Earthquakes, Talking Cats, and the Telephone: What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Into That Darkness by Steven Price

There are books we read for pleasure, and those we read out of morbid fascination. If I wanted a good night’s rest, I probably should have steered away from Into That Darkness. Alas. Some plots are too compelling to ignore.

Set in a post-earthquake Victoria, British Columbia, Into That Darkness explores what happens after The Big One hits. The coastal capital (my new home! hooray!) is decimated. Streets turned to rubble. Survivors turned scavengers. For a (relatively new) Vancouver Islander with an active imagination, it is a terrible reading choice. Not for the writing — which is excellent — but for the ensuing days and weeks spent imagining doomsday scenarios.

Price is a poet first and author second, and his prose crackles with sharp, vivid detail. A Victoria resident (and University of Victoria alum) himself, Price turns his hometown’s streets into “ruptured telephone cables and power lines and water pipelines;” a city of “boats keeled over in the shallows,” of “half-light and high muffled groans.” The story’s protagonist, Arthur Lear, hears a voice in the midst of the rubble. It becomes a story of the things that bind us when the unimaginable happens.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki

Best known as the co-founder of the powerhouse Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro), Miyazaki is something of a monolith in the animation realm: the kind of artist recognizable by last name alone. He has been called the “godfather of animation in Japan – some might even say the world” by no less than the BBC. I had seen his works but never read them. Frankly, I didn’t know his written works existed.

In addition to his fifteen films as writer/director (and occasional producer) dating back to 1979, along with his nine short films and enough writing credits to fill a library, Miyazaki has penned an astounding fourteen works of manga dating back to 1969. Perhaps the most beloved is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Nausicaä follows the trials of its titular hero, the young princess of the Valley of the Wind. Her nation is a fringe state: a few hundred farmers, vassals of the Torumekian empire. The world is under threat; a toxic jungle with deadly miasma spreads across the globe. Industrialization has pushed the planet’s limits past the brink.

Miyazaki’s works have always been known for their politics. He is a famed environmentalist and pacifist, and Nausicaä is no different. What’s striking is to see how the story, released in the early eighties, remains remarkably current. Some issues, it seems, never leave us.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Spend enough time around writers, and certain names will recur in conversation. Calvino. Didion. García Márquez. Foster Wallace. Haruki Murakami is right there on that list. As an MFA candidate better-versed in detective thrillers and celebrity tell-alls, it felt like a dirty secret not to have read any of the writers’ writers‘ works. I was a sucker for schlock. Anti-aesthete. Plebeian possessor of poor taste.

Out of a desire to belong — and not without a degree of curiosity — I picked up my first of Murakami’s works in the fall. Another last-name-only literary giant, the 71-year-old Kyoto native has become the most widely-read Japanese author outside of Japan. His stories have been translated into 50 languages. Sold millions. Garnered accolades (in 2015, he was named one of TIME‘s 100 most influential people). I had wanted to sample his work for a while, but hadn’t a clue where to start. What was his opus? Was there a chronology to follow? Some sort of agreed-upon hierarchy?

With Murakami, it seems, there is no such consensus. Each book is its own odd adventure into the world of magical realism (Kafka et al.), romance (Norwegian Wood), and surrealist mind-bending thriller (A Wild Sheep Chase). In the end, my decision was made out of sheer penny-pinching pragmatism: I found a used copy for $8.99. (That, and a good friend was reading it as well.) Thus began my foray into a world of talking cats and raining eels.

The story of Kafka revolves around two characters: a runaway teen and a simple-minded old man. One talks to a crow and loathes his father; the other lost much of his memory and spends his days tracking and returning lost cats to their owners. Murakami crafts a world where fate, eternal youth, and kindred souls loom large.

Is it weird? Absolutely. But a page-turner, too.

Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention by Charlotte Gray

I thought I knew the broad strokes of Bell’s life’s work, but the telephone merely scratches the surface. In Reluctant Genius, biographer Charlotte Gray (The Massey Murder) delves deep into the Scottish-born inventor’s life. It’s a fascinating read, from Bell’s earliest experiments in Edinburgh — where, as a boy, he learned to “throw” his voice into other rooms by manipulating sound, and later taught his dog how to bark the phrase “How are you, Grandmama?” — to his later ventures in Brantford, Boston, and Washington, where the race was on against Thomas Edison to bring an “acoustic telegraph” to market. Equally interesting is the attention Gray devotes to Bell’s wife of 45 years, Mabel Hubbard, a woman who began as Bell’s pupil (he taught at a school for the deaf) and became his strongest business advisor.

Three Ring Circus by Jeff Pearlman

I am a sucker for basketball books. (Really, I suppose, a sucker for basketball.) In Three Ring Circus, longtime sportswriter Jeff Pearlman covers the Los Angeles Lakers era from 1996-2004. It is a dynastic era, filled with the sport’s largest (see: Shaq) and most polarizing (see: Bryant, Kobe) personalities. No two-man pairing was more dominant in their era. No two teammates hated each other more — perhaps ever.

Tasked with managing the superstars’ egos and crafting a winner was Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, a coach whose peerlessness went beyond results (11 NBA Championship rings); it also extended to coaching friends (zero). Suffice it to say, there are no heroes in Three Ring Circus — not among the marquee names, in any case. But there’s plenty to enjoy about the cast of characters surrounding them (Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Mike Penberthy, Rick Fox, J.R. Rider), the stories they remember, and the grudges they hold.

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