I'm not the biggest fan of Haruki Murakami's fiction, but when I went to the bookstore and saw a copy of The Strange Library, translated by Ted Goossen, I had to pick it up. The slender volume sealed in plastic and designed by rock-star book designer Chip Kidd made me intensely curious about what strange magic might be inside.
Murakami's stories of ordinary people who wander into extraordinary circumstances have become somewhat predictable over the years, and his mild surrealism typically isn't enough to rescue plots that don't really go anywhere. Perhaps The Strange Library would be different.
It isn't. Though it comes in at just under 100 pages, at least half are used for design elements (I'm reluctant to say "art," but we'll get to that in a bit). The Strange Library is presented like a tidy bundle of typewritten pages and can be read in an hour or so—the equivalent of a long short story.
The Strange Library is about a boy who goes to his local public library to learn about tax collecting during the Ottoman Empire (seriously) and ends up being held prisoner in the library's basement by an old man who "feeds" him books. The boy's only ally is a man dressed from head to toe in a wooly sheep costume who's also a prisoner and serves as a kind of trustee in the library's dungeon.
"Mr. Sheep Man," I asked, "why would that old man want to eat my brains?"
"Because brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that's why. They're nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time."
"So that's why he wants me to spend a month cramming information in there, to suck it up afterwards?"
"That's the idea."
It sounds like the set-up for an episode of Adventure Time, but while that cartoon is manic, zany and fun, The Strange Library feels stilted and dated and dull. Not even Chip Kidd's design can rescue the effort. The clip art features bold shapes and bright colors, and while I'm sure it looks amazing on a computer screen, it feels flat and oversaturated on paper.
For Murakami fans, The Strange Library is perhaps best read in a library, where readers won't feel the sting of buying a single short story for the price of a novel. Just don't wander down to the basement.
The Strange Library wasn't the only book by a Japanese author I read this month. The Housekeeper and the Professor is the last of the four books I've read by Yoko Ogawa that have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador.
Revenge, a linked collection of short stories that cozy up to psychological horror and are unabashedly strange was one of my favorite books of 2013. The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas suffused with an atmosphere of dread, set the stage for Hotel Iris, a novel of sexual misadventure between a girl in her teens and a much older man.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is tame by comparison. It tells the story of a brilliant mathematician whose short-term memory was devastated in a car accident. As a result, his memory lasts only 80 minutes. So, when the housekeeper shows up for work each day, he's meeting her for the first time.
The story that unfolds is a sweet tale that unites the mathematician's love of numbers with the housekeeper's young son's passion for baseball. This fraught relationship follows the ups and downs of the local baseball team.
"The game dragged on, and the Tigers missed several chances to end it. I listened through the twelfth, the thirteenth, and the fourteenth innings, unable to shake the nagging feeling that it should have been over a while ago. It was just one run, but they couldn't get it across home plate. The moon rose full and midnight was fast approaching."
It's not giving too much away to say that the end is a heartbreaker—something to which all baseball fans can relate.
The stories of The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters are set in Japan during the period just before baseball became a national sport—the years of brutal catastrophe and the stunning rebuilding process immediately following World War II.
With sentences that are borderline Joycean in their epiphanic potency, Waters' characters reflect on loves that were meant to be and losses they can never get over. An impossible position to reconcile, yet they muster the grace to recognize "In the end, being alive is what matters."
What I'm looking forward to: Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, a meditation on the 2011 earthquake in Japan and its aftermath.