Book Review: Hakuri Murakami’s 1Q84

It was the cover that hooked me, first. I picked up Hakuri Murakami’s 1Q84 at a bookstore in my hometown last month. It sat in an upright display, and I was immediately drawn in by the strength and clarity of the cover’s design. I picked it up and, in violation of that old adage about judgment, and bought it immediately.

1Q84, named in clear homage to Orwell’s dystopian standard, 1984, is the story of a woman named Aomame, who, through a series of improbable events, comes to believe that she has left her own reality and entered into a new world, one with only slight differences from her  own. She dubs this new reality ‘1Q84”, (Q and 9 are homophones in Japanese), as “the world that bears a question”. As Aomame investigates the nature of her new world, the strings of the inexplicable “Little People” begin to tighten around her life.

The book engages themes of murder, faith, the nature of reality, the power of narrative storytelling, and above all, and I mean all: love. Clocking in at 1200 pages, Murakami takes plenty of space to discuss all of these in great length.

I like the book for its craft more than for its contents, honestly. Murakami’s writing has a velvet-softness that seeps into my head like butter into a fresh piece of bread. He’s one of the few authors I’ve read that uses repetition in a way that didn’t pull me out of the reading—There are a few characters with emblematic quirks of phrase that keep showing up—and the rhythm of the prose is unparalleled. The quality of the English translation makes me wonder what kind of wonderful experience Japanese readers had with this in its native language.

As wonderfully evocative as Murakami’s prose is, the storytelling in 1Q84 is a bit stilted. There are chapters of largely redundant storytelling, conversations of distractingly wooden dialogue, and a red-herring the likes of which I’ve never seen.

For his storytelling faults, when Murakami is on point, he is one of the best writers I’ve read recently, and 1Q84 was haunting in a way that stuck with me well after I was done reading. Its faults might actually work in its favor, since it was the inconsistencies in the writing that let me to retread certain passages to pull more meat off the bones of this confounding, unsatisfying, and ultimately lovely work of literature.

To get a small taste of Murakami’s wonderful ability to pull a reader word-by-word through a story, check out Town of Cats, an excerpt from 1Q84 that was published as a stand-along piece in the New Yorker.

Polar Profiles: Frobisher’s Second Expedition

[the man himself, in his ridiculously baggy-panted glory]

Martin Frobisher had a much easier time funding his second expedition to find the Northwest Passage, largely due to the rumors of gold that he brought back to England after his first voyage. This rumor piqued the interest of investors from every strata of English society. The Muscovy Company partnered with another merchant consortium, the Company of Cathay to buy supplies and refit the Michael and the Gabriel for a second voyage. Frobisher’s exploits even attracted the interest of the Queen, who sold the Ayde, a Royal Navy ship, to the Company of Cathay for the purpose of discovering the elusive Northwest Passage (and more importantly, to gather more of the “gold”).

The Ayde, the Gabriel, and the Michael left Blackwall on the 26th of May, 1577, and had a relatively uneventful voyage across the Atlantic, reaching Hall’s Island, not far from where Frobisher had moored the previous year, on the 17th of July.

I have to take a moment to explain another one of my favorite parts of this particular area of history: Primary Sources. I’m practically swimming in them. You see, it was in vogue (and more importantly, profitable) for sailors to keep records of their journeys for sale back in Merry Old England. These accounts were published as journals, and a majority of what we know about these expeditions comes from the composite records of these men. Now, it’s important to take the contents of these journals with a grain of salt, because the sailors who wrote them were never above a bit of self-inflation through memoir, but as a whole, I love these things. They let me see the men as they wanted to be seen, which is still a step better than we get from secondary sources.

I actually have one of these primary accounts for Frobisher’s second expedition, written by one Dionyse Settle, titled A True Report of Captain Frobisher, His Last Voyage into the West and Northwest Regions, 1577. I want to share some of his insights into the voyage with you, so it’s not just me babbling about these men, but the men speaking for themselves, here some 450 years later.  Dionyse was a well-written man, and his account of the voyage is emblematic of the types of writing of these sailors: patriotic, stoic, and informative, bringing the cold of the wild unknown back to England in neat, warm sentences.

“…and the sixteenth of [July], we came withing the making of land, which our General the year before had named the Queen’s Foreland, being an island, as we judge, lying near the supposed continent with America. And on the other side, opposite to the same, one other island called Hall’s Isle, after the name of the master of our ship, near adjacent to the firm land, the supposed continent of Asia. Between the two islands there is a large entrance or strait, called Frobisher’s Strait, after the name of our general, the first finder thereof. This said Strait is supposed to have passage into the Sea of Sur.”

Despite the expedition’s expressed intention of exploring Frobisher’s Strait (Which turned out to have no outlet at all, let alone an outlet into the Pacific, or the “Sea of Sur”, as Dionyse knew it), he did very little exploring. Frobisher’s goal was much more immediate. He set the ships at Hall’s Island, and ordered the men ashore to search for more of the ore he had discovered last year. Dionyse describes finding a remarkable bit of local fauna:

“On this west shore [of Frobisher Bay] we found a dead fish floating which had in his nose a horn straight and torque, of length two yards lacking two inches, being broken in the top, where we might perceive it hollow, into which some of our sailors putting spiders, they presently died. I saw not the trial thereof, but it was reported to me of a truth, by the virtue whereof, we supposed it to be the sea unicorn.”

[the elusive and exceedingly dangerous sea-unicorn]

This was, of course, a narwhal, but as none of the English sailors had ever seen such a thing, it enchanted them. Frobisher found more of his ore  and began loading it back onto the ships. As the work progressed, native Inuits began to approach the ships. Frobisher, fearing for the fates of the men he had lost the previous year, ordered them seized, but the natives fled into the hills surrounding Frobisher Bay. Frobisher was not easily satisfied, though, and ordered the crew split into hunting parties to find them. The Inuit were ready, however, and assaulted the English with bows and spears. The English retaliated with their own bows, and rather than be taken captive, the wounded Inuit threw themselves into the sea. Dionyse describes the Inuit at length, mostly due to the fact that nothing else was happening, aside from the loading of some 200 tons(!) of ore onto the ships. It’s rife with misunderstandings and Dionyse’s contempt for their apparent barbarity is present, but it’s the first recorded ethnographic description of the Inuit people that we have, and it’s valuable for that. Here’s an excerpt from his descriptions, which are honestly worth their own blog post:

“They are men of a large corporature, and good proportion. Their color is not much unlike the sunburnt countryman, who labors daily in the sun for his living. They wear their hair something long, and cut before, either with stone or knife, very disorderly. Their women wear their hair long, and knit up with two loops, showing forth on either side of their faces, the rest drawn up in a knot. They eat all their meat raw, both flesh, fish, and fowl, or sometimes parboiled with blood and a little water, which they drink. For lack of water they will eat ice that is hard frozen as pleasantly as we do sugar candy, or other sugar. “

After the ore was loaded onto the vessels, Frobisher declared their exploration complete and set sail back for England. He made another trip the following year, with the goal of establishing a mining colony to bring back even more of the blasted ore, but the weather and common sense conspired against him, and the colony was abandoned almost as soon as they arrived.

Back in England, the assayers continued to analyze the ore for gold. The whole of England waited, rapt, for their final conclusions.

The “gold” that Frobisher had built his promises on, funded his expeditions with, was nothing more than iron pyrite.

Quite literally Fool’s Gold.

[it’s okay, Frobisher. Iron Pyrite fools the best of them.]

Frobisher was ruined, and spent some years in disgrace. Not even national ridicule could keep Frobisher down, and he returned to the Royal Navy, where served under Sir Francis Drake. He was restored to public approval through his brave conduct in battling the Spanish Armada, earning commendation and knighthood from the Queen in 1588. In 1594, he was shot and killed while engaged in a siege.

Frobisher was a businessman first, and an explorer second, but he set a fire in the belly of the English to wring the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Sea for every pound of wealth it could divest. This fire remained lit for almost 400 years, inspiring generation after generation of sailors to seek their fortunes (and often their death), in the frozen north.

Next week we discuss one of the Big Ones: William Parry’s Expedition of 1819.

[photo credits to Google Images]

Ruminations of a First-Time Writer’s Conference Attendee

Rumination the First: Thou Shall Be Outgoing at a Writer’s Conference

As a man who has currently been forced to reevaluate whether or not he’s really an introvert, I found that I had surprisingly little trouble with this. As I chatted and made bumbling attempts to network, I realized more than ever before just how important these events are for establishing connections. The Indiana Faith and Writing Conference was chock-full of writers from all levels of craft, and being able to brush elbows with so many other aspiring artists and craftspeople in your field is a truly remarkable experience.

I know that it’s not easy. It’s scary to approach someone whose life you’ve brushed only the vaguest periphery of, and try to forge a connection, but try to remember—this is exactly what everyone else is there for, too! If a connection goes south, there’s no obligation to continue it, man. And if it goes well? Then you now have both a new friend and a professional contact to work with. Part of being a responsible literary citizen is helping to improve the writing and careers of those around you. Get out there and find some writer friends to pour love onto, and you’ll be amazed at the payoff.

Rumination the Second: Thou Shall Be Prepared for a Writer’s Conference

This one is a regret as much as a rumination. I went into the Indiana Faith and Writing Conference almost completely blind. And this isn’t just “Oh, I wonder what the workshops are going to be” blind. This was “Oh, apparently this conference runs two days” blind. And while I had a great time, I know that I could have made better use of my time by doing even a cursory amount of planning.

Luckily, by the second day of the conference, I was basically up to speed, and was able to navigate the sea of frenzied authors and bloggers with a fair bit more adroitness than I had on the first day.

Rumination the Third: Thou Shall Enjoy a Writer’s Conference

Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk approve

With the focus on planning and networking, it’s easy to forget that these conferences are just plain fun. The Indiana Faith and Writing Conference had dozens of workshops on anything from improving craft to online promotion to scholarly vernacular. It was a veritable smorgasbord of education.

As with most worthwhile things, you only get as much out of one of these conferences as you put in, so please, resist the urge to sit quietly in the back and slip out as soon as you can. Don’t be content to just absorb what the conference puts out. Get outside of yourself and forge the connections that will feed you when you’re broke (Because let’s be honest, it isn’t easy hacking it as a writer.)

Polar Profiles: More Background, and Martin Frobisher pt. 1

What drives a sailor to abandon warm seas and steady employment, to breach the pack-ice of the north, risking life (and with frostbite, very often limb)? For some, it was the prospect of scientific advancement, others, the heady brew of national prestige and glory. The man we talk about today was inspired by an equally common, but far more prosaic goal: the pursuit of gold.

  

Martin Frobisher was, by all accounts, a despicable rogue. Born in Yorkshire in 1535 and leaving home to become a cabin boy at the age of nine, Frobisher’s destiny was irrevocably intertwined with the sea. He served on merchant ships for ten years before being arrested in a West African colony by the local Portuguese authorities. He escaped soon after, fleeing back to England. This was a bit of a turning point for the young, nineteen-year-old Frobisher. While there was money in the merchant marine, he realized that there was another, more lucrative prospect available to a young man with less-than-legal proclivities.

Frobisher became a privateer. Privateering was legal, nationally endorsed piracy, and under Mary I of England, which meant that pretty much any non-British ship was fair game for Frobisher and his piratical crew. He ran a successful operation up and down the west coast of Africa, sinking and stealing in the name of Queen and Country until 1570, when he began to reconsider a more mercantile lifestyle.

[the most popular sea-routes of the spice-trade in the 16th century.]

See, in the 1500’s, the hot commodity was spices. These exotic plants and extracts were worth their weight in gold in the European markets, and the heat was on to find the quickest, cheapest way to get them there.

There was the Silk Road, which wound from China across India and Central Asia, terminating in Istanbul and the Mediterranean, but lots of stops to resupply and rest meant the trip took far too long, and each state along the road charged its own duties, meaning that the prices of the spices were wildly inflated by the end of the journey. In contrast, the journey by sea, down and around the coast of Africa, up to India and the Spice Islands and back, was much more direct, if dangerous.

As such, finding a new route to the spice-wealth of the East was in the forefront of the imagination of many a commercially-minded 16th century European sailor.

It was this aim that led Martin Frobisher to abandon piracy and begin canvassing England for investors to finance his own exploratory expedition. His big break was a negotiating a licensing deal with the Muscovy Company, an English merchant group which already had its eye on a possible route to the East.

At the time, the geography of the North American coast was spotty, to say the least. Sailors and scientists reported a widespread belief that seawater couldn’t freeze, so the belief in a cold northerly route over the continent seemed reasonable, and more importantly, profitable.

Frobisher, backed by the Muscovy Company, set sail on June 7, 1576, with three ships, the Michael, the Gabriel, and an unnamed pinnace.

The pinnace was lost in a storm almost immediately, but the rest of the crossing was uneventful. On the 28th of July, Frobisher reached the coast of Labrador, a northerly region of Newfoundland. He intended to continue sailing north, through the mouth of what he named Frobisher Bay, but a wicked arctic storm prevented any travel that way. Instead, he sailed west, hoping to cut across, and then up what he assumed would be the Northwest Passage. Instead, he found what would later be named Baffin Island on August 18th.

While there, he had an unfortunate interaction with the native Inuit people. You see, Frobisher struck a deal with a group of then natives to guide them around Baffin Island, and sent five of his crew to finalize the arrangements.  As soon as the men reached land, however, they were seized by the natives and borne away, never to be seen again. As revenge, Frobisher kept the native sworn to them as guide. While moored at Baffin Island, Frobisher gathered a piece of particular black stone that he was assured contained gold. The conditions continued to worsen, forcing our friend Frobisher to return to England.

In the absence of a navigable Northwest Passage, Frobisher’s continued fortune relied on the presence of gold in the little black stone. He had it assayed by a multitude of geologists in England and although only one in four believed it to be of any value, that was enough of a consensus the gold fever to secure Frobisher enough funding for two more expeditions.  More on those next week.

[photo credits to Google Images]

Polar Profiles: Looking Ahead

So! After last week’s investigation into the “why” of blogging, or more specifically, the “what in the world do I blog about”, I decided to write out of one of my wells of passion: Arctic exploration!

There’s something about the starkness of the frozen north that has always captured my imagination. I chalk part of it up to the contrast of the relative comfort in my current environs with the almost universally inhospitable conditions to be found in the polar regions. Even beyond the deep-born attraction of an arduous adventure, there is staggering beauty to be found in fog-shrouded ice-bergs, in gazing across the wrinkled tablecloth of pack ice stretching from horizon to horizon. There is beauty in the lopsided journey the sun takes, as if drunk, across the arctic sky. This takes for granted the most conventionally beautiful asset of the Arctic: the beloved Northern Lights, which dance across the heavens, pulled by the great magnetic forces of the Earth’s eternal dance.

But I’m waxing poetic. The Arctic holds a special place in my heart, and in the heart of a great number of explorers, who, from the 15th century up to the present, have packed their bags, kissed their loved ones goodbye, and answered the siren song of the rime-bound regions. The names of these brave men festoon the myriad bays and channels of the Arctic archipelago: Baffin, Hudson, Frobisher, Franklin, Rae, Parry, Amundsen. All these men, with the same goal: the discovery of the Northwest Passage, that mythical strait connecting the Atlantic and Pacific over North America, creating a direct route between the lucrative spice-trade of the East Indies and the markets of England and the Continent.

In the following weeks, I seek to explore the voyages of these explorers, beginning in 1576, with Martin Frobisher’s three trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage and that most persuasive of exploratory aims: gold.

Breaking New Ground, or, The So-What Factor

Why blog?

I think I understand the why the blogs of more established personalities thrive—they have people who have a vested interest in keeping up with them. But me? As a college student with no major publication credits to my name or much of anything distinguishing me from the next would-be-writer, who do I write to? My friends? Family? Is this destined to become the online equivalent of a holiday letter? Why am I using so many questions?

I’m going to level with you, dear readers. I’m starting this blog mostly to fulfill a requirement for  a class.

It would be easy to use that as an excuse to play this slow and low, but the way my class and I have been talking about blogging and the importance of platform gives me a feeling down in my gut that this might be something I need to put my entire self forward for.

So, the largest question facing me is simply this: How do I know what I should write about?

I know that I love history and humor and literature; I know there are vast swathes of others who share these interests. I just need to figure out how to share these loves without coming across as either an online diary or a poorly sourced textbook.

Now, a quick Google search found me a bevy of topic generators, as well as a comically large number of blog posts containing lists of topics to choose from. In the interest of transparency, here are a few of the stand-outs.

  • Hubspot’s Topic Generator: This site allows you to enter three key words, preferably nouns, and it will churn out a week’s worth of topics. The topics were solid, even if the titles produced leaned toward being laughably stilted. “10 Signs You Should Invest In History”, I’m looking at you.
  • Portent Title-Maker: Here you trade three key words for one, and Portent adds all sorts of the usual prefixes and suffixes to it. Portent also provides a few angles to consider for each title. The titles provided tend toward the goofy at best and blatant click-bait at worst, so take them with a grain of salt.
  • Content Forest Is similar to the previous two. After providing one key-word, it knocks out 300-some results covering a vast swathe of angles and ancillary topics to explore. For example, I typed in “history”, and was recommended to write about the history of: Quilting, Bleach, Ear Gauging in Tribal Civilizations, The History and Culture of Stretched Ears, The 5 Largest Giants in History, etc. This one seems to cover the greatest range of serious-to-goofy topics, and is my personal favorite that I’ve found.

In the coming weeks, you’ll probably see a few blog posts in the vein of these, although I do hope to avoid sounding too much like a buzzfeed article. I’d love to know what you’d all like to read about, dear readers. A specific area of history? A discipline of writing? A list of ridiculous food-and-literature puns? Drop me a comment and let me know.