Read To Win

Seven reasons you must read Haruki Murakami’s new book

'The Strange Library' is a small but absorbing package of text and visuals, a microcosm of Murakami’s strange and sublime world.

In Haruki Murakami we trust. His fiction balances itself with perfect poise on that tightrope between immense depth and alarming accessibility. You never quite know what to make of his work: is it profound in its insistence on fusing alternate realities and open-ended problems with no solutions, or is it just easy-to-read surrealism that only conveys the impression of literary quality? Is the speed with which you can read a Murakami novel a deterrent to his winning the Nobel?

Now, his latest adventure in the book trade leaves a similar trail of confusion. Is The Strange Library, a lavishly, quirkily and self-consciously illustrated combination of image and text a representation of where fiction can go in the digital age, or is it a gimmick to sell a story of less than thousand words at an overpriced £12.99 (about Rs 1,300) just before Christmas?

Translated into English only now, but not a recent book, The Strange Library was published in Japan back in 2008. It tells of a young boy whose mother is expecting him home for dinner, but who blunders into a library where he himself might become the librarian’s dinner. Considering the lack of length, revealing any more of the lot would give the entire game away.

Most Murakami tropes are in attendance in this fable or extended nightmare. There’s food, there’s a mysterious girl, there’s no cat but there’s a bird. And, most of all, there’s the consistent logic of a dream in the storyline. For anyone who’s unwilling to try a full-length novel by the Japanese rock star of contemporary literature, here’s a shortcut to his writing.

The real value of this volume, however, lies in the interplay of visuals and text, with the latter often flowing into the former. It is, in a word, beautiful, and the whimsical images enhance the unpredictability of what is, nevertheless, a tightly controlled narrative. Ted Goossen’s translation runs just as effortlessly as Murakami’s unencumbered and luminous storytelling.

But what to make of this strange tale? The identity of the writer forces attention to what might have been passed off as a smart story had someone else written it. The metaphor of eating brains crammed with knowledge is too delicious to ignore, as is the narrator’s Kafkaesque predicament of being imprisoned without any obvious reason.

Are books and knowledge meant to be a jail, then, breaking out of which can only mean deep personal loss? As usual, Murakami provokes a search of one’s own soul, forcing us to weigh the price we have to pay to get what we seek. This is a story which takes far less time to read than to ponder over.

Here, then, are the seven reasons to read The Strange Library.

7. How often do you get to read TWO new Murakamis in one year? Don’t forget that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage were released earlier in 2014.

6. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, book. In fact, the UK and US editions have different designs, and both are worth buying and preserving.

5. There are no cats. Welcome relief.

4. It’s the quickest way to find out what Murakami writes about. Definitely better than reading Wikipedia pages.

3. It’s, as the cliché goes, unputdownable. You have to read till the end to find out what happened. Does the boy escape?

2. For passages such as this: ‘“I get it,” I said. “Our worlds are all jumbled together – your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. That’s what you mean, right?”’

1. And the number one reason is: This book is about loneliness. And who isn’t lonely?

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.