The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

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I know I came to Murakami late, but now I’m coming to know him I enjoy his work, a blend of literature, grunge, and SF bordering on (dreaded!) magic realism. Murakami’s first three works make up the Trilogy of the Rat. I reviewed the first two, Wind/Pinball (here) some time ago and gave teacher son the third, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) this Christmas, expecting him to have it finished on Boxing Day as usual. Inconsiderately, he took it with him to Morocco from whence he wrote –

I thought you despised magical realism. I liked most of it. The psychic girlfriend, and the historic davinci-code of a mystery, and the banality of everyday life- I expected him to stop by Nighthawks, or find a flatmate dead with a falafel on any given page. The symbolic sheep was exposed in a way that made it a genuine wonder. Not sure about meeting the Rat, though. I felt cheated when even the almost explicable mystical became brazenly magical.

Not all of this makes sense so, in the library for audiobooks this week, I thought to borrow a copy for myself but there wasn’t one and I borrowed The Strange Library (2005) instead. The Strange Library is a strange and beautiful book, seemingly a novella for children/YAs. I think I would read it to Mr 8 and Ms 7, my younger grandkids, and yet I enjoyed it well enough myself. It’s in that rarefied territory occupied by Lewis Carroll, The Magic Pudding and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and there are the most wonderful illustrations throughout taken “from old books in the London Library”.

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The protagonist, a schoolboy, enters his local library and is ushered downstairs to a strange basement area he never knew existed nor thought the local council could afford.

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A little old man asks him “the manner of books that he seeks” and the boy is flustered into answering ‘tax collection in the Ottoman Empire’ which has just popped into his head. The old man ducks through a heavy steel door and returns with three terribly old books, The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector and Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I might have to explain to the grandkids what an ottoman is (when it’s not being a couch).

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The boy is fearful of being late home to his mother, who has been in a state of nerves since he was attacked by a big black dog with green eyes and a jewel-encrusted collar, and anyway she may, she will forget to feed his pet starling, but the old man is insistent the books must be read on site and straight away.

Are you planning to read this for yourself, then Spoiler Alert. The boy is led away through a maze of corridors, to a prison cell. A warder clad only in a sheepskin attaches a ball and chain to his ankle and warns him that when he is finished reading the old man will remove the top of his head and eat his knowledge-rich brains.

Despite this, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector comes alive as he reads it.

The old man came to check on me that evening. He was delighted to find me lost in my book. Seeing how happy he was made me feel a little happier. No matter what the situation may be, I still take pleasure in witnessing the joy of others.

A pretty girl brings him meals. The sheep man bakes him doughnuts. In the darkness of the night of a new moon they escape together only to find their last exit barred by the old man. And the big black hound.

The starling, or it might be the girl, comes to their rescue. The boy goes home where his mother seems not to have noticed that he has been gone.

To be honest, I was worried before writing this review that I might have missed the point, so I have since been making my way through the reviews I could find on the net. This from the Independent:

It is an odd and beautiful thing – a thing more than a book, whose design doesn’t just adorn but penetrates the story, melting into it with its dainty, surreal and haunting images that almost, at times, seem to finish Murakami’s sentences.

It had me enthralled, a pretty artefact that was a story of childhood, death and reading, drawn in both words and pictures, like a fairytale, yet there was nothing childish about it. (Arifa Akbar, 27 Nov. 2014. here)

So I guess I got it right.

 

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library, Harville Secker, London, 2008. First pub. in Japanese, 2005. Translated by Ted Goossen.

 

Girls Together, Louise Mack

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

 

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Sue (Whispering Gums) has posted a review of Louise Mack’s follow up to Teens which I reviewed yesterday (here). Between them they provide a fascinating insight into 1880s and 1890s Sydney, when university was a real possibility for the first time, at least for those young women whose parents could afford it.


Whispering Gums

Well, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens [], and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because … Read on …

Teens, Louise Mack

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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Louise Mack (1870-1935) was the oldest of thirteen children of a Wesleyan minister who, after various positions around South Australia and NSW settled in Sydney in 1882. Louise, who had up to then had been schooled by her mother and a governess, began attending Sydney Girls’ High School, probably from the following year when she would have turned 13.

Ethel Turner, author of Seven Little Australians, was the same age and attended the same school. Ethel and her 3 years older sister Lillian were well known for starting a school newspaper, as did Louise Mack. I mistakenly wrote in an earlier post – which I will now have to go off and find – that it was unlikely the two newspapers were in competition as Mack was 9 years younger. I was wrong. Sorry. I’d recorded Mack’s year of birth as 1879 when it was actually 1870 (ADB).

Teens begins with 13 year old Lennie sitting and passing the entrance exam to the School

A large, brown, two-storey building, with a wide, wooden staircase, a verandah all round, and an asphalted playground, shaded with two huge Moreton Bay fig trees. This was the School.

After a lonely first few days she makes friend with 15 year old Mabel and this is the story of their year in ‘B’. The big girls studying to matriculate and get into university – only possible since 1881 (More Educating Women) – were in ‘A’.

To get things out of order a little, one of the things the two girls do is start a school newspaper. There is great demand for the initial hand-written version so they scrimp and save to get it printed, and the poor old printer will only get paid from the sales the girls make at 6d a copy, only for the girls in ‘A’ to trump them with a much more impressive newspaper printed by one of their fathers. As Lillian Turner was most likely in ‘A’ when Mack was in ‘B’ this is no doubt a little bit of setting-the-record-straight.

As a guy, old, and without sisters, I have no experience to fall back to evaluate this book. It’s a long time since I last read Seven Little Australians and I’ve never read Little Women for instance or the equivalent books that girls read when I was reading ‘Boys Own’ books. Jane Austen’s young women are mostly older and definitely more mature. Picnic at Hanging Rock also has a more mature feel, despite the setting and period being similar, and probably reflects that it was written in the 1960’s (though Ethel Anderson’s At Paramatta (here) written in the 1950s does not). Another that should be similar but is not is The Getting of Wisdom. TGoW is an adult novel about schoolgirls whereas Teens is a novel for schoolgirls, and not very mature ones at that. The writing it most resembles is that of Enid Blyton.

For all that, it was a fun read. The girls, who at 13 and 15 still play with dolls (not that some of my own stuffed animals haven’t survived these past 60-something years) get into the usual school day scrapes, fall in love with their (lady) teacher, sleep over, play tricks on Lennie’s older brother, and contrary to Melanie’s opinion of recent YA fiction (at Grab the Lapels) – and yes this is only middle school in American terms – agonize over their school-work, fail to pay attention in Mathematics and ‘Euclid’, but finally come top in English, French and History.

Would I give Teens to a granddaughter? Maybe, at around age 11 or 12. For an adult, the only real reason to read it would be for its lively account of middle-class life in 1880s Sydney, and on holidays in the Blue Mountains, by someone who was there.

It was on the third storey that Lennie had her new bedroom. There was a little, irregular-shaped room up there, very narrow, but as long as the house was deep, that looked over other people’s yards at one end, and at the other, opened upon a stretch of suburb, ending in the sands of Botany Bay. From that window Lennie had one golden glimpse of the lazy, fair Pacific, and the calm blue waters of Botany Bay and its white sands; and nearer, the fresh, bright green of Chinamen’s gardens…
The younger girls had wonderful games of hookey .. The game was played in this way:—One girl was on one side, and any number on the other. The one girl chased the opposite side about the ground until she had caught one; then she and the caught one joined hands and chased again until they had caught another. Then these three joined hands and rushed to catch a fourth: and so on. And the fun was very high when there were forty girls all holding hands and chasing one about the playground…
“I’ve got the whole History of England to learn in three weeks, Mother, from William the Conqueror to Victoria; and the whole of the French Grammar, and the whole of the English Grammar; and two books of Euclid, and half of Peter the Great, and all the Physical Geography, and all the Arithmetic, and all the Geography of the whole world, to learn in three weeks.”
“But you’ve had six months to learn them in.”
“I know, Mother; but you see——”

I was going to post this at the end of the week, but I’ve returned to work earlier than I originally planned, and am as you read en route to Melbourne and Sydney. So I’m putting it up tonight and will do another end-of-week summary on Tues or Weds.

 

Louise Mack, Teens: A Story of Australian School Girls, first pub. 1897.  Angus & Robertson (paperback) 2016. I used pdf version (here) from University of Sydney Library.


Thankyou to everyone who participated in Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week. There are links to all your reviews from the AWW Gen 2 page, as of course will be any reviews that you do in the future.

Posts/Reviews for Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, ANZLitLovers

Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong series, Michelle Scott Tucker

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums

Ethel Turner, In the Mist of the Mountains, Brona’s Books

Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, Nancy Elin

Louise Mack, Teens, wadh

Louise Mack, Girls Together, Whispering Gums (coming!)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, wadh

Background –

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer, wadh

Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, wadh

Frank Moorhouse ed., The Drover’s Wife, wadh