There are books that are magical. Not in that boy-wizard way, which literally includes hocus pocus and living-breathing brooms. But books that take your brain and set it in a cloud of cotton and provide a simultaneous foot massage, free of charge. These are books that hip-check reality to a place with fuzzier, dream-like lighting and damn near require a buddy system — someone to tug you back to earth if you get married too deep in all this magicalness.
I’m looking at you, Haruki Murakami, you who turned a story of one man’s well-sitting into something that felt similar to hypnosis.
So that’s why it’s so freaking weird when the grand master writes a book that is just. . . fine. Actually, it’s probably better than fine. It might be a “fine” on a much higher than normal grading curve. A “fine” that would be somebody else’s amazing and someone else’s pretty great.
The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a slow glide-along with the titular character, who grew up as part of a fivesome of super-close friends. At one point he broke from the formation to go off to college (while the rest of the group stayed united) only to be inexplicably ousted from the circle. Life goes on, kind of. He fails to form meaningful relationships, kicks around killing himself, is generally numb. Years later, a potential love interest encourages him to find out what happened and fix his broken soul-or-whatever. And so he sets out.
It’s a hard novel to set aside. It’s Murakami. You keep waiting for the dream sequence. But it just doesn’t have the impact of, say, Wind-up Bird or even 1Q84. It’s just really a rolling boil of a book, barely a blip. But I’ll still be excited for his next one.
Other stuff I’ve let pile up without writing about:
About 100 years ago I read a Lorna Landvik book that so charmed me that I ended up hand-selling about a katrillion copies of it while working at Barnes & Noble. I have no idea how it would hold up in modern times, but I have a feeling it probably rings similar to Landvik’s latest Best to Laugh.
Pretty charming. And funny. With a side dish of hokey.
In this one, Candy Pekkala is a funny girl with a tragic backstory. A rare bit of luck finds her taking over her cousin’s lease in a storied Hollywood apartment complex, leaving a life rut behind in Minnesota. Set in the 1970s, there are quirky characters, including a hard body with a soft side (whose mother is soap opera famous), a substitute teacher just trying to find the right girl (and landing a different woman who is soap opera famous), the former owner of a legendary club and his mohawked son and more.
As Candy gets more comfortable in this new zip code, she tries to infiltrate the local stand-up circuit — with decent results.
This one has its roots in Landvik’s own backstory, which makes it a little extra fun.
The Road Back to Sweetgrass by Linda LeGarde Grover is a time-hopping story of two Ojibwe women and a fictional reservation in Northern Minnesota — set against the backdrop of American Indian federal policies in the 1970s.
There is a sort of short story feel to the story of Margie, a fantastic fry bread maker with a bit of mystery behind her baby daughter and her relationship with an elderly man who lives on a land allotment. We see her working the counter at a deli and falling hard, and unrequitedly, for the man’s son. We see her struggling to keep up with baby supplies and being coy about the details of her fry bread recipe. We also follow Dale Ann, a smart girl who secretly dreamed of college, but who ended up getting recruited to work as a phone operator in Chicago. This move doesn’t go well and she winds up secretly pregnant and back at the reservation.
These characters linger long after the book ends.
There are some holes in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel — if I might be permitted to critique a National Book Award nominee. Like, I’m not really getting why more than a decade after the collapse of civilization — and the death of 99 percent of the population — things haven’t been re-invented.
But whatever. This is more about what does exist: A traveling Shakespeare troupe that moves along from region to region performing symphonies and classical theater. (This is where we all yell in unison: “Even in chaos, ART LIVES!”
A flu-like pandemic wipes out, like, everyone and very quickly in Mandel’s novel. But before that, a famous actor keels over, a heart attack, during a production of “King Leer.” This is the story of a handful of characters with ties to the man, including a young girl who was on stage during the incident, his agent, two of his exes and his son.
I liked this one, I really did. It’s got a bit of wild wild west to it and enough what-ifs to freak out anyone who cannot be parted from an iWhatever. But there is also a bit of mystery and creepiness to a weird cult led by a self-described prophet.