1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764Like the Goblin Emperor, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a unique and hopeful addition to the fantasy genre. The book begins in a small village with the main character Agnieszka being unexpectedly plucked from her home, and it slowly expands until the fate of the kingdom is at stake.

Agnieszka and the enigmatic wizard ‘Dragon’ are the central players of the book. Agnieszka is a hugely admirable, entertaining and grounded protagonist. She is clever, independent, brave, adventurous and empathetic. There is an effortlessly organic quality to her that can only be due to Naomi Novik’s talent as an author.

They face significant threats, conflict, and danger, however Uprooted distinguishes itself by not having a central antagonist. There is evil, and there are evil characters, but the book is more about motivations and consequences instead of forces in direct opposition. It’s a great story, full of growth and potential.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

19063The Book Thief is set in Germany during the rise of fascism and the supremacy of Nazism, and it is utterly heartbreaking. It is horrifying, sad and filled with loss, but also with kindness and hope; the characters inspire it, and the people provide it. This terrible backdrop only accentuates how precious an act of kindness can be.

The book is narrated by Death, who observes the best and the worst of human potential during this time, all the while following the life of Liesel, our little book thief, with a fascination that appears to be unusual.

The characters are what makes this book what it is. They are flawed, frustrating, and stubborn. They are also curious, kind, and ultimately good. The German perspective is unique and powerful. It’s all too common to explore WWII narratives through the lens of the Allies, remotely, but it’s incredibly confronting to sink into a society that felt the horror of Nazism first, and the keenest.

The people in these pages are memorable and it celebrates the good in us. It is the sort of book that will touch even the most cynical heart, and it will restore a measure of faith in humanity, if that is waning. This book explores the good in people that persists even in the crucible of horror and misery that was Nazi Germany. Harrowing, tragic and disturbing, The Book Thief shows what can be achieved by small and simple good deeds, and the hope that can spring from it.

  1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2552On the Road, to me (and many others) is about the search for meaning in life. It is the search for a purpose. It is a bouncing, breathless, and untethered exploration of the ‘beat’ subculture that is both fictional and semi-biographical. It is packed with references and allusions to people in Kerouac’s circles, and it is what I instantly think of whenever someone mentions him.

For me, it’s Kerouac’s defining work. It’s sometimes lonely and isolated, sometimes crowded and feverish. It is a book of people seeking a place to belong in a world that is shifting and changing. It is reckless, fun, and energetic. It is also oddly sad.

The excitement in Kerouac’s search throughout the novel for meaning is a vital experience. It’s a book that captures a certain desperation to step outside of social norms and embrace something new, a desire to forge a new path.

  1. Catch 22 by Joeseph Hellar

168668My overwhelming theme so far has been that of hope and this book, especially toward the end, can be bereft of it. I think that the overall treatment of war here is relevant, as is the relentlessly cold nature of bureaucracy. These things (among many others) make this an important book.

Another reason why I’m adding it here, though, is the utter irrationality and irreverence. This book is as hilarious as it is tragic, but I honestly think that despite the horror, the loss, and the devastation therein, this book is a positive one. Against all odds, against a war machine that appears intent on grinding every last character down to nothing, hope shines through the cracks in the dark.

Yossarian is a hilarious and tragic figure. He is defiant, rebellious and understandably critical of the war and their place in it. He also continues to do his duty despite the dehumanising calculation of their missions, and the likelihood that he and his brothers in arms will die. There is a certainty of death that clashes with the humour, and this contrast sharpens both aspects. The book has a broad cast of characters and they are all doing what they can to cope in the red haze of war and the very real evidence of their fragile mortality.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

18038911Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers living today. Anything he writes is something that I strongly suggest you read, but in the theme of this list, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the best fit.

This book is sweet, nostalgic, and scary, and captures so well the magic of childhood. This is a book about the innocence of youth and the loss that occurs during the transition to adolescence and adulthood. It carefully reinforces the idea that we will always be who we were when we were small no matter how old we get. A little bit of the magic will always be there glimmering inside.

The book flows with the vivid imagination of Neil Gaiman, capturing the wonder of a child that just so happens to find himself in the centre of an effort that will save the world from an unforseen and unanticipated danger.

You could describe this as a fantasy, and it certainly deals with themes common to the fantasy genre, but that feels insufficient to contain it. It is steeped in the recollections of childhood. There is a quality to it that is similar to a lucid daydream. The book is sufficiently rooted in reality to be genuine, but gilded around the edges with the magic found in folk and fairy-tales.

The book is spooky, sad, and unsettling. It is also hopeful, warm, courageous and good. It’s the sort of book that will transport you back to your childhood, when the world seemed so much more magical, grand, and full of unbelievable potential. Where you might walk into the woods one day and simply stroll into another world.

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

818108Norwegian Wood is the first of two Murakami books on this list because I am unable to pick one, and all of his books are perfect for a list like this. It really could have been ten Murakami novels on here and I’d have been satisfied. Murakami taps into something with his writing. It is something elemental that resonates with me, consistently, on a level that very few other writers have.

The story of Norwegian Wood follows the recollection of Toru Watanabe, who at the start of the book is a middle-aged man. After he hears Norwegian Wood by the Beatles play, his memories transport him back into the turbulence of his days as a student in the 1960s.

We observe his listlessness, his boredom, his loves and his losses. There is an aching nostalgia to the story that will be familiar to anybody who has left friendships and relationships behind, to anybody that has lost someone that they love.

Tender, tragic, and isolated, this book simmers with the emotion of a young man who is adrift and experiencing the uniquely keen emotion of a young adult. It is heartfelt, emotional, tempestuous, and incredibly relatable. If you’re going through a dark period, if you feel lost or rudderless, if you’ve had your heart broken, read this book.

We are creatures of memory, and this book will help in embracing that. For all the pain that memories and reflection can elicit, there is a pervading sweetness and nostalgia to it all. It makes us what we are. Murakami champions the value of memory. He suggests that a life lived is the summation of memories and experiences that range from the tragically sad, to the deliriously happy.

70933The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle continues Murakami’s pervading theme of men missing Women. Toru Okada, the protagonist, who is presently unemployed, is looking for his missing cat, and what follows is a surreal descent into a strange and inexplicable labyrinthine underworld of missing people, missing cats, eccentrics, clairvoyants, sex, murderers, and wells, where the lines of reality begin to blur.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to me, is a recovery book. It’s the sort of book you pull out and re-read as a coping mechanism. A good friend of mine refers to it as a ‘break-up’ book. And it really is. If you need an anchor, if you need something stable to grasp upon when you are uncertain or feeling lost, Murakami is a lighthouse that allows you to navigate the rocky shores. Toru Okada’s descent into this strange story, and his search for what he has lost, is isolated, compellingly strange, and sincerely affecting. 

There is slow, deliberate and meticulous quality to Murakami’s writing. His books are tethered in reality, but he opens the door to the strange and the surreal. This is especially so in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In Murakami’s stories he shows us that everyday, little by little, our experiences shape and form us into a new version of ourselves, each slightly different to the last. Murakami takes reality, the chemistry of common life, and he infuses it with mystery and magic. I can think of no other writer who so instils such a profound sense of growth, hope and recovery.

Spotlight: Raven’s Shadow Trilogy by Anthony Ryan – THIS IS A TRILOGY OF BADASSES!

17693064The Raven’s Shadow trilogy is a fantasy series by Anthony Ryan. The first book is Blood Song (first published in 2011), followed by Tower Lord (2014) and Queen of Fire (2015). The books chronicle the life of Vaelin Al Sorna, the son of the King’s famed and feared Battle Lord, after he is severed from his family and deposited into the Sixth Order. A religious sect dedicated to transforming children into elite and deadly warriors. They are bound to the tenants of their faith, and famed for their prowess.

The brothers of the Sixth Order are wherever the fighting is the hottest and wherever the deadliest foes threaten the realm. They are trained to show up, outclass, and annihilate foes – then mic-drop on the way out. This series delivers.

Blood Song is the academy book of the series. The formative years. One of the best of its kind. Blood Song delves into the training of Vaelin and his peers as they are moulded into men who will be the vanguard in combat and conflict throughout the realm. It is a coming of age story, and it is a vital book. It forms the foundation, the relationships, and the personalities that prop up and propel the story over the course of the trilogy.

It is amazing. I loved the trilogy, but Blood Song is something special. I’m going to keep this a spoiler free review, as usual, so Blood Song (Book One) will be the book I focus on here. So, what does the synopsis say? Read More »

Blog: Perfect protagonists – and their critics

darksoulsI want to talk about something that really baffles me in the book blogging/review community and it is this: the need people have to take a story with a precocious or brilliant main character and slam them as a “mary-sue” or “gary-stu”. The implicit criticism being that they are so perfect that they are annoying. As soon as a ‘critic’ introduces this label it appears to be open season on the legitimacy of both the character and the story. It is dismissive, cheap and painfully arrogant.Read More »

You must read SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson: Here’s why

sevenevesNeal Stephenson is a challenging and erudite author. He is the writer responsible for Snow Crash, one of my favourite books, along with classics like The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. Lauded, celebrated and awarded – Neal Stephenson has many laurels. When SEVENEVES hit shelves around the world Barack Obama, then POTUS and leader of the free world, earmarked it for his summer reading. When the POTUS dedicates time to kicking back and reading a Sci-Fi novel, you know that it isn’t an ordinary book.

Read More »

You must read Riyria Revelations

Riyria Revelations is a fantasy trilogy by Michael J. Sullivan. Yes I am reviewing an entire trilogy. The books that comprise the series are Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron and they are incredible. I picked up on a recommendation for this series after really finishing The Shadow of What Was Lost. Thanks to that book I was on a fantasy high and wow am I glad I found mention of Theft of Swords. I read it, bought the next two, and now here we are.Read More »

You must read The Shadow of What Was Lost

The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington is a cracking book. The emergence of a new series of this calibre is incredibly exciting. James Islington is an Australian author, which as an Australian myself, makes me immensely proud. There are precious few Australian voices in the international pool of epic fantasy, but Islington is proof that there are incredible fantasy writers out there awaiting discovery. It’s refreshing. Islington is a pioneer. I wish him every success.Read More »

One of my bad reading habits

I’ve noticed something about my reading habits recently. I lean heavily toward genre fiction, but I in no way limit myself to that. I’ll pretty much read anything that has a plot that can pull me in. I’ll give any book a chance. But, if it hasn’t hooked me by page 100 or so I’ll probably set it aside. I like to give a book a chance but I don’t have the time to see every one I pick up though, and there is just too much to read. The system has worked for me but a book I started reading recently has begun to highlight a few flaws in my system. That book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.Read More »