I usually read two books simultaneously, one at home and one at work. At some point one of them reaches a point where I become more interested in finishing it and give it my full attention. At the end of 2011, there were two very provocative books that I wanted equally to give my full attention.
The first is Haruki Murakam’s 1Q84. At a hefty 925 pages, it wasn’t the most practical to become obsessed with an schlep back and forth from work to home. It begins curiously and Murakami keeps the mysteries coming. Aomame is on the way to an important business meeting when her taxi runs into a hopeless traffic jam. Determined to make her appointment, she asks the driver if there is another route to her destination. He advises her that there is a maintenance stairway leading to the street below, but he doesn’t know what condition it is in. Despite a cryptic warning, she takes her chances and inadvertently climbs from 1984 to 1Q84, a world that is an odd copy of her own in which two moons shine in the night sky and several major events have occurred of which she has no knowledge. The other protagonist of the story is Aomame’s former classmate, Tengo. In fourth grade they shared a pivotal moment that eternally binds them and finds their lives intersecting as they move toward a reunion twenty years later. Several murders, a splintered religious community, an aged dowager-vigilante, a 17-year-old writing “prodigy,” an unscrupulous editor, and a mysterious group of “little people” are among the elements that combine in Murakami most ambitious novel to date.
In 1Q84, Murakami describes a very complex alternate reality while in some of his former works, the mysterious is much more understated. 1Q84 is straight up Science Fiction, while his other works are so subtly strange that they seem entirely possible, albeit dreamlike. Like the taxi driver in 1Q84 tells Aomame, “Things are not what they seem.” A recurring leitmotif in Murami’s work is the importance of music. His vast knowledge and familiarity with a variety of genres enhance atmosphere and, no doubt, have led readers to new listening experiences. Sense of place is powerful in his work whether he’s describing a busy Tokyo restaurant, a traffic jam, or effects of the cold weather on a character out later than he planned. My two favorite Murakami books are Kafka on the Shore and After Dark.
My second end of year book is Aravind Ardiga’s Last Man in Tower. Like Murakami, Ardiga captures the full sensual experience of place. Mumbai is a bustling city, bursting at its seams. Builders are in hot competition to transform slums and middle class buildings into luxury apartments for the nouveau riche. When developer Darmen Shah sets his sights on the Vishram Society and offers the middle class residents very generous settlements in exchange for their apartments, retired teacher Masterji is the lone resident who refuses to accept the offer. As his neighbors’ attempts to persuade him to accept escalate from shunning to harassment to violence, Masterji becomes even more stubbornly committed to his decision. As with his earlier book, The White Tiger, Ardiga masterfully exposes the foibles of human nature and unblinkingly describes the harshness of life in modern India. At turns comic and tragic, this is a powerful story one won’t soon forget.