What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmons – A Brief Book Review

As a sci-fi fan, I love anything to do with time travel. There are not many authors that tackle the topic of time travel. And for those who do, not many tackle it well. The paradox of time travel makes it a difficult topic. It is so easy to screw it up badly as readers are smart to spot any loopholes. Amy Harmons’s What the Wind Knows is a joyful read despite areas that I wish could have been better.

The location is Ireland. The story may well serve as a historical novel. A modern Irish woman who lives in America returned to Ireland upon the death of her grandfather found herself time traveled back in time when she becomes the mother of her grandfather. There are lots of tight references in the present date and in the old date that makes the plot believable.

Has history been altered? Perhaps just a little bit. I wish the main character could have made more impact and to have more of that heroic moments as someone who is gifted to have seen the future. That perhaps is my own feedback on the story, which otherwise is a very good time travel novel.

Murakami’s Killing Commendatore – A Brief Book Review

I am a huge fan of Haruki Murakami . When I spotted his latest book in our local book store BooksActually – actually it was my wife who first spotted it – I bought it in a heartbeat. I don’t collect books these days as my wife prefers a ‘minimalist’ home. But when it comes to Murakami, my wife knows that it is a sacred space of mine that needs to be left alone. For as long as Murakami keeps on writing, I shall keep on buying. At times, I collect both the English translated version as well as the Chinese translated version.

If you are new to Murakami, I would imagine how daunting it may be to pick a book to start. His classic books tend to have that rawness that can have more impact in terms of plot twists and emotion but the journey could be more irregular. That is to say, some parts could drag on and the plot could become pretty bizarre. His recent books tend to be more refined, more believable, and with a more predictable pace. Killing Commendatore belongs to the latter category.

It is a story of a male artist whose marriage is falling apart and he paints portraits to pay the bills but it is not necessarily something he is passionate about doing. Killing Commendatore is a journey of this artist rediscovering his passion and in the midst of it, rediscovers himself. Through this journey, this artist encounters different characters – real and surreal – including one that spawns from a painting. There are different threads of stories running in parallel interacting with one and other – which is typical of Murakami’s writing style.

Killing Commendatore is a fascinating read. I would recommend this book to readers who are new to Murakami as well as to those who are familiar with him.

The Devil In The Flesh by Raymond Radiguet

French title is called Le diable au corps and I have read this several times over very recently. This book is rather thin. That helps. But mainly, because it is a good read. The book and the author has an extraordinary background. The book is an extraordinary read. If I could only bring 10 books into an island of isolation, The Devil in the Flesh would be one in my collection of solace.

Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet

In the line of creativity work, what have I done when I was 16 to 18? I did not even start writing my first song. Raymond Radiguet wrote this book inspired by his affair with a married woman when he was 16. The author died in 1923 of typhoid fever at the age of 20. The Devil in the Flesh is a work of a genius (borrowing my French friend Yvan’s exact words and I agree). I could only ponder upon the what-if.

The main character – a 16 years old boy – is having an affair with Martha Lacombe, a young woman whose husband is fighting the WW I. The emotional journey as well as its details within and the immaturity displayed is so real that I reckon for those who have been in love or have a crush with someone in the younger days should be able to relate. I can relate every bit of it.

The context is important. Back in the era of WW I, affair of such nature I would think could be frown upon. Even being condemned. The opening page sets out how the story would unfold in a lighthearted manner – which dominates the entire novel despite the tragic end.

We lived at F., on the banks of the Marne.

My parent disapproved of friendships between the sexes. But our sensuality, which is born with us, though for a time it remains dormant, was aroused rather than quelled by their disapproval.

I have never been a dreamer. What appears dream to others more credulous than I seems to me to be as real as cheese to cat – in spite of the glass that covers it. Yet the glass does exist.

If the glass breaks, the cat takes advantage, even if it is his master who breaks it and cuts his hand in the process.

One day, Marthe took the narrator for a furniture shopping trip for her future home as her fiance is still at the front line fighting a war. Naturally, Marthe would want to pick what her fiance wants. But influenced by the narrator – out of jealousy no less – Marthe begins to doubt her decisions and instead, sides with the narrator’s rationale, and picks what the narrator wants.

At the end of this exhausting day I could justifiably congratulate myself on my achievements. Item by item, I had succeeded in transforming this marriage of love, or rather of infatuation, into a marriage of reason, and a strange marriage of reason at that, since reason had no part in it, each finding in the other only the advantages provided by a marriage of love.

As she left me that evening, far from seeking to avoid further advice, she had asked me if I would help her during the next few days to choose the rest of her furniture. I said that I would, but only if she swore that she would never tell her fiance, since the only chance of his coming in the end to accept this furniture was for him to think that it was entirely her own choice. Then, if he really loved Marthe, what gave her pleasure would also please him.

Inevitably, a book with such topic, I would want to see how the author explores intimacy.  In this scene, the narrator is with Marthe, inside an apartment with only the two of them. A fireplace is set with a special fragrant from the wood pieces that are sent from Marthe’s fiance’s family. At times I wonder if the book title was born from this scene.

As she slept, her head on my arm, I leaned over to look at her face, which was surrounded with flames. I was playing with fire. One day, as I approached too close, though our faces were not touching, I was suddenly like the needle which, having once moved a fraction of an inch beyond the mark, is in the magnet’s power. Is it the fault of the magnet or the needle? I became aware that my lips were on hers. Her eyes were still closed, but she was quite obviously not asleep. I kissed her, amazed at my boldness, whereas in fact, it was she who had drawn my head towards her mouth. Her hands clung to my neck; they would not have held me so fast in a shipwreck. And I did not understand whether she wanted me to save her or to drown with her.

What I also like about this book is the playfulness of this love affair, which makes the story all the better to relate. No doubt, the author (and the narrator of the story) was mature beyond his age. But time and time again, as the narrator throws tantrums and does things out of sort, all these remind me of their young age. I have been there done that. And I am certain many readers too.

Love wishes to share its happiness. A woman who is cool by nature becomes demonstrative, kisses you in the nape of the neck and invents innumerable tricks to distract you if you happen to be writing a letter. I never wanted to kiss Marthe so much as when her attention was taken up by something else; or to touch her hair and undo it as when she was pinning it up. In the boat I would throw myself upon her and smother her with kisses to make her let go of the oars and let the boat lose its way among the herbs and the white and yellow water-lilies. She saw this as a sign of uncontrollable passion, whereas I was really in the grip of this powerful urge to disturb her. We would then moor the boat behind some tall tufts of grass. The danger of being seen or of capsizing the boat made our sport all the more pleasurable.

In one particular scene, while Marthe was away from town, the narrator took a young girl Seva into Marthe’s apartment. He gets Seva drunk, wanting her not out of lust, but out of greed. Also, the narrator is fully aware that it is rape that he is about to commit.

Soon, words get to Marthe as the landlord has made a complaint that the house is not a brothel. While our narrator manages to yet again talk himself out of the situation which is not unexpected of, it is the way he internally justifies his act that intrigues me. I would say, the author was well ahead of his age.

Just as a bee plunders in order to enrich the hive, a lover enriches his love with every passing desire that besets him in the street. It is his mistress who benefits from this accumulation. I had not yet discovered this discipline that gives fidelity to unfaithful natures. When a man, lusting after a girl, transfers this ardour to the woman he loves, his desire is the stronger for being unsatisfied, and will lead the woman to believe that no one has ever loved her so much. It is a form of infidelity, though in most people’s opinion morality has triumphed. Such duplicity leads to profligacy. One should not condemn too readily therefore men who are capable of infidelity at the very height of their love; they should not be accused of frivolity. They reject this easy subterfuge and refuse to confuse their happiness with their pleasure.

After reading this book a couple of times, I ponder upon the title. Who is the devil? And why is he or she the devil? Presented with a similar situation, I probably would have done the same. But that was 1923 when the tradition and value may be different from today’s modern standard.

If I go along with the interpretation that to lie is a sin. To seduce and to fornicate with a married woman is a sin (a mortal one no less). To have caused one’s death would also be a sin. And since Diablo is the Father of Lie and more, it would not be wrong to interpret the narrative himself as the devil in the flesh. Harsh though, I must say. Almost like a self-punishment for the narrator’s regret, for perhaps the author’s regret.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – A Fascinating Read Filled With Mysteries

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a fascinating read. In fact, this is my third read in the span of a few years. Each pass I am able to spot more linkages between the plots. And more passages highlighted for future reference.

Like many of Murakami novels, Colorless is filled with mysteries. The main character – a 36 years old Tsukuru Tazaki – recounted one moment in his college life, that he had contemplated to commit suicide. It all started with a group of five back in school. Every one with a name associated to a color except Tsukuru.

Soon, the other four friends began to use nicknames: the boys were called Aka (red) and Ao (blue); and the girls were Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). But he just remained Tsukuru. How great it would be, he often thought, if I had a color in my name too. Then everything would be perfect.

Out of nowhere, all four friends of Tsukuru have refused to talk to and to meet with him. The shock was so intense that he had lost the will to live.

“That was the first time in my life that anyone has rejected me so completely,” Tsukuru said. “And the ones who did it were the people I trusted the most, my four best friends in the world. I was so close to them that they had been like an extension of my own body. Searching for a reason, or correcting a misunderstanding, was beyond me. I was simply, and utterly, in shock. So much so that I thought I might never recover. It felt like something inside me had snapped.”

Tsukuru recounted his story because his new girlfriend Sara wanted to know more about this emotional burden that has been hindering the relationship. More so, Sara wants Tsukuru to face his past. As Sara has once said:

You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.

This sets off the direction of Colorless with the ultimate rewards of Sara becoming Tsukuru’s serious girlfriend and Tsukuru getting to know exactly what went on with his four best friends abandoning him at the same time.

The good news is that this book is an entertaining read from beginning to end. The not so good news is that at the end of book, you still would not know the answers to the two ultimate questions. But here lies the brilliance of this book. We could imagine what the outcomes would be. But we may never grasp what is real. Like our main character Tsukuru once experienced. There are going to be plenty open questions.

And he couldn’t grasp the boundary between dream and imagination, between what was imaginary and what was real.

What I love most about Colorless is how well planned the plot is. Sara does not appear often in this book. But she drives the entire story. She uncovers the issues and she wants a resolution. Even as Tsukuru (and the readers too) has no clue on what to do next, Sara drops hints at the crucial moment on what is to come. She is like the prophet, always one step ahead. While many including I would debate on what Sara would do with Tsukuru when all is resolved, I am leaning towards a happy ending because Sara comes across to me as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Her moves are reliability predictable. I doubt she has any agenda except to remove this emotional burden of Tsukuru so that their relationship can move forward.

Now, the story between Sara and Tsukuru is easy to summarize. How the mystery unfolds is not. Because the subplots are subtly linked through different time lines and storyline. And how the dreams affect the imagination which in turn distort the reality adds another layer of abstract to the story.

Putting all that aside, there are consistent references to having to make hard decisions, though seemingly unrelated during my first read. Let’s think of body and heart.

In this dream, though, he burned with desire for a woman. It wasn’t clear who she was. She was just there. And she had a special ability to separate her body and her heart. I will give you one of them, she told Tsukuru. My body or my heart. But you can’t have both. You need to choose one or the other, right now. I will give the other part to someone else, she said.

(This would make a good conversation. In real life though, which would you choose and why?)

In the context of corporate ‘brainwashing’ though executive training:

I have some good news for you, and some bad news. The bad news first. We’re going to have to rip off either your fingernails or your toenails with pliers. I’m sorry, but it’s already decided. It can’t be changed. Here’s the good news. You have the freedom to choose which it’s going to be – your fingernails, or your toenails. So, which will it be?

(That pretty much sums up what real world can be like at work.)

And finally, the resolution.

“And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other one entirely.”

To go back to my leaning towards a happy ending, let’s go back to the final conversation between Eri (Kuro) and Tsukuru.

“But it’s strange, isn’t it?” Eri said.

“What is?”

“That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”

Tsukuru nodded silently. He thought he should say something, but no words came.

What was it that he wanted to say as he was pondering upon whether or not Sara would accept him in the very end of the book?

Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tsukuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye […]

What then survives the flow of time? I believe that it is hope.

We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something – with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

While I am happy to be able to extract that much from the book, one side-plot still eludes me is on Haida (Grey).

Haida became Tsukuru’s best friend after Tsukuru has decided that dying was not the best option moving forward. Besides, to will his heart to stop was as he found out later an impossible task. Here are what I have gathered from the story of Haida.

  • Grey is a mix of black and white. The two colors that symbolize Shiro and Kuro – the two girls in the original group of five. It seems to me that Haida is a male replacement of the two.
  • The sexually insinuated dreams between Tsukuru, Shiro, and Kuro has been once replaced by a dream involving Tsukuru and Haida, also sexual in nature.
  • To me, the original group of five reminds me of a hand with five fingers. It was natural. Haida has come across as the sixth finger.
  • Haida once recounted a story of his father (also called Haida) to Tsukuru. At one point, Tsukuru thought the story came from Haida himself.
  • Haida (the father) has met a jazz pianist called Midorikawa (Green) who in possession of (1) a mysterious small bag, (2) a special ability to see aura, and (3) a deadly burden that temporarily granted him the special ability but would cost him his life unless he could pass this deadly burden to a willing party.
  • Haida (the father) did not accept. Midorikawa has then disappeared.
  • Haida (Tsukuru’s friend) all of a sudden disappeared from Tsukuru’s life.
  • The story of his father may have been the story of Haida himself.
  • One of Tsukuru’s side mission is to find out what happened to Haida in order to fully remove his emotional burden. The book does not seem to have a resolution on this side-story.
  • Years later, a formaldehyde jar containing two severed sixth fingers are found in one of Tsukuru’s train stations.
  • This jar, I presume, belongs to Midorikawa – the mysterious small bag. So the story is real. Could this be the resolution?

So many ways to interpret the story. Did Haida accept the deadly burden and hence explains his second disappearance? Did he have the special ability all along or only after his first disappearance? Is that why there were those surreal moments between him and Tsukuru? More importantly, how does this story branch relate to the main story, if at all?

Still, Tsukuru felt that Haida’s clear eyes had seen right though him that night, to what lay in his unconscious. Traces of Haida’s gaze still stung, like a mild burn. Haida had, at that time, observed Tsukuru’s secret fantasies and desires, examining and dissecting them one by one […]

One constant theme in this book is about death and disappearance, heartache and reconciliation, reborn and recover. That much I can be certain of.

ISBN 978-4-16-382110-8

The Lifecycle Of Software Objects by Ted Chiang – Tons of Potential, Tons of Missed Opportunities

Lifecycle of Software Object

This novella has tons of potential. Imagine being able to log onto a virtual world – very much like how massively multiplayer online games work these days – and interact with digital organisms (or digients). In addition, you get to train your digients and see how they grow. Like raising a digital baby in a digital world.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t this remind you of The Sim or many of the Facebook games?

Fundamentally, the concept is very similar. The difference is that you can interact with your digients using natural language, very much like how you would interact with another being. Each digient comes with a unique set of genome and different company approaches how the genome is implemented in a different way. We are talking about AI (artificial intelligence), which none of the games today offers.

A number of interesting topics are explored in The Lifecycle Of Software Objects. Are these merely fanciful pets in a game or can they become companions for the human trainers? Can mutual affection be developed? What is the purpose of the grown up digients? As workers such as personal assistants? To possess the right level of artificial intelligence to solve real life problems? As mere entertainers? To push the sexual frontier for those who are interested in non-human sex? What about having these digients to have fun without thinking too much about operating at one’s full potential?

One major breakthrough of this novella is to have these digients ‘logging into’ our world by taking over a robotic body. Instead of human entering the virtual world using an avatar, we have these virtual beings entering our world using a machine, experiencing the real world. The idea is breathtaking. As in, these digients are able to get in and out of our world as we like (note: I would much preferred to be as they like – more on it in the missed opportunity section of this book summary).

Another great concept is that digients could be mature and intelligent enough to form their own corporations and hence, being solely responsible for themselves legally speaking, freeing themselves from their trainers or owners.

While The Lifecycle Of Software Objects has tons of potential, the novella also has tons of missed opportunities.

First and foremost, the story telling is not very interesting. We have Ana Alvarado as the protagonist who passionately trains and protects her digient Jax. The focus is confusing. Had the story revolved around Jax with some quality character development, I would have bought into the idea of digients. That every digient matters. Having Jax out of nowhere giving Marco a blowjob (page 52) due to some bad influence is not quite my kind of character development. It is okay to explore same sex intimacy. Just stay with it throughout. Besides that one single mishap, Jax’s life is not very interesting or lively either.

The story seems to revolve around Ana. But she doesn’t seem to have an interesting life. Her potential love interest Derek Brooks whom also shares the very same interest in raising digients is a wimp. Though he makes a rather grand gesture of sacrifice in the end, nothing materializes from it, very much like everything in this book.

The entire journey is filled with down turns with nothing much that looks up. First comes more superior digients that make our Jax looks dated and not as smart or useful. Then comes the various threats like hackers and exploits that would have been the villains but the issues are resolved all too fast, almost unceremoniously so. Soon, the game or the platform is losing customers (note: business model is basically selling virtual pet food to keep the digients going, which is kind of meh to me). The company closes down and the platform goes open source (sort of). Then more threats from all sorts of uninspiring ideas. Platform merger. And finally, being the only platform that is not ported to the next big thing, poor Jax, he is void of his new friends whom have been migrated to the new platform.

The rest of the story is on how Ana and Derek raise funds to port this old platform, even considering to partner with a company that sells sex toys.

Lastly, it wouldn’t make a good story to keep forwarding time line by months and years. After a while, I have lost in time. Was it 10 years have passed since Jax was born towards the end of the book? I have no idea. I wouldn’t manually add months and years as I read a book. Certainly I wouldn’t read this book again.

Alas. What a wasted opportunity.

If I were the author, I would sell fantasy and futurism rather than shallow realism based on today’s world. A lot of the tech stuffs are neither interesting nor insightful. I would make AI digients a success rather than comparing some of them with children that have Down syndrome. I would make them able to enter our world as and when they like. Learn our strengths and weaknesses first hand. These digients should rewrite their legal status. They should have free will and make us reflect upon our humanity. They could be a threat. Or a peacemaker. Affection between human and digients should be convincing.

I would take more risk with the plot. Definitely a lot tighter with the time line as the story is told. Also, would it not be a real good twist towards the end if Ana was an AI who was trying to create AI only get to know more about her own existence eh? 

ISBN 978-1-59606-317-4