WIND/PINBALL by Haruki Murakami [2015]

Wind.Pinball

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 6/10

Two of Haruki Murakami’s first and previously unpublished stories, each one only around 100 pages. I was going to write my review of the first story (“Hear the Wind Sing“), but then I thought, “Nah. I’ll read the second one and then review them both! Gosh golly, I’m brilliant.” Of course, half-way through book two (“Pinball, 1973“) I’d forgotten nearly everything I liked about the first book. Yes dear readers, I am brilliant indeed.
But this is the nature of Murakami. His stories all share very similar themes and characters that even if you enjoy his work it’s sometimes very hard to differentiate them. These are not perfect stories but there are perfect moments within them both. And when Murakami gets perfect right, well it’s perfect. It’s the quiet moments of reflection; young men maturing and finding their place in the world; girls preparing spaghetti; a trip to the doctor to have wax removed from an ear canal; waking up next to a mysterious girl with nine fingers; the weirdness of discovering a barn in the outskirts of Tokyo that is filled with pinball machines and the protagonist has a conversation with his favorite one. It’s stuff like that that makes Murakami.
No, nothing really happens in these stories, but sometimes it’s just a pleasure to read the words of certain authors.

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This Never Happened: Chapter One

With my first draft complete I thought I’d share my first chapter. This is more of an intro chapter, short with a few clues as to where the story is going but without much plot.

Hope you like it!

(EDIT – 12/12/2016: I’ve since merged chapters one and two into my opening chapter, and as such the following version will be changed a lot heading into the book’s release date. Still, it’s fun to see how the book was originally planned out.)

CHAPTER ONE: TEN THOUSAND YEARS TOO LATE

Some mothers tell their sons they will be someone special someday. Some tell their sons they are the smartest in their class. The most handsome, maybe. My mother enjoyed telling me I was born ten thousand years too late. I’m not sure I ever knew what she meant by that. I remember how she would say it with a kind of crooked smirk on her face, sometimes after a little joke I never understood. Always when my father wasn’t home. “Oh, you wouldn’t get it,” she’d say. “You were born ten thousand years too late to understand.” I always wondered if there was some great event that occurred ten thousand years ago; something worth my mother’s blasé indifference and flippant comments, but I have no idea what that might have been. I know that in 8018 BC the world’s population was around four million. In 7219 BC mankind was beginning its transition from hunters and gatherers to farmers. I’m not sure where I might have fit amongst those Neolithic people, but I do know that I’ve never once felt as though I belonged where I actually was. Just like most young men, I suppose.

People say it’s impossible for babies to remember the moment of their birth, but I remember the light that day. It wasn’t a brilliant, bursting flash, a soft luminous luster or anything else that might come to mind when one thinks of light, but I know that’s what it was. I remember it easily because it has haunted my dreams countless times. And when I’m not dreaming it, sometimes I’m reminded of that wonderfully frightening flash when the F-Train bursts out over 4th Place. Or when the sun is caught within the steel web of the Parachute Jump. I can’t help from remembering. People will tell me they don’t remember the day they were born. They can’t comprehend what it must have been like to see that light – the light that bathes us all in our most vulnerable moment – for the first time. I don’t have the heart to tell them I remember every horrible second of it. Do you know what it is? It’s the same light they tell you to walk towards when you’re dying.

In 7103 BC people were building their world’s first cities. Earth’s citizens began living in mud-brick domiciles. They were just starting to learn how to deal with noisy neighbors and domestic disputes. I live in Coney Island, just a subway ride away from Manhattan. I sleep in a crusty apartment on Mermaid Avenue and I imagine it has approximately the same dimensions and appeal as those original mud homes. I have neighbors on either side of me, above and below. I know them as well as most anyone can really know their neighbors. The woman who lives on the top floor of my building runs a yoga studio in her bedroom and she claims the amount of psychic energy her students generate is enough to calm all the world’s aching souls. I don’t imagine that could be true since the world has as many problems as it does but maybe it’s my fault for not being able to comprehend. Or perhaps she just doesn’t know how to harness all that psychic energy she’s got bouncing around up there.

Living in New York confuses me. It’s not the politics of the city itself, nor does it have anything to do with the pressures or expectations its people place upon one another or the images one must try to maintain in order to fit in. It’s the little things, like how do the parking meters know exactly how much change you’ve dropped in? Same with the pay machines in the subway stations. I don’t understand how computer servers can store as much information as they do. When the U.S. Census reports that Manhattan has nearly two million residents, I cannot fathom how that’s even possible. How do two million people fit on one island? How do they keep from constantly bumping into one another?

When I’m working, I work for a laundry and linen supply company. Brooklyn Whites, it’s called. Sounds like a racist sports team but it’s really not. I pick up and deliver tablecloths and napkins and uniforms and floor mats from restaurants all over the city. It’s mindless, but I don’t ask for much. When I’m not working I’m usually on my bed. I like to dream. In my dreams, I’m not cleaning up the mess that others have left behind. In my dreams I don’t live on Mermaid Avenue. In my dreams I live in the country. Not like the Hamptons, but more like somewhere in Kentucky. Maybe Bowling Green or Elizabethtown. In my dreams everything is perfect; I’m just as I want to be. I’m everything I missed along the way to where I am now. It’s only when I wake up that I seem to experience this backwards reality.

In 7462 BC the English Channel was formed. In 7855 BC wild horses completely disappeared from Great Britain. In 8080 BC Earth’s last glacial period ended; our world’s last Ice Age. Up until this point, all of the food humans ate came from wild plants and animals. It wasn’t until much later that people began to think about domesticating their food supply. In 8002 BC people began to cultivate grains: wheat, rice, rye, oats, millet, and barley. My mother told me I was born ten thousand years too late. In my dreams I don’t have to try and believe her. In my dreams my mother didn’t leave us.

My name is Cepik Small. That’s pronounced “Seh-Pick” if you’re going to keep track. Like septic without the T. It’s Polish, though I have no idea which of my ancestors were the last to actually step foot in Poland. I doubt I could even point to it on a map. Friends call me Epic for short even if it’s the exact same number of syllables. But I don’t know many friends anymore. It’s all part of the same story. Some forgotten friends. A stupid name. A crummy apartment. An uninspired career. A broken heart. It might sound like I’m alone, and it’s true. But I’m not really lonely. At least not all of the time. I’m not sure what I was meant for, but I know it’s not what I’ve been given. My father told me he wished I would have everything I ever wanted in life, yet his own life seemed so barren and meaningless. We barely had enough money to get by. I’ve always felt as though I was a spectator, rather than a participant. I’ve felt this way in everything I’ve done and every place I’ve been. In my dreams I am definitely a participant. In my dreams, I wasn’t an outcast in high school; I was just normal enough to go unnoticed. In my dreams, I fell in love. In my dreams, I’m everything my mother and father really wanted me to be.

Research

A lot of research will go into every novel someone writes. Or rather, if authors intend to make their work as meaningful as possible they will do the applicable research. In my new novel (THIS NEVER HAPPENED) there is a laundry list of extremely diverse topics I felt I had to research in order to help the authenticity of the story. Some of this research time was spanning many days, while other bits only required a few relatively simple internet searches.

Because I think the range of topics in this book is quite impressive (and maybe a little bit out there) I’ve compiled a list of some of my research topics over the last 2+ years. Here’s what I’ve come up with, just off the top of my head:

  1. What was happening on Earth 10,000 years ago
  2. The Neolithic (agricultural) Revolution
  3. Black holes, and the death of them
  4. Alternate universes, parallel worlds
  5. Cosmological and astrological epochs
  6. Brain cancer
  7. Prosopagnosia
  8. Hypoxic Hypoxia
  9. Dementia
  10. Prescription drugs: pain killers, anti-depression meds, medicinal marijuana (psychopharmaceuticals)
  11. History of Coney Island, NY
  12. Coney Island Mermaid Parade
  13. Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore; freak show history
  14. Russians in Brighton Beach, NY
  15. Polish surnames
  16. NY subway  system, specifically routes within Brooklyn
  17. Roosevelt Island
  18. Shoe repair supplies
  19. Mythological creatures: griffin, headless horsemen, undine, pegasus
  20. Metal bands’ album covers
  21. French novels from the 1970’s
  22. MMORPG’s
  23. Virtual reality gear
  24. Conspiracy theories
  25. Drones
  26. The science of throwing a baseball

What does it all add up to? Hopefully a thought-provoking, frightening and sometimes humorous work of fiction. We’ll see.

ANNIHILATION, by Jeff VanderMeer [2014]

Annihilation

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 9/10

At only 200 pages, this book (the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy) is a VERY accessible novel. When I say that, what I refer to is a few things:
1) Book Length: 200 pages certainly will not intimidate potential readers. Plus, one (not me though) could probably read it in a single sitting;
2) Characters: the characters here are sparse (there’s really only five of them) and they are simple, though quite complex in their stripped-down-ness (is that a word?). There are no names for the characters, only job titles (Biologist, Psychologist, etc.) and it works. We know instantly what their roles are and there are no names to remember/mix up;
3) Genre: Southern Reach is billed as Sci-Fi, and though it is, it is also an exploration into Horror, Psychological and Literary fiction.

To me, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is part H.P. Lovecraft and part Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, which is a cool mix. There were a couple of legitimately terrifying moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Hard to do these days.

There are also a number of truly tender moments, when the main character reflects on moments from her past. VanderMeer nailed these for me, and the book would not have been the same without them.

The title choice is interesting, and readers will know why when they reach that part in the story. Its moment in the novel is short but it sort of sums up everything and it sort of doesn’t, but still makes sense as a title, which is important.

From what I’ve read, the three parts of the trilogy are connected, though only very loosely. Annihilation could easily be read on its own without any sequels. Still, I’ll be checking out the next two and I’m excited to read what comes next.

Character Names

Have you ever read a novel where some of the character names really bothered you? Or maybe you found the name to be a perfect fit for the character? Have you ever kept forgetting who characters were? Confusing multiple characters with one another? I’ve been thinking a lot about my character names recently, and whether they really work for my book or not.

It’s a hard thing to realize that a name is just not working. As writers, we spend so long on developing our characters, and a name is part of that development. Sometimes we fall in love with a name so deeply that the idea of changing it would alter the entire story.

A few of the characters in my third novel, This Never Happened, have gone through name changes. Sometimes it’s other characters in the story who appear to fit a certain name better that precipitates a name swap. Sometimes they fall victim to the “same letter syndrome”, when two characters’ (especially main characters’) names begin with the same letter and causes confusion for the reader. As a writer you need to eliminate as much unnecessary confusion as possible.

Cepik “Epic” Small is the novel’s protagonist and obviously has a very unique name. Initially I wanted to simply name him Epic but this was slightly too unusual for a given name so I did some research into similar-sounding names that could use Epic as a nickname. I discovered the Polish Cepik (pronounced Seh-pick) and from there gave him a bit of family history that was not entirely necessary for the story but helped flesh him out a bit more. The name Epic originally tied into the first working title of the book: it was going to be called Epoch (as in an important event in history) and Epic sounded similar enough in pronunciation that there would be a common thread there. After much consideration this proved to be a little too far outside the box so some simplification was needed. The surname Small came to me via one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally. There is a character with the line: “I’m Ben Small. From the Coney Island Smalls.” My book takes place in Coney Island and I just couldn’t shake the line out of my head, so it’s kind of an homage. Also, I like the juxtaposition between the words “epic” and “small.”

Below are some of the other characters in This Never Happened who have unusual – but hopefully memorable – names:

  • Abigail “Abi” Ayr: discovers an unexplained connection between herself and Epic. Abigail is a pathological liar and may have some rudimentary psychic abilities. She loves video games and referencing games such as Minesweeper and World of Warcraft.
  • Gideon Flat: Epic’s new therapist, after his previous one (Doctor Griffin) dies.
  • Armand Bester: Epic’s friend, co-worker and would-be writer/playwright. His play – called The Duality of Three – is eerily similar to events in The Third (a fictional novel that Epic is reading).
  • Zoltan Lintzel: An odd scientist who is somehow connected to a MMORPG and is also strangely familiar with Epic’s past. He claims to be from Switzerland. Zoltan is Hungarian, Lintzel is German. I liked the idea of not really knowing the man’s origins.
  • Margaret “Margo” Asus: An actress from The Duality of Three; played the dead girl. Was the name of the waitress at the UnDiner until I felt it was a better fit here. Her name holds a connection to the mythological pegasus, with “Peggy” or “Peg” being a nickname for Margaret (therefore Margo Asus = PegAsus).
  • Doctor Griffin: Epic’s former therapist, recently committed suicide. Just like the Margo character, the good doctor also holds a connection to a mythological creature (Griffin = lion/eagle hybird).
  • Lobstero: Abi’s father. His hands are deformed and have the appearance of lobster claws. Lobstero is a performer at the Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore.
  • Wilma Dradtstl-Small: Epic’s mother, left them when Epic was only five years old. Practically the only thing Epic remembers of his mother is her oftentimes telling him he was “born ten thousand years too late.” But what did she mean by this?
  • Dorothy: Waitress at The UnDiner, the Coney Island coffee shop frequented by Epic. Was Margaret Asus, then momentarily Lorna before becoming Dorothy.

THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt [2013]

The Goldfinch

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

Spoiler Warning!

Very well written novel; at times Donna Tartt blew me away with her descriptions but there are other times…well, let’s just say that a 750+ page novel is bound to have more verbosity than necessary; a few more lulls in the story than I’m used to, and I typically find myself restricting my reading to a 300-350 page count. But a big book is fine too, if there’s story enough to carry it.

The fact is The Goldfinch is really just an over-bloated 400-page novel. My impression is that Tartt used the novel as a “look what I can write!” platform, spending far too many pages on peripheral ideas that really just could have used another editor to tell her, “That part sucks. Chop it.” Though in all honesty, what author wouldn’t want to show off their talent? Tartt has the talent – there’s no question – but I’m not alone in my feeling that the woman could have whittled the page count down by at least a couple hundred.

There is a major plot point in The Goldfinch that is planted around the 300-page mark and not revealed until 250-300 pages later which really annoyed me. Basically, our main character, Theo, wraps up a priceless painting he wants to keep hidden and stuffs it under his bed. Then he thinks, “No, I’ll bring it to school and hide it in my locker instead. No wait, I’ll bring it back home and put back under my bed.” It was too obvious that through the changes of location that the painting was going to be secretly switched; I couldn’t have been the only person to have seen it coming. Especially considering more than ten years go by before Theo ever bothers to actually look at the painting again, instead of the bundled-up mess of paper, tape and pillowcases. My only surprise (or rather, red-hot anger) came from the fact that I figured it wasn’t going to take so long for Me The Reader to be let in on the *cough* secret *cough*. Seriously, I spent those 300 pages with this plot twist in my head and getting increasingly pissed off. “Just open up the fucking painting already!!”

Overall, there are far too many stereotyped characters and not enough likable characters; even Theo makes enough “mistakes” in his life that we wouldn’t feel too bad if things got as bad as they could for him. But hey, his mom died, right? This makes his actions redeemable. Isn’t that how fiction works?

GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE [2014], by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

Wow. I’m not sure exactly what it was I just read there, but Grasshopper Jungle is nothing if not original. Let me pose the following question to you: If the world was coming to an end due to 6-foot tall mantises hatching from the bodies of a bunch Iowans, would a 16-year-old boy still have sex on the brain? The answer, I guess, is definitely yes. Austin Szerba is confused sexually; he doesn’t know if he loves his girlfriend Shann or his best friend Robby or both. But he’s a good kid and has one of the most unique (unusual?) voices in fiction.

Author Andrew Smith’s writing style both impressed and exasperated me at times, but Grasshopper Jungle remains an unforgettable story about killer bugs, plague-detecting lemur masks, horny teenagers and testicles. And boy is there ever a lot talk about testicles in this book.

If you’re up for a wild ride, a YA work that isn’t afraid to be insensitive, give this one a try.

CHRONIC CITY [2009], by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 9/10

Though I’m totally aware that this is not a “perfect” book, or even a must-read that can be easily recommended, this is certainly one of my favorite novels. I’ve read it twice now in the last year and a half and I’ll admit that I enjoyed it more the second time, since I knew what to expect.

It’s hard to imagine a book so wordy and so much about pot-heads and socialites (mostly pot-heads!) sitting around discussing conspiracy theories and pop culture to be so darned interesting but Chronic City is just that. A dense read, well-crafted with enough mystery for those who like it and enough ambiguity for those who don’t. Throw in ideas such as a giant tiger prowling the streets of Manhattan, mysterious chaldrons and astronauts trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and you’ve got me hooked.

Jonathan Lethem dazzles me with his vocabulary and inspires me to keep honing my own craft. In my mind, a masterpiece! Chronic City has its flaws – I could have done away with the dog-heavy chapters in the last 1/4 – but not enough to keep me from a third reading in the future.

THE EMPEROR OF PARIS, by C.S. Richardson [2012]

Emperor of Paris

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 4/10

Just couldn’t get into this one. From the reviews I’d read, it sounded like The Emperor of Paris was a slow start for most, but if hung on to long enough would pay off. Not for me. Too many characters within a jumbled chronology made for a terribly hard read, one I found extremely hard to focus on long enough to really get into.
I get the feeling that a second read would really change my perspective on this novel, but for now there are far too many other books I need to get to!
I will say however that C.S. Richardson has a wonderful way with words; his work might benefit from a much more linear story.

COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI and HIS YEARS of PILGRIMAGE, by Haruki Murakami [2014]

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 9/10

Some say Haruki Murakami is a one-trick pony, and I cannot completely disagree. Though with his latest novel – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – I can confidently say that his “trick” is getting better and better.
Colorless Tsukuru reads a lot like Norwegian Wood, which holds a special place in many readers’ hearts. Toru and Tsukuru are also very similar characters, but I found myself more interested in Tsukuru’s story. He’s a beautifully tortured character, alone and disconnected just enough from the world. But he also overcomes his solitude, and from a reader’s standpoint, it is an extremely positive and gratifying resolution.
There is just enough magical realism (Murakami’s bread and butter) in the story to keep readers wondering; you never know when one idea will tie into another idea later in the story. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they require thinking about for an extended period of time. Most importantly, and just like in any of his books, Murakami’s writing is outstanding here. The man has a very special way with words, so much so that I will continue to read and be inspired by his work.