The Goddess Chronicle, by Natsuo Kirino

The Goddess ChronicleMany moons ago I read Kirino’s Out, a bonkers mystery/thriller story which I remember much more fondly than I gave it credit for back in the day. So when this book came up in my ordering, I was like, yes, I will put a hold on you right now.

The Goddess Chronicle is almost nothing like Out, although it is bonkers and it does have a sort of murder mystery to it. This novel deals with a girl called Namima who, we find out in the first paragraph, has died and now lives among the dead. Before that whole death thing, she was born on an island with some interesting religious practices that led to her sister becoming the island’s Oracle and being universally loved and praised while Namima, the yin to her sister’s yang, became the hidden, untouchable priestess of the dead. Not pleased with her lot in life, Namima broke a few rules, ran away, and eventually ended up dying with some unfinished business, leading her to the realm of the dead in which we meet her.

There she meets Izanami, the goddess who helped create the world but died in childbirth and ended up ruling the dead and choosing who will die every day. She has some issues with her husband, Izanaki, and we spend a few not-terribly-exciting chapters learning all about those, and then we get back to the good stuff, including Namima getting a chance to find out what happened to her family and then several chapters about that no-good husband, Izanaki, and his lady-loving adventures on the high seas.

I, to my shame and embarrassment, had no idea there even was a Japanese mythology to speak of before reading this novel — my mythological life was shaped primarily by the Greeks and Romans and then later those Norsemen, and of course being an American I worship different cultural gods. Luckily, the novel is apparently part of a series of novels retelling myths, many of which are making their way onto my TBR list as we speak so that I can stop being quite so ignorant.

Anyway, the point is that I found the story of Izanami and Izanaki quite fascinating; it is strongly based on cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity and gender roles that play out in Kirino’s frame story as well. If this book isn’t already on the syllabus for dozens of sociology classes, those hypothetical professors are doing it wrong.

I also loved Kirino’s writing, from the way she constructed a perfect myth-telling sentence (okay, those accolades might go to her translator, Rebecca Copeland) to the way she employs foreshadowing in my absolute favorite way — telling us what’s going to happen (like Namima’s death) and then letting her story be the interesting part of the novel rather than the filler between exciting plot events.

The Goddess Chronicle was almost entirely not what I was hoping for, but it was delightful in its own right and a book very worth reading.

Recommendation: For those in the mood for a slow, lyrical story, and especially those who fail at knowing Japanese mythology.

Rating: 7/10

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldI think I say this all the time, but I do love my book clubs. I love having a reason to finally read a really good book or to trash a really terrible book with like-minded people. I especially love finding books like this one that I probably would never have heard of in my entire life except that my friend wasn’t allowed to make us read one of Murakami’s 800-page books and so she chose this one.

At first I was like, what the heck is this. There are two stories, both referenced in the title, that alternate back and forth and are both very weird in their own special ways. In the first story, we have a nameless protagonist (everyone’s nameless, actually, in this book) who is something called a Calcutec who is basically a one-man Enigma machine and earns his living encoding things without really knowing how… Murakami’s explanations basically exploded my brain here, but once I decided to just go with it everything was much better! Anyway, he gets called on this assignment to encode some information for a rather eccentric old man who works in an office that is… difficult to get to, let’s say, and once our protagonist takes said job even weirder things start happening with dudes stalking him and unicorn skulls making weird sounds and it’s all just… weird.

The other story should be weirder but actually makes more sense — in this one another unnamed protagonist is living in a strange town where people have to shed their shadows before entering and then get assigned jobs (what is this, The Giver?) like, in our guy’s case, reading dreams from skulls. The idea, I guess, is to let your shadow die off and then you live a happy shadow-less life, but our friend’s shadow may have other plans when it comes to that.

So… it’s weird. It’s very weird, in that Japanese way that so much Death Note has more or less prepared me for. But it’s also pretty fantastic. You know I’m a sucker for a good back-and-forth narrative, and it’s even better when the two stories start to show their interconnectedness, and it’s even more better (just… whatever) when things in one story start making you question things in the other story as well as your own existence. It’s one of those, and I love those.

I really don’t know what else to say about this book… I suppose if you wanted to you could dissect this book in all sorts of different ways and come up with Grand Thoughts About The Universe, but really I just enjoyed letting the story do its thing. Maybe you will, too?

Recommendation: For people who like a good punch to the brain every once in a while and are due for one.

Rating: 8/10

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (24 September — 26 September)

This was one of those books that I don’t really get, but it redeemed itself by being all about math. 🙂 Yay, math!

The unnamed housekeeper of the title tells the story of how she came to work for the unnamed professor, who is an older man who has only 80 minutes of memory for anything that happened after an accident several years previous. The professor, a mathematician, can still play with his numbers, so every time he “meets” the housekeeper he asks for her shoe size and birthday and various other numerical things and finds interesting connections between those numbers and others. The housekeeper and her son (whom the professor nicknames Root for his flat head [like the square root symbol]) become friends with the professor, even if the professor doesn’t realize it.

That’s really the whole story; there’s not much in the way of plot but it is a very interesting character study of a man with little short-term memory and how people around him react to him. The housekeeper at first finds him a little off-putting, but soon learns to like him and even math because a) he’s a great teacher and b) he can’t get exasperated with you for taking a long time to learn something. And the professors cares very much for Root, as a ten-year-old boy, even though he can’t remember him in particular.

And there’s math, and you can’t go wrong with that! 🙂

Rating: 7/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Japan, Countdown Challenge: 2009)

See also:
BookEnds
an adventure in reading
Thoughts of Joy

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Out, by Natsuo Kirino (11 January — 14 January)

Out was an optional novel for the class on mystery novels I took last spring, but I read something else instead. After reading it, I can definitely see why it would be on a class syllabus, though I’m not sure it can really be called a mystery.

The book follows the stories of four women — one who kills her husband and the three who end up disposing of the body. All four of them are intent on covering up the crime, and it seems they will when another suspect turns up, one who has a murder on his record already. The mystery, as it were, is whether or not these women will get caught. It’s a distinct possibility throughout, what with detectives asking questions and certain of the women just being generally stupid. It’s more of a thriller, really, and the story really picks up steam near the end when all the carefully laid plans start falling apart.

Kirino lets you see scenes from the point of view of all of the characters, sort of rewinding the tape and starting over so you can see what’s really going on. It’s a good story-telling device, but it started getting tedious after a bit when I just wanted the story to get a move on, already.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2003, Support Your Local Library Challenge)