Book Reviews

  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2014)

    By Karina Corona

    Haruki Murakami is a man of incredible talent. With 19 titles and translated into 50 languages, this Japanese writer is considered by some to be one of the leaders in postmodern literature. 

    As a twenty-something college student living in a major U.S. city, I already know what you’re thinking dear reader. You’re thinking, "Murakami? Is this another review on Norwegian Wood?" To this, I have the following to say: um, Norwegian Wood is a wonderful book that deals with the many dimensions of personal trauma and recovery and no, this review is actually on Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  

    Right from the first line, Murakami captures the reader and pulls them into the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year-old railroad engineer living in Tokyo. Following a traumatic event that took place during his sophomore year in college, Tsukuru is left emotionally crippled and exiled from the only friends he’s ever known. With nothing but the thought of dying keeping him company, Tsukuru almost reaches the point of no return before deciding to revisit his past and get an answer to the question which left him restless for nearly 16 years: Why? 

    The wonder of Murakami's writing is in the detail of his characters. For example, Tsukuru translates to “to make or build” and his surname, Tazaki, contains no color or symbol which sets him apart from the group of friends he is later exiled from as all of their sur names contain sort of relation to a specific color—a detail that is unrelated to his exile, yet meaningful nonetheless. In addition to the classic Murakami style, there is a mysterious character involved and a plot twist even sharper than his character development. 

    While some may argue that each Murakami novel is alike, I will argue that that very thing is the beauty behind his writing. To take a story and mold it in a way that is consistent and universal but still keep true to the individuality of the story and its characters is what keeps me and the millions of other Murakami readers coming back for more.   

  • The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puértolas (Knopf, 2015)

    By Emma LaSaine

    Romain Puértolas’s debut novel, much like its name, spans a great breadth. Geographically, the story carries readers, along with the titular fakir, from Paris to England, Barcelona to Rome, all the way to Libya, then back to France. At the start of this journey, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod (Aja for short) is a self-interested swindler on a quest to buy a fakir-style bed of nails from Ikea, which he plans to resell for a profit upon his return to India. When Aja, spending the night in Ikea because he cannot afford a hotel, finds himself trapped inside a wardrobe that is shipped to England, he unintentionally becomes an “illegal alien.” Along the way, Aja suffers several “electric shocks” to the heart—epiphanies that broaden his world view, redirect his moral compass, and give him a newfound sense of purpose through his love for Marie, a beautiful French woman he meets along the way, and his desire to be worthy of her affections.

    From the start, Puétorlas plays with perception, a key technique throughout the novel. We first see Aja through the eyes of Gustave Palourde, a Gypsy Cab driver who Aja cheats out of his fare by means of a counterfeit 100-euro bill (printed only on one side) and some invisible thread. Gustave, who turns out to be a violent and slightly dishonest member of the Romani community, recognizes Aja as a foreigner, and views his request to go straight from the airport to Ikea as bizarre. However, when Puétorlas backtracks and immediately retells the encounter, this time listening in to Aja’s thoughts, we discover that he has made an express effort to blend in with the Western locals and that this entire journey, while not a normal activity for the fakir, is perfectly reasonable (if morally dubious, considering that it has been financed through a series of dishonesties) in his mind.

    Puétorlas uses this shifting third person to accomplish a sweeping array of tones and play with the reader’s perception of events. To Aja, the different display rooms constructed in the Ikea reveal real human lives—futures of young couples considering kids, evenings spent on the couch watching TV—despite the fact that these rooms are all false. To him, the automated doors on the front of the store are a technological miracle worthy of appreciation, to the French customers, they are only an aspect of everyday life. Aja’s outsider perspective makes readers question their own perceptions of Western culture and behavior. As Aja’s voyage ensues, the audience quickly discovers that they are merely along for the ride in this rapid-paced adventure where the ridiculous becomes rational and the accepted is revealed to be absurd.

    Puétorlas manages to construct a largely farcical (and at times whimsical) journey that recalls such immersive adventures as Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, all the while establishing the fact that Aja’s journey takes place within our hardly fictional modern global reality. The novel handles humorous intricacies of pronunciation that come with transcultural encounters—Ajatshatru’s name alone is interpreted as “A-cat-in-a-bat-suit,” “A-jackal-that-ate-you” and “A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!”—along with solomn geopolitical tensions and practices surrounding immigration and the divide between developing nations and what Assefa (“I-suffer”), a Sudanese migrant Aja encounters, calls “the good countries.”

    Drawing, no doubt, on his time working as a French boarder guard, Puétorlas writes with remarkable intimacy about the way immigrants are transformed by the hardships they face, describing how “even the sturdiest men become vulnerable: beaten animals with lifeless expressions, their eyes full of extinguished stars,” when he lives with the eternal fear of being caught and sent back to the country and the situation he has worked so hard to escape. In our modern world wracked by war and the politics of refugee crises, Puétorlas aptly notes the absurdities and tragedies surrounding immigration restriction.

    It is important not to be fooled by the humor of Aja’s occasionally slapstick encounters. Although the fakir makes his living by performing petty magic tricks, a master of perception in a sense, this mastery has its roots in a dark brush with the abuse and power dynamics that rule our postcolonial world. Aja may be a loveable fool, the good-natured cheat, but he also provides a window into the disparity in access to modernity, technology and basic quality of life that exists between “have” and “have-not” nations. As Aja travels throughout Europe and beyond, the reader also travels, learning to question their perceptions of what is “banal” and what is “magical,” while reshaping their sense of personal identity within the larger framework of global events, getting in a few good laughs along the way.


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.

  • My Only Wife, by Jac Jemc (Dzanc Books, 2012)

    By Jennifer Bostrom

    It’s a quick read that demands patience and fond visits. It demands to be left within reach, to be randomly flipped through, and enjoyed for only a moment. It demands to be read in one stretch, pouring over quirks and secrets. My Only Wife (Dzanc Books, 2012) demands attention. Written by Jac Jemc (These Strangers She’d Invited In, 2010; A Different Bed Every Time, 2014), a Chicago-based writer, My Only Wife explores the pains, pitfalls, and pulchritude of a marriage from its beginnings to its damnation.

    In postmortem of his marriage a husband falls in and out of love with his wife as her quirks shift into eccentricities. To quote Kundera, “Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory,” Jemc captures this notion to the very letter through the eyes of the husband; He is a man in love, a man infatuated, a man who understands his wife with perfect clarity and blinding befuddlement. “My wife was the start of me. If someone were to ask how I had changed since I met her I would be unable to find the words. It wasn’t that I changed because of knowing her. It’s more accurate to say that I began.” 

    Though they are never named, the man and wife are outlined through a series of idiosyncratic vignettes, each one more lovely and disheartening than the next. While it could have been a hindrance, Jemc deftly handles the lack of titles by making tangible the severity of the husband’s loss through his repeated mantra, “my wife.” 

    “My wife was a clumsy acquaintance who lumbered through days.”

    “My wife wore trousers . . . She filled her clothes the way one fills one’s skin: exactly.”

    “She was my only wife and I accepted her for all that she was, all quirks, all inconsistencies and unexpected preferences.”

    The wife in question has one habit in particular that begins as endearing and quickly turns isolating. She records stories. After talking to strangers, she returns to her home every night and records stories that no one hears, stories that she hides way in her closet—a closet she keeps locked, only showing her husband once when they move in together.

    “‘Can I see the closet again?’ I asked, at five years.

    ‘You know better,’ she said, locking it behind her and struggling to reattach the bracelet to her wrist, key dangling. 

    ‘Why not?’

    ‘That was a one-time thing. I told you that. You understood. That’s the end.’ She wasn’t amused. . . .

    She was a bit bewildered by my stubbornness. ‘That closet is mine, and I get one thing that is only mine. No, you can’t look inside.’”

    Her husband is tethered to her uniqueness from the very beginning, but the quirky woman who so hauntingly captures her husband’s heart is off-putting as much as she is beautiful, a train wreck demanding attention. His wife is an affable, irascible despot, moving from inclusivity and intimacy to independence and indifferent cynicism at the drop of a hat, leaving a sense of whiplash in her wake.

    Jac Jemc wrestles the demons of love and loss in a sketch of two people fighting inevitability. Their “love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”


    Jennifer Bostrom is a BA Honors Fiction Graduate from Columbia College Chicago, Academic Excellence scholarship recipient (2013-2016), Production Editor of CCC’s award-winning Hair Trigger anthology, and former contributer for HYPERtext MagazineJennifer's fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website jcbostrom.com.