“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2014)

Colorless Tsukuru

If you’re a Murakami fan, holding his latest book is always a cause for excitement, and whether you’re a fan or not, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a work of art in design from Knopf to be admired by any reader and art lover for its design, color and execution. And the good news is the story from Murakami stands up greatly to this beautifully created book.

After the long-windedness and lengthiness of Murakami’s previous 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru is short and to the point, featuring some great characters and the sort of story fans have come to love from Murakami. It is the story of five young high school friends who become as close as siblings and do everything together; after graduating four of them stay in town, while Tsukuru Tazaki goes away for college. And then something happens which breaks the group apart and all their lives are changed forever. Tazaki is told to leave the group and never return. He does not know what he has done and the four friends refuse to tell him.

Tazaki lives his life through his twenties and early thirties as a designer of railway stations, a passion he has harbored since he was a child. Upon meeting an interesting girl that he begins to care greatly for, she tells him he should visit each of these former friends and find out why they abandoned him so suddenly and for what reason. His pilgrimage will take him back home to familiar sights and sounds, as well as to Europe where everything is different. Along the way he will learn a lot, but because this is a Murakami book, Tazaki will not always know why. Nevertheless, like all good Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru sucks you in and doesn’t let you go until the last word is read.

Originally written on September 19, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Kafka on the Shore  Wind-up Bird Chronicle  Hard-Boiled Wonderland

“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)


In addition to creating the first fantasy epic, inventing a complete and insanely, thoroughly detailed world, and even making up its own language and alphabet, as well as teaching for decades, the great J. R. R. Tolkien also wrote a translation to the famous epic Old English poem “Beowulf.” Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien, reveals this translation in its entirety for the first time, and so much more.

Tolkien completed his first translation of “Beowulf” in 1926, but he was by no means done with the poem. Over the ensuing years and decades he continued to make changes and updates and lectured greatly on the epic alliterative poem. Christopher Tolkien presents this ideal translation from Tolkien, and then includes his father’s vast commentary painstakingly collected and organized. The book features notes on how Tolkien translated specific words and stanzas with plenty of additional notes. Included are also lectures and lecture notes Tolkien gave on the epic poem. Finally, the great author even penned his own poem (in both modern and Old English) that acts as a precursor to “Beowulf” as a sort of fairytale written in the same style, but not within the history.

Compared to Seamus Heaney’s very well known and popular translation of the same poem, Tolkien goes for a much more literal adaptation, where some of the moving alliteration is perhaps lost, but the true sense of the poem and the meaning the author or authors were intending is possibly better comprehended. With the description and vocabulary, Tolkien does a great job of making the reader feel as if they are there at Heorot with Beowulf and Hrothgar and the comitatus. He uses an older language of “doths” and “thines” because of the time he is writing in, but also to give a sense of age to the poem, which can be a helping or a hindrance for the reader. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is a very welcome one that will be enjoyed by many and likely taught and studied in future medieval and Old English classes to come.

Originally written on November 18, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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“S.” by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (Mulholland Books, 2013)


Some books are just good stories written by an author and thoroughly enjoyed by the reader. And a select few are works of art created by multiple authors and an incredible development team behind a daring publisher; S. is one of those books, perhaps the only one of its kind. A project that has been years in the making, beginning as an idea between two creative guys that became something much bigger when Mulholland Books agreed to publish it and employed the abilities of a team of editors, copyeditors and book development people to create a book that is much more than just any old book.

S. works on many levels. If Inception could be a book, this would be it.

Look Inside

At the deepest level is an old forgotten book by a once well-known author whose life has been shrouded in mystery and whose identity still remains in question. It is called Ship of Theseus about a person known as “S” who awakes not knowing who he is and anything about his life, as he begins a very strange journey into finding answers to his many questions.

At the next level is the translator of the Ship of Theseus who was a huge fan of V. M. Straka’s work, so much so that they were in a relationship, though it is unknown whether the author and translator were ever able to confess their love for each other. However, the translator and author have left secreted messages and ciphers in the text as well as within the footnotes. So while the translator is educating the reader on the story and facts about the book and what she knew about the author, she is also secretly communicating with Straka.


Up one level we have the completed old book which is what the reader holds in their hands when they take it out of the slipcase.  The level of detail that the publisher went to recreating this old book is nothing short of astounding, with stamped check out dates, stains and marks on some of the pages, and an aged feel and color to the pages; their even seems to be a musty smell about the volume. And within the margins and spaces around the text we have a former teacher and an undergrad student conversing back and forth about the text, the author, life, and eventually their own lives and feelings towards each other, even though they don’t physically meet for a long time.

There are a couple sub-levels within this particular level as the two “main” characters are not simply conversing back and forth but are doing so at different points in their lives. Eric has read the book a number of times, and has notations from the first time he read it when he was a teenager in pencil, and then further comments between Jennifer and he at different points in time, when they know different things about each other.

Then there are the number of pieces of media secreted within the pages: photos, letters between Eric and Jennifer, but also relating to Ship of Theseus; postcards and notes and an incredibly detailed map drawn upon a napkin. Again, the detail that went into creating these items is nothing short of astonishing, with the old photos with logo prints on the back, aged postcards, letters with ink smudges and coffee stains. As for the map, it is drawn in pen on a college napkin that still perfectly, delicately folds to show the school logo.


At the final level is the reader opening the pages of S. for the first time, taking in all these levels and each of the stories going on at each level. It can be read in certain ways and is the sort of book that can benefit from being read multiple times. Ultimately, it is a book unlike any other, likely unlike anything you have read before. But it will be a journey you won’t soon forget, and one you can return to whenever you want.

Originally written on August 14, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of S. from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2001)

Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart is another great example of the brilliance of Haruki Murakami: a short novel that sucks you in from the very beginning and doesn’t let you go until the last page.  It is one of those books where little seems to actually happen, but in the minds of the characters, lives are lived and worlds are changed.

K, a college student, has fallen in love with Sumire.  She is everything to him, and he cherishes every moment they share together.  They are both writers; she a complex messy one that engulfs her entire life.  In his heart, he knows they will never be together, but still he continues to hope, and any time spent together he enjoys to its fullest.  Then she tells him of someone she has met, Miu, a middle-aged woman who has captured her heart, much in the same way Sumire has captured K’s.  The she goes on a business trip with Miu that turns into a vacation in Greece on a small island.  K goes about his life until he receives the disturbing call from Miu still in Greece.  He flies to the island eventually finds Miu only to discover that Sumire has vanished into thin air.  All she has left behind are some very personal writing pieces.

Sputnik Sweetheart is the sort of book that continues to pull you down into deeper levels, as you contemplate what is happening and what it means; there is little use in searching for a “why” as Murakami’s journeys are not about that.  The human psyche is not logical and straightforward, but it is a voyage you will not soon forget.

Originally written on February 20, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Sputnik Sweetheart from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle  Hard-Boiled Wonderland  Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman1Q84  Kafka on the Shore  Norwegian Wood

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 1997)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Sometimes books can be exactly like beautiful, perfect pieces of art; created with skill and finesse and care and brilliant ability to the point where the reader might feel they are holding the equivalent of the Mona Lisa in their hands.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is one of those magical novels that many readers consider to be a perfect work of art; it in fact represents the best this bestselling Japanese author has to offer.  His other works employ elements of his mastery, whether its compelling fully-rounded characters that are just fascinating to read about; or a great storyline that sucks you in from the very beginning and keeps you going until the very end; or strong themes that force the reader to think more on the story they are reading, and what meaning and resonance it might have on their own life.  But The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the pristine of example employing all these attributes in a perfect work of fiction.

Our unusual and flawed hero is one Toru Okada, who begins the story with a simple quest: to find his lost cat.  Okada is unemployed while his wife, Kumiko, spends her days busy at work at a publishing house and he sees her but briefly in the early mornings and late at night before they go to sleep; it is clear that their marriage and relationship is on shaky grounds.  Okada challenges himself to find this cat that has gone missing, spending his time searching up and down the streets of this ordinary Tokyo neighborhood.  While there is no cat in sight, he soon befriends a most enigmatic teenage girl named May Kasahara who is a classic Murakami character with quirks and unusual characteristics that just make her fascinating to read.

As time passes, no cat is found, and then Kumiko suddenly disappears and Okada finds himself now searching for his wife as well as his cat, as he burns through his savings.  Before he knows it, he finds himself unavoidably inveigled in circumstances and experiences that grow weirder by the chapter, as he finds himself sitting at the bottom of a dark well looking up at that small circle of light and sky.  Along the way he meets more unusual characters, such as Malta Kano, named after the island of Malta, who has been asked by Kumiko to help find the cat.  Then there is her even stranger sister, Creta Kano, named after the island of Crete, who is essentially a psychic prostitute.

Eventually Okada discovers the reason for Kumiko’s disappearance, and has to deal with her weasely and despicable brother, Noboru Wataya (whom they named the cat after), who is a political celebrity well revered in public circles.  Okada also meets and begins working with Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka in a most unusual business, as he hopes to find an answer to the strange blue-black spot on his cheek that won’t go away.  And finally there is Lieutenant Mamiya who befriends Okada after the passing of a friend in common, and begins to tell him stories of his experiences during the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo, sharing his own similar experience of spending a long time at the bottom of the well.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the type of lengthy book that can be interpreted in so many different ways, with readers getting different ideas and thoughts and concepts from it; the same reader may even reads it multiple times over a long period and see different aspects and stories in a different light.  No matter what preconceptions the reader has as they begin reading this very special book, they will be transported to somewhere they never imagined existed by the very skilled hands and mind of one Haruki Murakami.

Originally written on May 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Hard Boiled Wonderland  Blind Willow Sleeping Woman  1Q84  Kafka on the Shore

“The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling (Little, Brown, 2012)

The Casual Vacancy

After the unfathomable success of the Harry Potter series, with over 450 million copies sold worldwide, likely making it one of the biggest phenomena of our lifetimes, J. K. Rowling is now back with her first new book in five years.  She now turns to a much more adult story about a quaint little English town where everything is most certainly not as it seems.

In the idyllic west country town of Pagford, where things pass at their own pace and everything stays pretty much the same, a change is about to happen.  A respected citizen of the community, Barry Fairbrother suffers a sudden brain aneurysm and dies unexpectedly.  It is a very sad time for the family and for the community, as he touched many lives during his time, as well as being an important member of the town’s council.  But Barry’s passing is also the lighting of a spark that sets off an explosive chain reaction, as the empty space on the town council starts many wondering who should fill his seat, and a number of unlikely candidates come out of the woodwork.

The Casual Vacancy is also the story about a number of the characters of this community, and how they begin to act and react when this person who had an effect on their lives is gone and is no longer there to provide aid and advice.  The book is by no means a happy novel, as these characters make terrible decisions that lead them down a downward spiral of despair.  By the end of the book, the reader is left hoping their might be some sort of cathartic uplift, but Rowling is going for a harsh true-to-life approach here, where things don’t all of a sudden get magically better.

Overall the book comes off as a letdown, slow and dragging at points, with nothing to drive the reader along to keep reading, as things get worse and worse for just about everyone it seems.  Rowling is perhaps pulling from some earlier experiences in her life before her fame and riches, as there are characters dealing with drug addiction, poverty, marital problems, and a whole host of unsavory issues.  The book also comes off somewhat amateurish, as Rowling constantly references many places throughout this imaginary town that confuse the reader, and could have easily been aided with a handy map at the beginning of the book.  Then there is the large host of characters, featuring many couples of about the same age, some even with the same first letters of their names, which often makes things confusing, and could’ve been helped with a simple cast list.  Finally, there is the constantly switching P.O.V. from paragraph to paragraph, without any break in between, so that the reader becomes quite untethered and lost at times.

The Casual Vacancy was an experiment by Rowling in seeing what happens to a town when an important member dies and all the people he’d had an effect on begin making bad decisions that then effect the rest of the town.  By the end of the book the reader is sad over the events of the book, though Rowling makes it clear that if any of the characters had made the decision to not think of themselves for a moment and to notice that nearby person suffering and help them, things would have come out quite differently.  But because this social message is buried in the clunky format and pitfalls of the book with no satisfactory resolution, the reader is left wondering what was the point of reading this book to the last page.

Originally written on January 8, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Casual Vacancy from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Fifty Year Sword” by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon, 2012)

Fifty Year Sword

From the bestselling author of House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski presents a chilling Halloween story as told third hand through characters in their own specific way with special language and diction.  The Fifty Year Sword is a relatively quick read featuring a story that leaves a lasting impression.

Chintana is a local seamstress who finds herself at a party where her nemesis is about to enjoy her birthday at the strike of midnight.  Not hoping for much, she enjoys a drink and before she knows it, finds herself in charge of five young orphans.  Unsure what to do with them, she finds a surprising answer when a stranger arrives with a very special story to tell, one about a long journey to a creator of swords, swords named for the ages in how they work.  It is a story that captivates the orphans, as well as Chintana, reaching a climax with the big black box and what resides within it.

The Fifty Year Sword, like Danielewski’s other works, employs a unique form of storytelling and book design, featuring words on the left page, and ornate needlework and cotton and wool swirling on the facing page, making designs and patterns, occasionally linking with the story.  While the idea is an interesting one, the overall effort comes off as over exaggerated and at times unnecessary.  Danielewski’s use of language, however, is an enjoying read, as he uses the language and vocabulary of his seamstress to weave and captivating tale.

Originally written on November 10, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Fifty Year Sword from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.