Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore Book Cover Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami, J. Philip Gabriel,
Fiction
Vintage
2006-01
467

An unlikely alliance forms between Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old runaway, and the aging Nakata, a man who has never recovered from a wartime affliction, as they embark on a surreal odyssey through a strange, fantastical world. Also, there are cats. Lots of cats.

Kafka on the Shore was the first book I read after moving to Japan. Since then, my memories have blended with images of shrines hidden in dense cities, truck drivers at lonely coffee shops, and talking cats roaming the weeds. Then again, who’s to say I never actually experienced those things? Living in Japan was a surreal, dreamlike experience with lots of drinking – kind of like this book.

After a rereading, the thing I really liked about the Kafka was how much it felt like Japan. If you haven’t been there but want to know what it’s like, it’s perfect. It’s also just a really cool story, and the author does a great job blending in boring details of every day life with bizarre happenings, while still having things make sense. Even so, I’m not sure if I completely figured out the whole story, but I think that’s OK.

Here are some other random ratings in no particular order:


Difficulty: Medium. It’s a bit long and there are some references that might not make sense to casual readers, but I enjoyed it all the way through so no complaints.

Weirdness Level: 9/10. It has UFOs, Colonel Sanders, and some Oedipus stuff, let’s put it that way.

Was it fun? There’s definitely some gloomy stuff going on (anyone who has taught Japanese teenagers will understand that this is unavoidable. Well, maybe that’s true of all teenagers).

Reread? The next time I feel like I need to escape from our American reality.

Stretched thin and Stressed!

Fasting, meditation, and yoga have helped me with the stress of the Physics lifestyle over the years (and especially the past few months), but things are starting to get frenzied again. Our boss John is pushing us to hit some landmarks in our thesis and to aim for graduation next year. In a way, this is good. Getting start early is key when you’re working on a 200 page monster. The next deadline is next week and I probably need about 10-20 new pages written between now and then.

On the other hand, I’m heading to Virginia Tech early next month and I need to prepare a suite of readout electronics for our demonstrator detector. My colleague Kurtis is in town and he’s the perfect guy to approach for help on this – but I’ve only got a week. Yikes! Two deadlines at the end of one week. O_O

Fasting sounds crazy, but it’s not

Have you ever been hungry for an entire day? Or missed eating entirely for over 24 hours? I thought about this question while reading “Ender’s Shadow,” one of the sequels to Ender’s game. The main character is a scrawny orphan kid who struggles to survive on the streets but eventually gets recruited to help fight off an alien invasion. You know, pretty much every orphan’s story. The book was good, but for 23 year-old me it was also an insight into the lives of homeless.

Of course, I know I’ll never experience what it’s like to be a hungry kid in the Favelas (where Orson Scott Card was a missionary and likely got his inspiration), but I decided to try fasting to see what it was like. A high school teacher of mine, said he would fast on Fridays in solidarity with the poor. If he could do it once a week every week, surely I could try it at least once or twice.

Well, it turned out to be pretty hard! Shocking, right? Still, I managed to succeed that  first time, but didn’t end up doing it much over the intervening years. Occasionally I would do a day of fasting in Japan, but there were new challenges there: being tired and hungry in a classroom of sneezing 8 year-olds is a guaranteed way to get sick. So it’s been on the back-burner until relatively recently. Catnip treats are just too good

Over the holidays Amanda and I went home to Baltimore to visit friends and family. I wasn’t biking to school anymore, hiking, hitting the gym, or doing much of anything beyond drinking beer, reading books, playing games, and eating. It was relaxing, but my belly got way bigger (so did Beaker’s). Back in Hawaii, I already have an exercise routine down, but I wondered what I could do to help me shed some fat a little faster. Fasting? Why not.

So, how is it? So far, I’ve tried it every other Wednesday and it’s generally gone OK. My rules: no food, no calories outside of vitamins in the morning, and no fluids other than water, green tea, or black coffee (a recent addition). Here’s a breakdown of how it’s felt the past couple of times:

  • ‘Man, I miss my morning coffee. But that’s OK, I’m not so hungry yet.’
  • ‘Those vitamin’s kinda made me less hungry.’
  • ‘OK, biking up this hill to school seems more tiring than usual.’
  • ‘Man, I could go for a latte. I should go to Starbucks. Oh…”
  • ‘OK, it’s lunchtime and everyone is eating. What do I do now?’
  • ‘2 o’clock. That’s half a day. Not bad, right? I could eat when I get home and call it an ‘intermittent fast.’
  • ‘3:30. I’m gonna make it the whole day for sure!’
  • ‘4:30. My stomach is rumbling and my head is starting to hurt.’
  • ‘Wow, biking home was even harder than usual.’
  • ‘OK, I’m home and Elan and Amanda’s food smells amazing. Like, way more amazing than usual. Must… resist…’
  • ‘My head still kinda hurts.’
  • ‘Why does this book keep talking about food? Damn you novelists!!!’
  • ‘Zzzzz…. I’m too sleepy and tired to get out of bed and eat.’

Then the next day:

  • ‘Wow, I’m extra tired this morning, but my head feels really clear.’
  • ‘Hmmm, I feel pretty good!’
  • ‘Wow, everything smells amazing today.’
  • ‘Biking is a little tiring, but otherwise I feel better than yesterday.’
  • ‘Mmmm, delicious salad. These raw cucumbers are the most delicious thing ever.’

Is it worth it? So far I’ve experienced four major benefits:

  1. Losing a little weight / fat
  2. Feeling absolutely amazing the day after (even if I haven’t eaten yet)
  3. Less headaches, even after crazy yoga poses
  4. Shoulder injury feels way better

Overall, I’d say it’s been really beneficial. So far, I’ve succeeded in doing two 36 hour fasts  since January and a couple of half-day fasts. My go-to day is Wednesday and I’m aiming for twice a month. Even though it tough at the beginning, I know I will feel awesome afterward, so I’m planning to try again next week and see how it goes.

More Regular Updates on the Way

I’ve made a few resolutions for the new year, including working on my physical and mental health, focusing more on my work in physics, and spending more time on writing. Last year, I decided to attempt to write a short story per month. I didn’t reach my goal, but I did manage to write six or seven stories, so not bad.

I know I’ll be busy this year, especially with my dissertation, but I think writing one page per day is absolutely doable, whether it’s creative writing, journaling, or scientific work. The lack of a digital journal has also been bothering me. For many, many years – an embarrassing number, really – I kept a journal on opendiary.com. I started when I was 16 and kept it up to date into grad school. It had stories from my time in drama club in high school, my journey out west and hiking in Montana, my blundering through early relationships and dating, my successes and failures at UMBC, and the drunken shenanigans I encountered while teaching in Japan.

Opendiary closed several years ago. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping paper journals. These are a lot of fun, and in some ways better – If I’m ever old and have kids or grandkids, I can pass them on. They’re also generally more *ahem* private.

That said, I think it’s good, and more practical, to keep an online writing practice going. So I’m going to get back at, right here, on this blog I set up here on my website. Why not? At least the robots that visit will be happy. Hello, fellow robots! Err, uh. I swear I’m not a robot. Just a scientist.

Support my novel, Silent City on Kindle Scout!

Silent City is a ghost story about Baltimore that started off as “Spirited Away” on the East Coast and evolved into something entirely different:

When bookish Anne Raskolnikov wakes to discover that Baltimore has been abandoned, she quietly takes it all in stride. Armed only with her journal and a box of cereal, she and her neighbor’s cat venture out to explore. However, they soon learn that something odd has happened to their hometown. The people have disappeared, the ravens and squirrels have learned to talk, and the buildings are haunted by all-consuming monsters. Stranger still, the ghosts and ravens are all looking for two things: a young girl with black hair and a red hoodie and a magical book hidden beneath the city streets.

Check out the campaign on Amazon! If you nominate and Amazon decides to publish it, you’ll receive a free digital copy. And if you don’t like it, well, that’s just your opinion dude! Link below:

Click here to check it out!

The Kindle Scout Campaign for Silent City Has Launched!

It’s been a long journey, starting the book as part of a NanoWriMo project years ago, to editing, to reediting, sending it around to people for comments, reediting, and submitting to places. I’m sure there are still some spots to improve, but I’ve had a great time writing this and I think it’s time to move on to other projects. That said, it’s got cats, ravens, Bromoseltzer Tower, and lots of references to random books inside, so what’s not to get? The story is set in Baltimore, with lots of references to local culture, so I’m hoping people from the area enjoy it, at least.

So what’s going on with it now? Basically, I’ve submitted the manuscript to Amazon via their “Kindle Scout” program. If it gets enough nominations, or the editors like it enough, or Amazon speaks to the elder gods deep beneath the Earth and they approve – then I get a contract, some cash, and free promotion in the kindle store.

SilentCityCoverB

Click here to check out the publishing campaign on kindle!

If you nominate the book and it wins, you get a free copy. If you nominate and it doesn’t win, you can either check it out on Amazon or I’ll send along a copy for free! If you want to nominate it and never read it because ebooks are lame, that makes sense too. If you’re thinking, “Who the hell is this guy and why should I nominate his book?” – OK, fair enough, I have no idea how you ended up here either.

Potential Book Covers

Friends, as some of you may know, I’ve been working on a novel set in Baltimore for many years now. The book is basically done, but I need a cover for it. I’ve toyed around with some ideas and come up with a few different variations. Covers, colors, backgrounds, and other things can be swapped pretty easily.  Let me know what you think!

SilentCityCoverA SilentCityCoverB SilentCityCoverC SilentCityCoverD SilentcityCoverE

 

The Black Hole Behind Me

by Ryan Walraven


A black hole trails behind me,

a dormant shadow from my past.

It smells of dust and empty spaces

and sounds like post movie silence. 

In its wake, all ruins are devoured,

the mess of my bedroom floor turned to carpet,

old books and papers gone dry.

Photos and posters turn blank,

like the last page of a book

which no one will ever read.

Its radiation pierces flesh,

seals old wounds with ultraviolet precision.

The event horizon swells around me,

a black envelope of air-conditioned space

where deep within some hint of memory still resides

never to be seen again.


© Ryan Walraven 2015

Augury

by Ryan Walraven


The wind flows, thick with wood smoke

and leaf-snagged chatter from far away roads.

I sink my hands into the mud and dredge

the fallen patterns of the sun.

In swaths of star-shaped leaves, I see math’s of

empty measure; by dockside, waves gathering.

The wind urges them on, and I listen for the crash.

Air, mud, trees, seas. The signs

blend like streams of incense, or the browns

and creams upon a cup of tea.

© Ryan Walraven 2015

Four Ways to Uncover a Time Traveler

by Ryan Walraven


“He’s definitely a time traveler.  No doubt.”

“Jules, you’re being paranoid.  Or delusional.” 

He shot me a look. 

“Or both.” I glanced down the train car at the man in question. “He’s just a normal guy with a strange sense of style.”

Jules raised a bushy eyebrow at me. “How can you be so sure?” Normally I would have shaken this off as another one of his dramatic episodes, but as we rode the rattling Japanese train southward the wall of darkness outside seemed to add weight to his words. We weren’t exactly on one of the central lines, either.  This was the old Omi electric, leading through the rural mountain towns of central kansai. 

I turned back from the window. “Look, maybe this guy is a little weird, but just because he’s wearing a cape doesn’t mean he’s some sort of Star Trek character.”

“You’re right, that’s preposterous.” 

I smiled victoriously, but he raised his index finger and went on. 

“Time travel is a rare occurrence in the Star Trek universe.”

He snorted as the relief drained from my face.  I had a bad feeling that this was going to lead to another incident.

“This isn’t another one of your conspiracy theories, is it?” I checked my cell phone wearily.  Still fifteen minutes until Yokaichi station and the train was rattling around more than ever. I loosened my school-issue necktie and tried to get comfortable. “I’ve heard enough of time travelers, extraterrestrials, and undead samurai for one lifetime. Can’t we enjoy a single commute without pretending we’re in one of your weird stories?”

“Hey!” He frowned and jammed his hands in his pockets, turning away and looking out the window. “You said you liked the samurai story.”

“Well,” I paused, clearing my throat, “that was just  a story.”

“Well this isn’t.  Look at that guy,” Jules waved a hairy arm in the man’s direction. “He meets all four criteria for time travelers. And…” he paused an raised his index finger for dramatic effect, “I think he’s been stalking me.”

He was trying to get me to bite. “No.  Just no, Jules. He is not stalking you,” I chopped my left hand into the palm of my right and indicated the accused man.    

“The guy is totally staring at us,” Jules appealed in a furious whisper. 

“Or he’s daydreaming.”

“About assassinating one of us to accomplish his mission.”

I laughed. “Look, even if he is a time traveler, why would he be stalking you: a high school junior with no extracurricular activities, poor communication skills, and an after school job selling otaku stuff on ebay? If you weren’t so weird, you’d be the most boring person I know.”

“Wow Wells, thanks man. I have some aspirations other than living in Japan my whole life, you know. Not everybody’s dad can be ambassador or whatever your dad does.”

“Secretary to the trade secretary,” I said, rolling my eyes and undoing the top button of my shirt.  “We’ve been through this about ten times, now.” 

“I’m going to be a professional writer and political blogger as soon as I get out of samurai land.  You’ll see,” he folded his arms across his chest and looked away from me. 

“Alright, I’m sorry,” I sighed. I might as well be nice if we were going to be riding the train together all year. “Tell me about these four signs.”

“What signs?” he smirked and raised his bushy eyebrows again. 

“God dammit,” I cursed and wound up to punch him in the shoulder, but the train hit a bump and nearly knocked me off my feet. Even my judo-club training couldn’t help me keep my balance on these death traps. The engines were whining like the Millennium Falcon and we were rolling past the dark rice fields and shadowy mountains outside at quite a velocity  “Just tell me,” I said, lowering my fist, “about the criteria you mentioned.”

“Number one,” he held up his bony index finger like some sort of professor, “strange, atavistic clothing.”

“Ok, I’ll admit it. He’s a qualifier.” I peered down the car at our Japanese stalker. He was staring blankly into the night now, ignoring us and the rest of the passengers. “But what the hell, he probably works for a Renaissance fair or one of those gothic lolita costume shops or something. Anybody could qualify for number one.”

“That’s why there are three more criteria,” he said, crossing his arms and shaking his head at me.

“Ok, I’ll bite. What’s number two?” I said, reaching up and grabbing an overhead strap to steady myself against the motion of the train. Outside, snow was beginning to settle on the window frames. 

“The second criteria,” he said, his eyes gazing outside, “is an unnatural accent. As if he’s trying to speak normally but can’t quite get it right.”

I scoffed. “That’s basically true of everyone in this country,” I said, giving up on standing and squeezing into a seat next to an old Japanese man. The old fellow was staring at me through thick glasses, but my eyes wandered down the car to the man in question – the man in the cape, or was it a hooded cloak? Hadn’t his eyes been gazing in our direction again before he put his hood up? The man crossed his arms and lowered his head but I had the feeling that somewhere beneath his hood his eyes were still peering at me. “So, what’s the third criteria?” I asked, finally dragging my eyes away. 

“A strange preoccupation with watches.”

“That’s fallacious reasoning.”

“How do you mean?” he said, sounding hurt as he lunged for an overhead strap to steady himself.  The train felt ready to derail; outside the brakes were squealing. 

“Time travel.  Watches. Ok, I see the connection, but it’s superficial, like something they would put in a movie.  No real time traveler would be that obvious.”

“Why not?” he said, nearly falling over as the train came to an unexpected halt. Overhead, the speakers emitted an incomprehensible announcement to explain the problem. Jules straightened himself and dusted off the soy sauce stained front of his blazer. Then, he went on, “Assuming he travels frequently to various points in time, he’ll want to  keep several watches to keep track of the local time after he leaves each temporal location.”

“Alright, fair enough. There’s one more criteria, right?”

“Yes, indeed.” He paused and glanced overhead. “The lights are flickering.” I looked up and sure enough he was right. No one else seemed to notice or care. The old man beside me was snoring quietly, his gray beard resting against his chest.

“So what? These old trains are always falling apart.”

Jules glanced down the car at the accused time-traveler, but for all intents and purposes the man looked asleep, hunched over and leaning against the wall. 

“The fourth criteria is his smell. Time traveling leaves a physical and chemical imprint on his body – one that’s difficult to conceal.”

“So what?” I leaned my head over and took a brief whiff of my armpit. “After two hours of judo club I smell pretty bad too, but I’m no time traveler.”

He grimaced. “You’re so weird.”

“At least we have something in common,” I said, jabbing him playfully in the shoulder. 

“Owww!” he whined. “Look, you’ve got the wrong idea.  They don’t smell like BO. There’s still deodorant in the future. The smell is strange, chemical, like new car scent mixed with air-conditioned air.”

“Alright. So who’s going to test him for that criteria?”

He shrugged and adjusted his glasses. “This is all theoretical, of course.”

I threw my hands in the air and let them fall to my sides. “That’s it? You’re just going to leave it at that?”

“Well I’m not going over there. Especially on a night like this.” He indicated the flickering lights and the ice crystals forming on the train windows. 

“Are you asking me to go?”

“No.”  He shook his head emphatically. “I’m just going to keep an eye on him. Maybe I’ll snap a few cell phone photos for good measure.”

“You know Jules, I wouldn’t mind…”

“No.”

“I’ll do it.”  A grin started to spread on my face. 

“No.”

“Seriously. Comon, I know you man. The whole reason you brought this up is so you could get me to go over there and scope this guy out, right?”

He stared at his shoes and adjusted his glasses. “You are a brown belt.”

“Alright.” I stood up and cinched my leather belt, waking the old Japanese man in the process.  “I’ve got this.”

“No, Wells,” he persisted, “it’s alright. The guy could be dangerous.”

“Dangerous is my middle name,” I grinned, loosening my necktie further and cracking my neck.  “Besides, there’s no way this guy is actually a time traveler. If he is, I’ll sneak over to a vending machine later and buy you a beer.”

He adjusted his glasses and shook his head at me, his shoulders hunched.

I strode down the train car toward the man and he seemed not to notice; as I got closer, I couldn’t help but check for strange smells. There was nothing unusual except the burnt plastic smell coming out of the train’s heating vents.  Finally, I came up to him and leaned against the window beside him. 

“Strange night, eh?”

His chin slowly lifted and he blinked at me from beneath his hood. “Hmm?”

“Strange stuff,” I said in Japanese this time, “first the snow storm and now the train stopped out here in the middle of nowhere.  Probably only four minutes away from Yokaichi, too.”

He nodded and licked his lips, as if tasting the words before he spoke.

“Uncanny,”  he answered in almost perfect English. There was only the slightest hint of an accent. 

The answer jolted me for a second. I had expected something in Japanese. I blinked at him and he folded his arms across his chest, yawning. 

I pried on. “You wouldn’t happen to know the time would you?”

He raised an eyebrow at me as if to ask ‘are you kidding?’ but then pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and glanced at the time. “Eight fifty.  Our journey has run very late.”

“Thanks,” I went on, shooting an ‘I told you so’ look at Jules. No watches. “You have somewhere to be?  Work?”

“No.”

I coughed into my fist and glanced out the window. The snow was really coming down now.  Presumably the conductor was outside, shoveling off the tracks with his hat or something. “So, uh, that’s an interesting outfit you have on. You work at a clothing store?”

He cocked his head back.  His lips were curling into a slight smile. “No,” he shook his head. 

“A museum?”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “I simply find these garments comfortable.”

I leaned in closer to the man and glanced about conspiratorially. “Look, I’m sorry for bothering you. I know this is ridiculous, but my friend down there,” I said, turning and jacking my thumb in Jules’ direction, “he thinks you’re a time traveler.”

“Hah hah hah.” The man laughed, each syllable oddly disparate, like the cars of the train. He didn’t seem to get the joke. “Your friend must be very strange,” he said, stretching out the last words. 

“Yeah, he is.” I shrugged. “Sorry for bothering you and thanks for clearing that up.”

I strode back down the car to Jules, jamming my hands in my pockets with the thumbs hanging out. He rubbed his temple with his hand, mortified.

“Nothing,” I said, holding my hands out in appeal. “No smell, a pretty normal accent – solid English, actually – and a cell phone to tell the time. Sorry Jules.”

He sighed and leaned himself against the window. “Why do you always do this?”

“What?”

“Embarrass me in front of people.”

I shook my head. “What are you talking about? It’s not me buddy, this was your idea.”

“You didn’t have to act like I’m some sort of kook in front of the whole train,” he waved his hands at the other passengers, his cheeks red. 

I narrowed my eyes and glared at him. “Look, nobody cares. That guy could have been a psycho just waiting for some white gaijin to kidnap. I put myself on the line there and this is how you thank me?”

He sat down next to the old man and crossed his arms without saying a word. As if in response, the train started up again and began rolling down the tracks. 

“Don’t look now,” he said, “but that guy is coming back to kidnap you, Mr. Dangerous.”

I bit my tongue and turned. Sure enough the man was heading in our direction, his cloak trailing behind him. He had his arms crossed in an X shape, like a gunslinger reaching inside his cloak for his six-shooters. 

I shrunk back defensively, but all he removed from inside the cloak was his cell phone. 

“I apologize,” he said, bowing slightly. Long hair spilled out of the hood, “but my cell phone is in a state of malfunction. The time,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal an arm covered in watches, “is nine fifteen.” He dragged out the last word again, then smiled, bowed and walked away back down the train. 

My jaw dropped. “Wow. Jules, man. Do you think…?”

He silenced me with a wave of his hand and rose from his seat, staring after the man.  “Don’t worry about it,” he straightened his necktie and lifted his head, “we’ll discuss it after you buy me that beer.”

I cleared my throat. “If we ever get off this train, I’ll buy you two.”

Outside, the dark landscape was rolling by again, but now it was the inside of the train that seemed foreign to me. We had only three minutes left to Yokaichi, so I didn’t take a seat. Instead, I joined Jules and surveyed the other passenger with a weary eye. 

“You know, that woman in the back is awfully pale,” he said, a grin spreading on his face. 

I shook my head.  “Zombie or vampire?”


© Ryan Walraven 2015