Apr 19, 2011

[Books] Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Blind Willow, Sleeping WomanThe noble adventure that is writing is different for every author. Some find their voices writing poetry in various forms in order to convey a message. Others immediately find themselves writing lengthier novels in order to capture the many thoughts racing in their heads. And in the middle somewhere is the realm of the short story, which I've always found to be a rather challenging medium.

In my college years, the very question of defining what constitutes a short story was a challenge in itself. How long can a short story be before it becomes a novella? When is a short story "too short" or is that even possible? What differentiates a longer poem written in free verse from a relatively short tale with a prose-like tone? There are a lot of questions when it comes to trying to figure out what short stories are and why they work, but in the end they just do. Like a lot of other writing, they're very slippery fish with mutable forms. Their length can only be truly determined by the writer and it will be just as long as it needs to be.

Not all novelists are short story writers and of course vice-versa. But thankfully one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, is delightfully both - and his short fiction work is just as engaging and fulfilling as his lengthier writing efforts. This collection was certainly an interesting read and one that belongs on any Murakami fan's shelf.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is Haruki Murakami's second short story compilation after The Elephant Vanishes. One might also consider After the Quake to be another short story anthology, although Murakami himself terms it different as something like a "concept album". As with his other works, the various stories were translated by either Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel.

Cover of "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman"Cover of Blind Willow, Sleeping WomanThe book features 24 different short stories, many of which had appeared previously in various publications and magazines between 1981 and 2005. There's no overall theme for the book - they're all just stories that Murakami has written over the years finally brought together in one place.

I strongly recommend that you take the time to read Murakami's personal introduction to the collection before you dive right in. He shares some interesting insights about his writing and he also tries to provide a little background on some of the stories, at the very least when they were originally written. This kind of a timeline helps you figure out where some of these stories belong amidst his longer fiction efforts and provides surprising details on how some stories may have developed because of the tone of his writing at the time.

One story I particularly liked despite its brevity and its eccentricity is "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes", which featured a mysterious cake company holding a competition for creating a new cake recipe. Understanding why they're actually called "Sharpie Cakes" is the real mystery, one with surprise consequences as well. Similarly, the story "A 'Poor Aunt' Story" was also rather weird and yet nonetheless brilliant where a man suddenly develops a "poor aunt" on his back, something that appears very differently for everyone else who sees her.

While all stories were well done, a few really stood out for me. "The Mirror" was an interesting take on what I can only term to be a campfire story. The way he builds tension and sets the mood was really well thought-out here. "The Year of Spaghetti" was another nice slice-of-life sort of tale centered around a period in the protagonist's life when he kept cooking various kinds of spaghetti. And no, it's not really about the spaghetti either.

The real winners of course were "Tony Takitanni" and the final story in the collection, "A Shinagawa Monkey". The first talks about the life of son of a jazz man and his life. I don't want to describe more than just that since the rest of the story is both intriguing and gripping as you progress. And the latter story is a story that you'd expect to be developed into a full novel like his other works. The heart of the mystery - a woman starting to forget her own name - fits right in with the kinds of challenges his other characters have faced such as the lost cat in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or not quite being able to sleep in After Dark.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is another wonderful collection of Haruki Murakami's short fiction and one that I'd recommend to both old and new fans alike. It gets 5 Sharpie Cakes out of a possible 5.

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