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The Strange Library Paperback – December 2, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, December 2014: What an odd and oddly beautiful little book. A little boy enters a quiet library -- “even more hushed than usual,” we’re told in the opening line -- and is sent to Room 107, where he meets a creepy old librarian who leads him deep into a maze of dark catacombs beneath the library. There, we learn of the librarian’s ghoulish designs and the boy encounters a small man wearing the skin of a sheep and a pretty young girl pushing a teacart, their worlds now “all jumbled together.” Not even fresh-made doughnuts can sweeten the boy’s nightmarish predicament as the librarian’s prisoner. The Strange Library was designed and illustrated by famed book jacket designer (and frequent Murakami collaborator) Chip Kidd, whose moody and mysterious depictions of a child’s (and a parent’s) darkest dream match Murakami’s surreal imagination. It’s hard to discern the message. Maybe something about knowledge being free or the value of libraries. No matter. This is vintage Murakami and, at the same time, something entirely fresh. No one puts animal skins on humans like Murakami. No one would dare. --Neal Thompson
“As if the work of Japanese fiction master Haruki Murakami weren't strangely beautiful by itself, his American publisher has just put out a stand-alone edition of his 2008 novella The Strange Library, in a new trade paperback designed by the legendary Chip Kidd. . . . The story itself, full of characters and images both awfully weird and utterly down to earth, transforms as you read it, becoming a living, nearly talismanic exercise in how to lift yourself out of the realm of the ordinary and allow the sentences to carry you into an alternate universe. . . . The mysterious pleasure of it all is the payoff when you read Murakami. Some scholar may explain it to us all one day, diagram the roots of his work in the Japanese storytelling tradition, in fable and myth, the special effects he imports from American literature. For me, now, I'm just enjoying basking in the heat of this hypnotic short work by a master who is playing a long game.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR
“[A] charming, surreal story. . . . Cleverly designed and illustrated by Chip Kidd. . . . Whether he is writing for adults or children, [Murakami] remains a suspenseful and fantastical storyteller.” —The Washington Post
“It had me enthralled . . . a story of childhood, death and reading, drawn in both words and pictures, like a fairytale, yet there was nothing childish about it. . . . Let the Murakami-mania begin (again).” —Arifa Akbar, The Independent (London)
“Murakami’s wry metaphysical play feels no less diffuse in this concentrated form. His usual fascinations—the instability of identity, the uses of knowledge, the oppression of memory—fade in with just enough time to fade out, offering just enough light to coax you forward, deeper into the dream.” —The Boston Globe
“Welcome . . . once again, to Murakamiland: sheep men, waifs, quests, attentiveness to little (odd) things, a labyrinth, a stairway down . . . absurdity and irrationality, the tension between the fantastical and the everyday, real and unreal, sadness and loss, then sudden shifts out of the blue, and plenty of the plain runic. . . . [The Strange Library] plumb[s] the kind of questions that leave us all wishing for more room to breathe: the singular and ever-solitary individual . . . the loss of identity (for better or worse), groping in the dark, self-understanding in an unknowable world, the dignity of idiosyncrasies. . . . The spirit and tone of the writing: As if Murakami is driving down a strange road, not know[ing] what’s to come around the next curve: alert, aware, but as in the dark as the reader. He is, however, a really good driver.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Those who come to Mr. Murakami’s work for the first time will be elated by the clarity and wit of his style as translated by Ted Goossen, and intrigued by his characters and the situations they face. The Strange Library . . . stays in the mind because of its combination of brutality with flippancy, but mostly for its oddness. . . . In its own odd way it is a fun read.”—Washington Times
“The Strange Library is a subteen’s No Exit. . . . Beautifully designed. . . . Perfect for coffee tables in the gladsome season. . . . Readers looking for a light diversion in a heavily loaded holiday season should enjoy this existential vision.” —The Miami Herald
“Japanese master Haruki Murakami's short fantasy tale The Strange Library, designed by Chip Kidd with sublime vintage Japanese graphics, takes readers on a wondrous journey to the mysterious underbelly of a Tokyo library.” —Elle
“Striking. . . . [This] dryly funny, concise fable has all the hallmarks of the author’s deadpan magic, along with some Grimm and Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. . . . The perfect trip down the rabbit hole.” —The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg)
“Murakami manages to endow [these] pages with all that we have come to expect from his more leviathan tomes. . . . [Chip Kidd’s illustrations] seem so essential that, having experienced Murakami’s story in this version, one can hardly imagine it in any other form.” —The Japan Times
“Dreamlike. . . . What is immediately clear . . . is just how much thought went into the design and illustrated content. . . . Published by Knopf, the U.S. edition is a Chip Kidd production, and while Kidd’s prolific portfolio demonstrates how comfortable he is working within any and all design idioms, The Strange Library is an in-your-face zoom-in on the faded comics qualities Kidd so often employs when working on Murakami titles. . . . [The illustrations] are what ignite the reader’s thoughts about what the narrator is up against. . . . The designs force the reader to actually read, and read into, the design. . . . Everything that comes to pass in The Strange Library, like in so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters. . . . Evocative, atmospheric.” —The Millions
“Can a font be heart-breaking? I didn’t think so, until now. . . . More than anything, I found myself free-associating while reading The Strange Library: Kafka, Dalí, Nabokov, and Poe all came to mind.” —Jon Morris, PopMatters
“Designed by Chip Kidd, nearly every other page contains a beautiful image, often an abstract representation of what is happening to the narrator. This sinister story and gorgeous artwork come together like an unforgettable nightmare. This one has some major gifting potential.” —Bustle
“At once beguiling and disquieting—in short, trademark Murakami—a fast read that sticks in the mind. . . . Murakami loves two things among many: Franz Kafka (think Kafka on the Shore) and secret places (think 1Q84). This latest, brief and terse, combines those two passions. . . . It would take a Terry Gilliam, or perhaps a Kurosawa, to film Murakami’s nightmare properly.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This dryly funny, concise fable features all the hallmarks of Murakami's deadpan magic, along with splashes of Lewis Carroll and the brothers Grimm. . . . Full-page designs from Chip Kidd divide the sections, bolstering the book's otherworldliness with images from the text alongside mazelike designs and dizzying close-ups of painted faces.” —Publishers Weekly
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As for the story itself, do not be deceived by the quick pace, young protagonist, the illustrations, and simple vocabulary: this is not a children's story, but rather a "fantasy for adults" as the book cover on the Japanese version states. The elements of magical realism are what you'd expect from entering-his-prime Murakami, the themes of detachment, loss, and coming-of-age (as well as the requisite mysterious, pretty young woman) will be familiar to veteran Murakami readers, and the ever-present menace, oppression, and threat of violence foreshadow the darker parts of some of his later works. The combination of cute pictures and whimsical elements with what really is a pretty heavy storyline heightens the dissonance--and, I would argue, the enjoyment--of this unique work. Despite being a quick read, it is one that sticks with you and flits around the subconscious long after you close the cover for the last time ... like a dream ... or perhaps a nightmare.
The first thing to note is the exquisite design of the book. A Kindle version will not do. It is a beautiful object and is meant to be handled and appreciated for the artistry of presentation. There are all sorts of little things, like, for instance, a notation on the spine of the book that let's one know that one cannot read the book outside the precincts of the library. So, you, the reader, are also inside the strange library.
The voice of this work is vintage early Murakami: Whimsy, laconic humor, a mysterious beautiful girl, a sheepman, labyrinths, and worlds with permeable borders. Critics sometimes note a connection to the French theorist, Lacan, and a theme of ever deferred desire in Murakami. This may be true, but this work is more Heidegger and his notion that all being is "being towards death," for mortality is the overt threat and deep context that suffuses the entire tale with ennui.
For the rest of this, I am going to talk details, so this is a spoiler alert. Don't read further if you do not wish to discover the plot and denouement.
The modern West is secular, superficially optimistic, and more deeply nihilistic. This is my view. We distract ourselves from the ominous and ever present danger of death, which we nonetheless have hidden away as much as possible. Our consumerism is driven by the need for novel spectacle to keep darkness at bay. And yet, we are also still the heirs of Western Christendom. Why this excursus? Because Christianity tells a story of death's defeat. The most fundamental reality is deeply comic, because life has the last word.
So, even a secularist in the West will often bear a trace of religious belief. We like happy endings and we "believe" in them. Thus, Murakami's tale will be unsettling and disappointing, because it subverts hope. Death is victor in this fairly tale for adults.
If one wants a rationalist version that could explain the plot. Here it is. A little boy, thoughtful and sensitive, is living with a sick mother and his pet bird. At a subconscious level, he knows his mother is dying, but he doesn't want to face it. Then one day, his pet bird dies. The death of the bird makes grief and loss existentially real for him. The yawning abyss of loneliness that awaits should his mother die suddenly becomes overwhelmingly real. The little boy hides out in a library for three days. He loses his new shoes. When he returns home, his mother is sweet to him and doesn't berate him, for she is full of unspoken understanding.
The last page of the book is written in tiny print. The boy's voice is reduced to almost nothing. His grief wishes to make tragedy disappear. He announces that his mother has died of a mysterious illness and he is alone. Grim, single m.
In this context, the fabulous tale is an effort to escape what cannot be escaped. That is why the boy's allies disappear and his seemingly successful attempt comes abruptly to nothing. The boy's courteous nature before the menacing old man is a wish that decency and good manners would win out over evil and decay, but it just doesn't. More could be teased out, but this is probably already too prolix.
Bottom line: This is a good, early work, but you might feel cheated. You might feel it's unnecessarily bleak and mean. One might alternatively appreciate the work as a blend of adult insight, ingenious design, and child-like dreaming that embodies an idiosyncratic myth. The darkness at the end may appear a relief from sentimental and too cheaply bought victories.
This reader appreciates the latter possibility, but as a believer in what Peter Leithart calls "deep comedy," I was rueful of the ending. I prefer Murakami when he offers a more comic vision, though I suspect his metaphysical agnosticism more naturally tends in this direction.
“But that doesn’t give them the right to saw off the tops of people’s heads and eat their brains. Don’t you think that’s going a bit too far?’”
If you haven’t ever read a story by Murakami before, he’s odd. Very odd. I’m trying my best to review this without giving away any spoilers at all for those who just want to read the story and for those who like to dig for the deeper meanings.
That being said, The Strange Library is a short story presented in a lone book. The book itself is odd, the cover has to be flipped open and has very strange vintage Japanese illustrations to match the story. Everything about the story seems simple and straightforward- not digging deep into characters or plots- adding a richness and dreamlike quality to the story.
But, if you take it to the true Murakami level of reading (we’re talking deep philosophy here) then the reader just might see that the story really revolves around the boy, his pet bird, his mother, and death.
<<<<www.readingbifrost.com>>>> visit blog for original review with details (contains spoiler)
Overall The Strange Library was a fabulously odd short short story wether you’re just looking for a quick read or something you can sink your teeth into. I’d suggest getting a hardcopy instead of an ebook for this one just because the Chip Kidd design does add a lot to the story.
This bite-sized work is great for a Murakami fan looking to devour more of his work, or for a new reader to get a taste of Murakami's world - but it definitely isn't as in depth or satisfying as some of his better known works (Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84, Wind Up Bird Chronicles, etc).
The interesting and original thing about this novel comes with the beautiful artwork interspersed throughout the book, that accompanies the story. It's like having pieces of amazing cover art spread throughout the story, and complementing the story as you read it.